From New International, Vol. XI, No. 5, August 1945, pp. 155–159.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Although two of his latest four books are non-fiction, Mr. Koestler is essentially a novelist. In the field of fiction he is a rare and unusual writer; rare in that he can treat of purely political subjects, unusual in that the finished product is literature and not a clumsy propaganda tract. He has the ability to develop characters, probe their thoughts and create moods and impressions with such a fineness of style that the political theme blends with the story as unobtrusively as a backdrop blends with the action on a stage.
His artistry and skill as an engrossing story teller have captured a public of many more than the relatively few who have an intrinsic interest in the subject matter alone. The readers, drawn by the writer, cannot remain immune to the message; and it is with the message that we are primarily concerned. This inquiry into the content is made especially timely by the appearance of Koestler’s latest book, in which, deserting the field of fiction, he develops his political faith in a series of essays. This volume, however, is but the culmination of a development that began some years ago. In tracing this development we can best appraise the present work.
Darkness at Noon, the earliest and best of the four books, is a story of the Moscow Trials of 1937. The story unfolds through the arrest, imprisonment, questioning and execution of N. Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People.
Rubashov, like many of the Old Bolsheviks, was both an intellectual and a man of deeds. A hero in the Civil War, a leader in the party, he served faithfully in high positions both in Russia and abroad. As the revolution degenerated, the leadership exchanged its revolutionary perspective for the perspective of extending its control and its privileges over the masses of Russia. Rubashov became conscious of that change. He was aware of the oppression and exploitation of the workers, the growth of the bureaucracy, the use of terror, prisons, torture and murder in the interest – not of the revolution but – of the regime. Seeing all this, he remained a part of the apparatus. He participated in its betrayals of the workers. He joined in the denunciation of “deviationists.” When his mistress was executed, he made a public protestation of allegiance to No. 1. Why he did these things, not believing in them, he cannot explain: perhaps he was old and tired, perhaps the time was not ripe, perhaps he was saving himself.
Rubashov’s deviations were therefore in the mental sphere: moral revulsion at the tactics employed, and side remarks about No. 1 and the regime. It was these that led to his arrest. The hearings and the self-examinations that led to his confession are excellently handled. The development of the confession is believable and realistic. This is a tribute to Koestler’s ability: for Rubashov confesses to crimes which he not only did not commit, but which he had not even contemplated. The essence of totalitarianism is slowly and imponderably bared. So vulnerable is such a regime that it can brook an oppositional thought no more than it can an oppositional deed – for the thought is the potential of the deed. Thus, the inquisitors confront Rubashov with the sly remarks he made and the indiscretions he committed, and accuse him of the most extreme deeds that could possibly follow. A derogatory statement about No. 1, for example, is blown up into a full-fledged plot to assassinate No. 1.
Simultaneously, but not with equal clarity, Rubashov’s stature is delineated. He was never a principled opponent of the regime. Mentally rebelling against the methods employed against the workers, and the foreign sections of the party, he questioned the course of the bureaucracy. But during his imprisonment the doubt as to the ends of the party are dissipated, replaced by the feeling that perhaps the party is still following a revolutionary course, and that the terrors and brutalities are necessitated by the “immaturity of the masses.” Once this conclusion is accepted the rest “follows.” If Stalin is still a revolutionary leader, the means “necessary and proper” to maintaining his control must be accepted. Rubashov still retains his moral opposition to the “tactics” used, but in a striking passage says: “There ... is a ... choice which is no less consistent, and which in our country has been developed into a system: the denial and suppression of one’s own conviction when there is no prospect of materializing it. As the only moral criterion which we recognize is that of social utility, the public disavowal of one’s conviction in order to remain in the party’s ranks is obviously more honorable than the quixotism of carrying on a hopeless struggle.” Rubashov makes his final sacrifice: self-recrimination and confession at a public trial.
