Guest Columns

Guest Column: Christopher Hitchens and the Necessity of Universalism


Matt Johnson


   The most alarming political trends today – the rise of nationalist authoritarianism, the spread of identity politics, the dysfunction and political violence in the United States, and rapidly declining trust in institutions – can be traced to various (often clashing and intersecting) forms of tribalism. If your political identity is constructed around America First nationalism, for instance, you’re more likely to dismiss or rationalize the Jan. 6 assault on the United States Capitol, view your own democratic institutions and practices with suspicion or contempt, and rely on hyper-partisan media outlets. As loyalty toward a political in-group increases, the commitment to objectivity, shared values, and common citizenship falls away.    Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy, the economic fallout from Brexit, and the consequences of nationalist authoritarianism around the world haven’t stopped many politicians, activists, and intellectuals from embracing their own preferred versions of tribalism all the more fervently. The National Conservative movement, for example, has capitalized on the resurgent nationalism in the West by (ironically) building connections between nationalists across borders. Identity politics – especially around race and gender – has become a gigantic engine of political mobilization and social division in liberal democracies. Populist demagogues like Tucker Carlson fuse these developments by weaving white identity politics into their own brands of America First nationalism, and Trump remains a major force in the Republican Party.    Over the past half-century, it would be difficult to think of any writer who resisted tribalism more forcefully than Christopher Hitchens. The intellectual and ethical foundation of Hitchens’s most essential principles – his contempt for identity politics and religion, consistent internationalism, and immovable support for free expression – was the idea that human beings should demolish the barriers that prevent them from understanding and expressing solidarity with one another. He believed people are capable of transcending what he described as the “familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith.” His humanism went beyond his ferocious critique of religion to encompass how he viewed the structure of the international system and the concept of citizenship. “Internationalism,” he wrote, “is the highest form of patriotism.”    Hitchens’s universalism fueled his commitment to international socialism just as it led him to support the Western interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He believed citizens of every country have the right and the capacity to throw off the yoke of one-party rule and enjoy what Thomas Jefferson described as the “blessings and security of self-government.” It didn’t matter if these citizens were resisting Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 or the Taliban in Kabul several decades later – Hitchens was on their side. He didn’t just despise religion because he regarded it as essentially totalitarian – he also believed it was a powerful source of tribal hatred that made conflicts far more intractable than they would otherwise be. He called himself a First Amendment absolutist because he regarded the free and open exchange of ideas as the foundation of any healthy society, as well as the starting point for the effort to construct an international community on the basis of shared values and interests.    International solidarity, humanism, and free expression may seem like natural or even anodyne principles in the third decade of the twenty-first century. We have ample evidence that this is not so. Many nationalists regard Hitchens’s brand of universalism – which emphasized the importance of strong international institutions and rejected absolute state sovereignty – as a form of globalist imperialism which attempts to force governments under the boot of a tyrannical new world order. Identitarians view universalism as a mendacious smokescreen that obscures the oppression and suffering of marginalized groups. Universalism is variously derided as a quixotic liberal delusion which denies human nature, a rhetorical trick that serves the interests of a nefarious global elite, an excuse for perpetual war and hegemony, and even a justification for bigotry (think: “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement).    Hitchens’s universalism led to many of his most controversial positions, and we’re living at a time when competing forms of tribalism are ascendant around the world. But the importance of universalism has never been clearer: from strengthening the alliance against Russian aggression in Ukraine to supporting pro-democracy protesters in Tehran, Hong Kong, Yangon, Minsk, and Moscow to abandoning the identitarianism and other forms of mindless tribalism that have deepened the political fractures in liberal democratic societies.


