Reviewed by Barbara Kay
[Originally published in the print edition of The Dorchester Review, Autumn/Winter 2018, pp. 94-100.]
The Black Book of the American Left, Book IX: Ruling Ideas. David Horowitz. Second Thought Books, 2018. 338 pp.
Approaching his 80th birthday, anti-Marxist crusader David Horowitz is a “lion in winter.” His mental vigour remains undiminished, but one can see that consolidation of his prodigious intellectual legacy — articles, speeches, books, pamphlets, memoirs: the index runs to fifty pages — is his current preoccupation.
Beginning publication in 2013, Horowitz’s massive oeuvre of political writings has been organized into a nine-volume series, The Black Book of the American Left, with each volume focusing on a specific domain of the left’s crusade to “radically transform” a loathed America: the campus, racial relations, popular culture, the gender wars, the progressive-Islamist alliance, and so forth. The final volume of the series was published last year.
Book IX: Ruling Ideas is divided in two. Part Two offers a summary essay of his life and accomplishments by his anti-Marxist comrade-in-arms and editor of Front Page Magazine, Jamie Glazov. Useful in itself, it is not meant to substitute for Horowitz’s 1997 opus, Radical Son, which George Gilder called “the first great autobiography of his generation,” and which other critics rank at the same level for style and substance as Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.
Part One comprises a number of carefully selected longer pieces meant to serve as a representative sample of the battles in which Horowitz acquitted himself with particular distinction. Many Horowitz fans will have read the entire Black Book series, but for those who haven’t, or who are new to Horowitz’s work — giving him a test run, so to speak — I can recommend Book IX as the volume to choose if it is the only one they read.
The first essay, “The Fate of the Marxist Idea,” originally published as a chapter of Horowitz’s and Peter Collier’s book, Destructive Generation: Second thoughts About the Sixties, takes the form of a long letter of response to that of a childhood friend, Carol Pasternak, a fellow “red diaper” baby raised in the Marxist dream palace of immigrant Jewish Communists. They had attended the same progressive schools and camps. (One such had the indigenous-sounding name, “Wo-Chi-Ca,” which stood, most unexotically, for “Workers’ Children’s Camp.”) Horowitz famously bolted that palace and threw up the drawbridge against return; Pasternak remained.
Pasternak’s letter — reprised in the essay — sprang from her wish to further explain her refusal to attend a memorial service for Horowitz’s father. The telephone call in which the invitation was embedded had turned rancorous over political differences, ending with an abrupt cut-off by Horowitz. In unpacking the Marxist shibboleths contained in Pasternak’s letter, Horowitz took the opportunity to elaborate on the fallacies and hypocritical mindset of all committed Marxists.
The combination of his father’s death and Pasternak’s judgmentalism joins personal grief to more general anguish over Horowitz’s self-exile from his former Marxist tribe, resulting in powerful rhetoric.
Horowitz does far more here than attack the ideology he came to despise. His greater mission is to probe the mindset of those who could not bear to abandon their demonstrably false god, and to reveal the human vulnerability at the heart of the Marxist temptation in its diverse guises. The struggle to understand how it was that he, faced with proofs of Marxism’s poisoned fruits, was able to make the break when Pasternak and so many others could not, has been a principal driver of Horowitz’s political writing.
At his father’s funeral, his old friends spoke of a man “who made a contribution” and “tried to make the world a better place,” but nobody spoke of who he was as a human being. It was a wounding, and infuriating personal experience, but it served as further confirmation to Horowitz that the “radical heart” prefers political fantasies to actual emotions, and that he had made the right choice in choosing to throw in his lot with people rather than The People.
Unfortunately for Pasternak, her choice of words and thoughts, meant to assuage her old friend’s agitation, only fueled his contempt for what she stood for, triggering a history lesson and a general j’accuse for her lack of transparency in acknowledging the Utopian delusion that human beings can be socially engineered into collective goodness.
Having once been himself a master manipulator of language to avoid unpleasant truths, Horowitz is quick to pounce on Pasternak’s avoidance tropes. In her letter, Pasternak mentions “our common heritage.” Horowitz notes that the locution is “such a precious evasion. Our common heritage was totalitarianism, was it not?” and “Your need for this Orwelllian phrase is revealing.”
Pasternak says it was “compassion and humanitarianism” that inspired his parents. Horowitz responds: “They were not moralists, but Marxist-Leninists … For them, compassion outside the Revolution was mere bourgeois sentimentality … everything that is flesh-and-blood humanity is only the disposable past.” The New Left forgot the people in Indochina once their oppressors were Communists and “never gave a thought to the Cubans it helped to bury alive in Castro’s jails, which is still indifferent to the genocides of Marxist conquest - the fate of the Cambodias and Tibets and Afghanistan.”
