Saturday, July 9, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’s death. Rightly remembered for his pivotal role in the electrifying Alger Hiss spy case, Chambers was nonetheless much more than a government informant. As Richard M. Reinsch II demonstrates in this essay—excerpted from Reinsch’s acclaimed intellectual biography, Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary—Chambers was a profoundly important thinker who grappled with the nature of modern man’s predicaments. In fact, Reinsch shows, Chambers’s penetrating insights may be more necessary today than they were even at the height of the Cold War.
While researching totalitarianism for an academic conference, I encountered many impressive voices that analyzed Communist ideology and its noxious effects in the twentieth century. But of all the voices, it was the odd-sounding one of Whittaker Chambers that most illuminated this dark scene. The thought of writing a book exploring his intellectual contributions struck me as an act of recovery, one that would weave together the strands of an enduring Chambers for future reflection. Years earlier, when I read him as an undergraduate, Chambers had cast a devastating glance on the strange and jealous gods of the modern West and their manifestation in the United States. However, the light Chambers shone on his contemporary disorder—a light I had received in my first pass through Chambers’s epic autobiography, Witness—remained inchoate, a brooding presence in my own intellectual development.
Chambers’s writings seemed also to me displaced. In the America of the last days of the twentieth century—dominant militarily, financially, and commercially, and the victor of the Cold War—his dire pronouncements seemed out of step with reality. Moreover, the conservative movement that Chambers had indelibly shaped was in its second return to prominence by way of the 1994 congressional elections at the same time I was reading Witness. The appeals made by conservative congressional hopefuls to the electorate largely consisted of arguments for material abundance or increasing the scope of individual choice. Such options would open to the citizen and consumer through welfare state retrenchment and the concomitant increase in purchasing power through market expansion. Nothing was more distant to the mournful spirit of Chambers’s writings and witness against the hydra beast of totalitarianism and its anti-theist humanism and materialism. The conclusion seemed bare. The heaviness of Chambers’s writing, accepted by the nascent conservative movement of his day, no longer seemed to contain insights that should be heeded by the statesman or the intellectual.
But what, in fact, should be said by a conservatism faced with such prosperity, or now, perhaps, decline? For this, one must return to the achievement of Whittaker Chambers, and the infusion of his spirit to what had become a nearly inanimate body of thought, smoldering underground, while the aims of the New Deal were being concretized in the nation’s experience. This fact, coupled with the near-constant advancement of Communist ideology, spoke to Chambers of the need for recovery halfway into the twentieth century.
To be sure, this quest, when conducted under a different intellectual dispensation, had originally led Chambers to Communism, for which he served first as a journalist, writer, and essayist, and then as an underground courier and contact. In his initial attempt to resolve the apparently broken condition of the modern West Chambers discovered that salvation by technique, in this case, perfection through Communist government, was illusory and murderous. This insight, which eluded many of his contemporaries, uncovered a much larger idea—man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.
Communism was the most logical extension and application of several ideas that had held sway over modernity since the Continental Enlightenment, Chambers believed. These had all pointed to man’s singular capacity to order the political, social, and economic realms by finally resolving through univocal reason the sufferings and mistakes that had dogged man throughout his existence. Reason’s enthronement had promised a type of liberation. Against this intellectual backdrop of a human existence conceived as limitless possibility Chambers came to affirm precisely the opposite. If everything was possible to modern man, according to the new intellectual priesthood, Chambers sounded that man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.
Chambers’s largest political act was his testimony in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 against Alger Hiss for acts of treason Hiss committed while a high-ranking official at the United States Department of State. Following on Hiss’s indictment by a federal grand jury was a series of dramatic events that led to his later conviction for perjury in 1950. Chambers’s testimony against Hiss, as he instructed in Witness, was to punish past and forestall current and future treason by government officials with direct and indirect ties to the Soviet government. The case’s larger meaning—for its factual narrative rests beyond impeachment—is betrayal of both nation and the very spirit of man through allegiance to an ideology which recognizes neither.
In describing Chambers I have continually held two pictures of him in my mind, twinned aspects of the existence he lived as a Communist and, then, as a free man. One depiction is of Chambers ambling down the streets of Washington, D.C., pilfered documents in tow, serving the Soviet Union in the most conspiring of ways, having betrayed his country in the process. The picture contains not only a Communist Chambers, but a compartmentalized man, loving family on one day and, on another, hauling stolen federal government documents to clandestine locations, as an underground courier. It is an incomplete Chambers, much like the revolution he sought to serve—a life that succeeds only by the gross subjugation of greater truths. As Communism denied man his full being, so Chambers, as an underground agent, existed through transgression of country and his spirit.
The other scene is Chambers, this time his hands joined to the soil and to the care of his cattle and sheep at his farm in ancient Maryland, engaged in what British commentator Rebecca West termed Chambers’s “Christian Pantheism.” West’s observation certainly accords with the inspiration and repose Chambers drew from agricultural labor. In his last decade, Chambers’s laborious tasks of writing and farming proved sanctifying. A life seemingly wrecked by the storms that crushed millions of men found its meaning—the measure of reality—in the life of a yeoman farmer. From this labor came a strange hope, albeit a fleeting one, and from it came Witness and the later collections of writings left for posterity: writings that contain a life that gave the eloquence of truth to an age and people unwilling to embrace it.
In reading Chambers, one does well to remember his final teaching in the last paragraph of “Letter to My Children.” His son’s and daughter’s hands, Chambers informs them, will slip from his grasp; however, “It will not matter.” Their father will have shown them the path to tread; they are now ready to see and walk alone. Separate paths will not mean separate destinations or disparate meanings. “For when you understand what you see, you will no longer be children. You will know that life is pain, that each of us hangs always upon the cross of himself. And when you know that this is true of every man, woman and child on earth, you will be wise.”
Click here to purchase Richard Reinsch’s Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, from which this essay is drawn. National Review notes that “Reinsch reveals a Chambers who thought deeply about modernity, freedom, and the destiny of the West, which he saw as dark indeed,” while The Daily Caller writes simply: “It’s taken over 60 years, but someone has finally written a great book about Whittaker Chambers.”