Leftstyle: Darkness at noon by Arthur Koestler

by Apr 15, 2013Magazine

darknessatnoonDARKNESS AT NOON

A novel by Arthur Koestler

Comment by Allan Kolski Horwitz

‘Originally published in 1941, Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, is a powerful and haunting portrait of a Communist revolutionary caught in the vicious fray of the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. During Stalin’s purges, Nicholas Rubashov, an aging revolutionary, is imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the party he has devoted his life to… Darkness at Noon is a penetrating exploration of the moral danger inherent in a system that is willing to enforce its beliefs by any means necessary.’

This blurb gives a neat summary of a novel that not only rocked its readers when it was first published, but could be said to be equally timely today. It is a novel that shatters one’s confidence that an empowered working class party is immune to taking decisions that result in complete catastrophe. The book’s impact in 1941was immediate and harrowing. Koestler, a communist, had dared to defy the movement, the world view, the value system that claimed moral and ideological supremacy over capitalism in all its forms: the bourgeois democracies of the ‘West’ and the fascist (Nazi) corporatist states of the ‘East’. The book asserted the burgeoning perspective of increasing numbers of Western workers and socialist organisations: that the Soviet workers’ republic had become a closed, intolerant and immoral agent of ‘mind and body’ domination by a self-elected elite.

What relevance does this novel have today? In the neo-liberal consensus that holds global sway today, the hegemony of finance capital has reached its zenith. And even when this edifice of casino-type speculation (built on the total commodification of life) topples, governments scramble as they did in 2009 to save its bankrupt institutions and restore their power to begin yet another round of fatal accumulation. The consequence is that a vast population of poor people is thrown to the margins of existence and buffeted by rabid insecurity and stress while being forced to engage in a bitter struggle for survival.

In this environment (which has dozens of local variations) the task of rebuilding a liberation movement that will heal human societies and create a healthy ecological balance becomes ever more necessary. But as we are all aware, this task can only be achieved by creating a revolutionary consciousness, which can in turn create a revolutionary climate, which can in turn generate new organisations of resistance and at the same time propose concrete alternatives. This dialectic is quite neat but it presupposes one critical element: that there are self-critical revolutionaries who can break through the false consciousness of existing regimes.

The contemporary value of the novel is thus its very graphic and realistic presentation of the extreme dilemmas faced by a faithful ‘revolutionary’ when his ‘revolutionary’ party begins to devour itself and, by extension, an entire society. The journey Rubashov travels is a morality play of 20th Century social change with the reader being taken into his thoughts and actions – his fears and desire for security, his struggle to accept that paranoid persecution is now the hallmark of the organisation he has given his life for. As such, his ultimate confession, which is both contemptible and understandable, is a warning to us to always control and check power; and that any rationalisation of the suppression of basic human freedoms, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly reasonable under ‘special circumstances’, must be rejected from the very outset. The bottom line for the achievement of a classless and free society is the existence of open competition of ideas and organisation for the privilege of exercising power; and that these rights and freedoms can only be safeguarded by making the rights of individuals sacrosanct. Allied to the preservation of these rights is an upholding of basic moral principles of honesty and fairness – precepts that we should recognise as classless, timeless, essential to any movement out of a state of war to one of peace.

So the novel is a mirror: we are all Rubashovs, struggling to make sense of our desires and insecurities, our petty ego-driven, power drives; our ability to rationalise and indulge in self-deception; our evasiveness in the face of realities that require being challenged but that also require risk-taking and bravery. In other words, as much as Rubashov is a victim and an anti-hero, we must learn from him and embrace his frailty so as to transcend him.

Given the crises of post-Apartheid South Africa, Rubashov is a timely reminder that no short cuts are available and that to be a revolutionary is to embark on a personal struggle to purge narcissism and sectarian behaviour. Darkness at Noon pushes us to recognise that our lives are made up of compromise and nuance. It still lives as a study of fear and victimhood, of state brutality, of unjust imprisonment, of interrogation and forced confession.


Allan Horwitz is a freelance poet and writer and a member of the Botstotso Collective.

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