Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

Whittaker Chambers through the Eyes of Rebecca West

Rebecca West (Madame Yévonde/Wikimedia)
West understood more clearly than anyone the allure of Communism for educated Westerners

Bolshevism’s appeal to Western intellectuals is a mystery we still struggle to explain. Why did artists who despised patriotism show a larger loyalty to Russian chauvinism? Why did writers defend a regime that repeatedly imprisoned, tortured, and killed writers? In short, why did intelligent people who lived in free countries worship at the altar of despotic states? Few thinkers studied this enigma more carefully than the British critic Rebecca West (1892–1983).

That is not an achievement we associate with her name. Rebecca West is more likely to be recalled for The Return of the Soldier (1918), an innovative psychological novel; or for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), that grand bio-travelogue of Yugoslavia on the cusp of war. Her reports on the Nuremberg trials, and the post-war trials of British fascists, also continue to find readers, especially among students of journalism. West’s writings on Communism, by contrast, lie unread, unsung. Many of them sparked controversy in her own day, and are well worth revisiting in ours.

In articles, book chapters, and book reviews spanning six decades, she returned to the allure of Communism for educated Westerners. (Its attraction for militant members of the industrial working class was no real puzzle, she said, not least because Marxism deified the proletariat.) Reviewing the second volume of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago for the Sunday Telegraph, West bitterly recalled that “25 years ago a large part of the Western European and American population of intellectuals were, with disgusting single-mindedness, pimping for Stalin.”

Decrypting Communism’s appeal, West believed, required paying close attention to the lives of true believers, people such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, and Alan Nunn May, and also to ex-Communist apostates such as Arthur Koestler and Richard Wright. She drew portraits of them all. But no life to her was more fascinating, and perhaps more revealing, than that of Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), the Communist, later ex-Communist, informer whose testimony sealed the doom of Alger Hiss. It was in the conduct and words of Chambers that West found a source of longing for Communism that transcended Chambers himself. The context of her discovery was a trial and a book that caused a sensation in early Cold War America.
 

THE TRIAL

A Harvard-educated lawyer, Alger Hiss (1904–1996) was a former State Department official who had accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta. Suave and quick-witted, Hiss could boast many accomplishments: These included being the founding secretary general of the United Nations Charter Conference and, at the time of his interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The vita was formidable both for what it included and for what it left out. Hiss’s nemesis Whittaker Chambers would supply the deficiency.

No two men were less visibly and morally alike. Corpulent, somewhat disheveled, and, under klieg lights, soft-spoken, Chambers could never equal Hiss in social polish. But his gifts as an essayist, poet, and controversialist were never in doubt from his student days at Columbia University onward; no less a figure than Lionel Trilling attested to them. When Chambers joined the Communist Party in 1925, he was first assigned to write for its chief organs — the Daily Worker and The New Masses — before being inducted, complete with Russian handler, into the Communist underground; its operatives had penetrated, inter alia, the departments of State, Labor, and Treasury. Chambers acted as a courier, transmitting purloined information to Soviet military intelligence. His comrades and co-conspirators included Alger Hiss. Their relationship was to be broken by character and by events.

Undergoing a metamorphosis of disillusionment that accelerated during Stalin’s purge trials of 1936 and 1937, Chambers defected from the underground in 1938, went into hiding, and then reemerged to reveal to Adolf Berle, an assistant secretary of state, the extent of Communist penetration of the United States government; the Soviet–Nazi non-aggression pact of August 1939 was just one month old. Berle, though wary of Chambers, disclosed the information he provided to the White House and to the FBI, where it lay dormant. The invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June 1941 had turned the vanguard state of Communism into a potential American ally. In the meantime, Chambers resumed public life as a book reviewer and essayist at Time magazine, a short career that peaked in his appointment as senior editor.

At war’s end, Chambers had no intention of revisiting his Communist past in public or of exposing former comrades. If he was now a pronounced antagonist of Communism, and a fervent Christian convinced that the world must now choose between “God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism,” both the enmity and the faith could be amply addressed in journalism.

