A rather disheartening (if predictable) exchange between Corey Robin, Doug Henwood, and myself on Christopher Hitchens and the post-9/11 Left (from Facebook)

A younger Christopher Hitchens

A younger Christopher Hitchens

Ross Wolfe:

I think I tried posting this entire thing on your recent blog post on Hitchens, but here’s a link to the article by Spencer Leonard that I feel actually provides the most adequate leftist appraisal of Hitchens’ legacy.

Corey Robin:

Sorry, tried to read this a few weeks ago when someone posted it on Doug Henwood’s site.  Couldn’t make it past the second paragraph: so God-awfully written, filled with windy claims about “History,” and even windier claims about Hitchens’ role in either shattering the left or announcing the shattering of the left. Couldn’t tell from those two paragraphs whom the writer was more intoxicated with: Hitchens or himself.  I don’t know who this author is, but you might want to tell him: the one — and perhaps only — thing he should or could learn from Hitchens is how to write a clear, clean sentence.  That first sentence alone — it has more stops and starts, herks and jerks, than the 7 train on during rush hour on a bad day.  Don’t these people believe in editors?

Doug Henwood:

Adequate? Pure gasbaggery.

Corey Robin:

Ross Wolfe: If you do want to post this to the blog, that’s fine. Just post a link with perhaps a paragraph-long teaser. But please don’t post the whole thing; it takes up way too much space and makes it hard for people to figure out where things are in the comment-thread.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Sadly, you yourself succumb to the same shallow moralism that was Hitchens’ greatest weakness. To psychologize an author’s alleged shortcomings — whether it’s Hitchens or Spencer — as mere “narcissism” or simple “self-intoxication” is a glib, facile, and ultimately dishonest procedure. It’s all too easy to evade the real difficulties posed by a figure like Hitchens by attributing motives in this fashion.

If you’re able to make it past your objections to his writing style, Spencer aptly notes this moralistic tendency in Hitchens’ own writings (which is, oddly, replicated in your articles on him):

The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and ’40s in terms of “arrogance,” “bullying,” “greed,” “wickedness,” and “stupidity” [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism.  Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone.  While Hitchens’ expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis.

The most horrifying aspect of fascism is that it does not admit of explanation on the basis of mere moral faults.  As problematic as Arendt’s analysis of “the banality of evil” in her reflections on the Eichmann trial may have been, at least it was able to move beyond the shallow attribution of the Nazi’s “evil” to some underlying diabolism.  Certainly, a number of the members of the Nazi leadership were thuggish goons, and many of the guards at the concentration camps were confirmed sociopaths, but this by itself does not explain the industrialized murder of European Jews, gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and so on.

Similarly, to try and dismiss Hitchens’ arguments and apologia for the war by reducing them to mere symptoms of his own personal vanity is insufficient.  The more troublesome question is to ask why this former leftist, in siding with naked U.S. aggression and militarism against the undeniably despotic Ba’athist regime, eventually succumbed to the same “lesser-evilism” of which he had earlier accused supporters of Bill Clinton.

Sure, everyone knows Hitchens was an arrogant prick.  But is this fact alone enough to account for what later “led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers,” as Spencer put it?

Corey Robin:

Wow, I should wade through all that heavy-breathing in order to find out that Hitchens’s insights are “valuable”? Yet limited b/c he thinks fascism is reducible to bullying and wickedness? Sorry, dude, you’re not making that piece any more enticing. Now, I recognize that the notion that politics is about more than easy moralism must seem like some kind of blinding insight to you, but for many of us, it’s just one of many and obvious rules of the road.  If we don’t apply it to the Case of Christopher Hitchens — in the way, say, Adorno applied it to his analysis of Beethoven or Lukács did when he discussed Walter Scott — it’s b/c we don’t see Hitchens as a symptom of world-historical importance.  He was, in the end, a symptom of himself, which is why I thought a brief blog post was sufficient to the topic at hand.

