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.
Reinsch cites Dante, Augustine, Soren Kierkegaard, the monastic tradition, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr as influences on Chambers. He examines his journalism, which is often overlooked in favor of the thrilling Witness. He quotes this passage from a piece Chambers’ wrote on the establishment of the Benedictine Order in the ashes of Rome:
For those who obeyed it, [the Benedictine Order] ended three great alienations of the spirit whose action, I suspect, touched on that missing something which my instructors failed to find among the causes of the fall of Rome. The same alienation, I further suspect, can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of a traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.
Chambers felt that technology, while worthwhile, could often sever people from the good. He felt the same way about capitalism—that used wisely and by a virtuous people who accepted the limits of being human, it was the only workable system. It was when capitalism became a utopian dream, and when people grew too fat and greedy, that it became like the lie of communism. Chambers felt that people in the West had grown too spiritually atrophied to resist communism, or at least the ever-expanding state. He pointed to the Catholic Church as the one unflinching defender of Western religious tradition. With incredible prescience, Chambers in the 1950s singled out the Polish Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski as an example of bold resistance to tyranny, a resistance that in the long run would prove more effective than appeasement. Chambers’ view was vindicated when another Polish priest became Pope John Paul II and brought down the Soviet Union.
Chambers’ suspicion of false gods, even capitalistic ones, led to his infamous review of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in National Review. Chambers saw in the book a world where the only values were power and material production—a world, as Reinsch notes, without room for frailty, humanity—or even children. For Chambers, Atlas Shrugged was not much better than “The Soviet at Work”: “Like any consistent materialism,” he wrote, “this on begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. Thus, Randian Man, like Marxist Man, is made the center of a godless world.” For Rand, dissent from this “final revelation” was not to be tolerated; for those who dared, wrote Chambers, “from almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chamber—go.’”
And this brings us to Glenn Beck. Beck has been worshiping Ayn Rand on his show recently, and in on episode he quoted from negative critics of Atlas Shrugged. One of them was Whittaker Chambers. Beck read a couple lines, then he quoted Atlas Shrugged in reply—“Take that, Whittaker Chambers!” Beck cried. It was obvious he had no idea who Chambers was. This is very sad. We need to remember visionaries like Chambers not only for the struggle against the expanding State, but against the notion that free markets, low taxes, technology and no safety net will bring ultimate happiness. It’s also important to accept that a lot of human good came out of the Enlightenment—and the New Deal. It is what has happened since, with the left’s hegemonic war to dismantle tradition and turn hissy fits over sex into social policy, that has turned things sour.
Reinsch accepts as much at the end of The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, when he defends the Enlightenment: “Born out of a profound concern for the acting subject, modern thought has insisted at every dialectical step upon the primacy of the individual. Such thought was heroic in it initial strivings against an order that, at crucial points, lacked the courage and imagination to understand its own failures with regard to individual liberty, conflating the order of authoritarian power with high virtue.” Ironic how that description of the old guard now applies to the authoritarian left, the would-be heirs of the Enlightenment.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of several books, including “Damn Senators,” “God and Man at Georgetown Prep,” and most recently, “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” His articles and essays have appeared in various publications.