by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon debuted in December 1940 and reverberated through the post-war period, though not with the universal acclaim of George Orwell’s 1984, in part because of its more specific reference to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s show trials.
The book itself has a story worth telling. Koestler himself had been a devoted communist in Nazi Germany, then France, and as a partisan in the Spanish Civil War. Koestler wrote the book in Paris from early 1939 into 1940, except three months in French prison camp. His girlfriend, Daphne Hardy, translated his German text rapidly into English. Her translation became the official version because the German manuscript was unnoticed in Switzerland until 2015. A new English version based on the rediscovered German text is now available.
Adam Kirsch reviews the book’s history and its implications in the New Yorker without taking the final steps to notice Communism’s echoes in the myriad current claims to moral superiority that also “shy away from using the first-person singular” except in passive voice or as the object of a sentence. Kirsch writes the main character Rubashov becomes convinced “that the ‘I,’ for all its fragility, is of infinite value, because it is the ultimate source and basis of morality.” For those willing to see, the modern parallels are obvious even in Kirsch’s description:
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.”