It’s taken over 60 years, but someone has finally written a great book about Whittaker Chambers. Richard M. Reinsch’s “Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary,” emphasizes a point that has eluded both liberals and conservatives. Chambers, a former Soviet spy, journalist, and author of the masterpiece “Witness,” was also a religious genius. His insights into the human person and the nature of life will far outlive him, and his critics—including his most recent, Glenn Beck.
In “Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary,” Richard Reinsch does not delve too deeply into the details of Chambers-Hiss case. He adumbrates how in 1948, Chambers, a communist who had left the party 10 years prior, fingered Alger Hiss, a highly educated and respected employee of the State Department, as a communist who was passing state secrets to the Russians. Hiss was later convicted of perjury. The case still agitates liberals, who resent the fact that Hiss was guilty, thus revealing that FDR’s New Deal did in fact have communists working in it. The left also hates the fact that the Hiss case helped launch the career of Richard Nixon. For their part, conservatives claim Chambers as a hero, even while ignoring Chambers’ brave insight into human beings and the nature and value of suffering.
It is Chambers’ religious insight that Reinsch examines in The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, which is written with real grace and perspicacity. To Chambers, man had gone wrong during the Enlightenment, thinking, as Reinsch puts it, “that man constructs his own reality through an overarching reason.” This lead to the abandonment of God, who was replaced not only with the pseudo religion of communism, but with the god of consumer capitalism, which tells man he can attain happiness if the market just keeps expanding, technology advances, and he keeps buying stuff. To Chambers—and to anyone with common sense—communism was and is far and away the worse mistake; yet that doesn’t mean that capitalism doesn’t offer false expectations for bliss. Reinsch describes it well:
Chambers affirmed that in brokenness man comes to find his telos (final purpose). Understanding that happiness is not a sufficient purpose of his existence, man recognizes that responsibility for himself and those he loves is the real challenge… . Chambers viewed happiness, at least the happiness of modern man’s constant craving, as an illusory good, because it had been severed from a life of courage and humility.