What are we to make of the so-called red-pill phenomenon of recent years? Taking the red pill—an allusion to a plot element in The Matrix film series—is meant to suggest that a liberal has awakened to the truth of conservative views. Amusingly, the same metaphor is applied to a political reversal in the opposite direction: the left coined the phrase becoming woke—originally a term of approbation—to describe awakening to the truth of left-wing views. The left and right apparently agree on one thing: it’s better to be awake than asleep.
The experience of disillusionment is part of human nature—and becoming disillusioned with one’s own political orientation is hardly a new phenomenon. For instance, in the 1940s, some formerly ardent communists found themselves turning against the Soviet Union, and, in the 1980s, some who had been left-wing radicals in the 1960s found themselves moving rightward.
Many people who abandoned their allegiance to communism during the early Cold War era have fascinating histories—including Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, who defected as Soviet intelligence agents and are said to have exposed 42 US government employees as Soviet intelligence sources. Although many of their contemporaries doubted their testimony, it has since been substantially verified—for example by post-Cold War declassifications of Soviet diplomatic cables intercepted by the US National Security Agency, releases from Soviet archives and a 2009 book co-authored by a former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev.
The 1940s: Red Defectors Lit a Spark that Helped Ignite McCarthyism
Elizabeth Bentley, born in 1908, was from an old New England family and graduated from Vassar, a prestigious old-line women’s college. In her autobiography, Out of Bondage, Bentley describes how, having received a fellowship to study in Italy, she experienced Mussolini’s fascism first-hand, and found it horrifying. In response, upon her return to the United States, she joined the American League against War and Fascism, a group dominated by the US Communist Party. In 1938, she took a job at a fascist-controlled Italian cultural organization in New York and leaked some of their documents to Jacob Golos, a Soviet intelligence agent. Contrary to spy-craft best practices, Bentley and Golos fell in love. When Golos died of a heart attack in 1943, Bentley took over his network of sources, which included mid-level Washington bureaucrats—most notably the then assistant secretary of the treasury, Harry Dexter White.
However, because Bentley was not a Russian—and perhaps also because she was a woman—her Soviet superiors sidelined her and reassigned her sources to other agents. According to Bentley, her pique at being cut out from a task that had given her life meaning prompted her to go to the FBI and tell them everything. It was only after this defection that she experienced a philosophical conversion to anti-communism.
Whittaker Chambers, born in 1901, was the grandson of a Civil War veteran and had dropped out from another old-line American college—Columbia University. He joined the Communist Party in 1925 and became involved in espionage in 1932, serving as a courier between Soviet agents based in New York City and their US government sources in Washington, D.C. In his autobiography, Witness, which reads like a thrilling spy novel, Chambers describes how he became disillusioned with communism in response to Stalin’s execution of rivals such as Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev—who had formerly been treated as the Bolshevik equivalent of rock stars.
These executions led Chambers to fear that he might suffer the same fate as Juliet Poyntz, a disillusioned communist who had reportedly been kidnapped by Soviet agents in New York’s Central Park in 1937, and later murdered. Chambers quotes a telling maxim that was then current among his Soviet confederates: “Any fool can commit a murder, but it takes an artist to commit [what looks like] a good natural death.” Thus, in 1938, Chambers arranged his own disappearance: he hid out at a rural location in Maryland and got word to the Russians that he’d arranged for compromising documents about Soviet espionage to be released if he were to die prematurely.
This tactic worked: Chambers lived undisturbed until 1948, when Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony led to Chambers being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (While this committee is deservedly infamous for its overbroad investigations, which led many innocent people to be arbitrarily ostracized from their professions—it was well within its purview to investigate federal employees who were providing government secrets to a foreign power.) Chambers confirmed Bentley’s allegations and turned over microfilm of documents purportedly implicating Alger Hiss, one of the Roosevelt administration’s top state department officials, as a Soviet spy. Leading Democrats lined up to defend Hiss, while Republicans, including a young Richard Nixon, supported Chambers. (Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury for having falsely denied under oath his relationship with Chambers.)
