L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond

George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s “off-col­or” joke about gen­o­cide over the hol­i­days has eli­cited a range of re­ac­tions on so­cial me­dia. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those con­tro­ver­sial tweets, sev­er­al cycles of pub­lic opin­ion have already run their course. Fol­low­ing the ini­tial op­pro­bri­um, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was even re­buked by his em­ploy­ers at Drexel Uni­versity. This in turn led his sup­port­ers to gath­er sig­na­tures, ur­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to rep­rim­and him fur­ther. Some be­grudgingly offered their solid­ar­ity, more as a mat­ter of prin­ciple than out of ap­prov­al for what he said. While they did not en­dorse his mes­sage, they be­lieved that ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech should be pro­tec­ted. Oth­ers en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally leapt to de­fend the ori­gin­al “white gen­o­cide” re­mark, al­though Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er in­sists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of aca­dem­ic free­dom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its polit­ic­al con­tent.” A few re­fused to provide him with any back­ing what­so­ever, cit­ing his fail­ure to do like­wise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Par­is two years earli­er. Luck­ily, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er later re­vealed that he’d re­cently re­ceived ten­ure, so the whole af­fair proved rather a tem­pest in a tea­cup. His job was nev­er in ser­i­ous danger to be­gin with.

Nev­er­the­less, now that it’s over, it might be worth tak­ing a look at the vari­ous re­sponses to this im­broglio. Be­fore sur­vey­ing all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the ta­ble: I’m not a “free speech ab­so­lut­ist.” Un­der ex­traordin­ary con­di­tions — say, of re­volu­tion­ary civil war — some demo­crat­ic rights will likely have to be sus­pen­ded. Even un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, there are lim­its re­lated to li­bel, slander, and in­cit­ing a pan­ic. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trot­sky had it more or less right in his tract on “Free­dom of Press and the Work­ing Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Dav­idovich, “the pro­let­ari­at may find it­self forced, for a cer­tain time, to take spe­cial meas­ures against the bour­geois­ie, if the bour­geois­ie as­sumes an at­ti­tude of open re­bel­lion against the work­ers’ state. In that case, re­strict­ing free­dom of the press goes hand in hand with all the oth­er meas­ures em­ployed in wa­ging a civil war: if you are forced to use ar­til­lery and planes against the en­emy, you can­not per­mit this same en­emy to main­tain his own cen­ters of news and pro­pa­ganda with­in the armed camp of the pro­let­ari­at… Yet in this in­stance, too, if the spe­cial meas­ures are ex­ten­ded un­til they be­come an en­dur­ing pat­tern, they in them­selves carry the danger of get­ting out of hand and of the work­ers’ bur­eau­cracy gain­ing a polit­ic­al mono­poly that would be one of the sources of its de­gen­er­a­tion.”

Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour

Verso Books published a con­cise sum­mary of the or­deal by Colin Beck­ett, which went over the timeline of events. Beck­ett con­cluded that “Drexel’s ini­tial re­sponse to com­plaints about Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er il­lus­trates that un­prin­cipled, PR-con­scious ad­min­is­trat­ors are eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by the slight­est hint of con­tro­versy,” and im­plored his read­ers to “re­main vi­gil­ant and make it more dif­fi­cult for uni­versit­ies… to cater to right-wing out­rage, real or fake, than po­lice the speech of its em­ploy­ees.” Jac­obin re­pos­ted Corey Robin’s call to “De­fend George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er” from his per­son­al blog, a reas­on­able enough piece, des­pite its praise for the as­so­ciate pro­fess­or’s “ex­cel­lent work on Venezuela and polit­ic­al the­ory.” With all due re­spect to Robin, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than re­hash­ing the crudest talk­ing points pre­pared by the Bolivari­an re­gime. He once gran­ted an in­ter­view to Amy Good­man of Demo­cracy Now! in which jus­ti­fy Ma­duro’s jail­ing of Leo­poldo López, the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion lead­er, back in 2015. López was sen­tenced to four­teen years for fo­ment­ing un­rest and al­legedly plot­ting to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. Guess what evid­ence was presen­ted as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: prob­lem­at­ic tweets.

Continue reading

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1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative


Anti-revisionist revisionism

Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course conditions in the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, tainted by Marxism’s uncritical adoption of “Whiggish optimism” from bourgeois liberalism (which it otherwise ruthlessly critiqued) Late Stalinists like Losurdo and Horne make entire careers out of these claims.  Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, has become such a hackneyed routine that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. But few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Delegates from Carolina and Georgia struck such language from the final draft only with great difficulty, and after much debate. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented Jefferson in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with many other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.


In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading


Piketty and Marx: Or, why no one needs to read anything

Less than a week ago, Jacobin magazine enumerated a list of nine canned responses criticizing the French neo-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Zachary Levenson gave us the guide for “How to Write a Marxist Critique of Thomas Piketty without Actually Reading the Book.” It ranges between Marx and Piketty’s radically different conceptions of capital to the latter’s conflation of derivatives stemming from finance and industry. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a long book,” Levenson writes, sympathizing with his readers, “and you just don’t have time in your busy schedule to finish it and formulate a materialist critique.” Don’t worry, he urges, “we’ve got you covered.”

No doubt: there’s plenty of truth to such a list, conceived as it is in parody. Many self-proclaimed Marxists are quite eager to dismiss the latest fad in social liberal economic thought, and counterpose the trenchant historical critique offered by Marx to the dry data analysis offered by Piketty. Who hasn’t heard some of these scripted objections bandied about by “radicals” who clearly haven’t read the book?

