Why do we change our ideological and political allegiances? Is it out of mere opportunism? Not necessarily, cautions Daniel Oppenheimer in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century; that doesn’t explain the personal torment and social ostracism some of us are willing to endure as a result. Genuine conviction? That’s often a factor, but one that presumably also influenced our original allegiances and can’t account for the timing of the metamorphosis. The answer, Oppenheimer argues, usually lies in the interplay between personal issues and wider sociopolitical circumstances at critical moments in our lives, a phenomenon that can generate a fundamental shift in belief.
To explore how such a sea change might affect not just the individual at its center but the course of history, Oppenheimer delves into the psycho-intellectual makeup of six people “who reckoned with themselves at the most terrifyingly fundamental level” and emerged from this crucible possessed of politico-ideological convictions at variance with, and sometimes even diametrically opposed to, those that had long galvanized them. While sympathetic to these figures, the author doesn’t necessarily aim to validate their personal narratives (either before or after their metamorphoses), but rather to determine how and why they assumed the form they did. That such a project carries with it the risk of overreach is clear, and the obvious alternative would have been for Oppenheimer to restrict himself to analyzing our ideological wayfarers’ intellectual arguments for or against this or that belief system. He does interrogate those arguments but also probes his subjects’ tortured psyches in search of more visceral urges. After all, “no man is the sum of his intellect.”
The six (male) figures profiled here, five intellectuals and one politician, include Whittaker Chambers, a committed Communist and linchpin of a Soviet spy ring in the 1930s who, as a born-again Christian, would write the influential book Witness about his underground life; James Burnham, a Trotskyist leader who later served as a senior editor of the conservative magazine National Review; Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor with decidedly liberal leanings and a deep admiration for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — stalwart Democrat and orchestrator of the New Deal — who would become a Republican icon as president; Norman Podhoretz, under whose decades-long stewardship Commentary magazine went from being left-liberal and countercultural to neoconservative, mirroring his own transformation; David Horowitz, the Marxist and Black Panther fellow traveler of the 1960s and ’70s who morphed into a far-right cultural critic and author of the self-reproachful memoir Radical Son; and Christopher Hitchens, the British-born (non-doctrinaire) socialist and rapier-witted journalist who became a champion of U.S. politico-military intervention against tyrannical regimes, foremost among them Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq.
Exit Right is the first book by Oppenheimer, who serves as director of strategic communications at the University of Texas at Austin. It emerges as powerful and self-assured, even when addressing the exceedingly complex matter of why we believe what we believe. Oppenheimer, who approaches this undertaking from a non-ideological standpoint, cautions that “the grounds of our beliefs are more contingent than we could possibly ever account for.” He nudges his readers to keep in mind certain salient features of human nature, as well as specific incidents that may well have impinged on his subjects’ major life decisions.
Would David Horowitz have stayed on the left if a colleague hadn’t been killed by Horowitz’s allies in the Black Panther Party? . . . Would Norman Podhoretz have turned to the right even if his good friend Norman Mailer had written an enthusiastic review of Podhoretz’s memoir [Making It] rather than the critical one Mailer did in fact write? . . . What if Ronald Reagan’s movie career had been more successful, and he’d never gone to work for General Electric [where he fell under the spell of GE executive Lemuel Boulware’s pro-free enterprise and anti−New Deal views]? Would he have remained the New Deal liberal he was to that point? . . . Without the lever of the Iraq War would Christopher Hitchens have been separated from the left?
Oppenheimer guesses at the answers (and comes up with different ones). That’s precisely his point; educated guesses are all we can manage. Fascinatingly, however, it is during the unmoored “in-between” periods, “when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin,” that otherwise committed ideologues/apologists tend to produce their most insightful material. For, as the author explains, “there’s a certain kind of political writing and thinking that can be done only by someone who is in tension” — a tension almost wholly absent when the subjects of this book were ensconced on either side of the left/right ideological divide.
That ideologically rigid readers (including reviewers) from both the left and right will find much to object to in this book is a given. Yet Oppenheimer, whose opinions reveal an incisive albeit non-dogmatic mind-set, nevertheless deserves some criticism. For example, his contention that Hitchens’s rightward shift derived in part from a desired “return to the family legacy of military valor and service to empire” is a clear stretch. (Another conjecture, in which Oppenheimer guesses that Hitchens believed he now had “a chance to see force deployed on the side of the downtrodden after so many years of writing furiously about force being applied against them,” rings truer.) Meanwhile, the notion that Horowitz was among those who “reshaped the American century,” as the book’s subtitle puts it, is fanciful if not absurd. Horowitz probably suffered more mental anguish over his choices as a leftist than the other figures discussed here combined. His story of disillusion with the Black Panthers and feelings of guilt over their apparent murder of his friend Betty Van Patter, whom he had steered toward their employ, is a searing one. But if anything, his move to the right (and further right, and then further yet) has proved so drastic that it has marginalized him. Horowitz, who is one of the two men Oppenheimer profiles alive today — the other being Podhoretz — doesn’t just rail against hardcore leftists. Indeed, he has found new targets: liberals (Frontpage Mag, the webzine he founded, declares, “Inside Every Liberal Is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out”) as well as Muslims, most if not all of whom he apparently considers extremists, a position that has earned him a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Anti-Muslim Inner Circle.”
