This year marks the tenth anniversary of David Horowitz’s autobiography, Radical Son. A reminder of what it accomplished therefore seems in order.
In a survey conducted by Insight Magazine, which asked respondents to name the best conservative books, Radical Son ranked second after Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. Perhaps an even better measure of its importance is that, despite the popularity of courses about the 1960s and Horowitz’s deep knowledge of the era’s radical politics, the book has been informally banned on university campuses.
That is unfortunate. Horowitz’s excellent prose, along with his passion for self-examination, makes his account unique. A girl he dated as a teenager said to him, “You don’t live an experience, because you’re too busy analyzing it.” The rest of us can be thankful for that.
Horowitz was born in the enclave of Sunnyside Gardens in Long Island City. In public, its natives termed themselves “progressive,” but they were in fact communists. They had colonized the community in a self-conscious political act to build a base among the working class. They held secret neighborhood cell meetings, and the Horowitz family hid their copies of The Works of J.V. Stalin and The Little Lenin Library in their basement.
The radical son had an ardently radical childhood. His experiences were filtered through the family religion, which was Marxism. In the summers he spent two weeks at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a facility that was about as American Indian in tradition as Vladivostok. The name was a communist subterfuge. What it really stood for was Workers Children’s Camp.
Horowitz had a difficult relationship with his father, Phil Horowitz. A severely depressed man, he confessed to his son on one unguarded occasion that he feared life more than death. His father had arrived at the conclusion that the only hope he had lay in the ambitions of the progressive Left to make a world different from the one that oppressed him. In those days, this meant the revolution that Lenin and Stalin had made. When Stalin died, the father instructed his son: “You see what a genius Stalin was. It took five men to replace him.” Three years later, Horowitz broke with his family’s communist heritage over the Soviet intervention in Hungary.
The trouble in the filial bond extended beyond political issues. His father’s compliments were often laced with disdain. Unlike the average grandparent, Phil Horowitz greeted the birth of his son’s third child with dismay. In conversations with another red-diaper baby, Horowitz learned that it was a Communist Party rule to have only two children. Once again, Horowitz had broken the rules.
Horowitz's mother proved more supportive. Blanche Horowitz put family and relationships before politics. This message was internalized by her son who, throughout the eighties and the nineties, extended the hand of friendship to many of his former colleagues—who generally had no compunction about slapping it away.
It was from this radical pedigree that Horowitz’s now familiar career sprung. He became a most unusual activist intellectual, one as devoted to scholarly rigor as he was to the need for social change. In retrospect, given his intellectual seriousness, his departure from the Left was probably inevitable. No one devoted to the pursuit of truth can last very long in the revolutionary faith.
His first book, Student: The Political Activities of the Berkeley Students, was also the first book-length manifesto of the New Left, describing the movement and the agenda it claimed to represent. Ironically, years later after he became a conservative, he was approached by a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt who handed him a weathered copy of Student. He asked Horowitz to sign it with the dedication, “To my political enemy from a foaming-at-the-mouth, rightwing ideologue.” A sense of humor, or mere civility for that matter, are not traits one finds on the political Left.
After completing Student, Horowitz went to Sweden, then to England to work for Bertrand Russell, before eventually returning to California. His recollections, bittersweet for him, are highly amusing for readers. His profile of Bertrand Russell’s personal secretary and Svengali, Ralph Schoenman, is not easy to forget. Here was a man who, as an admiring teacher once said, erected stone walls to beat his head against.
Horowitz’s account of his days in the 1960s is as entertaining as it is instructive. Famous radicals are profiled here such as Robert Scheer (the author’s boss at Ramparts magazine and subsequently Los Angeles Times National Correspondent), former head of the “Red Family” commune Tom Hayden, and Tikkun rabbi Michael Lerner, whose New Left wedding featured a wedding cake with “Smash Monogamy” written on it. Readers may recall that it was Lerner who fueled Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” during her husband’s Presidential Administration.
The description of the actions of these radical clowns, along with the beliefs they held, illuminates their destructive and spiteful personalities. Before they began dating, Lerner informed his future bride that “if you want to be my girlfriend you’ll have to organize a guerilla foco first.” His self-importance was such that he played both groom and Rabbi at his own wedding. The marriage lasted less than a year.
Perhaps my favorite vignette concerns the rift between Hayden, Scheer, and the Red Family Commune, which was run on Maoist principles and whose walls were hung with large portraits of Ho Chi Minh and Huey Newton. When Hayden and Anne Scheer were in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, they took time out to betray Scheer too. Scheer got his revenge by having Hayden expelled from the commune for “bourgeois privatism.”
Nowhere is the vastness of the distance that separates Horowitz from former comrades more apparent than when Hayden asks him what should be included in his own autobiography. Horowitz replies, “Why don’t you write the truth?” When Hayden did write his autobiography, Reunion, just before breaking up his family, the task proved too much for him.
Radical Son is more than a political memoir. It is the searing personal story of a life lived against the backdrop of some of the most tumultuous years in American history, an epoch so divisive that it has been called a “second civil war.” At the core of the book is the saga of the political Left and its divisions --divisions that changed the course of American politics.
