Magazine | May 25, 2009, Issue

Hinge of History

The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, by Michael Kimmage (Harvard, 440 pp., $45)

In this important debut book, Michael Kimmage — a young scholar who promises to become one of America’s preeminent intellectual historians — addresses himself to the journeys of two Columbia University students from the 1920s, Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers. The two could not have been more unalike. Trilling’s Jewish family emigrated from London, where he grew up immersed in appreciation of Victorian England and its culture; Chambers grew up on Long Island, the son of WASP parents in a highly dysfunctional family whose fortunes were declining.

At Columbia, both men were drawn to the student literary magazine, The Morningside. Within a short time, they, along with the other editors, moved into the orbit of the American Communist movement, with Chambers actually joining the Party. Yet, within two decades, both would become leaders of a new anti-Communism, although personifying two very different strands of opposition. Trilling became the architect of what would become liberal anti-Communism, while Chambers singlehandedly built the edifice of a new conservative anti-Communist position. Both sought to defend and preserve Western civilization and its benefits from forces they believed were seeking to destroy it.

Trilling and Chambers each wrote one book that defined the epoch and became the core of its author’s legacy. In 1950, Trilling penned The Liberal Imagination, in which, in Kimmage’s words, he “contrasted an urbane liberal imagination to the vulgar radicalism of the 1930s.” In 1952, Chambers wrote his classic Witness — his “final brief” on the Hiss case, in which he repudiated his own Communist sojourn and presented himself, as Kimmage writes, “on the side of America’s rustic patriots and Hiss on the side of its enlightened, treasonous, and inauthentic elites.” By bearing witness to the crimes both he and Hiss had contributed to, he worked hard to “push against a general tendency toward amnesia and denial.”

The two, of course, had opposite philosophical positions. Trilling stood with the Enlightenment, with its belief in reason and progress. He believed that the middle class — through the vehicles of the state and the university — could rescue the working class and move it toward a new liberalism of the future, “experienced as a kind of grace by each citizen.” Chambers, on the other hand, traced the collapse of the American middle class precisely to belief in the Enlightenment, which led liberals to move, even without realizing it, into the camp of socialism. This led Chambers, in Kimmage’s judgment, to exaggerate Communism’s hold on liberals and the Left.

For Chambers, the only way to keep Communist ideology from spreading in the West was through religion, specifically Christianity. He sought his own personal path to salvation through Quakerism. Chambers believed that Communism, too, was a religion, but one that was bound to fail since it had only revolution to offer as an outcome of belief, and revolution would be capable of producing only a hell on earth. He believed a struggle existed between the “rural Christian masses and a secular, liberal, and urban elite.” For Trilling, on the other hand, all religion was an escape from reality, and he personally and theoretically abhorred those who were believers. 

Trilling and Chambers both believed that it was necessary to confront the Hiss case on both an intellectual and a personal level. Trilling developed his views in the intellectually important 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey. It was about a couple, Arthur and Nancy Croom, who were based on Alger and Priscilla Hiss, and another character, Gifford Maxim, who was based on Whittaker Chambers. The book appeared before the Hiss case took place; Trilling, as Kimmage writes, “anticipated the ideological fault lines of the postwar era, the kaleidoscopic spectacle of radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism as each was transformed by the Cold War.” 

For Trilling, the end of the journey necessitated a dedication to anti-Communism, which he predicted would be embraced by both conservatives and liberals, although in different ways. Still, he wrote in a letter that “I live with a deep fear of Stalinism at my heart,” a fear that brought him close to Chambers in his concerns, if not in his actual political views. Like Chambers, Trilling realized that Stalinism had “recruited the people who have shared my background and culture and corrupted them,” and he dedicated his intellectual life to what he called “a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindness and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time.”

