A host of specters is haunting Peter Collier and David Horowitz, and in Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s, they attempt to banish, or at least to come to terms with, four of the ghosts. By my count, they succeed with one and a half, for about a .375 average; that’s not bad for baseball, and may be as good as can be expected in life, at least in lives like theirs.
Although the book is ostensibly about a slice of recent history, Collier and Horowitz (C & H for short) cite with approval Emerson’s remark about how there is no history, only biography. They cite still more approvingly Thoreau’s retort that there isn’t even biography, only autobiography. True to their dictum, autobiography underlies both the best and worst parts of Destructive Generation. The best comes when they confront the first two ghosts, their late fathers.
Collier’s sire was the High Plains equivalent of an Okie, who came to California with nothing from a sod house in South Dakota. Despite a lifetime of hardscrabble, he “never rose above the lower depths of the middle class.” In typical southern California settler fashion, his accumulated resentments turned him from a depression New Deal Democrat into a conservative Republican, part of Ronald Reagan’s bedrock support. Among the disappointments of his latter years, in 1959 his smartass son went off to Berkeley and became a communist.
The elder Collier did last through the end of the Vietnam war, which was when young Peter began to see the error of his radical ways. Father and son even made a pilgrimage back to the sod house in South Dakota the summer before the old man died. Though not a lot was said on the trip, a reconciliation was effected, at first mainly personal but ultimately political too, with son taking up, in 1984, the Reagan presidential banner that the father had not lived to see raised.
Horowitz was not so lucky. His father was an orthodox New York communist, a secularized Jew who remained loyal to his Stalinist faith until his last breath. But David was one of those “red diaper” babies who decided as a teenager that the revelation of Stalin’s crimes by Khrushchev in 1956 made it necessary to leave the Communist Party and reinvent the revolution, to create a “new Left.”
His father never accepted this deviation, not even after he had been abandoned by his beloved Party “for political reasons” in a McCarthyite witch-hunt that cost him his teaching job. And by the time of his death, in the mid-1980s, his son had pushed the revisionist heresy to the limit, deciding that the Left could not be successfully reinvented; that the “revolutionary idea” would never be more than a rationalization for terror and totalitarianism, and must be not only abandoned but smashed.
This, of course, also meant not simply a modification of the single passion of his father’s isolated and pathetic life but its utter repudiation, a kind of parricide. Horowitz seems to think he has mastered the political changes this transformation dictated; he has clearly not yet absorbed its personal import. One can almost feel sorry for him, thus cut off from the only roots he has. He hardly had any other option; yet there is a pain between these lines that sounds unlikely ever to be resolved.
There is an equally deep lack of resolution, or rather expiation, in relation to the third of the authors’ ghosts, that of Betty Van Patter, a young innocent who was the bookkeeper at Ramparts magazine in the early 70s, when Collier and Horowitz were in command of that revolutionary redoubt. Ramparts was for a few years an outstanding radical rag, which broke repeatedly into the headlines with a series of sensational investigative disclosures, such as the secret funding of the National Students Association by the CIA. It also moved history in less visible ways: in early 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw a Ramparts photo spread on “The Children of Vietnam,” and the stark, horrific pictures crystallized his determination to become a major voice of protest against the war. C & H now repudiate their investigative coups, in particular one major piece about the supersecret National Security Agency, as “no-fault treason.”
Ramparts was also, less creditably, a major vehicle for the popularization of the Black Panthers of Oakland. This despite the steady accumulation of evidence that behind the Panthers’ revolutionary rhetoric was little more than a gang of ghetto thugs with a claque of thickheaded white groupies. And Horowitz, notwithstanding his official stance of solidarity, had kept his distance from the Panthers, he says, because of their vanguard Leninist pretensions. That changed in 1973, just as Ramparts was folding, when Panther boss Huey Newton grandly announced that the time for guns and violence was past, and that the new correct line was to build a community cultural base.
Horowitz fell for this new con hook, line, and sinker. He raised money for the Panthers and even bought the building for their new Community Learning Center, which was to be the centerpiece of their new domain.