The curtain falls on Rubashov and the story is told; but this is a story that is more insidious in what it implies than in what it tells. It tells of Rubashov’s capitulation to Stalin. The logic of the capitulation (as stated above) depends essentially on a Rubashov type. He had to be an individual whose deviations were not organized, whose opposition was tactical and not principled, and who felt there was still Bolshevik vitality in the regime. To this character, Koestler grafts an imposing façade. Rubashov says: “The old guard is dead. We are the last.” We are told that the first chairman of the International had also been executed as a “traitor.” Rubashov speaks with sympathy for the masses. Rubashov was an “Old Bolshevik,” a “Hero” in the Civil War. In short, this party wheelhorse, part and parcel of the regime, is held out by Koestler and accepted by most readers as an inflexible old revolutionary. In Rubashov’s capitulation is implied the capitulation of the whole revolutionary movement. Only by a literary sleight of hand, moulding the protagonist from Stalinist day and then clothing him in revolutionary garments, could Koestler effect his implication: To be a revolutionary is to be a Stalinist.
That true revolutionaries, principled oppositionists, do not capitulate is proved by the thousands in, Russia who died without capitulation, and by the others, less in number but in the thousands still, who were tracked down by the GPU in Europe and in America too and murdered in cold blood. This palming off an apparatus man as a revolutionary has its counterpart in the substitution of Stalinist folderol for Marxist tenets. The argumentation that leads Rubashov back into the party centers around two questions: morality and, the nature of the Stalinist regime Koestler’s contentions on these two points bear as little similarity to Marxism as Rubashov bears to a revolutionary. Rubashov claims for the revolutionary movement a Machiavellian morality of “the end justifies the means.” The rationalization centers in the argument that these horrible means that are so repulsive to Rubashov (and which he really opposes) are necessary to the proper party end, and so must be “accepted.” Socialists, backsliders and renegades from V. Serge through Max Eastman to the late and unlamented Burnham have tried to create the fable that the Marxists are an unprincipled and amoral lot who have to stomach some terrible things because they believe the “end justified the means.” If these people, including Koestler, had spent less time in writing and more time trying to comprehend the tenets of Marxism, they would know that the principles of the Prince and the principles of Marxism have no more in common than does Churchill’s definition of freedom for Greece with the aspirations of the ELAS. End and means disputations are meaningless, because the end and the means are not two unrelated things. The dialectic interconnection between the end and the means demands that the two be considered together and yet that each one be justified, in itself. And never are repugnant or contradictory means justified because of some anticipated end. What, then, is our basis of judgment? Marxist morality, like Marxist action, draws its rules from the class struggle. That which raises the level of consciousness and advances the interest of the proletariat is good, be it means or end; that which retards the consciousness and depresses the oppressed is indefensible. It is on this – and not on an abstract ethical basis – that Marxists condemn (and not condone, as Koestler implies) the regime and its methods, that have for their object the continued enslavement of the people. Koestler, incidentally, shows himself a better revolutionary in action than he does in contemplative thought. In Darkness at Noon he is greatly concerned with abstract ethical standards. In Scum of the Earth he recounts the lies, deceptions, briberies (and other “tactics” which he does not detail) that enabled, him to escape the Gestapo. Strangely enough, the morality of these actions does not seem to worry him. This saved him from the peculiar predicament of Giuseppe Modigliani, an Italian refugee in France at the time of the defeat of France, who – according to a recent book by Varian Fry – practiced the morality that Koestler preaches: “He wanted to leave France, but absolutely refused to do anything illegal.”
Equally revealing is Koestler’s discussion of the Stalinist phenomenon. Stalinism – with all the evils it connotes – is brought about by the “inability of the masses to comprehend” the new economic system. Since they cannot understand it, you can’t expect them to govern themselves; ergo, somebody has to “lead” them. Koestler continues: “Measured by classical liberal standards, this is not a pleasant spectacle.” But a “Marxist” must stomach it because: “the horror, hypocrisy and degeneration which leap to the eye are merely the visible and inevitable expression of the law described above.” That such confusionist twaddle should pass as Marxism is appalling. One can easily take this section and, substituting India for the locale, and British Imperialism for Stalinism, find that he has mouthed shameless apologies that justify the rape of India by the British and the oppression of any people by terrorists. Nothing, absolutely nothing is more repugnant to the Marxist concept than the idea of patronizing the masses of rejecting their action in favor of that of a leader who “knows better,” of instilling in them a fear and servile obeisance to a regime that “promises” better things to come.
