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Radical Son

Radical Son, David Horowitz, Touchstone Books, 1998, 467pp, pbk, ISBN 0-684-84005-7


This is a political memoir/autobiography by David Horowitz. At one point in the book Horowitz remarks (p423)

New Left radicals favored the slogan, "the personal is political," but the intention behind it was not introspective. The phrase expressed, rather, their totalitarian agenda to control the personal in order to make utopian politics work.
Be that as it may, with Horowitz the political and the personal are inextricably intertwined. Horowitz was a red-diaper baby; his grandparents were immigrant Jews from Russia; his parents were members of the Communist Party until the publication of the Kruschev papers in 1956.

Horowitz was one of the founders and leaders of the New Left in the 60's and 70's. He was an activist at Berkeley who organized and led protests. He was a member of the staff of Ramparts and, for a while, co-editor. Eventually he became disillusioned with the radical left and became a neo-conservative.

In large part this is an autobiographical account of a political life; however the personal is present too. The most striking element is his obsession with his relationship with his father. An odd aspect is that there is almost no attempt at insight into his relationships with women and his failed marriages. Here it is the absence that is striking.

Horowitz was married three times. The first marriage, which lasted by far the longest, was to Elissa who was the mother of his children. This nominal cause of the breakup was repeated infidelities by Horowitz. These were classic affairs on the side; David and Elissa did not partake in the free love communalism and drugs that were pervasive in the flower power generation. One gets the impression that he never understood or tried to understand why he strayed; his infidelities were left as an unexamined phenomenon.

His next two marriages were to women who were drug users. In both cases he was initially unaware of their being drug users. When he became aware he tried to help them become clean. In both cases they eventually left him in favor of drugs. The failure of these marriages was predictable. The odd thing is that he seemingly never asked himself why he made the same mistake twice or why he made it all. As a final irony, in the epilog he describes going through his father's papers and discovering the details of his father's companionate marriage (before his father married his mother) to a heroin addict who, as David's wives also did, left his father for her drug.

The book is organized chronologically. Part 1, entitled Black Holes (1904-1939), is about his grandparents. Part 2, Coming of Age (1940-1956) is about growing up and coming of age as the son of Communist parents. Orwell's 1984 with Ingsoc's inner and outer parties reflected the structure of the CP which had front organizations, an outer party containing people who were not substantively under party discipline, and an inner party of people who were. Part 3, New Worlds (1957-1967) is about the period when he left home and the neighborhood party cell. Part 4, Revolutions (1968-1973) covers the glory days of mass demonstrations, power to the people, et cetera, and the collapse of the protest movement when the draft was ended. Part 5, Panthers (1973-1974) is about his involvement with the Black Panthers and the beginnings of disillusionment. Part 6, Private Investigations (1973-1980) is about the questioning of the movement and his final break. Finally, Part 7, Coming Home (1980-1992) is about being a neo-conservative.

His involvement with the Black Panthers lead to the triggering event in his reassessment of the New Left. The Panthers were, on his account, an odd combination of Marxism and criminality. He quotes Huey Newton as saying, "Marxism is my hustle." For a time the Panthers were darlings of the revolutionary left who conceived of the Panthers as primitive rebels against the property system. The triggering event was the murder of Betty Van Patter, a friend of his whom he had placed as bookkeeper with the Berkeley Black Panthers. It took him a period of a year to realize that the Panthers were, in effect, a criminal organization, that their crimes were committed with near impunity because of their political influence, that the Left didn't want to know about it, and that the Left didn't care.

Horowitz provides a fairly damning assessment of the Left, particularly the revolutionary New Left. Some of the faults that he identifies are the ordinary faults of partisanship - arrogance, intolerance, myth making, and a double standard for those on our side and those on the "other side" - that are regularly found on the left, the right, among patriots, and in partisans of all stripes. Beyond that there is a trap that revolutionaries regularly spring. The revolution to come is primary; when it comes it will sweep away the injustices of the past and a new order will be established. It follows that the cause is everything and unquestioning loyalty to the cause is essential. The consequence is a manipulative cynicism in the inner cadres which, in the sincere, is combined with an Orwellian doublethink. As a contributor to New Left Notes observed:

You have to realize that the issue didn't matter. The issues were never the issues. You could have been involved with the Panthers, the Weatherpeople, SLATE, SNCC, SDS. It didn't really matter what. It was the revolution that was everything... That's why dope was good. Anything that undermined the system contributed to the revolution and was therefore good. (p106)
Hayden's comments to Horowitz on the 1968 Chicago riot at the Democratic convention illustrate the fundamental cynicism:
... This explained Hayden's choice of venue, and his determination to proceed with the demonstration after failing to get movement support. It also made sense in terms of the general strategy Hayden laid out for me in our private political discussions. If people's heads got cracked by police, he said in more than one of these sessions, it "radicalized them." The trick was to maneuver the idealistic and unsuspecting into situations that would achieve the result. (p166)
In the end, of course, there was no revolution. Horowitz asked questions that were not permissible to ask and in due course was read out of the club. He found a home in neo-conservatism and discovered to his surprise that he was comfortable there. Many of the other revolutionaries sold out in various ways and tailored their reminiscences to suit the needs of respectability. Those who retained their radical convictions drifted into academia or otherwise came to a bad end. Then, too, there were many for whom the issues were important who dedicated themselves to working for good causes, a national obsession with Americans.

In the account there is a missing element. Although Horowitz was in the center of things he seemingly never understood the appeal of the movement, to wit: Protesting is fun and violence has a certain thrill. People like to play with the illicit. Not, though, Horowitz for whom politics is serious (and somewhat stuffy) business.


This page was last updated July 17, 2001.

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