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George Orwell > Arthur Koestler > Essay

Arthur Koestler


One striking fact about English literature during the present century is
the extent to which it has been dominated by foreigners--for example,
Conrad, Henry James, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Pound and Eliot. Still, if you
chose to make this a matter of national prestige and examine our
achievement in the various branches of literature, you would find that
England made a fairly good showing until you came to what may be roughly
described as political writing, or pamphleteering. I mean by this the
special class of literature that has arisen out of the European
political struggle since the rise of Fascism. Under this heading novels,
autobiographies, books of "reportage", sociological treatises and plain
pamphlets can all be lumped together, all of them having a common origin
and to a great extent the same emotional atmosphere.

Some out of the outstanding figures in this school of writers are
Silone, Malraux, Salvemini, Borkenau, Victor Serge and Koestler himself.
Some of these are imaginative writers, some not, but they are all alike
in that they are trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL
history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in
the newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans.
It may be an exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say
that whenever a book dealing with totalitarianism appears in this
country, and still seems worth reading six months after publication, it
is a book translated from some foreign language. English writers, over
the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political
literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value,
and very little of historical value either. The Left Book Club, for
instance, has been running ever since 1936. How many of its chosen
volumes can you even remember the names of? Nazi Germany, Soviet
Russia, Spain, Abyssinia, Austria, Czechoslovakia--all that these and
kindred subjects have produced, in England, are slick books of
reportage, dishonest pamphlets in which propaganda is swallowed whole
and then spewed up again, half digested, and a very few reliable guide
books and text-books. There has been nothing resembling, for instance,
FONTAMARA or DARKNESS AT NOON, because there is almost no English writer
to whom it has happened to see totalitarianism from the inside. In
Europe, during the past decade and more, things have been happening to
middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working
class. Most of the European writers I mentioned above, and scores of
others like them, have been obliged to break the law in order to engage
in politics at all; some of them have thrown bombs and fought in street
battles, many have been in prison or the concentration camp, or fled
across frontiers with false names and forged passports. One cannot
imagine, say, Professor Laski indulging in activities of that kind.
England is lacking, therefore, in what one might call concentration-camp
literature. The special world created by secret-police forces,
censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials is, of course, known
about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little
emotional impact. One result of this is that there exists in England
almost no literature of disillusionment about the Soviet Union. There is
the attitude of ignorant disapproval, and there is the attitude of
uncritical admiration, but very little in between. Opinion on the Moscow
sabotage trials, for instance, was divided, but divided chiefly on the
question of whether the accused were guilty. Few people were able to see
that, whether justified or not, the trials were an unspeakable horror.
And English disapproval of the Nazi outrages has also been an unreal
thing, turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.
To understand such things one has to be able to imagine oneself as the
victim, and for an Englishman to write Darkness at Noon would be as
unlikely an accident as for a slave-trader to write UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.

Koestler's published work really centres about the Moscow trials. His
main theme is the decadence of revolutions owing to the corrupting
effects of power, but the special nature of the Stalin dictatorship has
driven him back into a position not far removed from pessimistic
Conservatism. I do not know how many books he has written in all. He is
a Hungarian whose earlier books were written in German, and five books
have been published in England: SPANISH TESTAMENT, THE GLADIATORS,
subject-matter of all of them is similar, and none of them ever escapes
for more than a few pages from the atmosphere of nightmare. Of the five
books, the action of three takes place entirely or almost entirely in

In the opening months of the Spanish civil war Koestler was the NEWS
CHRONICLE'S correspondent in Spain, and early in 1937 he was taken
prisoner when the Fascists captured Malaga. He was nearly shot out of
hand, then spent some months imprisoned in a fortress, listening every
night to the roar of rifle fire as batch after batch of Republicans was
executed, and being most of the time in acute danger of execution
himself. This was not a chance adventure which "might have happened to
anybody", but was in accordance with Koestler's life-style. A
politically indifferent person would not have been in Spain at that
date, a more cautious observer would have got out of Malaga before the
Fascists arrived, and a British or American newspaper man would have
been treated with more consideration. The book that Koestler wrote about
this, SPANISH TESTAMENT, has remarkable passages, but apart from the
scrappiness that is usual in a book of reportage, it is definitely false
in places. In the prison scenes Koestler successfully establishes the
nightmare atmosphere which is, so to speak, his patent, but the rest of
the book is too much coloured by the Popular Front orthodoxy of the
time. One or two passages even look as though they had been doctored for
the purposes of the Left Book Club. At that time Koestler still was, or
recently had been, a member of the Communist Party, and the complex
politics of the civil war made it impossible for any Communist to write
honestly about the internal struggle on the Government side. The sin of
nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be
anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian. In 1937 Koestler already
knew this, but did not feel free to say so. He came much nearer to
saying it--indeed, he did say it, though he put on a mask to do so--in
his next book, THE GLADIATORS, which was published about a year before
the war and for some reason attracted very little attention.

