Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
By David Horowitz
Free Press, 464 pages, $27.50
About a dozen years ago I received a phone call out of the blue from someone who identified himself as David Horowitz. He wanted to check some details about the history of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. From his line of questioning it was obvious that he was broadly supportive of the Reagan administration's efforts in that country, so much so in fact that I couldn't help asking: "This isn't the David Horowitz, surely?" Indeed it was. And the article he was writing (with Peter Collier), "Lefties for Reagan," became the opening salvo of his new career as a neoconservative activist and intellectual.
The prospect of Horowitz, one of the founders of the New Left, author of Free World Colossus and Empire and Revolution, supporting our policies in Central America, at the very moment that most liberals, when not actively supporting Communist objectives there, were scuttling for cover--this, I say, bordered on the surreal. When I finally met Horowitz I peppered him with questions about his past. For the most part he was reticent or very telegraphic; he seemed not to want to talk too much about it. Now, however, he has come forward with the whole story. Radical Son is the most remarkable testament of its kind since Whittaker Chambers's Witness, a book which it resembles in more ways than one. Readers who have never been involved in the left will find this book an entirely new experience--like a roller coaster in hell from which the author has emerged scarred by the ride. This memoir is a deeply troubling document for what it tells us about the damage that the sixties left--serious, violent, and destructive--has permanently inflicted upon our culture; in that sense alone, this memoir is the political book of this season, and many more to come.
David Horowitz's political trajectory was determined at birth. His parents were both schoolteachers active in the Communist party, and particularly in the New York teachers' union which the party controlled throughout the 1930's and much of the 1940's. Both were intense, committed partisans; each had made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union before marrying. Both had had their ambitions thwarted, partly by the Great Depression yet perhaps just as much by a genuine sense of alienation from this country and its broader culture. They were disinclined to pursue more lucrative and rewarding careers, choosing instead the one secure profession then available to Jews.
Horowitz grew up a red diaper baby--not merely the child of Communists, but someone raised to be, if not precisely a Communist in his own right, then at least very much of the left, and the pro-Soviet, anti-American left at that. He was sent to the party-controlled Sunnyside Progressive School, and his childhood memories of his parents touch on cell-meetings, secret missions for the Party, and finally, in the late forties and early fifties, political martyrdom as the result of the Smith Act and other measures and activities which drove many Communists from positions of public responsibility and a few (though not his parents) to prison sentences.
Horowitz recalls being brought up in a kind of political and cultural quarantine, "embattled, surrounded by enemies. There was an instant recognition by others who shared our values and political commitments, and an exaggerated estrangement on the part of those who did not." This meant that even potential playmates had to be vetted; neighborhood children whose parents were not politically trustworthy were deemed inappropriate company.
During the sixties and early seventies, American journalism harped on the generational conflict supposedly sundering American society. But among this family, at least , no such conflict existed: the Horowitzes shared a coherent, if not precisely seamless, common culture. The only minor fracture resulted from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Soviet Premier Khrushchev's "Secret Speech," which confirmed from the most unimpeachable source what anti- and ex-Communists had been saying about Stalin for two decades.
His father and mother could not bring themselves to support the Hungarians, but shortly thereafter they left the party. Though no longer willing to lend their efforts to the Soviet cause, however, neither did they become anti -Communists or even (in the strictest sense of the word) ex-Communists. The same anger and frustration which drove them into the party persisted, and simmered at a low burn, for the rest of their lives.
What Horowitz took from such an upbringing was a socialist vision that provided "the only way I knew of looking at the world that would distinguish right from wrong. . . . Socialism was the desire for justice . . . I did not see how I could give that up." Like most red diaper members of the New Left, Horowitz was obsessed with the idea of "rescu[ing] the Communist project from its Soviet fate." And his goal was to succeed where his parents had failed.
The system that the Horowitzes so despised provided their son with scholarships to Columbia, where he received a degree in English, and Berkeley, where he continued graduate studies in literature before embarking on a career as a political journalist. The decisive push away from the academy came from the success of his first book, Student (1962), an inflammatory pamphlet in praise of the campus leftism that was then a quite singular phenomenon in the United States. It sold 25,000 copies and made Horowitz something of a minor celebrity. The next step was a version of the European Grand Tour--in this case, to the Scandinavian capitals, where anti-Americanism was beginning to flourish in new and garish ways.
After a season in Norway and then Sweden, Horowitz, together with his wife and infant son, moved to London, where he became a fellow at the new Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Although its vicious and senile namesake was very much in evidence, the foundation was in the day-to-day hands of Ralph Milliband, a desiccated English intellectual who had drawn up plans to overthrow Kenya, "complete with instructions for taking over communications centers and the airport," and Ralph Schoenman, a three-quarters crazed American who acted as Lord Russell's secretary, amanuensis, and puppet-master.
While in residence there, Horowitz completed Free World Colossus, one of the earliest and most influential revisionist works of Cold War history, in which most of the blame for postwar tensions was placed on Truman and Eisenhower rather than Stalin or his successors. Although chock-full of distortions and falsifications, the book became something of a Bible whose influence spread far beyond the New Left: Robert Pastor, who would become Jimmy Carter's director for Latin American affairs on the National Security Council, once confessed that it played an important role in shaping his response to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
In January 1968 Horowitz and his family returned to Berkeley, where he assumed the editorship of a new radical magazine, Ramparts. Failure in Vietnam had knocked the stuffing out of the American establishment, and--together with a rising tide of racial violence in the cities--kindled the illusion that, for the first time since the 1930's, there was a real possibility of drastic social upheaval in the United States. Horowitz's account here of the people with whom he worked during this period confirms Dostoevsky's notion that most revolutionaries are mentally and spiritually ill; the few who are not are downright silly. Of these vignettes, the most emblematic has to do with Michael Lerner, whom he describes as an unkempt individual whose appetites seemed always about to burst their ample envelope of flesh. He was constantly badgering others to satisfy these needs, being so utterly self-absorbed with his own agendas that he seemed oblivious to the fact that the impression he made was irritating, and often ridiculous.
