Commentary Magazine

Was Chambers Right?

To the Editor:

In his article, “Why Whittaker Chambers Was Wrong” [April], Charles Horner concludes that the apparent demise of Communism proves that Whittaker Chambers was wrong when he asserted his belief that in breaking with Communism, he was leaving the winning side for the losing side.

Chambers considered Communism a symptom of the crisis of civilization, not the crisis itself. That crisis involved the question of faith in man or faith in God.

About his break with Communism, he wrote in Witness:

What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags . . . were not only Communism . . . [but] . . . the whole web of the materialist modern mind. . . . If I had rejected only Communism, I would have rejected only one political expression of the modern mind. . . . If I had rejected only Communism, I should have changed a faith; I would not have changed the force that made it possible.

In short, if all that the West has to send the shuffling masses in the East is a McDonald’s franchise, then Charles Horner, not Whittaker Chambers, will have been proven wrong.

Wilson Bucher
Columbia, Pennsylvania



To the Editor:

It is more than interesting to contrast the reviews devoted to our new collection of Whittaker Chambers’s essays, Ghosts on the Roof, by Samuel Francis in Chronicles, and Charles Horner in COMMENTARY. Francis finds in Chambers’s journalistic pieces a message that not only is terribly timely but “considerably diminished if it is mistaken for merely an account of Soviet Communism” in either armed or diplomatic war with the West. Mr. Horner, while devoting only scant notice to Ghosts on the Roof and concentrating instead on Chambers’s spiritual memoir, Witness, simply declares Chambers to have been “wrong” in his belief that the West could not at last withstand the threat to its very life posed by Marxist-Leninists in the Kremlin. Mr. Horner bases his verdict on the as-yet-unproven (and, in the sense that informs Chambers’s book, unprovable) proposition that the West generally, and the United States specifically, has defeated the Soviet Union in the great conflict of ideas, especially concerning governance (democracy) and economics (the free market versus state planning). Chambers would retort, as indeed in several pieces collected in Ghosts on the Roof he does retort, that there is more to the great confrontation between East and West than can be indicated by the proliferation of voting booths or McDonald’s hamburgers.

Though it is easy to portray Chambers as merely an anti-Communist, Chambers himself insisted that he was a counterrevolutionary; he was counter not only, or even so much, to Communism per se as to certain essentially spiritual (and only secondarily political or economic) forces that he purported to discern in both East and West. Further, Chambers’s writings remind us that the spiritual (or, if you prefer, ideological) enemies of Western civilization take many forms and locate themselves as readily in Muncie as in Moscow. Even if it could be demonstrated that the United States and its Western allies have somehow defeated Communism, we may yet face—in, for example, the idolatry being accorded democracy and prosperity these days—the most formidable of all the foes of the human spirit: what an earlier Chambersesque writer, Hilaire Belloc, termed the servile state. The outcome of that contest remains very much undecided.

David A. Bovenizer
Regnery Gateway, Inc.
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Charles Horner’s article joins the chorus of cold-war victory celebrations now so ubiquitous. Unfortunately, it does not do justice to the main theme of Whittaker Chambers’s life. Mr. Horner writes, “Chambers himself became one of the least acclaimed, most thoroughly reviled figures in postwar American life. Nor has he been rehabilitated. . . .” Why? Certainly the overwhelming majority of American intellectuals were not pro-Communist. Nor was it because of Chambers’s past—probably not even the Hiss case. Numerous ex-Communists and former fellow travelers have played a prominent part in American life and continue to do so, including many who agreed with Chambers about Hiss. Why, then, was he so reviled?

Chambers himself gave an answer in his Odyssey of a Friend—Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr.:

I am baffled by the way people still speak of the West as if it were at least a cultural unity against Communism though it is divided not only by a political, but by an invisible cleavage. On one side are the voiceless masses with their own subdivisions and fractures. On the other side is the enlightened, articulate elite which, to one degree or other, has rejected the religious roots of the civilization—the roots without which it is no longer Western civilization, but a new order of beliefs, attitudes and mandates. In short, this is the order of which Communism is one logical expression, originating not in Russia, but in the culture capitals of the West. . . . It is a Western body of beliefs that now threatens the West from Russia. As a body of Western beliefs, secular and rationalistic, the intelligentsia of the West share it, and are therefore always committed to a secret emotional complicity with Communism of which they dislike, not the Communism but only what, by the chances of history, Russia has specifically added to it—slave-labor camps, purges, MVD et al.

Chambers wrote in Witness that he had chosen the “losing side,” but he did not mean by this the side of American citizenry against Communism. Chambers was writing about the essence of our civilization. “The enemy,” he wrote, “is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within.”

It is interesting to note that another man with the same view of the West is now similarly treated. Solzhenhitsyn, too, was popular for a short time until he made it plain that he believes Communism is merely a symptom of our materialistic culture. It is interesting to observe that Solzhenitsyn’s recently published novel, August 1914—The Red Wheel, was barely noticed by the media. . . . Like Chambers, he joins those “least acclaimed.”

It is premature and probably presumptuous to talk about why Whittaker Chambers was “wrong.” Let us remember that Persia, the scourge of Western civilization, abruptly collapsed and yielded not to Athens, but to the semi-barbarian Macedonians. (Unfortunately, Athens was not far behind its ancient enemy.) As we look at our drug-sodden cities, our porous frontiers, our inability to educate our children, our lack of internal security and the indifference of so many to our laws, surely we must have some doubts. Is it really true that “the relentless reality of America . . . somehow always manages to whittle them down”? Are we sure that Whittaker Chambers was wrong?

Henry Addis
Westbury, New York



Charles Horner writes:

The correspondents are correct in pointing out that, for Whittaker Chambers, Communism was but one manifestation of the West’s fatal materialism. They are also right to note that we may yet succumb to one of these other corruptions, even though it seems that Khrushchev’s prediction that we would all be living under Soviet-style Communism one day will not now be borne out. It is also true that there are enemies of civilization “in Muncie as in Moscow,” even though this particular comparison is way out of balance. And finally, it is certainly true that there is (was?) more to the struggle between East and West than the “proliferation of voting booths or McDonald’s hamburgers.” But how much more? And are these not two good starting points for the East which, until recently, had neither?

The letters also remind us of how grudging has been the acceptance by both Left and Right of our recent successes—it is almost as if they resent them. The unity of these two opposites is well-represented by the emergence of Mc-Donald’s as the trans-political symbol of what ails Western civilization. The Left inveighs against non-biodegradable packaging, high-sodium fries, and high-fat burgers. (Here some care is necessary; the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Croc became a generous patron of left-wing causes.) The Right, meanwhile, complains that the East’s imminent spiritual revival has been sidetracked by the new Muscovite passion for junk food. In fact, however, though the Big Mac may not be the best thing for body and soul and our natural environment, it is not exactly the worst, either.

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