A little while ago I read something which suggested that there was a tactical element to Christopher Hitchens’ support of the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. Hitchens has made it abundantly plain that he loathed Saddam Hussein as a vicious dictator, and broke with the Left over their refusal to support Hussein’s overthrow. However, I’ve also seen it suggested that Hitchens has a rather more cynical, tactical reason for supporting the war. Hitchens is now known for his vehement hatred of religion, expressed in his book God is not Great. It’s been alleged that he supported the War on Terror from a belief that military action against militant, intolerant Islam would also lead to a wider groundswell of public opinion against religion in general, and so would usher in the age of atheist rationalism to which Hitchens is committed. There are quotes from Hitchens circulating to this effect.
Now I have to say that I don’t know whether this is actually true, but if it is, then it shows that Hitchens’ past as a member of the far Left is still influencing his thinking. Marx stated that ‘war is the forcing house of democracy’, and historically it has been the case that the experience of war has forged societal bonds that have led to a rise in radical politics. For example, in the aftermath of the two World Wars in the 20th Century various left-wing parties took power for the first time as they seemed to offer a genuine alternative to the more right-wing parties who had traditionally held power. Furthermore, the bonds of comradeship forged across class boundaries in Europe during the two Wars did much to undermine the European class system. Part of the reason the Fascist organisations after World War I adopted such a stridently military character was because the bonds of comradeship forged between the demobilised servicemen, who formed the backbone of European Fascism, had produced a populist spirit and powerful feeling of unity. These Fascist organisations sought to preserve social hierarchies – what Mussolini called ‘the eternal, beneficial and fruitful inequality of classes’ – while imbuing them with a quasi-democratic character their members found liberating.
On the Left, Marxist and other radical groups also had high expectations of the radicalising effects of the War. Instead of the democratic spirit created by communities under fire bolstering European hierarchical politics, some Marxists instead considered that the First World War would further alienate the European working classes. Rather than back their class oppressors, they would unite to overthrow them, taking the first step towards the global, classless Communism Marx had envisaged. In the wake of the First World War, central and eastern Europe did indeed suffer Marxist revolutions – in Russia, Germany, Hungary and also in Italy. The result was a wave of political unrest and counter-revolutionary violence, culminating in the rise of Fascist and Right-wing anti-democratic regimes in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere as these organisations gained popularity by promising to protect their nations from the threat of Communism. In this instance, the Marxist hopes of the radicalising effects of the First World War upon the working class was profoundly misguided. Rather than leading to support for Communism, it led to an extreme conservatism instead as the ordinary people of these nations looked for protection and safety from the economic and political chaos that erupted in the wake of the War.
If Hitchens does believe that the War on Terror will lead to a general discrediting of religion and a rise in atheism, then it appears that he has taken up the attitude of the early 20th century Marxists towards the radicalising effects of global war. In Hitchens’ case, these hopes have been scaled down. He doesn’t expect the workers to unite against capitalism, only against religion. This seems part of a general trend amongst some radical intellectuals after the Fall of Communism. With the Marxist system a catastrophic failure and capitalism resurgent across the world, some seem to have scaled their attack down to religion, which is held to be a globally enslaving force.
Now it’s fair to say that many individuals who would otherwise have remained indifferent to religion, rather than actively hostile to it, have become radically opposed to it because of the Jihadist attacks of 9/11 and view Bush’s invasion of Iraq as motivated primarily by religion, rather than a genuine commitment to spread democracy or the product of secular geo-politics and economics. Despite the fact that religions and their adherents can differ profoundly in their attitudes towards violence – the Quakers, for example, like the Amish have always rejected war and violence – New Atheists like Dawkins have attempted to play on the common prejudice amongst non-religious individuals that they are all the same, and that simply by being religious means that a woolly, liberal Episcopalian can become a militant mujahiddin baying for the blood of the unbeliever.
Apart from the gross misrepresentation of religion as a whole, the tactic is based on a very dubious interpretation of history. The Marxists believed that the European working class would unite in an international class war against their oppressors, because their materialist conception of history told them that this was inevitable. In Marxism, people are free to make their own history, but it’s profoundly constrained by material economics. These economic forces define society, and the tensions between them give rise to historical progress. There are historical laws which demand that society, at least in Europe, go from feudalism, through capitalism, socialism before finally arriving at classless, stateless, religionless global communism. Fascism was held to be the highest stage of capitalism by some Marxist ideologues in the 1930s. In one East German museum dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Third Reich, Hitler himself was absent. This was due to the Marxist belief that if Hitler had not existed – if he had been killed by a bullet during the Beer Hall Putsch – someone else would have taken his place, and the horror of the Third Reich would still have come about.
The problem with this is that, as history has shown, this hasn’t actually been the case, and the whole historicist view of societal development is open to severe doubt. The British Idealist philosopher, R.G. Collingwood, for example, argued strongly that there were no historical laws, and that men and women really did make their own destinies. He viewed history as a science of the human mind and behaviour, but, in contrast to psychology, a non-reductive science as human history is unpredictable.
This is in stark contrast to the quasi-Behaviourist denial of human consciousness and freedom now in vogue amongst Brights like Daniel C. Dennett. For the Behaviourists, the soul did not exist, and people could be conditioned and controlled like Pavlov’s dogs. Yet for some philosophers and political scientists, this view of humans as merely reactive machines is profoundly inadequate as an account of humanity, and dooms any military or political action based on it to failure.
In his interview with the great contemporary Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig in his book, The Case for a Creator, Lee Strobel quotes Craig as stating that part of the reason America lost the Vietnam War was because American military thinking was strongly permeated by Behaviourism. Humans had no innate free will of their own, according to Behaviourism, and so could be conditioned by suitable stimuli. In the case of the Vietnam War, the suitable stimuli were the bombing missions and other combat operations with which the American military hoped to break the Viet Cong both militarily and deny them support from the wider civilian Vietnamese population. However, as William Lane Craig says, people do have free will, and can’t be so conditioned. Instead of breaking the spirit of the Vietnamese opposition, it encouraged them to fight all the more against America. In so doing they actually provided disproof of a purely materialist conception of humans as programmable biological machines.
Which is ironic for Communist system.
The same possibility is there with Hitchens’ hope that the War on Terror will lead to people being further alienated from religion. Not only are people of different faiths acting against that misconception, whatever their views about the War on Terror or the Invasion of Iraq, but paradoxically history itself provides strong evidence that there are no laws governing it. Hitler’s rise to power wasn’t inevitable. When he was imprisoned in the Landsberg for a year, writing Mein Kampf, the Nazi party fell apart. Yes, there are wider, societal forces which can radically constrain how people act and the direction in which that society can develop, but individuals are able to change their destiny. And if this is the case, not only will Hitchens hopes for a rise in atheism fail to materialise, but the entire materialist, determinist conception of human psychology and history on which it is based collapse as well.
Hitchens’ view of the War on Terror becoming a War on Religion is a form of Marxist-style reductionist historicism. It would be no bad thing indeed if this form of reductionism were to fall.