Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Witnesses

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, by Daniel Oppenheimer (Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $28)

The attempt to better understand the complex and elusive connections between the personal and the political realms in our psyche is a worthwhile endeavor, hard as they might be to unearth and document. For well over half a century, intellectual historians and authors of different political persuasions have been asking: Why have Communist movements and systems attracted so many Western intellectuals, and why, and under what conditions, have many of the same intellectuals become disillusioned with them?

The author of this well-written (and widely and favorably reviewed) volume seeks to explore these interrelated matters, and in doing so makes some large claims. He begins by averring: “This is a book about why six men changed — why they moved from one set of political beliefs to staunchly different ones. It’s also a history of the American Left in the 20th century, and the rise of the Right. . . . It’s a book about how we come to believe at all. Why is it that each of us holds the beliefs that we do?”

Exit Right is certainly not a history of the American Left, but it does provide insights and information about it. Far more questionable is the grandiose claim of the subtitle, that the six individuals dealt with, and presumably their political attitude change, “reshaped the American century.” A closer look at these six people — Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens — offers little support for this assertion. Oppenheimer does not explain how he selected his protagonists, a disparate group, members of which had little in common, other than their transient attraction to leftist ideas and causes. Much has already been written about all of them. Given the declared goals (quoted above) of the study, it is far from clear why only those were included who “exited to the right,” while those who became moderate leftists or liberals, or withdrew altogether from politics, were excluded.

Reagan, of course, is the most incongruous member of this group, which otherwise might have been characterized as one composed of intellectuals. Aside from differences in personality, education, and occupation, they are separated, most importantly, by sharp and pronounced ideological and psychological differences in regard to the political commitments and beliefs they eventually discarded. Reagan and Podhoretz were never Communists, fellow travelers, or members of the radical Left. They had a lot less to be disillusioned with than others of far deeper and more durable commitments. Reagan and Podhoretz used to be liberals, or Democrats, on the American political spectrum.

Arguably, Reagan was the least politically active in this group: The author refers to his having had only a “low-impact commitment” to politics until he became a vocal conservative. By contrast, Chambers was a genuine Communist and a Soviet spy; Burnham, a well-educated upper-class Trotskyite writer-intellectual (and a senior editor of  National Review later in his life); Podhoretz, a liberal New York intellectual, editor of Commentary; Horowitz, a Sixties radical and activist, author of several books; Hitchens, also a Trotskyite, a British journalist and contrarian (“the underdog was his party,” writes Oppenheimer) who moved to the United States and was a columnist for The Nation.

The trajectory and sources of these men’s involvement and their disillusionment were also notably different and offer little basis for any generalization. The book has barely any conclusions: They amount to two and a half pages of what the author calls a “Postscript,” which is a poor substitute for them. What we have are six discrete biographies, interesting and informative fragments of intellectual history that do not live up to the promises and claims made in the beginning. They often meander and lose their intended focus — supposedly, the roots of political involvement and disillusionment.

Perhaps unavoidably, these mini-biographies drift in the direction of psychobiography. For instance, Oppenheimer plausibly argues that Horowitz was motivated by “a need to redeem the radical hopes and action of his parents,” who were lifelong members of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. and never revised their beliefs. Less successfully, he speculates about Horowitz: “From the anger and self-hatred a political intuition began to coalesce. Barely even an intuition at first — a shard of pain emanating from the suppurating wound in his psyche gesturing in the direction of an intuition.”

To his credit, Oppenheimer is, on the whole, impressively nonjudgmental and sympathizes with the travails that attend his subjects’ wrenching changes of political attitude. He seems genuinely interested in understanding their motives and behavior. Although not a historian or a social scientist (he is identified on the cover as a writer and filmmaker with an MFA in non-fiction), he did his homework and writes much better than his academic colleagues. For example, summarizing the disillusionment of Burnham not only with Communist politics but with Marxism itself, he writes: “The authoritarianism, the deterministic faith in the ultimate triumph of the movement, the hubristic claims to having perfect understanding of all realms of knowledge, the irrational loyalty to the Soviet Union, and, particularly, the mysticism and disguised eschatology of dialectical materialism — these weren’t infected appendixes one could simply cut away from the body of Marxism.”

Commenting on the disposition of Podhoretz, he illuminatingly notes: “It was steeped in Freud, and took as its gospel his conviction that reason was but a skiff floating atop the sea of terror, confusion, and need that filled up most of the human psyche.”

For readers who know little about these figures and their politics, the book offers substantial, colorfully presented information but no particular new insight or proposition. Oppenheimer usefully reaffirms that it is almost impossible to separate the personal from the political, and that one realm should not be used to discredit the other:

It is easy to disparage other people’s politics by psychologizing, historicizing, biologizing, or sociologizing them. The harder and more important  truth to admit is that everyone’s politics are resonating on all of these frequencies. Once that point is granted, it casts into relief the problem with one of the charges that is so often leveled against political turncoats, which is that they are acting out personal issues. Of course they are. That’s what being human entails.

There remains the question why several reputable reviewers and important publications found this book worthy of considerable attention. Some of these reviewers clearly have strong reservations about the “turncoats” here discussed, and the volume offers some material that, regardless of the author’s intentions, helps to confirm their negative disposition. Thus George Packer wrote in The New Yorker: “Each tale of defection reveals a personal temper that makes these men passionately hostile to the politics of pluralism. They embrace new truths with the convert’s fervor and certitude. . . . What they loathe most is liberalism.” Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic suggested that “the personal doesn’t just merge with the political but swallows it whole, . . . as ideological heresy becomes its own form of postmodern exhibitionism.” Alan Wolfe (writing in The New Republic) felt that there was not enough emphasis on the narcissism of these figures and that Oppenheimer took them too seriously.

These reviewers seem skeptical about the possibility that disillusionment with radical leftist beliefs, even when it leads to new certitudes, indicates that human beings can learn from experience. And they seem reluctant to acknowledge that it takes some courage to publicly reject comforting but groundless beliefs and false hopes.

– Mr. Hollander is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. His book From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chávez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship will be published later this year.

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Witnesses

The attempt to better understand the complex and elusive connections between the personal and the political realms in our psyche is a worthwhile endeavor.

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