   When Hitchens summarized his view of socialism in a 1986 debate, he began with the assertion that “all divisions of class, nation, race, and sex are, in the last resort, manmade – and can be man-unmade – are in no sense part of a divine or natural ordinance, and … we are members, like it or no, of one race, the human race.” This belief would prove to be more durable than any economic views Hitchens held, and it informed how he viewed many emerging currents of left-wing thought.    “Beware of identity politics,” Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian. “I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics.” To understand Hitchens’s hostility to identity politics, we must consider how he defined the concept – as well as how he didn’t define it. Hitchens took no issue with efforts to mobilize people around identity-based causes – on the contrary, he participated in protests during the Civil Rights Movement, he was a strong supporter of reparations for the descendants of slaves in the United States, he advocated for gay rights, and he defended movements for national recognition and self-determination among oppressed minorities such as the Kurds.    But Hitchens recognized how easily an emphasis on identity can distort and even supplant the emphasis on politics. When universally intelligible ethical and political arguments become secondary to subjective feelings and attitudes, that’s an aspect of what Hitchens defined as identity politics. Early in his career, he was already becoming increasingly concerned about how identitarianism was corrupting political thought:    “I remember very well the first time I heard the saying ‘The Personal Is Political.’ It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for.”    Hitchens was always wary of those who elevate the expression of their feelings over principles and arguments. “In this country,” he explained in a 2007 lecture, “you can be told ‘that’s offensive’ as if those two words constitute an argument, or a comment. Not to me, they don’t.” He also questioned the increasingly frequent appeals to personal identity as sources of authority in the public square – what he described as the idea that “sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves.” While first-person accounts of what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group provide valuable perspectives, political arguments must always be grounded in reasoning that everyone can understand. As Hitchens observed, many of his political allies on the left no longer prioritized this form of universalism, preferring instead to fixate on the most reductionistic forms of identity:    “From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic ‘preference,’ to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: ‘Speaking as a…’ Then could follow any self-loving description.”    Why was Hitchens so suspicious of claims to identity-based authority? Wouldn’t a black American who lived in Alabama or Georgia during the Jim Crow era understand the implications of segregation and other racist policies better than a fellow citizen who didn’t share that experience? Yes, but arguments about public policy and society can’t hinge on personal experience alone. For one thing, members of oppressed groups have a wide array of perspectives and positions, many of which conflict with one another – as the legendary civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin (who Hitchens described as the “true genius of the civil-rights and democratic-socialist movements”) observed, the “world of black Americans is full of divisions.” There are also countless forms of oppression and disadvantage, from race to socioeconomic status to family circumstances to physical, cognitive, and behavioral endowments.    While Hitchens recognized the importance of addressing historical injustices and securing equality as broadly as possible, he almost certainly would have disagreed with many of today’s identitarian activists and intellectuals about the ultimate goal of these efforts. Hitchens’s anti-racism was so radical that he believed we should be “opposed to the concept” of race. He didn’t just argue for a post-racist future – he argued for a post-racial future. Many of the most prominent commentators on race today firmly reject this aspiration. In a 2016 essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones observed that the “post-racial dream did not last long, and nothing epitomizes the naïveté of that belief more than the election … of Donald J. Trump.” She called this dream a “myth” and cited a historian who argued that “Race always plays a role. It never disappears.” This mirrors the insistence among many anti-racist scholars and commentators (like Robin DiAngelo) that racial tension is an eternal feature of our social and political relationships.    Hitchens expected the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow to be with us for a very long time, which is why he supported sweeping efforts to address the harms caused by these ugly episodes in American history with measures like reparations. But on the central question of whether we should accept the permanence of racial animosity and division, he was more optimistic than Hannah-Jones, DiAngelo, and many racial commentators today.    