:: Article

The Search for the Absolute

By Andrew Coates.

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Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual, Faber & Faber 2010

The Indispensable Intellectual has been widely reviewed. A thoroughly researched study of Arthur Koestler, it portrays an immensely complex personality and politically entangled actor. The author of the anti-Stalinist classic, Darkness at Noon (1940), was, Scammell says, a “Casanova of causes”. Koestler passed through Revisionist Zionist, militant-Communist, active in Germany and an anti-fascist involved in the Spanish Civil War, before settling down for a long period as an anti-Communist pillar of the Cold War Congress for Cultural Freedom. In-between he found time in 1954 to help found the admirable National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (NCACP).

The thorny issues raised by Koestler’s close co-operation with the USA’s militant anti-Communists, may help explain why there have very few left-wing responses to Scammell’s biography. During his 1950s public hey-day many would have challenged the claim that Koestler, “ was undoubtedly a man of the left but, given the vehemence and strength of his anti-communism” But that, “he had ended up in a sort of no-mans’ land with very few sympathisers for company.”(page 385) After this decade Koestler political presence also shrank drastically. The ’anti-totalitarian’ herald had a lengthy subsequent career as a seeker after inner light. Deciphering the “invisible ink” of ultimate, cosmic, reality, or exploring the way religion and spirituality trump science, studies on ESP, UFOs and psychedelic mysteries, or claims about the Khazar origins of the Ashkenazi Jews, are acquired tastes. These two aspects of his work mark out a gamut of difficulties for a leftist reader of this biography. Any form of assertive anti-Communism is a mined location where the left has to tread gingerly. That, is many of us are as much “anti-anti-Communists” as are anti-Stalinists. One also hopes that most on the left remains sceptical about the kind of bad-science Koestler indulged in.

That said, this is a life. Those of a less political bent would concentrate on what the book, accompanied by painstaking detail, calls Koestler’s “lust” and “frenetic love life”. This will not be discussed at length. Koestler’s career was littered with promiscuity, often fuelled by heavy drinking, and Scammell’s accounts of his forceful adventures take up too many pages. Nor is the language used in these passages always the most nimble. Women are invariably described as “attractive”, “pretty” and “irresistible” (though not – a one-night fling – Simone de Beauvoir…). This becomes tedious. Whether he raped Jill Cragie (Michael Foot’s wife) or not, it’s a feeble excuse to talk of the “likeliest explanation” being that “that behaviour that wasn’t at the time seen as rape has since come to be regarded as such”. (page 408)

Despite this, The Indispensable Intellectual shows with enormous clarity Koestler’s actions and thinking in the framework of the most crucial topics of twentieth century history. The dilemmas he faced were both personal and of wider intellectual resonance. The time and place shaped the man. From Koestler’s birth and upbringing in Mittel Europa, Hungary and Austria, to several decades of physical and intellectual voyaging, he stood at the heart of the events and ideas that shaped the twentieth century, Fascism, Nazism, Zionism and Stalinism – and then, Anti-Communism. From the beginning these mingle. Scammell argues that one cannot understand the biography without drawing out Koestler’s inherent capacity to respond in extreme terms, ‘absolutitis’, to the world. Koestler had an early taste for the Absolute, a vision of an “arrow in the sky”. This was not just a personal rapture. “It was the same quest and the same all-or-nothing mentality which drove me to the Promised Land and into the Communist Party”. (page 19)

Post Great-War Hungary, and the White Terror that followed Béla Kun’s brief – 1919 – Communist Revolutionary Government, made an equally lasting impression. The anti-Semitism of the Counter-Revolution, led by Hungary’s coming Regent Admiral Horthy, forced Koestler’s prosperous family to leave for Vienna. Here, as a student, Koestler became involved with Revisionist Zionism. Not just as a causal supporter: he was their backer as the Secretary of the Zionist student ‘fraternities’. That is, he stood with the trend within the Zionist movement which emphasised Jewish nationality and the need for a come-what-may programme of Settlement in Israel. This hard-line belief did not totally disappear after a less than all-conquering stay – 1926 –9 – in the Palestinian Mandate. All-or-nothing could equally be said to be Koestler’s initial commitment to Communism, which developed in the years that followed. The Indispensable Intellectual relays Koestler’s own account of his move to the version of Marxism-Leninism in terms of a ‘conversion’, while always signalling that, as Koestler himself affirmed, a dislocated society created individuals like himself ready to throw themselves into a Cause.