A more significant drawback is that Oppenheimer makes little effort to meld his material into a cohesive whole. Indeed, Exit Right is a collection of penetrating yet discrete character studies linked by an overall theme — leftists who turned to the right — as opposed to a single large-scale excavation of American political culture. The different circumstances and time frames in which Oppenheimer’s subjects operated is doubtless one reason for this; their paths rarely crossed, though Burnham and Chambers — the latter briefly — would both end up writing for National Review, Reagan would be influenced by Chambers’s Witness, and Hitchens would extol Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution. And with the full exception of Hitchens and the partial one of Reagan, the author takes his leave of each figure immediately following his final exhaustion as a leftist, yet before any decisive shift to the right.
Nevertheless, Oppenheimer teases out certain similarities between his subjects that serve to (loosely) hold the book together: a Manichean worldview that admits of little nuance (Hitchens — especially before his rightward shift — differed somewhat in this regard); a stern moralism; and a desire to embark on a heroic crusade for the forces of good and against those of evil. Such parallels might one day contribute to a broader study of radical politico-ideological metamorphoses in American culture. In the meantime, they help us in our quest to consider six otherwise disparate men collectively.
Perhaps the most important commonality Oppenheimer traces is the desire to do something heroic — not because of vainglory but rather due to an underlying sense that one’s generation or country or even the world is in pressing danger. This sometimes vague yet insistent feeling drove Chambers and Burnham to Communism, Hitchens to socialism, and Podhoretz to try to become the voice of an American generation. Even Horowitz, a “red-diaper baby,” didn’t retain his Marxism into adulthood due to inertia but because he was consumed with a need “to rescue Marxism from the mistakes his Communist Party parents and their comrades had so disastrously made,” so that he might restore it to its proper trajectory.
Ideological transformation did not diminish this somewhat messianic tendency. Chambers “still felt the calling to fight for the redemption of humanity,” but now that mission entailed fighting Communism. For Horowitz, it remained the case that “the world had to change as a result of what he said and did,” though by this time he had begun saying and doing very different things. And Reagan? He still wanted to save America, but by defeating global Communism and what he considered domestic manifestations of socialism. Hitchens remained just as motivated by his sympathy for certain long-beleaguered peoples — among them the Kurds in Iraq and other countries — but became convinced that U.S. politico-military might could be harnessed to liberate them.
Interestingly, whereas Chambers and Horowitz openly acknowledged their ideological about-faces, Podhoretz, Reagan, and — to a lesser extent — Hitchens attempted to obfuscate their transformations, instead claiming to have remained consistent. Reagan, for example, insisted that he hadn’t changed — the Democratic Party had. Burnham adopted a middle-of-the-road interpretation of his personal journey, one that his writings as a Trotskyist largely bear out. While he admitted his move away from Marxism, he pointed to the fact that he’d long questioned some of its accompanying assumptions and had even called for jettisoning any of its much-vaunted “scientific” propositions that proved false when tested against empirical data.
In his brief yet powerful introduction, Oppenheimer urges readers “to recognize that political belief, if we’re to act on it, should be hard-earned. It should bear evidence of confrontation with the abyss.” This is sound advice; but so that such soul-searching doesn’t result in self-righteousness on our part should we subsequently come across people with questionable ideological allegiances, we might want to keep in mind that not everyone has engaged in that daunting “confrontation with the abyss” that (hopefully) disabused us of our own ingenuousness. This is the perfectly innocent explanation for why so many people do not renounce belief systems some of whose tenets they would find shocking were they to examine them.
That guy wearing the hammer and sickle T-shirt isn’t about to subject us and our friends to a Stalinesque Great Purge, and it’s doubtful that he embodies Marx’s unsound doctrine. This should be obvious, but the realization nonetheless escapes some of us; witness our tendency to conflate adherent and ideology. Worse yet, if that ideology — as evidenced by its foundational texts — features belligerent material, we are often quick to conclude that most or all of its followers are willing to put into practice those violent teachings.
Given today’s atmosphere of anti-Muslim hysteria, a good deal of which is whipped up by the likes of David Horowitz following terrorism committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, this is a problem. What to do? There are no easy answers. Nonetheless, we might start by absorbing the pithy yet profound lesson imparted by the title (if not necessarily the content) of a poem called “I Am Not My Ideology,” and take a moment to ponder the sobering reality that not all of us are willing to face the oftentimes terrifying abyss of which Oppenheimer writes.
Photo of Whittaker Chambers via Wikipedia.