Whittaker Chambers in Books


Reviews books with Whittaker Chambers tagged either as Subject, Actor, or Mention

Amy Herzog: After the Revolution

Amy Herzog‘s play After the Revolution relates the anguish of Joseph family generations caught up by Communism. Central to the play is the revelation that their late patriarch, Joe Joseph, a victim of the McCarthy Era, had indeed spied for the Soviet Union. (While the Joseph family resembles that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Mr. Joseph’s role in the US Government adds a strong element from the HissChambers Case.)

The Village Voice seems unable to empathize with the impact that confirmation of spying would have on the Joseph family:

Emma and her elders naturally reel from the effect of the revelation, maybe a little excessively for 1999, when such informational shocks were already commonplace.

Does this comment represent new generations of Americans, oblivious to the “us-or-them” mentality fostered (if not created) by McCarthyism? Perhaps the reviewer should make more effort when walking in the shoes of the Joseph family.

While the play portrays the dysfunction that Communism has injected in three generations of the Joseph family, it does not seem to address whether changes in Communism itself during the 20th Century is also a factor.

Prior to World War I, “Communism” of Karl Marx was but one of a number of related political philosophies, including the Egalitarianism of Babeuf, the Utopianism of Fourier, the Socialism of Berstein, and the Anarchism of Proudhon — just to name a few. These groups formed their Left or Labor tribe, divided into many clans and family, who rarely reached agreements during congresses of the First International (1865-1872) and the Second International (1889–1916). Congresses of the Third International (1919-1935) started as a reconvening of the Second International — within new realities. Communist revolutions had erupted in Europe but succeeded only in the least anticipated country, Russia. Soviet Russia assumed full control of the Communist International movement (thereafter known by the telltale Soviet acronym “Comintern”). Lenin introduced the concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which Stalin turned into a totalitarianism that rivaled Mussolini‘s Fascism and Hitler‘s Nazism. Further deviations followed Leninism and Stalinism, like Titoism, Maoism, and Neo-Marxism.

Yes, the Joseph family has its dysfunctions — in this case, enough to stop any family member from ever asking, how did the family’s beliefs drift so far in the first place? What the audience sees results from those deviations on the road to utopia, compounded by McCarthy-induced forgetfulness. The Josephs do not question why grandfather Joe spied. Thus, they will never ask questions like, what form of Communism attracted patriarch Joe Joseph in the first place? Which means that they may never explore possibilities like whether, while he was spying, the Communism he worked towards ceased to exist.

On the other hand, the playwright could have made each family member represent some particular political interpretation. Perhaps the program notes could go further in terms of educating audiences, but at least the playwright is getting the problem across at the family level: full of confusion, misunderstanding, and disappointments.


New York Times
Village Voice
New York Daily News
New York Press
New York Magazine
Theater Mania
Show Business Weekly
Back Stage
Play Bill
The AndyGram
New York Theatre Guide
Socialist Worker


WTF Interview with Amy Herzog – After the Revolution

After the Revoultion: Actor, Mark Blum

After the Revolution: Audience Reaction

AndrewAndrew: After the Revolution at Playwrights Horizons

Whittaker Chambers, by Richard Reinsch

He heard the screams

Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary
By Richard M. Reinsch II
(Indianapolis: ISI Books, 2010)

(Reviewed by Gary Saul Morson)

(Excerpts from “He Heard the Screams,” published in the November 2010 issue of The New Criterion)

Why do otherwise decent people embrace ideologies that entail the killing of millions? What is the appeal that made so many people, especially intellectuals, support Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao? Whittaker Chambers argued that if we are to combat the most monstrous evil in the history of the world—totalitarianism, as invented in the twentieth century by Lenin—we must understand what draws some people to it and makes others incapable of countering, or even understanding, its appeal.


It is no surprise, then, to learn from Richard Reinsch’s biography Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary that Chambers was deeply influenced by the greatest counterrevolutionary thinker of modern times, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, too, had once been a revolutionary conspirator, for which he had served four years in a Siberian prison camp. Both counter-revolutionaries rethought their convictions, embraced God, and became innovative conservative thinkers.


Chambers famously wrote that, in breaking with Communism and testifying against it, he was joining the losing side. I am not old enough to remember that testimony, but I do remember when both liberals and conservatives thought that the Soviet Union would soon outproduce us and, most likely, take over the world by the sheer power of example. So far as the Soviet Union goes, that thinking turned out to be completely mistaken. But, as Reinsch points out, Chambers’s point still holds. There are two ways in which freedom can lose—not only by challenge from without but also by gradual erosion from within. Freedom loses when people no longer value it. As recently as twenty-five years ago, most college professors I knew still believed in democracy, free elections, and free speech, even for their opponents. They stood up for Salman Rushdie. Now most have such contempt for hoi polloi that they do not see the point of allowing them to spread their ignorant lies. The rest of the faculty, who do cling to outmoded ideas of freedom, are embarrassed to express them.

Reinsch’s biography prompted me to read Witness for the first time. I discovered in it what I do not hesitate to call one of the great autobiographies of world literature. I could teach it alongside the autobiographical parts of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and even Tolstoy’s Confession. Chambers thinks deeply and commands a unique and powerful style.

For that very reason, Reinsch’s treatment falls short. It’s not that he gets Chambers wrong. He’s accurate, but in the way that one of the better editions of SparkNotes conveys an accurate, if simplistic, version of a great author’s “message.” Part of the problem is Reinsch’s appalling prose. In one characteristic passage, he explains that

Chambers never charged his nation’s leaders with possessing overt sympathy to Communism. Rather, the Western leaders were unable to understand an enemy who pursued immanent ends with transcendent fervor due to their own paucity of spirit.

I had to read this sentence three times before I realized that, despite the syntax, “paucity of spirit” pertains not to the enemy but to the Western leaders. Such sentences make reading this book an irritating experience. Where Chambers writes with passion and palpability, Reinsch offers fuzz. His prose muffles the screams.

Gary Saul Morson is Chair of Slavic Languages & Literature at Northwestern University.

(Please click here to read the complete article)


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