Chambers was never convicted of a crime, and went on to become an editor at National Review, a conservative magazine run by William F. Buckley, who is remembered for his literary style, but who was also, at the time, a supporter of racial segregation and a strong advocate of McCarthyism. (Chambers, by contrast, always kept his distance from McCarthyism, and wrote a paean to Marian Anderson, an African American opera star.)
From One Bubble into Another
Why do people abandon their ideology? Sometimes it is simply because they get access to new ideas. For example, after his defection, Chambers described his former thought process:
I had always known, of course, that there were books critical of Communism in the Soviet Union. There were surprisingly few of them (publishers did not publish them because readers did not read them). But they did exist. I never read them because I knew the party did not want me to read them. I was then entirely in agreement with the European Communist who said recently, about the same subject: “A man does not sip a bottle of cyanide just to find out what it tastes like.”
Similarly, Bentley writes:
But more important was the influence of the Party’s psychological devices, one of the most powerful of which was the educational program. It consisted in so saturating the new member with Party-slanted literature, and in so insulating him from any outside sources of information, that he ended by accepting the Communist line as the only correct one.
When a person has been captured by a political ideology, they tend to exist in an information bubble. Once they leave that bubble, all the information in the world is theoretically available to them.
Why then do some of them—instead of moderating or broadening their views—shift to a new set of radically different but equally extreme political beliefs—in effect trading one bubble for another? One possible explanation is that many of them remain fascinated by their former beliefs, except now seen from a different angle. They may plough through books, articles and videos seeking to answer the question, “What just happened to me?” In the process of doing such in-depth research, they may emerge from one rabbit hole only to jump into another.
Another possible explanation is that many activists who deconvert are motivated primarily by their emotions or personality traits rather than by ideas. A study of the personal histories of many political extremists seems to support this explanation. And it makes sense that political activists passionate enough to join an illegal, underground organization would probably find a routine office job under-stimulating. They would probably thirst for another cause to join—and perhaps feel particularly qualified to lead a charge against their former comrades, having lived so much among them.
Another possible motivation is the fear of being ostracised or even killed by your former ideological companions, which can dispose you to want to reject everything about them. For example, Chambers successfully used blackmail to keep Soviet assassins at bay. And, according to archival documents, the Soviets discussed the possibility of poisoning Bentley (though they apparently never attempted it). Today, those taking the red pill may fear that their former political allies will engage in character assassination against them. People tend to affiliate with those they believe will protect them, whether from actual or reputational murder. And that can lead them to further conform their views to those of their new allies.
In addition, the need for basic financial security can be a motivation. Elizabeth Bentley successfully got the FBI to pay her basic living expenses. And in a recent podcast interview, the comedian Jamie Kilstein noted that his cancellation opened up the possibility that he could make a living as a professional anti-leftist—if only he were willing to publicly espouse a few ideas he didn’t actually believe in. (Kilstein said that he decided against doing this but has not yet found his feet financially and has struggled with suicidal thoughts.)
The 1980s: Red Diaper Babies Dump the New Left
In the 1980s, a ripple of deconverts emerged from among those who had been leaders of 1960s radicalism in the US. Many of them were born in the 1930s and early 1940s—for example, Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz were born in 1937 and 1939, respectively, and the youngest member of the Chicago Seven, Rennie Davis, was born in 1940. They had been so-called red diaper babies—children of US Communist Party members and their allies—and had grown up attending schools and summer camps that instilled leftist ideology in them. But by the time they came of age in the 1960s, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had acknowledged Stalin’s crimes, and young American radicals were seeking a New Left that looked for inspiration, not to Russia, but to Cuba and North Vietnam.
Radosh became involved in campus activism as a college student, and in 1975, in his late 30s, he celebrated the fall of Saigon as a leftist victory. But he then got into trouble with his New Left comrades over a disagreement about the nature of the Old Left. He had originally joined the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case, which aimed to prove the innocence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple who were executed in the 1950s by the US government for providing atomic secrets to the Russians. But as a professional historian, he ploughed through newly released FBI files on the Rosenbergs and found to his dismay that Julius Rosenberg had indeed spied for the Soviets. When he published his findings in his 1983 book, The Rosenberg Files, he immediately became a pariah to his socialist friends. Radosh writes in his autobiography, Commies:
Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the reaction to The Rosenberg Files made me finally move to consider the ultimate heresy: perhaps the Left was wrong not just about the Rosenberg case, but about most everything else.
