Friday, 2 January 2015

Darkness at Noon

I recently got round to reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, now I'd been interested in reading Darkness for a little while, and by little while I mean a little under ten years. You see back when I was still in the Comp taking GCSE History my history teacher Mr Davies told the class during the Soviet Union module about an account of Stalin's purges. I couldn't remember the name but I remembered two scenes that took place in the book. One involves a conversation in a prison exercise yard, the protagonist (who I couldn't remember either) is talking to a cell mate, asking why he's in prison. His new companion replies that he is a peasant from a province far away, and when a female Doctor came to prick the children of his village for vaccinations he didn't killed her. It seems he didn't understand what was happening and panicked, in trying to protect his children he became a murderer and a "reactionary".

The other part I remembered clearly was an argument during one of the main characters many interrogations. The argument turns to the protagonists watch, the interrogator wants to know when the protagonist received his first watch, the protagonist answer provokes a confession of sorts from the interrogator that he grew up in a village where they still do not know the day is divided into hours and says something like "if you tell the people of my village, the train will arrive to collect the grain at 11am tomorrow the only word they'll understand is tomorrow. They will go to the train station the next morning and just wait for a train to arrive,all day if need be and sleep on the platform floor" These scenes have stuck in my mind ever since and I've now finally been able to lay this demon to rest. It was worth the wait.

The author Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Communist, after joining the German Communist party in 1931 he soon worked for the Comintern in several roles revolving writing. He wrote a book on the Five Year Plan but didn't get approval so the Russian version was scrapped and the published German version heavily censored. During the Spanish Civil War he became a spy for the Soviet Union using a cover as a journalist for the British newspaper the News Chronicle, he got access to Franco's headquarters in Seville and uncovered direct evidence of the early involvement of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

After that he returned to Spain as a news correspondent but was in Malaga when it fell to Franco's forces, as a result he was held for several months in Seville awaiting execution but a prisoner exchange saved his life. Because of these experiences amongst others, Koestler had direct experience of espionage (coded messages and underground cells) prisons with their interrogations and midnight executions, and the absurdity of Comintern policy during the 1930's and how it dealt with the unorthodox and ignored its history.

The 1930's were probably the most confused period for the Soviet Union and its western parties, in the early thirties Stalin encouraged western parties to focus on attacking left wing rivals, Trotskyists and Socialists mainly. He was not above using tricks and pressure to get his way and could topple CP leaders as far away as the USA (see Jay Lovestone) however once Hitler came to power in Germany to complement Mussolini and disproved the assertion that Fascism was a uniquely Italian phenomenon, that quickly changed.
From left to right: Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo

The mid to late thirties was the period of Popular Front, now the CP a bitter sectarian in most nations had become an eager facilitator for an alliance of convenience with anyone willing to work with them. And I do mean anyone in Spain the Communist Party worked with POUM a coalition of Trots and Bukharinists both Stalin's main rivals for the leadership of Soviet Union, and Anarchists. In Britain the CPGB publicly supported Churchill and his "Progressive Tories" totally ignoring his bloody past, his Imperialist views and his attempt at the time to build a partnership with the Fascist sympathising Edward VIII.
And in 1939 it changed yet again with the signing of Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which meant that officially the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were neutral and hostilities between the two had ceased.
I'm pretty sure everybody knows what happened next. These changes weren't easy or without cost, every time the Soviet Union made a switch and forced its little brothers to come along for the ride they paid quite a price. Many senior figures and activists wouldn't or couldn't make so radical a change and either left or were forced out. The lack of direction and confusion led to a loss of support and faith in some quarters, and the focusing of resources on what was basically Soviet foreign policy killed any chance a Western Communist party had of growing to the point it could seriously threaten their national bourgeoisie or emancipate the working class. Only in Spain were the Communists strong enough to rule, and that was thanks to Soviet Military support, which enabled them to crush their left wing rivals, but even that proved useless since they then lost the war to Franco anyway.

All of this is reflected in Darkness at Noon, while Rubashov is in his cell reflecting on things he recalls his own part in these intrigues and the actions he has done that help cement the rot in the Revolution. As an old Bolshevik he was one of the senior figures sent out into Europe to enforce the will of the party abroad. He also refused to speak out and merely made sure that his outlook matched the Parties at all times. Rubashov isn't an innocent martyr being turned on by a monster, he's partly to blame for this state of affairs and now his creation is turning on him for failing to live up to its exacting if fluid standards. Its an examination of the Russian Revolution and the role of a powerful Party Apparatus, and looks at collective psychology.
 Arthur Koestler (1969).jpg
Arthur Koestler was himself disillusioned with the Soviet Union and left the Communist party in 1938, Darkness at Noon was published in 1941, and it caused quite a stir at the time making him world famous. Since Stalin is dead and the Soviet Union is gone the book has lost some of its appeal, but its still a fascinating look into the mind of a Comintern member and a reminder of the chaos of the 30's that's often overlooked despite being very important. For example had the Soviet Union left the German Communists to make up their own minds, opposition to the Nazi's which had been quite fierce may well have taken precedence over squabbling with the Social Democrats, which may have prevented Hitler from coming to power, or at the least presented his unstable regime with a serious internal opposition that if nothing else would delay his foreign ambitions.

To take another example had the Soviet Union restricted its role in Spain to military assistance, then the Anti-Fascist alliance might of survived, it broke down because the Spanish Communist party attacked the other factions, something they wouldn't have dared to do without backing from the USSR. An independent Spanish Communist party may also have been more willing to grant independence to Spanish Morocco, an important point since Franco depended upon the troops stationed there and the Moorish regiments. Granting independence to a colony that gave them nothing would have meant the Moorish soldiers were unlikely to fight and Franco would have had to keep most of his forces across the sea to prevent an uprising. I could go on, and I know these are speculation on what if, but they do make quite a bit of sense and were at least viable alternatives. 

You can read a PDF version of Darkness at Noon here,  

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