Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
by David Horowitz
Free Press. 468 pp. $27.50
In the mid-1980’s, at a rally in support of Nicaragua’s Communist government, David Horowitz was for some reason invited to speak. Whatever the organizers may have had in mind, Horowitz did not tell the crowd what it wanted to hear. For Horowitz, a prominent radical in the 1960’s, had recently broken with the Left. Instead of denouncing the United States and singing the praises of the Sandinistas, he proceeded to warn those in attendance at the Berkeley, California, gathering that if they were “to pause for a moment and then plunge their busy political minds into the human legacies of their activist pasts, they would instantly drown in an ocean of blood.”
Many Intellectuals have made the voyage from Left to Right in recent decades. But few have come from as deep inside the hard Left as Horowitz, and none has retained more of the 60’s style. Horowitz, in fact, prides himself on his determination to continue speaking “in the voice of the New Left—outraged, aggressive, morally certain.” This quality is conspicuously on display in Heterodoxy, the broadsheet which Horowitz edits and which presents the conservative case in the most willfully incendiary way—its cover photos have sported Karl Marx in drag, Charlie Chaplin in Nazi garb, and, for a Clinton reelection issue, a bullet-riddled American flag. Horowitz also runs an institution in Los Angeles called the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which monitors political correctness and serves as a watchdog against extremism on the Left.
It is hard to think of anyone who has turned on his own past with more fury than David Horowitz. Radical Son, his memoir, charts a trek from one political commitment to something approaching its opposite, and the events that propelled him on his way.
Unlike some 60’s radicals, Horowitz did not acquire his politics—at least his first set of politics—in an act of rebellion. His parents, first-generation Americans, appear in these pages as thoroughly decent, even admirable people, each of whom had a minor, and a major, character flaw. In his mother, the minor one was diffidence; in his father, self-pity. In both, the major one was unswerving loyalty to Joseph Stalin and the USSR.
As loyal members of the American Communist party, Horowitz’s parents followed the Soviet line in whatever direction it zigged or zagged. When, in the 1930’s, Stalin feared Hitler’s designs, the Horowitzes favored rapid American rearmament. On August 23, 1939, when Hitler and Stalin concluded their nonaggression pact, Horowitz’s parents became instant pacifists—only to abandon this position no less suddenly on June 22, 1941, when the Nazis attacked the USSR. Nothing could shake their faith: not Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes, not the invasion of Hungary in 1956, not the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and not the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1974.
David Horowitz’s own trajectory took him to Columbia College, graduate school at Berkeley, and then a spell in London where he hobnobbed with such fixtures of the European intellectual Left as Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher—and a lunch companion named “Lev,” who was an agent of the KGB. On his return to the U.S. in the mid-1960’s, Horowitz became an editor of Ramparts, the leading radical magazine of the time; as a budding New Left theoretician, he also wrote a number of much-talked-about books, including The Free World Colossus (1965), an indictment of American conduct for its crimes in the cold war.
Horowitz also became closely involved with the Black Panthers. Although the Panthers, under the leadership of Huey Newton, were already something of a glorified street gang, Horowitz was flattered, he writes here, to be of service to a real “revolutionary vanguard,” and chose not to notice the handwriting on the wall. He helped the Panthers establish a “Learning Center” in Oakland, which, in fact, served as a front for criminal activity, as a military training facility, and as a way to tap into millions of dollars in California state and local education funds. Horowitz’s success in this endeavor made him a trusted confidant of the Panther elite.
Horowitz dates the onset of his disillusionment to the time when he used his clout to get a job at the Learning Center for an acquaintance, a white accountant named Betty Van Patter who had worked with him at Ramparts. Weeks into the job, she disappeared; a transparent lack of curiosity among the Panther leaders made it clear they knew where she was. In fact, she had been murdered; her body soon washed ashore in the San Francisco Bay.
Around the same time, Fay Stender, Huey Newton’s former attorney, had become the target of a Panther vendetta for her refusal to smuggle a revolver into prison to help the gunman George Jackson escape. One day, a hit man arrived at her door, forced her to sign a “confession,” shot her five times, and left her for dead. A year later, paralyzed and hiding from reprisal in Hong Kong, Stender took her own life.
If Horowitz’s conscience began to gnaw at him, his colleagues took a different view; for them, curiosity about Van Patter’s or Stender’s fate was tantamount to disloyalty to the cause. Horowitz recounts how, at Stender’s funeral,
speaker after speaker went up to the platform to remember Fay—lawyers who worked with her, comrades who had served with her, friends who loved her. They were political activists who would normally have made a political symbolism out of the most trivial occurrence. Yet . . . they had nothing to say about the sequence of events that had ended her life.
It was this silence that shattered Horowitz’s world. “If we [progressives] actually succeeded in making a revolution in America,” he recalls thinking, “and if the Panthers or similar radical vanguards prevailed, how would our fate be different” from that of the victims of Stalin’s purges? “Our injustice, albeit mercifully smaller in scale, was as brutal and final as Stalin’s. As progressives we had no law to govern us, other than that of the gang.”
Horowitz broke with his associates, and began his journey to the Right. By the 1980’s, he was a fervent supporter of Ronald Reagan, and, with his colleague Peter Collier who had traced a similar path, was writing books like Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the 60‘s.
How, ultimately, is David Horowitz’s transformation to be explained? After all, many 1960’s radicals dwelled in the same tawdry cesspool, witnessed the same murders or lesser acts of crime and duplicity, yet continued to cling fervently to the cause.
One explanation may be generational. Horowitz was approaching the seasoned age of thirty when he entered California radicalism in the late 1960’s, and was thus slightly older than his fellows. Having married in 1959, he was also burdened with heavier responsibilities. His deviation, then, may be seen as that of a man who had come to place some value on middle-class existence.
A second possibility, one that runs somewhat counter to the first, is that the very depth and intensity of Horowitz’s radicalism led inevitably to a spasm of self-correction. The writer Paul Berman once remarked with some asperity that “Horowitz is in the American vein. He doesn’t correct; he converts.” Horowitz quotes this remark in Radical Son only to mock it, but there may be more to it than he is willing to admit; one piece of evidence, of course, is his own fiercely polemical style.
A third interpretation might also be adduced. As the gripping pages of Radical Son make clear, Horowitz possesses a fearless capacity for self-examination—hardly a noted virtue of the radical Left. In the end, it is this capacity which may have rescued him from an association with murderers. It certainly enabled him to reinvent himself, and to forge a new career as the kind of person his parents had no doubt warned him against.