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Righteous Renegade

Enda O’Doherty

Arrow in the Blue, by Arthur Koestler, Vintage, 416 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 0099490676
The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler, Vintage, 528 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 0099490684
Darkness At Noon, by Arthur Koestler, Vintage, 224 pp, £6.99, ISBN: 0099424916
L’Homme Sans Concessions: Arthur Koestler et son siècle, by Michel Laval, Calmann-Lévy, 706 pp, €25, ISBN: 2702135668

On a cold February afternoon in 1940 a train travelling west stopped at Brest-Litovsk on a railway bridge over the river Bug, the demarcation line between the Russian and German sectors of occupied Poland. Among the small number of passengers on board was the thirty-nine-year-old Margarete Buber-Neumann, a German communist who had gone to Moscow in 1935 with her husband, Heinz, a former politburo member of the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) and a Reichstag deputy until Hitler’s accession to the Chancellery two years previously.

Heinz Neumann, a known party dissident who had been brave or foolhardy enough while in Moscow to criticise Stalin’s direction of German communism, did not survive long in the home of the Revolution. He was arrested and shot after a secret trial in 1937, just one of the many thousands of “Trotskyist” oppositionists who disappeared in the purges of the middle to late thirties. A year later his widow too was arrested, tried and sentenced, as a “socially dangerous element”, to five years’ forced labour at the Karaganda camp complex in Kazakhstan.

Her subsequent voyage west from Karaganda in 1940 was no journey to freedom but a simple piece of state business, a transfer from one jailer to another. As the train halted over the Bug, a Russian NKVD officer got out, saluted the Gestapo officer who had come to meet him, checked the names in his documents, made his count and completed the handover. The thirty prisoners of the consignment of February 9th were just a small fraction of the roughly 1,000 German and Austrian communists and socialists transferred from Soviet to Reich custody as a gesture of friendship and confidence-building following the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of the previous year. Margarete Buber-Neumann had survived two years in the harsh conditions of the Kazakh-Siberian steppe; she would spend the next five in the no more welcoming embrace of Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.

The Hitler-Stalin pact was one of the heaviest of the many crosses sent by History to test the faith of good communists in the West in the half-century following the Russian revolution of 1917. The reports brought back by most travellers to the Soviet Union in the 1920s were sympathetic when they were not ecstatic. “I have seen the future, and it works,” the American journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote two years after his Russian expedition of 1919. Steffens was not alone in his optimism. If it was admitted that there was still much poverty, ignorance and underdevelopment in the new Russia it was equally asserted that these problems were being vigorously tackled. Whatever its defects, all western communists, and many socialists and social democrats, felt the Soviet Union deserved their solidarity as the state where for the first time workers had taken power into their own hands and were pioneering the construction of a new kind of economy, society and democracy in which exploitation had been outlawed and liberty was finally being invested with a more than merely formal meaning.

The death of Lenin in 1924 deprived the Revolution of its chief theoretician and prime mover, while the exclusion from the politburo two years later of Trotsky removed a charismatic popular hero greatly admired by western socialists, particularly Jewish ones. The inner-party struggles of the next decade, ending with Stalin’s liquidation of all internal opposition in an orgy of show trials, police persecution, deportations, disappearances and secret executions gave many more western communists and fellow travellers cause for concern. Nor did all seem to be going well on the economic front. Rumours of famine in Ukraine and Kazakhstan in 1932 and 1933 began to leak out, though it was not yet widely known that many millions had died in these disasters, nor indeed that they had been induced as a deliberate act of policy to break the power of the peasantry to obstruct the ambitions of the Revolution.

