On Whittaker Chambers and Right and Wrong

Fifty years ago last month, Whittaker Chambers died. Last month I turned 52 and finally finished his remarkable book, Witness. Whittaker Chambers was a Communist, and then a Soviet spy, when it mattered rather enormously. Appalled by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and profoundly by Stalin’s purges, Chambers finally broke with Communism and became an informant.

More to the point, Chambers found God, and identified the amoral atheism of Soviet Communism as a grievous threat to democracy — indeed, in his view, a peril likely to prevail because the Communists were more determined. No moral code, except steadfast adherence to the party line, constrained the Communists. If the party line dictated that you salute Nazi Germany and Trotsky one day, and then condemn Nazi Germany and Trotsky the next, you did both with resolution and nary a hint of cognitive dissonance. It mattered only that the party cause, and the ultimate dialectical resolution, be advanced.

Chambers believed Communists would prevail. Yet he fought their spy ring by testifying against them. He identified several individuals in American government who were Communist spies, including, most famously, Alger Hiss — the State Department functionary who had been at Yalta. And there begins a fascinating chapter of America’s culture wars. Harvard-educated Alger Hiss versus working-class farmer Whittaker Chambers. Chambers testified by himself. Hiss defended himself with a battery of the best lawyers in the nation.

Deny, always deny, as Chambers described the Communist imperative, because lying for the cause was a secular virtue. And Hiss predictably denied that he was a Communist until he died, in his 90s. But he was convicted for perjury, and indeed he was a Communist, and a Soviet spy. His defenders were legion. Two Supreme Court justices testified as character witnesses on his behalf. The New Deal elite overwhelmingly favored Hiss. And they were wrong.

An “expert” avoids all the small errors and sweeps on to the grand fallacy. American distrust of intellectuals — that impulse that Europeans deride as benighted — usefully checks the ideological condescension and statist urgencies of America’s intellectuals. On the American class structure in the 1930s, Chambers quotes a European at a dinner party: “In the United States, the working class are Democrats. The middle class are Republicans. The upper class are Communists.”

In the Chambers camp were the common men and women, whom God, as Lincoln said, must have dearly loved because he made so many of them. Most of us are common men and women. We have no ancestry or coat of arms except as kitsch. We sport no ostentatious Yale chair in our office and rarely correct another’s grammar. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and sweetly urge the former.

Just to have a clear sense of right and wrong matters. What made the Communists in Chambers’ day so formidable — what convinced him they would win — was their subordination of right and wrong to the party line. That basic impulse — understanding right and wrong, at times decency and indecency — mattered nothing to the Communists. Anything goes, so long as it advances the prosperity of the party.

As it happens, Chambers was mistaken. Communism did not prevail. Americans, common men and women, understood the peril of the Communist ideology and fought it. As an instance in understanding the difference between right and wrong, there is no greater world historical example.


11 Responses to On Whittaker Chambers and Right and Wrong

  1. Ela Macdowell says:

    Can’t wait to print and read another of your excellent posts.

  2. lbwoodgate says:

    Yes but will the common man and women in America today be victims of corporatism. People may not go to a gulag for failure to tow the Party line but they do become easy prey for marketing hustlers. Never mind if our water and air are polluted with their success, they may be one of the lucky ones with a job and health benefits to address the illnesses that such pollution causes. A trade off?

    But I do understand it is an apple an oranges comparison yet still demonstrative of how most people are easily swayed to their own disadvantage.

    • I think you over-demonize corporations. They do bad things at times, like the rest of us, but they’re basically a business structure that facilitates the creation of capital and jobs. That is, they’re a net positive. Those “marketing hustlers” are entrepreneurs — and when they commit fraud, as they surely sometimes do, they should be put in prison. But our economy, even damaged, is the largest, by far, in the world because of that entrepreneurial impulse. I confess I do not understand what the left wants. Is corporate America a zero-sum game against all that is decent and good? How would we address our serious economic crisis without healthy corporations? The left appears to wish a robust economy without any of the tools to achieve it, and with steadfast warfare on the chief instruments of economic growth. What matters most, it seems to me, is having a job, which means a company willing to hire, which means an economic environment that doesn’t demonize corporations and capital formation. That’s why Wisconsin went from being at the bottom of the business-friendly ranking to near the top in one year. Illinois businesses are moving to Wisconsin — the opposite of what used to happen. Why? Wisconsin is now a right-to-work state and business-friendly. That’s how you gin up an economy. Corporations are fairly predictable. They’re wary of costs and bullish about return on investment. Which is how you and me make out okay with our 401k plans. There are plenty of rules and regulations to snag the corporate evil-doers — but the corporate form itself, the citizens doing business, need a break, because they’re what’s staving off a depression, if we’ll let them.

