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Whittaker Chambers, Lionel Trilling and the anti-Communist turn

Adam Kirsch
March 23, 2009

In The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, the historian Michael Kimmage offers a rich and detailed account of one of the great intellectual dramas in 20th-century American history: the left’s romance with Soviet Communism, and its painful disillusionment. It is a story that took place long ago, in the Depression Thirties and the war-torn Forties, and it may seem like ancient history to a generation that has grown up after the fall of the USSR. Yet you only have to look at the ideological debates of the last few years to see how central that history remains to American politics, and especially to American Jewish politics.

When Bush administration figures like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle urged America to fight Islamic fundamentalism and build democracy in Iraq, and when Jewish liberals, in turn, denounced those figures as neoconservatives, they were reenacting some of the same battles the New York intellectuals fought seventy years ago, when the combatants were called anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists. Indeed, as Kimmage notes, the label neoconservative—which in the last decade has become almost a kind of anti-Semitic code word—was coined in 1943 by Dwight Macdonald, a charter member of the New York intellectuals, to describe former leftists who had abandoned their radical aspirations.

There is no shortage of books about the New York intellectuals—the mostly Jewish circle of writers clustered around Partisan Review—and their ideological schisms. But Kimmage offers a new perspective on this familiar story by focusing on an unlikely pair of protagonists. Lionel Trilling and Whittaker Chambers could not have been more different in terms of personality and background. Trilling, the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, was a quintessential New Yorker, who spent his whole career at Columbia University; Chambers, a WASP from Long Island, came to see New York as a symbol of America’s decadence, preferring to live on a remote farm in Maryland. Trilling wrote magisterial literary essays for Partisan Review; Chambers wrote blunt polemical articles for Time Magazine. Most important, Trilling was a reserved, professorial figure, while Chambers was a man of action, a Communist spy turned anti-Communist prophet who figured in one of the most scandalous trials of the century.

Yet The Conservative Turn shows that, from the time they met as classmates at Columbia in the 1920s, Trilling and Chambers followed similar intellectual courses. In the early 1930s, with America sunk in the Depression and fascism on the march in Europe, they were among the many American leftists who turned to the Soviet Union for inspiration. The appeal of Communism was especially strong to American Jews, who saw in Russia’s great experiment” the promise of a world without poverty, injustice, or prejudice, including anti-Semitism. Hadn’t Lincoln Steffens, the crusading liberal journalist, visited the Soviet Union and proclaimed, I have the seen the future and it works”?

For Trilling, becoming a fellow traveler was primarily an intellectual commitment, not a practical one. He did nothing more to advance the revolution than joining a Communist front organization, the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, and writing some pro-Soviet book reviews. Chambers was much more deeply involved in the Communist cause. After joining the Party, he became a secret agent for the Kremlin, helping to organize a spy ring among mid-level New Deal bureaucrats in Washington D.C. He even tried to recruit Lionel and Diana Trilling, asking if they would help him by acting as a drop” for secret messages. They declined, not wanting to follow Chambers so far into the realm of espionage.

But in the mid-1930s, both Trilling and Chambers underwent a crisis of conscience about Communism. Like many radicals, they were troubled by the show trials in which Stalin eliminated many of his fellow Bolsheviks. It was becoming increasingly hard for anyone paying attention to deny that Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. Yet in the late 1930s, the so-called Popular Front, which united liberals and Communists in a common crusade against fascism, had blinded many American leftists to the true nature of the Stalin regime. For Trilling and Chambers, it now became imperative to repent of their former error, and to convince those who still believed in the USSR to do the same. Even more than the Soviet Union itself, their target was the Popular Front mentality so common among literary and intellectual people—the belief that Communism was just an advanced form of liberalism, rather than liberalism’s greatest enemy.

Kimmage documents the month-by-month evolution of Trilling’s and Chambers’s political views, studying their correspondence in tandem with their published work. Trilling’s literary criticism seldom addressed contemporary politics directly, yet by quoting extensively from his (still unpublished) letters, Kimmage shows that political motivations were never far from his mind. Writing to the drama critic Eric Bentley in 1946, Trilling declared, I am willing to say that I think of my intellectual life as a struggle, not energetic enough, against all the blindness and malign obfuscations of the Stalinoid mind of our time.”

In his sensitive readings of Trilling’s criticism, Kimmage shows how this struggle” shaped his interpretation of writers like Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster. What Trilling admired in them was a habit of mind that shunned false certainties and embraced difficult realities—what he named, in his influential 1949 book, the liberal imagination.” An art that was morally complex and free from self-righteousness,” Kimmage summarizes, would express the spirit of political anti-communism.”

It is no surprise, then, that when Trilling produced his only novel, The Middle of the Journey, in 1947, he would choose the dilemmas of communism and anti-communism as his subject. What is more surprising is that he chose to base one of the novel’s main characters directly on Whittaker Chambers. Chambers’s clandestine work for the Communists, followed by his dramatic apostasy from the Party, made him unpalatable to both the pro- and anti-Stalinist factions of the left. Kimmage describes a Halloween party Chambers attended in 1938 where New York intellectuals, including the Trillings, shunned him; Diana refused to shake his hand, since it was figuratively covered in blood.

In The Middle of the Journey, Lionel Trilling used Chambers’s dramatic story and enigmatic character as the basis for Gifford Maxim, one of the novel’s protagonists. The few people who read the book when it first appeared would have had no problem identifying Maxim’s original, since Chambers’s history was well known among the New York intellectuals. Just a year after Trilling’s novel appeared, however, Chambers was to become notorious across America and around the world, thanks to his starring role in the Alger Hiss affair.

Kimmage recounts the well known story of how Hiss—a member of Chambers’s old spy network, who had risen to become a leading member of the New Deal establishment—was denounced by Chambers as a Communist and a traitor. The ensuing trials, in which the disreputable, unattractive Chambers testified against the well-connected, personable Hiss, polarized the country. To the anti-Communists, Hiss was a perfect example of the way liberalism, fellow travelling, and active support of the USSR all bled into one another. To most liberals, by contrast, Hiss was the innocent victim of Chambers’s ideologically motivated denunciations. Even after Hiss was convicted, the left remained convinced of his innocence. Not until the end of the Cold War and the opening of the Soviet archives was it established beyond a doubt that Hiss was indeed a spy.

In the aftermath of the trial, Chambers became a hate-figure to the left and a hero to the right. The spectacle of the liberal elite rallying around Hiss helped to galvanize the nascent conservative movement; to this day, Kimmage shows, when a gutter polemicist like Ann Coulter writes that liberals are traitors, she is drawing on tropes from the Hiss case. Kimmage follows Chambers’s subsequent career and offers a close reading of his memoir, Witness, which became one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite books. Between Witness and The Middle of the Journey, Chambers and Trilling helped at once to create and to document the “conservative turn” in mid-century American politics. Kimmage’s book offers a thorough guide to this still powerfully resonant chapter in our history.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.