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The New International, July 1947


Albert Gates

On the Significance of Koestler

The Conclusion of a Polemic


From New International, Vol. 13 No. 5, July 1947, pp. 155–158.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An astonishing discussion has appeared in The New International on the novelist, Arthur Koestler. It began in August 1945 with the publication of Peter Loumos’ review of four books by Koestler. Loumos subjected the author and his works to a critical political evaluation. In October 1946 The New International published letters by Neil Weiss and Irving Howe in reply to Loumos. Whatever importance this discussion has arises out of Koestler’s prominence as a “literary” figure of our times. In the strictest sense of the word, Koestler is not a novelist but a writer of fictionalized current events, or journalistic novels. He has achieved a considerable notoriety precisely because his subjects are topical. His most powerful book, Darkness at Noon, fictionalized the Moscow Trials and developed the character of Rubashov to describe the system of terror in Russia and the art of obtaining confessions by the GPU. The book gave Koestler a reputation out of all proportion to his intrinsic worth and caused people to overlook his progressive deterioration as revealed in Scum of the Earth, Arrival and Departure, The Yogi and the Commissar, and now, Thieves in the Night, dedicated to Jabotinsky, who was a fascistic Jewish leader.

As the first fictionalized work on the Moscow Trials, Darkness at Noon was a graphic account; the verisimilitude of Koestler’s portrayal, that certain knowledge that comes from having been an experienced Stalinist who knew the methods of the police regime, in some respects overshadowed the political implications of the book. For it marked the first hesitant step by Koestler to identify Stalinism with Bolshevism and the Moscow Trials with an inevitable fate of revolution. It was followed by his complete abandonment of socialism.

Half-digested Marxist ideas, misconceptions of socialism, and a revulsion toward his own past have driven Koestler to irresponsible public “problem-posing.” His fictionalized illustrations of common affairs is combined with eclecticism and an espousal of pessimism, nihilism and reactionary ideas. Now he has completed a full circuit: the revisionist Zionist became a Stalinist; the Stalinist became a vague socialist and anti-Stalinist; the vague socialist and anti-Stalinist became a critical democrat who found his only escape from “inner-conflict” by joining the camp of the Western imperialists; and, the imperialist democrat, appalled by British policy in Palestine, became again the revisionist Zionist.

Koestler’s Turn to Psycho-Analysis

Having lost his socialist perspectives, Koestler turned to a crude psycho-analysis as the answer to his inner needs. In expressing his own subjective travail he was at the same time expressing the doubts, vacillations and blindness of many tired radicals and more particularly, of many young people who were disoriented, principally by the triumph of Stalinism and their inability to solve adolescent problems of maturing and finding their place in the real movement of social struggle. Koestler’s pessimism has had a considerable influence even on people in the revolutionary socialist movement.

It is this which compelled Loumos to write his essay on Koestler. The essay is not in the first place a “literary review,” or “literary criticism”; it is a political evaluation of the sterile, reactionary and destructive political writing of an avowedly political novelist.

Weiss’ letter is clear to the extent that the confusions of Koestler are his own and have become a political program for him. That is why he resents what he calls Loumos’ “heel-clicking,” and “theological tub-thumping.” That is why he is afraid that Loumos’ type of criticism, and more important, his attitude toward Koestler will breed “a race of ... hopped-up ‘Marxist’ monsters who will anoint themselves sole custodians of the ideas of socialism ...”

Party and Literature

An honest attempt at a Marxist evaluation of a political-literary work, often provokes this kind of “defense of literature,” which is really in no need of it. It is the literary man striking his own “easy attitude” and sanctifying literary works. In this case, Weiss was offended, not so much by anything outrageous that Loumos wrote, but obviously by the fact that Koestlerism, synonymous with his own political confusion, was subjected to a vigorous condemnation. That is why it was rather unfortunate that Comrade Howe felt compelled to come to Weiss’ assistance. Listen to Howe:

“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.” (Emphasis mine – A.G.)

