When it comes to ostentatious displays of grandeur, there ain’t no party like a Communist Party.
The festivities in Tiananmen Square commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th birthday on July 1st were a sight to behold. Donning a Mao suit and standing behind a podium adorned with a hammer and sickle, Xi Jinping, General-Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, spoke of a “national rejuvenation” through the continuing implementation of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” threatened the Party’s enemies, and pledged to thwart any attempts to avoid China’s desired anschluss with Taiwan.
Xi did everything to invoke the ghosts of Communist dictators past short of taking his shoe off and banging it on the podium. But under the Communist pageantry lies a less obvious similarity between the Chinese Dragon of today and the Russian Bear of yesteryear. That is the way in which Chinese Communism, like its Soviet cousin, is tinged by historic cultural aspirations.
“Communism is not an Asiatic or Russian growth, as some maintain. In its Soviet form, it has been shaped and colored by Russian peculiarities.” So observed Whittaker Chambers who died 60 years ago this month, an anniversary that aside from this column will go as unnoticed as Chambers’ 120th birthday last April.
At the time of his death, Chambers was at work on the long-awaited follow-up to his smash autobiography Witness (1952), a book that had as much to say about Communism and the non-Communist West as it did about his life leading a Soviet espionage ring of perfidious public servants in Washington and his subsequent repudiation of that life.
The sequel was to be called The Third Rome and the unfinished work comprises the longest section of Cold Friday (1964), a posthumously published collection of Chambers’ writings. In it Chambers explains how Communism, like every successful faith that takes hold among a foreign populace, appropriates existing cultural myths and objectives.
The Third Rome was an expansion on a Time magazine essay Chambers wrote analyzing the 1945 Yalta Conference titled “The Ghosts on the Roof” in which he imagined spectral figures of the slain Romanov Family looking down with counterintuitive approval as Stalin secured Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in the post-war order drawn up by the Allied Powers.
Chambers could see how Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War embodied the Russocentric belief in Moscow as the seat of a third Roman Empire, the successor to Rome and Constantinople. Traditionally, this belief encompasses the notion that Russia’s manifest destiny is to lead a Pan-Slavic empire with the ultimate objective of reconquering, in the name of Christianity, Constantinople and the Holy Land from Islam. This belief also encompasses the notion of Russian moral superiority vis-à-vis a supposedly decadent West, giving rise to an idea present in Russian culture for centuries, that the Russian people are destined to redeem the world.
This “messianic impulse,” Chambers observed, was adapted and exploited by Lenin in his rise to power and allowed him to persuade enough of his countrymen that worldwide Communist revolution was the vehicle by which Russia would bring about mankind’s redemption.
If Chambers lived today, he might pen an essay suggesting that the ghosts of the ancient Chinese emperors were gazing approvingly at Xi. For Chinese Communism has successfully embodied a traditional Sinocentric belief analogous to the Third Rome, that China is the “Middle Kingdom.”
This is the notion that Chinese dynasties had once occupied the center of world culture prior to a period spanning 1842-1945 whereby China suffered foreign domination and control. Conscious of that humiliation, the Chinese Communist Party now claims to be the agent by which China will resume its traditional role as the Middle Kingdom by displacing the United States as the preeminent world power, a goal the ChiComs intend to achieve by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Revolution.
To this end, China launched its Belt and Road Initiative, whereby China seeks to occupy the center of international trade networks by turning weaker nations into economic clients. Using its vast wealth (built from decades of predatory trade practices), China makes infrastructure “investments” around the globe designed to trap sovereign borrowers in debt. Like a loan shark, China then uses its leverage to extract concessions from its victims.
Upon Chambers’ death, novelist Arthur Koestler stated “The Witness is gone, the testimony will stand.” President Biden’s cancellation of the planned National Garden of American Heroes, which was to include a statue of Chambers, leaves Chambers’ testimony as all that remains standing in tribute to his profound insights.
Chambers did not live to see the Third Rome collapse only to be replaced by a Fourth Rome in Beijing. But he would have understood it. And by understanding Chambers, so can we.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.