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Witness – NYT 1
The Two Faiths of Whittaker Chambers
His Many-Faceted Autobiography Sheds light on Our Complex and Tragic Times
WITNESS. By Whittaker Chambers. 808 pp.
New York: Random House. $5.
May 25, 1952
Section Book Review, Page BR1, Column , words
The name of the author, the theme of his work, the nature of our times, all conspire to make this volume one of the most significant autobiographies of the twentieth century. It is not among the hundred great books. Yet it throws more light on the conspiratorial and religious character of modern communism, on the tangled complex of motives which led men and women of goodwill to immolate themselves on the altars of a fancied historical necessity, than all of the hundred great books of the past combined. The phenomenon of which it treats is historically unique not only in scale but in meaning. It demands understanding, not mere denunciation. The keys to that understanding can be provided only by reflection on our present historical experience.
A certain perspective, especially freedom from partisanship, is essential if the reader of this book is to do justice to its different facets. Many will already have judged it before they have actually read it. This will be a pity because the book covers much more than the unhappy story of Alger Hiss. It contains interesting vignettes of the Communist movement, a record of religious conversion, the saga of a farm, an account of desperate courage alternating with moods of spiritual despair–all knit together by the essentially mystical and romantic personality of the author (who is interviewed on page 18 of THE BOOK REVIEW). The literary quality of the writing is impressive. In this respect, serialization did the book disservice.
The main theme, however, is the Communist movement, above and underground, the men and women who served it, and the logic of the commitment which led them into an eager faithlessness not only to their country but to the moral values in which they were nurtured. Here we must sharply distinguish, as unfortunately Mr. Chambers does not, between the facts to which he bears witness and the interpretations he places upon them. Were these interpretations valid, they would have as fateful a bearing upon the prospects of democratic survival as the revelations of th” facts concerning Communist conspiracy. It will be necessary therefore to look hard at them.
First, about the facts. The internal evidence of this book is so overwhelmingly detailed and cumulative, it rings with such authenticity, that it is extremely unlikely any reasonable person will remain unconvinced by it. It is not that new facts about Hiss and his fellow conspirators are revealed but that the facts already known are placed in the historic context of Chambers’ own development and almost day-to-day activities. To doubt them is tantamount to doubting Chambers’ political existence as well as those of his collaborators. The absence of personal rancor against Hiss, the evidence that the author testified “reluctantly and in agony,” the explanation of why he did not tell his entire story at once–a quixotic piece of foolishness–add credibility to his account.
As far as the charges that rocked the nation are concerned, this book, even more than the verdict of the trials, may well be called the vindication of Whittaker Chambers. Its pages show that he has long since atoned for his own complicity in conspiratorial work by his suffering at the hands of Hiss’ friends whose outrageous smears against his personal life and that of his wife surpassed in virulence anything known in recent American history. It is indeed odd to observe that ritualistic liberals were much less indignant with those who betrayed the faith of their country than they were with the “Informers” who revealed the betrayal–an attitude not displayed toward informers or renegades from fascism like Rauschning and Otto Strasser. The mood of anti anti-communism, as the Hiss case shows, blinds one to political realities and creates an emotional vested interest in concealing the truth.
The facts in this book have a public side vastly more Important than the private fortunes of Hiss and Chambers. What they show is that the highest instances of the Government were informed on four separate occasions of Chambers’ charges that an important group of American officials in the State Department, Treasury Department, Patent Office and Aberdeen Proving Grounds were functioning as members of a Communist party underground apparatus. One need only read the names and successive positions occupied by this group, among several in operation, to understand that, in the event of hostilities with the Soviet Union, they could easily have functioned with a deadliness comparable to the Foote ring in Switzerland and the Sorge ring in Japan, both of which made enormous contributions to Stalin’s victory.
The truly puzzling and still inexplicable thing about these facts is not that the American Government was deceived–American innocence of politics based on a Weltanschauung is almost invincible–but that no accredited Government agency was asked to investigate the truth of Chambers’ charges when he first made them. Had this been done and those whose guilt was subsequently revealed quietly dropped from Government service, and elementary precautions taken against further penetration, the recent history of American political and even cultural life would have been profoundly different. As it is, one of the men in the Chambers ring, identified in 1939 as a Communist conspirator supplying top secret information from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, kept his post until 1948.
Given these facts and the organized campaign of calumny against him, one can understand the subjective compulsions which have led Chambers to interpret his experiences as he does. This interpr.,tation takes two forms, political and philosophical, both none the less questionable for being widely shared.
Chambers is convinced that it was not by chance that the New Deal served as a host body for Communist infiltration. He argues that despite their differences, the New Dealers and the Communists were revolutionary brothers under the skin. The New Dealers sincerely abhorred the Communists but were unable, and then unwilling, to ferret them out because the latter were harder, brighter, vastly more knowing and unscrupulous protagonists of the same general line. Every move to oust Communists was regarded as a move against the Administration, and all a Communist under threat of exposure need do was to cry “Witch hunt!” to rally the innocent New Dealers to deny the facts of Communist penetration. Chambers quotes a close friend, himself a New Dealer, saying to him; “I see why it might not pay the Communists to kill you at this point. But I don’t see how the Administration dares to leave you alive.”
