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Witness – BBC
Most of us know Whittaker Chambers as the ex-Communist whose testimony convicted Alger Hiss. If he had just been that and nothing more, and if the Hiss trial had just been a due process of law and nothing more, only those with a taste for criminology would need to bother about the book I want to talk about, the autobiography of Whittaker Chambers. But the trial of Alger Hiss was not merely a forensic melodrama, with a fascinating and unsolved detective story as its background.
It was an event which may well have changed the whole course of American history, and its two protagonists, the brilliant, impeccable public servant from New England and the self-confessed informer, have become far more important figures in American politics than any living Congressman, with the exception of Senator McCarthy. As the Hiss case developed, everyone in America felt compelled to take sides, to back Hiss or to back Chambers. And so the court proceedings became the trial not of one man, but of a whole generation. “Since the New Deal is on trial”, said the American Liberal, “Hiss must be innocent.” “Since the New Deal is on trial, Hiss must be guilty”, replied those who had been longing for a chance to drag it down ever since Roosevelt launched it in 1932.
This is not the first time that this kind of thing has happened. The Dreyfus affair became a tremendous political struggle between Clericals and anti-Clericals. It was not merely one French Army officer of Jewish extraction that was vindicated, but the Third Republic itself. But sometimes it is the accuser who is vindicated.
When Oscar Wilde took his libel action against Lord Queensberry, the whole avant-garde in art and literature rallied to his side against the disreputable old nobleman, who seemed to personify philistinism in its crudest form. But Wilde was found guilty, and the verdict was felt as a terrible defeat. Any number of people admitted he was guilty miscarriage of justice and were appalled by his abnormalities, and yet felt that the wrong side had won.
In that wonderful chapter of his autobiography, The Tragic Generation, W. B. Yeats reminds us of this atmosphere. “Cultivated London,” he writes, “that before the action against Lord Queensberry had mocked Wilde’s pose and affected style, and refused to acknowledge his wit, was now full of his advocates, though I did not meet a single man who considered him innocent. One old enemy of his overtook me in the street. ‘He has made’, he said, ‘of infamy a new Thermopylae‘. And the chapter ends with the wonderful, tragic sentence, “When the verdict was announced the harlots in the street outside danced upon the pavement.”
Those words from Yeats give us an inkling of the emotions whioh Americans must feel about Alger Hiss and Chambers. A few still tenaciously assert that Chambers was a liar and that Hiss was the innocent victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. But I suspect that most American Liberals now feel about Hiss what Yeats and his friends felt about Wilde. Why, oh why, they ask, should history have picked on him to stand trial on behalf of us all? But what about Chambers?
Most of you who are listening probably feel about him what I felt before I read his book. Even if Hiss was guilty, I said to myself, that cannot make Chambers a significant character. A self-confessed Russian agent, a self-confessed perjurer, who tried to commit suicide at the time when he was testifying before the Committee on Un-American Activities, an informer whose perjury created that atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria which has let loose the witch-hunts, the book-burning and all the other activities of Senator McCarthy and his associates – Hiss may be a good man gone wrong, or even a bad hat, I felt, but Chambers is nothing but an insignificant little spy.
One good reason for reading Witness is to get rid of this over-simplification. Whatever else he is, Chambers is not insignificant. He is a writer of immense power, and Witness is indubitably one of the most important books I have read since the war. 600 pages long, it is a completely absorbing spiritual autobiography, the work of a writer who can be compared for the intensity of his penitent’s vision with John Bunyan, for his unbalanced insight into spiritual abnormality with Dostoievsky, and for the macabre brilliance of his style with Edgar Allan Poe.
But before we come to his writing, let us see first who Chambers is. His own account of his life is very difficult to follow, since he rarely gives dates and does not bother to keep to a chronological order. Apparently he was the son of an unsuccessful actress and an equally unsuccessful newspaper artist, who drew the illustrations for the newspapers before photography superseded him. He was an unhappy child in a down-at-heel, Bohemian home, and a lonely boy at school, where he had a sexual experience which obviously left a deep impression on him.
Anyway, he ran away at the age of 16 to work for a short time with the navvies doing street work at Washington, and then found himself, somehow, in a New Orleans doss-house with a prostitute called One-Eyed Annie. After this he returned to his home and was sent to Columbia University. There, encouraged by Mark Van Doren, the literary critic, he wrote poems, became an atheist and visited Germany during the inflation of 1923. Two years later he became a Communist on the staff of the Daily Worker. Here is his own explanation:
The dying world of 1925 was without faith, hope, character, understanding of its malady or will to overcome it. It was dying but it laughed. And this laughter was not the defiance of a vigor that retusee to know when it is whipped. It was the loss, by the mind of a whole civilization, of the power to distinguish between reality and unreality… The dying world had no answer at all to the crisis of the 20th century, and, when it was mentioned, it cocked an ear of complacent deafness and smiled a smile of blank senility – throughout history, the smile of those for whom the executioner waits… The ultimate choice I made was not for a theory or a party. It was a choice against death and for life. I asked only the privilege of serving humbly and selflessly that force which from death could evoke life.
Since 1925 was a year not of crisis in America but of optimism and boom, it is clear that Chambers became a Communist, as so many young men from middle-class families become Communists, largely because of his own inner unhappiness.
He projected on to the external world his loneliness and his desire to destroy the surroundings in which he had failed. What confirms this diagnosis is that he himself admits that, in the Communist Party, he found himself just as lonely as he had been at school, taking no interest whatsoever in its factional disputes and never once attending a meeting of the cell to which he belonged.
I had to fight the sense that if I was absolutely alone. In the Communist Party I found at first no one else remotely like me. I believed that my vision of the Communist was the right one, but when a man finds himself completely alone, he must always question if he can be right.
But if he found no happiness in the Party, why did he become a Communist?
His own answer is to refer to a pamphlet of Lenin‘s called A Soviet At Work. It was the doctrine of terror in this pamphlet which at once attracted and repelled him, but which finally convinced him of his destiny. This simultaneous love and hate of violence is an important element in his character. He is always torn between a longing to escape from this tormenting world by suicide and a violent desire to destroy his tormentors. Here are his thoughts when he was first told by his mother to kill a chicken:
Something in me, the deepest thing that makes me what I am, knows that it is wrong to kill anything. But there is something else – a necessity – that forces me to kill. I have the strength to overcome the feeling in myself against killing, and I am proud that I have it for it is part of what makes me a man. All right. As a man, I will kill. But I will kill always under duress, by an act of will, in knowing violation of myself. Let me never kill unless I suffer that agony.
This idea of killing by necessity is linked in his mind with the idea of vengeance. On one occasion, he tells us, a schoolmate kicked his dog in the stomach and he felt an irresistible urge to kill him.
If you kick my dog in the stomach, though I have refused to fight one hundred times, and will refuse again, that time I will wait and fight to destroy you. I cannot help myself. Within me there is a force. It says that that gentleness, which is not prepared to kill or be killed to destroy the evil that assails life, is not gentleness.
These passages of self-analysis ring true, and suggest that Chambers joined the Communist Party because that party’s doctrine of violent revolution seemed to give him the rationalisation of one of his two conflicting urges. If he was not to kill himself in order to escape from his misery, he must destroy the environment which caused it.
He makes it clear that he played no prominent part in the Party. He became an undistinguished member of the Daily Worker staff, and then drifted out of the Party in 1928 for two years, and eked out a living translating German books. But in 1930 the economic crisis broke, the pattern of the external world was now the pattern of his internal misery, and he was welcomed back into the Party when he wrote a short story for New Masses, which was praised in a Russian literary journal. Then, a few months later, he was summoned to Communist Headquarters and told to leave the New Masses in order to work in the Communist underground, which he later discovered meant spying for the Russian secret service.
Here is his description of that first interview (a description, incidentally, which reveals how brilliantly he can write):
The day Max Bedacht first commanded me to his office, he was not cordial. He looked like a shopkeeper who has been caught by a late customer just at closing time and is trying to hide behind his glasses. He also looked a little like Heinrich Himmler. About both brief, tidy men there was a disturbing quality of secret power mantling insignificance – what might be called the ominousness of nonentity, which is peculiar to the terrible little figures of our time.
Chambers’ description of his years in the Communist under ground is extremely hazy and confused. We hear a great deal about secret meetings and stolen documents, but never anything of what the documents contained.
However, it seems clear that, after a period in New York, he was sent to Washington, where he met a group of Party members and fellow-travellers high up in the New Deal. Among them was Alger Hiss.
I don’t think there is any real doubt that, despite Hiss’s denials, these two men, the untidy, squat Bohemnian and the suave, precise bureaucrat, became close friends, and that their wives were friends too. Chambers writes about this friendship:
People have sometimes asked me: What did you talk about when you were together? I have to stop and think. What did we talk about? We talked about everything. It was the spontaneous surface talk of people among whom there exist, not only fierce convictions, but intangible compatibilities of temperament, an instinctive feeling as to what is serious and what is absurd about people, things and life. People are truly friends when they love even one another’s foibles. We knew one another’s weaknesses and could laugh freely at them. For our friendship was almost entirely one of character and not of the mind. Alger was a little on the stuffy side. Ideas for their own sake did not interest him at all… So great a gap in the temper of minds might have been expected to set us apart. On the contrary. The bond that cemented his friendship and mine was a profound, tacit esteem of character. Each of us sensed in the other an unyielding purpose about those things which we held to be decisive… We shared another more elusive, but very real bond. That was the mutual simplicity of our tastes, a profound sense that labor in itself is one of the highest goods, a profound suspicion of the pursuit of pleasure as an end in life, a distaste of materialism in its commonest forms of success and comfort. It is not at all chance that both the Chamberses and the Hisses, arriving over very different routes, should at last have found their way into the community of Quakers. For the simplicity inherent in the Quaker way of life must make an authentic appeal to the Hisses.
