- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2010

By Richard M. Reinsch II
ISI Books, $24.95, 190 pages

To many readers today, Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961) seems a period figure from grainy newsreel footage of the 1940s and ‘50s: a time when (in Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase) men wore “gray suits three sizes too big” and concerned themselves with affairs that are irrelevant to our present discontents.

He is remembered for testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 about the penetration of the Soviet spy apparatus into the highest level of the U.S. government. He detailed his own involvement as a courier for the communists and fingered Alger Hiss - a friend, former State Department official and (at the time of Chambers’ accusation) president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - as a fellow operative.

With Chambers having implicated Hiss, what followed was high drama: a classic standoff between two worldviews. On one side of the hearing room sat the popular, well-spoken, handsome Alger Hiss, the living embodiment of everything the American liberal admired. On the other side sat his accuser: a fat, jowly man with bad teeth, long associated with Henry Luce’s despised Time magazine and with nothing whatsoever on his side except one thing: He was telling the truth.

In time, Hiss was convicted of perjury and spent a year in Lewisburg Penitentiary, lionized by the American left as a tragic hero. In conservative circles, Chambers was viewed as a hero who stood up under considerable pressure, in a sense destroying himself in order to witness to the truth about an inhuman system that had beguiled many. The title of his 1952 autobiography, “Witness,” epitomized this truth - but it captured much else besides.

As Mr. Reinsch demonstrates in his eloquent and engaging “Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary,” Chambers was a witness to the West gone astray, where even among those who rejected communism, there was a separation of life from its purpose.

When he made the often-quoted remark that in breaking from communism to join ranks with the West he was leaving the winning side for the losing side, he meant that the Soviets possessed a vision and a fighting faith (however flawed and murderous) while the United States and other areas of the post-Enlightenment world had largely abandoned the Judeo-Christian doctrines that had held sway for centuries and, by the mid-20th century, clung to little beyond the pleasure principle.

Chambers saw America and the West drifting toward a whirlpool of something - if not communism, at least a pale facsimile. He asked: Once a people embrace the state as the source of their well-being, and once they have become disillusioned by its inevitable failure to supply one’s innermost desires, is there any turning back to a transcendent view of life? After God has been forgotten, after one’s first love has been lost, is reconciliation and restoration possible?

While Chambers was no optimist, he believed the answer was yes but it involves sacrifice and a return to the acknowledgment of the reality of original sin and the necessity of Christian dogma. It involves revisiting the sacred and secular texts that have inspired men and women to adhere to the permanent things and to become reacquainted with exemplary lives and the customs by which the truly wise have lived and died.

In a moving passage from a letter to William F. Buckley Jr., Chambers wrote: “The enemy - he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint or a handful of ashes and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men again dare to believe that there was once something else, that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”

“Reason and free will show that man is created in Imago Dei (Image of God) yet suffused with anxiety, deep-seated error, and sin,” Mr. Reinsch writes. “Moreover, man experiences himself as a being of love and creativity, but also as one who will know loss, suffering, and frustration.” It is this image of man that Edmund Burke described as “the moral imagination,” and it is by embracing the moral imagination - life as it is, not as an influential faculty-lounge wit imagines it ought to be - that men are able at least to begin living reasonably whole lives, knowing true beauty and truth.

Beyond this, Chambers held that to effect a counterblow to communism’s appeal would require - as another former communist, John Dos Passos, put it - “all the verve, all the refusal to accept things as they are, all the brains the new generation has to offer.”

As the author writes, “Chambers saw Christ’s climb up Golgotha as the clearest embodiment of wisdom; in this image, Chambers uncovers for the modern observer love and its call to man - that he leave behind the self to receive that which is above his own will. To redeem is then to offer witness. The man of sound mind who joins thought to sacrifice, unafraid to hang on his cross, is the man who advances a palpable hope that can again connect with the wonder of men.”

The study “Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary” is intended by Mr. Reinsch as “an act of recovery, one that would weave together the strands of an enduring Chambers for future reflection.” In this he has succeeded admirably. As he writes in conclusion, “Chambers’ writing remains because man needs truth along with beauty, to know that both are a part of his being. This is the gift Chambers left, and we, as always, are in need of it.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books, 2005).

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