Hitchens, who enjoyed a Trotskyist incarnation during his years in England, where he was born in 1949 in Portsmouth, a famous naval base since the fifteenth century, became an ardent champion of the Iraq War. At Leys School in Cambridge, Hitchens, a voracious reader, encountered books that exploded the complacent conservative views that his father, Commander Eric Ernest Hitchens, had expounded. He later explained that he had come to view World War I “not as an episode of imperishable valor . . . but as an imperialist slaughter that had been ended on such bad terms by such stupid statesmen that it necessitated an even more horrible second round in 1939.” At Oxford he immersed himself in Trotskyism. “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism,” was the slogan of the International Socialists, the tiny organization that Hitchens joined. Oppenheimer explains that when it came to Trotsky, Hitchens was “attracted to the figure of the man, who was a military hero as well as a brilliant intellectual, and he was seduced by Trotsky’s romantic story of exile and martyrdom, which cleansed his legacy of any taint of compromise.”
Once he landed stateside as a correspondent and columnist for the Nation, Hitchens embarked on crusades against everyone from Mother Teresa to Henry Kissinger. After the Cold War ended, his Marxism rapidly became an affectation. He ended up trading it in for a new mission against Islamic radicalism, which he identified as the fresh grand challenge confronting the West. Soon enough Hitchens was consorting with Bush administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz and, as Oppenheimer notes, made a fool of himself in August 2005 on the Daily Show, when Jon Stewart cut him to ribbons over his support for the Iraq War.
Whether intellectuals such as Burnham or Hitchens were on the left or right, the temptation to belong to a vanguard seems to have been inescapable. To the end, they were fascinated by the exercise of power and yearned to accelerate history. This yearning prompted Burnham to become a charter member of the small and crusading faction surrounding William F. Buckley Jr. and to espouse a Third World War, while Hitchens went on to flirt with the neocons he had previously decried. Trotsky may have lost his allure for these men, but his militant spirit has never fully faded away among certain precincts on the right.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
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