Whittaker Chambers, Communism, and Islam
by ANDREW G. BOSTOM
July 11, 2011
Whittaker Chambers (April 1, 1901 - July 9, 1961)
Chambers on Communism, Christianity, and Freedom
Whittaker Chambers wrote a trenchant essay for Time (“Communists: Dr. Crankley’s Children”) in February, 1948 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Chambers was particularly intrigued by the success of Marx’s ideas despite historical developments which disproved Dr. Crankley’s assumptions:
He assumed, for example, that the spectacular poverty of industrial workers of his day would spread and deepen. The capitalist philosophers, who predicted rising living standards, were right.
Adapting German philosopher G.F. Hegel’s “dialectical method,” and respect for the state, Marx saw history as class conflicts (“thesis and antithesis”) whose final “synthesis” would result in a classless society. The life and character of Marx, Chambers argued, contained the “ingredients”—pity, hate, desire for power—of Marxism’s emotional force. Reflecting the “morals” of Marx’s atheistic dialectic, Chambers notes, fronts and purges soon followed.
Marx created the first Communist front organization. When the revolutions of 1848 swept Europe, he organized a workers’ club in Paris whose agitators had instructions not to mention Communism, but to emphasize democracy. Later, Marx sent 300 agents into Germany with instructions to organize Communist cells but to appear as good, hard-working liberals. In 1848 Marx himself revived the old Rheinische Zeitung; its masthead now proclaimed it an “organ of democracy.” Admitted Marx: “It was in reality nothing but a plan of war against democracy.” Marx also conducted the first Party purges. He denounced anyone who disagreed with him as an “unscientific socialist.” The usual instrument of execution was slander, from stories that the accused had embezzled workers’ funds to rumors that he had gonorrhea.
Marx despised the slow progress of “sentimental socialism.” Eventually he began to speak
… more and more of the necessity of “capturing” the state (with its police power) rather than of “destroying” the state, as other socialists hoped to do. Toward the end of his life he wrote the words “dictatorship of the proletariat” to describe the post-revolutionary period which was to precede the classless society. That phrase had always been buried in Marx’s thought; he had in fact used it in conversation. Written down, it was to become an extension of his own tyrannical political methods, the excuse for the most pitiless tyranny the world has ever seen.
Chambers described Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Lenin—as the leader of that “most terrible in the Marxist brood…who inherited the cold, disciplined logic necessary for the pursuit of power.” Lenin made this pathognomonic comment on religion in a November 1913 letter:
Every religious idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness…of the most dangerous kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds acts of violence and physical contagions…are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest “ideological” costumes…Every defense or justification of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a justification of reaction.
A Lenin dictum, Chambers observes, was: “The people themselves do not know what is good or bad for them.” Predictably, in 1917, he kidnapped the Russian state, and carnage ensued.
When the Russian people, without his help, snatched at democracy, he snatched it away from them. Like Father Marx, he knew what was best. He organized riots that weakened and, finally, a coup that overpowered the Kerensky government. He organized, as Marx had taught, a dictatorship of the proletariat (i.e., a disciplined little gang of power monopolists)…In his name…more men have been slaughtered than in Attila’s.
When Chambers broke with the Communist Party just before Christmas, 1938, he offered this litany of “political mistakes and crimes of the Communist Party” to his then collaborator in Soviet espionage, Alger Hiss, as justification:
…the Soviet Government’s deliberate murder by mass starvation of millions of peasants in the Ukraine and the Kuban [Southern Russia surrounding the KubanRiver, on the Black Sea between the Don Steppe, Volga Delta, and the Caucasus]; the deliberate betrayal of the German working class to Hitler by the Communist Party’s refusal to cooperate with Social Democrats against the Nazis; the ugly fact that the German Communist Party had voted in the Reichstag with the Nazis against the Social Democrats; the deliberate betrayal of the Spanish Republican government, which the Soviet Government was only pretending to aid, while the Communists massacred their political enemies in the Spanish prisons. This gigantic ulcer of corruption and deceit had burst, I said, in the great Russian purge when Stalin had consolidated his power by massacring thousands of the best men and minds in the Communist Party on lying charges.
