Radical Son, Then and Now

David Horowitz’s classic memoir Radical Son was called by George Gilder “the first great autobiography of his generation,” and P.J. O’Rourke described it as “one of the best political memoirs I’ve ever read.” Post Hills Press has just published a second edition of Radical Son with a new preface by the author. What follows is David’s new preface, which focuses on the murder that is at the heart of his story and shows how the racial demagoguery and violence of our own time is inextricably linked to the political nightmares of the past.

Of all the books I have written—and there have been many—Radical Son is the one that has touched the most people, and touched them the most deeply. I think the reason for this is that it describes a personal odyssey through the political labyrinths of our times. Its narrative addresses the psychological and religious dimensions of what it means to be a radical and to harbor utopian dreams of re-creating the world and making it just. Secular radicals have variously called these dreams of a heaven on earth, “socialism,” “communism,” or “social justice.” These fantasies are consolations for the flawed world in which we actually find ourselves, and cannot escape. Their seductive power is so great as to have lured legions of intelligent and otherwise compassionate individuals into supporting movements and regimes that are among the cruelest and most oppressive in all human history. Radical Son is an account of my journey into the heart of this radical evil, and of my release from the illusions that led me there.

There is no other account by members of my radical generation, of which I am aware, that pursues the gut-wrenching interrogations that writing a witness like this required. Others had second thoughts, and wrote political repudiations of the movement they had served. But none examined the human consequences of those political beliefs and their rejection, or the internal struggles they provoked.

There was a severe injunction against an honest confrontation with the past. To leave the Left as I did was to turn against human hope and promise, and to join instead the forces of darkness—so my ex-comrades believed. When I was thirty-six years old and publicly announced my departure in an article called “Goodbye to All That,” which I wrote with my friend and political fellow traveler Peter Collier, I lost every friend I had acquired in my life until then, and countless platforms for my work. It was why Whittaker Chambers famously said in Witness that he had left the winning side for the losing side. The “winning” side was the side with the ideas—however delusional and destructive—that people were willing to die for. The promise of an earthly redemption was a hard hope to beat. Armed with such ideas, the radical generation of the Sixties was able to engineer a turning point in America’s political life whose ramifications are still shaking the nation’s political foundations sixty years later.

I wrote Radical Son in the years 1993–1995, following the fall of Soviet Communism and the exposure of its crimes, which included the impoverishment of whole continents under the yoke of socialist policies that did not and could not work. In the prologue to the original edition, I wrote triumphantly: “The collapse of Communism and the progressive future reveals how the moral language of politics has been hijacked by radicals. The fallen angels of the progressive Left—Marxist and socialist—have been exposed as the reactionary ghosts of an oppressive past. It is the ideological adversaries of the Left who float on the wave of a future that is free.”

I was wrong. The Left did not die or reform itself in the face of the human catastrophes it had helped to create. I was wrong in assuming that leftists would take this lesson to heart as I had myself. I was wrong that the nation would finally free itself from those destructive delusions. I had underestimated the power of a crypto-religion.

It is twenty-three years now since the publication of this autobiography, and the messianic Left is stronger and more influential than ever before. In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders, a lifelong supporter of Communist dictators and causes, was poised to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination until he was stopped by the Clinton machine. By the time the Democratic Party nominees had assembled themselves for the 2020 presidential election, their principal themes were the Marxist formulas that had failed on such an epic scale, and that Sanders had successfully introduced into the political mainstream.

The thoughtless radicalism of the Sixties had not died with the tyrannies it promoted. Well before the Communist collapse, the Left had already begun what its leaders referred to as, “the long march through the institutions,” itself an homage to the mass murderer Mao whose “Long March” had concluded with his conquest of state power. The New Left’s long march had begun in Chicago with the riot Tom Hayden staged in 1968 at the Democratic National Convention. Its purpose was to destroy the electoral chances of Hubert Humphrey because he was an anti-Communist liberal. This debacle was followed by the infiltration of the Democratic Party by the same street radicals who had sabotaged its electoral chances. They proceeded to create “radical caucuses” as platforms for their goal, which was the eventual takeover and transformation of the Party. This goal was accomplished forty years later with the election of a lifelong veteran of their ranks, Barack Obama.

Of even greater long-term consequence was a parallel offensive, which eventually transformed America’s liberal arts colleges into one-party Marxist states. This led to the subversion of America’s cultural and media institutions and their transformation into partisan advocates for the radical Left. During these years, I wrote six books analyzing and chronicling this phenomenon: Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery, (2001); The Professors, (2004), Indoctrination U. (2007), One-Party Classroom, (2009), Reforming Our Universities, (2010) and The Left in the University, (2017), which was published as Volume 7 in a series of 9 I have written about these developments, called The Black Book of the American Left.

