Calvin Coolidge remarked that, "Great men are the ambassadors of Providence sent to reveal to their fellow men their unknown selves. To them is granted the power to call forth the best there is in those who come under their influence." To Coolidge's treatment of greatness, we might add the transcendent voices of certain writers who encapsulate in almost lyrical form the creative ideas, passions, and tensions within themselves, as measured by the period's conflicts they were providentially hurled against. These voices speak to the heart of man from the center of the writer's soul.
One such writer was Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography Witness, published in 1952, details his life as an agent in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence from 1932 to 1938, where he coordinated espionage activities with high-ranking United States government officials. Witness also movingly explains Chambers' departure from Communism and his conversion to Christianity. From his conversion, Chambers grasped that revolutionary ideology lied about the nature of man and the source of his being. The sources of Chambers' ascent and the witness he made are worth recalling in our own period of late-modern anomie.
One morning in 1938, shortly before leaving the Communist Party, while feeding his young daughter, Chambers concluded that the shape of her ear could not be explained by Marxist materialism. Something this beautiful and unique, Chambers observed, implied design, which implied the existence of God. Understanding the divine gift of his daughter Ellen, also strangely related to the horrific irruption within Chambers of the "screams" from Communism's suffering victims. He writes "[O]ne day the Communist really hears those screams. [The screams] … do not merely reach his mind. They pierce beyond. They pierce to his soul." A soul in agony, in this case, a person under persecution by Communist authorities, has attempted to communicate with another soul through memory and across time. The crucial significance of both episodes rests in Chambers embracing the presence of his soul, thus denying the false materialism of Communism and the darkness it had covered him in. As Chambers observed, "A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites—God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism."
Chambers' conversion inspired him to atone for his past betrayal of his country. He divulged to the federal government information about the Soviet espionage cell he had organized during the 1930s in Washington, its membership, and his complicity in its operation. Of those officials in Chambers' Soviet-allied cell, Alger Hiss, Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs in the Department of State and Chambers' close friend, would prove to be the most consequential. Hiss formally denied any involvement in Communist activities and insisted that he had never even met "that man named Whittaker Chambers." The truth was that Hiss and Chambers had been close friends in their subversive activities, and even their wives and children had frequently socialized together.
Alger Hiss had regularly passed State Department documents to Chambers during the 1930s; in turn, Chambers carried them to various handlers, who then sent them to Soviet authorities. Hiss, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Supreme Court clerk to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a close friend of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, an adviser to President Roosevelt at Yalta, the Secretary General of the United Nations organization conference at San Francisco, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, outwardly personified the New Deal ethos of public service. Seemingly above reproach, Hiss was refined, handsome, and a gentleman, and reportedly came to Washington after being transfixed by a radio address of Franklin Roosevelt calling for national renewal.
Chambers was none of these things. He was brilliant but was also, one might say, "off the grid." Born to a highly dysfunctional family, a dropout at Columbia, racked by depression and self-doubt, something of a vagabond, Chambers had cut short his early promising writing career to spy for the Soviet Union. However, one harrowing year after his literal escape from a life of espionage, Chambers found bourgeois redemption in an unexpected opportunity at Time magazine as the books editor. At Time, Chambers succeeded marvelously under Henry Luce, America's media emperor of mid-century. In numerous political, philosophical, and religious pieces, Chambers voiced Luce's sense of modern America's spiritual and political disorientation and quickly became one of Luce's featured writers. However, Chambers' decision in 1948 to testify as a former Communist agent against Communists he had once organized against America ended his glorious run with the publication.
Naming Hiss to the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a Communist agent earned Chambers the full disdain of much of the political and media leadership, and was, in retrospect, the beginning of the deep social, cultural, and political divides that continue to mark American life between its elites and petit bourgeoisie. Chambers' fear was that subversive activity had continued in the ten years between his exit from Communist activity in 1938 and 1948, the year he first testified before Congress (he first revealed his traitorous conduct in 1939 to Adolf Berle, Director of Security at the Department of State). Chambers thought America was oblivious to the spiritual and philosophical degradations that surrounded it, and he believed his testimony would prove to be an exemplary sign of contradiction, calling forth the nation's latent spirit. He referred to the federal trial of Alger Hiss, truly one of the greatest trials of the 20th century, as one involving "two faiths." "At heart," Chambers observed, "the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time–Communism and Freedom–came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men." After a second federal trial in 1950, Hiss was judged guilty of perjury for lying about sending secret government documents to Chambers and for claiming that he had not seen Chambers since 1937. The perjury conviction masked the much larger crime of treason that Hiss was never charged with by authorities because of the statute of limitations.