The Stalinist phenomenon has a material base. Its basis lies in the low productivity of Russia at the time of the revolution, the failure of the supporting revolutions in advanced countries, and the subsequent imperialist encirclement. The state power which could not be maintained by the people, since they could not carry out the socialist program on which their power depended, slipped to the bureaucracy, which substituted force to maintain its authority against the people. Marxists view the Stalinist regime as an oppressive regime that must be overthrown. To expect, as Koestler does, the people to develop under this oppression, and the oppressors to resign their authority is to labor and bring forth an unnamed offspring of idealism mated with Stalinism. Such a labor is Koestler’s right. To name the offspring “Marxism,” however, is a fraud on the readers.
Many in the past have defended the Stalinist regime. Some, staunch Stalinists, defend it by outright lies: it is a democracy over there (look at the Constitution), there are no terrors or concentration camps (just foreign propaganda), etc. Others, like Koestler, are more disarming. They admit the evils which are common knowledge, but claim they are “necessitated” by the “immaturity of the masses” and if the truth be known they are part and parcel of “revolution.” This is the implication in Darkness at Noon. Jan Valtin revealed the rot and corruption of the Party and washed his hands of it in hopes of earning a few honest bourgeois pennies. Koestler fills a tub of filth and more which is Stalinism and has his hero wallow in it because it represents the “Party of the Revolution.” To Koestler’s credit, he left the Stalinist movement. To his discredit and permanent impairment, he remained in it too long!
Scum of the Earth is not a novel. It is the true and bitter story of the lot of those thousands of refugees who found themselves in France at the outbreak of the war. Driven first from one country and then another, there arrived in France in 1939 the persecuted of the continent. Refugees of race and belief, they were the marked men of the Gestapo and the GPU. These people were (with the exception of the Communists – for this was the era of the Hitler-Stalin pact) anti-fascists.
Scum of the Earth is the story of their persecution by the democratic government of France. Rounded up by the Police, herded into stations, interned in concentration camps that rivaled. Hitler’s for inhumanity, they were finally delivered into the hands of the Gestapo. The few, like Koestler, who managed to escape were exceptions.
The book is real. It is the book of an artist who has had no time to formulate a plot or polish his style. The politics are sketchy. Koestler feels that the anti-worker and pro-fascist feelings which permeated the Government made it incapable of conducting an effective struggle against fascism and made it prefer capitulation to social unrest. There are indications though, of Koestler’s political course. Whereas he had up until 1939; maintained an expectation that some good would come from Stalinist Russia in spite of its “tactics” he now looses this faith completely. The Hitler-Stalin pact was the last blow. He writes that when he heard the news: “I began hitting my temples with my fists ... I tried to explain what it meant to the better optimistic half of humanity, which was called the Left because it believed in social evolution and which, however opposed to the methods employed by Stalin and his disciples still consciously or unconsciously believed that Russia was the only promising experiment in this wretched century.” Thus the metaphysician who tried to split the means from the end, damning the means and trusting the end, was caught in the net of his own making. He washed his hands of Stalin.
For some this would be merely a step that would open up new vistas. Here was a chance to become acquainted with the real Left, the left that knew the impossibility of “socialism in one country,” that combated the “two-class” block in 1927, that opposed the theory of “social-fascism” in 1930, that fought for social revolution and not “bourgeois capitalism” in 1936, and which for some years has recognized that Russia is not only not a “promising experiment” but a reactionary force in the world. Unfortunately this path was not open to Koestler. Like the “poor white” who dined so exclusively on gruel that he thought mush and dinner were synonyms, Koestler drank so deeply of Stalinism that he thought it was synonymous with Marxism. Repelled by Stalinism he turned against Marxism and the Left. In his confusion he felt that the Allies were fighting fascism. He joined the English Army asking only that they let him fight Hitler and that they permit him to live in a little world all of his own in which he can make believe that England is fighting for Democracy.