I will add, because you seem so interested in these questions of History, that there is a long history of liberal-ish/left-ish intellectuals, at moments of political retreat, taking precisely the route Hitchens did.  It actually goes back to the French Revolution — read up on the Girondins’ decision to declare war on Austro-Hungary — and is a fairly familiar story to anyone who knows that history.  So I guess if there’s a second reason I didn’t feel the need to get myself all worked up about the man’s trajectory, it’s because it’s such a tried and true path.  Again, not of interest to anyone interested in History, but fairly familiar to anyone who knows some history.

Ross Wolfe:

Gasbaggery, Doug? As you were someone who so astutely helped point out some of the most shallow and theatrical aspects of the anti-war “activistism” of the ’oughts, I find it surprising that you would not be more sympathetic to the angle Spencer’s article takes.  Because it by no means tries to mount a defense for Hitchens’ tasteless and one-sided apologia for U.S. military aggression, but rather tries to frame these as the products of his disillusionment with the same degenerate Left that you yourself described in “Action will be Taken.”

Whether Hitchens’ radical enlightenment opposition to “every form of tyranny over the mind of Man” — namely, religion and superstition — served simply to mask some form of deep-seated Islamophobia is a matter of interpretation.  In my personal opinion, nearly all religion at this point in history is hideously reactionary, sexist, and homophobic.  It is only able to survive as a severe anachronism.  Religion, along with all forms of occultism and superstition, should by all rights be eradicated from the earth, no matter where it originated — so that humanity can be free from ignorance and irrationality.

By shamelessly siding with the aggressor in the U.S.’ and the U.K.’s invasion of Iraq (along with the host of other countries in the “Coalition of the Willing,” who they’d bought), Hitchens fell beneath his own threshold of criticism. Both sides of the conflict were miserable and worthy of contempt.  But Lenin, who is so often mindlessly invoked when it comes to conversations of imperialism, was himself far more balanced when it came to such matters.  For example, from chapter five of his 1916 work, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism:

Imperialism is as much our “mortal” enemy as is capitalism.  That is so.  No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism.  Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (“actively resisting” suppression means supporting the uprising), [Kievskii] also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

Or later, if Lenin didn’t make himself clear enough on this score here, he spelled it out even more explicitly in 1920 in his “Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions”:

With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: If you’re half as familiar with Adorno’s work as your casual aside would suggest, you’d know that Adorno’s critical engagements of contemporary figures were not limited to figures who represented “symptom[s] of world-historical importance.”  Hitchens was easily a more important public figure and thinker in the last couple decades than, say, the anti-Semitic radio preacher Martin Luther Thomas, to whom Adorno devoted more than a hundred pages of analysis, was in his day.

Hitchens was indeed symptomatic of the widespread tendency of former leftists to devolve into empty moralism and hawkish apologia for U.S. militarism. Of all the moralizing pro-war leftists who spoke out or signed the deplorable and misguided Euston Manifesto, Hitchens was easily the most visible. If not Hitchens, then indeed who would qualify as sufficiently emblematic or “symptomatic” of this tendency? Nick Cohen? “Harry Hatchet”?

Adorno, as you’ll no doubt recall, found some things of merit in the writings of the archconservative Oswald Spengler, and found plenty to criticize in the writings of ostensibly leftist figures like Bertolt Brecht or Thorstein Veblen [in Prisms].  Things are not so clear-cut as one would imagine.

Ross Wolfe:

Corey: Hitchens is easily a more interesting subject of analysis than someone so straightforwardly vacuous as Sarah Palin, a figure you deemed worthy of consideration for your study on “the reactionary mind” (even appearing on the cover of your book [The Reactionary Mind]). So I’m not really sure what you’re objecting to in Spencer’s book review.

Doug Henwood:

Yeah, gasbaggery.  I was sadder about Hitchens’ death than many on the left, but his apologetics for imperial war over the last decade of his life were revolting.  I found them tragic and depressing compared to his earlier work, which was part of the sadness.  But I don’t need to read any elaborate fantasies about how there was something radically progressive about his mancrush on Paul Wolfowitz.

Ross Wolfe:

Doug: There was nothing “radically” (or even remotely) progressive about Hitchens’ justifications for the invasion of Iraq — his mancrush on Wolfowitz notwithstanding (this was, by contrast, an irreproachably revolutionary position).  If you’d bother to read the article, you’d know that Spencer makes no such claims.

