Why do leftists move to the right?
The biggest story of the past fifty years in American politics has been the ascendancy of the right, and it’s a story of apostasy. At each stage of the conservative movement’s long march to power, crucial aid was provided by heretics from the left. Progressives recoiled from the New Deal and turned reactionary; ex-Communists helped to launch National Review, in the nineteen-fifties; recovering socialists founded neoconservatism in the sixties and seventies; New Left radicals turned on their former comrades and former selves in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan, whose Presidency brought the movement to its high-water mark, was himself once a New Deal liberal. In the course of a lifetime, the prevailing political winds are westerly—they blow from left to right. Try to think of public figures who made the opposite journey: Elizabeth Warren, Garry Wills, and Joan Didion come to mind, and Kevin Phillips, the disillusioned Nixon strategist; more recently, the writer Michael Lind and the Clinton-hater-turned-lover David Brock defected from the right to the left. That’s about it.
The most common explanation is the one variously attributed to Churchill, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.” The move rightward is thus a sign of the hard wisdom that comes with age and experience—or, perhaps, the callousness and curdled dreams that accompany stability and success. Irving Kristol, the ex-Trotskyist who became the godfather of neoconservatism, quipped that a neoconservative was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Most people are hardly aware of the shift until it’s exposed by a crisis, like a major political realignment that forces us to cross party lines. Even then, they want to believe that it’s the politics, not themselves, that changed. My maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, an Alabama congressman in the early decades of the twentieth century, began his career voting with the only Socialist in Congress and ended as a bitter opponent of what he saw as the federal overreach of the New Deal. In 1935, on the floor of the House, a Democratic colleague mocked him for reversing his position on public ownership of electric power. Fuming, Huddleston insisted, “My principles and myself remain unchanged—it is the definition of ‘liberalism’ which has been changed.” Or, as Reagan famously (and falsely) claimed, he didn’t leave the Democratic Party—the Democratic Party left him.
It’s like blaming your spouse for your own unfaithfulness. Political conversions are painful affairs, as hard to face up to as falling out of love or losing your religion. Or maybe harder. Religious faith, being beyond the reach of reason, doesn’t have to answer gotcha questions about a previously held position. There’s a special contempt reserved for the political apostate—an accusation of intellectual collapse, an odor of betrayal. When you switch sides, you have to find new friends. Political identities are shaped mainly by factors that have nothing to do with rational deliberation: family and tribal origins, character traits, historical currents. In “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” published in 2002, three political scientists made an empirical case that political affiliations form in early adulthood and seldom change. Few people can be reasoned into abandoning their politics.
In the twentieth century, the void left by the loss of religion was sometimes filled by totalizing political systems, and the result was a literary genre of confession that is as powerful and probing as the Augustinian kind. “The God That Failed,” published in 1950, compiled personal narratives by six former Communists and fellow-travellers, including André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Richard Wright. Each one told a tale of coming of age in a world riven with crisis, finding meaning in Marxism, identity in the Party, and inspiration in the Soviet Union, gradually growing disillusioned, and finally breaking with Communism. In some cases, it was an experience akin to watching a former self die. It was nearly impossible for these writers to discover a new faith, political or religious, to replace Communism and its power to erase the sense of insignificance that awaits any sentient person.
Two years later, in 1952, came “Witness,” by the century’s most tormented ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Daniel Oppenheimer’s sequence of biographical essays about six left-wing defectors, “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century” (Simon & Schuster), begins with Chambers. This is Oppenheimer’s first book, but he writes with the assurance and historical command of someone who has been thinking about his topic for a long time. The colors of his own flag are hard to discern, which makes him a reliable guide. His sympathy goes to the candidly conflicted, the nakedly shattered. He wants to know why people come to hold the political beliefs they do. Stories of apostasy, he writes, “are worth telling because it’s during the period of political transition, when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin, that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible.” This quest is particularly relevant at a time when Americans are dug deep into two opposing trenches, and crossing no man’s land is a great way to get picked off.
