"For what am I fighting?": George Orwell on Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"

Republished 1941 review shows the influence Kostler's dystopian classic had on Orwell.

"Darkness at Noon" (1940) dramatises the Moscow show trials and Stalin’s "Great Purge" of Old Bolsheviks. In his review for the New Statesman, Orwell praised Koestler’s “inner knowledge of totalitarian methods”: “The common people,” argues the Party operative Ivanov, “cannot grasp ‘deviation’ is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented.” Many see Rubashov’s confession as a direct influence upon Winston Smith’s.

Orwell used his review as an opportunity to chastise the left-wing press in Britain for their refusal to speak up; a powerful statement made two years after Kingsley Martin refused to publish his despatches from Spain, fearing they would appear critical of Stalin, and therefore socialism: “What was frightening about these trials was not that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

Mr Arthur Koestler should know something about prison, for he has spent a respectable proportion of the past four years there. First a long stretch in one of Franco’s fortresses, with the sound of firing squads ringing through the walls twenty or thirty times a day; then a year or so of internment in France; then escape to England, and a fresh internment in Pentonville – from which he has just been unconditionally released, however. In no case, needless to say, has he been accused of any particular crime. Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what one does but for what one is, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being. Still, Mr Koestler can congratulate himself on having hitherto fallen only into the hands of amateurs. If England imprisoned him, it at any rate let him out again, and did not force him beforehand to confess to poisoning sheep, committing sabotage on the railways or plotting to assassinate the King.

His present novel, fruit of his own experiences, is a tale of the imprisonment, confession and death of one of the Old Bolsheviks, a composite picture having resemblances to both Bukharin and Trotsky. The events in it follow the normal course. Rubashov, one of the last survivors of the original Central Committee of the Communist Party, is arrested, is charged with incredible crimes, denies everything, is tortured and is shot in the back of the neck. The story ends with a young girl in whose house Rubashov has once lodged wondering whether to denounce her father to the Secret Police as a way of securing a flat for herself and her future husband. Almost its whole interest, however, centres about the intellectual struggle between three men, Rubashov himself and the two GPU officers, Invanov and Gletkin, who are dealing with his case. Ivanov belongs to the same generation as Rubashov himself and is suddenly purged and shot without trial in the middle of the proceedings. Gletkin, however, belongs to the new generation that has grown up since the Revolution, in complete isolation both from the outside world and from the past. He is the “good Party man,” an almost perfect specimen of the human gramophone. Ivanov does not actually believe that Rubashov has committed the preposterous deeds he is charged with. The argument he uses to induce him to confess is that it is a last service required of him by the Party. The common people, he says, cannot grasp that “deviation” is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort that they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented. Gletkin uses the same argument, but his attitude is somewhat different. It is never certain whether he believes Rubashov to be guilty or not; or, more exactly, no distinction between guilt and innocence exists in his mind. The only form of criticism that he is able to imagine is murder. As he sees it, anyone capable of thinking a disrespectful thought about Stalin would, as a matter of course, attempt to assassinate him. Therefore, though the attempt at assassination has perhaps not been made, it can be held to have been made; it exists, like the undrawn production to a line. Gletkin’s strength lies in the complete severance from the past, which leaves him not only without pity but without imagination or inconvenient knowledge. On the other hand, it was the weakness of the Old Bolsheviks to have remains Europeans at heart, more akin to the society they overthrew than to the new race of monsters they created.

When Rubashov gives in and confesses, it is not because of the torture – he has suffered worse at the hands of the Nazis without confessing – so much as from complete inner emptiness. “I asked myself,” he says at his trial, almost in Bukharin’s words, “‘For what am I fighting?’” For what, indeed? Any right to protest against torture, secret prisons, organised lying and so forth he has long since forfeited. He recognises that what is now happening is the consequence of his own acts – even feels a sort of admiration for Gletkin, as the kind of subhuman being probably needed to guide the Revolution through its present stage. The Moscow trials were a horrible spectacle, but if one remembered what the history of the Old Bolsheviks had been it was difficult to be sorry for them as individuals. They took the sword, and they perished by the sword, as Stalin presumably will also, unless he should happen to die prematurely, like Lenin.

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. Correspondents of Liberal newspapers pronounced themselves “completely satisfied” by the confessions of men who had been dragged into the light after, in some cases, years of solitary confinement; an eminent lawyer even produced a theory that the loss of the right to appeal was a great advantage to the accused! The simultaneous cases in Spain, in which exactly the same accusations were made but no confessions obtained, were sedulously covered up or lied about in the Left-wing press. It was, of course, obvious that the accused in the Russian cases had been tortured or threatened with torture, but the explanation is probably more complex than that. Mr Koestler thinks, like Souvarine, that “for the good of the Party” was probably the final argument; indeed, his book is rather like an expanded pamphlet, Cauchemar en URSS. As a piece of writing it is a notable advance on his earlier work.

4 January 1941

Arthur Koestler at home in Austria in 1967. Photo: Getty Images.

George Orwell was a contributor of the New Statesman in the Thirties and Forties.

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era