This is a book about why six men changed—why they moved from one set of political beliefs to staunchly different ones. It’s also a history of the American Left in the twentieth century, and the rise of the Right. At its most basic level, it’s a book about how we come to believe at all. Why is it that each of us holds the beliefs that we do? Why do we follow this set of politics, vote for this party, and associate with these people?
There are obvious answers: Because it’s what our mom and dad taught us to do. Because of that professor in college whose insights punctured the bubble of our childhood beliefs, liberating us to discover for ourselves what seems true and right. Because of the faith community in which we were raised, and its stubborn persistence in offering up lives that seem decent and honorable and worth emulating. We act because we’re made indignant by injustice. Or because our failures taste bitter, and we project that bitterness onto the world and call it injustice. Age brings responsibility and maturity, and we let go of the utopian fantasies of our youth. Affluence brings anxiety and guilt; its opposite brings anger and blame. Our bodies break down
and we grow fearful and angry, or compassionate and wise. We marry an activist because we admire his commitment, then divorce him because of his narcissism. We hate our job. We’re inspired by our new job. We’re caught up in a movement, or an epoch. We’re mugged by reality. Become the victim of history. It’s in our genes. It’s complicated.
We know all this. We know belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it? Do we act as though it’s true, with the humility that such knowledge would entail? Not most of us. Not most of the time. That’s one good reason why the stories of Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens are worth telling. Not because we need to understand them so that we can inoculate ourselves against their heresies, or bask in their enlightenments. Not because the drama of political change in itself is so compelling, though it is. The stories 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.
“The ex-communist is the problem child of contemporary politics,” wrote the eminent Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher in 1950, reviewing an anthology of essays by ex-communists.1
He was right about that, but blinkered in the extent to which he was capable of understanding why. The ex-believers—the heretics, the apostates—are the problem children of any politics, in any time. They are the ones who reveal how shaky the ground beneath us always is.
What if Whittaker Chambers had come of age not in the 1920s and ’30s but in the 1960s and ’70s, when the intense spiritual energies of young men from repressed and dysfunctional families were as likely to be channeled into the counterculture as they were into radical politics, and when there was more breathing room in the culture for sexual experimentation? Would he have ended up a hippie instead of a communist spy? Would he have come out as gay rather than loathing himself for his dalliances with men? Would he have ended up lecturing
at Berkeley rather than renouncing his beliefs and helping put his old comrade Alger Hiss behind bars for espionage? Impossible to say.
Would David Horowitz have stayed on the Left if a colleague hadn’t been killed by Horowitz’s allies in the Black Panther Party? Probably. His life had been lived so completely within the cosmos of the Left, his identity constructed so completely of its materials, that it’s hard to imagine that without a truly catastrophic shock he could have made the journey all the way over to conservatism. But that shock came, and in its aftermath Horowitz became one of the fiercest critics of the legacy of the 1960s counterculture. Would Norman Podhoretz have turned to the Right even if his good friend Norman Mailer had written an enthusiastic review of Podhoretz’s memoir, rather than the critical one Mailer did in fact write? Probably. Many of Podhoretz’s friends and intellectual allies turned toward neoconservatism over the period of time he did, out of convictions and affinities he shared. But it would have taken longer for Podhoretz to get there, and the kind of person and writer he would have become would have felt very different. What if Ronald Reagan’s movie career had been more successful, and he’d never gone to work for General Electric? Would he have remained the New Deal liberal he was to that point? Hard to say. What if the 9/11 hijackers had failed? Or George W. Bush hadn’t been interested in connecting the attack with the need for regime change in Iraq? Without the lever of the Iraq War, would Christopher Hitchens have been separated from the Left? Maybe not. Maybe so.
What about us? Could we be wrong about everything? Would we believe differently if we were born only twenty years earlier, or later? Could we be as frail and fallible as these apostates so visibly are, only without the courage or bad judgment to put it all out there for the world to see?
That such questions are impossible to answer should give us pause. Not so much pause that we go about our lives refusing to act or believe passionately. But pause enough 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, of an awareness that the grounds of our beliefs are more contingent than we could possibly ever account for. And even
if we’re not political actors in the way the characters in this book are, our political beliefs should have to fight to earn a meaningful place in our lives. They should fight with their opposites, with the possibility of their absence, and with the possibility that there is no ground for them at all.
• • •
It is easy to disparage other people’s politics by psychologizing, historicizing, biologizing, or sociologizing them. The harder and more important truth to admit is that everyone’s politics are resonating on all of these frequencies. Once that point is granted, it casts into relief the problem with one of the charges that is so often leveled against political turncoats, which is that they are acting out personal issues. Of course they are. That’s what being human entails. The better questions, or at least the ones with which this book is concerned, have to do with what we can learn about the world and ourselves by observing that process with empathy and respect. Also, what does it look like when someone does it well? Or poorly? We can make judgments—we can’t not make judgments—but they should be made with an awareness of how hard it is to be a person in the world, period, and how much more confusing that task can become when you take on responsibility for repairing or redeeming it.
