Radical Son

Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, by David Horowitz

Why, you might ask, would I read a memoir by David Horowitz?  (Who the heck is David Horowitz? ask the younger readers.)  Excellent question, and my own husband wondered that as well.  But it's his fault really.  Warning: this got super-long. 

Here is what I knew about Horowitz 3 weeks ago: he's a conservative speaker dude, he's probably retired by now, and when I was at Berkeley in the mid-90s he came to speak, but was screamed down by people who didn't like him on account of the conservatism.  I didn't hear about it until afterwards--partly, I seem to recall, because the newspapers mentioning it were stolen--but I and most other students I knew thought that it was pretty shameful to scream down a speaker and not allow him to speak.  Free Speech Movement birthplace, remember?  We're always bragging about it, maybe we ought to try to live up to it once in a while?

(Also at that time, I wasn't any too clear on whether he was the same guy on TV who had a show called Fight Back! With David Horowitz in the 80s, so just to get that straight--they're two different guys.)

So my husband mentioned that he'd heard that Horowitz had started off as a Left activist, and his parents had been Communists.  Well, that I had to read about. 

Yep, Horowitz's parents were straight-up Communists, belonging to secret organizations that took orders from Moscow and everything.  This was at the height of the Cold War, so young David learned to keep a kind of double life--the public life of an ordinary American family, and the private life where his parents constantly talked politics and revolution but rarely uttered the C-word aloud.  Later, he attended vigils for the Rosenbergs and marched in May Day parades.  He was the classic red-diaper baby, brought up to fight for the Marxist revolution, which he did, at Colombia and especially at Berkeley.

Berkeley??  Aha, this explained a lot.  Horowitz spent the late 50s doing grad work at Cal and helping to build the New Left movement.  Disillusioned by revelations that the beloved Stalin was basically a monster, the American Left had stalled a bit.  Horowitz and others rebuilt it, disavowing the USSR and coining the argument that true communism had not yet been tried and was bound to work.*  After a few years abroad, he returned to Berkeley in time for the late 1960s, and was a central player for quite a long time.  (It was about this time I figured out that he was particularly hated at Berkeley because he was viewed as a traitor for changing his beliefs.)

(There is a whole lot of family stuff in here too, but I am skipping those bits, despite their centrality to the book.  I want to talk politics.)

Burned by his parents' mistaken devotion to Stalin, Horowitz was trying to stay clear of any one group.  He mostly wrote for journals and did theory.  But he managed to get involved with, if you can believe it, the Black Panthers.  He was hanging out with Huey Newton and helping to start a school in Oakland.

A lot of the time, he comes off as blindly and in fact willfully naive about the people he was working with, and about politics.  It seems to boil down to two main things, but even so it's pretty weird.  One thing was the fact that he was a theorist and writer anyway, living mostly in his head and involved with his children instead of, say, living in a commune and protesting a lot or doing drugs.  The other is that the people around him were doing the same--ignoring crimes committed by 'their own'  because the ideals were the important thing.   The Panthers were beloved by the Left....though not, curiously enough, by, say, the people of East Oakland (Horowitz actually wondered about this, apparently cluelessly).  This is because they were scary, violent criminals.  And eventually Horowitz's friend, Betty van Patter, who he had recommended as a bookkeeper, went missing and then was found murdered.

It actually took quite some time for Horowitz to figure out the obvious fact that van Patter had been killed by the Panthers.  (It took years for her own daughter and a lot of others to come to this realization.)  And it shattered his world.  All his rationalizations for the revolution and communism and the righteousness of his cause fell apart under the plain fact that everyone was willing to ignore his friend's murder, because she'd been brutally killed by people they approved of and were unwilling to discredit.  And this was standard operating procedure, as long as the killers had the right politics.  Cuban revolutionaries, Sandanistas, Kim Il Sung, Mao....all were violent, murderous dictators idolized for their politics.  For Horowitz, it had to hit home before he realized.
 As New Leftists, we felt ourselves immunized from crimes that the Left had committed in the past, both by acknowledging that they had occurred and by resolving to change the attitudes that had caused them.  But we had changed the attitudes, and now the crimes were being repeated.  I began to ask myself whether there was something in Marxism, or in the socialist idea itself, that was the root of the problem.
He spent a few years in a depression, trying to work through his ideas.  Here he'd thought of himself as a good, even superior, person, working for the good of all mankind, and he'd found himself in league with criminals and killers.  It was an actual surprise to him to realize that human beings are fundamentally flawed, and no amount of perfect social engineering will make us 100% virtuous and happy.  He still needed to make a living, so he was writing with a partner, Peter Collier, and doing family saga biographies, and they started doing other articles together as well.  After some years, they started publicly questioning Leftist movements, such as the Sandanistas...or the gay liberation movement, right as AIDS was hitting hard.

