Nowadays, Christopher Hitchens is usually known either for his antitheist views or his staunch support for the war in Iraq; it’s often forgotten that The Hitch has been a journalist for a long time, is fiercely intelligent, and his total output spans a variety of topics, not just his most recent polemical choices. I read some of his collected essays, Love, Poverty, and War, which was fabulous (and only switched to Iraq-related topics late in the book).
Blood, Class and Empire1 was published originally in 1990, though it reads as though written in 1988, at the beginning of George H.W. Bush’s term in office. Though the book in its republished form sports a preface by Hitchens that ties the book into the recent events, it’s important to remember that the book has no knowledge of anything that’s happened in the last 20 years, which somehow strange and unsettling when reading about geopolitics.
The thrust of Hitchens work2 is that there is a “special relationship” (Churchill’s phrase, itself quoted when used) between the United States and Britain that has existed since America’s founding. Like the sometimes strained interaction of blood relations, it is not always pleasant, or fruitful, but it informs and qualifies most of the geopolitical actions of both countries. Hitchens is something of a British expatriate, having only become an American citizen in 2007; nevertheless, he’s sat astride the Atlantic, with one foot in either country, since the early 1980s, and written profoundly about both.
I’m not going to lie: Blood, Class and Empire is a little dense. In fact, it’s a 400-page politics soup, name after name after name in a manner which can become numbing after a while. Some parts were straightforward: the three or so chapters covering Churchill’s era—a fleshing-out of Hitchen’s opening observation about the enduring love of Americans for the stalwart British politician—are fabulous and insightful. At other points, well, let’s just say that my brain can only hold so many mid-level politicians in three or four different countries before I start to get confused. As a writer, Hitchens circa 1990 was much different that I know him today: whether intentionally or as a by-product of his intellect, Blood, Class and Empire is grammatically complex, using a denser syntax than he adopts as an essayist in the 21st century. Perhaps concision is a skill he learned later.
For all these minor criticisms, however, Hitchens has written a wonderful book of an immense scope and a real value. Even though a connection between American and England is ever-present in our cultural consciousness, we don’t often pause to consider its cause or true nature. We may be a former colony of the British Empire, but that in and of itself is no reason for the “special relationship.” The answer, as Hitchens shows, is a combination of a shared [core of] language, a shared/intertwined history, most important, mutual political, military, and economic interests in the 20th century (usually aided by the former items). His study begins more or less at the fin de siècle, at the time of Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and a world full of ostensible white man’s burdens. This early history is underscored by a shared race—a cult of Anglo-Saxonism, as it were—and all the unpleasant extensions of this. As this age ceded to Great War, however, the two countries formed the relationship they more or less retain today, strained though it may be. Hitchens splits his chapters into chunks of time, divulging their actors and motivations, with extensive use of quotes. The exception to this is the last few chapters, which are topical rather than chronological; he devotes a chapter to each country’s respective intelligence services, for instance, using Ian Fleming’s life and novels as illustrations of the caricatured phenomena.
Though daunting, Blood, Class and Empire represents an immense intellectual output, and likely criminally underappreciated—not least in the face of Hitchens’ (a) more readable and (b) more controversial and therefore (c) more popular works. For Hitchens fans, this book is a must; for politics or history buffs, this is a must. Even for the casual reader, this represents a clear and insightful look into Anglo-American relations for the last century, and shouldn’t go unread.
- What does it say that the existence of the Oxford comma in Love, Poverty, and War but not in Blood, Class and Empire bothers me?[↩]
- and he isn’t known for many long works like this, being primarily an essayist and frequent writer of short (< 150 pages) books; his only other “full” book that I can think of is God is Not Great[↩]