Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961) was, from his mid twenties until his late thirties, a Communist and a spy for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU), who departed the Communist Party and his spying, and became a senior editor of Time magazine. He was a very gifted writer, and wrote a truly great book, Witness. His insights into what Communism was, why it nearly succeeded, and the enormous difficulty many Americans had in believing that there was anything the matter with the Soviet Union, are relevant to this day.
Books I read compete for my attention. I keep three or four on the go and more ready to to take up the slack at any time. At the moment, Witness has blown past the other respectable contestants by a furlong and is heading down the track to claim the prize.
People of a certain age will be forgiven for not understanding how much the 20th century was shaped by the Communist promise. It fell like Sauron’s Barad-Dür in 1989, contrary to every respectable opinion leader in western society, except the true hardened east European anti-Communists, to whom no one paid much attention.
Whittaker Chambers remarks that the driving force of Western intellectuals supporting the Party was not a belief in the economic doctrines of Marx, which hardly anyone read, but the promise of an egalitarian society and the end of material want. The age old and senseless suffering of man could at last come to an end, and if it took a few crimes to achieve it, then it was worth it. They had the Plan. No one else did.
It must be recalled that the Soviet Union, betrayed in its alliance with Hitler, took most of the casualties of World War 2. There was deep-rooted appreciation for the Soviet Union and its wartime sacrifices across most sectors of enlightened liberal opinion until at least 1948 and longer. The desirability of central planning of the economy was an assumed truth in almost every quarter of literate opinion. I recall George Orwell reviewing a book by Hayek, the Road to Serfdom. Orwell was aghast at Hayek’s bold denunciation of central planning of the economy. Says Orwell:
Professor Hayek denies that free capitalism necessarily leads to monopoly, but in practice that is where it has led, and since the vast majority of people would far rather have State regimentation than slumps and unemployment, the drift towards collectivism is bound to continue if popular opinion has any say in the matter.
But the vogue for central planning was underlain by a deep seated belief that Communism had the correct blueprint to understanding and acting in history.
Chambers’ view of Communism was that one could serve it for many years, and still not penetrate to its essence. Then, sooner or later, one would hear screams in the night.
Whittaker Chambers wrote:
What Communist has not heard those screams? Execution, says the Communist code, is the highest measure of social protection. What man can call himself a Communist who has not accepted the fact that Terror is an instrument of policy, right if the vision is right, justified by history, enjoined by the balance of forces in the social wars of this century? Tose screams have reached every Communist’s mind. Usually they stop there. What judge willingly dwells upon the man the laws compel him to condemn to death – the laws of nations or the laws of history? (page xliv)
What provoked my interest was a passage much further along in the book concerning why the vast mass of American bien-pensants revolted at the notion that Chambers was right in denouncing well-born native Americans who were part of his spy apparatus. Readers of this blog may be expected to have heard names like Alger Hiss or Harry Dexter White but may have forgotten the enormous brouhaha that erupted across the United states when in 1948 Chambers was summoned to publish his accusations by a Congressional committee. Quite simply, he said these people were part of his spy ring. He knew so because he picked up documents from them weekly for years for the purpose of microfilming and passing on to Colonel Bykov, his GRU controller. Chambers was not believed by many liberals, and was sued by Alger Hiss for slander twice. Hiss eventually went to prison for espionage. His guilt has been more than adequately proven by subsequent decrypts of Soviet signals traffic.
Chambers had to deal with the enmity of those who believed that Communism was basically a force for good in the world, and that he was wrong or mentally unbalanced for believing otherwise. Speaking of these “liberals”, Chambers wrote:
They were people who believed a number of things. Foremost among them was a belief that peace could be preserved, World War III could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet union. For this no p[rice was too high to pay, including the price of wilful historical self delusion. Yet they had just fiercely supported a war in which one of their ululant outcries had been against appeasement; and they were much too intelligent really to believe that Russia was a democracy or most of the other upside-down things they said in defense of it. Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others. Let me call their peculiar condition… the Popular Front mind.
The Popular Front mind dominated American life, at least from 1938 to 1948….Particularly, it dominated all avenues of communication between the intellectuals and the nation. It told the nation what it should believe; it made up the nation’s mind for it. The Popular Fronters had made themselves the “experts”. They controlled the narrows of news and opinion. And though, to a practised ear, they never ceased to speak as the scribes, the nation heard in their fatal errors the voice of those having authority. For the nation too, wanted peace above all things, and it meant it could not grasp or believe that a conspiracy on the scale of Communism was possible or that it had already made so deep a penetration into their lives.”
Does that remind you of something?
97% of scientists believe that ….?
Anthropogenic global warming?
I am waiting for the Whittaker Chambers of the anthropogenic global warming movement to write his book on the scale of the deception, the skullduggery and the extent of the conspiracy. It will be resisted to the same extent that Whittaker Chamber’s testimony was, and by the same sorts of people. The AGW thing has not arisen to totalitarian power anywhere yet, but not for want of trying.
In any case, for any number of reasons, Witness makes for compelling reading, not least because it is a great story well told about the struggles of the 20th century, and of a man and his God.