In fact, we also take Hitchens’ post-9/11 trajectory to be tragic.  We see it as indicative of a deeper despair with the recent state of politics on the Left and the practical impossibility of revolutionary transformation in the immediate future.  The Left was in such a sorry state in the opening decade of the twenty-first century that many so-called “radical” celebrities had resorted to third-worldist support for backwards, repressive dictators like Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, or reactionary groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  These figures and groups were celebrated simply in the name of anti-imperialism or anti-Zionism.  They fell into the simplistic sophistry of the old “enemy of my enemy” logic.

Regardless, what do you make of statements by Lenin, the Ur-theorist of the Marxist account of modern imperialism, such as the following:

No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support.  We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Spencer A. Leonard:

‎@Doug – What’s more telling is that after 2 years you still can’t bring yourself to articulate this piece’s theme, however well or poorly expressed: That Hitchens’ break with the “left” was at least instructive of the wretched condition (not just weakness!) of that left.  I placed that decline in a historical frame stretching back to the 1960s at the very least. Doug’s invocation of what’s “progressive” persuades me that I ought to have pushed it back to the original draft of the 1960s, namely the 1930s, since we have the New Left (and Doug Henwood) to thank for extending the currency (as more than just words) of such Stalinoid concepts as “progressive.”  The only thing different is that, at this point, these faint echoes of a Left that was are scarcely sufficient anymore to provoke anyone to such much as interest themselves in investigating that history, much less to discover how and why it keeps happening to them.

Doug Henwood:

I never thought I’d say this, but: Next to this stuff, give me Stalin.

Ross Wolfe:

Yeah, Doug, I also don’t know why you hold such a grudge against people like Hitchens when you’re close buddies with Louis Proyect, a self-described “solid supporter” of the miserable Venezuelan petro-dictatorship of Chávez — the “postmodern Bonapartist” — and the repressive regime of lifelong strongman Fidel Castro in Cuba.  Come to think of it, you’re also fairly chummy with Tariq Ali, another thinker who includes backwater authoritarian hellholes like Cuba and Venezuela (along with that third great bastion of proletarian revolution, Bolivia) as part of his “Axis of Hope.”  Castro and Chávez, outspoken supporters for Gaddafi to the bitter end.  If countries like these, along with Bolivia, are the only hope remaining for the Left, I think it’s fair to say that the it has failed in carrying out its revolutionary and world-historical mandate.

How you find these political beliefs somehow more justifiable, tolerable, or even understandable than Platypus’ critical position vis–à–vis the existing Left (to my knowledge, none of our members have at any time supported the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan) will always be a mystery to me.

Despite these unfortunate personal associations, however, I continue to admire your writing and certain of your contributions to the anti-war discourse of the past ten years or so.  It’s unfortunate that you still refuse to engage with Platypus, since it still seems to me that your own political beliefs are far closer to some of those entertained by our members than they are to, say, Proyect’s.

Ross Wolfe:

I never pegged you for a Stalinist, Doug.  But I suppose it makes sense.  Abandoning criticism, you fall back on the most plebian, garden-variety sort of dogmatism.

While I realize that you’ll probably say that you’re joking, the mere fact that you’re willing to peddle this schoolboy shit in order to avoid engaging in open political dialogue is telling.  I present you with an unambiguous statement from Lenin regarding the Left’s justified apathy when it comes to reactionary anti-imperialism, and you prefer to sidestep it because it doesn’t fit neatly into your prefabricated categories of heroic third-world “resistance” against U.S. military chauvinism (though I don’t deny for one moment that it is chauvinism).

8 thoughts on “A rather disheartening (if predictable) exchange between Corey Robin, Doug Henwood, and myself on Christopher Hitchens and the post-9/11 Left (from Facebook)

  1. Ross, I think that this exchange appears “disheartening” only because of some mistaken expectations. It’s fairly obvious that Corey Robin, Doug Henwood, et al., are unable to read Spencer’s article “Going it alone” on Hitchens for Platypus back in 2009 out of prejudice regarding Platypus. It’s a psychological block, not an intellectual failing. They have 2 blocks at work: one against Platypus; the other against Hitchens. There’s no possible appeal to them to be made against this block. If there were, they would not listen to Louis Proyect about us. — They simply hate us.

