Notes & Thoughts on W. Chambers’ Witness
It seems Whittaker Chambers grew up surrounded by culture. And that music had an unusually strong emotional effect on him. He implies in Witness that, unlike Lenin, who gave up listening to music because of the “emotional havoc it played with him,” he never stopped hearing it, or hearing something; Chambers was perhaps never able to completely close that door to his soul, as Lenin had seemingly been.
From early on Chambers exhibited a sensitivity to what he heard, what he saw, and what he felt around him. His mother’s contradictory admonishment at his innocent creationist claim already taught him that “the open mind was always closed at one end.” The sight of a field full of thistles in bloom with purple flowers activated his thoughts and vocal cords to murmur “God and beauty are one.” And watching the often-ostracized and ‘callous’ girl in his class patiently teaching her sister with the care of a mother revealed to this young boy that “from corruption issues incorruption.” Chambers himself is unsure if these lessons congealed in those moments or in hindsight, but one can easily attest he was quite impressionable.
Unsurprisingly, then, when he discovered Hugo’s Les Misérables in his grandfather’s attic, he also discovered an internal source of energy that he credits with influencing him both into and out of the Communist Party. A powerful impetus, he contends, that taught him the seemingly irreconcilable concepts of Christianity and revolution. About Christianity, he understood humility as a virtue of life that could win against arrogance, pride, and power, as well as against the mind’s attempts to usurp the real power of the soul. Chambers also got the sense of something beyond human justice that leads to a merging of justice and compassion, and one that needs courage in action to be achieved. Revolution, meanwhile, was woven by Hugo’s narrative into the action of a ‘reflex’ always seeking to emerge from pain and despair into a world that was just and true to the needs of that time. But most importantly, perhaps, Chambers ‘witnessed’ Sister Simplice lie, not once but twice, to save something she found worth lying for – did the ends, perhaps, sometimes justify the means?
“Our home was not a home,” Chambers confesses. His father’s absence, his grandmother’s senility, his brother’s eventual success at suicide, and his mother’s weighty ‘musical’ sadness likely imbued his view that their family was a symptom of a society that, in the wake of the war, had lost not just its way but also its soul. As for Podhoretz, Columbia University was transformative for Chambers. But, unlike Podhoretz, Chambers ended up making a ‘left’ down the university’s hallways. A trip to Europe in 1923 in his junior year showed Chambers a world that was not just compass-less from the First World War but was decidedly, to Chambers, between World Wars. “Philosophers have explained the world; it is necessary to change the world.” Marx said it and now, upon his return from Europe, Chambers felt it. And, after much of the socialist theory he began to study did not quite move him, he found something, or someone, that did – Lenin and his A Soviet at Work, which had that ‘reek of life’ he had been seeking to catalyze him into action.
Chambers argues that neither personal advantage nor Marxist dialectics or economics are primary motives of attraction to Communism. Rather, a Communist is made so “because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing-” WWI, fascism, Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the 1929 U.S. market crash, WWII and, as far as the Communists were concerned, the inevitable upcoming WWIII. Intellectuals, he states, attack the problem of war and/or the problem of economics as an act of despair that makes them willing servants to doing whatever needs done to find a solution. The problem was partly the advent of a society that worshiped science and technology before they understood them and did so at the expense of the ‘super natural.’ The exclusion of the mysterious and unmeasurable was (and is) indeed, Chambers points out, Communism’s secret strength. By replacing Almighty God with Almighty Man, Communism offers a vision (revolution!) that inspires intellectuals and accentuates a crisis that mobilizes the working man. Communism sweeps in on a society reluctant “to face the fact that the crisis exists or to face it with the force and clarity necessary to overcome it.” And the sheer will to survive the crisis, Chambers shares, is both Communism’s biggest draw and its justification to use terror as a matter of policy in support of its vision and its faith of denying God. The only alternative is to face the crisis of history without the Communist ‘solution.’ Absent a stronger faith, Chambers warns, the Communist one will prevail. The crisis he was embarking on surviving was not just a social one, but a ‘total’ one that included religious, intellectual, social, political, and economic issues. And, he further corrects, he was not facing a Western crisis, but a world crisis.
Chambers joined the Communist Party in 1925 but, for about six years leading up to breaking away from it in 1938, ‘Bob’ or ‘Carl’ (as he was known) worked for the Party’s underground units, liaising between a Soviet spy group in DC and J. Peters in NYC. In fact, he himself never really knew which specific branch he was working under, except that he was facilitating a “highly placed, devoted and dangerous espionage group” that included Alger Hiss, the assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State who, in turn, was Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law! Peters certainly confirmed how well things were going for the Soviets here in the U.S.: “Even in Germany under the Weimar Republic […] the party did not have what we have here.” This ‘true Fifth Column’ was a reminder that all wars are revolutionary wars not just between but also within countries, mainly because members of this group had allegiance to no country: only to the Communist cause and faith in man’s material destiny.