To say that the New Deal–an eclectic, unorganized, popular reaction to the intolerable evils of an unstabilized capitalism–was a social revolutionary movement is to play with words. The principles of social welfare are indigenously American, and Roosevelt, during the early months of 1933, could have led the country very much farther along these lines than he actually did.
Until the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, Roosevelt in the eyes of the Communists was a Fascist It was only when the Popular Front strategy and the tactics of the Trojan horse were adopted that the Communists organized their mass infiltrations and began to speak the language of the New Deal. Chambers should know that when it suits their purposes Communists can speak anybody’s language, the language of the Church Fathers as of America’s Founding Fathers–and the ignorant or foolish will fall for it all the time.
The only thing that could have kept Communists out of any Administration, New Deal or Old, was the knowledge that communism since Lenin‘s time was not an open and honestly avowed heresy but an international conspiracy, centered in the Kremlin, in a state of undeclared war against democratic institutions. The corollary would have been the realization that the Communists were and are prepared to use any and every means to achieve power, nationally and internationally.
That this knowledge was absent in almost all Government agencies is not surprising in view of the fact that both American Presidents during World War II were convinced that England and France would be greater threats to post-war world peace and freedom than the Soviet Union. Nor was this knowledge more conspicuouely evident in influential clrcles outside the Government, in universities, for example, in churches, the press and even business.
Most of Chambers’ facts are rendered intelligible by a less sinister hypothesis than the one he offers. It is that stupidity is sometimes the greatest of all historical forces. Stupidity explains why Communists were permitted to infiltrate into the Government. But why were they retained so long after the data about them were in official hands? Here Chambers forgets that some of the most vocal opponents of Communists in Government services seemed more interested in discrediting the Administration and New Deal than in defending freedom. The passions of American parochial politics blinded both sides to the fact that an international civil war was raging in relation to which prestige, votes, patronage and many issues of domestic policy were irrelevant. Nor does the author’s account do justice to the climate of cloudy opinion which saw in Hitler the sole incarnation of historical evil in our generation.
Chambers himself places the greatest stress upon tile philosophical interpretation of his experiences. The international civil war so correctly described is regarded not as a struggle between the free society and the society of total terror but as the struggle between the Party of God and the Party of Man. The political differences among men are ultimately reducible to differences in theology, between the vision of a world with God and the Vision of a world without Him. This in a sense is the thesis of Chambers’ autobiography. He offers his life as testimony to its truth. And he writes as a moving and eloquent witness.
Chambers’ story of his life is a minor classic in the history of religious conversions. No one can doubt the sincerity of his hard-won faith, that he has found in it, after much agony, a healing peace and humility. As a quest for personal salvation, it will command the respect of those who cannot share his cosmic hope and whose natural piety takes other forms.
But to make this faith a basis for social salvation is a hazardous enterprise, all the more so because of the desperate lengths to which Chambers carries it. He fervently and repeatedly asserts that the most revolutionary question in history is: God or Man? and that whoever answers “Man” shares the Communist vision whether he is aware of it or not. He recklessly lumps soclailsts, progressives, liberals and men of goodwill together with the Communists. All are bound according to him by the same faith; but only the Communists have the gumption and guts to live by it and pay the price. The others are the unwitting accomplices of communism precisely because they have put their trust in intelligence. not God. Only theists, not humanists, can resist communism, and in the end, save man.
The view that man must worship either God or Stalin faces many formidable theoretical difficulties and has the most mischievous practical consequences. For one thing the disjunction is neither exhaustive nor exclusive. There exists a not inconsiderable body of men who worship both, even without counting those like the Dean of Canterbury and the Patriarch of the Russian Synod, and a still larger body who worship neither. After all, religious faiths have been compatible with the most diverse social principles. Not a single policy about empirical arrangements in human life can be logically derived from transcendental religious premises or from propositions of rational theology.
Deeply religious men speak with the same divided counsels as non-religious men about the specific problema of war, peace, poverty and foreign policy which must find empirical solutions if communism’s false answers are to be rejected. Precisely because, as Chambers admits in an unguarded moment, “religion is not ethics or social reform,” it is neither necessary nor sufficient for the discovery of the social programs and political strategy essential to the survival of freedom. Here there is no substitute for creative intelligence.
At one point Chambers invokes against liberalism and humanism, the theology of Barth, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard without awareness of the irony in these references. The first is a “neutralist” in the current secular struggle; the second, perhaps the greatest dramatist of the human spirit but no friend of a free society; the third taught that between God’s purposes in eternity and human purposes in history there is an “infinite qualitative difference.” The fact that some of Chambers’ fellow-Quakers are appeasers of Stalin while others are valiant fighters in the cause of freedom 1s enough to establish the irrelevance of his theology to his politics.
