Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionaryby Richard M. Reinsch II
What Chambers Can Teach Us
Whittaker Chambers is rightly remembered for his pivotal role in the electrifying Alger Hiss spy case. But as Richard Reinsch reminds us in the latest volume in ISI Books’ acclaimed Library of Modern Thinkers, Chambers was more than just a government informant; he was a profoundly important thinker who grappled with/b>
What Chambers Can Teach Us
Whittaker Chambers is rightly remembered for his pivotal role in the electrifying Alger Hiss spy case. But as Richard Reinsch reminds us in the latest volume in ISI Books’ acclaimed Library of Modern Thinkers, Chambers was more than just a government informant; he was a profoundly important thinker who grappled with the nature of modern man’s predicaments.
Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary shows that Chambers’s thought posedand still posesa challenge to American conservatism and its typical focus on markets and small government. In his journalism, essays, personal correspondence with the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., and landmark autobiographical tome Witness, Chambers engaged more broadly, analyzing the fundamental question of who man is and the classical and spiritual foundations of civilization.
Defying conventional thinking, Reinsch argues that the former Communist spy may have been more right than wrong when he predicted that the West would lose the Cold War. While the Soviets’ Communist system did of course collapse, the spiritual and philosophical sickness that Chambers identified, Reinsch suggests, has not been cured.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
“Reinsch points to Chambers’ deep devotion to the role of G-d in the war between Communism and freedom…. Hopefully my readers will take the opportunity to read Richard Reinsch’s work on Chambers and to further their research by reading Chambers’ actual works. One thing I can assure you ,you will come to better understand current world and domestic events today by reading and learning from Chambers life’s experiences and the views he came to espouse.” The Jewish Star
"Richard Reinsch's book made me go back and read Witness for the first time." The New Criterion
“Eloquent and engaging . . . Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary is intended by Mr. Reinsch as ‘an act of recovery, one that would weave together the strands of an enduring Chambers for future reflection.’ In this he has succeeded admirably.”Washington Times
“It’s taken over 60 years, but someone has finally written a great book about Whittaker Chambers.”The Daily Caller
“Reinsch’s book does more than just recount the history of Chambers. . . . Reinsch argues the spiritual emptiness within the western world that worried Chambers persists.”Politics Daily
"Reinsch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.”Acton Institute PowerBlog
“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.” National Review
“A solid merit to Reinsch’s short study is to suggest the many ways in which Chambers still speaks to us with relevance and urgency…Reinsch’s book is a thoughtful probe of Chambers thought and work…Chambers is above all a prophet of how, even in apparent victory, the West may fail in its true struggle by emulating Communism on every point…A fine study that will challenge and inform.”
Read an Excerpt
WHITTAKER CHAMBERSThe Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary
By Richard M. Reinsch II
ISI BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Richard M. Reinsch II
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE PROJECT OF A COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY
There in the desert I lay dead, And God called out to me and said: "Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see, And let my works be seen and heard by all who turn aside from me, And burn them with my fiery word." -Alexander Pushkin, The Prophet
Upon first glance one may inquire why the contemporary world needs a book on the thought of Whittaker Chambers. After all, the focus of Chambers's anti-Communist witness and writings, which was the seeming inability of a complacent United States to stop the ideologically confident Soviet Union in its internationalist machinations, has passed. For Chambers, this weakness was never more prominently revealed than in America's difficulties in confronting and condemning the unrepentant Communist traitor in its midst, Alger Hiss. The Hiss-Chambers case is now with certain exceptions infrequently remarked upon from any significant corner of American political thought. One of the central events of twentieth century American political life, signifying the existence of multiple social and political conflicts within the nation, the impact of the Hiss-Chambers case has also passed with time.
