April 3, 2008
THE TERRIBLE BOOK:
Witness (Michael Henry, 04/03/08, First Principles)
First, Chambers was already well known as the government and society outsider who had accused the “insider” Hiss of treason, a charge many refused to believe despite the evidence Chambers detailed in his book. Second, Chambers gave details about the Communist Party in the United States, its cells, its apparatus, its spies and underground activities, and named highly placed government officials besides Hiss who were communists or communist sympathizers. At a time when many believed the communist threat to the United States was greatly exaggerated, Chambers provided detailed accounts of the sometimes ineffective and sometimes effective labors by communists to undermine the West. Third, and more controversially, Chambers attacked liberalism, arguing that it was, in effect, a weaker form of communism, or a stage on the way to it, and that liberals were intellectually incapable of comprehending the dangers of communism. His attacks on the New Deal were particularly resented by those who argued that the New Deal showed precisely the strength of Western capitalist societies, which had thereby proved that they could reform themselves from within on the basis of moderation or pragmatism.
Fourth, Chambers starkly analyzed the human situation in terms of evil versus good, communism versus belief in God, or what he called “the two irreconcilable faiths of our time—Communism and Freedom.” He saw the world in terms of this categorical opposition, for which he was accused of being an absolutist who had merely converted from one extreme to another, insisting rigidly on an absolute religious faith rather than taking a more moderate position on the basis of humane values not religiously based (Chambers had become a nondogmatic Quaker). Chambers’s view challenged both those who believed the basic impulse of communism was, although unfortunately perverted, a good that could still be striven for through various socialist and collectivist policies, and those who believed that the foundations of Western freedom and institutions were inherently secular and even atheistic—that morality, a good and well-ordered society, and human happiness could be achieved through secular strategies and policies. Chambers, on the other hand, directly connected real freedom with God and the soul’s striving for God, stating “without the soul there is no justification for freedom.” To Chambers this meant “every sincere break with Communism is a religious experience.”
Fifth, Chambers was, at the time he abandoned communism, as pessimistic about the eventual demise of the West as a believing communist would have been optimistic. Many of those who became communists believed in the inevitable triumph of what they saw as communism’s humanitarian ideals over the decadent and corrupt bourgeois world. They preferred to be on the winning side. Chambers, after seeing the true anti-humanitarian nature of communism emerge with particular clarity in the 1930s, came to the conclusion that communism was essentially evil and that he could no longer serve such a cause, even though he himself believed that he was “leaving the winning world for the losing world.”
The whole introduction to the book is on-line and is always worth rereading, as is the book, Foreward in the Form of a Letter to my Children (Witness by Whittaker Chambers)
I am sitting in the kitchen of the little house at Medfield, our second farm which is cut off by the ridge and a quarter-mile across the fields from our home place, where you are. I am writing a book. In it I am speaking to you. But I am also speaking to the world. To both I owe an accounting.
It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men. If anything, it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live. It is about what the world calls the Hiss-Chambers Case, or even more simply, the Hiss Case. It is about a spy case. All the props of an espionage case are there--foreign agents, household traitors, stolen documents, microfilm, furtive meetings, secret hideaways, phony names, an informer, investigations, trials, official justice.
But if the Hiss Case were only this, it would not be worth my writing about or your reading about. It would be another fat folder in the sad files of the police, another crime drama in which the props would be mistaken for the play (as many people have consistently mistaken them). It would not be what alone gave it meaning, what the mass of men and women instinctively sensed it to be, often without quite knowing why. It would not be what, at the very beginning, I was moved to call it: "a tragedy of history."
For it was more than human tragedy. Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man's faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another. At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.
At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case. On a scale personal enough to be felt by all, but big enough to be symbolic, the two irreconcilable faiths of our time--Communism and Freedom--came to grips in the persons of two conscious and resolute men. Indeed, it would have been hard, in a world still only dimly aware of what the conflict is about, to find two other men who knew so clearly. Both had been schooled in the same view of history (the Marxist view). Both were trained by the same party in the same selfless, semisoldierly discipline. Neither would nor could yield without betraying, not himself, but his faith; and the different character of these faiths was shown by the different conduct of the two men toward each other throughout the struggle. For, with dark certitude, both knew, almost from the beginning, that the Great Case could end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending figures, just as the history of our times (both men had been taught) can end only in the destruction of one or both of the contending forces.
But this destruction is not the tragedy. The nature of tragedy is itself misunderstood. Part of the world supposes that the tragedy in the Hiss Case lies in the acts of disloyalty revealed. Part believes that the tragedy lies in the fact that an able, intelligent man, Alger Hiss, was cut short in the course of a brilliant public career. Some find it tragic that Whittaker Chambers, of his own will, gave up a $30,000-a-year job and a secure future to haunt for the rest of his days the ruins of his life. These are shocking facts, criminal facts, disturbing facts: they are not tragic.
Crime, violence, infamy are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy--not defeat or death. That is why the spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation. That is why this terrible book is also a book of hope For it is about the struggle of the human soul--of more than one human soul. It is in this sense that the Hiss Case is a tragedy. This is its meaning beyond the headlines, the revelations, the shame and suffering of the people involved. But this tragedy will have been for nothing unless men understand it rightly, and from it the world takes hope and heart to begin its own tragic struggle with the evil that besets it from within and from without, unless it faces the fact that the world, the whole world, is sick unto death and that, among other things, this Case has turned a finger of fierce light into the suddenly opened and reeking body of our time.
Though Chambers is a pivotal figure in the triumph over Communism, he stands in stark contrast to Reagan and Solzhenitsyn who better grasped how weak communism was and the inevitability and immanence of its failure. We see a similar dichotomy today, whereby some on the Right likewise wildly overestimate Islamicism. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 3, 2008 7:56 PM