10 questions with ‘Whittaker Chambers’ author Richard M. Reinsch II

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Richard M. Reinsch II is the author of “Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.”

A program officer at the Liberty Fund, Reinsch is also an Abraham Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared in the National Review Online and the City Journal Online, among other publications.

Reinsch recently agreed to answer 10 questions about his new book for The Daily Caller:

1.   Why did you write the book?

I wrote the book from my belief that American conservatism needed to reconsider the voice and witness of Whittaker Chambers. A question I have long reflected on is the peculiar inability of the West to really understand the events of 1989, and what they meant for the trajectory not just of Western political and economic thinking, but also for the much larger question of who man is and his purposes for living a free and dignified life, acting from the center of his soul. Whittaker Chambers argued that the real faith of the West was peculiarly with the communists. I’ve long thought that our inability to really reflect on the full ramifications of the defeat of revolutionary ideology, central planning, and the distorted understanding of the person that communist regimes imposed indicates something much larger about the West.

Confirming my opinion, I think, is that the West adopted a somewhat Marxist understanding of the Cold War and its end. The singular notion that the West could not lose and the Soviets could not win because of economic forces ignores the fundamental tensions and agonies within late modernity. Chambers sounded a different drum. In his exit from communism, his embrace of Christianity, and his decision to defend America and the West with his witness, Chambers pointed to the West’s need to recover its foundational truths that had been articulated in the biblical understanding of man and by premodern philosophy. The liberal order, to be truly liberal, had to recover its deep conservative origins.

2.   Who was Whittaker Chambers for those who may not know?

Chambers was a tremendously gifted writer who became a communist in the late 1920s. He had great success as a writer at The Daily Worker and as an editor at The New Masses, both communist-controlled publications, and was asked in 1932 to go underground for the communist movement. He served in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence. As one of the more gifted intellectuals in secret service, he was placed with the Ware Group (a collection of communist cells consisting of government officials and journalists) in Washington, D.C. Here he encountered Alger Hiss, among other promising New Deal civil servants. Hiss and Chambers, along with their spouses, were actually close friends before Chambers left communism.

Chambers exited the underground service in 1938 after two events. One was the sheer monstrous reality of the Stalinist purges. Chambers realized that people close to him in the espionage world had been called to Moscow and liquidated. There was also his religious conversion. Chambers is quite clear in subsequent writing that his encounter with God opened up for him the possibility of authentic hope and action. Chambers understood that communism, even if it was destined to succeed, as he thought, was soul-crushing. Better to lose on behalf of the truth, he reasoned.

Upon leaving, Chambers divulged his activities as an agent to the federal government. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was a crucial moment for him. Chambers understood that much of the information about the U.S. that he had sent to the Soviet Union would now go to Germany. Soon Chambers was able to meet with the head of security at the State Department, A.A. Berle, and told most of the truth, withholding the facts of espionage conducted by his cell. The information was not acted upon by the government until 1948 when Chambers was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to corroborate the testimony of the so-called “blonde spy queen,” Elizabeth Bentley, who claimed that Soviet espionage was occurring within the U.S. government. Chambers substantiated her allegations, added his own, and confronted Hiss on the first day of his testimony (all twenty-one names that Chambers gave to HUAC have been corroborated by subsequent Soviet archival research). Hiss was convicted in 1950 for perjury after two federal trials. Chambers heralded journalism career, which had flowered at Time since roughly 1938, was over. He stood professionally ruined.

The publication of Chambers’ autobiography, “Witness,” in 1952 is an American literary milestone. This exemplary memoir of conversion and defense of the truths about God, country, and man he claimed were under attack in many ways was a bestseller and became one of the most significant autobiographies ever penned by an American. The book also became a rallying point for a fragmentary and divided conservative movement. Chambers ignited the movement with his call for vigilance against international communism and domestic progressivism.

3.   What prompted Chambers to reject communism?

Chambers observes that he left communism because he noted one day the delicate shape of his daughter’s ear. His daughter, Ellen, had been born under difficult circumstances. Party officials had told Chambers and his wife to abort the child, but Chambers noted in “Witness” that this was unthinkable for him and his wife. He also said that the prospect of fatherhood filled him with hope. I think these moments pointed to a reality beyond ideology and power. I think love and its foundation in God became possible for Chambers in a new way. The shape of the ear was significant because Chambers thought it was too perfect, too delicate, to be the amalgamation of purely material forces. Design meant God, and Chambers noted if God exists, then communism cannot be true.

The second event Chambers described was the moment when the screams are heard. The screams are made by the victims of communism, and, Chambers observed, every communist hears them. The screams are the price of communism’s victory over the world. In pursuit of a bliss to occur at the end of communist striving, many will have to killed, tortured, and imprisoned. This is accepted upfront. For those unwilling to commit these crimes, Chambers noted that they became softer shades of Left. However, the real significance was that these screams had the ability to move the souls of the most hardened of ideological warriors. They implicate the soul and the existence of God. Man remained subject to his conscience and the screams were the price it exacted for destroying man’s dignity. Chambers could no longer serve such a monstrous terror.

4.   What formed the basis of Whittaker Chambers’ conservatism?

The basis of Chambers’ conservatism is his counterrevolutionary position that effective opposition to communism will not come from modern liberalism, and that political freedom can only be understood in light of the biblical understanding of man. Chambers argued that modern liberalism actually shares, in many respects, the same desiccated humanism of communism. Both emerged from the Continental Enlightenment and its position that reality can be solely understood through a geometric reason. God was no longer needed. In relying on the same anti-theist humanism as communist ideology, modern liberalism was really unable to frame a positive response to it. Chambers thought this had to come from the understanding of man that is articulated in both scripture and premodern thought. These see man as a tragic figure, imperfect, and lacking full knowledge of himself and his tendencies towards folly and evil. The proper response is humility, patience, and the long-enduring work of building communities, polities, and being painfully aware of your limitations as a finite being. Moreover, man must understand his anxiety and pain points to God as the foundation of his being. Modern thought wants to eclipse all of this with its confidence in Reason or History, or the power of the State working in tandem with science to perfect our existence. This is what Chambers was really trying to communicate in “Witness” to America and the West.

5.   What was Whittaker Chambers’ relationship with William F. Buckley, Jr. like?

Chambers had tremendous respect and admiration for Buckley. I think Buckley looked to Chambers as the Job-like man who had battled the Left in hand-to-hand combat, won, and then emerged in his suffering to tell the country what it must do as well. Their correspondence is really the legacy of their friendship. In it, Buckley seeks Chambers out on many issues of the day and wanted him to be a founding member of National Review (Chambers wrote for the publication from 1957-1959). Chambers obliged him and provided more than just intellectual or strategic thought. The evidence is of a man writing from his soul about the condition of the West, American politics, the prospects for a conservative movement. The issue is one of intellectual coherence, but also confidence in “the truths the Western mind has for once and all discovered.”

6.   Would Whittaker Chambers fit in well with today’s conservative movement?

I think it difficult to answer this question. The interesting development in Chambers’ thought in the 1950s was that he held few of the Right’s certainties in policy questions. Chambers refusal to join National Review when first asked in 1955 was because of his reticence over the dogmatism, as he saw it, of its editors. Their resolute support of Joseph McCarthy and lukewarm views of Nixon were an anathema to Chambers. Also, appeals to a libertarian or Platonic free market posture were self-defeating, he thought. Of course, many conservatives could see no other course. Chambers is really more Aristotelian in his politics, and this separated him from the rising conservative movement — a movement he helped ignite. He has a clear awareness of the good, but isn’t straitjacketed in how to achieve it.

Chambers understood the need for a “Republican Left” as he termed it, or persons of strong patriotism and cultural conservatism who may not be completely in favor of small government and open markets. We might call them the Reagan Democrats or the Southern Evangelicals who voted for Reagan in droves. These voters were again on display during the midterm elections and are the crucial piece to a conservative majority. Chambers directly noted the need for these types of voters within the house of Conservatism. If conservatism insisted on being a small church or a sect, Chambers thought it would be buried in a quiet graveyard somewhere and would receive few visitors.

7.   What would Whittaker Chambers think of the Obama administration?

He might say that it proves the enduring observations he made about the Left’s faulty humanism. That is, the Left located man’s goodness in his rationality and refused to consider things like man’s weaknesses or original sin. The sheer limitations of what man can do with power has never been a real consideration for the Left. In giving government more power, we become more free and possessed of greater opportunity. This remains as true in the Obama administration as in the Johnson, Roosevelt, or Wilson administrations.

The real task for the Left is the science of legislation to perfect government and society. If you read the speeches of Donald Berwick or Carol Browner, even President Obama, clearly a belief in planning as an encompassing and perfective reality remains a part of the Left. I think the real story continues to be both the Midwest and the South. Conservatism found a way to bring these voters along as Chambers counseled. There is plenty to be pessimistic about, but in a macro-sense, conservatism holds large parts of the country that show little indication that they are slowly becoming left-wing.

8.   What was Chambers’ problem with Ayn Rand?

Chambers thought that Rand was laboring in the ideological swamps. Rand’s thought was that capitalism rather than central planning would lead to the highest state of existence. Many forget but Karl Marx, like Rand, desired for man to live in an atomistic paradise free from the pains of religion and the deep-seated community of family and man’s social and political nature. Marxists, however, remained stuck in the unworkability of their system. Rand articulates in “Atlas Shrugged,” the novel Chambers famously criticized, that man delivers himself through his labor and intellect from the burdens of his nature.

The free market for Rand is not merely a process whereby the variegated interests and desires of man can be peacefully channeled; rather, the market allows man to be a superman. One becomes the ideal man, as articulated by Rand, by being able to remove one’s self from the bonds and needs of others. Rand’s vision of man consists here in the replacement of love, sacrifice, and humility with a rational and atomistic egoism that defines man. Chambers argues that man defined purely atomistically, unable to know the love of God and man, slowly begins to organize the world against man. He is cut off from his being.

9.   Is there anyone on the national scene who resembles Whitaker Chambers intellectually?

I think Chambers is so unique, given the moment he was thrown into, and the weight of his experiences and his writing prowess that it is hard to see anyone like him currently. Maybe it is just as well. The Cold War was an exceptional moment and exceptional figures tried to direct the whirlwind. They are departed from the scene, but their writings and witnesses remain with us and can still teach us if we will listen to them.

10.   Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?

I’m currently researching and planning to write on Orestes Brownson who understood the American Constitution as a providential declaration of a nation that was entrusted with a divine spark to advance liberty with law and law with liberty. How else to understand our strange notion of sovereignty captured in the Constitution? His writings articulate a providential American ‘We’ that should enter the discussion about who we are as a people. I think Brownson’s writings might deepen our understanding of American exceptionalism.