September 08, 2003

Whittaker Chambers on Khrushchev's 1956 Denunciation of Stalin

One of the great analytical howlers of the twentieth century: Whittaker Chambers sees Khrushchev's decision to denounce Stalin as a move aimed at undermining the morale and will of the West, and at making Communism a more dangerous and ruthless beast.

The possibility of the Primacy of Internal Politics--that Khrushchev was more concerned about Russia, Russia's political system, and his own guilt about the 1930s and 1940s and his personal responsibility to try to foreclose the possibility of it ever happening again than about gaining a slight advantage in the Cold War--never enters Chambers's mind:

From Whittaker Chambers (1989), Ghosts on the Roof (Washington: Regnery Gateway: 0895267659), p. 287-90. Reprinted from Life, April 30, 1956.

What the new Communist strategy envisages is the mounting, on a world scale, of a vast "partisans of peace" movement. Its formations will be the popular front... [but it will go] far beyond popular fronts, which however manipulable [by the Communists], have manifest limits.... [A]ll that is necessary to change the weather is for the Communist blizzard to stop freezing men's hopes.... [T]he tactical problem for Communism... [is] that of the wind and sun... competing to make a man take off his overcoat. To make the man--the West--take off his coat [his defenses against Communism], it was only necessary for Communism to let the sun shine.... [H]itherto, Communism could not let the sun shine [because of]... the person and official mythology of Josef Stalin. He personified those memories which... scarify the mind of the West with respect to Communism....

[T]he ice is going out, the ice that froze and paralyzed the messianic spirit of Communism during the long but (in Communist terms) justifiable Stalinist nightmare. Communism is likely to become more, not less dangerous....

Communism has not changed. The dictatorship of the Communist Party will not end. (The 20th [Party] Congress has acted to strengthen it.) It is unlikely that the slave labor camps will go or even shrink much. (Slave labor plays too important a part in the Communist economy and the victims of the reverse purge, or anybody at all who resists, will soon replace such political prisoners as may be released now.) Communist aggression against the West will not end. The 20th Congress has acted to give such aggression new, subtler, massive forms whose disintegrating energies are beamed first at specific soft spots around Communism's international frontiers and far across them--at West Germany, France, Italy, Britain, India, Burma, Indonesia. Yugoslavia is already doing a "slow dissolve" back into the Soviet system--a homecoming which Moscow's official disbanding of the Cominform is intended to promote....

But above all, it is the smashing of the Stalinist big lie that will change the climate, exerting its influence far beyond orthodox Communist lines, upon the internationalist and neutralist opinion of the West. With the smashing of the dark idol of Stalin, Communism can hope to compete again for the allegiance of men's minds.... What the 20th Congress meant to do, and may well succeed in doing, was to make Communism radioactive again.

To prefer to face a Soviet Union led by Stalin to one led by Khrushchev (or even Brezhnev) is evidence of a remarkably high degree of utter lunacy. But what can one expect from somebody who thinks that "Keynes is a dialect of Marx not too greatly different than Slovene, say, is from Russian"? Or somebody who rewrote Theodore White's dispatches to make them say that Chiang Kai-Shek was China's Abraham Lincoln?

Posted by DeLong at September 8, 2003 08:28 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Reading over the extract above, I fail to see anything in it that corresponds to your claim that Chambers preferred "to face a Soviet Union led by Stalin to one led by Khrushchev (or even Brezhnev)." All he seems to have been saying was that though soviet communism might have put on a kindler, gentler mask, it still remained the inhuman system it had always been.

In fact, much of what he says in the passage strikes me as being the plain truth: Khruschev was indeed trying to rehabilitate a failed ideology, and the gulags didn't fully disappear even into the 1970s. Seeing as Chambers was writing in 1956, wasn't he prescient in saying "the 20th Congress has acted to give such aggression new, subtler, massive forms", well before the various uprisings in Eastern Europe that were brutally crushed by the communists in the 1960s? In fact, I seem to recall Khruschev crushing a Hungarian revolt in the very year Chambers wrote this item!

As for Soviet expansionism, it was James Earl Carter, a Democratic advocate of detente, who broke off negotiations with the Soviets, and began the American arms buildup, over precisely such behavior in Afghanistan. We must also remember Mozambique, Angola and numerous other parts of the world in which the Soviets trained and supplied armed movements whose legacies are still with us today. As degrading as apartheid was to black dignity, and as much as it pains me to say it, communist rule in Africa has been much worse, whether in Southern Africa, in Ethiopia, or in any other part of that continent.