The indifference or hostility with which Chambers is held, even by members of the conservative movement he helped shape, has also been detrimental to Chambers's legacy. In many ways, Chambers's current reputation seems to be colored by the dominant narrative that emerged from Communism's end. The extinction of Communism as a viable project and the dilapidated state of the societies and nations that kneeled under its weight taught integral lessons, material and spiritual, on the conditions for human flourishing in modernity. The post-Cold War Western consensus has seemed to resist the full weight of these lessons. By viewing the failure of Communism as an inevitable conclusion because the ideology was on the wrong side of history, the Western consensus has paradoxically held to an essentially Marxist understanding of history. In this analysis, the West could not fail in its confrontation with Communist forces. Chambers's sacrifices in abandoning Communism and testifying against Alger Hiss become superfluous under this historical narrative.
Another significant trend that surfaced after Communism's collapse was the trumpeting to Russia and its former satellite nations, rightfully so in certain respects, the values of individualism, free markets, promarket tax policies, and democratically elected governments. The central lesson learned by the West (including many in the American conservative movement) from Communism's implosion was the unparalleled and exclusive ability of free markets and other democratic institutions to deliver material benefits and goods to members of a free society. Consequently, the belief in the mind of man and its ability to achieve a rational political, economic, and social order, while relatively unconcerned with transcendent loyalties, was and remains in place.
Chambers would not have been surprised by this "official version" that his nation or the West would tell itself about Communism's demise. The official version's incipient materialism renders Chambers's act of witness and self-sacrifice largely one of antiquated interest. The man who saw the Cold War as a contest between two great faiths-Communism or Freedom, God or Man-is now singularly reduced to an informant. If Chambers's significance concerns only the testimony that committed Alger Hiss to prison and alerted a nation to certain Communists and fellow travelers in government posts, then he has rendered his service in full to our country. We can adulate him, insofar as his efforts moved us closer to victory over Communism by spotlighting its internal clandestine efforts, and then forget him. The Cold War is over, and impersonal materialist forces earned us the victory.
The apparent meanings of history, however, often hide realities that remain in flux. The Western policy illuminati that initially flooded into post-Soviet Russia treated the political and economic regeneration of the country in largely technocratic terms. The rule of law, democratic institutions, and a relatively free market were capable of being built and sustained with no formal commitment to civil society and local self-government, orthodox religion, the family, morality, or the human spirit. The continuing obstacles to a stable system of ordered liberty in Russia, and in many of its former socialist fiefdoms, attest to the Cold War being more than a Manichean standoff on the most efficient methods of market organization. In its current struggle to create and, at times, failure to sustain the institutions necessary for liberty, Russia highlights the delicacy of free institutions and the convictions required of a citizenry to maintain them. It seems the deprivation of man's spirit, as Chambers recognized, produces wounds not easily healed by enlightened policy.
To understand the chasm between the official version of Communism's demise and Chambers's admonishments, one must look to the foundation of his anti-Communist witness. Chambers's witness was forged by his exit from the Soviet Underground apparatus in 1938 and his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948. His witness, however, was more than courtroom testimony, acts of irrepressible will, or the tactics of counterespionage which he so efficiently deployed in his run from underground Communist authorities. The literary, theological, and philosophical Chambers is excluded when his acts of grace, daring, and will are given myopic focus. This equal, and perhaps more enduring, legacy makes an important contribution to a modern society seeking to balance the human requirement for liberty with moral authority.
Part of the record that is not considered in many analyses of Chambers are the ten years of journalism, short stories, and various other pieces he produced between 1938 and 1948 as an editor and later senior editor at Time magazine. In this position, Chambers leveraged his massive talent and the Henry Luce media empire to reach tens of millions of American homes. The editorial posture he brought was a penetrating moral and spiritual clarity applied to a range of subjects, thinkers, and contemporaneous and historical events. Later, as senior editor of the foreign news desk, Chambers performed acts of intellectual repentance for his Communist past by articulating a determined antitotalitarian position, and by continually analyzing the works of twentieth century intellectuals who grappled with the modern mind's distance from God.
Chambers's journalism draws the reader in under the intimation that it holds an abstruse passageway to truth amidst the previous century of chaos. Two essays in particular, "Silence, Exile, and Death" and "In Egypt Land," published in 1941 and 1946 respectively, develop ideas integral to Chambers's posttrial writing. These essays depict artists who never lost their connection, however tenuous it may have been, to the truth of beauty amidst pressing circumstances. However confused man becomes on the matter, truth (or in Chambers's term, reality) is the only thing that a man desires, especially near his end, and is the only thing he takes with him at his death.
