Whitaker Chambers on the Crisis of History and Man’s Turn to Terror and Tyranny

Reading “Witness” in the era of “Defund the Police,” “MAGA,” and “Flight 93 Elections”

I’m often reminded of Whitaker Chambers,* and all the more so lately.

For the last few years, I’ve watched, astonished, and wondered how so many political elites and intellectuals could be so easily seduced by iconoclastic and anti-institutional movements. In all of this, I’m reminded of Chambers’s Witness—specifically Chapter 3, “The Outrage and the Hope of the World,” which begins with Chambers’s explanation of how men become Communists. It feels as relevant as ever today, in the era of “Defund the Police,” “MAGA,” and all the rest.

So here are some long quotes.

Sooner or later, one of my good friends is sure to ask me: How did it happen that a man like you became a Communist? Each time I wince, not at the personal question, but at the failure to grasp the fact that a man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis of history through which the world is passing.

I force myself to answer: In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises.

… Few Communists have ever been made simply by reading the works of Marx or Lenin. The crisis of history makes Communists; Marx and Lenin merely offer them an explanation of the crisis and what to do about it.

… Under pressure of the crisis, his decision to become a Communist seems to the man who makes it as a choice between a world that is dying and a world that is coming to birth, as an effort to save by political surgery whatever is sound in the foredoomed body of a civilization which nothing less drastic can save—a civilization foredoomed first of all by its reluctance to face the fact that the crisis exists or to face it with the force and clarity necessary to overcome it.

Thus, the Communist Party presents itself as the one organization of the will to survive in a crisis where that will is elsewhere divided, wavering, or absent. It is in the name of that will to survive the crisis, which is not theoretical but closes in from all sides, that the Communist first justifies the use of terror and tyranny, which are repugnant to most men by nature and which the whole tradition of the west specifically repudiates.

And then later, in the opening chapter of Cold Friday:

This is the real crisis of the West and the point at which, across a No Man’s Land of apathy, it confronts itself. Communism is only a secondary manifestation of this crisis, although Communism has reached a strength where it complicates and threatens to solve in its own terms the crisis of the divided West. … [It] is a way of thought and action, a way of reading history and its forces, which was developed in the culture capitals of the West. The growth of its power is inexplicable except as Communism appeals to the divided mind of the West, making each of its advances exactly along the line of the West’s internal division, paralyzing each effort of the West ot cope with it by touching some sympathetic nerve. The success of Communism, as I have written elsewhere, is never greater than the failure of all other faiths. Just as the threat of Communism is not the true crisis of the West, Communism is not the true revolution of our time. Communism is only one form and one sector of that revolution.

* I’ve written about Chambers from time to time over the years. If you’re interested, then see here, here, here, here, and especially here.

I’m a resident scholar at AEI, and a law professor at George Mason University, directing the law school’s Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State.