It is from this pattern that the next volume is fashioned. Arrival and Departure is a novel. Its protagonist is Peter Slavek, a youthful intellectual and ex-Party member. Having suffered torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Gestapo, he flees his native land and jumps ship in a neutral port. His first step in the neutral country is to try to enlist in the British army – the “standard bearer” of the fight against fascism. However, there are delays at the Consulate and, while he waits for his permit, he has glimpses of the “better life.” In contrast to the deprivations and unrest which were his lot in the past, he finds – through the kind intercession of an old friend – the comforts of regular meals, clean linen, sympathetic companionship and Love. (Not those Jacobin sluts he had heretofore had, but good cleancut bourgeois love.) Growing restless at the British delay, and under pressure from his new-found friends, he applies for a visa to America.
The crisis is engineered with all the subtlety and finality of the wicked landlord slapping the mortgage on the living room table and leering at the comely maid. The British permit comes through and, at the same moment, Peter’s Love suddenly departs for America, leaving a simple note which makes it clear that Peter must decide for himself whether to “return to the struggle” or flee to “normalcy” and to her. Now Rubashov too was faced with a crisis: to die in silence or capitulate? That crisis was so effectively developed it took a second reading to see the turning point, and was resolved by theory and argumentation. Koestler is no longer interested in the hollow arguments that lead back to the Stalinist fold; but he can find no new ones to urge our hero into the lion’s mouth; and so he turns to Peter’s conscience, and finds a powerful and unexplained urge to martyr himself. Peter is pushed into the Allied camp on the strength of Faith and inner conscience!
Before Peter gives in (remarkable how Koestler’s heroes always capitulate) we are entertained with the struggle between the rational desire to flee, and the blind categoric urge that drives Peter back. The conflict is too much; it expends itself in a physical disability; and Peter loses the use of his right leg. It is the role of Sonia, the psychoanalyst, to show that nothing ails the leg, and to remove the purely psychic disability. To do this she must discover the motivation for the conscious. Why does it demand Peter return to the struggle? Enter Freud, and we discover that radicalism (shades of Molotov who thought that fascism was a matter of taste) is a matter of infantile guilt. A guilt neurosis and Peter was a radical; a different neurosis and Peter would have been a fascist. It is, in fact, a fascist who quotes the theme: “We know that a person’s character is formed, by the heredity and environment, before he reaches the age of ten; modern psychology even tells us before he is five. But the age at which we learn about miner’s sons and social theories is say fifteen – at the earliest. Hence it is not the theory which shapes the rebel’s character, but his character which makes him susceptible to the rebellious theories.”
It certainly is not our intent to minimize the significance of the Freudian conceptions, nor to deny that character tendencies are formulated at an early age. But to see in this the explanation of all subsequent action is to be guilty of the greatest crime against logic; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Because character formations are earlier than social formations they are the cause of social formations. To carry this to its illogical conclusion, since three precedes four three is the cause of four.
Character is the combination of qualities and traits that will largely determine how an individual will do certain things; social formation is a matter of what he will do. The two are not in separate airtight compartments; but as separate concepts flowing from separate sources they cannot be identified nor can one be said to cause the other. If our psychology has taught us anything, it is that tendencies can be channelled. Character is decisive as to the manner in which an individual will function within the camp he chooses; but the camp in which he exercises his traits will depend primarily on subsequent causation. It is the social causation that Koestler completely ignores in the volume. In short Peter’s childhood may well have given him a party complex; but that he was a martyr for the workers and not for the fascists was due to social causation – hunger, unemployment, decaying society, war, which Koestler disregards.
That an ex-Stalinist intellectual would throw his lot in with the Allies is – as explained above – quite natural: Unable to go left, he must go to the right. Little need now be said about the Allies “fighting fascism.” Our only hope is that poor Peter died in the glories of the Imperialist War and did not live for the sad disillusionment of the Imperialist Peace.
