A note on ‘Darkness at Noon’

Koestler's afterword on his <em>Darkness at Noon</em>

Taken from The New Statesman 18 August 1978

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is one of the most important political novels of the 20th century. It presents a grim and convincing portrait of Stalin’s show trials of his Bolshevik enemies through the story of the fictional defendant Rubashov. In this afterword, published in the New Statesman, Koestler explains why so many of the Old Bolsheviks confessed to crimes against the revolution that they had not committed.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Novels must speak for themselves; the author’s voice should not intrude between the work and the reader until the reading is over. Hence this postscript instead of a preface.

Darkness at Noon is the second novel of a trilogy - the other two are The Gladiators and Arrival and Departure - which revolves around the central theme of the ethics of violence: the problem of whether, or to what extent, a noble end justifies ignoble means. Every political leader is confronted with this dilemma at some stage of his career, but for leaders of revolutionary movements - from the slave revolt in the first century BC (the theme of The Gladiators) to the Old Bolsheviks of the 1930s and the urban guerrillas in the 1970s - the dilemma assumes a particularly stark reality, which is both immediate and timeless. It was the realisation of this timeless aspect of Stalin’s regime of terror which made me write Darkness at Noon.

I joined the Communist Party in 1931, at age of 26, when I was science editor of a liberal newspaper in Berlin. I joined the Party because it seemed to offer the only alternative to Nazism and Fascism; but also because, like Auden, Brecht, Malraux, Dos Passos, Silone, Picasso and other writers and artists of my generation, I felt irresistibly attracted by the utopian promise of a classless society which Russia held out to the Western world in the throes of economic depression and political crisis. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, I was already in the Soviet Union, where I spent a year as a guest of the Russian Writers’ Federation. From Moscow I went to Paris where I lived until France collapsed and I managed to escape to England. Altogether I remained a member of the Party for seven years.

My progressive disillusionment reached an acute stage in 1935, the year when the Great Purge started, which was to sweep most of my comrades away. But the following year I became involved in the Spanish Civil War and spent four months in Franco’s prisons. This, other diversions, which I have described elsewhere (The Invisible Writing, The God That Failed, etc), postponed the final break with the Party until 1938. In the same year I started writing Darkness at Noon.

The decisive episode which led to the break the trial of the so-called ‘Anti-Soviet Block of Rightists and Trotskyists’ which was staged in the spring of that year in Moscow. It surpassed in absurdity and horror everything had gone before. The defendants were: Nikolai Bukharin, President of the Communist International in succession of Zinoviev who been shot two years earlier; Christian Rakovsky, former head of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, former Soviet Ambassador to England and France; Nikolai Krestinsky, predecessor of Stalin as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, former Soviet Ambassador to Germany; Alexei Rykov, successor to Lenin as President of the Council of People’s Commissars. Finally Yagoda, organiser of the previous Moscow trials, head of the G.P.U. in succession to Medjinsky, whom Yagoda confessed to having poisoned. He also confessed that he had poisoned the writer Maxim Gorky. To fathom the depth of absurdity reached in this trial one must realise that if the confessions of the accused were true, then it followed that the Soviet Union and the Communist International, during the first 20 years of their existence, had been ruled by saboteurs and secret agents of the capitalist powers.

To the Western mind, ignorant of the Soviet system and the power of Marxist dialectics, the confessions in the Show Trials appeared as one of the great enigmas of our time. Why had the Old Bolsheviks, heroes and leaders of the Revolution, who had so often braved death that they called themselves ‘dead men on furlough’, confessed to these hair-raising lies? If one discounted those who were merely trying to save their necks, or trying to shield their families, or broke down under torture, there still remained a hard core of men with a revolutionary past of 30 or 40 years behind them, the veterans of Czarist prisons and Siberian exile, whose total and gleeful self-abasement remained inexplicable. It was this ‘hard core’ that Rubashov was meant to represent.

The explanation that emerged in the novel became known as the ‘Rubashov theory of the confessions’, and was the object of a prolonged public controversy. Gradually, however, the various techniques to induce mental breakdowns became known to the Western world by the picturesque term ‘brainwashing’. It was successfully applied for the first time in the Moscow trials and after the war in other Punch-and-Judy shows staged in several satellite countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia; even in North Korea. It was a versatile psychological technique which could be combined with physical torture or the administration of drugs, and could be further varied according to the victim’s personality, powers of resistance and ethical beliefs. For the vast majority of the victims physical ill-treatment, threats and promises were sufficient to make them confess to having stolen the Eiffel Tower and sold it as scrap metal. Darkness at Noon, however, is chiefly concerned with a historically significant minority, the elite of Old Bolsheviks, the men who made the Russian Revolution, changed the destiny of the world, then sank into the mud of utter self-debasement. Their fantastic self- accusations were not prompted by beatings and the promise of country datchas. They died for reasons which reflected an ideology running amuck, but within the logic of their own faith. The Gletkins, cool practitioners of inquisitorial dialectics, succeeded in breaking the Rubashovs by appealing to the noblest aspects of man: his sense of duty and self-sacrifice. Those critics who failed to appreciate this and considered the ‘Rubashov theory of the confessions’ as too far-fetched, seemed to have common sense on their side, but had no inkling of the magic attraction of totalitarian ideologies. Since the majority of politicians in the West belong to this category, they failed to grasp the lesson and the warning that it implied.

* * *

When Darkness at Noon was published England in 1940, it was discussed in left-wing circles, but otherwise caused so little stir at the end of its first year it had sold less 4,000 copies. In France it was published the end of the war and sold over 400,000 copies, breaking all previous records in French publishing history. But this was of a political than a literary event. The Communists had emerged from the German Occupation as the strongest and best-organised force. At the time in question, 1946, they occupied various Cabinet posts in the Government, had direct control over the trade unions, and indirectly, through blackmail intimidation, imposed their will to a considerable extent on the courts, on publishing and editorial offices, the film industry and literary cliques.

In this oppressive atmosphere, the novel on the Russian Purges, though dealing events that lay ten years back, assumed symbolic actuality, an allusive relevance had a deeper psychological impact than a more directly topical book could achieved. It happened to be the first moral indictment of Stalinism published in post-war France; and as it talked the authentic language of the Party, and had a Bolshevik of the Old Guard for its hero, it could not be easily dismissed as ‘reactionary’ and ‘bourgeois'. Instead, the Communists tried to intimidate the publishers of the book. When they did not succeed, they bought up entire stocks from suburban and provincial bookshops and destroyed them. As a result, the book was sold in between reprints at black-market prices three to five times higher than the official price. When the circulation had passed quarter-of-a-million mark, Communist speakers were instructed to attack book and author at their mass meetings. The pressure of intimidation may be gathered from the fact that the French translator found it advisable to hide behind a pseudonym, and subsequently to withdraw even that from the cove so that no mention of a translator appears later editions.

The controversy reached its peak during the fateful weeks preceding the referendum on the future form of the French constitution. If the Communists’ formula had carried the day this would have given them, as the numerically strongest party, nearly absolute control of the State. When the battle was over, one the leading newspapers, summing up the campaign in its editorial, said that ‘the most important single factor which led to the defeat of the Communists in the referendum on the Constitution, was a novel, Le Zero et l'Infini [the French title]’. There are a few incidents in my life to which, in hours of depression, I turn to for comfort. One of them is the episode that I have just told.

Darkness at Noon has been translated into 33 languages. Having previously circulated only in samizdat, it is finally available in Russian translation, from Chekhov Press, New York.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan