Cancer was already bubbling in his throat when Christopher Hitchens was composing his memoir Hitch-22. He did not know the last curtain was coming down, and would not receive the fateful diagnosis until the book’s launch in the summer of 2010. Nevertheless, he was still anxious to pre-empt the obituaries. In that text, all things loathed and adored about the Anglo-American journalist were laid out on his own terms. Defiler of saints. Scourge of presidents. Furiously independent, forever searching for the Good Fight. It was intended to be a mythology – a story more than half in love with itself.

Now, almost a decade since his death in late 2011, it is worth interrogating what remains of that self-made legacy and the judgements of devotees and enemies alike: how and why Hitchens famously abandoned the socialism that nurtured him, what became of the New Atheist movement he helped to guide, and above all, just how deeply Iraq sullied and sank his reputation.

Lately, the heroic view of Hitchens has been kept up with a steady gust of reverent memorials. In 2016, George W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum eulogised a man who “spoke the truth as he understood the truth, without regard to whom he might please and whom he might offend”. Though admitting to being “a lesser planet in his orbit”, George Packer claimed in 2019, while receiving the Hitchens Prize, that “some spirit went out of the world of letters with him”.

Then again, neither Hitchens’ “spirit” nor “truth” are much in evidence to those he abandoned on the left. Many view him as a figure of mockery, drunk and disorderly, or as something approaching a criminal. He devoted the latter years of his career to the War on Terror – a singular modern catastrophe. For these former comrades, Hitchens’ inheritance is one of bleak disaster or, worse, irrelevance.

These are stark assessments. But only a sense of fracture and ambivalence can properly capture the effect Hitchens had on his own world, and the world beyond his death. Many of the tributes to Hitchens grant him a status outside time: an almost mystical talent transcending the age, his arguments applicable to all debate. Douglas Murray marvels at “what it was that made Hitchens the extraordinary person, even force, that he was”. These fans try to discern what judgements he might have passed on events after his death: would he have been charmed by Donald Trump, disgusted at Hilary Clinton, repulsed by “cancel culture”? Roland Elliot Brown recently mourned the “pity” that Hitchens “never got to debate ‘the left’ with Jordan Peterson” – a truly mortifying prospect.

What these devotees are idolising is an abbreviated Hitchens, treating the great majority of his collected writing and the better part of his adult life as juvenile folly, easily ignored. He gave up socialism and saw the light, they claim, and that is what matters. But the switch was not quite so swift as many made it out to be. It was a long and imperceptible metamorphosis, very much a product of its time. Nor was it unique: many other intellectuals also traversed that path. Intuitive to the shifts of history though Hitchens was, he failed to resist its snare. If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.


In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens noticed that between 1968 and 1989 “revolutionaries against consumer capitalism metamorphosed into ‘civil society’ human-rights activists.” This aptly – and unknowingly – predicted his own trajectory. By the time he was leaving Britain for America in 1980, the revolutionary cause to which he had dedicated his career was plummeting into low water. Rather than keep up the fight, rebels everywhere resigned into “a strategy of survival” modelled on the career of the Czech hero Václav Havel: to exist “as if” their desired society was already here. Dissent would become something internal and private, not imposed on the world.

As the Berlin Wall came down, and even as he devoted himself to righteous causes, Hitchens was, like many other intellectuals, already primed to accept that capitalism was utterly unchallengeable. A new age was coming, one in which there was to be no problem accepting the primacy of the market. All that was left was to decide in every political conversation: tyranny or liberty?

To those who adopted this stance, this acceptance of capitalism may have seemed inevitable. But today, with socialist movements revived in the UK, the US and elsewhere, we can see that this was not the case. Some of Hitchens’ friends and disciples pose as radical interrogators of everything, without ever actually challenging the economic rules that govern relationships of power. With social demands very much back on the table, it is notable that contrarians like Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz or Ayaan Hirsi Ali do not even consider that such a demand might exist. Every so often (usually in the wake of a terrorist atrocity) this crowd loudly defends “civilisation” from barbarism, even as that very civilisation crumbles into debt, governmental graft and ecological spoil – as immense power builds where no truth can speak to it.