As for China, how can anybody possibly dispute that the most venal and corrupt Nationalist government under Chiang-Kai-Shek would have been preferable to the brutish monstrousity that was and still is the Chinese Communist Party? The Great Leap Forward was far, far worse than anything Chiang and his cohorts could ever have carried out.

Either you've omitted parts of this work that are far more damning of Chambers than the bit you put up above, or your personal animus against the right is getting in the way of your judgement. The red scare was indeed overdone and indiscriminate in the 1950s, but it was hardly groundless, and communism was a grave evil that deserved to be fought with vigor. That many of those who championed the fight were idiots and opportunists does not detract from this position.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on September 9, 2003 05:14 AM

Chambers says that under Khrushchev's leadership "Communism is likely to become more, not less dangerous." So unless Chambers is going to argue that in this case it is somehow preferable to face a more dangerous enemy than to face a less dangerous enemy, he is implying that it is preferable to face a Soviet Union led by Stalin to one led by Khrushchev.

Nor is Chambers simply arguing that, whatever speeches and gestures Khrushchev made, the Soviet Union was going to remain a Communist dictatorship. (And who was disputing this?) Based on the excerpt, he was arguing that the changes would be simply cosmetic. But a transition from a Communist dictatorship which murdered millions of its own people for nonexistent crimes against the infallible leader, to a Communist dictatorship which targeted only a small fraction of such 'enemies' and was for the most part content to jail instead of kill, is not simply a cosmetic change (or the construction of a "kinder. gentler mask" for the same system). It is a different system: still a repugnant dictatorship, but not worthy of being classed with those of Stalin or Mao.

Moreover, as I recall, Chambers himself came to recognize and acknowledge this in later years. He chided some of his friends at National Review for failing to recognize that things had changed, that Khrushchev was not Stalin.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on September 9, 2003 05:49 AM

I read the Chambers extract and our host's comments on it much differently than Mr. Lapite does above. It indeed does seem that Mr. Chambers does prefer Stalin to the extent that Stalin's exit would make it easier for Communist propaganda to succeed.
Moreover, I think that Mr. Lapite does not realize the extent to which the Soviet Union under Khrushchev was indeed better than under Stalin. It is true that it remained a vile dictatorship, but the scale of the murders carried out decreased by four or five orders of magnitude. Surely this is a good thing, regardless of the evil that remained.
As for Chaing, Mr. Lapite seems unaware that the moral bankrupcy of his regiem is the main reason for Mao's success, even as Mr. Chambers and company were presenting her (and Madam Chaing!) as a great statesman. This made a realistic American policy in China impossible. The sins of Mao's regiem are irrelevant to that. I actually don't think that there was much we could have done, but there was no reason to indulge in gross self-delusion about it.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on September 9, 2003 06:03 AM

To put our gracious host's own views on communism into context, I wish to include the following review by him of Eric Hobsbawm's "Age of Extremes":
http://econ161.berkeley.edu/Econ_Articles/hobsbawmsageofextremes.html
These are hardly the words of a man who is uninformed about the realities of communism, which makes this outburst by Professor DeLong about Whittaker Chambers doubly strange. I can only conclude that it is some sort of personality tick on his part, and that there's something about Whittaker Chambers that touches a raw nerve.

As for the claim that " the scale of the murders carried out decreased by four or five orders of magnitude", true though it may have been within the context of the Soviet Union (and even then, I'd limit it to THREE orders of magnitude, at best), the new credibility Kruschev's efforts bestowed on communism ended up costing millions of others their lives outside of Russia's borders.

"As for Chaing [sic], Mr. Lapite seems unaware that the moral bankrupcy [sic] of his regiem [sic] is the main reason for Mao's success"

I am well aware of the value of Nationalist corruption as a propanda tool for the communists, which is why I mentioned the venality of the Nationalists up above. That still does not justify the pretense that Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao were in any way comparable, as evils go. Anyone with a brain ought to have been able to figure ought what the consequences of communist rule would be for the Chinese populace - it isn't as if there wasn't already plenty of prior experience of communist rule to go on by the late 1940s. The Chinese Communist Party is both far more repressive AND more corrupt than the Nationalists were at their very worst.

In summary, Whittaker Chambers may or may not have been as terrible as the post above makes out, but the statements Brad quoted are hardly crushing exhibits of Chambers' intellectual limitations. The softer touch exhibited by Khruschev and Brezhnev gave communism a much longer lease on life than was good for humanity as a whole. Even today there are still mountebanks who draw on these two Soviet rulers in their ridiculous campaigns to dissociate "Stalinism" from Marxism as a philosophy.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on September 9, 2003 06:28 AM

"The new credibility Kruschev's efforts bestowed on communism ended up costing millions of others their lives outside of Russia's borders."