During the 1930s and 1940s Koestler navigated from one hot-spot to another. The increasingly multi-lingual writer moved from small publications in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, (though he never mastered Hebrew), to hack-work in a German News agency (owned by the mega-company Ullison) in Paris, to scientific journalism in Berlin for B.Z. am Mitag. He had already become an undercover Communist, then, on his return, when his ‘outing’ as a party member led to dismissal from his job he plunged into the doomed, violent, anti-Nazi activism of his local Red Block Cell. Now openly a Party card-holder Koestler visited in 1932 the Soviet Union and travelled widely, up to the wastes of Turkmenistan. A year and a half there finished with a brush-off. He did not reject Stalin and the Party, though poverty and repression were not difficult to witness. Scammell says that he “saw parts of the truth quite clearly, even if his bifocals stayed firmly in place.” (page 96) It was not until later that they were cast aside.

The Disillusion of Illusions

With Hitler in power Koestler could not return and live in Germany. He latched onto France and the Institute for the Study of Fascism (INFA), to a Spanish prison during the Civil War, back to Paris, and internment after the 1940 débâcle in Le Vernet, we pass key intellectual figures in the period’s Left. It was during the Hitler-Stalin pact that his break with Communism became overt. In The Scum of the Earth (1941 – reprint 2006) he painted a picture of the confusion and impotence of the French – of all parties – faced with the German victory. It is interlaced with rage at the stand-aside position of the Parti Communist Français and its destructive strategy towards the rest of the socialist movement. “Ten years of constant defeat” had marked the left. One reason was to be found in the “dark silhouette of the Tchekist, the ‘Apparatchik’ or GPU agent”. This “had replaced the once bright and lively symbols of the struggle for a happier world” (page 116) Koester arrived in Britain (where he was detained in Pentonville Prison) convinced of the need to fight Stalinism, yet still wary, “In fighting the Communists, one is always embarrassed by one’s allies.” (page 119)

During the war years, when he knew George Orwell, and was close to the Labour Party left and wrote for Tribune, Koestler was heard. In the aftermath of the Allied and Russian victory, he mixed with Left Bank Intellectuals in France, and tried to expand this influence. Koestler shed light on the efforts by each group of socialists to steer an independent course between Moscow and Washington. This was never going to be easy. In France a political ‘third force’ was mooted, but many behind it were unable to reject totally the Soviet example. In the Yogi and the Commissar (1945) Koestler called Soviet Russia “a “State-Capitalist totalitarian autocracy” “It is progressive in its economic structure and regressive in every other respect.” This was an ambiguous sentence, as we shall see. But it corresponded to the widespread wish for an independent socialist movement in Europe, that was politically liberal, yet drew its economics from a common ‘planning’ template to the USSR’s. At the same time the ingrained strength of more conventional social democracy (never really challenged in Britain), which became increasingly Atlanticist, drew some of the left back into its fold.

