From New International, Vol. VII No. 3, April 1941, pp. 61–63.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for ETOL.
Out of the Night, the book of an obscure former Comintern functionary, is a strange blending between a thrilling adventure story and the gruesome record of bureaucratic abuse and treachery.
Throughout the book one finds it hard to distinguish between facts and imagination. With all due respect to the Grand Old Man of German literature one could apply to it the title which Goethe chose for his autobiography: Truth and Poetry.
Jan Valtin was a seaman’s child. His boyhood he spent with his family, roaming from port to port, from country to country, from continent to continent. He became an expatriate before he ever had been given a fatherland, an outcast before society had even time to refuse him a place to settle down and grow respectable.
At the age of nineteen he joined the German Communist Party. With the sailors he shared the militancy and the buoyant thirst for action, but also the lust for adventure and port romance. He lacked the stability of the industrial worker and throughout his political life merely mingled with them. His education was scattered, his mind lacking discipline and training. He hurled himself into direct action and with his inherited passion for mystery joined from the outset not the regular Party but a motley crowd of seamen – underground workers, of romanticizing and blundering hobos of the revolution, who live a life distant from the settled course of the proletarian “land rats”, always ready to pick a boat and roam the world (as he does after the 1923 revolution), grossly inflating their importance, contemptuous of patient ideological work, and (like himself) ready victims of bureaucratic corruption.
In 1923, when he joins the organization, the party faces the most explosive revolutionary situation of Germany’s history. It prepares for the conquest of power (and we know its leaders shall miss it through the most amazing display of indecision). The party is creating its underground military machine. It prepares for illegality. It will soon have to go underground, a fact Valtin never mentions. Sailors are useful men in such a situation. Valtin is one of the many to throw in his two pennies worth of work.
What his exact function was, one cannot really tell. He cleverly mingles the rather prosaic errands he has to carry out with colorful tales of the life on the high seas and in the ports, with half-digested rumors and apparatus gossip picked up here and there, so that in the end one doesn’t know which of the deeds, true or invented, are his own and which are those of others.
After the 1923 revolution he carries messages and propaganda material into over-sea countries; again the quick pace of the adventure plot never allows the reader to get an inkling of the essential unimportance of his missions.
In 1925, on an errand in San Francisco, a G.P.U. agent allegedly charges him with the murdering of a foe of the Comintern’s secret organization. This mandate he ties up with a talk he had, two years before, with an underground worker in Germany who, with the obtuse and boastful toughness so characteristic of many would-be revolutionaries (soon they shall become an easy prey to Stalin’s macabre adulteration of the revolution), are ravished about the details of how to kill a man. For fully two years, he now thinks, they had schemed to send him to the United States to have him murder a man.
Strangely enough the story of the unsuccessful attempt which cost him three years behind the prison walls is devoid of the concreteness of background information which otherwise so sharply marks his tale of even the smallest errands.
After his release from prison he becomes a blindly devoted, unthinking, disciplined cog in the by now fully degenerated apparatus. He is dividing his work between the German party and the seamen’s organizations of the Comintern. The tragic cabal of bureaucratic life unfolds before his eyes. Stalin’s G.P.U. has definitively taken over the commanding posts. The Third Period is on. Adventures, bureaucratic stage-shows take the place of genuine mass influence, yet what the worker thinks and feels matters little in Valtin’s life. His doubts are quickly smothered by the opportunities of climbing up the ladder of the Stalinist hierarchy.
He goes with the apparatus through thick and thin. He is blind to the shocking realities of Soviet Russia; deaf to the warnings of his friend, the freelance revolutionary Bandura; blind and deaf to the gripping prophecy of his teacher Ewert who forecasts with bitterness the doom of the German revolution.
He is dumb, blind and deaf about these things, yet a talented pupil in the great scramble for bureaucratic favors gained through treachery and intrigue. He gives away his best friends. Through his co-operation Bandura, and later a few more, are spirited away to Russia, while Ewert is exiled to Brazil, where he still rots away in Vargas’ prison.
