Socialism’s Support for Abortion Drove Whittaker Chambers to Faith
Saturday, July 9 was the 55th anniversary of the death of Whittaker Chambers.
If that name isn’t familiar, perhaps it should be. Chambers played an important role in America’s victory in the Cold War. He did this by helping to expose a Soviet spy ring that included more than 80 agents in the U.S. Among them were multiple influential figures in the State Department and an aide who advised President Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. That was the meeting that split up post-war Europe into a free region and a Communist bloc.
But helping to reveal the Soviet penetration of our government was not all that Chambers accomplished. Today, he is just as important for an elegantly written memoir he composed called Witness. This book recounts his own work as a Communist agent, and his reasons for leaving his spy ring — even though he knew that this would place his, his wife’s and his son’s life in jeopardy. The book describes the time he spent in hiding after he made that choice, and his subsequent decision to go to the FBI to disclose his activities, and then to testify about what he had done and those with whom he had conspired.
Most arguments against socialism focus on its wholesale failure as an economic system. These arguments are relatively easy to make. The horrible conditions seen now in Venezuela are easy proof that government control of industry leads to impoverishment. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and it’s probably the main reason why the countries of Eastern Europe turned away from socialism. It hadn’t provided them the wealth that Karl Marx and other advocates of Communism had long claimed it would. In fact, we now know that output per worker — and income — may have actually declined in Russia between 1913 and the 1990s, from $1488 to $1394 in constant dollars. This was even as capitalist countries grew far richer, enjoying the benefits and advantages of inventions like automobiles, jet planes and computers.
But Chambers’ arguments against socialism and his turn against it were not principally motivated by awareness of its inability to provide material abundance. When Chambers had first gotten mixed up with the Communist Party, he had been faced by a great many personal problems. His parents had split up, and, while they had eventually gotten back together, they were full of animosity and hatred for one another. Hence, he lived in a house full of grievances, some of which were directed at him. Worse, his beloved brother had committed suicide. Nor did his family have much money. He was forced to drop out of Columbia University for financial reasons, and instead attend New York’s City College. His father’s life as a painter had been hardscrabble, and, after leaving school, Whittaker found that he had a hard time supporting himself as a writer.
Socialism and Abortion
Suffering from melancholy and loneliness, Whittaker desperately wanted to believe in a cause that would offer him hope. And, for a time, the Communist movement offered him this. But there were costs involved in being part of it. One was that the Communists did not believe that their cadres should have children, as the party wanted their total devotion. Thus, when his wife became pregnant, the couple was told that she should have an abortion.
This was a turning point for Chambers.
He and his wife wanted a family, and they came to realize that the Communist Party’s ideas were in the most literal sense anti-life. Chambers had been reading the newspapers, and he knew that the Soviet Union in the 1930s was a place of constant suspicion and violence. Now the couple decided to make a choice. Lying to his “handler,” Chambers told him that his wife would not have the child she was carrying. Soon after, the couple fled. Chambers would eventually learn that others in his circle who tried to break away were found dead in strange and suspicious circumstances.
But he and his wife were alive, and their son was, too. Chambers and his wife saw how transformative parenthood was, and to view their little child’s life as a “miracle.” This led him, at last, explore belief in God. As he put it, “I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” And with this renewal, he had another reason to reject Communism. For all Communist governments teach their people that faith in God is a delusion. This practice of rejecting the divine is fundamental to socialism. It is codified in Marx’s statement that, “Religion is the opium of the people.” But it is almost universally held by socialists, whether they are strict in adhering to Marx’s ideas or not.
There is an obvious reason why this is so: socialism is a form of faith, and it sees belief in God as competition, a potential rival for the allegiance it requires of its followers. Genuinely devout people are not able to attach themselves fully to the totalizing vision of the world which socialism represents, or to the all-powerful government which it aims to construct. This is cause for the Left’s obsessive hostility to people of faith who want to have their own health insurance plans or their own marriage rites. Things which are so small and so plainly Constitutional are in conflict with the socialist road map. They are seen by socialists as threats and obstacles — as faith in God itself is. As Chambers put it simply, “The Communist vision is the vision of man without God.”
Chambers became the object of attention to the whole world during two trials in which he accused his former co-conspirator, Alger Hiss, of lying about their mutual complicity in acts of treason. During these trials, the intelligentsia overwhelmingly supported Hiss, a dapper Harvard Law School graduate and a beloved figure in the high society of Washington and New York. Two Supreme Court Justices and a former Democratic Party Presidential nominee testified as Hiss’s character witnesses, and President Truman expressed his support.
Few believed Chambers. But the evidence he presented at the trial was clear and convincing. This included copies of classified State Department papers, from Hiss’s own typewriter, showing that Hiss had used Chambers to provide the Soviets with dozens of secret documents. Among these were papers identifying a covert American agent and the means by which to read U.S. intelligence codes. Hiss’s own lawyer switched sides during the case, and Hiss was convicted. Later Soviet and Hungarian archives and FBI records would prove that Chambers claims’ were true. All this is worth recalling. So are Chambers’ personal courage and profoundly Christian view of history. As Chambers himself noted, “A nation’s life is as long as its reverential memory.”