Politics & Policy

A Witness, Part I

The meaning of 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.

Back in California, David edited Ramparts, the leftist magazine, with his friend Peter Collier. (As luck would have it, David and Peter moved rightward at the same time. They were partners as radicals and again as anti-radicals.) David got involved with the Black Panthers, those glamorous thugs who, when not killing, robbing, and raping, talked “social justice.” Writes David, “Just as Stalin had used the idealism and loyalty of my parents’ generation to commit his crimes in the ’30s, so the Panthers had used my generation’s idealism in the ’60s.”

He continued to participate in the anti-war movement, but that’s a misnomer, really: It may have been an anti-war movement for some, but certainly not for all. “Let me make this perfectly clear,” said David in 1985: “Those of us who inspired and then led the anti-war movement did not want just to stop the killing as so many veterans of those domestic battles now claim. We wanted the Communists to win.” Not only did they want the Communists to win, they thought they would, according to a popular chant: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win.” (The initials stood for National Liberation Front.)

In the years and decades after the war, many American radicals prettied up the record: They had simply wanted to “bring the boys home,” you see. In reality, they loathed the “boys,” and what they wanted to bring home was the war — as in the slogan “Bring the war home.”

David Horowitz had two Kronstadts, I think. One of them was more important and more personal; the other was more global, if you will. “Kronstadt”? This term refers to the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, in which Soviet sailors, soldiers, and others turned against Lenin and the Bolsheviks and were, of course, crushed like bugs. Since then, some ex-Communists and ex-leftists have spoken of their “Kronstadt.” The term has a couple of definitions: It can refer to the moment of one’s disillusionment with the Party; or it can refer to the moment at which one took a stand against the Party. In any case, this moment, for some, was the Nazi-Soviet pact. For others, it was Khrushchev’s “secret speech.” For others, it was the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, or the suppression of the Prague Spring. Many, of course, have never quite had a Kronstadt.

Let me tell it very briefly: David arranged for a woman named Betty Van Patter to work as a bookkeeper at a Panther-run school. Soon, they murdered her. You recall David’s dates for his “life as a leftist”: May Day 1948 until December 1974. That was the month of Van Patter’s murder.

Get this: “Betty’s friends in the Bay Area progressive community, who generally were alert to every injustice, even in lands so remote they could not locate them on a map, kept their silence about this one in their own backyard.” And here is a confession, or testimony: “My dedication to the progressive cause had made me self-righteous and arrogant and blind. Now a cruel and irreversible crime had humbled me and restored my sight.”

David’s other Kronstadt, I gather, was Vietnam — the results of that war, I mean. As David himself puts it, “More people — more Indo-Chinese peasants — were killed by the Marxist victors and friends of the New Left in the first three years of the Communist peace than had been killed on all sides in the 13 years of the anti-Communist war.” He quotes Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Truman Democrat who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, and, afterward, joined the Republican party: “How can it be that persons so deeply committed to the liberation of South Vietnam and Cambodia from Generals Thieu and Lon Nol were so little affected by the enslavement that followed their liberation? Why was there so little anguish among the American accomplices who helped Pol Pot to power?” In David, there was anguish.

He and his friends had wanted the New Left — their Left — to be different from the Old Left — their parents’ Left, the one that had served and revered Stalin. But those two Lefts were “virtually indistinguishable,” David saw. They were alike in their “Marxist underpinnings,” their “anti-Americanism,” and their “indiscriminate embrace of totalitarian revolutions and revolutionaries abroad.”

David, remember, vowed to be different from his parents: He would never “be loyal to a movement based on a lie or be complicit in political crimes.” It had not worked out that way, however. And “the William Buckleys and the Ronald Reagans and the other anti-Communists” who told the world that life was ghastly under Communist regimes — they were right. They were routinely denounced as liars, but they were right. Those denouncing were the liars.

Editor’s Note: We will continue with Jay Nordlinger’s piece tomorrow. There will be three installments altogether.


The Latest