Whittaker Chambers and Totalitarian Islam
Playwright David Mamet recently acknowledged that he had been profoundly influenced by Communist apostate Whittaker Chambers’s 1952 anti-Communist memoir, Witness. Mamet described how reading Chambers’s opus inspired “the wrenching experience” of forcibly reevaluating the way he thought, particularly his confessed leftist-herd co-dependence. Also, echoing the delusive herd mentality of the Left’s ad hominem attacks in the 1950s on Chambers — whose allegations of Communist conspiracies have been entirely vindicated with irrefragable documentation from the captured Soviet Venona cables — Congressman Peter King’s staid initial hearings of March 10, 2011, on American Muslim radicalization engendered similarly apoplectic, and equally unwarranted condemnation, even before getting underway.
Mamet’s invocation of Witness, and the repeated hysterical, if groundless, objections to the second round of hearings by Representative King’s Homeland Security Committee (June 15, 2011, on Muslim radicalization in U.S. prisons), are fitting reminders that today marks the 50th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’s death.
Chambers was born April 1, 1901, in Philadelphia, and spent his childhood on the south shore of Long Island, in (then rural) Lynbrook. Upon graduating high school, Chambers left home and worked as a construction laborer on the Washington, D.C., subway system, before drifting to New Orleans, and then returning to attend Columbia University from 1920 to 1924. Under the tutelage of Columbia English professor Mark Van Doren (before Van Doren became an internationally known literary critic and poet), Chambers tried his hand at poetry, even completing a book of poems entitled “Defeat in the Village,” before realizing, “I never could write poetry good enough to be worth writing.”
This apprenticeship, however, helped teach Chambers “the difficult, humbling, exacting art of writing,” and he would go on to become an exceptionally gifted writer of prose. He joined the Communist party in 1925, experiencing great success as a writer at the Daily Worker and as an editor at The New Masses, both Communist-controlled publications. In 1932, Chambers was asked to join the underground movement of the Communist party, and he served in the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence. Recognizing Chambers’s intellectual prowess, the underground placed him with the Ware Group (a collection of Communist cells consisting of government officials and journalists) in Washington, D.C. It was here, among other promising New Deal civil servants, that he encountered Alger Hiss. Chambers and Hiss, along with their spouses, became close friends.
During late 1938, overwhelmed by the horrific actions of the Soviet Communist party, in particular the Stalinist purges and forced starvation of Ukrainian peasants, and having rejected Communism’s militant atheism, Chambers left the Communist movement. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was a watershed event for Chambers, who realized that much of the confidential information about the U.S. that he had forwarded to the Soviet Union could now be passed to Germany. Thus Chambers decided to divulge his prior activities for the Communist underground to the federal government. Shortly thereafter, Chambers was able to meet with the head of security at the State Department, A. A. Berle. Although Chambers revealed most of his activities, he withheld the facts of espionage conducted by his cell, largely to protect others, including, notably, Alger Hiss. Regardless, it was not until 1948 — nine years later — that the information he provided to Berle was acted upon by the government. Chambers was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to corroborate the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley — the so-called “blonde spy queen” — who alleged that Soviet espionage was occurring within the U.S. government. Chambers corroborated Bentley’s allegations, supplemented them with his own, and confronted Alger Hiss on the first day of his testimony. (Eventually, all 21 names that Chambers provided to HUAC were confirmed by subsequent Soviet archival research.) In 1950, Hiss was convicted of perjury after two federal trials.
A naturally gifted linguist, particularly fluent in German, Whittaker Chambers translated into English Bambi, Dunant: the Story of the Red Cross, and a number of children’s books over the years. Chambers joined Time magazine in 1939, initially as a book reviewer, later as a writer and editor. He wrote many of Time’s cover stories during his tenure, including profiles of historian Arnold Toynbee, vocalist Marian Anderson, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Pope Pius XII. Chambers, based upon his experience as a Communist and intuitive grasp of history, displayed a remarkably prescient understanding of the Cold War as an editor and writer for Time’s foreign-news section. He also contributed seven brilliant essays to Life’s 1947–1948 “Picture History of Western Civilization” series. Compelled to resign from Time during the tumultuous Hiss trials, Chambers became an editor and writer on the staff of National Review from the latter part of 1957 to the middle of 1959. Throughout most of his journalistic career, Chambers continued to operate a farm in Westminster, Md., maintaining a dairy herd, raising sheep and beef cattle, and producing various crops.
A great deal can be gleaned from Chambers’s witness-martyrdom in the struggle against Communism — he sacrificed himself “a little in advance to try to win for you that infinitesimal slightly better chance” — and applied to the modern threat of resurgent Islamic totalitarianism. First, Chambers’s own brief 1947 comparison of Communism and nascent Islam should be seen in the context of more extensive, independent characterizations by Western scholars and intellectuals who also juxtaposed these ideological systems. Three other logical connections can be made:
● Chambers’s understanding that faith in the Judeo-Christian God was conjoined to Biblical freedom, a concept that was antithetical to the conception of modern atheistic totalitarianism epitomized by Communism — and to the Islamic doctrine regarding “hurriyya,” which, while “hurriya” is Arabic for “freedom,” refers to submission to the will of Allah.
