Commentary Magazine: Review of Radical Son by David Horowitz
Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
by David Horowitz
Free Press. 468 pp. $27.50
In the mid-1980’s, at a rally in support of Nicaragua’s Communist government, David Horowitz was for some reason invited to speak. Whatever the organizers may have had in mind, Horowitz did not tell the crowd what it wanted to hear. For Horowitz, a prominent radical in the 1960’s, had recently broken with the Left. Instead of denouncing the United States and singing the praises of the Sandinistas, he proceeded to warn those in attendance at the Berkeley, California, gathering that if they were “to pause for a moment and then plunge their busy political minds into the human legacies of their activist pasts, they would instantly drown in an ocean of blood.”
Many Intellectuals have made the voyage from Left to Right in recent decades. But few have come from as deep inside the hard Left as Horowitz, and none has retained more of the 60’s style. Horowitz, in fact, prides himself on his determination to continue speaking “in the voice of the New Left—outraged, aggressive, morally certain.” This quality is conspicuously on display inHeterodoxy, the broadsheet which Horowitz edits and which presents the conservative case in the most willfully incendiary way—its cover photos have sported Karl Marx in drag, Charlie Chaplin in Nazi garb, and, for a Clinton reelection issue, a bullet-riddled American flag. Horowitz also runs an institution in Los Angeles called the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which monitors political correctness and serves as a watchdog against extremism on the Left.
It is hard to think of anyone who has turned on his own past with more fury than David Horowitz. Radical Son, his memoir, charts a trek from one political commitment to something approaching its opposite, and the events that propelled him on his way.
Unlike some 60’s radicals, Horowitz did not acquire his politics—at least his first set of politics—in an act of rebellion. His parents, first-generation Americans, appear in these pages as thoroughly decent, even admirable people, each of whom had a minor, and a major, character flaw. In his mother, the minor one was diffidence; in his father, self-pity. In both, the major one was unswerving loyalty to Joseph Stalin and the USSR.
As loyal members of the American Communist party, Horowitz’s parents followed the Soviet line in whatever direction it zigged or zagged. When, in the 1930’s, Stalin feared Hitler’s designs, the Horowitzes favored rapid American rearmament. On August 23, 1939, when Hitler and Stalin concluded their nonaggression pact, Horowitz’s parents became instant pacifists—only to abandon this position no less suddenly on June 22, 1941, when the Nazis attacked the USSR. Nothing could shake their faith: not Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, not the invasion of Hungary in 1956, not the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and not the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelagoin 1974.
David Horowitz’s own trajectory took him to Columbia College, graduate school at Berkeley, and then a spell in London where he hobnobbed with such fixtures of the European intellectual Left as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher—and a lunch companion named “Lev,” who was an agent of the KGB. On his return to the U.S. in the mid-1960’s, Horowitz became an editor of Ramparts, the leading radical magazine of the time; as a budding New Left theoretician, he also wrote a number of much-talked-about books, including The Free World Colossus (1965), an indictment of American conduct for its crimes in the cold war.
Horowitz also became closely involved with the Black Panthers. Although the Panthers, under the leadership of Huey Newton, were already something of a glorified street gang, Horowitz was flattered, he writes here, to be of service to a real “revolutionary vanguard,” and chose not to notice the handwriting on the wall. He helped the Panthers establish a “Learning Center” in Oakland, which, in fact, served as a front for criminal activity, as a military training facility, and as a way to tap into millions of dollars in California state and local education funds. Horowitz’s success in this endeavor made him a trusted confidant of the Panther elite.
Horowitz dates the onset of his disillusionment to the time when he used his clout to get a job at the Learning Center for an acquaintance, a white accountant named Betty Van Patter who had worked with him at Ramparts. Weeks into the job, she disappeared; a transparent lack of curiosity among the Panther leaders made it clear they knew where she was. In fact, she had been murdered; her body soon washed ashore in the San Francisco Bay.
Around the same time, Fay Stender, Huey Newton’s former attorney, had become the target of a Panther vendetta for her refusal to smuggle a revolver into prison to help the gunman George Jackson escape. One day, a hit man arrived at her door, forced her to sign a “confession,” shot her five times, and left her for dead. A year later, paralyzed and hiding from reprisal in Hong Kong, Stender took her own life.
If Horowitz’s conscience began to gnaw at him, his colleagues took a different view; for them, curiosity about Van Patter’s or Stender’s fate was tantamount to disloyalty to the cause. Horowitz recounts how, at Stender’s funeral,
speaker after speaker went up to the platform to remember Fay—lawyers who worked with her, comrades who had served with her, friends who loved her. They were political activists who would normally have made a political symbolism out of the most trivial occurrence. Yet . . . they had nothing to say about the sequence of events that had ended her life.
