Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, July 1947


Irving Howe

On the Significance of Koestler

A Reply


From New International, Vol. 13 No. 5, July 1947, pp. 158–159.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“A minimum of competence is required ...” – Albert Gates

Were there only at stake different estimates of Koestler, I would not reply to Comrade Gates; the polemic has wound through so many months few readers remain familiar with it. But Gates’ article is such a conspicuous example of what is objectionable in the way some Marxists discuss literature that it should not go unchallenged. I shall restrict myself to a few central points which indicate, I believe, a persistent if unwitting attack by Gates on the practice of literature.

1) Originally involved was an important matter of critical methodology. In my letter (October ’46, NI) I criticized the method by which Peter Loumos had reviewed Koestler’s Darkness at Noon in the NI. Loumos, I wrote, had “succumbed to the fallacy of condemning Koestler because the main character of Darkness at Noon, Rubashov, is portrayed as a vacillating bureaucrat who capitulates to Stalinism rather than as an intransigent oppositionist. Loumos condemned Koestler for not writing a novel which Koestler never intended to write.”

As support for this judgment, I quote from Loumos’ review: “Rubashov speaks with sympathy for the masses. Rubashov was an ‘Old Bolshevik,’ a ‘hero’ in the Civil War. In short, this party wheelhorse ... is trotted out by Koestler and accepted by most readers as an inflexible old revolutionary.” After which, it wasn’t difficult for Loumos to denounce Koestler for portraying Old Bolsheviks in the light of Rubashov.

There is the context of the dispute. I insist that anyone rereading Darkness at Noon will find in it no suggestions that Rubashov was the only kind of oppositionist; the very fact that Rubashov debates within himself whether or not to confess and cites to himself those who didn’t, indicates that Koestler recognized that Rubashov did not represent, as Loumos charged, “the whole revolutionary movement.”

Rubashov represented the type of bureaucrat who played along with Stalin for a time but who ultimately was repelled by the mushrooming totalitarianism: One may guess that Rubashov was roughly modelled on Bukharin. Loumos, who with Gates seems unable to distinguish a novel from a political analysis, condemned Koestler for choosing to portray this kind of oppositionist, the capitulator, rather than the intransigent type. But while one could legitimately criticize a political analysis which omitted consideration of the non-capitulators, the same criterion needn’t apply to a novel.

The novelist does have the right to delimit his material, to say “I will write only about this kind of oppositionist, not the other.” The task of the critic is not – as do Loumos and Gates – to denounce him for the choice of his material, but to judge how profound a heightening of sensibility is evoked by his novel. When Gates objects that this method results in limiting the critic “to discuss only what the author’s background, training (etc., etc.) ... permitted him to create" he simply shows his inability to distinguish literary criticism from political analysis. For the purpose of a novel is not to disseminate information; the limitations which its author sets for himself must be accepted; and one can criticize only in terms of what he creates within those limitations.

A novel cannot be judged as a political program even when it contains political material: the purpose of criticism is not to polemize with an author's political ideas but to evaluate his book as a work of art. Otherwise you must fall into the trap of judging “political novels” in terms of their proximity or distance from your political ideas, in which case, having abstracted the politics, you are no longer talking about the novel but about the politics which exist outside of or anterior to the novel. Why then drag in the novel at all?

Novelist’s Right to Create

But Loumos and Gates object: Rubashov used “Marxist” arguments to justify his capitulation and that is how Koestler implied that Marxism leads to capitulation to Stalinism. Actually we don’t know why the Moscow Trial victims capitulated, but it seems likely that some rationalized their action on “Marxist” grounds. That is the assumption on which Rubashov was created. But even if the assumption were unlikely as historical data, Koestler as a novelist had every right to create a novel, that is a work of the imagination (a province most suspect to Gates) in which a character so behaves.

To write as did Loumos, with Gates’ approval, that Koestler is “palming off an apparatus man as a revolutionary” is nonsense because (a) in actual fact, there were apparatus men who had been revolutionaries and who still considered themselves such; (b) Koestler nowhere implied that Rubashov was the only kind of oppositionist nor did he indicate acceptance of Rubashov’s reasons for confessing; and (c) even if no historical counterpart for Rubashov existed, Koestler had every right to create him. But even in the narrowest terms of verisimilitude, Rubashov needs no justification.

