On Horowitz’s New Book: Progressives

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I.

David Horowitz is one of the rare human beings, and handful of former Sixties radicals, who made an unequivocal break with his longstanding political beliefs and commitments. Unlike many former radicals who renounced some of the questionable means used in the pursuit of their political agenda but refused to distance themselves from the purported ideals, Horowitz rejected the ideals as well. In the meantime, most of the former Sixties radicals, or even some Sixties moderates, have continued to cling nostalgically to what they consider to be admirable goals embedded in their youthful idealism and legitimated by the irresistible appeal of good intentions.

Horowitz can claim further distinction on account of being an exceptionally knowledgeable guide to all varieties of the American left and his understanding of these movements and the mentalities of their adherents. It helps that he has been familiar with many individuals representing or associated with the same movements. Also unusual, even among the fully disillusioned, that ever since his break with his political past, Horowitz has devoted his life to renouncing and combating his former political illusions, commitments and affiliations. In doing so he was willing to risk the over-politicization of his own life, and the weakening of the boundaries between the personal and the political realm. He has also made it easier for his many critics to claim that his crusading spirit bears some resemblance to those of his former comrades and adversaries.

For reasons not obvious, more of the former supporters of the Soviet Union (of The God That Failed variety) and of Western communist movements of the past were willing and able to reexamine and publicly discard their previous convictions and illusions than those of the Sixties generation. The latter, while distancing themselves from the Soviet model, idealized Third World communist systems such as those of China, Cuba and North Vietnam. I am not sure why that has been the case but I surmise that since the Sixties radicals had more widespread and enduring subcultural or group support (especially on the campuses) than their predecessors of the 1930s, they had a lesser need to reexamine and reevaluate their beliefs. It is always easier to persist in convictions, even in wrongheaded ones, if they are widely shared. Moreover, the agenda of the Sixties radicals was broader, encompassing not only sympathy for the idealized and misperceived communist systems noted above, but also popular domestic causes such as the anti-Vietnam war protest, civil rights and women’s liberation. The presence of this large, supportive, quasi-communal subculture made it easier to squelch the impulse to engage in political soul-searching or “second thoughts.” As Horowitz puts it,

[T]he secret of the left’s longevity, its ability to withstand the discrediting of its idea, to ignore the millions of its victims, and thus to renew itself in the next generation…is the creation of a culture…and of a living community that perpetuates its myths…In 2003, the Rosenberg grandchildren can take pride in their heritage a being the heirs of Communists and spies, and receive encouragement and praise from “an international community of support.” [267-268]

The Sixties radicals also differed from their political predecessors by entertaining a deeper and durable romantic rejection of modernity, and not only of capitalism, as well as a distinctive anti-Americanism. Horowitz writes:

A crucial aspect of the worldview of American radicals is not only the monstrous nature of America’s essence but the belief in American omnipotence… Radicals never see America as reacting to a threat that cannot be ignored, or to a set of circumstances whose outcome it cannot determine. [81]

These radicals have also shared a conception of the United States similar to that held by some 19th century Russian philosophers, as well as Soviet ideologues and their present-day descendants, namely that “The West is …rotten to the core and weak yet so powerful that it can be blamed for everything that goes wrong.” 1

Horowitz was capable of distancing himself from the sustaining embrace of discredited beliefs provided by the surviving subcultures of the Sixties and he paid (I presume) both an emotional and more tangible price for doing so. Many of his former radical colleagues have never forgiven his rejection of their animating beliefs and source of identity. His unembarrassed renunciation of sacrosanct political beliefs — at once liberating and wrenching — has also reduced, or more likely eliminated, many employment opportunities especially in the academic world. At last, it is always difficult, under any circumstances, to fundamentally alter or discard strongly held beliefs and causes which made one’s life meaningful and used to be a major source of one’s sense of identity.

II.