The most characteristic mark of the fellow traveller of Soviet communism remained an ability to believe what he needed to believe and see what he wanted to see, or what others chose to show him. But even such an enthusiastic member of “the party of humanity” as the French writer André Gide was beginning to waver after his 1936 visit to what he had until then seen as “a land where utopia was on the way to becoming reality”. Kept well away from the mayhem and murder, Gide nevertheless found much to worry him in the culture of the revolutionary state: a quite definite class system, a depressing uniformity of thought, deep ignorance of the world outside the Soviet Union, an obsession with the threat of “Trotskyism” and a cult of sycophantic praise of the great leader. On his travels by train through the vast country he was met at each station by a reception party carrying large banners of welcome in identical words – “The Russian proletariat greets André Gide, writer of genius and friend of the labouring masses” or some such formula. Initially he took this to be just another sign of the growing regimentation of cultural life, that each local party branch had received detailed instructions from Moscow as to exactly how he was to be greeted. Later he discovered that the truth was even simpler: the banners travelled with him in the baggage van of the train.

Retour de l’U.R.S.S., the book recounting his Russian experiences which Gide published in November 1936, enjoyed something of a succès de scandale in France, being reprinted eight times within a year and selling 146,000 copies. To its author’s considerable discomfort however the most glowing reviews were published in the journals of the political right, while his friends and comrades on the left were either hostile or expressed reservations. The greatest single objection was over the question of timing: with civil war raging in Spain and the republican forces there relying increasingly on Russian help for want of any other, was it really appropriate to launch a critique, however well intentioned, or even justified, of the Soviet Union? Many, probably most, of those on the French left thought not.

Indeed the space that socialist intellectuals in these years felt they could afford to allocate to doubts about the nature of the Soviet regime tended to be severely circumscribed by their analysis of the political balance of forces in Europe. By 1936 fascist regimes were firmly established in Italy and Germany, Spanish democracy was under attack and authoritarian regimes of varying hues were ensconced in Portugal, most of central Europe and the Balkans. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the general economic crisis and mass unemployment that flowed from it had raised questions about the staying power of capitalism, while the impotence and corruption of many parliamentary democrats inspired little confidence in the ability of political liberalism to withstand the more “virile” forces represented by the dictators. In this new and increasingly ominous context, international communism, to the great relief of those on the more moderate left, had (in 1934) finally abandoned the viciously sectarian policies it had previously promoted in favour of a new strategy of collaboration between all “democratic forces” (the popular front) to block the path of fascism.

Yet it was becoming increasingly clear to many that that path could not or would not be blocked by conventional diplomatic means. The betrayal of Czechoslovakia by Chamberlain and Daladier in September 1938 did not just further embolden Hitler and bring war closer; it also indicated to many that “bourgeois governments” in France and Britain did not have the will to fight Germany and might even welcome a conflict in the east between fascism and communism which would destroy both their enemies and leave them unscathed. At Munich, the democracies had once again shown themselves to be weak and treacherous; only the Soviet Union and its strong and wise leader remained a sure bulwark against Nazi barbarism. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact negotiated in Moscow between von Ribbentrop, Stalin and Molotov in August 1939, which agreed the carve-up of Poland between the two new allies and ensured that the coming world war would be fought at first on the western front, came as a paralysing shock to virtually all European socialists and communists, unaware of the plots being hatched above their heads in the interests of safeguarding the home of the Revolution. As the two dictators ruthlessly crushed Polish resistance and Hitler turned his eyes towards France, the veterans of the popular front and the great anti-fascist struggle faced the future in confusion, fear and despair.

Looking back in 1979, towards the end of his life, Arthur Koestler reflected on the motives that had led him, more than twenty-five years previously, to undertake the writing of his first two volumes of memoirs, Arrow in the Blue (1952) and The Invisible Writing (1954).

I wrote my autobiography because it provides a typical case history: that of a man born at the beginning of the century, belonging to the intellectual class, the third estate of central Europe: a man who experienced the birth of communism, of Nazism, of totalitarianism. My case therefore is typical of a certain epoch of History.

Koestler’s life experience during his first thirty-five years, the period covered by these two volumes, was indeed comprehensive in regard to the political phenomena to which he refers, but it was scarcely typical: not many who lived through this turbulent period in eastern, central and western Europe saw even a fraction of what Koestler saw, and of those who did only a minority survived the years that followed to reflect on it in tranquillity and freedom.

