Radical Son Exposes, Inspires

by Joel Corbin

Thirty years ago, David Horowitz was a dedicated Marxist and radical. A noted Berkeley denizen, he allied himself with various left-wing radical organizations, including the Black Panthers, and Ramparts Magazine. However, in 1984, he found himself voting for Ronald Reagan, and today is the head of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture. What could bring about such a shift, from the extreme left to the right? How does a dedicated revolutionary, obsessed with dissolving capitalist society toward a socialist end, end up supporting Reagan, who was dedicated toward a precisely opposite goal?

In his autobiography, Radical Son, David Horowitz creates a vivid tale of life as a self-described revolutionary. His years spent in Berkeley, during the infancy of the movement for which the region is now notorious, are eye-opening in their forwardness and first-person detail. Horowitz's name may not be as famous as others of the time and place, but Radical Son gives the inside perspective only belonging to someone intimately involved with the 1960s radical movement. Time and again, Horowitz recounts his ground-floor involvement with left-wing organizations, especially his work aiding the Black Panthers during their formative years.

The son of hard-line communist parents, Horowitz's childhood included traditional pastimes, such as summer camp, but always with a socialist twist; the camp he attended was established specifically for children of communist activists. This very notion seems alien in today's post-cold war United States, but before Joseph McCarthy and HUAC made American Society ostracize communism, there were a number of left-wing organizations publicly pursuing a socialist future.

Horowitz graduated from Columbia, and after getting married and taking a brief excursion to Scandinavia, he settled in Berkeley, where he would spend the majority of his life. It was there he met and worked with several high-profile radicals of the 1960s, such as Tom Hayden (and wife Jane Fonda), Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Bob Scheer, and Bert Schneider. It was Schneider who introduced Horowitz to Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panther Party. In turn, it was the destruction and murder advocated by the Panthers that eventually forced Horowitz to re-evaluate his position on the left.

Horowitz was charmed by Newton, and came to see that Panthers as an organization working for the downtrodden minority, giving the under-represented a chance to make their voices heard. However, the Panthers' tactics began to make Horowitz uneasy. But to him, it seemed he was the only one with such thoughts. Inflammatory statements from Newton ("Every time you go execute a white racist Gestapo cop, you are defending yourself"), coupled with his arrest for killing a prostitute, would prompt no outrage from the left. Horowitz writes, "Whatever its faults and errors, the Left could do no wrong. Its heart was in the right place." As long as the political mind set was left-wing, who cared if the Panthers were violent criminals?

While the look-the-other-way attitude towards the Panthers prevailed, Horowitz continued to work on their behalf. He helped organize a community center/school for area children and their families. Later this same school was the target of a police raid, where over 1,000 weapons were confiscated. In this atmosphere, Horowitz recommended Betty Van Patter to work as an accountant of the Party's finances. Unfortunately she soon fell out of favor with the Party's unpredictable and sometimes violent chairwoman (while Newton was hiding in Cuba), Elaine Brown. Only a few months later, Betty Van Patter would be found dead, floating in the San Francisco Bay.

This incident, the Panthers killing one of their own employees, was what eventually spurred Horowitz to have second thoughts about his political stance. He re-evaluated his life, and finally realized the harm his radical allies had caused. Over the next fifteen years, his life took a winding road, through failed marriages and fractured relationships. As he became more outspoken against his former radical friends, they became hostile, and regarded him as a traitor to the revolutionary cause. Rather than listen to reason, they instead chose to regard him (as well as other "second-thoughters") as unpersons, and disregarded the years of work which had been done by them for the revolutionary goal.

Gradually, Horowitz became more and more certain that it was neoconservatism, the type practiced by Goldwater and Reagan, which called him. He and a colleague, both second-thoughters who had collaborated on three biographical best-sellers (The Kennedys, The Rockefellers, and The Fords), eventually found themselves in Poland for a conference sponsored by Solidarity. There they participated in a protest against the ruling Communists. He said of the experience, "[My colleague] and I were happy. We were marching again ... as we had in the 60s, and this time we felt at last we had got it right. Months later ... the long unhappy experiment with socialist tyranny was over at last."

Horowitz's style is not what one would expect from a writer of scholarly texts. Instead, the autobiography reads like part novel and part history book. Page after page, the detail and thoroughness are impressive, while at the same time he keeps the tale of his life moving forward. Several times he foreshadows his eventual conversion, but at the same time the reader is aware of his frame of mind during his revolutionary phase.

To read such a confessional sort of book is like taking a peek inside his mind, and it's inspiring that the socialist position cannot hold up under his most direct and thorough scrutiny. He arrives at the same conclusion Hayek does, that socialist goals eventually turn into totalitarianism and freedomless violence. For those of us who didn't live it, and for those that did but only know part of the story, David Horowitz has produced an intricate and complete tale of life on the edge of the radical movement of the 1960s.

Eric Seymour

Robert Schiener

Joel Corbin

Bryant Lewis