On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was shot and killed in the hallway outside his office. The assassin, an unemployed man who had been expelled from the Party and bore a grudge against its leadership, was apprehended on the spot, but the case still raised questions. How did the killer get his pistol? Who had called off the bodyguards who usually surrounded Kirov at all times?
Today, most historians agree that it was Joseph Stalin himself who ordered the murder, in order to eliminate a potential rival. But the official investigation came to quite different conclusions. During the next four years, it metastasized into a conspiracy-hunt that claimed to expose shocking villainy at the highest levels of Russia’s government, military, and industry. In a series of trials that were publicized around the world, some of the oldest and most trusted Bolshevik leaders—men who, with Lenin, had led the Russian Revolution—were accused of being traitors. Supposedly, acting on orders from Stalin’s exiled rival Leon Trotsky, they had plotted to murder Stalin, to hand Soviet territory over to Nazi Germany, and to restore capitalism in Russia. Their alleged methods included not just assassinations but also industrial sabotage, or “wrecking”—even putting ground glass in the nation’s butter supply.
At the conclusion of the trial of two veteran Party leaders, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, the state prosecutor general, Andrey Vyshinsky, denounced the defendants with florid Stalinist rhetoric: “These mad dogs of capitalism tried to tear limb from limb the best of the best of our Soviet land. . . . I demand that these dogs gone mad should be shot—every one of them!” There was never any doubt about the verdict or the sentence. And the Party leaders who were condemned, in what came to be known as the Moscow Trials, were only the most prominent of the victims. Stalin’s Great Purge, of 1936-38, ultimately took the lives of a million Soviet citizens, and sent millions more to the Gulag.
By the late nineteen-thirties, Western intellectuals who sympathized with Communism had already proved themselves capable of accepting a great deal of killing in the name of the cause. Such “fellow-travellers” usually justified Stalinism’s crimes as the necessary price of building a socialist future, and of defending it against a hostile capitalist world. Walter Duranty, the Times’ correspondent in Moscow, excused the three million famine deaths that were caused by the push to collectivize Soviet agriculture, writing that, “to put it brutally—you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
The Moscow Trials, however, presented a different sort of challenge to the Communist faith. It was one thing to unleash the power of the state against kulaks, the wealthy peasants who were key villains in Soviet mythology. But how could it be that Old Bolsheviks, who had, until the day before yesterday, been the rulers of the Soviet Union, were secret counter-revolutionaries? On the other hand, if the charges were false, why did the defendants confess? Zinoviev, who had been a member of the first Politburo, in 1917, and the head of the Comintern, said, “My defective Bolshevism became transformed into anti-Bolshevism, and through Trotskyism I arrived at Fascism.” Kamenev concluded his statement by addressing his children: “No matter what my sentence will be, I in advance consider it just. Don’t look back. Go forward together with the Soviet people, follow Stalin.”
Did such men simply give in to prolonged interrogation—the so-called “conveyor,” whereby prisoners were questioned for days on end by a team of agents working in shifts—or to outright torture? Were they trying to protect their wives and children, who were effectively Stalin’s hostages? Or did they feel that, in some obscure way, they deserved punishment for crimes they hadn’t committed? Here was a problem for a psychologist—or, better, for a novelist, one who understood Communism from the inside and knew what it was like to be a political prisoner.
That novelist was Arthur Koestler, and the book that the Moscow Trials inspired him to write was “Darkness at Noon,” which became one of the most important political novels of the twentieth century. Telling the story of a veteran Bolshevik who is awaiting trial for treason, the book originally appeared in December, 1940, just two years after the events that it drew on, and became a worldwide phenomenon. In America, it was a best-seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and was soon adapted into a hit Broadway play. When it appeared in France, in the spring of 1945, it sold half a million copies. Some observers credited “Darkness at Noon” with tipping the balance against the Communists in the French elections of 1946.