Arthur Koestler was born in 1905 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Budapest. A student convert to Zionism, he abandoned his engineering course at the Vienna Polytechnic in 1925 and in the following year emigrated to Palestine. After an unsuccessful stint as a volunteer on a kibbutz he began to earn a precarious living as a freelance journalist, working in Palestine, Egypt and France. In 1930 he was hired by the prestigious Ullstein press group in Berlin as scientific editor and in the following year joined the Communist Party there under the pseudonym Ivan Steinberg. In 1932 he travelled widely in the Soviet Union before returning to work in Paris under the direction of the Comintern’s co-ordinator of anti-fascist propaganda, Willi Münzenberg. In 1936 he went to Spain under the cover of a posting as correspondent for the British News Chronicle. He was captured by nationalist forces on the fall of Malaga in 1937, sentenced to death but eventually freed through an exchange of prisoners. In Paris in 1939 he was arrested and interned as an undesirable alien, freed after three months but arrested again in the following year. As France collapsed in the face of the German invasion he escaped from custody, found a ship at Marseille that would take him to Casablanca and from there to Lisbon, where, after seven weeks, he was smuggled, with the assistance of British intelligence agents, onto a plane flying to Bristol.

The hundredth anniversary of Koestler’s birth has seen a modest attempt to re-establish his reputation, with the reprinting in Britain of his most successful novel, Darkness At Noon (1940), and his two early volumes of memoirs, and in France the publication of an ample and lively political biography by Michel Laval. Koestler’s break with communism can probably be traced to 1938, the year in which he began work on Darkness At Noon, an account of the arrest, interrogation and execution of the “old Bolshevik” Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov. The process of questioning and gradual disenchantment had, however, already been going on over many years.

In Russia in the famine winter of 1932-33 Koestler had seen much of the worst that was to be seen, the backwardness and chaos, the appalling new industrial slums, mass starvation among the peasants. But he had also learned, from the “dialectics” taught him in his party cell in Berlin, that facts had to be appreciated in a dynamic not a static way. Living standards in the Soviet Union were low; but they had been lower. The working classes in the capitalist countries were indeed better off, but this was a false comparison since in Russia standards were rising while in the West they were falling. At the end of the second Five Year Plan the levels would certainly be equalised. In the meantime it would damage Soviet workers’ morale if they were to know too much of the truth. As Koestler put it in an essay written seventeen years later:

The necessary lie, the necessary slander; the necessary intimidation of the masses to preserve them from shortsighted errors; the necessary liquidation of oppositional groups and hostile classes; the necessary sacrifice of a whole generation in the interest of the next – it may all sound monstrous and yet it was so easy to accept while rolling along the single track of faith.

During his communist apprenticeship Koestler had learned a new way of speaking, though we must suspect in his case that this did not quite succeed in producing, as it was intended to do, a corresponding new way of thinking. As he recalls in The Invisible Writing, any attempt by a party member to address a meeting in a precise, considered or nuanced way was frowned upon. Instead there was a repertory of a couple of dozen approved adjectives, whose usage was safe, recommended and deemed quite sufficient to address all political questions. There was “decadent”, “hypocritical”, “morbid”, “rotten” (the capitalist bourgeoisie), “heroic”, “disciplined”, “class-conscious” (the revolutionary proletariat); “petty-bourgeois”, “romantic”, “sentimental” (humanitarian scruples); “opportunist” and “sectarian” (deviations, of the right and left respectively, from the party line); “mechanistic”, “metaphysical”, “mystical” (false intellectual-theoretical positions); “”dialectical”, “concrete” (correct intellectual-theoretical positions); “impassioned” (protests), “fraternal” (greetings) and “unshakeable” (loyalty to the party and the Soviet Union).

While ordinary members carried out the tasks assigned them armed with this sturdy if limited world view it was the task of the leadership to formulate the analysis and programme which would deliver the promised revolution. That analysis, in the early 1930s, could be summed up in one simple proposition: that the real enemies of the German working class were not the Nazis but the reformist social democrats (SPD), also known as “social-fascists”, “social-traitors” and “social-imperialists”. Throughout 1931 and 1932, as national socialist (NSDAP) electoral gains registered a sharp upturn, the communists exuded optimism: first, that the KPD was well on the way to replacing the social democrats as the main party of the working class; second, that the Nazi seizure of power which would inevitably come as the capitalists turned to fascism in a desperate bid to stave off socialist revolution would be just a brief and ignominious interlude before the inevitable proletarian victory.

