Why Did Whittaker Chambers Leave the Communist Party?

tags: Communist Party, Whittaker Chambers

In Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, from which the story below is excerpted, Daniel Oppenheimer tells the stories of six major political figures whose journeys away from the left influenced American political and intellectual life in the twentieth century

Whittaker Chambers became known to the larger world in 1931, when he wrote and published a series of communist-inspired fiction short stories in The New Masses, the literary journal of the Communist Party USA. He was briefly the editor of The New Masses before being recruited by the Party to spy for the Soviet Union. After his break from the Party, the genesis of which is detailed below, he became an anti-communist writer for Time; the accuser of former comrade Alger Hiss in a series of famous hearings and trials; an editor of National Review; and the author of an autobiography, Witness, that is now considered one of the canonical texts of 20th century American conservatism.


In the fall of 1936, Whittaker Chambers came across a brief newspaper account of the execution, by the Soviet regime, of a former Soviet general. Though he’d never heard of the man, he was unsettled by the idea of such a man—a former hero of the Soviet state—being executed. He approached one of his superiors in the underground and asked him whether there was something going on in the Soviet Union that he should know about.

The response was disturbing: Yes, something was going on, and no, he shouldn’t know about it, talk about it, or ask anything further about it.

It was Chambers’s first intimation of the avalanche of terror and death that was in the process of cleansing the Soviet Union not just of anyone who might plausibly threaten Stalin’s supremacy, but of hundreds of thousands of people who looked vaguely like the kind of people who might perhaps threaten Stalin’s supremacy, and a few hundred thousand other people thrown in for good measure.

Between 1935 and 1938, in what became known as the Great Purge (or the Great Terror), millions of Soviet citizens were executed or sent away to prison camps for no reason other than Stalin’s will to power and the inner logic of the purge itself, which, with each new arrest and conviction, produced further false allegations of conspiracy.

For Chambers, as for many other party members around the world, the Great Purge was striking not so much for its scale, which wasn’t widely known until much later, as for its targets. Stalin’s aggression was directed not at genuine conspirators or counterrevolutionaries, of whom there were no more than a few left by the mid-1930s, but at the heart of the Soviet system.

The primary targets were the army, the secret police, the technical classes, the intellectuals, and, most startlingly of all, the old guard of the Bolshevik party. Some of the very men whom Chambers had joined the party to emulate, his paragons of courage and brilliance fused, were hauled in front of the world and forced to confess (falsely, Chambers could only assume) to being enemies of the Soviet Union.

“To the Western world,” wrote Chambers, “those strange names—Rykov, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Piatakov, Rakovsky, Krylenko, Latsis, Tukhachevsky, Muralov, Smirnov, Karakhan, Mrachovsky—were merely tongue twisters. To a Communist, they were the men who had made one of the great transformations in human history—the Russian Revolution. The charge, on which they were one and all destroyed, the charge that they had betrayed their handiwork, was incredible.They were the Communist Party.”

That the Soviet regime could be brutal wasn’t news to Chambers. He’d long believed that a new world wasn’t likely to emerge without a great deal of destruction of the old, and he’d been drawn to the writings of Lenin in no small part because of Lenin’s frankness about the necessity of violence. But Chambers’s conception of the regime’s violence, until 1936 or so, had remained conveniently romantic. It was storybook violence, redemptive and thrilling and only incidentally wrought upon the innocent.When Stalin started killing characters in the storybook—its heroes, no less—it shook Chambers.

In his autobiography Witness, Chambers pauses at a few moments to consider what it was that ultimately caused his break from communism. Why, after so much sacrifice and love and loyalty paid to the party, did he leave? He arrived at two kinds of answers. One was metaphysical: It was the spark of the divine in his soul, the ineradicable immanence of God, that enabled him to eventually recognize that communism wasn’t a solution to the crisis of modernity, but in fact its most terrible manifestation.

Chambers’s other answer was more contingent. There was no one event, person, epiphany, or betrayal that detached him from the cause to which he had devoted so much of his adult life. There were, instead, many small shocks that over the course of years dissolved his faith from below. There was the accumulated tedium of years of underground work, and how little there was to show for it. There were the sappingly antisocial patterns of underground life, all the dislocations and secrecy and lying. There was the call of the countryside, and his long-deferred dream of putting down roots. There were his children, to whom he could never give a full life if he stayed underground. There was the menagerie of grotesque characters he’d met in the underground, people whose vulgarity and mediocrity made him wonder, despite himself, at the worth of a cause that could hand authority to such types. And there were the astounding facts of Soviet cruelty, which were lying in wait for him, in plain sight, if ever he proved unflinching enough to look at them.

Against all of these reasons to break away was the leviathan fact of his communist faith, which had been his gravitational center for more than a decade. The modern world was sick, and only communism, he’d concluded, contained the possibility of a cure. To abandon communism, for Chambers, would be to abandon any hope of living in a just world. To reject it, also, would be to reject everything of personal importance he’d enmeshed in its web of meaning.

He had vowed to his dead brother to avenge him through communism. Under the umbrella of communist purpose, he had formed extraordinarily close bonds with friends (the Hisses, in particular). He’d allowed himself to neglect for years the immediate needs of his family with the understanding that only a communist revolution would enable them, in the long run, to live truly fulfilled lives.