This was actually the hardest part of the book for me to read.  I knew about some of this history already, but reading the full list was awful.   Horowitz and Collier happened to be in the Bay Area in the early 80s, and they (along with lots of others) realized that the gay liberation political stance--with its insistence on absolute freedom and open bathhouses--was literally killing actual gay people, and intimidating a lot of people into silence, so they wrote an article describing the situation that was (of course) denounced and ignored.  Here's part of what was happening:  Doctors who tried to warn about the dangers were vilified as homophobes (even if they were themselves gay).  Officials refused to take any actions that weren't approved by the most vocal and radical gay leaders.  Public health officials were printing pamphlets that did not talk about known methods of transmission because they might stigmatize gay people, and instead insisting on general campaigns that claimed that everyone was at fairly equal risk.  They even protested proposals to screen blood donors--and this was after some hemophiliacs had become sick.  They seemed to believe that simply demanding a cure, or a vaccine, would result in one appearing in the near future.  Bill Kraus, a gay leader who knew he couldn't get the bathhouses closed but hoped to put up warning signs, was called a fascist and a traitor.  (A quoted activist: "You have a situation where institutions [like bathhouses] that have fought against sexual repression are being attacked under the guise of medical strategy.") The result of all this was that the HIV virus spread far and wide in the US, and killed thousands.  That was not inevitable.  So think about that next time you see a photo of the AIDS Memorial Quilt--those 'leaders' have a lot of deaths on their hands.

Once they started writing anti-Left articles, Horowitz and Collier were publicly categorized as conservatives, though at that point they didn't know a thing about conservative ideas.  But Horowitz started looking into it for the first time in his life.  Most of the rest of the book is about family stuff, but he did also start doing conservative events and so on; he just doesn't quite get to that part very much.  So I still don't know much about that end of things.

I was also surprised to learn that Patty Hearst was kidnapped from Berkeley.  I learned a lot of amazing Berkeley history, on the whole.  Please enjoy now, possibly the most Berkeley-in-1970 paragraph ever written (after the actual events):
...Scheer had formed an urban guerrilla commune with Hayden and his ex-wife, Anne, which they called the Red Family.  It was run on Maoist principles, and the walls of their headquarters on Bateman Street were draped with large portraits of the North Korean dictator and Ho Chi Minh, alongside Huey Newton and the Apache Geronimo....Political education for the communards consisted of readings from the Black Panther and Lin Piao's On People's War.  Commune discussions focused on such questions as whether underwear should be shared, and if it was a bourgeois hang-up to close the bathroom door when using the toilet.  [Scheer then gets Hayden thrown out for "bourgeois privatism" in his romantic relationship.]
This is from where his faith falls apart:
There was plenty of injustice in the system we opposed. But it had created procedures and institutions designed to redress of grievances, correct injustices, and put checks on the power of government. In rejecting our radical agendas, our opponents had always stressed the importance of "process" and following rules, even when the issues seemed obvious. As radicals, we were impatient with order and had contempt for process. We wanted "direct rule" and "people's justice," unconstrained by such legalism and the hierarchies they required. We had no use for law that pretended to be neutral between persons and classes, that failed to recognize historical grievances or the way rules were shaped by social forces. We did not believe in bourgeois legality and objective standards. The revolutionary will embodied justice and truth. We were going to eliminate "checks and balances" and let the people decide.
As a result, we had no justice. There were no means to redress the crimes committed by the Panthers or other tribunes of the people - in America or anywhere else. There was no institutional recourse, and no moral standard, to which we were committed. And there was no rationale to create them. This contempt for order, for objective values, for moralities that transcended particular interests, separated us from our enemies, and made their justice superior to ours - even when they were wrong... The truth - whatever it was - eventually had a chance to breathe. 
Socialist justice provided no such opportunity, and no such reprieve. It had been 40 years since Stalin's purges. The victims were dead, their memories erased. They were unpersons without public defenders, expunged even from the consciousness of the living. Those who knew the truth had to keep their silence, even as I had to keep mine. If we actually succeeded in making a revolution in America, and if the Panthers or similar radical vanguards prevailed, how would our fate be different from theirs? Our injustice, albeit mercifully smaller in scale was as brutal and final as Stalin's. As progressives we had no law to govern us, other than that of the gang.

You might be able to tell that I was very into this book.  I couldn't put it down, because I kept running into jaw-dropping things like "oh yes, I was hanging out with Black Panthers."  It was a pretty bizarre read.  And I loved learning more Berkeley history--I should get a book just about that.

*This is a rationale still used today, that communism would work great if it was just practiced correctly.  How many countries have tried communism and become murderous dictatorships?  All of them.  I would suggest that a system that must be implemented perfectly in order to work at all--and not kill millions--will never work if it has to be instituted by human beings.


  1. Great review, Jean! I'm going to put this one on my list.

  2. Great review! Sounds fascinating. You read the best books!

  3. Great review and posting! Your analysis reminds me of a concept that is much on my mind lately: agon. The Greek tragic heroes and other people (fictional and real) have been engaged in the agon (a struggle) against themselves, others, and the Divine; how each person either embraces or runs from the agon defines that person's character. "Reading" Horowitz in terms of the agon is for me an interesting exercise. All the best from R.T. at http://beyondeastrodredux.blogspot.com/2015/11/flannery-oconnor-and-beyond-eastrod.html

  4. Fascinating! I have only known Horowitz as a conservative. I especially know him for going after the liberal media. I had no idea of his past history. Sounds like a great non-fiction read.

    P.S. Ditto on your remark about free speech. Do these young college kids know anything about the First Amendment?


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