|Originally published: 1952|
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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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