It’s like blaming your spouse for your own unfaithfulness. Political conversions are painful affairs, as hard to face up to as falling out of love or losing your religion. Or maybe harder. Religious faith, being beyond the reach of reason, doesn’t have to answer gotcha questions about a previously held position. There’s a special contempt reserved for the political apostate—an accusation of intellectual collapse, an odor of betrayal. When you switch sides, you have to find new friends. Political identities are shaped mainly by factors that have nothing to do with rational deliberation: family and tribal origins, character traits, historical currents. In “Partisan Hearts and Minds,” published in 2002, three political scientists made an empirical case that political affiliations form in early adulthood and seldom change. Few people can be reasoned into abandoning their politics.
In the twentieth century, the void left by the loss of religion was sometimes filled by totalizing political systems, and the result was a literary genre of confession that is as powerful and probing as the Augustinian kind. “The God That Failed,” published in 1950, compiled personal narratives by six former Communists and fellow-travellers, including André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Richard Wright. Each one told a tale of coming of age in a world riven with crisis, finding meaning in Marxism, identity in the Party, and inspiration in the Soviet Union, gradually growing disillusioned, and finally breaking with Communism. In some cases, it was an experience akin to watching a former self die. It was nearly impossible for these writers to discover a new faith, political or religious, to replace Communism and its power to erase the sense of insignificance that awaits any sentient person.
Two years later, in 1952, came “Witness,” by the century’s most tormented ex-Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Daniel Oppenheimer’s sequence of biographical essays about six left-wing defectors, “Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century” (Simon & Schuster), begins with Chambers. This is Oppenheimer’s first book, but he writes with the assurance and historical command of someone who has been thinking about his topic for a long time.