Involved in this dispute, in part at least, is the question of literary criticism, the relationship of the revolutionary socialist party to it and the limits of this relationship. It is necessary to reconsider this question and to be done with it in order to come to grips with the specific dispute under discussion. When Weiss speaks of “heel-clickers” and “tub thumping,” and Howe echoes his fears and warns against them, they do Loumos an injustice, implying that this is what he did in his review. They express, in part also, a reaction to the Stalinist attempt to embrace literature in its totalitarian vise, to compel writers to conform to a “party line” and to make them create works along the lines of theses and resolutions.

Although Stalinist criticism has nothing in common with Marxism, Weiss and Howe, confusing and sometimes identifying the two, are apparently afraid of the rebirth of Auerbach, once head of International Literature, and his literary Gestapo. The amalgam of Marxist criticism and Stalinism is unjustified, as recent experience alone has shown. Howe’s comments on Marxist reviewing are extremely exaggerated, as is evidenced in this present dispute.

When Howe says that Weiss is “essentially correct” he reveals that in reacting to the Stalinist school of literature, he is guilty of an equally objectionable error: a tendency to separate literature totally from politics. Moreover, he displays an unwarranted impatience with what has been called the “intervention” of a revolutionary party in a field which should presumably be left to “specialists.” Aside from the fact that some literary specialists make a mess of literary criticism the revolutionary organization does take an interest in literary affairs, and must in those instances where literary predictions are frankly political.

There was something hysterical in the attack on Loumos. Why? Loumos did not question Koestler’s freedom to write his books or anything else that lay in his head to write; he did not propose that Koestler should be barred from writing. He did not propose that Koestler should be censored by some exalted board, or that he should write anything he is incapable of writing. (Ex. He did not say that the character Rubashov should have been a Trotskyist.) All that Loumos did was to describe the significance of Koestler’s works, concluding that he was anti-Marxist, anti-socialist, and a deadly influence upon young and inexperienced people. And he summarized his view of Koestler excellently in parabolic fashion:

“There was once a little fish that leaped from the polluted Stalinist stream while 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 political stream that it thought all the streams were polluted; so it tossed back and forth on the bank until it died. The smell of death is unmistakeable.”

Is Loumos correct or not? That can easily be answered. Weiss’ answer, at least, is clear enough from his article. But what about Howe? His own contribution reveals confusion because he answers both yes and no.

Howe’s criticism implies that what literature really suffers from, and in this case, Koestler, is a superabundance of party criticism. Yet, Howe must know that exactly the opposite is true. If anything, Koestler has been permitted to ply his trade with little or no accounting by the Marxists. The fact is that Koestler has not been burdened with criticism from the left. The defense made for him against “heel-clickers” and “theological tub-thumpers,” is therefore gratuitous. Most important of all, the comments of Weiss and Howe are not primarily literary judgments, but political ones.

The Most Pressing Problem

The way in which they pose questions reveals what is wrong with their point of view. The problem of the day, for example, is not to curb those who “anoint themselves sole custodians of the ideas of socialism.” Nor is it to defend literature and the freedom of writers from the brutal and overwhelming power of the Marxists. On the contrary, the most pressing cultural problem of the moment is to defend artists from the growth, power and degenerative influences of bourgeois and Stalinist totalitarianism. The unfortunate fact is that the “custodians of socialism” are few in number. The unfortunate fact is that there are too many Koestlers. The unfortunate fact is that Stalinism, the antithesis of Marxism, socialism and socialist methodology is, for the time being, triumphant. The unfortunate fact is that there are too many defenders of Koestler’s reactionary ideas and his “frame of reference,” and too few defenders of Marxism and the ideas of revolutionary socialism. To be worried about “theological tub thumping” at a time when the great task of revolutionary socialists is to resurrect Marxist thought is to show a woeful misunderstanding of our times and our needs.

Now, good, bad or indifferent, Loumos made a political evaluation of Koestler, his role and influence. Was he within his right to do so? This is in part the dispute which Howe has himself raised. As to the specific question of Rubashov, the “hero” of the book, Howe wrote:

“He (Weiss) is further correct when he accuses Peter Loumos, ... 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.”