#page#Chambers, of course, was the principal accuser of Hiss, as well as his past associate in the Soviet espionage apparatus. Had he lived into the Reagan era, Kimmage suggests, Chambers would have “felt vindicated to learn that Ronald Reagan knew passages of Witness by heart.” Chambers believed that the rush of liberals to embrace and defend Hiss revealed how little they knew about Communist infiltration and espionage. Having succumbed to the false ideals of Communism decades earlier, they felt a need to deny the truth — that some of those they worked with and admired were secret revolutionaries at night and fake New Dealers by day. Other liberals, Chambers said, minimized any real differences between liberalism and Communism, and actually “adopted Hiss as one of their own.” They reasoned that if they joined those who wanted to punish Hiss, it meant they would be siding with the forces of reaction, and how unfashionable would that be?

Fighting the Communists would be harder than either man suspected, owing to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his much publicized anti-Communist campaign. McCarthy, as Kimmage writes, “indiscriminately targeted the liberal elites who had either defended Hiss . . . or who in some way resembled Hiss.” McCarthy represented some of the very elements Chambers supported: He was a genuine, populist anti-Communist. At first, Chambers refused to condemn McCarthy, but eventually came to describe him as “a raven of disaster” for the conservative movement. 

Kimmage argues that Chambers believed “McCarthy sullied the cause of anti-Communism, encouraging liberals in their self-righteousness.” They could avoid confronting their own tolerance of Communists in the past, and point to the junior senator from Wisconsin “in self-serving horror, fancying themselves the victims of a repressive anti-Communist agenda.” Privately, Kimmage shows, Chambers let his trusted friends know he was fed up with McCarthy. A speech by him, Chambers wrote Ralph de Toledano, would not help anybody “except Senator McCarthy.” After reading William F. Buckley Jr. and Brent Bozell’s McCarthy and His Enemies, Chambers wrote Henry Regnery that “the Senator hasn’t got a leg to stand on.” With the passing of time, Chambers predicted, “the repeated dull thud of [McCarthy’s] low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing.” 

Chambers’s final judgment was that McCarthy might end up discrediting not just himself but “the whole anti-Communist effort for a long time to come.” If he supported McCarthy, Chambers wrote, it would “give the enemy even a minor pretext for confusing the Hiss case with [McCarthy’s] activities.” It would be the Left, not the Right, that would benefit from support for the senator. To the Communists, Chambers wrote, “McCarthy is a political godsend. . . . For the Right to tie itself in any way to McCarthy is suicide.” Later, he would go so far as to emphasize that there was a major distinction between liberals and Communists: “Liberals are not Communists, and a mind would have to be grossly undiscriminating or inflamed by a passion for absurdity, if it supposed that they were.” 

What to do about McCarthy was as difficult a question for Trilling as it was for conservatives. His hope was to change liberalism so that it became unequivocally anti-Communist. Like Chambers, Trilling “sought a balance between McCarthy’s reckless anti-Communism and the self-righteousness of anti-McCarthy liberals, who . . . derided McCarthy and applauded themselves for a sudden amnesia” that led them quickly to forget their own old infatuation with the Soviet Union. “Trilling’s response to McCarthy,” Kimmage comments, “was not notably different from Chambers’s, with the important qualification that Trilling cared about McCarthy as a threat to liberal anti-Communism, while Chambers cared about him as a threat to conservative anti-Communism.” They were united in an effort to create “a mature anti-Communism in America.” 

The Trillings were invited to the Kennedy White House, and were thoroughly enchanted by the myth of Camelot; Chambers’s successors felt at home in the Reagan White House, and had moved on to create a united anti-Communist conservative movement, much as Chambers had hoped. Yet, when the eruptions of the New Left broke out, Columbia’s radical undergraduates saw both men as ancestral enemies. Chambers was completely anathema and depicted as a “corrupt defender of the status quo,” while Trilling was denounced by them as one of the “establishment critics who preached the necessity of order, myth, stability, the conservative tradition.” Were he still alive, Chambers would undoubtedly have joined Trilling in trying to defend the university from the would-be new revolutionaries. The two representatives of differing traditions of conservative and liberal anti-Communism would have stood together against the threat of anarchy emanating from the New Left.

– Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is co-author of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.

Ronald Radosh — Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a contributing opinion columnist at the Daily Beast, is a co-author of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War and the author of Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.

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