A review, below of "Radical Son" by David Horowitz. There are some points in this book that are pertinent to the Bieganski Brute Polak Stereotype.
A Generational Odyssey, David
Horowitz's memoir, was published in 1996. It needs to be read right now. I want
to buttonhole my friend Deborah and assign the book to her as homework. Deborah
regularly shares social media posts detailing violent crimes committed by young
black males in Oakland, California, often against elderly whites, Asians, and
Jews. Mainstream media reflect Deborah's internet scuttlebutt – see here and here. Oakland is one of the most dangerous cities in the US, and
elderly and otherwise vulnerable people are frequent targets of criminal fists,
guns, and knives. A book published in 1996 about events even decades earlier
will help Deborah to understand her city and her dilemma in 2023.
My friend Louis
is a musician, artist, and writer. He comes from a multi-generational family of
successful creators. He has been making a comfortable living in Hollywood for
thirty years. This man who keeps limber with yoga is as inflexible as an iron
rod when it comes to politics. Anyone to the right of Louis, he rigidly
insists, is a Neanderthal, not just unintelligent, but also simply without good
taste. I am going to drop hints to Louis that he read Radical Son. The
sheer elegance of the prose, and the human complexity found therein, worthy of
a classic novel, just might move the needle of Louis' judgmental intolerance.
It is never too
late to read a masterpiece, and Radical Son earns that superlative.
Recent books like James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose's Cynical Theories: How
Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why
This Harms Everybody and Bruce Bawer's The Victims' Revolution: The Rise
of Identity Studies and the Birth of the Woke Ideology provide a history of
ideas. These excellent books chart how Woke and identity politics came to
dominate American culture. Radical Son provides similar insight, but via
a very different delivery mechanism. Radical uses the nitty gritty of
particular, temporary politics to invite the reader into the universal,
timeless human soul.
Son's plot could be
summarized as "boy gets ideology / boy loses ideology / boy gets new
ideology." The book details Horowitz's growing up in the New York City
area as the child of two dedicated communist parents. As an adult, Horowitz was
a leader of the New Left. Reality intervened, most obtrusively in the grisly
death of an innocent woman at the hands of the Black Panthers. Horowitz knew
both the killers and the victim. Slowly but surely, he changed course, and
became a prominent conservative.
Radical Son years ago, but I had to stop. I don't know if anyone who
doesn't have roots in Mitteleuropa can
understand why. A signature sadness clings like a mist to our ancestral fields
and forests, castles and concentration camps. It's the sadness of human beings
equipped like other human beings with hope, with a sense of humor, and with a
capacity for love. People who like apple strudel and sing lullabies to their
sleepy children and tell jokes, people similar to you and me, witness injustice
and latch on to an idea that will make the world a better place. Armies and
treaties, ideologies, borders, and blood feuds, rise up like a tsunami and
pulverize these people, people who liked apple strudel, and told jokes, and had
plans and dreams. The father of one of my childhood friends had been in a
prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Another childhood friend's father was a
Nazi. Some of my mother's friends and family members had been non-persons under
the Soviet system. Some of our own family were Communist Party members.
Resisters. Collaborators. Escapees. Mass grave corpses.
For our people
over there, just being what I, a kid during America's post-World-War-Two
pinnacle, thought of as a normal person, did not seem to be an option. Just
thinking, "Hey, today I might go to the movies." Or, "I might
get married or take a nap or watch a ballgame or go fishing." These, for
me, "normal" choices were not options for them.
For our people
over there, it was more like "Hey, today, I might get rounded up, or stand
in front of an invading tank, or circulate samizdat." Massive injustice
was the wallpaper of existence. You had to take a stand. You took a stand, and
that stand somehow always ended up being every bit as unjust as the injustice
you thought you were heroically opposing. In any case, everybody on every side
eventually drowned in the same tsunami that also swept up all the clutter of
existence with it. The wave didn't care how righteous were the ideals of the
human particles it swept up along with stop signs and kitchen sinks and roofing
begins at his parents' graveside. "Life is struggle," Horowitz has
engraved on his father's stone. "The enemies against whom I once battled
so furiously were more fantastic than real." The world is "and must
remain forever imperfect. The refusal to come to terms with this reality is the
heart of the radical impulse and accounts for its destructiveness … Political
utopians like my father had a master plan. They were going to transform the
world from the chaos we knew into a comfortable and friendly place … there are
tragedies from which cannot recover, and alienation that no revolution can cure
… we are the mystery … What else is this life about but vanishing?"