To sum up these developments: while Communism had been vanquished, outside the lands of the Iron Curtain—and particularly in America—there was no triumphant dancing on Communism’s grave, and no mea culpa by its progressive allies. In America and Western Europe, a renascent Left explained away the atrocities and catastrophes it had supported by saying that what took place in Russia wasn’t “real socialism.” Real socialism hadn’t been tried, and therefore hadn’t failed. Nothing could capture the invincible arrogance of leftists so clearly as this pathetic sophistry to cover up their crimes.

Liberalism had given way to a cultural Marxism, which denied the very idea of the individual and revived Marx’s class war as a war against racial and gender oppression. This “identity politics” was itself racist, and obliterated the fundamental principles of America’s democracy which is based on individual equality, individual freedom, and individual accountability. Races and genders are not mentioned in the Constitution for good reason. Because the Founders intended to create a society composed of equals. The Left’s long march through the institutions had created an infrastructure of support for these anti-American currents, which were dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of America’s constitutional order.

At the center of Radical Son is the story of my engagement with a murderous street gang, the Black Panther Party, whom the Left had raised to national prominence and anointed as “the vanguard of the revolution” and “America’s Vietcong.” I had become involved with the Panthers out of a kind of radical innocence, which caused me to judge them according to their synchronicity with the radical ideas I had embraced. Like other progressives, I ignored—or was simply blind to—the warning signs and actions that kept others at a distance, including the black community itself. Without understanding whom I had become involved with, I recruited a forty-two-year-old woman who worked for me, named Betty Van Patter, to help their cause, not realizing that one day they would kill her, and alter my life forever. Although I survived my own encounters with Betty’s killers, I paid a terrible price for my blindness, whose consequences were painful for me to describe in print. I was willing to embarrass myself and bare my wounds because the truth they revealed could serve as a warning to others. Few episodes better illuminated how “idealistic” radicals like myself could become involved with criminal actors and events. Few stories were so revealing of how corrupted our educational and cultural institutions had become through their openness to radicals and their hatreds, and also their support for the criminal activities and agendas associated with them.

Readers of the original edition of Radical Son will be familiar with the terrible events that changed my life, and also with the investigations I conducted on my own to learn the true nature of a cause I had so foolishly served. In the course of these inquiries, I discovered a very different reality from the political mythologies that the Panthers used to cover their tracks. Underneath the pretense that they were a party of the people defending the oppressed against the powerful, they were in fact a criminal gang that preyed on poor communities and murdered more than a dozen people, all but one of them black. I collected this information from news stories and reporters I knew, and checked it with what I knew from my Panther contacts.

Long after I had put my experiences with the Party behind me, a memoir appeared, whose insider account of the Party’s activities made it a perfect measure of what had happened to the country, and to the Left I had turned my back on. The memoir was called Will You Die With Me? and was written by Flores Forbes, who had been the head of the Panther’s team of internal enforcers, which my informants had referred to as “The Squad.” Flores Forbes was also the individual the Oakland District Attorney’s office believe murdered Betty Van Patter. Because police were unable to get other members of The Squad to talk, however, no one was ever charged in the case.

Forbes’s book corroborated the investigations I had conducted by myself and reported in Radical Son. Although Forbes’s memoir remains loyal to the mythology of the Black Panther Party and to its leader, “my prince, Huey Newton,” virtually every page of his book testifies to the fact that the Panthers were a black mafia, and that their ethical code was that of common thugs and killers, masked by their political aura.

The case that eventually sent Forbes to prison was an attempt to assassinate Crystal Gray, a black prostitute who had witnessed Newton’s murder of another prostitute named Kathleen Smith, who was eighteen years old and also black. She had made the mistake of calling Newton “baby,” which enraged him, prompting him to pull a small pistol from his shirt and kill her. Newton was charged with the crime, and a trial date had been set.

In an aside that sheds a rare light on the thought processes by which gangsters like Forbes bend their “revolutionary” principles to the service of criminal ends, he recalls a passage from Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary classic, Wretched of the Earth. “[Fanon] states that it is the oppressed people’s right to believe that they should kill their oppressor in order to obtain their freedom,” writes Forbes. “We just modified it to mean anyone who’s in our way.”

