Monday, August 22, 2011

Whittaker Chambers: The Dying West.

For some must at last have eyes to see the plain fact that the revolutionary proletariat in the West (including Russia) is not, and never has been, a factory proletariat. The forces of revolution in the West are an intellectual proletariat, disinherited, not in this world's goods with which they are often incongruously replete, but disinherited in the spirit. The revolt of the intellectuals of the West almost without exception begins (no matter how it ends) as the frantic threshing of those drowning in the materialism of the West, a convulsive struggle against the death of the spirit. This is the answer to the fatuous, reiterated question why men like Arthur Koestler or Whittaker Chambers became Communists. For the differences in background, which the shallow world magnifies, are trifling compared to that convulsion of the drowning spirit which carried us, and men like us (each in his own individual way with his own individual rationalization) into Communism, and which makes a second death for those who, recognizing at last that Communism is itself evil, must burst from that second drowning back into a West which has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Hateful home truths! For they invite the West to stop looking at Communism and look into itself. Hateful home truths! (I said them all in Witness.) "Communism is never stronger than the failure of all other faiths"; "Men are by nature conservative; they become revolutionists only by despair"; "Communism did not attract, it repelled me; I became a Communist to escape the dying West."
Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday

Over the last few days my curiosity has been directed toward the history of Fascism. Wikipaedia has a rather good summary on the subject and more importantly, the article has good summary of the on intellectual atmosphere of the times in which the ideology was in gestation. It's important to note that Fascism, like Communism was a response to the social crises of the time. Its aim was to improve the lot of the proleterait. The proletariat, being who they are, were not able to organise themselves, and as such, the response to the crises was organised by the intellectuals of society. Where the Communists and Fascists differed is on how to implement the improvement. Both parties carried on the tradition of the French Revolution, in that the solution to the problem was through a reorganisation of society. The important point here being that both movements were meant to fix the social problems of times.

Both movements had their intellectual origins in the prevailing fads of the times. The influence of Darwin and Nietzsche molded the Fascists whilst the influence of Marx and Engels and Comte influenced the Communists and Socialists. Both movements had rejected God and consequentially the limits that this places on human action. But to think that the problem of fascism and Communism is solely a problem of atheism is the misdiagnose the pathology.  The birth of both these malignant ideologies were contingent on the festering sore of widespread poverty in traditional society.

Many people wonder how someone like Hitler could sway the German populace. Various idiotic theories are put forward to explain the phenomenon  however it needs to be remembered that Hitler's was a product of the social disintegration of the times (as predicted by Keynes) Hitler's appeal to the Germans lay in the fact that he delivered. He revitalised industry and hence employment, repudiated Versailles, restored national pride, got rid of people that the populace did not like, improved the rights of workers, organised regular holidays for them and generally improved the lot for the average German. For the poor family man, the tradeoff in civil liberties was worth it if his family were not going to starve. After Hitler, the streets were safer, there was work, the nation had a renewed pride and a sense of optimism prevailed. The traditionalist response to Hitler was to turn the clock back, to the way things were.  Faced with a failing old world and the promise of a working new, people abandoned  the old, enthusiastically. Of course, any pact with the devil will end badly, but most people live a day to day existence and only a very few could see the inevitable end of Nazism.

What I'm trying to get at is that is the old world had festering sores and Conservative attempts to turn the clock back to the way things were will re-open those same sores. All was not right in "ye days of old" despite what traditionalists preached. Conservatives then, need to re-appraise traditional society and work out where they went wrong with regard to the management of it. What Conservatism needs, if it is to survive, is to ditch traditionalism and embrace dynamic Conservatism, a Conservatism that does not deny the truth.

A classic example of this was G.K. Chesterton. No man who has ever read Orthodoxy can accuse Chesterton of being anti-Christian or Anti-West. Still, this passage at the end of What's Wrong with the World is hardly traditionalist:

I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.[Ed:]

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.

That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

What’s Wrong with the World (1910).




The old world was sick and needed fixing, despite what the traditionalists said. The few conservatives who were doing some thinking, like Chesterton, were ignored by both  the traditionalists and the radicals. The rest they say is history.







12 comments:

David said...

The best book I have read on the rise of Naziism, from a social rather than a narrow political perspective, is Sebastian Haffner's memoir of growing up in Germany between the wars. I reviewed it here.

Black Death said...

I agree with you.

Both Soviet communism and German Naziism arose out of social chaos. In 1914, both Germany and Russia were peaceful, orderly countries. The Kaiser ran a tight ship, and so did the Czar, to a somewhat lesser extent, of course. But in WW I, the wheels came off. Russia collapsed in 1917 and eventually the communists took over. German society was turned upside down by the hyperinflation and disorder of the Weimar Republic and the economic devastation of the early 1930's.