Then, in early 1938, Chambers broke with the Communist Party and with Hiss. Later on I want to discuss the reasons for this break. But first let us get the narrative clear.
As a man who lived conspiracy. Chambers made his break conspiratorially. He fled from Washington in a car he bought with $400 loaned from Hiss, and took refuge in two rooms at the back of a big house in the Maryland countryside. That Christmas he went to see Hiss and tried to persuade him to break too. Hiss listened to him and said, “What you have been saying is just mental masturbation.” Then, according to Chambers, he had a pang of conscience, turned back from the front door, rushed to the Christmas tree and shoved into Chambers’ hand a Christmas present for his little daughter. When Chambers got back to his lonely house, he found it contained a little wooden rolling-pin, worth a nickel. This was as bad as kicking a dog in the stomach. “I took the little rolling-pin and its wrappings down to the cellar and threw it in the furnace. It was years before I could bring myself to tell my wife about it.”
A year later Chambers got a job on Time magazine, where he rapidly rose from book reviewing to become one of the senior editors at $30,000 a year. Finding peace in the countryside, he bought a farm and brought up his family on it, while he worked in New York. He was relaxed and entirely happy during these years. The past seemed buried. He had, on one occasion before the war, interviewed one of Roosevelt’s advisers, Adolphe Berle, and told him about the espionage group, giving a list of names, including that of Hiss, but nothing came of this.
Then, years later, in 1948, the Committee on Un-American Activities, searching round frantically for some revelation to keep it in the news, hit on another ex-communist agent, a certain Elizabeth Bentley. In the course of describing the spy ring she claimed to have run, Miss Bentley mentioned Whittaker Chambers, and he was summoned to appear before the Committee. Suddenly he felt that God’s purpose was clear. He had been sent into the world to sin, to repent, and to bear witness. So he testified, naming Hiss as a fellow Communist who passed documents to him. Hiss disclaimed all knowledge of him and challenged him to make the accusation on an unprivileged occasion. Chambers repeated it on a broadcast and Hiss sued him for libel. While the preparations were being made for the action, it became clear that a man with Chambers’ murky past stood no chance of winning unless he had some evidence other than his mere assertion.
According to his own account, he suddenly remembered that, when he broke away from the Party, he had handed over a package of documents to a friend in New York. That package, hidden for a night in a pumpkin on his farm, contained microfilms of documents purloined from the State Department and also notes in Hiss’s own handwriting. So the libel action of Alger Hiss against the defendant Whittaker Chambers became the perjury action against Alger Hiss, with Whittaker Chambers as the chief witness for the prosecution. We need not follow the story further.
What interests me, and what makes this book so significant, are not the details of that famous trial, the prothonotory warbler, the Woodstock typewriter and the rest of them, but the character and the philosophy of Whittaker Chambers. As we saw, he became a Communist when his urge to kill overcame his urge to escape. When he broke away, it seems as though at first he merely wanted to escape, though he tells us that, from the first, he was determined to destroy the conspiracy of which he had been a member. Certainly, during those nine years of prosperous peace, he developed an anti-Communist philosophy as rigid and total as the Communism he had repudiated.
Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man’s faith would prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving.
What is the new faith of Whittaker Chambers?
He has joined the Quakers, and now believes that the only force which can defeat godless Communism is religion. Everyone is a Communist, or at least tainted with Communism, according to Chambers, who does not share his belief in God. So he came to see the New Deal as part of the revolution it was his duty to fight. “Whether the revolutionists prefer to call themselves Fabians, who seek power by the Inevitability of gradualism, or Bolsheviks, who seek power by the dictatorship of the proletariat, the struggle is for power.” And again:
“What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades. It was the forces of that revolution that I struck at the point of its struggle for power.” Hiss, Acheson, Truman, Attlee – they are all, in Chambers’ view, part of one single conspiracy, which he has been called upon by God to fight and to destroy.
Instead of the terrible certitude, which previously possessed him, that he must destroy the capitalist world. Chambers is now inspired with an equally terrible certitude that he must destroy the conspiracy of Communists, Socialists and Liberals which threatens America.