Indeed, Chambers has reflected poorly about the facts of his own disillusionment with communism. He writes dramatically of the “screams” of the victims of communism, of the shattering effect of these messages from souls in torment on even hardened Communists. He is silent about the fact that the truth about the Moscow trials, to whose victims’ screams he was originally deaf was first proclaimed by liberals and humanists like John Dewey. 2 While Chambers still worked tor Stalin’s underground, it was they who sought to arouse the world to the painful knowledge he is now frantically urging on it. He glosses over the fact that he himself closed his ears to the screams of the victims until his own life was threatened by Stalin’s agents, and that in his hour of flight, need and political repentance, it was to the party of Man that he turned for aid first of all.
Chambers does not consider the possibility that the opposition of genuine American liberals to the cultural and physical terror of the Kremlin was deeper and more sustained than that of any other group because it was fed by a passion for freedom, and an opposition to all forms of authoritarianism. One would have thought it obvious that Franco, Hitler and Mussolini, and other dictators with religious faith or support, have more in common with Stalin and the Politburo than either group has with the liberals and humanists Chambers condemns.
It is unfortunate that Chambers could not have given a wiser and more generous expression to his faith. The logic by which he now classifies liberals and humanists with the Communists is not unlike the logic by which, when a Communist, he classified them with Fascists. Stalinism permits no loyal opposition, for opposition, the lifeblood of democracy, is the enemy in the politics of every totalitarianism. I should hope that Chambers himself would recoil from the implications of his present view that there is no loyal political opposition outside the Faith. When heresy is identified with the enemy, we shall have seen the end of democracy.
Since Chambers is a self-declared mystic and irrationalist, it is pointless to take Issue with him on matters he regards as transcending human intelligence. But in the very interest of religious freedom itself, as well as of the effective struggle for democracy, it is necessary to repudiate his contrast between faith in GOO on the one hand, and intelligence and scientific method on the other, and his further equation of intelligence and scientific method with communism. This Is a monstrous piece of dogmatism and a gratuitous gift to communism. It no more follows that faith in intelligence and scientific method must lead to torture and death in the cellars of the Lubianka than that faith in God must lead to the Inquisition or the rack and the stake.
It remains to ask what kind of man is portrayed in this massive book and in the multiplicity of lives he has led. The first and lasting impression is of a man who has suffered much, whose humility is born of a genuine surprise at his own tenacity and survival. These seem to him to be the result of a divine grace, unearned yet partly paid for by a willingness to be a witness to things secular and divine, irrespective of personal consequences. There is also a great honesty in the book, even if it is incomplete about the natural history of his break and conversion. Above all, one is moved by the magnificent courage of this stubborn and sensitive man, who refused to die to please Stalin, who built a new life, threw it away to atone for his past. and found it again. May it inspire others who until now have feared the wolf-pack of the anti anti-Communists to come forward to testify to the truth not only for the sake of their own country but for the sake of their fellowmen everywhere.
On another level, one senses that Chambers has always been a man of feeltng, always more interested in salvation of one kind or another than in disciplined thought. The result is an intellectual impatience, a hunger for absolutes, a failure of intelligence concealed in a surge of rapture or in a total commitment to action which requires a basis in irrational belief to sustain and renew Itself. From the mysteries of dialectical materialism to the mysteries of dialectical theology Is no great leap.
The American experience itself is after all the best answer to Chambers. For its secular humanism has developed gradually through grudging tolerance of religious differences to positive respect for all religious beliefs or disbeliefs. No longer is any man’s spiritual freedom threatened With the doctrinal either-ors of fanatical sectarianism. It is not unlikely that the same humanistic spirit may be the best defense on a world scale against the Communist crusade because it can unite all human beings who, despite their religious differences about first and last things, value truth. justice, kindness and freedom among men. For these values are justified both intrinsically and by their consequences, not by their alleged presuppositions.
Chambers’ book (a Book of the Month Club cho1ce for June) will be widely read and deservedly so. That is why it seems to me all the more necessary to conclude by saying that In the war for human freedom the twice born life of Whittaker Chambers is a tragic casualty. Instructive to the last about the mortal threat of the Communist movement, for which we should be deeply grateful to him, it does not offer us an intelligent guide to victory or even survival.
- Professor of Philosophy at New York University, Mr. Hook iB author of “Reason, Social Myths and Democracy” and “Education for Modern Man” — New York Times ↩
- Hook is taking advantage of the fact that in Witness Chambers omitted reference to Hook’s mentor John Dewey. After Chambers defection, his classmate Herbert Solow had taken him to meet Dewey at an evening party at the home of Anita Brenner, but Chambers and party left before Dewey’s arrival. Solow–and Hook–had led him to believe that Dewey might help him. See Allen Weinstein, Perjury (1997 edition), p. 290 — WhittakerChambers.org ↩
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- B&W Photos from Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection
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Official website of Whittaker Chambers ( >> more )