I recently read Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, a truly superb autobiographical account of not just his involvement in the Alger Hiss case, but his early life, enthrallment with Communism, and ultimately his decision to leave the Communist movement. It is a gripping, well-written book. It provides a stunning look inside how an American communist revolutionary may be made, as well as the ways in which Communists tried to subvert the American government from the inside. Even in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, it should be recommended reading for anyone interested in a sort of psycho-political analysis.
After reading Witness, I happened upon this scathing column from George Will written over a year ago. Unlike many other conservatives I haven’t completely given up on Will, though some of his work is rather execrable, and this is a case in point. In a column otherwise dedicated to the wisdom of William F. Buckley, Will decides to unleash a bromide on the entire conservative movement in the age of Trump, a bromide which is not without merit, mind you. Somehow, though, Will looks to Chambers as the progenitor of this anti-intellectual, populist strain of conservatism, writing:
[Buckley], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography Witness became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.”
This is quite a departure from what Will wrote about Chambers three decades ago. It is also a bizarre, unhinged attack that has no basis in reality.
Witness is roughly 700 pages long. Will has taken a few quotes from towards the end of the book as Chambers descibes how he felt in the aftermath of the Alger Hiss fury, when it seemed most of the intellectual class was arrayed against him. As Nathanial Blake puts it:
If Will has changed his mind about Chambers and now considers him to have been dangerously populist, that is his prerogative. But he offers only one quotation to illustrate his point, and it is cobbled together (six fragments patched together!) to the point of being disingenuous. It is an unconvincing piece of evidence, especially coming from a writer who in the same column insouciantly dismissed Buckley’s famous crack about preferring to be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.
Indeed. If anything, Buckley sounds much more like a screecher at times, particularly in Up from Liberalism, a book so tedious even I had to put it down halfway through.
Richard Reinsch and Adam White also take Will to task.
At the time of Witness, Chambers had been vilified in the press and in elite circles for his testimony against Alger Hiss’s Soviet espionage. Only a few prominent voices had defended him. And, Chambers sensed, the folks in the center of America were always with him.
Hiss and Chambers had conspired together from roughly 1935 to 1938 as members of a Soviet underground cell. As an employee of the State Department, Hiss provided documents to Chambers that he in turn handed off to Soviet handlers. But Chambers left Communism in 1938 and fled his former life as a Soviet agent with his wife and two children. He illustrates his exitus from the Communist inferno in Witness with magnificent formulations from Lazarus, Isaiah, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, George Fox, Ibsen, Rilke, and Koestler, among others. He also embraced Christianity but stood apart from any particular theological orthodoxy, preferring instead the stillness of the Quaker Meeting. Many leave Communist ideology, Chambers noted, but remain socialists or some type of collectivist sympathizer. In short, they only leave communism because of its violence, but not the ideology itself. Chambers’s conversion was root and branch.
In 1948 Chambers’s former life revisited him, and he was called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify against those who had served with him in the Soviet Underground. Chambers provided HUAC with 21 names and all have been confirmed in subsequent evidence as noted in John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009). Hiss was convicted in a 1950 federal trial for perjury, ostensibly regarding espionage, with the statute of limitations prohibiting a conviction on that grave charge.
The modern-day legacy of Witness is reduced by Will to little more than a contributor to the “screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infections cheerfulness.” Will does little to connect Chambers’s actual words to the modern-day problems that Will is lamenting. Nor does Will pause to concede that maybe, just maybe, the problems he’s lamenting could much more easily and directly be traced to the more recent media phenomena. Instead, Chambers’s autobiography, usually regarded by friend and foe alike as one of magnificent spiritual and philosophical intensity, is traduced by a conservative essayist regarded by many as a giant in his own right. Why?
The last question is unanswerable. Will has produced vastly more good than bad in his career, but this attack on Chambers is unconscionable.