THE GLADIATORS is in some ways an unsatisfactory book. It is about
Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator who raised a slaves' rebellion in
Italy round about 65 BC, and any book on such a subject is handicapped
by challenging comparison with SALAMMBÔ. In our own age it would not be
possible to write a book like SALAMMBÔ even if one had the talent. The
great thing about Salammbô, even more important than its physical
detail, is its utter mercilessness. Flaubert could think himself into
the stony cruelty of antiquity, because in the mid-nineteenth century
one still had peace of mind. One had time to travel in the past.
Nowadays the present and the future are too terrifying to be escaped
from, and if one bothers with history it is in order to find modern
meanings there. Koestler makes Spartacus into an allegorical figure, a
primitive version of the proletarian dictator. Whereas Flaubert has been
able, by a prolonged effort of the imagination, to make his mercenaries
truly pre-Christian, Spartacus is a modern man dressed up. But this
might not matter if Koestler were fully aware of what his allegory
means. Revolutions always go wrong--that is the main theme. It is on the
question of WHY they go wrong that he falters, and his uncertainty
enters into the story and makes the central figures enigmatic and unreal.

For several years the rebellious slaves are uniformly successful. Their
numbers swell to a hundred thousand, they overrun great areas of
Southern Italy, they defeat one punitive expedition after another, they
ally themselves with the pirates who at that time were the masters of
the Mediterranean, and finally they set to work to build a city of their
own, to be named the City of the Sun. In this city human beings are to
be free and equal, and above all, they are to be happy: no slavery, no
hunger, no injustice, no floggings, no executions. It is the dream of a
just society which seems to haunt the human imagination ineradicably and
in all ages, whether it is called the Kingdom of Heaven or the classless
society, or whether it is thought of as a Golden Age which once existed
in the past and from which we have degenerated. Needless to say, the
slaves fail to achieve it. No sooner have they formed themselves into a
community than their way of life turns out to be as unjust, laborious
and fear-ridden as any other. Even the cross, symbol of slavery, has to
be revived for the punishment of malefactors. The turning-point comes
when Spartacus finds himself obliged to crucify twenty of his oldest and
most faithful followers. After that the City of the Sun is doomed, the
slaves split up and are defeated in detail, the last fifteen thousand of
them being captured and crucified in one batch.

The serious weakness of this story is that the motives of Spartacus
himself are never made clear. The Roman lawyer Fulvius, who joins the
rebellion and acts as its chronicler, sets forth the familiar dilemma of
ends and means. You can achieve nothing unless you are willing to use
force and cunning, but in using them you pervert your original aims.
Spartacus, however, is not represented as power hungry, nor, on the
other hand, as a visionary. He is driven onwards by some obscure force
which he does not understand, and he is frequently in two minds as to
whether it would not be better to throw up the whole adventure and flee
to Alexandria while the going is good. The slaves' republic is in any
case wrecked rather by hedonism than by the struggle for power. The
slaves are discontented with their liberty because they still have to
work, and the final break-up happens because the more turbulent and less
civilised slaves, chiefly Gauls and Germans, continue to behave like
bandits after the republic has been established. This may be a true
account of events--naturally we know very little about the slave
rebellions of antiquity--but by allowing the Sun City to be destroyed
because Crixus the Gaul cannot be prevented from looting and raping,
Koestler has faltered between allegory and history. If Spartacus is the
prototype of the modern revolutionary--and obviously he is intended as
that--he should have gone astray because of the impossibility of
combining power with righteousness. As it is, he is an almost passive
figure, acted upon rather than acting, and at times not convincing. The
story partly fails because the central problem of revolution has been
avoided or, at least, has not been solved.

