The Diseases of Modern Life as seen through the Secular Confessional
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Francis on Chambers.
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealedFor he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
According to Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis was equivocal on the relationship of Christianity and Western Civilisation so I was surprised to see Francis include Chambers in his narrow group of serious thinkers. Quite frankly I bought the his book, Beautiful Losers, simply to see what he would say about Chambers whom this blog has championed before. Francis, though clearly under the influence of Burnham's positivism, is perhaps one of the few understood the importance of Chambers thinking and the importance of his "witness" in the Alger Hiss trial.
The trial, and Chambers victory against nearly insurmountable odds, had the effect of re-orientating American Conservatism towards a more religious understanding of itself; gave birth to the McCarthy movement, which even though flawed, was the first example of populism against the managerial state, launched the career of Richard Nixon and helped expunge the Rockefeller republicans from the party in the Goldwater campaign.
Quite frankly, it's a surprise that he is so neglected given his mark on history and Francis is to be commended for both recognising his importance and for keeping his memory alive. Still, reading Francis, I was more of the impression that he "intuited" Chambers greatness rather than fully intellectually appreciating his significance.
Chambers, like Burnham, was an ex-communist who eventually repudiated its ideals. Both men shared a common outlook which separated them from the "conservative tradition". Whereas Burhnam belonged to tradition of Machiavelli, Chambers intellectual lineage belonged more to the tradition of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.
Burnham's modernism alienated those traditionalist conservatives who were aware of it. Their minds tend to center on the more ethereal regions of religion, ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics, rather than on the sociological analysis of political conflict and the geo-politics of global struggle, and they are not attracted to and are often repelled by a worldview that centers on conflict, power, and human irrationality. Whittaker Chambers, whose own mind reflected a tension between modernism and antimodern elements and who ex-pressed deep admiration for Burnham, nevertheless criticized him for his "prudent, practical thinking." "The Fire Bird," wrote Chambers, "is glimpsed living or not at all. In other words, realists have a way of missing truth, which is not invariably realistic." The "Fire Bird" refers to the classical myth of the phoenix, a bird composed of fire that, since it was consumed by flames as it flew through the air, left no body. Its existence therefore could not be proved empirically, by finding its body; it had to be seen alive or not at all. Chambers's meaning is that Burnham's worldview demanded empirical proof for things that by their nature could not be proved but were nevertheless known to be true by those who had seen—or felt or intuited—them.
Chambers recognised that Burnham's vision was limited by his Positivism and that he had missed what the real fight of the 20th Century was all about, the battle between atheism and religion. Religion, Chambers recognised, motivated men for the sacrifices and struggles that were needed to sustain a culture, something which a better arranged or "managed" atheism did not do. Chambers, staring about him in the glory days of 1950's America, could see that the the atheistic managerial state was slowly strangling, and excluding, the motive principle that had sustained the West. Seeing beyond the gloss to the underlying substance Chambers wrote:
there is a strong family resemblance between the Communist state and the welfare state. The ends each has in view have much in common. But the methods proposed for reaching them radically differ. Each is, in fact, in direct competition with the other, since each offers itself as an alternative solution for the crisis of the 20th Century; and Fabian Britain has at last supplanted Soviet Russia in the eyes of political liberals when they look abroad. Nevertheless, that family resemblance is nerve-wearing, since all the minds that note it are not equally discriminating, especially in a nation that has only just become conscious of Communism and still rejects socialism. So, at every move against Communism, liberal views come unglued, and liberal voices go shrill, fearing that, by design or error, the move may be against themselves.
The beast could morph and Chambers was adept at recognising it's manifestations.
Chambers was contemptuous of Liberalism and saw it as another morphed form of managerial atheism. Attempts to reconcile Liberalism to Conservatism misunderstood the nature of it and Chambers despaired the lack this awareness and the stupidity of many conservatives. Francis writes:
Yet if Chambers rejected twentieth-century liberalism, he was not much more sympathetic to the conservatives of the 1950s. He declined to attach himself in any way to Joe McCarthy, less perhaps from dislike of the man than a belief that McCarthy would eventually taint his witness. He was not comfortable at National Review and found preposterous the quaint dogmas of classical liberalism dressed up as conservatism. In a letter to Buckley in 1957, he called the free-market economist Ludwig von Mises "a goose," and Frank Meyer's self-appointment as the ideological gatekeeper of the American Right seems first to have amused, then bored, him. The ideas of Meyer and Russell Kirk struck Chambers as "chiefly an irrelevant buzz." Of Kirk's The Conservative Mind he asked, "if you were a marine in a landing boat, would you wade up the seabeach at Tarawa for that conservative position? And neither would I!" Only with Buckley himself and James Burnham did he seem to share anything like a common outlook, and at last he resigned from National Review, acknowledging to Buckley and himself that he was not a conservative in any serious sense but "a man of the Right."