But then Newton, in one of his recurrent bouts of trouble, was charged with the murder of a prostitute, and fled to Cuba. Still devoted to the project, Horowitz not long thereafter asked Betty Van Patter to get the Panthers’ books in order for them, and after some prodding, she agreed.
Unfortunately for her, Van Patter evidently got the books entirely too much in order. Collier speculates that she must have uncovered evidence of drug dealing and involvement in protection rackets, and in idealistic fashion confronted the Panthers with these lapses from sound community-building strategy. Collier can only speculate, because in early 1974, “the next thing we heard, she had been founding floating in the Bay, her head caved in by a blow from a heavy object.” Her murder remains unsolved, though Horowitz says Panthers have bragged to him that they killed her.
Horowitz insists that the murder of Betty Van Patter “ended my career in the Left.” Collier reflects that the killing showed him that the “Black Panther Party, which had begun as a street gang, had never really changed . . .” Then it produced an epiphany: “The gang, it occurred to me, might be an appropriate metaphor for the Left as a whole.”
And here C & H slide irretrievably away from the honesty that generally characterized the treatment of their fathers. The accounts of their origins, as red diaper revisionist and refugee from Honkiedom, have a certain representative quality; most New Leftists were one or the other; add the guilty rich kids who populated the Weathermen and that about sums it up. But at this point their jump to generality is patently phony and unfair: perhaps their gullibility about Newton and his murderous Panthers epitomizes the destructive foolishness that overtook their small sector of 60s radicalism, but it just doesn’t wash as the emblem of the movement as a whole, and they should know it.
Still more offensive than their effort to smear the whole of that generation with the blood on their own hands is the conceit betrayed by the effort. Their feckless Ramparts radicalism is paraded as if it were the essence and guiding spirit of everything meaningful that fits under the 60s rubric. And that is simply bullshit.
This attitude takes some time to emerge in the book. When it does, however, it undermines the otherwise serviceable sketches in their early chapters of the Weathermen guerrillas and the sad career of a Bay area radical lawyer, Fay Stender. Standing alone, as the magazine articles they originally were, these pieces vividly show just how disastrous the attempts by some self-hating privileged whites to keep up with the revolutionary Joneses became. But they don’t show how relatively isolated these people were, and they certainly don’t establish them as the movement’s exemplars. There were many currents in the 60s upsurges, and most of them were not violent, no matter what Ramparts said.
After all, as the authors point out, the Weathermen never had more than 300 people in its crazy collectives, and far fewer when the actual bomb throwing started. By contrast, more colleges than that went peacefully on strike after Kent State; and 13,000 people were arrested in Washington in one morning for nonviolently opposing the war during the 1971 May Day demonstrations.
As for Stender, a lawyer who got in way over her head with prisoner “revolutionaries” like George and Jonathan Jackson, and ended up being shot by one of their accomplices, hers is indeed a sad and cautionary tale. But was her death, as Collier and Horowitz put it, that of “a radical Everyperson” that marked the end of an era, or, as one of her grieving but wiser friends said, an example of someone who “played with fire, and people who play with fire get burned”? Her mentor, the veteran radical attorney Charles Garry, had seen what was coming and warned her that she was not suited for such cases, because she got too involved with clients. No, for every Fay Stender, there were hundreds of others who were against war and racism but who kept their heads sufficiently not only to survive the 60s but to avoid becoming Republicans thereafter.
Yet defining their personal folly as the determinant archetype for the 60s is not enough for our authors’ egos. Having decided that the Vietnam war was a righteous cause after all, they also want to claim the lion’s share of the blame for having lost it. They even grab all the boat people and Pol Pot’s million-plus victims in Cambodia as part of their guilt stockpile.
Well, they can have it. As an old peacenik, I don’t claim that the peace movement did much more than restrain the U.S. government from wreaking even more senseless destruction on Southeast Asia; the North Vietnamese kicked ass and won the war on their own. And contrary to the C & H version, there were many more besides me who did not celebrate this outcome, nor make excuses for the Khmer Rouge.