  3. John Myste says:

    You are so damn odd. I either love your blog or hate it and I am still deciding which one. You are growing on me, though.

    • Welcome John. How am I odd? (Open question, not defensive.)

  4. John Myste says:

    Let me emphasize this: nothing “reckless” has happened – except the rhetoric. I beg to differ. Lots of recklessness happened. If not for the vigorous debate I seriously doubt the S & P could have downgraded us. They almost said as much in the thesis statement of their PDF that they published.

    Even those who think it was politically motivated, it would seem must concede to this. Also, we already committed to paying all of those debts. We were not trying to get additional spending, which Congress can always refuse. We were trying to pay for the purchases we already made.

    Yes, but you are so odd, the way you express yourself. I think I like it.

    A cheeto, that’s what I need. Everything makes more sense with cheetos.

  5. pwiinholt says:

    I’m sorry. I usually have no trouble understanding your posts, but I’m not following this one. It seems a little oblique.
    Are you suggesting that, like the Communist Party, there are certain parties within the American system that have the same policy of “subordination of right and wrong to the party line”?? If so, I would agree. I don’t know if we’d agree on which ones…

    • No, absolutely not. In fact, that tendency of American political rhetoric disgusts me. I think there was something unique about the Communist Party, something in its eschatology that got reinforced by the massive fascist pathologies of the 20th century and produced a horrible distortion of human nature, and an urgent embrace of “anything goes” at the human moment when technology and socioeconomics made “anything goes” its maximum frightfulness. Chambers considered the evil a function of atheism. I disagree, with this qualification. The engine of Communist atrocity was indeed a heady atheism — an atheism that simply stopped at the nihilist maxim, “if God is dead, anything goes,” and had yet to develop any textured moral framework. In other words, it had all of the evangelical fervor of the most intense religion, without any of the moral constraint. It was the worst combination imaginable. But it was not atheism per se that locked Communist (and especially Stalinist) ideology into its evil. It was unbridled atheism, coupled with religiously fervent belief in the triumphant end-game. It was, in a word, modern, before postmodern. I intended history, with perhaps some cautionary psychology — not comparison to current events.

      • pwiinholt says:

        You may not have intended it, fair enough. And yet, through your comments I can’t help but see a parallel to some current events.
        I would consider myself an Agnostic and I’ve always been wary of, what I like to call fundamentalist atheists. These are the atheists who, in their rebellion against religion, have thrown everything related to it out. Falsely assuming that morality can only be rooted in religion, out that goes as well. It’s kind of an adolescent atheism that corresponds to your comment of it not having “any textured moral framework” and having a compulsion to bash religion. However, I think it does, in a way, have a moral framework, -the Nihilism and (naively) Nietzschian concept that anything goes is a moral framework, although not a good one.
        In my opinion, though, it is a function of “fundamentalism” rather than atheism. As I said, I can’t help but see the exact same tendencies in the fundamentalist religions or extreme right wing members of the American (and increasingly in Canada as well) political spectrum.
        For example, in spite of a majority of voters indicating a willingness to include increased revenues in the new economic plan, and people like Warren Buffet even chiming in that increased taxation of the wealthy may be justified, it is like reasoning with a mountain when it comes against certain conservative elements and fundamentalist ideologies within the government. Politically or religiously, these are people who are acting with the same blind subscription to the party or the faith as you are describing with the Communists. There is a matter of degree, certainly, But the essence is the same.
        I think “cautionary psychology” is needed, and is perhaps an understatement.

  6. For a somewhat alternative approach to Whittaker Chambers and the issue of winning and losing sides, readers might also enjoy this essay from his family: “Ghosts and Phantoms

    • Thank you David. What an excellent resource. Our approaches are “alternative” in the sense that your family portrait is more textured and understands Whittaker better. But I don’t believe our approaches are contradictory. Perhaps the trope of decline is more prominent in your portrait than it wold be in mine. And that is probably the essential difference between Whittaker Chambers, as I vaguely understand him, and myself. He was pessimistic, with a deep philosophical grasp of what it truly meant to be pessimistic (like E.M. Cioran), and I am more essentially optimistic. Thank you for the visit and the link.

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