It was this silence that shattered Horowitz’s world. “If we [progressives] actually succeeded in making a revolution in America,” he recalls thinking, “and if the Panthers or similar radical vanguards prevailed, how would our fate be different” from that of the victims of Stalin’s purges? “Our injustice, albeit mercifully smaller in scale, was as brutal and final as Stalin’s. As progressives we had no law to govern us, other than that of the gang.”
Horowitz broke with his associates, and began his journey to the Right. By the 1980’s, he was a fervent supporter of Ronald Reagan, and, with his colleague Peter Collier who had traced a similar path, was writing books like Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the 60‘s.
How, ultimately, is David Horowitz’s transformation to be explained? After all, many 1960’s radicals dwelled in the same tawdry cesspool, witnessed the same murders or lesser acts of crime and duplicity, yet continued to cling fervently to the cause.
One explanation may be generational. Horowitz was approaching the seasoned age of thirty when he entered California radicalism in the late 1960’s, and was thus slightly older than his fellows. Having married in 1959, he was also burdened with heavier responsibilities. His deviation, then, may be seen as that of a man who had come to place some value on middle-class existence.
A second possibility, one that runs somewhat counter to the first, is that the very depth and intensity of Horowitz’s radicalism led inevitably to a spasm of self-correction. The writer Paul Berman once remarked with some asperity that “Horowitz is in the American vein. He doesn’t correct; he converts.” Horowitz quotes this remark in Radical Son only to mock it, but there may be more to it than he is willing to admit; one piece of evidence, of course, is his own fiercely polemical style.
A third interpretation might also be adduced. As the gripping pages of Radical Son make clear, Horowitz possesses a fearless capacity for self-examination—hardly a noted virtue of the radical Left. In the end, it is this capacity which may have rescued him from an association with murderers. It certainly enabled him to reinvent himself, and to forge a new career as the kind of person his parents had no doubt warned him against.
The Left He Left Behind
Review of Radical Son
By Richard Gid Powers
Originally published in The New York Times
February 16, 1997
A former editor of Ramparts reflects on a life after radicalism
David Horowitz’s warmly human and abrasive memoir, ”Radical Son,” carries on its jacket the phrase ”A Generational Odyssey.” As with the rest of this fine autobiography, the choice of phrase is artful. Born in New York City in 1939, the child of Communist parents, Mr. Horowitz moved to England after attending Columbia and Berkeley, drawn by the quality of Marxist intellectual life. There, he completed ”The Free World Colossus,” which he calls here ”the first account of the cold war written from a New Left perspective,” a book whose toxic impact on attitudes toward anti-Communism and containment Mr. Horowitz now regards as pernicious. After the book came out he was approached by a Russian agent to spy for the Soviet Union. Back in Berkeley in 1968, he joined the New Left’s leading magazine, Ramparts, and later produced (with Peter Collier, also of Ramparts) best-selling biographies of the Rockefeller, Kennedy and Ford families. He is now a so-called ”second thoughts” conservative, a militant foe of 60’s radicalism in its academic, entertainment and news-media strongholds.
Mr. Horowitz’s odyssey guides readers through the arcane and sometimes wacky customs, myths and taboos of the radical archipelago. We hear the siren songs that enchanted the author on his twisting and unforeseen path to reconciliation with patriotic and ”bourgeois” values. Along the way we meet, among many others, Isaac Deutscher, Bertrand Russell, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Tom Hayden, Eldridge Cleaver and Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Horowitz’s self-exploration is sensitive and involving, but his portrait of the 60’s and its legacy is certain to make this book controversial. It is Mr. Horowitz’s position that the received version of the decade as one dominated by idealistic protests against an immoral war and an unjust society — a version that has been absorbed by now into orthodox history and popular recollection — is a lie, a hoax sustained by a conspiracy of silence by the insiders who know the truth: in other words, a cover-up.
Mr. Horowitz describes his New Left cronies as a noxious tribe of yahoos who pelted one another with filth from the Stalinist sewers, all the while taking pleasure in memories of Tom Sawyer’s gang playing pirates, but in this case lets started flying around and real bodies started bobbing up in San Francisco Bay.
The dramatic climax of Mr. Horowitz’s story is the human tragedy that made him question and then reject his identity as a Marxist radical. When he joined Ramparts, the magazine was promoting the Black Panther Party ”as the new vanguard of the black struggle.” Mr. Horowitz himself was in thrall to the idea that ”blacks would replace the proletariat … as the Chosen People who were going to lead the rest of us to the Promised Land,” and he was working almost full time to help finance a free school run by the Panthers. One of his friends, another radical working for the school, disappeared, and Mr. Horowitz’s investigations led him to the chilling suspicion, later amply confirmed, that she had been executed on orders from the Black Panthers. The Panther party, he concluded, was little more than a front for racketeering, extortion and drug running.
