Sunday Night Journal — October 9, 2011
Let me say right off that this is a much better book than I expected, and perhaps better than you might expect if you’re familiar with David Horowitz’s political work. He’s a former left-wing polemicist/agitator turned right-wing polemicist/agitator, and in neither of those roles, where the principal objective is to push a very specific political line and hammer its opponents, is there much room for depth and breadth and balance. And although I am, broadly speaking, conservative, I stopped reading Horowitz’s online magazine, Front Page, some time ago, because of its relentlessly ferocious and narrow approach to political questions (not helped by its cluttered and chaotic visual style). But I was interested in this book because I’m interested in the social and political story of the 1960s, and because I had gone through a broadly similar experience of disenchantment with and repudiation of the leftist movement of the late part of that decade. I expected it to be a polemic, interesting because of the author’s close involvement with the left, but not profound. So when I read the jacket comparison to Whittaker Chambers’ Witness I didn’t take it very seriously.
But the comparison is justified. Radical Son is radically different from Horowitz’s everyday journalism: reflective, open, sober, self-questioning, and fair. No doubt those who don’t come off very well in the book would quarrel with that last adjective, and of course I don’t have any way of knowing whether Horowitz is right in his judgment of individuals (and no doubt some of these would deny that he is accurate about events). But in general he is willing to judge a person’s character apart from his political views.
More germane to the Witness comparison, this book is a similar mixture of the personal and the political, similarly willing to search out the connections and reciprocal influences between them, similarly astute in its judgments, similarly willing to admit the errors of its author.
Horowitz was born in New York in 1938. (This is, in passing, a significant point about the radicalism of the 1960s, which is generally attributed to the baby-boomers: its principal architects were older, and boomers were more often followers than leaders.) He was a “red-diaper baby,” his parents being Jewish Communists—that is, not simply leftist sympathizers, but members of the party, working actively for a cause in which they devoutly believed and toward a revolution which they fully expected, at least for some significant part of their lives. The party was for Horowitz what a Christian church was for the majority of Americans at the time: an institution that defined right and wrong and to some extent one’s place in the world. Horowitz grew up with a very strong sense of revolutionary mission, and a sense of himself as being at once an outsider and a savior to capitalist, patriotic, Christian America.
But because it was genuinely risky, at least to one’s livelihood, if not one’s liberty, to be a Communist in the 1940s and 1950s, this defining institution remained somewhat shadowy, even within the family. Horowitz’s parents were always vague about what they were doing with and for the party, and it was understood that one mustn’t ask too many questions, or talk too freely, about the real political goals of the movement. I once read of the late Senator Ted Kennedy that his approach was always to take the leftmost politically viable position on any issue before Congress (my emphasis). That seems a good description of the public life of people like the Horowitz family: they were generally to be found in support of any position aligned with the broad goal of establishing a communist state, but they never acknowledged the goal.
They were good, decent, intelligent people who really desired to create a just world. And yet their loyalty to the party made them unwilling and perhaps unable to see the truth about the Soviet Union. As that truth became more and more impossible to ignore, especially after the relative relaxation of the hard Russian propaganda line that followed the death of Stalin—when in fact acknowledgement of Stalin’s crimes became the new orthodoxy—the adolescent David Horowitz began, in the manner of young people of all times and places, to question and judge his parents, and so to condemn their silence about and effective complicity with Stalinism. He was able to do this without renouncing his faith in communism itself by holding that the revolution had been betrayed, and began to see himself and others of his generation as the ones who would purify the vision again and make it work. This conflict with his parents is one of the principal threads of the story: much of the rest of Horowitz’s career was a troubled dialog with his father. Radical Son was clearly not a carelessly chosen title.
The public and private sides of this story are inseparable throughout. In 1959 Horowitz married, and the first of his four children arrived soon after that. His wife, Elissa, is not actively prominent in the events of the next twenty years, and yet the reader feels her presence strongly. She seems a powerful and loving presence behind the scenes of her husband’s political activities, and, later on, an accusing one: not explicitly, but by the contrast of her quiet fidelity with the misadventures and misdeeds into which he fell at a point when he felt his life no longer had meaning.
While the social revolution of the middle and late ‘60s was under way, Horowitz seems to have been a fairly conventional family man, not greatly different from others apart from the fact that the means by which he supported his family were always related to his revolutionary politics. This conventional life sets him apart from many others like him, especially those of roughly my age, who encountered the revolutionary mindset at a point when the idea of psychological liberation through drugs and sex had become thoroughly entangled with radical politics. This may have given him a degree of grounding in reality that was clearly absent in the lives of most younger and/or unmarried people in the movement. It almost seems as though he led a typical middle-class American life, except that he went off the office every day and attempted to fan the flames of revolution.
Those flames were burning pretty high at the end of the 1960s. For many radicals, the Black Panther Party represented the purest and most authentic revolutionary movement on the scene. Horowitz, by then living in Berkeley, was of this mind for a while. But unlike those who could, at least in rhetoric, embrace the criminality of the Panthers as another form of direct action and a natural reaction to their oppression, Horowitz expected the ordinary decencies from them. The story of his gradual confrontation with the truth about the Panthers, and his subsequent disillusionment with the whole Marxist enterprise, which was nothing less than the loss of his religion, forms the dramatic core of the book, and I won’t distort either the story or the author’s reflections on it by attempting a quick synopsis. Suffice to say that it was the major crisis of the author’s life, disrupting it dramatically, and setting it on a different course.
There is a good bit here that I recognize, even though my time in the radical milieu was only an episode, albeit an influential one, in my life, and I was never very serious about politics as such. What I recognize especially is the idea of radicalism as virtue, more fundamental and important than all others, and the willful refusal on the part of people who had a made a deep emotional commitment to the cause to recognize that it was producing results very different from what they preached and intended, and very ugly.
One of the more enlightening aspects of the story, though I suppose it is a fact still rejected by many who were further from the center of radical activity, is the direct involvement of communists in setting the agenda of the New Left. Hippies and anti-war protesters laughed at the accusation that they were communists, and they—we—weren’t, in any doctrinal way. But the terms in which they thought and the matter of their protests were strongly influenced by people like Horowitz who were in fact communists, and who quite consciously and enthusiastically sided with communist governments and revolutionary movements against Euro-American democracies. Broadly speaking, the tactic was always the same: a relentless attack on the sins and crimes and simple imperfections of the West, and an equally relentless diversion of attention, including their own, from the truth about communism—and, later, the truth about the movement itself.
It would take an essay-length review to do justice to this book, to its political and cultural insights, its wealth of information about the inner workings of the New Left, and to the personal and familial journey it recounts. I expect to read it again. I’ll mention that in the end Horowitz receives from his father what he describes as “a posthumous gift of healing to his prodigal son,” and that this involves a particular sort of pain that both had experienced.
And I’ll close with a passage that comes as close as any to summarizing Horowitz’s view of the revolutionary left, which is more or less mine:
If the Left was primarily motivated by the desire to “make the world better,” why was it so indifferent to the consequences of its efforts? What else could explain its lack of concern about the deeds of its liberators in Indochina, or its Panther vanguard at home? Its disinterest in whether socialism worked or not? The more I thought about the moral posturing of the Left, the more I saw that its genius lay not in reforms but in framing indictments.
There is a value in those indictments, in their power to trouble the conscience of society when it ought to be troubled. But one need only stop and think for a moment to recall that in very few human activities is there any necessary connection between the ability to recognize a problem and the ability to solve it.