On Whittaker Chambers and Right and Wrong
August 12, 2011 11 Comments
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.