Looking Back, David Horowitz-Peter Collier, 1985

Peter Collier and David Horowitz, “Lefties for Reagan” ( 1985), in Major Problems in American History Since 1945: Documents and Essays, ed. Robert Griffith ( Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1992), pp. 467 474.

When we tell our old radical friends that we voted for Ronald Reagan last November, the response is usually one of annoyed incredulity. After making sure that we are not putting them on, our old friends make nervous jokes about Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly, about gods that have failed, about ageing yuppies ascending to consumer heaven in their BMWs. We remind them of an old adage: “Anyone under 40 who isn’t a socialist has no heart—anyone over 40 who is a socialist has no brain.”

Inevitably the talk becomes bitter. One old comrade, after a tirade in which she had denounced us as reactionaries and crypto-fascists, finally sputtered, “And the worst thing is that you’ve turned your back on the Sixties!” That was exactly right: casting our ballots for Ronald Reagan was indeed a way of finally saying goodbye to all that—to the self-aggrandising romance with corrupt Third Worldism; to the casual indulgence of Soviet totalitarianism; to the hypocritical and self-dramatising anti-Americanism which is the New Left’s bequest to main56stream politics.

The instruments of popular culture may perhaps be forgiven for continuing to portray the ‘60s as a time of infectious idealism, but those of us who were active then have no excuse for abetting this banality. If in some ways it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times, an era of bloodthirsty fantasies as well as spiritual ones. We ourselves experienced both aspects, starting as civil rights and anti-war activists and ending as co-editors of the New Left magazine Ramparts. The magazine post allowed us to write about the rough beast slouching through America and also to urge it on through non-editorial activities we thought of as clandestine until we later read about them in the FBI and CIA files we both accumulated.

Like other radicals in those early days, we were against electoral politics, regarding voting as one of those charades used by the ruling class to legitimate its power. We were even more against Reagan, then governor of Califomia, having been roughed up by his troopers during the People’s Park demonstrations in Berkeley and tear-gassed by his National Guard helicopters during the University of California’s Third World Liberation Front Strike.

But neither elections nor elected officials seemed particularly important compared with the auguries of Revolution the Left saw everywhere by the end of the decade—in the way the nefarious Richard Nixon was widening the war in Indo-China; in the unprovoked attacks by paramilitary police against the Black Panther Party; in the formation of the “Weather Underground”, a group willing to pick up the gun or the bomb. It was a time when the apocalypse struggling to be born seemed to need only the slightest assist from the radical midwife.

When we were in the voting booth this past November (in different precincts but of the same mind) we both thought back to the day in 1969 when Tom Hayden came by the office and, after getting a Ramparts donation to buy gas masks and other combat issue for Black Panther “guerrillas,” announced portentously:

“Fascism is here, and we’re all going to be in jail by the end of the year.”

We agreed wholeheartedly with this apocalyptic vision and in fact had just written in an editorial:

“The system cannot be revitalised. It must be overthrown. As humanly as possible, but by any means necessary.”

Every thought and perception in those days was filtered through the dark and distorting glass of the Viet Nam war.

The Left was hooked on Viet Nam. It was an addictive drug whose rush was a potent mix of melodrama, self-importance, and moral rectitude. Viet Nam was a universal solvent—the explanation for every evil we saw and the justification for every excess we committed. Trashing the windows of merchants on the main streets of America seemed warranted by the notion that these petty-bourgeois shopkeepers were cogs in the system of capitalist exploitation that was obliterating Viet Nam. Fantasising the death of local cops seemed warranted by the role they played as an occupying army in America’s black ghettos, those mini Viet Nams we yearned to see explode in domestic wars of liberation. Viet Nam caused us to acquire a new appreciation for foreign tyrants like Kim II Sung of North Korea. Viet Nam also caused us to support the domestic extortionism and violence of groups like the Black Panthers, and to dismiss derisively Martin Luther King, Jr. as an “Uncle Tom.” (The Left has conveniently forgotten this fact now that it finds it expedient to invoke King’s name and reputation to further its domestic politics.)

How naive the New Left was can be debated, but by the end of the ‘60s we were not political novices. We knew that bad news from Southeast Asia—the reports of bogged-down campaigns and the weekly body counts announced by Walter Cronkite—was good for the radical agenda. The more repressive our government in dealing with dissent at home, the more recruits for our cause and the sooner the appearance of the revolutionary Armageddon.

Our assumption that Viet Nam would be the political and moral fulcrum by which we would tip this country toward revolution foresaw every possibility except one: that the United States would pull out. Never had we thought that the US, the arch-imperial power, would of its own volition withdraw from Indo China. This development violated a primary article of our hand-me-down Marx ism: that political action through normal channels could not alter the course of the war. The system we had wanted to overthrow worked tardily and only at great cost, but it worked.

When American troops finally came home, some of us took the occasion to begin a long and painful re-examination of our political assumptions and beliefs. Others did not. For the diehards, there was a post-Viet Nam syndrome in its own way as debilitating as that suffered by people who had fought there-a sense of emptiness rather than exhilaration, a paradoxical desire to hold on to and breathe life back into the experience that had been their high for so many years.

