Whittaker Chambers and the Crisis of American Conservatism

I don’t have life-changing experiences very often, now that I’m middle-aged. But about a year ago, searching for insight on how conservatism got into its current mess, I read Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time. In spite of its unusual length, I am now in the middle of my fifth time reading and listening through it, and expect to keep revisiting it. Chambers’ personal story and his penetrating political analysis provide a new perspective not just on conservatism but on the whole crisis of polarization and political degeneration.

I read Witness because Jonah Goldberg included it on a short list of books that those of us rendered politically homeless by the collapse of conservatism ought to revisit. I discovered not only that Witness is comparable to Augustine’s Confessions in its literary beauty and power, but that Chambers’ perspective – in Witness and in his letters to William F. Buckley, published by Buckley after Chambers’ death as Odyssey of a Friend – helps explain why the conservative movement was good and necessary, and why it ultimately became dysfunctional and proved unsustainable.

Chambers was, famously, discouraged about the future of the West. He was so not only because he had a somewhat glum personality (that, too) but because he knew the underlying cause of our political crises was our moral and spiritual immaturity. He wrote to Buckley that the future seemed bleak to him because the cultural corruption of the West is a political problem for which there is no political solution. However, a full realization of what this means would go a long way toward uncovering non-political solutions – and building a politics that welcomes non-political solutions to our political problems.

The Crisis of History

In his political thought, one of Chambers’ organizing principles is the “crisis of history.” The economic and technological development of the modern world have brought an end to older, agrarian ways of life and their traditions. These traditions told people what the meaning and purpose of their lives was. Now, we have to figure out the meaning of life for ourselves, and we have not developed the necessary moral and spiritual maturity to do so.

This is the real problem that lies behind all the obvious problems of the modern world: world wars, tyrannical oppression, alienation, poverty in the midst of plenty, etc. People are drawn to totalitarianism – to fascism and communism, and today we could add religious extremism – because they are driven to desperation in seeking answers to these urgent problems. The true answer, that our own moral failure is the underlying problem, is one we never want to accept. Hence totalitarianism, which identifies blameable enemies and promises to cure the ills of the modern world, is itself one of the ills of the modern world, and probably always will be.

Chambers points out, to our intense discomfort, that the real power of communism is that it forces to the surface what has always been the basic, subterranean question of human life: “God, or Man?” He does not mean the merely philosophical question of whether God exists. He means the practical question of who controls our destiny.

If we believe that the destiny of man is in the hands of man, it follows logically that all solutions for human problems must come from the mind and power of man. The human mind is in control of the universe, to the extent that anything is. If there are to be solutions to the catastrophic problems of world war, oppression and continuing poverty in a world of breathtaking growth, the Almighty Mind of Man must invent them on its own, and then impose them upon a recalcitrant world.

Such undertakings are sometimes successful at first, but are doomed in the long run. The lives and freedoms of a few people, or a few million people, or even a few hundred million people, inevitably pale to insignificance compared to the salvation of the whole human race. Sooner or later, if our answer is “Man” rather than “God,” we are going to start lying, cheating and stealing, and eventually torturing and murdering on a mass scale. To commit the crimes of history in order to deliver all future humanity from the crimes of history is the greatest sacrifice the devotee of Man can make to his cause.

The communist East, Chambers wrote, has chosen “Man” and has the courage of that conviction. The capitalist West has also chosen “Man,” but is haunted by the specter of its Christian past. That is why the West is in crisis; that is why the world is in crisis.

As Chambers said, without God, man cannot organize the world for man. Without God, man can only organize the world against man. Some higher power must restrain us, or else we will not be restrained.

On the Right but Not “Conservative”

Chambers’ witness against communism, and his withering diagnosis of the spiritual emptiness of the American establishment that failed to take the communist threat seriously, is not nearly as familiar as it ought to be. Even conservatives have largely forgotten Witness at this point, even though the cruel and shameful mistreatment of Chambers at the hands of the American establishment used to be one of the key origin stories of the movement. But Chambers’ critique of conservatism itself isn’t just neglected; it never really became well-known in the first place.

Buckley sought out Chambers after reading in Witness the story of how Chambers deserted his job as a spy for the Soviet Union because of his religious conversion. The two became close friends, and Chambers briefly wrote for National Review. Among his articles was a deconstruction of Ayn Rand that remains to this day one of the key documents of American intellectual life.

But Chambers always insisted that while he was a man of the Right, he was not “conservative.” His letters explaining his resignation from National Review contain one of the most incisive intellectual critiques of American conservatism ever written. (Buckley showed admirable pluck in choosing to publish them!)

