LEFT ILLUSIONS: An Intellectual Odyssey
By David Horowitz
Spence, Rec. Price: $59.95
Like Whittaker Chambers before him, David Horowitz must have thought he was abandoning the winning side for the losing side, when he embraced conservatism. Chambers left communism for Christianity at a time when, in the eyes of many, it was not expedient to do so. So too, Horowitz, a leading left-wing intellectual of the 1960s and ’70s, had second thoughts. For both men, the change in thinking was costly, with severe reactions to their defections.
This book is a collection of articles, most of which were published before, giving an intellectual history of Horowitz’s rise in the Left, and his eventual disaffection with it. Thus it includes some of his earlier leftist pieces, including some published in the radical Ramparts, which he formerly edited. But the bulk of the articles here come from his new-found conservatism, and feature some of his best writings from the late ’70s to 2003.
Range of issues
Howowitz has already covered his second thoughts in book form, especially in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (co-written with Peter Collier in 1989), and Radical Son (1997). Here he covers a wide range of issues, with all of the conservative battlegrounds given a run.
Thus some three decades’ worth of controversy are covered, with articles on Solzhenitsyn, Nicaragua, racism, political correctness on campus, AIDS, free speech, multiculturalism, the Middle East crisis, terrorism, and the Clinton years all given judicious treatment.
Unlike Chambers, it was not a religious conversion that prompted this change of heart. It was a growing awareness that the Left was simply hypocritical, constantly denouncing supposed atrocities of capitalism and American foreign policy, while ignoring or condoning the barbarism of socialism and leftist dictatorships. An enormous amount of human blood had been shed on the altars of leftist utopianism, Horowitz discovered.
Thus his criticisms of the Left, coming as they do from someone who has been there and done that, deserve to be heard. Not many have renounced their left-wing past. I happen to have been one to do so, but there are not that many around. Irving Kristol once said that a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. It seems that many leftists prefer to live with their illusions than take a stand for reality.
Horowitz chronicles the extreme reaction of fellow leftists to his realignment. He was hoping that others would see the light, but instead he received vitriol, censure and abuse.
He had hoped that other radicals would make this acknowledgment: “We greatly exaggerated the sins of America and underestimated its decencies and virtues, and we’re sorry”. But such confessions were few and far between. Most leftists clung to their utopianism, to the “god that failed”.
Like Chambers, his new found conservatism is still a minority position. There exists a left-liberal hegemony in the US and the West that makes it hard for countering views to be heard. Horowitz documents the uphill battle in promoting a conservative voice in such a climate.
For example, on US college campuses there is a new McCarthyism, but a McCarthyism of the left. Having visited 200 such campuses in the past decade, Horowitz knows that most have repudiated their liberal arts origins (which saw freedom of speech and genuine intellectual inquiry as virtues) and have embraced political radicalism instead. Now a fog of censorship, political correctness and leftwing ideology covers these campuses. Thus for a conservative, and a former leftist at that, to speak at such an institution, one takes very real risks indeed.
Radical socialists, feminists, gay rights activists, and detractors of America and democracy can all freely speak their minds at American campuses, but conservatives do so at their own peril, if they do manage to get a speaking engagement. Horowitz has received more hatred and abuse when speaking as a conservative than he ever did as a communist or socialist.
Indeed, the university has become a hotbed of leftism, As an example, at the University of Wisconsin (a school which I once attended) Horowitz notes that while a $500 grant was given to a conservative student group, a million dollars in grants was given to various leftist extremist groups.
The media of course are no better, with a left-liberal domination that routinely censors out conservative voices. The prejudices of a leftist media are well-documented in this volume as well. Of course, this leftwing domination of the institutions of power and influence is not just accidental. Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s urged fellow communists to do this very thing. And they have succeeded very well in achieving these goals.
Thus one has to ask why anyone would want to surrender a seemingly winning position for what appears to be a lost cause. Horowitz has asked himself this question many times, as had Chambers. His last lines in this book address the question again, as he asks whether the truth will continue to remain in the shadows. He hopes that it won’t.
And for those like myself who have followed a similar road, and have taken similar U-turns, one’s hopes are buoyed by knowing that one is not alone, and that others have made similar journeys. Horowitz retains his Jewish faith. Chambers, and I, embraced Christianity. But all three of us know that truth is powerful, and truth will prevail. This volume provides solid meat for those who have made the change, and for those who have not yet done so. May it result in many more second thoughts.