After that, Mr. Horowitz began to believe that terroristic and totalitarian means were inseparable from socialism’s dream of a world freed from exploitation of man by man. ”Socialists believed that private property divided human beings, making some rich and some poor, some oppressors and others oppressed,” he writes. ”Private property was the root cause of social conflict. … But the abolition of property was really the abolition of private association and civil society, and of the bourgeois rights they underpinned. Socialist unity could only be achieved as a totalitarian solution.” That was the end of Mr. Horowitz’s radicalism, even though leaving the socialist dream ”was the same as leaving my own life.”
Too talented and intelligent to be cast down permanently by the collapse of his former certainties, Mr. Horowitz invented out of his own traumas a new way of writing family biography. The result was the pathbreaking account of the Rockefeller family, where he and Mr. Collier shrewdly pointed out that the Rockefellers shared with the left a sense of themselves ”as social missionaries whose task was to uplift humanity. Theirs was a kind of inverted radicalism.”
With ”Radical Son,” Mr. Horowitz has written a courageous book, full of self-revelation and with a willingness to expose his own frailties in the most sensitive ares of sex and family. Still, he is nothing if not contentious, and some of his contentions will rub readers the wrong way.
There is, for one thing, too much grousing about bad reviews. Mr. Horowitz has been around long enough to know that the only sane response to a hatchet job is to shrug it off (advice admittedly easier to give than to follow). His complaint that black hostility to Jews today shows ingratitude for Jewish efforts on behalf of civil rights is surprising: the black-maid, Jewish-mistress relationship that existed in his own house when he was growing up was statistically far more the norm than the black and Jewish arms that were linked on the protest line. It also seems disingenuous for Mr. Horowitz to complain that his former friends in the radical left show him little gratitude for pointing out the errors of their ways. What does he expect? Thank-you notes?
Mr. Horowitz now devotes himself to Heterodoxy, a Los Angeles-based tabloid that rakes the muck on the left in search of politically correct outrages, and he heads the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which fans the sparks of conservatism in the entertainment industry. As in his Homeric model, he is back where he wants to be, reconciled to his country, his children and even his father. ”The revolutionary failures of the 20th century had demonstrated the wisdom of the American founding, and validated its tenets: private property, individual rights and a limited state,” he says. ”Becoming a conservative turned out, ultimately, to be a way of coming home.”
Richard Gid Powers, a professor of history at the College of Staten Island, is the author of ”Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism.”
Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey. By David Horowitz. Free Press. 468 pp. $27.50.
Reviewed by Ramesh Ponnuru
David Horowitz is the most prominent member of his generation to have made the political trek from left to right. He has become, no doubt because of his radical background, one of the right’s most effective agitators, concentrating on issues that conservative activists generally neglect, like the politicized corruption of higher education and the federal “culture” bureaucracies. He has also, with his frequent collaborator and fellow ex-radical Peter Collier, challenged the left’s self-serving accounts of the 1960s and their legacy in Destructive Generation, Deconstructing the Left, and other works.
Now he has written a memoir integrating his political critique of the left with his own life story. That story is told with an honesty painful to himself and, sometimes, to the reader. It is a tribute to Horowitz’s moral seriousness that revelations about his troubled relationship with his father and disorderly romantic history are never presented as a therapeutic exercise, nor exploited for titillation; his missteps are neither excused nor minimized.
The powerful early chapters of the book introduce his parents and recount his youth as a red-diaper baby. For his father, communism provided the certainty, self-confidence, and sense of mastery of fate that he lacked; it promised an end to the alienation that he felt from his country and, indeed, himself. This made for a strange childhood: “Almost all conversation in our household was political, other than what was necessary to advance the business of daily life.” Horowitz was warned off baseball, “a form of capitalist exploitation,” and especially the Yankees, “the ruling class of baseball”: “To root for the Yankees,” as Horowitz furtively did, “was to betray a lack of social consciousness that was unthinkable for people like us.”
This upbringing reinforced his youthful hubris. “As a result of the Marxist ideas I had already absorbed,” he drily notes, “I was . . . able by the age of eleven to dispose of the enduring pathologies of our social condition.” Despite the universalist aspirations of his politics, Horowitz was also quite parochial. Of an aunt who was “not a New Yorker, not Jewish, and not political,” he remarks, “I didn’t know anyone else in our circle like her.” Outsiders were sometimes hostile—justifiably so, as Horowitz now recognizes, given his family’s anti-Americanism. During the McCarthy period, his parents lost their jobs as schoolteachers. Still, Horowitz is able to put their misfortune, and even the short prison stints of other Communists, in perspective: “This was not . . . an insignificant price to pay for their political allegiances. But, considering the Party’s organizational ties to an enemy power armed with nuclear weapons poised to attack America, it was not a large one, either.” In one of the quirks of life that defy neat ideological narratives, his mother’s firing resulted in her taking a more fulfilling job.
