Witness (1952), by Whittaker Chambers, is a spiritual memoir by the former spy for Stalinist Russia who later testified against his fellow communists, exposing a ring that had infiltrated the U.S. government before World War II. It potently shows the shape of the void in the soul that utopian faith can flood in to fill. Raised a conventional Christian in a family scarred by economic failure and his parents’ loveless marriage, Chambers benefited from the impressive social mobility offered in America, leaving his bankrupt parents to join the best and brightest at Columbia University. It was there that he encountered among his teachers and fellow students the blasé dismissal of Christian claims that even today exerts such a strong pressure on poorly formed young believers-come-conformists. Unable to defend his patchy, inherited faith, but still possessed of a youthful idealism, Chambers searched for an alternative worldview that would comprehensively answer the riddle of human suffering, with hope of redress. Chambers found in Marxism a redemptive myth that explained the persistence of injustice in “scientific” terms and promised that the laws of history themselves dictated that injustice must end – in a bloody but brief revolution, which would be followed by a classless and then a stateless utopia that answered every human aspiration for freedom and brotherhood. He saw in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union a church that was making this gospel real, struggling fiercely against the forces of organized selfishness and exploitation to accelerate the final consummation of human progress. In other words, Marxism was the crowning glory of the entire Enlightenment project, aimed at dismantling archaic and superstitious hierarchies to make way for human greatness and happiness. Compared to that shining vision, what were the property rights of a few “greedy” Ukrainian farmers, or the free speech claims of “parasitical” Russian priests?
And so Chambers followed the logic of his new beliefs into the secret service of the American Communist Party, which recruited him as an agent of espionage against the “bourgeois” government of the United States. In the service of the Party, Chambers was ordered to commit many crimes; when his wife, Esther, became pregnant, the diktat came down that the Party would be best served by an abortion. And that proved to be a turning point. Chambers wrote:
"One day, early in 1933, my wife told me she believed she had conceived. No man can hear from his wife, especially for the first time, that she is carrying his child, without a physical jolt of joy and pride. I felt it. But so sunk were we in that life that it was only a passing joy, and was succeeded by a merely momentary sadness that we would not have the child. We discussed the matter, and my wife said that she must go at once for a physical check and to arrange for the abortion.
"When my wife came back … she was quiet and noncommittal. The doctor had said there was a child. My wife went about preparing supper. “What else did she say?” I asked. “She said that I am in good physical shape to have a baby.” My wife went on silently working. Very slowly, the truth dawned on me. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that you want to have the child?”
"My wife came over to me, took my hands and burst into tears. “Dear heart,” she said in a pleading voice, “we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.” A wild joy swept me. Reason – the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the 20th century – crumbled at the touch of the child. Both of us simply wanted a child. If the points on the long course of my break with Communism could be retraced, that is probably one of them – not at the level of the conscious mind, but at the level of unconscious life."
After his daughter, Ellen, was born, as Chambers was feeding her, he found himself contemplating the baroque design of her ear, and finding it a mystery that eluded explanation. His fiercely held subhumanist faith taught that this, his little child, was purely disposable, and that her ear was the product of blind and meaningless chance. Could he really still believe that while holding his child? And if not, what then – what of the children who even then were starving because the Party in Russia had taken their parents’ land or shipped their family to gulag camps? This moment of epiphany worked inside Chambers’s heart like sand in an oyster. He was already on the road home.