Words from the Center of Sorrow
"IF THE WEST CAN FIND no voice better than Senator McCarthy's to rally its cause, or even to lead its forlorn hope, then the West must have lost that creative virtue, the loss of which spells doom for those who have lost it . . . A distaste for Communism and socialism is not a program."
Even out of context one could swiftly establish that the Senator in question was named Joseph, not Eugene. Yet few Americans, even today, would guess that the admonitory voice and the bitter sentiment about the Right came from Whittaker Chambers, the man so long cast as the eminence grise behind the Great Red Hunt of the 1950s. That gloomy misjudgment was Chambers' considerable cross to bear during the closing decade of his shadowed life. For the rest of us it is a significant loss that a mind as remarkable as his and a life lived so close to the shaping struggles of this century are still obscured by controversy and caricature.
In 1948, when Chambers testified that Alger Hiss had been an espionage agent of Moscow, he hoped to awaken America to the relentless political struggles of the era. The country was not ready for the revelation. What resulted was no intellectual inquiry but a raw political charade of blame and guilt. The Left was deeply discredited. The Right was besmirched and divided by the tactics of Senator McCarthy. Almost everyone, liberals in particular, heaped abuse on Chambers, who was regarded, at worst, as some sort of a malignant monster; at best, as an informer who had nothing to offer but the bare facts of his accusation.
In 1952 Chambers published Witness. It was one of the most wide-ranging American autobiographies ever written. But the enduring revulsion against Chambers all but buried it critically. Now, nine years after his death, readers have a new occasion to study the lineaments of Whittaker Chambers' character and thought. He emerges as a man with an apocalyptic turn of mind and a weakness for describing himself in Promethean terms (I wanted to "give the children of men a slightly better chance to fight a battle already largely foredoomed"). He is a man who can speak of Communists as cobras and Socialists as pit-vipers. Yet his tragic concerns thrust far beyond such passion—and beyond simple-minded notions of crusading against Communism by police methods and the more ranting assertion of American virtues. Chambers scorned such methods. For he saw and eloquently argues that survival—if it is to be won at all—will depend on the moral qualities of society, on spiritual strength, on unflinching perception of our time's cruel complexities.
Stock Tips. His letters would be fascinating and touching documents even if the author were not infamous. Buckley sought out Chambers in the seclusion of his Maryland farm and prevailed on him to contribute to the National Review. But what began as a professional alliance (wary on Chambers' part) grew into an absorbing polemical discourse and finally into a true friendship.
Chambers is sometimes cheerfully diverting. He discourses on mushrooms. He jocularly informs Buckley that his son John is a "great eater of your whoreson flapjacks." He passes along crazy, bullish stock market tips—some of which turn out to be crazy like a fox. Reformed revolutionaries, Chambers observes wryly, when they can learn to stifle their scruples, often do well in finance. He is a notable coiner of cranky but sharp-eyed political epigrams: "The illusion of Yalta : that the Communists yearned for peace if only we'd be kind to them. The illusion of Geneva : that the Communists are bent on world war unless we are kind to them."
But Chambers was also haunted by philosophical and political despair, beset by sickness and debt. He had qualms about contributing to the National Review at all. Missing deadline after deadline, his mind and pen ever poised to examine any key issue at Hegelian lengths, Chambers must have been difficult to fit into the everyday demands of editorship. Clearly the man and his words were worth all the trouble. It is hard not to agree with Buckley's valediction composed after Chambers' death in 1961. He speaks "to our time from the center of sorrow."
"Out of my weakness and folly (but also out of my strength)," Chambers once wrote, "I committed the characteristic crimes of my century." He is perhaps too hard on himself. Among the century's crimes are indifference and superficiality. Chambers was guilty of neither. When he joined the Communist Party in 1925, he did so only after much study had led him to believe that capitalism had little hope either of avoiding war or of building a just society. International Communism held out at least the possibility of doing so. In 1937 when he resolved to leave the Party—in the middle of the Moscow purges—he had come to regard Communism as an absolute evil. But he placed little hope in the U.S. or the European democracies either. How could he? Fascism, despair, hysteria, exploitation, economic anguish, war and the threat of war—all those things that Marx had taught him would herald the destruction of capitalism were all about him. What fell from Chambers, as he explained, was not merely Communism but "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."
In the Letters, Chambers sees the materialistic West on the point of grave decline, and includes the U.S.S.R. in the West. He scorns liberals who "would like to suppose that the world can be made reasonable." Common-sense U.S. positivism is equally misguided. "Every garage mechanic in the West," Chambers writes, "insofar as he believes in nuts and bolts but asks: The Holy Ghost, what's that?' shares the substance of those same beliefs . . . That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within."