Koestler was more important as a critic than as an advocate for a new political course. He was strongest in exposing the psychological degradation and repressive Realpolitik of Stalinism. In the fictional masterpiece Darkness at Noon (1940) he re-imagined the processes that led the accused in the Moscow Trails to confess their guilt. The book’s success, which developed an audience for his wider ideas, relies on its dramatic tension around the relation between ends and means. The old-Bolshevik, Rubashov, comes to silently query the Leader’s ruthless defence of the Revolutionary bastion. An immensely affecting episode involves Communist dock-workers in an unidentified Belgium Port. Some time back the union had supported a boycott of shipments destined for a ‘Dictatorship’ in the ‘heart of Europe’. Already the Soviets had broken that one, splitting the workers. Two years pass. ‘Over There’ decides to export goods to another dictatorial country, waging war in Africa, through this harbour. Rubashov is sent to argue their case – or rather to impose the ‘line’. The Dockers recoil. Little Loewey, who has supported the party through his hard life, recoils too. They are expelled from the Party. Loewy hangs himself. This incident haunts the reader when, in his final interrogation, the old Bolshevik is confronted with the argument that the “bulwark must be held, at any price, and with any sacrifice”. Rubashov, as a doubter, would have split the Party and have fomented civil war. He is called onto make a sacrifice, to “make the masses understand that opposition is a crime and that the leaders of the opposition are criminals.” Controversially*, it is not torture, or threats to family but these arguments that persuade him to admit his “counter-revolutionary crimes”. The aim of maintaining the Soviet Fortress justifies Rubashov’s abasement.

Hangover After The ‘Lost Weekend’

In his contribution to the essay collection, The God that Failed (1950) Koestler recounted his own odyssey between means and ends. He began from Communist “conversion”, “devotion” and the “revolt against a polluted society”. Both were, he asserted, as much products of the disintegrating society of the time (1930s) as “over-sensitivity” and “obsessional craving” for Utopia. Anything was fine if it helped realise this goal. How did he break from such a – barren – ideal? One side was historical: the result of seeing the disastrous strategy (with hindsight) of Communist sectarianism in thwarting united opposition to Hitler in Germany. His visits to Russia, also, retrospectively, revealed backwardness, bureaucracy and oppression in the country. It was not so much this ugly reality or a specific betrayal that turned Koestler. It was through realising, during his Spanish imprisonment, that “man is a reality, mankind if an abstraction…” and that “ethics is not a function of social utility and charity not a petty-bourgeois sentiment but the gravitational force which keeps civilisation in its orbit.” No good end can validate immoral acts. Unlike Rubashov he could not tell a lie in pursuit of a higher aim. One can understand that this might have motivated his original public break with the Comintern Line: a refusal to condemn (against the evident truth) the dissident Marxist Spanish group, the POUM, as fascist collaborators.

But was everything about Stalinism based around the “necessary lie, the necessary slander; the necessary intimidations of the masses to preserve them from short-sighted errors; the necessary liquidation of oppositional groups and hostile classes…” (God That Failed page 54) Koestler claimed that he had already demolished the view that there was an “unshaken foundation” in the Soviet Union in the Yogi and the Commissar – rather conflicting with his earlier description of its “progressive” economy. He downplayed economics (any real consideration of what capitalism, state or otherwise, really was or what an alternative might be) in that book, and exalted a “spiritual renaissance” of socialism, “the fraternity of the poor and humble” which must become a “live reality”. This shows few signs of having read much Marx or Engels. One doubts whether Koestler ever really dealt with Marxism – rather than the Stalinist actually existing Party at all.

By the late ‘forties Koestler had passed beyond the dream, the “Lost weekend in Utopia”. He woke up with new friends. Associating with ex-Trotskyist and ‘managerial revolution’ theorist, James Burnham and Cold War social-democrat Jay Lovestone, he turned to the Congress of Cultural Freedom and the “tough cookies” of the anti-Communist right. This, Scammell portrays with full, sometimes exhausting, detail. The “united front of left and right” against totalitarianism proved to be, as Simone de Beauvoir is quoted saying, something rather different than fighting Russian “pseudo-communism” by a “true socialist movement” (page 225). The Yogi and the Commissar), In the roman à clef, Les Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir has (1954) Koestler-Scriassine, say, “on est obligé d’accepter en bloc ou l’Amerique ou l’U.R.S.S. (‘You have to chose, en bloc, either America or the USSR’). Or as, Scammell cites her more directly, “He hates the Communists so fanatically that he’s able to team up with the worst reactionaries…”(page 307)

