Published in The American Conservative
Throughout the Cold War, conservatives had a certain advantage in the competition of ideas—the battle between the West’s right to pursue happiness and the East’s pursuit of the right to happiness. The USSR—not to mention its despotic affiliates across the globe—was more than a temporal nightmare; it was the actualization of the left’s original sins. Totalitarianism was unavoidable: it was the only end because Marxism, from its start, misread human nature, overestimating the ability of man to master the forces of the universe. Yet the highest ambition of Marxism was a supremely righteous one, or so it seemed, born of the Age of Reason: pure equality.
Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary who himself had flirted with radicalism in the early 1960s, once explained that communism’s danger—and its appeal to intellectuals—lay in the fact that the creed insisted that it was the ultimate fulfillment of the democratic ethos. To this day, liberals and their other non-revolutionary siblings on the left might disagree with communists over the extent to which the state should engineer “fairness,” yet they still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people. For all ideologies of the left are tied to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon predetermined progress via reason and the accumulation of quantifiable knowledge.
This is the important—and I’m pretty sure, inadvertent—message tendered by Daniel Oppenheimer in Exit Right. The book consists of six brilliantly penned vignettes, each one digging into the causes behind an eminent individual’s departure from the left. The starring roles are filled by Whittaker Chambers, Communist “underground” member turned Christian; James Burnham, Workers Party comrade turned National Review contributor; Ronald Reagan, labor union president turned Republican icon; Norman Podhoretz, New Left fellow traveler turned Commentary editor; David Horowitz, Black Panthers proponent turned right-wing firebrand; and Christopher Hitchens, underdog ally turned Iraq War cheerleader.
In both Exit Right’s introduction and conclusion, Oppenheimer makes it clear that his work is a guide just as much to everyday existence as to history: “perhaps we can learn something that will enable us to better live our own lives, to be more aware of the possibilities—to be more bold, and more humble, somehow at the same time.” He dishes up his six subjects, the “ex-believers,” as instruments for self-examination. “They are the ones who reveal how shaky the ground beneath us always is.” So yes, it’s rather obvious that Oppenheimer is frustrated with the hyper-partisan state of affairs today and that he feels there’s middle ground that remains to be unearthed: “the book is a challenge, to the reader, 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.”
If that’s all too hippy-dippy, rest assured, there’s lots of treasure amidst the intervening pages. Exit Right is not polemical—for the most part. It’s not even about “politics” in the conventional sense. Oppenheimer only fleetingly explores what are commonly classified as conservative postures, such as support for limited government and free enterprise. That’s because he avoids carrying his narratives out to where he would have to discourse about them.
Indeed, what’s most striking about Exit Right is that each chapter—save for the ultimate, a peculiar one that deals with Hitchens—terminates with its respective subject breaking with or having just broken from the left. (The title, after all, is not Enter Right.) The first concludes with Chambers attending his last meeting as a Communist in 1938, the second with Burnham handing over his letter of resignation to the Workers Party in 1940, the third with Reagan ramping up his speaking tour in 1958, the fourth with Podhoretz starting to write again for his own magazine in 1970, and the fifth with Horowitz casting his first Republican vote in 1984. To be sure then, Exit Right isn’t chicken soup for the conservative soul. It’s not a compilation of witty, inspiring, and orderly narratives like those that form, for example, Mary Eberstadt’s 2007 collection of babyboomer memoirs, Why I Turned Right.
That being said, it would be a shame for conservatives to dismiss Exit Right. True, there’s a lack of, pardon the pun, red meat. But notwithstanding its dearth of talk of conservative thinkers, conservative policies, and conservative tracts, it might be one of the most valuable books for conservatives written in recent times. Taken as a whole, it radiates the core philosophical thrust of the right, a solemn warning about the audacity of schemes that endeavor to recreate heaven, in all its perfection, here on earth. (This is likely ironic because, while I don’t know Oppenheimer personally, I deduce he’s an individual situated on the left.)
For all of Oppenheimer’s actors, it was the left’s sanctimoniousness and hubris that led to disillusionment. Chambers recognized that “We have neither the power nor the wisdom to act appropriately to remold the world to our liking.” Burnham rejected “claims to having perfect understanding of all realms of knowledge.” Reagan spurned the federal bureaucrats who, though far off in their marble fortresses, still inserted themselves “between decent folk and their responsibilities to their families, neighbors, and communities.” Podhoretz refused to “join with the growing chorus of those who saw the flaws in the major institutions and practices of American life as evidence that it was rotten all the way down.” Horowitz discovered that “extreme naïveté and recklessness, enabled by fantasies of rescuing the damaged and oppressed, invited its own violent disabusal.” And Hitchens determined there exists evil “that can’t be remedied by a critique of capitalist-imperialism or a withdrawal of Western military power.”
