Wednesday, June 01, 2005

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....


At 5:34 PM, June 01, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

What came to mind as I read of his conversion was the bombing of the UN headquarters building in Iraq and later the bombing of the Red Cross building, both of which had purposely distanced themselves from the US. The US had offered to provide security for the UN building but that offer was declined. That bombing was quite a bitter pill for Liberals, and many others, to swallow, as there had been a steady call and collective whine to the affect that the UN should be in charge of things. Then came the beheadings and now the bombing of civilians. The notion of these killers being insurgents is testimony to the Left still trying to justify the actions of these terrorists. How many have converted in light of 9/11 the above incidents in Iraq remains to be seen.

At 6:04 PM, June 01, 2005, Blogger Pat said...

The Khrushchev speech is a famous moment in leftist history, but by no means should it have been the first wake-up call to Horowitz's parents. Remember that in the 1930s the communists had been fiercely anti-Nazi at first. Then came the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact, and suddenly commmunists in the US couldn't praise the Nazis enough. Then of course came Hitler's decision to invade Russia in June 1941, and the communists in the US were fiercely anti-Nazi again.

At 6:33 PM, June 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another twist to the story of Krushchev's speech: Soviet citizens were not allowed access to a transcript of the speech. So all discussion of it in the USSR was in terms of a Russian translation of the English translation, which was publicly available in the West. Otherwise, you would be admitting to illegal possession of State documents.

At 2:50 AM, June 02, 2005, Blogger WichitaBoy said...

In my unending quest to understand what these words I hear all the time, "liberal", "leftist", and "conservative", actually mean, one thought which repeatedly recurs is that the differences revolve around fundamental notions of the nature of the world, of the nature of humanity, which are starkly at odds. One group believes that Man is essentially good and can be led back from his wayward path through good thoughts and deeds, through good speeches and "teach-ins", and through good government. The other group believes that some people are simply evil and that perhaps all of us are a little evil sometimes.

In assessing the nature of the world we always run the danger of coming to the conclusion we want to be true rather than to the conclusion that is true. The post-modern movement seems to sanction this. It boggles the mind that Northeastern Communists like Horowitz's parents could have bought into that particular line of BS for so long, and yet so many of them evidently did. Apparently they went to their graves still True Believers.

Again, how could Horowitz have possibly convinced himself that the "true" Left hadn't yet been tried?

I would dearly love to believe that Man is good, is perfectible, that anybody who says otherwise is the real problem. But my conscience prevents me from ever reaching that particular mental island, enticing though it may be.

At 6:04 AM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book sounds fascinating, but I want to offer a caveat. For a while, Horowitz wrote a regular column for "Salon," In reading it I discovered that although he is a remarkably graceful and evocative writer, he can be very sloppy with his facts. Several times he wrote about subjects I know something about. Each time, he seriously misrepresented factual material--either intentionally or, perhaps more likely, because he accepted distorted information from advocacy groups with axes to grind and didn't check up on its accuracy. He is insightful in many ways, but not always, evidently, a good researcher or a careful critical thinker. So, be warned. To the extent that the book is about his own opinions and perspectives, I am sure it makes fascinating reading. To the extent that it tries to present factual history or information, though, I'd suggest that you read with care.

At 12:31 PM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Witchitaboy hits on something essential about American leftist attitudes when he specifies them geographically as Northeastern.

As someone who has lived in different parts of the South his whole life, I've always been struck by the double-standard that exists with regard to intellectual judgement of wrongheaded beliefs when they are held by Northerners as opposed to Southerners and Mid-Westerners.

I'd be the last one to offer any apology for the sorts of religious fundamentalism and right-wing radicalism that can be found on the margins of Middle America. But I've always wondered why it is that being crazy-as-hell politically or theologically is something that's only held against you if you are a lower-class Middle-American, whereas so much that is equally crazy-as-hell is politely tolerated, even encouraged, when it comes to those like the young Horowitz who are ruling-class and Northern.

I can't imagine an upper-middle-class dinner party anywhere at which someone would not be shouted down if they began to spout a sort of Timothy McVeigh right-wing paranoid party-line. But I also can't envision, even in the deepest depths of the South, a comparable scene where anyone is ever taken to task for holding an equally paranoid left-wing position. There's something slightly posh about left-wing paranoia that intimidates folks and makes them bite their tongues in its presence. It's as if you might out yourself as vaguely declasse if you "spoke truth to power" in certain social spheres; it simply isn't what's done in those circles, most of which are located in the North or in upper-middle-class enclaves elsewhere that identify with Northern values. The gist of it is that if you have enough money and enough social standing, you can be as crasy-as-hell as you want to be.

