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The Individual and the Collective

One of the main ideas with which Arthur Koestler grapples in Darkness at Noon is the belief, central to Communist ideology in the USSR, that the individual is unimportant or even nonexistent in comparison to the collective. It is this belief that allows Party officials like Rubashov, Ivanov, and Gletkin to sacrifice individual Party members like Richard, Little Loewy, Arlova, Bogrov, Hare-lip, and Rubashov himself without emotion or regret. While in prison, however, Rubashov begins to question the decisions he made to denounce or expel individual people for the sake of the Party. After he sees his old friend Bogrov dragged past his cell, calling Rubashov’s name, Rubashov finds he can no longer subscribe to the old logic still employed by his former commander, Ivanov, who justifies Bogrov’s execution by claiming that it was necessary to the collective good. There are two distinct forms of morality, Ivanov claims:

“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.”

Ivanov argues that humanist (“anti-vivisection”) morality is impossible for any ruler to actually uphold, and he finds Rubashov’s newfound concern for the rights of individuals sentimental.

Rubashov also begins to acknowledge his own individuality for the first time, referring to this illogical, deeply personal part of himself as the “silent partner” in his thoughts as the “first-person singular,” or the “grammatical fiction.” As Party members are meant to consider themselves not as individuals but as parts of a collective, Rubashov’s acknowledgment of his individuality and interior world can be considered deeply subversive.

Rubashov’s relationship with his unseen and unnamed neighbor, No. 402, demonstrates the importance of individuality as well; the two prisoners hold opposing political views and relate to one another entirely on individual, human terms. Rubashov and the other prisoners—eventually including Ivanov—are sacrificed for the sake of the preservation of the “Bastion of the Revolution,” the good of the “masses” whom Rubashov believes the Party no longer understands at all, and the creation of a utopian future that will never arrive. By the novel’s end, Rubashov is convinced that not only do the means (the denial of the individual and the pursuit of pure reason) fail to justify the end (supposed social progress), but the means actually affect the end, meaning that unjust methods warp and obscure the goals to which they are applied. Rubashov no longer believes in the Party’s methods, and when he tries to picture its present or future achievements, he sees “nothing but desert and the darkness of night.”

Old Guard versus New Guard

Many of the events of Darkness at Noon —the arrests, imprisonments, trials, and executions—revolve around the fact that the “new guard,” represented primarily by Gletkin, is eliminating the “old guard” represented by Rubashov, Ivanov, Bogrov, and the polite, elderly veteran of twenty years’ imprisonment called Rip Van Winkle. Just as No. 1 (Joseph Stalin) replaced the original leader of the Communist Party (Vladimir Lenin), the new guard are now replacing the older intellectuals and revolutionaries who led the revolution, fought in the Russian Civil War, and brought the USSR into being. The world of the old guard and its dreams of global...

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revolution is vanishing as its members are systematically “liquidated.” Rubashov’s counter-revolutionary neighbor, No. 402, belongs to an old, dying world as well—the pre-revolutionary, monarchist world of Russia under the Czar, where honor was romantically defined as dying bravely for one’s beliefs, and the soldiering life was “jolly good fun.” Rubashov fought to change that world by pledging himself to the “Party of the Plebs,” but now, worn-out and defeated, he finds himself an unwanted citizen of a world being remade by the new breed of Communists he calls the “Gletkins” or the “Neanderthalers”: the younger generation who grew up after the revolution and are, for all their ruthlessness, humorlessness, and blind faith in the Party, the old guard’s “spiritual heirs.” He describes the essential difference between the new and old guard this way:

Ivanov had trailed his past after him to the end; that was what gave everything he said that undertone of frivolous melancholy; that was why Gletkin had called him a cynic. The Gletkins had nothing to erase; they need not deny their past, because they had none. They were born without umbilical cord, without frivolity, without melancholy.

During his interrogation by Gletkin, Rubashov reflects that the charges against him are absurd because the old guard spent all their spiritual energy long ago, during the revolution, the war, and the bouts of imprisonment and torture they all endured and which have left Rubashov and his comrades much too exhausted to act on the traitorous impulses of which they are now being accused. Eventually Rubashov resigns himself to the idea that the only thing left for him and the rest of the old guard to do is to accept that they are being scapegoated and sacrificed by the new guard who have replaced them—and then to “sleep” and wait for history to judge their actions.