Oppenheimer supplies a splendid chronicle. With a casual reference or two, he skillfully weaves together his chapters. Chambers and Burnham were not only friends, they were both part of National Review’s founding cadre. Reagan was an early subscriber to National Review, and his “fusion” of “political, philosophical, and spiritual” beliefs was propelled by his reading of Chambers’s autobiography, Witness. Horowitz’s seminal October 1974 essay, “The Passion of the Jews,” published in Ramparts after he had stepped down from the magazine, was an attack on people like Podhoretz, “who were exploiting genuine but unrepresentative examples of black anti-Semitism, and real but not existential conflicts between the collective interests of blacks and Jews.” Hitchens, serving as a journalist for the Nation, covered the “Second Thoughts Conference” in October 1987 in Washington, D.C., which was organized by, lo and behold, Horowitz.
Yet while Oppenheimer fits the pieces together very nicely, a little more explanation as to why he handpicked the six “apostates” that he did would have been welcomed. The inner jacket cover reads that it’s through the subjects, whose lives cumulatively spanned more than a century, “we see America grow, stumble, and forge ahead.” So they were drafted merely for the purpose of chronology? A different approach would have been to plump for “heretics” who ultimately influenced each of the right’s major schools: libertarianism, neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, and traditional conservatism. Although Exit Right showcases a variety of personality types, Chambers, Burnham, Reagan, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens have all been at some point, if not regularly, pegged as “neoconservative.” Given that, one wonders why not Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, or Jeane Kirkpatrick? Were their awakenings, which were evolutions rather than ruptures, unable to adequately heighten the contradictions?
While on the topic of selection, why was Hitchens included? Apparently because he shifted from contesting imperialism to championing the “Freedom Agenda.” But was that shift actually rightward and, therefore, worthy of being called an “exit right”? Oppenheimer himself concedes that Hitchens was of neither the left nor the right: “He defined himself, in fact, by his refusal to be any type at all.” Moreover, Hitchens’s views beyond foreign policy, Oppenheimer adds, were unaltered by his decision to go all in with the Iraq War. So since when did support for the Iraq War alone credential someone as a partisan of the right? Many traditional conservatives, libertarians, and paleoconservatives—and even most old-school neoconservatives, believe it or not—were opposed to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and all the more to America’s sweeping plan to spread democracy throughout the Arab World.
The presence of “the Hitch,” I suspect—and, of course, I may be completely wrong—stems from perhaps Oppenheimer’s own disapproval of the Iraq War, or even a past admiration of the Anglo-American. Hitchens’s story is the only authentic odyssey in Exit Right, for it’s the one account that stretches from beginning to end. Here the reader is not left hanging at “the period of political transition, when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin.” Oppenheimer goes on and on about “the diminution of Hitchens,” pointing to excessive drinking and an embarrassing appearance on the Daily Show. A change in tone is also discernible. Hitchens “chose to mistake thoughtful opposition for moral cowardice and jingoism for righteousness. His bullshit detector, which had served him so well for so long, somehow failed to properly take the measure of George Bush.” Odd, but not fatal, not least because few conservatives today are rushing to defend the decision to invade Iraq for a second time. It’s just slightly unfortunate this is the final chapter, for it feels out of sync with the rest of what’s an otherwise levelheaded volume.
Despite minor flaws, Exit Right is of great value. It helps remind that conservatism was until not so long ago first a response then a prescription. For from the bloody deposition of the ancien régime until recently, conservatism was, to borrow the familiar words of William F. Buckley Jr., the cautionary retort standing “athwart history, yelling Stop!” Its thrust was simple: to conserve that which was Good. Indeed, as a response, conservatism’s defining feature was far from a blueprint setting forth civilization’s nonstop, upward, and frictionless avenue to utopia. Rather, it was a skeptical temperament that respected life’s vicissitudes and man’s immutable flaws. It held that, since reason is innately flawed and society is complex, attempts to vanquish ills and abolish all personal discrepancies were unlikely to succeed.
Yet with the Soviet Union, modern history’s most vivid illustration of the left’s fallacies, long gone, proselytization has grown trickier for conservatives. Howling about the Democratic Party’s “socialist” policies more and more resembles Aesop’s boy who cried wolf. Social welfare has been around for decades in America, and a gulag archipelago has yet to manifest in the Alaskan icebox. Further muddying the situation, a significant swath of self-professed conservatives back jacking up taxes on the rich and expanding public programs. Plus, while radicalism was once scary, it’s so downright goofy today it’s almost adorable. Credit for that goes entirely to its foremost champion, Bernie Sanders, a wobbly, wild-haired altacocker from sleepy Vermont for whom, as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog put it, a “Super Tuesday” is having to visit the bathroom only once in the middle of the night.
Exit Right isn’t really about, as advertised, “how we come to believe at all.” It’s about how we come to un-believe. For conservatives in this moment, that’s the other half of the picture worthy of scrutiny. Lacking a blatantly dangerous target to explode, the task before us is rediscovering not what we stand against—that’s obvious—but why exactly we’re opposed to what we stand against.