Moishe, a "wraith of a man, barely five feet tall" fled pogroms in
Ukraine. Ellis Island officials altered his name. "He had accepted the
change, like the other circumstances of his life, as an unalterable fate."
In a sweatshop, "he had to sleep under his sewing machine on the shop
floor." "Like Moses, he was allowed to see, but not to enter, the
Promised Land." Moishe's only rebellion was, as described in a family
story, to, one day, shock everyone by stabbing his dinner plate with such force
that the plate shattered. Moishe's son, Horowitz's father, rebelled more
intensely. He became a member of the Communist Party.
pages rhymed enough with the stories of people I know that they plunged me into
days of reflection, memories, and unresolved heartaches. I could see and smell
so many past kitchens, redolent of borscht, cabbage, and oskvarky, where
we used to huddle and try to make sense of it all. I wanted so badly to escape
from those kitchens, conversations, and hard, hard fates. I wanted to be a
"normal person," and just go fishing. But I didn't. Like Horowitz
himself, I had every reason to know better, but the siren song of utopia lured
me, too, into the wave. And so I stopped reading, knowing I would pick the book
up again someday when the time was right.
Radical Son is 468 pages, inclusive of an index.
Those pages are dense. They are challenging. That's why, given that so few
people read books any more, we need a miniseries. This book is epic. It is
cinematic. Reading this book reminded me of years past when I banked days
reading big, thick novels that interwove sex, death, current events, and life's
big questions. It's one of those books that you have to discuss with friends.
The cast of characters runs from Jean-Paul Sartre to Ronald Reagan, from Bobby
Kennedy Jr to Abby Rockefeller, from Jane Fonda to Martin Buber to an innocent
woman you've never heard of who was murdered for doing the right thing. Her
suspected killer still makes videos that receive applause on YouTube. There are
dramatic confrontations galore. We need a big-budget, multipart docudrama.
In spite of the
sprawling narrative, the changes in location, cast of characters, and eras, Radical
reads smoothly. The unifying feature is the main character / narrator. His
mind, heart, soul, and perceptions are the unifying thread. Horowitz describes
being honored by the US president, being hoodwinked by a woman who wants caps
on her teeth, and then he describes his father injecting heroin into his
lover's arm. He records these diverse events with the same voice. This is the
voice of a man who can dispassionately observe and meticulously report facts,
even facts that trouble or confound him, with clarity and calm. There isn't a
single bad sentence in the entire book. I would change two words – two words
only. Horowitz describes a KGB agent as having a "pasty Slavic
complexion." Peter Collier has a "dough-faced Christian look."
As a Slavic Christian, I protest.
One of the most
astounding features of this book is the author's ability to capture exquisitely
detailed encounters of historic importance, and also to plumb the depths of the
human heart, using the exact same voice. Horowitz records, for the reader,
disturbing meetings with Black Panthers he knows to be capable of murder, and a
borderline farcical encounter between Joan Baez and Bertrand Russell. Horowitz
courageously applies his surgeon's scalpel to himself. He writes with the
nakedness of a man penning confessions to his own diary. He's letting his
readers know that he himself is a flawed man who let his wife down, who was
confused about how to respond to his friend's murder, and who crashed his own
sports car. Even when Horowitz was reporting to this reader that he did
something that this reader assessed as unattractive or damn stupid, I felt for
this main character as I have for few others in books I've read recently. The
author's willingness to show up and tell the truth, combined with his writing
skill, brought me closer to the common humanity I share with someone so different
humility in this kind of writing, and it's not just the humility of someone
willing to display his own flaws. It's the uniquely writerly humility of
standing back and letting the granular facts of existence speak for themselves,
without interference from a writer's drive to produce flowery prose, or to spin
facts in a self-flattering way. That humility is directly related to the theme
of the book. A writer who wants to jot down words that announce, "Look at
me look at me look at me. Look at all the pretty words and convoluted figures
of speech I can conjure!" is a writer who can lie about big events. That
is a writer who can turn a Stalin, or a Huey Newton, into a hero. Just
reporting the facts, such as Stalin's cumulative death toll, or Newton's murdering
a defenseless teenage prostitute, changes propaganda into history.