After a courtship he describes with surprising delicacy and warmth, Horowitz married Elissa Krauthamer at twenty. They moved to Berkeley, where Horowitz half-heartedly pursued graduate studies in English when he wasn’t busy germinating a New Left with the other red-diaper babies he found there. Confucius, Buber, and the early “humanist” Marx influenced him, but not so much as the example of his political (and actual) forebears. The Khrushchev report on Stalin’s crimes had made it impossible for his circle wholly to embrace their parents’ politics; but it remained unthinkable to reject the socialist vision that was central to their self-images. Thus they embarked on what Horowitz calls “a self-conscious effort to rescue the Communist project from its Soviet fate.” Just as they aspired to make a world anew, they thought they could make a left anew. This time there would be no low, dishonest decades. The revolutionary Marxist project would be revived, but this time from within American popular culture.
This New Left was thus able to provide political direction for a large slice of America’s youth that did not buy its whole ideological package and would never have consciously subordinated itself to the USSR in the manner of the Old Left. Except for a few remarks, however, Horowitz does not examine the relationship of the larger “youth rebellion” to political radicalism, which might have helped evoke the milieu of the sixties left. Instead, as his autobiographical prerogative, he sticks closely to his own life and reactions to the turbulence around him.
Horowitz made a name for himself in international—well, internationale—circles with Student and Free World Colossus (on U.S. imperialism), both formative New Left texts. After a brief stay in Scandinavia, he moved to London to work for Bertrand Russell. The great philosopher, by then a nonagenarian, had fallen under the sway of his megalomaniacal and fanatically left-wing secretary, Ralph Schoenman, and set up a “Peace Foundation.” Horowitz facilitated its “War Crimes Tribunal” judging America’s conduct of the Vietnam War.
He then returned to California and joined the staff of Ramparts, the largest-circulation magazine on the left at the time. Through Ramparts, he became connected to the Black Panthers and their charismatic leader, Huey Newton. Horowitz deluded himself that he and Newton, the intellectual theorist and the man of action, could be partners, and that the Panthers could be democratized. Despite numerous warning signs, it took the Panthers’ murder of Horowitz’s friend Betty Van Patter to shatter his illusions about them, and about the left.
Whatever private reservations individuals held, he writes, “no one on the left—no one—had dissociated themselves from the Panther cause.” Nor did Bay Area leftists, who were forever protesting injustice “in regions they could hardly locate on a map,” take any interest in Van Patter’s murder: “The incident had no usable political meaning, and was therefore best forgotten.” And other implications were even more disturbing. If Newton wasn’t “a victim of circumstance,” if “bourgeois” rules would always be necessary to restrain evil, then perhaps “the Marxist idea, to which I had devoted my entire intellectual life and work, was false.” This epiphany, together with the simultaneous collapse of his marriage, destroyed the foundation of his self-importance and initiated a long period of turmoil.
It is possible, however, to divine seeds of his present conservatism even before this cataclysm. He had early misgivings about the Cuban and North Vietnamese Communists, and visited neither regime. Having married early, he never really participated in the drug culture or, his divorce-inducing affairs notwithstanding, sexual liberation. He was consistently hostile to totalitarianism, and to the slovenly anti-intellectualism that made the left tolerant of it. When Eldridge Cleaver, at a Berkeley political rally, advocated gangsterism and invoked “pussy power,” Horowitz was embarrassed; others on the left indulged or promoted such folly, and worse.
Horowitz doesn’t let them off the hook, and he names names. While some readers may detect an excess of score-settling in the book’s final chapters, it seems to me reasonable to demand some accountability for the duplicity, malice, and willful misunderstandings of such as Todd Gitlin, Sidney Blumenthal, Hendrik Hertzberg, Paul Berman, and Tom Hayden. If Horowitz thought that he could induce shame in his former allies, however, he was quite mistaken.
It is the curse of the gifted memoirist to be psychologically shrewd in hindsight. Horowitz is devastatingly perceptive about the psychology of his family and of the left. But though the totalitarian temptation has psychological roots, he recognizes that it takes theological form: the left is a secular idolatry based on the denial of original sin. Its conviction that evil results from misunderstanding itself results from a misunderstanding of evil.
Conservatives have always known this truth, of course, even those who don’t know they know it. Horowitz’s belated recognition of it is what elevates his political conversion over the simple exchange of one set of verities and passions for another. Some readers of his tabloid Heterodoxy may complain that his politics have changed but not his manners. And Horowitz distances himself from “puritanism” on the right, though his account of his private life since his first marriage suggests that some puritanism might have served him well. But his sensibilities have changed. And in telling the story of how he came to appreciate an imperfectible world, he has written a close-to-perfect memoir.
Ramesh Ponnuru is National Reporter for National Review.