But in 1948, the previous disclosure to Berle resurfaced and Chambers was subpoenaed by HUAC to testify before it. In August of that year, he divulged the names of several United States Communist Party members. Alger Hiss was one of them. Yet in a bizarre twist of an already convoluted tale, Chambers sought to protect his former friend by withholding the most damning evidence against him. Pressed by HUAC under oath to say whether Hiss had engaged in espionage while holding government office, Chambers denied that he had. It was a plain lie, contrived to shield Hiss from total disgrace. It was as if Shakespeare had risen from the grave to pen a 20th-century tragedy. The stratagem failed. For when Chambers was provoked on Meet the Press, a radio program, to repeat his assertion that Hiss was a Communist Party member while in government employ, Hiss launched a defamation suit against his accuser. Only then, on the defensive, did Chambers unearth documents that showed Hiss to be a Communist spy. In January 1950, in the second of two trials, Hiss was convicted of perjury. Because the statute of limitations had expired by the time of Hiss’s grand-jury trials, he escaped indictment for espionage.
 

WEST’S VERDICT

In 1952, Whittaker (born Jay Vivian) Chambers published an account of the trials embedded in his life story. The book’s pregnant title — “Witness” — carries three meanings. Chambers witnessed the nefarious activities of the Communist underground as an apparat insider. He was a witness in congressional proceedings. He was bearing witness so that the world would understand the evil it was confronting. Rebecca West reviewed the memoir at length for The Atlantic Monthly (June 1952) and, more concisely, when it appeared in a condensed British edition, for the Sunday Times (July 19, 1953). In both reviews she fastened on the personality of the protagonist and his family background, the most formative of all social milieus. Families shape us, she seems to say, not by creating replicas. Repulsion is as common as emulation; often they are combined. We grow sideways, recognizable offspring who are ineffaceably ourselves, forming around the core of our character and the happenstance of our era. In West’s world, the essence of the political is the social. The essence of the social is the household.

The Chambers family story screamed loneliness and incompetence, typified by the dilapidated house in Lynbrook, Long Island, that its members lived in. Whittaker’s brilliant journalist father was a drunkard. An overweening and neurotic mother sought to compensate for her husband’s dysfunction. “The Chamberses were one of those middle-class families,” declared West, “which drift into isolation as if they were criminals.” It was from this habitus that Chambers sought escape.

A hackneyed judgment, repeated even by Hannah Arendt, was that Chambers fled from one “church” to another: from Communism to anti-Communism. Both Communism and its antithesis, it was said, afforded him sanctuary for faith and certitude. Rebecca West agreed that Communism was Chambers’s refuge from a chaotic home and a humiliating childhood. But she concluded that no church would ever be comfortable with a man like Chambers because he threatened its most basic idea: that truth is mediated through an organization. In marked contrast, Chambers balked at all intercession. He was a mystic, not a priest — a man of personal revelation who believed he had a direct line to God and God to him. The fact that Chambers broke with Communism, a body with its own clerisy, dogma, and taboos, showed just how little any institution could contain him. Equally, Chambers’s love for the American countryside — the “third protagonist in the Hiss case” — evoked a kind of Christian pantheism redolent of Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, and Angelus Silesius.

For society at large, West continues, the mystic is both an inspiration and a danger. “Unselfish but egotistical,” mystics are people who stop at nothing to tell the truth as they see it; their firmness of purpose is careless of tradition and a menace to themselves. Such persons strike at the heart of any established order not because they reject it, the stance of the negative dissenter, but because they demand that it live up to a cosmic standard of love and justice. Spouse and children are left to endure the quotidian, chaotic consequences of the mystic’s timeless vision. Mere human artifacts, such as judicial arrangements, are conventions whose laws and precepts must not be allowed to bind the mystic’s God-derived judgment. On West’s appraisal,

Mr. Chambers has perhaps the most slender sense of legality that a highly intelligent man could possess. He seems hardly aware of the need to respect the attempts made by the community to reconcile the conflicting rights of its members. He seems, for one thing, to have a blind eye for contract. This can be seen, oddly enough, in his allusions to his religious affiliations. He says explicitly more than once that he does not accept the Quaker doctrine of nonresistance, yet he is an adherent of the Society of Friends because it is a center of mysticism.