As you say, Hitler delivered, at least at first. Unemployment in Germany was 6 million in January 1933 and 300,000 in January 1939. The chaos of Weimar was replaced by the New Order of the Third Reich.

Similarly, in Russia, strong leadership produced order and, at least at first, economic benefits. But in both countries, this came at a terrific cost in loss of civil liberties and oppression of disfavored groups (Jews, socialists and communists in Germany, landowners, bourgeoisie and ethnic nationalists in Russia). But, as you point out, deals with the devil always end badly.

Conservatives should embrace traditionalism only to the extent that it is good. The past was far from perfect, and we should never attempt to go back. But I think you would agree that a modern Western culture devoid of Christianity will never be successful.

JMSmith said...

I don't think conservatives are uniquely prone to nostalgia. The idea that everything was better in the past is, after all, the mirror image of the idea that everything will be better in the future, and neither idea is serious. I, for example, believe that twenty-first century doctors are better than nineteenth century doctors, but that twenty-first century statesmen are worse. Our food is better than the food of our grandparents, our table manners are worse.

So it's not a question of "turning the clock back" to 1950, or 1890, or whatever. Rather, a conservative believes that there are timeless ideals, or standards, and that some people in the past came closer to realizing these some of these ideals than we do. Let's say the ideal is honesty, and we believe we are less honest than men were in, say, 1950. A conservative does not say, let's go back to the 1950s. He says, we've become careless with the truth and should, therefore, emulate the truthfulness of our forefathers, who are our superiors in this particular respect.

I think a conservative is also skeptical of the whole idea of world historical crisis. World War I was ghastly and the Great Depression miserable for many, but violence, poverty, and hardship have been with us from the start. The existential angst that drove Chambers and Koestler to communism sounds a lot like the existential angst that drove men in the ancient world to become Stoics, or Gnostics, or Christians for that matter. Feeling lost in a hostile cosmos is not a historical crisis, it's the normal consciousness of fallen man.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Black Death.

Conservatives should embrace traditionalism only to the extent that it is good.

I think that the core principle of Conservatism is that of the primacy of the truth. The traditions that we have are valid insofar as they contain an element of the truth.

The task of the Conservative intellectual is to apprehend the truth and apply it to day to day life. As the Master said, "You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free."

The Social Pathologist said...

@JMSmith

The idea that everything was better in the past is, after all, the mirror image of the idea that everything will be better in the future

Very good point.

Rather, a conservative believes that there are timeless ideals, or standards, and that some people in the past came closer to realizing these some of these ideals than we do.

Yes, but what constitutes these timeless ideals? For instance, does a woman working outside the home constitute a violation of these timeless ideals. Does social welfare violate these ideals as well? The problem with traditionalism is that it views the old world as better than the new, which it was in many ways, but it wasn't in so many others. The task of the conservative, is to prune away at the errors of traditionalism just as vigilantly as it would hack away at the errors of Modernism.


I think a conservative is also skeptical of the whole idea of world historical crisis.


I'd respectfully disagree. I understand that there a people who are gloomy in every day and age, but what happened in the early 1900's is the old world ended and a new one began. The thinking element of mankind took on an entirely new world view, from which flowed novel action. This in turn fostered new social situations which weren't accounted for in the past.

The other thing is that the historical record shows that civilisations do die and in some instances this pessimism is warranted. I think we're in one of those phases now. Should things not change, in a thousand years or so a young may walk his son amongst the ruins of New York marveling at the civilisation that used to be there.

Anonymous Protestant said...

Well, the Chesterton of 1910 got what he wanted. And millions, tens of millions, of girls just as precious as the one he described died. Some were starved to death. Some were buried alive. Some were blown apart by explosives. Some were shot.

I suppose that one should not despise him for writing such despicable dreck, since he wrote in 1910 and the various revolutions, and democides, lay in the future. But it is difficult not to feel a profound revulsion for Chesterton upon encountering such a passage.

It's like discovering than an aged and respected relative had a secret habit of burning kittens and puppies alive for the sheer fun of it. I'm tremendously dismayed.

The time since Chambers wrote has bourn out the truth of his observations. Although I would not agree that the overeducated class has actually lost faith, but rather that they transferred their faith en masse to the notion of government as a god - omnipotent, omnibenevolent at the very least. We see the foundations of that faith becoming shaky, and the desperation that breeds among the true believers in government-as-god.

But none of us can see what lays beyond the collapse of that faith.

JMSmith said...

Anonymous Protestant: I thinking you are taking Chesterton's "set fire to the modern world" line too literally. There were people who "wanted" the two world wars to happen, but Chesterton certainly wasn't one of them. All he is proposing is that a good world be designed around concrete goods, like a little girl's hair, rather than abstract goods like freedom and equality. The great wars were fought over abstract goods.

