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The Black Book of the American Left
Posted By Theodore Dalrymple On December 18, 2013 @ 12:55 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 7 Comments
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Ever since Stéphane Courtois published his The Black Book of Communism, there has been a deluge of black books, particularly in France, where the latest is that of Vichy. David Horowitz’s Black Book is that of the American left, which he charges – with a great deal of cumulative evidence – of equivocation towards, support for and outright complicity with the Soviet Union. Ignorance of the horrors of Soviet rule was not an excuse, because the horrors were known and documented from the very first, and for decades the left preferred to ignore the facts than abandon its fantasies. And although the American left was not responsible for much violence in America itself, there was hardly any revolutionary violence that to which it did not provide aid and comfort, repeating its original sin ad nuaseam. In the process it rewrote its own history as assiduously and dishonestly as Stalin wrote his.
It is against the attempt by intellectuals to disconnect the ideas that their words express and the deeds that those ideas have inspired, condoned or encouraged, that David Horowitz has written for a quarter of a century. He has focused his powerful guns on the American left for two reasons, the first personal and the second sociological, though in fact in his case the two reasons are inextricably linked. First he himself was a member of the left for much of his youth and early adulthood, and second leftist ideas of various stripes were and remain predominant in academia and among the intelligentsia.
He was a red diaper baby, that is to say the child of ‘orthodox’ communist parents, but by the time he came to young adulthood the Soviet Union was no longer plausibly the hope of the world. However, Horowitz did not at that stage want to throw the baby out with the diapers, and therefore helped to found the New Left. Unfortunately, the internal logic of its socialist beliefs led it to support or make excuses for totalitarian regimes such as Castro’s, just as the previous generation of orthodox communists had done. It also indulged in what would have been comic operetta revolutionism had it not been for the extreme criminal nastiness of the acts which it excused, condoned, concealed or perpetrated.
Horowitz’s essays collected here, written over twenty-five years, are dedicated to demonstrating that this leftism was not an ‘infantile disorder,’ to quote Lenin, or a mild and mostly harmless childhood illness like mumps, but more usually like a chronic condition with lingering after-effects and flare-ups. Those who suffered it only very rarely got over it fully, the late Christopher Hitchens being a good example of one who did not. He, Hitchens, could never bring himself to admit that he had for all his life admired and extolled a man who was at least as bad as Stalin, namely Trotsky; and his failure to renounce his choice of maître à penser became in time not just a youthful peccadillo of a clever adolescent who wanted to shock the adults but a symptom of a deep character flaw, a fundamental indifference to important truth. With the exception of Hitchens, for whom he has a soft spot and to whom in my opinion he is over-indulgent, Horowitz does not want any of the leftists to get away with it by rewriting not only history but their own biographies.
There is inevitably some repetition in collection. There are also things with which one might disagree: it is far too categorical, for example, to state that up to 100,000,000 people have died of malaria as a result of the ban on the use of DDT. I think the author greatly underestimates the strength of possible conservative objection, both on grounds of moral justification and practical effects, to the second Gulf War (though he admits that not all those who objected to it were motivated by American self-hating animus). He does not identify the real source of dangerous Islamism in most of the west, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which play double games if ever such double games were played, and which are not mentioned by him.
He is very good on the guerrilla movements in Latin America, which far from being the spontaneous and justified expression of a downtrodden peasantry, as was the received wisdom among western intellectuals at the time of those movements’ apogee, were the products of rapidly expanding numbers of university students led by leftist intellectuals. The Guatemalan guerrilla group, ORPA, for example, was led by the son of the then sole Guatemalan Nobel Prize Winner, the novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias. The worst of them all, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, was led by a university professor of philosophy, Abimael Guzmán, who very nearly became Peru’s Pol Pot. Just as American leftist intellectuals ceased to be interested in Indochina the moment American troops left, so the fate of Central America ceased to interest them once there was no possibility that utopian leftist regimes would be established in them. Their interest in far-flung places was only as a screen upon which they could project their own psychodrama.
It is on the psychological reasons for eschatological leftism that Horowitz is best. Eschatological leftists, rather than genuine liberals, or for that matter eschatological nationalists or religious fanatics, are not interested in righting this or that individual wrong, reforming this or that defective institution; they aim at resetting the terms and limits of human existence itself. They are like doctors who, instead of wanting to cure illness, want to abolish death. They dream of an existence in which there are no frustrations, no contradictory desires, no conflicting interests. For them anything less than root and branch change is but a sticking plaster over a gaping wound, and anyone who enjoys the present moment is deficient in compassion for those who are not in a position to do so. The only permissible enjoyment is in fighting the good fight.
Why? What is the gaping wound that they want to heal? It is the transitoriness of human life to which, in the absence of religious belief, they cannot reconcile themselves, the life that Macbeth says is full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. They seek in political action that transcendence that would assure them that their lives in fact have significance; and since the problem is a metaphysical one that will never be solved, victory over eschatological political belief, of whatsoever kind, is never final or even very lasting. Indeed, as things get materially better chiliasm grows stronger, for people have greater leisure to dwell upon their dissatisfactions.
Horowitz’s reflections on this problem, both obvious and revelatory, are for me the best thing in these volumes, and express very succinctly why conservatism, at least of the kind that I favour, is an attitude to life rather than a doctrine:
It became clear to me that the world was not going to be changed into anything very different… from what it had been. On this earth there would be no kingdom of freedom where swords would be turned into plowshares and lions would lie down with lambs. It should have been obvious when I began. Many things change but people do not. Otherwise how could Shakespeare, or writers more ancient, capture in their creations a reality that we recognize, and that still moves us today?
These revelations had a humbling effect. They took my attention away from noble fantasies that had enveloped me and forced me to focus on my ordinary existence; to see how common it was; how un-heroic, ordinary and unredeemed. The revelations that shattered my faith allowed me, for the first time, to look at my mortality… I was going to die like everyone else, and be forgotten.
Horowitz then realized that his political fantasies were a way of ‘averting [my] eyes from this ordinary fact.’ And ‘who would want to hear the voice of a future that was only calling them to oblivion?’
The leftism that Horowitz wants to combat, then, is religious, but without a god and without beauty. His short essay, A Political Romance, reminds me of the words of Joseph Conrad:
I felt in my heart that the further one ventures the better one understands how everything in our life is common, short and empty; that it is in ‘seeking’ the unknown in our sensations that we discover how mediocre are our attempts and how soon defeated!
Don’t miss David Horowitz discussing The Black Book of the American Left in The Glazov Gang’s two-part video series below:
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