Whilst Hitler demanded the creation of “a Reich to last a thousand years”, the Soviets had something grander in mind: the complete overthrow of the capitalist order to make way for a new communist world with no paltry ‘thousand year’ expiration date (one of the few times Hitler could be accused of not being ambitious enough). Before the Bolsheviks rose to power in the chaotic aftermath of the two revolutions that convulsed Imperial Russia in the bloody madness of 1917, these future potentates lived the shadowy (and often murderous) lives that are the lot of professional revolutionaries, sustained only by their fanatical belief that their cause could literally save the world.
Intellectuals disaffected with the monstrous practices that greased the hungry wheels of early 20th century capitalism looked towards the new born Soviet Union as the only hope of a humanity enslaved by the voracious greed of those few at the top. Finally the good guys were in charge, for potentially the first time in human history, what could possibly go wrong?
Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian author of Darkness At Noon, was one of those utopian intellectuals. A true believer in communism, he enthusiastically wrote Comintern (the Soviet organisation responsible for spreading the revolution worldwide) propaganda, even travelling to Spain during the Civil War as a Soviet agent where he met WH Auden at a “crazy party” in Valencia). Having been exposed, he was imprisoned and fully expected to be shot for his beliefs, only escaping death due to an international campaign for his release. During his sojourns in the Soviet Union he even met some of the titanic figures of the revolution like Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev. During the 1930s however his faith in the communist system began to waver as Joseph Stalin began to brutally tighten his grip on power. The apogee came when he began to see his Old Bolshevik friends brokenly denouncing themselves and each other for absurd and borderline inconceivable treacheries in Kafkaesque show trials. Those same legendary revolutionary figures of Koestler’s acquaintance met their end via a bullet to the back of the head for having the temerity to draw breath in the same world as the paranoid monster who had curdled the revolution’s utopian dream into a blood-crazed nightmare.
Losing the final rags of his faith with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon as a bitter renunciation of the system that he once looked to as humanity’s salvation. The book follows Rubashov, an amalgamation of the murdered ‘Old Bolsheviks’, as he is arrested and interrogated under the orders of the grey and merciless ‘Number 1’ (neither the country nor Stalin are named directly). He has committed none of the crimes to which he will later confess. By our decadent Western standards, he is innocent. But in his own mind he knows that he is guilty. Why? Because his are still the standards of a man who has dedicated himself unswervingly for forty years to the program of the revolution, to the struggle for its abstractly conceived ends by any necessary means, however horrible. By allowing doubt to creep into his mind and questions whether the revolution might not after all cost too much in human suffering, he knows he is guilty. He understands that such humanitarian heresy can only be punished by death.
The book charts both his imprisonment and interrogation and also the external realities of the new order he helped create that opened his heart to this fatal poison of doubt. The book is an harrowing treatise of political disillusionment and a piercing character study of what it means to be human. Rubashov’s eventual death is never in doubt, but his journey towards the bullet is a heartbreakingly poignant one, that has already outlived the monstrous system which led to its creation. As long as there are fanatics who view the only way to spread their beliefs is destroy those who lack them, Darkness at Noon will remain tragically necessary.