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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).
I was unimpressed with The Communist Manifesto, so I found Whittaker Chambers’ Witness very helpful for understanding why men become communists. Why do people become communists? What do liberals really want? What makes them tick?
As I seek to understand people and answer these questions, what I find is that everything liberals and communists want Christianity already has, and has it better. Liberals and communists want what Christianity promises, but they want it without God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit, and they want it now, in their time and in their own way. Consider the Witness of Whittaker Chambers–page numbers in parentheses below refer to this book.
“educated men become Communists chiefly for moral reasons” (8).
“Communists are that part of mankind which has recovered the power to live or die–to bear witness–for its faith. . . . The communist vision is the vision of Man without God.
It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world” (9).
The Communist Party “has posed in practical form the most revolutionary question in history: God or Man?” (10).
As Chambers considers the comprehensive meta-narrative communism offers, he explains the rationale for communism’s crimes in the form of a question communists answer in the affirmative:
“Have you the moral strength to take upon yourself the crimes of history so that man at last may close his chronicle of age-old, senseless suffering, and replace it with a purpose and a plan?” (11).
Chambers returns to the necessary evils communism must commit in order to bring in the golden age, again with a rhetorical question:
“What man can call himself a Communist who has not accepted the fact that Terror is an instrument of policy, right if the vision is right, justified by history, enjoined by the balance of forces in the social wars of this century?” (14).
In communist writings, Chambers found
“the simple statement that terror and dictatorship are justified to defend the socialist revolution if socialism is justified. Terror is an instrument of socialist policy if the crisis was to be overcome” (195).
As Chambers saw the outworkings of these policies, the massacres and forced starvations, murders too many to mention, he concluded that communism is evil.
Chambers is clear that communism is a godless answer to the problem of evil and suffering:
“Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. . . .
The crisis of Communism exists to the degree in which it has failed to free the peoples that it rules from God. . . . The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God. It exists to the degree in which the Western world actually shares Communism’s materialist vision, is so dazzled by the logic of the materialist interpretation of history, politics and economics, that it fails to grasp that, for it, the only possible answer to the Communist challenge: Faith in God or Faith in Man? is the challenge: Faith in God” (16–17).
What drives men to communism is the desire for an answer to the world’s problems. Chambers writes:
“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” (191).
At one point in the book, Chambers recounts an instance when a fellow communist reproached him for helping a poor man. The communist said to Chambers, “We can’t save them. They are lost. We can only save our generation, perhaps, and the children.” Chambers then explains that “the mind of the Communist bureaucrat” believes “that he is saving the children” as he pursues communism, irrespective of the cruelty he actually does to real people (218–19).
As he testified against Alger Hiss, the following exchange took place between Chambers and the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (692–93, emphasis added):
“THE CHAIRMAN: What influenced you to join the Communist Party originally?
MR. CHAMBERS: It is a very difficult question. As a student, I went to Europe. It was then shortly after the First World War. I found Germany in chaos, and partly occupied; northern France, and parts of Belgium were smashed to pieces. It seemed to me that a crisis had been reached in western civilization which society was not able to solve by the usual means. I then began to look around for the unusual means. I first studied for a considerable time British Fabian socialism, and rejected it as unworkable in practice. I was then very much influenced by a book called Reflections on Violence, by Georges Sorel, a syndicalist, and shortly thereafter I came to the writings of Marx and Lenin. They seemed to me to explain the nature of the crisis, and what to do about it.
THE CHAIRMAN: Well, I understand how a young man might join the Communist Party, but will you explain to us how a person who has made a real living in this country, a person with a large income, some of the witnesses we have had before this committee, over a period of time, what, in your mind, would influence them to join the party here in this country?
