One of modern history's most important questions is how so many intelligent, privileged people could be seduced by a political ideology so intellectually incoherent and bloody in practice as communism. An illuminating approach for understanding this phenomenon can be found in the memoirs and biographies of true believers who awoke from their dogmatic Marxist slumbers and wrote about both their sleep and their waking. In its focus on how leftist ideology warps the lives and characters of those who embrace it, David Horowitz's Radicals. Portratis of a Destructive Passion (Regnery, $27.95) is a book that can be ranked with such classics of this genre as The God That Failed and Paul Hollander's The End of Commitment. But unlike those other studies, Horowitz in his new book analyzes radicals who never had the "second thoughts" that lead to conversion, but instead maintained their faith in the radical progressive creed until the bitter end.
Horowitz, of course, was once one of the true believers, a leading light of the New Left that arose in the '60s and whose baleful influence has seeped throughout the culture and poisoned the Democratic Party. His 1997 memoir Radical Son can stand alongside The God That Failed in its brutally honest examination of the seductive power of left-wing ideology and the price one pays for rejecting it. Radicals, with its penetrating portraits of six modern radicals, takes a different tack, exploring the psychological forces, failures of character, and moral idiocy that blocked the sort of awakening to self-knowledge and truth that Horowitz experienced himself.
The radicals Horowitz profiles range from celebrities like Christopher Hitchens and Cornel West to nearly forgotten terrorists like Linda Evans and Kathy Soliah. The connecting thread running through all six lives is what Horowitz calls the "utopian delusion" that is the ideal of "every believer in universal progress" and the "fantasy of a redeemed future." But when this ideal ignores the non-negotiable, tragic limits of human action and character, it sparks a "destructive passion" that "becomes a desire to annihilate whatever stands in the way of the beautiful idea." Radicals thus expands further on themes that have run consistently through Horowitz's books, like Destructive Generation and Left Illusions, to discover "what prompts people to believe in world-encompassing and world-transforming myths" and "to explore the tragic consequences of the attempts to act on them."
A consistent phenomenon evident in these portraits is the way political ideology becomes subordinated to psychological needs and dysfunctions, transforming into a symbolic expression of the self and its traumas. Consider Bettina Aptheker, daughter of Herbert Aptheker, the American Communist Party's "most prominent intellectual and 'leading theoretician.'" Horowitz's analysis of her memoir reveals how personal neuroses and failures become validated and glamorized by radical politics. The struggles against "social injustice" or "racism" are metaphors for the struggle against the trauma of her father's sexual abuse of her, her ambivalence about her sexual identity, and her guilt about the serial betrayals of her husband and children: "What stands out as the theme of all her melodrama," Horowitz writes, "is victimhood and a passive aggression against family, friends, and authority. It is this recurrent pattern of victimhood and aggression that links the personal to the political in Bettina's life." Violence against "the man" is in reality a fantasy retribution against all Aptheker's victimizers, dressed up as a "revolution" aimed at bringing about the liberating utopia of social justice and equality.
Aptheker's journey to self-fulfillment moves from radical activism to teaching feminist ideology at UC Santa Cruz, and it ultimately ends in a vacuous form of Buddhism. Yet all these commitments are really about redeeming the self from responsibility: "Aptheker's oaths were not binding commitments to others. They were about excusing herself, because she meant well. Which is, in the end, what her account of her life is all about, and also her political radicalism. The self is not accountable. It is others -- Society -- that are to blame." Aptheker's attempt to unite "class politics and identity politics and spiritual politics ... is finally incoherent." The irony is that people who claim to hate the selfish bourgeoisie and its supposedly corrupt individualism end up obsessed with the self and its traumas, and those who bleed for the victims of capitalist violence end up themselves murdering the innocent to serve some private psychodrama.
Along with providing a justifying narrative for personal neuroses and failure, leftist ideology has also given the ambitious opportunist fertile ground for careerist exploitation. Cornel West, a well-remunerated "icon of the intellectual culture" and an "academic star" who has taught at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale and now teaches at the Union Theological Seminary, is revealed through Horowitz's withering analysis to be a mediocre intellect but at the same time a "tireless self-promoter," a master of hustling an intellectual culture corrupted by progressive politics, postmodern fads, flabby Kumbaya ecumenicism, and racialist boondoggles. In his books and speeches, West combines the sentimental therapeutic self-actualization of New-Age pseudo-religions with postmodern bombast and hip banter, a seductive brew that substitutes for actual knowledge and sound arguments. And of course, anti-Americanism is de rigueur in West's discourse: "While his audiences nod agreeably," Horowitz writes, "treating his mumbo-jumbo as a discourse that somehow makes sense, what they really come to hear are the progressive insults to their country and their countrymen." Typical of such rancid, stale rhetoric is West's rant about America's "imperial expansion. Forms of death. Struggle for black freedom. Civic death. Jim Crow. Jane Crow. Lynching. I'd call it American terrorism." "Others might call it gibberish," Horowitz dryly responds.
