A Witness, Part I
The meaning of David Horowitz

David Horowitz


‘Write what you know,” people say. And what they know, mainly, is themselves. So people write about themselves. David Horowitz does, a lot. But you are glad he does, for several reasons. First, he does it very, very well. Second, he has led an interesting life. Third, his life has corresponded to our times.

The latest volume from him is titled “My Life and Times.” What’s the difference? What’s the difference between that life and the times? Not much. These have been interesting times too, and all too interesting, as in what is allegedly an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

This volume is the first of ten — ten volumes collecting the “conservative writings of David Horowitz.” He has been a conservative since about 1985, when he was in his mid-40s. Says David, “My life as a leftist began with a May Day Parade in 1948, when I was nine years old, and lasted for more than twenty-five years until December 1974 . . .” What about the other ten years? The decade between 1975 and 1985? In those years, David informs us, he was essentially out of politics, finding his way along.

The series overall is called “The Black Book of the American Left.” David says he is a hedgehog rather than a fox — someone who knows one big thing rather than someone who knows many things. I would dispute this. David knows a range of things, including literature, the discipline in which he was trained, academically. But it’s true he knows the American Left, inside and out, and, if you have to know one thing, that’s a big, big thing to know.

“In the course of my adult life,” David writes, “the American Left has gone from being an isolated community on the fringes of the political mainstream to a very big thing — so big that by 2008 it had become the dominant force in America’s academic and media cultures, elected an American president, and was in a position to shape America’s political future.”

I will not try to recapitulate Radical Son — David’s renowned autobiography, published in 1997. But let me give you a few basics from his life, drawn from the present volume. His parents were Communists, as you know: Not many nine-year-olds just wander into a May Day parade. David grew up “a sheltered child in a Marxist bubble,” he says. His parents believed in the Soviet dream. They thought they were fighting for the poor and the powerless, for a shining future. The Soviet dream was a lie, however.

After the mid-1950s, roughly speaking, few could deny that this dream was a lie. In reality, says David, his parents and their friends “had served a gang of cynical despots who had slaughtered more peasants, caused more hunger and human misery, and killed more leftists like themselves than all the capitalist governments since the beginning of time.” David vowed he would be a different kind of leftist: “I would never be loyal to a movement based on a lie or be complicit in political crimes . . .”

He went to Columbia University, in his hometown of New York. “I viewed my college education not as a step on a personal career path but as preparation for my life mission, which was to participate in a revolution that would change the world.” From Columbia, he went to Berkeley, for a master’s in English — and to further the mission, of course. He organized one of the first anti-Vietnam War rallies. That was in 1962, when the war was hardly yet a war. Then he went to England, where he worked for Bertrand Russell, the famed intellectual who had become a leader and symbol of the radical Left.

In this period, David met with a Soviet official, Lev, who, of course, turned out to be a KGB agent. At one meeting, Lev gave David a Parker fountain pen. “I didn’t know how to refuse it without insulting him.” At the next meeting, Lev stuffed an envelope full of cash into David’s pocket. This, David refused, indignantly. Later, Lev asked David to spy — which David refused even more indignantly. They never saw each other again. Whatever David was in that period, he was not a Soviet spy.