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Metamorphoses

Exit Right is a series of psychologically acute portraits of American intellectuals, two of them still living and active, who abandoned communist, Leftist, or strongly liberal identities and became known as conservatives. Author Daniel Oppenheimer’s purpose is not to break new ground by more fully documenting, or reinterpreting, their transitions, but to bring them to life for the general reader. He aims to show the diverse ways in which dogmatically held ideology can yield to caveats, doubts, and ultimately a new political stance.

These evolutions are worth pondering, he says, because they help us to grasp the uncertainty of apparently entrenched political commitments. These commitments were made in the 20th century, which historians may look back on as the age of communism, but as Oppenheimer writes: “The ex-believers—the heretics, the apostates—are the problem children of any politics in any time.” Why? Because such individuals “reveal how shaky the ground beneath us always is.”

When held by real people, not merely propagated through words, ideological identity is by its nature full of “contingency and complexity.” (He might more accurately have said: it can be.) Amplifying this point, Oppenheimer, a writer and filmmaker who holds an administrative post at the University of Texas, asks 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.” He wants to make us all a little less sure of our politics.

Such a book is best evaluated by its quality of judgment and level of narrative artistry. On the second count, Oppenheimer clearly succeeds, with sensitive, precise, colorful writing that flows compellingly from one year to the next. His storytelling is not only rich but realistic, in part because we are led to see the continuities between his subjects’ growing-up years and their initial identities as Leftists or liberals.

Similarly insightful is what he says about their later, conservative identities: that none of them “became something alien to who they were” even after their metamorphoses. “Pieces of who they were, which had been there all along, were given more rein and license, while other pieces, which had been more dominant, were demoted or newly inflected,” he observes.

Exit Right is also judicious: thoughtful and fair in what it says. People well acquainted with any of its subjects—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, Christopher Hitchens—might find something in his interpretations to quibble with, but are also likely to conclude that Oppenheimer has gotten to know them well, and has accorded them genuine respect. This is more than enough to make it a worthwhile read.

On the other hand, Exit Right does take its time heading for the exits. It tends to stress disproportionately these men’s time on the Left, with too little analysis of what caused them to move away. What it does say about their transformations is largely sound, but there should have been more.

In one instance, that of Podhoretz, it may also be unfair. Oppenheimer brings into sharp focus the young Commentary editor’s hungry, easily wounded ego and the New York intellectuals’ negative reception of his first autobiographical work, Making It (1968), before Podhoretz’s political metamorphosis was complete. He gives insufficient space to Podhoretz’s growing disgust with the radical New Left spawned by the 1960s, his growing conviction that he must fight its metastasizing influence. The longevity and sustained intensity of Podhoretz’s later career as an editor, polemicist, and neoconservative impresario demonstrate, I think, a formidable seriousness of mission that merited more attention. As he wrote in his introduction to Ex-Friends (2000), a set of politico-literary recollections: “I shouldered the burden of challenging the regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe, and to do so with all my heart and all my soul and all my might.”

Oppenheimer nonetheless rejects opportunism as the essence of most political transformations, including all of those he considers here. Reasonably enough, he distinguishes among the latter by identifying Reagan and Hitchens as the two who might be most credibly—although not justifiably—accused of it. He highlights, rather, the pain involved in political apostasy, a quality that sometimes characterizes the initial commitment, too.

James Burnham, for example, as a nascent Trotskyist intellectual leader in the early Depression years, faced, yet was not finally deterred by, “all the unanswerable questions about what it would mean, in practice, for him to just hand over to radical politics the identity he’d been constructing for himself as a man of letters and philosophy.” Burnham “had a template for what his life would look like as a professor and critic, and reason for confidence that he would succeed in that mold. As a revolutionist his future was much murkier.”

As this passage may suggest, Oppenheimer accomplishes the admirable feat of making his subjects’ earlier political selves semi-attractive even to a conservative reader. In a similar spirit, Whittaker Chambers sought to convey not just the sincerity but the plausibility of his turn to the Communist Party as a young man. Had he not succeeded in this, his landmark 1952 memoir, Witness, would have been a still considerable but lesser book. Oppenheimer’s good discussion of Chambers is no substitute for that great work, but it helps that he tends to avoid judgmental hindsight about his subjects.

Such hindsight is an occupational hazard even for writers of high intellectual sophistication, even when they sympathize strongly with those they discuss. “Burnham’s entire communist entanglement, to put it bluntly, was absurd. To have become a New Dealer would have made more sense,” remarked Jeffrey Hart, his eventual National Review colleague, in The Making of the American Conservative Mind, an insightful 2005 history of the magazine. In contrast, Oppenheimer lets Burnham circa 1933, a junior academic watching the nation’s economic catastrophe and the possible demise of the “bourgeois” class in which he grew up, decide what was, or wasn’t, absurd.

The past plausibility of the now-implausible is a crucial lesson that any deep historical study teaches. In a full analysis—which Hart did not claim to write—of Burnham’s radical Left decade, the ability to imagine oneself responding as he did is indispensable.

Readers should have gotten more, as I said, on the intellectual steps leading to each figure’s break from the Left. A second gap is related to this: The book offers too little treatment of their new roles as conservatives (or that of Hitchens as a casually mislabeled conservative, due almost entirely to his passionate stand against radical Islam). Oppenheimer does make some literary evaluations. Podhoretz and Hitchens wrote most creatively, he judges, when they were on the Left. Horowitz was at his best when in transition between his two identities. Chambers’ imagination was “at its most capacious and subtle only once he had become a conservative, writing Witness.” Although these comments are quite appropriate whether one agrees with them or not, many readers will wish Exit Right had at least briefly discussed its subjects’ respective impacts as conservatives, even if these can be as debatable as style.

Post-conversion analyses are not central to the author’s goal of illustrating how vulnerable our political faiths can be. But they would have rounded out his stories by explaining what each man’s costly break—which, in one way or another, meant a major lost investment—arguably allowed him to achieve later for his new side. The book’s subtitle, after all, says they “reshaped the American century.”

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