A paradox of 20th-century American politics is that its most sustained ideological movement, modern conservatism, was the brainchild of ex-Communists who had been disillusioned by the crimes of the Soviet revolution or caught on the wrong side of factional disputes. Estranged and unhappy, they went in search of a new god and helped create it—in the mirror image, it has often seemed, of the one that failed them the first time. Together they were “Stalin’s gift to the American Right,” John Patrick Diggins wrote in Up From Communism (1975), his account of four writers who exiled themselves from the left and then wandered like restless spirits before finding refuge in the pages of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, Daniel Oppenheimer, a writer and a director of communications at the University of Texas at Austin who was born the year after Diggins’s book came out, reprises and updates the history of political defectors. To Oppenheimer’s credit, his own politics, which seem somewhere on the left, don’t intrude on the absorbing stories he tells. He begins with the ex-Communists Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, then discusses two renouncers of liberalism, Ronald Reagan and Norman Podhoretz, and closes the circle with two casualties of the ’60s–’70s radical left, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens. “The ex-believers—the heretics, the apostates—are the problem children of any politics, in any time,” Oppenheimer writes. But the problem, he suggests, isn’t theirs. It’s ours. So quick to denounce or praise, and to demand to be told which side everyone is on, we forget that politics also offers parables of second thoughts and transformation. Ideological changelings, if we catch them mid-flight, remind us that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined.” They can show us, too, “how hard it is to be a person in the world, period, and how much more confusing that task can become when you take on responsibility for repairing or redeeming it.”
Repairing and redeeming set the bar awfully high, and imply a religious mission. This was true enough for Chambers, the Soviet spy turned impassioned anti-Communist, who really did think of himself as Jonah spat out of the whale: He wrote of his exemplary role, as the accuser in the Alger Hiss spy trial (“the Great Case”), that he had miraculously prevailed “against the powers of the world arrayed almost solidly against” him. But what of the bon vivant Hitchens, who didn’t ever quite leave the left and whose ideological arabesques came in the pages of The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and The Nation and in what he once described as “the guilty companionship of the green room, where rivals forgather to remove makeup and more or less behave as if they all know they’ll be back sometime next week”?