Compared to Darkness at Noon, this is an inferior novel: clay pigeons replace the characters; shadow the reality, and pipe dreams the content. Peter is a figment, as compared to Rubashov. Sonia – though she tends to dominate the book – cannot achieve half the reality of the unseen Czarist in cell 402 whom the reader knows only through the cryptic messages tapped on the wall. The impelling reality of the imprisonment in Darkness at Noon is approached in only a single-section of this book, the story of the Mixed Transports. In Darkness at Noon Koestler probed with a scalpel and, like a finished surgeon, cut away the materialist and class roots, of Marxism, sewed up the body, and called it Revolution –though we recognized it as a reasonable facsimile of Stalin. Working now like a butcher, he hacks away exploitation and depression, crisis and unemployment, war and damnation and presents you with the key to the social problem – personal neuroses plus faith!
Koestler’s poverty at this point is unmistakable. Repelled by the left he turned to the right. He cannot long remain there for he is too familiar with the ugly visage of reaction. Unlike the society in which he lives he need not either go forward or retrogress: he – as an individual – can try to escape. That is his sole logical course. That is the course on which he embarks in the Yogi and the Commissar.
The Yogi and the Commissar is a series of essays in which Koestler tries to clarify his position. He identifies himself as an intangible sort of “leftist” “whom the Stalinists call Trotskyites, the Trotskyites call Imperialists, and the Imperialists call Bloody Reds.” The finest writing in the world couldn’t clarify such a position, because it is not a position. It is an allegation flowing from eclecticism with no discernible base. His basic contention in this volume is that we must regain certain “human” values which have been lost. However, before he embarks on this quest for the lost values, he settles two old scores: one with Russia and one with Marxism.
His essay on the Soviet Myth and Reality is excellent. Well documented, clear, forceful, it exposes the conditions in Russia since the degeneration of the Revolution. He concludes that Russia is neither “workers state” nor a state “tending towards socialism,” but a “state-capitalistic totalitarian autocracy” distinguished from the other great powers – as far as the working class is concerned – by its implacable opposition to any real left. His conclusions, true in a very general sense, cannot stand under a more minute examination. He gives no basis for his conclusion that the economy is “State-Capitalistic.” Though he recognizes Russia’s opposition to a genuine left, he misses the real reason for the opposition and he underestimates her menace to the workers. These faults, however, are minor as compared to the errors he commits when he tries to “explain.” His explanations are confused and contradictory: for he tortures his explanation of the failure of the Russian Revolution to attempt to prove his second point; the failure of Marxism.
Koestler’s faults when dealing with Marxism could be adequately answered only in a volume slightly larger than his own. Every passage is an error. His grasp of Marxism is poor, he constantly confuses Stalinist practice for Marxist theory, and in his anxiety to prove his case against Marxism he lets his rhetoric run away with his reason.
In Scum of the Earth, because the Stalinists were using the “dialectic” to justify their alliance with Hitler, Koestler renounced the “dialectic.” In Arrival and Departure, casting his lot with the Allied Camp, he dropped the class basis of his struggle. There remains the material conception of history, and it is with that that he deals in The Yogi and the Commissar.
For Koestler the materialist conception lacks a certain “spiritual” quality, a “humanness,” a concern with deeper “ethical values” that makes it inadequate as a method either for the study of the past or for a guide to the future. To prove his point he traces the failure of the revolutionary movements before 1917 and claims that their frustration was due to their neglect of the “craving for Faith, something absolute and unquestioning to believe in.” Conversely he traces the failure of the European Left after 1917 to the absolute and unquestioning belief in the Soviet Myth, to the “unconditional surrender of the critical faculties” of the disciples of Russia. Now to explain the failure of the earlier movements to a lack of “faith” and the failure of the later movements to the presence of faith is to explain nothing. Which is just what Mr. Koestler does! As far as the materialist conception goes, it has no place for blind faith. It goes without saying that a mass movement must have an idea – or ideal – for which it strives. Socialism, from the days of the early Utopians, has supplied such an ideal. From this ideal Marxism did not detract. It merely supplied that analysis of society which would enable the realization of the idea. In that analysis there is no place for unquestioning belief or the surrender of critical faculties primarily because, as Koestler notes in one of his contradictory statements, it drains the life blood of a movement.