Chambers soon came to understand that even the internecine violence of the Stalinist purges was consistent with the horrific logic—and quintessential evil—of Communism:
The human horror of the Purge was too close for me to grasp clearly its historical meaning. I could not have said then, what I knew shortly afterwards, that, as Communists, Stalin and the Stalinists were absolutely justified in making the Purge. From the Communist viewpoint, Stalin could have taken no other course, so long as he believed he was right. The Purge, like the Communist-Nazi pact later on, was the true measure of Stalin as a revolutionary statesman. That was the horror of the Purge—that acting as a Communist, Stalin had acted rightly. In that fact lay the evidence that Communism is absolutely evil. The human horror was not evil, it was the sad consequence of evil. It was Communism that was evil, and the more truly a man acted in its spirit and interest, the more certainly he perpetuated evil.
Stalin, Chambers reiterates, simply personified worse evil—“the greatest of fascist forms”—Communism:
The point was not that Stalin is evil, but that Communism is more evil, and that, acting through his person, it found its supremely logical manifestations. The important point was not the character of Stalin, but the character of Communism, which, with an intuitive grasp that was at once the source of his strength and his mandate to power, Stalin was carrying to its inevitable development as the greatest of fascist forms.
Indeed, “despite occasional pious statements to the contrary,” Chambers explained, the Communist Party functioned as a terrorist organization.
Its disclaimers are for the record. But its record of kidnappings, assassinations, and murders makes the actions of the old Terror Brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party [the underground brigade of the Socialist Revolutionary Party which carried out political assassinations in the early 20th century] look merely romantic. No argument can reach the Communist Party unless it sees in it some self-serving advantage. It respects only force. Only terror terrifies it.
When Chambers, as an ex-Communist, met former Soviet spy General Walter Krivitsky, who by then had also renounced Communism (and was assassinated not long afterward), Krivitsky asked him, “Is the Soviet Government a fascist government?” Chambers, despite “…all the emotions that had ever bound me to Communism [which] rose in a final spasm to stop my mouth,” answered, “Yes—the Soviet government is a fascist government.” Krivitsky believed that an early turning point had occurred—the internal revolt during the Bolshevik Revolution by sailors from the Kronstadt naval base, “sons of peasants” embodying the Russian people’s “instinctive surge for freedom”—Communism then “morphing” by its brutal repression of the uprising, into a malevolent fascism.
When they [the sailors] saw that Communism meant terror and tyranny, they called for the overthrow of the Communist Government and for a time imperiled it. They were bloodily destroyed or sent into Siberian slavery by Communist troops led in person by the Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, and by Marshall Tukhachevsky, one of whom was later assassinated, the other executed, by the regime they then saved.
But Chambers saw still deeper origins:
The fascist character of Communism was inherent in it from the beginning. Kronstadt changed the fate of millions of Russians. It changed nothing about Communism. It merely disclosed its character.
Chambers, in “Cold Friday”, a collection of writings composed after “Witness”, till a few weeks before his death, returns to the discussion of “the crux of Communism”—dialectical materialism—which he maintains the West fails to understand, at its peril.
This is the fact which absolutely sunders the mind of the Communist from the traditional mind of the West—which makes him in the mass a new breed in history. For our breeds, in this sense, are defined by the view we hold, unconsciously or not, of the world and its meaning, and the meaning of our lives in it. Obviously, a breed of men who hold that everything is in violent flux and change, moving by laws and in a pattern inherent in matter, and having nothing to do with God—obviously, that breed of men is different from the rest of mankind.
