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David Horowitz's Right Turn By: Stephen Goode
Insight | Tuesday, January 27, 2004


David Horowitz, now one of America's most important conservative writers but once a New Left guru, recalls walking on the ocean beach at Hampton Bays in eastern Long Island. He wasn't enjoying a beautiful day or fishing or searching for seashells as other boys might be doing.

No, the 10-year-old Horowitz was "preoccupied with a speech I was preparing in my head" as sandpipers ran "up from the foam" and then followed it back down. The speech he was preparing was to none other than Harry S. Truman. It was "a long speech, and I went over it again and again in order to memorize it," Horowitz recalls.

What did this precocious boy want to tell the president of the United States at a time when the Cold War had become white hot and the communist empire was roaring at full throttle into Eastern Europe and China?

Horowitz wanted to tell Truman of the "misunderstandings that had led to the present world problems, beginning with the failure of officials like him to see that the Soviet Union was no threat, but a nation interested only in peace." He wanted to tell the president that the global confrontation now looming between communism and capitalism was not Josef Stalin's fault despite Soviet aggression and the Soviet premier's bellicose ways. The fault lay with the West and with the inability of Western leaders such as Truman to recognize the Soviet leader's basic humanity and how Stalin had only the best interests of mankind in mind at all times.

Horowitz tells this marvelous story in his powerful autobiography, Radical Son, one of the best ever written by an American. It sums up perfectly his red-diaper-baby background, that of a bright boy whose parents both happened to be members of the Communist Party and who, instead of attending Boy Scout camps during his childhood summer vacations, went to camps where the kids of party members learned Marxism-Leninism and the historical importance of international communism.

And the story appears again in a new collection of Horowitz's writing, Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey. The handsome book is published by Spence Publishing Co. of Dallas and is superbly edited by Jamie Glazov, the managing editor of FrontPage magazine, who also provides an introduction.

By now most politically aware Americans know that Horowitz abandoned the New Left nearly three decades ago. As an editor of that movement's most widely read magazine, Ramparts, and author of several of its most important texts such as Empire & Revolution, he had been at the center of things, a New Left mover and shaker closely associated with the left's other central figures, from Tom Hayden of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to the Black Panthers' Huey Newton.

But the murder in 1974 by the Black Panthers of his friend and fellow radical Batty Van Patter threw Horowitz into nearly a decade of depression. He emerged a conservative eager to do intellectual and moral battle with his former associates on the left and as a superbly articulate defender of traditional American values and institutions from freedom of speech and association to capitalism.

As Horowitz always has described it, he had "second thoughts." This man who had declared and carefully articulated the shibboleths of the left - from the evils of capitalism and imperialism to the virtues of the perfectly organized society that was to come once the revolution took place - began speaking of man's imperfection, of the wisdom of the idea of original sin and the greatness of America's achievements.

No one today writes more tellingly on the pathologies and mendacities of the left than Horowitz does, no doubt because he was for so long so much a part of the left. And no one sees more clearly - and shows his readers why - the utopian visions of the left offer a continuing danger to human liberty, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and most of its empire more than a decade ago.

Left Illusions contains excerpts from Horowitz's New Left books. But the bulk of the anthology comes from his conservative writing - from the autobiographical Radical Son, for example, and from collections of essays such as Hating Whitey and The Art of Political War.

Horowitz is a very prolific writer. His work has appeared in salon.com and his own frontpagemag.com, and pieces from both sources are to be found in Left Illusions, as are some previously unpublished essays, including the excellent "The Era of Progressive Witch-Hunts." In the essay he argues that witch-hunts instigated in recent years to ensure political correctness and other forms of behavioral policing have "been far worse in ... consequences to individuals and freedom of expression" than any witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.

What was the now conservative Horowitz like during his New Left years? Not so angry as one might expect and certainly less so than many New Leftists were to become. In his 1962 book Student, Horowitz wrote about his generation and how it had grown up with the bomb: "We have been made to live, as no other generation has, on the edge of the world's doom."

That's very familiar stuff from the 1950s and 1960s, a bit melodramatic and more than a bit narcissistic: After all, the previous generation had fought World War II, which at the time certainly must have seemed on the edge of the world's doom to that generation.

In Student, Horowitz likewise lamented the enormous size and lack of human scale of many universities in the United States, another familiar New Left criticism. He also wrote that all the New Left really wanted was "to see a more meaningful commitment to the ideals embodied in the Constitution," a claim he later was to call into question as a lie. Horowitz came to believe that the New Left, even when uttering pieties about its belief in democracy, really was totalitarian at its core and became increasingly so as time passed.

But it is interesting to see that even when he was a young radical firmly convinced that the world's best future lay in collectivism, there were in his radical writings signs of discontent with the left. He argued, for example, that the New Left, in all honesty, had to be as critical of the Soviet Union's 1956 invasion of Hungary as it was of the U.S. intervention in Fidel Castro's Cuba. One couldn't defend the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution and at the same time condemn U.S. actions in communist Cuba, Horowitz said. And he consistently urged that the New Left be as critical of the excesses and wrongs of Marxism as it was of capitalism's errors. "The self-styled Marxist-Leninist-Maoists of SDS would do well to remember that the New Left grew out of two bankruptcies - not just liberalism, but old-line Marxism as well," he tendentiously advised his fellow radicals.

It may have been ingenuous and quixotic for Horowitz to expect his fellow leftists to share his willingness to condemn equally both left and right. But chalk that error up to youthful ignorance, a mistake made by someone who expected reason to carry the day, which it didn't. As Horowitz wrote later about the willful refusal of the left to pay attention either to history or to common sense, "I am persuaded that a lie grounded in human desire is too powerful for reason to kill."

