David Horowitz’s autobiography, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, may surprise many readers familiar with his recent work. As a right-wing journalist, Horowitz has maintained and even honed the combative style he learned as an editor of the radically leftist Ramparts in the 1960’s. His new organ, Heterodoxy, offers slashing attacks on the “politically correct” in the intellectual and academic realms.
Yet Horowitz’s no-holds-barred approach to journalism is notably absent in his memoir. The tone of Radical Son is altogether different from that of Heterodoxy, the Horowitz of the book a far cry from his journalistic persona. In part this is the inevitable result of the transition from newsprint to the more rarefied atmosphere of a hardcover book. Much more it is a measure of Horowitz’s ambitions. Radical Son is meant to be much more than a routine reminiscence.
First and foremost, Horowitz’s book is his apologia pro vita sua. In it, he attempts to understand and assess a lifelong journey which has seen the shattering of hopes once cherished and compelled him to repudiate ideals that once gave his life meaning. Yet Horowitz the former leftist has not embraced the vacuum of nihilism. A new faith has replaced the old, and he takes this opportunity to elucidate and justify his new convictions. To that extent, like the classical apologias of figures such as Saint Augustine and English theologian John Newman, Radical Son proselytizes even as it explains. Like its classical models, it is an effective instrument in advancing its cause.
Adding resonance to Horowitz’s apologia is his penetrating account of his relationship with his mother and father. Horowitz’s repudiation of the Left inevitably comprehended a break with the radicalism of his parents, both devoted communists. Much of Horowitz’s book deals with his long effort to reach an understanding with his father, the poignancy of the gulf between son and father symbolizing in microcosm the distance he has traveled since his youth.
Horowitz is interested in the macrocosm as well. The “generational odyssey” of his title has twin meanings. It refers to his emergence from the world of his parents. It also refers to the larger generation of which Horowitz was a part. He believes that his story sheds light on the vagaries of the young radicals who captured the attention of the nation in the 1960’s. Here Horowitz’s book shades from memoir into history. With the asperity of a renegade he limns a devastating portrait of a generation blithely uprooting institutions and mores, and blind to its own folly. As Horowitz paints it, the trajectory of his movement from Left to Right is also the arc tracing the flowering and then the failure of 1960’s radicalism. Thus Radical Son is many things—a personal testament, a family drama, and a generational chronicle. Ultimately, it is most powerful as a record of the salvation of a man and the decline of a movement.
Horowitz was literally born to the Left. His parents were members of the Communist Party, who faithfully adhered to the party line and labored in a variety of party causes. As a “cradle communist,” Horowitz attended special party schools and even a summer camp for the children of party activists. At home, he grew up in a heady atmosphere of revolutionary idealism. He learned to mourn convicted communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as martyrs and to revere figures such as actor Paul Robeson (who was accused of being a communist during the Cold War) as heroes. The McCarthyite mood of the early 1950’s touched Horowitz’s home when both of his parents lost their jobs as high school teachers because of their Communist Party connections, though their pensions were later reinstated after a court action.
As Horowitz grew older, however, he began to question the simplistic Stalinist verities of his childhood faith. He became acquainted with friends and relatives who had sought alternate paths to the socialist goal. Events such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 indictment of the crimes of Joseph Stalin undermined Horowitz’s...
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