Which points to another charge leveled against political turncoats, which is that they turn opportunistically. They follow the money. They join the winning team. See which way the wind is blowing. Sign with the Yankees.
Opportunism is part of human nature. It’s there in greater or lesser degree in a number of the stories in this book. And it’s true that by the end of the 1930s an anticommunist/anti-Left establishment had come into existence in America that had the resources to fulsomely reward exiles from the Left for their apostasy. But the notion that simple opportunism is at the root of these stories, or most other stories of political transformation, doesn’t square with what must be true about almost everyone who has ever turned against his political beliefs, commitments,
and allies, which is that it’s painful. It is painful to break from what you’ve cared about and believed deeply, from the institutions and allegiances whose inner laws gave structure to your life, from the friends and family whose regard brought your self into being and sustained it in the face of adversity.
This is the case whether the world you’re rejecting is defined by politics or by any of the other meaning-worlds that have the coherence and scale to encompass a human being. Substitute “my faith,” “my family,” “my community,” or “my country” for “the Left” and it becomes clear what was at stake for the subjects of this book when they broke from, and then turned against, their political commitment to the Left. Nothing less than what confronts every man or woman who has ever turned against what defines him or her.
At the moment Whittaker Chambers left the Communist Party underground, at the end of the 1930s, he had no ties to the political Right, no history of publishing with conservative or anticommunist publications, and no good plan to situate his family within a community that would embrace them with a love anywhere equal to the hatred they were likely to incur from the community they were abandoning. He conceived of his break as a jailbreak, and assumed that what lay on the other side of the prison walls was what usually confronts jailbreakers: death in a hail of gunfire or the terrifying contentless “freedom” of the successful escapee, who has no safe place on the outside to stop running and start rebuilding. For Chambers the risk of death, at the hands of a party that had an espionage operation to protect, was worth taking in order to be free of the excruciating fear and hypocrisy that his life as a Communist had become. But that didn’t mean he saw great rewards coming, even supposing he did make it out with his life.
James Burnham was in a much better condition when he broke in 1940 from Leon Trotsky’s international network of loyalists. Burnham’s political comrades were Trotskyists, and he lost those relationships, but his personal friends were mostly his old set from Princeton, none of
whom had followed him so far over to the left. The security of his job as a philosophy professor at NYU was only more secure once he severed his radical ties. And he had even managed to cultivate for himself, while working as a party man, a solid reputation as an independent-minded intellectual. He was likely to be able to keep publishing with barely a bump. So there was a visible, plausible life for Burnham on the other side. He wasn’t making the leap that Chambers was. But one can’t read the letters and essays that Burnham and Trotsky exchanged over the last few months of Burnham’s life on the Marxist Left, brimming with anger and hurt, without recognizing how much he knew he would be giving up if he left the party: friends, power, a direct conduit to one of the titans of the twentieth century, and a sense of purpose, situated within a coherent worldview, that had kept him centered during a decade when the whole world seemed in danger of spinning away. It would be another fifteen years before Burnham would be able to reassemble all those elements, as an editor at the conservative National Review, in anywhere near as satisfying a form.
When in 1967 Norman Podhoretz published his memoir Making It, he believed it would establish him as a writer for the ages, or at least a writer of the moment. When it was panned and mocked by his friends and colleagues, he went into a deep, drink-fueled depression that culminated in a mystical vision and a months-long heightened state of being so alarming that a friend suggested to Podhoretz’s wife that he was manic and needed to be committed. The person who came up on the other side of that depression, now dedicated to fighting the New Left movement and ideas he’d once helped birth, wasn’t the same man who went into it. His joie de vivre was gone. Podhoretz would go on to acquire serious influence as one of the prime articulators and promoters of neoconservatism, but he would never get that groove back. He was so hurt by what he saw as the betrayal and abandonment of his friends on the Left, at that critical moment, that he’s spent much of the remainder of his intellectual life writing memoir after memoir retelling and revising the story, each time insisting with
more certitude and less credibility that he’s at peace with who he was and what he has become.
David Horowitz’s depression and dissolution, following the murder in 1975 of Betty Van Patter, would last a good five years. Paralyzed by guilt and confusion, Horowitz stopped doing politics, which had been his motive force since his teens. He barely wrote. He destroyed his marriage. To this day he speaks of his colleague’s death, and his sense of responsibility for putting her in the way of danger, with such evident rawness that any notion of follow-the-money opportunism evaporates in the face of it.
Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens, of all the subjects of this book, are the ones against whom the charge of opportunism can be most credibly leveled. Reagan made his most substantial turn to the Right during the period, from 1952 to 1961, when he was a spokesman for General Electric, which at the time was engaged in perhaps the most comprehensive pro-business, anti-union, anti–New Deal public relations effort ever devised by an American corporation. For years Reagan traveled the country by train, accompanied by ideologically correct GE handlers, reading the pamphlets and newsletters produced by the shop of GE’s visionary public relations chief Lemuel Boulware. No one told him he had to let go of the liberal beliefs he’d held when he took the job, or replace them with the latest GE product line. He was hired to deliver not politics but good vibes and the frisson of celebrity to the company’s workforce. But there was a system in place around him, a thick ecology of incentives, ideas, and identity that was designed not to coerce individual people into altering the politics they espoused but to do something more subtle and powerful: to move the very grounds of social consensus. Reagan, by nature a company man, was moved, and was rewarded in turn. He also began to perceive during this period how the ideas he was absorbing from GE, and the opportunities he was gaining as its spokesman, might help create a new future for him as a politician.
Christopher Hitchens made his most decisive turn away from the Left (if never quite over to the Right) at a moment when the winds of
history were pushing with gale force against the Left, after September 11, 2001. And he was rewarded for doing so. New and more powerful friends and allies. More TV spots. Better sales for his books. More outlets in which to publish. A trans-Atlantic armada of tanks, fighter jets, Apache helicopters, smart missiles, bunker-busting bombs, and hard-faced soldiers set loose as if at his command to liberate Iraqis from the tyranny of a fascist dictator. It wasn’t a frictionless moment for him. Friendships and long-standing affiliations were severed. Some distasteful new associations had to be tolerated. But for a while at least it was an exhilarating charge away from the Left.
For Reagan and Hitchens there were obvious incentives to move away from the Left, and very little of the overt trauma that haunted the other men in this book. But to survey their motives and choices and see a betrayal of principles and loyalties, for the sake of lucre, is to miss what was most interesting about the psychology of their turn. It wasn’t that they betrayed their true selves for the sake of short-term gain, but that they set different aspects of their selves loose. It was the long-deferred release of energies that had been blocked, diluted, or sublimated by their identification with the Left. In Reagan there was a romantic love of country that had never harmonized comfortably with those elements on the Left drawn to pointing out how far the nation remains from realizing its ideals, to say nothing of those radicals who want to tear down those ideals and erect foreign idols in their place. There was his admiration for businessmen, and his comfort in their ranks. And there was a consistent affinity for localism and individualism that had remained alloyed to welfare state liberalism, in Reagan’s political psyche, only by the figure of Franklin Roosevelt, in whose charismatic glow all contradictions were resolved.
For Hitchens it was a return to the family legacy of military valor and service to empire. It was 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. And it was a glorious not-to-be-missed chance to take a stand, as his hero George Orwell had during World
War II, on the side of Western civilization against the barbarian hordes, even (or especially) if that meant enduring insults and accusations from former allies on the Left.
None of these six men became something alien to who they were. Pieces of who they were, which had been there all along, were given more rein and license, while other pieces, which had been more dominant, were demoted or newly inflected.
• • •
Very few of us fit perfectly into the political suit we’ve chosen or been given to wear. It would be strange if we did, since at any given time the suits on offer are patched together according to complex social, political, historical, and other rather arbitrary patterns that are unlikely to overlay perfectly the equally complex ecosystems we inhabit as individuals. We fall in love with a candidate, and take with him the buzzwords, policy preferences, and talking points that have attached to him in order to bring into an election-winning coalition the greatest possible number of demographic subgroups. We pick a side in the culture war, because it really does feel as if there is a war going on for the soul of America, and with that allegiance comes a whole family of positions and preferences, some of which have very little to do with what motivated us to enlist in the first place.
Most of us pick the suit that fits us best and deny, ignore, or just muddle along with the ways it doesn’t feel quite right. Because it feels reassuring to wear the same uniform as so many other people. Because it is good, and necessary, to put aside differences in the name of shared goals so that you can work toward important ends. Because it can bring clarity.
But things change. People change. Pieces of people change, while other pieces stay constant. A political identity is always a negotiation, between what it demands and who we are. This book is about the negotiation of specific left-wing identities (or in the case of Ronald Reagan, a left-of-center identity) and how those negotiations fell apart. The suit fit for a while, for meaningful reasons, and then it grew too tight, or too
loose, also for meaningful reasons. It’s about the humanity of those who abandoned us, politically, and the fallibility of those who arrived late to our side. And the book is a challenge, to the reader, to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.