“Write what you know,” people say. And what they know, mainly, is themselves. So people write about themselves. David Horowitz does, a lot. But you are glad he does, for several reasons. First, he does it very, very well. Second, he has led an interesting life. Third, his life has corresponded to our times.
The latest volume from him is titled “My Life and Times.” What’s the difference? What’s the difference between that life and the times? Not much. These have been interesting times too, and all too interesting, as in what is allegedly an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
This volume is the first of ten — ten volumes collecting the “conservative writings of David Horowitz.” He has been a conservative since about 1985, when he was in his mid-40s. Says David, “My life as a leftist began with a May Day Parade in 1948, when I was nine years old, and lasted for more than twenty-five years until December 1974 . . .” What about the other ten years? The decade between 1975 and 1985? In those years, David informs us, he was essentially out of politics, finding his way along.
The series overall is called “The Black Book of the American Left.” David says he is a hedgehog rather than a fox — someone who knows one big thing rather than someone who knows many things. I would dispute this. David knows a range of things, including literature, the discipline in which he was trained, academically. But it’s true he knows the American Left, inside and out, and, if you have to know one thing, that’s a big, big thing to know.
“In the course of my adult life,” David writes, “the American Left has gone from being an isolated community on the fringes of the political mainstream to a very big thing — so big that by 2008 it had become the dominant force in America’s academic and media cultures, elected an American president, and was in a position to shape America’s political future.”
I will not try to recapitulate Radical Son — David’s renowned autobiography, published in 1997. But let me give you a few basics from his life, drawn from the present volume. His parents were Communists, as you know: Not many nine-year-olds just wander into a May Day parade. David grew up “a sheltered child in a Marxist bubble,” he says. His parents believed in the Soviet dream. They thought they were fighting for the poor and the powerless, for a shining future. The Soviet dream was a lie, however.
After the mid-1950s, roughly speaking, few could deny that this dream was a lie. In reality, says David, his parents and their friends “had served a gang of cynical despots who had slaughtered more peasants, caused more hunger and human misery, and killed more leftists like themselves than all the capitalist governments since the beginning of time.” David vowed he would be a different kind of leftist: “I would never be loyal to a movement based on a lie or be complicit in political crimes . . .”
He went to Columbia University, in his hometown of New York. “I viewed my college education not as a step on a personal career path but as preparation for my life mission, which was to participate in a revolution that would change the world.” From Columbia, he went to Berkeley, for a master’s in English — and to further the mission, of course. He organized one of the first anti-Vietnam War rallies. That was in 1962, when the war was hardly yet a war. Then he went to England, where he worked for Bertrand Russell, the famed intellectual who had become a leader and symbol of the radical Left.
In this period, David met with a Soviet official, Lev, who, of course, turned out to be a KGB agent. At one meeting, Lev gave David a Parker fountain pen. “I didn’t know how to refuse it without insulting him.” At the next meeting, Lev stuffed an envelope full of cash into David’s pocket. This, David refused, indignantly. Later, Lev asked David to spy — which David refused even more indignantly. They never saw each other again. Whatever David was in that period, he was not a Soviet spy.
Back in California, David edited Ramparts, the leftist magazine, with his friend Peter Collier. (As luck would have it, David and Peter moved rightward at the same time. They were partners as radicals and again as anti-radicals.) David got involved with the Black Panthers, those glamorous thugs who, when not killing, robbing, and raping, talked “social justice.” Writes David, “Just as Stalin had used the idealism and loyalty of my parents’ generation to commit his crimes in the ’30s, so the Panthers had used my generation’s idealism in the ’60s.”
He continued to participate in the anti-war movement, but that’s a misnomer, really: It may have been an anti-war movement for some, but certainly not for all. “Let me make this perfectly clear,” said David in 1985: “Those of us who inspired and then led the anti-war movement did not want just to stop the killing as so many veterans of those domestic battles now claim. We wanted the Communists to win.” Not only did they want the Communists to win, they thought they would, according to a popular chant: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.” (The initials stood for National Liberation Front.)
In the years and decades after the war, many American radicals prettied up the record: They had simply wanted to “bring the boys home,” you see. In reality, they loathed the “boys,” and what they wanted to bring home was the war — as in the slogan “Bring the war home.”
David Horowitz had two Kronstadts, I think. One of them was more important and more personal; the other was more global, if you will. “Kronstadt”? This term refers to the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, in which Soviet sailors, soldiers, and others turned against Lenin and the Bolsheviks and were, of course, crushed like bugs. Since then, some ex-Communists and ex-leftists have spoken of their “Kronstadt.” The term has a couple of definitions: It can refer to the moment of one’s disillusionment with the Party; or it can refer to the moment at which one took a stand against the Party. In any case, this moment, for some, was the Nazi-Soviet pact. For others, it was Khrushchev’s “secret speech.” For others, it was the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, or the suppression of the Prague Spring. Many, of course, have never quite had a Kronstadt.
