It’s Been a Lot of Fun

David Runciman reviews Hitchens' Hitch-22 in the LRB and says something very insightful:

Peter and Christopher were brought together on a platform in 2008 to debate the latter’s book against God (God Is Not Great), and discovered that neither of them had the stomach for the vituperation and mutual hostility their audience had been anticipating. A few days earlier, Christopher had cooked Peter supper in Washington, ‘a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it … If he is going to take up roasting legs of lamb at this stage of his life, then what else might be possible?’ Christopher, it seems, no longer makes Peter angry. He just makes him a little sad. What he is sad about is Christopher’s inability to see that his militant atheism is just an extension of his earlier Trotskyism. Christopher, Peter thinks, is still hankering for a world in which evil is vanquished and all the mistakes of the past can be eradicated. What he can’t see is that this wishful thinking is precisely the kind of self-delusion that he takes to be characteristic of religion. That’s because it is a kind of religion. In his yearning for certainty, Christopher is merely replicating the intolerance and taste for indoctrination that he professes to despise among the priesthood.

This idea that the new wave of furious proselytising for atheism (which includes not just Hitchens but people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) is just another surrogate religion is a familiar one. It’s what the God-botherers always say about the God-bashers. But in the case of Christopher Hitchens it’s not entirely convincing. The blustering, obscene, insatiable, limitlessly restless author of Hitch-22 doesn’t come across as much of a priest manqué, not even a whisky priest. What he most resembles, to an almost uncanny degree, is a particular kind of political romantic, as described by Carl Schmitt in his 1919 book Political Romanticism. Schmitt was ostensibly writing about German romanticism at the turn of the 19th century (the intellectual movement that flourished between Rousseau and Hegel) but his real targets were the revolutionary romantics of his own time, including two of Hitchens’s Trotskyite heroes, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things. As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae. ‘Reversing one’s position between several realities and playing them off against one another belongs to the nature of the romantic situation,’ Schmitt writes. Political romantics are ostensibly self-sufficient yet also have a desperate need for human comradeship. ‘In every romantic we can find examples of anarchistic self-confidence as well as an excessive need for sociability. He is just as easily moved by altruistic feelings, by pity and sympathy, as by presumptuous snobbery.’ Romantics loathe abuses of power, but invariably end up worshipping power itself, sometimes indiscriminately: ‘The caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem. Here everything can be substituted for everything else.’ Above all, in place of God they substitute themselves. ‘As long as the romantic believed he was himself the transcendental ego, he did not have to be troubled by the question of the true cause: he was himself the creator of the world in which he lived.’