Radical Son

When David Horowitz was a child, he and other children of Communist party members went to Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, short for "Workers’ Children’s Camp," where they held ritual bonfires to burn comic books considered "imperialistic" and "anti-Communist" by the camp’s directors. Today he is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, where he searches out and denounces what he sees as the depredations of lefty and corrupt popular culture-Mickey Mouse and Madonna, among others.

This is an American journey of sorts-traveling the short road from authoritarian left to demagogic right. But does the journey, excruciatingly detailed in Radical Son, have anything to tell the rest of us? The answer is yes, in part because the story of a red-diaper American childhood has seldom been told, and perhaps never told so well. All the ordinary fears and confusions of growing up were magnified for this slightly nerdy boy-already set apart by his Jewishness from ethnic schoolmates-who also knows his parents are engaged in secret, seriously revolutionary political activities. His parents weren’t kidding around. They really did think the Communist overthrow of the American government was coming, and that they would be well rewarded for their hard work and the severe personal sacrifices they had endured in bringing it about.

Horowitz began what he calls his odyssey in a working-class neighborhood of Queens, jumped to Columbia University for what he recalls was a superb education, then vaulted the nation to Berkeley for graduate school, where he became restless. He left for Europe, spending most of the crucial sixties in London, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Bertrand Russell and other patrician radicals.

Finally, in 1968, he returned to Berkeley, famous for advertising itself as the "conscience of the white Western world," an appropriate setting for a man who saw himself in similarly grandiose terms. He became an editor at Ramparts, at the time a leading, glossy left-wing magazine. California, his home state ever since, has been the site of his march steadily rightward. Today he is not only a national spokesman for seriously right-wing views, but he also has nothing good to say about the Left, either as it was then or is now.

He claims that his real break with the Left came when he realized the truth about the Black Panthers-little more than a front, he argues, for racketeering, prostitution, extortion, and drug dealing-and also realized that those on the left who had always known this would not come forward. Their refusal was based partly on personal cowardice-they truly feared the Panthers’ violence-and partly on reluctance to criticize black activists, whatever they were doing. Even more important, however, was their basic belief that totalitarian and brutal methods were necessary to make the leap to revolution.

When Horowitz came to believe in the mid-1970s that the Panthers had murdered a white woman he had recommended to them as an accountant, he abandoned the Left for the Right, even though this "was the same as leaving my own life." The murder was a horrifying event. Almost as horrifying was the ability of his leftist colleagues to shrug it off.
In retrospect, what do we make of those times? What Horowitz sees as the evil of sixties’ radicalism was rooted in the protest movement’s alleged Stalinist origins-his own roots. He believes that Stalinists like himself directed and manipulated the protests. For many of us-I suspect most of us-the destructiveness of the sixties began with a series of truly evil but very real events, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Many, perhaps most, antiwar activists came from the civil rights movement, often through Protestant and Catholic churches. We marched first for civil rights and then we marched against the war. Those who came to the antiwar movement after having worked in poor neighborhoods came because of substance, not form.

For the Stalinists, the substance didn’t matter. Any volatile issue would do-thus Horowitz’s odd ignorance of the civil rights movement, which he barely mentions. Deeply radical and violent leaders, among whom he lists Tom Hayden, were able to manipulate the protesters because these youngsters, he argues, far from being idealists protesting an unjust war, were simply self-absorbed, privileged kids who feared the draft.

Though he was himself married and therefore not subject to the draft, Horowitz contends that the draft was the underlying cause for both student radicalism and the indulgences of the counterculture of the sixties. Students protested, he claims, primarily because they feared going to war. He seems to have forgotten, or perhaps never realized, that few privileged kids were being drafted. That was reserved for working-class kids-noncollege students. Only a handful, if that, were drafted from Harvard, Yale, or the University of Chicago.

As for the counterculture, of course there was a lot of sex and drugs going on-although David Horowitz in his alienated isolation got little of either. He remains proud of his almost Stalinist Puritanism and announces that not only was he monogamous throughout the sixties, but he tried marijuana only once and never did LSD. Gee, even the Catholics had more fun than that.

But these announcements also confirm his outsider status. His having lived in isolation ("we never socialized at night...") doesn’t stop him from knowing everyone’s motivations, most of which he feels were base. I suppose that any American boy forced to burn his Superman comics at camp would grow up pretty weird. The idea that the antiwar movement was not really led by students but was in fact controlled by Communists, particularly Stalinists, through various popular fronts, is simply ludicrous. Of course the Stalinists were there, as were many fringe groups. Would-be leaders in the form of professional radicals were always coming forward. Some were more successful than others. But no one was able to direct the movement, though many were able to benefit from it and exploit parts of it.

What’s most wrong with Horowitz’s story is what’s missing-the public spiritedness of the early sixties and the interconnections among youngsters who volunteered in the Peace Corps and Vista, who trained in the liberal Protestant theological schools, who were active in the Catholic Left both in urban parishes across the country and in the rural South. Horowitz ignores the thousands of young Americans who thought there was some possibility of making a better world, and worked hard to do it. Then came the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the assassinations, and the protests. —-With stupendous hubris, Horowitz tells the history of radicalism from the very narrow prism of his own limited personal experience. Yet this account raises the very serious question: Who will tell the rest of the story? Who will tell the story of the Catholic and Protestant Left, and how the two meshed and clashed with one another, ultimately fitting into a whole that did some real, if limited, good?

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

Julia Vitullo-Martin edited Breaking Away: The Future of Cities (Twentieth Century Fund Press). She was a Vista Volunteer, a civil rights worker, and an antiwar protester during the sixties.

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