Originally published: 1952
799 pages
Chapter 41


Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers wished to change the world; it was a conviction, not a crusade. Witness is his intensely personal account of a life that ceased to be his own because of his beliefs. All of humanity's frailties, foibles, and failures, as well as its integrity, goodness, and striving are exposed as Chambers tells his tale. The harsh light of his reality, to the fierce dismay of mid-twentieth-century liberal America, exposed a cancer within our government; the country did not see the death of this scourge until the collapse of the Soviet Union fifty years after Chambers began his struggle.
     Chambers, a simple soul, grew up in a famously dysfunctional and poor family in pre-World War I rural Long Island. The conflicts and confrontations in his life make the reader pause. His travels were not black, then white; his life was a kaleidoscope of learning experiences, and even the shades of his evolution were always changing; his journey reflected the times in which he lived.
     Like many of us, he was initially quite timid:

               I ran away from my first fight. In those days I did not know that courage
               is the indispensable virtue. Life had not yet taught me that, without
               courage, kindness and compassion remain merely fatuous postures.

For each of us these sentiments are worth contemplating-and reading again. Chambers's own reticence faded as he endured life, and what he presents in this recounting of his experience reflects the courage


most of us wish for as we realize what life demands. Kindness and compassion are not effectively bestowed without a long view and direct action.
     Chambers became educated almost as a last resort-he failed at most everything he tried up to the point of returning to school. He joined the Communist Party in his twenties and broke with it a decade later when he realized that communists were not engaged in communism, but in a conspiracy-the goal of which was power over all human beings.
     As a communist, Chambers was devoted, committed, and active. His turn to this dark theology in the 1920s came as a result of the despair he felt after World War I. His was an intellectual and emotional act to make the world better. In a sense he was naive and narrow; the opponents he ultimately exposed, who were once his compatriots, derided him for that, but from their perspective not his. (To understand how the same circumstances Chambers experienced could lead to a completely opposite course see the biography of Wilhelm Ropke following the synopsis of Economics of the Free Society [Chapter 23].)
     Chambers was a thinker first, but also a revolutionist. For the reader's benefit, early in his recitation he asks how so many bright, involved, educated, and experienced people could have turned to communism. Of course, he was one of them. His answer reflects the time in which he lived: "A man does not become a communist because he is attracted to communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing." As he explains his
somewhat guileless youth, he elaborates: "Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind" that the world can be a better, more fair, more livable place. Like Marx, his intellectual inspiration, Chambers and a particular cohort of the American liberal establishment were enamored of what communism offered. They thought (without thinking) "I can do that. I can live a life of communism, of utopian ideals." And they were right. These ideals could become actualized, but only if the world were not populated with people, who suffer from the human condition. What happened to communism is what happens to any system that requires for its success the demolition of the human spirit-failure in the face of reality.
     Communism was ruthless. But, since it was justified-at least according to the thinking of its adherents-the barbarous path of terror and dictatorship leading toward it was also justified. This is Machiavellian, with the ends justifying the means. It is also adolescent nonsense,


carried out by deadly force. Chambers's case for what he did during the 1920s and 1930s may cause readers to question his understanding, even his sense. In 1922 Ludwig von Mises had already published his massive work Socialism (Chapter 32), which debunked collectivism in toto. The arguments against communism didn't change in 1925 or at any time during the following six decades, at the end of which the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed of its own weight-as Mises and many others had predicted. But after World War I, naive intellectuals the world over thought that their collectivism might be feasible. Chambers embraced these false hopes, which grew and were romanticized in his mind by their opposite, the disastrous social and economic experience of his earlier years. Most of all Chambers and so many others saw communism as the means to end war for all time. As time demonstrated, it was just the opposite-it threatened war continually.
     The story of Chambers's life is as much about defeating totalitarianism in its most personal and intrusive form (i.e., as a pernicious force invading an individual's imagination with visions of glorious equality) as it is about Soviet Communism in particular. Regardless of how thoroughly Chambers rued his youthful errors, his country ultimately benefited from his principled repudiation of his erstwhile allegiance to communism. Chambers explains himself by noting that "the revolutionist cannot change the course of history without taking upon himself the crimes of history." In other words, Chambers's guilt for the world's condition underpinned his sense of responsibility-"he" made this mess and it was his obligation to right it.
     This narrative is about one man and two cultures, the one in which he lived and the other where he secretly worked. In addition to this chronicle, Chambers provides an insight into his intellect. His asides, such as his commentary on the New Deal (President Franklin Roosevelt's program to revitalize America in the midst of the Great Depression), are stimulating, revealing, and still relevant today. The New Deal emotionally satisfied Chambers's generation even if it didn't resolve the economic disaster of the 1930s. He later understood that Roosevelt's program

               was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform
               within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and above all,
               the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by
               violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking.


