"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.

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TV show ideas better than the Game of Thrones showrunners’ series about slavery

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

So David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners on Game of Thrones, have announced their next TV idea: a revisionist piece where slavery never ended in America. The response was... not good. As Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast, “this harebrained idea serves as yet another reminder that the imaginations of white men can be incredibly myopic... this show sounds stupid as hell.” So I and the New Statesman web team came up with our suggestions for TV shows we’d rather watch. Please enjoy.

The Office, except it’s your office, every day, from 9-5, from now until you’re 70.

Blackadder, but it’s just about fucking snakes.

Pingu, but after the icecaps have melted.

A children’s TV show about a time-travelling grammar-obsessed medical pedant called Doctor Whom.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but it’s just me, trying to talk to people in various social settings.

The Great British Hake Off: who has the best medium to large seawater fish averaging from 1 to 8 pounds?

Gilmore Girl. Lorelai is dead.

Brooklyn 99. Let’s go buy an ice cream in New York City, baby!

Come Dine With Me. The host only cooks one meal and other contestants fight for it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Alan Sugar selling broomsticks in Romford market.

Match of the Day, but it’s just about actual wooden matches.

One Tree Hill. It’s just a tree on a hill.

House of Cards. It’s a man building a – ok I think you get where we’re going with this now.

Knife Swap: what happens when gangs trade territories?

Recess: a provincial MP goes home and sorts out his guttering.

Blue Planet: on the ground in the smurf community.

Transparent: Your TV, replaced with glass.

Game of Thrones, without the violence against women.

Friends, but without modern medicine so all the friends die by age 25. Except Ross. Ross lives.

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

Rugrats, but it’s just one long tracking shot of a rat-infested rug.

A talking head countdown starring minor British celebrities but instead of the best comedies of the 1970s or whatever they’re just ranking other talking head countdowns starring minor British celebrities.

30 Rocks: seven sweet, sweet hours of unfiltered footage of 30 motionless rocks.

Live footage of the emotional breakdown I’m having while writing this article.

The Good Wife: she’s just super sweet and likes making everyone cookies!

Stranger Things, but it’s about the time that stranger walked towards you and you both moved right and then both moved left to avoid each other and oh my God how is this still happening.

Parks and Recreation: Just a couple o’ pals having fun in the park!

Who Do You Think You Are? Just loads of your ancestors asking you how you even sleep at night.

The Crown: some really graphic childbirth footage playing on repeat.

Downtown Abbey: nuns in inner city Chicago.

Peeky Blinders: a study of neighbourhood curtain twitchers in a Belfast suburb.

DIY: SOS. The emergency services are called every episode!

The Big Bang Theory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.