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The Black Book of the American Left is a compendium of writings and talks by the preeminent anti-leftist of our time, the man whose primary role in establishing the intellectual foundations of the American conservative cause is beyond dispute. As the author of many books on American politics, education reform, and personal reflection, as founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and publisher of FrontPage Magazine, and as creator of Discover the Networks.org, a database of leftist and Islamist individuals and organizations, David Horowitz has for many years spearheaded the movement to protect America against leftist totalitarianism. Part of his project has been to show the continuities between a now discredited Communism and the corrosive Communist offshoots—benign-seeming “progressivism” and “liberalism”—that shape so much of American political life.
In the Preface to the first volume of what is projected to be a nine-volume set, he notes that despite the wide range of subjects he has written about over the past thirty years, his abiding preoccupation has remained “one big thing: the nature, deeds, and fortunes of the political left.” His designation as the left’s “principal intellectual antagonist” seems entirely well founded, as no one has so tirelessly and effectively chronicled and dissected its fatal incoherence and unworkability.
Horowitz knows the left intimately, having grown up in a Communist family and been a committed Marxist intellectual, editor of the New Left magazine Ramparts as a young man. He refers to himself as “someone born into the left and condemned Ahab-like to pursue it.” His “second thoughts” (a phrase he and long-time friend Peter Collier popularized through the notable 1987 conference of that name) came with the realization that leftism exerts such a powerful emotional hold that adherents are gripped by fanatical hatred of their enemies and devote themselves to the destruction, not the reform, of their country; they are unable to see its virtues or to acknowledge the abuses of the terror-supporting and totalitarian regimes they champion. “If I had a mission […],” he claims in a talk to promote a recent book, “it was about wrestling with the most powerful and pernicious of all human follies, which is the desire to stifle truth in the name of hope.”
As the above statement suggests, what makes Horowitz such an indispensable commentator on this capacious subject is his combination of intellectual force and verbal wit. Consider, for example, his explanation of the counter-intuitive—some would say oxymoronic—triumph of leftist ideology since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet regimes. Far from weakening the leftist cause, as was widely believed at the time (and as should, by rights, have occurred), “The massive defeat […] had the ironic, unforeseen effect of freeing [leftists] from the burden of defending” Marxist failures, thus enabling leftism “to emerge as a major force in American life.” Exactly so. On another occasion, he quips that the collapse of Communism benefited leftist ideologues in that it “rescued them from having to apologize for abetting regimes that had killed tens of millions and enslaved tens of millions more—that had broken eggs with no omelet to show for it.” Unlike some conservatives who are stymied by the noble-seeming rhetoric of left-wing utopianism, Horowitz is superbly able to illuminate its insidious cultural logic and perverse psychological mechanisms. This ability, joined to rigorous analytical logic and fastidious detail, makes him a worthy antagonist indeed; and his intellectual and rhetorical gifts are vividly on display in this volume.
The book is organized as the unfolding story of his journey out of the left, a journey which, given the nature of leftism as a faith that engages identity at the deepest emotional level and that viciously exiles those who succumb to doubt, is inextricably personal. The Black Book chronicles the initial, searching reservations exposed in “Left Illusions,” when Horowitz still considered himself a leftist but recognized that “the best intentions can lead to the worst results,” as well as more thoroughgoing statements of dissent, as in “Why I am No Longer a Leftist” and “A Political Romance,” when he had come to believe that “All of us [on the left] had treason in our hearts in the name of a future that would never come.” A good part of the first, personal, section of the book is haunted by his revulsion and personal shattering at the Black Panther murder of his friend Betty Van Patter, which he courageously exposed in “Black Murder, Inc.” and summed up in his statement that “in the name of revolutionary justice, the left defends revolutionary injustice; in the name of human liberation, the left creates a new world of oppression.” A significant period of soul-searching led him to understand, as he phrased it in “Think Twice Before You Bring the War Home,” the vast “difference between honest dissent and malevolent hate, between criticism of national policy and sabotage of the nation’s defenses.”