MR. CHAMBERS: The making of a good living does not necessarily blind a man to a critical period which he is passing through. Such people, in fact, may feel a special insecurity and anxiety. They seek a moral solution in a world of moral confusion. Marxism, Leninism offers an oversimplified explanation of the causes and a program for action. The very vigor of the project particularly appeals to the more or less sheltered middle-class intellectuals, who feel that there the whole context of their lives has kept them away from the world of reality. I do not know whether I make this very clear, but I am trying to get at it. They feel a very natural concern, one might almost say a Christian concern, for underprivileged people. They feel a great intellectual concern at least, for recurring economic crises, the problem of war, which in our lifetime has assumed an atrocious proportion, and which always weighs on them. What shall I do? At that crossroads the evil thing, communism, lies in wait for them with a simple answer.”
Chambers explains that he broke with communism because:
“I had rejected the right of the mind to justify evil in the name of history, reason or progress, because I had asserted that there is something greater than the mind, history or progress. I did not know [at that point] that this Something is God” (81).
He goes on to describe how he
“began to sense that the two mirages that had beckoned me into the desert–the mirage of Almighty Mind and its power to plan human salvation–were illusions” (82).
Pathetic. Pitiful. Contemptible. Unbelievable. These are the words that come to mind as I try to come up with a way to describe the world-view reflected in The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It is so bad, so naïve, so poorly argued that I do not think it deserves to be taken seriously. I only address it because of the massive influence of Marxism and the heaps of woe it has caused. In what follows I will quote from and interact with The Communist Manifesto in an effort to validate the thesis that the belief system it reflects is wretched, degrading, and worthy of universal rejection.
The Marxist meta-narrative is one of constant struggle between oppressor and oppressed:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
This is a terrible oversimplification of “the history of all hitherto existing society.” Not only does it fail to account for the complexity of human life, it reduces all history to violent conflict.
Behold the pitiful foundation of the Marxist house of horrors.
The great Satan standing against Marxism is “the bourgeoisie,” which got us exiled from Eden (note the reference to “idyllic relations”):
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (222).
On the foundation of sand, Marx and Engels place a set of wild-eyed charges. They continue:
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (222).
This bourgeoisie sure is powerful—or not. In spite of these undocumented calumnies against their enemies, there were and continue to be altruistic physicians, honest lawyers, believing priests, noble poets, genuine scientists, and sentimental families. There were and continue to be benevolent employers and thankful employees. Marx and Engels have presented a caricature of the world.
In addition, these communists appear to prefer the stone age to the improvement of life that results from modern technology:
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation” (224).
Perhaps Marx and Engels are under the false impression that somewhere in the world noble savages exist in some kind of primeval, pre-historic purity. The reality is that uncivilized places are worlds of unfounded fear, rampant disease and uncleanness, and even cannibalism. There is no such thing as the noble savage, and most people are grateful to be drawn into civilization, with its indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and air-conditioning.
Marx and Engels do not reckon with the reality of their idealized proletariat. They do not recognize that skill and intelligence are good things, and that often people are poor precisely because they lack these intangibles. Those who lack skill and intelligence, the proletariat, are expected to rise up and destroy the stylized bourgeoisie:
“The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the workpeople of a factory, then by the operative of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them. They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages” (228).
Smash. Burn. Destroy. This is what Marx and Engels think will lead to progress in a positive direction?
For Marx and Engels the God of the Bible does not exist, and so there is no absolute truth or morality:
“Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests” (232).
They view all of history as a violent conflict, and they want the violence to continue, this time from the proletariat:
“In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat” (232).
Will such an uprising result in peace? Will this bring about the longed for golden age? (Marx and Engels later refer to “the social New Jerusalem” [252, cf. 256] and to “the new social Gospel” , so they clearly seek a “Utopian”  golden age).
In view of the history of the bloody advance of Communism across Russia and China, some parts of The Communist Manifesto are chilling. The aim is clearly stated:
“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property” (235).
At least Marx and Engles recognize—and openly state—that this means the end of freedom. They try to paper over this difficulty by labeling freedom as a “bourgeois” value:
“The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.”