Horowitz reminds Pasternak that their circle could not say they didn’t know the truth. Khrushchev’s 1956 report to the Politburo exposing the enormity of Stalin’s crimes revealed that “[o]ur parents’ political faith had been exposed as a monstrous lie.” Horowitz does not spare himself in chronicling the mistakes of the New Left, his political home for many years after abandoning Communism. The New Left sought to draw a veil over the Soviet experience and jettison guilt by association with Communism by rebranding themselves: “It was as though the radicals who came to politics in the Sixties generation wanted to think of themselves as having been born without parents.”
The left’s Utopianism and its capillary crime of “forgetting” are recurrent Horowitz motifs. In their obsession with transforming society, these were the dominant sins of the left then, and continue today. They are sins because both inevitably lead to inhumanity. A “humanistic Marxism” is a chimera, Horowitz concluded, camouflaging the indifference to human rights at Marxism’s core. Every society that has embraced Marxist tenets has failed economically and produced human wreckage on a grand scale.
But leftists find the dream difficult to forswear, regardless of the evidence. Because, Horowitz says, “it is not a matter of politics, but of self.” Of redemption (“Marx was a rabbi after all”). At his father’s memorial, the word “Communism” never passed the lips of any of his comrades. “To name it would make their lives to uncomfortably real. In their silence was their truth. What my father and his comrades were finally seeking in their political faith was not a new reality for the world but an old illusion for themselves. What they found was comfort for their lives of pain.”
Horowitz came to realize was that “home” for his Communist parents was not geographical but temporal: Their home was the future. “Clarity entered my father’s life through the Communist Party and the socialist Idea. The moment he joined the Party, he felt himself touch the shore of a land-mass that circled the globe and extended into the future itself. As a soldier in the Party’s vanguard and a prophet of its truth, my father gained wisdom and power beyond his faculty, and finally achieved what his own father had not: his self-esteem as a man.”
The second essay of Part One is also framed as a letter (1990), this time to Ralph Miliband (father of British politicians Ed and David Miliband), one of Horowitz’s political mentors during his sojourn in London in the early 1960s working for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. This too is an explanation and apologia for his repudiation of their once-shared faith.
Some of the points in this letter cover ground trodden in the letter to Pasternak, but with additional aperçus worth noting — the kind that go “ping” in the reader’s brain and extract a nod of the head - such as the progressive belief that authoritarian socialist countries can change through reason (why, of course Castro will make good on his promises in time), but that “capitalist societies cannot change without revolution” (Pinochet and democracy could never have co-existed in harmony).
It’s also worth reading for its comparisons, with precise statistics, on life in Russia under the czars versus life after the Revolution. From 1876 to 1904 in Russia, 486 people were executed, including political actors — about 17 a year. From June 1918 to October 1919, more than 16,000 people were executed — about a thousand a month. In the years 1937 and 1938, half a million political prisoners were shot — about 20,000 a month. By contrast, the Spanish Inquisition, in the 80 years of its existence, saw an average of 10 heretics a month condemned to death.
Horowitz pays tribute here to the brilliant Polish intellectual, Leszek Kolakowski, whose long treatise on Marxism’s deficits persuaded Horowitz that, in Kolakowski’s words, “Marxism has been the greatest fantasy of our century.” Horowitz writes that after reading Kolakowski’s rebuttal to Marxism, “this moment marked the end of my intellectual life in the left.”
Perhaps his intellectual life, but not his career. On his return from England in 1968, he took up the most dramatic phase of his adventures on the left, in becoming first an editor, and then the editor-in-chief of Ramparts, the New Left’s flagship publication and voice of the antiwar movement, with a circulation of 250,000.
“Slavery and the American Idea,” the third essay, is Horowitz grappling with America’s cultural third rail, race relations. When Horowitz took control of Ramparts, he was seeking to harmonize support for socialism, in particular equality between the races, but in a form that eschewed the revolutionary violence of groups like the Weather Underground. Buying into their leader Huey Newton’s pitch of incremental, community-based change, Horowitz believed the Black Panthers would be a pivotal “vanguard” in effecting that goal.
In 1974 Betty Van Patter, a friend who, through Horowitz’s endorsement, found a bookkeeping job with an Oakland Panthers’ school run by their tax-exempt foundation, was murdered to prevent her exposing the criminality for which the school was a façade. Law enforcement and media were loath to prosecute the Panthers for fear of appearing racist, and it was left to Horowitz to piece together his own inquiry. In the process he faced threats of retribution and learned that his political friends were prepared to sacrifice truth to protect the Panthers’ social-justice brand.