It is again avoided in a subtler way in the next book, Koestler's
masterpiece, DARKNESS AT NOON. Here, however, the story is not spoiled,
because it deals with individuals and its interest is psychological. It
is an episode picked out from a background that does not have to be
questioned. DARKNESS AT NOON describes the imprisonment and death of an
Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, who first denies and ultimately confesses to
crimes which he is well aware he has not committed. The grown-upness,
the lack of surprise or denunciation, the pity and irony with which the
story is told, show the advantage, when one is handling a theme of this
kind, of being a European. The book reaches the stature of tragedy,
whereas an English or American writer could at most have made it into a
polemical tract. Koestler has digested his material and can treat it on
the aesthetic level. At the same time his handling of it has a political
implication, not important in this case but likely to be damaging in
later books.

Naturally the whole book centres round one question: Why did Rubashov
confess? He is not guilty--that is, not guilty of anything except the
essential crime of disliking the Stalin régime. The concrete acts of
treason in which he is supposed to have engaged are all imaginary. He
has not even been tortured, or not very severely. He is worn down by
solitude, toothache, lack of tobacco, bright lights glaring in his eyes,
and continuous questioning, but these in themselves would not be enough
to overcome a hardened revolutionary. The Nazis have previously done
worse to him without breaking his spirit. The confessions obtained in
the Russian state trials are capable of three explanations:

1. That the accused were guilty.

2. That they were tortured, and perhaps blackmailed by threats to
relatives and friends.

3. That they were actuated by despair, mental bankruptcy and the habit
of loyalty to the Party.

For Koestler's purpose in DARKNESS AT NOON 1 is ruled out, and though
this is not the place to discuss the Russian purges, I must add that
what little verifiable evidence there is suggests that the trials of the
Bolsheviks were frame-ups. If one assumes that the accused were not
guilty--at any rate, not guilty of the particular things they confessed
to--then 2 is the common-sense explanation. Koestler, however, plumps
for 3, which is also accepted by the Trotskyist Boris Souvarine, in his
pamphlet CAUCHEMAR EN URSS. Rubashov ultimately confesses because he
cannot find in his own mind any reason for not doing so. Justice and
objective truth have long ceased to have any meaning for him. For
decades he has been simply the creature of the Party, and what the Party
now demands is that he shall confess to non-existent crimes. In the end,
though he had to be bullied and weakened first, he is somewhat proud of
his decision to confess. He feels superior to the poor Czarist officer
who inhabits the next cell and who talks to Rubashov by tapping on the
wall. The Czarist officer is shocked when he learns that Rubashov
intends to capitulate. As he sees it from his "bourgeois" angle,
everyone ought to stick to his guns, even a Bolshevik. Honour, he says,
consists in doing what you think right. "Honour is to be useful without
fuss," Rubashov taps back; and he reflects with a certain satisfaction
that he is tapping with his pince-nez while the other, the relic of the
past, is tapping with a monocle. Like Bukharin, Rubashov is "looking out
upon black darkness". What is there, what code, what loyalty, what
notion of good and evil, for the sake of which he can defy the Party and
endure further torment? He is not only alone, he is also hollow. He has
himself committed worse crimes than the one that is now being
perpetrated against him. For example, as a secret envoy of the Party in
Nazi Germany, he has got rid of disobedient followers by betraying them to
the Gestapo. Curiously enough, if he has any inner strength to draw
upon, it is the memories of his boyhood when he was the son of
a landowner. The last thing he remembers, when he is shot from
behind, is the leaves of poplar trees on his father's estate. Rubashov
belongs to the older generation of Bolsheviks that was largely wiped out
in the purges. He is aware of art and literature, and of the world
outside Russia. He contrasts sharply with Gletkin, the young GPU man who
conducts his interrogation, and who is the typical "good party man",
completely without scruples or curiosity, a thinking gramophone.
Rubashov, unlike Gletkin, does not have the Revolution as his
starting-point. His mind was not a blank sheet when the Party got hold
of it. His superiority to the other is finally traceable to his
bourgeois origin.

