Radical Son

Many people are Conservatives by default. Their parents were of a Conservative bent and they followed along the same path without much thought. Others grow to embrace their ideological heritage after thoughtful consideration.

For some not born to Conservatism, a key event fertilizes Liberal ground and a new Conservative blossoms from an unexpected place. Peggy Noonan, Conservative pundit and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, grew up in a working-class Democratic family in the Northeast. In the 1960’s, she realized that many fellow students who opposed the War in Vietnam did not do so out of love for America, but out of hate. The war was not only a mistake, but also evidence of the fundamental corruptness of America. This clash with her patriotic upbringing was the beginning of her political transformation.

Perhaps no one has journeyed quite as far from the dark side to the side of goodness and light or has as much to tell us about the Left as David Horowitz. Horowitz was a “red-diaper” baby raised in the forties by two committed Communists, Phillip and Blanche Horowitz. His father was a public school teacher who was suspended by the New York school system for refusing to say whether he was a Communist. Phillip was later given a cash settlement to make up for the suspension. The elder Horowitz even traveled to the Soviet Union as part of a political pilgrimage. Young David’s upbringing included Marxist instruction and even involvement in the protest of the Rosenbergs’ execution for espionage. No one could have better Leftist credentials.

Even as a young man, Horowitz was a proficient polemicist who debated from the Left in college. As an adult, he shored up his socialist credentials with six years of research and writing in London and worked for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. When he returned to the United States, he was a charter member of the so-called New Left and a writer and an editor for a flagship of the Left, Ramparts magazine.

In his book Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, Horowitz chronicles his transformation from the New Leftist to a Reagan Republican. Actually, the odyssey began with an unlikely event. After the death of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khruschev came to power. The effort to solidify Khruschev’s hold over the Soviet Union required undermining the legacy of his predecessor. The Khruschev Report documented the cruelty and crimes of Stalin.

It is not remarkable that one totalitarian ruler built his reputation on the bones of another. The reaction of the Marxists in the West, however, is remarkable. With few exceptions and without much self-reflection, the Left embraced Khruschev and the Khruschev Report and its repudiation of Stalin with the same fierce loyalty they one lavished on Stalin.

Young Horowitz perceived this hypocrisy and devoted his early adult years to trying to reconcile the contradiction. In his writings, Horowitz tried unsuccessfully to recast socialism in a way that could avoid the excesses of Stalin. Is there an inherent tendency, he wondered, for Marxist regimes to become destructive of individual rights?

What also bothered Horowitz is that few on the Left even felt a need to address the question. Most were satisfied to just criticize corporate America and the West. Nonetheless, Horowitz worried about this large snag in the political cloth of socialism. This snag was the first flaw that unraveled Horowitz’s Leftist views and would later lead to what he labeled as “second thoughts.”

While at Ramparts, Horowitz became a confidant of Huey Newton of the notorious Black Panthers. To the Left, the Panthers represented the front lines of a coming guerilla war to bring about revolution in the United States.

For a while, Hororwitz overlooked his discomfort with the drugs and petty criminality of the Panthers. Part of the revolutionary doctrine at the time held that flaunting conventional laws was in itself an important revolutionary act.

This all changed when Betty Van Patter was killed while working as a bookkeeper for a community organization run by the Panthers. According to Horowitz, Van Patter asked too many questions and was killed by the Panthers. Horowitz was especially devastated since he had recommended Van Patter for the position.

The Left, many of them friends and acquaintances of Horowitz and Van Patter, turned aside and avoided looking at the obvious complicity of the Panthers. If the Panthers were linked to the murder, it would be a set back to the movement. The consequences for any particular individual could not stand in the way of the revolution. The Left just closed its eyes and forgot about Betty Van Patter.

Horowitz could not forget. Van Patter’s death pulled on the earlier snag of his earlier doubts about the practical consequences of the absolute loyalty required of the Left. Suddenly, the inability of the Left to address or even admit the brutality of the North Vietnamese, Communist China, and Cuba now played out in a very immediate and personal way. In the words of Horowitz:

“How could the Left be reformed, if it refused to confront itself? How could it propose to change the world, if it was unwilling to ask whether it ideas were valid? How could it transform the world if it couldn’t transform itself.”

When the Communist Sandanistas threatened to make Nicaragua into another repressive, dictatorial Cuba, Horowitz finally made public the transformation he had been undergoing for a decade and endorsed Ronald Reagan’s anti-Sandanista policies.

Horowitz is now as polemically active on the Right as he was once was on the Left. Not unexpectedly, many of his former allies and friends turned on him with a vengeance, some even suggesting that perhaps he was a CIA agent. In academia and left-leaning cultural circles he was no longer welcome. Horowitz contrasts the viciousness with which he was attacked by the Left for his apostasy with the relative forgiveness granted Gary Wills and Barry Lind whose political journeys were in the exact opposite directions as Horowitz’s.

What Horowitz faced is the inherent flaw in the socialist vision. Socialism views humans as perfectible if only provided with the right political and economic circumstances. Humans, we are told, can look to themselves to solve the problems of greed, envy, pride and the other sins that have burdened mankind. Socialism is always pointing to the vision of a utopian future and thus finds it easier to overlook casualties along the way.

The Conservative intuition is rooted in the past with the notion that the past provides a reliable guide to human nature. Humans have great capacities for both good and evil and governments are instituted to protect us from each other. Indeed, according to James Madison, “Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.” This is a warning that the Left fails to acknowledge.

Madison added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. If men were angels there would be no need for government.”

The Left agrees with the latter statement and argues that the state will ultimately wither away as men become angels. However, in socialist states, people do not become angels and the degree of government management and intrusiveness increases. Madison and the Founders, by contrast, created a government with checks and balances to prevent tyranny. Under the US Constitution, not only was human imperfection conceded it was counted on. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” as a means to protect ourselves from each other.

As a consequence of their view of human nature, Conservatives ironically have proven more willing to forgive than those on the activist Left. What impressed Horowitz in his political odyssey was

“… the tolerance of conservatives I knew for human faults and failings, including my own. Some conservatives were like the flinty puritans of liberal caricature, but most of my new acquaintances and political associates were not. Over time, their tolerance became intelligible to me. What made one conservative was the recognition of the human capacity for evil, for just plain screwing up. That was why the rules were important. Not because conservatives expected no one to break them. But because having rules that were respected made it harder for people to do so. This was a more subtle — in the long run more trustworthy — form of compassion than liberals’ softness of heart.”

Not many people would have the intellectual depth and the emotional courage to make the political journey that David Horowitz did. Conservatives are better off because of it.

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