I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.
Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).
Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.
But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.
The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.
I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).
Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.
It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.
Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?
Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “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.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.