One cannot, I think, argue that DARKNESS AT NOON is simply a story
dealing with the adventures of an imaginary individual. Clearly it is a
political book, founded on history and offering an interpretation of
disputed events. Rubashov might be called Trotsky, Bukharin Rakovsky or
some other relatively civilised figure among the Old Bolsheviks. If one
writes about the Moscow trials one must answer the question, "Why did
the accused confess?" and which answer one makes is a political
decision. Koestler answers, in effect, "Because these people had been
rotted by the Revolution which they served", and in doing so he comes
near to claiming that revolutions are of their nature bad. If one
assumes that the accused in the Moscow trials were made to confess by
means of some kind of terrorism, one is only saying that one particular
set of revolutionary leaders has gone astray. Individuals, and not the
situation, are to blame. The implication of Koestler's book, however, is
that Rubashov in power would be no better than Gletkin: or rather, only
better in that his outlook is still partly pre-revolutionary.
Revolution, Koestler seems to say, is a corrupting process. Really enter
into the Revolution and you must end up as either Rubashov or Gletkin.
It is not merely that "power corrupts": so also do the ways of attaining
power. Therefore, all efforts to regenerate society BY VIOLENT MEANS
lead to the cellars of the OGPU, Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have
come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive.

Of course, Koestler does not say this quite explicitly, and perhaps is
not altogether conscious of it. He is writing about darkness, but it is
darkness at what ought to be noon. Part of the time he feels that things
might have turned out differently. The notion that so-and-so has
"betrayed", that things have only gone wrong because of individual
wickedness, is ever present in left-wing thought. Later, in ARRIVAL AND
DEPARTURE, Koestler swings over much further towards the
anti-revolutionary position, but in between these two books there is
another, SCUM OF THE EARTH, which is straight autobiography and has only
an indirect bearing upon the problems raised by DARKNESS AT NOON. True
to his life-style, Koestler was caught in France by the outbreak of war
and, as a foreigner and a known anti-Fascist, was promptly arrested and
interned by the Daladier Government. He spent the first nine months of
war mostly in a prison camp, then, during the collapse of France,
escaped and travelled by devious routes to England, where he was once
again thrown into prison as an enemy alien. This time he was soon
released, however. The book is a valuable piece of reportage, and
together with a few other scraps of honest writing that happened to be
produced at the time of the débâcle, it is a reminder of the depths
that bourgeois democracy can descend to. At this moment, with France
newly liberated and the witch-hunt after collaborators in full swing, we
are apt to forget that in 1940 various observers on the spot considered
that about forty per cent of the French population was either actively
pro-German or completely apathetic. Truthful war books are never
acceptable to non-combatants, and Koestler's book did not have a very
good reception. Nobody came well out of it--neither the bourgeois
politicians, whose idea of conducting an anti-Fascist war was to jail
every left-winger they could lay their hands on, nor the French
Communists, who were effectively pro-Nazi and did their best to sabotage
the French war effort, nor the common people, who were just as likely to
follow mountebanks like Doriot as responsible leaders. Koestler records
some fantastic conversations with fellow victims in the concentration
camp, and adds that till then, like most middle-class Socialists and
Communists, he had never made contact with real proletarians, only with
the educated minority. He draws the pessimistic conclusion: "Without
education of the masses, no social progress; without social progress, no
education of the masses". In SCUM OF THE EARTH Koestler ceases to
idealise the common people. He has abandoned Stalinism, but he is not a
Trotskyist either. This is the book's real link with ARRIVAL AND
DEPARTURE, in which what is normally called a revolutionary outlook is
dropped, perhaps for good.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE is not a satisfactory book. The pretence that it
is a novel is very thin; in effect it is a tract purporting to show that
revolutionary creeds are rationalisations of neurotic impulses. With all
too neat a symmetry, the book begins and ends with the same action--a
leap into a foreign country. A young ex-Communist who has made his
escape from Hungary jumps ashore in Portugal, where he hopes to enter
the service of Britain, at that time the only power fighting against
Germany. His enthusiasm is somewhat cooled by the fact that the British
Consulate is uninterested in him and almost ignores him for a period of
several months, during which his money runs out and other astuter
refugees escape to America. He is successively tempted by the World in
the form of a Nazi propagandist, the Flesh in the form of a French girl,
and--after a nervous breakdown--the Devil in the form of a psychoanalyst.
The psychoanalyst drags out of him the fact that his revolutionary
enthusiasm is not founded on any real belief in historical necessity,
but on a morbid guilt complex arising from an attempt in early childhood
to blind his baby brother. By the time that he gets an opportunity of
serving the Allies he has lost all reason for wanting to do so, and he
is on the point of leaving for America when his irrational impulses
seize hold of him again. In practice he cannot abandon the struggle.
When the book ends, he is floating down in a parachute over the dark
landscape of his native country, where he will be employed as a secret
agent of Britain.