This collection of previously published writings has several clearly articulated themes and propositions which lend coherence (and sometimes repetitiousness) to the volume. Among them is the basic and important point that the radical left has been motivated and sustained by secular-religious beliefs and this accounts for its persistence in the face of disconfirming realities, foremost the collapse of “actually existing” communist (i.e. state socialist) systems. Horowitz writes:

[T]he community of the left is a community of meaning, and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious. For the non-religious, politics is the art of managing the possible. For the left, it is the path to social and personal redemption…For the left, politics is ultimately not about practical options on which reasonable people may reasonably differ. It is about moral choices that define us as human. It is about taking sides in a war that will decide the future of mankind… [159]

Horowitz correctly observes that,

Our century was a stage for the destructive drama of a secular religious faith called socialism, inspired by dreams of a social redemption that would be achieved by human agency, through the force of politics and the state. [189]

The secular religious attitudes of the left (and I mean radical left, not “left” in general — a distinction Horowitz does not always make) and future orientation go together and further help to explain the handling of the frequent conflict between ends and means. Horowitz writes:

The belief in a perfect future inevitably inspires a passionate and otherwise inexplicable hatred towards the imperfect present… [3] In this surreal vision, once the chains of oppression had been removed…the natural goodness of “the people” would assert itself and the traditional dilemmas of power would no longer obtain. [17]

Eric Hobsbawm, the widely revered historian, exemplified these attitudes with startling clarity as he refused to reject the Soviet system even after he acknowledged its moral, political and economic failures. As Horowitz explains:

[H]is belief in an alternate world to replace the one into which he was born is not connected to any reality. It is an acknowledgment – albeit unintended – of the religious nature of radical belief. [32]

Hobsbawm’s case is all the more noteworthy since unlike many other leftist sympathizers with the Soviet system he was well aware of its resounding failure to realize its founding ideals. He nonetheless admitted that in spite of all he knew, “‘To this day I notice myself treating the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness.’” [31] George Lukacs, the Hungarian Marxist philosopher, provides a similar example of a distinguished intellectual, thoroughly familiar with the failures and moral atrocities of the Soviet system, who nonetheless harbored a lifelong bond of affection for it that he was unable to sever.

Horowitz further illustrates the central place of secular religious beliefs in the sense of the identity of these true believers by quoting a revealing passage from the “political autobiography” of the radical feminist Gerda Lerner, who used to be a “card carrying” communist and subsequently prominent New Leftist. She wrote:

“‘Like all true believers, I believed as I did because I needed to believe: in a utopian vision of the future, in the possibility of human perfectibility…And I still need that belief, even if the particular vision I had embraced turned to ashes.’” [37]

Another major theme of these writings is the continuity between the Old and the New Left, and their defining beliefs. Horowitz argues that “by the end of the decade [of the sixties] the ‘new’ left had become indistinguishable from the old…” [41] This is an overstatement. Doubtless, both movements shared an unqualified rejection of their own society and detestation of capitalism, as well as sympathy for any state or movement that denounced or challenged their society and capitalism. However, there have also been notable and significant differences.

For one thing, the New Left lost interest in the Soviet system and was (mildly) critical of it. It embraced a romantic rejection of modernity (not just capitalism) and a contradictory mix of a self-indulgent individualism and — what it considered — nurturing collectivism. Unlike the beliefs and institutional arrangements favored by the Old Left, there was no trace of puritanism in the New. The radical left of the Sixties shared with Georges Bataile, the French philosopher, a “longing for community and his glorification of transgression – acts of excess that would disrupt the status quo.” 2 Nor was the New Left organizationally linked to any existing communist state or organization, unlike its predecessor that was tied to the Communist Party of the U.S. and its front organizations.

Horowitz also makes the point that the terms “left” and “liberal” have become indistinguishable as the New Left came to usurp the liberal designation wishing to discard the “left” appellation that the failed communist systems brought into disrepute. The problem with this argument is that the left is not monolithic (as Horowitz well knows) and there has always been a moderate, anti-communist left, including social-democrats, that can justifiably claim the liberal mantle and not only as a public relations camouflage. Reading these essays I often felt that whenever critical reference was made to the left it was the radical left Horowitz had in mind.

