Review: ‘Unhitched: the trial of Christopher Hitchens’ by Richard Seymour

Seymour is way off the mark with this book. His failure to grasp Hitchens's capability for political modification is symptomatic of the curious and dogmatic political tradition that Seymour belongs to.

With Richard Seymour’s new book I find myself in absolute agreement with Dave Osler when he says: “the reviews of this book I have read so far [are] mostly penned by people who obviously haven’t bothered to read the volume they so readily dismiss”.

Moreover, I want to cut through their minor criticisms of the volume. I don’t care, for example, that Seymour has written this book after the death of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens himself has form here (see, if you haven’t already, what he said about Jerry Falwell and his small book on Mother Theresa).

I also don’t care about Seymour’s writing style too much. Sure, it would have been strangled to death by Alan Sokal if he’d been given half the chance, but then I myself have a flair for sesquipedalian loquaciousness, I just don’t go on about it.

What jumps out at me in this book is that it confirms exactly what I felt about the tradition which Seymour belongs to – and it is not a glorious Trotskyist position by any means; instead it is a putrid tradition where politics is black and white, capitalist and communist, with us or with our enemies. I will explain why.

Seymour’s former colleague and comrade Alex Callinicos once noted that intervention in Libya, to avert the mass killings of government rebels of all stripes, could not be condoned on the grounds that it was predicated upon the continuation of the power of the ruling class. In short, the Libyans who were bludgeoned to death by a crazed maniac had to wait for the collapse of western capitalism.

I take great pleasure in saying thank goodness nobody listens to Alex Callinicos. But for those who do, this kind of politics suggests that everything that benefits the West must be inherently wrong and must therefore be condemned.

Seeing the sight of dead women and children in North Africa on our news pages may spark the kind of internationalism that was common among the left years ago, but for those on the far-left today reminds them only of their struggle, not against capitalism, but of keeping their narcissism public (the SWP is a protest factory in the narcissistic postmodern protest industry, not a serious home of Marxist critique).

Seymour, from this tradition, sees Hitchens as somebody always inclined towards a nationalist, colonialist bent. His support for a British Falklands for example, which recently received popular approval by islanders, and was not dissimilar to other leftist critics of Galtieri at the time, means for Seymour that Hitchens hid a secret pro-Thatcherism, and a disavowed jingoism.

In turn, it was no surprise that Hitch supported the Iraq war.

But it is because of the black and white tradition that Seymour exists in that he doesn’t understand Hitchens’ political nomadism. Hitchens didn’t continue to hold left-wing opinions in his later life to mask his modified positions elsewhere; instead the Hitch’s politics were far more nuanced.

Seymour, not getting this, instead supposes that this confirms what he suspected from the Falklands, that Hitchens was destined to convert to proto-capitalist, neo-con type.

Rather, and perhaps a little counterintuitively to some, Hitchens had good reasons to go to a war that, in some people’s opinions (mine included), should never have happened.

During that infamous debate with George Galloway in New York, Hitchens said that if we lived in the world that the anti-war movement had wanted Kosovo would have been ethnically cleansed, the Taliban would still be in power, al-Qaeda would be their guests and Saddam would have ownership over the Kurds in what was described as “a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave underneath it”.

At that same debate he said, in strong words, that Bush and Blair, with their talk about Weapons of Mass Destruction (which we now know Western intelligence knew Hussein was not in possession of on the eve of the 2003), “insulted not just their electorate [which presumably included Hitchens after he called for the re-election of Bush] but everyone in the world by preferring to frighten people rather than educate them.”

This isn’t the kind of critique that you find from an amanuensis (which Seymour accuses the Hitch of being to George Bush); even as a critic of the Iraq war myself I can see that Hitchens was a whole lot more than that. He didn’t find in John Kerry what he was looking for. But the simplicity of Seymour’s tradition could never understand this.

The other astounding element of Seymour’s in his book is his accusation that Hitch was a bigot, or to be precise Hitchens’ “hatred for the Islamists and, at bottom, his bigoted attitude towards Muslims.”

That Seymour can level this argument is an insult to anyone who has bore witness to Hitchens’s position on Islam and Muslims.

While at his book launch for this volume recently, Seymour told his audience, on the matter of extremist Islamists sharing a platform with socialists such as himself, that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue a policy of sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left.

Call him idealistic, but I see this as a very paternalistic view of extremist opinion. The decent-left’s political enemies in the salafi-jihadism tradition must be understood and opposed at all costs. In understanding them we find their politics are deeply disturbing – and against women, against trade unionism, against gay rights, and many of the things we on the left hold dear.

Seymour is way off the mark with this book. His failure to grasp Hitchens’s capability for political modification is symptomatic of the curious and dogmatic political tradition that Seymour belongs to which fails to understand nuance. His accusation of Hitchens’s bigotry is laughable, not least because it is accompanied by its own paternalistic streak.

Now that he is no longer in the Socialist Workers’ Party, perhaps Richard Seymour can hold his trial inside a bourgeois court, and not the kangaroo court his old party uses for its other crimes. Though I don’t suppose it will matter much, no jury would be convinced.

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