Hitchens believed discoveries in genomics had “effectively abolished racism.” He identified with civil rights heroes like Rustin, whose socialism was more concerned with divisions of class than race, and who focused on broad popular mobilization around economic opportunity for all rather than racial grievances. Hitchens recognized how identity politics could undermine other values, such as the assessment of political candidates on the basis of their character and policies rather than their gender or skin color. “If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ alone,” he wrote in 2008, “then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favor for the identical reason.”    Hitchens emphasized the practical limitations of identity politics, such as the habit of slicing people into smaller and smaller groups, subgroups, and sub-subgroups. As he puts it in Letters to a Young Contrarian: “This tendency has often been satirised … . but never satirised enough.” The core distinction between Hitchens and many modern identitarians is his belief that, while political mobilization around race, gender, sexuality, and other elements of identity is often necessary, identity in itself is a poor source of solidarity. Our solidarity should be based on a shared understanding that all people are entitled to certain fundamental rights, and political coalitions should be built around the adherence to ideas and principles instead of ill-defined demographic categories. There are plenty of LGBTQIA2S+ individuals who aren’t fans of the endless profusion of acronyms and flages that are supposed to represent them, just as there are some black Americans who support reparations and others who don’t. Rustin, for example, described reparations as a “ridiculous idea.”    Liberal democracies are built on individual rights for a reason – every person’s identity consists of unique genetic and environmental conditions, beliefs, personal experiences, social groups, and so on. The demographic boxes we happen to check on the Census provide very limited information, and Hitchens resisted the idea that we should feel a sense of solidarity or shared purpose with people who happen to check the same boxes. He believed solidarity should be based on our shared humanity, while political action should be based on our shared principles.


   There was an ostensible contradiction at the heart of Hitchens’s politics. While he was an internationalist who argued for greater integration between states (in the form of transnational institutions such as the EU and NATO, for instance), he also defended the right to self-determination and autonomy among oppressed minorities such as the Kurds. Many defenders of nationalism today would point to the tension between these positions as a reminder that national identity is the most powerful source of human solidarity, despite what the “globalists” would have you believe about the spongy concept of universal solidarity.    Nationalists might also note that Hitchens once described patriotism as a relic from the “squalling childhood of the human race” – a belief that didn’t stop him from writing books about Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, making the case that the United States should defend and promote democratic values around the world, and ultimately becoming an American citizen. Despite Hitchens’s bitter opposition to partition, there are many historical cases in which he supported national independence – from the American Revolution to India’s rejection of British colonial rule to what Vladimir Putin lamented as the “parade of sovereignties” after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.    But did Hitchens really contradict himself by supporting self-determination and international integration at the same time? There was a thread connecting all the national independence movements cited above: the desire for self-government. In each case, the cause of independence was fueled by popular resistance to imperial domination and authoritarianism. The United States is the world’s oldest democracy, India is the world’s largest democracy, and the post-Cold War revolutions in Eastern Europe represent the biggest shift from autocracy to democracy in history. Hitchens didn’t support international integration for its own sake – imperialism is a form of integration, but it can only be sustained by trampling the rights of subjugated populations.    Hitchens’s position on Kurdish self-determination isn’t as contradictory as it may seem. While he recognized that the Kurdish experiment in self-government is remarkably liberal and democratic by regional standards, he commended the Kurds for taking part in the reconstruction of Iraq despite all the abuse they had suffered under Saddam Hussein. He argued that “Partition in Iraq would be defeat under another name (and as with past partitions, would lead to yet further partitions and micro-wars over these very subdivisions).” However, he also acknowledged that, if the Kurds ever declared their independence, the United States couldn’t “even consider abandoning the one part of the country that did seize the opportunity of modernization, development, and democracy.” Hitchens’s internationalism was always grounded in universal democratic values, and the defense of these values sometimes entails a shift toward autonomy.    In other cases, transnational integration is the best way to secure liberal democracy as broadly as possible. Hitchens observed that, during the Cold War, many Eastern Europeans “measured their aspirations by how swiftly they … could meet the criteria for membership [in the European Union] and escape the dreary, wasteful Comecon system that was the Soviet Union’s own parody of a supranational agreement.” One form of integration was closed and autocratic, while the other was open and democratic. Ukraine wants to join the EU and NATO today, while it is desperately fighting against Putin’s effort to pull Kyiv back into Russia’s orbit. Putin constantly emphasizes the cultural, religious, and linguistic ties between Ukraine and Russia (and has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t regard the former as a legitimate independent state), but this isn’t internationalism – it’s a historically illiterate and self-serving justification for imperialism.    