To leave the party wouldn’t simply entail a change of political ideas and loyalties; it would render meaningless all the sacrifices he’d made in communism’s name. And it would, if he proved unable to replace communism with a new and equally substantial belief system, leave him bereft of purpose in the world, an intolerable condition for Chambers.

By the end of 1936, the balance began to tip. The purge, the strain, the secrecy, the danger, the life. It was all too much. It would be another year or so before he was able to say to himself, definitively, that he intended to leave the party. Once the angle of his interpretive lens had shifted, however, he saw evidence against communism everywhere, and he began seeking it out as well.

In 1937, Chambers finally decided to read an anti-Soviet book. The one he found, I Speak for the Silent, couldn’t have been better chosen to erode what was left of his faith. Its author, Vladimir Tchernavin, was a former scientist with the Soviets’ state fishing agency—a man of hard facts and clear-eyed reason—and the book was an unrelenting, unsentimental account not just of Tchernavin’s own descent into the Soviet prison system, but of the absolute corruption and almost comic folly of the Soviet government.

It was as if Lenin, fifteen years after The Soviets at Work, had returned from the dead to survey the dry facts of the government he created, only to discover that everything was the inverse of what he’d promised. Not justice but crass opportunism was the logic of the system. Not the best but the worst were in charge. Not efficiency but disorder reigned.

Chambers had never been impressed with the quality of the people in the American party, or with the wisdom of the party’s strategies, but he had consoled himself with the assumption that in the Soviet Union things were better. And even if it wasn’t perfect over there, it was at least an imperfect system guided by high-minded leaders and a vision of justice. The Soviet government of I Speak for the Silent was devoid of anything resembling high-mindedness.

There were decent, intelligent souls in Tchernavin’s Soviet Union, but almost without exception they were being shaken down, jailed, or executed. They were the victims of the idiots, thugs, manipulators, and sociopaths who were in charge (who were in turn always victimizing each other).

Just as devastating to Chambers’s faith was the story that Tchernavin told of the ruin of the fishing industry by the government’s attempt to centralize economic planning. At every level, from the fishing trawlers to the docks to the refineries to the administrative offices in Murmansk to the headquarters in Moscow, incompetence, corruption, and brutality were rewarded while honesty, intelligence, integrity, and efficiency were extinguished.

In less than two years, from 1930 to 1931, the secret police (the GPU) and the Soviet central planners took what had been a growing, highly efficient operation—proof, indeed, that a communist economy could prosper—and ran it full speed into the ground. Then, when it became apparent what a mess they’d made, they accused the people like Tchernavin, whose advice they’d ignored, of intentionally sabotaging the operation. Then they killed them or sent them to prison.

“No disaster, no epidemic, no war could destroy with such selection the cream of experienced and active workers in the industries which the GPU attacked,” wrote Tchernavin. “This wholesale destruction of specialists could not fail to have fatal results for the fishing business. . . . The same conditions prevailed, in general, in all the industries of the U.S.S.R. . . . The Bolsheviks for the second time were leading a rich and prosperous country into terrible poverty and dreadful famine.”

If one believed what Tchernavin wrote, and by this point Chambers did, there could be nothing left of the communist dream. Cruel necessity was something that Chambers could tolerate, as long as he didn’t look at it too closely, but if Tchernavin was right, then there was nothing at all in the Soviet Union to justify any of the cruelty. The whole thing was a fraud. It was the corruption of the modern world distilled into a putrid essence. It didn’t ennoble people; it debased them. It didn’t dissolve alienation; it exacerbated it. Neither Tchernavin nor Chambers knew, at the time, how many millions of people had died of starvation and disease as a result of the economic policies and practices of the regime, or how many millions more would die in the prison system from which Tchernavin and his family managed to escape. Such possibilities were implicit, however, in what Tchernavin described: a system that had gone insane.

There were other blows to Chambers’s faith in communism. An old friend of his, someone who’d helped recruit him into the underground, returned from a trip to Moscow terrified for his life. “I will not work one more hour for those murderers!” he told Chambers. Another old acquaintance, a woman who’d been in the first party unit that Chambers had joined, was abducted and murdered by the Soviet secret police after she’d deserted the underground. People Chambers knew kept being sent to Moscow and then disappearing. Others whom he knew only by reputation were killed by the GPU as they tried to escape.

That his own underground story could end similarly was brought home to him, most directly, when he was assigned a new boss in the fall of 1936 (after his previous boss was recalled to Russia, never to be heard from again).

Colonel Boris Bykov—“Peter,” as Chambers knew him— was a petty, paranoid, vulgar Stalinoid type who distrusted Chambers from the first and who subjected him, for the next year and a half, to a running stream of accusation and interrogation. Bykov was the threat of the purge in person, always questioning Chambers about his loyalty, half-ordering him (daring him, really) to go to Russia to prove his commitment, and taunting him with snippets of information about the latest old Bolshevik who’d been forced to confess to treason before being shot.

“‘Where is Bukharin?’ Bykov asked me slyly some weeks after the Communist Party’s leading theoretician had been sentenced to death for high treason.

“ ‘Dead,’ I answered rudely.

“‘You are right,’ said Bykov in a cooing voice, ‘you are right. You can be absolutely sure that our Bukharin is dead.’ ”

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