Left-leaving, left-leaning

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair, visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School in New York and the author of numerous books, including "Why Orwell Matters."

Not long ago, having expressed some disagreements in print with an old comrade of long standing, I was sent a response that he had published in an obscure newspaper. This riposte referred to my opinions as “racist.” I would obviously scorn to deny such an allegation on my own behalf. I would, rather, prefer to repudiate it on behalf of my former friend. He had known me for many years and cooperated with me on numerous projects, and I am quite confident that he would never have as a collaborator anyone he suspected of racial prejudice. But it does remind me, and not for the first time, that quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. There’s a general tendency -- not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them -- to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one.

This is a vulgar error, with its roots in the intellectual atmosphere of the Stalin period, and it is the central preoccupation of David Horowitz’s latest collection of apostasy. I should say at the outset that I have known or at least met Horowitz at almost every stage of his political evolution (and I confess that one of these collected essays defends me against some piece of calumny from a few years back. That article begins -- quite correctly in a way -- by saying that he knows full well that by taking my side he is throwing me a lifebelt made out of the heaviest possible cement).

To have met Horowitz in Berkeley at the end of the ‘60s, when he was running the now-legendary Ramparts magazine, was to have encountered a rather cocky and prickly guy, aware of his status as a celebrity of the New Left. Our meeting wasn’t a huge success. Rather daringly, he reprints some of his essays from this period, which hold up fairly well and, in the case of the article on Israel and the left, show a prose superior to some of his post-defection pieces. Next time we ran into each other it was 1982. Horowitz was defending then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s war in Lebanon and had already published an essay about his growing disillusionment with the anti-Americanism of the left. He was half in and half out at that stage: When I inquired where he was politically, he replied that he’d ceased to be a Deutscherite and become a Kolakowski-ist. I include this reminiscence because it will please those readers on the left who get the reference and because it shows how intent and minute was Horowitz’s self-scrutiny. In the 1984 presidential election, he came out enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan, which made me think that he had kissed farewell to fine distinctions. In 1988 he convened a famous conference of former radicals who had developed “Second Thoughts.” It occurred, perhaps unfortunately, at the crescendo of the Iran-contra scandal -- which didn’t make Reagan look all that good -- and just as Mikhail S. Gorbachev was beginning the dismantling of the Soviet Empire. If that latter momentous process vindicated anyone, it was perhaps Isaac Deutscher (who had believed in a version of “reform Communism”) almost as much as it was Leszek Kolakowski, who had maintained that the USSR was quite beyond reform. With the Cold War so to speak behind us, I suspected that Horowitz would find life without the old enemy a little dull. How much of an audience would there be for his twice-told tale about growing up in a doggedly loyal Communist Party family and his agonizing over the series of wrenches and shocks that had detached him from Marxism altogether? But then, I didn’t anticipate that in the fall of 2001 I would be reading solemn polemics by leading intellectualoids, proposing a strict moral equivalence -- moral equivalence at best, in some cases -- between America and the Taliban. Nor did I expect to see street theater antiwar demonstrations, organized by open admirers of Fidel Castro and Slobodan Milosevic and Kim Jong Il, united in the sinister line of, in effect, “hands off Saddam Hussein.” So I admit that I now find the sardonic, experienced pessimism in Horowitz’ book, a bit more serviceable than I once did. No matter what the shortcomings of U.S. policy may have been in the post-2001 crisis, it is clear at least to me that much of the left has disgraced itself either by soft-headed neutralism or, in the case of a very noticeable minority, by something rather like open sympathy for the enemies of civilization. The May-June issue of New Left Review, for example, contained an editorial calling not just for solidarity with the “resistance” in Iraq but with Kim Jong Il in his stand against imperialism!


Horowitz must be correct in proposing that this calamity has its roots in a more general failure of historical self-criticism -- as we used to call it -- and on this matter he can sometimes be right even when he is wrong. (For example, he was essentially neutral when it came to the confrontation with Milosevic.) There really is a cultural layer, in academia as well as outside it, that considers Joseph McCarthy to have been far more opprobrious than Josef Stalin. This doesn’t mean that there’s any excuse for McCarthyism, and Horowitz doesn’t offer one, but nor does it pardon those who make cultural icons, even today, out of uncritical Stalinists such as writer Dalton Trumbo (now being celebrated off Broadway), Alger Hiss (defended by the New Yorker under Tina Brown) or Angela Davis (welcomed by faculties on campuses where Horowitz’s pamphlets are effectively ruled to be non-kosher). The Davis example is essential, because at the heart of the Horowitz critique is a deep scar, inflicted by the protracted and bitter argument about race in America.

Horowitz’s parents devoted themselves to the early civil rights struggle, and he grew up on Communist adulation of Paul Robeson. When the Black Panther Party emerged in Oakland, he and his fellow Berkeleyites were in a good position to offer them help, and Horowitz found them a bookkeeper, an African American friend named Betty Van Patter. Bookkeeping was a rather exiguous skill in a party that swiftly turned to shakedowns and mob tactics, and Van Patter was killed and dumped into San Francisco Bay. There is no doubt now, and there was precious little then, of the Panther leadership’s complicity in this revolting crime. But there was then, and there still is, a certain amount of shuffling in the ranks when mention of that responsibility comes up. For Horowitz at any rate, her killing was his equivalent of Kronstadt or the Hitler-Stalin pact: a political as well as emotional breaking point. Those who complain of his often harsh and bitter tone may suspect him of sublimating his own feeling of guilt: He doesn’t deny that. His main preoccupation has become the countering of race-based politics on the cultural left, including a high-profile campus campaign against the “reparations for slavery” initiative. I am appalled at the refusal of some student newspapers to take Horowitz’s paid ads on this topic: I do sometimes wince, though, at the tone of “And after all we’ve done for you ... " that he takes when replying to what he thinks of as exorbitant black demands. Nonetheless, it’s not for those on the left who so often reach for the ad hominem attack to suddenly take a high tone when Horowitz calls it as he sees it.

Race and the left also form the core of Constance Webb’s memoir, “Not Without Love.” Here we read of how a bewitching young woman, fired with every sort of idealism, became a Trotskyist militant in the Fresno area in the hot period of the 1930s and later the lover of that movement’s most brilliant and charismatic member, the late C.L.R. James. Originally from Trinidad but thoroughly Anglicized, at least to the extent that he had mastered English literature, James wrote the classic “Black Jacobins,” a luminous study of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave rebellion in Haiti, combining a staunch eminence as the mind of the anti-colonial revolution with an intransigent opposition to Stalinism. This portrait of a man, gentlemanly to a high degree but practically irresistible to women, is beautifully drawn by a woman who seems to have been entirely irresistible to men. Indeed, much of the charm of the memoir is supplied by Webb’s frank admission that, as a model and actress, she knew she was to some extent living by her cover-girl looks. (She describes a moment of sexual horror with Salvador Dali that confirms and redoubles everything one had ever suspected about him.) She socialized, as a white person, on the other side of “the color line,” but she earned her living on the white side, and her recollection of the days when racism was legal and institutional is as shocking and dispiriting as such memories always are.

Webb has already published a fascinating biography of Richard Wright, and in these pages she gives a firsthand account of her acquaintance, through James, with black America’s literary aristocracy, from Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes to James Baldwin. The parallel account of the tiny but dramatic world of the Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist groupuscule doesn’t need a specialized knowledge to be understood and is a tribute to some heroic and underappreciated activity. One is reminded that some people stay on the left for the same reason that some people leave it: because of matters of principle.