Let me tell it very briefly: David arranged for a woman named Betty Van Patter to work as a bookkeeper at a Panther-run school. Soon, they murdered her. You recall David’s dates for his “life as a leftist”: May Day 1948 until December 1974. That was the month of Van Patter’s murder.
Get this: “Betty’s friends in the Bay Area progressive community, who generally were alert to every injustice, even in lands so remote they could not locate them on a map, kept their silence about this one in their own backyard.” And here is a confession, or testimony: “My dedication to the progressive cause had made me self-righteous and arrogant and blind. Now a cruel and irreversible crime had humbled me and restored my sight.”
David’s other Kronstadt, I gather, was Vietnam — the results of that war, I mean. As David himself puts it, “More people — more Indo-Chinese peasants — were killed by the Marxist victors and friends of the New Left in the first three years of the Communist peace than had been killed on all sides in the 13 years of the anti-Communist war.” He quotes Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Truman Democrat who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, and, afterward, joined the Republican party: “How can it be that persons so deeply committed to the liberation of South Vietnam and Cambodia from Generals Thieu and Lon Nol were so little affected by the enslavement that followed their liberation? Why was there so little anguish among the American accomplices who helped Pol Pot to power?” In David, there was anguish.
He and his friends had wanted the New Left — their Left — to be different from the Old Left — their parents’ Left, the one that had served and revered Stalin. But those two Lefts were “virtually indistinguishable,” David saw. They were alike in their “Marxist underpinnings,” their “anti-Americanism,” and their “indiscriminate embrace of totalitarian revolutions and revolutionaries abroad.”
David, remember, vowed to be different from his parents: He would never “be loyal to a movement based on a lie or be complicit in political crimes.” It had not worked out that way, however. And “the William Buckleys and the Ronald Reagans and the other anti-Communists” who told the world that life was ghastly under Communist regimes — they were right. They were routinely denounced as liars, but they were right. Those denouncing were the liars.
In 1984, David cast his first Republican ballot — for Reagan, who was running for reelection against Walter Mondale. “I did so because he was opposing the efforts of the Sandinista Marxists to turn Nicaragua into a socialist gulag like Cuba. I had supported Fidel; I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.” Foreign policy was vitally important, yes, but David’s thinking at large had shifted. In 1999, he wrote, “As a leftist, I had developed habits of mind that caused me to look at ‘classes’ rather than individuals, at social structures and general paradigms rather than particular events and personalities . . .”
That 1999 article was long after his coming-out. In 1986, he wrote a piece for theVillage Voice called “Why I Am No Longer a Leftist.” More than 20 years later, David Mamet would come out in the same publication in a piece called “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’” The response to David — David Horowitz, I mean (though the same applies to Mamet, really) — was not thoughtful consideration. Not many asked, “Does our old comrade have a point?” The response was furious, embodied in a piece for the Voice by Paul Berman called “The Intellectual Life and the Renegade Horowitz.” That word “renegade” was a high honor for David: It was what the Stalinists had called doubters and dissenters in the 1930s. (After 9/11, Berman did some political sobering up.)
A switch from left to right is not necessarily a bright career move. You give up a lot: including entrée to the most respected publications. David found doors shutting in his face — not just at Left publications, but at “mainstream” publications, particularly the New York Times. In going from left to right, you go from the Kingdom of the Cool to the Kingdom of the Much Less Cool, at least. The New Leftists, David’s old comrades, found homes in all the respected publications. They prettied up, airbrushed, and prospered.
In the course of My Life and Times, David quotes some famous words of Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” David is a rememberer, not a forgetter. “Oh sure,” he says, “like Gitlin and Hayden I would prefer to recall the glory days of my youth in a golden light” — referring to Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden, two stars and definers of the New Left. But “for me the era has been irreparably tarnished by actions and attitudes I vividly remember, which they prefer to forget.” David is like a witness to a crime — to many crimes — who won’t shut up about what he saw while others just want to glide on.
He makes the Left hugely uncomfortable, for instance in his use of the words “we,” “us,” and “our.” A sample: “The results of our defense of the Cuban revolution are indisputable. Cuba is an island prison, a land of regime-induced poverty, of misery and human oppression greater by far than the regime it replaced.” Who on the left could stand to hear that?