The assassination of Crystal Gray was planned for the day before the trial hearings were scheduled to begin. Forbes and his partner showed up in the early morning hours at the humble apartment complex in Richmond, California, where Gray lived. But they made a fatal mistake and broke in the door of a forty-eight-year-old black bookkeeper who reached for her weapon and began firing. In the ensuing melee, Forbes was wounded, and inadvertently shot and killed his partner. After fleeing the scene, he recruited the Panthers’ ambulance driver, Nelson Malloy, to help him as he fled to Las Vegas.

Although Forbes pretends the assassination attempt was entirely his idea, this makes no sense. It was not how the party functioned, or how Forbes related to his leader. Forbes’s fiction is transparently designed to protect Newton who was behind the whole plot. When Forbes and Malloy reached Vegas, Newton sent two other members of The Squad to catch up with them and kill Malloy. Nelson Malloy was not a gangster, but one of many idealistic young people who joined the Panthers in response to their political appeals. Newton feared that Malloy would talk and link him to the crime. The Panthers shot Malloy twice in the back and buried him in a shallow grave by the side of the road, thinking he was dead. However, passing tourists heard his moans and dug him up. He survived but was permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Forbes was on the run for three years, housed, hidden, and cared for by radical lawyers and activists who inhabited the same revolutionary fantasy and regarded him as a “political fugitive.” After three years of flight, Forbes grew tired of being unable to contact friends and family. Calculating that he was only facing a few years in jail for killing his friend, he turned himself in and was convicted of “felony murder,” for which he was made to serve five years in Vacaville and Soledad prisons. Following his release, he was able, with the help of his radical networks and his status as a revolutionary hero, to obtain a college degree from San Francisco State University, and then a full scholarship to NYU, where he became an urban planner and was welcomed into the Democratic power structure in New York.

One incident in Forbes’s upward climb throws a particularly clear light on the political attitudes of the time. Through contacts he was able get a job in the office of the Manhattan Borough President, a Democrat. Four months into the job he received a call from the New York City Department of Investigation, who informed him that they had just received the results of his FBI inquiry. The following conver sation then took place:

“I see you have had about eight major felony arrests, two felony convictions that involve use of a firearm, with one resulting in a felony murder conviction and one prison term. Well, what were you doing to compile such a record?”

“I was a member of the Black Panther Party in California for ten years.”

“Oh, okay. That answers that. Now let’s move on to your taxes.”

Seven years after the publication of Will You Die With Me?, Forbes attempted an autobiographical sequel. It’s title, Invisible Men: A Modern Slave Narrative in an Era of Mass Incarceration, was an implausible attempt to portray his post-prison success as part of the saga of black oppression. The book came with an introductory preface by Communist Party historian and UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley, attacking prisons as a modern form of slavery, a common trope of the anti-American Left.

In his narrative, Forbes makes clear that he regards the inconveniences he suffered as a result of his crimes as an injustice to him. He exhibits no remorse for his victims and no appreciation for the short jail time he spent for plotting the assassination of Crystal Gray or killing his friend, or for the cold-blooded, botched execution attempt which ruined the life of the ambulance driver, Nelson Malloy, who tried to help him. The fantasy of the “revolution” he served by committing violent crimes, mainly against vulnerable black people who were not political, remains for Forbes a source of inordinate pride. Equally revealing is his continuing adoration for the criminal who recruited him to the Panthers when he was sixteen, made him a gangster, murdered an eighteen-year-old black woman, and ordered him to assassinate another.

Flores Forbes’s story is emblematic of what America’s political culture has become. His title today is Associate Vice President of Strategic Planning and Program Implementation at Columbia University, where he is a pillar of the academic community. Meanwhile, those of us who worked to bring the criminal reality of the “revolutionary” charade to light are persona non-grata among administrators and faculty at Columbia, which happens to be my own alma mater.

And this travesty is not confined to one Ivy League school. There are academic tributes and shrines to Panther gangsters at UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, the Smithsonian, and numerous similar institutions across the country. This is a pretty fair measure of the Left’s institutional ascendance in America in the wake of the mayhem its radical activists have created and the atrocities they have committed.

Radical Son was written as a witness to the dark undercurrents of American politics and to their enduring power in the nation’s life. It has definitely had an impact. Whether the revelations contained in its narrative can seriously affect the course of this history is unlikely. But as long as the book has open-minded readers, the possibility exists that new generations will be able to put together these lessons with others, and perhaps affect the outcome. Or maybe just one individual will have been affected by this book in such a way as to avoid experiences as painful as I had to endure. That would be sufficient reward for the ordeals of writing it.

If you have not read Radical Son, I highly recommend it. You can buy the second edition here.

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