Reading Darkness At Noon
On the flight to Russia, I began reading Arthur Koestler’s 1940 anticommunist novel Darkness At Noon. I finished it on the flight from Helsinki to Miami (where I’m writing this, waiting for the connecting flight to New Orleans). Here are some initial thoughts (begging your pardon if this sounds fragmented; I’m pretty tired). Having read most of the novel on the flight back from Russia, where I met with people who survived the gulag, it made a tremendous impression on me.
For those who don’t know, Koestler was a Hungarian-born Jewish communist who became disillusioned by the Moscow Trials and the Stalinist Great Terror. Darkness At Noon was published shortly after the conclusion of the trials; Koestler more or less wrote it as current events. The protagonist, Rubashov, is a prominent Bolshevik who has fallen out of favor with Stalin, and who, at the book’s beginning, is arrested and imprisoned. The narrative takes place within the prison, as Rubashov faces interrogation that leads to his execution. His ultimate fate is never really in question; the drama lies in Rubashov’s reckoning with Marxism, the meaning of the Revolution, and his own responsibility for the charnel house that the communists had made of Russia.
The fates of two communist true believers who suffered for the Marxist faith loom large in Rubashov’s mind. Richard was a young German communist cell leader who had been persecuted by the Nazi regime, and whose pregnant wife, also a revolutionary, was in prison. A few years before his arrest, Rubashov went on an undercover mission to Germany to meet with Richard. He hears Richard’s story about how the Nazis have all but destroyed the local Communist Party, but none of that matters to Moscow. Rubashov is there to tell the desperate young man that he has been excommunicated from the Party for not strictly following Moscow’s directives in propaganda he distributed. It is clear that Richard is going to be killed when the Nazis catch him; the Party is leaving him to face them alone.
The second true believer was Little Loewy, an aging party stalwart who was a real proletarian. He labored among the longshoremen in a Belgian port, faithfully executing Moscow’s directives. He was beloved by the dock workers. Rubashov came to Belgium to order the dock workers to unload Soviet ships bringing supplies intended for Mussolini’s regime. When they balk, the Soviets expose the cell. Little Lowey hangs himself. This episode, like the one with Richard, is meant to show how the Soviet leadership had no problem throwing its most faithful workers to the wolves.
There is a third person whose fate weighs on Rubashov’s conscience: his secretary and lover, Arlova. She was arrested and executed for a trivial reason: keeping copies of the works of disfavored Bolsheviks in the office library, and not having enough copies of Stalin’s speeches. In the hearing where her fate was decided, Rubashov declined to defend her, protecting himself (temporarily, it turned out), but sealing her doom.
Most of the narrative consists of dialogues between two interrogators — first, Ivanov; then Gletkin — who are trying to get a confession out of Rubashov for a show trial. They want him to admit to conspiring to murder Stalin, and other counterrevolutionary acts. Of course he’s not guilty, but he’s going to be shot anyway. A confession from a Bolshevik as prominent as Rubashov will justify the Terror in the eyes of the Soviet public.
Why would a man confess to something he did not do? Torture could compel a confession, but Rubashov is not tortured (though the endless interrogation, under conditions of sleep deprivation, are harsh). Ivanov, an old friend and comrade, attempts to convince Rubashev to confess voluntarily. The gist of Ivanov’s efforts is to justify the sadism and mass murder of Bolshevism, and in turn to convince Rubashov that the last service he could do to the Party is to make this confession. (In fact, two leading old Bolsheviks, Zinoviev and Kamenev, made false confessions at their show trials; one of them, can’t remember which, addressed his children at the trial, telling them that whatever the Party decides what to do with him, it will be right, and exhorts them to stay loyal to Stalin.
Ivanov’s line is that anything that the Party does is justified because it is trying to bring about a better future for humanity. He says to Rubashov, “And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history?”
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community — which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.
For the Bolsheviks, the individual was not sacred; the collective was. Social justice was something that was accomplished for classes. If achieving social justice required imprisoning and killing individuals who were guilty of nothing, then it was justified. To be sentimental about the fates of individuals was weakness.
Over the course of the novel, Rubashov comes to doubt his own commitment to the Marxist faith. It’s a metaphysical crisis for him. He loses confidence in philosophical materialism, and the power of human reason, because they deny the mystery and inviolable dignity of the individual human person. In his diary, Rubashov writes: “Geometry is the purest realization of human reason; but Euclid’s axioms cannot be proved. He who does not believe in them sees the whole building crash.”
As you know, I read the book as part of my research for the book I’m working on now. I want to understand communism better, so I can understand why emigres to the West from communist countries are sensing today a return of the kind of thinking characteristic of the Marxist dictatorships from which they fled.
Though the differences between the Soviets and our own Social Justice Warriors are obviously vast, Koestler’s novel helped me to understand something important to their own ideology and psychology, and why they are a threat that we can’t dismiss. This is why those who grew up under communism can identify this way of thinking, even as it remains hidden to us Americans who have no experience with it.
Generally, the SJWs are not doctrinaire Marxists, but they also conceive of justice as a matter of group relationships. If achieving Social Justice requires rolling over the rights of an individual, then the ends justify the means. This is why wherever the SJWs gain authority, they attack not only conservatives, but old-school liberals. Though I doubt very much that most of them have much idea of the role the concept of History plays in classical Marxist thought, they believe that they are indeed on the Right Side Of History, and that History will justify them.
When female high school athletes are robbed of the chance to excel in their sports because they are beaten by “girls” who are biologically male — this does not matter because this advances the cause of justice for transgenders. When college men stand accused of rape, they must be guilty, because achieving justice for women requires it. If men like James Damore offer opinions that contradict the ruling ideology at their companies or institutions, they must be thrown out as a counterrevolutionary. When a distinguished personage like Roger Scruton is sandbagged and lied about by a left-wing journalist, who publicly exults for having taken a conservative scalp — who cares, as long as the goal of punishing old white conservative males has been advanced. When a less qualified person is hired for a job over a more qualified person, because the less qualified employee is a member of a group entitled to Social Justice — well, too bad for the individual, who “should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community.”
You know what I’m talking about. The rejection of the sacred worth of individuals-as-individuals (as distinct from members of a favored class or group), and the embrace of an ends-justifies-the-means ethic, is what the cult of Social Justice stands for. People who think like this dominate universities, the media, the Democratic Party, and corporate America. There is no Stalin of the Social Justice Warriors, but that in no way means they are not dangerous. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, the liberal intellectuals of late 19th century Russia, who stood against Tsarist abuses, had known that in only a few short decades, the government that overthrew the Tsar would establish a tyranny incomparably more brutal and comprehensive, they would scarcely have believed it.
If we don’t stand up to this insanity now, we will greatly regret it in the years to come.