It was thus completely in character that Chambers committed perjury to uphold his own determination of justice in the Hiss case. On Chambers’s scale of reckoning, the authorities should know just enough to convince them that Hiss had been a Communist while active in the State Department. But they should not know the full record of Hiss’s conduct, which would have revealed him also to be a spy. Little wonder that the agents of worldly institutions are perplexed by the mystic and have accused him “on these grounds: ‘This man is telling the truth concerning eternity, but he is in error concerning time, and it is in time that we have to do our present duty.’ There is much in this complaint. But the mystic has often been able to answer: ‘Because I sought the truth in eternity, I alone have had the strength to tell the truth in time.’” The Atlantic’s erudite readers may have caught West’s allusion to Augustine, one of her earlier subjects: “Time and Eternity” is the title of Book 11 of his Confessions.

Another charge can be laid against the mystic; it is that the force of his pronouncements does not match their veracity. Since Chambers was at one time a Communist, the reader is tempted to take him as an authority on that dispensation. In fact, says West, he is an unreliable source and never more so than when he extenuates the behavior of Communists on the grounds that they were guided by misplaced idealism. Scotching this alibi, West insists that idealism was in short supply among Bolshevik militants. When Chambers cites Eugen Leviné (a member of the Communist Party of Germany who helped create the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic) as saying that “we Communists are always under the sentence of death,” West’s retort is scathing. Chambers’s statement is irrelevant to the issue at hand: Communist militancy and treason in the English-speaking world during the 1930s and ’40s. It is not just that very few Communists were ever sent to jail in America or Britain and that, if they were incarcerated, it was only for short periods. It is also that the Rosenbergs will be the first Communists ever to have been executed in the United States. In contrast, millions have been murdered and imprisoned in the lands where Communism prevails, so that it would be more accurate to say, “We anti-Communists are always under sentence of death.”

West also questions Communist idealism from another angle. It is true that the party’s propaganda about peace and the poor attracts persons of good intention. But Bolshevism is not an idealistic creed; it is implacably instrumental. Lenin’s party offered “a contract with the proletariat, guaranteeing it the monopoly of economic profit in exchange for a monopoly of political power.” It was precisely this covenant that socialists refused, believing it would pervert the workers’ movement and the wider society of which it was part; the very moderation of socialists was thus testament to their idealism. Bolsheviks, conversely, were openly contemptuous of idealism. They demanded military discipline, unquestioning loyalty, a subordination of all moral imperatives to the diktat of the party. And so it was that, during the Blitz, as ordinary Britons — socialists and conservatives and liberals alike — demonstrated the faith of people who would rather die for freedom than submit to German domination, British Communists looked to the main chance: With the Stalin–Hitler agreement still intact, they did all in their limited power to weaken Britain in its moment of extremity.

Why, then, did Chambers pay “undeserved tributes” of idealism to the Communist Party, even as he condemned it as pure wickedness? The answer is that Communism provided him with spiritual release. It was only after his younger brother’s suicide that he resolved to become a Communist. “He then took a vow to purge the world of the baseness which he conceived to have killed his brother. The purity of Party discipline seemed to him a solvent which would wash away the filth which had choked the boy.” And while the indifference to self and to suffering that Chambers attributes to Leviné is not actually a feature of Communist behavior, it is most emphatically “recommended by all the classic religions to those who wish to develop their consciousness of God.” Rehearsing an analogy that appears often in her writings, Rebecca West invites readers to return to the Dreyfus case

and try to imagine what it would have been like had the witness who exposed the Army conspiracy been not the straightforward soldier, Colonel Picquart, but Charles Péguy, the Christian poet and philosopher who was Dreyfus’ greatest literary defender, and whose relationship to the Roman Catholic Church showed the same inconsistency as Whittaker Chambers’ relationship to the Society of Friends. The spectators would often have been greatly perplexed.

 

FAILURE AND POWER

The opinions I just summarized derive from Rebecca West’s review of Witness for The Atlantic Monthly. When, a year later, she offered British readers of the Sunday Times an appreciation of the book, truncated to four-fifths of its original version, West’s emphases were somewhat different. Her judgment of Chambers was also harder. To be sure, she calls his memoir a “subject only for respect and wonder, since it draws characters so that more is known about the soul, and carries the human argument a stage further.” But the mystic motif is absent. More heavily accented is West’s contention that the Communism of intellectuals is a response to personal and social failure. Again, both hinge on problems of family adjustment and status insecurity.