Radical Son isn't all politics. The book offers,
astoundingly, a lovely, astute passage about falling in love. "I was in
love with Elissa from the moment I saw her – drawn by her shy, passionate eyes
that alternately smiled into mine and searched the air beneath her, as if
looking for a place to hide." She loved him too, for equally teenage
reasons, and they married and had four kids and many good years.
Radical Son begins with an intimate portrait of
Horowitz's parents and their wider communist community. That community faced a
crisis as Horowitz came into his own. Stalinism's bloody legacy confounded
American communists. They had to save their faith. Horowitz put his shoulder to
the wheel and became a leader in the New Left, first in England, and then in
Leftists in the
1960s and 1970s, counterintuitively, supported a variety of American phenomena
that wouldn't at first appear to be a natural fit with communism. For example,
they backed drug use, at least by non-party members. "The issues were
never the issues … Anything that undermined the system contributed to the
revolution and was therefore good." This approach is echoed today in
leftist support for trans extremism. Classical Marxists find much to reject in
trans extremism, but other leftists embrace it. Redefining basic categories
like sex undermines the system.
in with the Black Panthers. Previously, Marxists had tried to smash identity
politics and replace ethnicity with class categories like worker and
capitalist. Again, though, the Panthers undermined the system, and there were
hopes that blacks and even prisoners would spark the revolution.
exposé of the inner workings of the Black Panthers and their leftist supporters
is devastating. The Panthers were a violent, sadistic criminal gang. They
murdered blacks as well as whites. Their white, leftist patrons loved them not
out of any humanitarian urge. They loved them because they were gangsters. For
anyone who has read Horowitz, videos like this,
this, and this
will be almost unbearable to watch.
account of his time with the Panthers, recording events from fifty years ago,
is utterly pertinent today. The features of this interaction repeat themselves.
For example, those who testified against Huey Newton after he murdered a teen
prostitute in 1974 were themselves black. Newton's lawyers' discredited them.
Newton preferred white juries. "Whites were most likely to be impressed by
of black criminals were less appealing to white leftists fifty years ago and
black victims of black criminals are less appealing to white leftists today.
Note how little attention white leftists pay to headlines like this one from June 20, 2023, "75 People
Shot, 13 Fatally, Across Chicago Over Juneteenth Holiday Weekend." When
black gangsters shoot black people in Chicago, it is not news. When Huey Newton
and other Black Panthers victimized other black people, those crimes are edited
out of the hagiographies.
Son describes the manipulation of science to political ends as AIDS
emerged. Similar manipulation occurs today in relation to trans extremism.
"The left posed a threat to the very people they claimed to defend,"
including blacks, gay men, and trans-identified youth.
outrage Horowitz describes is a feature of the Left today. Crimes committed by
right-wing governments prompted protest. Crimes committed by communists were
ignored, written off as false accusations, or explained away.
Horowitz, as a
New Left leader, struggled to keep New Left publications afloat; the
machinations he and his comrades resorted to are almost a parody. They involved
soaking rich people and misusing government funds like unemployment insurance.
At one point a publication became a collective, where all decisions were
subjected to hours of discussion. No name, not even that of the publishers or
editors, was allowed dominate any other name on the masthead. Everyone got the
same salary. In spite of all this, the publication folded. One might think that
seeing that applying leftist ideals to a leftist publication and thereby
sabotaging that publication would be object lesson enough to change hearts and
minds. Not so, alas.
On the home
front, Horowitz's marriage to Elissa ended. This reader was genuinely saddened.
A book that is largely about politics is also a deeply human journey.
darkest passages, Horowitz suggests Betty Van Patter as a bookkeeper for
the Black Panthers. Van Patter discovered financial irregularities. The
Panthers, it is alleged, kidnapped her, and, according to some
sources, beat her and raped her, and eventually killed her.
pages are both dynamic reading and personally heartbreaking. Horowitz felt
responsible for this tragedy. "I wanted to escape my parents' fate. Their
political ideals" made them complicit in others' crimes. "I had resolved
that I would not repeat their mistake. Now I was guilty myself." Horowitz,
too, was swept up in the voracious, indifferent, tsunami.
not allow this tragedy to destroy him. Rather, he uses the pain he feels to
become a better man. He examines his own philosophies and changes course in his
life, slowly, surely, and entirely justifiably. His conversion is not a Road to
Damascus moment. Nothing we've read so far would indicate that he would be
capable of a rapid and unsupported change. Rather, Horowitz begins carefully
reexamining previous assumptions, and he finds evidence to support a life
shocked at his leftist friends' response to Van Patter's murder. "No
one cared … The incident had no usable political meaning, and was therefore
of concern for Van Patter's murder was yet another display of selective
outrage. Leftists had worked hard, as Horowitz describes, to produce a myth
around George Jackson, a black man and a martyr figure in leftist propaganda.
