Whittaker Chambers and American Conservatism

It is now 46 years since the death of Whittaker Chambers. His name is still iconic for many conservatives and a catalyst for boiling resentment among left-liberals. In those who know the full story of the Hiss case, and especially in the dwindling number of persons who watched the case unfold in all its Sophoclean finality, the figure of Whittaker Chambers cannot fail to evoke intense emotions. Even after six decades the charges that Chambers leveled at Hiss, and the larger issues that he raised in his autobiography, Witness, remain earthshaking in their implications.

There is no longer any question of Alger Hiss’s guilt. The matter has been settled for anyone who has read the evidence with an open mind. The account that Chambers gave of his dealings with Hiss when both of them were Communist agents in the Ware group is too full, too detailed, and too specific to have been concocted. More important, itsbasic outlines have been corroborated by third parties. The high-ranking KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, for example, identified Alger Hiss as the agent “ALES” in 1988, several years before that particular code name for Hiss was revealed in one of the Venona cables declassified by the National Security Agency in the 1990s. Gordievsky even gave the name of Hiss’s Soviet controller: Ishak Abdulovich Akhmerov. As Sam Tanenhaus has written, “there had been a large espionage network centered in the federal government. Among those implicated were Harry Dexter White, Victor Perlo, Laurence Duggan, and Alger Hiss.” A few aging leftist Parsifals are still seeking the Holy Grail of Hiss’s innocence, but their quest appears totally quixotic to serious historians.

book cover imageIf we need no longer concern ourselves with the details of the Hiss case, we are free to consider the direction that American conservatism took after the case’s conclusion, and in particular how Chambers’s autobiography dictated that direction. The publication of Witness in 1952, and its phenomenal popularity, decisively shaped the conservative movement in America at a time when the movement could well have taken a different turn. After Witness, American conservatism gained what may be called a religious dimension.

In the 1930s, the dominant themes of American conservatism were the limited government of Jefferson and the isolationism of Washington’s Farewell Address. These concerns were civic, not religious. They represented a distinct if somewhat old-fashioned viewpoint as to how America should handle its secular business. Loyalty to these two ideas meant that conservatives had to swim against the tide of history, for both notions were being marginalized by the New Deal at home and by the drift of events abroad.

The cataclysm of World War II rearranged conservative priorities. By 1952, American conservatism had only two faces: that of the anti-Communist and that of the capitalist. Once again, these concerns were civic rather than religious. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind had not yet seen the light of print. Although William F. Buckley in God and Man at Yale had spoken of “the duel between Christianity and atheism,” religious conviction was not yet the primary force behind the incipient conservative movement. Where it had not subsided into mere nostalgia and cranky petulance, conservatism could summon up energy for two secular tasks. The first was resisting leftism in all its myriad forms, from creeping socialism to the subversion of our government by traitors. The second was championing business and free enterprise in their conflict with the regulatory agencies and aggressive taxation that had been spawned by the New Deal.

In the first of these tasks, conservatives had done well. After the disastrous postwar advances of Communism in Europe and Asia, a majority of Americans were well aware of the dangers of unchecked leftism and were beginning to see the connection between failure abroad and treason at home. The Czechoslovakian coup, the Greek civil war, and the Hiss case aroused them from somnolence. The Korean conflict opened their eyes fully.

In the second task, however, conservatives had only made minimal progress. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had put the brakes on irresponsible unionism, but the regulatory structures of the New Deal largely remained in place, and would continue so even after the landslide election of Eisenhower in 1952. Nevertheless, there was one strident voice in American conservatism seeking to change that and to give the movement a decisive shove towards unabashed laissez-faire capitalism. That voice belonged to Ayn Rand. Her programmatic ideology, known as objectivism, was a thoroughgoing apologiafor individualism and free enterprise.