If I understand this correctly, Abiola wants it to be considered an indisputable fact that the Khmer Rouge, for example, would never have come to power if Khrushchev had not made communism so "credible." I would certainly like to see the logic behind this assumption filled out. On the face of it, the Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin led to a significant LOSS of credibility for communism, as party members and sympathizers were forced to recognize how massively they had been duped.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on September 9, 2003 07:28 AM

"To prefer to face a Soviet Union led by Stalin to one led by Khrushchev (or even Brezhnev) is evidence of a remarkably high degree of utter lunacy."

Hello?? For Chambers, writing in 1956, to even consider the face of a Soviet Union led by Brezhnev would seem rather to have been evidence of a remarkably high degree of precognition.

And it would have been pretty much the same for him to compare Stalin's to Kruschev's regime -- Nikita was just at the beginning, still consolidating his power, the speech was part of that.

As to what was known to the world in 1956, it's hard for me too see exactly what was so unreasonable in what Chambers wrote.

Were the Politboro, Central Committee and institutions of the CCCP -- and the people manning them -- known to be so different in 1956 than in 1953? If not, then what was so unreasonable about fearing that their continuing evil would benefit from adopting a more marketable figurehead? Was that really "utter lunacy"?

And looking back, can't one argue that they actually *did* benefit in selling their ideology around the world over the following decade just as Chambers feared?

If not being able to judge contemporaneous events with knowledge coming from decades in the future is utter lunacy, the whole world is a madhouse. (Not that it's not.)

Posted by: Jim Glass on September 9, 2003 08:28 AM

"That still does not justify the pretense that Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao were in any way comparable, as evils go."

You are correct, but I am not sure who you are arguing with. Nobody claimed that it would justify such a pretense. The point was that Chiang was far from an Abraham Lincoln figure - he was indeed corrupt,incompetent, and dictatorial and proved disastrous for American policy in China. Of course Mao was evil. All the more reason for seeking a better way to defeating him than propping up Chiang.

Chiang's corruption was more than a propoganda tool for the Communists. He was hated by many of the people, who thought the Communists would be better. They were wrong, of course, but their mistake was helped by Chiang's horrible rule. Don't forget: Chiang had superior military forces and the support of the U.S., yet still lost to the Communists. That was because the populace revolted against him.

I'm not sure why you think criticism of Chiang equates with support for Mao.

Posted by: nameless on September 9, 2003 09:01 AM

Under Kruschev Hungary was crushed, the Berlin Wall was built, Castro was supported to the point of a near nuclear war, Southeast Asia became a battleground that eventually cost 50,000 Americans their lives.

Seems Chambers knew of what he spoke.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on September 9, 2003 04:14 PM

The Secret Speech was about two things internal to the Soviet Union ; the Terror, and the primacy of the Party over the State.

During the Terror, the CPSU itself was liquidated. Read the Secret Speech, and know what was done to the CPSU in Leningrad was also being done by Khruschev to the CPSU in Moscow.

I believe Khruschev, and his silent parter Zhukov, saw both that the Terror was almost certainly a mistake, and it was no accident : it was a mistake with a past, a present and a future.

The past of the Terror was built on the fact is that 'administrative measures' are effective, but to make them maximally effective is to make them unlimited ... and all bureaucracies grow until they hit their limits. They also have a tendency to justify their resources by the level of their activity.

Therefore, the maximally effective machinery of State Terror that was built to win aginst the Whites, the SRs, the Mensheviks, the Anarchists, the Intervention Forces, Poland, and so on grew, and was driven by it's need to grow it ... and it began to eat it's host. People at all levels were trapped in a lethal game of Prisoners Dilemna, where to co-operate with the machine meant sending someone to the Camps, but to betray the machine meant the Camps for you. And it was a game you could not leave, because the machine had quotas to meet, and quotas have a tendency to rise when they are achieved.

This process happened under Stalin, but I believe it would have happened without him, but different opinions exist.

By the way, this terrible logic applied to the designers and operators of the machine as well ; Solzenitsyn probably documents how many KGB men became zeks. I know two KGB heads got fed into it.

The present was that the machinery of State Terror still existed, but was quiescent (there were rumours of Stalin plotting another round of the Terror before he died). It had to be tamed, permanently, or it would wake up and begin to eat the Soviet Union again.

Khruschev's solution was the stun the machine via the execution, arrest and trial of Beria (he was arrested in his office at gunpoint by a number of Marshals of the Soviet Union, and they had a Guards Tank division on standby, just in case there was a problem), and then innoculte the Party, and by extention the Army, by describing the problem.