What exactly Chambers meant by this term is far from clear, but he contrasted it with "conservatism" and seems to have identified it with a defense of capitalism. "I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version. But I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative." Yet despite his identification with capitalism, almost nowhere did Chambers offer an explicit defense of it, and in both his letters to Buckley and in a National Review piece of 1958 on federal farm policy, he was perfectly conscious of the contradiction between capitalism and conservatism and the link between capitalism and the advance of socialism. Like most conservatives and like his neighbors in rural Maryland, Chambers saw the freedom I and independence of farmers threatened by federal regulation of agriculture. But he also believed such controls were "inescapable."
I think its important here to understand what Chambers means by "Man of the Right", which I don't think Francis fully grasped. Chambers was intrinsically opposed to the atheistic vision which was the hallmark of modern Liberalism, but he was also opposed to the rag tag bunch of anti-Liberalists and traditionalists who were put on the "Right" merely by being opposed to the Left. He saw that many of these anti-Leftists were either hopeless aesthetes and nostalgics or "right-materialists" who saw man simply as an economic unit, or racial entity unit.
His evisceration of Ayn Rand single-handedly threw her out of the conservative fold: A better managerialism is not what he was about. And the point that Chambers was trying to make by this statement is that it is possible to be anti-Left and to still be evil or stupid, which he thought many conservatives were.
Nor has the author, apparently, brooded on the degree to which, in a wicked world, a materialism of the Right and a materialism of the Left first surprisingly resemble, then, in action, tend to blend each with each, because, while differing at the top in avowed purpose, and possibly in conflict there, at bottom they are much the same thing. The embarrassing similarities between Hitler's National Socialism and Stalin’s brand of Communism are familiar. For the world, as seen in materialist view from the Right, scarcely differs from the same world seen in materialist view from the Left. The question becomes chiefly: who is to run that world in whose interests, or perhaps, at best, who can run it more efficiently?
Like Burnham, Chambers shared much of his historical determinism, which in turn imparted upon him a spenglerian gloom. It also alienated him from Traditionalists who failed to recognise that late 19th Century was transformative in the scheme of human relations. Chambers' experiences in the Hiss Case lead him to the conclusion that he was on the "losing side", and much like a 19th Century physician, he could diagnose the problem but was powerless in effecting a cure. Francis writes:
The significance of Chambers's witness, then, is considerably diminished if it is mistaken as merely an account of Soviet communism and its Western stooges. His point throughout his writings in the 1940s and 1950s was that the roots of communism lie in the West itself and that they flourish because the modern age has chosen to credit the serpent's promise. That promise and its lethal consequences for the West were as palpable to him in the United States of Truman and Eisenhower as they had been under the Edwardians and as they were in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. Only when the West had awakened to the falsehood of the promise could it bear what he called "that more terrible witness" by which it would destroy its external enemy and begin to purge itself of its internal toxins. But he had no expectation that the West would do so, and no suggestions on how to do it.
Whilst I think Francis gives Chambers an accurate appraisal, I feel that this own lukewarm religiousness rendered him partially deaf to Chambers' message. Francis was looking for a method, or program, within the existing materialist world view and it was Chambers contention that such a search was futile as there was no solution within it. The only way out was by re-embracing religion. Burnham, on the other hand, seemed to Chambers witness more seriously and by the time he had written Suicide of the West, Burnham had conceded that ideas, i.e. culture, were just as significant as material and historical determinism. Burnham's identification of liberalism as the solvent of the West owes a large part to Chamber's influence, yet he would not fully embrace religion, whilst recognising its utility, till shortly before his death. The point of Chambers witness is that there is no conservative revival unless we bend the knee to God. The best we can hope for is a Singapore or Japan like scenario but perceptive observers of these countries realise that, they too, are dying. And even they, with their well managed managerial states pale into insignificance, in terms of cultural output when compared to the glories of European Civilisation.
Chambers's message is that the cause of the death spiral of the West is atheism. Atheists, of course, reject this message, but it's also problematic for Christians. Faith is not something that can be socially engineered so expecting everyone to be on-board with faith and religion is not going to happen. It can be shored up with logic and argument but the faculty which gives certainty to the propositions of faith is a free gift of God that cannot be socially engineered. Religious reactionaries, I do not feel, have fully recognised this fact or its political implications.
With regard to NRx, Chambers diagnosis pretty much damns Moldbuggian NRx which, trapped in it's atheism is really just better way of arranging things. If NRx was to be truly transformative it needs to go Churchy. This will be a bitter pill for many.
It's true that Burnham made a huge impression on Francis, but as he lay dying from the complications of aortic surgery, Francis was visited by a Catholic Priest--Anton Scalia's son--who offered him the choice of a blessing or the Last Rights. Like Burnham, Francis chose the Last Rights. Perhaps Chambers made more of an impression on Francis than he let on.