Book Review: Unhitched by Richard Seymour
'As a member of the SWP, buying this book is probably an expellable offence', I joked to the genial old guy behind the counter in Housman's bookshop in London the other day as I handed over money for Unhitched by Richard Seymour - the proprieter of the Lenin's Tomb blog, which seems to be currently devoted to trying to drum up both sales of Unhitched and supporters of the 'SWP Opposition'. The Housmans assistant didn't get the joke, which served for me as a timely reminder that for probably about 99% of the Left in Britain, 'Lenin's Tomb' means, well, the Lenin's Tomb.
Anyway, onto Unhitched, which is really an enlargement on some of the arguments about the late Christopher Hitchens made in Seymour's The Liberal Defence of Murder. In many ways this little book is vintage Seymour doing what he does best - taking down pro-war liberal scum through remorseless detailed analysis of their bullshit. Those wanting a brief summary of the argument can go straight to this fine little piece Seymour wrote for the Guardian recently - Christopher Hitchens: from socialist to neocon. In general, Seymour's Unhitched does what it says on the tin - puts Christopher Hitchens on trial for his crimes - chief of which was acting as an apologist and propagandist for the American Empire. 'This is not a biography but an extended political essay' (pxxi), Seymour writes, indeed 'unabashedly a prosecution' in an imagined 'Trial of Christopher Hitchens' and 'if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result'. (pxxii)
Its appearance is therefore to be welcomed by socialists and democrats more generally - if only to serve as a long overdue and hopefully permanent antidote to the pro-war liberal chorus of sycophancy and sentimentality that still surrounds and stifles any discussion of 'the Hitch'. How did that disgraced former MP Denis Macshane describe Hitchens after his death - oh yes, 'a cross between Voltaire and Orwell'...
As someone who has not read Hitchen's own autobiography, Hitch 22, I personally was hoping for something resembling a bit more of a biography than a long polemical essay when I bought Seymour's book. However, after reading Unhitched I am convinced that for all of Hitchens's brilliance and talent as a literary critic, he is simply not intellectually worthy enough of the attention and the effort necessary for someone to write a decent, critical biography of him - being essentially a charlatan, prone to plagiarism even when he was good, and happy to lie and caricature when he was bad. Hitchens's intellectual and political degeneration - so apparent post September 11th but as Seymour shows, with long roots in Hitchens's past work - perhaps reached its nadir with his writing about the death of Mark Daily, a young American who signed up to fight and die in the 'war on terror' after apparently being inspired by Hitchens's pro-war propaganda. As Seymour notes of Hitchen's subsequent 'maudlin display of his grief and catharsis, in some ways even more stomach lurching than his tribute to the World Trade Center', it 'climaxed in a puddle of self-pity and self-vindication', and Hitchens, having 'fantasised that the Bush administration was the equivalent of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification', was 'shocked to find that they were selling out his just war' and so now 'felt awful - so awful that he shed his tears, took the occasion to vindicate himself once again, and then moved on without ever having to really account for what he had done' (p98).
There is a lot in here - discussions of Hitchens on Orwell, Kipling, Paul Scott, Edward Said as well as the more political material one would expect - and there are plenty of references that readers will want to follow up on, whatever their own particular interests. There is some good historic discussion on previous cases of political shifts to the right from former revolutionaries - and there are some nice quotes from the likes of William Hazlitt and Isaac Deutscher on the situation post the French and Russian revolutions respectively, as former hopes were dashed by the rise of the likes of Napoleon and Stalin. Seymour even has space to aptly quote Norman Geras on the shift that followed the fading hopes that the movements of 1968 would break through:
In the advanced capitalist world from the mid-1960s a generation of intellectuals was radicalized and won for Marxism. Many of them were disappointed in the hopes they formed — some of these wild but let that pass — and for a good while now we have been witnessing a procession of erstwhile Marxists, a sizeable portion of the generational current they shared in creating, in the business of finding their way "out" and away. This exit is always presented, naturally, in the guise of an intellectual advance. Those of us unpersuaded of it cannot but remind its proponents of what they once knew but seem instantly to forget as they make their exit, namely, that the evolution of ideas has a social and material context.
Hitchens - in the late 1960s and early 1970s of course a member of the International Socialists - himself once revealingly told Decca Aitkenhead,
'I've done better than I thought I would. I've made more money than I ever thought I would. I've got more readers than I ever thought I would, and more esteem' and now earns 'several hundred thousand dollars a year' – but Aitkenhead noted Hitchens claims his wealth hasn't influenced his opinions at all. Does he think wealth ever affects people's opinions? 'Well, yes, I'm a Marxist, after all.' So why would his own opinions be mysteriously immune to his bank balance? 'Well, because I can't trace any connection...'
