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The New International, October 1946


Neil Weiss

The Significance of Koestler

An Exchange of Opinion


From New International, Vol. 12 No. 8, October 1946, pp. 250–251.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.



In an article devoted to a discussion of Koestler’s books which appeared in the August 1945 issue of The New International, Peter Loumos expressed a point of view which, I believe, is worth further study and analysis.

The striking of easy attitudes and simplistic rejections appear, more often than not, in the “Marxist” reviews and it seems to me that the world (the proper world, the world of which the book speaks) is ignored for arguments created out of slogans, for what may be called, for lack of a better term, theological thumpings.

Let’s took a look at the Koestler review. We start off with a discussion of Darkness at Noon and we get an account of who Rubashov was – Old Bolshevik, Civil War hero, party leader at home and abroad, etc., and after we trace the story of his capitulation, which could have been the capitulation of any of those who were actually tried and shot, we find that:

“... 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 ... 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 facade. 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 old regime, is held out by Koestler and accepted by most readers as an inflexible old revolutionary.” (My italics – N.W.)

I must apologize for the long quotation; but the transformation of Rubashov effected by Loumos is really much more remarkable than anything we find in Koestler.

What is “insidious”? According to Loumos, Koestler’s Rubashov is passed off as an “inflexible revolutionary.” Really, that is too much. If Darkness at Noon sheds any light it is precisely on this question: the question of the flexible backbone of the capitulators, the waverings, the oscillations between firm stance and capitulation (as if a firm stance had a chance to survive in the steady brutal stream of totalitarian pressure) and, of course, more than that, it showed how the moral fiber of the Old Bolsheviks had been so corroded by adaptation to the Stalin regime that the trials struck it only a decisive final tap, all it needed to came tumbling down. If Rubashov does come through as a figure of “an inflexible old revolutionary,” then darkness is transformed into noon. And noon is simply the skating of happy idiots on the surface of the sunny sea.

But how does Loumos “get” this conclusion from Koestler’s book? Let’s see if we can find out (though his motivations and ratiocinations may be as obscure and difficult as those of the Old Bolsheviks.)

Basis of Rubashov’s Opposition

Is it because the opposition of Rubashov is only “tactical, not principled”? Leaving aside for a moment the question as to how this non-principled opponent of Stalin is disqualified from principledness almost by definition, as it were, we ask ourselves if by “tactical” Loumos is making the point that tactics are subordinate to strategy. In this case, being a Stalinist, Rubashov might oppose this or that tactic of the regime but go along on the basic Stalinist strategy of “socialism in one country” and all that implies; or that he is merely guilty of “mentally rebelling” against the regime, suffering pangs of conscience and a severe toothache every time he threw a comrade or a friend on the fire.

In either case, he apparently was not a principled opponent of the regime. Of course not. If he were, there would be no story; certainly not the story that was written in Darkness at Noon, which attempts to tell us, through the symbolic and collective figure of Rubashov, the disintegration and final crack-up of the Bolshevik “Old Guard,” who adapted themselves to the bureaucratic strangulation of their revolution and therefore, it seems, of themselves.

If Loumos is telling us that this is not the story of the principled opponents of the Stalin regime, the heroic and almost superhuman story of Leon Trotsky and his comrades who, with the weapons of analysis and the best traditions of the revolutionary movement, stood up straight in the midst of the terrific pressure and called the turn time and time again until their mouths were stopped, then he is saying something which, no doubt, is true and though not totally irrelevant, is a fact of the second order to be introduced on the side or at the end or wherever you want, except as a basic analysis and understanding of the book that was written. Some day when the other story is written, someone will arise and say that it does not deal with those who did capitulate and throw us in a similar state of confusion.

The Scope of the Book

Anyway, what we really should do is first understand how far the book’s frame of reference extends and then restrict most of our critical activity within that frame. That would be much more to the point, and then, if we all behaved well along those lines, we might be licensed to take a plunge outside that frame. If the book is an imaginative attempt to disinter the souls of the Old Bolsheviks and find out what went on therein, well that’s really what it is, that’s its sphere, its reference, its subject and that’s certainly subject enough. To demand what would amount to a “Trotskyist happy ending,” that is, to demand a portrayal of a principled opponent of the Stalin regime and then, failing to find one in the story of Rubashov, the capitulator, to shout that Koestler is a fakir (sleight of hand) and an “apologist” for the regime and Koestler’s Rubashov is “palmed off” for a real revolutionist because the real article is missing, is to be guilty of the same vulgar tendentiousness which distinguishes the literary chiefs of the Stalinist tribe.

I don’t mean that the story of such a principled opponent is unimportant or worthless, quite the contrary; but that the book Darkness at Noon deals, with the “story” of the capitulation of the Old Bolsheviks, the creation of the frame of mind and spirit which made such monstrous confessions possible, and how well that is accomplished or not accomplished is task enough for the insight of the reviewer.

So, still in the pursuit of the “inflexible old revolutionary” Loumos has created out of Koestler’s character, we can pause for a moment, catch our breath and then sing out: “No, he’s not in there.” The fact that he is merely a tactical and episodic opponent of the bureaucratic regime, constantly digesting his conscience, his mind, his traditions, his friends and then throwing them up all over again when his teeth start to ache ... no, that is hardly our inflexible old chap ... we shall have to seek him elsewhere.


It must be apt to study and praise elements that for fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent – Matthew Arnold.