     Chambers's observations are still timely. He recognized that the power shift that occurred in the 1930s was a transfer of control from the world of business to the society of government. This was a revolutionary transformation for which violence was unnecessary given the grave economic failures of the time. The then-present disaster was falsely laid at the feet of the capitalists and the free market, thus the country undertook an oblique course to socialism and government control of the economy; Chambers ultimately saw it for what it was.
     That similar arguments are made today by the welfarists for government control of more and more of our everyday lives and the economy to "protect" any particular segment of society evidences a second revolution. In this era power is taken from individuals and subsumed by government which will then rectify life, no matter the arena-employment, education, health care, retirement, personal safety, etc. Settling this much control in the society of government (and it must be noted that government, at all levels, is a society unto itself; those in government often act with more supposed power than we give them in order that they might do what is best for us) is the antithesis of the constitutional democracy created in 1776. The efforts of the government are always presented as a national obligation to repair inequality-a condition that has no limits.
     The attainment of authority in political matters was and always is the goal because of the nature of human beings. To bring Chambers's observation forward, the same attitude can be seen in neoconservatives today, and for centuries past by liberals of varying hues. As a result of ego or false intellect, or plain naiveté, people may intentionally seek power and offer their good intentions-or something the population fears, such as terrorism-as their rationale or vehicle, or worse, their justification, to achieve control. In all events, the world seems to change very little in how it works. Thus the disconnection between the goals, the means, and the results of those who would control society for its inhabitants is ever present.
     Chambers explains the bitterness of liberals of his era as he exposes the insufficiency of their thinking and their notable gullibility (and early on his as well, of course):

               The men in power at this time, who could not see that what they believed
               was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see
               what added up to Communism.


     Do liberals tend toward political innocence in all generations, or do they refuse to face the reality of following their own course to its logical conclusion? Are they just intellectually lazy, seeing the goal but unwilling to face both the chimerical nature of their desires and the human values strewn along the path they travel to reach their idealized vision? As Chambers observes, every move against the communists was felt by the liberals to be also a move against them, for they couldn't or wouldn't distinguish between themselves and overt totalitarians. How they could either miss or refuse to see this was never explained by them after the fact-they dismissed the whole process of Soviet Communist infiltration of the U.S. government as something with which they really weren't involved, although the facts clearly demonstrated otherwise. Today liberals, who cannot see that what they believe is welfarism adds up to socialism, again miss or refuse to see the long-term effect of their policies on both the country and those they claim to want to help. And, just as facilely, they aver they are not involved in anything so nefarious as what they are directly doing.
     The liberals of the 1940s understandably derided Whittaker Chambers as a traitor (to the country he was trying to protect, but what they really meant was that he had deserted their cause); that was the most convenient counter-accusation and explanation to minimize, or even dismiss his primary indictment. Their reaction to his assertion of communist infiltration in the government was one of feigned disbelief and ridicule. We now know that even the most innocent of them couldn't have been more wrong. And the most involved could not have been more deceitful both in their attempt to discredit Chambers and in their refusal to believe the intellectual reality of communist goals. As a cautionary tale, Witness remains pertinent today, more than a half century later.
     What ultimately brought Whittaker Chambers to action was a core cognition of himself and his world. He found that indispensable courage he thought he lacked in childhood when as an adult his utopian blinders dissolved in the face of too many realities. At that point he understood that the force of words alone was not enough against the treason of communist ideas. Chambers intones that "acts were also required of a man, if he were capable of them." Thus, Chambers acted.
     When telling his story, he neither excuses nor defends his past. Once World War II began, he felt compelled to rebel openly against totalitarianism and his own communist goals. He saw his role as that of a person who must bear witness to the evil ends and methods embraced


