The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, Michael Kimmage, Harvard University Press, 312 pages
By Jeffrey Hart
Whittaker Chambers created the passionate core of conservative anti-communism. Lionel Trilling re-imagined liberalism for the postwar era. Trilling adumbrated the Cold War liberalism of John F. Kennedy, Chambers the Cold War conservatism of Ronald Reagan. Both men were contemporaries at Columbia. Their anti-communism emerged from self-criticism. As a communist, Chambers worked for Soviet intelligence. Trilling, I find, was closer to the Party in the early 1930s than I had ever thought.
In Washington, diplomat Alger Hiss had belonged to the Harold Ware circle of communist bureaucrats, and Ware himself was the son of communist icon Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor. On August 3, 1948 Chambers fired the shot heard round the world, accusing Hiss of espionage in a hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hiss had been among the elite of the New Deal, a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, clerk to Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and State Department official. Chambers told the story in Witness, a founding document of conservative anti-communism. During the 1930s, Chambers had been close enough to Diana and Lionel Trilling and had enough confidence in their communist sympathies to ask them if he might use their Claremont Avenue mail-box as a “letter drop” in cooperation with espionage.
In his 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey,Trilling startlingly anticipated the dramatis personae of the Hiss case. The book’s central figure, Gifford Maxim, clearly is based on Chambers. The liberal philo-communist couple, Arthur and Nancy Croom, could have been based on Alger and Priscilla Hiss, of whom Trilling knew nothing in 1947. The almost ugly name “Croom” uncannily suggests “Hiss.” The communist Gifford Maxim possesses a force of personality and mind that suggests the dominance of the passionate communist over his weaker liberal acolytes. The moral/political education of the liberal Laskell (Trilling) remarkably adumbrates how Chambers and Trilling would evolve, Chambers from communist agent to later conservative, Trilling from naive liberal to mature anti-communist who hated Stalinism after an earlier flirtation. Hiss was finally convicted in 1950. Trilling chose his words carefully when he called Chambers a “man of honor.” Men of honor don’t lie.
Chambers saw both communism and capitalism as products of the Enlightenment and rejected the Enlightenment with a Kierkegaardian moment of decision toward God. His rejection of the Enlightenment went so far as to oppose votes for women. Chambers did not seem to realize that in rejecting the Enlightenment he rejected America as well, its founders all men of the Enlightenment. The principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettsysburg Address all derive from the Enlightenment, as does the “deliberate sense” architecture of the Constitution. But by slowing down major decisions and ensuring that experience is brought to bear on them, the Constitution can also be seen as Burkean.
In his famous Preface to The Liberal Imagination, Trilling said that there were no important conservative ideas in the American political tradition, so, in effect, he created an American conservative tradition out of literature, mostly 19th-century English literature, finding there the “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty” that an impoverished and reductive liberalism lacked, especially in its philo-communist versions. While resisting religion, Trilling was hospitable to it and saw it as embodying spirit, a valuable aspect of life.
I sometimes wonder why Trilling did not use Burke for his reformist liberal purposes, especially since Wordsworth had praised Burke extensively in The Prelude. (We did discuss Burke’s Reflections in the Barzun-Trilling graduate school seminar at Columbia.) Burke, after all, was a reformist Rockingham Whig, and his analysis of the function of habit in human behavior and in social institutions is pertinent to Trilling’s criticism of a reductive liberalism. But Trilling was being attacked from the left for supposedly becoming too conservative.
The Conservative Turn ends perfectly in 1962, with Lionel and Diana Trilling invited to a formal banquet at the Kennedy White House in honor of Nobel Prize winners. In helping to form Cold War liberalism, Trilling had contributed to the ascent of a president such as John F, Kennedy. (As in 1787, intellect had come to power, notably in the brilliance of National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, the best and brightest of the best and brightest.) Diana Trilling described this gala occasion in her New Yorker article “A Visit to Camelot.” In this brief shining moment, power and intellect symbolically and in fact came together.
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan awarded the Freedom Medal to Whittaker Chambers. Seven years later the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union came down, two hundred years after the fall of the Bastille.
Michael Kimmage’s The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism was his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. Astonishing. It’s a masterpiece in the field of intellectual history.
Jeffrey Hart is the author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.