These observations connect with another major proposition of the volume, namely, that mainstream, liberal American culture has absorbed and accommodated numerous left-wing positions and attitudes which can be traced to the protest movements and spirit of the Sixties. This is an important assertion and the circumstances referred to are familiar to all those who taught at a college or university since the late 1960s or early 1970s. It has indeed been the case that

entire fields – “Whiteness Studies,” “Cultural Studies,” “Women’s Studies,” “African-American Studies,” “American Studies,” and “Peace Studies,”… are now principally devoted to this radical assault on American culture and society… [72]

Numerous further manifestations of these trends are available and noted by the author. The academic celebrity status of Angela Davis is one of them. As few will recall she was the vice-presidential candidate of the American Communist Party in 1980 and 1984, received the Lenin Prize in 1979 and visited the Soviet Union under Brezhnev in the same year where she received a hero’s welcome. None of this cast a shadow on her celebration at Dartmouth College (among other places). [97-103] Even more astounding that, as Horowitz recalls, Tom Hayden, the leading Sixties radical and sometime advocate of guerilla warfare in the United States, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Carter. [114, 5]

There is also the case of the late Herbert Aptheker, a major figure and “theoretician” of the American Communist Party showered with honors and appointments on numerous colleges campuses including the law school of the University of California and Columbia University. Howard Zinn’s vitriolic debunking history of the United States sold over a million hardback copies and has been the major text in countless colleges and high schools. [23] Noam Chomsky’s immense popularity on the campuses (at home as well as abroad) is another case in point. He is also said to be “one of the ten most quoted sources in the humanities.” [57]

It is indisputable that, as Horowitz writes, “for 40 years Noam Chomsky has turned out book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet, and speech after speech with one message…alone: America is the Great Satan, the fount of evil in this world.” [223-224] At the same time it is hard to determine whether or not Chomsky has actually radicalized his audiences, or his popularity reflects an already existing predisposition and receptivity to his messages. It should also be noted that he has been subjected to criticism by some moderate leftists and liberals as well.

The popularity of Oliver Stone’s movies, abounding in absurd conspiratorial scenarios and ascribing a wide variety of evil to the United States are also among the symptoms of malaise enumerated by Horowitz. Not surprisingly, his latest movie called “My Friend Hugo” glorifies the late Chavez of Venezuela.

Another important proposition put forward in his book is that the left, or rather, the radical left, learned little from the collapse of Soviet communism and from the huge amounts of information about the suffering the pursuit of its policies led to. Such information had been available well before its demise, as were similar accumulations of evidence testifying to the profound moral and institutional defects of other communist systems. Horowitz writes:

[T]he collapse of the Communist states and the bankruptcy of their Marxist economies ought to have thrown the left into a profound crisis of faith. It should have caused radicals to rethink their Marxist critique of democratic capitalism and the ideas about the revolutionary future…It should have caused them to re-evaluate …their support for regimes that had murdered tens of millions and oppressed hundreds of millions of more. But such reassessments did not take place. [27]

I made a similar point in some of my writings, but on further reflection I came to the conclusion that both Horowitz and myself somewhat overstated the case. The left, or elements of it (for example, people like Christopher Hitchens or Julius Lester, the former black radical, among others) did learn something. It has been that it was a serious error to pin their hopes for a better world and improved human beings on the fraudulent claims of repressive and regimented states such as the former Soviet Union or communist China and on their ideological pieties. But even if elements of the left developed such reservations about the former communist systems they have remained reluctant to modify their views of the United States, capitalism, and many Western cultural values and traditions. That is to say, their adversarial disposition has been preserved largely intact. Barbara Ehrenreich justifies this attitude — popular on the radical left — as follows:

“‘As a responsible radical, I believe our first responsibility is toward evil close to home, and stopping that. In any event, I’m more worried in the long run about the belligerence of George Bush than of Saddam Hussein.’” [110-111]

The same underlying disposition also found expression in the recent support for political systems such as Venezuela under Chavez, the implacable hostility towards Israel, and more generally, in giving the benefit of the doubt to any social-political movement that has recycled some Marxist ideals and rejects capitalism, and its alleged bulwark, the United States, holding it responsible for every global economic, social or political problem.

