“The greatest criminals in history,” Ivanov went on, “are not of the type Nero and Fouché, but of the type Gandhi and Tolstoy. Gandhi’s inner voice has done more to prevent the liberation of India than the British guns. To sell oneself for thirty pieces of silver is an honest transaction; but to sell oneself to one’s own conscience is to abandon mankind. History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience. To want to conduct history according to the maxims of the Sunday school means to leave everything as it is. You know that as well as I do.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Only an inveterate reader can appreciate the sheer ecstasy of discovering an unexpected masterpiece. The “great books” often live up to their moniker, but there are hidden gems in the midst of so much mediocrity that bibliophiles often live more like archeologists. With the world awash in bad books -- poorly written, suspect assumptions, or offensive ideologies -- the key for growth is not reading per se but reading the right books for the right reason.
How we go about our art of finding great books is an idiosyncratic affair. As I age, I find recommendations from trusted sources more and more important. I also find myself more willing to step outside of my parochial interests and read books regardless of their genre. But once I drill into an intellectual vein, I usually look for a series of books on that topic or theme. For example, I spent several months earlier this year reading a series of disparate books on the American Civil War. More recently, I reintroduced myself to the world of Whittaker Chambers (the author of one of my favorite books, Witness) by reading his biography written by Sam Tanenhaus. It was in that biography I discovered Arthur Koestler -- as a recommended writer from Whittaker Chambers. Taking a recommendation from Chambers, I decided to read Darkness at Noon.
Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) is a microcosm of the Twentieth Century. A Hungarian-born Jewish novelist, journalist, and critic who was involved in many of the great ideological questions of his day from Zionism, Communism, Fascism, the Occult, and Mysticism. In fact, Koestler is a personification of the ideological Babel in which we now live. His brilliance lay not in his synthesis or cohesion but in his ability to capture the essence of the repugnancy of Stalinism at a particular point in time. That he did not later migrate towards the Truth is of no import to the literary and philosophical greatness of his Darkness at Noon.
Darkness at Noon is fictional account of the Moscow Show Trials in the late 1930s. Those trials, as many know, achieved the physical liquidation of, among others, the Bolshevik Old Guard that Stalin imagined represented threats to his absolute rule. A description from the New American:
[O]n January 25, 1937, the terror known generally as the Moscow Show Trials entered its second phase. The first phase began in August, 1936, and the intended political enemies of Stalin constituted the “Trotskyite-Zionvievite Terrorist Center.” This was a purging of the notional “left” within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were among the most prominent members in this purge. Zinoviev had been considered one of the leading theoreticians of the party. Kamenev had been the head of the Moscow Soviet and then the Deputy Premier under Lenin. Zinoviev and Kamenev followed Stalin (left) in pushing Trotsky out of party leadership in 1924.
The second phase, the one which began 75 years ago, included 17 Soviet and Party officials, all but four of whom would end up being executed (the other four were sentenced to the Gulag, where the mortality rate was generally very high). As was true with all the Show Trials, the public trial began only after the horrors of the Chekists had coerced confessions; however, there was more to the trials that just torture and physical hopelessness. The Bolsheviks believed in nothing except for the Party. If they were accused by the Party of crimes, then they must have done something wrong. The confessions wrung out of the defendants in the January 1937 Show Trials provided Stalin with the pretext for his 1938 Show Trials, which were against the “Rightist-Bloc.”
The final Moscow Show Trial period was in March 1938, and the defendants, who included Rykov (who had been premier), Bukharin (past head of the Communist International), and Yagoda, and 18 others — were tried and convicted. The pattern in these trials was the same: the most slavish earlier followers of communism confessed to the most incredible charges and typically requested the death penalty as due punishment for their “crimes.”
The Show Trials were one aspect of the Great Terror under Stalin, in which “wreckers” — engineers or managers of projects which did not work the way Stalin and the Politburo thought — were forced into confessions and sent to the Gulag by the hundreds of thousands.
Darkness at Noon captures the Show Trials from the perspective of the fictitious Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a high ranking leader of the Soviet Union. Rubashov, it seems clear to me, is modeled after Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin as much as anyone else. He, like Bukharin, is a an senior theorist and intellectual of the Revolution -- with longstanding revolutionary bona fides. He, like Bukharin, eventually and meekly accepted his sentence on behalf of the Party. Rubashov’s execution, like Bukharin’s, serves as a literary condemnation of Stalinism for all but only the most intransigent communists.
