Memo To: Website browsers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A good book
In my teenage years, when I was a liberal Democrat growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and thinking of becoming a socialist, I hated Richard Nixon, which is what liberal Democrats were supposed to do. Fellow liberals who hated Nixon also denounced Whittaker Chambers, for telling lies about Alger Hiss being a communist spy. It was Nixon's doggedness in pursuing Hiss that led to Hiss spending jail time for perjury. I could never bring myself to hate Chambers and don't remember anyone every suggesting that I do so. Still, he was clearly a pudgy right-wing scoundrel who obviously ran around with Nixon and was a most distasteful fellow. Years later, as I traveled into a new political time zone and became a conservative Republican, I read Alien Weinstein's book about the Hiss trial, Perjury, and came to believe I had been wrong and Whittaker Chambers had been right. Still, it was not until I read the superb 638-page biography of Chambers by Sam Tanenhaus that I really knew anything about the fellow. Tanenhaus goes out of his way to minimize Hiss, to elevate the importance of Chambers as a major figure of importance of the 20th century. He was what he titled his own autobiography, Witness, written in 1952, the one American who was able to cross into the dark side of the Force and escape to tell about it in a way that makes sense to us now. Liberals and conservatives who lived through part of this history, as I did, are uncomfortable with Chambers, because he was neither one nor the other. Yet I can identify with that. In this following paragraph, on page 167, I can recall the pull of the "liberal" idea:
[Chambers'] grievance against the literary liberals was not their pro-Sovietism but their dilettantism. "Substituting a good deal of intellectual inbreeding for organic contact with U.S. life, they developed a curious cultural provincialism. The Depression came to them as a refreshing change. Fundamentally skeptical, maladjusted, defeatist, the intellectuals felt thoroughly at home in the chaos and misery of the C30s. Fundamentally benevolent and humane, they loved their fellow countrymen in distress far more than they could ever love them in prosperity. And they particularly enjoyed life when applause began to greet their berating of the robber barons, president makers, economic royalists, malefactors of great wealth."
Why did he cross over to the dark side of the Force? He rejected the idea promoted by Ludwig von Mises, the great classical economist of the era, that anticapitalist sentiments were rooted in "envy" the resentment of have-nots. "To Chambers this 'shocking' thesis epitomized 'know-nothing conservatism' at its 'know-nothingest.' In his own years as a Communist, Chambers stiffly said, he had not envied capitalists in the least." I think Chambers was exactly right, von Mises absolutely wrong.
[Chambers] was more at ease explaining the appeal communism had held for his generation, a question that genuinely interested him. In their youth, he explained, he and many others had been seeking "a moral solution in a world of moral confusion. Marxism-Leninism offers an oversimplified explanation of the causes and a program for action. The very vigor of the project appeals to the more sheltered middle-class intellectuals, who feel that the whole context of their lives has kept them away from the world of reality... They feel a very natural concern, one might almost say a Christian concern, for underprivileged people. They feel a great intellectual concern, at least, for recurring economic crises, the problem of war, which in our lifetime has assumed an atrocious proportion, and which always weighs on them. What shall I do? At that crossroads the evil thing, Communism, lies in waiting."
Communism is evil in the sense that Ronald Reagan used the term Evil Empire, in that it is Godless, Satanic. It is for this reason that what Chambers witnessed on the dark side is anathema to the secular humanists, including all those who consider themselves devoutly anti-Communist to this day. Not only is Communism not the product of envy. It is also the product of lofty motives, in one sense worthy of praise. Chambers, says Tanenhaus, lauds communism, not as a system of ideas but as a great 'faith' towering out of the rubble of modern atheism. Its 'simple vision' of "Man without God' rivals Christianity's vision 'of God and man's relationship to God.'"
In Chambers's world, only the Communist and the ex-Communist speak with full authority, and no one else can be taken seriously. Chambers's greatest contempt is reserved as always for liberalism, whose evils, he says, trace back to the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, when an "intensely practical vision was born, epitomized by the scientific method, which "challenges man to prove by his acts that he is the masterwork of the Creation by making thought and act one. It challenges him to prove it by using the force of his rational mind to end the bloody meaninglessness of man's history -- by giving it purpose and a plan. It challenges him to prove it by reducing the meaningless chaos of nature, by imposing his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace. It is the vision of materialism."
He was not out to simply crush Communism in his embrace, but any system of political economy that derived from the dilettantes those who had never crossed to the dark side of the Force and thus did not realize how barren, how Satanic, the world had to be without God.
"He recklessly lumps Socialist, progressives, liberals and men of good will together with Communists," complained Sidney Hook. It rankles Hook that for Chambers, "All are bound according to him by the same faith; but only the Communists have the gumption and guts to live by it and pay the price. The others are the unwitting accomplices of communism, precisely because they have put their trust in intelligence, not God. Only theists, not humanists, can resist communism, and in the end,
Once, years ago, I would have agreed with Hook's complaint, when I left the Catholic Church as an impetuous, political teenager. That was when I thought the Church had become much too political, too irrational in its opposition to what seemed like good, sound, Socialist ideas to me. Unlike Chambers, I never actually lived on the dark side of the Force. It was, for a while, a nice place to visit, but I never wanted to live there. By 1967, after the Vatican II revolution in the Church of Rome, I came back. The longer I've lived, the more appreciative I've become of the notion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the scientific method especially when it comes to political economy only gets you there that much faster. If you have nothing better to do with your time than watch Ellen come out of the closet, or tonight's topless movie on HBO or Cinemax, you might as well instead be enjoying every page of this fine book about a remarkable life.