In the New Statesman:
There's a good deal of nostalgia in your new book, The Task of the Critic, for the “socialist culture” of the Seventies.
What's wrong with a bit of nostalgia between friends? I think nostalgia sometimes gets too much of a bad press. One of Walter Benjamin's extraordinary achievements, for example, was to make a kind of revolutionary virtue out of a certain concept of looking back, or nostalgia. As a tutor at Oxford during that period, I could see all kinds of energies that simply had no outlet – all kinds of radical impulses that were rather inchoate, but certainly present. So I think nostalgia is justified to some extent.
There was at least one outlet for those energies, though: the Marxism seminar you ran at Wadham College, which you describe as a “hostel for battered leftists”. The left took even more of a battering in the intervening 30-odd years, didn't it?
I think the Gramsci formula about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will gets at something. But I was struck, when I spoke recently at King's College London, by the extraordinarily diverse number of militant projects and campaigns that were being either conducted or planned. It was like being back in the Seventies, or the late Sixties.
One of the leftist Oxford students from the earlier period whom you mention by name in the book is Christopher Hitchens. What do you make of his political trajectory?
I just turned down the offer of a public debate with him in the States. I've said what I want to say, and we wouldn't have got anywhere – it would only have been a sort of bloodsport.
Even then, Christopher was mesmerised by the idea of America. He always wanted a bigger scene.
What was definitive for him, politically, was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989. I think that was the turning point. The deep Islamophobic impulse he has stems from that. But he's still an idiosyncratic mixture of various political attitudes that don't always go together.
And I wouldn't for a moment underestimate his formidable eloquence and intellectual resources. I think he is a superb writer. But I think that the radical was always at war with the public school boy who wanted to succeed.