Another constant feature of West's diatribes is racial animosity and thinly veiled racist attacks on whites. He has a fondness for race-baiters like Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Barack Obama's home church, and James Cone, the founder of "black theology," the tenor of whose thought can be seen in statements like "Theologically, Malcolm X was not far wrong when he called the white man 'the devil,' and in calls for 'the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.'" Another favorite of West is Imamu Amiri Baraka, once known as LeRoi Jones, "a notorious black racist and gay-basher ... and anti-Semite" prone to bons mots such as "I got the extermination blues, jew boys." These "rancid sentiments," Horowitz writes, "are absorbed and made invisible in the jive ecumenical miasma of West's 'thought.'" Even a notoriously anti-Semitic and hate-mongering outfit like the Nation of Islam is worthy of West's love. Despite being put on the Nation's hit list for protesting a speaker calling Malcolm X a "dog," West rationalizes the "venomous prejudices," as Horowitz calls them, of the Nation and its leader Louis Farrakhan by extolling "the fiery passion for racial justice and deep love for black people found in the often misunderstood lineage from Malcolm X" (assassinated by the Nation of Islam) "to Minister Louis Farrakhan" (orchestrator of Malcolm X's murder) "will always be a part of me." It is astonishingly shameful that America's elite universities and cultural gatekeepers could lionize and reward such "moral idiocy," as Horowitz rightly calls it.
By the time Horowitz gets through with him, West has been exposed as a "symbol of progressive aspirations and a purveyor of progressive clichés," a "shallow, vain, and vacuous intellect, a friend and defender of anti-Semites and racists," and "a progressive version of the Stepin Fetchit stereotype -- absurd in his stumbling efforts to impersonate an intellectual and to wear the mantle of a prophet of social change. But he is also the archetype of an American radicalism that has set out to destroy the American experiment, whose strength can be measure in his unmerited triumphs and ridiculous career."
Horowitz's last portrait is of Saul Alinksy, the radical theorist who dismissed the juvenile antics of New Left poseurs and laid out the strategy and tactics for destroying the "American experiment" from within. Alinsky's famous Rules for Radicals eschews the dogmatic inflexibility of communism and its theories and instead counsels radicals to be "'political relativists' and opportunists" in order to "undermine the existing system and then see what happened." His aim was the redistribution of power to the "have-nots," not bothering to consider how this might be done without a descent into totalitarianism. As such, his manual is "a declaration of war on a democracy whose individual freedoms are rooted in the institutions of private property, due process, and limited government, all of which his prescriptions would destroy." He became the "Lenin of the post-Sixties left," his work a "practical guide for progressives" who supported communism and were "demoralized when the socialist fantasy collapsed."
Horowitz shows that Alinksy became important to the left because he provided these true believers with a "theory that would enable them to regroup for a renewed assault on the capitalist foe." In the end, however, it was, and still is, all about raw power. Often excused as well-meaning idealists, the followers of Alinsky "are practiced Machiavellians," Horowitz argues, focused on "means rather than ends," and not "bound by organizational orthodoxies or theoretical dogmatisms" like old-fashioned Marxists. Rather, they are "flexible and opportunistic and will say anything (and pretend to be anything) to get what they want, which is power." And they have been successful -- one of their own now sits in the White House. Horowitz's analysis of Barack Obama's career shows how closely it tracks the Alinksy strategy for "fundamentally transforming the United States of America," as Obama promised a few days before the 2008 election.
The presidency of Barack Obama and the hijacking of the Democratic Party by progressive ideology demonstrate that the moral corruption and destructive utopianism of the radicals Horowitz analyzes have firmly established themselves in the highest levels of our government, universities, and culture at large. That is what makes Horowitz's book, like all his work, so important. Elegantly written, formidably argued, generous to his subjects when generosity is called for but clear-eyed in its unflinching exposure of the wreckage progressive ideology has left in its wake, Radicals is an indispensible guide both to the history of the utopian delusions of the left and the dangers to the future of our political freedom and political order that these bloodstained, failed fantasies still pose.