David Horowitz’s magisterial series concludes with a deeply personal ninth volume.
Originally published at City-Journal.org
I knew David Horowitz in his “second thoughts” years, when he turned away from the Left and became a conservative; he often came to our house to satisfy his craving for Chinese takeout and to structure his new political movement. My wife Barbara worked closely with him and Peter Collier, and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve often seen him offstage, and much of this fascinating, significant, and highly readable new book contains important material that reflects the man. His passions and intellect are on full display.
Ruling Ideas is the ninth and final volume of Horowitz’s collected conservative writings, and in many ways it is the most important. It contains an invaluable guide to Horowitz’s work written by Frontpage editor Jamie Glazov and several short essays on current events. Readers are also treated to two extended glimpses into Horowitz’s life, one having to do with his touchy friendship with Christopher Hitchens, the other the sad end of a long relationship with Carol Pasternak, a former comrade for whom he cared deeply. The volume also contains three long letters, retelling crucial events in Horowitz’s life and linking those events to his political evolution. Regrettably, diaries and letters are largely vanishing from our culture. We’re fortunate that these letters have survived, because without them, readers wouldn’t understand the drama and pain that brought Horowitz to anti-Communism after growing up in a Communist Party home, attending a Party school, fraternizing with almost exclusively like-minded peers, and finally becoming a leader of the New Left.
Horowitz’s odyssey wasn’t purely ideological. His break with the Left resulted from the Black Panthers’ murder of a friend and comrade, bookkeeper Betty Van Patter, in the winter of 1974. This incident ended my own career in the Left. I suspected that the Panthers had done it, and some members later confirmed this. Others knew that the Panthers had killed others, like Ellen Sparer, a teacher murdered in her bed by a “troubled student.” In his letter to Pasternak, Horowitz mulls over Sparer’s case, musing: “You and I were able to share our grief over the friend we had lost, but we were never able to share an understanding of why she was dead. In your eyes, Ellen died a victim of circumstance; in mine, she died a martyr of a political faith that had made her blind.”
Horowitz’s embrace of conservatism came directly and powerfully from real events—the murder of people he knew and his discovery that even these powerful facts were insufficient to make many of his friends reject the cause. The Left’s ideas are essentially a political religion, and for true believers to reject them is spiritually impossible. Even Christopher Hitchens couldn’t do it. Hitchens could deny God, but he could not deny leftism.
Horowitz’s discussion of Hitchens is respectful and affectionate but unflinching when it came to Hitchens’s desire to have it both ways: a sometimes-outspoken critic of the Left, he remained a follower of the politico-religious faith that one day, the dream of freedom, equality, and true socialism would be fulfilled. Hitchens’s family life contained both themes. His father was a military officer; his mother was an exotic. Thus, he was buffeted back and forth between “fight or flight” in family events. “More accurately,” Horowitz writes, “it left him with a sense of flight and fight on all occasions.” In a memorable passage of his essay, “The Two Christophers,” Horowitz reflects: “The utopian romance [Hitchens] never gave up was the perfect prescription for continual fight in the present, and a never-ending flight into the future.”
No one with Hitchens’s intellect could fail to recognize that the Left had enthusiastically imposed tyranny whenever it had the chance. Yet, in the end, Horowitz pulls back from a full-throated denunciation, not wishing to consign his late friend to the Dantean level of hell to which the great essayist had dispatched many others.
Ruling Ideas offers a unique and uncompromisingly personal view into the mentality of the Left. It makes a fitting capstone to David Horowitz’s magisterial work on the criminal conspiracy of American Communism, a series that deserves to be read in full.
Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.