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The Discomfiting of a Hitchens.


THE ONLY TIME I heard the late Christopher Hitchens thrown off balance in a discussion was when he was discussing Trotsky with Matthew Parris and Robert Service. Hitchens had put forward Trotsky as his choice for the “Great Lives” series on Radio 4 (2006), hosted by ex-Tory MP, Matthew Parris. Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky was published in 2009.

The conversation was, as you would expect, illuminating and informative throughout. Hitchens gave a credible explanation for his choice of Trotsky, who was a man of many talents: not just a writer and political thinker but also a great orator and organiser, albeit of the mass-murdering, totalitarian type. Service provided plenty of information and was useful in adding some corrective balance to Hitchens’ rather adulatory appraisal of the revolutionary.

The conversation starts and proceeds fairly pleasantly, which is a surprise given that Parris is a Tory (of sorts) and Hitchens most definitely not, until towards the end. The spat as it develops hinges on a familiar charcteristic of the committed left, ie, the inability to discuss anything in human terms but to employ instead a bureaucratised, abstracted vocabulary that reduces everything to political mechanics.

Parris pitches the question that if Trotsky had been in control rather than Stalin would the results of the revolution have been vastly different. It’s a reasonable question, and one frequently posed. Robert Service points out that the agreements between the various political leftist factions were greater than their differences, and that they were faced with a recalcitrant population who wanted “their religion, their customs, their villages, party pluralism, etc.” The inference is that the party would have overriden all that, whoever was in charge.

To my mind at least, it seems as if Hitchens begins to feel that Parris and Service are ganging up on him and starting to get the better of him — a serious blow to his ego. When Parris uses the word, “Trotskyites”, Hitchens corrects him, “it’s Trotskyists, by the way,” one of those pointless little pedantries that are meaningless to those outside the socialist bubble.

Anyway, Hitchens is having none of what he describes as the Carlyle “great man” theory of history: it’s necessary not to be a votary of an individual, he says. Parris accuses him of evasiveness because instead of properly explaining anything he resorts to “talking about committees, and letters that people wrote to people and party structures…” If the revolutionaries had adopted the programme of the left opposition, Hitchens suggests, all would have been different. He rejects the premise of the question posed by Parris with the rather odd retort, “I don’t accept the grammar of your question” as if it’s all a question of semantics. He understands perfectly well, of course, and simply employs the standard response of the committed (or in his case formerly committed) leftist. It’s a pity someone of his intellectual calibre has to fall back on such cliches.

Parris: ‘The problem is finding a language with which those who are not on the left can talk with the left’.

Parris says the problem for him is finding a language with which he and those who are not on the left can talk with the left. When he says he still doesn’t understand why Hitchens hasn’t fully explained what he likes about Trotsky Hitchens loses it and resorts to straightforward personal abuse: “Well, you’re a bleeding Tory.” He follows it up with “I know why you’re a Tory and I know why people are Tories and it doesn’t take 45 minutes and it isn’t interesting.” He’s quite right — Toryism isn’t interesting: it doesn’t need to be, because it’s very straightforward, which is why it doesn’t require 45 minutes of the evasion, pedantry and dishonesty that Hitchens dishes up.

I don’t know why it took me so long to hear this conversation, since it’s been online for a number of years. There may be other recordings in which Hitchens loses his self-control and it would be entertaining to hear them. Quite why this particular encounter rattled him is a mystery: it’s not as if he were being confronted with questions with which he was not already familiar. His responses are copybook Marxism. What it reveals to me is how deeply engrained was the mindset not just of the socialist but of the cold, bloodless intellectual who believes that systems and programmes are the only way to improve society. You get the impression that to such people the ordinary folk are grubby little annoyances who just get in the way.

Peter Hitchens understood his brother’s mindset: he was a utopian. That way he could switch allegiance from Trotskism, Marxism or whatever he came to call himself, to the constitution of the United States and various neoconservative policies he would never have envisaged himself following as a youthful Trot. His forensic cynicism was always stimulating but I can never shake off the suspicion that here was a man who would calmly accept — and justify — the slaughter of millions to implement a programme for the benefit of mankind. All done with great eloquence, of course.

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

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John Hamilton
John Hamilton
2 years ago

There is another discussion on Trotsky involving Hitchens and Prof. Service available on YouTube. I think the host is called Peter Robinson and he is with the Hoover Institute. Too me it seemed like a tutorial in which the patient and profoundly knowledgeable professor tries to correct the misconceptions of his brightest student. One of the few discussions I’ve seen in which Hitchens looked out of his depth and knew it. Having said that I do love watching him in action and although he is wickedly effective as a critic of religion he seems oblivious of the fact that he… Read more »

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