As the post-Viet Nam decade progressed, the diehards on the left ignored conclusions about the viability of democratic traditions that might have been drawn from America’s exit from Viet Nam and from the Watergate crisis that followed it, a time when the man whose ambitions they had feared most was removed from office by the Constitution rather than by a coup. The only “lessons” of Viet Nam the Left seemed interested in were those that emphasised the danger of American power abroad and the need to diminish it, a view that was injected into the Democratic party with the triumph of the McGovernite wing. The problem with this use of Viet Nam as a moral text for American policy, however, was that the pages following the fall of Saigon had been whited out. . . .

Perhaps the leading feature of the Left today is the moral selectivity that French social critic Jean-François Revel has identified as “the syndrome of the cross-eyed Left.”

Leftists can describe Viet Nam’s conquest and colonialisation of Cambodia as a “rescue mission,” while reviling Ronald Reagan for applying the same term to the Grenada operation, although better than 90% of the island’s population told independent pollsters they were grateful for the arrival of US troops. Forgetting for a moment that Afghanistan is “Russia’s Viet Nam,” Leftists call Grenada “America’s Afghanistan,” although people in Afghanistan (as one member of the resistance there told us) would literally die for the elections held in Grenada.

The Left’s memory can be as selective as its morality. When it comes to past commitments that have failed, the Leftist mentality is utterly unable to produce a coherent balance sheet, let alone a profit-and-loss statement. The attitude toward Soviet penetration of the Americas is a good example. Current enthusiasm for the Sandinista régime in Nicaragua should recall to those of us old enough to remember a previous enthusiasm for Cuba 25 years ago. Many of us began our “New Leftism” with the “Fair Play for Cuba” demonstrations. We raised our voices and chanted, “ Cuba Si! Yanqui No!” We embraced Fidel Castro not only because of the flamboyant personal style of the barbudos of his 26th of July Movement but also because Castro assured the world that his revolution belonged to neither Communists nor capitalists, that it was neither red nor black, but Cuban olive-green.

We attributed Castro’s expanding links with Moscow to the US-sponsored invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and then to the “secret war” waged against Cuba by US intelligence and paramilitary organisations. But while Castro’s apologists in the United States may find it expedient to maintain these fictions, Carlos Franqui and other old Fidelistas now in exile have made it clear that Castro embraced the Soviets even before the US hostility became decisive, and that he steered his country into an alliance with the Soviets with considerable enthusiasm. Before the Bay of Pigs he put a Soviet general in charge of Cuban forces. Before the Bay of Pigs he destroyed Cuba’s democratic trade-union movement, although its elected leadership was drawn from his own 26th of July Movement. He did so because he knew that the Stalinists of Cuba’s Communist Party would be dependable cheerleaders and efficient policemen of his emerging dictatorship. . . .

Adherents of today’s version of radical chic may never take seriously the words of Sandinista directorate member Bayardo Arce when he says that elections are a “hindrance” to the goal of “a dictatorship of the proletariat” and necessary only “as an expedient to deprive our enemies of an argument.” They will ignore former Sandinista hero and now Contra leader Eden Pastora, who sees the Junta as traitors who have sold out the revolutionary dream. ("Now that we are occupied by foreign forces from Cuba and Russia, now that we are governed by a dictatorial government of nine men, now more than ever the Sandinista struggle is justified.") They will ignore opposition leader Arturo Cruz, an early supporter of the Sandinista revolution and previously critical of the Contras, when the worsening situation makes him change his mind and ask the Reagan administration to support them in a statement that should have the same weight as Andrei Sakharov’s plea to the West to match the Soviet arms build-up.

American Leftists propose solutions for the people of Central America that they wouldn’t dare propose for themselves. These armchair revolutionaries project their self-hatred and their contempt for the privileges of democracy—which allow them to live well and to think badly—on to people who would be only too grateful for the luxuries they disdain. Dismissing “bourgeois” rights as a decadent frill that the peoples of the Third World can’t afford, Leftists spread eagle the Central Americans between the dictators of the Right and the dictators of the Left. The latter, of course, are their chosen instruments for bringing social justice and economic well-being, although no Leftist revolution has yet provided impressive returns on either of these qualities and most have made the lives of their people considerably more wretched than they were before.

Voting is symbolic behaviour, a way of evaluating what one’s country has been as well as what it might become. We do not accept Reagan’s policies chapter and verse (especially in domestic policy, which we haven’t discussed here), but we agree with his vision of the world as a place increasingly inhospitable to democracy and increasingly dangerous for America.

One of the few saving graces of age is a deeper perspective on the passions of youth. Looking back on the Left’s revolutionary enthusiasms of the last 25 years, we have painfully learned what should have been obvious all along: that we live in an imperfect world that is bettered only with great difficulty and easily made worse—much worse. This is a conservative assessment, but on the basis of half a lifetime’s experience, it seems about right.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/25 at 08:31 PM






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