Nationalist intellectuals such as Yoram Hazony – the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which runs the National Conservatism project – say there’s no distinction between the growth of international institutions like the EU and imperialism. In his 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony argues that these institutions seek to “remove decision-making from the hands of independent national governments,” which is just like the “old imperialism” of, say, the Roman Empire. He believes the EU is part of a new “liberal empire.” He even argues that the “debate between nationalism and imperialism became acutely relevant again with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.” In Hazony’s world, this debate was evidently muted during the decades of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the fact that members of the EU chose to join (which can’t be said for the Warsaw Pact) doesn’t appear to matter.    Hazony’s arguments aren’t novel – there’s a long tradition on the self-described anti-imperialist left and the nationalist right of describing the EU as a dictatorship headquartered in Brussels. As Hitchens explained during a 1999 debate with his brother Peter (who argues that the EU is “essentially a German empire”), this argument is backwards – because the “rules of the community forbid the admission of dictatorships or any but parliamentary democracies,” Hitchens said, former dictatorships such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain had a powerful incentive to “get rid of their dictatorships” in order to join the EU.    Yet this hasn’t stopped right-wing nationalists and prominent left-wingers (like Jeremy Corbyn, Glenn Greenwald, George Galloway) from declaring that the institutions of the “postwar global order” are just the latest iteration of Western imperialism to be riveted upon the world. This analysis persists despite the massive wave of democratization after the Cold War, as well as the fact that countries viewed as paragons of the nationalist revival today (such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary) voted overwhelmingly to join the EU.    Despite the effort (on the left and right) to present the EU, NATO, and other international institutions as the gravest threats to freedom and stability in the world, it’s clear that the real threat emanates from increasingly aggressive forms of nationalism. Consider the reemergence of great power competition. While it would have been naive to expect China’s rise to be quiet and uneventful a couple of decades ago, it also wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume that Beijing could manage this rise without locking up more than a million Uyghurs for a course in totalitarian “reeducation,” forced assimilation, and cultural eradication. Xi Jinping’s aggressive chauvinism made this horrific outcome much more likely. Xi’s nationalist fixations have also drastically increased the likelihood of war with Taiwan. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s year-old war on Ukraine is an explicit effort to reclaim Russia’s national and imperial glory – or at least salvage what’s left of it. Putin has justified the war with incessant appeals to Russian nationalism and cultural hegemony.    Hitchens was prescient about the consequences of Russian nationalism. In a 2010 interview, he emphasized the “very dangerous alliance between Russian nationalism and chauvinism revived under various pretexts of humiliation.” He argued that Putin’s shift toward aggrieved revanchism was a “terrible outcome for the Russian people and for the people who live within Russian borders who are non-Russian. But also for Russian neighbors, because this expresses a clear nostalgia for days of Russian glory and domination and empire.” Many of today’s intellectual nationalists are preoccupied with what they regard as the expansionism of the “liberal empire,” but Hitchens always recognized that the imperial ambitions of authoritarian states represented a far more pressing threat. Since World War II, European integration has been a major check on nationalist aggression – not the other way around.    A few years after the end of the Cold War, Hitchens made a clear connection between his anti-tribalism and what he viewed as the necessity of internationalism: “There are those who think that the tribe into which they were born is the main thing about themselves. … And there are people who realize that internationalism is not just a desirable thing. It’s actually the only way the world can be organized.”    At first glance, it may seem like Hitchens’s position on race relations and identity politics in the United States is wholly separate from his positions on the EU or Russian imperialism. But all these views were informed by the same set of principles: that human rights should be defended everywhere; that all people should be treated as individuals, not as representatives of some crudely defined group; and that our “overwhelming solidarity” as human beings should help us transcend the petty barriers that have inflicted so much needless suffering on our species.