[Order the second edition of David Horowitz’s Radical Son: HERE].
Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In some parallel universe, David Horowitz never left the left. Instead he closed his eyes to the cracks in the Marxist ideal, zipped up his lip about the high crimes of his comrades, and, like them, reaped the rewards of his blind loyalty. He continued to write books that were lauded in the mainstream media; he was profiled glowingly in the New York Times Magazine and got the cover of Time; he won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards; he was offered huge sums to teach at Harvard, Yale, and other top universities, all of which awarded him honorary degrees. In that alternate world, in short, Horowitz, along with the likes of Angela Davis, is today regarded in the corridors of academic, political, and cultural power as an ornament of American civilization.
Thankfully for all of us, Horowitz – in this cosmos, anyway – took another journey, of which his newly reissued 1997 autobiography, Radical Son, and its 2019 sequel, Mortality and Faith, provide a riveting account. Indeed, if Hollywood were not more inclined to celebrate Communists who stayed Communists (such as Dalton Trumbo), Radical Son would long since have been made into a feature film. Elevator pitch: the brilliant, noble-minded son of devout Kremlin minions helps found the New Left only to discover, through a series of violent incidents, that he’s worshiped a false god and climbed into bed with thugs, and that the only principled thing to do is to publicly break ranks – even though doing so may mean losing everything, including his life.
Or put it this way: David Horowitz is a Zelig of postwar American politics. He was a grad student at Berkeley when he and his comrades established the New Left – which, unlike the Old Left of the 1930s, openly proclaimed its revolutionary goals instead of “hiding its agendas behind liberal and progressive masks.” In 1962, Horowitz wrote Student, “the first book to appear in print about the New Left”; in 1965 came The Free World Colossus, “the first account of the Cold War written from a New Left perspective.” He was among the first to refer to “the American empire.” Later, as an editor of the movement’s leading magazine, Ramparts, he consorted with Jean Genet, Bertrand Russell, Easy Rider producer Bert Schneider, and Jane Fonda, who married his friend Tom Hayden. He was on intimate terms with the Weather Underground and with Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Huey Newton.
It was a heady time. They were all warriors together, determined to transform the world, sure that they had all the answers, and convinced that they were the most virtuous of human beings. And yet most of the whites among them, Horowitz noticed, were unconscious racists, viewing their Black Panther allies as noble savages, while most of the men were sexists, treating their female collaborators as girl Fridays and playthings. There were other problems. Michael Lerner, who would go on to found the magazine Tikkun, was one of many movement members who, Horowitz saw, “were disconnected from family and real community.” Horowitz eventually understood, too, “that drugs were far more central to the consciousness of the Movement than I had realized”; when Lerner heard that Horowitz had never taken LSD, he said, urgently: “You have to take LSD. Until you’ve dropped acid, you don’t know what socialism is.”
As if his activism weren’t enough, Horowitz was also juggling a complicated personal life. He went through several wives and girlfriends, fathered four children, and had a complex relationship with his parents, especially his emotionally distant father, who disapproved of his criticism of the Soviet Union and palpably envied his success. As the 1960s wore on, Horowitz saw parallels between his life in the New Left and his father’s in the Old Left; in turn, to read Horowitz’s chapters about the 1960s is to be reminded that there’s absolutely nothing new about today’s Antifa and BLM radicals. Like the rioters in Portland today, Horowitz’s comrades spoke of establishing revolutionary enclaves inside major cities; they accused others of “white skin privilege” and of being “First World beneficiaries of imperialism”; and they were prepared to forgive any totalitarian government, however cruel, so long as the tyrants were non-white.
Eventually, Horowitz’s faith in socialism began to waver. After black comedian Dick Gregory met Cleaver and Newton, he told Horowitz they were “thugs,” and Horowitz knew he was right. Seeing the armed honor guard at a Panther funeral, a tearful Horowitz “felt as if at the bottom of an abyss” and asked himself: “David, what are you doing here?” And then a friend of his, Betty Van Patter, whom he’d recommended for a bookkeeping job with the Panthers, disappeared. Suspecting the Panthers had killed her, he was shaken to his core by the thought that his “effort to ally myself with what was virtuous and right” had led him into a compact with killers.
