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The Curious Case of David Horowitz

THE POLITICS OF BAD FAITH: The Radical Assault on America's Future.\o7 By David Horowitz (The Free Press: 214 pp., $25)\f7

October 11, 1998|STEPHEN SCHWARTZ | Stephen Schwartz is the author of "From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind."

Late in 1987, David Horowitz and Peter Collier, both former editors of Ramparts magazine and ex-New Leftists, sponsored an assembly of one-time radicals in Washington, D.C. The gathering, titled the "Second Thoughts Conference," was seen by Horowitz as an opportunity for the outstanding anti-radical intellectuals of two previous generations to pass the torch of righteous anti-communism to Horowitz and his cohort. But after much talk--in which I, as a former leader of the revived Young Communist League of the 1960s and recent convert to free-market economics, was proud to participate--the torch was not passed.

Hilton Kramer of the New Criterion and other elders excoriated us "Second Thoughters" for remaining mired in '60s psychology and for refusing to admit that we had been, in the words of John Maynard Keynes, "a generation of immoralists." Irving Kristol was dismissive: "I'm already on my third thoughts." Depressed almost to tears, Horowitz paced the marble lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel, asking, "Why wouldn't they do it? Why wouldn't they acknowledge us as their heirs?"

The answer can perhaps be found in the trajectory of Horowitz's own career. Horowitz first came to attention in 1962 when his book, "Student," an engaging examination of the early protest movement in Berkeley, was published. Eager to develop a theoretical underpinning for an emerging New Left seeking to distance itself from the Stalinist apologetics and practices of the Old Left without abandoning the dream of a democratic socialism, Horowitz wrote two canonical texts of the new radicalism: "The Free World Colossus" (1965) and "Empire and Revolution" (1969). These titles were accompanied by numerous ancillary works largely devoted to a revisionist view of the origins of the Cold War. Horowitz and Collier would go on to write a series of bestselling biographical studies of powerful American families: "The Rockefellers" (1977), "The Kennedys" (1984) and "The Fords" (1988).

During this period, Horowitz grew increasingly disenchanted with the refusal of many of his former comrades to denounce the thuggery of Black Panthers who had committed crimes in the name of revolution. Moreover, he began to despise the apologetics made on behalf of revolutionary regimes in the so-called Third World and the dogged anti-Americanism that seemed to deform so much of the New Left critique. He began, as he put it, to have "second thoughts." He began to see himself--and to be regarded by many of his former allies--as the Whittaker Chambers of the New Left. Unlike Chambers, however, whose autobiography "Witness," is an essential item in the literature of communism, Horowitz, despite several attempts (see his anti-'60s polemic "Destructive Generation," published in 1989, and his 1997 autobiography, "Radical Son"), had yet to write so formidable and indispensable a work.

The publication of Horowitz's newest book offers an opportunity, once again, to examine why he continues to fail to measure up to the standard set so many decades ago by Chambers. The new book is not, as its title and subtitle would have us believe, about "the politics of bad faith" or "the radical assault on America's future." It is not about America's future (or even much about its present). It is a set of essays on the failure of Marxist-Leninist ideology, an ideology in which Horowitz, a certified "red diaper baby," as the children of American Communists came to be known, grew up.

Horowitz begins grandly, evoking in his introduction "a conflict that for two hundred years has dominated the political history of the West." This is at best a slipshod formulation. The controversies underpinning the Cold War and America's later culture wars may seem to "have their origins in the French Revolution, when radicals sat to the left in the National Assembly and their opponents to the right," as Horowitz insists. But such a scheme is badly skewed. Factional and ideological polarization is nothing new. Recall the Sadducees and Pharisees in Judea during Roman times; as for the oft-maligned French Revolution, it produced Jacobinism and the guillotine, the inspiration for Leninist politics as well as the most philosophically elaborate version of modern bourgeois democracy. But Horowitz rarely lets the facts of history get in the way of a good story.

The problem is the story he tells has been told before. The core essays in this book are "The Left After Communism" and "The Fate of the Marxist Idea." Unfortunately, nearly everything relevant about the broad failures of communism--why it failed as a political movement and why it failed as a system of governance--has already been said (and said with greater eloquence and insight) by others, beginning 90 years ago with the anti-Bolshevik polemics of the Mensheviks and continuing through the chronicles of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among others.

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