Chambers's account of James Joyce's last months in "Silence, Exile, and Death" portrayed Joyce's gradual diminishment of hope during the Nazi onslaught of France in 1940. Caught between the grasps of totalitarian power and the bumbling efforts of liberal democracies, Joyce's predicament illustrated Chambers's view of the characteristic experience in the age of total crisis: the solitary individual interned and then broken by overwhelming forces. After months of detainment in Vichy France, Joyce finally crossed into neutral Switzerland where his last comfort was not writing, but delivering to his young grandson's ear the words of his civilization's grand poets before it crumbled.
"Silence, Exile, and Death" symbolized the errors of modern thought with its implication that Joyce was unable to find refuge within a liberal regime. The artist, the articulator of the beautiful, finds no haven within modernity's restrained political regime of liberal democracy; it is unable to repel, as it were, the vicious elements of the totalitarian state. Art itself, Chambers communicated, may no longer be possible under the weight of modern ideology as it expressed itself in both liberal democracy and the totalitarian state.
The essay "In Egypt Land," on the black contralto Marian Anderson, was a haunting piece about the human soul's incipient desire for beauty and truth. The crushing experience of racial injustice suffered by black Americans was ominous in the essay's background. Anderson, the consummate musical artist, was an archetype of the tyrannized soul that reached beyond pain and strife, bypassing anger and grievance, to touch beauty itself. Chambers expressed the idea that Anderson's Christianity formed the measure of her resistance to injustice. Thus, political justice was approached through the beauty of faith and love, a soulful movement that Chambers would emulate in the years ahead.
While not a permanent feature of her concerts, the classically trained Anderson at times performed Negro Spirituals. In commenting on Anderson's public use of the spiritual, Chambers poignantly said:
One simple fact is clear-they [the spirituals] were created in direct answer to the Psalmist's question: How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? For the land in which the slaves found themselves was strange beyond the fact that it was foreign. It was a nocturnal land of vast, shadowy pine woods, vast fields of cotton whose endless rows converged sometimes on a solitary cabin, vast swamps reptilian and furtive-a land alive with all the elements of lonely beauty, except compassion. In this deep night of land and man, the singers saw visions; grief, like a tuning fork, gave the tone, and the Sorrow Songs were uttered.
The mode of Anderson's reach was divinity, guiding the artist toward a rarefied solemnity never more on display than during her renditions of the "Sorrow Songs," which reinforced Chambers's belief that intractable disorders in the city of man-like racial oppression and segregation-could only find peace through repentance, self-limitation, and other movements of the human spirit. Although the intervention of law was necessary, the modernist desire for the pure political solution ignored man's essence as person. Chambers believed that Anderson, as artist and Christian, was emblematic of the graced approach to love and truth that the modern American must make to remedy America's original sin of racial subjugation.
Chambers's posttrial writing expanded many of the ideas he articulated in his journalism career, only now held against the belief that his individual efforts against Hiss and Communism were likely to end in failure. Chambers opened his autobiography, Witness-first published in 1952-with the straightforward assertion that in leaving Communism he was joining the "Losing Side." This assertion shocked Americans in the 1950s and still appears absurd to most contemporary readers. To Chambers, however, there were no apparent signs on the West's horizon to convince him otherwise. Striking confirmation was provided, he believed, by the failure of America, and the West as a whole, to support the Hungarian Resistance in 1956. Spurred by the de-Stalinization launched by Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev in February of 1956, three years after Joseph Stalin's death, Hungarians revolted violently against their Communist government in October 1956. Having secured an initial victory, the Hungarian revolutionaries were crushed by Soviet troops, who stormed into Budapest on November 4, 1956, and retook the city.
