EXIT RIGHT: THE PEOPLE WHO LEFT THE LEFT AND RESHAPED THE AMERICAN CENTURY

Washington Times on February 23, 2016, published a review by John R. Coyne Jr. of Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, Simon & Schuster, 28 US dollars, 403 pages. Excerpts below:

…James Burnham, is one of the six people treated by Daniel Oppenheimer in this compellingly written and highly readable narrative — Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens.

At National Review, we knew Jim Burnham as friend and mentor, a trusted adviser to Bill Buckley, a scrupulous editor who worked closely with our superb managing editor Priscilla Buckley, proofing the copy for each issue of the magazine, and on alternate weeks the National Review Bulletin, crafting editorials and his columns with clarity, elegance and precision…

Mr. Burnham’s great strength, Mr. Oppenheimer writes, as a New York University professor of philosophy, a Marxist dialectician, and later as one of the most important conservative writers of our time, was his ability “to untangle thorny concepts into the kinds of discrete threads that [readers] could more easily grasp, and then to methodically weave the pieces back together into a clear narrative.”

Whittaker Chambers, also a National Review senior editor, the quintessential man of feeling, provided a striking contrast with Burnham, his fellow former Marxist. Burnham was the man of reason, of intellect, although his reasoned conclusions were held with an emotional intensity. As Mr. Chambers put it, in an implied comparison, “Jim is not essentially a poetic mind; he is a first-rate mind of another breed.”

For Mr. Chambers, the attraction of Marxism was essentially emotional — spying, clandestine meetings, black operations, all in the service of a dialectically defined utopian vision. As he once told Bill Buckley, he identified with the “narodniki” — young radicals, celebrated by Lenin, who conspired to assassinate the czar.

It was through Trotsky that Mr. Burnham was able to accept the validity of Marxism as a system. But later in the decade, when it proved intellectually inadequate to explain the period’s excesses, among them the murderous Moscow purges, the brutal carving up of nations under the Hitler-Stalin pact — …the logic crumbled.

Mr. Burnham left [communism], giving up “friends, power, a direct conduit to one of the titans of the twentieth century, and a sense of purpose, situated within a coherent worldview, that kept him centered during a decade when the whole world seemed in danger of spinning away.” It would be 15 years before “Burnham would be able to reassemble all those elements as an editor at the conservative National Review.”

In 1983, James Burnham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 would bestow the same honor posthumously on Whittaker Chambers.

Through his extraordinary autobiography, “Witness,” Mr. Chambers had a profound effect on Ronald Reagan’s journey from Roosevelt liberalism to Goldwater conservatism.

Later, both Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, and David Horowitz would emerge from the New Left period as conservatives, Mr. Podhoretz because of the failure of liberal literati to acknowledge leftist excesses, Mr. Horowitz because of the murder of a friend by the Black Panthers, a group he’d championed.

Christopher Hitchens deserves a category of his own, although no one can define it. He shed many leftist friends when he argued in support of the invasion of Iraq, most eloquently when he’d taken on a full ration of whiskey.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

Comment: This book is highly recommended.

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