The failure of the socialist incentives in Russia is brought forth as another argument to prove the inadequacy of the materialist conception. Koestler points out that the new incentives failed under Stalin and were replaced by old ones. He concludes (rhetoric replacing reason): “The Russian Revolution failed in its aim to create a new type of human society in a new moral climate. The ultimate reason for its failure was the arid 19th century materialism of its doctrine. It had to fall back on the old opiates because it did not recognize man’s need for spiritual nourishment.” (Italics mine.) In an earlier section, however, in explaining the failure of the revolution in Russia he says: “The Russian experiment neither proves nor disproves the possibility of socialism: it was an experiment carried out under the most unsuitable laboratory conditions and hence inconclusive.” If the failure of the revolution “proves” nothing and is “inconclusive,” logic demands that the failure of a single element of that revolution – the socialist incentives – likewise proves nothing. But Koestler bypasses logic and consistency in his anxiety to prove the “spiritual” inadequacy of Marxism.
In his title essay The Yogi and the Commissar (I & II) Koestler deals with the materialist conception as though it was a purely mechanical idea (“Change from Without”) condemning man to fatalism. That the doctrine does not ignore the human factor and is not mechanical is implied in its effort to organize human action. The question of “free will” vs. “no free will” beaten to death in Koestler’s final essay, has been considered time and again by Marxists who try to straighten out the confusionists. There are certain material limitations beyond which an individual cannot go. Further, there are material conditions which tend to impel mankind in a certain direction if he is to resolve his problems. Men try (and have tried) to rise above the limitations of their epoch. Failure and frustration is their lot. Men try (and have tried) to go counter to the tendency of their times. Destruction and barbarism is their reward. If a man wishes to be really free he must analyze the basic forces at work, determine their direction, and add his subjective effort to that end. “Freedom,” said Engels, “is the recognition of necessity.” That this statement could not come from a mechanist or teleologist is obvious to everybody but Mr. Koestler.
The incompetent workman will always blame his tools. Having failed Marxism, Koestler feels that Marxism has failed him. Having been a part of, and supporting, an organization That has propounded false policies since 1926, Koestler views the havoc wrought on the working class through these false policies and blames – not these perversions of Marxism – but Marxism itself. In singing his swan song, he makes a clean sweep. He parts company with “Stalinists,” “Trotskyites,” “dissident communist sects,” “Marxists,” etc., since they are all tarred with the same brush. Then he is free, free as a will-of-the-wisp to soar untrammelled into the highest flights of fancy. And in his final essay, he really flits about. He is still – mind you – “for the left”; but a left that will regain its lost birthright by re-establishing the spiritual side of man. Each individual must seek that lost part of himself that gives him certain absolute ethical and moral values. Once this is done then we can begin changing the world. Thus, you see, Mr. Koestler is not a complete “retreatist” or complete spiritualist – he just wants to postpone any left activity until the left grows up to its responsibility through study and contemplation. For anyone who wishes to substitute “symmetry” for the dialectic, “harmony” for the class struggle, and “Love” for the materialist conception the last essay should make very interesting reading. Actually it is the opening door to mystical personal retreatism. Koestler has already entered; he will not emerge: for the contemplation of the “inner man” is but a short step removed from the contemplation of the navel.
There was once a little fish that leaped from the polluted Stalinist stream while it still had vitality. Watching it flop back and forth on the bank, other little fish hoped it would return to a clear stream and, swimming upstream, gain its full vigor. But the little fish had been so long in the filth and the mire of the polluted stream that it thought all streams were polluted; so it tossed back and forth on the bank until it died. The smell of death is unmistakable.
Last updated on 16 November 2016