Marx's key point about 'social being determining consciousness' is demonstrated well in the case of Christopher Hitchens, and he is well placed in his historical context by Seymour. Ultimately, this is not about one personality - but politics. If I have any criticism, it is that books like this - and the Verso Counterblasts series in general which aims 'to challenge the apologists of Empire and Capital' are essentially a negative critique. They raise a wider issue and a more interesting question which is not really discussed: what is the responsibility of intellectuals at a time of crisis, tumult and war? After all there is a great tradition of revolutionary intellectuals who have managed to play a positive role in the class struggle and revolutionary politics without being pulled to the right, even when confronted by defeats far greater than the defeats of the 1970s and 1980s.
As well as this piece on the subject by Rick Kuhn, there is an interesting article in the latest issue of International Socialism on 'Hegemony and mass critical intellectuality' by Panagiotis Sotiris that discusses Marx, Gramsci, Bourdieu and Foucault, but concludes by rightly stressing the importance of political organisation for intellectuals.
Above all we must think of radical left parties, political fronts and organisations as knowledge practices and laboratories of new forms of mass critical intellectuality. In a period of economic and political crisis but also of new possibilities to challenge capitalist rule, questions of political organisation gain new relevance. Thinking of organisation simply in terms of practical or communicative skills for mobilisation, or of electoral fronts and tactics is not enough. It would be better, in order to build today’s parties and united fronts, to revisit Gramsci’s (and Lenin’s) conception of the party as a democratic political and theoretical process that produces knowledge of the conjuncture, organic intellectuals, new worldviews, social and political alternatives, as a potential (counter)hegemonic apparatus. We need forms of organisation that not only enable coordination and networking, democratic discussion and effective campaigning, but also bring together different experiences, combine critical theory with the knowledge coming from the different sites of struggle, and produce both concrete analyses but also mass ideological practices and new forms of radical “common sense”.
This is I think right - but it is perhaps worth also remembering what Marx and Engels - traditional intellectuals themselves who made an immeasurable contribution to the theory and practice of independent revolutionary working class politics - also said on the matter of radical intellectuals and left-wing political parties in 1879:
It is an unavoidable phenomenon, well established in the course of development, that people from the ruling class also join the proletariat and supply it with educated elements. This we have already clearly stated in the [Communist] Manifesto. Here, however, two remarks are to be made:
First, such people, in order to be useful to the proletarian movement, must bring with them really educated elements. This, however, is not the case with the great majority of German bourgeois converts. Neither the Zukunft [fortnightly Berlin magazine] nor the Neue Gesellschaft [monthly Zurich periodical] has provided anything to advance the movement one step. They are completely deficient in real, factual, or theoretical material. Instead, there are efforts to bring superficial socialist ideas into harmony with the various theoretical viewpoints which the gentlemen from the universities, or from wherever, bring with them, and among whom one is more confused than the other, thanks to the process of decomposition in which German philosophy finds itself today. Instead of first studying the new science [scientific socialism] thoroughly, everyone relies rather on the viewpoint he brought with him, makes a short cut toward it with his own private science, and immediately steps forth with pretensions of wanting to teach it. Hence, there are among those gentlemen as many viewpoints as there are heads; instead of clarifying anything, they only produce arrant confusion — fortunately, almost always only among themselves. Such educated elements, whose guiding principle is to teach what they have not learned, the party can well dispense with.
Second, when such people from other classes join the proletarian movement, the first demand upon them must be that they do not bring with them any remnants of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., prejudices, but that they irreversibly assimilate the proletarian viewpoint. But those gentlemen, as has been shown, adhere overwhelmingly to petty-bourgeois conceptions. In so petty-bourgeois a country as Germany, such conceptions certainly have their justification, but only outside the Social-Democratic Labor party. If the gentlemen want to build a social-democratic petty-bourgeois party, they have a full right to do so; one could then negotiate with them, conclude agreements, etc., according to circumstances. But in a labor party, they are a falsifying element. If there are grounds which necessitates tolerating them, it is a duty only to tolerate them, to allow them no influence in party leadership, and to keep in mind that a break with them is only a matter of time.
In 1890, Engels even more forcefully warned of the potential danger of petty-bourgeois intellectuals for a revolutionary workers' organisation, noting such intellectuals should
understand that their “academic education” — which in any case needs a basic, critical self-review — gives them no officer’s commission with a claim to a corresponding post in the party; that in our party everyone must serve in the ranks; that posts of responsibility in the party will be won not simply by literary talent and theoretical knowledge, even if both of these are present beyond a doubt, but that in addition what is required is a thorough familiarity with the conditions of the party struggle and seasoning in its forms, tested personnel reliability and sound character, and, finally, willing enlistment in the ranks of the fighters;—in short, that they, the “academically educated people,” have far more to learn from the workers, all in all, than the latter have to learn from them.