Perhaps the most important, that many radical leftists continue to harbor the hope that there are political-institutional remedies and solutions for personal problems, that the discontents of modernity and the contradictory desires of human beings may one day be taken care of by political movements and systems which profess good intentions.

III.

I have some minor quibbles and disagreements to register. Mark Kramer is not one of the authors of the Black Books of Communism, as stated in a footnote on page 25. He was its translator. It is arguable that the Soviet Union was “the most oppressive and repulsive empire in human history.” [30] (My emphasis.) Was it worse than Mao’s China or Nazi Germany? “One of the most…” would have been a safer assertion.

The suggestion that “our most privileged and educated youth… [had] come to despise their own nation….with a ferocious passion…” [223] also calls for qualification. A “large or substantial portion” thereof would have been less debatable. In a seemingly similar frame of mind Horowitz quotes with apparent approval the assertion of Martin Amis that “the overwhelming majority of intellectuals everywhere… colluded in the enslavement, death and…misery of hundreds of millions of socialist citizens.” [249] There is no evidence to support such a sweeping assertion and no reliable way to generalize about the attitudes and the alleged “collusion” of the “overwhelming majority of intellectuals.”

I would also hesitate to call socialism “a theory of economic theft,” or make other generalizations about it since there are considerable differences between the state socialism of the Soviet kind and the social democratic socialism that used to prevail in Scandinavian countries.

I am dubious about the proposition that “leftwing intellectuals like Hitchens and Berman…still nourish an enthusiasm for the utopian chimera.” [255] In the first place I am not sure about the unqualified, present-tense attribution of “leftwing” to them (even as it applies to Hitchens before his death). I doubt even more strongly that of late (if ever) they harbored utopian and revolutionary longings. True enough, Hitchens, even after the shift in his political worldview, had a soft spot for Trotsky but otherwise made a decisive and public break with his own leftism. More generally I am inclined to disagree with the suggestion that Hitchens “never did leave the left” [153] or that he “retain[ed] his progressive bona fides.” [6] He was actually denounced and vilified by many of his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, as Horowitz notes elsewhere in the same volume. I knew Hitchens (though not well) and spoke to him several times about his political attitudes and evolution and wrote about him.3 That does not mean that I applaud all his political judgments and ideas (including his vehement and intolerant attacks on religion); nor do I consider myself an authority on his political convictions and transformations.

I would also be reluctant to lump together, as Horowitz does, Hobsbawm, Chomsky, and Todd Gitlin as “Stalinist intellectuals” even if they shared (different degrees of) a revulsion of America. The three of them are different not only in their political outlook and rhetoric but professional accomplishments as well. Hobsbawm’s was a competent historian notwithstanding his deluded affection for the Soviet Union and his long membership in the British Communist Party. As far as I know his rhetoric never came close to the vilifications and demagoguery of Chomsky who abandoned his work as a linguist decades ago to specialize in the obsessive demonization of the United States and Israel. In turn, Gitlin considerably modified his devotion to Sixties radicalism and rejected a good deal of it. Calling all of them “Stalinist” unhappily reminds me of the misuse of “fascist” similarly used to definitively discredit.

Another far-fetched assertion I came upon is that “deep in their hearts the radicals regarded the triumphs of the civil-rights movement as worrisome subversions of their real agendas” [91] which were “revolutionary.” [92] I don’t think that all, or most radicals necessarily subordinated the goals of the civil rights movement to their more far reaching “revolutionary” agendas.