Oppenheimer never quite answers his central question: “Exit Right” is more history than political theory and psychology. Its mini-biographies provide the author with enough thread to weave the larger story of the American left in the twentieth century, from the Daily Worker to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to “The Fire Next Time,” fromPartisan Review to Ramparts, from Vietnam to 9/11. In addition to Chambers, there’s James Burnham, a Trotskyist philosopher of the nineteen-thirties who became a founding editor of National Review; Ronald Reagan, who started out closer to the mainstream than any of the others; Norman Podhoretz, who, in the sixties, took Commentary first leftward and then rightward with him; David Horowitz, the son of Communist Party members and a radical friend of the Black Panthers, until their violence sent him fleeing to Reaganism; and Christopher Hitchens, who belongs in another category, having never been an orthodox leftist and having never really fit with the new conservative friends of his final decade.
Among the six characters, there’s no recurring type, only a hectic impulse toward self-revision that is captured in a line from Clifford Odets’s play “Paradise Lost”: “We cancel our experience. This is an American habit.” But each tale of defection reveals a personal temper that makes these men passionately hostile to the politics of pluralism. They embrace new truths with the convert’s fervor and certitude—Oppenheimer’s “contingency and complexity of belief” is not for them. What they loathe most is liberalism.
Chambers’s tale is one of suffering and high drama out of Dostoyevsky. “Life is pain,” he wrote to his children in the letter that prefaces “Witness,” and “each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself.” For Chambers, politics was religious, a continual struggle between good and evil, and the only form of political commitment was absolute. His story has already been told extremely well twice—first in the morbid exaltations of “Witness,” then in Sam Tanenhaus’s magisterial biography, from 1997, both essential sources for Oppenheimer. Chambers was born in 1901 and grew up on Long Island, in a middle-class family whose chaos and decay gave the boy intimations of a wider illness in the modern world. His father, a half-closeted homosexual, was cruel to Whittaker; his mother was a loving but deeply neurotic woman; his brother was a future suicide. The Chambers house fell into disrepair, along with Whittaker’s teeth. Oppenheimer devotes a lot of space to Chambers’s early years, because they explain his flight into the encompassing arms of the Communist Party, in 1925. “It offered me what nothing else in the dying world had power to offer at the same intensity,” he wrote in “Witness”—“faith and a vision, something for which to live and something for which to die.
In 1932, Chambers became an agent of the Communist underground, and within a few years he was serving as a courier between a cell of officials in the Roosevelt Administration and their coarse, brutal Soviet handler, Boris Bykov, who could have come from Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” While passing along microfilmed government secrets to the Soviets, Chambers, married and a father, was able to indulge his attraction to men. Cruising followed some of the same patterns as spying: “A large part of his job was to move in the shadows, to exchange meaningful glances with strangers, to take midnight ambles punctuated with intervals of purposeful loitering.”
There was no single reason that Chambers ceased to be a Communist. In “Witness,” he says the break began when his daughter was eating porridge in her high chair, and he came to the realization that she—and, more specifically, her ear—had been created by some design. But he stayed in the Party for years after feeling the finger of God on his forehead. Around 1936, news of the Moscow purge trials of leading Bolsheviks began to make its way to those in America willing to hear—and Chambers didn’t close his mind to the terrible truth. (Millions of people perished in what came to be called the Great Terror.) There was also “the accumulated tedium of years of underground work, and how little there was to show for it,” Oppenheimer writes. “There were the sappingly antisocial patterns of underground life, all the dislocations and secrecy and lying.” In “Witness,” though, Chambers describes his reason in the simplest terms: “This is evil, absolute evil. Of this evil I am a part.”