What to do? The idea of abandoning socialism “was still unthinkable. It had been the standard by which I judged right and wrong…. I had no conception of myself without it.” Yet he now realized that the “revolutionary community” in which he believed was an illusion; ditto his hopes for a “redemptive future.” Over time, he distanced himself from the left; with Peter Collier, he co-wrote bestsellers about the Rockefellers and Kennedys; and eventually he came out as a conservative – and paid the price. A new ally, Norman Podhoretz, advised him: “When you were on the left, you got away with everything. Now that you’re on the right, you’d better be careful, because they won’t let you get away with anything.” Indeed, while old America-hating comrades rose to elite positions in government, media, and the academy without ever forswearing their radicalism, Horowitz found himself a pariah in the eyes of the elite. By becoming a patriot, he’d become a traitor.
At first blush, Mortality and Faith may seem to be a very different work from its predecessor. Whereas the earlier book is a gripping narrative of a young writer’s ideological pilgrimage, the second is an absorbing account of an older writer’s most solemn inner musings – for, while still in the thick of political conflict, now as a major voice of the right, Horowitz is no longer a prisoner of ideology, and is able to think at length about such things as, well, mortality and faith. Not that he’s found religion, although if you handed certain excerpts from Mortality and Faith to someone well read in the modern mystics and said they were by Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen, he’d find no reason to doubt you. Indeed, some passages in this book, such as the following (which I’ve broken up into lines to illustrate my point), read like poetry:
And what I can remember is all that is left
of the time we spent together long ago, a fading image
now like the rest. I can still see the sunlight
on the green hedge where we paused
on the sidewalk. I can see the mottled sycamores
shading the street, and the way my father turned
until the tan dome of his forehead caught the glint
of the light when he shared his thought.
But despite the obvious contrasts between the two volumes, there’s a powerful continuity between them.
The Horowitz of Mortality and Faith remains a man with a mission – only now his mission is to resist the dangerous efforts of those who are still committed to the mission he’s renounced. Whereas he once stood at the center of a movement he thought would transform the world, he’s learned “that we are not at the center of anything except our own insignificance.” He once thought utopia was at hand; now he knows better: “This world is created every day by us at odds with each other, and over and over. It is irrevocably broken into billions of fragments, bits of human unhappiness and earthly frustration. And no one can fix it.”
If Radical Son recounts Horowitz’s escape from the prison of socialist ideology, Mortality and Faith is, to a great extent, a reflection on the lessons he’s learned from the prison – as well as from the escape. For example: “Don’t bury the life you have been given in this world in fantasies of the next; don’t betray yourself with impossible dreams.” He thinks frequently about the meaning of his late father’s life, noting that the lesson his father taught him “was not contained in the earnest lectures he gave, but in the instruction of a life that clung to its defeats like an infant to its mother’s breast.” Reading Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern jihad, after 9/11, Horowitz recognizes a version of the same “totalitarian idea” to which he was once devoted. He even sees an unsettling reflection of himself in the terrorist Mohammed Atta, who, he reflects, “appears to have been an ordinary man who was seduced into committing a great crime in the name of a greater good. Is this not the most common theme of the human tragedies of our time?”
For the young left-wing Horowitz of Radical Son, political ideas were all, and the sole meaning of life was to bring about revolution; his intellectual touchstones included Marx, Engels, Lenin, Nechaiev, Aragon, Eluard. The older, post-left Horowitz, for whom life is largely a matter of coming to terms with mortality and the mystery of existence, peppers Mortality and Faith with quotations from Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Marcus Aurelius (“Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens”). Even as he ruefully recalls the early socialists – among them Speshnev, Comte, and Bakunin – who saw their utopian ideology as a religious faith, he peruses with admiration the writings of Enlightenment philosophers (Spinoza, Locke, Kant) and scientists (Copernicus, Pascal, Newton) who, even as they made strides in human knowledge, continued to believe in God.
Yes, at the end of these books Horowitz remains an agnostic. But he’s also a man who’s thought more deeply about life, death, and the hereafter than most believers. He loves his wife, April (who, with her tenderness toward animals, emerges from these pages as a veritable saint), he cherishes his friends and pets, and he’s touchingly proud of his children (one of whom he tragically lost, while two have attained capitalistic success on a level that, one suspects, would have left their grandfather speechless). But the Horowitz whom we get to know in this dual-volume autobiography feels in many ways like a solitary figure – a man with too restless a mind, too intense an imagination, and too keen a conscience to ever be able to relax for very long in the company of his nearest and dearest. But then one could have said the same thing of Churchill, Lincoln, or many another great man.