For a purposeful discussion of The Yogi and the Commissar it might help us somewhat to take the advice of the Yogi and relax for a moment and pretend we are no longer being bombarded by the stimuli of the “external” world. In the state of such relaxation, breathing just as the Yogi tells us to do, we can still our immediate and reflexive responses, hold them in a state of suspense and permit exposure before the mental plates of another idea affixed to our idea, or perhaps our idea in combination with others.

In The Yogi and the Commissar, Koestler advances a central idea which must not be considered on the basis of its efficacy as a substitute for Marxism, in which case it is to be rejected out of hand, but, disregarding his extravagant claims, erect a particular frame of reference, which we can do ourselves, in order to consider it properly.

What is the idea? Well, here at random is a sample of it: “the Second and Third Internationals got into the blind alley because they fought capitalism on its own terms of reference, and were unable to ascend to that spiritual climate the longing for which we feel in our bones.” Absurd, isn’t it? Of course. But let’s try to approach the idea warily, from behind, as it were, and see if we can catch it and make it perform for us.

What does Koestler mean? Well, here’s more.

“Thus, while in the material sphere the cumulative effect of Left attempts was a slow and steady improvement of social conditions, its cumulative effect in the psychological sphere was a growing frustration and disillusionment. There was nothing to replace the lost absolute faith, the belief in a higher reality, in a fixed system of values. Progress is a shallow myth because its roots are not in the past but in the future. The Left became emotionally more and more rootless. The sap was drying up. At the time when British Labor and the German Social Democrats came to power, all vitality had already run out of them. The communications with the unconscious layers were cut; their ethos was based on purely rational concepts; the only reminder of the French revolutionary tradition was the caustic Voltairian tone of the polemics.

“At a Communist writers’ congress, after speeches about the brave new world in construction, Andre Malraux asked impatiently: ‘And what about the man who is run over by a tram car?’ He met blank stares and did not insist. But there is a voice inside us which does insist. We have been cut off from the belief in personal survival ... to be killed on a barricade or to die a martyr to science provide some compensation, but what about the man who is run over by the tram car? Gothic man had an answer to this question. The apparently accidental was part of a higher design ... you were looked after in higher quarters ... but the only answer which Malraux, after a painful silence, received was: “in a perfect socialist transport system there would be no accidents.”

Now, in order to consider the above ideas, it is not necessary to consider them from the point of view of adoption or rejection, that is programmatic adoption or rejection. It is not likely that Koestler offers us a new world of politics, but it is possible and even fruitful to consider his point of view as having a relevance and a meaning, for those who practice politics.

What Koestler has reference to is “an error which lies hidden in the materialist and rationalist psychology of the Left.” What that error is, no one has clearly stated. As a matter of fact, embarrassment has usually interceded before anyone could get it off his chest. It was often a protest against the point of view that individual man was of little consequence, slogans are formulated to move masses of men in the same way that the proper distance between fulcrum and lever is ascertained. The mechanizing, and brutalizing effects of the present order are naturally carried over into the orders and organization of those who wish, to destroy it.

For example, consider our failures. The capitulation of the Social Democracy had been prepared long in advance. Luxemburg saw it. When it came in final and dramatic form it was an act which climaxed the long period of adaptation to the bourgeois world.

The spiritual and physical history of Stalinism is well known and though it, because of its loud and powerful organization, represents “orthodox and de facto” Marxism, we have the Socialist Workers Party leaping alongside, a pitiful and intolerant Stalinist mime, combining the “truths” of Trotskyism with the organizational practices of the Renaissance genius in the Kremlin.

Of course, we have our materialist, historical and even dialectic materialist explanations of these phenomena. The Social Democracy was wedded fast to the capitalist expansion which collided with the ends of the earth in 1914 and precipitated the First World War. Stalinism is the product of the historical conjunction of a successful proletarian revolution in a backward country and unsuccessful proletarian revolutions in advanced countries. “Cannon-ism” ... well, that is a queer duck, essentially the product of the INFLUENCE of Stalinism (though most of us agree that there is sufficient political agreement between the WP and SWP for fusion of the two parties, we also believe that, left to its own peculiar devices, despite a political program that is similar to ours, they will never be able to discharge successfully the responsibilities of a revolutionary party).

It is becoming evident that a more or less correct political “orientation” and objective analysis, though indispensable, are not quite enough; and perhaps it is here that the “moral” criticism of a Koestler is useful.

The conversion of Stalinist functionaries into fire-snorting revolutionists and of revolutionists into functionaries is a wearisome process. We see it every time the Stalinists execute an about-face.

It isn’t correct to state that Koestler is a left-wing apologist for Stalinism. It isn’t correct to state that Koestler’s character “Rubashov” is palmed off as an inflexible old revolutionary. It certainly isn’t necessary to flourish the sword of materialism militant and shout with Loumos: “that the contemplation of the ‘inner man’ is but a short step removed from the contemplation of the navel.”

Such an attitude is all that is necessary for breeding a race of heel-clicking, hard-headed, hopped-up “Marxist” monsters who will anoint themselves sole custodians of the ideas of socialism and as they absent-mindedly descend the few steps into the nightmare of atomic destruction, along with the rest of the ordinary mortals; they will carefully preserve these ideas from mass infection by planting their feet firmly in the face of anyone who tries to get near them.

Neil Weiss

Irving Howe’s Response

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