Chambers’s break with the Party put his and his family’s life in jeopardy, and it plunged him into an inevitable spiritual crisis. He couldn’t bear to live without a purpose. He began to pray to the Being who had created his daughter’s ear; he became a Christian. “In God,” Oppenheimer writes, “he’d found a replacement vision that seemed deep enough to sustain him emotionally and rich enough, in its explanatory power, to provide answers to the questions about modern life that still haunted him.” Oppenheimer leaves the story there. He doesn’t describe Chambers’s subsequent career as Henry Luce’s star writer at Time, or his sudden fame (and infamy) when, in 1948, Representative Richard Nixon put him under the lights and elicited his testimony against Hiss (who denied everything, then and for the rest of his long life). The Hiss-Chambers faceoff in Congress and the courts divided Americans; in a way, it was the opening battle in the culture wars of the past half century. Perhaps Oppenheimer felt that this dénouement was already familiar, or superfluous to his main concern.
But Chambers didn’t become just an anti-Communist. In substituting God for Stalin, he pointed his sword at what he called “man’s second oldest faith.” He went on, “Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.’ It is the great alternative faith of mankind.” Chambers was a Manichaean, and to him the Hiss case was a conflict between God and Man without God. The enemy wasn’t merely Communism—it was “those who believe in the primacy of secular Man.” This is why, when he became a heretic, in 1938, Chambers didn’t turn to New Deal liberalism. Disillusionment with the liberal values of skepticism, tolerance, and reason had driven him to Communism in 1925, and the same aversion made him a high priest of the religious right. The worst thing was to be muddled. An old friend told Chambers, near the end of his life, “You never changed, Whit, you just changed sides.”
Oppenheimer’s heretics aren’t conservatives at all, in the spirit of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk. Incremental progress isn’t a strong enough drink—they need a perpetual showdown, a binary apocalypse. Along with their disdain for liberalism, there’s a tendency to admire history’s hard men. You sense it in the story of James Burnham, who passed through the inferno of the thirties unscathed, because, unlike Chambers, he lived it intellectually, not spiritually. Chambers replaced one zealous faith with another; Burnham—a nearly forgotten figure who dominated the scene while he was alive—kept changing systems. He was a well-off native of Chicago, a brilliant student at Princeton and Oxford, and then a philosophy professor at New York University. He became a Marxist after the crash of 1929, when he made the acquaintance of his departmental colleague Sidney Hook and read Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution.” A driving tour in the summer of 1933 through the Depression-stricken cities of the Midwest sealed the deal.
American Trotskyists led a couple of industrial strikes, but their main action was on paper and in meetings—essays and ripostes in The New International, factional fights, disputes over the proper definition of the Soviet Union (degenerated workers’ state? bureaucratic collectivism?). When, toward the end of the thirties, famous comrades like Hook and the writer Max Eastman began to turn away from revolutionary Marxism and toward “good old-fashioned liberalism and bourgeois moralism,” Burnham set about dismantling their efforts with the full force of his systematic intellect. His scorn was all the more withering because he, too, was starting to question the truth of Marxist dialectics. “I stopped arguing about religion long ago,” he remarked to a comrade, and when the line got back to Trotsky, in his Mexican exile, the two men exchanged a series of increasingly ferocious essays and letters that couldn’t conceal personal hurt.
In April, 1940, Burnham helped to form a splinter party of disillusioned Trotskyists, then immediately quit. “To the degree that he still shared any strong convictions with the new party, they were almost exclusively negative convictions,” Oppenheimer writes. “The Soviet Union wasn’t a workers’ state anymore. The world war was an imperialist war, fought by all sides in the pursuit of profits and territories. The era of bourgeois liberalism was over.” But Burnham had never given up his bourgeois trappings—the Princeton friends, the comfortable family life, the position at N.Y.U. “There was a visible, plausible life for Burnham on the other side,” Oppenheimer writes.
