In the work of David Horowitz, personal history and political analysis are often conjoined. Horowitz’s memoir Radical Son told how as a Marxist intellectual and activist, he came to reject the revolutionary violence of progressivist ideology along with the utopian longings and commitments that inspired it. In works such as Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (with Peter Collier) and Left Illusions, he exposed with first-hand passion the self-deceptions and cultural chaos generated by such utopian faiths. A significant segment of his work, including The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America and Indoctrination U: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, has investigated the corruption of American universities by radical politics; and even here, there is a personal element as he remembers the scrupulous professors, models of disinterested intellectual engagement, who taught him as an undergraduate at Columbia. His recent A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next is exemplary in its blending of personal and broadly philosophical discussion of the spiritual roots of totalitarianism.
Radicals: Portraits of a Destructive Passion continues this work of political reflection sharpened by autobiographical insight. It collects portraits of contemporary left-wing intellectuals, writers, and activists, all but one of whom embraced anti-American propaganda and its justification of violence, including journalist Christopher Hitchens, who worked for years at the rabidly anti-American paper The Nation, feted academic Cornell West, who has fawningly promoted the murderous Nation of Islam, and Saul Alinsky, who has embraced nihilistic destruction in the name of “the people.”
Each chapter focuses on the manner in which intelligent people accommodate the evident contradictions and brutal repressions of the ideologies to which they profess allegiance, and the personal deformations, moral compromises, and unacknowledged trauma that such allegiances often exacerbate. Red-diaper baby Bettina Aptheker, for example, endured bouts of self-hatred and Communist-inspired paranoia that never led to any thoroughgoing repudiation of the extreme causes to which she dedicated her life, and she has remained publicly unrepentant about her defense of Black Panther murders and other far-left atrocities. Becoming a radical feminist professor at UC Santa Cruz, she built a comfortable life preaching the moral equivalency between the United States and the totalitarian foes that seek its destruction. Professor Cornel West is also a successful far-left and anti-American academic, living well off books and talks that vent grievance-filled rage and obscene encomia to murderers. He has been able to elide the fact that the Nation of Islam executed his hero Malcolm X, such repression allowing him to declare his solidarity with “the fiery passion for racial justice and deep love for black people” of its leader Louis Farrakhan, who orchestrated the murder. The intensity of his hatred for white America leaves him unable to see anything good in his country or anything bad in his black brethren.
The degree of intimacy in the portraits varies, depending on the subject’s own capacity for honest self-reflection. One has little sense of psychological complexity in West’s glib self-aggrandizement, perhaps because there is none to be found or because he is someone for whom Horowitz has little personal knowledge and sympathy. More personally revealing is the portrait of Susan Lydon, product of the hippy counterculture who became famous for a widely cited feminist essay called “The Politics of Orgasm.” Lydon wrote a confessional account of her decades-long struggle with addiction and self-hatred, a struggle that led her far away from the self-destructive radicalism of her youth. Hers is the story of an individual who turned away from a damaging mindset and ultimately found some measure of personal peace.