Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 75 (August/September 1997): 61-66.
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.