Now Scribner has published a new translation of the book, by Philip Boehm, based on the original German manuscript, which was discovered in a Swiss archive in 2015 after being lost for seventy-five years. The story of how it disappeared in the first place gives a vivid sense of the dislocated world from which the novel emerged. Koestler began writing “Darkness at Noon”—under its original title, “The Vicious Circle”—early in 1939, in France, where he had lived as a stateless refugee ever since Hitler came to power in Germany, six years before. When the Second World War broke out, that September, the French government took the opportunity to sweep up such immigrants—especially those who, like Koestler, had Communist Party connections—and put them in internment camps.
From October, 1939, to January, 1940, Koestler had to abandon work on the novel while he was a prisoner at a camp in southwestern France. When he was released, after string-pulling by some highly placed literary and political friends, he returned to Paris and quickly finished the book. As Koestler worked, his English girlfriend, Daphne Hardy, sat in the same room producing an English translation, and, at the beginning of May, both manuscripts were mailed out—the English version to a publisher in London, and the German version to a publisher in neutral Switzerland.
Ten days later, the Germans invaded France and swiftly conquered the country. Koestler, who was a Jew, a Communist, and a refugee, knew that if he fell into Nazi hands he would certainly be killed, and he and Hardy embarked on a headlong dash for the unoccupied southern zone of the country, separating along the way. Hardy, a British citizen, made it back to London fairly easily, but Koestler underwent a months-long odyssey, during which he joined and then quit the French Foreign Legion, twice attempted suicide (once with morphine, once with cyanide—miraculously, neither worked), and finally smuggled himself, via Morocco and Portugal, to England, where he was promptly arrested once again.
While he was in transit, Hardy had been corresponding with the London publisher, which, despite some reservations, had accepted the novel for publication. When the publisher objected to Koestler’s original title, it was Hardy who, unable to contact Koestler, decided on calling it “Darkness at Noon.” The phrase was an allusion to Job 5:14: “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night”—a description of both the moral conundrums facing the novel’s protagonist and the desperate plight of Koestler himself. The German manuscript, meanwhile, was presumed to have been lost in the chaos of war, and so the English translation of the novel became, in effect, the original, from which all subsequent translations were made, including one back into German. The new edition is the first to return to Koestler’s German text, and aims to replace Hardy’s version, which was the hasty work of an inexperienced translator—though, clearly, it was good enough to have secured the novel’s global reputation.
This new “Darkness at Noon” arrives in a very different world from that which greeted the original, and one important difference has to do with Koestler’s reputation. In 1940, he was thirty-five and little known in the English-speaking world. He had been a successful journalist in Berlin and a Communist Party activist in Paris, but “Darkness at Noon” was his first published novel. It transformed him from a penniless refugee into a wealthy and famous man, and was also the best book he would ever write. It was followed, in the forties, by an important book of essays, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” and several thought-provoking but less consequential novels of politics and ideas, including “Arrival and Departure,” which reckoned with Freudianism, and “Thieves in the Night,” about Jewish settlers in Palestine.
But after that Koestler’s reputation took a fairly steep dive, as he turned from fiction to pop-scientific works that earned the scorn of actual scientists, especially when he began to embrace E.S.P. and other paranormal phenomena. By the time Koestler died, in 1983—in a double suicide with his wife, Cynthia, after he was given a diagnosis of terminal leukemia—he already seemed to belong to history. And the dive turned into an irrecoverable plummet after the publication, in the past two decades, of biographies by Michael Scammell and David Cesarani, which exposed him as an egotistical monster with a lifelong pattern of abusing women emotionally and physically. At least one woman accused Koestler of rape, but many others described behavior that today would certainly be classified as sexual abuse. Simone de Beauvoir said that he kept aggressively “pushing and pushing” her to sleep with him until she gave in: “I really detested him, that arrogant fool.”
If Koestler’s biography raises one barrier to his reception, a changed political climate raises another. Soviet Communism in its heyday served many people around the world as a secular religion. Today, although Marxist ideas and the label “socialist” have been resurgent on the left, the enormous influence once exerted by Communism now seems a distant phenomenon. To its adherents, Communism was not just a party identification but a complete theory of life and history, which dictated both personal and political morality. And it was the conflict between that morality and ordinary moral instincts—which condemned things like lying and killing, which the Party often demanded—that provided the dramatic focus of “Darkness at Noon.” The novel reminds us of a time when literature was felt to be urgently political—when the critic Lionel Trilling could speak of “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” This gave Koestler, like his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, and Albert Camus, a kind of authority that no novelist approaches today.