Social Pathologist: By timeless ideals I mean what we Christians call logos, the natural, social and personal order intended by God, but disrupted by the Fall. Conformity to logos does not entail uniformity, since the ideal can be "interpreted" in a personal way, rather like a song, or a part in a play. But there is a point beyond which interpretation becomes creation, logos is ignored, and the creature sets himself up as creator. This is what we call Rebellion, or Sin.

I don't believe a woman working outside the home necessarily violates logos. Women have always worked, and as productive activity has moved out of the house, it's not surprising that women should follow it. There's nothing inherently unfeminine about working. It's a question of why a woman works, and how. I know many women "reject" this, but that's just Rebellion against logos (vide the recent post at Oz Conservative).

Anonymous Protestant said...

JMSmith said...

Anonymous Protestant: I thinking you are taking Chesterton's "set fire to the modern world" line too literally.

Perhaps you are correct. As a student of history, I encounter over and over again those who romanticize revolution, and the words they use are quite often very similar to those in the Chesterton quote. So to me, it is like hearing a sermon using the vocabulary of Lenin, a visceral revulsion is my first reaction.

There were people who "wanted" the two world wars to happen, but Chesterton certainly wasn't one of them. All he is proposing is that a good world be designed around concrete goods, like a little girl's hair, rather than abstract goods like freedom and equality.

I'm sorry, but you are eliding some big pieces of his text in my opinion, and glossing over the full implications of what he's saying. Within the context of 1910, the Chesterton quote is not that far from language used by the Socialist Revolutionaries of Russia, or the Socialist Internationale for that matter. When I read a passage about "greedy landlords" I cannot but help thinking of the "greedy landlords" of Ukraine who, with their entire families, were deliberately starved to death, or the "greedy landlords" of China who were taken out and shot in the back of the head by Mao's secret police after a brief kangaroo court.

It won't do. I can't read such dreck without seeing the mountain of bodies that followed.

The great wars were fought over abstract goods.

No. They were not. They were fought over tangible things, such as "Lebensraum" and economic issues like the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere". I'm sorry, I do not know what history you have read, but there are many, many books about the first and second world wars that lay out the economic, and social, issues involved.

Social Pathologist: By timeless ideals I mean what we Christians call logos, the natural, social and personal order intended by God, but disrupted by the Fall. Conformity to logos does not entail uniformity, since the ideal can be "interpreted" in a personal way, rather like a song, or a part in a play. But there is a point beyond which interpretation becomes creation, logos is ignored, and the creature sets himself up as creator. This is what we call Rebellion, or Sin.

I agree with this tentatively. Certainly the trend among so-called intellectuals going back to 18th century France has been essentially a form of idolatry - self idolatry, or idolatry of the state, etc.

I don't believe a woman working outside the home necessarily violates logos. Women have always worked, and as productive activity has moved out of the house, it's not surprising that women should follow it. There's nothing inherently unfeminine about working. It's a question of why a woman works, and how. I know many women "reject" this, but that's just Rebellion against logos (vide the recent post at Oz Conservative).

It is unfortunate that Proverbs 31 has become an issue of contention within some Christian communities, because the plain text makes clear that there is no Scriptural prohibition on a wife working for money outside of her home per se. Nor is there a requirement for her to do so. It is a freedom of conscience, within the larger duties that family entails in a Scriptural sense.

The Social Pathologist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Social Pathologist said...

@AP

My interpretation of Chesterton leads me to believe that if you a push a man too far then he has an obligation to fight; he was no pacifist. He would see some justification in taking up arms against men who entrench injustice through social structure.

However Chesterton needs to be interpreted with regard to the whole body of his work. Chivalrous behaviour was one of his big themes. He was all for the chopping off the heads of tyrants but not of little children. He wanted a chivalrous revolution, not the revolution of the Soviets.

When I read a passage about "greedy landlords" I cannot but help thinking of the "greedy landlords" of Ukraine who, with their entire families

With all due respect, your opinion of Chesterton's is irrelevant if it is at deviance with what Chesterton actually thought. He was no more for the Gulag than he was for infanticide. Christians have their own way with dealing with greedy landlords, fascists and communists have theirs. It's not a one size fits all approach.

It is unfortunate that Proverbs 31 has become an issue of contention within some Christian communities, because the plain text makes clear that there is no Scriptural prohibition on a wife working for money outside of her home per se.

Unfortunate???

Methinks that's a bit of an understatement. The view was culturally entrenched in the West till recently and it was resisted tooth and nail by the traditionalists. Like you say, there did not seem to be any divine interdiction against a woman working for paid employment, yet it wasn't the "logos steeped conservative" movement that advocated allowing a woman to work.
It would appear that the lefties were acting more in accordance with God's will( on this matter) than the righties.

There is an element of truth to all heresies which gives them their legitimacy. It's this mixing of sugar with shit that gives them traction.