Although I criticized Horowitz for insufficiently distinguishing among different kinds of leftists and at times blurring the line between different types of socialism it needs to be pointed out that this volume also includes a critique of Anne Coulter advising conservatives not to follow her “path.” Horowitz writes:

It is important for conservatives to make distinctions between those on the left who were (and are) traitors or self-conceived enemies of the United States, those who were (and are) the fellow travelers of enemies of the United States, and those who are neither traitors, nor enemies, nor friends and protectors of the enemies, but are American patriots who disagree with conservatives over policy issues. [275]

Notwithstanding the reservations expressed above this collection is an informative and authentic guide to the American radical left and some of its animating beliefs by an author who used to be a very vocal part of it.

Notes:

1 David Brooks: “Putin Can’t Stop,” New York Times, March 4, 2014.
2 Richard Wolin: The Seduction of Unreason, Princeton NJ, 2004, p. 163.
3 See Paul Hollander: The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries,  and Political Morality, Chicago 2006.  The same book also examined the political transformation  of David Horowitz.

***************

David Horowitz replies:

I want to thank Paul Hollander for a thoughtful review of Volume II of The Black Book of the American Left: Progressives. Because it appears in a magazine I publish I am taking the liberty of responding to some of his critical points, mainly because if I do not they may be seized upon by my detractors on the left as observations I do not challenge. Let me say at the outset that many of the points which Hollander calls quibbles are differences of opinion about which the reader can easily form an opinion, and are not substantive in a way that concerns me.

The first and most important of the claims that do concern me is Hollander’s suggestion that I lump together as “Stalinist intellectuals” Hobsbawm, Chomsky and Gitlin. In fact I do not. In the essay titled “The Mind of the Left,” which provides extended profiles of these three figures, I go out of my way to say that Gitlin is a sharp critic of Chomsky, while the section on Chomsky is headlined “The Nihilist Left,” of which Chomsky is the exemplar. Hollander’s mistake comes from an error that appears late in the text — several hundred pages after the aforementioned profiles — in a sentence referring to “The Mind of the Left,” which says that in it I “traced the continuities in radical thought from the generation of Stalinist intellectuals like Eric Hobsawm [to New Left intellectuals like] Noam Chomsky and Todd Gitlin.” The words in brackets were dropped from the published text but anyone reading “The Mind of the Left” would (or should) know exactly what I meant.

Hollander says that he would hesitate to call socialism “a theory of economic theft” as I do. Why? What is economic redistribution but the taking of the earned fruits of one segment of the population and giving it to those who haven’t earned it? I wrote this as a riposte to the socialist claim that “property is theft.” Obviously property is the legal protection of individual freedom and the rights of the individual to the fruits of his labor. Which is why an economic theory to abolish property is a theory of economic theft.

Hollander calls “far-fetched” my assertion that “deep in their hearts the radicals regarded the triumphs of the civil-rights movement as worrisome subversions of their real agendas.” As one of those radicals at the time, I know what I am talking about. The left turned its back on King after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts. Not a single New Left leader joined King’s last campaigns including the one in which he was killed. That is because the left did not want blacks to be integrated into the American system as King advocated. Instead the left supported racists (euphemistically referred to as “separatists”) like Stokeley Carmichael specifically for this reason. Far from my assertion being “far-fetched,” it is Hollander’s supposition that the left had good intentions that requires explanation. The whole post-King history of the civil rights movement which quickly degenerated into a racial assault on American values and in particular on the racial neutrality that was the core of King’s program is unintelligible if the left did not regard King’s message as troubling and seek to subvert it.

On the matter of Hitchens, Hollander is entitled to his opinion that Christopher left the left but a simple survey of the crowd at his memorial and the speakers at the international tribute to him in a specially televised event from London would say otherwise. I knew Christopher a lot better than Hollander and I have written a long appreciation of him which set out to define his complex political persona in an essay not in this volume. It is called “The Two Christophers: Or the Importance of Second Thoughts.” Readers can find it in my archive on this website or in my book Radicals: A Destructive Passion.

In closing I want to thank Paul Hollander for stimulating these thoughts and for providing an insightful review of my book.

Paul Hollander responds:

My comment on “lumping together” Chomsky, Gitlin and Hobsbawm was based on a sentence on page 312 of this book. I understand now that in an earlier essay David Horowitz made clear the differences among these three authors but the volume I reviewed did not include that essay.