As is suggested by these nimble statements about the glaring contradictions and wilful blindness of the leftist worldview, Horowitz’s most original insight has been the impossible yet seemingly irresistible search for transcendence lying at the heart of leftism, a search that is responsible, in his view, for both its naively romantic, even gnostic, view of human nature and its murderous hatred of those who oppose it. His incisive analysis of the essentially religious longing of this putatively secular movement leads to some of the most poignant and devastating passages of critique as when, in “A Political Romance,” he diagnoses leftism as “a shield protecting us from the terror of our common human fate.” At a talk given at his alma mater Columbia University in 2009, this critique is expanded to reflect elegiacally on the frightening emptiness in the human condition: “Over this emptiness [that we die alone and are forgotten] human beings drape their mythic causes and impossible dreams, their hopes for an earthly redemption—for a change that will fill the emptiness by creating a world that is holy or just.” Here and throughout the book, Horowitz’s lyrical and humane insights effectively balance his more particularized attacks on leftist incompetence and cruelty.
Ultimately, of course, Horowitz’s rejection of the left was not only or mainly philosophical but was also grounded in the facts on the ground: in what became for him the overwhelming and undeniable evidence that Communism always failed, that leftists were always on the wrong side of history—outrageously so—and that Marxist regimes always immiserated the people they were supposed to be liberating; moreover, he saw how, in order to buttress their righteous fantasies, leftists repeatedly misrepresented and denied American successes, American tolerance and decency. What Horowitz came to see from his hard look at leftist regimes and, alternatively, at American conduct during one of the most difficult periods of its history was that “When America lost, so did humanity and the cause of freedom … [while] the left showed a lack of concern for the victims that was matched only by its continuing malice towards America.”
In the second, political, section of the volume, there is a good deal of cogent, useful analysis of the horrors and betrayals perpetrated by Communists in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Cuba, and of the lies and denials of American leftists about those regimes. “What finally turned us away from the left,” he sums up in “Political Cross-Dresser,” “was not only the evil it had done. It was its inability to look at its deeds and make a moral accounting, to steer an altered course that would keep it from contributing to similar tragedies in the future.” He has written tirelessly on this point to share his hard-earned insights.
What keeps Horowitz writing despite savage personal attacks and misrepresentations (the focus of the third section)—and despite the increasing rather than waning dominance of the left—is his belief in his life’s non-revolutionary but still significant meaning. While the radical dreamers “go on building towers to heaven,” he claims a “more modest” sense of mission, that of witnessing, of not forgetting: “I needed to warn whom I could and to protect whom I might, even if it was only one individual or two.”
Horowitz is not only against the left, of course; he is also for America and for American values of freedom, individual rights, Republicanism, and capitalist free enterprise. Stirring passages articulate his love for his country, figuring it as “bounty,” “a precious gift,” “a unique presence,” and “a fortress that stands between the free nations of the world and the dark, totalitarian forces that threaten to engulf them.” He also aptly describes the Republican experiment in contrast to the radical dream of perfection with reference to “our pragmatism and tolerance, our devotion to enterprises and pleasures that are bourgeois and mundane; and our hope that is reserved for individual lives and not for grandiose social collectives and schemes.”
One of the many virtues evident in his writing is his ability to make clear the larger principles underlying specific disagreements between left and right. Responding to journalist Hendrik Hertzberg in “The Left and the Constitution,” Horowitz not only shows the sleight of hand and authoritarian assumptions in Hertzberg’s attack on the Constitution but also lays out clearly the larger threat of leftist assaults on America’s history and institutions, that “Moral ambivalence about one’s country can lead to an uncertainty of resolve in defending it.” Horowitz’s own defenses are exemplary in their ability to show how often leftist arguments are primarily about America-hating rather than about their ostensible subject.
More than anything, The Black Book of the American Left is a superlative record of a decades-long commitment by a writer who, in work of consistently high quality, has been unwearied in making the case against the lies of leftist make-believe.
Janice Fiamengo is an author, editor, and Professor of English at the University of Ottawa.
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