But this certitude, this conviction of righteousness, is only one part of his personality. The urge to self-destruction is still strong, and so is the sense of guilt. Chambers is not one of those ex-Communists who can throw off his burden, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, and enter the Celestial City. He calls his book Witness, but one of its themes is the misery of the informer.
There is in men a very deep-rooted instinct that they may not inform against those whose kindness and affection they have shared, at whose tables they have eaten and under whose roofs they have slept, whose wives and children they have known as friends – and that regardless of who those others are or what crimes they have committed. It is an absolute prohibition. It is written in no book, but it is more binding than any code that exists. If of necessity a nan must violate that prohibition, and it is part of the tragedy of history that, for the greater good, men sometimes must, the man who violates it must do so in the full consciousness that there is a penalty. That penalty is a kind of death, nost deadly if a man must go on living. It is not violent. It in not even a deepening shadow. It is a simple loss of something as when a filter removes all color from the light. I felt its foretouch. It was soon to be on me.
This conviction that, in atoning for sin, a man kills himself, is the most peculiar feature of Chambers’ creed. It is only intelligible in terms of his early life – or rather, of the vision of his early life which fills the first part of his autobiography.
I have summarised the facts of that early life as well as I can in the first part of this talk. But the more I ponder on these pages, the more I wonder whether one can call them “facts.” In writing of his home, Chambers seems to be putting down on paper not recollections but a series of visions or nightmares. Here is his description of his father’s death:
My father lay huddled in has bathrobe on the sea-blue tiles my brother had laid. His body was still warm. Of the bodies I had lifted in the last years, his was the most inert. I could move him only inch by inch. My mother had to help me raise him to his bed. Later, the undertakers carried my father downstairs. Without my knowledge, they began the preliminary stages of embalming, in our living room. Unsuspectingly, I walked into the room. My father lay naked on a stretcher. One of his arms was dangling. From this arm, near the shoulder, his blood, the blood that had given my brother and me life, was pouring, in a thin, dark arc, into a battered mop bucket. We buried my father beside my brother.
And here is a passage about his grandmother:
For years, in addition to our old tensions, this dark, demoniac presence sat at the heart of our home. Usually, her movements were almost soundless and she seemed to be able to move with abnormal swiftness. She would be standing beside you before you knew she was there. Winter and summer, she wore a long sealskin coat in the house. For long periods, she would be quiescent. Then a spell would come. She would float downstairs, take a knife from the kitchen and sit by the window in my mother’s bedroom, where she knew that she should not go… When my father was resting of an evening, my grandmother would stand just behind her door, and in those withering tones that had an almost toxic effect on a normal mind, would take derisive inventory of his appearance and what she imagined, or pretended to imagine, were his depravities. My father would stand this for long periods. But sometimes it would get too much for him. He would fling himself out of his own room in a berserk rage, and hurl himself against her locked door. From the other side, she would shout mocking defiance. There would be a sound of splintering wood, a crack as the lock snapped, then cries. For Grandmother was a courageous woman, and she was always waiting to defend her stronghold with the scissors which she kept handy for such occasions. I would rush in and throw, or wedge, myself between them. The small scars on my hands are where the scissors missed my father and caught me.
If these were scenes from a novel, I should say that another Edgar Allan Poe had risen across the Atlantic. But Witness purports to be the autobiography of a man who has become one the dominant personalities in the politics of America.
Does it tell us facts, or the nightmare visions of a powerful imagination?
It is impossible to be sure. But it is also impossible to deny that the man who wrote it is an abnormal and riven personality. As such, Whittaker Chambers personifies the American epoch in which he lives, the divided loyalties, the swiftly alternating moods of exaltation and despair, the conflicting urges, now to put the world to right and now to retire into lonely isolation; now to appease and now to smash the enemy. All these features of his autobiography are a microcosm of American political life – or rather, to change the image, a distorting mirror, in which one aspect of America is reflected, monstrously distorted, yet still recognisable, an America which prophetioally deamands the destruction of anyone and everyone who questions the validity of the American way of life. Where else have we read such a book? Where else has an unknown man risen from the depths to denounce liberalism as part of the Communist disease and to call on his countrymen to destroy both, root and branch? Where else have the repressions of a childhood without love and the resentments of an unappreciated, lonely adolescence been rationalised into a volcanic Weltanschauung?
Where else has a conspiracy against Christian civilisation been presented as a valiant defence of it?
I think you have already guessed the answer. The prophet of the Third Reich might well have called his book Witness, just as Whittaker Chambers could have renamed Witness, My Struggle.
R. H. S. Crossman
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- B&W Photos from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection
- Life of the People: Radical Impulse + Capital and Labor
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- Comrades in Art
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- Jan Matulka: Thomas McCormick Gallery + Global Modernist
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- Armory Show 1913
Official website of Whittaker Chambers ( >> more )