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The radical passion
A review of Radicals: Portraits of a Destructive Passion by David Horowitz
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Why has David Horowitz devoted so many years and words to expounding the radical left-wing mind? It started in the mid-1980s with Horowitz and collaborator Peter Collier speaking and writing about their “Second Thoughts” of being 1960s radicals. Horowitz turned a microscope upon himself in 1997 with Radical Son, a memoir of Red Diaper childhood and militant adulthood amidst the Black Panthers and Ramparts magazine until he retreated out of disgust at the violence, white guilt, and indifference to the fate of South Vietnam after US troops withdrew. Several books followed, including The Politics of Bad Faith (2000), Left Illusions (2003), One-Party Classroom (2009), and now Radicals: Portrait of a Destructive Passion, which “is perhaps the last [Horowitz] will write about a subject that has occupied [him] in one way or another over the course of a lifetime.”
The radical mind is a duplicitous, self-deceiving, willful, and scheming formation, one that exercises enough pull on certain groups and figures and policies in the United States to merit ongoing diagnosis. That’s the assumption underlying Horowitz’s work, indeed, his whole life—that is, once he broke with the left after uncovering a murder committed by Black Panther leaders whom he had theretofore glorified. Radicalism has its political content, he agrees, but it marks a pathological condition as well. If it were only political, it would advocate for a single-payer healthcare system, a more steeply progressive income tax, and other policies expanding state control. People demand those reforms, of course, but they aren’t really radical, for they work through democratic channels to enact them. Genuine radicals target the channels themselves.
To attempt this in a country as free and self-critical as the United States, however, they must distort the reality in front of their eyes and the identity they have constructed over the years. Horowitz alleges that they act and speak in bad faith: that contradictory psychosocial state first analyzed in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and illustrated by Horowitz’s subjects time and again. Radicals tenders five of them in in-depth portraits (Christopher Hitchens, Bettina Aptheker, Cornel West, Susan Lydon, Saul Alinsky), and dedicates another chapter on three female “bombers” (Kathy Boudin, Linda Evans, Susan Rosenberg: the latter two were released from prison when President Clinton commuted their sentences on his last day in office, while Boudin was paroled in 2003). Each one offers a tale of super-political deeds and writings, but Horowitz zeroes in on something else, not the terrorism, TV appearances, speeches, and theories, but particular occasions, recounted by themselves, in which extraordinary blindness, naiveté, misrepresentation, inconsistency, and other acts of bad faith surface.
Consider this summation by Aptheker of her pedagogy when she started teaching Women’s Studies classes at UC–Santa Cruz:
I redesigned the curriculum and retitled it, “Introduction to Feminism,” making it more overtly political, and taught the class in the context of the Women’s Movement. . . . Teaching became a form of political activism for me, replacing the years of dogged meetings and intrepid organizing with the immediacy of a liberatory practice.
The quotation stands out for its cluelessness. As Horowitz comments, “Nothing remotely academic or scholarly entered her lesson plan.” Aptheker doesn’t seem to realize that the course’s “liberatory” nature applies to herself, but at the cost of open discussion and the independence of her students. Can one imagine raising a whisper of doubt about feminist perspectives with such a teacher? Clearly, any student who ended up in the classroom but didn’t toe the party line would judge it just as “dogged” as the Party meetings of Aptheker’s communist past.
Aptheker recalls the moment triumphantly, however, blithely unconcerned about the incompatibility of education and activism. Two pages earlier, Horowitz cites another astonishing incognizance. When Aptheker completed a manuscript later published in 1982 as Woman’s Legacy: Essays on Race, Sex, and Class in American History, she received a note from the Communist Party’s National Commission on Women rebuking her for diverging from its theory of “the source and nature of woman’s oppression under capitalism.” It threw her into “complete turmoil,” she recalls in her memoir, for she “had not expected a broadside like this, which dismissed all of the research I had done and decreed what constituted Marxism-Leninism.”
Horowitz’s immediate comment pinpoints the unreality of her response: “It is difficult to understand how such a sentence could be written.” The Party had “decreed” theory and threatened dissenters from the beginning, and Aptheker herself had enforced its line, and yet, “at the age of thirty-seven she was stunned to discover that Communists would enforce their party line against her.”
Cornel West’s bad faith occasion unfolds during his notorious meeting with Harvard president Larry Summers in October 2001 to discuss the University Professor’s performance. As narrated in West’s memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, Summers welcomed him with a conspiratorial notion to target conservative Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, using the f-word to “break the ice.” (Horowitz doesn’t entirely trust West’s account, but it strikes me as true.) West demurs, calling Mansfield his “brother,” and the meeting turns sour, Summers stating, “Professor West, you have to cease making rap albums which are an embarrassment to Harvard.” West’s reply changes the question, then plays the race card:
“Professor Summers, when you say ‘an embarrassment to Harvard,’ which Harvard are you talking about?”
Apart from the obvious power play, the rejoinder is psychologically curious in that West seems to believe what he says. If only all of us could divide our employer into two parts—the vicious-uncongenial and the just-congenial—and declare, “I only relate to #2!” But only one Harvard signs West’s paycheck, and whatever racist “legacy” Harvard carries, it certainly didn’t lessen West’s bountiful compensation. Herein lies the bad faith—denouncing an institution for its hostility while receiving from it princely benefits.
Similar discrepancies litter the lives of other radicals here portrayed, the grand one announced long ago by Raymond Aron: “the attitude of the intellectuals, merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines.” To Horowitz, it’s not a political strategy—it’s a “destructive passion,” the “fantasy of a world made right” that nonetheless delivers catastrophe. Saul Alinsky, subject of the last chapter, is its final expression in that Alinsky dropped the bad faith and aimed directly and unequivocally for power. No empty gestures for him, no street theater protests, no attributions of idealism—just tactics and gains. He lays bare the real goal of radicalism, not as a constructive, new politics, but as “political nihilism,” demolition of the status quo, and his success stands in stark contrast to the vain postures of the others. After all, Alinsky was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis, three of Barack Obama’s Chicago mentors trained at the Alinsky Industrial Areas Foundation, Obama’s “green jobs” czar Van Jones came from Alinsky cadres, and, Horowitz notes, “for several years Obama himself taught workshops on the Alinsky methods.” That Alinsky’s vision of U.S. society is delusional doesn’t matter. His methods have filtered into mainstream liberalism, and unless classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives understand the destructive passion of the radical left, Horowitz warns, our society itself shall suffer the effects of bad faith—failed policies, the wrong heroes, a forgotten past.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 November 2012, on page 76
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