“Darkness at Noon” is certainly dated, in the sense that an effort of imagination is needed to enter into its time and place. But its central theme will probably always seem timely, because every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means. As Koestler saw, this problem reached its pure form in Communism because its avowed aim was the noblest of all: the permanent abolition of social injustice throughout the world. If this could be achieved, what price would be too high? Maybe a million or ten million people would die today, but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it? A Communist revolutionary, Koestler writes, “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.”
Koestler’s protagonist, Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov, is one such righteous butcher, now facing his turn on the chopping block. The figure Rubashov especially evokes is Nikolai Bukharin, a veteran theorist of revolution who was the most famous of the defendants in the Moscow Trials. Like all the other defendants, Bukharin ended up pleading guilty, and the new edition of “Darkness at Noon” usefully reproduces a speech that he gave at his trial. “I consider myself responsible for a grave and monstrous crime against the socialist fatherland and the whole international proletariat,” he said.
Yet there was ambiguity in that “consider myself responsible,” for Bukharin insisted that he was unaware of any of the specific plots of sabotage and assassination with which he had been charged. His crime, he seemed to be saying, was not actual but mental, even metaphysical. Perhaps he was pleading guilty only because he knew that it was the last service he could render to the Party, which he had served for so long. “For when you ask yourself, ‘If you must die, what are you dying for?,’ an absolutely black vacuity suddenly rises before you with startling vividness,” Bukharin said in the courtroom. “There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented.” Repentance, even false repentance, could give propaganda value to what would otherwise be a meaningless death.
“What company do you see yourself starting when you leave this one in five years?”Cartoon by Jeremy Nguyen
In “Darkness at Noon,” Koestler inserts a version of these words into a speech that Rubashov gives at his trial. But although Rubashov dies as a loyal Party member, by the end of the book he has lost his certainty that the things he did in the Party’s service were justified. Indeed, Koestler suggests that the Moscow defendants may have pleaded guilty as a form of clandestine atonement for crimes they really did commit at the Party’s command. “They were all guilty, just not of those particular deeds to which they were confessing,” Koestler writes.
Much of the power of the book comes from its journalistic immediacy and the authenticity of its details. Rubashov’s jailers, for instance, work on his nerves by leading a prisoner who was his friend past his cell on the way to execution; Robert Conquest, in his groundbreaking history “The Great Terror” (1968), confirmed that this was a standard technique in Soviet prisons. Koestler explains the code that political prisoners developed in order to carry out conversations by tapping on the walls of their cells. And he knew that the most common way of executing prisoners was to shoot them in the back of the head when they weren’t expecting it—which is how Rubashov dies in the final pages of the novel.
But the real plot of “Darkness at Noon” is almost entirely internal. It lies in Rubashov’s evolving realization of his guilt, and his loss of belief in the infallible justice of Communism. Early in the book, a flashback shows Rubashov on a mission in Nazi Germany in 1933, just after Hitler seized power and banned the Communist Party. In a thrillerlike scene, Rubashov covertly meets with a German Communist named Richard, who pours out his grief to this representative of the socialist fatherland: his comrades have been murdered, he is living in hiding, and he is losing faith in the cause. Rather than sympathize with him or promise help, Rubashov tells Richard that he is being expelled from the Party because he dared to distribute pamphlets that, as he coldly says, “contained wordings that the party considers politically inadmissible.” By the end of the scene, it’s clear that Richard has been marked for death.
“The party cannot be wrong,” Rubashov says. “You and I can make mistakes—but not the party.” Anyone who disagrees with the Party’s dictates is on the wrong side of history, and so deserves to be eliminated. The Moscow Trials, Koestler suggests, were just the latest example of a tendency toward self-cannibalism that had been there from the start.
