When Leftists Become Conservatives

When Leftists Become Conservatives

It sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history.


(Eugène Mihaesco)

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

When Nikita Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary to crush a grassroots uprising in 1956, many radicals chose that moment to stop apologizing for the Soviet Union. Ronald Radosh, a red-diaper baby who published seventeen articles in The Nation between 1966 and 1980, decided it was time to join the Communist Party USA.

Later, when sane people were celebrating the end of the Vietnam War, Radosh and those around him regarded the moment as “an occasion for deep melancholy.” They liked the Vietnam War, he explained in his memoir, Commies; it gave their lives meaning. Now that our country was no longer laying waste to Third World peasants, America, for these folks, “could no longer so easily be called Amerika.” And now that the exigencies of war could no longer excuse the communists’ human-rights abuses, their struggle could no longer be idealized as the heroic effort to create a model Marxist society: “The idea of an immediate, no-fault revolution, a fantasy of the previous decade, was no longer tenable.”

With that, Radosh doubled down again and traveled to Cuba with a group of revolutionary enthusiasts. One day, they visited a mental hospital. 
A doctor there boasted, “In our institution, we have a larger proportion of hospital inmates who have been lobotomized than any other mental hospital in the world.” Back on their bus, a flabbergasted therapist exclaimed, “Lobotomy is a horror. We must do something to stop this.” Another member of the American 
delegation shot back: “We have to understand that there are differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies.”

Radosh, of course, ended up on the political right. The final straw came when he published a book in 1983 arguing that Julius Rosenberg was indeed guilty of the crime for which he had been executed in 1953. Radosh found himself unfairly attacked from the left. Thus was he moved to “consider the ultimate heresy: perhaps the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg case, but about most everything else…. My journey to America was about to reach its final leg.”

But he notes something else in his memoir, baldly contradicting his earlier claim about the left being wrong about “most everything”: some on the left defended him, including in the pages of The Nation. He doesn’t note that two of his intellectual adversaries, Walter and Miriam Schneir, ultimately changed their minds about the case in the face of new evidence.

Radosh’s political journey follows a familiar pattern, well documented among Nation writers who end their careers on the right: a rigid extremist, possessed of the most over-the-top revolutionary fantasies, comes face to face with the complexity of the real world, then “changes sides” and makes his career by hysterically identifying the “socialist lobotomies” set as the only kind of leftist there is—ignoring evidence to the contrary that’s right in front of his nose.

* * *

One of the first leftists to abandon the tribe in the pages of The Nation was no less than the magazine’s longtime owner and columnist, Oswald Garrison Villard (1872–1949). Villard was such a doctrinaire pacifist that he resigned his column in protest in June 1940 because The Nation favored the United States’ rearming to fight Hitler. As he wrote in his valedictory, the magazine had abandoned “the chief glory of its great and honorable past”: its “steadfast opposition to all preparations for war.” He predicted that the course the editors were proposing would “inevitably end all social and political progress, lower still further the standard of living, enslave labor, and, if persisted in, impose a dictatorship and turn us into a totalitarian state.” Villard ended up starring in a 1975 book, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism, whose author happened to be Ronald Radosh.

The novelist and critic Granville Hicks (1901–1982) was an orthodox communist who in 1933 published a Marxist history of American literature. In 1940, however, Hicks published an essay in The Nation titled “The Blind Alley of Marxism,” in which he excoriated his comrades’ unexamined political assumptions. Why, for instance, should “the elimination of the economic contradictions of capitalism inevitably and automatically [lead] to the higher stage of social development?” And why, he asked—not long after the Moscow trials railroaded many of the founders of the Soviet state into gulags—do American radicals give “carte blanche…to a little group of men, five thousand miles away?” This was thoughtful stuff, but rather than sticking around to nurture a rich debate, Hicks became an eager namer of names to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The culture and history of the left, of course, is shot through with silly, ideologically driven absurdities (“socialist lobotomies,” to coin a phrase). There is, for example, the argument Radosh made in The Nation in 1966 that Henry Wallace, perhaps the furthest-left major public official in the history of the United States, was actually a capitalist sellout. Another part of the pattern: the tendency to depict ostensibly revolutionary societies as lands straight out of a fairy tale. Max Eastman (1883–1969), who ended up in the orbit of National Review, filed a dispatch for The Nation in 1923 on a rail journey through Russia whose childlike wonder rivaled a scene from Tom Hanks’s The Polar Express. The passport functionary “was almost magically friendly and gentle.” The cars were “wider than railroad cars in America.” The cabin had “clean white bed-linen at a mild price, and a friendly young host in a workingman’s shirt who came in every once in a while to know if we wouldn’t like some tea.”

Some radicals have no problem maturing away from fantasies absorbed at the height of their revolutionary fervor while maintaining the moral core of their commitment to the broader left. Eastman, Radosh and, most famously, Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), who contributed occasional poems to The Nation in the 1920s, instead went “all the way.” Afterward, they projected their own extremism onto the entire left and thus became conservative heroes. This is because they performed a matchless service in letting conservatives ignore the evidence of their senses: that the actual left is thoughtful, humane and diverse. Even if you’re a confessed traitor like Chambers, your sins—provided you undergo the proper purification rites—are not an impediment to an embrace from the right, but an advertisement. By bearing witness to the myth that the right’s adversaries are more wicked than other conservatives could possibly imagine, you ritualistically renourish the moral Manichaeism without which no right wing worthy of the name can survive.

David Horowitz, for example, was an occasional contributor whose first Nation article was a 1964 essay about suicide in Scandinavia. In it, he argued it was no surprise that Swedes and Danes would want to kill themselves—because those countries were still, after all, capitalist nations. He now edits FrontPageMag.com, for which his friend Ronald Radosh publishes articles like “The American Left: Friends of Our Country’s Enemies.” In 1979, on the cusp of his own apostasy, Horowitz wrote an essay wondering whether the left could ever shed its “arrogant cloak of self-righteousness that elevates it above its own history and makes it impervious to the lessons of experience.” That essay, however, was published in The Nation—vitiating his very claim about the arrogant self-righteousness of the left.

J. Edgar Hoover once called communism “a disease that spreads like an epidemic, and like an epidemic, quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting the nation.” The apostate from the left adds another crucial detail to that etiology: the idea that the infection is all the more frightening and dangerous because it’s invisible, hiding within its host until it finds the opportune moment to do the most damage. Liberalism, like the devil, hides its true face. Thus the slogan of Horowitz’s FrontPageMag.com: “Inside Every Liberal Is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out.” That’s how conservatives can depict centrists like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as aspiring commissars. Didn’t Clinton, after all, hire the “black Marxist Johnnetta [sic] Cole,” as Radosh describes the former president of Spelman College, to direct his transition team for education? Back in the days of Radosh’s trip to Cuba, Cole too had been a supporter of Fidel Castro. And so, wrote his friend Eric Breindel in the New York Post, the conclusion was “inescapable” that Clinton was not “interested in distinguishing between a left-liberal and someone who cast her lot with the cause of Communist totalitarianism.”

* * *

Of course, plenty of Nation writers traveled rightward with their honor intact. The sociologist Alan Wolfe, once a gentlemanly radical, is now a gentlemanly centrist. He helps to make my point: his contributions to these pages in the 1970s and ’80s were resolutely unsilly; he doesn’t have to despise leftists now because he never gave himself a reason to despise the leftist he was then. Max Lerner (1902–1992), a towering legend of American liberalism, published some forty-four articles here between 1936 and 1940. He became, in his late 70s, an admirer of Ronald Reagan—but his columns on the subject were full of thoughtful admonitions that liberals hurt only themselves by dismissing the fortieth president as a dunce. And the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013) made the same useful criticisms about the glibness of some radical feminists’ deconstructions of “the family” in 1979 that she did when she later aligned with George W. Bush.

Others, though, evinced one of the ugliest traditions on the left: revolutionary megalomania, the display of a will to power in which the writer embraces radicalism in order to aggrandize himself. A curious note emerges among the admirers of the Soviet experiment who wrote in these pages in the 1930s and ’40s. In the Soviet Union and Cuba, the intellectuals who harnessed themselves to the correct side in the battle between socialism and barbarism died as prophets (or, in the case of Trotsky, great martyrs). Back in the United States, writers could secretly imagine the same imminent fate for themselves: that when the revolution came in America, they would become its heroes—or even its leaders.

This grandiosity helps explain why apparently intelligent writers would sign on to a project so manifestly unintelligent as America’s invasion of Iraq, confident it would go exactly as planned. We find a clue in a children’s book published in 1982 by Paul Berman, The Nation’s onetime theater critic, who went on to a career as a self-described “liberal” booster of Dick Cheney’s adventure in Iraq, framing it as an existential struggle against Islamic fascism. It was called Make-Believe Empire: A How-To Book, and it is described by the Library of Congress as “A fantasy-craft book which tells how to construct a capital city and an imperial navy…. Provides instructions for writing laws, decrees, proclamations, treaties, and imperial odes.”

Left or right, it doesn’t much matter: it sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history. Or at the very least a prophet, standing on the correct side of history and looking down upon moral midgets who insist the world is more complicated than all that. Consider Christopher Hitchens: the former Trotskyist wrote, following his 2002 resignation as a Nation columnist, that by not embracing things like the Iraq War, “The Nation joined the amoral side…. I say that they stand for neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable, and I say the hell with it.”

It is the turncoat’s greatest gift to his new hosts: the affirmation that the world exists only in black and white. They’re the good guys, we’re the bad guys. The rest of us can aspire to something better: no more socialist lobotomies.

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