Social democrats’ warnings against the spectre of Hitlerite fascism, the communist leader Ernst Thälmann declared in December 1931, were merely an attempt to “distract the masses from the necessity of vigorous action against the dictatorship of finance capital”. Obviously, there were also some communists foolish enough to be concerned about this “spectre”, for Thälmann felt bound to chastise those comrades for whom “the national socialist trees” were obscuring the more significant and malignant “social democratic wood”. The Nazis themselves were naturally highly entertained by KPD rhetoric and strategy. As the journal Nationalsozialist put it:

What is more amusing and grotesque than all the insults is the completely unjustified homage paid to the social democrats, designated as fascists. To present the petty-bourgeois masses of the Second International, the Jewish gang, the mortal enemies of Italian fascism, as fascists themselves – that requires a really extraordinary level of intellectual gymnastics. But patience! Communists and social democrats, that is to say Marxists of all stripes, will soon have the opportunity to learn exactly what fascism means.

And so they did. No serious resistance to Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933 ever materialised, either from the “flabby and legalistic” social democrats or the hardened revolutionaries of the KPD. Instead, as the new regime dissolved all constitutional protections, the leading figures of both parties were simply murdered or carted off to prisons and concentration camps, where, over the next twelve years, many of them were to perish. Thälmann’s own karmic reward for his perspicacity and clairvoyance in the last years of Weimar democracy was to be shot in Buchenwald camp in August 1944.

Koestler continued his work for communism in France and Spain after his return from Russia in autumn 1933. He learned much from the brilliant Willi Münzenberg and his assistant Otto Katz, who had been charged by Karl Radek in Moscow with directing a massive international propaganda effort against fascism. When he was under sentence of death in Spain, Katz worked tirelessly on his behalf, making contacts and pulling strings to have him extricated from jail. But Koestler was also during these years beginning to move away from active political work towards political writing. His first novel, The Gladiators (1939), a study of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus against the Roman empire, dwelt much on the theme of ends and means. Spartacus’s revolt, it seemed to argue, was doomed to fail because its leader, perhaps correctly, was not ultimately prepared to employ evil means to secure good ends. Darkness At Noon, which Koestler started in 1938, and which was published in London in 1940 while he was still interned in Pentonville prison, returned to the theme, this time with greater artistic success.

The novel deals with the final weeks in the life of the Bolshevik veteran Rubashov, as he is arrested in Moscow, broken down in the course of repeated interrogations and eventually induced to render “a last service” to the party and the revolution by admitting his role, partially genuine but chiefly composed of improbable fictions, in plotting against the party leadership. Darkness At Noon was inspired by the infamous Moscow trials of the late 1930s, in which a series of the most eminent former party dignitaries were paraded in court and meekly admitted to having been spies, saboteurs, Trotskyists, fascists, imperialist agents and enemies of the people, often all at once. The character and personal history of Rubashov is largely based on that of Nikolai Bukharin (executed 1938), with admixtures of Karl Radek (executed 1939) and Leon Trotsky (murdered 1940). A great deal of the novel’s success derives from the fact that it offers an apparently plausible reason for the public self-abasement of so many Bolshevik leaders during their trials, a grotesque spectacle which had puzzled and disturbed many communists and fellow-travellers in the West. On the book’s publication in Britain one prominent journalist hailed it as “the most devastating exposure of Stalinism that I have ever read”, while John Strachey, a leading intellectual then in mid-voyage between communism and democratic socialism, thought it contained the best defence of Stalinism he had ever come across. It is a mark of Darkness At Noon’s seriousness, complexity of thought and intellectual honesty that both assessments may well be valid.