The story begins with the arrest of Rubashov and takes place almost solely in prison. The movement of the story is the prison officials’ desire to extract from Rubashov his confession of anti-revolutionary activities. Two themes come into the focus: the bleakness and caprice of Soviet justice and the philosophical conflict in Rubashov’s mind regarding the Party and Revolution. Much of these themes are explored in Rubashov’s solitary thoughts.
Rubashov’s arrest was not unexpected; the novel starts with his remembered premonitions of his imminent arrest in the form of dreams. Nonetheless we immediately sense in his arrest a shock given that Rubashov is obviously a high ranking Soviet official with regular contact with Stalin (of whom we know only through the title “No. 1”). In his initial imprisonment, we see that conventional notions of justice, most fundamentally, the presumption of innocence, do not apply to alleged Soviet political crimes. HIs arrest is a fait accompli: Rubashov will be forced to confess anti-revolutionary activities.
Once imprisoned, we essentially meet two Rubashov’s -- the loyal Communist theorist and the dissident Soviet that is slowly culled out through his interrogation. But with an almost ironclad logic, Rubashov moves towards admitting even fantastical lies about his anti-revolutionary activity because of his commitment to the absolute “Tightness” of history and revolution. As a Party theorist, his mind has no later escape from the very logic we see he articulated in flashback. For example, in an earlier discussion with an expelled young German communist who has been discouraged by the Party’s collapse during the Nazi seizure of power, Rubashov educates him on the nature of the Party:
“The Party can never be mistaken,” said Rubashov. “You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I. The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party’s ranks.”
Later, in prison, he ratifies his Party commitment in his own mind:
We were the first to replace the nineteenth century’s liberal ethics of ‘fair play’ by the revolutionary ethics of the twentieth century. In that also we were right: a revolution conducted according to the rules of cricket is an absurdity. Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means. We introduced neo-Machiavellism into this country; the others, the counter-revolutionary dictatorships, have clumsily imitated it. We were neo-Machiavellians in the name of universal reason— that was our greatness; the others in the name of a national romanticism, that is their anachronism. That is why we will in the end be absolved by history; but not they…. “Yet for the moment we are thinking and acting on credit. As we have thrown overboard all conventions and rules of cricket-morality, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic. We are under the terrible compulsion to follow our thought down to its final consequence and to act in accordance to it. We are sailing without ballast; therefore each touch on the helm is a matter of life or death.
Contrast this orthodoxy with such subversive insights Rubashov thinks about almost simultaneously in a display of cognitive dissonance:
The cause of the Party’s defectiveness must be found. All our principles were right, but our results were wrong. This is a diseased century. We diagnosed the disease and its causes with microscopic exactness, but wherever we applied the healing knife a new sore appeared. Our will was hard and pure, we should have been loved by the people. But they hate us. Why are we so odious and detested? We brought you truth, and in our mouth it sounded a lie. We brought you freedom, and it looks in our hands like a whip. We brought you the living life, and where our voice is heard the trees wither and there is a rustling of dry leaves. We brought you the promise of the future, but our tongue stammered and barked.
Four characters push Rubashov’s confession dilemma forward. The first is Ivanov, who like Rubashov, is an Old Guard Bolshevik prison official who stays loyal to the Revolution -- even in its new phase of terror -- and debates Rubashov from the point of view of their shared history. Ivanov’s fall and execution for his modest sympathy for Rubashov, which in essence that takes place in real time during Rubashov’s imprisonment, shows that the Revolution will tolerate no form of sentimentality (even in the most innocuous forms).
The second is Gletnik, a “new” Soviet man and prison official also deputized to obtain Rubashov’s confession -- a monstrous creature of the Revolution who proves the adage that the young will eat the old. Unlike Ivanov, he has no compunction over Revolutionary Ethics and proves that he has fully internalized them. The third is Arlova, a character we never meet in real time. Through flashback, we learn of the demure Arlova as Rubashov’s former secretary and lover who Rubashov abandons when she is charged with counter-revolutionary activity. Her execution lingers through the story in Rubashov’s mind like a shadow -- serving at periodic points as a blast of humanity and irrationality. The fourth is prisoner 402 -- evidently a true counter-revolutionary and monarchist. His debates, humor and insights into prison life, which are communicated to Rubashov by taps through a prison wall, serve as an ghost in the machine -- a living reminder of Czarist Russia that is watching the Revolution consume itself.