Thus the Secret Speech.

This inoculation worked ; after his fall, Khruschev was appointed to a comfortable retirement running a hydroelectric plant, and while dissidents were certainly arrested after the speech, the state security machine was forced down several gears.

To personalise it, Andrei Sakharov was put into internal exile in Gorki under Breznev. Without the Secret Speech, he'd have been murdered, probably by being worked to death in the camps. Yes, the machine still operated, but if all Khruschev achieved was to reduce the number of people fed into it with lethal results by three orders of magnitude, rather than four or five, then I think he could die content.

Now, the Secret Speech led to a couple of things outside the Soviet Union. The first was a split in the Communist parties between pro- and anti-Stalin factions (in Australia, the CPA and the CPA(M-L)), but in the longer term it finished the job that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had started ; the ending of unquestioned following of the Moscow Line by other Communist Parties.

In the longer term, this led to the Prague Spring, and the identification of the Italian and French communist parties as Euro-Communists (as an aside, they never figured out whether the important bit was Euro- or -communist, until the Soviet Union fell and history made the decision for them), which also by implication made people think as to whether the CPSU was just the cutting edge of a new Russian Empire.

But it's all history. For me, Khruschev got his reward for the secret speech ; the got rid of him by voting, and he went into a comfortable retirement.

Ian Whitchurch

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on September 9, 2003 05:37 PM

The Secret Speech was about two things internal to the Soviet Union ; the Terror, and the primacy of the Party over the State.

During the Terror, the CPSU itself was liquidated. Read the Secret Speech, and know what was done to the CPSU in Leningrad was also being done by Khruschev to the CPSU in Moscow.

I believe Khruschev, and his silent parter Zhukov, saw both that the Terror was almost certainly a mistake, and it was no accident : it was a mistake with a past, a present and a future.

The past of the Terror was built on the fact is that 'administrative measures' are effective, but to make them maximally effective is to make them unlimited ... and all bureaucracies grow until they hit their limits. They also have a tendency to justify their resources by the level of their activity.

Therefore, the maximally effective machinery of State Terror that was built to win aginst the Whites, the SRs, the Mensheviks, the Anarchists, the Intervention Forces, Poland, and so on grew, and was driven by it's need to grow it ... and it began to eat it's host. People at all levels were trapped in a lethal game of Prisoners Dilemna, where to co-operate with the machine meant sending someone to the Camps, but to betray the machine meant the Camps for you. And it was a game you could not leave, because the machine had quotas to meet, and quotas have a tendency to rise when they are achieved.

This process happened under Stalin, but I believe it would have happened without him, but different opinions exist.

By the way, this terrible logic applied to the designers and operators of the machine as well ; Solzenitsyn probably documents how many KGB men became zeks. I know two KGB heads got fed into it.

The present was that the machinery of State Terror still existed, but was quiescent (there were rumours of Stalin plotting another round of the Terror before he died). It had to be tamed, permanently, or it would wake up and begin to eat the Soviet Union again.

Khruschev's solution was the stun the machine via the execution, arrest and trial of Beria (he was arrested in his office at gunpoint by a number of Marshals of the Soviet Union, and they had a Guards Tank division on standby, just in case there was a problem), and then innoculte the Party, and by extention the Army, by describing the problem.

Thus the Secret Speech.

This inoculation worked ; after his fall, Khruschev was appointed to a comfortable retirement running a hydroelectric plant, and while dissidents were certainly arrested after the speech, the state security machine was forced down several gears.

To personalise it, Andrei Sakharov was put into internal exile in Gorki under Breznev. Without the Secret Speech, he'd have been murdered, probably by being worked to death in the camps. Yes, the machine still operated, but if all Khruschev achieved was to reduce the number of people fed into it with lethal results by three orders of magnitude, rather than four or five, then I think he could die content.

Now, the Secret Speech led to a couple of things outside the Soviet Union. The first was a split in the Communist parties between pro- and anti-Stalin factions (in Australia, the CPA and the CPA(M-L)), but in the longer term it finished the job that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had started ; the ending of unquestioned following of the Moscow Line by other Communist Parties.

In the longer term, this led to the Prague Spring, and the identification of the Italian and French communist parties as Euro-Communists (as an aside, they never figured out whether the important bit was Euro- or -communist, until the Soviet Union fell and history made the decision for them), which also by implication made people think as to whether the CPSU was just the cutting edge of a new Russian Empire.

But it's all history. For me, Khruschev got his reward for the secret speech ; the got rid of him by voting, and he went into a comfortable retirement.

Ian Whitchurch

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on September 9, 2003 05:42 PM
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