Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

exitrightDaniel Oppenheimer
Simon and Schuster ($28)

by Mark Dunbar

Although only David Oppenheimer’s first book, Exit Right conveys the work of an experienced hand. With a wealth of research and emotional obedience, Oppenheimer brilliantly traces the pre-conversion stories of six of 20th-century America’s most impactful political creatures: Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens. If not already clear from the book’s title, the ideological trajectory of each subject is one from the Left to the Right, which in the case of at least Chambers and Hitchens appears not to have been wholly synonymous with a move from radicalism to conservatism. In one of his many lugubrious and doom-ridden epistles to William F. Buckley, Chambers claimed himself “a counter-revolutionist” and “a man of the Right” who “shall vote the straight Republican ticket for as long as I live”—but, nonetheless, “not a conservative.” For his part, Hitchens responded with viperish disdain anytime a pundit introduced him as a conservative, self-identifying until he died from throat cancer in 2011 as “no longer a socialist” but “still a Marxist.” Much mentioned but little discussed in the book, however, is that with the exception of perhaps Reagan, all six weren’t so much compelled over by conservative rhetoric and argumentation as they were simply turned off by what they saw as left-wing cowardice and betrayal.

According to his own recollections, Chambers became a Communist after reading Lenin’s The Soviets at Work and, then immersing himself in the more theoretical literature of the Bolshevik Party. Compelled by “the reek of life” coming off the works he was taking in, Chambers in 1925 joined the American Communist Party—“a dollhouse version of its Russian model”—staying a member of the Russian offshoot for thirteen years and remaining faithful to it for approximately eleven.  While not denying Chambers’ own interpretation of what first attracted him to Communism, Oppenheimer also isn’t shy about proposing what might have been additional appeals for Chambers: mainly, the ecclesiastical structure of the party and the demagogic manner of its leaders, who were, according to Oppenheimer, “uncontaminated by irony, tolerance, and most of the other liberal values that had so conspicuously failed to anchor Chambers when he was at Columbia.”

What was it that lured Chambers away from the party in particular and Communism in general? We find his departure requiring no special seductions from the outer realm of opposing ideologies. Bullied by his bosses either to go underground and begin espionage work in Washington or to leave the party altogether, then well placed to see those same bosses peevishly called to the Soviet Union for humiliation and imprisonment by Stalin, Chambers at last had the power to face the deliberate sadism he had for years supported and defended. “I deliberately deserted from the Communist Party in a way that could leave no doubt in its mind, or anybody else’s, that I was at war with it and everything it stood for.”

A special incentive must have been in place over the years for those willing, in their commentaries and analyses, to describe Chambers as “Dostoevskian” or “Manichean,” for the yield for such intellectual harvests was always abundant. Craftily, Oppenheimer picks out the same sentiments without actually using the eponyms. In place of the first we have, “He had a weakness for the grand gesture, the spontaneous life-altering act, the doomed but courageous stand.” And standing in for the second, “When he believed in something, he believed it all the way down.” Both are true of Chambers, and both explain why his departure from the Communist Left couldn’t have landed him anywhere but where it did. Not attracted to the well-fed Right of Reagan’s stage-handlers at General Electric, nor the unaligned Left of Bertrand Russell and George Orwell that Hitchens so lionized, Chambers embraced an embattled and eschatological worldview that pivoted almost exclusively around the Cold War and anti-Communism. Speaking with the solemnity of an Old Testament prophet, Chambers could (and did) write as if casting a vote for General Eisenhower in 1956 was an act of social and spiritual rebellion. He wondered why it was so hard to find fellow-travelers in the fight against Soviet Communism who weren’t crackpots or expansionists. Others might perhaps wonder with merit as well.

What can be said of Chambers—that he abandoned the intellectual sclerosis and frivolous sectarian passions of the Left rather than reached out for the self-pitying and short-sighted conditions of the Right—can be said for Burnham, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens also. Even Reagan during his days in Hollywood multi-tasking as an actor, war-time propagandist, FBI informant, intra-committee consultant, and occasional speech-giver, experienced first-hand the trite and fanatical reproaches of the soon-to-be black-listed liberals. Elected as a vice-president for the Screen Actors Guild in 1946, Reagan advocated for “neutrality” in the labor disputes going on at the time between the craft unions and producers—which “in practice meant taking the side of the producers.” Inevitably, neutrality won out, credited by Oppenheimer in part to the “magnificent” and “persuasive” speech Reagan gave during a general meeting to vote on the official position SAG should take regarding the matter. He was henceforth attacked as a “fascist, company man, [and] Red-baiter,” and “with each slur . . . that was hurled at him it became easier . . . to ignore the rhetorical and physical violence that was being done by his own side.” The “rhetorical and physical violence being done by his own side” is an interesting and worth-telling story in itself. Oppenheimer only briefly mentions them, but they include deceit, heavy-handedness, and coordination with law enforcement and “the leaders of the local Teamsters union to have heavies on hand to physically break through the picket lines.” Evidently spastic college professors aren’t the only ones who need a bit of muscle from time to time.

In 1933 Burnham joined the American Workers Party, which by the next year had merged with the Communist League of America, the main Trotskyist outfit at the time. By 1935 he was one of the two or three most important American Trotskyists, corresponding regularly with the Old Man himself on theoretical matters as well as practical organizational ones. By 1937 he had informally established his own minority clique within the party (as was the case with nearly all radical parties, it had by then splintered apart, merged with other parties, infiltrated those other parties, and renamed itself in almost equal proportion to its official roll-call) that sought for Stalin’s land bifurcation of Poland with Hitler to be formally denounced as a “war of imperial conquest” and for the Soviet Union to lose the nomenclature of a “workers state”—degenerated or otherwise. Trotsky, whose History of the Russian Revolution was for Burnham what Lenin’s Soviets at Work was for Chambers, worried that with the Soviet Union went his personal legacy and world-historical significance, and thus mocked Burnham as a “petty-bourgeois intellectual” who was afraid of the tough and ever-shifting realities of revolutionary politics, masking his capitulation as mere pragmatism. A resolution was called for on both of Burnham’s conceptual issues; both were defeated, 55-31. Trotsky then bullied the minority clique into a corner, giving them a choice of either committing wholeheartedly to the newly reaffirmed party positions or giving up their leadership roles altogether. Humiliated by the choices and tired of defending his social enemies (Stalinism and the Soviet Union) against what he considered reasonable criticisms, Burnham left the party by the year’s end.

Similar narratives fit the remaining three. Podhoretz was a friend of the beats and counter-culturalists in his days as the young editor of Commentary in the 1960s. Struggling through years of failed book projects, he eventually completed a young man’s memoir in unabashed praise of fame and success. Both his friend Jason Epstein and mentor Lionel Trilling warned him against publishing it. Trilling went so far as calling it a “gigantic mistake” and advised Podhoretz to “put it away and do not let others see it.” Norman Mailer claimed in private that he liked it, then half-heartedly denounced it in his review.  Jackie Kennedy “broke off relations after she read it.” And Stanley Kauffmann scoffed at it in the New Republic, “An apologist for fame ought to be a better judge of it.” Podhoretz became depressed, started drinking more, and on some accounts began a lifestyle of promiscuity. He drifted more and more into misanthropy at the same time that the student movements were emerging, and their more-radical-than-thou attitude made Podhoretz even more misanthropic until his mood metastasized into an ideology—one he would hold onto for the rest of his life.

Hitchens is undoubtedly the most interesting case of all Oppenheimer’s subjects, not only because his political conversion happened so late in his life (despite popular right-wing myth, Reagan was not so late to conservatism as many believe, being propositioned as early as 1941 to run for Congress as a Republican) but also because it happened so quickly and so jarringly. It seemed to many as if Hitchens had transformed from radical wit to state department shill overnight.

This wasn’t the case however, as Oppenheimer tries to demonstrate. Hitchens had already distanced himself from the Left on many issues well before the attacks of September 11th. As Oppenheimer puts it, “He didn’t care that much about most of the mundane injustices of the first world.” In fact, Hitchens practiced only contempt for the cultural hostilities and identity-driven grievances of the 1990s, mocking calls for politically-correct euphemisms and bashing those on the Left “who view the history of North America as a narrative of slavery and genocide.” Even on the issues that mattered to him, he often thought that the Left was getting it wrong. On NAFTA, for instance, he argued that it was a waste of time concerning one’s self with the undemocratic technicalities of the deal, since energy should be devoted to the undemocratic system at-large that made the deal possible to begin with. “If the world is one economy, why not make it one society? I look forward to the argument on this. What I won't do is spend ten seconds on the argument as to whether a plant should be in Michigan or Ontario, or for that matter in California or Tijuana.” This radical out-flanking was exactly the sort done by the student movements in the 1960s that so turned off Podhoretz and many others to causes with which they might have otherwise sympathized. It was also the sort of moral and ideological grand-standing that Chambers had detected in the various Communist groups and diagnosed as a perverse form of fatalism—if not escapism.

There are, of course, missed opportunities in the book. For example, more could have been done on the connections and relationships between the six subjects. The chapter on Hitchens is the last biographical one of the book, and while Oppenheimer attempts a brief reconciliation of his cast, much worth putting in is left out. Hitchens respected Burnham’s comprehensive knowledge of Marxism, which Oppenheimer makes reference to, but he also knew that Burnham never got over his power-serving ways (“His real desire was not to combat dictatorship and expansionism but to emulate them”), which Oppenheimer doesn’t. In addition, no mention is made of the odd praise Hitchens steeped on Chambers in the article he wrote for the Washington Post in 1987 covering Horowitz’s “Second Thoughts Conference,” a weekend conference in D.C. “for former radicals who had come to see the error of their left-wing ways”: “Whittaker Chambers, as some people forget, was a considerable and complicated figure who . . . would have been denounced as a faintheart and advocate of half-measures if he had made more than a spectral appearance at this fervent gathering.” This is odd not so much for its content but because Hitchens throughout his career almost never mentions Chambers again. Even in his review of Sam Tanenhaus’s famous biography of Chambers, Hitchens spends most the piece recollecting personal interactions with Alger Hiss and cataloguing the Left’s failed reactions to the Cold War.

Then there are more thematic and conceptual questions, such as what exactly does Oppenheimer mean when he uses terms like Left and Right? Is the Right simply the ideological front of the status quo? If the Left is a force for fundamental radical change, what of Leszek Kołakowski’s thesis that it can no longer claim its own namesake because of banality and inertia?

Finally, each of the biographical chapters in the book only goes up until the individual’s moment of conversion, then abruptly ends. It would have been both informative and enlightening to read up on the post-conversion lives of each, as well as how their change of heart effected the style and mood they took with their former allies. Exit Right is in this sense at least six chapters too short. An idea for Oppenheimer’s next book perhaps? In other words, here’s hoping this isn’t his last.

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