In his own memoir, the Invisible Writing (1954 – reprinted 2005) Koester observed, “There must have existed millions of Communists of every age and nationality like us, an untapped human reservoir of idealism and devotion, vast enough to transform the political desert of this globe. History was repeating the tragedy of the early Church – the spiritual spring-tide that had carried the pure and humble towards the millennium, and had left them stranded in the grip of a debased Papacy; the messianic faith at the beginning of the Crusades and their terrible end.”(page 300) If one God failed, would another fulfil its promises? Or, perhaps, most people became, or supported the Communists, for more mundane reasons. They were swept up in movements that seemed to offer a concrete alternative to the miseries of capitalism. They were political forces with their own appeal rooted in the here-and-now (as the old European left was, a ‘counter-society’). Most of the left was not, and has never been, drawn, as Koestler imagined, to the Millennialist Utopia, a promise of things unseen.

The Invisible Text

The imagery of all this is not accidental. Koestler, as Scammell remarks in a number of places, had a strong religious streak. A number of turning points in his life appear to have been illuminated by a revelation of the ‘beyond’ – in terms described in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience as the “keynote of the universe sounding in our ears”. This in Spain he realised there was “text written in invisible ink; though one could not read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the texture of one’s existence.”(page 150) Scammell cites The Spanish Testament (1937), published by the British pro-Communist 1937 Left Book Club “Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free – men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.”(page 150) Tough-minded as this may appear at first sight, it carries more than a hint of an unpleasing joy at being beyond despair.

This may or may not be ‘existentionalism, or laced with a feeling that approaches Schopenhauer’s description of death as a transition to another, impersonal level of existence. That it will be “a shedding of the self and a merging with the All-One, the end of self-assertion and the beginning of self-transcendence”(page 565). There are further mystical echoes. The Will in this condition (facing immanent extinction) is, in sense, only ‘free’ by renouncing its own ability to choose: the end is in the hands of another. Such a surrender to a world beyond, an ‘oceanic feeling’ is not simply a reconciliation with the Eternal Now – the nunc stans – but politically, a route away from love of the world to being half in love with easeful Death.

To temper this judgement Scammell describes Koestler’s evolution from a Manichean Communist to his later anti-Communism in terms of an enveloping sense of life’s complexities. In Spain, he says, he “began to recognise that revolutionary violence was highly questionable, and that the sanctity of life as not to be taken lightly.” (page 141). When writing in support of the Zionist armed defence of Israel in 1949 he, however, retained a certain admiration for the violence of the oppressed. That is, in his eyes, those wishing to establish a Jewish state. In this instance, the “end could justify the means ‘within very narrow limits’”. (page 335) What these were exactly were no doubt too complex to be set out.

To many people Koestler never fully escaped the Manichean “tendency” of his Communist years. Isaac Deutscher remarked of The God That Failed that the ex-Communist that his “former illusion at least implied a positive ideal. His disillusionment is utterly negative. His role is therefore intellectually and politically barren.” (The Ex-Communist’s Conscience 1950). The common refrain was that anti-Communists had simply turned white into black – everything Communist was tainted, everything opposed to it was justified. But how could Koestler rise above things, and retreat, as Deutscher recommended, to a Watch Tower to observe, independently, the development of Stalinism in the hope of better days to come? He was committed to fighting the Communist cause from the moment he was prepared to publicly criticise it. His new enemies covered him with ordure. Few people, even they were not as fond of the “meat and drink” of “provocation and controversy” as he was, would take kindly to such treatment. The issue is not whether Koestler could escape his own black-and-white judgements but how far we are obliged to admire his own political choices.

Clearly many on the left did not, and would not today. Amongst those who imagine they are replaying the ‘totalitarian’ versus ‘anti-totalitarian’ game only those with strong stomachs seem able to align themselves with the “tough cookies” of the American Henry Jackson Society – a gimcrack ‘continuity’ Congress for Cultural Freedom. There is no appetite to repeat colossal global combats between two forces. The left’s multiple dilemmas today arise from fights to build equality and socially owned economies – democratic socialism – against a myriad of global opponents, from market states, transnational companies, communalist reactionaries, anonymous financial flows, venal political parties, and… It is, in sum, hard to box these, and countless more issues, into the kind of great Division that split the world during the Cold War. Official Communism, after all, collapsed nearly as much under the weight of growing global social complexity and inter-connectivity as it did from all its rotten economic and political foundations. Neither the left, nor those with nostalgia for anti-Communism, are likely to have much luck trying to recreate the great simplifications of the 1950s.