It is hard forus today, when objectivism is as quaint as the study of Esperanto, to re-imagine the very powerful hold that the ideology had on many of conservatism’s younger and more energetic adherents. After the publication of her successful novel The Fountainhead in 1943, the indefatigable Rand devoted her formidable powers not just to literature, but to a conscious effort to build an activist movement among young persons. In this political manifestation objectivism became a highly disciplined cult, held rigidly in line by Rand, with anathemas and denunciations hurled against deviationists who wandered from strict commitment to atheism, enlightened selfishness, and the primacy of the cash nexus. Like the early Bolsheviks whom they resembled, Rand and her inner circle of trusted disciples were intent upon revolutionizing the world. They insistently proselytized in favor of unfettered capitalism, the discrediting of any form of altruism or collectivism, and the complete abolition of restraints on the social Darwinism that they posited at the core of human relations. They saw religion, and Christianity in particular, as a corrupting force that had driven the West to favor disease and debility over health and achievement. A great many students were still in thrall to Rand’s vision of John Galt, with his steely individualism and Promethean defiance of all herd thinking and Sklavenmoral. The objectivist students were fiercely partisan, opinionated, and volatile. With their cult of selfishness, their contempt for all weakness, and their totally amoral outlook on every conceivable issue, they remind one of an intellectual version of the Sturmabteilung. Needless to say, they were openly contemptuous of religion in any form.

Nevertheless, these brash and headstrong objectivists were often the driving force in conservative organizations like Young Americans for Freedom, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Young Republicans. Their passion was real, and their commitment to activism genuine. In fact, a disinterested observer in 1952 might have been pardoned for concluding that, if American conservatism had any future, it lay in the hands of Rand’s young disciples. If there was going to be a counterrevolution against liberalism in the United States, it would be led by the forces of revivified capitalism shorn of the “sentimentality” of the Gospels.

Whittaker ChambersThe publication of Witness changed everything. It didn’t stop Rand and objectivism dead in their tracks, but it dealt atheistic conservatism a mortal blow. From 1952 on, mainstream conservatism in America would be indissolubly fused with transcendent considerations. Free enterprise would continue to be defended and promoted, but it would be a free enterprise understood as the best human arrangement for material sustenance within the framework of the divine dispensation. The economy of salvation was infinitely more important than the economy. And opposing Communism would no longer be just a task of diplomacy and Realpolitik, but an apocalyptically tinged mission of momentous spiritual import.

Witness took conservatism and pulled it back to its roots in a religious awareness of man’s subordinate position in the universe. The book’s resonances were profoundly spiritual, and not simply in its depiction of the pilgrimage that Chambers made from naïve religious awareness to apostasy and communism and then back, slowly and painfully, to unshakable religious faith. It employed language of Biblical intensity. Echoes of Pauline theology and Quaker mysticism permeate its rhetoric. And without mentioning either Edmund Burke or Joseph de Maistre, Chambers nevertheless transposed his dissent from leftism into the traditionalist and religious framework that those earlier authors took for granted. In short, the book was a tour de force of sermon literature, and its effect on thousands of devout readers continues to be electric.

There are few books that can claim to have had a major political influence on their times, in the sense that they decisively reshaped public opinion. One thinks of Eikon Basilike, and its powerful portrait of the martyred King Charles—so powerful that Milton tried in vain to scotch the book’s influence. There is Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Lincoln said had caused the Civil War. It is common knowledge that Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago broke the stranglehold that leftism had on the French intellectual class. Sometimes, at key moments in history, a book is as potent as an armored division. Witness is just such a book.

Because Chambers’s religion seems non-doctrinal (he was utterly indifferent to denomination, while seeing truth in all sects), his book could strike a chord in conservatives of every religious persuasion. As he once said to William F. Buckley, “You stand within a religious orthodoxy. I stand within no religious orthodoxy.” Chambers, who at one time or another identified himself as a Christian Scientist, an Emersonian Transcendentalist, an Episcopalian, a Quaker, and, finally, an unaffiliated Christian, couldn’t be claimed by any sect as its representative. He was simply a man who recognized the absolute necessity of faith in God, and who argued that the collapse of such faith on all sides had brought about a crisis of civilization. His piety and sincerity spoke to Protestant, Catholic, and Jew alike.

The objectivists were appalled by Witness, for it contradicted everything in their metaphysics of aggressive selfishness. The book talked of sin, sacrifice, and redemption. It raised terrifying questions about the human soul and the depths to which it might sink without divine grace. It painted Communism as evil, to be sure, but Chambers was at pains to demonstrate that the original impulse behind Communism was human and even noble—an idea that must have sent the fanatically anti-Communist Rand into neural overdrive. The book’s praise for and commentary on Hugo’s Les Miserables, and its moving depiction of the shared humanity of all men in their suffering, showed up Rand’s coldly intellectual anti-altruism for the nasty Gradgrindism that it was.