“By freedom is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying. . . .”
“In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend” (237).
And what of those who wish to retain their freedom and property? How many millions were slaughtered in Russia? Marx and Engels do not blanche at the need for atrocity:
“You must, therefore, confess that by ‘individual’ you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible” (238).
“Swept out of the way” indeed. Those who desire the conquest of communism must reckon with the reality that if they are not friends with the strong-man, they could be classed with those to be “swept out of the way.” By what code or morality will injustice be prevented? What makes anyone think they are immune to the whims of those in power?
Marx and Engles will not be bothered with appeals to freedom, law, and culture:
“But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class” (238–39).
But if there is no God and no absolute morality, then will not the Marx and Engels led proletariat become a new bourgeoisie? And what is their standard for freedom, culture, and law? The world in which there is a God who has revealed absolute truth and absolute morality—even if it in fact does not exist—is a better world than the one envisioned by Marx and Engels. And it does, in fact, exist. We’re in it.
Marx and Engels believe that the family should be abolished:
“Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.”
“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution” (239).
The only fools reducing the family to private gain and public prostitution are Marx and Engels. What a sorry understanding of the world they have! What a lamentable and despicable view of human life. How sad the world would be if they were right, if the sacred and holy marriage bed were but “legalized prostitution” (as Marx and Engels viewed it, 240, cf. p. 268 n. 38) and if children were, as Marx and Engels hold, exploited by their parents for financial gain.
But if this is not really how the world works. If marriage is the holy union of man and wife, a mystery depicting the relationship between Christ and the church, ordained of God, beautiful, monogamous, an exclusive, comprehensive interpersonal union, and if parents love their children and raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, then Marx and Engels are suggesting an outrageous abomination not worthy of serious consideration. Dangerous idiocy deranged and run amuck.
Marx and Engels try to defend their proposals by again oversimplifying and misrepresenting reality. As they have reduced history to violence and overthrow, they reduce marital relations to infidelity, universal adultery, and the “naked self-interest” of “callous ‘cash payment’”:
“But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus.”
“The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.”
“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production” (240).
Who really lives or lived this way? This nameless “bourgeoisie” needs to be identified. I wonder how many Russians, Prussians, Germans, Americans, or Englishmen would be found guilty of viewing women the way that Marx and Engels claim the bourgeois does? If this is not the way people viewed their wives, then these judgmental scoundrels are arguing against an enemy who does not exist.
Marx and Engels do not believe that Christianity is a true account of the world, so they depict a world that is savage, brutal, cruel, animalistic:
“The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.”
“Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.”
“Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalised community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private” (240).
With such descriptions of society at the communist fountainhead, should we be surprised by the murderous atrocities communists have committed? What is sacred? How could anything be?
Rather than engage those who would critique communism from another way of understanding the world, Marx and Engels are dismissive:
“The charges against Communism made from a religious, a philosophical and, generally, from an ideological standpoint, are not deserving of serious examination” (241).
No discussion. No engagement with humanity’s big ideas and perennial questions. Simple assertion. Dismissal of all opponents theological, philosophical, or ideological. And this is intellectual? This is progressive?
Rather call it rebellious fat-headedness. Lawless. Tyrannical. Profane. Godless.
And the logical ends of these ideas are on display in the years of communism since Marx and Engels wrote.
In its view of the world, in its premises, and in its argumentation, The Communist Manifesto is wretched, degrading, and worthy of universal rejection. I do not believe in the world that Marx and Engels describe. They have not described the way the real world works, and the world they have described is inferior to the one that actually exists, the one that is described and interpreted by the Bible.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 2002), 219. From this point forward in citing the Manifesto I will merely put page numbers in parentheses after the quotation. The edition I am citing contains an introduction and notes by Gareth Stedman Jones. The introduction comprises pages 1–192, and the prefaces to the various translations cover pages 193–217. The Communist Manifesto is also available various places online, for instance: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm.
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