RADICALS: PORTRAITS OF A DESTRUCTIVE PASSION
By David Horowitz
Regnery, $27.95, 256 pages
George Orwell said the real objective of socialism was not happiness but human brotherhood, which explains why so many socialists are unhappy. Their objective is unachievable as well as undesirable. Who, after all, wants to live in a world of seven billion siblings?
Some people, apparently. David Horowitz, professional debunker of utopian myths, supplies six case studies in “Radicals: Portraits of a Destructive Passion.” This collection — an assemblage of essays previously published online — is a lot like Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals,” which surveyed the private lives and moral credentials of several leading thinkers and concluded: “Beware intellectuals.” Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Horowitz is an apostate of the left, an ex-communist who saw the light and turned to the right.
“Radicals” begins with a chapter on Christopher Hitchens, whose radicalism defies easy categorization. “One of these days,” Hitchens wrote in 1997, “I’m going to write a book called ‘Guilty as Hell: A Short History of the American Left.’” He promised a companion volume: “Soft on Crime: The American Right From Nixon to North.” It’s a wonder he had any friends.
Hitchens eventually fell out with Edward Said, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky and even ceased calling himself a socialist, but he stopped short of a full political conversion. One thing that Hitchens admired about Orwell was that Orwell never underwent a Stalinist phase and thus never had to repent in the way that, say, Whittaker Chambers did. Mr. Horowitz chides Hitchens for failing to renounce many of his old leftist affinities, but he does so fairly and with sympathy.
Mr. Horowitz is less sympathetic toward Bettina Aptheker — a Marxist, feminist and Buddhist “spiritualist” for whom the political is congenitally personal. Her father, a dedicated communist and child molester, resorted to Stalinist tactics to keep her from exposing “family secrets.” “It was a terrible irony,” she confides in her memoir, “that my parents faced the terror of the McCarthy era with so much courage, and yet lined my heart with so much fear.”
Communism was for her a family value. She feared losing “my Communist belief system, and with it my loyalty to my father and mother and the world I knew.” Putting her politics before her uterus, she marched in a violent protest three days before giving birth to her son. The day before going into labor, she was asked to speak at an anti-war demonstration the following day. “I hesitated before saying no,” as she puts it.
Many years and traumas later, she found in Buddhism a new liberatory vehicle, endowing her with “a compassion so vast, so limitless that it embraced not only my father, but every being in the world.” As Mr. Horowitz points out, her limitless compassion was narcissism without limits.
The same holds true for Cornel West, author of such must-not-reads as “Black Theology and Marxist Thought.” This self-described “prophet” and “jazzman in the world of ideas” loves everyone, particularly himself for being so loving. (“In abstract love of humanity,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “one almost always only loves oneself.”) His radical affectations notwithstanding, Mr. West is less Karl Marx than Karl Malone — which is to say, a mildly entertaining jazz player, soon to be forgotten.
Mr. Horowitz then considers the cases of three unrepentant criminals — Linda Evans, Kathy Boudin and Susan Rosenberg — two of whom President Clinton pardoned on his last day in office. While giving a talk on “political prisoners,” the newly de-prisoned Ms. Evans, asked to define the term, said, “Every prisoner in American jails is a victim of political circumstance.” Charles Manson, the Unabomber, Jerry Sandusky — all victims of American politics.
Ten years after her release, Ms. Rosenberg published a book called “An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country,” which Mr. Horowitz subjects to a harsh and cogent critique. Thanks to a (highly political) pardon, Ms. Rosenberg became a political ex-prisoner — a beneficiary, if you will, of political circumstance.
Mr. Horowitz concludes his book with an appraisal of Saul Alinsky, the founding father of modern community organizing and a radical of Machiavellian persuasion. Tellingly, Alinsky dedicated his 1946 primer “Rules for Radicals” to “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment Lucifer.”
Alinsky preferred expediency to idealism (“he who fears corruption fears life”) and believed radical ends justified radical means, noble or ignoble. This methodology has unwholesome effects. “If the radicals’ utopia were actually possible,” Mr. Horowitz writes, “it would be criminal not to deceive, to lie, and to murder in order to advance the radical cause.” Their pursuit of heaven on earth makes the world a hellish place.
The radical temperament is destructive and self-destructive. It afflicts the sort of people who, as H.L. Mencken once said, cannot look at the crunching of a cockroach without feeling the snapping of their own ribs. As long as there are cockroaches, there will be exterminators.
Windsor Mann is the editor of “The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism” (Da Capo Press, 2011).