Sunday, February 9, 2014

Arthur Koestler's The Invisible Writing

Once upon a time, every bookish American seemed to have a copy of the postwar phenomenon, The God That Failed. As a bookish as well as politically active person, my mother naturally had a copy of the book on her bookshelves. As an emerging atheist, I liked Richard Crossman's title and read The God That Failed before I was old enough to make sense of it. Looking back, I suspect that this compilation of six essays about the evils of communism, including a famous entry Arthur Koestler, helped to keep liberal-minded Americans like my mother firmly on the side of America and her democratic allies. Or, if the confessions of these particular former communists didn't necessarily sway people like my mother to steer clear of communism, then the logic behind these essays surely did.  For those who believed in social justice, communism had its allurements, but these allurements weren’t offset by the creed’s anti-democratic and indeed totalitarian tendencies. 

Arthur Koestler's brilliant examination of the logic of the Soviet Show Trials of the late 1930s, Darkness at Noon, was even more damning.  The book revealed that even communism’s best and brightest defenders, men who resembled Old Bolshevik cosmopolitan thinkers such as Nikolai Bukharin, were ensnared by the vicious sophistry of Marxist-Leninist logic. There is something truly astounding about Koestler's ability to get inside the mind of the Bolshevik victimizers/victims. But then Koestler was once a die-hard communist, so it's not altogether surprising that he should be able to accurately depict both the enchanting but ultimately malevolent aspects of modern Europe’s greatest quasi-religious faith.

Koestler’s perspective on communism remains educational.  Reading the second half of his memoirs, The Invisible Writing, one is reminded that communism transcended Russia’s frontiers.  Koestler, a Hungarian communist with intimate ties to Hungarian, German, Spanish, and British communism, to name just a few dimensions of his truly transnational political activity, even spent a considerable amount of time in Stalin’s Russia during the 1930s.  What’s remarkable about his sojourn in the Soviet Union is that the outlines of Stalin’s criminality were already so clearly visible.  Although a “true believer” at the time, Koestler’s independent habits of mind never entirely left him. True to his profession as a journalist, Koestler witnessed a backward, bureaucratic, and secret police-infested society in close detail.

Visiting Russia for the first time, Koestler didn’t intend to critique the Soviet experiment. In fact, his ties to the German Communist Party and Comitern meant that he was expected to praise the Soviet Union at nearly every turn.  Some friendly criticism could be tolerated, but only as a smoke screen to cover his fundamental support for the Soviet Union’s political trajectory.  If he encountered any signs of poverty or technological backwardness, Koestler was expected to attribute these failings to the legacy of absolutism or capitalism more generally.  But Koestler’s encounter with Soviet reality was devastating, and may have led to an open rupture much earlier, if the rise of the fascists in Germany hadn’t overshadowed his Russian observations. 

Koestler’s brilliant description of the Soviet Union is particularly valuable insofar as he was given the opportunity to travel to many of the country’s diverse regions, including the Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Turkish republics.  Incredibly, even before the Great Terror, Koestler's description of the country revealed many of the Terror’s adumbrations, as well as many of the Soviet Union’s other faults, including provincial-level show trials, social prejudice, concentration camps, censorship, propaganda, cultural philistinism, extreme centralization,poor economic planning, consumer goods shortages, overcrowding, housing shortages, long lines, famine, party privilege, political disenfranchisement, and the hyperactivity of the internal security organs. 

Koestler's Soviet travel writing is perseptive, trenchant, critical, and wickedly truthful.  Most interestingly, Koestler juxtaposes his original, sympathetic, depictions of his Soviet adventures with his subsequent, post-Soviet analysis, of the same phenonomena.  The contrast is striking.  Originally, Koestler, like most communists and fellow travellers, went out of his way to explain Soviet failings as bourgeois or even feudal atavisms. If something didn't work well, this was a legacy of tsarism which the modern, Soviet government was diligently working to correct. 

Some quotations from The Invisible Writing:

"The history of mankind would start with the World Revolution;  all that went before was merely a choatic, barbaric overture."

"It is not the Terror, but the existence of this ubiquitous organization without which nothing can be done, and which alone is capable of getting things done, that defines the structure of the totalitarian police state."

"There has never been a society in which a rigid, hierarchical order so completely determined every citizen's station in life and governed all his activities."

"This traditional hierarchic system, formerly confidened to the civil service, now embraces the entire nation."

"The only goods easily obtainable in Kharkov in 1932 were fly-paper, contraceptives and postage stamps."

"I have always had a deep longing for the primeval chaos, a nostalgia for the apocalpyse;  and here I found myself in the middle of both."

"...for the tradition-bound people of Asia the enforced voyage in the time-machine amounted to their deportation into a disconsolate and incomprehensible world."

"The G.P.U., like the gods, are capricious."

"In Russia it is not considered a sign of cowardice to behave in an affable manner towards people of whom one is afraid, and personal pride is not considered a virtue."

"To complete the nightmare, there was my own deep-rooted feeling of guilt towards the proletariat of which Werner was the perfect symbol--the deformed street-urchin, the cat-killer, the hunted and persecuted..."

" all the men whom I met in Tiflis, he was a heavy and expert wine drinker."

"Why," she asked pathetically, "Why is it that the leaves die wherever we go?"  In retrospect my overall impression of life in Russia has become tinged with the sadness and desolation of this remark."

"...even a travelling salesman may notice that a sunset lends color to the sky."

"This twin policy of centralization--plus atomization is a basic feature of the Soviet regime."

"The drab streets, the unrelieved shabiness and poverty, the grim pomposity of everything said and written, the all-pervading atmosphere of the reformatory school.  The feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world."

"The overwhelming bleakness of an industrialized Neanderthal."

"And yet I remained a Communist. I had learned that facts had to be appreciated not on their face value, but in a dynamic way."

"Why do you talk in a whisper?" he asked. "Do I?" I said, "I thought I was talking normally."  "In Berlin you used to yell, and now you whisper," he said.  "That is all I want to know about Russia."

"Berlin and Moscow were distant abstractions, and their two dictators shadowy, legendary figures like Nero and Caligula."

"Our association was to end in a ghastly scene which still haunts my imagination."

"His deatg was, fittingly, announced to his sisters by the giggling and spluttering village idiot."

"...the Kremlin Borgias."

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