What Loumos did in his review was to show the transformed “old revolutionary” as a Stalinist bureaucrat, still represented by Koestler as the “old revolutionary,” and that it had its counterpart in Koestler’s “substitution of Stalinist folderol for Marxist tenets,” and that, “Mr. Koestler’s contentions on these two points (morality and the nature of the Stalinist regime) bear as little similarity to Marxism as Rubashov bears to a revolutionary.” The whole point in Loumos’ review is that the acceptance of, adaptation to, or capitulation to, Stalinism makes one cease to be a revolutionary.

Howe engages in a polemic on something Loumos did not say, but makes no comment on the main point of the review. Was Loumos within his rights to examine all the political implications of Koestler’s writings? This is really the question. What Loumos did was legitimate criticism of avowedly political works. Think of what would happen to literary criticism if Howe’s “standards” were adopted by Marxian critics! Taking his little dogma seriously it would have been impermissible for Howe to write his letter. For, if it is wrong to criticize an author for what he had “never intended to write” the critic would be bound to discuss only what the author’s background, training, education, limitations, prejudices, ignorance and predilections permitted him to create. If criticism is to be delimited by an author’s intentions and confined only to his sphere of observation and the material which he knows, then criticism cannot be thorough and all-sided.

It is easy to see that Howe’s “standard” is absurd. It is a foolish yardstick because no serious critic can truly adhere to it. It is faulty too, because it has no point of departure. The task of the literary critic was once described by James T. Farrell as becoming “the agent that makes for the understanding and evaluation of literature,” and striving “to make the meanings of books clear, to draw out these essential meanings and refer and assimilate them in a wider social area.” By Howe’s standard of literary criticism Trotsky, for example, would have been unable to write his penetratingly brilliant essay on Celine when he foretold his reactionary, fascistic evolution not only by what Celine wrote, but even more by what he did not write, or “intend to” write.

The Limits of Marxism

The science of Marxism is a universal one: it is the science of the social revolution. With the weapon of historical materialism, Marxism has been able to analyze capitalism, and to provide answers to the main economic, political and social problems of our times. Marxism does not and never pretended to answer all the problems of mankind. It does not, for example, pretend to solve all personal problems, but insofar as it points the way to the solution of the social problem of society, it contributes to the solution of personal problems. In the field of literature, Marxism can have no dogma. But in providing us with the method of historical Materialism, Marxism can help a person to become a better literary critic. Its revolutionary universality can break through the encrusted education and faulty vision produced by the limited horizon of bourgeois thought and culture. This is especially true when bourgeois criticism, given the present decay of capitalism, is a reservoir of reactionary ideology and politics.

What bourgeois literary criticism lacks is precisely the quality and combination of the social vision, understanding and perception of Marxism. This is not to say that bourgeois critics cannot be penetrating and significant. As a rule, however, they are entirely empirical, or without method or aims. To put it more bluntly, the Marxists have unparalleled political understanding in a world in which all fields, including the literary, are saturated with politics. Marxism has proven itself superior to all alternative theories of politics and can be of tremendous aid to an aspiring literary critic.

The problem of the relation of literature to the revolutionary party is not a new one. It has been clouded by the disorienting influence of Stalinism. But here, we are dealing not with a Marxist aberration, but with anti-Marxist, totalitarian doctrine misrepresenting itself as Marxism. Anyone who understands this, should not, however, confuse it with Marxism.

It does not follow from Marxist criticism that every type of writer and everything written must be poured into a mold, or that every artistic product can be “class-angled.” That is obviously foolish. But, then, no real Marxist demands this. Literature, like all art, is a social product, and, as Trotsky once wrote, “a social service.” One of its aims is to explain the nature of experience in its infinite manifestations as honestly and fully as it can. The task of the critic is to understand and explain. Style, technique, form, inner-structure, craftsmanship, narrative and whatever else one may wish to add, are not the sole areas of literary criticism. Criticism does not and cannot end at this point. The mere “love of words” provides only a personal emotional experience. This is not to say that these aspects of the arts are unimportant. No, nor are they incompatible with what I have said above. A lack of them to one degree or another, a total incompetence in expression, produces poor creative works. A minimum of competence is required; the greater the competence, the better the work. But after all this is said, there is still the more important matter of content, meaning, significance and influence.

