“Man without mysticism is a monster.”
– Whittaker Chambers
His story is a sad one.
Whittaker Chambers was raised in a broken home inhabited by an unfeeling father, a lonely mother, a suicidal brother and a demented grandmother. If he wasn’t scavenging for food in unsavory places and gathering loose kindling to warm his unheated house, he was furiously resuscitating his self-destructive brother whom he pulled out of a natural gas filled shed. Chambers would leave home and vacillate between poverty and back-breaking, dangerous labor until he found his way to college at Columbia University in the 1920s.
At college, Chambers’ acute mind began to process his own sordid upbringing and the despair of the post-war world. Sitting on a bench on Columbia’s campus, a phrase learned from his history studies turned in his mind again and again. As the glorious Roman Empire burned under the assault of the Goths, historian Savinus observed,
The Roman Empire is filled with misery, but it is luxurious. It is dying, but it laughs.
For Chambers, this phrase epitomized the crisis of Western Civilization in the Roaring ’20s. Still reeling from the conflagration of World War I and nearing the abyss of the Great Depression, the world’s answer to unparalleled angst was found in either the rabid rise of Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s National Socialists or self-forgetting hedonism.
[This] was the loss, by the mind of a whole civilization, of the power to distinguish between reality and unreality, because, ultimately, though I did not know it, [civilization] had lost the power to distinguish between good and evil.
What have we become and what are we to do?, he wondered. And so Whittaker Chambers would become a Communist.
During my years at Columbia College, I had known a number of socialists, including two or three extreme left-wingers. They had devoted a great deal of time, tact and patience to winning me to their views. They had no effect on me whatever. What their theories could not do, the [world] crisis did…One day by sheer chance, there came into my hands a little pamphlet of Lenin’s. It was called A Soviet at Work. In a simple strong prose, it described a day in the life of a local soviet. The reek of life was on it. This was not a theory or statistics. This was socialism in practice. This was the thing itself. This was how it worked…Marxists dialectics or Marxian economic theories [did not] have much to do with the reason why men become and remain Communists. I have met few Communists who were more than fiddlers with the dialectic (the intellectual tool whereby Marxist theoreticians probe and gauge history’s laws of motion). I have met few Communists whom I thought knew more than the bare rudiments of Marxian economics, or cared to. But I have never known a Communist who was not acutely aware of the crisis of history whose solution he found in Communism’s practical program, its vision and its faith…
In the wreck of his life and the desperation of his civilization, Chambers felt that Communism was the answer. And that answer required a dictator to control it and terror to enact it. However unsavory, however frightening, Chambers felt that Communism’s beatific end would justify its bloody means.
But it wouldn’t.
As Chambers would learn, the ultimate goal of Communism, like all other ideologies bent on “immanentizing the eschaton” (bringing heaven to earth), would never be achieved. In fact, it would fail on a catastrophic level. At the cost of millions and millions of lives, Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Chavez’s Venzuela (among many others) would crush the individual in “the name of the collective”. Instead of bringing man dignity, these regimes would violently disregard it. Instead of ushering in universal land, peace and bread, or fostering eternal brotherhood and comradeship, Communism created empty shelves, endless queues, paranoid informants and crushed dissidents. Freedom would be protected by barbed wire. Free thinking would be guarded by draconian orthodoxy. Communism was never a good idea badly applied. It was a bloody, bad idea.
Whittaker Chambers would ultimately defect (at great peril to his and his family’s lives) from the Communist Party after he came to grips with an enduring Truth,
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…[If I had rejected only Communism I would] have remained within that modern intellectual mood which gives birth to Communism, and denies the soul in the name of the mind, and the soul’s salvation in suffering in the name of man’s salvation here and now. What I sensed without being able to phrase it was what has since been phrased with the simplicity of an axiom: “Man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God man can only organize the world against man.” The gas ovens of Buchenwald and the Communist execution cellars exist first within our minds.
What Communism neglected, I would reason, Catholicism champions. Man is dignified because he is a child of the living God. His dignity is ineradicable. Simultaneously, man is fallen and as such, requires humility in his aspirations and self-congratulations. And man is redeemable through the unearned Grace of Christ. Furthermore, man retains his incomparably valuable individuality while also playing an irreplaceable role in the Body of Christ. Finally, there is a heaven. But it won’t be crafted here on earth by human hands.
Whittaker Chambers’ story is a sad one, but it ends on a note of hope. He found his way from the horrors of Communism to the joy of God. But he had to learn the hard way.
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