He is quick in learning the tricks and manners of show congresses. Elected one of the heads of the high-sounding but utterly impotent International of Seamen and Harbor Workers, he lures two wretched Hindu sailors into the “International Congress” with promises of introducing them to “sing-song missies”. And when they have served their function as involuntary delegates of India, “they were told”, as he puts it discreetly and impersonally, “Beat it bums, get back to your ships.”
What a stifling atmosphere of cynicism! What an emotional invalid must a man be to fall to such depths of abuse of ignorant colonial slaves! What those bureaucratic upstarts were capable of doing, surpasses the imagination of even the most seasoned foes of Stalinist degeneracy. Really, Trotsky was right in saying that Shakespeare could never have created more sinister plots.
Yet there are pages in which this man, cursed as he is with weakness of mind and character, shows his measure as a revolutionary. I don’t mean the pages on which he describes the tortures suffered in Hitler’s jail. Others have gone through and written about it, with greater objectivity, less egotism and more insight. There is Langhoff’s unforgettable book Mohrsoldaten which, at a time when the Valtins still called defeats victories and framed and hunted down revolutionists critical of the Comintern, showed the tragedy of Communist militants caught in the claws of the Gestapo, bewildered and still unbelieving that the Nazi ally had become the real hangman.
Though Valtin remains as unconcerned as ever with the political roots of the party debacle, he is for a while freed of the apparatus, and merging with rank and filers he aids in the building of a small underground apparatus in Hamburg in a pathetic attempt to keep up the fight. They set up a print shop and distribute leaflets. And here, for the first time, I felt, that the man was speaking in his own voice. At last he is handling a task, and truthfully describing a task, which does not go beyond his own limitations. He can now display his skill as a practical and resourceful organizer of small groups.
The same sensation is gained from the work he does for a short span of time in the secret party branch in prison. He is filled with militancy and feels sheltered by the presence of co-religionists.
But soon his spirits sink again, and a man emerges whose militancy is feeding on inertia and despair. Incapable of generalizations, having been pushed into a position beyond the range of his political knowledge and abilities, a helpless tool for all these years, he now seeks with animal instinct for an avenue of escape. His faith has faltered not because of political disillusionment, but because he has gained the suspicion that Wollweber, one of the head men of the German underground machine, has double-crossed him and his wife.
He is ordered by the party to play up to the Gestapo in order to be admitted as a trusted spy. From his own account it is clear that he seizes this opportunity of a promise of freedom not merely out of devotion to his party. His story, by the way, again appears highly over dramatized and contradictory. There have been quite a few other cases of people whose importance and possible use to the Gestapo was far beyond that of Valtin and who posed as Gestapo spies, acting on party orders. Yet they did not need to fight a long-drawn “dark duel” with the Gestapo which by that time could afford to take chances with people, charging these would-be agents at first with minor trial-missions. And certainly even they were not honored with a personal audience by Himmler ...
From the moment of his pleading for the favors of the Gestapo up to the break with the Comintern, Valtin’s actions are gropings through a confused conflict between old allegiance and the now indomitable desire of personal escape. He himself is startled at times how through his cunning with the Gestapo officers emerge the contours of a new man who desires but one thing, to get away from the old life and to seek contentment in the shadow of a retiring homelife. But the way to freedom, to regaining his wife, leads through the G.P.U. Like all the Agabekovs, the Bessedovskys, the Krivitzkis this little-man-what-next serves the old machine to the bitter end while secretly he dreams and schemes about flight. He pretends and maneuvers until the inevitable break is forced upon him. It is a break not of clashing political concepts, but a break accomplished in the dark night of personal antagonisms, unsavory intrigues, and mutual double-crossing. This breaking up of people’s intellectual and moral fiber, this blind and hectic scramble for a personal way out and-after-me-the-deluge-as-far-as-the-revolution-goes, is perhaps the most shocking sight of the grandeur and decadence of Stalin’s apparatus.
Gruesome and stunning as Valtin’s account of Stalinist crimes is, it makes good reading. Valtin, the tramp and sailor, is a born story-teller. His writing is tense and straight-forward. He has a good flair for details and a strong sense for dramatic situations. And since it is about himself he writes, he naturally has a tendency of dramatizing, glorifying and fictionalizing his case. This, together with a leaning to pedantic overwriting, so characteristic of the German self-taught, is at times quite irritating. The more so, since he lacks the kind of sensitivity and discrimination which not only make the genuine artist but also preserve one from the intellectual and moral blunders which he has been stumbling through to this very day.