Unable or unwilling to perceive this profound difference, Chambers argues, the West engages in “puzzling,” if not “merely stupid” cultural exchanges with Communism, “which in the next breath it condemns as a barbaric and criminal force,” harboring the illusion that Communism and its votaries
…are about to undergo a change of mind (or heart) so that henceforth they will no longer act like Communists; they will be like us.
Chambers then elaborates what he believes is Communism’s “chief power in the West”—not Fifth Column subversion, as dangerous as that remains—but
…the power of Communism to manipulate responsive sections of the West to check, counteract, paralyze, or confuse the rest. Those responsive sections of the West were not Communist, and never had been. Most of the minds that composed them thought of themselves as sincerely anti-Communist. Communism manipulated them, not in terms of Communism, but in terms of the shared historical crisis—peace and social justice being two of the workable terms. They were free to denounce Communism and Communists (and also anti-Communists) after whatever flourishes their intellectual innocence or arrogance might choose. Communism asked no more. It cared nothing, at this point, about motives. It cared about results.
Chambers recognized the burgeoning of Communist power as being inexplicable
…except as Communism appeals to the divided mind of the West, making each of its advances exactly along the line of the West’s internal division, paralyzing each effort of the West to cope with it by touching some sympathetic nerve. The success of Communism…is never greater than the failure of all other faiths.
Through an involuntary process, borne of despair, Chambers ultimately rejected as illusions the Communist “mirage of Almighty Mind and its power to plan human salvation.” Chambers memorable description of this epiphany in “Witness” makes plain that from the outset his concerns extended beyond simply rejecting Communism.
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…What I sensed without being able to phrase it was what has since been phrased with the simplicity of an axiom: “Man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God man can only organize the world against man.” The gas ovens of Buchenwald and the Communist execution cellars exist first within our minds.
But even in the midst of this deeply religious experience, Chambers acknowledges his own indebtedness to reason—evident in the brilliant works he produced during the 23 years after renouncing Communism.
…[T]he torrent that swept through me in 1937 and the first months of 1938 swept my spirit clear to discern one truth: “Man without mysticism is a monster.” I do not mean, of course, that I denied the usefulness of reason and knowledge. What I grasped was that religion begins at the point where reason and knowledge are powerless and forever fail—the point at which man senses the mystery of his good and evil, his suffering and his destiny as a soul in search of God. Thus, in pain, I learned the distinction between wisdom and knowledge—knowledge, which however exalted, is seldom more than the making of careful measurements, and wisdom, which includes knowledge, but also includes man’s mystery.
Chambers cites a casual occurrence—focusing his gaze on the “delicate convolutions” of his young daughter’s ear—which in turn begot an “involuntary and unwanted” thought that led him, ultimately, away from Communism’s fanatical atheism, to a religious acceptance of belief in God.
…those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: “No those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.”
While all ex-Communists would agree they renounced Communism to be free, for Chambers, freedom itself is a manifestation of divinity.
Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.
And when Chambers made his dramatic assertion to an inquisitorial panel of largely hostile journalists, during a live August 27, 1948 radio broadcast of Meet The Press, that, “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may still be one,” he recounts in “Witness”:
I like to believe that some who heard it, heard at the same instant, its inward meaning. That meaning was that God, Who is a God of Mercy, is also the God of Whom it is written: “The God Who made iron grow—He wanted no slaves.”
Chambers was convinced that man’s most worthy imperative was the ceaseless endeavor to know God.
[M]an is driven by the noblest of his intuitions—the sense of his mortal incompleteness—and by hard experience. For man’s occasional lapses from God-seeking inevitably result in intolerable shallowness of thought combined with incalculable mischief in action.
In this latter conviction, he shared Dostoevsky’s Weltanschauung, dramatized, as Chambers remarks, on a “titanic scale” as tragedy in “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Idiot”, and comedy in “The Possessed”.
Against liberalism’s social optimism (progress by reform) and the social optimism of the revolutionary left (progress by force), Dostoevsky asserted the eternal necessity of the soul to be itself. But he discerned that the moment man indulged his freedom to the point where he was also free from God, it led him into tragedy, evil and often the exact opposite of what he had intended. In human terms there was no solution for the problem of evil.