  2. Chris: When you say that a “psychological block” is at work here it seems you are using shorthand or using the word “psychology” as a proxy for something else. Obviously there is little likelihood that Henwood and Robin share some common psychological block if by this we are speaking about a malady born out of an individual neurosis or psychosis. Don’t you mean something more like this: Henwood and Robin share a common political project, one that will not admit the kind of analysis being pushed by Platypus?

    What Henwood and Robin are standing on is their power and influence within the existing left. They simply have the power to reject your arguments without having to refute them. What’s at work is a refusal to enter the frame that Platypus is using.

    • That’s true, Andrew, broadly speaking, but I think that it is driven by an emotional response that seems to be irrational without having to be a clinical psychological “malady,” strictly speaking.

      They don’t so much refuse to enter the Platypus “frame,” for that’s hardly required to engage us in good faith (we’re not asking them to agree with anything), but rather they refuse to entertain the questions we are posing. That’s why it’s at least in part irrational.

    • In terms of a “psychological block,” I almost think that the best analogy is the tendency toward “resistance” in the analysis of dreams described by Freud in his Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis of 1915-1916. Though this may seem a condescending position to take, with its implied asymmetry between those who have been “sleepwalking” versus those who have been “awakened,” I think that this finds a parallel in Walter Benjamin’s 1935 Exposé to his unfinished Arcades Project:

      The present…already stands to the recent past as the awakening stands to the dream. The development of the forces of production, in the course of the previous century, shattered that century’s wish symbols even before the monuments representing them had collapsed, and before the paper on which they were rendered had yellowed. In the nineteenth century, this development of the forces of production worked to emancipate the forms of construction from art, just as in the sixteenth century the sciences freed themselves from philosophy…From this epoch derive the arcades and the intérieurs, the exhibition halls and panoramas. They are residues of a dream world. But given that the realization of dream elements, in the course of waking up, is the paradigm of dialectical thinking, it follows that dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening. Only dialectical thinking is equal to the recent past, because it is, each time, its offspring. Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in thus dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it ― as Hegel already noticed ― by cunning. The earliest monuments of the bourgeoisie began to crumble long ago, but we recognize, for the first time, how they were destined for this end from the beginning.

      In a way, the project of Platypus might be conceived as trying to awaken the Left from the shattered dream(s) of the 20th century, especially the dreams that surround the year 1917. We regard the series of struggles that took place between 1917 and 1923 as the highest attempt to date at the revolutionary overcoming of capital. Part of our educational project thus involves the formation of this dream from Marx’s original critique of the political economy of capital, as well as the attempt to formulate a political praxis around this critique undertaken by figures like Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotskii.

      In the aftermath of the failure of 1917, we study the various theoretical attempts by the best Marxist thinkers to come to terms with and digest its outcome: Lukács, Korsch, Kracauer, Benjamin, Reich, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, C. Wright Mills, and beyond. Today, the slogans originating from the tragedy of 1917, or from the farce of 1968, are unconsciously recycled by figures and groups who refuse to reflect on the changed conditions of the present. From the Spartacists to the RCP, the revolutionary dreams (which have long since degenerated into nightmares) are replayed in their revolutionary mottoes. I’ve even seen posts online that say “All power to the General Assemblies!” (a distant echo of «За власть советов!») with reference to the #Occupy movement.

      In the case of figures like Henwood, Proyect, and Corey Rose, their notion of the revolutionary transcendence of capital has been reduced to left social-democracy, ultimately reformist in nature. In trying to awaken the Left from the diaphanous dreams that still linger after nearly a century of defeat, it is only natural that Platypus encounters a most obstinate resistance (indeed, the only salvageable concept of resistance that remains):

      We perceive that the work of interpreting dreams is carried out in the face of a resistance, which opposes it and of which the critical objections are manifestations. This resistance is independent of the dreamer’s theoretical conviction. We learn still more, indeed. We discover that a critical objection of this kind never turns out to be justified. On the contrary, the ideas which people try to suppress in this way turn out invariably to be the most important ones and those which are decisive in our search for the unconscious material. It amounts, in fact, to a special distinguishing mark, if an idea is accompanied by an objection like this.