Chambers’ encounter with the conservatives had forced him to make a key concession. In Witness, and indeed for his whole adult life, Chambers’ response to the crisis of history was to retreat to agrarian traditionalism. After leaving the Soviet underground, the Chambers family lived on a family farm that they worked entirely by themselves, on top of Chambers’ more-than-a-full-time job at Time magazine (where he rose to senior editor). But Buckley and the conservatives forced Chambers to recognize that human freedom – his core political concern – required openness to technological and economic development.

Chambers wrote to Buckley: “I have decided that the machine is not the enemy.” And this concession, which the conservatives had forced him to make, became the starting point of his critique of conservatism.

The whole conservative project, Chambers showed, rested on the assumption that our society’s old, traditional moral and religious structure would continue unchanged by default, as long as overweening Big Government stayed out of the way. But the technological and economic development welcomed by economic conservatism must permanently destabilize the institutions that undergird the moral norms and religious sensibilities demanded by social conservatism. What is primarily needed to meet the crisis of history is not the mere conservation of old moral and religious institutions, but a continual reform and redesign of those institutions. Not a continual reform in the vain pursuit of progress on human terms, but a continual reform to manifest the justice and mercy of the eternal and transcendent God in a world being constantly remade by technological and economic development.

The idea of a potentially fatal tension between economic liberalism and social conservatism is, of course, a familiar line of attack on conservatism. What makes Chambers’ version so much more incisive is that it lays aside the secondary issues and cuts to the heart of the issue: the relationship between God and social institutions. If our commitment to God and his holy love for an unholy human race is to remain unchanged, then our moral and religious institutions must change constantly.

One of the clearest signs of a subtle mind is the ability to distinguish things without separating them. Chambers neither identifies God with moral and religious institutions, as social conservatives tend to do; nor tries to have God without moral and religious institutions, as certain liberal, modernizing religious people try to do; nor tries to have morality without God, as secularists (including secular conservatives) strive vainly to do. We must have both God and institutions, yet they are not the same thing, and it requires constant struggle and constant reform to keep them aligned.

Conservatives are right to insist on individual rights and free markets, and the success of the movement in the 20th century was a good and necessary restraint on what would otherwise have been the unrestrained growth of state power. But this is not enough. To think that limiting government would, by itself, be sufficient to meet the crisis of history smacks strongly of that vision of the Almighty Mind of Man, planning its own salvation. As if society could solve all its problems if we could just get our public policy right – fine-tuning the laws protecting individual rights and free markets until they’re so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Money and Power Can’t Save Us

In our polarized moment, I think Chambers’ story and thought could help both the Left and Right turn away from the idolatry of power and materialism that is destroying us.

For my friends on the Left, an encounter with Chambers – a man who shared all their concerns about peace, justice for the poor and resistance to white supremacy, and bore a costlier personal witness to all these causes than almost any of them ever will – would help reveal what was good and necessary in the conservative movement. It would, I hope, compel a reckoning with the persistent tendency of the Left’s public representatives to glamorize and romanticize mass murderers (Che Guevara, the Castros, and even sometimes North Korea). It could help them recognize the enormous extent to which the power of the American establishment has been used to mistreat people on the Right for almost a century. Most importantly, it would challenge them to confront the illusion that society can solve its problems by giving power to government bureaucracies and politicized pseudo-experts.

But I, as a man of the Right, have also been troubled by my encounter with Chambers – a man who shared all our concerns about individual rights and free markets, and bore a costlier personal witness to these causes than almost any of us ever will. Compared to the progressivism of the New Deal and the Great Society, the Left today seems much less beholden to a grand cosmic vision of the Almighty Mind of Man, planning its own salvation. Yet we too often talk about our progressive neighbors as if anyone who favors a welfare state even slightly larger than what we are willing to countenance is just one step away from totalitarianism and mass murder. And the powerlessness of Chambers before the lies and abuses of the American establishment contrasts starkly with the enormous engines of money and power that have been built up on the Right since the 1980s. Too many on the Right have become the very oppressors that Chambers and Buckley set out to fight. Too many practice the same politics of grievance, resentment, and victim culture that we accuse the Left of practicing.

As I closed my copy of Odyssey of a Friend, just after reading those striking letters of resignation from National Review near the end of his life, two things struck me. One was that it is a testimony to divine inscrutability that great thinkers are so often taken from us just as they are making new discoveries whose implications they will never have the chance to explore. The other was that, for all its devotion to a few specific moral causes and its championing of the social utility of religion and religious institutions, the underlying failure of the conservative movement was that a serious return to moral responsibility – which ultimately means people becoming humble and obedient before the face of the cosmic power that transcends them – was not central enough to the conservative project, and could not have been made so without fundamentally altering the nature of the project.