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The New International, July 1941


Eugene Victor

In Search of Light


From New International, Vol. VII No. 6 (Whole No. 55), July 1941, pp. 158–9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Darkness at Noon
by Arthur Koestler.

THE AUTHOR OF Darkness at Noon mishandles a dramatic theme; he assumes that the confessions at the world-famous Moscow trials can be understood merely in the light of some revelations about the methods of “persuasion” used by Stalin’s secret police. That is why Arthur Koestler’s novel is weak, if interesting.

The story, a very simple one, revolves about three characters: Rubashev, the old Bolshevik, who confesses to crimes he could never have committed; Ivanov, an examiner of the “old school,” who is himself liquidated for the incorrect handling of the star prisoner and Gletkin, Neanderthal man of the Stalin regime, humorless, stolid, and skilled in the use of GPU torture methods.

Rubashev is arrested shortly after his return to the Soviet Union from a diplomatic mission. Having several times previously recanted and denounced the Russian Left Opposition, he is in serious danger. Convinced by Ivanov’s gentle methods that he has nothing to gain by holding out and “dying in silence,” he decides once more to denounce the opposition. Ivanov, however, is removed for his “soft approach” and Gletkin takes over. Representative of the “hard school,” Gletkin soon induces him to confess attempts against Stalin’s life and collusion with foreign powers.

From the time that Rubashev is arrested until he is tortured and broken by Gletkin he goes through a rationalization of his confession which is an exposition of the problem of ends and means as only one who accepts the Stalin regime can view it.

Morality and Truth

History has taught Rubashev that lies very often serve her more adequately than the truth; because man is sluggish and has to be “led through the desert for forty years” prior to every stage in his development. And he must be whipped and coaxed through the desert by creating terrors and imaginary consolations.

The extent to which a people may retain their freedom “depends upon the degree of their political maturity.” The maturity of the masses can be determined by their ability to recognize where their interests lie. This, in turn, assumes a certain understanding of historical processes. The ability of the masses to govern themselves therefore is in proportion to the degree to which they understand how society is constructed and how it functions. Until they understand it they cannot be permitted the luxury of a democratic form of government.

What in the long run will be revealed as having been true is today considered false. He who will eventually be justified is today condemned as wrong and of harm to society. So Rubashev reasons.

It is only in the future that men will discover whether one of them was right or wrong. In the meantime one who chooses to advance ideas and act on them must act on credit and hope that coming events will find him solvent.

Still there must be some basis upon which the present can decide what will be judged true or false in the future. The followers of Stalin have recourse to faith, to an “axiomatic” conviction in the absolute infallibility of their leader.

Not a small part of this is due to the fact that Stalin, among them all, seems to possess the most solid foundation of conviction. As Rubashev contemplates his own, he discovers that it has been eaten away by repeated defeat and capitulation in recent years. Actually he has lost faith in the correctness of his convictions and he feels that he is doomed. His credit has run out.

If this were a period in which the masses had reached the required stage of maturity it would be correct for the opposition to appeal to them. But to appeal to the better judgment of the masses during a time of political immaturity is to act like a demagogue. The opposition is therefore faced with two possibilities: to take over the reigns of government without an appeal to the masses, or to permit themselves to be destroyed without raising their voices.

Stalinism as Intellectual Gangsterism

A third choice, seemingly no less consistent, presents itself to Rubashev. To facilitate this choice has become in the Soviet Union a great national occupation. The third alternative is to repudiate and suppress one’s own ideas when no opportunity is present to realize them. Since what Rubashev calls “social utility” is the only criterion he recognizes, one must come before the masses and renounce one’s beliefs without any squeamishness as to honor or any romanticism about fighting the bureaucracy to bitter defeat and destruction. If one cannot win the party to one’s ideas, then it becomes necessary to be subservient to other ideas.

A Bolshevik can not tolerate prejudices against self-debasement or entertain personal considerations such as tiredness, repugnance or the fear of disgrace. That is Rubashev’s conclusion.

Having thus brought himself to the state of mind in which self-abasement and a confession to lies seems permissable and even honorable, Rubashev is induced by Gletkin’s methods of torture to confess to crimes which he knows to have been historically impossible. After having made this confession at a public trial he is shot.

The mental processes through which Rubashev is led have two sources: the first is his lack of conviction in the validity of his own ideas; the second a failure to recognize that the rules of morality by which he guides himself are not those of the revolutionary movement led by Lenin, but of the perversions of that morality to suit the purposes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, perversions which by this time Rubashev has unconsciously substituted for the revolutionary concepts he once held.

To act on “faith” or on “credit,” to suppress one’s ideas, to revise history in favor of victorious disputants and to publicly renounce one’s criticism of a bureaucratically degenerated leadership were not the actions of those who believed in the Marxian method of historical justification. The real oppositionists in Russia did not advocate capitulation to the GPU. Many of them died shouting the slogans of the Opposition.

To lead the masses through history by creating “whipping boys” and oppositionist “devils” by means of public trial and private torture, to conceive of mass education as a system of rewards and punishments for acts contrary to the personal ideas of the silent ikon in the Kremlin (designated by Rubashev as No. 1), this was never the practice of the Revolution before the advent of the Neanderthal men of Stalinism.

To assert this Koestler would have to practice the historical perversion which is the subject of his ironical attacks.

Leninism Means the Revolutionary Spirit

Differences of opinion in the pre-Neanderthal era were respected and independent thinkers admired for their brilliancy and analytical ability, even when they were in the minority, as party members. Lenin himself never feared to place himself in the minority when he felt his point of view justified it. To have a minority in disagreement with the party majority was considered a natural component of every important dispute and to deny that minority public expression on issues of tremendous importance was an action taken only under the most exceptional circumstances.

Certainly the party regime of Lenin and Trotsky never substituted for loyalty to the party, an axiomatic faith in No. 1, or justification in the eyes of “The Leader,” for historical justification.

It would be unfair to Koestler to deny that there are suggestions in Darkness at Noon that the twilight of the Stalinist period is a radical retreat from the revolutionary Russia before the Gletkin.

In making these suggestions Koestler half admits the inadequacy of his psychological explanation for the process which destroys the integrity of the old Bolsheviks.

There are many characters and scenes in the novel which serve merely as background and incidental color to the story and which, by slight alterations, could serve to elaborate the more objective factors in Rubashev’s destruction, namely the growth and victory of the bureaucracy: Rip Van Winkle, who comes to the Soviet Union after twenty years in the prison of a foreign power and is condemned to a Russian jail for his “nonsensical ideas about the revolution”; the peasant from province “D” who is jailed as a “reactionary” for opposing the inoculation of his children against epidemics; the royalist in solitary confinement whose difficulty is to reconcile himself to spending the next nine hundred nights without a woman. These could be used to far greater advantage than they are as symbols of the victorious counter-revolution.

Without these elaborations Darkness at Noon leaves the implication that the rule of the Neanderthal man is the consequence of Bolshevik concepts of the party and the state and it did not require elaborate stretches of the imagination for the reviewers of Koestler’s book to draw these conclusions.

If Koestler avoids being reduced to social patriotism by the premises he attributes indirectly to Bolshevism, it can only be because he possesses, unlike his reviewers and interpreters, a greater measure of intellectual honesty.

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