Bad Science

Perhaps Koestler scented the intricacies of the coming age. He contributed to one of is aspects, the ‘immaterial’ production of weightless theories that make up present-day ‘bad science’. Koestler’s last decades of relatively peaceful public life in Britain (and continuing turbulent personal existence) were spent in the harmless pursuit of a variety of esoteric directions. From the serious issue of confronting Death as a stark dramatic event, we have the search for all varieties of ‘wisdom’ literature, lightly dusted with some ‘science’. From the 1960s onwards Koestler the polymath churned out ‘ambitious’ (that is, portentous) books with titles such as The Midwife Toad, The Lotus and the Robot and The Act of Creation. Who knows, had he lived he might have written on the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery. Scammell takes this too seriously. He considers “prophetic” John Stratchey’s comment “that the revulsion experienced by Koestler and others against communism might lead to a larger retreat from reason.”(page 488) The New Age sections in Waterstone’s (where nearly all of Koestler’s later writing belong) is not, as yet, a major threat to Enlightenment values.

Lasting Contributions

The Indispensable Intellectual’s portrait of Koestler’s wandering life is brilliantly fluent. As Scammell is keen to underline, he has strong supports in his subject’s own writings. Koestler, left some of his best material, Scum of the Earth, (1941) (the French capitulation to the Germans and his own imprisonment and release to the UK), Arrow in the Blue, (1952) (his early life) and, above all, The Invisible Writing (1954), which covers his years as a committed Communist and eventual disillusion. To check on their truthfulness, through many language sources, is difficult. One would imagine few would feel anything but admiration for Scammell’s achievements in thoroughly going over Koestler’s traces. It is less certain that people will admire Koestler, the individual, the more for the biography. Somebody whom he describes in the Prologue as afflicted with a “form of manic depression that caused him to alternate between demonic glee, with an inflated sense of how own importance and gloomy humility, powered by chronic self-doubt.”(page xvii) is a hard sell. He gets little sympathy for the fact that the British (us) never really took to him – domiciled here for a long while his comments on The Nation are too close to the idées reçues of the insulated wealthy to be worth giving page space to. Neither his character, nor his judgement shone in later years. By the late 1970s his political views were apparently dominated by a dislike of British Trade Union power. One feels sad that the End in 1983 was a joint suicide with his companion, Cynthia Jeffries. But, like his earlier mediation on melting into the ‘All-One’, this leaves little inclination to enquire further. Sometimes, then, Scammell, as we have remarked, makes us more acquainted with the man than perhaps we would wish. What readers should do, nevertheless, is to make their own judgements about The Indispensable Intellectual, these works and, above all, Darkness at Noon. These are, as Scammell concludes, a “unique contribution to twentieth-century prose” and continue to raise profound issues about “political choice.”

* Stephen Cohen in his biography of Nikolas Bukharin, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (1973) argues that the model of Rubashov, Bukharin, did not offer any such “last service” to the Party. He, firstly, wrote a ‘last letter” attacking Stalin’s terror, raised this opposition in the Central Committee, then, only relented when they threatened to kill his wife and newborn son. In Court, while making an “extravagant confession for responsibility for all “the crimes of the bloc” (accused), he “specifically, in one manner or another disclaim(ed) each and every one.” (page 377)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Coates
is long-standing socialist and trade union activist who lives in Ipswich, near the Sunshine Suffolk Coast. He owns one of the best collections of sectarian left literature in East Anglia and 540 Everyman Classics. To while away the long-days he posts incessantly on the Web, pursuing vendettas and the line of his international organisation, Tendance Coatesy. His pastimes include putting slug pellets down on his allotment and watching the creatures die.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 20th, 2010.