Lerner had told one woman, "If you want to be my girlfriend, you'll have to organize a guerrilla foco first!" The two were subsequently married in a ceremony in which they exchanged rings forged from the fuselage of an American aircraft downed over Vietnam. (A later wife, less adept at organizing the foco, had the advantage of being heiress to the Safeway grocery millions, which made possible the launching of Lerner's trendy-leftist Jewish magazine Tikkun and his subsequent brief term as court guru to Hillary Clinton.)
By 1968 the Berkeley Archipelago, as one wit called it, was no isolated phenomenon, but a leftist papacy exercising spiritual leadership over every major university community in the United States. Horowitz found himself at the nerve center of an emerging counter-establishment, which in his telling was comprised of three principal tribes: the red diaper babies like himself, mostly Jews; spoiled and bored trust-fund babies, representing some of the older and better established American fortunes, most of them women and all of them WASPs; and Hollywood producers and directors, of varied ethnic origin but driven by a combination of snobbery, opportunism, and a taste (then as now) for unorthodox excitements.
Horowitz reminds us that the heyday of the New Left on American campuses was rather brief; once President Nixon ended military conscription, the real motivation of anti-war protesters became manifest. Virtually overnight the Movement lost its student base, pushing its abandoned leaders into ever more extreme positions, attitudes, and activities. At the same time, a new generation of leftist activists rose to replace Horowitz and his contemporaries:
They had a bigger appetite for violence than we did, and had never heard of the Khrushchev report. Above all, they had no sense of the abyss over which every revolutionary act was suspended--the fratricide and nihilism ready to erupt from the breakdown of social order and the breakthrough to the other side.
The Berkeley left found its alternative "proletariat" in street thugs who had organized themselves into the Black Panthers. As editor of Ramparts, Horowitz would seem to have been ideally situated to mediate between Berkeley's white and black left. In spite of a superficial commonality of purposes, however, there were serious differences from the beginning. Horowitz himself had married while still an undergraduate, and had already fathered four children by the time he returned to Berkeley; politics aside, he was leading an entirely conventional, even bourgeois, family life. He thus stood apart from the "cultural revolution, with its new attitudes towards drugs and sex. . . . Outside our own household, I already felt like a traveler in a strange land, uncertain of local customs and folkways." Particularly after it discovered the Panthers, the New Left was also marked by a strident anti-intellectualism, which was bound to create problems for someone who took as his major purpose in life to make a serious contribution to Marxist theory.
The final chink in Horowitz's armor, the one which brought him down, was the feeling that he was wasting his time on grand abstractions like the "revolution"; what he wanted was to see some practical results from his efforts. He thus became one of a handful of white people who acted as liaisons, auxiliaries, and fundraisers for the Panthers. Guilt, frustration, and self-hatred blinded these people to the true nature of the Panthers, who were not revolutionaries at all but sophisticated criminals. As George Jackson put it to his editor, "Marxism is my hustle."
Even Horowitz came to recognize that the Panthers were violent and dangerous--and, more to the point, powerful and attractive to their street constituency precisely because they were violent and dangerous. They were lethal even to whites who wanted to be their friends--this much became clear with the murder of Betty Van Patten, a progressive lady who worked as an accountant on one of the Panthers' projects. Another white Panther sympathizer, Fay Stender, who had acted as George Jackson's attorney, was subsequently disabled by an unknown assailant.
In both cases, the Panther leadership showed a decided lack of interest in elucidating these cases, and even warned Horowitz against persisting in his curiosity. When at last he finally went to the Berkeley Police, an officer responded, "You guys have been cutting our balls off for the last ten years. You destroy the police, and then you expect them to solve the murders of your friends."
After Betty Van Patten's murder, Horowitz dropped out of politics and pursued a writing career in collaboration with Peter Collier, another soldier invalided out of the Movement. Their first effort, The Rockefellers, was moderately successful, but their second, The Kennedys, became an international best-seller. Overnight Horowitz became moderately affluent. He and Collier also engaged in some important investigative journalism for New West magazine, including a review of the circumstances around the shooting of Fay Stender. Over time Horowitz (and Collier too) allowed their doubts about the left to become more explicit.
Eventually, Horowitz abandoned the revolutionary project altogether, and became a neoconservative intellectual, a role to which he has brought a particular passion, energy, and imagination. What David Horowitz has learned these last few years is that worse than changing your mind is to have been proven right on the facts, and worse still, to have the temerity to call one's former comrades to account. But that is precisely what Horowitz has done by organizing a Second Thoughts conference in Washington to which he invited former New Leftists to re-examine the premises of their earlier careers; and by writing Destructive Generation, a history of the Movement which attempts to correct the distortions and omissions which filled the so-called histories of Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, and Sidney Blumenthal. Above all, he has given us Radical Son--a riveting work of literary distinction from first page to last.
Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar at AEI.