Upon publication 70 years ago, Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography, “Witness,” immediately became recognized as a stirring spiritual investigation of communism.
Chambers’ resounding verdict is that communist ideology corrupts the souls of its adherents, justifying violence to achieve ideological resolution of the total crisis of the modern world.
Chambers, a spy for Soviet military intelligence, would set up a communist espionage network in Washington, D.C., with many journalists and officials ensconced at the federal government during New Deal.
Chambers received copies of reports and documents from the government that were copied by this cell. He then relayed this material to the Soviet Union’s intelligence handlers.
After a profound Christian conversion, Chambers realized how communist ideology persecuted or destroyed the human spirit. He would leave communism in 38.
Chambers’ spy network consisted of men such as Harry Dexter White, a senior Treasury Department official who would be appointed in 1946 as U.S. director of the International Monetary Fund.
Alger Hiss was another prominent member. Hiss, a Harvard Law School graduate, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He served in an array of federal government posts; at the State Department, he was part of America’s Yalta delegation.
Chambers and Hiss were close friends as members of a communist cell. Their families often socialized together. Chambers tried to bring Hiss with his in communism when he left it in 1937 for a Christmas visit. Hiss was committed to the revolutionary cause, but it was futile.
That fact would remain true for Hiss’s entire life. In 1996, he died. He never admitted to having engaged in espionage but maintained that he was framed in Chambers’s name.
On Jan. 21, 1950, after almost two years of hearings, lawsuits, and two federal trials—the first ended in a mistrial—Alger Hiss was pronounced guilty on two counts of perjury about espionage. He was sentenced for five years in federal prison.
Hiss had lied to the Soviet Union about his efforts while he was a high ranking State Department official in 1930s. Chambers’ testimony against Hiss—first in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948, and then in federal court—became impossible to reject because of the legendary evidence he hid in a pumpkin patch on his farm.
The so-called Pumpkin Papers on microfilm provided evidence that Hiss had in reality procured State Department documents for Chambers.
The Hiss Chambers trial was a national sensation. The first installment of now familiar episodic clashes in America’s cultural wars, the trial unlocked for Americans the degree of past communist penetration of the federal government.
But the case means more than a progressive left that refused to admit Hiss’s guilt (which remained true for decades) and an anti-communist right that wanted justice for Hiss’s betrayal of the country.
Chambers’ turn against communism also was sparked by his acute awareness of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union. Those murders spoke to a new reality Chambers accepted—the existence of the soul.
The scientific rationalism he believed in as a communist “fell from me like dirty rags,” Chambers wrote, along with “the whole web of the materialist modern mind.” This materialism had stifled human spirit, “paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God.”
What replaces Communism
Why do men break from communism, Chambers asked in “Witness”?
They are not likely to break down completely and retain their faith in the necessary emancipation for man from traditional institutions of property and religion. They are not dissatisfied with the destination of egalitarianism and elimination of capitalism but because of their tactics and strategies. They aren’t ready to take upon themselves the crimes of history.
But what replaces communism isn’t a new vision or the return to the West’s ancient faith in God and reason, but various forms of leftist thought, less violent or anti-democratic in operation.
Chambers described his conversion from communism to Christianity as a spiritual root-and -branch transformation, where he accepted the love and graces a providential God. Chambers believed God called him to “fight for freedom.” If he did this, God had told him, “all will be well.”
The first stirring inside Chambers, he wrote, began the day he noticed the shape of his daughter’s ear. She was so amazingly made, he observed, that he saw the finger of God in his daughter’s creation.
Communism’s materialist vision of man had lost its hold on him.
Chambers also said that he quit communism because he heard the screams and rage of those who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered in the ideology. Chambers concluded that acknowledging the depth and significance of their screams was to hear their souls with his own soul.
In this, Chambers departed from the murderous realm of Soviet communism, where the crimes of history were easily justifiable so that an end to history could be reached and man’s liberation achieved.
‘Decision to Die’
One of Chambers’ memorable statements in “Witness” is this: “A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites—God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism.”
To believe in man’s essential dignity was to have an answer to Vladimir Lenin’s or Joseph Stalin’s argument that ideological murders were justified. Chambers says that the soul is created and marked by God as an immortal being who cannot be destroyed in communist ideology.
Chambers told his wife that in leaving communism, “we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” We made “the decision to die, if necessary, rather than to live under communism.”
Some people do not realize that communism appeared to be ascendant in the 20th Century, both technologically and morally. Chambers never believed that the West was capable of defeating it.
Leaders found that Communism was fulfilling because it gave them both a reason for living and a reason for dying. That faith was found in Karl Marx’s counsel—“Philosophers have explained the world: it is necessary to change the world.”
According to Chambers, the conviction of the communist and the fellow traveler was this powerful belief: “Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die.”
Chambers believed Hiss would not admit guilt or express remorse. Chambers had admitted to his betrayal and he knew it was wrong. It was a betrayal that violated everything a man should cherish. His loyalty was to an ideology as well as to the Soviet government.
The controversy between Hiss & Chambers revealed a divided America. When subpoenaed to testify by House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, Chambers was a senior editor at Time magazine, then a serious weekly periodical on politics and culture.
Chambers would lose his job and be ridiculed in the press. Leading politicians and Supreme Court justices, including President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson, publicly defended Hiss.
Fighting for Political Freedom
Chambers’ verdict on this abusive treatment was that when he took up his sling and struck Hiss, he also struck Goliath:
I was able to hit the forces of the great socialist revolution which, in the name liberalism, spasmodically and incompletely, some formlessly but always in the same direction, have been encroaching its ice caps over the nation for the past two decades.
Chambers makes a radical judgment about the shape of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, as its main architects had as their goal the remaking of America, the replacement of business with politics.
Chambers’s work would have made Americans realize just how far the transformation could take. Chambers’ viciousness towards Chambers was not a sign of progressive goals. How dare anyone question the efforts made by one of the progressive cohorts?
Chambers stridently argued that communists, socialists, and progressives really couldn’t grasp “the differences between themselves.” An accusation that Hiss was a communist struck many progressives as an attack upon them because he was of their circles. How could a Soviet agent be able to share their goals?
Chambers answered by pointing to the rationalism of the modern liberal project, which believed that man’s mind could constitute and change man’s reality. This vision was in sync with communist faith.
The progressive shared the communist position that replaced right and wrong, good and evil, with “the morally corrupting distinction between ’progress’ and ‘reaction,’” as Dan Mahoney articulates.
Chambers’ “Witness” argued that he was fighting for Western political freedom, but that freedom could not be defended by modern liberalism. Freedom, Chambers said, “is a need of the soul.” In “striving toward God,” he wrote, the “soul strives continually after a condition of freedom.”
But our freedom demands inner freedom. Thus, Chambers wrote, “political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.”
In the end, that’s what Chambers’ “Witness” stands for, the freedom of our souls to choose the good and to reject the train wreck of ideological lies that have flooded the modern mind.
This is counsel we need in our time, as the dehumanizing ideologies of the left continue to arrest people’s souls.
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