August 27, 2018


Whittaker Chambers and the Crisis of American Conservatism (GREG FORSTER, 8/08/18, Law & Liberty)

In his political thought, one of Chambers' organizing principles is the "crisis of history." The economic and technological development of the modern world have brought an end to older, agrarian ways of life and their traditions. These traditions told people what the meaning and purpose of their lives was. Now, we have to figure out the meaning of life for ourselves, and we have not developed the necessary moral and spiritual maturity to do so.

This is the real problem that lies behind all the obvious problems of the modern world: world wars, tyrannical oppression, alienation, poverty in the midst of plenty, etc. People are drawn to totalitarianism - to fascism and communism, and today we could add religious extremism - because they are driven to desperation in seeking answers to these urgent problems. The true answer, that our own moral failure is the underlying problem, is one we never want to accept. Hence totalitarianism, which identifies blameable enemies and promises to cure the ills of the modern world, is itself one of the ills of the modern world, and probably always will be.

Chambers points out, to our intense discomfort, that the real power of communism is that it forces to the surface what has always been the basic, subterranean question of human life: "God, or Man?" He does not mean the merely philosophical question of whether God exists. He means the practical question of who controls our destiny.

If we believe that the destiny of man is in the hands of man, it follows logically that all solutions for human problems must come from the mind and power of man. The human mind is in control of the universe, to the extent that anything is. If there are to be solutions to the catastrophic problems of world war, oppression and continuing poverty in a world of breathtaking growth, the Almighty Mind of Man must invent them on its own, and then impose them upon a recalcitrant world.

Such undertakings are sometimes successful at first, but are doomed in the long run. The lives and freedoms of a few people, or a few million people, or even a few hundred million people, inevitably pale to insignificance compared to the salvation of the whole human race. Sooner or later, if our answer is "Man" rather than "God," we are going to start lying, cheating and stealing, and eventually torturing and murdering on a mass scale. To commit the crimes of history in order to deliver all future humanity from the crimes of history is the greatest sacrifice the devotee of Man can make to his cause.

The communist East, Chambers wrote, has chosen "Man" and has the courage of that conviction. The capitalist West has also chosen "Man," but is haunted by the specter of its Christian past. That is why the West is in crisis; that is why the world is in crisis.

As Chambers said, without God, man cannot organize the world for man. Without God, man can only organize the world against man. Some higher power must restrain us, or else we will not be restrained.

Chambers' witness against communism, and his withering diagnosis of the spiritual emptiness of the American establishment that failed to take the communist threat seriously, is not nearly as familiar as it ought to be. Even conservatives have largely forgotten Witness at this point, even though the cruel and shameful mistreatment of Chambers at the hands of the American establishment used to be one of the key origin stories of the movement. But Chambers' critique of conservatism itself isn't just neglected; it never really became well-known in the first place. [...]

[B]uckley and the conservatives forced Chambers to recognize that human freedom - his core political concern - required openness to technological and economic development.

Chambers wrote to Buckley: "I have decided that the machine is not the enemy." And this concession, which the conservatives had forced him to make, became the starting point of his critique of conservatism.

The whole conservative project, Chambers showed, rested on the assumption that our society's old, traditional moral and religious structure would continue unchanged by default, as long as overweening Big Government stayed out of the way. But the technological and economic development welcomed by economic conservatism must permanently destabilize the institutions that undergird the moral norms and religious sensibilities demanded by social conservatism. What is primarily needed to meet the crisis of history is not the mere conservation of old moral and religious institutions, but a continual reform and redesign of those institutions. Not a continual reform in the vain pursuit of progress on human terms, but a continual reform to manifest the justice and mercy of the eternal and transcendent God in a world being constantly remade by technological and economic development.

The idea of a potentially fatal tension between economic liberalism and social conservatism is, of course, a familiar line of attack on conservatism. What makes Chambers' version so much more incisive is that it lays aside the secondary issues and cuts to the heart of the issue: the relationship between God and social institutions. If our commitment to God and his holy love for an unholy human race is to remain unchanged, then our moral and religious institutions must change constantly.

One of the clearest signs of a subtle mind is the ability to distinguish things without separating them. Chambers neither identifies God with moral and religious institutions, as social conservatives tend to do; nor tries to have God without moral and religious institutions, as certain liberal, modernizing religious people try to do; nor tries to have morality without God, as secularists (including secular conservatives) strive vainly to do. We must have both God and institutions, yet they are not the same thing, and it requires constant struggle and constant reform to keep them aligned.

Conservatives and liberals are united most by that willingness to reform our institutions.  Left and Right are united in the desire to destroy them.

Posted by at August 27, 2018 5:39 PM