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So Right Together

"Exit Right” traces the political transformations of Ronald Reagan, Christopher Hitchens, and others.

AP Photos / Parker Hubbard

In the late 1970s, the former Marxist turned neoconservative David Horowitz had a conversion experience. “All around me, the room went black,” he later wrote in his autobiography, Radical Son.

In the engulfing dark, the pyramid flattened and a desert appeared in its place, cold and infinite, and myself an invisible speck within it. I am one of them, I thought. I am going to die and disappear like everyone else. For the first time in my conscious life I was looking at myself in my human nakedness, without the support of revolutionary hopes, without the faith in a revolutionary future—without the sense of self-importance conferred by the role I would play in remaking the world.

As Daniel Oppenheimer notes in Exit Right, his thoughtful treatment of six leftists who eventually opted for the right, before Horowitz came to this realization, he “participated in a small seminar at Berkeley, on the topic of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism,’ with a number of his fellow New Left veterans.” I was one of those participants; the seminar helped me rethink my radicalism to emerge as more of a liberal than a leftist. It was not so much the books we discussed—I can barely remember what they were—so much as our attitudes toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, neither of which, to most of us, held out any hope for progressive change.

Although Horowitz eventually chose a different path, I will never forget his flair for the dramatic. “Here is a tortured man,” I recall thinking at just about every meeting of the seminar, “someone who does not merely debate ideas but lives them.” It is not as if I wanted to change places with Horowitz; his humorless obsessions could not be replicated by anyone. Nonetheless, I knew even before his conversion had been completed that Horowitz would not only turn to the right, but would move about as far right as any Jewish intellectual could. He just seemed to possess that kind of personality.

Personality, it is fair to say, played as important a role as politics in the experiences Horowitz underwent. A Marxist intellectual of some distinction, Horowitz was active in the Berkeley New Left  throughout much of the 1960s, eventually befriending, and for a time defending, revolutionaries in the Black Panther Party such as Huey Newton. It is true that unlike me or anyone I knew, Horowitz was at the epicenter of considerable leftist violence: A woman he had recommended to the Panthers as a bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, had been found dead in San Francisco Bay, and Horowitz felt partly responsible. (The crime is officially unsolved, but few doubt that the Panthers, furious at her questions about dubious spending, were responsible.) Six years after that, as if to repeat the whole nightmare, Fay Stender, a prison-reform lawyer and friend of Horowitz, took her own life after she had been insensibly brutalized by a militant aligned with a group called the Black Guerrilla Family. No wonder Horowitz at times appeared shell-shocked. The personal was political for him in a very special way.

Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $28

Still there is no doubting that Horowitz’s demons came primarily from within. This former red-diaper baby may have unconsciously imagined himself as an “invisible speck” in an empty world he no longer wanted to change, but consciously he has always possessed huge ambitions. Whether on the left or on the right, he has written as if the future of the world hung on his pronouncements. When Horowitz used a term such as “Islamo-fascism,” for example, he did so as if the linkage between the faith and the politics was so obvious that only the naïve or the duplicitous could question it.

When others in Berkeley turned away from his megalomania, Horowitz became even more extreme. “I got to the point where I had no friends. None,” as he put it to Oppenheimer. This is something to which I can testify. Horowitz, as it happens, once recalled being “snubbed” by me, and in this he was correct: In 1997, I had agreed to meet him for breakfast at a conservative political gathering but, upon joining him at his table, felt extremely uncomfortable and, quite rudely I must admit, left as quickly as possible. Fortunately for Horowitz, he found plenty of new friends; in the aftermath of September 11, he became a fierce critic of radical Islam and a fervid supporter of Israel. In America these days, there is always room for one more extremist.

Besides Horowitz, Oppenheimer writes engaging chapters on Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, and Christopher Hitchens. It is an odd assortment, and Oppenheimer makes only a token effort to justify his choices. These six do illustrate the questions he believes all intellectuals ought to ask: “Could we be wrong about everything? Would we believe differently if we were born at least 20 years earlier, or later? Could we be as frail and fallible as those apostates so visibly are, only without the courage or bad judgment to put it all out there for the world to see?” Yet it would have made his book even more interesting if he had included, say, an American from a communist country (Czesław Miłosz), a woman (Jean Bethke Elshtain, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese), a novelist or playwright (Saul Bellow, David Mamet), or a significant religious figure (Richard John Neuhaus). Six white males do not an intellectual movement make.

There are few heroes and villains in Oppenheimer’s book. On the one hand, he is not afraid to detail, sometimes at length, the sectarian and grandiose outlooks of his subjects. On the other, Oppenheimer refutes charges that these men shifted to the right for reasons of money or career, and he takes pains to illustrate their pain. Save for Reagan, who was not much given to introspection, little came easy to these men as they thought through their unease with their previous political decisions: Chambers felt shame and disgust at his unstoppable cruising; Podhoretz gave in to alcohol during his darkest period; Horo-witz saw betrayal everywhere he turned; and Hitchens, for all his Orwell-like courage, was dead wrong about the war in Iraq. I admire Oppenheimer’s sympathy for all these smart but considerably flawed individuals. We make a terrible mistake, he insists, if we treat them dismissively. If at times these men seem overly ruthless or dogmatic, the temptations they faced would be difficult for any serious intellectual to avoid.

Oppenheimer is also a gifted storyteller, and the pages fly by as he explores what these writers and activists thought and wrote. Chambers, perhaps the only twentieth-century American political writer more melodramatic than Horowitz, led secret lives both as a Soviet spy and as a closeted gay man before discovering a stern but forgiving God. Burnham was in frequent touch with Leon Trotsky, the intellectual left’s favorite example of a revolutionary, and, as Oppenheimer puts it, Burnham

thrilled to the idea of himself as one of an elite corps of technocrats who saw so deeply into the machinery of history that they would be able to re-engineer the world with the right tightening of the screws here, the right heightening of the contradictions there.

Reagan, in Oppenheimer’s view, was anything but a thoughtless puppet being manipulated by sinister and powerful corporate leaders; he was a conscientious union leader and patriot who, for all his cooperation with zealous anti-communist witch hunters, increasingly could not abide the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Hollywood left. Podhoretz does not ask for and, hence, receives very little sympathy from most contemporary writers, but even in the case of this pompous and unpleasant man, Oppenheimer bends over backwards to be fair. (Allen Ginsberg nonetheless had it right: “The trouble is that Podhoretz has a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.”) Oppenheimer’s refusal to judge these men harshly demonstrates considerable courage of his own; something of a consensus has formed about these men, with frequent allegations of coat-turning and opportunism, and the time is right to take them more seriously.

Whittaker Chambers, March 1949.
AP Photos / Parker Hubbard

For all that, however, Oppenheimer takes them more seriously than, in the final analysis, they deserve. Conversion, especially public conversion, is, by its very nature, a highly narcissistic enterprise. Converts tend to think that the dangers that are clear to them now must have been clear to everyone else. Disagreement to them is always betrayal, not only to their ideas but to their very being. They choose their country, and not some foreign or evil one, primarily because of their discovery that their country has been good to them. In their leftist days, they submerged their personal needs for the sake of the cause; now, their needs and their cause are one and the same. They always find allies in their new guise, but their allies are always remarkably like them.

Putting themselves at the center of everything, the chutzpah displayed by all these writers is truly remarkable. James Burnham was never quite sure whether he or Trotsky would turn out to be the more important historical figure. The greater the weaknesses he found in his Soviet comrade, the more he became convinced that his own analysis of the world situation was the correct one. It was surely because his eye never quite left the prize that Reagan’s cooperation with the FBI was hardly a minor crack in an otherwise straightforward move to the right but a clever tactic to help achieve the California governorship—and, after that, who knew? Only through his powerful ego could Podhoretz conclude that his fight with his former friends was actually the story of America against its enemies writ large. Hitchens soured so completely on Bill Clinton because he surely saw something of himself in The Man From Hope; lacking the latter’s political skills, he aspired to at least be the president of American letters. All these men thought big. And their thoughts never strayed far from home.

Oppenheimer’s book contains an introduction of ten pages and a conclusion of three. I can understand why he chose not to offer any extended analysis of the stories he tells: not for him the narcissism so clearly on display in his subjects. Yet I found myself frustrated by the questions Oppenheimer does not ask: If these men were so wrong in their youth, wouldn’t they be likely to repeat the same mistake on the other side of their rivers Jordan? Can we fully trust writers who appear so sure of themselves, in either of the guises they take? Do all these men need a strong state with which to identify, whether the Soviet Union, the United States, or Israel, and, if so, why? Did they ever have doubts about their doubts? What, finally, makes them so damn certain?

Questions such as these run against Oppenheimer’s conviction that each of the characters he discusses was a genuine human being facing substantial human dilemmas. The whole reason to retell the stories of their lives, he concludes, is “because there’s a depth of humanity that can be achieved, by any of us, only when we reckon bravely with what’s in conflict within us, rather than run away from it or deny its existence.” This is empathic, even honorable, yet the story of these men is that they did run away, if only to the other side, and in that sense not very far. They may have addressed the political conflicts within themselves but not the psychological ones. “To turn against one’s former side is to take an enormous psychological gamble,” Oppenheimer writes. No, I want to tell him. These men undertook personal gambles, but not changes of personality or even perspective.

A tale of brave, lonely men facing a hostile world is the message Oppenheimer wishes to leave with his readers. This simply does not ring true, since none of these men made the turn by themselves. Chambers had significant company among those whose God had failed. The upper-class scion Burnham, as Oppenheimer acknowledges, had during his early, leftist period “a life outside the movement, a marriage that wasn’t premised on it, a network of friends whose pleasure in his company had nothing to do with his fidelity to revolutionary praxis, and a steady job that would grow only more secure if he chose to distance himself from radical politics.” Horowitz was hardly alone: In fact, he was accompanied at every stage of his journey by his doppelgänger, the writer Peter Collier. (Even when Horowitz went out and bought a sports car, he discovered that Collier had just done the same thing.) Podhoretz moved right, along with an entire movement called neoconservatism. Hitchens lost friends on the left, such as the by-now ubiquitous Sidney Blumenthal, but others, such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Andrew Sullivan, and Ian McEwan, stood by him and attended his memorial service. “A Man Alone,” Oppenheimer calls his chapter on Hitchens. He wasn’t.

In spite of these criticisms, Exit Right grabbed me as few books have done in recent years. This is political history at a very high level, especially when American politics seems to reach new lows every day. What a pleasure it is to be reminded that ideas do matter, and that those who devote their lives to them are doing something worthwhile.