Commentary Magazine


“Witness”

To the Editor:

Eric J. Sundquist has provided a magnificent literary illumination of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness [“‘Witness’ Recalled,” December 1988]. He cites as well several possible reasons for the recent neglect of that book. I would like to add one more. When Witness first appeared in 1952, the spiritual status of the Communist idea was entirely different from what it is today. We had read, for example, The God That Failed, a collection of important essays by intellectuals who had renounced Communism; Communism had “failed,” but it was still a “god.” We had read George Orwell’s 1984, in which the “party” and Commissar O’Brien are all-powerful. In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the idea of Communism is so powerful that Rubashov willingly sacrifices himself to it. . . . Whittaker Chambers’s Witness belongs in this same genre; its thesis is that Communism is evil but spiritually powerful, and that it is going to win historically.

But 1952 was a long time ago. We now know that Bukharin, upon whom Rubashov was based, did not willingly sacrifice himself to the revolutionary ideal; he was simply murdered, Al Capone-style, by Stalin. And Commissar O’Brien is not in power in England; Margaret Thatcher is. So at least one reason Witness is relatively neglected today is that its informing vision seems dated.

Jeffrey Hart
Dartmouth College
Hanover, New Hampshire

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