Nor do the war’s unhappy sequelae establish its justice retroactively. American policymakers from the Truman era forward were repeatedly warned by some of the best military and intelligence talent not to follow France’s example in Indochina. The Vietnamese had fought the Japanese, they’d whipped the French, they’d fought the Chinese for hundreds of years; it was hubris to think we’d do better from 10,000 miles away. But Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon plunged in anyway. Like many others, I saw U.S. involvement in the war, then and even more now, as comparable to kicking rocks down a steep hillside: America created a landslide of evil that developed its own momentum and rolled bloodily on across Southeast Asia long after our troops had left.
If some in the peace movement were rooting for the North Vietnamese or the Khmer Rouge, most of us hoped for little more than to slow down that deadly avalanche, or mitigate its destructiveness. We don’t feel guilty about that now; not a bit. Our main regret is that we weren’t able to inhibit it more effectively.
But speaking of regret, the scent of another, unadmitted kind of guilt is strong amid all Destructive Generation’s egocentric breast-beating. For all their professed commitment to overthrowing the established order, it appears that revolution for C & H was primarily a literary affair. While paying lip service to the militants who were trying to learn how to make bombs and smash monogamy, Collier was guiltily but carefully drawing a line around his nuclear family life, and secretly wondering if this did not make him a movement impostor. When Horowitz felt the time had come to really take his stand, he went to England and wrote a book. And nowhere do they say how either of them dealt with that ubiquitous 60s separator of men from boys, namely the draft. The question inevitably arises: Is this another case of campus commies ready to fight the system to the last student deferment?
In any case, when it came time to find out what the Panthers were really doing with all the money Horowitz had raised for them, which they must have known was a risky inquiry, they persuaded somebody else to do it. No wonder Horowitz, who did the persuading, says Betty Van Patter’s death ended his radical career. No wonder they can’t banish her ghost; the image of her floating in San Francisco Bay ought to stay with them for the rest of their days. And the attempt to lighten the weight of their personal complicity by daubing the whole 60s movement with it is as unsuccessful as it is transparent. This is liberal guilt-tripping in reverse; carry your own karma, fellows.
The final ghost in this corner of C & H’s private Sheol provides yet another unintended measure of the absurdly inflated self-estimate of their radical careers. It is the looming, spectral figure of Whittaker Chambers.
In their latter chapters, when they are attempting to explain their shift from Left to Right, they evoke Chambers frequently. They clearly aspire to his mantle, and Destructive Generation purports to be the 60s’ follow-up to his magnum opus, Witness.
But nothing so clearly exposes them as poseurs and charlatans as comparison to this tormented giant. Next to him they are a couple of querulous pups.
Let us recall for the record a few items about Chambers: He also started out as a radical journalist, but then he went on to become a genuine communist spy, who actually stole government documents in Washington and had them microfilmed and transmitted to Moscow. When he defected, he fled for his life with his family and hid out underground for months. His unmasking of Alger Hiss was a titanic and tragic struggle that almost drove him to suicide. It also shaped history; its launching of Richard Nixon onto the national stage was almost incidental to its intrinsic significance. And not least, his testament, Witness, is a dark and brooding masterpiece, well worth the reading even by those who can’t accept all his political conclusions.
In short, the guy was weird, but he was a mensch.
One of these days maybe somebody on the Right who was actually acquainted with Chambers–Bill Buckley, say–will summon the integrity to tell Collier and Horowitz the truth, to wit:
“C & H, I knew Whittaker Chambers. Whittaker Chambers was a friend of mine. And fellows, you’re no Whittaker Chambers.”
C & H resemble their idol in only one important respect, which is also his weakest point: like him they have taken what Susan Sontag rightly called their “Manichean politics” and simply switched the devils from the Right to the Left.
In Chambers this defect was understandable. After all, in serving Stalin he had actually been aligned with truly world-class evil; who could blame him for seeing Stalinist communism as the summum malum, Evil Incarnate? But Collier and Horowitz have to stretch to put the imagined perfidy of their New Left even in the same rhetorical league. Chambers served Stalin; they fell for Huey Newton. When Chambers abandoned communism, he found God; when they left Ramparts, they found Ronald Reagan.
