Darkness at Noon and the Progressive Mindset

Darkness at Noon, published in December 1940, stands as one of the most penetrating denunciations of totalitarian ideology ever written. Eighty years later, the novel is still relevant: not only as an expose of Communist ideology but of the ideology that animates the woke progressivism of our age.

The author, Arthur Koestler, was a Hungarian-born journalist who joined the Communist Party in 1932, traveled in the USSR, and became a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. He was imprisoned by the Spanish fascists, then later broke with the Communist Party.  These experiences were blended together in Darkness at Noon, which became Koestler's best-known work.

The inspiration for the novel is the infamous Moscow “show trials” instigated by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s for the purpose of purging various dissidents within the Communist Party. The novel's central figure, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is a formerly powerful figure in the Party, a veteran of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Rubashov character is a composite of several victims of the Stalin purges and the novel is dedicated to their memory.

The novel begins with Rubashov's arrest at his flat in the middle of the night, an arrest he had been expecting: he is dreaming of being arrested when he is awakened by the knock at his door. Rubashov is taken away and imprisoned in an isolation cell. His only means of communication with the other prisoners in the block is by making a series of tapping sounds in a code that relies on the visualization of a grid of letters. 

Rubashov is charged with various “counterrevolutionary crimes” against a figure known only as “No. 1” but who is clearly meant to be Stalin. Rubashov is objectively innocent of the charges, yet he later confesses -- in part because he is worn down by the sensory deprivations of prison and threats of coercion, but more so by the psychological weight of his own past sins and the residual feeling of loyalty to the Party. 

Alone in his cell, Rubashov is forced to make sense of his life and his dedication to the cause that now seeks to destroy him. He has a series of flashbacks in which he recalls how, when he was in authority, he dealt ruthlessly with those who ran afoul of the Party. 

In one of these flashbacks, Rubashov tells his victim: “The Party can never be mistaken. You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I. The Party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history.”

During the course of the novel, Rubashov is questioned by two interrogators: his former friend, the sophisticated and worldly Ivanov, and a younger man, the thuggish Neanderthal Gletkin (a character who is thought to have inspired Winston Smith’s tormentor O’Brien in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

His first interrogator, Ivanov, tells Rubashov:

“There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community -- which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb…  Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative.”

But Rubashov is having second thoughts. He responds:

“What a mess we have made of our golden age… [I]n the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year… in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves... Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been.”

In a later colloquy, Rubashov tells the interrogator Gletkin, “[...] it would be more in accordance with our ideas to tell the people the truth, instead of populating the world with saboteurs and devils.” 

Gletkin responds: “If one told the people in my village that they were still slow and backward in spite of the Revolution and the factories, it would have no effect on them. If one tells them that they are heroes of work, more efficient than the Americans, and that all evil only comes from devils and saboteurs, it has at least some effect. Truth is what is useful to humanity, falsehood what is harmful." [emphasis added]

In these dialogues, Koestler exposes the ethics of Communism -- and that of the Progressive Left. Objective truth and falsehood, guilt or innocence doesn't matter. What matters is embracing the ideology that is “on the right side of history.” This is the essence of political correctness: objective truth must be discarded, as “politically incorrect,” if it does not advance the worldview of the social justice warrior.

Thus, as social critic Theodore Dalrymple puts it, “[p]olitical correctness is communist propaganda writ small.”

Dalrymple draws a parallel between the old traditional Marxists and today's cultural Marxists:

“I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed.”

Dalrymple concluded: “A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”

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Image: Richard Juha