It is no accident—to use a phrase favored by Communist writers of the time—that Koestler found the Party’s treatment of foreign comrades to be the most conspicuous example of its injustice, since he had spent most of the thirties as one of those comrades. Born into a Jewish family in Hungary in 1905, Koestler had already lived several professional and ideological lives by the time he joined the Party, in 1931. As a teen-ager, he had been a committed Zionist who moved to Palestine to work on an agricultural settlement. Quickly realizing that this austere existence was not for him, Koestler transformed himself into a journalist, working as a stringer for German newspapers. After two years, he returned to Europe, and by the end of the twenties he had a precociously successful career in Berlin, working as an editor and writer for one of Germany’s biggest liberal dailies.
In the essay that he contributed to “The God That Failed” (1949), a collection of six memoirs by ex-Communist writers, Koestler recalled how conditions in Weimar Germany turned him into a Communist. “Germany lived in a state of latent civil war, and if one wasn’t prepared to be swept along as a passive victim by the approaching hurricane it became imperative to take sides,” he wrote. If the future was a struggle between Nazism and Communism, then Communism was the only possible choice. But Koestler emphasized that he did not become a Communist “by a process of elimination.” Rather, he compared the experience to a religious conversion. “The whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” he wrote. “There is now an answer to every question.”
For the next seven years, Communism was at the center of Koestler’s life and work. “I served the Communist Party for seven years—the same length of time as Jacob tended Laban’s sheep to win Rachel his daughter,” he wrote, in “The God That Failed.” (In the Biblical story, Jacob finds out, at the end of that time, that he’s been tricked and given the wrong bride.) In 1932, after losing his highly paid job—because, he claimed, his employers learned that he had joined the Party—Koestler made a pilgrimage to the Soviet Union, where he spent eighteen months travelling around in order to write a propagandistic book praising the Soviet experiment. By the time he left Russia, in 1933, Hitler was in power and he couldn’t return to Germany. Instead, he went to France, where he worked for a series of Party-funded publications and agencies until 1938.
Throughout this period, Koestler later wrote, he was well aware of the gulf between Communist ideals and the reality they produced. He had seen the victims of famine in Ukraine, and he had gone along with the Party’s ruthless imposition of the official line. But he still felt that the only way to improve the Party was from within. Indeed, he was willing to risk his life for it: in 1937, Koestler went to report on the Spanish Civil War for the News Chronicle, a British daily, knowing that if he was captured by Franco’s Nationalists his life would be in danger. In February, he was caught in the city of Málaga, as it fell to Franco’s forces, and taken prisoner. For the next three months, he lived in a cell not unlike Rubashov’s, as his fellow-prisoners were executed and he waited for his turn. But, because he had been on assignment for an English newspaper, the British government and press took an interest. The public attention meant that Koestler was spared; in the end, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
This experience, which Koestler wrote about in his memoir “Dialogue with Death,” could have strengthened his Communist convictions—after all, he had been imprisoned as a rojo, a Red. Instead, his imprisonment awakened a new sense of the preciousness of freedom. “Strangely enough,” he wrote, “I feel that I have never been so free as I was then.” This was an existentialist kind of freedom, cold and clear, the last possession of someone with nothing left to lose.
Once he was released, Koestler found it impossible to retreat back into the intellectual orthodoxy of Party life. Events in Russia—including the news that three of his closest friends had been arrested in Stalin’s purge—only confirmed his disillusionment. In 1938, the year he resigned from the Party, Koestler gave a speech to an audience of refugee intellectuals in Paris, in which he affirmed that “a harmful truth is better than a useful lie,” and that “no movement, party or person can claim the privilege of infallibility.” His listeners, he remembered, were split in their reactions: “The non-Communist half of the audience applauded, the Communist half sat in heavy silence, most of them with folded arms.”
