The Irredeemable Christopher Hitchens

A few weeks back the Australian Financial Review ran a portion of Christopher Hitchens’ posthumous work Mortality. Judging by this extract, the book is something of an extended diary entry recording his last months before succumbing to oesophageal cancer in December, 2011. At one point Hitchens deals with his stay at an unnamed hospital “which is famous for being operated by a historic religious order”. In each room of the hospital, he writes, “the commanding view is decidedly that of a large black metal crucifix embedded tenaciously in the wall”.

Lying in a Catholic hospital under the tender care of a Catholic order, one senses him shifting uneasily, straining for some vindication of his strident atheism. Like other intellectuals in such a predicament, he reached back, way back, 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition. “I also happen to know that it was a practice,” Hitchens adds, “during the wars of religion and the campaigns of the Inquisition, to subject the condemned to a compulsory view of the cross until they died”. No matter that, in his case, the order was out to save his life, not condemn him.  

Had he wished, Hitchens might have reflected on more recent misdeeds, like those perpetrated by a man he idolised to the end. Just type the words "Christopher Hitchens Trotskyite" into Google and a host of links appears, many to videos and articles in which Hitchens affirms his lifelong admiration for Leon Trotsky. One link is to a You Tube video of the 2006 BBC Radio 4 program Great Lives, a series in which prominent people were invited to speak on their favourite historical figure. Hitchens chose Trotsky. Asked if he genuinely admired his subject, Hitchens responded “always have, yes”.

No other answer could have been expected, given the adulatory tone of his previous writings on “the Old Man”. That was the affectionate title of his 2004 hagiography in The Atlantic Monthly, where he claimed that “even today a faint, saintly penumbra emanates from the Old Man” and ended up declaring “the image of Trotsky will not dissipate”. There is plenty more in this vein. Who would have thought Trotsky was as much a Bolshevik as Lenin and Stalin?

To dismiss all of this as a blind spot is nowhere near good enough. Putting it mildly, Trotsky’s life and politics raise serious issues for moral judgement. Hitchens’ death occasioned a wave of mostly positive obituaries, including many by right-of-centre commentators who appreciated his stance on the Iraq War. Amongst the encomiums, came one useful corrective. Mark Adomanis of Forbes Magazine cut to the chase, attacking Hitchens’ “revolting affection” for “an absolutely poisonous figure who, perhaps more than anyone else, ensured that the rancid Soviet regime would survive to propagate its ludicrous ideology”. Rightly, Adomanis indicts Trotsky as a political terrorist, and puts him on the wrong side of atrocities like “the Red Terror”, when thousands of Orthodox clergy and believers were slaughtered.

More to the point, with Lenin, Trotsky was the principal architect of a system, communist repression, which replicated itself all over the globe. As such, he was culpable for untold calamities, including the murder and enslavement of millions. Largely sanitised by the Left, who contrast him with the diabolical Stalin, Trotsky was only the “the good communist” in the way that Albert Speer was “the good Nazi”; indeed the term “good communist” is as oxymoronic as its Nazi counterpart. Consider the appalling scale of Trotsky’s bloody legacy. Thanks to Stephane Courtois’ chapter in The Black Book of Communism, it’s all on the record: 65 million dead in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Eastern Europe, 1 million in Vietnam, 150, 000 in Latin America.

These gruesome figures should be recited more often. Today’s intelligentsia are too inclined to air-brush them out of history and excuse prominent figures who gave aid and comfort to a brutal ideology. They are far too keen, in other words, to cover their intellectual tracks. Hence the favourable treatment accorded to hard-left unionists, loopy academics, shadowy Greens and the retro-radicals of the Occupy Movement. As for Hitchens, his sanctimonious assertion, in the same extract from Mortality, that the hospital clergy “should be ashamed of the historic role played by their order”, invites the injunction “thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye …” It’s laughable that Hitchens should exact such a rigorous judgement on the events of half a millennium ago while blowing kisses at Leon Trotsky, whose malign influence is still with us.

Hitchens is up to the old trick of selecting and rehashing dark episodes from history to obscure the church’s long, civilisation-building contribution. There is no denying that the Inquisition was a time of cruel persecution, abuse of power and all-round betrayal of Christian ideals. But attempts to judge historical events by present-day standards should be framed by a sense of proportion, especially in this case, given Hitchens’ tainted purposes.

Spain was the frontline of an epochal struggle between east and west. Against that background, Professor Henry Kamen points out, in his authoritative The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision, that “the scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers on the Inquisition have little basis in reality”. Placing it in context, he explains that “at a time when the use of torture was universal in European criminal courts, the Spanish Inquisition followed a policy of circumspection that makes it compare favourably with other institutions”. The point is not to defend the indefensible, but to expose a shonky evasion of the far worse crimes of communism.

Hitchens wasn’t forced to admit himself to a Catholic hospital. Perhaps he should have sought out a communist one offering equivalent standards of care and treatment, where he could have contemplated portraits of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky “embedded tenaciously in the wall”. But then again, such a facility would be extremely hard to come by.

John Muscat is a co-editor of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs

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