Chambers personal practice of religion was nonconformist and eclectic, true to his own assessment, characterized in a September, 1954 letter to William Buckley:
I stand within no religious orthodoxy. The temptation to orthodoxy is often strong, never more than in an age like this one, especially in a personal situation like mine. But it is not a temptation to which I have found it possible to yield.
Although baptized in an Episcopalian Church (i.e., the Cathedral of St. John the Divine) after abandoning Communism, Chambers worshipped as a Quaker, but rejected the Quaker’s pacifism. Nonconformism aside, the salient features of Chambers personal religiosity were his Christian pantheism, philosemitism and accompanying intolerance of racial bigotry, and, however brooding, hope.
Rebecca West’s June, 1952 Atlantic Monthly review of “Witness,” despite her obvious ambivalence about Chambers’ behaviors and beliefs, extolled the autobiography:
…so just and so massive in its resuscitation of the past…Chambers writes as writers by vocation try to write, and he makes the further discoveries about reality, pushing another half-inch below the surface, which writers hope to make when they write.
Although expressly disinclined towards mystics and mysticism, West accurately represents the mystical tendencies in Chambers’ religious belief:
He now owns and works a large and productive farm in those parts [Westminster, Maryland], and his account of the sacrifices that he and his family have made to acquire that farm, and the joy they find in working it, reveals that he belongs to a certain well-recognized order of man. He believes that nature is an aspect of God, and that to grow crops and tend herds is a means of establishing communication with God…He is, in fact, a Christian mystic of the pantheist school…
“Witness” includes Chambers’ own beautifully evocative description of his “Christian pantheism,” captured in this lasting childhood recollection:
One day I wandered off alone and found myself before a high hedge that I had never seen before. It was so tall that I could not see over it and so thick that I could not see through it. But by lying flat against the ground, I wriggled between the provet stems. I stood up, on the other side, in a field covered from end to end, as high as my head, with thistles in full bloom. Clinging to the purple flowers, hovering over them, or twittering and dipping in flight, were dozens of goldfinches—little golden yellow birds with black, contrasting wings and caps. They did not pay the slightest attention to me, as if they had never seen a boy before. The sight was unexpected, the beauty was so absolute, that I thought I could not stand it and held to the hedge for support. Out loud, I said: “God.” It was a simple statement, not an exclamation, of which I would then have been incapable. At that moment, which I remembered through all the years of my life as one of its highest moments, I was closer than I would be again for almost forty years to the intuition that alone could give meaning to my life—the intuition that God and beauty are one.
Chambers’ December, 1946 Time cover essay on the nonpareil American black contralto, Marian Anderson, reveals how his Christian religious belief was philosemitic, and as a corollary, rejected the prevalent racial prejudice of that era.
At Salzburg, backdropped by magical mountains, where Austria’s great musical festivals were held before the war, and where he first heard Marian Anderson sing, Arturo Toscanini cried: “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.” Toscanini was hailing a great artist, but that voice was more than a magnificent personal talent. It was the religious voice of a whole religious people—probably the most God-obsessed (and man-despised) people since the ancient Hebrews. White Americans had withheld from Negro Americans practically everything but God. In return the Negroes had enriched American culture with an incomparable religious poetry and music, and its only truly great religious art—the spiritual. This religious and esthetic achievement of Negro Americans has found profound expression in Marian Anderson. She is not only the world’s greatest contralto and one of the very great voices of all time, she is also a dedicated character, devoutly simple, calm, religious. Manifest in the tranquil architecture of her face is her constant submission to the “Spirit, that dost prefer before all temples the upright heart and pure.”
