In the current (Spring) issue of Houston Baptist University's The City, I review Richard Reinsch's book Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary, from ISI Books.
Chambers’ profound worry was that all this brute materialism and reductionism would conquer by means of the Communist enterprise. He was wrong in that baleful judgment. But he was not wrong in fearing that the resistance to Communist would corrupt the West by forcing it to absorb and embrace much of Communist doctrine. Thus his famous antipathy for Ayn Rand. Thus his strong critique of Austrian economics. As Reinsch puts it, “Self-interest becomes despotic when it is no longer governed by the higher and nobler obligations of love, sacrifice, and the numerous loyalties that exist in a humane society.” A wholly materialist opposition to Communism would erect its own version of the “vast, impersonal force and order, a system without sacrificial love or mercy, the person realized in a state of masterful sovereignty over self and others not similarly clever or acquisitive.”
In this light Chambers’ essay on St. Benedict in Clare Boothe Luce’s excellent collection Saints for Now (still available through Ignatius Press) stands as the most concise statement of his teaching. I fancy that there are few greater essays written in the 20th century than this one. In it, Chambers speaks of “three great alienations of the spirit ... [which] can be seen at their work of dissolution among ourselves, and are perhaps among the little noticed reasons why men turn to Communism. They are: the alienation of the spirit of man from traditional authority; his alienation from the idea of traditional order; and a crippling alienation that he feels at the point where civilization has deprived him of the joy of simple productive labor.”
There is much to learn from that essay, and all of Chambers’ writings. Here is a man who, despite his earthy participation in the 20th century, still instructs us (if we let him) in the 21st. We whose sudden privation is precisely a result of our abstraction of wealth from human things, we who profess salvation by technique, can profit much by Chambers’ instruction.