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Koestler's Socialist Political Philosophy

(Novels for Students)

Communist theorist Leon Trotsky Published by Gale Cengage

Most of the criticism of Darkness at Noon has concentrated on its convincing and insightful case against Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Because he is so familiar with Party thinking, and because he is able to portray so compellingly the psychology of a former Communist hero losing his faith, Koestler has been uniquely influential in the twentieth-century debate about Soviet politics. His novel has been set as a classroom text in the United States and Britain and generally understood as a rebuttal of Communism or even as a vindication of capitalism. While it is true, however, that Koestler attacks Stalinist ideology at its roots, the political argument of his novel retains basic socialist beliefs.

This is not to say that Koestler confines his criticism to Stalin’s dictatorship. Darkness at Noon is a thorough rebuttal of Bolshevik philosophy, which had always stressed the ends over the means and condoned violence in the name of the ultimate utopian goal. In his 1944 essay “Arthur Koestler,” George Orwell paraphrases Koestler’s argument: “all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the OGPU [the Soviet secret police], Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive.” Immoral and brutal totalitarianism is the necessary result of the Bolshevik doctrine that violent revolution, not gradual reform, is the way to achieve a Marxist economic system.

Koestler thoroughly establishes this point by connecting Rubashov’s absurd final confessions to his Bolshevik beliefs. The third hearing and Rubashov’s admission of specific crimes, which represent the furthest totalitarian extension of the original idea that he is guilty of “oppositional views,” are obtained by Rubashov’s own rationalistic logic, the same logic that justified his involvement in the civil war. In Koestler’s analysis, Gletkin is merely a tool to help Rubashov think out everything to its logical conclusion, and Rubashov’s physical exhaustion is an expression of the limits of human rationality, the inability for humans to actually see the final picture. This is why, in his final thoughts, Koestler emphasizes Rubashov’s inability to see anything but “desert and the darkness of night,” and this is why, with humans unable to see the end, the ends cannot possibly justify the means.

It is important to remember here that this is Koestler’s unique view on the trials of the late 1930s; historians have come to the consensus that it does not reflect the reasoning behind the confessions on which the novel was based. As Stephen Cohen writes in his biography of Nicolai Bukharin, perhaps the principal influence on Rubashov’s character:

Owing to Koestler’s powerful art, this image of Bukharin-Rubashov as repentant Bolshevik and morally bankrupt intellectual prevailed for two generations. In fact, however, as some understood at the time and others eventually came to see, Bukharin did not really confess to criminal charges at all.

Instead, Bukharin withdrew his confession (which was most likely given in hopes of saving his wife and child) and admitted only to general opposition to Stalin’s regime. Although he may have believed that Rubashov’s reasoning was a common cause of confession, Koestler was less interested in providing a historically accurate piece of political fiction than he was in emphasizing that the old Bolsheviks were responsible for the totalitarian trend of the USSR. He clearly sympathizes with the Rubashovs and Bukharins (having been a Party member himself), but his novel argues that socialists have been led astray ever since Lenin abandoned the idea of gradual reform and turned to violent revolutionary tactics.

It is at precisely this point in history, therefore, that Koestler aims his argument; Rubashov’s logic stretches back to the break between Bolshevism and Menshevism. Lenin had always been in favor of actively, forcefully if necessary,...

(The entire section is 7,697 words.)