Most people remember Whittaker Chambers for his 1948 testimony in the Alger Hiss spy case, exposing Soviet dirty work at the highest reaches of the U.S. government. After describing to the House Un-American Activities Committee his own message-running for the Communists during the Thirties, something the Time journalist, a convert to conservatism, deeply regretted, Chambers implicated his friend Hiss — a former State Department official and then-head of the Carnegie Endowment — as a fellow operative, passing state secrets to the Soviets. Hiss went to jail for perjury and became for the Left a presumptively innocent casualty of anti-Communist hysteria (in fact, he was as guilty as sin). Chambers wrote Witness, his 1952 classic chronicling his seduction by Marxism and later spiritual awakening as a Christian, retired to his farm in rural Maryland, and briefly became a contributor to William F. Buckley’s youthful National Review. He died of a heart attack in 1961.
This extraordinary political story, along with the earlier drama of Chambers’s life — including an unhappy upbringing and conflicted sexuality — has been covered masterfully by Sam Tanenhaus in his 1997 biography. Richard Reinsch’s brief study touches on the biographical but his real interest is in Chambers as a thinker. Drawing not just on Witness but on his subject’s journalism for Time and Life and extensive personal correspondence, including with Buckley, Reinsch reveals a Chambers who thought deeply about modernity, freedom, and the destiny of the West, which he saw as dark indeed.
Reinsch does describe the personal crisis that led Chambers to embrace Communism as a salvific force. First was the broken family: the frustrated, love-denying graphic-artist father and “harrowed,” depressed mother. Whittaker and his brother Richard blamed their familial misery in part on what they believed was an alienating and unjust bourgeois universe, which had frustrated the aspirations of their parents. Then came young Whittaker’s 1923 trip through a Europe still recovering from World War I. The senseless industrialized barbarism of supposedly enlightened societies had left the Continent in rubble and despair, and left Chambers in existential crisis. His religious faith was gone. His promising college career had ended abruptly the year before, after Columbia University censured him for a blasphemous play. Richard’s suicide in 1926 pushed Chambers over the edge. As he observed in Witness, “Life that could destroy so gentle a nature as my brother was meaningless.”
In an age of uncertainty, only the Marxists seemed to Chambers to have a purpose. He began to write for Marxist publications and joined the Communist underground in 1932. Back in the U.S. after receiving intelligence training in Moscow, he couriered stolen documents, moving between New York and Washington at the bidding of his new masters.
Chambers broke with the Communists in 1938. Two “movements of the soul,” Reinsch writes, “pushed him from the Communist lair.” Chambers grew disgusted with the Communists’ cavalier violence toward their opponents, their utter disregard for human life. And he linked their murderousness with their secular faith. After all, as Reinsch puts it, “according to the Marxist-Leninist point of view, the laws of history were capable of providing the perfection necessary for man’s elevation from his near-constant suffering at the hands of injustice. Death and imprisonment logically followed for those standing athwart the dialectical process and its consummation in universal peace.”
The second movement of Chambers’s soul was a return to God. Chambers meditated on “the delicate convolutions” of his baby daughter Ellen’s ear. “The thought passed through my mind,” he later recalled: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature.” If not chance, he reasoned, then design, and if design, a Designer — and if a Designer, then man couldn’t be his own master, as the Marxists’ promethean worldview maintained. Chambers’s traditional faith rekindled as his Communist false faith flickered and went out.
#page#Chambers was no longer a Marxist, but he was far from sanguine about the future of the bourgeois democracies; he felt he had left “the winning side for the losing side.” The West’s “total crisis,” Chambers believed, resulted from its abandonment of the traditional Western vision of man under God. That understanding provided meaning and depth to human existence, as well as a sense of limits and — something necessary in the struggle against Communism — a justification for sacrifice and suffering. Modern democratic man, “the voracious self-norming individual,” in Reinsch’s words, was often selfish, materialistic, and relativistic, and probably no match for the Communist true believer.
Chambers’s philosophical project was to bring old wisdom to the bourgeois city, which might, he thought, give it a fighting chance against the totalitarian menace. Human life shouldn’t be about securing the widest possible realm of individual choice, without considering the kinds of choices people made. “Chambers,” writes Reinsch, “located man in his full bodily and spiritual reality and articulated a humane order from a premodern anthropology.” Meaningful freedom directed man to transcendent ends. And Chambers came to believe that the Catholic Church was a teacher of those ends, the “bedrock of truth,” as Reinsch puts it, though he never actually joined the Church.
Chambers elevated a counter-canon to modernity’s reigning masters Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Reinsch offers a partial list: “Jonah, the raising of Lazarus, The Divine Comedy, Macbeth, John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Les Misérables, George Fox’s spiritual writings, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, and selected poems of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.” Reflecting on these and similarly rich Western sources, as Chambers did, might help lead the modern age to recover its fundamental truths and begin an “ascent from modernity,” Reinsch maintains.
Reinsch recounts in this context Chambers’s famous dismissal in National Review of Ayn Rand, whose novel Atlas Shrugged, he argued, expressed a worldview every bit as inhuman as Marxism in its cold, atheistic materialism. “Randian Man, like Marxist Man, is made the center of a godless world.” There was no salvation through capitalism, as Rand believed, any more than there was in Marxist Revolution. Where were noble ideals like sacrificial love and mercy in Rand’s selfish universe? Why were there no children in Atlas Shrugged? Chambers’s influential review drove Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy to the fringes of American conservative thought.
I once spoke with Jack Kemp about Chambers. Kemp thought Witness a great book, but felt Chambers “was too pessimistic, too bleak.” That comment seemed glib to me at the time — Kemp was ever the sunny optimist — but there’s something to it. After all, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Western capitalist democracies finally triumphed over their Communist opponents. As Reinsch acknowledges elsewhere, Chambers “underestimated certain reserves of liberty in the West.” Chambers’s Cold War America could claim plenty of God-fearing families, and hard-working, self-sacrificing, charitable, and civic-minded people; today’s America still can.
Yet does Chambers’s emphasis on the need for moral renewal seem so exaggerated, post-financial crash? Wall Street has always had its greedy con-men, and they were very busy in recent years, creating new ways to bet mind-boggling amounts of money with no money in hand until Wall Street detonated. But one troubling aspect of the financial disaster was how many ordinary Americans bought mortgages they knew they couldn’t afford, often with a nod and a wink or an outright solicitation from sleazy lenders. A free society, to flourish or even function, requires a constellation of virtues like thrift, self-reliance, and honesty. An engagement with the life and thought of Whittaker Chambers — an engagement that Richard Reinsch’s intelligent book exemplifies — helps remind us of that necessary fact.
– Mr. Anderson is editor of City Journal and author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents, South Park Conservatives, and other books.