In 1954, probably the most feverish period of domestic anti-Communism, where it seemed that each new day brought forth another ex-Communist who had seen the light, Mary McCarthy penned her own “confessional.” While not questioning the “sincerity” of those like Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley (who had her “Come to Jesus” moment appropriately enough in a New England church), she did object to the Road to Damascus political conversions these figures recounted. Drawing from her own journey from mild and curious fellow-traveler to committed anti-Stalinist in the late Thirties (a time when the American Party was in its salad days), she characterized her experience as made up of small moments, which, taken together, subtly moved her away from Communism.
At his best, Daniel Oppenheimer, in his new book, Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, treats the journeys of those who moved from left to right in the same manner. At his worst, he succumbs to easy potshots at such movement. He writes of “tension” within those he examines (David Horowitz, Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, James Burnham, and Christopher Hitchens), but he at the same time — and I don’t know his politics — displays his own.
Oppenheimer treats Ronald Reagan as an authentic New Dealer who subtly moved in a direction that in Reagan’s eyes was not a betrayal of his liberalism. (As president, Reagan regularly attended celebrations of FDR, to the consternation of many Democrats.) At times, Oppenheimer agrees with Reagan’s contention that the priority he placed on America’s pulling together against an external threat was as applicable to the Cold War as it was to World War II. But Oppenheimer also succumbs to the standard liberal explanation for Reagan’s “conversion.” For him, Reagan moved right only when he started seeing events through the eyes of management — in this case, the heads of General Electric, who hired him to go on publicity tours espousing free enterprise and anti-Communism on GE’s factory floors.
Oppenheimer treats Ronald Reagan as an authentic New Dealer who subtly moved in a direction that in Reagan’s eyes was not a betrayal of his liberalism.
But portraying Reagan as a sellout to big business misses his complexity. Although he voted Republican for the first time in 1952, for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he had hardly become a right-wing ideologue. He noted, for example, that Ike’s Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, “grew in stature,” while Eisenhower did not. Nor does Oppenheimer mention that Reagan never wanted to repeal the New Deal as a whole (in a diary entry, he stated that he was never against the New Deal, just the Great Society).
Oppenheimer also lapses when dealing with Christopher Hitchens, a socialist who supposedly abandoned his leftist allegiances for neo-conservatism after 9/11. Although he praises Hitchens’s refusal while on the Left to ignore Communist brutality, he doesn’t entertain the possibility that, instead of a journey, Hitchens’s movement was in reality a fulfillment of his leftist beliefs; to paraphrase Reagan, he didn’t leave the Left, he merely overlapped with the Right. It is true that he could no longer call himself a socialist, but that had occurred before 9/11 (he first documented this abandonment in a book published in 1999). But he never stopped trying to salvage Trotsky; in the 1980s, he cast him as a prophet concerning the rise of fascism. By the end of his life (he died in 2011), when the Soviet Union had collapsed, Hitchens was still trying to portray the exiled Bolshevik as “giving up on Communism and trying to find another way to help the downtrodden.” Hitchens approved of the Bush administration’s liberation of Iraq, but the administration, brimming with born-agains, did not share his goal of eradicating all religions, not just the radical Muslim variety. Nor did 9/11 bring Hitchens to a sudden appreciation of neo-conservatives. As early as the 1980s, he had praised them as much more “intellectually rigorous” than liberals. In the 1990s, he praised conservatives who did not ally themselves with Clinton despite the president’s implementing many of their policies.
Toward the end of his life, Hitchens took what were, for a “conservative,” some unorthodox and — dare I say? — left-wing positions. While supporting the war in Iraq, he wrote a book in praise of atheism, and he still retained his view of the Vietcong as heroic and worthy of support.
It is apparent that Oppenheimer is disappointed in Hitchens; so much so that he trumpets another favorite insult of the Left: that Hitchens was a drunkard (usually followed, when said by leftists, by “traitor and turncoat”). Oppenheimer asserts that had Hitchens stopped drinking sooner he might not have turned right.
The author moves into psychoanalysis when examining David Horowitz. Hypocritically, he denounces Horowitz for attributing power-hunger as a motive for those who became leftists, and then turns around and denounces Horowitz for moving right because he was angry. This ignores the human motive. It was human of Horowitz to join a movement that promised brotherhood, and equally human to become angry and disgusted (as much at himself as at others) when a bookkeeper he had promoted for a position with the Black Panther Party was murdered by said party.
Oppenheimer also engages in the common practice of the Left (and, to be fair, also of the Right) of selective editing. He cuts off his chapter on Chambers in the late Thirties, when the writer has exchanged belief in Stalin for belief in God. This ignores the extent to which Chambers retained his leftist beliefs. In the 1950s, he refused to back Senator Joseph McCarthy (to the consternation of his new allies on William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review), and he rejected Ayn Rand’s brand of free-market economics. To take into account Chambers’s later, more liberal years would have shown him to be a more complex figure than the one Oppenheimer presents.
Exit Right is a frustrating book. One can see that Oppenheimer wants to be intellectually fair and to regard his subjects as telling us something about the human condition as a whole. He does show, for example, how Horowitz, Chambers, and Reagan, no matter what phase they were in, were trying to fulfill the very human need to belong to something greater than oneself. And he does note that one doesn’t have to belong to the Right or the Left to be “humane and compelling.” But having taken these accounts into something broader, he cannot master his own tensions, and he succumbs to the clichés that, today, are more Left than Right.
— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.