The criticism of Gates and Loumos is thus similar to that of certain Stalinists who attacked James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan for not containing a “positive” wholesome character in addition to the decayed Studs. It is an infallible method: you attack a man for not saying something he didn't intend to say.

2) I do not here wish to present my views on Koestler. Suffice it to assert that Gates’ ponderous analysis of my one page letter does it less than justice. For instance:

I wrote that Koestler is “painfully relevant”; Gates replies by saying he deals with commonly-known subjects and that relevance doesn’t make a great writer. Yes, yes, but I tried to show how that relevance to (naturally) common-place subjects is used by Koestler in a way that makes him read while others who deal with the same subjects are not read. Gates is so eager to demolish my “unorthodoxy” that he thinks I offer a value judgment of Koestler as novelist by saying he is relevant.

I wrote that Koestler indulges in “some very shoddy thinking” and that “he is not a scientific political analyst.” Gates thereby concludes that “he (Howe) believes that Koestler has made a great contribution to politics”. This sort of twisting just leaves one speechless; did I not have so low an opinion of Gates as literary critic I would accuse him of malice. As it is ...

I wrote that the modern problem as touched (not analyzed or explained but touched) by Koestler is “partly the fact that the world is no longer as simple as it was 25 years ago ...” Gates counters by exploding the bombshell that “the world was not simple 25 years ago!” Of course! And certainly! But would Gates deny that the situation today facing the revolutionary movement and all of humanity, is infinitely more difficult, complex and tortured (I am searching for acceptable ways of saying “no longer as simple as ...”) than it was 25 years ago? Can’t he see the difference between “simple” used as a modifying adjective and “simple” surrounded by “as” to make it a comparative?

In these and similar instances, Gates’ method is to rebut a point, not by disproving it, but by citing something else which may be true and in his opinion more important, but which is irrelevant. Can one take that sort of thing seriously?

Bourgeois Critics

3) Contrary to Gates’ fears, I don’t object to revolutionary politicians discussing literature. I raise only one minimum demand: that they know something about it, have a genuine love for creative art and not merely make a raid into literature to condemn an author’s politics.. For the Marxist method is no substitute for intelligence or knowledge. In short, I want competent amateurs. I submit that in the field of literature Gates doesn’t make the grade. As witness:

Let me repeat: my purpose in this point is not to poke fun but to question the competence of our critic who lectures on the Marxist approach to literature.

4) Gates’ article shows no real concern for literature; he is not as crude as the 3rd period Stalinists, he doesn’t judge a novel by party interest. But he judges it by political content. For him literature is thus a largely indifferent vehicle through which ideas are expressed. True they are coated with various brands of chocolate: “style, technique, form.” But the medicine is still there: “the more important matter of content, meaning.” Nor is Gates fooled by the chocolate; he has been trained to want his medicine.

To attempt in a paragraph to offer a theory of literary criticism would be as foolhardy as Gates’ more prolonged exercise. But I wish to suggest a few preliminaries. A work of art cannot be viewed as a container in which one finds what one already knows in politics; it cannot be measured by political criteria. Literature is above all the expression of one human faculty: the imagination. A novel is a created structure of the imagination; it contains ideological elements but it is not essentially a means for the propagation of political or any other ideas. Of course it is created in a social milieu, but the relationship between milieu and a valuable work of art is usually remote and indirect. Marxism can help explain that relationship, but since it is a theory of historical analysis and social action rather than literary criticism, it contributes little to an evaluation of a work of art. Such an evaluation must be made in terms of the norms and purposes of art. Marxism cannot tell us which is a great work of art or why. It isn’t a universal Weltanschaung offering the skeleton key to all experience.

The approach of Gates and those who think like him leads to viewing a novel in terms of self-recognition: do I find in it the political ideas I already have? The result of this unfortunate approach is Gates’ suspicion toward imagination, his absurd strictures about “bourgeois critics,” his conception of literature as idea-medicine coated with style-chocolate – all of which lead to the reluctant conclusion that being a socialist revolutionary does not necessarily prevent one from being a cultural philistine.

Irving Howe

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 2.4.2013