by Whittaker Chambers
First published 1952
Regnery History; Reprint edition (December 8, 2014)
“A man is not primarily a witness against something. That is only incidental to the fact that he is a witness for something.” Whittaker Chambers, Witness, 1952
Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, is one of the most important books of the last century, and I predict it’s a book that will never go out of print or at least prove unavailable in one way or another to anybody using the new technologies!
Why is that? Because it is a great true story of conversion from a false god to the true God of the Bible, set against a backdrop of the mid-20th century battle between good and evil.
I first read Witness as a high school student and then again at Columbia University, where Chambers also studied under still-famous professors such as Mark Van Doren.
Evidently it was in his time at Columbia that he was attracted to communism. Without telling the whole story, which really must be read in solitude, he fell for the great line of communism as the savior of humanity.
Unlike the many armchair communists among intellectuals of his time, Chambers from the start joined as someone actually wanting to effect change, identifying deeply with those suffering poverty and injustice (reading Les Miserables was a groundbreaking experience in this regard). Within a few years he went underground as a communist spy.
His break with communism came in stages. At one point in his journey he realized, “Economics is not the central problem of this century. It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age.” Interestingly enough, when Chambers finally broke completely with communism he did not immediately denounce the agents with whom he had worked, the best-known being Harvard blueblood Alger Hiss, a lawyer who worked for the State Department and was a member of the circle advising President Roosevelt on foreign affairs.
Would that Hiss had likewise seen the light and confessed, but evidently he never repented. After the collapse of the Soviet empire, government records unearthed there showed clearly that Hiss had, indeed, functioned as a communist spy for many years, receiving orders ultimately from Moscow.
However, perhaps more important than the role Chambers played in revealing the communist underground in the U.S. of the ’30s and ’40s is his expose of the unsatisfactory character of all the 20th century’s attempts to derive an explanation for life apart from God. As Chambers put it, “The communist vision is the vision of man without God.”
Chambers was one of the best prose writers of his time and was also fluent in several European languages. As a writer for TIME and later for Bill Buckley’s National Review, he was recognized as one of the best journalists of his time. Chambers had the unique gift of being able to write about truth in a simple, direct, and memorable way:
“Communism is the central experience of the first half of the 20th century and may be its final experience—will be, unless the free world in the agony of its struggle with communism overcomes its crises by discovering, in suffering and pain, a power of faith which will provide man’s mind, at the same time intensity, with the same two certainties: a reason to live and a reason to die.”
Though most of his major journalistic writing has been anthologized, Witness, without question, was his masterpiece, an autobiography on a par with Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, written just a few years before Witness. Both men experienced religious conversions: Merton converted to Catholicism and Chambers became a Quaker, though not the kind that substitutes causes for God. Both saw that the West was in decline and only an earnestly lived Christianity could save it. “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God,” Chambers wrote in Witness.
Even though Chambers thought he was on the losing side of history in the battle against communist materialism, nonetheless he continued the fight. Melancholy in temperament and psychologically scarred by a very difficult childhood and his younger brother’s suicide in his 20s, Chambers himself considered suicide, although when one of his children came looking for him, crying “Papa, Papa, don’t ever go away,” he replied, “No, I won’t ever go away.”
Share this book with your friends and pray that someday the story of this man will be put on the big screen. What a great impact it could have on our declining country. Our nation needs to hear Chamber’s unique and persuasive voice reminding us, “Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.”