A new meaning of reality in the Cold War had become possible because of the Resistance. The rejection of Communism in favor of Hungarian patriotism and a national political life liberated from Soviet exploitations was clearly evident. Such a reality, however, was not to be enacted. Chambers blamed American indecisiveness, which was distracted by the Suez Canal Crisis, among other crises of will, for its refusal to supply aid of any kind to the Hungarian patriots. Disconsolate at the failure of American will in the affair, Chambers quoted a Hungarian revolutionary to summarize his gloom: "you [Americans] did not even organize a gun-running service for us."
Chambers's belief in the pervasiveness and perniciousness of philosophical materialism loomed large in his expectation of defeat. While such materialism had inspired and directed the project of Communism, Chambers held that it had also been assumed into the political and economic order of the Western nations. Therefore, the West's weakness in the face of internationalist Communist aggression was a consequence of its affinity to the philosophical suppositions guiding the Communist juggernaut. Chambers insisted that the West's only chance of victory was through suffering, in which the West might summon the will to survive by recovering its former spirits and surmounting its deadening materialism. Chambers remained doubtful of this possibility throughout his life.
In Cold Friday, a collection of his essays and letters, posthumously published in 1964, Chambers discussed man's inherent need for belief and for worship, both individually as people, and collectively as a nation. Written at his relatively isolated Maryland farm, years after the Hiss Trial, Cold Friday also shows a man still mired in the trial and its aftermath. This is not surprising and yet it is not the whole picture.
In these essays, Chambers demonstrated poetic wonder at redemption and its accompanying inescapable logic of suffering. According to Chambers, the capability to endure suffering was a predicate to the thriving existence of any civilization. The avoidance of suffering and its "hourly and daily dying" led inevitably to an existence alienated from the deeper springs of love and honor that propel a culture and nation forward. This certainty of the demise of civilization issued from the "incapacity for growth" and "infantilism" of a culture wedded to the avoidance of suffering. In such a culture, nothing would be loved much or ventured much. Floating in the lukewarm pool of creature comforts, such an undeserving people would finally lose even those comforts.
Chambers's conception of true despair was that which kills both body and soul through foreclosing the free attempt to enact existential truth. In this way modern man became ahistorical: man ceased to see the purpose of his own being. Faith's evaporation left him rudderless in the modern age. Bursting from this complacency was the Communist, and though he destroys himself and others, his purpose was to act again with meaning. Lurking in this formulation was the idea that Communism's cause and existence were tied to the loss of faith.
Recalling saintly wisdom, Chambers counseled that suffering and tragedy are not authentic sources of despair; rather, they are inherent to man's need to find the measure of his meaning in the brief time allotted to him. The price of suffering is real but its crown is liberation. The man formed tinder its tutelage knows his true end and the authentic freedom it offers. Such beauty cannot be had for any lower price.
Perhaps the best way to understand Cold Friday is to read the book's self-titled essay in which Chambers outlined why he removed his family to a farm in rural Maryland. Chambers always had a soulful longing for place, community, and joyful labor. Further, Cold Friday, Chambers's beloved field at his Westminster farm, afforded him "Height," and the opportunity to understand and to reflect upon the forces that broke against him. Impossible to cultivate because of its elevation, the fallow field prepared the way for thought, as well as faith and hope. From Cold Friday, the understanding of truth was now possible, but not without wearisome toil. As Chambers said, "We must reach [truth] by crawling on our hands and knees." Upon reaching Cold Friday the view was "not what we might ... pray for, but what really is ... [and then we find our meaning] in our own reality." Chambers's reality was the outcome of perception and the consequent measuring of the forces around him by reflection and prayer. The experience Chambers described required a high level of honesty and love for the attempt to be made. This cognitive and spiritual veracity kept the struggle from being mere solipsism. At Cold Friday, man wrestled with his incompleteness before the infinite in order to know realities definite and enduring.
Excerpted from WHITTAKER CHAMBERS by Richard M. Reinsch II Copyright © 2010 by Richard M. Reinsch II. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Richard M. Reinsch is a program officer at Liberty Fund, Inc., and is currently an Abraham Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He writes frequently for such publications as Society, Modern Age, the University Bookman, National Review Online, and City Journal Online. He lives near Indianapolis.
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