I certainly don’t believe that “property is theft,” nor do I believe that progressive income taxes are theft. Likewise I don’t believe — and I wonder if Horowitz does — that the right to the “earned fruits” of one’s labor is, or ought to be, unconditional. If so, no taxes could ever be collected. The difficult question is how far the state should, or could go to in its attempts to equalize opportunities, and reduce inequalities by the use of the revenues it collects (and redistributes) and by other means. I don’t believe that equality of condition can ever be accomplished and I am also well aware that zealous attempts to do so can have a wide range of undesirable side effects and unintended consequences (including the growth of coercive bureaucracies). But I also believe that extreme inequalities are morally and socially problematic and undesirable. It is not easy to reconcile these two positions.

Socialist systems of the moderate, or social-democratic kind had no intention to “abolish property.”

I am sure that David Horowitz correctly argues that elements of the radical left preferred the Black Panthers, Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael to Martin Luther King and other moderate civil rights leaders. I took issue with what struck me as an over-generalization about the radical left’s “real agenda” that entailed a cynical devaluation of civil rights compelled by its far reaching revolutionary aspirations including separatism. Separatism, unwelcome as it is, does not necessarily conflict with the pursuit of civil rights.

It is very likely that David Horowitz knew Hitchens far better than I and read some of his writings I did not, and therefore is in a better position to assess the extent and depth of his political transformations and the remaining bonds with his youthful commitments and allegiances. For example I don’t know (and would like to know) how Hitchens’ view of Israel evolved following, and associated with, his break with Edward Said.

“A simple survey of the crowds” who attended Hitchens’ memorial service and the speeches made on the occasion are not necessarily reliable indicators of the nature, or durability of the political beliefs of Hitchens; their presence does not prove that their convictions and those of Hitchens late in his life converged. On the other hand, the volume, intensity and virulence of his denunciation by erstwhile comrades-in-arms (some of whom might have attended the same funeral) suggest that his “heretical” political positions and transformation were genuine and far-reaching.

How much of his earlier political beliefs and attitudes Hitchens might have retained in ripe middle age is a matter that leaves room for speculation, disagreement and varied interpretations.

David Horowitz replies:

Not to carry on this dialogue ad infinitum I will just address Paul’s objection to my statement that “socialism is theft.” Taxation to support community goods is not socialism in my book. Socialism is taxation designed to redistribute income, that is to take earned income from one element of the population and give it to another deemed deserving by whoever controls the state. And that is theft.

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  • Paul Austin Murphy

    Here’s a blog all about the British Left; which includes four years of posts.

    Everything you’ll need to know about the Left in the UK – and it’s all in a bite-sized blog. Full of pictures, anecdotes and jokes. All the Diversity and Community Cohesion you’ll ever need; and it’s eco-friendly too.

    Love and jihad to all my brothers!

    Peace out and whatever.

    http://paulaustinmurphy2000.blogspot.co.uk/

  • http://www.clarespark.com/ Clare Spark

    The question for me, is this: Where are we now and where are we heading? DH is correct to see the New Left as the tipping point that demolished the liberal anticommunists. Which leaves us either with the momentum toward socialism, proto-fascism or something even worse. I favor the term proto-fascism as descriptive of crony capitalism. See http://clarespark.com/2012/09/05/proto-fascism-and-the-democrat-peoples-community/.”Proto-fascism and the Democrat people’s community.”

  • Rebecca

    The Left has been about a two class, one party system. They are against the middle-class, not the rich. This is why Wall Street, Bill Gates, Soros have all backed Obama, and have gotten richer during Obama’s presidency. The Christian Middle Class, and especially the country they made-America-is what Marxism has always been against. They have been for anything that would get rid of the Middle Class and against anything they think supports it because capitalism came out of the Christian Middle Class. Read Lenin and Engels, and some of the older Marxist books, like from the Sierra Club. Engels wrote a book supporting unwed motherhood….Utopia is a pre-modern, pre-Calvinist place…David has it right.