By Mick Ackersley
Koestler was George Orwell's twin, the one who personally wallowed in all the horrors that Orwell turned up his fastidious truth-seeking nose at, and recoiled from them, poisoned for life.
A Hungarian Jew in Germany, Koestler joined the Communist Party in l93l, and remained a member for seven years. He went to Spain as a journalist during the civil war, was captured by the fascists, and spent months in jail waiting for them to shoot him. That experience marked him for the rest of his life.
Koestler, who worked for the British Liberal paper the News Chronicle, which at that point was heavily influenced by the Stalinists, was eventually released. He broke with the Communist Party in 1938, at the time of the third Moscow Trial, in which Bukharin was the chief defendant.
In fact he remained a Stalinist for a long time after he broke with the CP. His first novel, 'The Gladiators', published in 1939, tells the story of the great slave revolt associated with the name of Spartacus which shook the Roman world in the year 73 BC.
His version of the story is a parable on the experience of the Soviet Union. Spartacus is Stalin. The highly trained and easily coordinated gladiatorial school inmates, whose revolt triggers the great movement of slaves, are the vanguard “revolutionary party”, the Bolshevik party.
The slaves found a 'Sun City' and those who rule it are forced more and more to live as the ruling classes around them live. They refuse to aid other slaves.... To maintain discipline, Spartacus/Stalin becomes a tyrant. He is forced to crucify some of his old comrades, including the dearly loved Oenamus, who is Bukharin...
Finally, Spartacus and the slave army abandon their 'Sun City' and go out to defeat and slaughter at the hands of the Romans.
It is a historical travesty, awash with sentimental romanticism, devoid of even the notion that the material interests of the Stalin-led bureaucracy were central to the formation of the autocratic regime of Stalin, which gave the world such things as the Moscow Trials.
Koestler became famous as the novelist-psychologist of Stalinism. In his 1940 novel 'Darkness at Noon', he offered plausable answers to the question: 'Why did they, the old Bolsheviks on trial, confess?'
They confessed, says Koestler, because they believed in Stalin's party as the custodian of the Revolution.
The novel is as awash with pseudo-dialectical gobbyledygook about the Bolshevits' alleged philosophy of history as 'The Gladiators' is with romanticism. The hero, 'Rubashov', is a compound figure with much of Bukharin in him, an old revolutionary who confesses in order to continue to serve the “Revolution”.
As an explanation of why men like Zinoviev, Ryhov, Rakovsky and others confessed, it is malignant idiocy. We now know that they were tortured, demoralised over many years, and blackmailed. (Bukharin had a young wife and a baby son... )
Yet history was to do a strange thing to Koestler's travesty: it imitated it. Koestler had anachronistically attributed the psychology of some of the Stalin-trained apparatchiks he knew in the 1930s Comintern to the old Bolsheviks who confessed in the Moscow Trials. In 1948-52 there were purge trials of loyal Stalinists in Russia’s East European satellite states. Some of them did confess(in part, anyway)for the reasons Koestler attributed to the old Bolsheviks. For example, Laslo Rajk, former secretary of the Hungarian CP, shouted 'Long live the party' on the scaffold.
In the 1940s Koestler became a professional anti-Stalinist, and a very influential one. He was an important activist in the campaign in Britain to abolish the death penalty. In the'50s, he left politics for science and pseudo-science. Much of his writing over the last decades attacked science, or the conventional wisdom about science. In his will he endowed a University Chair for research into the paranormal.
Much of the driving force that led him to mysticism seems to have been horror at the pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-materialist pseudo-philosophical certainties associated with Stalinism at its peak. He himself truly said that he had moved 'from specious certainty to groping in the murk'. He could have shed the specious certainty without sinking as far into the murk as he did.
For me Koestler's political writings, including his novels, are an important part of the spiritual, intellectual and psychological record of a generation who turned to Stalin and the USSR thinking they were turning to communism, and found there osuch horrors and monstrosities that they were maimed psychologically and politically for the remainder of their lives.