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In a novel called Left of Centre which is now, to the relief of its publisher and author alike, safely out of print, Paul Johnson wrote what is generally agreed to be the most embarrassing spanking scene ever penned.

The eclipse of that otherwise unreadable novel did nothing to dim the memory of the cringe-making episode which was continually recalled to mind by Johnson's public and social behaviour. This often involved drunken and boorish conduct towards women, including his wife. On a famous occasion in a Greek restaurant in 1973 he struck her across the face for disagreeing with him in public and, when rebuked for this by a colleague of mine, threatened to put him through a plate-glass window. At a lunch given for the Israeli ambassador to Britain in the boardroom of the old New Statesman I watched Johnson bully and barrack Corinna Adam, then the foreign editor, as she attempted to engage Gideon Raphael in conversation. "Don't listen to her. She's a communist!" he kept bellowing, his face twisted and puce with drink. "Fascist bitch!" he finally managed, before retiring to a sofa on the other side of the room and farting his way through a fitful doze for the rest of the meal. The combination of his choleric, lobsterlike complexion and his angry mane of ginger hair used to excite comment. "He looks," said Jonathan Miller after witnessing one of his many exhibitions of dementia, "he looks - like an explosion in a pubic hair factory."

Christopher Hitchens reviewing Paul Johnson's `The Intellectuals' in `Critical Quarterly' (1989)

POLEMICS are rarely sighted these days. In the late 1980s Chatto and Windus published a series called Counterblasts which aimed to revive the lost art of political pamphleteering. Looking at counterblast number three - John Lloyd's A Rational Advance for the Labour Party - I find a crease at the bottom of page four. I never got to the next page and I never will. Lloyd's polemic didn't work. Why?

The reason A Rational Advance didn't work is because it was worthy, decent, essentially tame. Though its title echoes one of the most famous pamphlets ever published - Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal - it has nothing of the cool insinuating irony of that master of angry compassion. Nor has it any of the ferocity of that other great Irish polemicist, Edmund Burke.

Here is Burke in 1796 attacking a fabulously wealthy English aristocrat who had benefited from enormous land grants made to his ancestors by Henry VIII and who supported the democratic principles of the French Revolution: "The Duke of Bedford is the Leviathan among all the creatures of the Crown. He tumbles about his unwieldy bulk; he plays and frolicks in the ocean of the Royal bounty. Huge as he is, and whilst "he lies floating many a rood" he is still a creature. His ribs, his fins, his whalebone, his blubber, the very spiracles through which he spouts a torrent of brine against his origin, and covers me all over with the spray - everything of him and about him is from the Throne. Is it for him to question the dispensation of the Royal favour?"

These sentences from Letter to a Noble Lord form one of the most famous passages in all polemical writing in English. The ducal leviathan takes us right to the heart of this kind of critical writing - to its visceral, primitivist urgency. Its imaginative over-the-top extremity, its almost cherishing playfulness. Burke has found a magnificent symbol for the noble duke and he refuses to let it go. He even throws in a quotation from Paradise Lost about the whale-like Satan floating many a rood to develop the theme of magnitude and - in his supremely unfair terms - evil.

The link between Hitchens' onslaught on Johnson and Burke's famous attack on the Duke of Bedford is important because the polemicist is always an isolated and irascible figure motivated by what Yeats terms "passionate intensity" - a writer who goes into battle by invoking the tiny band of fellow polemicists who practised this difficult art. George Orwell was one of them, and he's an inspiration for Hitchens. Like Swift, Orwell observes the sheer awfulness of power, its lies, its tacky language, and he writes angrily - he wants to destroy something. So does Hitchens.

Here, we have the belief that the critical writing matters and can alter by its intensity the poise of forces and shift the huge weight of the status quo. If this sounds deadly serious it both is and isn't, because there is always a line from polemic to social comedy, to the group of wits who sit in the coffee house and smile over the latest pamphlet. So Hitchens moves from his angry opening to a scene where the apoplectic Johnson complains of the seating arrangements at some dinner and exits, shouting: "I won't have it. I'm going to my club." His customary difficulty in fighting his way across a room was compounded on this occasion, Hitchens says, by his wife who tried to persuade him to stay and then pointed out sweetly, "Paul dear, you don't belong to a club."

If this all seems a bit personal, it's because the book under review - Johnson's The Intellectuals - seeks to discredit the ideas of important figures like Marx and Rousseau by examining their private lives. Johnson is therefore fair game, and with uproarious delight we learn that he once kicked the family dog, Parker, at a cricket match (nice touch, the cricket match).

The whole point about polemic is that it throws fairness, decency, balance, objectivity, the rules of cricket, to the winds - there must be something wild about it. It's the intellectual equivalent of boxing. But there's something deeper. Polemic is the articulation of conscience - it's about bearing witness to injustice and folly. At its heart, there is a tragic cry which receives no answer. Hitchens talks tough, but behind his celebrated writing you sense a terrible tragic disgust. It's the cry of Lear on the heath attacking all "servile ministers".

Beyond the sport of admiring Hitchens's contempt for Paul Johnson, Bernard Ingham, George Bush and Bill Clinton, we catch the scent of something anguished and desperate that is altogether other than his sometimes raspy adjectives and studied put-downs. It is the voice of true pity, something inseparable from anger. Yes, the polemical critic knows when to lose their temper. And how.

Next: Prophecy