An awful lot has been written about Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler’s searing portrayal of a Communist revolutionary brought down by the inevitable logic of his own ideology. Hell, this review in the New York Times when it initially came out in 1941 sums things up pretty well. It’s fascinating, thoughtful, and ultimately tragic. On that most people agree, so I’m not going to waste time going on about its strengths here.
I’m more interested on a couple of things that popped into my head while reading it about Rubashov, the doomed protagonist. The TLDR version of the plot is that Rubashov was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution (the country isn’t specifically named, but it’s identity is hardly concealed) who, during the pre-World War II purges by Stalin was caught up in the machine he helped create. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that it costs Rubashov his life, as it did Nikolai Bukharin and the other Old Bolsheviks upon whom the character is based.
Rubashov spends the entire book in prison, although we learn about his earlier life through flashbacks. What we see is someone who is an experienced, if not practiced, prisoner. He knows to calmly pace around his cell as a means of exercise and as a way to keep his mind clear. He has no problem using code to talk with the prisoners on either side of him through the walls of their cells. More than anything else, he doesn’t freak out.
In fact, that’s what is most interesting about Rubashov as a character. The typical person thrown in prison by a tyrannical state, mentally tortured, and force to confess to ridiculous crimes is a fighter, a person in constant resistance. We see how he spits in the face of authority, struggles to retain any control over his life that he can. In other words, he goes down fighting. Rubashov doesn’t do any of that. It would be wrong to say he accepts his fate. He does spend most of the book trying to talk his way out of execution, after all. But he does it with the knowledge that it will most likely be futile.
The futility is due to the system itself, in which he played a major role. Not only was he an early loyal fighter for the Revolution, he was a philosopher of sorts, particularly good at spreading the message to others. But when you’re fighting for the Revolution, everything gets viewed through the prism of whether it’s revolutionary or anti-revolutionary. Not only is there no middle ground, there are no topics that are immune from its grip. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, ideology poisons everything.
That’s best exemplified by a fellow prisoner, Bogrov, who was convinced that the nation should build fewer, bigger submarines (with a better range), as opposed to building more, but smaller, submarines. As Rubashov’s interrogator explains, both positions were valid from an engineering and economic point of view, but they had radically different impacts on Revolutionary theory. Larger submarines with more offensive capability meant prioritizing a global Revolution, while the smaller and more numerous submarines signaled self defense and strengthening the Revolution at home. Number 1 (Stalin) favored the later course, so poor Bogrov was branded counter revolutionary and dealt with in the only way such things can be dealt with – “liquidation.”
What’s amazing is how much this part of Darkness At Noon still resonates today. In modern American politics there are very few issues where there is a reasonable middle ground, at least when it comes to pundits and shouting on social media platforms. The other side isn’t just loyal opposition, it’s the enemy. Their policies aren’t just wrong, their evil, immoral, and (in the terms of the novel) anti-revolutionary. Regardless if you’re on the left or right, you think you’re the revolutionary one, of course. Not only does such simple minded mudslinging make it difficult for anything of importance to be done, it leads to reductive thinking about the other side. If they’re evil, if they’re immoral, if they’re leading the nation to ruin, then liquidation really isn’t that farfetched as a solution is it?
That’s why I’m a little disappointed to see some readers (in Goodreads commentary and whatnot) dismiss Darkness At Noon as a product of its time, an interesting historical curiosity, but not much more. While it’s true that the specific ideology on offer in the book is largely a thing of the past, the risk of what unchecked loyalty to an abstract ideology can become is very much a lesson that transcends the specifics of the Russian Revolution. Ideologues become obsessed with purity, an obsession that will inevitably turn on fellow ideologues once the people who everybody agrees are impure are purged at the beginning. Nobody is ever pure enough.
The snake will always eat its tail, unless its tempered by some contrary vision and some humanity. That’s a lesson worth learning, regardless of the specifics of how it’s taught.