Oppenheimer leaves Burnham too soon as well, at the end of his Marxist years—stopping short of Trotsky’s murder, in August of 1940, by an ice-pick-wielding agent of Stalin. We don’t learn about the books and ideas for which Burnham became best known: “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941, which announced the rise of new totalitarian superstates, neither capitalist nor socialist but collectivist, controlled by a caste of “managers”; “The Struggle for the World,” a postwar tract that predicted and implicitly called for a third world war; and “Suicide of the West,” published in 1964. “Liberalism,” Burnham stated—meaning belief in reason—“is the ideology of Western suicide.” His predictions, consistently wrong, were always in effect the same one: democracy was doomed, and deservingly so, because it was too soft.
In 1983, President Reagan awarded Burnham—by then ailing and in his last years—the Medal of Freedom. In 1984, Chambers received it posthumously. Reagan claimed both men as major influences—he read and reread “Witness” until, Oppenheimer notes, “its cadences were native to him, memorizing entire passages, quoting and paraphrasing them at length in political speeches”—but their pessimism sat uneasily next to his sunny faith in the providential American future. Oppenheimer tells the familiar story of Reagan’s youthful ardor for Roosevelt; his career as a Hollywood labor leader; his growing hostility to Communist infiltration of the unions; and his turn to the right when he became a pitchman for General Electric, began to associate with anti-Communists, and married Nancy Davis. Reagan ascribed his defection to “the newfangled ‘liberals’ who rejected” Roosevelt’s faith in the wisdom of the American people, and who instead entrusted power to government engineers. It’s a sentimental and ahistorical view. Roosevelt allowed Communists like Hiss to go on working for him even after being presented with Chambers’s account of their perfidy, and he was more statist than the “newfangled” Democrats of the Eisenhower era.
Reagan needed to believe himself incapable of disloyalty to his father and to the President they both revered. Those attachments were part of the narrative of patriotism and virtue that remained constant throughout his life. “He’d been a liberal because it was his inheritance,” Oppenheimer writes. “But the fit had never been completely comfortable. And as the reasons to keep bargaining with the old liberalism fell away, one by one, he began to accept that there was another mantle that might drape more comfortably.”
Without anti-communism to give it shape and meaning, the quality of apostasy goes into decline in the course of the book. Podhoretz, born in the generation after Chambers, Burnham, and Reagan, is a conundrum—an irascible, narcissistic, “ravenously ambitious” writer and editor of considerable talent, but with nothing overwhelmingly urgent to say. In his mildly leftist younger years, the political question was: “What did it all mean for him?” In the nineteen-fifties, he sensed the country’s restlessness because he felt it in himself; in the sixties, as the editor of Commentary, he embraced the new spirit. The decade’s star writer, his friend Norman Mailer, was more talented and more free, and filled Podhoretz with excitement and competitive envy.
Then, in 1967, he published a memoir called “Making It,” a confession and a celebration of his hunger for success. Podhoretz saw himself as the one intellectual willing to tell the truth about the importance of money and fame and social status to supposedly high-minded people, and in telling it he imagined that all of these would accrue to him in greater amounts. Instead, the book was reviled, and by the writers he most admired. “ ‘Making It’ generated an almost physiological cringe in its critics,” Oppenheimer writes. The coup de grâce was delivered by Mailer himself, who, in Partisan Review, the holy grail of the New York intellectuals, called it “a blunder of self-assertion, self-exposure, and self-denigration.” (Literary moves that were safe only in the skilled hands of Norman Mailer.)
Podhoretz went into a depression so black that it lasted two years. It ended one day in 1970, when, outside his summer farmhouse, Martini in hand, he had a vision, Chambers-like. At the depth of his crisis in trying to leave the Party, Chambers had heard a voice saying, “If you will fight for freedom, all will be well with you”—an intimation of divinity, to which he surrendered. Three decades later, Podhoretz looked up at the sky and, he later recalled, beheld “a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that.”
