We all love conversion stories. Our history is riddled with them. Perhaps the quintessential conversion, unrivaled in its drama, unexpectedness, and completeness is that of St. Paul, who encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. The story has penetrated our consciousness and our language so that a “Damascus Road experience” denotes a radical and instantaneous conversion. Other great conversion stories inevitably come to mind. St. Augustine’s struggle with the Christian faith took place over years and finally culminated in the dramatic scene in the garden with the child’s voice chanting, “take up and read.” In the 20th century, the conversion of Whittaker Chambers from communism to a defender of the West represents a pattern and trajectory that those on the right find both thrilling and comforting. After all, our own convictions are inevitably strengthened when someone who has long opposed our views experiences a change of heart and joins our side.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that both Augustine and Chambers give us their conversion stories in their own voices through autobiographies. That form provides a level of intimacy and introspection like no other. But conversion stories can also come in the form of biography, and a more specific form is the intellectual biography. In Walk Away, Lee Trepanier and Grant Havers have compiled a collection of short intellectual biographies that tell the stories of an array of twentieth-century thinkers who have, as their title indicates, walked away. Specifically, they seek to tell the stories of those who have walked away from the political left and, in the process, turned right.
The title itself hints at Ursula LeGuin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” LeGuin describes a blissfully happy society that, through some unknown mechanism, is dependent upon the unutterable suffering of an innocent child. As a rite of passage, the authorities require every child in the society to look upon the suffering innocent and accept their role in the social order. Some in Omelas choose to ignore the injustice, suppress any misgivings, and continue to live as if nothing were amiss. However, some cannot bear the thought that their happiness is made possible by the suffering of another. LeGuin concludes her story with these haunting words:
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas…. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
This volume tells the stories of some who have walked away from what they came to see as harmful ideologies. In this sense, Chambers provides the template, for communism represents the most alluring and pervasive ideology of the 20th century. Chambers recounts how one former communist rejected it, not for intellectual reasons, but for profoundly human ones. In short, “one night he heard screams.” This man, along with Chambers and many others, walked away, or perhaps desperately fled, from the horrors of the gulag and the killing fields. Chambers understood his conversion from communism as far more than a change of political affiliation. He grasped the profoundly spiritual dynamic at the heart of his turn. For him, Christianity provided the only clear alternative to the materialistic and dehumanizing religion of man.
While Chambers provides a story arc and articulates a justification for his conversion that extends from politics to philosophy and ultimately to religion, the stories of conversion in this volume tend to be far more muted, less dramatic, and often less explicitly religious. Virtually all the stories herein include a growing disillusionment with Marxist orthodoxy and an attempt to find, often in fits and starts rather than in a single turn, an adequate alternative. And it is here that the image of walking away is, at least at times, misleading, for while some of the subjects of this volume do, in fact, make a complete break with their Marxist past—James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall are good examples—others are far less committed to ridding themselves of all Marxist residue. In that sense, their conversions are not conversions at all but rather modifications that employ resources from the right to defend certain categories and commitments that are typically associated with Marx.
With that said, this volume provides helpful, brief introductions to the thought of ten individuals (along with a chapter on the neo-conservatives) who have, over the course of their intellectual careers, moved, in various ways, from left to right. As with any such volume, some of the chapters are more helpful and engaging than others, and this, no doubt, will partially depend on the particular interests of the reader. The book also provides helpful introductions to several schools of thought derived from Marxism including the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and Analytical Marxism.
The chapters on Burnham and Kendall provide examples of clean and decisive breaks with Marxist thought. However, one of the interesting aspects of this volume is the chapters on figures whose thought, once they begin to question their retail Marxism, is difficult to categorize as either left or right. For instance, Alasdair MacIntyre’s well-known embrace of Aristotle in After Virtue presaged his full-on conversion to Thomism along with, perhaps not surprisingly, an embrace of the Roman Catholic Church. But with that, MacIntyre does not become a conservative. Despite a break with Marxism, on the grounds than it lacked an adequate metaphysics, MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelian-Thomism provided him with the conceptual tools to continue his critique of capitalism begun when he was a Marxist. This, along with his embrace of tradition as a necessary ingredient for any adequate conception of rationality, makes it difficult to, as contributor Kelvin Knight puts it, locate MacIntyre anywhere “along liberal democracy’s political spectrum—left, right, or center.”
Christopher Lasch is another enigmatic thinker who, in significant ways, moved from left to right, but as Jeremy Beer writes, “he never entirely disavowed such influences as progressivism, Marx, Freud, and the Frankfurt School.” In this sense, Beer continues, Lasch “never underwent a Damascene ideological conversion, but rather gradually and reluctantly came to shed certain leftist presuppositions and preoccupations.” While Lasch rejected significant aspects of the left, he was never fully comfortable on the right. He, like MacIntyre, argued that certain elements of market capitalism have done serious harm to cultural institutions. Lasch dedicates significant effort to describing how market forces have intruded into areas that ought to remain untouched, most notably the family. Thus, Lasch found himself at least partially aligned with cultural conservatives but not fully on-board with the broader commitments of the American conservative movement. As Beer puts it, Lasch sought to “transcend the Left-Right impasse in American life… through the reinvigoration of the populist tradition.” Central to this project is Lasch’s insistence that free peoples need to recognize limits, a notion that is as foreign to leftist sexual politics as it is to the economic aspirations of the right.
A chapter combining reflections on two Canadian thinkers, George Grant and Charles Taylor, is sufficient to whet the appetite, but will leave some readers wanting more. Both move away from the doctrinaire left, but refuse to conform to standard right-wing categories. Grant—a neglected thinker sometimes referred to as a “Red Tory”—
seemed to be on the Right when he defended religion and the sacred contra secularism, questioned the pro-choice and pro-euthanasia movements, defended the significance of the family and friendships, and he seemed to be on the political Left, when he opposed the market economy, capitalism, multinational corporations, American military industrial complex, American imperialism and held a high view of the state as a needful agent of the commonwealth.
Did he walk away? Is he trying to repair a breach? Or is he seeking something outside the left-right divide that characterizes political thinking today?
Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, what makes this volume intriguing is not the standard tale of “leftist sees the light, repents of his past, and joins the right” but something more nuanced and more hopeful. This book provides the rudimentary outlines of thinkers who have rejected the false god of Marxism with its materialist metaphysics and its insistence that the disorder of the world can be repaired by political means. But just as important, at least some of these thinkers have also, like Solzhenitsyn, realized that the pathologies latent in Marxism ought not to be exchanged for the pathologies under which the west is currently suffering: secularism, hyper-individualism, consumerism, and alienation (which helps give birth to identity politics). Charting a course that avoids both extremes is an essential task of our time, and it is a virtue of this book that we can learn something about how that can be done.