The Enduring Relevance of Whittaker Chambers’ Witness
First published nearly 70 years ago, Whittaker Chambers’ Witness provides relevant, instructive, and inspiring encouragement for those currently engaged in the fight against today’s ascendant Left. Although there is a wealth of useful insights within its covers, two stand out as central.
First, Leftist ideologies are always and everywhere about acquiring power to wage an assault upon liberal (in the classical sense) values and institutions. Second, individual redemption after falling under the sway of these or any other malign influence is indeed possible by dint of reason, faith in a transcendent power, and the courage to follow those lights.
Witness is most well known as the firsthand account of Chambers’ exposure of and subsequent testimony against members of the communist Ware Group, which led to the 1949-50 espionage trials of Alger Hiss, then a high-ranking State Department official. Hiss was ultimately found guilty of perjury and sentenced to prison.
But Witness is more than just that story. It is a poignant autobiography of a young man born at the turn of the twentieth century, coming of age in the wake of the devastation of World War I. He became obsessed, as did many contemporaries, with what they saw as “the crisis of history” in the 20th century. It was despair generated by this fixation that drove Chambers to become a communist at the age of 24. He first served in the open American Communist Party as a (mostly) unpaid writer and editor for various communist publications. Later (1932-38), he was recruited into and served as an underground operative in the Soviet espionage network in New York and the federal government in Washington, D.C.
Gradually learning of the ruthlessness of Stalin’s consolidation of power during the mid-1930s, and particularly the Great Purge of 1936, Chambers became increasingly disillusioned with communism, and eventually came to see it as the earthly manifestation of “absolute evil.” After much soul-searching and careful preparation, he decided to break with the party and did so in 1938. In fear for their lives, he and his family went into hiding. They lived covertly for nearly a year, until the 1939 signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact convinced Chambers that he must combat materially the malevolence that led to such an alliance against the Allied Powers. He decided he must inform upon the Soviet apparatus within which he had once worked.
He did so via an arranged meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle where he described the depth of communist penetration into key U.S. institutions, including the departments of State and the Treasury. Berle in turn quickly informed President Roosevelt on what Chambers had disclosed to him. FDR however, dismissed Berle’s information and concerns. Thus, for essentially a decade -- throughout World War II -- communist infiltration of American government institutions continued apace through the naivete, indifference, or political calculation of senior political elites.
Serious investigation of Chambers’ allegations by congressional committees and eventually the Department of Justice did not take place until almost ten years after Chambers initially came forward.
Witness is an intelligent and compelling, if sometimes overwrought history of the early years of the Cold War and the decades running up to it, replete with names, places, and specific events. More important are the central themes running through it, the first of which is the implacable war waged by the totalitarian Left upon the values, traditions, civil institutions and the people who hold them imperfect but dear.
The book makes clear that whether one is talking about the Jacobins of the 18th century, the various revolutionaries and anarchists of the 19th, the communists, Nazis and other assorted fascists of the 20th century, right down to our contemporary Antifa and Black Lives Matter insurrectionists, their goal is never to amend, correct, improve through persuasive argument, or positive law. Their enduring determination is only to rage against and destroy by any means necessary, the root and branch of existing “power structures.”
To the leftist mind (or better, emotions) these structures constitute the only obstructions to their goal of bringing about the truly just, egalitarian societies that history demands. Never mind that history shows that every such time those ends have been achieved, the net result is destruction of the freedom, agency, and dignity of the human persons involved through vastly increased death, destruction, and material and spiritual misery.
This does not mean that elite promoters of these ends are blind to the consequences. It means only that 1) they believe that societies must go through a necessary period of “cleansing” before they can rebuild a new and better social order; and 2) that elites (like them) will always be the ones doing the cleansing and never be among the cleansed. History, once again, proves both theses false (just ask Leon Trotsky).
As conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has put it, it is axiomatic that leftist intellectuals and those whom they infect with their doctrines of resentment see leftist purposes, motives, and methods as innately and self-evidently morally superior; it falls to those who may disagree to demonstrate otherwise -- which of course is impossible, as those making such arguments are by definition morally corrupt by virtue of their divergence from leftist orthodoxy. That such ideology has no foundation in reality is either irrelevant, or perhaps a desired feature; reality, after all, has a nasty habit of eventually rendering all utopian fantasies just that.
Thus rather than substantively address objections to their designs, the leftist response is invariably condemnation, ridicule, slander, libel and increasingly in our time, physical violence against any who may point out the basic unworkability of leftist ideology and the damage its pursuit inflicts on actual human beings and societies. Such people are to be “cancelled.”
This was the fate of Whittaker Chambers when he had the courage to openly speak out against the evil in his time; such is the fate of any who do the same in ours. Chambers lost his job -- senior editor at the once-great Time magazine -- his reputation and friends, at least in the literary circles he until then inhabited -- and suffered severe health problems due to the prolonged strain associated with his exposure of communist subversion. In an era lacking our social media, the sheer volume of vituperation heaped upon Chambers was not perhaps as great as that directed today against opponents of the Left, but it certainly was no less severe or damaging. The only response today is Chambers’ then: don’t give in and keep punching back. Among others, our current president has learned this lesson well.
It is telling that when as a young man, Chambers rejected the Christian faith of his upbringing, the void created was filled with communist ideology. Once he broke with that false religion, Chambers avers that only his recovery of the faith of his youth (Quakerism) made him whole again and provided the ultimate strength that brought him through his proximate crises and indeed sustained him throughout the rest of his life.
Therein lies the second great lesson of Witness. Chambers willingly entered and for years abetted a deeply evil cause. Throughout that time however, he consciously and sincerely sought truth. Through this consistent application of conscience, he came to recognize the lies and wicked agenda he was helping to advance. That conscience ultimately led him back to its higher source and if not to where he started in life, then to where he surely belonged.
Interestingly, Chambers relates how when he decided to defect from his Soviet taskmasters, he remarked to a friend that he feared he was leaving “the winning side.” Until his premature death of a heart attack in 1961, Chambers apparently continued to hold to that unhappy resignation. Nonetheless, he never expressed regret over his rejection of communism, nor what he had done and suffered in his fight against it. Although America in fact defeated the Soviet Union, that achievement has done little in itself to extinguish the perpetual allure of the destructive ideology which animated it.
For those who continue to see America as founded as the last best hope for humanity, the battle proceeds apace. But it must proceed with a clear vision of the challenges ahead (and behind) and the faith and strength required to ultimately vanquish them. Witness is a valuable aid in that pursuit.
Image: Random House