Doing Battle with Shadows
Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the '60s, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, New York: Summit Books, 337 pages, $19.95
Such an odd book. Part narrative, part analysis, and part autobiography, the parts are more satisfying than the whole.
Destructive Generation is divided into three sections of three, four, and three essays, respectively. The most satisfying are the essays in the first section, "The Dancers and the Dance," where authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz do what they do best: write narrative biographies. They tell the stories of Fay Stender, the radical lawyer for Soledad Brother George Jackson, of Bernadine Dohrn and the Weather Underground, and finally of two friends and Vietnam veterans, one who became a policeman, the other a narcotics dealer.
Collier and Horowitz are content to let the stories unfold without the polemics and cheap shots that characterize too many of the later essays. The story of Fay Stender is the most devastating, as we are led through a life in which she begins as a child-prodigy concert pianist and ends with suicide after she is shot and paralyzed by a black ex-convict who believed she had betrayed George Jackson. In their narrative about the Weather Underground, the authors create a portrait of surreal madness by simply reporting what members of the Weather Underground were thinking, saying, and doing. If one needs evidence of a strain of madness in the '60s, this essay should be sufficient.
By contrast, the discursive essays in Destructive Generation are not compelling reading. In these two sections, "Second Thoughts" and "Self-Portraits," we come to what presumably is the heart of the book—namely, how Collier and Horowitz, former editors of Ramparts and members in good standing of the New Left, became Reagan supporters and political conservatives.
Much of the review attention given the book has treated its authors as traitors only a little lower than Benedict Arnold. This merely underscores the case that Collier and Horowitz themselves want to make—that in the name of socialist revolution, the left is willing and eager to sacrifice democracy. Both authors have had second thoughts about the '60s and their involvement in the radical movement. That many of their former comrades-in-arms (comrades-in-pamphlets sounds less romantic) react as if it is impermissible to reexamine one's experience is sad, to say the least.
This intolerance suggests that what Collier and Horowitz say about the '60s and the New Left must be close to the truth. For the most part it is.
They describe the left's utopianism as "a secular religion" and write that protecting "the faith is the highest calling of the radical creed." In his autobiographical essay, Horowitz describes the secular religiosity of the left: "Totalitarianism is the possession of reality by a political idea—the Idea of the socialist kingdom of heaven on earth, the redemption of humanity by political force. To radical believers, this Idea is so beautiful it is like God himself. It provides the meaning of a radical life. It is the solution that makes everything possible: it is the end that justifies the regrettable means. Belief in the kingdom of socialist heaven is the faith that transforms vice into virtue, lies into truth, evil into good."
This is, of course, not a new insight. Eric Hoffer expressed it succinctly in The True Believer, and Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba gives the historical background and sociological analysis that enables one to see left-wing utopianism very clearly.
Unfortunately, Destructive Generation is marred by a pervasive personal animus. Describing the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the authors write: "Despite his profession as a man of the cloth, Coffin's true faith had for some time been left-wing causes." That is character assassination and it is unnecessary.
Peter Collier, in his autobiographical essay, says that the New Left had "an allergic reaction to ideas" that has made its followers incapable of looking back and having second thoughts. This attitude is characteristic of the book. Collier and Horowitz seem intent on being on the side of virtue, and virtue lies in having second thoughts about one's '60s experience. Collier writes that "none of the Movement heavies has written credibly, let alone eloquently, about such issues as belief and betrayal…none of them ever had a political dark night of the soul that would nonetheless cast light on the common experience." Even for those like this reviewer who think that Collier and Horowitz are, for the most part, correct in their analysis, their sanctimonious tone makes listening to them difficult.
The turning point for Collier and Horowitz was the murder of Ramparts magazine's bookkeeper by the Black Panther Party in 1974. They were stunned, although they admit that they were never at ease with the party. But why had it taken them so long to see that the Panthers were and always had been a group of thugs?
I do not pose the question to condemn or criticize their lack of foresight but to suggest that seeking an answer to it would have enriched their hindsight. Perhaps they would have uncovered the reasons a significant portion of a generation could not see the reality of the Panthers, the Weather Underground, Cuba, North Vietnam, and so on. In other words, what was it in American culture that made the '60s possible?
Collier comes close to raising the crucial questions when he writes that "My generation had been given a more comfortable fate than my father's, but we hated our lives, despite all the talk of 'love.' We had projected that hatred onto everything around us." Collier does not ask why. Horowitz asserts that he has "gained respect for the ordinary experience of others and of myself." The question is why he and a generation of youth did not already have that respect for the ordinary others.
Unfortunately, Collier and Horowitz are intent on settling scores (especially with former leaders of Students for a Democratic Society Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin) and on being superior to those still stuck with their first thoughts. Horowitz (and I would assume Collier, also) now considers himself a conservative. He maintains that he has "not exchanged one ideology for another; I have freed myself from the chains of an Idea."
Destructive Generation does not confirm that this is so. Rather, Collier and Horowitz seem gripped by new ideas—anticommunism and patriotism. There is nothing wrong with either, but it is difficult to distinguish the zeal the authors bring to these ideas from the zeal they brought to the New Left.
"The sixties Left colluded with totalitarian movements," they write. "But it was clear and candid, and often painfully so, about what it was doing. The Left that succeeded it not only colludes with totalitarianism but tries to deceive people about what it is doing. The deviousness of this Left, along with the weakened position of the United States in the post-Vietnam era, makes patriotic commitment important in a way that it may not have been when America's power was more secure. It is now necessary, as it may not have been in the past, to be vigilant not only about enemies without but also, however unfashionable the phrase may have become, about America's enemies within as well (italics added).
Whenever anyone starts talking about "enemies within," I get very nervous. No, I get scared, because only those who are convinced that they are in possession of the truth are bold enough and confident enough to call someone else an "enemy," especially when that someone else is a fellow citizen.
The risk and the test of a democratic society is its ability to counter the very one who would destroy that society. Such a threat can come from the anticommunist as well as from the communist. We can only hope that the passage of time will temper the authors' zeal, and they will understand that is possible to reexamine and repudiate one's past without turning it into a kingdom of evil. Neither is it necessary to see the future as a battle between the forces of darkness and light.
Yes, the '60s were a destructive generation and we are still coming to terms with the consequences. But Collier and Horowitz place all the blame on the adolescents who composed that generation. However, that generation was the product of American society, and American society colluded with its youth to make that generation destructive. Why?
The biggest disappointment is that Collier and Horowitz write as if the '60s did not occur within a specific historical and cultural context. The result is a book with parts that shine, but a whole that, does not reflect light, because the authors are too busy doing battle with shadows.
Julius Lester teaches in the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was a keynote speaker at the Second Thoughts Conference in 1987.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Doing Battle with Shadows".