"A political identity is always a negotiation, between what it demands and who we are," asserts freelance journalist Oppenheimer as he explores "the negotiation of specific left-wing identities…and how those negotiations fell apart."
In this confident debut, the author examines the processes by which six prominent figures—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—came to alter their political views to move from being devotees of the left (arguably excepting Reagan) to advocates for conservatism (arguably excepting Hitchens). Oppenheimer’s purpose is not to suggest some unifying principle behind his subjects' metamorphoses or to evaluate the views of either the right or the left but rather to explore the nature and origins of personal political belief. He tells these individuals' stories because "it's during the period of political transition…that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible." The author contends that we can learn something of value "about the world and ourselves by observing that process with empathy and respect," in particular a degree of humility about our own apparently deeply held political principles. On one level, the book is a narrative of six ideological odysseys, driven by shifting leftist orthodoxies unique to their times and by personal, emotional issues unique to the individual. The events span the period from the Stalinist 1930s through the New Left to the post–9/11 left of today—"a history of the American Left in the Twentieth Century"—and Oppenheimer ably reveals each era's characteristics, contradictions, and challenges to intelligent adherents. The author excels in portraying the personal torments and costs to his subjects in their transitional struggles, including losses of self-confidence, friendships, and professional relations. The interplay between large historical movements and personal anguish is well-balanced and skillfully handled throughout.
Whether his subjects are viewed as champions or apostates, Oppenheimer's insightful narrative should inspire some soul-searching among political believers of every stripe.