In the Dec. 8, 1979, issue of The Nation, Horowitz published "A Radical's Disenchantment." It was a clear break with the left, even though it was published in a leftist magazine and one whose readers proved to have no sympathy for what Horowitz had to say. "Above all, the left seems trapped in its romantic vision," Horowitz announced, a romantic vision that prevented it from seeing itself clearly and from grasping the fact that its most cherished notions bore no relation to reality. "This moral and political myopia," he concluded, "is compounded by the left's inability to accept responsibility for its own acts and commitments."

Horowitz was precise in stating what he believed to be wrongheaded about socialist thought: "State ownership of the means of production" - the central tenet of the left - "is not only perfectly compatible with all disasters of the capitalist world, with exploitation, imperialism, pollution, misery, economic waste, national hatred and national oppression," it "adds to them a series of disasters of its own: inefficiency, lack of economic incentives, and, above all, the unrestricted role of the omnipotent bureaucracy, a concentration of power never known before in human history."

In short, with socialism one gets not only all the "evils" socialists attributed to capitalism, but an additional set of evils unique to socialism. At first glance, it might seem that Horowitz still is playing the "pox-on-both-your-houses" game, rendering socialism and capitalism as moral equivalents. But it was only a tiny step now to complete his break with the left. Indeed, the new David Horowitz starts musing on such concepts as original sin, the idea that "we are born flawed, that the capacity for evil is lodged within us" - "no matter how our consciousness may be raised," as leftist cant would have it.

"I began to wish that I had inherited such a concept," he writes in Radical Son. If he had had knowledge of man's imperfections, he concluded, it "would have instilled in me a necessary caution about individuals like Huey Newton and movements like ours" that expected to build utopias on the basis of man's imperfect nature.

By 1985, Horowitz was regarded as a leading - and relentless - critic of the West. Then, in that year, he made a speech before a congressional seminar published in this new anthology as "My Vietnam Lessons." Horowitz had as a New Left guru attacked the Vietnam War as imperialist. Now he had no doubts that the South Vietnamese and Cambodians would have fared far better had the United States stayed in Southeast Asia and been successful in defeating the communists. The horrible bloodbaths that followed the communist victories in both countries would have been averted. Laotians and Vietnamese would not have been enslaved by totalitarianism.

But it was not only his earlier errors about the U.S. presence in Laos and South Vietnam that Horowitz admitted before Congress. He also confessed his profound misunderstanding of the greatness of American democracy. "My experience has convinced me," he now declared, "that historical ignorance and moral blindness are endemic to the American left, necessary conditions of its existence. It does not value the bounty it actually has in this country."

He concluded: "Observing this nation go through its worst historical hour from a vantage of the other side of the barricade, I came to understand that democratic values are easily lost and, from the evidence of the past, only rarely achieved, that America is a precious gift, a unique presence in the world of nations."

Why had so many in America and elsewhere fallen under the sway of the left and been mesmerized by its promises? On this question, Horowitz is particularly insightful. "We were partisans of a cause that confirmed our humanity, even as it denied humanity to those who opposed us," he wrote in a 1990 essay entitled "The Road to Nowhere." More importantly, "To choose the left was to define a way of being in the world," he avers in the same essay. It was a "way of being in the world" that offered an answer to all social and political problems through "the superior methods of socialist planning."

Horowitz had no doubts about the narcissism and nihilism that lie at the basis of leftist endeavor. "The true self-vision of the left: an army of saints on the march against injustice, lacking, in itself, the capacity for evil."

Even more damningly, he points out that "Hatred of self, and by extension one's country, is the root of the radical cause." But that's not the worst of it, he claims: "The worst of it is this: that you betray all of this tangible good that you can see around you for a socialist pie-in-the-sky that has meant horrible deaths and miserable lives for the hundred of millions who have already fallen under its sway."

This is powerful stuff, and accurate. Horowitz warns that the left isn't dead. It is still very much with us, particularly culturally, in our universities, schools and media. "Today they are the cultural navigators in the nation most responsible for their worldwide defeat" in the Cold War, he notes. And he suggests the name "neo-communists" or "neo-coms" for the sundry groups that comprise the contemporary left - environmentalists, radical feminists and gay organizations, the green movement, and the like.

Can there be a decent left? Here is what Horowitz concludes: "The left has been beginning over again since the French Revolution. And over and over again. ... Can there be decent leftists? Yes. But can a decent left be reincarnated from the dark history of the last 200 years? Probably not. And if it has to begin once more after all this tragedy - if it is to be déjà vu all over again - why not give it up and save the world another century of grief?"

But the left is not about to give up its dream of imposing utopia on all of us despite our own wishes, and Horowitz knows this. With his admirable ability to choose great examples to fortify his arguments he notes that the New York Times honored in 1998 the 150th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto by a laudatory commemorative review. The review, by Columbia University professor Steven Marcus, described the "enduring insights" of the manifesto, despite Marx's being wrong on almost every aspect of history and economics, notes Horowitz. Even worse, the review declared that, "A century and a half afterward, it remains a classic expression of the society it anatomized and whose doom it prematurely announced."

Prematurely? "Are we to understand by this that the Times thinks the bloody apocalypse Marx gleefully hoped for is still to come?" asks Horowitz. Is the utter destruction of capitalism and bourgeois democracy something good, revolutionary folks still long for?

Evidently so. For many the left will always, it seems, have a poetic, romantic appeal. To answer this dangerous fantasy, Horowitz quotes the great Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who fled his native land to live in the liberty of the West.

"People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil," Kundera observed. "But this is not true. The evil is already present in the beautiful; hell is already contained in the dream of paradise. To condemn gulags is easy, but to reject the totalitarian poetry which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever."



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