John F. Kennedy, surveying the threadbare lifestyle and sporadic employment of Karl Marx journalist, once commented, “If he had remained a reporter, history might have been different.”
The same speculation, with smaller scale consequences, could be said of Whittaker Chambers, having the unique resume of writing for the New Masses, Time and National Review. The pro-Hiss left no doubt wishes he’d stayed at the typewriter rather than appearing behind a congressional microphone. Without Chambers, the Hiss case would never have gotten off the ground and Chambers would have toiled away his remaining days writing for Time, and Hiss leaking from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to Moscow.
To examine Chambers’ career without the Hiss case is of course, impossible, but to examine his career solely on journalistic grounds reveals links between the different ideological magazines he wrote for. At first glance, a writer first for New Masses, then Time, then National Review shows chartable growth from communism to the mainstream then overshooting it into another political sect, the Buckley conservatives of the 1950s. But whatever party label he sported, his basic journalistic mission never changed, nor did his view of collectivist action.
While on the New Masses, Chambers differentiated himself from others by showing Marxists acting rather than preaching:
“…It occurred to me that…I might by writing, not political polemics which few people ever wanted to read, but stories that anybody might want to read—stories in which the correct conduct of the Communist would be shown and without political comment.”
The most praised of this formula, “Can You Hear Their Voices?” appeared in the January 1931 issue of the Masses, dealt with activist farmers who raid a food store during the worst of the Depression. Awakened to their collective power, they take food and arms into the mountains, like one of those resistance groups in a World War II film.
By the time his byline appeared in Time Magazine, Chambers had gone through six years of espionage work for the NKVD. NO longer pushing the history train toward the Revolution, Chambers was now trying to derail it. But the populist sense of reaching the masses via journalism remained.
Surveying the aftereffects on Western fellow travelers of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Chambers saw his armed band of farmers circa 1931 now betrayed by this naïve cadre who themselves thought they had enlisted in the cause of antifascism but were merely serving another variant of it:
“How could they know that Lenin was the first fascist and that they were cooperating with the Party from which the Nazis borrowed all their important methods and ideas? By last week even the dullest fellow traveler found out…After Stalin’s purge, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Russian grab of half of Poland, 1940 betrayed the full sense of Stalin with his attacks on Finland, the seizure of part of Rumania and all of the Baltic States.”
But Chambers’ hope for collective action remained, now centered on those who had fell off the history train:
“The Party had trained a group of men who would one day help destroy it. The literary intellectuals might be slow, lazy, self-important, impractical…but they had reached their convictions ‘not without years in the wilderness and days of blindness.”
Chambers saw hope for a counterrevolution in Waldo Frank’s outline for action in Chart for Rough Weather and the writer’ observation that the “struggle is for the human soul.”
The election of 1944 saw the Party’s most open and fervent support for FDR and the growing alarm of conservatives, and some liberals, about cultural dominance by Stalinists at home and their suspicious liberations of Nazi satellites abroad. It was also the year Chambers’ “Ghosts on the Roof” appeared in Time magazine. In it, Chambers was again trying to activate readers, this time through the approving ghosts of the murdered Nicholas and Alexandria toward the Party that murdered them. For the Czar, Stalin accomplished only what he had dreamed about:
“What vision! What power! We have known nothing like it since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic States in the 18th century. Stalin has made us great again!”
Examining the Pact, the Czar noted rather enviously, “I always wanted to take down those Poles a peg, but something was always tying my hands.”
A decade later, Chambers again took up the familiar profession of journalism, this time on the staff of National Review. By now, he had gone through the emotionally brutalizing participation in the Hiss case, which provoked one suicide attempt. But his vision of journalism remained although this time focused on a very specific group: conservative Republicans. As opposed to 1941, he counseled his new comrades to cease their attempts at rolling back the New Deal (their stated editorial mission was for the magazine to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop”) and instead reap the benefits of accepting the drift of History:
“Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender to its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all: how much to give up basic principles.”
This sense of mission entailed cleansing conservatism of its more soulless elements such as Ayn Rand. Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged compared her atheistic capitalism to Karl Marx: “He too admired naked self interest …and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleansed away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishments.”
Thus, had there been no Hiss case, Chambers would have remained much of what he was: a crusading journalist. The familiar trajectory of the communist moving rightward fits him on the surface, but also doesn’t. Along the way he brought baggage with him—namely the Marxist baggage of journalism as a mass activator.