Whittaker Chambers’ life was a witness to the horrors and reality of communism. Witness remains one of the most (if not the most) erudite, philosophical, and powerful repudiation of communism ever printed. The story itself is as gripping as any espionage novel or legal drama and it stayed on top of the bestseller list for over a year and continues to be reprinted.
Guy F. Burnett writes: The life of Whittaker Chambers was as astonishing as it was complex. Throughout the course of his life, he was a communist, a conservative, a spy, an informant, an editor of Time Magazine, an editor of the Daily Worker, an atheist, a Quaker, and a friend to both Alger Hiss and William F. Buckley, Jr. At any given point of his life, his enemies were legion.
From the experiences of his life and the copious amount of books he devoured, Chambers became a deeply thoughtful and complex man—a man who understood the flaws in both communism and the West’s weakness against it. Chambers brought the struggle to the forefront of the American consciousness, and became one of the key figures in the intellectuals’ battle for hearts and minds. He stood as a witness of the horrors of communism in both ideology and practice.
In the Foreword to his masterpiece Witness, Chambers writes a letter to his children about the book he is going to publish. With a soul-searching candor, he anticipates his children—and indeed every reader—asking him: “Why, then, do men become Communists? How did it happen that you, our gentle and loved father, were once a Communist?” His answer is short but powerful: “Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind.” Chambers’ life was proof that his assertion was correct.
“Chambers, after a gradual and sober consideration of what communism really was, broke with the underground, the Party, and the whole notion of Marxism, and fled. His wife and children in tow, he moved to a small cottage in Florida, where he stayed up all night, writing and keeping watch for the agents he knew would try and find him.”
He was born in 1901 and grew up in Long Island in a lower-middle class family. By his own account, his family had their share of problems, and his childhood was anything but idyllic. His father would spend long absences from home, eventually leaving altogether, and his mentally ill grandmother tried several times to murder the family in their sleep.
“Shorn of traditional morality, Chambers noted a devious nature in the way the communist faithful conducted themselves. Publicly, they advocated “peace” and “social justice” but privately believed modern man couldn’t be reached through the mind or soul – only through bombs and submission.”
In his autobiography Witness, he recalls that he didn’t have any friends in school, and that from a young age he was enamored with books and languages. His grades were always higher than those around him, and eventually they earned him matriculation into Columbia University where he studied under such luminaries as Professor Mark Van Doren. In Cold Friday, a collection of letters and a second autobiographical manuscript posthumously published, he wrote, “Politically, I was a conservative when I entered Columbia…I was inclined to believe that Calvin Coolidge might be another Abraham Lincoln.” He was also religious, believing “the source of all authority is God” and that “From Him, the line of authority passes to the authority of the State.”
During his time at Columbia, he began to soak in the fashionable intellectual thought that the world was in a crisis and World War I was a symptom of the crisis that would compel humanity to either work together or destroy each other. Van Doren and his colleagues would postulate that industrialization had brought the world to the final crisis and Chambers recalls that by the end of his sophomore year his brain was a “hodgepodge…a spiral nebula which caught up the whirling dust and fragments of literary and philosophical ideas….” He found mockery to be the weapon of choice used by his professors to tear down everything in the way of their perceived world crisis, and suddenly the traditions and beliefs Chambers once held were steadily eroded away.
“Even the difference between communism and socialism was ‘so slight it would be difficult to slip a razor blade between them.’ When Chambers brought this up after his break with communism to a group of communist sympathizers and fellow travelers, they reacted violently and refused to believe it.”
Even more destructive to him, however, was the realization that nothing was offered as a replacement to the sudden vacuum. He was introduced to, and eventually persuaded that, communism was the only solution to the world crisis. As he wrote, “I became convinced that the intelligence and power of the West were no longer able to solve the continuing crisis.” He left Columbia, believing it could no longer teach him anything, and began to be more active in the Communist Party.
“Gone were the traditions and rules of the old morality and politics, and in their place was the simpler idea that God does not exist and therefore man was free to build the world as he saw fit. Communism loudly proclaimed to be the new destiny of humanity unencumbered by the false traditions of the past.”
When his younger brother committed suicide not long after, he resolutely declared that he would live to change the world and stop the crisis that caused so much pain and death. He became a committed Communist Party member and began to write for the Daily Worker and The New Masses.
Chambers’ seduction by Marxism and eventual embrace of communism is instructive. He recognized the world was in turmoil (not knowing the cause of it— instead, he found a solution in the misguided Marxist theory of history) and tried to do something about it. He wrote in Witness, “The Communist vision is the vision of man without God.” Gone were the traditions and rules of the old morality and politics, and in their place was the simpler idea that God does not exist and therefore man was free to build the world as he saw fit.
Communism loudly proclaimed to be the new destiny of humanity unencumbered by the false traditions of the past. Marx, and more especially Lenin, taught Chambers that the world was dying and that mankind had reached its historical limit. Only by fighting the world and everything it stood for until “his dying breath” could mankind finally do something to fix the world. This is how he interpreted Leninism, and this is why, as Sam Tanenhaus put it in his book Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, “he had rededicated himself with a soldier’s faith” to serving the Soviet Union which embodied the triumphant communist struggle.
While working as a writer for The New Masses, Chambers was approached by the Communist Party, who asked him to go underground and become a handler for several spy rings already established in Washington, DC. He accepted the position and began to work with other high-powered communists, including up-and-coming State Department star Alger Hiss. He grew especially close to Hiss, which set the stage for one of the most tragic and divisive trials in American history. While he worked closely with them, he began to understand what animated communists and how they would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Read the rest of this entry »