Chambers, moreover, did not hector or preach at his readers, the way Rand did with her incessant seminars and newsletters and reading groups. He had merely written a book about his life, describing in dazzling language the experiences and thoughts that brought him eventually to religious conviction. Despite its luminosity and intensity, there is not in Witness the earnest didacticism and crass salesmanship that animate everything Rand wrote.

Understanding this difference of attitude casts light on the celebrated controversy that followed upon the review of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that Chambers wrote for Buckley’s National Review in 1957. A masterpiece of polemical deflation, the review precipitated a major split in the conservative movement between traditional conservatives and their objectivist allies of expedience. A good number of the magazine’s readers cancelled their subscription to the journal, and both Chambers and Buckley became unmentionable pariahs in certain libertarian circles where Rand was seen as a bulwark of intellectual freedom and anti-collectivist energies.

Rand claimed that she never even looked at Chambers’s review. This is inherently unbelievable to anyone who knew her intensely argumentative and volatile personality. Rand lived for argument, and especially for bare-knuckled polemics with her enemies. She never walked away from a fight. The notion that the woman would skip reading an attack on her and her philosophy in the premier journal of right-wing opinion is simply not credible. The fact that she felt compelled, against all plausibility, to pretend that she had not read it, is revealing. It shows a level of anger and resentment in Rand so overcharged that she couldn’t really answer Chambers. And that in itself indicates that Chambers had touched some very sore nerve endings.

Those nerve endings were atheism and materialism. Chambers had pointed out in his review that Rand’s philosophy, at bottom, was not particularly different from the totalitarianism of the Nazis and the Communists. It just substituted the capitalist Sign of the Dollar for the swastika or the hammer and sickle. Rand’s finely chiseled athletic protagonists with superior brains and talent are just variations on Hitler’s Übermensch and Lenin’s New Socialist Man—heroic, larger-than-life figures for whom traditional limits and morality do not apply. They are cold, unearthly, and almost robotic in their Olympian detachment from human frailty. It is not even that Rand’s stick-figure heroes lack sympathy for those less gifted or those less fortunate—they don’t even seem to be aware of what sympathy is. That is the kind of person that atheism and materialism tend to produce, no matter under what political aegis.

Rand’s refusal to acknowledge or answer the review of Atlas Shrugged has to be seen in the context of the inner conflicts of conservatism in the 1950s. Rand had long labored to start a philosophical-political movement to reinvigorate conservatism and anti-collectivism on strictly atheistic and materialist lines. Nevertheless, in spite of all her efforts, Chambers (who had done more concretely to destroy leftist influence in America than a thousand objectivist study groups) had effectively linked anti-Communism and anti-liberalism to a strong religious impulse. Chambers’s review of her book only confirmed what Rand had long feared: The conservatives were declining the chance to become secularized, profit-motivated capitalists. Chambers had convinced them that such a stance was insufficient. The effect of Atlas Shrugged (a text on which she had expended years of painstaking effort) was being short-circuited in National Review, precisely among the readership of young, articulate rightists whom Rand wanted on her side. In 1957 Chambers’s stature among conservatives was godlike, so there was really no way to attack him.

Chambers did not remain at National Review for very long. In 1959 he ceased writing for it, while continuing on friendly terms with Buckley and the magazine’s associates. Never fully at home with a thoroughgoing right-wing conservatism, Chambers had found himself in disagreement with some of the magazine’s stances on the Soviet Union, the arms race, and the encroachment of the welfare state. Chambers, whose politics had always been informed by a respect for the possible and the practical, felt that a doctrinaire rejection of the modern world and many of its irreversible developments was not a reflection of his own understanding and opinions of contemporary life.

Nevertheless, his mark had been made. Long after Chambers’s death, genuine conservatism in America is guided by the man’s spiritual sensibility. As he wrote at the end of Witness concerning his son, “I want him to see for himself upon the scale of the universes that God, the soul, faith, are not simple matters, and that no easy or ingenuous view of them is possible.” The statement is quintessential Chambers: a credally non-specific awareness of human contingency and divine power coupled with profound humility. It is that open-ended faith, weighted with the immensity of the unfathomable, that Chambers bequeathed to conservatism.

Joseph S. Salemi, a poet and critic, is currently a professor at Hunter College.