Anonymous Protestant said...

My interpretation of Chesterton leads me to believe that if you a push a man too far then he has an obligation to fight; he was no pacifist. He would see some justification in taking up arms against men who entrench injustice through social structure.

The problem with that is, in the last 200+ years, once such events start they come to be controlled not by the most thoughtful men, but by the most ruthless.

However Chesterton needs to be interpreted with regard to the whole body of his work. Chivalrous behaviour was one of his big themes. He was all for the chopping off the heads of tyrants but not of little children. He wanted a chivalrous revolution, not the revolution of the Soviets.

Look, good intentions do not absolve a man from supporting evil. I can intellectually absolve Chesterton because unlike hacks such as Walter Duranty, or peabrained "intellectuals" such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Chesterton told the truth about the USSR. He was there when Duranty was busy covering up the democide in Ukraine - for which work he was awarded the highest US prize in Journalism, and the NY Times is proud of his work to this day.

But. But. But. His writing as of 1910 is startlingly similar to that of far too many revolutionary supporters of the pre-WWI era, from the amateur parlor pinks to nasty pieces of evil such as Felix Dzerzhinskii, Vladimir Ulyanov, etc. As someone who has studied that part of history for a couple of decades, it's just very startling to read. It is also extremely repulsive, I cannot fully explain how disgusting that text is to me.

I wrote
When I read a passage about "greedy landlords" I cannot but help thinking of the "greedy landlords" of Ukraine who, with their entire families

SP
With all due respect, your opinion of Chesterton's is irrelevant if it is at deviance with what Chesterton actually thought.

With all due respect, I was attempting to explain my visceral revulsion at text written by a man who I previously had regarded as thoughtful. And, furthermore, words mean things. I can, with effort, put myself to some degree into the mindset of a man like Chesterton circa 1910. However, again, words mean things, and even in 1910 words like "because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution" had a clear meaning. Chesterton was an educated man, and he certainly had to know what "redistribution of property" had come to mean in France circa 1798, just to pick one example.

Such words have a freight train of meaning, and the wheels of that train are lubricated with blood.

He was no more for the Gulag than he was for infanticide.

That was certainly true by the 1930's. But once again, words mean things, and historically in Europe revolutions have not been tea parties (pace' Mao).

Christians have their own way with dealing with greedy landlords, fascists and communists have theirs. It's not a one size fits all approach.

With all respect, who cares? Christians generally are among the first to fall to firing parties after The Revolution, you know. They aren't ruthless enough to wind up in charge, so their "own way" is irrelevant once the black flag is flown. I could provide post after post of examples, from Russia to Cuba.

Anonymous Reader said...

I wrote
It is unfortunate that Proverbs 31 has become an issue of contention within some Christian communities, because the plain text makes clear that there is no Scriptural prohibition on a wife working for money outside of her home per se.

SP
Unfortunate???

Yes. I'm not referring to the past, I'm referring to the present. It is unfortunate that so many people choose to read into Proverbs 31 starting at Verse 10 things that are not there.

(As an aside, I have recently been studying Proverbs and am astounded at the number of times men are warned away from immoral women. I intend to make a point to remind the young men of our church of these; it won't make me popular, but it must be done.)

Methinks that's a bit of an understatement. The view was culturally entrenched in the West till recently and it was resisted tooth and nail by the traditionalists.

Uh...huh? Sorry, I'm a Yank. One of my ancestresses ran the family farm from 1862 through 1864 because her husband was in the Union Army. No one batted an eye. Another one ran a boarding house before the end of that century. Her husband owned a store. Another ran a hotel about 100 years ago, as a widow. There's a long tradition, especially in the western part of the US, of women working at least part time for money. So I don't see the tooth and nail part that you describe, perhaps that was more of a British Empire thing?

Like you say, there did not seem to be any divine interdiction against a woman working for paid employment, yet it wasn't the "logos steeped conservative" movement that advocated allowing a woman to work.

Well, in the US, it was often economic necessity. Women took in washing in the mining camps - it was better than prostitution. Nursing was always an honorable profession for women. Growing up, I knew a woman who was a dressmaker, her husband worked at some other job, and there was a woman who was a hairdresser - her husband was retired Army.

It would appear that the lefties were acting more in accordance with God's will( on this matter) than the righties.

Maybe over on your continent. Outside of some upper class parts of the US, I don't really see it, historically. Heck, Abigail Adams ran the family farm while John was in Philadelphia arguing for independence in 1776...

There is an element of truth to all heresies which gives them their legitimacy. It's this mixing of sugar with shit that gives them traction.

Of course. Very few people are going to be interested in "Come On Down, Join Ultimate Evil", but just a little bit of shading of one or two Commandments, that's something most of us can go along with for a while, unless we fortify ourselves with God's Word, helped by the Holy Spirit.