"Witness" at Sixty Print
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 26 May 2012

There are many political testimonies that touch on matters of faith, and many spiritual testimonies that refer to politics. Much more rare is a book that blends both in an integrated, coherent, and profound way. 

Last year, an insightful priest suggested that I read Witness by Whittaker Chambers. It is a long tome, but it richly rewards anyone who takes the time. Sixty years after its publication, and over two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its context – pre-World War II communist efforts to gain a foothold in the United States, and the beginnings of the post-war superpower contest – can seem ancient history. 

But no book in the last 100 years has more direct relevance to our politics and the spiritual struggles of living in a materialist, secular moment. Witness tells of Chambers’ turn to communism and his activities – including espionage – to advance that cause, followed by growing doubts that parallel and intertwine with a budding spiritual awareness (culminating in his faith as a Quaker). Finally, he escapes from communism, and labors to alert a complacent America to the dangers it faced from within.

Chambers came from what would now be called a dysfunctional family, one outcome of which was his brother’s suicide, and, much later, his own suicide attempt. His Marxism was not merely a youthful or academic digression into a misguided movement. He worked hard for years as a dedicated communist. He lied under oath during the investigation of the charges he lodged against Alger Hiss, a darling of the Washington establishment. By his own account, he was a deeply flawed man who haltingly received the grace to proceed, one short step at a time.

But after the long public battle that convicted his friend-turned-nemesis Hiss (who, despite protesting his innocence until his death, now seems clearly to have been a communist spy), Chambers understood that – either despite or because of his manifold weaknesses – he had a critical role to play in history.

Chambers recalls that he was originally drawn to communism for its two main promises, change and hope: 

The tie that binds [communists] across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body, and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world. . . .It is the same power that moves mountains; it is also an unfailing power to move men. It is not new. . . .Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” [It is] the vision of Man without God.


     Whittaker Chambers

He continues: “[Communism] had one ultimate appeal. In place of desperation, it set the word: hope. . . .In the twentieth century, it seemed impossible to have hope on any other terms.”

Observing an interwar world that was “without faith, hope, [or] character,” Chambers embraced the change and hope offered by communism as a “choice against death and for life.” But in subsequent years, he cast off “the whole web of the materialist modern mind. . .paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of [man’s soul] for God.” He realized that in choosing secular statism and collectivism for ostensibly virtuous and noble reasons, he had chosen the very thing whose essential nihilism made virtue and human dignity impossible.

Chambers argues that a “man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something. A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.” 

That’s one reason he became a powerful witness against all forms of materialism, in favor of God and life, of the nature and value of the human person. He witnessed, not through political participation in the usual channels (though he does vote), but by denouncing the inhuman political system spawned by Marxism and then testifying against an existential threat to the best of what American political institutions once represented. 

When Chambers decided to break from communism, he believed he was joining the losing side. While he shared much of the philosophy of American conservatives, he did not join in their sometimes sunny optimism. His viewed the West as in decline, though he believed strongly in the underlying truths of Western beliefs and ideas. Those truths are ultimately the source and object of his witness, of what made that witness right regardless of the odds against its success.

In the end, although he made both his living and his lasting contributions through writing and editing, his great loves were his faith, his family, and the labor and land of his farm. He maintained a great trust in the American people – most of them – despite his skepticism about what American institutions and elites had become.

Witness contains a lot of historical detail, which many readers will find excessive or distracting. But those details were essential to documenting the truth of Chambers’ testimony in the Hiss case and to explain the seriousness of the communist threat. They give today’s reader a concrete sense of the reality Chambers faced.

The book is also filled with moving passages about Chambers’ Christian transformation and with incisive commentary on America, the West, and the modern mind. It remains a challenge to us, in a time when daring witness to the truth is as important as ever.


Joseph R. Wood
is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
  
 

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