Aside from its many schools, the literary world, is composed of an almost infinite variety of writers: mystery writers, historical, topical, psychological and political novelists. The Marxist does not necessarily have to examine each of them minutely. So far as the matter of taste is concerned, it is essentially subjective: but, this too, is conditioned by environment, training and ideology. The Marxist does not seek to restrict taste or to advise the individual on what he should or should not like. He endeavors to understand what the writer is trying to say. He wants to assess his importance, to evaluate his writing, not only literarily but socially, and when the work warrants it, politically. Howe’s conception of literary criticism is, in addition to what I have already said, crude. He has difficulty in this case because Koestler does not think of himself first as a novelist. He wants to be regarded as a “social theorist” who has proposals for the solution of life’s main problems.

Howe’s Eclecticism

Howe’s views on literature are eclectic, as revealed in his attitude toward such reviews as Loumos’ and the efforts a revolutionary party makes in evaluating the political writer. A genuine attempt to stand and evaluate a writer is rejected as “party-attitude,” “interference with literature,” an “attack on literature,” and this literature is torn from its social environment. To assert the social nature of literature is to invite the comment; “You can’t class-angle literature, you can’t use a political yardstick in literary criticism.” It is a wearisome thing to deny that this is what Marxism prescribes in the field of literary criticism. It does not call for “political” analysis and criticism, except where books are frankly political. In the specific case of Koestler, the fact that he uses the medium of the novel for the purpose of expressing political ideas and formulating a political program does not entitle him to escape the responsibilities and consequences of his device. Howe argues that the case of Koestler is different from that of a political writer because the former has expressed his thoughts in novels and, where under other circumstances we would not give an author any license for irresponsibility and confusion, the fact that Koestler is a “novelist” places him in plane apart from the political writers. (At the same time Howe does not want to grant him “any degree of irresponsibility” in his literary works either. In other words, he has two points of view on this.) This is what is objectionable in Howe’s point of view and is revealed in his comments on Koestler’s contributions as a literary man.

In the first part of his letter, Howe writes: “the glitter of his metaphors often veils some very shoddy thinking ... What then is the value of Koestler’s comments on the failure of the Second and Third Internationals? Next to none, I think ... Koestler abandons the attempt to analyze politics with methodological rigor in favor of a brilliant but inadequate literary impressionism.” You are led to believe that Howe is beginning to get somewhere. But, no. Howe gets lost in the conviction that novel-writing places a man apart as the following successive quotes indicate.

“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 formulae, but we still are not thoroughly satisfied.”

Howe takes in a wide territory with the word “we.” Neither the Workers Party, the editorial board of The New International, nor the overwhelming majority of revolutionary Marxists believe this. To answer “generally incorrect impressions” with “generally correct formulae” is not the worst thing that can happen. It has in its small way contributed to the descending curve of Koestler’s influence. We are concerned here primarily with a question of judgment which the reader will be able to determine for himself. For example according to Howe, Koestler is “painfully relevant to this world.” In what way is Koestler “painfully relevant to this world?” Because he is concerned with what has now become rather commonplace in political and social thought? Only because he has taken them up in the form of the novel. The problems he writes about are the problems which wrack the world revolutionary and labor movement. There is hardly a class conscious person, let alone an articulate one, who is not, and has not been for ten to twenty years, aware of the “problems.” But to Howe, it is Koestler who “is unparalleled (!) in his ability, which amounts almost to an uncanny instinct (!) to touch the heart of the modern problem.”

Yet, it would be “unparalleled” only if an old and trained functionary of the Stalinist school, like Koestler, who gained political experience and awareness, did not “touch” upon the “modern problem.” But that which is impressive about Koestler, however, is that, having graduated from that school and broken with it, he writes so shallowly about the “relevant” problems of the day and causes Howe himself to write:

“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.”

World Is Less Simple

What is the heart of the modern problem which the incoherent and inadequate Koestler states? Howe replies, “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 implication here is plain. We have left the plane of literary criticism (indeed, we have hardly been on it) for a political one. What Howe means is that the trouble with the Marxist movement is its belief that the world is as simple as it was 25 years ago and that too many of its minds “still function as if it were 1920.” The Marxist movement has been narrowed down considerably and it should not be difficult to be concrete at this point, but the very vagueness of Howe’s reference indicates that he means the Marxist movement in general, encompassing its various wings. The movement is thereby excoriated because it has not answered or solved the “painfully relevant,” but unspecified problems of the day.