Almost eleven years later, commenting on the Soviet Union’s cynical Middle Eastern policy of exploiting Arab Muslim hatred and paranoia, Chambers re-affirmed these sentiments in an October, 1957 essay for The National Review:
…Communism advances that disruptive master piece. We all know what it is, though no one likes to mention it. It is the State of Israel. At once, it becomes necessary to define our intentions clearly. A filthy anti-Semitism afflicts many minds in the West. Nothing is gained by denying it. So let us say flatly: in Christendom, no mind can claim to be civilized and, at the same time, be anti-Semitic, any more than an American mind can claim to be civilized and be anti-Negro. For all Christians, regardless of creed, the Vatican has defined the position once for all: “Spiritually, we are Semites.” Moreover, an immense compassion—mere goodwill is too genderless a term—before the spectacle of the Jewish tragedy in our century, must move our hourly understanding of what the State of Israel means in terms of hope fired by such suffering. Let us be quite sure we know this. For it is also necessary to look at Israel in terms of Middle East reality. Communism may lose friendly Egypt or Syria; it will look for purchasable pawns elsewhere. It is Israel, as an enemy, that Communism cannot afford to lose. [Chambers’ sobering assessment maintained only “…that the situation is hopeless…,” as he wrote in a November, 1957 letter to William Buckley. The letter also includes a sardonic reference to the enraged—and witless—reaction to this essay by pro-Arab ex-Communist Freda Utley: “Yet here is ben (sic, bint) Utli, frothing like a dervish…”]
Chambers’ relentless pursuit of truth in all matters, was prone to despairing conclusions. Yet his ultimate vision—imbued with religious faith—was one of hope. As a patient with chronic coronary artery disease (“angina”), Chambers sustained several non-fatal myocardial infarctions (“heart attacks”), prior to his July, 1961 death from a fatal heart attack. While recuperating from a November, 1952 heart attack in Baltimore’s St. Agnes Hospital, Chambers encountered a Passionist monk, Father Alan, whom he sensed was a kindred spirit. Seeking truth “greedily,” since “truth alone is felt to offer one austere, stripped hand-hold across a chasm,” Chambers decides to “cut through the careful irrelevancies of our talk,” query Father Alan, and gauge who he was.
I asked: “Father, what am I to answer those people who keep writing me that I was wrong to write in ‘Witness’ that I had left the winning side for the losing side? They say by calling the West the losing side, I have implied that evil can ultimately overcome good.” Father Alan studied his hands, which were lying in his lap. Then he glanced at me directly and asked: “Who says that the West deserves to be saved?”
Acknowledging the objections to such “unreasonably bleak” views, Chambers penultimate essay in “Cold Friday” sees hope—on his terms—in the mid-to late 1950s Eastern European revolts against Communist oppression.
In this age, hope is something that must be taken by the throat. That is to say, hope, to be durable and real, must begin with things exactly as they are, not as we suppose they were (even a few tranquillizing months ago), or as we wish they might be…The terms of hope are not to delude ourselves about this in order not to suffer in the shattering spins of fear that casts out hope…The deadly enemy of hope, its smiling murderer—is illusion…They [Eastern Europeans revolting against Communism] judge that hope for you (as it has been for them) can truly begin only when complacency has been eaten off as by an acid bath, consuming the temptation to illusion.
And Chambers concludes, appositely, with this stirring mystical vision of religious hope.
Put out of your mind so far as you can—at least in the way that a judge instructs a jury to put out of its mind a scrap of testimony that it has, nevertheless, plainly heard—what weighs and presses on us. The political revolution which reaches out for us. The scientific revolution. Put out of your mind for a moment the thermonuclear fear, the rocketry and the terrors that lie beyond. Under this appalling, dwarfing mass that troubles us—troubles us all the more because most of it we see the way an animal’s eye sees us at night, as shapeless patches of the darker dark—under this leaning overhang lives man: people in our undifferentiated millions, bounded by our household cares and happinesses, the fathers and mothers of children, grandfathers and grandmothers of grandchildren in whom we see the continuation of a pulse that began with the Creation.
Continued in Part Three.