      This resistance is something entirely new: a phenomenon which we have come upon in connection with our premisses, but one which was not included among them. The appearance of this new factor in our reckoning comes to us as a not altogether pleasant surprise. We suspect at once that it is not going to make our work any easier. It might mislead us into abandoning our whole concern with dreams: something so unimportant as a dream and, on top of that, all these difficulties instead of a simple straightforward technique! But, on the other hand, the difficulties might act precisely as a stimulus and make us suspect that the work will be worth the trouble. We regularly come up against resistance when we try to make our way forward from the substitute which is the dream-element to the unconscious material hidden behind it. So we may conclude that there must be something of importance concealed behind the substitute. Otherwise, what is the point of the difficulties that are trying to keep the concealment going? If a child refuses to open his clenched fist to show what he has in it, we may feel sure that it is something wrong — something he ought not to have.

      The moment we introduce the dynamic idea of a resistance into the facts of the case, we must simultaneously reflect that this factor is something variable in quantity. There may be greater and smaller resistances, and we are prepared to find these differences showing themselves during our work as well. We may perhaps be able to link with this another experience we also meet with during the work of interpreting dreams: sometimes it requires only a single response, or no more than a few, to lead us from a dream-element to the unconscious material behind it, while on other occasions long chains of associations and the overcoming of many critical objections are required for bringing this about. We shall conclude that these differences relate to the changing magnitude of the resistance, and we shall probably turn out to be right. If the resistance is small, the substitute cannot be far distant from the unconscious material; but a greater resistance means that the unconscious material will be greatly distorted and that the path will be a long one from the substitute back to the unconscious material.

  3. Hitchens made $$ with speeches and debates. By flirting with the right, he got more engagements.

    Orwell for whatever his faults, was principally an anti-Stalinist. You can’t put him in the same sentence as Hitch. He wasn’t contrarian to be cool, or be on TV.

    Its easier being against God, than someone living.

    If you’re hungry in India, you’d be better off seeing Mother Teresa than Hitch.

  4. Venezuela an ‘authoritarian hellhole’? Really? And Bolivia, site of the most militant trade union movement in the word and the strongest indigenous people’s movement in the Americas, a place which holds no lessons for the twenty-first century left? That unreconstructed imperiocentrism you seem to have picked from the first section of the Commie Manifesto can put a chip on your shoulder, comrade Ross. The idea that a few intellectuals in America are going to reawaken the left and crank up the Hegelian wheels of world history is kind of endearing in its quixotry, but it’s going to see your banging your head on a fair few walls. If you can’t convince Doug Henwood of the merits of your world-historical theoretical synthesis then I can’t see you have much luck with the benighted masses.

    Here’s my take on Hitchens, anyway:
    Beware of the hubris that was his downfall…

  5. More abject self-advertisement: I went into the notion that capitalism is more ‘progressive’ than pre-capitalist modes of production, and the use of this notion by advocates of the Iraq in this 2005 paper:

    I argue that Marx certainly asserts the automatic superiority of capitalism in a number of earlier texts, including the Manifesto, but that after he spent a decade studying what was actually happening on the periphery of capitalism, in places like Russia and Muslim North Africa, he changed his tune, as the famous letter to Vera Zasulich, the preface to the Russian translation of the Manifesto, and a number of other texts show.

    Would you really want to persist with the argument that capitalism is automatically always better than pre-capitalism, Ross, when we’ve seen multiple genocides carried over the past two centuries as part of the effort to extend capitalist economic relations? Marx could be forgiven for thinking the British invasion of India progressive in 1848, but a century of devastating famines and economic pillage proved him well and truly wrong. And who would want to assert that the capitalist system the Germans established in Namibia over the corpses of the Herero was a progressive historical development? You talk in rather abstract terms about understanding the Holocaust, but seem committed to a view of history so hamfisted and unilinear that it implies apologising for or ignoring scores of other genocides.

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