They carefully edited Jackson's own words, and obscured the fact that he was a
killer, to make him more appealing to mass audiences. Leftists did this because
Jackson was useful to their cause. "Anything that undermined the system
contributed to the revolution and was therefore good." The vile murder of
Betty Van Patter could not be exploited to undermine the system, or to
contribute to the revolution, so no one cared, any more than leftists cared
about the 2023 death of Tyre Nichols, a black man beaten to death by five cops.
Those cops were all black, so Nichols, an innocent man, will never receive the
attention of a George Floyd.
approached the police. Their response was, "'You guys have been cutting
our balls off for the past ten years, You destroy the police and then expect
them to solve the murders of your friends." Again, this sentence reflects
reality in 2023. Thanks to the Ferguson Effect, police pull back, and violent crime
increases. BLM protests demonizing police will result in thousands more
homicides, largely of poor and black people, according to research.
have surrendered to the despair he felt over Betty Van Patter's murder. He
could have retreated to a life of addiction and passivity. He didn't. He
re-examined his previous assumptions and found them wanting. He and his writing
partner had previously produced best-selling, award-winning books. Horowitz
rededicated his pen to producing truth-telling work about the Left. Radical
Son is a redemption story.
remarkable feature of this book deserves note. Radical Son does not shy
away from reflecting the disproportionate number of Jews in the Communist Party.
Given the pervasiveness and murderous power of anti-Semitism, this is a
difficult truth to mention; bad people exploit this fact to serve vile ends.
Those who resist such exploitation constantly mention that only a minority of
world communists have been Jews and only a minority of Jews have been
communists. Further, there is a significant number of Jewish conservatives, for
example Horowitz himself, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Ruth Wisse, Milton Friedman,
Ludwig von Mises, and Norman Podhoretz. Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Castro, Pol Pot,
and my own party-member relatives have not been Jews.
unavoidably true that the twentieth-century American Communist Party was
disproportionately Jewish. Reflective of wider trends, throughout Radical, one
encounters American Jews among American communists. I asked myself anew, why?
What is it about communism that attracted them? This is an especially difficult
question given that, as Ruth Wisse wrote, "Communism did at least as much
damage to Jews as to any other people."
answer is that Jews have been treated unjustly, and communism's promise of
universal justice was attractive. This answer does not satisfy me. Eastern
European peasants, many of whom lived under near-feudal conditions into the
twentieth century, were certainly treated unjustly, and they largely rejected
communism, as did American blacks, another group familiar with unjust
Horowitz's book, I thought of another possible reason that so many American
Jews in the twentieth century were attracted to communism. Most American Jews
descend from Jews who lived in the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth – this would include many so-called "Russian" Jews.
These Jews had a total worldview and culture. They had their own language,
Yiddish, their own publications, theaters, and houses of worship. Dense ritual
activity occurred in every hour of the waking day. Self-regulation, for example
in the Council of Four Lands, and subsequently in social and economic pressure
from within and without, maintained orthodoxy.
As authors like
David Roskies, Aleksander Hertz, and Eva Hoffman have written, Ashkenazi Jews
might be subjected to prejudice in the street, but in the home and the
synagogue they regarded themselves as distinct and possessed of authoritative
knowledge and wisdom that offered them a special place in a hopeful narrative
of salvation. God had singled them out. The Messiah would come, and he would be
one of them.
Theologian Rachel Adler speaks of Judaism as "both prison and
refuge." "The walls of the Diaspora cubicle are … externally imposed
barriers and internally established boundaries protecting it from engulfment by
rival systems of meaning." She cites Peter Berger who described
"structures of religious meaning" making sense of the world by
fighting off "the chaotic emptiness of unmediated reality … these rickety,
jerry-built fortresses … wall out the howling wilderness of meaninglessness all
For most Jews,
immigration to America eliminated many of the pressures for orthodoxy and
obliterated many of the signposts of this total worldview. Jewish men shaved.
