Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness is a thrilling spy story, an autobiographical conversion narrative, and a piercing look into the communist underground. Written with fervor, clarity, and solemn joy, Chambers is a prose stylist urging that we choose life.
For Chambers, what separates communists and liberals is not a difference in belief. What separates them is merely the kind of action that is taken in the pursuit of a common purpose. Chambers writes:
“The New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking. In so far as it was successful, the power of politics had replaced the power of business. . . . it was made not by tanks and machine guns, but by acts of Congress and decisions of the Supreme Court . . . . Whether the revolutionists prefer to call themselves Fabians, who seek power by the inevitability of gradualism, or Bolsheviks, who seek power by the dictatorship of the proletariat, the struggle is for power.
Now I thought that I understood much better something that in the past had vaguely nibbled at my mind, but never nibbled to a conclusion–namely, how it happened that so many concealed Communists were clustered in Government, and how it was possible for them to operate so freely with so little fear of detection. For as between revolutionists who only half know what they are doing and revolutionists who know exactly what they are doing the latter are in a superb maneuvering position. At the basic point of the revolution–the shift of power from business to government–the two kinds of revolutionists were at one; and they shared many other views and hopes. Thus men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism, in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves, except that it was just the Communists who were likely to be most forthright and most dedicated in the common cause. This political colorblindness was all the more dogged because it was completely honest. For men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism. Any charge of Communism enraged them precisely because they could not grasp the differences between themselves and those against whom it was made. Conscious of their own political innocence, they suspected that it was merely mischievous, and was aimed, from motives of political malice, at themselves. But as the struggle was really for revolutionary power, which in our age is always a struggle for control of the masses, that was the point at which they always betrayed their real character, for they reacted not like liberals, but with the fierceness of revolutionists whenever that power was at issue.
. . . . Every move against the Communists was felt by the liberals as a move against themselves. . . . Unlike the liberals, the Communists were fully aware of their superior tactical position, and knew that they had only to shout their innocence and cry: ‘Witch hunt!’ for the liberals to rally in all innocence to their defense” (Witness, 472–73).
Earlier in the book Chambers wrote,
“For while Communists make full use of liberals and their solicitudes, and sometimes flatter them to their faces, in private they treat them with that sneering contempt that the strong and predatory almost invariably feel for victims who volunteer to help in their own victimization” (202).
Chambers also relates how his college friends had evangelized him for socialism and communism. Once he himself joined the Communist Party, Chambers went to find those college friends to urge them to join him. None of them would, and Chambers writes,
“For the first time, I understood the contempt with which Communists pronounced the word ‘intellectuals’” (208).