David Horowitz met Ronald Radosh at a Communist Party youth event when they were teenagers. Then, as an adult in the 1960s, Horowitz became an editor at Ramparts, a trailblazing New Left magazine, and an outspoken supporter of the Black Panthers. But Horowitz, like Radosh, had an experience that turned his head around. As he relates in his autobiography, Radical Son, in 1974, when the Panthers needed a bookkeeper, Horowitz recommended a former Ramparts bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter. A month later, Van Patter’s body was found in San Francisco Bay; she had been beaten to death. No one was ever arrested for her murder, but Horowitz suspected that members of the Panthers were responsible (there was speculation that they wanted to prevent her from disclosing bookkeeping and tax irregularities). While other leftist activists closed ranks, wanting to protect the Panthers from scrutiny, Horowitz felt guilty about his role in connecting her with them, and this led him, he writes, to experience a sudden existential crisis while standing in a bookstore in Berkeley, California:
Although my own books were confined to a tiny portion of a single shelf in this vast array of human learning, I had always found security in the belief that a hierarchy ordered it. I [had] visualized a pyramid whose apex was Marxism, which was my life’s work, and which provided the key to all other knowledge. Marxism was the theory that would change everyone’s world. And put mine at the centre. But in that very moment, a previously unthinkable possibility also entered my head: The Marxist idea, to which I had devoted my entire intellectual life and work, was false.
A few years later, in 1981, Horowitz published an article about the shooting of Fay Stender—a radical leftist lawyer and prisoners’ rights advocate—which had left her paralyzed. Because the shooter had also been a radical leftist—a member of a black-power prisoner organisation—the article was controversial in the radical leftist community, and the fallout from it led Horowitz to fear for his life. It was this visceral fear, rather than philosophical reflection, which motivated him to shift rightward—so far to the right that he voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and organized a conference in 1987 called “Second Thoughts,” which brought together a number of other chastened former Sixties radicals, including Ronald Radosh.
Leftists Who Have Second Thoughts Sometimes Have Third Thoughts
Over the past thirty years, Horowitz has moved even further to the right, becoming a mentor to the Trump administration’s Stephen Miller, and writing a 2020 bestseller, Blitz: Trump Will Smash the Left and Win. (Disclosure: Horowitz published a few of my articles about twenty years ago.) Radosh, for his part, completed his breach with the left in the late 1980s by endorsing aid to the Contras, who were fighting a guerrilla campaign against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And he later aligned with neoconservatives.
However, lately, Radosh has emerged as a Never Trumper, and earlier this year, he co-authored a broadside against Horowitz, writing:
Today he’s an intellectual pyromaniac who honors the MAGA mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Horowitz’s provocations are calculated to destabilize the electoral process … Such rhetoric makes Horowitz an enemy of the open society and beyond the pale of rational political discourse. Our old friend must be defeated on every political front on which he operates, a counteroffensive that should begin by investigating and exposing the Horowitz center’s fundraising scams and the potential abuse of its tax-exempt status.
Be Careful What You Swallow
People who have abandoned the far left share some characteristics with people who have been exiled from their native country. Many exiles become embittered and even turn into political mirror images of the compatriots who have rejected them. For example, although many Cuban immigrants have made substantial positive contributions to the United States, some anti-Castro exiles have been involved in acts of terror. Similarly, Iraqi had an important role in pushing for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although exiles have the benefit of familiarity with their home country’s culture, the very intensity of that personal experience may sometimes deprive them of the psychological distance and perspective needed to make moderate judgements.
As someone who is in the centre politically, I’ve often felt joy upon encountering the voice of someone who is newly waking up from the fanciful dreams of the left—only to experience a drop in my stomach as that person begins to echo the views that haunt the sour dreams of the right. Physical pills from the pharmacy often come with a line in the centre that allows them to be split—for example, when a doctor recommends that a patient begin with a half dose and ramp up over time to avoid side effects. Those who are considering swallowing a red pill would be well advised to take a cue from these doctors: cut it in half and start with a smaller dose to avoid known side effects—such as debilitating obsessions and bitterness.