Figures quoted by Michel Laval give some indication of the scale of the purges of the late 1930s and their decimation of the ranks of the old Bolsheviks, those who had made the revolution:

… more than one and a half million arrests, 1,345,000 condemnations, more than 690,000 executions in the years 1937 and 1938 alone … the disappearance of the absolute majority of the party central committee between 1917 and 1923, of three party secretaries between 1919 and 1921, of the majority of the politburo between 1919 and 1924, of 108 of the 134 members of the central committee [designated at the party congress of January 1934] and 1,108 of the 1,966 delegates who participated in it; the decapitation of the general staff of the Red Army … the decimation of the Comintern, its directors and its agents, eliminated most often without trial; of thousands of intellectuals, artists, scientists, technicians, engineers … of hundreds of thousands of nameless deportees to the slave camps of the Gulag, whose population, at the beginning of 1938, exceeded two million.

Few communists in the West in these years may have been aware of the scale of the bloodletting, but all quite plainly saw the tip of the iceberg, the trials of the leading figures of the Russian Revolution, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek, Piatakov, Bukharin, Rykov, Tukachevsky, former heroes now redesignated as spies, wreckers, left and right deviationists, or, in the colourful language of prosecutor Vyshinsky, “carrion”, “lice”, “hybrids of fox and pig”, “pug dogs and puppies attempting to mount an elephant”. And most accepted what they saw. Certainly the crimes were shocking, scarcely believable even; but the perpetrators had confessed in court and the trial procedures appeared fair and open. What could one do?

If rank and file communists mostly believed what they were told this was not necessarily the case for all others. For those in the know, those who had themselves been to Russia, those whose own friends had disappeared, those who had “heard things” and in many cases were going through their own private crises of belief, a more plausible and psychologically satisfying explanation of events was required.

Darkness At Noon is in some respects a generational story. There is the veteran Rubashov, an intellectual but also a former soldier, a tough-minded revolutionary who fought ruthlessly and pitilessly against the enemies of communism and, where necessary, sacrificed weaker comrades who threatened the movement’s efficacy and discipline. This is a man who has never doubted that the end, “the radiant future”, would amply justify the sometimes cruel and distasteful means required to bring it about. And yet now he finds himself, like many others of his background, caught in the net of the paranoid and sanguinary “No 1” (Stalin) and confronted by a frightening exemplar of the “new” communism, the young NKVD interrogator Gletkin, who through a mixture of sleep deprivation and relentless, bullying logic eventually convinces him that his “oppositionism”, whatever its motives, is objectively a crime against the unity of the party whose most likely outcome if successful would be ruinous civil war. His only honourable exit therefore is to perform a last service to the party by confessing his crimes, painting them in the blackest colours possible, so that his fate may serve as a warning to others.

At an early stage of the duel between Rubashov and Gletkin, the old Bolshevik is inclined to dismiss his adversary as a “Neanderthal”, a man without history or pedigree and without shame. But as Rubashov’s resistance is progressively worn down by his interrogators’ implacable logic and the pangs of what may be his own long-sleeping conscience, his space for intellectual manoeuvre contracts almost to zero. What, Koestler seems to be asking, if the old communism (heroic, self-sacrificing, underpinned by an extravagant idealism and love of humanity) and the new (brutal, utilitarian and coldly “realistic”) are not in fact opposites but simply two historic phases of the same set of values, the latter perhaps even the inevitable successor of the former in new times? If that is the case then it is pointless to talk of good communists and bad or of a heroic revolution betrayed. As Rubashov comes to realise just before the executioner’s bullet strikes the back of his neck, he has spent forty years leading his people through the desert, but on a path which was never leading to the Promised Land.

An earlier biographer of Koestler, David Cesarani, has suggested that his motive in offering in Darkness At Noon such a forcefully argued case for Stalinist “revolutionary realism” was to exculpate himself and thousands of others who had until recently been more or less happy subscribers to the same doctrine. The accusation may contain some truth, but is rather ungenerous. If Koestler gives his fictional interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin, such good tunes this is chiefly because the Stalinist devil did indeed know well how to make sweet music. Without that talent, communism could never have attracted the tens of thousands of idealistic and intelligent men and women it did in every country during the 1930s and after. Koestler’s concern in writing the novel, when he still remembered clearly what had made him a communist and over several years kept him one, was to produce, in the form of a popular novel, a work of analysis and explanation, not one of propaganda. In due course Darkness At Noon was destined to become such a work of propaganda, but that was to be in a different time and place.