When people talk of the Sixties, they tend to talk of “crazy times” that were also “idealistic times.” Yes, yes, some people went too far — but those people were few in number, and most people’s hearts were in the right place. David spoils the party by saying, No. The fog machine operates ceaselessly; David dispels the fog.
In 1990 or so, someone introduced him to an audience as “a former peace activist and civil-rights worker.” David got a kick out of that: He had been a Marxist revolutionary! Today, fog covers the Black Panthers. Huey Newton was basically MLK with an edge. Just as the Communists had been “liberals in a hurry,” the Panthers were civil-rights activists with a streak of impatience. This myth is intolerable to anyone who knows about the Panthers.
You may enjoy this aside: Elaine Brown, a blood-soaked Panther, once admitted to David, privately, “The poorest black in Oakland is richer than 90 percent of the world’s population.”
No one, but no one, wants to remember the Vietnam War — meaning, again, the aftermath of that war. George W. Bush gave many speeches in his eight years as president. Probably the Left liked none of them. But there was none they hated more than a speech Bush gave in 2007, in which he spoke of Iraq and the Middle East in the context of Vietnam and Indochina. Here are some inflammatory paragraphs:
. . . many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people.
In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: “What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince, or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they’ve never seen and may never have heard of?” A columnist for the New York Times[Sydney Schanberg] wrote in a similar vein in 1975, just as Cambodia and Vietnam were falling to the Communists. “It’s difficult to imagine,” he said, “how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.” A headline on that story — dateline Phnom Penh — summed up the argument: “Indochina without Americans: For Most a Better Life.”
The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began a murderous rule in which hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and torture and execution. In Vietnam, former allies of the United States and government workers and intellectuals and businessmen were sent off to prison camps, where tens of thousands perished. Hundreds of thousands more fled the country on rickety boats, many of them going to their graves in the South China Sea.
The squeals following that speech were long, loud, and livid. And guilt-tinged.
After 1985, David’s writing was “driven by two urgencies,” he says: “a desire to persuade those still on the left of the destructive consequences of the ideas and causes they promoted”; and “the frustration I experienced with my new conservative peers who did not seem to understand the malignancy of the forces that were mobilized against them.”
Early in his career, he did some teaching at Berkeley and elsewhere — but he has done most of his teaching in his writing. The term “public intellectual” makes some of us gag, but that’s what David is. He has read a lot, across the spectrum: He knows his Marx and his Mises, his Gramsci and his Kolakowski. He wears his learning lightly, though: It peeks out now and then, as when he quotes one of these gents (or quotes Shakespeare, for that matter). One quality of David’s writing is self-criticism — not in the Maoist sense, but in a true one: David is unsparing about himself and the mistakes he has made. Would that his critics were half as honest.
I’ll tell you what the “smart” view of David is: He was a radical of the Left who became a radical of the Right. He was an extremist then and is an extremist now, with the same nasty and flamboyant style. Express this view, and almost every liberal and conservative head will nod: “Yup, yup, that’s how it is.” It is nonsense. No one will contradict you if you say it — but you’ll be a fool.
I cherish a comment that Hendrik Hertzberg, the New Yorker writer, once made to Collier & Horowitz. He said, “You were apologists for Communism then and you are apologists for anti-Communism now.” They are not merely apologists for anti-Communism; they are anti-Communists, as all decent people are (though they will not necessarily be published in The New Yorker).
If you want to classify David politically, you can call him a conservative — with a healthy dose of Hayek in him. “My life experience had led me to conclude that not only was changing the world an impossible dream, but the refusal to recognize it as such was the source of innumerable individual tragedies and of epic miseries that human beings had inflicted on each other in my lifetime through the failed utopias of Nazism and Communism.” Seldom will you read a more conservative sentence. And you will read many more like it, in David’s collected writings. He is constantly inveighing against ideologies, party lines, rigidities.
David is known as a hothead and flamethrower. A rhetorical goon. He can be that. He can also be coolly cerebral. And he can be elegiac, lyrical — as in personal memoirs such as the one about his late daughter, A Cracking of the Heart. He has many moods, many styles. And make no mistake: He can do style.
Christopher Hitchens was supposed to be the most stylish writer and polemicist of his time. But consider an exchange between him and David on the radio. David said something rude — i.e., something true — about Castro. And Hitchens, with his practiced sneer, said, “How dare you? How dare you?” David replied, “Christopher, aren’t we getting a little old for how-dare-yous?” The more stylish person in that exchange was not Hitchens (who, like Paul Berman, would do some political sobering up).
