Tyranny Afoot: Arthur Koestler’s Communist Chronicles
SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 by BRUCE EDWARD WALKER
“You want to stifle the Republic in blood. How long must the footsteps of freedom be gravestones? Tyranny is afoot; she has torn her veil, she carries her head high, she treads over our dead bodies.”
—Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
Perhaps no author better chronicled the disastrous, soul-crushing European political experiments of the middle half of the twentieth century than Arthur Koestler. The Hungarian-born author wrote magisterially (in English, no less; he first published in Hungarian, German, and Russian) of the follies of the Pink Decade of the 1930s in a series of political novels. Unfortunately, they’re all but forgotten in today’s university curricula. The world requires constant reminders of what actually happens once citizens acquiesce to big-government solutions.
George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and Koestler’s body of work from the 1930s to 1950s proves the contemporary relevance of Santayana’s admonition. Perhaps in no other time besides the era in which they were originally published are Koestler’s literary themes more topical than the present, as our own government expands exponentially to bail out and control our country’s financial and automotive industries; mire other industries to the point of stagnation with cumbersome regulations; redefine such basic individual choices as health care and education as prescribed “rights”; and enact wide-ranging schemes to insinuate bureaucratic reach into nearly every aspect of our lives, from the Internet and use of recreational and/or medicinal inebriants to surveillance cameras at every traffic stop.
As this year officially marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Koestler’s seminal novel, Darkness at Noon, and the 60th anniversary of his essay “The Initiates,” it’s a convenient opportunity to revisit both works as a reminder of what awaits all democratic societies eager to abandon liberties for the sake of utopian ideologies.
Seventy years ago, as war engulfed nearly every continent and the Axis peril seemed poised to destroy two millennia of civilization, Koestler published Darkness at Noon on another, completely different threat to individual freedom: communism. Ten years later “The Initiates” appeared as one of six essays in The God That Failed, a volume featuring the voices of many of the twentieth century’s greatest writers who had embraced the Stalinist enterprise as the singular political corrective to economic misery before abandoning it as contrary to human nature and profoundly detrimental to humanity in general. However, none of Koestler’s fellow travelers—Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Andre Gide, Louis Fisher, Stephen Spender—wrote more authoritatively or convincingly against communism than he.
Darkness at Noon is the third novel in Koestler’s quartet depicting what occurs when centralized governments seize control of the means of production and attempt to mitigate the individualist impulse. Briefly, Darkness is bookended by The Gladiators (1938) and Arrival and Departure (1943), and followed by The Age of Longing (1951). In the first, Koestler novelizes the slave revolt commanded by the gladiator Spartacus; in Arrival and Departure he conjectures on the psychological motivations behind a character who alternately embraces communist and Nazi ideologies; and The Age of Longing is a futuristic novel exploring the irreconcilable nature of religious faith and totalitarianism in Paris of the mid-1950s. But it is in Darkness, in my humble estimation, that Koestler succeeds most in capturing the mindset of the collectivist fantasy in order to completely dispel its flawed precepts.
Encapsulating a Century
“If any figure could claim to have encapsulated in his own life—and recorded—the political, intellectual, and emotional tribulations of the twentieth century, it is [Koestler],” wrote Theodore Dalrymple in “A Drinker of Infinity,” an essay that appeared in The City Journal, Spring 2007, and that took its title from a later work by Koestler.
Koestler’s life leading up to the writing of Darkness at Noon reads like a novel (or several) itself. Born to Jewish parents in Budapest in 1905, he displayed an affinity for math and science that led him to study engineering in Vienna. Before he could graduate, however, Koestler embraced radical Zionism (although biographies report he wasn’t an observant Jew), which led him to live briefly on a kibbutz in Palestine. He subsequently became the Palestine correspondent for a German newspaper group, the Ullstein Trust, was based for a while in Paris, and wound up simultaneously serving as science editor and foreign correspondent for two Ullstein-owned newspapers in Germany.
After Ullstein fired Koestler (some sources assert he resigned) for his political leanings, the writer threw the full weight of his intellectual and physical energies behind Marxism (fully detailed in “The Initiates”). He traveled extensively throughout the USSR in 1932 and 1933 at the invitation of the Revolutionary Writers of Germany, a Comintern front agency. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936 Koestler was writing communist propaganda in Paris and accepted an assignment from a British newspaper to file reports from Francisco Franco’s fascist army headquarters. In Spain he was arrested as a communist spy and sentenced to death. He documented his internment in Spanish Testament (1937). Once released—through international efforts resulting in a Republican swap of Koestler for a fascist prisoner—he returned to France to continue writing for the communist cause. He severed ties with the party over his disagreement with the 1938 Soviet show trials and set about writing Darkness at Noon.