It is telling for example that Hitchens arrogantly apparently thought himself 'on the brink of becoming a "full-time organiser"' while he was in the International Socialists (p7)- as though his academic education at Oxford gave him some kind of 'officer’s commission with a claim to a corresponding post in the party'. Ian Birchall once drew a useful contrast comparing Christopher Hitchens with Paul Foot (who Seymour sadly doesn't mention in Unhitched), who did stay the course in the IS/SWP despite equal pressures from bourgeois society to break with his commitment to building revolutionary socialist organisation and embrace the mainstream:
It is interesting to compare him with Paul Foot. Both had the same public school/Oxford training, and used the literary and oratorical skills they had acquired from it. But Foot had a solid core of principles which stayed with him to the very end - and which certainly made him less successful, in terms of official recognition, than he otherwise might have been. Hitchens, even in his left-wing phase, was always much more committed to his own career and to staying within the bounds of the mainstream. I knew him when he was a member of the Hornsey International Socialists in 1974, and I have to say I never liked or trusted him very much. That is only a personal reaction, of course, but I always felt the commitment to his personal advancement was greater than his commitment to the socialist cause.
As Seymour demonstrates in this volume, Christopher Hitchens was 'a petty bourgeois individualist who esteemed collectivism at least some of the time but never submitted to it himself ... the sociological basis, as it were, for his leftism was the radical intelligentsia'(pxi, xxii). But is Seymour himself really so different from Hitchens in this sense? Though of course one cannot doubt Seymour's principled commitment to the socialist cause, and his politics are no doubt better and sharper than those of even the young Hitchens, as someone whose base is in higher education as a PhD student, Seymour is clearly not immune from the gravitational pull of the 'radical intelligentsia' in the form of 'academic Marxism', to say nothing of the wider pull of petty-bourgeois thinking predominant in the 'blogosphere'/ social media which comes with being a high profile blogger who writes for the likes of The Guardian. Indeed, arguably Seymour's recent post on Lenin's Tomb defending 'patriarchy' - critically debated here - is perhaps best seen as an example of what Marx and Engels were talking about in 1879 when they criticised 'efforts to bring superficial socialist ideas into harmony with the various theoretical viewpoints which the gentlemen from the universities, or from wherever, bring with them ... Instead of first studying the new science [scientific socialism] thoroughly, everyone relies rather on the viewpoint he brought with him, makes a short cut toward it with his own private science, and immediately steps forth with pretensions of wanting to teach it'.
This is not meant as a personal or sectarian attack on Seymour - for no Marxist who works in the environment of higher education and/or who is an aspiring journalist is immune from such pressures. Still less is it meant as an attack on radical intellectuals per se. As Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP once wrote,
The worst damage that can be done inside a revolutionary party is if there is an attack on the intellectuals inside the party, in the name of a proletarian attitude. As a matter of fact such an attack is not so much on the intellectuals but on the workers in the party. It is an insult to the workers as it assumes the workers are unable to grasp theory.
There of course has to be freedom inside a revolutionary party for members to have debates around, for example, theories of patriarchy. But equally, for socialists to take at face value the contemporary theories fashionable in the capitalist institutions of higher education, add one's own personal spin on them, and then pass what results off as the latest and highest form of thinking in 'Marxist theory' is precisely a method of thinking Marx and Engels (and later revolutionary Marxists) always warned against. To dismiss, for example, the relevance today of the debates that were had between Marxists and 'socialist feminists' during the 1970s and subsequently into the 1980s when the Women's Liberation Movement was at a much higher level of mass struggle than it has reached since, reveals a kind of intellectual elitism and arrogance that is most unworthy of any Marxist, let alone someone who is a member of the SWP.
Seymour wants his study of Hitchens to be seen as a kind of 'cautionary tale' to others - and he is right. In a sense it is tragic that Hitchens was never able to develop into the outstanding socialist journalist and writer that at his best he showed signs of becoming - and instead became - as Seymour notes, paraphrasing Hazlitt, 'a living and ignominious satire on himself'. It would be farcical now if Richard Seymour, who founded a blog called 'Lenin's Tomb' precisely to rightly provoke those with essentially petty-bourgeois and individualist prejudices against the most important and outstanding revolutionary Marxist thinker after Marx himself - ever ended up himself succumbing to the kind of hostile pressures he once so detested and still warns us against so eloquently and effectively in Unhitched.
Edited to add: For more on Marxism and intellectuals, see Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Vols I and II (1977/78) and Paul Blackledge, (2007), ‘Marx and Intellectuals’, in David Bates, (ed.) Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics.