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He heard the screams
A review of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary (Library Modern Thinkers Series) by Richard M. Reinsch II
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Why do otherwise decent people embrace ideologies that entail the killing of millions? What is the appeal that made so many people, especially intellectuals, support Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao? Whittaker Chambers argued that if we are to combat the most monstrous evil in the history of the world—totalitarianism, as invented in the twentieth century by Lenin—we must understand what draws some people to it and makes others incapable of countering, or even understanding, its appeal.
Marx and Milton Friedman notwithstanding, the answer has nothing to do with economics. If the best one can say against the Soviet Union and for the West is that free markets create a higher growth rate, one has already lost the game. Having been converted first to Communism and then from it, Chambers knew that Communism’s fundamental strength lay in its spiritual dimension.
It is no surprise, then, to learn from Richard Reinsch’s biography Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary that Chambers was deeply influenced by the greatest counterrevolutionary thinker of modern times, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, too, had once been a revolutionary conspirator, for which he had served four years in a Siberian prison camp. Both counter-revolutionaries rethought their convictions, embraced God, and became innovative conservative thinkers.
Each knew from direct experience that revolutionaries can be entirely unselfish and driven by the highest ideals. Dostoevsky devoted an article to refuting the common notion that revolutionaries were unintelligent, poorly educated, or morally corrupt. On the contrary, he argued, the revolutionaries he befriended included the very best of Russia’s youth. “In my novel The Possessed,” he explained,
I tried to depict those diverse and multifarious motives by which even the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn into committing such a monstrous offense [as cold-blooded murder]. And therein lies the real horror. . . . The possibility of considering oneself—and sometimes even being, in fact—an honorable person while committing obvious and undeniable villainy—that is our whole affliction today!
According to Reinsch, Chambers loved and frequently cited The Possessed.
People become Communists because, in a world governed by a purely materialist sense of life, they find no answer to what Chambers called “that numbing sense of: so what?” Communism provides the educated man “peering from Harvard Yard, or any college campus . . . the two certainties for which the mind of man tirelessly seeks: a reason to live and a reason to die.”
Communist atheism constitutes a kind of religion. Its materialism attracts followers for spiritual reasons. Naïve liberals imagine that pointing out Stalinist murders will shake Communist faith, but for the true believer the very horror they provoke becomes a reason to commit them. Repulsion becomes a spiritual challenge: “Have you the moral strength to take upon yourself the crimes of history, so that man may at last close his chronicle of age-old senseless suffering, and replace it with a purpose and a plan?”
Communism deifies man. In a sense, it reverses the Copernican revolution, which removed man from the center of the universe “and restores man to his sovereignty” by denying God. The human mind will remake the world: that is the Communist faith. To counter it, only an opposing faith will do. One must exalt soul over mind and recognize meaning beyond the material world. Like Dostoevsky, Chambers believed in belief without quite believing. He compared himself to Shatov (whose name means “the waverer”) in The Possessed. Shatov argued passionately for the Russian Orthodox church, but when challenged to affirm belief in God he could only answer: “I will believe.”
Chambers saw that two faiths, Communism and Freedom, are at war. By freedom he meant not the license to indulge one’s desires, but the choice to act from one’s infinitely valuable human soul. There is no way to get the concept of the soul as sacred, of the human being as more than a means to some greater end, from materialism. Real freedom, according to Chambers, “is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.” Once recognized for what it is, Communism transforms its most serious opponents into believers, if not in God then at least in something transcendent and outside the chain of cause and effect.
How could it be that many American liberals allowed such extensive Communist penetration of American government and (as released Soviet archives have confirmed) so many other institutions? Chambers’s answer is disarmingly simple. Communists and most liberals share a great deal. Liberals, too, affirm the power of the planning mind to establish “social justice.” They, too, love the sense of moral superiority that accompanies knowing truths beyond the grasp of common people. Above all, they are so used to regarding conservatives as the enemy that they feel uncomfortable at the very thought of opposing anyone to the left of them. That is why even people who know better express more hatred for Republicans than for Bolsheviks or, today, for Islamists, so long as the latter can qualify as “the Left” or, at least, anti-Western.
Communists do not need anything remotely like a majority to seize power. They have many allies who do not know they are allies. The chief revolutionary in The Possessed explains: “A teacher who laughs with his children at God is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims . . . is one of us. . . . The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem progressive enough is ours, ours. Among government officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves.”
Then how is it that people sometimes cease to be Communists? Chambers answers: “very few do.” It’s easy to account for the appeal of Communism, but no general rule explains ex-Communism. All conversions to Communism resemble each other, but each conversion to freedom happens in its own way. The most moving parts of Chambers’s autobiography Witness concern the small incidents that, step by tiny step, led Chambers from one faith to another without his even being aware of the process until it was completed. Looking at his baby daughter, he noticed the delicate folds of her ear and found himself thinking that such beautiful intricacy could not have resulted from the chance collision of atoms.
When his brother expressed existential despair, which was to lead him to suicide, Chambers the Communist found himself saying: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It must have been within him, at that moment, without his knowing it. A German Communist once told Chambers why her father had ceased to be a Communist: “‘He was immensely pro-Soviet,’ she said, ‘and then you will laugh at me—but you must not laugh at my father—and then—one night—in Moscow—he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”
This man had heard many screams before, and knew by heart the central tenet of Communism that one must not flinch from torture and murder done for a higher purpose. In his book justifying terrorism, Trotsky put the point memorably: “We Bolsheviks do not accept the bourgeois theory of ‘the sanctity of human life.’” Throughout the Soviet period, children were taught that compassion for one’s fellow human being is actually evil, because it might lead one to pardon a class enemy. This German Communist understood all this, and his daughter still believed it, yet one night he heard the screams. For the first time, it was not a body in pain, but a soul in agony, calling to him.
Chambers famously wrote that, in breaking with Communism and testifying against it, he was joining the losing side. I am not old enough to remember that testimony, but I do remember when both liberals and conservatives thought that the Soviet Union would soon outproduce us and, most likely, take over the world by the sheer power of example. So far as the Soviet Union goes, that thinking turned out to be completely mistaken. But, as Reinsch points out, Chambers’s point still holds. There are two ways in which freedom can lose—not only by challenge from without but also by gradual erosion from within. Freedom loses when people no longer value it. As recently as twenty-five years ago, most college professors I knew still believed in democracy, free elections, and free speech, even for their opponents. They stood up for Salman Rushdie. Now most have such contempt for hoi polloi that they do not see the point of allowing them to spread their ignorant lies. The rest of the faculty, who do cling to outmoded ideas of freedom, are embarrassed to express them.
Reinsch’s biography prompted me to read Witness for the first time. I discovered in it what I do not hesitate to call one of the great autobiographies of world literature. I could teach it alongside the autobiographical parts of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and even Tolstoy’s Confession. Chambers thinks deeply and commands a unique and powerful style.
For that very reason, Reinsch’s treatment falls short. It’s not that he gets Chambers wrong. He’s accurate, but in the way that one of the better editions of SparkNotes conveys an accurate, if simplistic, version of a great author’s “message.” Part of the problem is Reinsch’s appalling prose. In one characteristic passage, he explains that
Chambers never charged his nation’s leaders with possessing overt sympathy to Communism. Rather, the Western leaders were unable to understand an enemy who pursued immanent ends with transcendent fervor due to their own paucity of spirit.
I had to read this sentence three times before I realized that, despite the syntax, “paucity of spirit” pertains not to the enemy but to the Western leaders. Such sentences make reading this book an irritating experience. Where Chambers writes with passion and palpability, Reinsch offers fuzz. His prose muffles the screams.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 November 2010, on page 65
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