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A 1930s Communist Spy Can Help Explain What’s Motivating The Riots


“We hope they die,” chanted a crowd of people in front of the emergency room entrance of St. Francis Hospital in Lynwood, California last Sunday. Some attempted to block the ambulance that was bringing two police officers into the hospital to be treated after they were shot in a random attack.

In August, a crowd of white “Black Lives Matter” supporters approached diners at a restaurant in Washington D.C., raising their fists and demanding they follow suit. When one of the diners refused to raise her fist, the crowd surrounded her and yelled in her face, accusing her of violence.

A similar scene erupted in Rochester, N.Y. a few weeks later. This time, the crowd smashed plates and glasses on patrons’ tables.

Whether they support the social causes these protesters claim to represent or not, peaceful onlookers grapple with these actions in bewilderment. What could possess a normal person to commit apparently mindless acts of mob madness like these? Does anyone sincerely believe that blocking an ambulance or terrorizing diners will help bring about justice or a more perfect union?

An earlier generation of Americans wondered the same thing about the supporters of communism. What was the appeal of a movement that brought famine, oppression, and death around the world? Americans could not understand the appeal of communism to the soul, and therefore could not understand the actions it produced.

The answer that former spy Whittaker Chambers gave in 1952 still applies today. Chambers was a devout communist in the 1930s, spying on the U.S. government with others, including State Department official Alger Hiss. After Chambers defected from communism and converted to Christianity, he denounced Hiss as a fellow spy, resulting in a salacious libel trial that defined and reflected American attitudes toward communism in the 1950s as much as McCarthyism did.

Due to his attraction to communism, Chambers saw what many Americans failed to grasp. Man, he said in his autobiography “Witness,” seeks two things: “a reason to live and a reason to die.”

Communism, Chambers argued, gave its adherents what the post-Enlightenment West had not: a moral crusade. Never mind that the actual results of communism were death and oppression – the idea of communism offered something to fight for, in a way that men will not fight for science or reason or academia or postmodernism. Of communism’s disciples, Chambers wrote:

The tie that binds them across the frontiers of nations, across barriers of language and differences of class and education, in defiance of religion, morality, truth, law, honor, the weaknesses of the body and the irresolutions of the mind, even unto death, is a simple conviction: It is necessary to change the world.

That last line could have been written about some of today’s protests. It doesn’t apply to all – there exist selfishly motivated looters who have no interest in a moral cause, as there are thoughtful and profound protesters who aim to improve justice without dunking into blind fanaticism. But conservatives risk ignorance or even arrogance by mindlessly dismissing that middle stratum of people, who feel incensed to protest and outrage because the world is not what they believe it should be.

It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a rise in “social justice warriors” as the postmodern West has taken away historic reasons to be noble warriors. Communism, Chambers suggested, was a religion, plain and simple, in which man was the measure of all things. Likewise, some today have a faith-like devotion to the gospel of righting systemic racism in America. Through that gospel alone, they appear to believe, can America repent of its sins and achieve salvation.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate flaws in a justice system run by flawed men, or that we shouldn’t strive for social improvement. (Even communism tapped into legitimate harms of an imperfect and sometimes cruel economic system.) But “changing the world” must not be its own end – you can only ever change the world into something else.

Observers of what seems like mindless mob madness should recognize the passion it has tapped. “Their power, whose nature baffles the rest of the world, because in a large measure the rest of the world has lost that power, is the power to hold convictions and to act on them,” Chambers wrote.

A person does not block an ambulance with critically injured officers inside for a mediocre political belief. He does so – if I can be presumptuous enough to guess – because he sincerely believes that cops are evil and that it is better for the world if they are dead. In his mind, he fights for a greater moral order, no matter how divorced from reality that order may be. That kind of man is not one onlookers should ignore.

Nor should we ignore who, according to Chambers, is at fault. The West, rejecting God in favor of man’s ultimacy, offered men no faith to adhere to but faith in themselves.

The result of such misplaced faith is a self-righteous judgment upon anyone who refuses to join what they believe is a holy cause. It shouts in the faces of those who refuse to raise their fists in solidarity. And more than anything, it reminds us of man’s dire need for a good greater than himself.