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Left-leaving, left-leaning

Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey; David Horowitz; Spence: 500 pp., $29.95 Not Without Love: Memoirs; Constance Webb; University Press of New England/Dartmouth; College: 292 pp., $29.95

November 16, 2003|Christopher Hitchens | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair, visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York and the author of numerous books, including "Why Orwell Matters."

Not long ago, having expressed some disagreements in print with an old comrade of long standing, I was sent a response that he had published in an obscure newspaper. This riposte referred to my opinions as "racist." I would obviously scorn to deny such an allegation on my own behalf. I would, rather, prefer to repudiate it on behalf of my former friend. He had known me for many years and cooperated with me on numerous projects, and I am quite confident that he would never have as a collaborator anyone he suspected of racial prejudice. But it does remind me, and not for the first time, that quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. There's a general tendency -- not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them -- to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one.

This is a vulgar error, with its roots in the intellectual atmosphere of the Stalin period, and it is the central preoccupation of David Horowitz's latest collection of apostasy. I should say at the outset that I have known or at least met Horowitz at almost every stage of his political evolution (and I confess that one of these collected essays defends me against some piece of calumny from a few years back. That article begins -- quite correctly in a way -- by saying that he knows full well that by taking my side he is throwing me a lifebelt made out of the heaviest possible cement).

To have met Horowitz in Berkeley at the end of the '60s, when he was running the now-legendary Ramparts magazine, was to have encountered a rather cocky and prickly guy, aware of his status as a celebrity of the New Left. Our meeting wasn't a huge success. Rather daringly, he reprints some of his essays from this period, which hold up fairly well and, in the case of the article on Israel and the left, show a prose superior to some of his post-defection pieces. Next time we ran into each other it was 1982. Horowitz was defending then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's war in Lebanon and had already published an essay about his growing disillusionment with the anti-Americanism of the left. He was half in and half out at that stage: When I inquired where he was politically, he replied that he'd ceased to be a Deutscherite and become a Kolakowski-ist. I include this reminiscence because it will please those readers on the left who get the reference and because it shows how intent and minute was Horowitz's self-scrutiny. In the 1984 presidential election, he came out enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan, which made me think that he had kissed farewell to fine distinctions. In 1988 he convened a famous conference of former radicals who had developed "Second Thoughts." It occurred, perhaps unfortunately, at the crescendo of the Iran-contra scandal -- which didn't make Reagan look all that good -- and just as Mikhail S. Gorbachev was beginning the dismantling of the Soviet Empire. If that latter momentous process vindicated anyone, it was perhaps Isaac Deutscher (who had believed in a version of "reform Communism") almost as much as it was Leszek Kolakowski, who had maintained that the USSR was quite beyond reform. With the Cold War so to speak behind us, I suspected that Horowitz would find life without the old enemy a little dull. How much of an audience would there be for his twice-told tale about growing up in a doggedly loyal Communist Party family and his agonizing over the series of wrenches and shocks that had detached him from Marxism altogether? But then, I didn't anticipate that in the fall of 2001 I would be reading solemn polemics by leading intellectualoids, proposing a strict moral equivalence -- moral equivalence at best, in some cases -- between America and the Taliban. Nor did I expect to see street theater antiwar demonstrations, organized by open admirers of Fidel Castro and Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, united in the sinister line of, in effect, "hands off Saddam Hussein." So I admit that I now find the sardonic, experienced pessimism in Horowitz' book, a bit more serviceable than I once did. No matter what the shortcomings of U.S. policy may have been in the post-2001 crisis, it is clear at least to me that much of the left has disgraced itself either by soft-headed neutralism or, in the case of a very noticeable minority, by something rather like open sympathy for the enemies of civilization. The May-June issue of New Left Review, for example, contained an editorial calling not just for solidarity with the "resistance" in Iraq but with Kim Jong Il in his stand against imperialism!

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