Initially, perhaps with Arlova in mind, Rubashov is opposed to confessing to crimes which he did not commit -- notwithstanding his revolutionary views, he still values Truth and the charges are not true, even if the Party says they are. His conscience still is paramount in his mind and the absurdity of No. 1’s rule is clear. We are privy to one of the more interesting exchanges of ideas about the Party and Revolution between Rubashov and his first interrogator, Ivanov. To be sure, Ivanov is a Party man but his treachery to the Party lies in his willingness to reason with Rubashov’s heresies -- instead of seeking to liquidate him, Ivanov wants to rehabilitate him. This unstated sentimentality, which runs counter to Ivanov’s Party theorizing, ultimately dooms Ivanov when his younger colleague, Gletnik, reports him for counter-revolutionary activity for essentially fraternizing with Rubashov.
But before Ivanov’s fall, Rubashov unloads his frustration regarding the Party to him:
“As you notice, I am talking my head off my neck,” he said and looked up smilingly at the faded patch on the wall where the photograph of the old guard had once hung. This time Ivanov did not follow his glance. “Well,” said Rubashov, “one more makes no difference. Everything is buried; the men, their wisdom and their hopes. You killed the ‘We’; you destroyed it. Do you really maintain that the masses are still behind you? Other usurpers in Europe pretend the same thing with as much right as you….” He took another cigarette and lit it himself this time, as Ivanov did not move. “Forgive my pompousness,” he went on, “but do you really believe the people are still behind you? It bears you, dumb and resigned, as it bears others in other countries, but there is no response in its depths. The masses have become deaf and dumb again, the great silent x of history, indifferent as the sea carrying the ships. Every passing light is reflected on its surface, but underneath is darkness and silence. A long time ago we stirred up the depths, but that is over. In other words”—he paused and put on his pince-nez—“in those days we made history; now you make politics. That’s the whole difference.” Ivanov leant back in his chair and blew smoke rings. “I’m sorry, but the difference is not quite clear to me,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to explain.” “Certainly,” said Rubashov. “A mathematician once said that algebra was the science for lazy people—one does not work out x, but operates with it as if one knew it. In our case, x stands for the anonymous masses, the people. Politics mean operating with this x without worrying about its actual nature. Making history is to recognize x for what it stands for in the equation.” “Pretty,” said Ivanov. “But unfortunately rather abstract. To return to more tangible things: you mean, therefore, that ‘we’—namely, Party and State—no longer represent the interests of the Revolution, of the masses or, if you like, the progress of humanity.” “This time you have grasped it,” said Rubashov smiling. Ivanov did not answer his smile.
Ivanov responds and captures the essence of ethics without the Gospel:
“I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “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. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can’t point out one. In times of need—and politics are chronically in a time of need—the rulers were always able to evoke ‘exceptional circumstances’, which demanded exceptional measures of defense. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism….”
Throughout Ivanov encourages Rubashov to admit his crimes, true or not, for the good of the Party and in order to work the system and eventually restore him to the good graces of the Party. In Ivanov we already see the cynicism for which the Soviet Union would eventually become legendary. Thus, for all of his theorizing about the Revolution, Ivanov was essentially counter-revolutionary. He seems to suggest to Rubashov that all of the Show Trials are what we thought they were -- an absurd farce. Eventually Ivanov’s soft touch in interrogation is exposed as counter-revolutionary and he is executed -- after Rubashov assents to Ivanov’s logic and wishes to confess.
We learn of Ivanov’s demise when Gletnik takes over Rubashov’s interrogation and, unlike Ivanov, is a true believer who has fully internalized that either one is a loyal Party member or an enemy of the people. Rubashov’s confession, which does in fact cull out true aspects of his counter-revolutionary sentiments, takes on an altogether character. Gletnik too sees Rubashov’s confession as required for his Party redemption -- he sees further sacrifice as required. He states: “The Party’s line was sharply defined. Its tactics were determined by the principle that the end justifies the means—all means, without exception. In the spirit of this principle, the Public Prosecutor will demand you life, Citizen Rubashov.” And so he did.