Jewish women exposed their hair. Jewish children learned English and married
non-Jews. Jews have become atheists, and have abandoned beliefs and practice at
higher rates than others. "Jews in U.S. are far less religious than
Christians and Americans overall," Pew reported in 2021.
One does not
associate devout, religiously observant Jews with communism. "The
international secular premises of Communism are antithetical to Judaism,"
as Ruth Wisse wrote in a June 27 email to me. The Jews who were attracted to
communism were those who had abandoned a restrictive, but supportive worldview.
Their new worldview had features in common with the abandoned one. As
previously, they had access to an exalted and rare key to salvation. They were
apart, a different and chosen elite, or "vanguard." Their special
role was defined through ratiocination, rather than physical prowess.
describes this worldview. "The world is cursed by ignorance, and the task
of progressives like us is to set everybody straight … I was just ten years
old, but I … could lecture the President of the United States on the difference
between right and wrong and thus change the course of history … I was suspended
so high above everyone else." Horowitz writes of his father's
"unquenchable longing to belong." His father did not choose to belong
to a doors-wide-open group; rather, he chose an elite. This group chose to
retain only selected features of Judaism. Horowitz's father and his fellow
communists rejected the Hebrew language for school children, because it was the
language of a "reactionary past." The Bible stories little David
learned were politicized. His mother practiced "reverse snobbery" and
found "situations in which she could exert her own superiority."
father felt alienated from America when he took a bus trip west – the part of
the US that is today dismissed as "flyover country." "I'm in a
foreign land … I'm afraid that most of us aren't really … deeply fond of the
country and the people." Horowitz describes his parents as choosing to
live in a "ghetto," albeit a "political" one. Similarly,
today, Pew Research suggests, leftists of any religious
background occupy "silos" where their worldview is assumed to be the
only accurate one. Horowitz describes his parents making choices that they
didn't have to make that alienated them from their non-Jewish, non-communist
neighbors. "We're not such nice people when we go to work on you,"
his mother wrote in a threatening note to a perceived opponent. His parents
rejected a mainstream American route to financial enrichment – home ownership –
when it would have been easy and profitable for them.
parents had done in joining the Communist Party … was to return to the ghetto.
There was the same shared private language, the same hermetically sealed
universe, the same dual posture revealing one face to the outer world and
another to the tribe … the same conviction of being marked for persecution and
specially ordained, the sense of moral superiority toward the stranger and more
numerous goyim outside. And there was the same fear of expulsion for
heretical thoughts, which was the fear that riveted the chosen … Despite our
disdain for religious belief, the creed we lived by was not dissimilar from
that of our ancestors."
posture" Horowitz mentioned, the sense of operating two personae, would
haunt Horowitz later. "When I began to appear before actual audiences, the
sense of not belonging was so strong that I felt as though my personality was
split between the figure on stage and the voice behind it."
elevated human experience above the ordinary; it sanctified life. "I had
always found security in the belief that a hierarchy ordered" the
"vast array of human learning … I visualized a pyramid whose apex was
Marxism, which was my life's work and which provided the key to all other
knowledge. Marxism was the theory that would change everyone's world. And put
mine at the center." Confronting the very evident horrors and failures of
communism would have rendered apostates "ordinary." But that
confrontation, for an integral person, was inevitable. "The tide of history
had run out, stranding us on ordinary shores." Almost two-thirds of the
way into the book, Horowitz realizes that Marxism is "false."
around me, the room went black. In the engulfing dark, the pyramid flattened
and a desert appeared in its place, cold and infinite, and myself an invisible
speck within. 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. For the first time I
my life I confronted myself as I really was in the endless march of human
coming and going. I was nothing.
bright features of my father's melancholy life was his dedication to a
worldwide movement for human renewal." After realizing that Marxism was
false, Horowitz lost that "one bright feature." He was no better
than, and had no more reason to go on, than the burping and farting wage slave
whose greatest joy is a comfy chair, a cold beer, and a TV show. Suddenly
normal challenges like imperfection, depression, disease, and death are
stronger than you.
My copy of Radical
Son looks like a truck hit it. The spine is broken, pages are coming out,
and there is yellow highlighting and ball point pen commentary on most pages.
This sorry state, the result of deeply engaged reading, is the highest
compliment I can pay to any book.
is the author of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at