Witness is part espionage drama, part political thriller, part indictment of the self-righteousness of progressive New Dealers; above all, the text's soulful depth emerges from the intellectual and spiritual strength that lifted Chambers above the maddening ideology he had served. The title's manifold meanings point to Chambers' lasting significance as a thinker and writer about the condition of modernity, the nature of ideology, and the irrepressible feature of religion in human nature and politics. The meaning he ascribed to his conversion underscored how the political distortions of the 20th century emerged from the philosophical errors that had preceded them.
Unlike the disenchantment of many Western intellectuals who left Communism because of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s but remained committed to various shades of socialist politics, Chambers' conversion was root and branch. He described his exit from Communism in this manner:
What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step. If I had rejected only Communism, I would have rejected only one political expression of the modern mind, the most logical because the most brutal in enforcing the myth of man's material perfectibility.
This statement exemplifies Chambers' conviction that much of modern thought enthrones the autonomy of reason. The intellectuals who had left Communism sensed it was wrong, but did not really believe that another philosophical approach was right. Communism's barbarity repelled them but, "Not grasping the source of the evil they sincerely hate, such ex-Communists in general make ineffectual witnesses against it."
Standing apart from liberal anti-Communists, Chambers forcefully argued that Communism must be rejected in the name of something other than 20thcentury modern liberalism. The Communist vision "is the vision of man's mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man's liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man's destiny." The problem was that man's belief that he could order his existence without the insights of biblical religion and premodern philosophy had not equaled liberation but instead had left the human person in the grip of naked power.
Related to this proposition was Chambers's counsel that political freedom must be independently grounded in God, the human soul, and the irreducible dignity of the person—what Chambers termed the biblical understanding of man. As he wrote in Witness, "political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible." These propositions make Whittaker Chambers a dissident voice within the modern political experience. If Communism and progressivism were the effectual truth of philosophic modernity, as Chambers urged, then their defeat had to come from outside the well-worn path of hyper-rationalist thought.
Of course, as citizens of late-modernity who inhabit stumbling civil societies and political orders that may still be saved, or, as we might fear, may continue an inexorable slide into impotence, if not worse, we need Chambers's counsel if we are to recover the truth that can save us. Chambers' enduring relevance abides in his diagnosis of a West "sick to death" from the philosophical and religious choices it had made in the modern era. Man had too easily concluded that he creates his reality through his own mind and consent. In the 20th century, the horrific consequences for the human person, for liberty, and for civilization itself were the piles of dead bodies sacrificed by the terror regimes in pursuit of a liberationist politics that ended in man organizing the world against man.
Alger Hiss, American diplomat convicted of perjury.
The West itself, Chambers feared, was listless at the moment when it most needed strength. Chambers argued that the West's weakness grew out of its tacit adoption of many of the philosophical errors on which Communism rested. A larger Western conversion, Chambers boldly urged, similar in many respects to his personal conversion, would have to be made if Communism and its philosophical underpinnings were to be defeated. The West would have to emerge from its deep-seated materialism, its confusion over the nature of the person and his dignity, and its detached understanding of the free society's conservative origins. This could happen, Chambers observed, only if the West reengaged the truth about God and man.
Chambers' diagnosis troubles us today because of the West's retention of so many of the ideas that shaped Communism. We still remain distant, if not cut off, from the intellectual and religious sources that shaped the West from its beginning. The contemporary West still asserts that reality should be understood through empirical reason alone, that man is merely a highly evolved creature, or that liberty is only a useful fiction because history, science, economics, and the state are the real movers carrying man forward. Chambers' witness and writings controvert this ideological reduction of man. He remains, as William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, a voice "that is magnificent in tone, speaking to our time from the center of sorrow, from the center of the earth."
Richard M. Reinsch is a Fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., the editor of the Online Library of Law and Liberty, and is the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.