Witness by Whittaker Chambers recently turned 60, and journalists and scholars met at Yale University to celebrate this literary landmark and seminal text of the conservative movement. The discussion brought out divisions on the Right that actually go back to the Cold War.
This classic memoir, about the author’s defection from communism and testimony against one of his former comrades, Alger Hiss, was an instant bestseller in 1952. Chambers pulls the reader into his strange life: his service to Soviet military intelligence, his disillusionment and flight from the communist underground, and the obloquy he faced when the East Coast establishment circled the wagons around Hiss, a veteran of the U.S. State Department.
When Random House published Witness, Hiss sat in prison for having denied under oath that he passed government documents to the Russians. The international context was one of steady gains for communism: the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, Mao’s triumph in China, and the Kremlin’s acquisition of the bomb. This is why Chambers wanted to make his book more than a spy story. Emulating Dostoevsky, he cast his account in dramatic philosophical and historical terms:
The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades.