David Horowitz’s “Black Book of the American Left” reaches its triumphant culmination
Below is Bruce Bawer’s review of David Horowitz’s new book, “Ruling Ideas” which is volume 9 of The Black Book of the American Left, a multi-volume collection of David Horowitz’s conservative writings that will, when completed, be the most ambitious effort ever undertaken to define the Left and its agenda. (Order HERE.)
The last five years have seen the publication of a landmark shelf of books – namely, the collected conservative writings of David Horowitz under the title The Black Book of the American Left. Others may know as much about this subject as Horowitz does. But no one could possibly know more. And no one could possibly understand it better. Nor could anyone be more gifted at finding just the right words to explain it all.
In short, Horowitz has knowledge, insight, and eloquence. And that’s what makes these books indispensable.
Each of them takes up a different theme. Volume One explored Horowitz’s personal history as a leading figure of the left and his subsequent struggle with his intellectual loyalties – a complex, probing experience that made him uniquely qualified to elucidate both the appeal and the folly of the leftist dream. Subsequent volumes focused on leftist ideology; the left and race; the left and Islam; the left after 9/11; and the left in government, on campuses, and in the general culture.
The ninth and last volume of Horowitz’s Black Book, entitled “Ruling Ideas,” has now been published. Among its highlights is a 1987 letter written to a childhood friend, Carol, who, like Horowitz, was raised in a Communist household in Queens. In a note to Horowitz, Carol had stated that while she had (supposedly) given up on Stalinism, she continued to embrace what she called “our common heritage,” persisted in the belief that “socialism is better than capitalism,” and regarded Horowitz’s apostasy from the faith of their youth as a loss of “compassion and humanism.”
Horowitz’s 29-page reply to Carol could not be improved upon as a philosophical account, moral critique, and psychological analysis of the long-distance love of Soviet Communism on which both of them had been brought up. Horowitz discusses the then-recent death of his father, who had devoted his life to the Party, and whose friends had gathered at the Horowitz family home after his passing. These people had known Horowitz’s father for decades and shared his politics. Yet once he was gone, they could only speak of him, to his mourning son, in trite ideological cliches: “Your father was a man who tried his best to make the world a better place…your father was a man who was socially conscious.”
Nothing that they said suggested that they ever, for a moment, had been capable of viewing the elder Horowitz as a complex human individual rather than a fellow exponent of a dehumanizing ideology. During all those decades, their minds had been so completely in thrall to an abstract concept that it was as if they were now, Horowitz observes, “unequal to the task before them: to remember my father as a man.” Horowitz saw, as clear as day, that this cruel obliteration of personal particularity by a political idea was one of the ultimate curses of the cult of Communism.
Horowitz’s friend Carol had referred to their “common heritage,” which, as she apparently still deluded herself, had something to do with a concern for humanity. But Horowitz, as he explained to her, had come to perceive that “the very humanity that is [Communism’s] alleged object of ‘compassion’ is a humanity it holds in contempt.” Indeed, what lay behind that cozy turn of phrase, “common heritage,” was nothing less than the monstrous evil of totalitarianism, which, as Horowitz puts it, amounts quite simply to “the crushing of ordinary, intractable, human reality by a political Idea.”
There is more in this letter, much more: it is eminently quotable from beginning to end. Suffice it to say that Horowitz dissects his father’s – and his friend’s – Communism with the skill of a master surgeon. And what makes the dissection all the more powerful is that, unlike his friend Carol, who has accused him of abandoning his humanity and selling out for money, Horowitz is kind and restrained throughout, contemplating his loved ones’ Communism more in pity and grief than in anger. The result is a deeply poignant human document – a human document about a thoroughly inhuman creed.
Less personal but equally estimable is Horowitz’s “Slavery and the American Idea,” which seems to me a definitive response to those who would use America’s history of slavery to deny the nation’s status as “a beacon of freedom.” Then there is “The Two Christophers,” which is by far the best thing ever written about Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). After Hitchens died, I wrote a brief sendoff for Front Page that focused with admiration on the fact that, after 9/11, he broke free from his pals at the Nation to excoriate Islam and defend America. I didn’t know Hitchens personally, and pre-9/11 I frankly hadn’t paid that much attention to him; Horowitz, however, knew him for a long time and followed his work carefully, and in his essay he recognizes his old friend as a puzzle – and does an absolutely fascinating job of putting the pieces of that puzzle together.
Perusing Hitchens’s 2010 autobiography, Hitch-22, Horowitz notices a number of curious things. Why does he write so much about his parents and so little – almost nothing, in fact – about his brother (the writer Peter Hitchens), his two wives, his three children? Horowitz zeroes in on the chronic lack of introspection in Hitch-22, and particularly on Hitchens’s refusal to renounce Trotskyism. Horowitz had spent years interrogating his own deepest political convictions – challenging himself, excoriating himself, enduring a veritable dark night of the soul, and ultimately offering up a very public mea culpa and making a very public change of course. By contrast, even as Hitchens walked away from the Nation, junked some Marxist baggage from his ideological backpack, and became a cheerleader for America, he saw no need for any such personal reckoning.
Which is especially weird when one considers that over the years, in innumerable articles, book reviews, media interviews, and public debates, Hitchens relentlessly challenged other people’s ideas and clobbered them for their self-contradictions, ingrained prejudices, and unexamined assumptions. Yet even as he was doing all this, Hitchens himself was a mass of contradictions, which he appears to have preferred not to examine too closely. Horowitz notices, for example, that in one passage of Hitch-22 Hitchens declares his abiding love for free expression and his everlasting hatred for “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation” – only to proceed, shortly thereafter, to fulsomely praise as one of his “heroines” none other than the execrable Jessica Mitford, who, as Horowitz quite rightly points out, was “a Communist hack who spent her life supporting dictatorships, stupidity, demagogy, bullying, intimidation and censorship.”
Anyway, there’s much more here on Hitchens (almost fifty pages’ worth), and it’s all incredibly acute and absorbing – a remarkably perceptive case study of a writer who trained his mind mercilessly and incisively on pretty much everything other than himself. But let’s wrap up. In addition to these splendid pieces, this book contains a good deal of useful back matter: an adept 40-page summary of Horowitz’s life and work by Jamie Glazov; a comprehensive 56-page bibliography by Mike Bauer of Horowitz’s writings from 1951 to 2017; and a thematic index to all nine volumes.
The Oxford English Dictionary originally ran to 10 volumes. Over the years, as the English language changed, several more supplementary volumes were published. The left, alas, isn’t going to go away any time soon. With any luck, David Horowitz will continue to chronicle, explain, and criticize it all – and, like the editors of the OED, will add more and more volumes to this extraordinary set of books.