In its way, the Betty Van Patter incident had as momentous impact on Horowitz’s psyche as Khrushchev’s secret speech had 18 years before. His progressive friends’ indifference to Betty’s death coalesced with the crimes of his parents’ generation. The Panthers got away with Van Patter’s murder and many others besides because of political correctness. These injustices, never redressed, did not make Horowitz a racist (he has black grandchildren), but they inoculated him against fear of being called out for racism in the pursuit of truth. And so, when the “reparations” movement, initially advanced as a fringe idea in 1969, finally gained mainstream support in the 1990s, Horowitz stepped boldly in where most conservatives feared to tread.
In the spring of 2001, Horowitz took out ads in university newspapers laying out ten reasons for opposing reparations as “bad for blacks and racist too.” Forty papers refused to run it. He had always been a controversial speaker on campus. Now he was a pariah. The ad was the subject of 400 news stories, and Horowitz could never again speak on campus without a security complement of up to thirty armed guards.
Reparations to individuals who suffered injustice as a matter of policy — interned Japanese-Americans, Holocaust-era Jews — is considered appropriate by all fair-minded people. Collective reparations to the descendants of regime victims is something else altogether. Whether one believes it is a good idea or a bad one, Horowitz did make one ineluctable point: Slavery is an odious practice, but was and remains a widespread phenomenon, still in existence in some parts of the world. Black Africans practised it; several American Indian tribes practised it (even persisting after the Civil War until a formal treaty ended it); some Islamic nations still practise it. If it were the institution of slavery itself that was the issue, then why is the vitriol against it directed solely against white practitioners? If the idea of reparations is defensible in general, should not reparations in particular be demanded from the African countries in which the original American slaves were sold? As Horowitz so often says of the left, and justifiably here, “the issue is never the issue.” It’s always about the Revolution and punishing the oppressor class.
Horowitz’s ten reasons are worth reading, because they are made in good faith and have logic on their side. As usual with his argumentation, they are based in facts. But, as Glazov notes, “not a single university professor with expertise in American slavery was willing to incur the risks associated with confirming those facts.”
Accusations of racism against Horowitz for his views on reparations contend for virulence with accusations of homophobia against Horowitz for his opinions on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. I got a first-hand taste of that hatred, which I described in a review of Book V of the Black Book series, Culture Wars:
Some months ago, joining an online discussion initiated by a gay Facebook friend on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, I countered a bitter remark about Ronald Reagan’s “homophobia” and his primary role in causing so many deaths by (as tactfully as possible) observing that gay activists had to bear their share of the blame for the epidemic in having obstructed public health measures to curtail its spread.
The hostile blowback to this remark startled me in its denialist fury, but the salient point here is the sneering tone in which more than one critic on the thread accused me of merely reiterating talking points raised by conservative polemicist David Horowitz. I was taken aback by the rapid redirect to Horowitz in particular, as though nobody else at that time had raised the question of gay-liberationist complicity in maintaining a cone of silence over the elevated HIV risks inherent in the love that dare not speak its name. (Others did, but nobody else with the persistence, straight-talking candor and politically incorrect judgmentalism of Horowitz).
I conceded that my information about the role played by the gay liberation movement in the AIDS crisis was indeed based in Horowitz’s many public criticisms; but since, like all his writings, his accusations were evidence-based, what difference did it make, so long as his information was accurate? This question elicited anger of an even greater ferocity, and my original Facebook friend finally intervened to end the debate.
Horowitz saw the AIDS crisis as yet another branch of the Marxism-rooted tree that encouraged “the delusion that thinking can make it so, that an abstract idea can be imposed on reality, that the laws of nature can be defied with impunity.”
In “America’s Second Civil War,” a short essay, Horowitz unpacks identity politics as a betrayal of America’s first principles and a form of “cultural Marxism,” extending Marx’s view that society is divided into warring classes to encompass races, genders and ethnicities. Here he makes the interesting observation that Mexico’s population is made up of two distinct groups: descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and Indians. But as soon as they cross the border, they are all “people of color” to progressives, proving yet again that facts are of less interest to ideologues than political game-playing.
The game afoot in this case is multiculturalism. In an article, “Up from Multiculturalism,” included in his 1999 book, Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes, Horowitz described multiculturalism as another example of the familiar oppression-liberation paradigm and romancing of the underdog so central to American life, “an invention of well-fed intellectuals” rather than an organic expression of cultural aspirations. It was, he writes, “manufactured by veterans of the Sixties left, who had established a new political base in the faculties of the universities.”