“Darkness at Noon,” which Koestler began writing the following year, in the South of France, was his attempt to work through the intellectual and emotional reasons for breaking with the Party. Rubashov is a better Communist than Koestler ever was, and the purity of Rubashov’s faith allows the novel to lay bare its contradictions. How did Communism, with its dream of a perfectly just society, result in Stalinism, with its paranoia, persecution, incompetence, and cruelty? “Our principles were all correct, but our results were all wrong,” Rubashov muses. “We brought you the truth, and in our mouths it sounded like a lie.”
Koestler’s reckoning with Communism is very different from Orwell’s vision in “1984,” which was published nine years later. In Orwell’s dystopia, “Ingsoc,” English socialism, is not really an ideology at all, just a tissue of lies and a tool for mass hypnosis. The Party’s leader, O’Brien, famously tells Winston Smith, after his arrest, that the core of its appeal is pure sadism, the pleasure of exercising total power over another: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Stalinism, for Orwell, dressed up this power worship in a lot of meaningless doctrine that people learned to repeat without thinking about it—what the novel calls “duckspeak.”
Orwell’s book, in other words, is relatively indifferent to the intellectual content of Communism, which may explain why it is now more popular than Koestler’s. Koestler takes dialectics seriously. Marx claimed to have shown that history was a process of continual conflict moving toward a final redemption, when the proletariat would cast off its chains and the exploitation of humanity would disappear. For Koestler, it was the belief in the historical inevitability of this outcome that enabled the Bolsheviks to act with such ruthlessness: acts that ordinary morality judged to be wrong would be justified as right and necessary once a classless society had been established. “Whoever proves right in the end must first be and do wrong,” Rubashov says. But, as he sits in his cell, he comes to realize the immensity of this moral gamble; for if the revolution fails, and a just society doesn’t come into being, then the revolutionaries’ crimes will remain merely that. “It is only after the fact that we learn who was right to begin with,” Rubashov says. “In the meantime we act on credit, in the hope of being absolved by history.”
The deferral of responsibility for one’s own actions to an outside agency, such as history, is what Sartre, in his existentialist writings of the time, defined as “bad faith.” And Rubashov’s awakening, like Koestler’s in his Spanish cell, is a kind of existential crisis—a sudden recognition of the necessity of individual judgment. The Communist Party, Koestler writes, has “a tendency to shy away from using the first-person singular,” since it reckons in masses, not individuals. The “I” is, for the Party, nothing more than “the grammatical fiction,” an illusion that had to be overcome in order to achieve justice for the many.
But Rubashov’s experience in prison convinces him that the “I,” for all its fragility, is of infinite value, because it is the ultimate source and basis of morality. To the Party, the fact that the “I” partakes of infinity is what makes it useless for the purposes of logic: “Infinity was a politically suspect quantity,” Koestler writes. But if you remove the irrational dimension from human existence—call it subjectivity, or, in religious terms, the soul—it turns out that you can no longer understand how people will feel and act. As Rubashov comes to see, for Communism there was a “mistake in the calculation—the equation did not add up.”
If the Soviet Union was, as its defenders often said, an experiment, for Koestler it was an experiment gone wrong, in which “the experimenters have flayed the test person alive and left him facing history with exposed tissue, muscles, and tendons.” It is Rubashov’s long-standing failure to understand this truth, not his alleged crimes against the state, that finally leads him to embrace his guilt:
Why hadn’t the prosecutor asked: “Accused Rubashov, what about infinity?” He would not have known how to answer, and here, right here, was the true source of his guilt. Could there be any greater?
At its core, “Darkness at Noon” treats Stalinism as a philosophical problem. But was it? Doubtless, most of the crimes committed in its name stemmed from more ordinary motives, like greed, fear, and hatred, just as the defendants of the Moscow Trials confessed largely out of terror and exhaustion rather than as penitence for existential guilt. Still, Koestler saw that, in the modern world, it took the ruthlessness of an idea to marshal ordinary human cruelty into an irresistible force. It is this distrust of the tyrannical power of reason, even when it considers itself most righteous and humane, that makes “Darkness at Noon” a subversive book even today. It is still hard for people who consider themselves enlightened to accept Rubashov’s hard-won conclusion: “Perhaps thinking everything through to the end was not a healthy thing to do.” ♦