Nonetheless, they gave it the old college try: “In the inchoate attack against authority, we had weakened our culture’s immune system, making it vulnerable to opportunistic diseases.” And so forth. Not just Vietnam and Cambodia are their fault; they want to claim crime, drugs, and AIDS too. No doubt they have designs on global warming, acid rain, and the trade deficit. The cumulative effect is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s remark about Dickens’s story of the death of Little Nell: It’s hard to read it without laughing.
But in fact it’s too bad. Their self-centered arrogance, combined with their persistently Manichaean vision, completely dilutes one good point they try to make about some of the successors to the 60s Left: that among them are people who want to do America, and Americans, harm. Such groups do exist; as a reporter I’ve helped expose two of them myself, though one–Lyndon LaRouche–turned out to be a fascist in drag. But the guidance offered by C & H is strictly the bluntest of instruments, the crudest liberalism-equals-socialism-equals-communism-equals-Havana/Moscow-control, a net that will catch practically everybody to the left of Pat Buchanan. This sort of thing is not only self-debunking; it’s also useless for serious political analysis.
Just how useless is it? Consider their Chambers-esque preoccupation with alleged espionage, a whole new crop of Alger Hisses. There have, of course, been numerous big spies caught in the past few years; but if the FBI had been following the C & H prescription, they would have missed every single one. None of the Reagan-era spies–the Walkers, Lonetree, Howard, Pollard, et al–was a former New Leftist. Their reported politics ran rather to the right, even to the Ku Klux Klan, and in true capitalist fashion most were in it for the money. The one real ideologue among them is Jonathan Pollard, the Jew who spied for love of Israel. And how far do Collier and Horowitz want us to take that line of association?
Their credibility sinks even lower when they begin singing the praises of the Right. Here are two telling examples: “The Right,” they assert, “seeks to conserve (and the Left to undermine) workaday democracy.” That’s funny; wasn’t it Ronald Reagan and his true believers who opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, incontestably the greatest expansion of “workaday democracy” in America in this century, until it became clear that the extension would pass Congress almost unanimously?
And again: Where today, they ask, does one find political use of “the big lie and the reckless smear; corruption of truth, indiscriminate use of guilt by association, and disregard for due process?” Why, “If there is such a danger, it comes not from Joseph McCarthy’s followers on the Right, but from the Left . . .”
One could choose to give C & H the benefit of the doubt here and assume this was written in all innocence before the 1988 election saw Willie Horton and the ACLU made into blunt instruments against “workaday democracy.” But even then, the myopia it displays about the political tactics of the Right in the 1980s is something to see.
But the point here is not to try to shift all the evil back onto the right; of course there are those on the Left who lie and smear when it suits them. More fundamentally, the Manichaean view of the world just doesn’t fit the dangers of the world today. During the Reagan years, for instance, more U.S. soldiers were killed by Muslim terrorists than by communists. And as this was written, the leading international symbol of constructive reform is the president of one communist country.
What’s going on here? If you ask me, the old New Left, with all its failings, yields more insight into these continuing surprises than anything C & H have to offer–though anybody who claims to understand what will happen next is a liar or a fool.
What Destructive Generation shows most convincingly is that we will do better, after our second thoughts about the 60s, to dig out our dog-eared paperbacks of Camus’ “Neither Victims nor Executioners” and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, or back issues of I. F. Stone’s Weekly. Here are people who looked evil in the face on either side, and tried to tell the truth about it, regardless of its origin. If doing so left them without a clear partisan identification, and without the slogans for sound-bite political campaigns, that hardly diminishes the power and relevance of their examples.
In the meantime, Collier and Horowitz are best left to their autobiography masquerading as history, their blinkered politics, and their ghosts. These latter, especially the figure of Betty Van Patter floating in the bay, should be more than enough to keep them occupied in their new life on the Right. We must look to others to take a more convincing measure of that enigmatic, tormented time known as the 60s.
Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Summit Books, $19.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.