These views are not new. Today, perhaps even more than when Chambers wrote the words, there is no visible, massive body of evidence to disprove them. Yet if Chambers' judgment is fashionable, his spiritual trajectory was not traditional. For one thing he became a Quaker, not a Catholic. If he found God, he did not wholly retreat into the pursuit of private salvation. "I am the horrid brat of historicity," he explains to Buckley. The dominant experience of his life, and of the age, had involved concepts of history and political change—and Chambers could not quite forgo them. But for the great labor of trying to save "the unsavable society" politically, Chambers invoked the classic symbol of stoic stalemate. "We must believe that Sisyphus is happy," he quotes Camus to Buckley. And he clearly saw himself as Sisyphus.
The world has largely assumed that Chambers approved all the machinery of anti-Communist harassment and repression dreamed up by the alarmed community. Far from it. The Right, Chambers writes, must show "special scrupulousness in the civil liberties field." Bitterly inveighing against the 1954 denial of Paul Robeson's passport, he adds that Robeson's mistreatment "puts you and me and the next him in jeopardy." Buckley urges him to support McCarthy publicly. Chambers acknowledges that he fought in the same war, but refuses. "For the Right to tie itself in any way to Senator McCarthy is suicide . . . What did he really accomplish? I would say: very close to nothing but noise."
Unhealed Wound. Chambers was haunted by memories of violence and sacrifice: the Soviet purges, the Nazi final solution for the Jews, countless heroic individual attempts to destroy Communist officials who perpetrated acts of special beastliness. His ultimate ethical condemnation of the Communist state, and of this century, stemmed from the cruelties now worked upon the people. "A man," he wrote, "can be simply or savagely—above all, pointlessly—wiped out, regardless of what he is, means, hopes, dreams or might become. This reality cuts across our minds like a wound whose edges crave to heal, but cannot." "Perhaps the great sin," he felt, "is to say: 'It will heal; it has healed.' "
Any attempt to argue that similar cruelties have existed in other eras he regarded as an excuse for not facing the truth. It was this sense of tragedy that made him regard the American pursuit of happiness as childish. America, he sometimes thought, is a "madhouse" whose occupants refuse to face historic complexities, or admit that history plays for keeps. "America has always secretly despised the mind," he approvingly quotes from a National Review article. "Now mind is taking its revenge. We need it desperately, and it simply isn't there."
The result in U.S. politics is shallowness, a kind of provincial frivolity, mere tactical counterpunching. Anti-Communism, for Chambers, is not policy. He is despairing when neither the U.S. under President Eisenhower nor Buckley's National Review perceived that Khrushchev is not Stalin and that the tactics and necessities of the Communist world are changing. U.S. policy should adapt accordingly. It cannot continue along the line from which the only alternatives are retreat or atomic holocaust. "The real anti-Communists," he berates Buckley, "are in the satellites ... At the moment the Poles are making history. The West is making politics."
Chambers is better at criticizing programs than creating them. When he ventures into political predictions, he sounds as he does in his stock market forecasts: unworldly but sometimes shrewd. "I had hoped that Mr. Nixon could perform this healing bond holding the Right in line, while a Republican Left formed about him a core," he wrote in 1958, adding hastily, "I do not mean Liberal Republican. Theodore Roosevelt would know exactly what I mean."
Life and Growth. Chambers' hope for Richard Nixon—who had backed him against Hiss long before—is one of the curiosities of the book. It declined shortly before the 1960 elections after a lunch the two men had together. "If he were a great, vital man," Chambers divulged to Buckley later, "bursting with energy, ideas (however malapropos), sweeping grasp of the crisis, and (even) intolerant convictions, I think I should have felt: Yes, he must have it ... I did not have this feeling."
Richard Nixon did not win in 1960. And Chambers died the next year. Unforgiving history—it would perhaps have surprised Chambers to learn—gave Nixon another chance at power in 1968. Yet Chambers' advice to Buckley on the proper stance of the Republican Party still seems relevant. "Conservatism is alien to the very nature of capitalism, whose love of life and growth is perpetual change . . . Capitalism, whenever "it seeks to become conservative in any quarter, at once settles into mere reaction . . . Conservatism [must] accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses [otherwise] it is foredoomed to futility and petulance."
Chambers is often portentous. He is never petulant. And whether his clandestine effort to educate America in the realities of history was futile or not, only history will tell. Reading the book one cannot doubt the consuming sincerity of his effort. It is hard, moreover, not to be grateful for those small, human moments in letters which prove that Chambers, despite all the dialectic, was able to enjoy simple things without too much sense of shadowed destiny. "Spring," he once wrote happily to Buckley, "is always our undoing."