Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Pity Hitchens couldn't stick around for the death of Kim

There was something oddly appropriate about Chris Hitchens and Kim Jong-il dying within days of one another. Chris and the Kims went back a long way.

When I first met Chris in the late-1960s - outside some embassy or other, impossibly elegant in a donkey jacket, with a loud-hailer in hand and a reserve pack of cigarettes in his pocket - we may have discussed and would certainly have derided Jong-il's dad, Kim il-Sung, the Great Leader.

Jong-il, of course, was to become the Dear Leader. The new man, Kim Jong-un, may, in time, be transformed into the Nice-enough Leader.

Chris was among a scattering of young people at the time who had gravitated towards the politics of the International Socialists (IS), a political tendency defined and denounced across the Left for our insistence that the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites, and China, North Korea etc, were not socialist societies in any sense that Marx or Lenin would have understood, but should rather be defined as state capitalist; as class-divided as the US or Britain, but with the state bureaucracy occupying the role taken in the West by the bankers and the bosses of big business.

The IS had originated in the early-1950s in a split from the orthodox Left - more like a tiny sliver at first, 32 members, of whom about half soon defected - led by a Palestinian Jew, Tony Cliff, real name Ygael Gluckstein.

The Korean War had been crucial to the development of Cliff's analysis. To the fury of most of the Left and the puzzlement of many on the Right, he had argued that socialists shouldn't take sides between Kim il-Sung in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south.

From then until the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact countries from 1989 onwards, a strapline ran across the front of all IS publications - 'Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism'.

The attraction of this perspective for a young intellectual of Leftist bent just down from Oxford in the heady days of the 1960s was obvious.

When I first encountered him, Chris was already regarded as one of the sharpest and most eloquent of IS polemicists.

The hatred of tyrants, especially of those who styled themselves socialist, stayed with Chris for the rest of his life. When I last met him, in Dublin about two years ago, his bitter opposition to the line of Cliff's followers now on Iraq, Afghanistan and the 'war on terror' was clear, but so was his continuing respect, and even affection, for Cliff.

Much has been written in the days since his death of Chris's angry defection from the Left. This has been commonly traced back to the Ayatollah's fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie in 1989 and his shock at former comrades' unwillingness to take up arms against what he saw as an Islamic onslaught on cultural freedom to the extent of supporting Western efforts to overthrow the Tehran regime.

In fact Chris's defection had been evident back in 1982 when he announced his support for Mrs Thatcher in her Falklands confrontation with Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri.

Serious opposition to tyranny meant supporting the force best-placed to effect its overthrow, he suggested. Any other attitude was abstract moralism.

He had forgotten, or had just ceased to believe in, the other side of Cliff's analysis - that if socialism could be handed down from above, if its essence lay in the liberation of the mass of the people, then it could only be brought about from below, through the action of the masses themselves.

In one of his last interviews, with Jeremy Paxman, Chris declared that he remained a Marxist, but couldn't now see any mass agency in society with a potential to win freedom for itself. All that remained, then, was to argue for support for whichever side in any given conflict appeared to have the better democratic credentials.

Thus his support for Blair in relation to Saddam, for Nato against the Taliban, for the CIA in its war on al-Qaida.

We were long-time acquaintances whose paths occasionally crossed, rather than personal friends.

But I had a lot more time for him than the majority of erstwhile comrades, who saw him as a traitor to the cause.

I am sorry he didn't live long enough to savour the passing of Kim Jong-il. We might have had a right old reminiscence about the good days when all seemed cleaner and more clear cut and we could rejoice in our rejection of tyranny, irrespective of the colouration in which it clothed itself.

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