Yeah, from the blurb on the back it may seem a tired rehashing of Keynesian commonplaces (now almost a century old). Granted, it might appear that Piketty merely “repackages the commonly known as the expertly known,” as one reviewer has put it, by treating observations of inequality under capitalism as if they were earth-shattering discoveries. But does that really justify all the unlettered pedantry of the Marxish commentariat? Shouldn’t people read Capital in the Twenty-First Century before issuing a judgment? Continue reading


Adam Smith’s neglected masterpiece?

Corey Robin posted a brief write-up of a passage from Adam Smith over on his blog some weeks back. The text quoted was Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s become quite popular in recent years to contrast this work with Smith’s magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, which came a few years later.

One commenter, Diana, expressed more or less this exact sentiment. “Please keep blogging about the Theory of Moral Sentiments,” she wrote. “Everyone so associates Adam Smith with the other book [The Wealth of Nations] and forgets about this one.” Another commenter, Benjamin David Steele, immediately seconded her request, writing: “I agree. I’ve never read the Theory of Moral Sentiments, but I’ve been very interested in this lesser-known side of Adam Smith.”

For whatever reason, though the Theory of Moral Sentiments is an interesting work, it annoys me when individuals try to “correct” common misperceptions about Smith’s political and economic philosophy by redirecting attention away from what is undoubtedly his greatest work, The Wealth of Nations. (This is, of course, the work that libertarians and neoliberals like to cite the most in their anti-government diatribes, though this is simply because they never read beyond Book I). So I felt I’d write something along these lines. What follows is a brief exchange mostly between Corey Robin and me on Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and its ideological relation to aristocratic (versus bourgeois) virtue. Also at issue is the relative worth of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as opposed to The Wealth of Nations. Continue reading

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Thomas Jefferson: American Jacobin?

The American revolutionary
on the French Revolution

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

On Independence Day, in anticipation of Bastille Day, here’s author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution: Continue reading

Anti-Duhring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, I

Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality

Image: Anti-Dühring
and Anti-Christ


Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”

In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that draw inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (as in Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism),[48] “fundamentalism” (as in Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”),[49] or “theology” (as in Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology).[50] These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.

According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.”[51] Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.”[52] Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.[53]

To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo,[54] even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.”[55] (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.”[56] Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature. Continue reading

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch 1906)

Twilight of the idoloclast?

On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn



[W]hat makes Nietzsche’s influence so un/canny is that there has never been adequate resistance from a real Left.

— Geoff Waite, Nietzsche’s Corps/e (1996)

Few thinkers have enjoyed such widespread appeal over the last forty years as Nietzsche.

— Peter Thomas, “Overman and
the Commune”

Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.

— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the

If Nietzsche’s arguments could be said to have gone unchallenged during the second half of the twentieth century, as the above-cited authors suggest, the same cannot be said today. Beginning in the early 1990s, but then with increasing rapidity over the course of the last decade, a distinctly anti-Nietzschean consensus has formed — particularly on the Left. Recent years have witnessed a fresh spate of texts condemning both Nietzsche and his thought as irredeemably reactionary, and hence incompatible with any sort of emancipatory politics. Numerous authors have contributed to this shift in scholarly opinion. To wit: William Altman, Fredrick Appel, Malcolm Bull, Daniel Conway, Bruce Detwiler, Don Dombowsky, Ishay Landa, Domenico Losurdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on. Continue reading

Notes to “Twilight of the Idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”

Notes to Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turnMalcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche, Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

[1] “Reading for victory is the way Nietzsche himself thought people ought to read.”  Bull, Malcolm.  Anti-Nietzsche.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2011).
[2] As Domenico Losurdo blurbs on the back of his book, “Altman…adopts Nietzsche’s own aphoristic genre in order to use it against him.”  Altman himself explains: “[T]he whole point of writing in Nietzsche’s own style was to demonstrate how much power over his readers he gains by plunging him into the midst of what may be a pathless ocean, confusing them as to their destination.”  Altman, William.  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich.  (Lexington Books.  New York, NY: 2012).  Pg. xi.  Later Altman admits, however, that “[t]his kind of writing presumes, of course, good readers.”  Ibid., pg. 181.
[3] Dombrowsky, Don.  Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics.  (Palgrave MacMillan.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 134.
[4] Conway, Daniel.  Nietzsche and the Political.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 119.
[5] Appel, Fredrick.  Nietzsche Contra Democracy.  (Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, NY: 1999).  Pg. 120.
[6] “[I]n uncovering Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy [they] reuse it.”  Bull, Anti-Nietzsche.  Pg. 32.
[7] Ibid., pg. 33.
[8] Ibid., passim, pgs. 35-38, 42, 47-48, 51, 74-76, 98, 100, 135, 139, 143.
……Indeed, Bull’s call to “read like a loser” grants to the essays in Anti-Nietzsche their hermeneutic integrity.  This formulation has since gone on to become one of the book’s most celebrated phrases, as well, charming reviewers from New Inquiry’s David Winters to Costica Bardigan of the Times Higher Education. Winters, David.  “Reading Like a Loser.”  New Inquiry.  (February 14, 2012).  Bardigan, Costica.  “Review of Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche.”  Times Higher Education.  (January 29, 2012).  Even longtime admirers of Nietzsche like T.J. Clark admit its interpretive power: “[N]o other critique of Nietzsche, and there have been many, conjures up the actual reader of Daybreak and The Case of Wagner so unnervingly.”  Clark, T.J.  “My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull.”  Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies.  (University of California Press.  Berkeley, CA: 2009).  Pg. 79. Continue reading

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).