French communists had been as taken aback as anyone else by the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939. The war that followed in September had been (in prospect) a heroic struggle against Nazi barbarism. Now, with the Soviet Union standing aside from the fight, it suddenly became just another “imperialist war”. After the collapse of the French army in June 1940 the country’s powerful Communist Party (PCF), on instructions from the Comintern, decided against organised resistance to German occupation; indeed they sent a delegation to the Reich’s ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz, to attempt to negotiate the reappearance of their newspaper, l’Humanité. Only after Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union did the party line change again. If the communists had been slow to start, they quickly made up for lost ground in the determination, organisational capacity and courage they now brought to the French Resistance. And they fully paid for their commitment with the lives of their members, many of whom (though not as many as they later claimed) ended their lives before German firing squads.
When Koestler’s Darkness At Noon was finally published in Paris (as Le Zéro et l’Infini) in 1945 the prestige of French communism, buoyed up by both its own recent heroic record and the spectacular successes of the Red Army, had never been higher. As the young militant Edgar Morin wrote:

Stalingrad wiped away for me, and without doubt for thousands like me, all the crimes, doubts and hesitations … Stalin was identified with the city named after him, the city with the Red October factory with its workers in arms, the factory with the 1917 revolution, and all of those with the freedom of the world, with the victory finally in sight, with all our hopes, with the radiant future … The crimes of Stalinism disappeared in the gigantic massacres of the war.

And yet there remained many in France, as the spectacular success of Le Zéro et l’Infini and other works by Koestler was shortly to demonstrate, who were not entirely prepared to forget everything.

Darkness At Noon had been well received in intellectual left-wing circles in Britain in 1940, but sold less than 4,000 copies in its first year. In France, almost half a million copies of Le Zéro et l’Infini were in print by the end of the 1940s. The contrast in the novel’s fortunes on either side of the Channel can be largely explained by the difference in political circumstances. In Britain communism had almost no political importance outside the unions and some restricted intellectual and academic circles. In the first post-war election in France the PCF emerged as the largest single party, with 26.2% of the vote. Communists occupied important government ministries until 1947 and controlled, or exerted a strong influence on, much of the trade union movement as well as many sectors of the media, publishing and cultural life. Whether seen as a source of hope or a mortal threat, communism was important in France - and close to home.

The PCF’s first response to the appearance of Koestler’s novel was to seek to have it suppressed. A delegation led by the party’s second-in-command, Jacques Duclos, went to see its publisher, Robert Calmann of the Calmann-Lévy firm, and asked him to drop the book from his list. When he proved uncooperative the communists adopted another strategy, sending out their militants to buy up multiple copies of Le Zéro et l’Infini so as to render it unavailable. Calmann simply reprinted. Next the party press went on the attack, marshalling its sharpest and most vitriolic pens in a nationwide campaign. The renegade Koestler, they screamed, was “a false witness”, “a so-called humanist” in the service of “a reactionary pseudo-elite”, “an adventurer”, “a Trotskyist scribbler”, “a kitsch journalist”, an intellectual masturbator, “an agent of the trusts”, “a Hitlero-Trotskyist”. Intrigued by the mounting tone of the attacks, the French public flocked to the bookshops in ever greater numbers to discover for themselves what the fuss was about. By the end of 1946, a further four books by Koestler had been published in Paris and seized upon by an avid readership. His reputation, and his fortune, were now assured and he was ready to take on the role of Europe’s most prominent anti-communist public intellectual that he came to occupy over the next ten years.

