Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey
By David Horowitz
The Free Press
468 pp., $27.50
For three decades or more, David Horowitz has confronted readers as a combative polemicist, first on the radical left and now on the conservative right. His universe is one of extremes: black versus white, good versus evil, truth versus falsehood, and, above all, us versus them.
Though friends and enemies have been transposed over the years, his tone, tenor, and general vision have remained remarkably consistent, and can be found anew in "Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey," an intense but also unsettling autobiography.
Horowitz is on the attack, settling old scores, proudly displaying his psychological scars, and scattering bitter judgments about the American left as he goes.
It all began for him in New York during the l940s, as the son of a Communist Party family, a classic red-diaper baby. In this intensely political, self-contained, Marxist enclave, his role was to reshape the world. He took the first steps by writing "The Free World Colossus" at age 23. But endless introspection and arguments with his father also fostered a sense of inadequacy and isolation.
Having moved to London, Horowitz plunged into leftist activities as the Vietnam War progressed, energetically denouncing American policy before coming home in l968 to a position with Ramparts, the ultra-leftist San Francisco journal. A radical victory seemed imminent in the Bay area. But in what he later realized was a horrendous mistake, Horowitz joined "the cause" in l973 by linking up with Huey Newton's Black Panther party.
Here was a turning point in a life which had pivoted solely on intellect, writing, and family, but which had left Horowitz's longing for political power unsatisfied: "Having Huey's ear made me feel politically powerful in a new way.... Until now, my theorizing had had little visible impact ... the Movement had pretty much ignored what I had written."
But the Panthers mixed idealism with violence, even criminality: How could Horowitz blind himself to that reality?
He no longer did after l975, when a woman whom he had recommended for a job with the Panthers was murdered. The crime remains unsolved, but a guilt-ridden Horowitz, insistent that the Panthers were responsible, swiftly began denouncing all that he had once favored: Marxism, the Soviet Union, and the American left above all.
He recounts how he reinvented himself with gusto, by divorcing, having affairs, and twice remarrying; buying a sports car and increasingly opulent houses; and making big money by collaborating on blockbuster books about the Rockefellers, Fords, and Kennedys, America's preeminent families. He rejected his past, enthusiastically joining the winning team by voting for Reagan, lecturing widely, organizing conservative symposia, and defaming his former comrades on the left.
His cries of mea culpa, of sin and redemption, certainly fit the current moralizing of American politics: Witness Bill Clinton's apologetics regarding fund-raising. No doubt Horowitz is sincere in "Radical Son," in his guilt-ridden, narcissistic fashion.
But the extreme leftist turned extreme rightist overlooks the essence of democracy: moderation, balance, toleration, a willingness to live and let live. Without these, democracy is impossible. Yet of these, Horowitz has no understanding.
*Len Bushkoff regularly reviews books on history and politics for the Monitor.