There's been a good bit of discussion about why parts of Middle-America have drifted to the right in recent years, but not enough has been said has about why so many in the Northern upper-class have become so heavily invested in a left-wing world-view that seems seem just as pathological to those of us looking in from outside as various kinds of Middle-American weirdness may look to them from the other point of view.

At 8:29 AM, June 03, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

The Northeast elite: I concur with the thread running thru the responses.

Raised in the south, but spending a decade of my young adulthood in Wellesley, I lived but a stone's throw from the judge who ordered the Boston schools desegregated (that didn't touch Wellesley schools, though...out of 'compassion' we bussed in black children).

I was a member of the ACLU and the Urban League. Went to hear both Julian Bond and Saul Alinsky speak. Especially admired Alinsky's "radical" plans for changing our privileged ignorance.

Now I think of such people as the Mandarin Class. They move in a tight, closed orbit composed of academia, media, and politics. Media includes film and writers. Academia includes the world of therapists.

But enclaves of Mandarins exist not just on the coasts or in the place of their origin, the NE. These pockets occur, for the most part, wherever there is a large university. Now, having moved south again, I live near Berkeley East, the People's Republic of Charlottesville.

It infuriates C'ville that its congressional representative is a centrist Republican (actually he had his Horowitz Moment and moved from the Democrat party to being an Independent). No matter who they field against him, they always refuse to look at the make-up of the rest of the district. And so they lose, and bitterly.

The conversion process itself is fascinating. Mr. Horowitz', mine, neo-neocon's. It is hard to give up what is so central that it feels as though it exists at the very center of being. One looks back at that younger self with very different eyes than do those who haven't felt impelled to re-orient and re-identify.

Haven't read Mr. Horowitz' book, though now I intend may help me clarify the process of metamorphosis in my own political and spiritual identity.

Witchitaboy says he would " to believe that Man is good and perfectible..." and there he sums it up. The Mandarin class does indeed believe that. It believes in Utopia through management of others by their betters...and we know where that leads: Utopia is merely socialism with a better tailor.

I have come to prefer St. Paul's view of man, seeing the chasm between what I would do and what I actually end up doing. The old idea of Original Sin -- of a basic 'fault' in all of us -- is closest to my view.

What finally sealed it for me was reading deeply in the Object Relations view of child development. All that greed, envy, etc., was (for me) the best explanation for the mystery of being human. As Bion says somewhere, we are born already too much for ourselves to bear.

I look forward to your further fisking of Mr. Horowitz' book.

At 11:29 AM, June 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


To disagree with one point:

The Mandarin class does not believe Man is good. They think Man is stupid, violent, and vile.
The Mandarin class thinks they themselves are good. That's why they should be running things.

At 12:27 PM, June 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear, Dymphna--I'm wondering why you say "further fisking." This post of mine wasn't meant to be any sort of fisking at all! It's a long-winded book, for sure, but that's hardly a major problem, just a minor quibble. As for Horowitz's immaturity and naivete--well, he himself admits that in the book, so my mentioning it hardly qualifies as fisking.

I actually highly recommend the book. I am fascinated both by the tale Horowitz tells, some of it very chilling, and by the fact that he thought to tell it at all. When I began this blog with the idea of telling my own story of political change, and trying to talk about the process in more general terms, I had no idea there were books written by former radicals such as Horowitz on that very subject. I intend to try to read more---most notably, one by Norman Podhoretz entitled "Ex-Friends".

At 11:50 PM, June 03, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

Richard, I agree: the Mandarin class does think Man is vile, etc...however, they're going to reform us. That's the whole point in their needing to run things.

But this doesn't change their Utopian view that we can be changed...with their help and programs, of course.


I was being careless with my choice of words there. In my own mind, fisking has become a kind of exegesis...I know it's really taking something apart critically, but it's morphed for me...

BTW, there is a certain fascination in reading others' conversion stories. The very first one is Augustine's of course. It's fascinating and in its own way, quite your 'spare' time.

At 7:30 PM, June 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fwiw, you might want to check out "Left Illusions" by Horowitz. It's a collection of his essays with excepts from "Radical Son ". Much of what N-NC has summarized seems quite familiar to me. It's also got the fascinating essay "How to Make Political War".

yet another rice alum


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