“The Two Christophers” is a thoughtful exploration of Christopher Hitchens’ political odyssey. Unlike Carol Pasternak, Hitchens was an intellectual peer; he had, like Horowitz, written a memoir at a similar age; and he was a worthy opponent in debate. Which was doubtless the reason Horowitz wanted to have the last word on their differences in this summary volume.
Hitchens was something of a ‘frenemy’ to Horowitz, an often bewildering mixture of “unruly contradictions”: Hitchens opposed Vietnam, but supported the invasion of Iraq; he defended capitalism but admired Marx; he maintained friendships both with neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and with far-leftist Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and, according to Horowitz, “apologist for Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs and Hamas.”
Hitchens was brilliant and entertaining. His unpredictability was for many of his followers proof of his political independence and authenticity. He seemed to judge each situation on its own merits, and respond accordingly. He slammed the Clintons and their entourage for their moral corruption in his book No One Left to Lie To — at some cost to his popularity amongst progressives — without reference to ideology or party. By contrast with his nimble fox-like frenemy, Horowitz is a bristly, one-big-idea hedgehog.
Hitchens was therefore not so easy an adversary to dispatch as Carol Pasternak, whose mental wattage and self-awareness were dim by comparison to Horowitz’s. But the core disputes are the same in both cases for Horowitz. Both refused to own up to the evil at the heart of the philosophy they had embraced. Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, “I am no longer a socialist, but I am still a Marxist.” This perplexes and offends Horowitz. (As it did Christopher’s brother Peter, who began on the left with Christopher, but later flatly renounced his youthful Trotskyite illusions. He wrote, recalling Horowitz’s words to Pasternak, “We pretended not to be who we were, and that the USSR was not what it was.”)
For his part Hitchens was ambivalent about Horowitz. In a review of Horowitz’s book, Left Illusions, he expressed impatience with Horowitz’s “twice-told tale about growing up in a doggedly loyal Communist family and his agonizing over the series of wrenches and shocks that had detached him from Marxism,” but, disgusted with the post-9/11 moral equivalencies of the intellectuals applied to America and the Taliban, he wrote, “I admit that I now find the sardonic, experienced pessimism in Horowitz’s book a bit more serviceable than I once did.”
Hitchens’ stony contempt for religion was a further source of irritation to Horowitz, because he knew Hitchens saw religion through a Marxist lens as the “opium of the people, a sigh of the oppressed.” Himself a secular Jew, Horowitz gives religion its due: “Christopher is blind to the way religion speaks to needs that are timeless and provides comforts that are beneficial, and has contributed to the most spectacular achievements of human culture, including those that are scientific. The very concepts of individual rights and democracy so dear to Christopher are contributions of religious thought.”
A more conciliatory view of religion might have given Hitchens something Horowitz noted as a failing in his life and writing: that he put his writing before his loved ones, and did not reflect on “final things” as Horowitz himself had. Indeed, those who have only been exposed to the default truculence of Horowitz’s political writings would be pleasantly shocked by the lyricism, wisdom, literary sophistication, and soul-searching humility that characterize his four volumes of philosophical memoirs: The End of Time (2005), A Cracking of the Heart (2009), A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in this Life and the Next, and You’re Going to be Dead One Day: A Love Story (2015).
Many Marxist intellectuals have repudiated Communism, “the god that failed.” But most of them stayed on the left, considering Stalin a ruthless aberration from socialism, rather than the fruit of a tree with totalitarian roots as Horowitz did. Some social and cultural critics began merely on the left and moved rightward. But for most of the well-known Americans of this type — alpha public intellectuals like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Nathan Glazer — the journey was fairly seamless, and the embraced conservatism taken up robustly, in a spirit of optimism rather than existential crisis. These ex-leftists, especially the New York kind, were able to depend on a critical mass of like-minded followers and intellectual peers for a stable social life. They were welcome in certain salons, and embraced by influential politicians on the right. They live in the mainstream.
Horowitz didn’t merely walk away from an idea. He abandoned a world. His conservatism was embraced with a sense of liberation, which is not quite the same as optimism. Horowitz “came out” as a conservative by voting for Ronald Reagan in 1984, and “[d]issecting the left’s hypocrisy now became a Horowitz métier.” In 1989 he and his longtime collaborator, Peter Collier, in the writing of biographies of the Rockefeller, Kennedy and Ford families (the Los Angeles Times called them “the premier chroniclers of American dynastic tragedy”) analyzed the New Left and its deleterious effect on American culture in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties.