The diagram pointed Podhoretz away from radical freedom, toward the binding identities of religion and family and nationality. He had always argued for the legitimate claims of self-interest, ethnic and otherwise, and he itched to pop the more fragile bubbles of liberal idealism, as in his 1963 essay “My Negro Problem—And Ours.” Now he turned bitterly against the shibboleths of the left and began to tell himself a comforting story: that the brutal response to “Making It” was political. It revealed the hypocrisy of liberal intellectuals who wouldn’t acknowledge the good their country had done them. As Oppenheimer puts it, with fine irony, “Podhoretz began to reorganize his very self around the fight to win the war he hadn’t been aware he was launching when he wroteMaking It—in defense of America against the barbarians of the Left.”
By one standard, Podhoretz emerged victorious from the sixties: leftism rapidly burned out, while his neoconservatism fed magazines and think tanks and White Houses for the next generation. He kept insisting, though never convincingly, that he was glad to be rid of his old friends; he became a dogmatic sourpuss and ended up a fan of Sarah Palin. It’s hard to imagine Chambers landing there, but then politics had a different meaning for him.
David Horowitz was an editor of Ramparts in the late sixties and the seventies—just the kind of cocky New Left radical, thundering against criminal Amerika, who drove older lefties like Podhoretz to neoconservatism. For Horowitz, the Moscow trials came in the form of the Black Panther Party’s descent into criminal gangsterism. In late 1974, he asked a woman from Ramparts named Betty Van Patter to be a bookkeeper for a school run by the Panthers in Oakland. When her bludgeoned corpse washed up from San Francisco Bay, Horowitz concluded that the Panthers, and he, were responsible. In the ensuing years of self-recrimination, his Marxism died, though, like Chambers, he felt that his life might be at risk if he declared his defection too openly or too soon. The existential vision came in a Berkeley bookstore, amid shelf after shelf of titles: suddenly the Marxist ones, including his own, meant no more than any others. “For the first time in my conscious life I was looking at myself in my human nakedness,” he later wrote, “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. . . . I was nothing.”
Horowitz followed a path similar to Chambers’s: both were total creatures of Marxist belief, who confronted brutal revelations about their comrades, abandoned the revolutionary movement, and were driven to crippling despair. After a lukewarm stopover in liberalism (he voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980), Horowitz defected to the Reagan-era right and became a provocateur, choosing race and campus politics as his battleground. There he met enough intolerance to keep his anger at the left and his former self perpetually stoked. But identity politics doesn’t offer as worthy an enemy as the global Communist conspiracy. Chambers, Burnham, and Reagan became conservatives in response to an ideology they believed to be evil. Podhoretz and Horowitz were reacting against something more like stupidity.
The lives in “Exit Right” belong decidedly to the past. The denunciations and warnings from today’s ex-leftists seem wildly exaggerated: the less real power the left has in American life, the more dire its image on the right grows. An anthology called “Why I Turned Right,” published in 2007, collected the latest generation’s tales of heresy. It’s a long way from “The God That Failed”: most of the authors never got over their first encounters with those ruthless juggernauts of history, critical theory and campus feminism. Chambers thought he was defecting to the losing side, and even now conservatives feel like a beleaguered minority; meanwhile, the right has secured power in just about every American institution except the academy. Political correctness is, in part, a reaction to the defeat of the left’s egalitarian dreams, the kind of mutation that occurs in isolation from the larger gene pool. If you can’t overturn Citizens United, you can at least rename a university building.
We’re due for a new crop of writers to start recording their disillusionment—this time with the right. The downward slide from Chambers and Reagan to Coulter and Trump has surely swept along a few young idealists who thought they were joining the side of freedom and truth, then realized too late that they had signed on for junk science and white identity politics. Ted Cruz’s vision would require the toppling of just about every pillar of the country’s social and economic structure. You don’t have to look elsewhere for the destructive utopianism that turns believers into apostates. In a few years’ time, we’ll be reading the chilling inside story, written by a campaign aide who barely got out alive. ♦