[Marxism] Hitchens skewered in the London Review once again

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 25 12:09:29 MST 2006

LRB | Vol. 28 No. 23 dated 30 November 2006 | John Barrell
The Positions He Takes
John Barrell

Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography by 
Christopher Hitchens · Atlantic, 128 pp, £9.99

‘If the rights of man are to be upheld in a dark 
time, we shall require an age of reason,’ wrote 
Christopher Hitchens last year on the dust jacket 
of Harvey Kaye’s recent book on Paine.[*] And as 
if to reinforce that message, he has now himself 
published a little book on Paine, a ‘biography’ 
of Rights of Man. It begins with a dedication, 
‘by permission’, to President Jalal Talabani: 
‘first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; 
sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a 
national revolution and a people’s army. In the 
hope that his long struggle will be successful, 
and will inspire emulation.’ However selective 
this description of Talabani, who has been all 
this and almost everything else at one time or 
another, it is an opening that encourages us to 
expect a tract for the times: a demonstration 
perhaps of how Paine’s book can help us 
understand the complexities of the situation in 
Iraq, perhaps even of what his theory of rights 
might have to say about the legislative and 
judicial innovations introduced into the US and 
Britain as part of the war on terror. Will Paine 
help us adjudicate between the rights of those 
who died in the Twin Towers and those who have 
been tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere? 
Between the non-combatant victims murdered by the 
suicide bombers of the insurgency and the 
non-combatants murdered by the Americans in 
Fallujah or Haditha or Makr al-Deeb? By the end 
of the book, Hitchens still seems to believe that 
he will. ‘In a time,’ he writes in his final 
sentence, ‘when both rights and reason are under 
several kinds of open and covert attack, the life 
and writing of Thomas Paine will always be part 
of the arsenal on which we shall need to depend.’

In the event, between the dedication and the 
final sentence the book says nothing about Iraq 
or the war on terror, perhaps in silent 
acknowledgment of the difficulty of knowing quite 
how to depend on Paine in these dark times, 
perhaps because Hitchens believes it best to let 
Paine speak for himself and to leave President 
Talabani and the rest of us to make the 
connections. I would be more persuaded by the 
wisdom of this method if the book made more 
effort to expound and to summarise Paine’s 
political philosophy. But compared with any other 
book on Paine I can think of, this one is casual, 
even perfunctory. Long before I reached the end 
of what is a very long short book, I was at a 
loss to know why it had been written. Discussing 
the reasons why Burke, who had supported the 
revolution in America, should have been so 
hostile to the revolution in France, even in its 
earliest and most innocent phase, Hitchens 
remarks that ‘it is a deformity in some 
“radicals”’ – he has Marx particularly in mind – 
‘to imagine that, once they have found the lowest 
or meanest motive for an action or for a person, 
they have correctly identified the authentic or 
“real” one.’ Quite right too; and if any radical, 
misled by George Galloway’s description of 
Hitchens as ‘a drink-soaked former Trotskyite 
popinjay’, should suggest that this book was 
written out of vanity, he would surely be 
mistaken. A vain man would have taken care to 
write a better book than this: more original, 
more accurate, less damaging to his own 
estimation of himself, less somniferously inert. 
The press release accompanying the book led me to 
expect something much livelier; Hitchens, it 
exclaims, ‘marvels’ at the forethought of Rights 
of Man, and ‘revels’ in its contentiousness. 
There is a bit of marvelling and revelling here 
and there, but it is as routine as everything 
else in this book, which reads like the work of a tired man.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n23/barr01_.html

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