“What I had been fell from me like dirty rags”
Today is Whittaker Chambers’ birthday and the Heritage Foundation has a small celebratory post for the occasion. Appropriately, Heritage also links to an essay by Richard Reinsch on Chambers’ exit from communism and his rebirth as a conservative.
The Reinsch essay is exceptional and I highly encourage everyone to take the time to read the whole thing, but here are a few portions I clipped.
Chambers’ enduring relevance abides in his diagnosis of a West “sick to death” from the philosophical and religious choices it had made in the modern era. Man had too easily concluded that he creates his reality through his own mind and consent. In the 20th century, the horrific consequences for the human person, for liberty, and for civilization itself were the piles of dead bodies sacrificed by the terror regimes in pursuit of a liberationist politics that ended in man organizing the world against man.
The West itself, Chambers feared, was listless at the moment when it most needed strength. Chambers argued that the West’s weakness grew out of its tacit adoption of many of the philosophical errors on which Communism rested. A larger Western conversion, Chambers boldly urged, similar in many respects to his personal conversion would have to be made if Communism and its philosophical underpinnings were to be defeated. The West would have to emerge from its deep-seated materialism, its confusion over the nature of the person and his dignity, and its detached understanding of the free society’s conservative origins. This could happen, Chambers observed, only if the West reengaged the truth about God and man.
In his conversion from that most modern of intellectual diseases, Communism, his acceptance of Christianity, and his resolute defense of the American nation in the early Cold War period, Whittaker Chambers exemplified the surest path to liberty in an age of ideological falsehoods. Chambers’ negative witness against Alger Hiss, Soviet Communism, and the exuberant confidence in planning displayed by New Deal–era progressives and, alternatively, his positive witness for liberty and truth, for man’s need of the transcendent, and for the ground of self-government forged the unity of a previously disparate conservatism. Chambers stood almost alone in his contention that Communism must be rejected in the name of something other than modern liberalism.
Related to this proposition was Chambers’ counsel that political freedom must be independently grounded in God, the human soul, and the irreducible dignity of the person—what Chambers termed the biblical understanding of man. As he wrote in Witness, “political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.” These propositions make Whittaker Chambers a dissident voice within the modern political experience. If Communism and progressivism were the effectual truth of philosophic modernity, as Chambers urged, then their defeat had to come from outside the well-worn path of hyper-rationalist thought.
As we move towards the 2012 election cycle, it would behoove us as a nation [and more specifically, as conservatives] to reflect upon the lessons that Chambers’ life, his Witness, provides us. In doing so we may come to a point where the dirty rags of our post modern century begin to fall from our nation.
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. If I had rejected only Communism, I would have rejected only one political expression of the modern mind, the most logical because the most brutal in enforcing the myth of man’s material perfectibility. – Chambers Witness pg. 83
Aaron B. Gardner