To say that the world is no longer as simple as it was 25 years ago, is saying exactly nothing. The whole Marxist movement grapples with a wealth of new problems precisely because it recognizes that the world is “not as simple as it was 25 years ago.” One need only stop to think about this proposition for a moment to understand how true it is. Is there a single political problem which Koestler has raised which was not long before him considered by the Marxist movement? The question really answers itself.

The world was not simple 25 years ago! The slightest acquaintance with history will reveal that to anyone. And it is only because the proletariat did not solve the problems of those years that the socialist movement is in its present crisis. It is more important, however, to understand that the problems of today are the extension of the unsolved problems of 25 years ago, in more agonized and aggravated form, because of the defeats of the proletariat and the rise to world power of Stalinism. What Howe fails to see is the continuity of the basic social problem and the continuity of its solution. For an understanding of the problem, for a solution of it, one cannot, by Howe’s admission, go to Koestler because “he cannot adequately state” it, nor provide an “adequate solution.” Since he merely “touched the problem which so many have before him, no special homage need be paid him. What is important is that Koestler’s influence is reactionary and anti-socialist. And it is this which should invite Howe’s scorn rather than the admiration which he expresses because he believes that Koestler has made a great contribution to politics. It should be obvious to the reader by now that Howe’s comments have little or nothing to do with literary criticism, but are essentially political. His exercise about the theory and practice of literary criticism, aside from its basic errors, is entirely beside the point.

There are many other aspects of Howe’s criticism which space does not permit me to deal with. They are “the perplexing phenomenon of Stalinism,” the “complex political, semi-political and personal problems which have resulted in the revival of philosophical anarchism, the rise of religious and mystical philosophies, the ‘new failure of nerve,’ etc.” In all of these matters, Howe expresses a strange and false point of view. No one proposes to “indulge in the gross error of judging a novel merely by political standards.” That should be clear by all that has been written. But again, a frankly political book has to be judged politically. There is no point in Howe’s stricture because he himself proceeded to discuss precisely the political-social-personal questions presumably raised by Koestler.

Koestler as Politician

That Howe is not on solid ground is revealed when he says that Koestler “dwells in an ambiguous twilight zone,” that he is not a “novelist of dimension and density,” and that he is not a “scientific political analyst.” But then he is merely saying what so many of us said long ago. Why, then, his perturbation and excitement and swift rush to join Weiss against Loumos at the same time that he says we should not accord Koestler “any degree of irresponsibility”? Because Howe is not certain of the ground he stands on, because he is expressing his contradictory position by artificially separating acknowledged political literature from politics itself. His views on literature are subjectivist. He writes, for example: “Together with Weiss I recognize that there is more than one universe of discourse in human existence; politics is not the totality of life.” The whole point is, however, that Koestler’s “universe of discourse” is politics and Howe’s statement becomes gratuitous.

Howe wants “to reconcile ... economic centralization with our desire to preserve individual rights and private liberties,” the “major problem of our time.” This is a major problem of our time. But so is the struggle of mankind for peace and security. If Howe will think out the problem further, he will find that every “major” problem of our time is a political problem. Therefore the modern problem is effective political action; the modern problem is to assist the masses to become politically class-conscious in order to hasten the abolition of capitalism. Thus, even the meanest problems of life are subsumed by politics.

This is the political age of mankind and to say as Howe does that “politics is not the totality of life,” is to close one’s eyes to what is important and what is not. No Marxist has ever said that all there is to life is politics. But politics is decisive. All the other aspects of life – culture, leisure, the development of the individual, emotional conflicts, etc. – are dependent upon and determined by the social organization of society and the struggle to emancipate mankind from class society and exploitation. Until social emancipation is achieved, politics will dominate life. There is no use protesting this fact. And as long as this is true, the task of the revolutionist toward irresponsible, nihilistic thinkers and writers like Koestler is to submit them to critical examination and to say clearly and unambiguously: this man is a muddle-head who contributes nothing but confusion to the important problems of modern times. Howe’s comments are in truth an evasion of the problem that is “painfully relevant to this world.”

Albert Gates

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