Books March 2006

What’s Left?

A new book by the West’s most influential Marxist shows him to be both “the most profound essayist wielding a pen” and on the wrong side of history

It is a notable fact that at different times and in different ways Habermas, Bobbio, and Rawls, three of the most important intellectuals of the international Left, have endorsed the deployment of American military force. Removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or Slobodan Milosevic from Bosnia or Kosovo, or removing them from power altogether, has struck members of this trio as at least a defensible objective. Not so Anderson, for whom the invocation of human rights or international law by Washington is the sheerest effrontery. Using the word “adjustable” of his enemies in this regard is more than a question of exploring some of the inconsistencies of their positions, which as a matter of fact he does with his accustomed deftness. It is a clear insinuation that they are making their peace with power and orienting their “independent” minds toward the grand new imperial hegemon.

The undergirding assumption—that American imperialism remains, if I may so condense it, the primary enemy—is never actually set out or justified. This omission is a pity for two reasons: Anderson has for years lived and taught in the United States, and does not exhibit the snobbish yet lumpen contempt for American society that is so often found on the European Left; and it would certainly be fascinating to see his full attention engaged on the irony that the United States is simultaneously the most conservative and the most radicalizing force on the planet. A few years ago, when we jointly addressed a gathering in New York, he startled me by announcing that he thought the Confederacy should have been allowed to secede. His reasoning was elegant enough—slavery was historically doomed in any case; two semi-continental states would have been more natural; American expansionism would have been checked; Lincoln was a bloodthirsty Bismarckian étatiste and megalomaniac—but it was nonetheless remarkable to hear such a direct attack on the thinking and writing of Marx and Engels, who had been 100 percent for Lincoln and the Union and who had identified America as the country of future progress as surely as they had located Russia as the heartland of backwardness and despotism.

I had by no means forgotten this disagreement, but it came back to me with renewed force when I read Anderson denouncing “NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia,” and later the assault of the Coalition on “Iraq.” One must say at once that, whatever room there is for disagreement about both interventions, it is slightly disgraceful to see a socialist and a humanist echoing the claims made by aggressive and chauvinist dictatorships. Slobodan Milosevic naturally wanted to identify his “Greater Serbia” with the Yugoslav idea, and Saddam Hussein’s rule in Baghdad is one of the grossest cases on record of l’état c’est moi, but neither aggrandizement deserves to be taken at face value. And is it not still more extraordinary that a man will overlook the rights of Bosnians, Kosovars, and Kurds and yet assert the self-determination principle on behalf of the Southern plantocracy? A New Left Review editorial in 2003 announced that the need of the hour was solidarity with the “resistance” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and—yes—the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. If this is “what’s Left,” it can and must be said that a certain sort of Marxism has mutated from being defensively conservative into being outright reactionary—in both declensions of the term placing itself on the “wrong” side of history.

The honorable conservatism of Anderson’s style—and I do not say this out of any wish or need to be fair—is beautifully exhibited in the coda of this collection, a self-contained essay titled “An Anglo-Irishman in China.” Here is an account of Anderson’s own father’s dedicated work for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service; a commitment to China that lasted from the beginning of the First World War to the heat of the Second. We are introduced to a dedicated and sensitive man who “objectively” conducts the work of exploitation but who subjectively insists on the highest standards of probity and professionalism. (In an almost perfect moment of capitalist rationality, we discover that the belligerent powers of 1914—Britain, France, and Germany—did not allow their commercial proxies in the Chinese “concessions” to dissolve their common interest by any foolish quarrel of the sort that was then wrecking European civilization.) Here is a bravura interleaving of the micro with the macro: Anderson père conducts love affairs with different women and with Chinese culture, and keeps the civil-service banner as unstained as possible, all while eventually helping to administer subventions from the Japanese aggressor; in effect a servant of the British Crown, he stays in contact with Ireland and quietly supports the Sinn Fein and Home Rule cause. Between Hong Kong and Lungchow, often apparently supervising attacks on the customs collectors, flits the figure of the diminutive Communist Deng Xiaoping …

In his summoning of the past and his attention to family secrets, Anderson fils almost deliberately emulates the laconic yet precise manner of his literary hero Anthony Powell. One wishes that all history could be written as “coolly” as this.

Now, and thanks largely to Deng Xiaoping, China is a capitalist and militarist power of a high and imposing order. Its attitude to the exploitation of its own people is pitiless. It exerts claims on neighboring states as discrepant as India and Vietnam. Its UN veto is employed to thwart American “hegemonism” at every turn, and was part of the support system for Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. Anderson’s father was obliged to keep two sets of books, as it were. It would seem a waste of talent if the same had to be said for his brilliant son.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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