Changing a mind: more on Radical Son
As I wrote earlier, I've been reading David Horowitz's autobiography of political/psychological change, Radical Son. Now, at two-hundred-plus pages into the work and only halfway through, I think Horowitz could have used a more ruthless editor. But the book remains absolutely fascinating as a study of one man's change from radical to conservative.
I've finally reached the part I'd been waiting for, where Horowitz begins to "turn," to question the leftist radical viewpoint in which he was raised and to which he had devoted the first thirty-five years of his life. I had looked at a brief synopsis of the book prior to reading it, and so I knew the bare bones of his story--that the trigger for Horowitz's dark night of the soul was the murder by the Black Panthers of a woman acquaintance of his who'd been employed by them.
I wasn't at all sure why this particular incident had acted as the spark that had caused him to question his entire set of political beliefs. On reading his account I find that, strangely enough, the roots of this change appear to have lain not in her murder, but almost twenty years earlier, when Horowitz had witnessed another event that had separated the true believers from those who ended up leaving the leftist fold.
Horowitz's book is so rich with incident and food for thought that I imagine I'll write a series of posts about it (oh no, not another series!!). But right now I want to concentrate on the tie-in between these two events in Horowitz's life. The first event was one that rocked the American leftist world in a way I hadn't quite realized till I read Horowitz's book, while the second was an event that hardly made a ripple, except for sparking change in Horowitz himself.
The first event was the publication of what became known as the Khrushchev Report. Horowitz had been the quintessential "red diaper baby." His parents were not just leftists, they were committed and devoted Communists, as were most, if not all, of their friends. They had pooh-poohed any criticism of the Soviets, and revered Stalin. For them, and for their generation of American Communists, this was a watershed event, the great dividing line which occurred in 1956, when Horowitz was in his freshman year at Columbia. He writes:
...the Times had published a report from the Kremlin describing a secret speech by the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. It had been smuggled out of the Kremlin by the Mossad, the Israeli secret service [quite a fascinating detail, that]. The speech made headlines all over the world because it was about crimes that Stalin had committed. Until then, Communists and progressives everywhere had denied such crimes ever took place, and had denounced the reports as "anti-Soviet" propaganda. Over the next months the story was confirmed, even by Communist sources, and in June the full text was published in the Times, and then in the Daily Worker itself.....
When my parents and their friends opened the morning Times and read its text, their world collapsed--and along with it their will to struggle. If the document was true, almost everything they had said and believed was false. Their secret mission had led them into waters so deep that its tide had overwhelmed them, taking with it the very meaning of their lives.
According to Horowitz, this was how Peggy Dennis, a woman who was a Party leader, recounted the event in her autobiography:
The last page crumpled in my fist. I lay in the half darkness and I wept...For the years of silence in which we buried doubts and questions. For a thirty-year life's commitment that lay shattered. I lay sobbing low, hiccoughing whimpers.
Horowitz describes the split that followed:
In the American community of the faithful, the Khrushchev Report was a divisive force. Forty-year friendships disintegrated overnight, and even marriages dissolved as one partner would decide to quit the Party, the other to keep its faith...In the two years that followed, more than two-thirds of the Party membership dropped from its lists....My parents were among those who struggled to find solace in the thought that while "mistakes" had been made, remedies were being taken. But...they were stunned by a blow from which they could never recover...although they remained faithful in their hearts to the radical cause, they were never really active in politics again.
It remained to their son to finally complete the process of leaving the left, many years later. In the meantime, though, he did no such thing. He dealt with his own disillusionment by distancing himself from the mistakes of his parents' generation. They had spent their lives in a cause that was tainted by murder and corruption on a monstrous scale, closing their eyes to the reality because they had wanted so much to cling to their idealistic beliefs. But Horowitz was young, and he had not yet spent a long life in that service--rather, he now dedicated himself to fashioning a New Left (his phrase) that would be free from the errors of the old ways. Just as each generation tends to look down on its parents, and to think it can do much better, so Horowitz thought he could fashion a left that would be free from the destructive impulses and actions that had led to the Stalin debacle. He spent the next eighteen years of his life working for that cause.
So the experience of betrayal and the resultant refashioning of a belief system wasn't peripheral for Horowitz, and didn't just happen once--it was central to his development, and it happened twice, although the first time he was more of an observer and the second time a participant. You might say, in post-modern terms, that the experience of betrayal and change was part of his "narrative" from a fairly early age. His identity as a moral leftist was based on the idea that he had figured out a way to rise above this terrible history, and to purge (to coin a phrase) violence from the movement, to learn from the mistakes of the past and enter a more perfect future in which power would not be used for evil.
It's hard to believe that such a smart person--as Horowitz undoubtedly was--could be so naive, but, as Orwell said, there are some ideas so preposterous that only an intellectual can believe them. Another relevant factor is that Horowitz's portrait of his emotional life at the time is that of a man whose thoughts outpaced his ability to understand his feelings or the feelings of others, a person strangely distanced from himself, lacking insight, and emotionally immature (naive, even), despite the fact that he had married and had children young.
By 1973 Horowitz was living in the Bay area, a successful author and publisher of the leftist periodical Ramparts, when he became involved with the Black Panther cause and Huey Newton. As a mark of his gullibility, he seems not to have recognized any of the very clear signs that he was dealing with a group that was mainly composed of violent and unpredictable thugs--particularly Newton himself. Horowitz was the person who recommended the idealistic Betty Van Patter to be the bookkeeper for a school run by the Panthers. She ended up annoying the Panther leadership and also learning too much about them, and so they coldbloodedly murdered her.
This was the real turning point for Horowitz. He learned in a very personal way that the evil and destructive impulse could not be expunged from the Movement after all. And, to his horror, he (just as his parents before him) had been complicit in the process by which this force had been allowed to operate on the innocent. It's not surprising that this event precipitated a deep and harrowing depression for Horowitz, and sparked questions that led to a major re-alignment of his political world and his life, although that process was not completed overnight. But it seems to me that, had he not witnessed that first bitter disillusionment in his parents' generation, his political beliefs might have weathered the second, and he might still be a radical today. It is no accident at all that his book is called Radical Son, because the intergenerational aspect is essential to his experience.
To be continued....