As a political statement (and the book is not much more), this is
insufficient. Of course it is true in many cases, and it may be true in
all cases, that revolutionary activity is the result of personal
maladjustment. Those who struggle against society are, on the whole,
those who have reason to dislike it, and normal healthy people are no
more attracted by violence and illegality than they are by war. The
young Nazi in ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE makes the penetrating remark that
one can see what is wrong with the left-wing movement by the ugliness of
its women. But after all, this does not invalidate the Socialist case.
Actions have results, irrespective of their motives. Marx's ultimate
motives may well have been envy and spite, but this does not prove that
his conclusions were false. In making the hero of ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE
take his final decision from a mere instinct not to shirk action and
danger, Koestler is making him suffer a sudden loss of intelligence.
With such a history as he has behind him, he would be able to see that
certain things have to be done, whether our reasons for doing them are
"good" or "bad". History has to move in a certain direction, even if it
has to be pushed that way by neurotics. In ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE Peter's
idols are overthrown one after the other. The Russian Revolution has
degenerated, Britain, symbolised by the aged consul with gouty fingers,
is no better, the international class-conscious proletariat is a myth.
But the conclusion (since, after all, Koestler and his hero "support"
the war) ought to be that getting rid of Hitler is still a worth-while
objective, a necessary bit of scavenging in which motives are almost

To take a rational political decision one must have a picture of the
future. At present Koestler seems to have none, or rather to have two
which cancel out. As an ultimate objective he believes in the Earthly
Paradise, the Sun State which the gladiators set out to establish, and
which has haunted the imagination of Socialists, Anarchists and
religious heretics for hundreds of years. But his intelligence tells him
that the Earthly Paradise is receding into the far distance and that
what is actually ahead of us is bloodshed, tyranny and privation.
Recently he described himself as a "short-term pessimist". Every kind of
horror is blowing up over the horizon, but somehow it will all come
right in the end. This outlook is probably gaining ground among thinking
people: it results from the very great difficulty, once one has
abandoned orthodox religious belief, of accepting life on earth as
inherently miserable, and on the other hand, from the realisation that
to make life liveable is a much bigger problem than it recently seemed.
Since about 1930 the world has given no reason for optimism whatever.
Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and
ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are
only now entering into the European consciousness. It is quite possible
that man's major problems will NEVER be solved. But it is also
unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and
say to himself, "It will always be like this: even in a million years it
cannot get appreciably better?" So you get the quasi-mystical belief
that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is
useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to
be the miserable brutish thing it now is.

The only easy way out is that of the religious believer, who regards
this life merely as a preparation for the next. But few thinking people
now believe in life after death, and the number of those who do is
probably diminishing. The Christian churches would probably not survive
on their own merits if their economic basis were destroyed.

The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while
accepting death as final. Men can only be happy when they do not assume
that the object of life is happiness. It is most unlikely, however, that
Koestler would accept this. There is a well-marked hedonistic strain in
his writings, and his failure to find a political position after
breaking with Stalinism is a result of this.

The Russian Revolution, the central event in Koestler's fife, started
out with high hopes. We forget these things now, but a quarter of a
century ago it was confidently expected that the Russian Revolution
would lead to Utopia. Obviously this has not happened. Koestler is too
acute not to see this, and too sensitive not to remember the original
objective. Moreover, from his European angle he can see such things as
purges and mass deportations for what they are; he is not, like Shaw or
Laski, looking at them through the wrong end of the telescope. Therefore
he draws the conclusion: This is what revolutions lead to. There is
nothing for it except to be a "short-term pessimist" i.e. to keep out of
politics, make a sort of oasis within which you and your friends can
remain sane, and hope that somehow things will be better in a hundred
years. At the basis of this lies his hedonism, which leads him to think
of the Earthly Paradise as desirable. Perhaps, however, whether
desirable or not, it isn't possible. Perhaps some degree of suffering is
ineradicable from human life, perhaps the choice before man is always a
choice of evils, perhaps even the aim of Socialism is not to make the
world perfect but to make it better. All revolutions are failures, but
they are not all the same failure. It is his unwillingness to admit this
that has led Koestler's mind temporarily into a blind alley and that
makes ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE seem shallow compared with the earlier books.

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