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The New International, October 1946


Irving Howe

The Significance of Koestler

An Exchange of Opinion


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 8, October 1946, pp. 251–252.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Dear Editor:

In his letter, Neil Weiss remarks on the manner in which Arthur Koestler’s books’ have been reviewed in The New International.

Weiss is essentially correct when he charges that Marxist reviewers are prone often to “strike easy attitudes” and indulge in “theological tub thumping.” For, as sometimes happens, a review which merely indicates that the author is not a revolutionary – a fact which any moderately intelligent person already knows – is of little value. He is further correct when he accuses Peter Loumos, who reviewed Koestler’s books in the NI for August 1945, of succumbing 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.

But I cannot agree with Weiss when he quotes with approval from Yogi and the Commissar where Koestler attributes the failures of the Second and Third Internationals to their inability “to ascend to that spiritual climate the longing for which we feel in our bones.” And further from Koestler that “the Left became emotionally more and more rootless ... The communications with the unconscious layers were cut; their ethos was based on purely rational concepts ...” Weiss sees in this a “protest against the point of view that the individual man was of little consequence ...”

Now with the nature of Weiss’ protest per se I have considerable sympathy, but I submit that it is irrelevant to the context of Koestler’s essays. These pieces occupy an ambiguous position: they are neither topical novels, such as Darkness at Noon, nor directly political essays; they are a kind of politics-in-metaphor. This method is highly dangerous, especially in the hands of as skilful a journalist as Koestler: the glitter of his metaphors often veils some very shoddy thinking. Politics is concerned with ideas and programs; even when it deals with such seemingly “irrational” matters as mass psychology, it attempts to control them by means of rational understanding. This is not to say that politics should not be viewed in its encasements of passion and emotion; any idea which can attract men to act and sacrifice for it will accrue emotional charges. But politics has a rational basis nonetheless; it is part of a meaningful struggle; and the goal of a political analyst should be to puncture the rhetorical, ideological and emotional skins in order to reach the heart of the meaning of political struggle.

What then is the value of Koestler’s comments on the failure of the Second and Third Internationals? Next to none, I think. Had he first engaged in a scientific analysis of their failures; such as Marxists have offered, and then cited his psychological characterizations, that might have been illuminating. Of course the Social Democracy, having abandoned the end of socialism, had to resort to means that were dried up, rootless, uninspiring. But what is of first importance is the causal sequence: Koestler abandons the attempt to analyze politics with methodological rigor in favor of a brilliant but inadequate literary impressionism. Weiss should not follow him along that path.

The Problem Posed by Koestler

Yet Koestler remains with us. We feel that he has not yet been completely disposed of, that a “definitive” reply to him has not yet been written. We answer his generally incorrect impressions with our generally correct formulas, but we still are not thoroughly satisfied.

Why is Koestler so exciting to read even when we disagree with his every word? Why can he raise us to a pitch of tenseness such as no other contemporary can, except perhaps Silone? Because he is skillful? Yes, but there must be something more. It is because he is so painfully relevant to this world. Totally without any system of ideas – which is one reason why he is such an irresponsible and undisciplined thinker – he is unparalleled in his ability, which amounts almost to an uncanny instinct, to touch the heart of the modern problem. More so than any other contemporary novelist, he writes with the crushing consciousness of being part of the generation of the left which has suffered the victory of fascism, the defeats of the proletariat and above all the triumph of Stalinism. He cannot adequately state this “modern problem” as a coherent political proposition; he certainly cannot suggest an adequate solution; but he can touch it with all the devices a skillful novelist-journalist has at his command.

And what is this modern problem, at least in its political dress? It is partly the fact that the world is no longer as simple as it was 25 years ago, despite all those in the revolutionary movement whose minds still function as if it were 1920. The perplexing phenomenon of Stalinism – a mass movement which utilizes the devices, slogans, traditions, methods and human aspirations of the revolutionary movement in a counter-revolutionary totalitarian cause – has resulted in a complex of political, semi-political and personal problems which has resulted in the revival of philosophical anarchism, the rise of religious and mystical philosophies, the “new failure of nerve” etc.

It is this “modern problem” which Koestler so remarkably succeeds in touching; it is this which gives him his unequalled relevance. Take for instance his title essay, The Yogi and the Commissar. If the two alternative types are considered literally, they are absurd. Is the choice in this world really that between Gerald Heard, the Yogi, and Vyshinsky, the Commissar? But suppose you think of his Yogi-Commissar dichotomy as a “dramatic representation” of a major problem of our time: how to reconcile the inevitable trends towards economic centralization with our desire to preserve individual rights and private liberties within that centrifugal movement. Or take his novel, Arrival and Departure. It is an extremely irresponsible manipulation of Freudian concepts: the absurd idea that proving the motive forces of a revolutionist’s alienation from society to be a childhood trauma, is some kind of relevant comment on the significance of his political behaviour. But if we do not indulge in the gross error of judging a novel merely by political standards and instead recognize that Koestler has here come up against the important problem of the conflict of the revolutionist with his “original” environment (family, authority, emotional ties, etc.); then must we not admit that Koestler – for all his superficiality and inaccuracy – has at least done us the service of directing our attention to a significant problem? That he cannot “solve” this problem is of only secondary interest.

Koestler dwells in an ambiguous twilight zone: he is neither a novelist of dimension and density (all of his books are mere dialectical exercises in idea-moods); and he is not a scientific political analyst. His great value however is that he gravitates almost irresistibly towards the relevant problems of our time. We should not grant him any degree of irresponsibility when he writes about political ideas: when he tries to explain the reasons for the degeneration of the Third International. I, unlike Weiss, have no patience with his impressionist metaphors which he substitutes for rigorous historical and logical analysis. But, together with Weiss, I recognize that there is more than one universe of discourse in human existence: politics is not the totality of life. And the impressionism which I find intolerable in political analysis, does have value in the novel or informal essay; it does, on a different plane of communication, provoke insights and touch sensitive areas of existence, which can be of subsequent help to political analysis.

This may seem cryptic to some people especially to those who find nothing more unfamiliar than familiar ideas expressed in unfamiliar language. For I think that all I have done here is to indicate what should be familiar distinctions between various modes of human expression.

Irving Howe

Neil Weiss’s Letter

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