Interview with Richard M. Reinsch II, author of
Why is a book that evaluates Whittaker Chambers’s writing even needed at this point?
Chambers’s thought is peculiarly redemptive in that his answers recall forgotten teachings and wisdom from an era outside of philosophical modernity and the assumptions it makes about the nature of man, his capacity for reason, and his need, or lack thereof, for God. Chambers focuses on the fallout from the enthronement of a positivist reason, a mode of knowing that is exclusively concerned with scientific and rationalist technique that when combined with state power will liberate man from the unfortunate mistakes, oppressions, and culture that precede him. Eclipsed is the idea of our choices having content that point toward higher realities above man’s subjective will. The modern conception that Chambers rejects holds that man is no longer a tragic figure, laboring under uncertainty and filled with existential tension, but knows through reason that his control and techniques can usher in an uncompromising future. In short, man can literally make himself and his future. These are ideas and lessons that still remain to be heeded in the post-modern West.
What separates Whittaker Chambers from other important conservative voices in the American experience?
Chambers located the wisdom in the West’s Christian past as integral to any successful overcoming of Communism. His faith was never in military or economic power, and instead was in his conviction that the truth about man must be believed and acted upon. Chambers’s voice recalls the centrality of suffering as redemptive and the hope it points toward amidst the dismal experiences of the twentieth century. Unlike many other conservative writers, Chambers does not look to the inevitability of markets or free governments over Communist governments and planned economies. The West had lost its ancient faith, in large measure, and its recovery of this belief was the precondition to true knowledge and overcoming Communism.
Whittaker Chambers predicted that the West would lose to the Soviet Union and this did not happen, why then should he still be read?
Chambers did state that he thought he was leaving the wining side and joining the losing one so obviously he underestimated certain reserves of liberty in the West as well as the spectacular failures of planned economies. However, what remains true for Chambers’s analysis is that the West itself has learned relatively little from its defeat of Communism. In fact, many conservative and libertarian thinkers are amazed at the inability of Westerners to celebrate 1989 as the year of freedom and to deplore the end of Communism. However, as Chambers argued, the real faith of the West was peculiarly with the Communists. This is a difficult statement to comprehend but it must be considered in its full reflective sense. Chambers is arguing that the West believes it can remake itself at will and is subject not to nature or to God but to its own uninhibited capacities to recreate itself. Thus the West was and remains in thrall to a philosophical materialism that recognizes nothing higher than the subjective will of individuals. Humility, wisdom, restraint, and other goods provided by classical philosophy and religious thinking are excluded from the conversation.
In certain respects, Chambers’s view of the matter has proved true because the West believes that its victory was exclusively in economics and markets. The singular notion that the West could not lose and the Soviets could not win because of economic materialist forces ignores the fundamental tensions and agonies within late-modernity. This is also joined to a very thin account of the prerequisites for democracy and a liberal order that ignore man’s complicated social, political, and religious nature. Moreover, the inability of the West to engage with its premodern reflective traditions and religious thought and the challenge, if not salutary elixir, this would provide to Western democracies was at the heart of Chambers’s prescriptions.
How central is Chambers to the revival of American conservatism after World War II?
There is little doubt that Chambers is an intellectual launching pad for conservatism despite his pessimism and almost un-American obsessiveness and intensity about Communist power. The Right in America before Chambers was largely a collection and mixture of libertarians, isolationists, agrarians, and Calhounian states-rights devotees. There was nothing inherently bad in these various positions, but they seemed unable to form winning political coalitions in a very confident post-war American environment. Hearing about the decline of education and aesthetic standards through a demotic mass society and state was not likely to generate a majority of voters that was necessary to the preservation of other goods that conservatism rightfully prized.
Chambers’s contribution is something like a rocket-ship of conviction against the prospect of American and Western collapse in the face of Soviet aggression. After Chambers comes a fighting faith uniting conservatives across America. This happens because of the extraordinary willingness of Chambers to humiliate and devalue his life in order to convict Alger Hiss for perjury, and then to speak of the deed in Witness. Ultimately, Hiss’s conviction was for espionage and betrayal. The boost to conservatism was that Chambers had defended the philosophical integrity of the American Republic against a political and intellectual class seemingly unable or unwilling to contemplate the extraordinary quandary of Hiss’s Soviet allegiance. Chambers’s arguments for American resolve and action against Communism became the glue in conservatism.
What was the measure of Chambers’s relationship with William F. Buckley, Jr.?
Chambers’s once remarked to his wife that Buckley was a man born and not made. In their correspondence there is tremendous mutual respect. Additionally, Buckley comes to Chambers after the Hiss trial when he is in self-imposed exile. Buckley seeks Chambers for his advice on domestic and international politics, but also, it seems, to be near someone who had grappled with the Communists directly and had emerged victorious even though devastated in other ways. In certain respects, and I hope this is not to pronounce on events too broadly, the relationship tracks with Buckley’s own intellectual development. Buckley, mostly through his Yale mentor, Willmore Kendall, abandoned a certain Albert Jay Nock libertarianism and became devoted to anti-Communism and its requirements for a robust martial posture towards Soviet expansionism. Chambers cemented this for Buckley. New Deal liberals would have to be managed, but the decisive role for conservatives at mid-century was to repel the Soviets. I think it is indicative that Buckley wanted Chambers to fill a central role in the infant National Review. Chambers declined initially and then accepted an editorial position for a brief period while his health permitted.