His passion for story telling and maybe also a robust determination to be a success in the new profession make it difficult, as I said, to distinguish truth from fiction. Long before his book was published I knew his story from an acquaintance whose memory and good faith I have no reason to doubt. Valtin, when he was still an un-assuming refugee, ekeing out a miserable living and filled with the ambition to write adventure stories, gave a version of his break with the Stalinists which differs a great deal from his account in the book.
Having fallen under suspicion in Copenhagen, he was invited by Wollweber to board a Russian boat. He suspected it meant kidnapping, since usually party functionaries travelled to Russia with passports and visas. So he declined and asked instead to be allowed to fight in Spain. They sent him to France, where he got his papers, money, and instructions how to cross the border. He was set to leave, when a girl working in the office warned him that his name had been given to Mink, the famous G.P.U. hangman in Barcelona. So, he decided to miss the train and instead went to the United States. Thus, he had money to travel, time to manage his escape while his hangmen thought him to be en route for Spain, and was denounced as a Gestapo agent discovered in Paris, not in Copenhagen – all of which would make the story quite credible. But to sneak out of the Comintern, the way hundreds of other did and do, is too common a story. So in the book we wind up with a real detective thriller, with a jailer mysteriously taking all his belongings but handing back to him exactly six krone out of the sixteen he had, with a house on fire to cover his escape, with unsuspecting G.P.U. agents helping him all along his journey to France, etc., etc.
Of course, this is all hypothesis, and nothing can be proved since, for the time being at least, the silence imposed upon other participants makes Valtin, the author, his own and only witness.
But check the account about how he got into the German underground apparatus. You’ll find yourself asked to believe that a 19-year old boy, who had been scarcely three, four months in the most powerful European party of the Comintern, a party having at its disposal thousands of old and experienced revolutionary workers, that such a young and inexperienced boy in so great a party is, after only a few weeks, introduced into the very heart of the underground movement; receives missions directly from the resident G.P.U. agent in Hamburg; Hugo Marx delivers the messages through a maze of intermediaries to no one else but “General Wolf, who crushed the Kronstadt uprising”; is initiated into the machinations of man-smuggling and rum-running, of huge murder plots against General von Seeckt, Borsig, Stinnes and so on. Nineteen years old, four months in the party, and completely in the know!
I say, it is a matter of personal preference to believe or to disbelieve these stories. But one cannot resist the sneaking suspicion that the sailor’s love for a good yarn and a desperate will to be a success as a writer gets the better of the chronicler of facts.
Yet, even if the whole book were a piece of fiction it would not lose its sinister realism. Like the movie comedy Ninotchka it derives its vitality and realism from the disintegration of the nouveaux riches of the degraded revolution. Valtin is as credible and possible a character as Ninotchka’s pathetic Soviet men who wind up as restaurant owners rather than face again life under Stalin’s “socialism”.
But the real fraud, the boundless treachery of Valtin’s book, is the attempt, aided to success by the high-geared power of American publicity, to identify Stalinism with the socialist revolution, and the socialist Revolution, through Stalinism, with Nazi barbarism.
In 1923 Valtin fought courageously as a simple soldier in the streets of Hamburg. But of the driving forces of the German revolution, its history and the reasons for its debacle he knows as good as nothing and has obviously never cared to find out anything. As usually he judges by the microscopic standards of his personal experiences and picked up anecdotes. If there was a premature uprising staged by the party organization in Hamburg, there were, too, scattered all over Germany mighty spontaneous uprisings of workers abandoned by a timid and opportunistic party leadership, which missed a chance that never again returned in such scope and force.
But with Valtin, the revolution of 1923, as all the actions he has known, is but the result of a conspiracy staged by an obscure and criminal gang of plotters who do not care about the workers. His political and historical ignorance is aided by the fact that he never really lived with the rank and file and got his half baked political education during the Third Period when the Comintern tried to make good for lack of influence by light-minded bureaucratic adventures.
Thus, the narrow vision of the subaltern underground courier, his passion for good stories, combined with the recent apprenticeship in Saturday Evening Post stunt journalism, and an added sprinkling of Hearst red-baiting, make for a new interpretation of the events of revolutionary class struggle of our times: they all spring from the cunning mind of the Asiatic despot Stalin and are to serve the spreading of his personal power.
In Valtin’s tale of the 1923 revolution the climax is provided by an alleged conspiracy of the Russian General Skobeliev to launch the revolution through the assassination of von Seeckt, Borsig, Stinnes, etc. His story he backs up by the frame-up trials of the German counter-revolution and (how reminiscent of the Moscow trial technique) by quoting “none other than Zinoviev himself, the President of the Comintern who wrote in a manifesto, ‘von Seeckt is the German Koltchak, the greatest danger for the workers’”. In other words, even in 1923, when Lenin was still expected to recover from his illness, when his influence and that of revolutionary Marxism still towered high over the growing bureaucrats, the Comintern was, according to Valtin, nothing but a huge Murder, Inc.
And so it goes all the way through the book. Strikes in Hamburg, Antwerp, or Paris, mutinies in the Far East or in British men-of-war, there is always in back the hand of the G.P.U. gangsters who secretly staged the show. What a wonderful plot for Mr. Dies; if we were to believe Valtin, if we were to see in the class struggle the result of G.P.U. machinations, and not in these machinations the actions of people, grown tired of fighting for ideas and having instead taken to shortcuts of bureaucratic improvization in order to capture the fighting masses; if we were to believe Valtin, then all the hue and cry of the American reaction about the “Red Hand” in the Vultee strike, in the New York bus strike, etc., would be Gospel truth.
This huge frame-up of the revolutionary fight is what has made of Valtin’s book more than a Personal Record, more than just the tale, real or fictional, of an obscure party functionary, disappointed and shocked by what his individual experience or his imagination made him think to be the revolutionary way of life. Through a singular mobilization of American publicity it has reached, in book form and in excerpts, a reading public of several million people. It has become, in the words of the publishers, a “message to humanity”. It has been made into an official text-book on the “truth about the revolution”.
Trotsky’s autobiography, the most authentic and honest record of contemporary socialism, reached only a scanty few thousand readers. The historical novels on the revolutionary movement of so talented a writer as Victor Serge are taboo with American publishers. Why? Because they show what is so conspicuously absent in Valtin’s book, broad historical vision, the contest of ideas, the drama of erring people and struggling masses groping their way to freedom. They inspire and they enlighten. They deepen the revolutionary’s will to carry on. They represent a school of thought. Valtin represents a school of pitiful rationalization.
This precisely endears Valtin’s book to bourgeois public opinion. It comes out of a dark night of confusion and – it remains in it. It throws the uninformed reader into hopeless scepticism. In a subtle way Valtin hints throughout the book at his regrets ever to have scorned “bourgeois respectability”. To have held in contempt the bourgeois concept “of my land, my house, my country, my wife, ...,” to have seen in the revolution “not one way out [but] ... the only way out” – today this “whole past life [appears to him] as one gigantic and miserable mistake”.
And so the Babbits thank God for their daily drudgery and for Roosevelt. Discontented but disoriented youths shy away from revolutionary thought and action, fearing that, like Valtin, they may become the entire victims of a diabolic force they cannot control. And the radicals in retirement, chiming in with Valtin’s inflated sentimental recollections, cherish their privacy and their peaceful occupations. Valtin’s book reassures them that their retirement into philistine individualism makes everything right in world.
Whatever the motives for Valtin’s Dostoyevskyan confessions – be they the result of an honest need of clearing his burdened conscience or the outgrowth of a Darwinian drive for self-preservation and the right to “bourgeois respectability”; be they a curious sort of expression of the writer’s creative urge or a blending of all of it – Valtin, the long-time dupe of Stalinism, has again become the stooge of a powerful social force. His book has become an important weapon in the hysterical drive of the Dollar Democracy against the “Fifth Column”. The man who has trained himself in the framing and denouncing of honest revolutionaries sticks to his old job in a new disguise.
Last updated on 25 October 2014