The question of David’s reputation, or standing, is interesting: He has legions of fans, and legions of detractors, some of whom occupy high places. The Left won’t deal with him, of course. He has their number, he has kept book on them — and they resent it. Writes David, “An ideological omertà is the Left’s response to its vindicated critics, especially those who emerged from its own ranks.” I’m reminded of something a liberal intellectual and policymaker once said to Abigail Thernstrom (who migrated from left to right). He said, “I don’t like debating you, Abby, because you always know what I’m thinking, and you know what I’m going to say before I say it.”
And the conservatives? Have they welcomed David with open arms, gratitude, and delight? Not really. They have often been snippy and scornful about David. Grudging about him. How to explain it? I’m sure I can’t, satisfactorily, but I will have a go:
David, they say, can be harsh, obnoxious, and generally impossible. I have no doubt he can. He can also be a peach. Furthermore, David is an activist — not just an intellectual, but an activist. And some conservatives are uncomfortable with activism. They would rather observe, opine, and sigh. David wants to take up cudgels and win. He says to lazy or defeatist conservatives, “Wake up! Fight back! The Left is eating your lunch, but it need not be so!” David is fearless in an environment marked by some fearfulness. He is an upsetter of the apple cart, and the upsetting of the apple cart is not very conservative. When David goes into a university and makes a fuss about the curriculum, some conservatives are embarrassed. They say, “Stop making a fuss. It may cause them to dislike us even more. Plus, aren’t we born to be an oppressed minority?” Some conservatives are content with dhimmitude. And, frankly, there are conservatives who have the sneaking hope that they will be approved by the New York Times et al. “Look, I may be on the right, but I’m not an extremist and nuisance like Horowitz, you know. You can bring me home to dinner.”
Willmoore Kendall once made a wicked remark about Cleanth Brooks, his colleague at Yale: “Cleanth is always the second-most-conservative person in the room.”
In a way, David is a man without a home — an independent, a republic unto himself. Speaking at his alma mater in 2009, he said, “Fifty years ago, my radical views caused me to feel like an outsider at Columbia. Returning as a conservative, I find myself an outsider still — and again it is because of my political views.”
As I was reading My Life and Times, I kept writing in the margins, “True, true!” And as I read about David’s thoughts and experiences, I couldn’t help thinking of my own. Other readers will find the same, I’m sure. I kept thinking, “Yes, that’s what I saw, that’s what I heard, that’s what I felt.” Take the matter of human rights: The people around me constantly yelled about Pinochet’s Chile, Marcos’s Philippines, and, above all, apartheid South Africa. And yell they should have. But what about the people behind the Iron Curtain? And in China, North Korea, and Vietnam? And in Cuba? If you prick or torture them, do they not bleed? Aren’t human rights for them, too?
Obviously, no one can agree with David on every point in the hundreds of pages of Volume 1, or in the thousands of pages of the volumes to come. That would be absurd. In all likelihood, David doesn’t agree with David on every point. (Do you agree with everything you’ve said for the past 25 or 30 years?) But I always want to know what David has to say. Early in that Columbia speech, he praised a professor, saying, “He was there . . . to teach us how to think and not to tell uswhat to think — therefore to respect the divergent opinions of others. I am afraid this is a vanishing ethos in our culture and a dying pedagogical art in our university classrooms today.” Oh, yes. Like everyone else, David will sometimes tell you what to think. But he is more interested in suggesting how you should think.
Once he was asked, “Do you ever feel that you are wasting your breath? Do you think that truth will ever matter? No matter what you prove or disprove, in the end the truth will remain in the shadows of what people want to hear and want to believe.” David answered, “I agree more than I care to with this observation.” For my part, I can say that David has not wasted his breath. He learned important things in the first stages of his life, and has learned important things since. He has wanted to impart what he knows, and he has many beneficiaries. Everyone? Of course not. Enough beneficiaries, though — more than most ever have.
What has driven him, I think, is what drove Whittaker Chambers and lots of others who left Communism and dedicated themselves to anti-Communism: a desire to tell the truth, and to have other people know the truth. A desire to be free of lies, and to counter them. “Live not by lies!” Solzhenitsyn implored, during the long years of the Soviet Union. Lies want to govern everything, and do, if you let them. David was sick of lies: about the Soviet Union, about the Panthers, about Vietnam, about everything. And he burns to know and tell the truth, insofar as that is possible.
This quality — a respect for the truth, an aversion to lies — has always existed in him, even if it has been suppressed or superseded at times. Age 14, he was walking across the Triborough Bridge to attend a rally for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic spies for the Soviet Union. A political mentor was explaining to him that lying was justified, for revolutionary purposes. David knew this was wrong — felt in his stomach that it was. “The renegade Horowitz,” even then!
“Great is truth,” they say, “and will prevail.” It will, yes — but even if it didn’t, it would still be great.