We are all aware, Rebecca West remarks, of the spectacular kinds of success that attend the Rockefellers and the Astors. Less recognized is a peculiar kind of American failure. America received not just the illiterate or destitute. Its immigrants also included those who carried with them the legacy of high European culture or, at least, a culture far more refined than that of their new neighbors. Such European immigrants lacked the “practical gifts used in the expansion of industry and commerce” that their robust compatriots possessed. Nor were they sufficiently brilliant to make an impression even where cultural openings were available. They were objects of ridicule to their neighbors, who were offended by their air of foreign superiority, and derided for their impotence in the mechanical arts. And this contempt was shared by those at whom it was aimed, transmuted into self-disgust. Unable, by skill and by predilection, to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by their new environment, such people “fled into isolation and fantasy and sat unvisited in their tumbledown houses.” Whittaker Chambers’s family was the epitome of this sorry breed. West quotes a passage from Witness: “I am an outcast. My family is outcast. We have no friends, no social ties, no church, no organization that we claim and that claims us, no community. We could scarcely be more foreign in China than in our alienation from the life around us. . . . It puts things of the world first. We put the things of the mind first. It knows what it wants better than we know what we want.”

This admission is more self-aware, West adds, than the reasons Chambers adduces for his joining the Communist Party: distress at the plight of the toiling masses under capitalism and an altruistic impulse to come to their aid. That, West says, “is great nonsense.” It is not only that many among these masses were doubtless in a far better state of psychological and social repair than Chambers himself. It is also that the background of Chambers’s decision to become a Communist is a far better clue to his conversion than is any lofty wish to help the proletariat. Chambers joined the Communist Party as an act less of self-sacrifice than of self-preservation. His new life gave him all that his old life had so miserably failed to deliver:

The Communist Party admitted him to a comradeship that spreads all over the world; and in addition it gave him constant employment and a dramatic sense of power over the community that had rejected him and his family. Any mention of uplifting the suffering workers was a useful device to enable him to forget that he was not getting these benefits free but was earning them by rendering services to the Soviet Union.

More generally, she adds, no middle-class child today can any longer expect to enjoy a secure, prestigious, and prosperous life built on the wealth of his parents. For that wealth is diminishing or at least uncertain. Only the children of the very rich, and sometimes not even they, can expect to live as their parents did. This predicament is a magnet for members of the younger generation who are attracted by “the prospect of joining a secret society offering them membership in a world-wide organization and many advantages over the next man in getting a job, while enabling them to pretend that they are accepting these benefits for the sake of the needy proletariat.” And this explains two related phenomena. First, why the Communist Party was so successful in recruiting middle-class intellectuals during the Twenties and Thirties, two decades of maximum insecurity. Second, why many non-Communists were vitriolic in their campaign against Chambers and anyone like him who exposed Communist activity: These critics had “an aching sense that Communism might have been a way out for the stranded bourgeoisie” — an exit to privilege and respect — that indiscreet informers were wrecking.

Among Rebecca West’s posthumously published works is Family Memories, a series of recollections. Rejecting Communism, she says, was the “second most important thing” in her life (marriage to Henry Maxwell Andrews being the first). It was “a political decision I made when I was quite young and which I still hold to, or rather which still holds me as I approach death.” It cost her time and energy that she wished to devote to her novels. It weighed on her health and her nerves. It earned loathing from Marxists, such as George Lichtheim, and mockery from American liberals, including Mary McCarthy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Richard Rovere. All were incredulous at West’s defense of the pre-McCarthy HUAC investigation into Communist subversion that netted Alger Hiss.

The subject of Witness understood West better than those critics did. In December 1947, before being dragged into HUAC’s investigation, Chambers penned for Time a long review of The Meaning of Treason, West’s study of British fascists. The appreciative review contains the lapidary observation that “Rebecca West is a Socialist by habit of mind, and a conservative by cell structure.”

Beyond cell and mind, Rebecca West possessed the spirit of a fighter for liberty. She has still to enter the pantheon of Western critics of Communism that houses George Orwell and Raymond Aron. After decades of neglect, it is well past time she enjoyed, in public reckoning, their company and stature.

This article appears as “Communist Mystic” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Peter Baehr — Mr. Baehr is a research professor in social thought at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His Book of Dictators will be published in 2021.

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