Marxist but not Socialist

“If you are a libertarian you may find some nourishment in my book Letters to a Young Contrarian where I say that in the same breath as I mourn the decay of some of my socialist allegiances that deep down I’ve always been a sympathizer of the libertarian anti-statist point of view. And one of the things that attracted me to socialism in the beginning was the idea of withering away of the state.” —Christopher Hitchens (2001)

Recently, I have taken to telling people that, while I am no longer identifying as a socialist, I remain a Marxist. I was teetering on that formulation for a number of years when, watching Christopher Hitchens being interviewed about his ideas one day, he pushed me off the fence by putting it almost precisely that way. In 2006, in a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania, Hitchens stated, “I am no longer a socialist, but I still am a Marxist.” (I had not seen this interview until recently.)

Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) 

Hitchens passed away on December 15, 2011, but he still feels near. Hitchens is well remembered by many of us for his opinions on a range of topics, including the three I want to talk about in this essay: atheism, socialism, and totalitarianism. In Hitchens’ mind, these concerns intersect in profound ways that not only reflect their historical reality but the principles underpinning his thought.

Hitchens was a committed atheist, sometimes describing himself as an antitheist, arguing that religion is a dangerous and irrational force in society. He believed that religion stifled free speech and open inquiry, oppressed various categories of humans, and was responsible for many of the world’s conflicts. In contrast, atheism was for him a liberating force, freeing people from the constraints of dogma and superstition, and opening minds to the force of reason and the benefits of science.

Hitchens was a self-proclaimed Marxist and, for most of his life, a dedicated socialist, believing in the ideals of economic and social justice. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was a member of several far-left organizations that identified with the tradition of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary who opposed Joseph Stalin and advocated for a more democratic and internationalist strain of socialism. As a Trotskyist, Hitchens believed in the revolutionary potential of the working class. He was critical of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries as having abandoned the principles of the Bolshevik revolution in favor of authoritarianism and bureaucratic collectivism.

Over time, Hitchens moved away from Trotskyism and towards a more general form of democratic socialism, one that lay heavy emphasis on the liberal freedoms of assembly, association, conscience, press, and speech and expression. Hitchens became increasingly critical of some of the more dogmatic and sectarian elements of the leftwing political scene. By the time of his death, Hitchens had developed a democratic socialist position that, informed by his humanism and observations about actually-existing socialism, emphasized civil liberties, individual freedom, and democratic practices and institutions.

Here we see the influence of George Orwell, a figure Hitchens greatly admired and covered in-depth in his 2003 book Why Orwell Matters. Unlike many socialists of his time, Orwell was deeply skeptical of the Soviet-style command economies and centralized political systems. He believed these systems were authoritarian and undemocratic (which they were), and that they led to the suppression of individual freedom and civil liberties, as well as the brutalization and extermination of “enemies of the state.”

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” a masterful critique of the propaganda style that conceals authoritarian thinking, Orwell took to task the “comfortable English professor” who cannot admit to the awful facts of “Russian totalitarianism” rationalizing those facts with constructions “something like this: ‘While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’”

In his landmark 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell put as an instantiation of the irrationalism that pervaded the political-ideological culture of the dystopian Airstrip One, Oceania, the “Two-Minute Hate,” a ritual in which citizens watch video that depicts the Party’s archenemy Immanuel Goldstein, the mysterious former member of the Inner Party, symbolic of dissent. During the ritual, citizens are expected to express their hatred and anger towards Goldstein and the other enemies of the Party. The purpose of the ritual is to manipulate the emotions of the citizens and reinforce the Party’s control over their feelings and thoughts. It is widely believed that Orwell very likely had in mind Leon Trotsky when constructing the Goldstein character.

In contrast to the socialism of Russian totalitarianism, Orwell was a democratic socialist who believed in a mixed economy, a democratic system with nationalized industries and a comprehensive welfare state, but also one emphasizing the importance of civil rights and individual liberty. Orwell believed that capitalism, with its emphasis on competition and obsession with profit making, led to exploitation and impoverishment of the many. He believed that the state had a responsibility to provide for the basic needs of its citizens, including education, healthcare, housing, and other social services. He also believed that individuals should be free to make their own choices and to live their lives as they see fit. These, too, are among man’s basic needs.

Characterized by a commitment to social and economic justice, combined with a deep appreciation for democratic institutions, civil liberties, and individual freedom, Orwell’s brand of democratic socialism profoundly influenced Hitchens’ conception of socialism. Like Orwell, for most of his life anyway, Hitchens believed that socialism was the best means of achieving humanist objectives of the Enlightenment. But history told both of them that the road to socialism was fraught with challenges and obstacles, and that achieving a truly just and equitable society would require a commitment to democratic values and keeping a vigilant eye open for slippage into authoritarian arrangements and attitudes. Indeed, Hitchens’ leaned into the critique of socialism presented in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he saw as a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism. Hitchens agreed with Orwell that the Soviet model was a perversion of socialism.

Hitchens’ view of capitalism changed over time, as well. Later in life, he moved away from his commitment to socialism and advanced opinions favorable of capitalism. He described capitalism as a truly revolutionary force with the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty and create greater opportunities for individuals, while, at the same time, writing and speaking critically of the excesses of capitalism—income inequality, environmental degradation, and the exploitation of workers. He believed that the state had an important role to play in regulating the excesses of capitalism and ensuring that its benefits were shared more equitably.

After 2005, Hitchens became open about his belief that capitalism is a dynamic force for economic growth and innovation and that socialism had failed to deliver on its promises of greater social and economic equality. Hitchens’ critique of socialism was influenced in part by his opposition to totalitarianism and authoritarianism, which, as noted earlier, he saw as inherent dangers of socialist systems. He believed that socialism, when taken to its extreme, had the potential to become as oppressive and repressive as right-wing dictatorships. Hitchens also argued that socialism was a utopian and unrealistic ideal; capitalism, while imperfect, was a more pragmatic and realistic and system, better able to deliver on the aspirations and needs of individuals.

Yet, despite his criticisms of socialism, Hitchens continued to see himself as a Marxist until late in life and remained committed to the ideals of equality and social justice. Although he argued in his 2007 God is Not Great that he had given up his religious-like faith in Marxism, in a June 2010 interview with The New York Times he stated, “I still think like a Marxist in many ways. I think the materialist conception of history is valid. I consider myself a very conservative Marxist.”

Hitchens saw Marxism as a way of understanding and critiquing the inequalities and injustices of capitalism, even as he came to see the limitations of socialist systems. He saw in historical materialism a powerful and comprehensive critique of capitalist society. He believed that Marxism provided a framework for understanding the underlying economic and social forces that shape our world, and that it offered a way of thinking about how society could be organized in a more just and equitable manner.

Hitchens was impressed by Marxism’s historical and analytical approach to understanding social and economic systems. He saw Marxism as a way of understanding the deep structures and inherent contradictions of capitalist society, and as a way of identifying the underlying causes of inequality and social unrest. Hitchens was particularly drawn to Marxism’s emphasis on social and economic justice. Marxism offered a vision of a society where resources and opportunities were more fairly distributed, and where the needs of the many were prioritized over the needs of the few.

Not that I needed Hitchens’ permission to confess the position he himself took at the end of his life; I am indebted to his demonstration of courage and commitment to self-criticism and self-development and find in the man a ready model for how to live one’s life. If I could only be half as talented a writer . . . .

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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