Desperately Seeking David

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Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, by David Horowitz, New York: The Free Press, 496 pages, $27.50

With the swift collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of ideological communism, it might seem that the time has passed for the genre of ex-revolutionary, "God that failed" literature that includes Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and Whittaker Chambers's Witness. Radical Son may prove to be the last of the genre, and it is a sign of how rapidly the Cold War era is passing from memory that this book may not be well-received–and not simply because David Horowitz's blunt, aggressive personality prompts the unsheathing of the critical long knives. The intellectual and personal atmosphere of the Cold War era and the New Left is in danger of ending up as remote and inaccessible to our imagination as the Children's Crusades of the Middle Ages, and is perhaps already becoming so. Because of this circumstance, Horowitz's book may undeservedly face an uphill climb with many readers.

Even ideologically sympathetic readers may find Radical Son an odd book, because it is intensely personal. To a greater extent than any other ex-revolutionary narrative, Horowitz's book includes confession, introspection, and embarrassing detail. I'm not sure I really needed to know that he wasn't breast-fed as an infant, or about his extramarital affairs, or about his painful life-long estrangement from his father. Yet taken as a whole, Radical Son is a compelling story, because it goes farther than many of the previous narratives in conveying how deeply radicalism cuts into one's character and psychology. The supposedly redemptive power of radical ideology, Horowitz makes clear, reaches into every corner of the soul, thus making a break from radicalism a desperate and personally devastating matter.

Horowitz was a classic "red diaper baby," raised by communist parents in the hothouse atmosphere of New York City in the 1940s. His parents, he tells us, thought of themselves as secret agents and were in fact close to the chain of communications that delivered Stalin's orders to assassinate Trotsky. Horowitz even attended Wo-Chi-Ca (short for "Workers Children's Camp"), a communist summer camp for kids. He undertook his first political project at age 10.

Ever since 1917, leftist intellectuals of each generation have had to face a moment of truth, their "Kronstadt" (after the ruthless crushing of the Soviet navy rebellion in 1921), forcing them to acknowledge the "shock of recognition" about the true nature of revolutionary socialism, or deny the truth and surrender their souls to justifying tyranny, or chase after some elusive "third way" that would supposedly square the contradictions of socialism. After Kronstadt, there were the Purge Trials in the 1930s, the Khrushchev report and the Hungarian revolt in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Solzhenitsyn's revelations about the Gulag in the 1970s, and martial law in Poland in 1982. For each generation, revolutionary socialism was revealed to be, in Bernard Henri-Levy's phrase, barbarism with a human face.

For Horowitz, his family, and their contemporaries in the radical neighborhoods of New York in the post World War II years, it was the Khrushchev report on the barbarism of Stalin that presented a challenge to their Marxist faith. Instead of inspiring doubts, the Khrushchev report ironically gave birth to the "New Left," which held "the conviction that the original passion could be born again, and that we could create a new socialist vision free of the taint that Stalin had placed on the movement our parents had served." This became Horowitz's mission, and he pursued it with genuine intellectual seriousness.

After he finished a degree in English literature at Columbia University ("a series of missed opportunities," he now says), his travels brought him into the orbit of Bertrand Russell and Isaac Deutscher in London, where his writing career germinated. He went on to Berkeley, where he entered the graduate program in English literature and began writing and editing for Ramparts magazine. He describes the atmosphere and attitude of the New Left at that time: "As members of a new radical generation, our political identity was virginal: We had the benefit of everybody's doubt. We could position ourselves as radical critics of American society without having to defend the crimes committed by the Soviet bloc."

But already Horowitz was troubled by the anti-intellectualism of the New Left. "To me, intellectual rigor did matter," he writes. "I had read through shelves of books in an effort to find out why previous revolutions had gone wrong. Now, the anti-intellectualism already present in the Movement had become a revolutionary badge of honor." The Weathermen and other militant New Leftists had never heard of the Khrushchev report. "Above all," he writes, "they had no sense of the abyss over which every revolutionary act was suspended."