That did for them. “[W]ith a few notable exceptions, we became pariahs and un-persons in mainstream intellectual circles,” Horowitz told an interviewer. Although he was to write many more books with Collier and by himself, the New York Review of Books never reviewed any written after 1985.
People often speak, jocularly and metaphorically, of movement or professional insiders who “know where the bodies are buried.” As a movement insider and disciplined researcher, Horowitz did know where all the leftist bodies were buried, both literally and figuratively. He has never stopped digging them — and every last incriminating detail surrounding them — up, to the embarrassment of many fellow radicals of the era who went on to respectability and power in academia and the inner circles of government. He has paid a high price for his unfiltered whistle-blowing, being persona non grata in mainstream media, whose refusal to grapple publicly with his well-annotated charges looks, given the number of media honchos who themselves began as campus radicals, very much like stakeholder wagon-circling.
It’s unfortunate for Horowitz that most of his polemical career played out in an arena whose platforms were controlled by powerful corporate bodies. Had blogging, vlogging and social media platforms been a feature of the culture in his heyday, he could have sidestepped the New York Times, the New Republic and NPR, while nipping at their elitist heels in full view of a million followers. He did arrive at that populist party, but somewhat late in the game. (As I write, word arrives that Horowitz’s Twitter account has been locked down for linking to an article about the Left’s use of Twitter for censorship.)
That’s not to say that Horowitz was ever without a significant “choir”; it’s only to say that for decades what would have been a fulcrum to much wider exposure for a thinker and writer of his talents on the left was constrained by hostile liberal cultural gatekeepers happy to offer space for hit-and-run attacks on him, but denying him a platform for rebuttal.
Nor, to be fair, has the much smaller conservative media establishment been full-throated in its support of what one of my editors called this “red-meat” conservative, even though they have from time to time published Horowitz’s writing. His take-no-prisoners style makes them wary. In a 2002 interview, Norman Podhoretz said of Horowitz,
Horowitz eventually decided that if you couldn’t join them, he would beat them by creating his own communications industry. With support from followers and a few conservative foundations, he created the David Horowitz Freedom Center, his “School for Political Warfare,” an umbrella for its own online journal, FrontPageMag.com, which receives over 1.5 million unique views per month, and multiple other single-issue organs, such as Jihad Watch and the Israel Security Project. Like many journalists, I find the lavishly researched and meticulously annotated site, discoverthenetworks.org, which “describes the networks and agendas of the political left,” to be a source of great professional utility.
Creation of the Freedom Centre allowed Horowitz to take his anti-leftist battle directly to the campuses, where his pugilism in defending freedom of speech rights for students via a proposed “Academic Bill of Rights” (which got Horowitz a hearing at the Ohio Senate) has been an inspiration for many campus freedom fighters.
Once having crossed his personal Rubicon, Horowitz knowingly took the path of greatest resistance in settling political scores. He is not what the estimable Heterodox Academy would consider a clubbable colleague. But in the light of what is happening on campuses today — indeed, in the light of what is being passed into (Canadian) law today — will history judge him an “extremist”?
In 1968, the Radical Left was a youth movement, turbulent to be sure, but confined to campuses. In 2018 the “tenured radicals” of David Horowitz’s Berkeley circle have no need for turbulence, as they rule on campus and far beyond (although in many cases, to the shock of old-school leftists who find they are no longer radical enough for today’s leftist militants, the Revolution is devouring its children).
The “long march through the institutions” predicted by Marxist Antonio Gramsci has succeeded. Our institutions — pedagogy, bar associations, social services — are permeated with Identity Politics, Marxism in its cultural guise. The New York Times, the “newspaper of record,” just hired — not as a columnist, but to its editorial board, representing the newspaper’s reigning philosophy — a woman with a nugatory journalism background, but a years-long social-media history of profoundly repulsive racism. She was not hired in spite of this history; she was hired because of it.
Will History be kinder to Horowitz than today’s “chattering classes”? If present radical trends continue, I believe it will. Academic and cultural critic Camille Paglia (herself no stranger to controversy) said of Horowitz: “as a scholar who regularly surveys archival material, I think that, a century from now, cultural historians will find DH’s spiritual and political odyssey paradigmatic for our time.”
The last word goes to Henry Mark Holzer, a libertarian lawyer who was Ayn Rand’s attorney and has represented Soviet dissidents fleeing to the West:
And so say many of us.
Originally printed in The Dorchester Review, Autumn/Winter 2018, pp. 94-100.