In this vein, Koestler illustrates why Party loyalists like Bukharin confessed to obviously false charges and requested their own executions -- they accepted the logic that the Party’s fiat that they were counter-revolutionaries proved that they were. To further contest was evidence of continuing counter-revolutionary activity. We see clearly here that to the honest Party member, the Party has become God and, as much as God demanded certain sacrifices from the Israelites, the Party member must consent.
Rubashov consented. But did he? While he accepted his conviction without scruple or appeal to mercy, we see his thoughts in the moments before his execution. He is neither especially frightened or unmoved -- one might say that despite his mystical waxing, he is as lucid and resolved as he have seen as he ponders his immediate demise even when he is uncertain of the value of his own sacrifice. He ponders:
It was a mistake in the system; perhaps it lay in the precept which until now he had held to be incontestable, in whose name he had sacrificed others and was himself being sacrificed: in the precept, that the end justifies the means. It was this sentence which had killed the great fraternity of the Revolution and made them all run amuck. What had he once written in his diary? “We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic; we are sailing without ethical ballast.” Perhaps the heart of the evil lay there. Perhaps it did not sit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist.
Darkness at Noon is remarkable. First, Koestler’s prose, pacing and intellectual heft is first-rate. Truly, this is a book that is difficult to put down and demands to be read. Moreover, it fits its moment well -- clearly, Koestler was at his peak powers to understand this time and the intellectual contests that were playing out. Second, Koestler captures the ethical contest between communism and God. The applicability of this contest extends beyond communism -- it applies equally to all materialist ideologies and therein lies the importance of this work. The statement of the ethical contest is as alive and well today as it was in 1940.
Nota bene. We see many similarities between the Soviet Union’s ethical theory and the predominant ethical theories of the Modern Left. These dogmas are, in part, that the ends justify the means; the individual is utterly subservient to the greater good of the community; and the very conception of God is irrelevant to the underpinnings of all social institutions. But a necessary point needs to be understood -- a weakness of the Left and its materialist orientation is not that it seeks to has an aggressive theory of justice (albeit warped) that it wants to see implemented. At least in the United States, the American Right seems to favor an essentially anarchic view of corporate justice -- an aggressive rejection that any corporate sense of justice is possible and therefore we collectively should eschew any attempt to do so other than enshrining a negative notion of liberty as paramount. Freedom from thus takes precedence any notion of Freedom for.
Catholics ought to reject this libertarian view. We, like Leftists, should not believe freedom is a negative quality -- we have freedom for something, to do something. Unlike Leftists who model their modes of justice on essentially anthropocentric materialist notions, our notions of freedom and justice must be rooted in Catholicism’s moral teachings. Libertarians and Leftists both essentially agree on, for example, the licitness of so-called “gay marriage;” obviously on very different grounds. One says it is just; the other says it is none of my business. We say -- we must say -- no, it is not just and very much our business. In this way, the Catholic romance with the American Republican party is a gross mistake.
The ethical contest ultimately devolves into two camps: materialism and Catholicism. Each has its ethical conceptions and its social nature. The naive embrace of Americanism by most recently the Second Vatican Council Fathers in "Dignitatis humanae" is a disaster inasmuch as it gutted the political and temporal reality of the Church’s right role in social institutions. Make no mistake, the Hegelian notion of the end-of-history as a dialectical destiny is false and idea that liberal democracies represent the final system of human organization -- something "Dignitatis humanae" implicitly would seem to endorse -- is likewise false. This middle space -- this land where no ultimate conception of social truth predominates -- cannot last. These liberal democracies are about to consume themselves in a fit of narcissism and hedonism -- true to the vacuous nature of their value-less cultures. They don’t stand for anything and are rotting from the inside out. They will totter and fall and again the competition will be necessarily for those seek to build a society with justice as its core. Catholics must stop pretending as if our religion is purely a private matter -- like Leftists, our conception of justice must be implemented or our religion will die (as it is now dying suffering under the folly of "Dignitatis humanae").
Darkness at Noon is helpful because it highlights what really is at stake.
Darkness at Noon is helpful because it highlights what really is at stake.
May God give us the gumption and virtue to rebuild.