The work’s central drama is the story of Horowitz’s involvement with the Black Panthers and the Black Panthers’ centrality to the Left, something few “progressives” want to remember today. The Panthers were called “America’s Vietcong” by New Left leaders like Tom Hayden and were declared the “vanguard of the revolution” by the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Yet, as Horowitz’s memoir reveals, they were a violent and vicious criminal gang, which committed several murders and robberies, arson and rape. Revealing this story exposed the author to considerable personal risk, with little reward for doing so. But Horowitz judged that the truth had to come first.
He was among the few to do so. This year author Flores Forbes, a former Black Pather, published Will You Die With Me? My Life and the Black Panther Party. Forbes was the head of the Panthers’ security forces, called “The Squad” in Horowitz’s text and the “Buddha Samurai” in Forbes’. Forbes describes the criminal plans that Panther leader Huey Newton hatched and Forbes and his henchmen carried out in the name of the revolution. These included acts of extortion and murder. Forbes covers the same ground that Horowitz described in his text, with one critical difference: Forbes considers the Pathers' shaking down of Oakland’s “after hours” clubs and muscling in on what Newton referred to as “illegitimate capitalism” to be “revolutionary” while Horowitz recognized it as the criminality it was.
Indeed, he experienced it up close. At the center of Horowitz’s story -- and his political transformation -- is the Panthers’ murder of Betty Van Patter, the Ramparts bookkeeper, whom he recruited to work for the Party. After Van Patter’s death, Horowitz began the long and painful process of leaving the Left. The political consequences of his defection are chronicled in Radical Son and in subsequent works such as Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes, and The Art of Political War and Other Radical Pursuits.
His sojourn to political sobriety is marked by the publication of Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the '60s and the formation of his Center for the Study of Popular Culture, recently renamed The David Horowitz Freedom Center, whose journal, Heterodoxy, was the first to combat the political correctness now ubiquitous in our university culture.
Has the autobiography had any impact on the political Left? In the preface to Radical Son, Horowitz predicted it would not, and he has proven prescient on this count. Instead of confronting his ideas, his left-wing opponents have preferred to slander him.
Occasionally, however, tribute has been paid to his effectiveness as the Left's nemesis, the most substantial of which was a lengthy cover story in The Nation called “David Horowitz’s Long March.” The writer, Scott Sherman, conceded that the book was compelling, infuriating, and even fascinating in some of its parts.
Joshua Micah Marshall, a leftist who came of age long after the Summer of Love, was more typical in his mention of Radical Son in a piece he wrote for The American Prospect. There he treated the tragedy of Betty Patter’s death with disdain: “…But just because Horowitz got taken in by the Black Panthers—long after almost everyone else on the left had washed their hands of them—hardly means that the progressives of today's generation have anything to apologize for.” Marshall also describes Horowitz as “a sort of Whittaker Chambers manqué for 1990s conservatism” which is only accurate in a limited sense because Chambers was also irrationally and hysterically vilified by progressives, the Marshall's of an earlier era, after his defection.
That Horowitz was fooled by the Panthers after everyone else had seen through them is simply false. Murray Kempton, writing in the The New York Times, was comparing Huey Newton to Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi at the time Horowitz was beginning to raise money for the Panther school, whose books he recruited Betty Van Patter to keep. To this day, Panther has-beens are earning $10,000 a campus speech at the invitation of radical students and professors, and Elaine Brown, whom Horowitz blames for Betty’s murder is now attempting to secure the Presidential nomination for the Green Party in 2008. Flores Forbes, the man suspected of killing Betty Van Patter, was reverentially interviewed recently by Amy Goodman for her “Democracy Now” radio show. Former Illinois Panther Minister of Defense, Bobby Rush, is now serving his eighth term as a United States Congressman. Panther leader Bobby Seale is so ostracized that he makes a living as a guest speaker on university campuses, while David Hilliard, who spent a year in jail for threatening to kill President Nixon, was the featured speaker at Michigan State in honor of Black History Month.
Communist party hack and academic icon Angela Davis said of the Panther political legacy: “The fact is important gains were made and those gains are still visible today. For example, the number of African-American studies programs that are on college campuses today. Those institutional changes are inconceivable outside of that development within -- related to the Black Panther party and other organizations. Young people began to take those struggles onto the campuses.”
PBS has celebrated several Panther thugs, including Dhoruba bin Waha. The “POV” program produced a sensitive, hagiographic program, “A Panther in Africa.” They offered a special historical photo gallery of the party as well, and, for the really sentimental, a where are they now memorial page. Clearly, the Left’s mythology of the Panthers is alive and well.
Since his alienation from the Left, Horowitz has endured countless attacks by his former comrades. But the observations he set forth in Radical Son have been vindicated, not least in this tenth anniversary year.
 Event recounted in David Horowitz’s Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey. From the chapter, “Wake Up America: My Visit to Vanderbilt.” (Dallas: Spence, 2003). p.228.