A recent article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review reveals how the culture war has become a dialogue of the deaf. In a negative review of new books by Norman Podhoretz and Hilton Kramer, the left-wing critic Russell Jacoby writes that the “problem” with these neo-conservative writers “is less their positions than their delusions about them; they seem to think they represent lonely and beleaguered outposts of anti-communism.”
How could conservatives be beleaguered in an American culture that was itself conservative, Jacoby wanted to know. Referring to Kramer’s “Twilight of the Intellectuals,” the more theoretical of the two books, Jacoby explains: “Kramer refashions reality … [He] writes as if he were a denizen of the former Soviet Union, where the party controls intellectual life and only a few brave souls like himself risk their lives and careers to tell the truth.” Jacoby focuses on Kramer’s lament that “it was not the Western defenders of communist tyranny who suffered so conspicuously from censure and opprobrium in the Cold War period but those who took up the anti-communist cause.” Incredulous, Jacoby asks “What could he mean?” as though there was no credible answer to the question.
But it is obvious to readers of Kramer’s book that he had in mind the emblematic figure of Whittaker Chambers, the subject of the first two essays in this powerful volume. As Kramer sees him, Chambers was an “archetypal” ex-communist and his treatment in “the court of liberal opinion,” which is co-terminus with the literary culture, reflected its own attitude towards the anti-communist cause. Chambers did risk his life and career to expose one of the top Soviet spies in the American government, yet his status in America’s literary culture has been that of a renegade and a snitch.
As a direct consequence of his patriotic deed, Chambers — who was one of the towering figures of the early Cold War and the author of an American classic “Witness” — was fired from his job as a top editor at Time and brought to the brink of personal ruin. Despised in life, after his death in 1957 Chambers was for 40 years a forgotten man. Indeed, when I had the occasion to ask some senior honors students at the University of California in the early 1990s if they had ever heard of Whittaker Chambers, they confessed they had not. But they did know the name Alger Hiss and that he was a “victim of McCarthyism.”
Hiss was, of course, the Soviet spy Chambers exposed. In contrast to Chambers’s fate, Hiss emerged through his ordeal as a political martyr to the literati, a hero and a cause cilhbre among leftists who continued to champion his “innocence” long after his guilt became obvious. The convicted Hiss even had an academic chair named in his honor at a distinguished liberal arts college. At his death in 1996, he was eulogized in progressive magazines and by liberal TV anchors as an “idealist,” and as a long-suffering victim of the anti-communist “witch-hunt.”
As Kramer sums up this parable, “Hiss — convicted of crimes that showed him to be a liar, a thief and a traitor — was judged to be innocent even if guilty, and Chambers — the self-confessed renegade who recanted his treachery — was judged to be guilty even if he was telling the truth. For what mattered to liberal opinion was that Hiss was seen to have remained true to his ideals — never mind what the content of these ‘ideals’ proved to be — whereas Chambers was seen to have betrayed them.”
In this passage, Kramer surely identifies the central cultural paradox of the Cold War epoch in the West: the survival among American intellectuals of the very ideals — socialist and progressive — that led to the catastrophe of Soviet communism. As Kramer put it: “Liberalism, as it turned out, was not to be so easily dislodged from the whole morass of illiberal doctrines and beliefs in which, under the influence of Marxism, it had become so deeply embedded, and every attempt to effect such a separation raised the question of whether … there was still something that could legitimately be called liberalism.” Yet, Jacoby’s only response on these seminal chapters and the questions they pose is that they make Kramer’s book seem “musty.” This, despite the fact that Chambers’ final vindication is as recent as the release three years ago of the Venona transcripts of Soviet intelligence communications that definitively established Hiss’ guilt.
For anti-communist conservatives, Whittaker Chambers is a political hero. But it took 40 years following his death for the publishing world to produce a biographical tribute. And Chambers stands almost alone among anti-communist heroes of the Cold War in finally receiving his biographical due. Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, Bella Dodd, Frank Meyer, Walter Krivitsky, Victor Kravchenko, Jan Valtin and other large figures of the anti-communist cause have virtually disappeared from cultural memory.