This brand of empty contrarianism has become de facto in many comfortable circles, from the “Intellectual Dark Web” – a loose group of commentators defined by their opposition to identity politics and political correctness – to charlatan figures courting outrage, like British actor Laurence Fox. They are professional complainers, feigners of oppression, easily absorbable into an elite perfectly calibrated to tolerate a bit of joshing and a few juicy bon mots so long as the Rubicon of anti-capitalism is never crossed.

As the younger Hitchens knew, real dissent lives in dark corners, not in the upper ranks. To genuinely rub against the grain is precarious, not comfortable. Hitchens was venerated as a prime model of the dissident, but his heirs make a mockery of the idea.


It is not the fact of his famous conversion alone that makes Hitchens persona non grata on the modern left. Rather, from 11 September 2001 right up to his death, he maintained a belief that the occupation of Iraq and the wider War on Terror were necessary and, above all, morally correct. He never shrank from this conviction, and for this, he is irredeemably tainted with blood. Almost a decade’s worth of effort – all in service of a vast crime. To go swimming in the swamp of late-Hitchens is a bitter and nasty affair. Well-stropped wit devolved into denunciation, fluency retreated into bluster, irony into misanthropy. “At once hysterical and empty,” Pankaj Mishra wrote of this decade, “such battle-cries define not only the dominant rhetorical style of this era but also the nature of the 9/11 wars: optimal and extensive destruction attended by minimal meaning.”

Hitchens thrived on combat and enjoyed arguing without apology, free of qualms. As a socialist he sought it in Orwell and Trotsky, South Africa and Nicaragua. The War on Terror, then, was a thrill. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy recently put it in Dissent: “Hitchens was the least inhibited in his jouissance: here at last was a revolution, heads rolling. No more hand-wringing!”

Far more than being the most bullish, ferocious, eloquent extoller of bloodshed, Hitchens burnished the baseless US case for invading Iraq, venturing even further into the outlandish and unbelievable than the CIA. He didn’t just defend the war; he publicly covered up the intelligence gaps himself. The notorious Prague meeting, the yellowcake uranium in Niger, Mahdi Obeidi’s claims of The Bomb in his garden – Hitchens asserted all of it in print, and it was all proved false in his lifetime. That “truth” touted by David Frum as one of his chief attributes could be easily ignored. Jonathan Freedland smartly summarised this in the New York Review of Books: “For Hitchens, invasion was the only way to establish the nonexistence of weapons whose existence was the chief justification of the invasion.”

The Iraq War was a naked expansion of American imperium. But Hitchens made it something more: an apocalyptic struggle of light against dark; he praised “the training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism”. Just a few months before his death, Hitchens proclaimed it “fatuous to whine that war is endless”, instead endorsing the “advantages” of perpetual conflict. But those advantages aren’t worth the price paid (some six trillion dollars and the annihilation of tens of thousands of human lives). Given the widening of surveillance after 9/11, and the expansion of executive authority in multiple countries, the worst contradiction of all was to defend the War on Terror by anti-totalitarian principles.

“It matters not what you think but how you think,” Hitchens wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian. On the face of it, this sounds sensible. But what you think, and on what grounds you believe it, are just as vital. “By the time the bombs fell,” Osita Nwanevu wrote recently, “it mattered little how many strokes of the chin sent them down.”


Hitchens’ celebrity ballooned in the final years of his life. Though he spurned social media, his later writings and the endless supply of YouTube videos archiving his television or debate appearances made him a seductive figure to the young. But here is a sampling of what is on offer. “Hitchens DESTROYS religion” (398,000 views); “SJW vs LOGIC Christopher Hitchens DESTROYING Social Justice Warriors / SJW” (a more modest 21,000 views); “Christopher Hitchens brutal honesty pissing off muslims” (a stately 5.3 million views); the infamous “Why Women Still Aren’t Funny” (since removed, but last clocked at 3.9 million).

The observer is presented with ready-made politics – no further reading required. Perhaps more importantly, that politics comes with its own style. Viewers can absorb the man’s bluffness and brio as an attitude, pinch his zingers and put-downs, and go out into the world clutching a risk-free iconoclasm.

Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation all appeared in the mid-2000s, lending clout and an air of mutiny to what came to be called New Atheism. But what they inspired was not a tidal wave of unbelief. Historically, many atheists understood religion as an expression of alienation, “the heart of a heartless world” in Marx’s famous aphorism. If life could be made meaningful and satisfying, then yearning for faith would disappear. New Atheism disavowed all that. Theirs was a Positivist view, treating religious belief not as a reality worth understanding and empathising with, but as an archaic dogma. The pursuit of science, rationality and ethics would sweep faith aside, and they would ride the universe’s moral arc towards liberal progress.

Except that moral arc was borne on the back of American Empire. In its brief span, New Atheism was not possible without the War on Terror and the animating fear that at any moment theocracy or “Islamofascism” might fall upon society. Sides had to be taken against this evil enemy, and that meant making common cause with the most egregious atrocities of the era: the torture of innocents at black sites, the use of depleted uranium against civilians, naked colonial plunder of Iraq and Afghanistan’s resources, and indeed the Bush administration’s own brand of folksy Christian evangelism. Hitchens was wily enough not to publicly declare that all Muslims had to pay the price of such a fear; Martin Amis made that mistake. Yes, he insisted, the Muslim world should “suffer until it gets its house in order.” He was met with derision – and a murmured chorus of agreement.

In no sense could these be described as humanistic pursuits or beliefs. Indeed, defending this idea of “civilisation” meant abandoning the proclaimed virtues of the Enlightenment in favour of science robbed of curiosity, free speech without responsibility, debate without inquiry, rationality stripped of self-doubt, and hierarchy without challenge.

New Atheism fractured along controversies like these. Some wafted off in the direction of Alain de Botton’s churchy Sunday Assembly, others into a snooty kind of pedantry, still more into politer progressive activism. Meanwhile, as the Great Recession continued its guttering march, and as jihadists continued to strike in Europe, many of Hitchens’ contrarian heirs devolved into a decentralised grievance. Perhaps it was Muslims, or feminists, or social justice warriors, or (more potently) “the Jews” who were to blame for the decaying world around them.

As the current culture war got underway around 2014, the former followers of Hitchens mutated into the core of what is now called the alt-right: a media-friendly term for those on the cusp of fascism. Anti-social justice types signed up with the Proud Boys; those who believed women aren’t funny cheered on the murder-suicides of incels; the anti-Islamists bought assault rifles or ran for office. It was not for nothing that in 2017 talk-show host Bill Maher revealingly described far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos as a “young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens”.

No doubt an “alive Christopher Hitchens” would be horrified by his intellectual progeny – he did not knowingly charm these rats from the sewers. Yet it’s worth remembering what the New Atheists, broadcast by YouTube, helped to create.


And yet, for those curious enough, or those willing to side-step the uncritical praise of his devotees, Hitchens’ work still has its jewels and treasures. His combat with Henry Kissinger is one of the great journalistic and moral exemplars of the last 50 years. Almost all of his writing on fiction is imperishable and too rarely consulted. The prose, when it was good, was magisterial: often, he honoured Shelley’s injunction that a poet should be an “unacknowledged legislator” of the world as only someone with a deep adoration for English literature could.

He engaged with the revolutions of 1989, was on the ground for Prague, Bucharest and Berlin, and knew more than the bulk of the western press corps who thought Reagan himself had ended the Cold War. Even when he was shorn of utopian dreams, he still awoke every day of the 80s and 90s willing to do battle with the stupid and the destructive. His always-to-hand aphorism that “Politics is division by definition” ought to be seared into every writer’s brow. Even in service of a vast offence, the onstage performances were mesmerising. He may have been the last true public intellectual. No discussion of his legacy can ever omit the horror that was championed or excused after 9/11. But if there is to be any legacy at all, it must rest on firmer foundations than hatred, myth or consensus. In the last analysis of any life, the honourable must be taken with the criminal, virtue weighed against cruelty.

Perhaps this is the only way to consider the afterlives of Christopher Hitchens: contradictory, fractured, crowned by failure.

This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.