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Political PhilosophyDarkness at Noon is concerned with the some of the most important controversies in twentieth-century political thought. In addition to a topical exploration of the political theory behind the Communist Party in Moscow, the novel engages in a wider debate on morality, justice, and philosophy in modern political systems. It considers the fundamental elements of revolutionary ideology and social morality, using a particular political atrocity to evaluate the set of values at its core.

The values under question are not, principally, Marxism or socialism, although Koestler is interested in questions of social justice, the distribution of resources, and how to adapt a socialist political theory to the demands of an actual society. Rubashov’s philosophical crisis is better understood in terms of the debate on the basic tenets of revolution and the justification behind an authoritative totalitarian regime (a state of which the head is a dictator that forcefully suppresses dissenters) or, as Rubashov puts it, whether the “ends justify the means.” Rubashov’s conflict is whether an ultimate utopian goal such as a socialist state justifies brutal and totalitarian methods.

As becomes clear in the novel, Communist Party theory is only concerned with the objective. Morality is determined by the ultimate result of logic and rationality; intent, psychology, and individual desire are unimportant and merely serve to distract from what is important. One of Koestler’s most successful efforts in his novel is to follow this very same method of rational thinking to the absurd result of Rubashov’s confession. Koestler throws into question the philosophical basis for Stalinist policy and attacks the fundamental assumptions of a totalitarian government, skeptical that authoritative means can or ever will be justified.

By the end of the novel, Koestler is at his most doubtful about the end—“Wherever [Rubashov’s] eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night”—and he has highlighted the bleakest possible means. Under Koestler’s analysis, it appears unlikely that an authoritative revolutionary model for a totalitarian system can result in a just state, and this statement is all the more poignant coming from an author who understands Communist philosophy so thoroughly and presents it so convincingly.

Rubashov is a lifelong supporter of the Communist Party; he believes individualism is a “petty bourgeois” notion and a “grammatical fiction” that is insignificant compared to the well-being of the masses. He views himself as an instrument of the Party and, like many Communists, is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the country. Yet he undergoes a profound change during the course of the novel, and by the last chapter, the grammatical fiction is a prominent part of his character.

The most revealing sign of Rubashov’s developing individuality is his relationship with No. 402, the neighbor with whom he communicates by tapping out ideas in a primitive fashion. No. 402’s preoccupation with anecdotes, jokes, and stories about sex instead of political matters signals his connection to individualism. Also, No. 402’s importance to Rubashov’s developing individuality is emphasized by the fact that No. 402 is a conformist from an earlier ideological era, that their first words to each other are “WHO,” and that their friendship, which becomes very important to each of them, has nothing to do with ideology but solely with human connection.

Individualism is not confined to Rubashov’s sense of self; it invades his philosophizing and becomes vital to the political analysis of the novel. Just before he is taken to be executed, Rubashov’s vision of a potential political future is dominated by what he calls the “oceanic feeling” and what psychologists would call an expression of the limitless sense of self associated with individuality. This political vision, with its religious cult of followers in “monks’ cowls,” is probably not posed as a viable alternative to Communism, however. In fact, it appears to be an irony on the glorification of individualism that would be the opposite of the Communist position and suggests that Koestler is by no means advocating any kind of unbounded individualism in politics. Nevertheless, the book refutes the idea that individualism should always be repressed and highlights a case where its repression has a dreadful result.

Psychological Limits
Along with political explorations of a totalitarian and authoritarian state, Koestler provides a focused portrait of a character undergoing a kind of psychological tyranny. The novel examines the results of the complete mental exhaustion of a character extremely firm in his rationality and accustomed to all kinds of physical torture. In what Gletkin calls “a matter of constitution,” Rubashov is denied any sleep or mental rest and is brought through a nightmare of questioning and humiliation until he arrives at what is, in a perverse way, the extreme conclusion of his rational thoughts. This study of the human capacity to be an instrument of logic without comfort or individuality is an important theme of the text and is one of the defining distinctions between what Rubashov considers the “old guard” and the “Neanderthal” new type of Communist.


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