But what finally pushed Horowitz beyond the brink of doubt was his close involvement with the Black Panthers in Oakland, which culminated in the Panther murder of their bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, whom Horowitz had recruited for the Panthers. "Our injustice," he writes, "was as brutal and final as Stalin's. As progressives we had no law to govern us, other than that of the gang….I began to ask myself whether there was something in Marxism, or in the socialist idea itself, that was the root of the problem….My second thoughts had led me through a dark night of the soul that involved the condemnation of my own life."

To give up the socialist idea was still unthinkable for Horowitz at this point, so he dropped out of political activity altogether. But for such a political being, this resulted in personal free-fall, including an affair, drinking, and divorce from his first wife, Elissa. In his desperation, he even gave psychic healing a tryout. He began to piece his life back together by teaming up with his former Ramparts partner Peter Collier for a series of best- selling biographies of famous American family dynasties, such as the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, and the Fords. By degrees Horowitz became more convinced of the value of democracy, individual liberty, and free markets, and perhaps can be said to have fully crossed over when he cast his presidential ballot for Ronald Reagan in 1984. After that, most readers will know, he and Peter Collier went on to launch the "Second Thoughts" movement, and more recently the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the tabloid monthly Heterodoxy.

If the depth of the personal desperation conveyed in this narrative seems alien to many readers, it is because, as suggested at the outset, the depth of the radical experience already seems anachronistic, even comical. Radical Son should be compared to, and differentiated from, the long series of similar books. One thing the ex-revolutionary literary genre has always had in common, the British critic John Strachey noted, is that "[t]he men who wrote these books regarded themselves as agonized, half-strangled outcries against an advancing, and almost certainly invincible tyranny." Richard Crossman, the editor of The God That Failed, noted that "[t]he true ex-Communist can never again be a whole personality." Arthur Koestler wrote, "Over-sensitivity to injustice and obsessional craving for Utopia are signs of neurotic maladjustment….Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion." The novelist Ignazio Silone, another of the contributors to The God That Failed, wrote that "[s]omething of [the communist experience] remains and leaves a mark on the character that lasts all one's life."

If Horowitz's abyss seems darker and deeper than those of others who came before him, it is perhaps because he made a complete break with revolutionary socialism and embraced its opposite. It is little recognized how few of the previous generation of notable ex-communists actually made a complete break with the socialist vision. Silone wrote in The God That Failed that "my faith in Socialism, to which I think I can say my entire life bears testimony, has remained more alive than ever in me….I do not conceive Socialist policy as tied to any particular theory, but to a faith….Socialist values are permanent." And Orwell boasted that "[e]very line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." But Horowitz, having been a serious reader of Marx, became a serious reader of Hayek and Von Mises, coming fully to embrace the truth of the free market. Socialism, Horowitz concludes, is an adult fairy tale.

Radical Son also provides the key to understanding the fierce countenance of Horowitz's current ventures, which even many of his ideological allies do not fully comprehend or approve: In the book's prologue, Horowitz allows that "[e]ven allies who applaud the present acts of my public self often reserve suspicions of the private man whose experience they do not share and whose intentions are of a nature they do not fully trust." In the course of his narrative Horowitz explains that one of the keys to the strength of the left is its sense of moral superiority. Neither the collapse of the Soviet empire nor the eclipse of socialist ideology has really diminished the fervency of the left. While the vaunted "revolution" is nowhere in prospect, radical ideology continues to be slowly assimilated into American culture and institutions–a slow-motion revolution. The best way to puncture the moral pretensions of the left (and thereby challenge its legitimacy), Horowitz decided, was "to speak in the voice of the New Left–outraged, aggressive, morally certain. I would frame indictments as we had framed them, but from the other side….I wanted my former comrades to be put on the receiving end of accusations like those they had made against everyone else. I wanted them to see how it felt. Evidently, it did not feel good." This explains the deliberately chosen tone of Heterodoxy.

Just like Whittaker Chambers, Horowitz is less a conservative than he is a "man of the right" (as Chambers described himself)–i.e., against the left. In one sense, Horowitz has not changed that much since the 1960s; he is still at war with the dominant culture. So in the end he is in harmony with his essential political being. "Becoming a conservative," Horowitz concludes, "turned out, ultimately, to be a way of coming home."

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward (hayward487@aol.com) is vice president for research at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a San Francisco-based think tank.