by the communists and their liberal dupes. He thus exposed his friend and co-conspirator, Alger Hiss, a high State Department official, as a communist and an agent of the Soviet government. From the moment of Chambers's accusation, to the beginning of Hiss's jail term a decade and a half later, Chambers led the life of a figure in a fable.
     The personal and public roadblocks he encountered when he turned informant make Chambers's journey through these darkest hours a story of heroic proportions. He wanted to understand those against whom he must testify, but he didn't want to harm them as individuals while exposing their communist infiltration within the U.S. government. That reticence complicated matters sorely. At the same time, he was forced to confront the Soviet monolith (which had almost perfectly protected communism's secret existence in America) and intellectual and emotional skepticism among the members of the Eastern Establishment that such a conspiracy could possibly exist. He describes his difficult path simply and eloquently, because he writes with his heart as much as with his head.
     But even understanding all that transpired, all that he sought to change, Chambers felt an authoritarian collectivist society was the one that would ultimately rule the world. When he finally quit the Communist Party Chambers said, "I have left the winning side for the losing side." He acted against his expectations because he knew the monolith that was communism was wrong. He, like so many intellectuals of his era, had little faith in the ultimate rationality of human will or the power of individuals. Here again we see the pessimism, in spite of their own intellectual comprehension of the nature of the conflict, of those so deeply immersed in the middle of a battle, so battered by widespread but irrational or romantic conspiracies opposite of their knowledge. We saw earlier that no matter what they knew to be true, both Joseph Schumpeter and Wilhelm Ropke (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy [Chapter 38] and A Humane Economy [Chapter 33]) also felt that the weak side of the human condition would allow totalitarian constructions to ultimately prevail over freedom. That all three men were wrong in their predictions is not so much a testament to their lack of faith as a reflection of the overwhelming force of the times in which they lived.
     Chambers's story can be seen as dated. Politically and economically, communism is dead. But totalitarianism and collectivist assumptions are not (witness the resurgence of socialism in Latin America in the early 2000s). There were two dangers to which Chambers called attention sixty years ago: one was an immediate threat to the nation's security,


while the other was the more pervasive threat of intellectual and political meddling with the human spirit. His observations in both these arenas still ring true. The Muslim jihadists of the twenty-first century find blasphemy in all things different from their view, and they, like the communists before them, want to impose their values and beliefs on everyone else-by force, not debate. Although global warfare over these issues is virtually unthinkable because of the freedom that has spread since the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of conflict on a smaller scale is ever-present. And the threat of plain terrorism is a fact, not a conjecture. Thus the times, again, must make us recall the need to keep our responses rational in the face of those who intend us harm.
     The debates of the day are becoming more intellectually intense because of the fact of stateless terrorism and its potential for more mass murder, and the scarcity of real-time solutions that have been offered. In appreciating these circumstances it becomes apparent there is a pristine beauty in Witness, primarily because its lessons are the same that apply to our current dilemmas. Chambers writes a personal study of governance and of the human personality. His insights, and most of all his demonstration of the inherent need of intellectual integrity and personal action, make his story still wholly readable and useful in today's political cauldron.
     Unmasking the communist conspiracy in the U.S. was a lonely task for Chambers. He nonetheless persisted, and in the process exposed how American communists enjoyed protection behind a complicated weave of establishment intransigence, liberal psychopaths, political expediency, and war-time distractions and even disbelief (remember, the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II, and uncovering its duplicity in this era was a delicate matter). The conspiracy was so vast, subtle, and effective that its sheer size and audacity convinced all at the top to ignore it because claims about its existence seemed so exaggerated. Obviously they were not.
     In the end fealty to the principles with which Chambers fought his battles will stand us in good stead.

About the Author
Born on April 1, 1901, Whittaker Chambers lived a life of strong contrasts. His early years were hardscrabble as he worked in varied sectors of the American labor economy. He later attended Columbia University before working as a translator of foreign-language books.


Chambers eventually became a senior editor for TIME Magazine and, coincidentally, a farmer. The years between his youth and his departure from the Communist Party were spent initially as a paid and open party organizer for the American Communist Party, then ultimately as an underground conspirator/agent of the Soviet government employed to engage in espionage. His witness against the party and its members-his friends and fellow believers-began in earnest in 1939 and ended fourteen years later with the conviction and incarceration of Alger Hiss, Chambers's close associate and handler. Richard Nixon, then a congressman from California and the member of the House Un-American Activities Committee who was Whittaker Chambers's champion and believer, rose to prominence and ultimately the vice-presidency on the substance of the Hiss case. After the Hiss
trial, William F. Buckley, Jr., befriended Chambers and gave him an editorial job at the newly founded National Review where he worked until he could work no more. Whittaker Chambers died in July 1961, after long struggles that had ravaged his body and his soul. In the end one can tell he rested in peace.

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