The alliance of interest that had kept the Soviet Union and the West together throughout the war against Germany finally collapsed in 1947. At the founding congress of the Cominform (replacing the Comintern) at Szklarska Poreba in Poland the secretary-general of the Czech Communist Party, Rudolf Slánsky, called for an end to cohabitation with the bourgeoisie and “the acceleration of the revolutionary process”. Those countries in the Soviet sphere who had thought to rebuild their economies with US Marshall Plan aid were strongly rebuked, while the Yugoslavs Kardelj and Djilas, coached by Stalin’s lieutenant Andrei Zhdanov, rounded on the French and Italians for their supposed opportunism, parliamentarism and legalist illusions in joining coalition governments with bourgeois parties in the immediate aftermath of the war. In February 1948 Czechoslovak democracy succumbed after a communist coup in Prague. Hundreds of politicians, priests and pastors were arrested and many executed.

Back in Paris communists and anti-communists were locking horns in a number of highly visible and publicised ideological contests, most notably the two trials which saw first the Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko then the former deportee David Rousset suing the communist journal Les Lettres françaises for defamation. Though Les Lettres lost both actions (it had accused Kravchenko and Rousset of fabricating sources in their accounts of the Soviet system of repression) in the eyes of many the communists won a moral victory, having assembled a stellar cast of distinguished fellow travellers to appear in court and attest to the impeccable character of the defendants and of their party in the Resistance. Against this only one prosecution witness made a strong impression, the tiny, frail figure of Margarete Buber-Neumann, who, refusing to be intimidated by the aggressive interventions of the defence lawyers, gave a plain and moving account of her two years at Karaganda, a camp complex “twice the size of Denmark”, between 1938 and 1940.

Koestler spent much of the immediate post-war period in France, where he socialised (often rather wildly) with the new stars of the Parisian intelligentsia, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus. Political differences eventually separated him from the first two, who were reluctant to openly condemn the Soviet Union. (“Every anti-communist is a dog,” Sartre would later write.) Camus was a much closer political ally but broke off the friendship after Koestler punched him in the course of a drunken evening out.

The invisible spiritual bonds (“no enemies on the left”) which still seemed to unite “progressives” of different traditions and to inhibit many democratic socialists and humanitarians from explicit criticism of the Soviet regime were proving increasingly infuriating to Koestler. On a visit to New York in 1948 he excoriated those who refused to condemn Stalinism for fear of being found in bad company (a group he characterised as “the anti-anti-communists” - his even more abrasive ally James Burnham called them “the mushheads”).

Being against our will in one camp with the Hearst press or Senator McCarthy does not mean that we identify ourselves with their ideas and methods … If you are sure of yourself – politically and ideologically – you will no longer be frightened to say that twice two makes four, even if Colonel McCormick [owner of the Chicago Tribune] says the same.

Speaking in Berlin two years later at the founding conference of the Congress for Cultural Freedom he took up the theme again.

The failure of European “Leftists” and American liberals to lead the fight against the worst regime of terror and despotism in human history created a strategic vacuum on the ideological battlefield. This vacuum was filled by the Christian Democrats in Italy, the Gaullists in France, by Senator McCarthy and his associates in the U.S.A. McCarthyism represents the wages of the American liberal’s sins.

American liberals or European social democrats, he continued, might often feel hostile to their more extreme “neighbours” on the left. Nevertheless, they had a conviction of having the same historical roots, of being “on the same side of the barricades” and “if today [1950] everywhere in the world the parties which claim to represent the ‘moderate Left’ are beaten or in retreat, it is because they were found wanting in the most crucial issue of our time”.

If Koestler was himself at this time, in spite of his criticisms, still “a man of the left” – and would in many respects remain one until his final decade – this was now more a matter of habit and background than of deep conviction. The excitement and fulfilment he had once experienced in communist conspiracy he now rediscovered in the crusade against Soviet totalitarianism, and he found his closest allies increasingly on the harder wing of that movement. His passion for the cause was to burn brightly for another few years before he returned once again to writing and a new phase of research and publishing in the fields of science, parapsychology and the philosophy of history. Interviewed in 1979, on the occasion of the publication in France of his last book, Janus, he expressed a deep pessimism about the future of humanity and declared himself finally cured of “the rationalist illusion” – indeed he had joined the British Conservative Party three years previously.