From the time of Chambers’s break with the Communist party in late 1938, till his death nearly 23 years later, Chambers was consumed by the West’s abnegation of its own institutions — which had been rooted for two millennia in a belief in the Judeo-Christian God — and their threatened active destruction by the votaries of mass secular totalitarian movements, notably Fascism and Communism. His December, 1947, Time book review of Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, a series of penetrating reports on the trials of British World War II traitors, opens with these observations:
The case of Alan Nunn May represented for Rebecca West the bottom of what Chambers characterizes as “a descent into the circles of a drab inferno.” May, a lecturer on physics at the University of London, was a longstanding Communist-party member. Ostensibly volunteering to serve his country, he became the senior member of the British atomic-bomb project’s nuclear-physics division during World War II. May then transferred to Russia samples of uranium 233 and enriched uranium 235.
Chambers’s review of The Meaning of Treason also compared the violent fanaticism of the 20th century’s secular totalitarian systems’ adherents to the votaries of Islam. The modern totalitarians expressed “new ideas” that were “violently avowed,” and “the hallmark of their advocates was a fanaticism unknown since the first flush of Islam.”
Chambers’s passing comparison does in fact have doctrinal and historical validity, and comports with other serious modern assessments. For example, Bernard Lewis, the doyen of living Western Islamic scholars, in his 1954 essay “Communism and Islam,” expounded upon on the quintessence of totalitarian Islam, and how it was antithetical in nature to Western democracy, while sharing important features of Communist totalitarianism — most notably, global domination via jihad:
Moreover, had he turned his formal gaze on the subject, Chambers would never have accepted the “Abrahamic faiths” canard, because he would have seen the unbridgeable chasm that separates Allah the autocrat’s “Pantheism of Force” from the Judeo-Christian God of Biblical freedom.
While all ex-Communists would agree they renounced Communism to be free, for Chambers, freedom itself is a manifestation of divinity:
Hurriyya and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds, hurriyya — as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), the lionized “Greatest Sufi Master,” expressed it — “being perfect slavery.” And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis’ metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves.”
The late American scholar of Islam Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003) analyzed the larger context of hurriyya in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as “a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.” An individual Muslim “was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior.”Thus, politically, Rosenthal concludes, “the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed. . . . In general . . . governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-a-vis it.”
Chambers, in short, would have recognized the implications of the yawning gap between Allah’s “hurriyya” and Western freedom as a manifestation of the Judeo-Christian God, expressed so eloquently by James Freeman Clarke (d. 1888), America’s first, and arguably still one of her greatest, scholars of comparative religion. Comparing Islam to Judaism, Clarke observed,
Moreover, Clarke noted, Islam’s Allah was“abstracted from matter, and so not to be represented by pictures and images; God withdrawn out of the world, and above all — in total separation.” In contrast, Judaism conceptualized God as being “with man, by his repeated miraculous coming down in prophets, judges, kings; also with his people, the Jews, mysteriously present in their tabernacle and temple.”
Christianity, Clarke maintained, added the notion of the God “in us all,” a strong pantheistic tendency:
This is likely derived from the converted Greeks and Romans, and distinctly evident in Whittaker Chambers’s theology. Clarke concluded that Islam’s alternative “central idea concerning God” — its conception of Allah — has not been salutary for Muslim societies: “Its governments are not governments. . . . It makes life barren and empty. It encourages a savage pride and cruelty. It makes men tyrants or slaves, women puppets, religion the submission to an infinite despotism.”
While Chambers’s defense of the West hinged on deep religious faith, he respected, within severe limits, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, particularly its role in shaping American freedom. Conversely, the scholar Ibn Warraq, contemporary apostate from Islam, although profoundly skeptical of “revelation,” pays homage to Judeo-Christian religious ethics (from the forthcoming Why the West is Best):
Whittaker Chambers’s ex-Communist colleague Arthur Koestler famously told Richard Crossman, editor of The God That Failed, an anthology of essays written by apostates from Communism, “You hate our Cassandra cries, and resent us as allies — but, when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it is all about.”
Crossman added this germane observation to the anthology’s introduction, after studying the diverse experiences of the ex-Communist contributors:
Ibn Warraq synthesized and updated these observations to highlight their urgent relevance to Islam’s resurgent modern jihad against the West. Barring the very dubious prospect that “a reformed, tolerant, liberal kind of Islam” emerges imminently, he warned,
We ignore Warraq’s plea — repeated by legions of Muslim apostates — at our existential peril.
Chambers’s pellucid formulation of the Communist threat was rooted in his thorough doctrinal and experiential understanding of Communism:
His tocsin of looming calamity helped arouse the West from its complacent ignorance regarding the Communist threat.
Let us pray that we rapidly overcome our generation’s similar complacent ignorance about the threat of totalitarian Islam.