In 1936, a historical phenomenon began in the Soviet Union that would become the substrate for Chamber’s break from Communism: Stalin’s Great Purge. He mentions reading the obituary of a Red Army general, a Dimitri Schmidt, who was tried and shot in Russia. His skepticism that the Purge would have reached the ranks of the Red Army itself was neutralized by J. Peter’s smug reaction to his inquiry. Even in his analysis in Witness, Chamber’s use of language betrays a bit of an objectivism when he describes these initial reports as the Party probably needing to “condition itself for the revolutionary struggle.” But that objectivism dissolves in the crispest description of the Purge mechanism likely to have ever been written. The first of three waves toward Stalin’s absolute control used the Secret Police to massacre opponents in the party and the general staff. In the second wave, the second-in-command at GPU, Yezhov, is given the rains from Yagoda, whereupon Yezhov kills the members of the secret police involved in the first wave on ‘charges of murder!’ Then, Stalinists complete with the third phase in which they kill Yezhov to assume total control of the secret police. Voila! The ancient ‘Oriental model’ adapted to the Communist terror policy that what is good for the revolution IS what is good. “Better less, but better.” From the point of view of a Communist, that was an accurate and desired result. Stalin, the Communist, was acting with acumen. Did that mean that the Communist Party, therefore, was experiencing its own crisis or that Communism was evil and held horrific consequences for humanity? Chambers started to have doubts. Against the deepening reality of the Purge, Chambers then read Vladimir Tchernavin’s I Speak for the Silent. Were the atrocities depicted there ‘the price of social progress?’ Was it a clinical case of the necessary terror as an instrument of policy? The answer became simple and horrific for Chambers: it was simply screams, but not the ‘usual’ ones that every Communist hears from those it daily oppresses. “Those are not the screams of man in agony. Those are the screams of a soul in agony.”
This rupture from Chambers’ long-established logical paradigm for social progress was exacerbated by the juxtaposing apologetic justifications and absurdities he was reading in western papers about the Purge. Also, his failed attempt to convince his friend Alger Hiss that the atrocities he enumerated to him were not “mental masturbation” seemed to both vindicate his doubts as well as break his heart. He was no longer able to justify one evil with another. It had to be, Chambers now reflected, that justification for the mind, or history, or progress cannot come from people but from “something Greater.” He saw that Communism was violence against the soul of both the murdered and of the murderer. What is most interesting about Chambers’ break is that it was not just from the ideology of Communism but from the “political expression of the modern mind” that gives birth to Communism, the same mind that invented the Nazi gas oven and the Communist executions cellars. Those were certainly not the work of a soul. He concluded that knowledge is not the end point, but only the point at which mystical wisdom must begin, lest we remain monsters. The real choice, Chambers argues, was between the soul’s salvation in suffering or man’s salvation now, this moment. “Man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God, man can only organize the world against man.”
The only way ‘back’ from the deeds of his Communist past came to him as a revelation while at his Mount Royal Terrace where he realized that he no longer “groped for God” but felt Him. Despite the enormous difficulties posed by the break from the Party and by the eventual ordeal of the Hiss trial, Chambers seems to have obeyed his promise to earn his way back: “I left the Communist party to fight it.” Chambers wanted to save a world he believed was dying. In a reality that is defined by change, it is precisely unchanging values and principles that bear the most risk for asserting themselves. The bravest thing to do is to discover your sense of honesty and act it out in life. He eventually did.
Our world is at much the same place as his was in some ways, just with smartphones added for a touch of extra chaos. We are living, as Chambers observed for himself in his time, in a world that lost the power to distinguish between good and evil. “The Roman Empire is filled with misery, but it is luxurious. It is dying, but it laughs,” reported Savinus. What is missing is our willingness and bravery to stop and look up at the stars to measure what we are and what we are not “against the order of reality.”
“E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.” – Dante… and Marx. Oh, the irony! What will be the last line of our book?
 Chambers, W. (2014). Witness. Washington, DC: Regnery History, p. 69.
 Ibid., pgs. 85-87.
 Ibid., pgs. 101-106.
 Ibid., p. xxxvi.
 Ibid., pgs. 156-157.
 Ibid., p. 153.
 Ibid., p. 155.
 Ibid., p. xxxix.
 Ibid., p. xli.
 Ibid., pgs. 155-156.
 Ibid., p. xxxvii.
 Ibid., pgs. 2-6.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid., pgs. 48-50.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Ibid., p. xliv.
 Ibid., pgs. 43-45.
 Ibid., p.55.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 Ibid., p.55.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Chambers, W., Witness, p. 157.
 Ibid., p. 704.