Koestler again found himself imprisoned—this time in a French concentration camp, as a hostile alien—in the first months of World War II. After another international effort, he was released and sought to avoid another arrest by joining the French Foreign Legion. He made his way to Lisbon, then illegally flew to London. British authorities promptly arrested him; he corrected galleys of Darkness at Noon during his six-week incarceration.
“The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian,” George Orwell wrote in an essay on Koestler’s early works. “In 1937 Koestler already knew this, but did not feel free to say so.” By 1938, however, Koestler had broken with the Communist Party and sought to educate Western Europe and the New World on happenings in the Soviet Union.
Darkness centers on the incarceration of Rubashov, a Bolshevik from the 1917 Revolution, for presumed counterrevolutionary activities and sentiments. Although the reader sympathizes with Rubashov, as one would for any prisoner condemned without due process, his significant shortcomings readily become apparent. For one, he served on the Central Committee in the early years of Hitler’s Germany, expeditiously silencing operatives no longer possessing Party utility by betraying them to Nazi police. Even though Rubashov convinces himself these actions are the justified means by which the revolution’s ends will be met, his conscience is haunted by his betrayal of his secretary and lover, Arlova.
The Here and Now
Rubashov is based loosely on Nikolai Bukharin, a Bolshevik who became president of the Soviet Comintern. According to Goronwy Rees, Bukharin’s 1938 arrest, trial, confession, and execution represented “a kind of monstrous reductio ad absurdum of the Great Purge, in which it was proved to everyone’s satisfaction that not only the whole of the original leadership of the Bolshevik Party had become spies and traitors but that the case against them had been conducted by one who shared in exactly the same crimes.” Critics note that Koestler lifted the bulk of Rubashov’s confession from Bukharin’s real-life document.
Two of Koestler’s acquaintances contributed the necessary details of Soviet oppression. Painter and ceramicist Eva Weissberg, a childhood friend, emigrated to the Soviet Union with her husband, physicist Alexander Weissberg, who became a researcher at the Ukrainian Institute for Physics and Technology. Eva related the Weissbergs’ subsequent persecution during Stalin’s Great Purges to Koestler, who used the experiences as background material. His own solitary confinement in Spain lent credibility to his descriptions of Rubashov’s incarceration.
What differentiates Koestler’s work from other highly lauded literary attacks on collectivism by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Stanislaw Lem is perspective. Whereas the other writers projected the results of communism in novels depicting dystopian futures—Lem by necessity since he was living in Soviet-controlled Poland; Orwell and Huxley by choice—Koestler, recognizing the Soviet Central Committee’s initiatives to reconstruct all history as a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, documented what had already occurred under Stalin’s reign of terror during a decade of famine, the Great Purge, and the Moscow show trials. While the famines and purges resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Soviets, the show trials are characterized as an absurd travesty of Kafkaesque proportions in which Soviet apparatchiks obtained public confessions from old-guard Bolsheviks on trumped-up charges, resulting in the coerced “confessions” of counterrevolutionary activities and subsequent executions.
The historical perspective speaks to readers sympathetic to the Soviet cause but baffled as to why multitudes of Old Guard Bolsheviks would confess to crimes against the State for almost certain execution. For those readers unsympathetic to or unaware of Uncle Joe’s brand of totalitarianism, Koestler depicted the result of clashing Marxist-inspired ideologies—paranoia and death on the one hand and paranoia, deprivation, and inhumanity on the other. Koestler portrays the former as no longer willing to accept that all means justify Stalinist ends, and conversely portrays those who accept all means to further the Soviet agenda as amoral monsters:
[I]n the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about 10 million people to do forced labor in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under the conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the Party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the highest officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalists counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. . . . We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future of happiness, which only we can see. . . .
Taking nothing from the substantial literary accomplishments of Orwell, Huxley, and Lem, the sheer headline immediacy and empirical evidence substantiating the claims of Darkness at Noon’s protagonist, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, in the above speech given to his old comrade and current prosecutor, Ivanov, conveys a verisimilitude seldom attainable in speculative fiction.
Orwell wrote that no Englishman could’ve written Darkness at Noon, as his countrymen only experienced Soviet duplicity and deceit peripherally as part of the communists’ alliance with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. H. G. Wells, for example, could acknowledge Soviet cruelty while simultaneously justifying it: “Much that the Red terror did was cruel and frightful. It was largely controlled by narrow-minded men, and many of its officials were inspired by social hatred and fear of counter-revolution,” adding, “Apart from individual atrocities it did on the whole kill for a reason and to an end.”
As today’s political systems totter once again toward statist cardiac arrest, albeit masked at first as more kind and gentle than the Soviet model—at least until government coercion increasingly becomes imperative to enforce its rule—we should heed Santayana and remember the history documented by a writer who was able to divorce himself from the Soviet lie. Arthur Koestler suffered from none of the delusions Wells formulated from afar. He had seen firsthand the horrors of the twentieth century and documented its cruelties and dehumanization from the insidious interior chambers of collectivism’s heart of darkness.