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Acton Commentary

God or man? Whittaker Chambers’ 'Witness' at 65

    The 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and subsequent disintegration of the USSR in the 1990s was cause for celebration throughout the world. Finally, the Cold War was ended – or so most of us believed – and the so-called “peace dividend” would result in introducing democratic liberties to countries formerly subjected to the totalitarian fist.

    During the ensuing quarter century, however, it’s been a mixed bag. It’s true that global poverty has fallen admirably by roughly 50 percent during this period, and living standards have increased proportionally the world over due to increased economic and political freedoms. The authoritarian urge only swims temporarily beneath the surface, however, and repeatedly reasserts its will to power. Socialism didn’t work in the past, we’re told, because communism wasn’t the right brand of socialism. The progressive culture busily set itself to rebranding efforts at a slower pace, unshackled from the deadlines of Five Year Plans and such, while aided and abetted by the game plan outlined by Saul Alinsky in his Rules for Radicals.

    Consider: An avowed socialist candidate came close to clinching the presidential nomination in what was once considered the world’s greatest proponent of liberty; the same country is hobbled by an ever-encroaching, state-enforced regulatory apparatus; municipal bankruptcies and state budget crises proliferate, wrought in part by massively underfunded government-employee pension programs; and wealth and income redistribution have become commonplace mantras of such movements as Occupy Wall Street. The past decade was also marred by foreign adventurism, interminable warfare, and economic meltdowns threatening entire countries from Venezuela to Greece.

    While surprising to most of us, such developments were anticipated by Whittaker Chambers, a man who predicted 65 years ago, in his frightening and magisterial Witness, that the world would submit itself continuously and increasingly to inhibiting freedoms by state diktats. Predating Alinsky, Chambers captures the “never let a crisis go to waste” aspect of big-government schemes. According to Chambers:

    It is in fact a total crisis—religious, moral, intellectual, social, political, economic. It is popular to call it a crisis of the Western world. It is in fact a crisis of the whole world. Communism, which claims to be a solution of the crisis, is itself a symptom and an irritant of the crisis….


    World wars are the military expression of the crisis. World-wide depressions are its economic expression. Universal desperation is its spiritual climate. This is the climate of Communism. Communism in our time can no more be considered apart from the crisis than a fever can be acted upon apart from an infected body.

    A former Communist who found spiritual solace in his adopted Quakerism, Chambers reduced the dilemma facing modern humanity to a simple dichotomy: God or Man? “The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God,” he wrote in his preface to Witness, titled “Letter to My Children.”

    It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals. Copernicus and his successors displaced man as the central fact of the universe by proving that the earth was not the central star of the universe. Communism restores man to his sovereignty by the simple method of denying God.

    The vision is a challenge and implies a threat. It 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 on it his rational will to order, abundance, security, peace. It is the vision of materialism. But it threatens, if man’s mind is unequal to the problems of man’s progress, that he will sink back into savagery (the A and the H bombs have raised the issue in explosive forms), until nature replaces him with a more intelligent form of life.

    “If man’s mind is unequal to the problems of man’s progress.” What a wonderful restatement of the cosmic truth underlying the law of unintended consequences. How else to explain the treachery witnessed firsthand by Chambers among his fellow travelers in several high-level positions in U.S. government? At risk of great personal and family peril, Chambers blew the whistle on, most notably, Alger Hiss, a State Department employee eventually convicted and imprisoned for perjured testimony made defending himself from charges of espionage in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The espionage charges were dropped after the statute of limitations expired. The Hiss-Chambers controversy still rages in some contemporary corners, but the verdict seems clear enough: The HUAC hearings and subsequent trials have proven subsequently to be far more based in reality than the portrayals of witch hunts depicted in contemporary progressive mythology.

    Whittaker Chambers (1948) Wikimedia

    Whittaker credits his conversion from Communism to Christianity in a most illuminating fashion. His epiphany stemmed from a simple observation made early one morning at the breakfast table. While boarding his family in Hiss’s Washington apartment, Chambers serendipitously notices his daughter’s ear as she eats breakfast in her highchair: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.”

    If this retelling seems trite, your writer assures readers it makes complete sense when read in the context of a magnificent book that consistently rewards reading and re-reading. Additionally, Witness rings even more prophetic after religious faith was denigrated by Hillary Clinton campaign apparatchik Jennifer Palmieri and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress. Let us not forget as well a certain 2008 presidential candidate who dismissed Americans who bitterly cling to their guns and religion, and the enormous uptick these past 30 years of so-called religious groups bankrolled by leftist billionaires and shilling for progressive causes having no theological basis whatsoever. It’s slower and less deadly than Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Castro, but still provides the incorrect response to Chambers’ interrogative: God or Man?    

    Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.