While Koestler was undoubtedly correct in his assessment of Soviet communism, his analysis of relations between communists and democratic socialists, though it contained much truth, was perhaps somewhat skewed by his greater acquaintance with intellectuals than with practising politicians. As early as 1920, the French socialist leader Léon Blum had recognised that Bolshevism necessarily meant the establishment of a top-down dictatorship inside the socialist party. The German social democrat Karl Kautsky, in an attack on Leninism-Stalinism’s corrupted and cynical “situational” ethics, predicted the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1937, two years before it was signed. None of the British Labour politicians with whom Koestler was friendly in the late 1940s – Bevan, Crossman and Foot – were in the slightest “soft” on communism.

There were, however, two areas in which the schism in twentieth century socialism must be said to have had a seriously disabling effect on social democracy in Europe: first, in the loss of millions of potential members who, rather than dedicating themselves to the achievement of practical goals, squandered their time and talents in pursuit of the chimera of the dictatorship of the proletariat; second, in many social democratic parties’ long reluctance, for fear of appearing timid and losing “market share” to communism, to explicitly accept that capitalism was here to stay and that the only practical programme was to seek to extract from it the maximum possible social wage. While Koestler himself certainly always evinced a more lively negative engagement with Stalinist tyranny than a positive one with democratic socialism, it is also notable that the politics of his chief ideological allies on the anti-communist left, of figures like Orwell, Camus and Silone, also remained startlingly inchoate, a mixture of deeply felt moral imperatives with a roughly sketched “revolutionary” perspective which envisaged the suppression or severe curtailment of private property rights yet felt uneasy about the repressive means communists employed to achieve this. Thus they remained revolutionaries in spirit and grudging social democrats in practice.

In November 1952, the Czech Rudolf Slánsky followed his Albanian and Hungarian counterparts Koci Xoxe and László Rajk, all hardened Stalinists, into the dock in the latest show trial to adorn communist history. Among the fourteen co-accused in Prague (eleven of them Jews) was Otto Katz, Koestler’s old friend from Paris, who had helped save him from execution in a Spanish jail in 1937. After interrogation by the notoriously brutal Czech secret police (StB) Katz admitted everything: that he had been recruited as a Zionist agent while in France, that he had contributed to breaking the unity of the workers’ movement in several capitalist countries, that he had served imperialism, that he had always, as a result of his origins, had an inclination towards the values of the Jewish bourgeoisie. In his last words to the tribunal, he declared:

I deserve the gallows. The only service I can still render is to serve as a warning to all those who, by origin or character, are tempted to follow the same road to hell.

These last words being an uncanny paraphrase of those of Bukharin and of Rubashov, Koestler was convinced his old friend was sending him a final, bitterly ironic message, perhaps even an appeal for help. But he declined a request by Melvin Lasky to write an expose of the trial for the German periodical Der Monat, responding in five words: “Sorry, nothing to be done.”

On March 1st, 1983 the terminally ill Arthur Koestler and his wife committed suicide at their London home. The deaths were freely chosen and peaceful, unlike those of so many of Koestler’s comrades and friends over the decades: the numerous Comintern agents he had known in Germany, France and Spain who disappeared in Stalin’s purges; Rudolf Hilferding and Rudolf Breitscheid, prominent German social democratic exiles he had met in a French internment camp and who were subsequently handed over to the Gestapo; the brilliant Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin, driven to take poison in September 1940 when his escape route was blocked on the French-Spanish border; Willi Münzenberg, who had abandoned communism at the end and was found hanged in a French wood, probably murdered by the NKVD; the charming and urbane secret agent Otto Katz, twisting on the end of a rope in the yard of Prague’s Pankrác prison.

Margarete Buber-Neumann, after her release from Ravensbrück concentration camp, worked for many years as a political journalist and human rights campaigner. She died in Frankfurt, aged 88, on November 6th, 1989, some weeks after the involuntary retirement of East German communist general secretary Erich Honecker and three days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.

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