Whittaker Chambers: An Unconventional Conservative
A response to “History’s Witness”
By Richard M. Reinsch II | May 2, 2011
The American Conservative should be applauded for recognizing the contribution of moral clarity that Whittaker Chambers made during the Cold War. Where most conservative periodicals and journals devote little space to ideas other than policy or political posturing, your journal understands that renewal comes through the interplay of philosophical investigation and historical memory. However, I think that the eccentric concerns voiced by Whittaker Chambers’ grandson in “History’s Witness” prevented a full appreciation of the spiritual, intellectual, and political breakthroughs achieved by Chambers.
Belying the reality of Whittaker Chambers’ existential turn from both Communism and the structure of revolutionary ideology, David Chambers observed that his grandfather was “a lifelong Marxian intellectual activist” who courted the political Right in America from sheer opportunity. Referring to his grandfather as a “beggar” who needed help wherever he could find it, the grandson noted that a hapless Whittaker Chambers, assailed by powerful progressive forces because of the Hiss Case, reached out to whomever would lend a hand. That it happened to be William F. Buckley, Jr., and other eminences of the early postwar Right, is purely circumstantial per the grandson.
To accept that Whittaker Chambers was a political opportunist who never finally disrobed himself of revolutionary ideology either dismisses outright his soul-searing writings in Witness or requires us to take the esoteric reading of texts to new depths. Of course, Whittaker Chambers understood his re-entry to the world of free men in the following way: “What I had been fell from me like dirty rags. The rags that fell from me were not only Communism. What fell was the whole web of the materialist modern mind—the luminous shroud which it has spun about the spirit of man, paralyzing in the name of rationalism the instinct of his soul for God, denying in the name of knowledge the reality of the soul and its birthright in that mystery on which mere knowledge falters and shatters at every step.”
David Chambers dismissed my book on his grandfather as “right-wing” reductionism. However, I argued that Chambers’ witness stands because he experienced the brokenness of his ideological revolt against the cosmos. Thus the way was prepared for him to recover the source and ground of his being, a recovery of truth that is exemplary and teachable. Chambers’ poetic writings wing the denizen of late-modernity to higher ground, and afford the opportunity to reconsider, with Chambers, the full thrust of philosophic modernity. The connection between Chambers and conservatism exists in his witness transcending politics by reintroducing modern man to his soul. We are permitted space to envision a more humble and limited approach to this science. It goes without mention that this analysis does not reduce Chambers to conventional American conservatism, and displays none of its tendencies to find in free markets or small government the solution to man’s problems.
Richard M. Reinsch II is the author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.