Eighty Years Of ‘Darkness At Noon’: Arthur Koestler’s Novel Is Political Work Without The Propaganda
Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is a convincing political novel without reading like a propaganda pamphlet.
The central theme of the book was about noble ends and evil means, underlining the belief of Koestler, who considered communism to be the noblest of all end but wondered about the price one paid to achieve it.
Darkness at Noon. Arthur Koestler. Vintage Classics. 1940. Rs 392. Pages 224.
The Kerensky February Revolution in 1917 in Russia was looked upon favourably in the West as it was thought to be the beginning of the constitutional and democratic process ending Tsarist autocratic rule.
But the October Revolution shook the world and the misgivings about it continued for a long time even after the defeat of the White Army sponsored by the West at the hands of the Red Army.
Many in the West overlooked the repressive measures which the Soviet regime resorted to since its inception as it was for a humane cause and inevitable for achieving a better future. Many radicals and the intellectuals of the former colonial world regarded the Soviet experiment worthy of emulation and as a salvation to their own concerns.
That’s how for Rabindranath Tagore the visit to the Soviet Union in 1930 was a pilgrimage. A small number of non-Marxist Western Radicals also were appreciative of the experiment and spoke highly of it. For instance, Sydney and Beatrice Webb described it as an advent of a new civilisation.
However, news of the brutal process of collectivisation during the Stalin years in which millions of lives were lost, the show trials and the purges of top brass of the army from 1936 to 1938 which leaked into the West raised serious concerns.
The first severe indictment of totalitarian regimes came in Crosland’s Plato Today (1939) where he found the roots of modern authoritarianism of fascism and communism to Plato.
But the first sensation that stirred the Western world was the publication of Arthur Koestler’s (1907-83) Darkness at Noon (1940) whose vivid account of the torture and forced confessions of those who believed earnestly in the revolution made many think that something had gone terribly wrong in the Soviet Union.
It was among the earliest dystopian novels, followed by others like Orwell and Huxley. Koestler’s account earned legitimacy and accuracy to be believed and analysed as he was at one point of time an ex-communist who worked towards the realisation of the socialist utopia.
Darkness at Noon was translated into over 30 languages and was a bestseller worldwide, a position that it maintained until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It occupied number eight in the list compiled by the editors of the Modern Library of hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century.
It is a political novel which Koestler began writing in 1938-39 after finishing his first novel The Gladiators on the question of means and ends and the justification of revolutionary violence through Spartacus’ revolt against the Roman Empire.
He wrote the book while living in Paris on the eve of the Second World War, just before the Nazis invaded the city. Being a Jew, a communist and a refugee he feared his death if captured by the Nazis. Along with Daphne Hardy (1917-2003), his English girlfriend he proceeded to the South of France but separated along the way.
The original manuscript was written in German with the title The Vicious Circle. Daphne translated the manuscript into English and that is the version that remains etched in people’s minds. The original German typescript was lost in the process of transit. Its carbon copy which was sent to Zurich was also forgotten.
Daphne, as a British citizen, reached London and was in touch with a London publisher who agreed to publish but with a change in the title. Unable to contact Koestler who was in France Daphne chose ‘Darkness at Noon’, a phrase from Job 5:14 “They meet with darkness in the daytime and grope in the noonday as in the night” alluding to the moral challenges faced by both the novel’s protagonist and the author himself.
Darkness at Noon is a story of the life and death of a fictional revolutionary leader Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov an Ex-Commissar of the People, a military and intellectual hero of the Bolshevik Revolution who had worked abroad for many years to spread communism, a party loyalist despite being tortured in foreign prisons and a lifelong believer in communism.
He was arrested on charges of conspiracy to assassinate the number one within the government, industrial espionage and general oppositional tendencies. Initially he denied the charge but was forced to confess for crimes which he had not committed after repeated interrogations by his two prosecutors, Ivanov a veteran revolutionary and a former colleague and Gletkin, a young merciless party apparatchik.
The confession came in the wake of being denied sleep, a common form of torture. Rubashov was sentenced to death in a public trial and summarily executed by being shot twice in the back of the head in the prison basement.
Koestler admitted that the opening lines of the novel which showed Rubashov fast asleep and dreaming of his arrest as “a symbolic assertion of the basic sameness of the two totalitarian regimes”, namely Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.
All his life Rubashov did what was told to him by the party and even now his confession was because he had come to see that his writings demanded that he sacrifice himself to the needs of the party and “because these people had been rotted by the Revolution which they served”.
It was not because of threat or torture. He died as a loyal party member but at the end of the book he wondered whether the things he did for the party was justified. His experience in the prison convinced Rubashov of the “infinite value of ‘I”, which for all its fragility was the ultimate source and basis of morality. The party saw the ‘I” as nothing more than “the grammatical fiction”, a deception that to be overcome in order to achieve justice for the many”.
Koestler did not identify the country in which the story was set though there were several allusions to Nazi Germany. The names of the characters were in Russian and the description of the political system was the one in the former Soviet Union.
The Moscow trials accused old Bolsheviks, Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky and Zinoviev who were once part of the ruling establishment as counter revolutionaries who in turn willingly confessed and obediently met their deaths. Koestler admitted that he modelled Rubashov after Bukharin’s ‘manner of thinking’, in physical appearance and personality after Trotsky and Radek.
He admired Bukharin who was the youngest and the most popular Bolshevik in 1917 and considered as one of Stalin’s most formidable ideological rivals. Koestler could see that people like Bukharin had not lost their revolutionary creed as they could see the degeneration that had set in.
Bukharin’s confession for Koestler was a “last service to the Party”. Koestler knew what it was to be a political prisoner as he was arrested in 1937 during the Battle of Malaga and was ordered to solitary confinement in the city of Seville in Spain. He was in Spain as a journalist covering the Civil War and his sympathies were with the Republicans. He was in prison for three months, saw other prisoners taken out for execution and constantly feared that he could be the next.
While in Spain Koestler became aware of the harsh reality of oppressive and highly centralised nature of Stalinism, widespread corruption and the brutality with which the regime crushed people, especially the peasants and workers in whose name the revolution was made.
He argued that the regeneration of society through violence would only give rise to OGPU, forerunner to Cheka, the secret police and gulags. It wasn’t as if Stalinism was an aberration. Stalin treaded on the path paved by Lenin and had Lenin been alive he would have become a Stalin.
The central theme of the book was about noble ends and evil means. Koestler considered communism to be the noblest of all end as it envisaged a world without injustice, exploitation and oppression but wondered about the price one paid to achieve it.
He wrote “a communist revolutionary is forever damned to do what he loathes the most: become a butcher in order to stamp out butchery, sacrifice lambs so lambs will no longer be sacrificed”. Darkness at Noon was a powerful analysis of the moral dangers inherent in a system or philosophy that justified any means to an end.
Koestler was hailed as a literary equal when he returned to Paris in 1946 by Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Malraux. He was regarded as the most powerful anti-communist writer of his time in the US which he visited for the first time in 1948.
Orwell reviewing the book in the New Statesman on 4 January 1941 said that the book was brilliant as a novel and was ‘probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods”.
A decade later, Koestler in an essay that he contributed to The God that Failed (1949) edited by Crosland, confessed that his conversion to communism was similar to religious conversion; that communism was at the centre of his life and work for seven years, the same length as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter. For many, communism was a secular religion.
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was a perfect example of a political novel which conveyed its message to the reader convincingly without being a propaganda pamphlet. It was a vivid description of the promise and terminal exhaustion of a system that was meant to usher in total redemption for the whole of humankind.
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