Book Review

Book cover image

by Whittaker Chambers
Regnery Publ., 1952, 808 pages


T his book was written in the depths of despair in a time when Communism seemed unstoppable and the Left, in defense of the Soviet spy Alger Hiss, was circling around Joseph McCarthy like vultures waiting for the kill. It was one of the darkest times for democracy. Only recently, fourteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has the West, threatened by the new enemy of terrorism, begun to rediscover the courage to assert confidence in its own values that had been gradually slipping away since the end of World War II.

Chambers, a former Communist, knew the depths of evil of the ideology that, as The Black Book of Communism by Courtois et al. described in such horrific detail, led to the deaths of more than 100,000,000 people. Chambers writes that Stalin was not just an aberration in an otherwise idealistic society but the `supremely logical representation' of Communism. He saw that the naiveté of many in the West who had never experienced totalitarianism would make it impossible for them to see that their secular and `progressive' viewpoints were driving them ever closer toward collectivism. To the end he despaired that Western man could ever find the strength to reject the false utopia promised by government-mandated equality of outcome. Indeed, the greatest failing of contemporary intellectuals has been their inability so far to completely convince the masses that government redistribution of wealth cannot produce prosperity and utopia but leads ultimately to stagnation, dependence, and decline. In leaving Communism, Chambers believed he was crossing over to the losing side. He questioned whether the "sick society" that was Western civilization was willing to make the sacrifices and find the faith necessary for the survival of freedom. That question has still not been answered.

Few people who did not live through the Cold War can imagine the sense of dread that every man, woman, and child lived with in those times. Imagine a movement--like the terrorists of today, but comprising half of the Earth's population, seething with hatred for the West and its values, armed with H-bombs and ICBMs, and thinking nothing of massacring its own people by the millions. Imagine this movement with a record of successfully overthrowing democratic governments, turning their populations into serfs whose every movement is controlled by a secret police, and making no secret of their desire to export totalitarian revolution to the West. This was the atmosphere in which the Alger Hiss trial was conducted. Communism was no joke in those days.

What was it about Communism that gave their ideology such appeal? Chambers understood it: "their power, whose nature baffles the rest of the world, because in a large measure the rest of the world has lost that power, is the power to hold convictions and act on them. It is the same power that moves mountains ... Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die--to bear witness--for its faith." Chambers believed that the appeal of Communism was not just that it restored man to the center of the universe by denying the existence of God, but that it gave its own disciples a purpose and a plan, which the West does not have because, despite its material sophistication, it has lost confidence in its own vision.

It matters, of course, that when the plan was actually implemented Communism turned societies into gulags; but too many people, starved for any purpose or any vision beyond the daily trivialities and insults in Western society, saw in Communism what they hoped to see. Western society had stopped expanding and instead turned its energies inward in two ghastly wars. The West seemed to be imploding, and Western intellectuals had little to offer but doubt, weakness, nausea, and the Absurd. People in this state of mind have a powerful need to feel self-righteous and to feel part of some vast progressive movement toward the betterment of society. Communism's genius was to channel this drive to its own ends, just as the religious cults that spring up from time to time channel the religious drive to their own ends. It survived as long as it did not only because of people's ability to deceive themselves, but also because of their their desire to be a part of some movement to do something, to escape from the blandness of rationalism and the bleakness of the unsatisfied and unchallenged soul. "Communism," says Whittaker Chambers, "is never stronger than the failure of other faiths."

Communism was also fed by vast reservoirs of class anger, avarice, powerlessness, and envy. It therefore became a self-perpetuating machine, churning out more and more envy and hatred against anyone perceived to have "more". In Cambodia, where Communism reached its purest form, anyone who possessed anything--whether it was wealth, talent, or beauty--was targeted for death. The goal was to make everyone equal. The effect of eliminating the productive and creative elements of Cambodian society was to permanently condemn Cambodia to permanent intellectual, social, and economic poverty. The tragic fate suffered by Cambodia is the ultimate form of Communist egalitarianism. If Communism had achieved its objective of global domination, this "egalitarianism" would sooner or later have become universal.

Today many people believe that Communism was destined to fail; but those who lived through those times know that without the sacrifices of people like Whittaker Chambers who challenged Westerners to take a stand against Communism, it could have drowned the entire world.

This edition of his book has forewords by William F. Buckley and Robert Novak. Unfortunately, despite the lucid introductions by these illustrious figures, the book is more like a long spy novel than the anticommunist manifesto Chambers could have written. If this book had more of Chambers' ideas and less endless narration of every irrelevant detail of his life, it could have been one of the better books the 20th century. Chambers' story with Alger Hiss could have been told in ten pages. His ideas and historical facts take up another fifty pages or so. He makes a devastating critique of the self-deluded liberals and reporters who believe themselves to be anticommunist while in fact being repeatedly duped into supporting the Communist cause. But the remaining 740 pages are nothing more than autobiographical storytelling, and slow-moving storytelling at that. Chambers doesn't even get around to describing his birth until page 91.

Despite its failing as a work of political philosophy, it is as vital today for the West to come to grips with the issues and ideas that Chambers and his story represents as it was fifty years ago.

August 16, 2003 Back