Reviews for the Revolution: Language, Coercion and Ritual in Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’

Today we’re talking Doublespeak, guilty-until-proven-innocent and mass political rituals in the Reviews for the Revolution look at Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon- ends and means politics, prisoner of the mind narrative, and the idea of coercion and guilt as ideological motivation.

In times like these I find myself increasingly looking for new guiding lights and old words of comfort and inspiration. Alongside the other new series of posts (Bare Facts) I’m also going to be writing these totally new ‘Reviews for the Resistance.’ Bookish posts which don’t betray the core themes of the blog, but also offer suggestions for useful and positive reading material from across the centuries, exploring the ideas and ideologies of famous authors and texts in order to pick out what could be useful or applicable today.

I’m starting off with one of my own personal primers for all political thinking. It will be good to outline some central thoughts and themes, because in the future of this blog I’m certain to refer back to Darkness at Noon and author Arthur Koestler all the time. Today I’m looking into the role of language in informing and inhibiting knowledge, and the relationship between words, thoughts and emotions in a coercive situation. This will allow me to introduce ideas like ‘ends-and-means’ and raise other ideas that I’ll talk about in future blog posts.  As always I’ll give you a complete list of all the books mentioned at the end of the post, including either amazon or goodreads links.

koestler-chessArthur Koestler was a British-Hungarian author who wrote throughout most of the twentieth century, but most famously during the 1930s and 1940s in a period of intense disillusionment from the Communist Party he had belonged to. He went on to write about every other topic under the sun, become actively involved in a myriad of political causes and win heaps of awards for his journalism, but the 1940 novel Darkness at Noon is his biggest calling card. His experiences, and the overwhelmingly negative tone of the novel, has meant that Darkness at Noon is tiredly resigned to the canon of ‘anti-communist’ texts from this period that denounce authoritarian rule and emphasise the importance of human emotions and spirituality. The themes that Koestler outlines in Darkness at Noon can be picked up and explored in more explicit (i.e. less fictional) words in his collection of essays, The Yogi and the Commissar, or in his chapter of The God that Failed.

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It is difficult to find a parallel for Darkness at Noon. At first glance it would seem to share an easy shelf with Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World, and lots of other anti-authoritarian, dystopian novels, but when you pick through its pages you find a far deeper, far more emotionally driven human story. Koestler tells the story of Rubashov, an aged revolutionary who believes himself to be on the right side of history, but is on the wrong side of the Party he helped bring to power. Rubashov is imprisoned and pressured to confess to crimes never committed, in order to tarnish his reputation and salvage a future for the Party. In discussing this with another, more popular figure in the regime, Rubashov looks back over episodes in his political career which reveal a long and slowly festering disillusionment with the revolution he had fought for, and an awareness of the painful, difficult, and guilt-inducing contradictions of Marxism and communism as it was understood by early-twentieth-century Russia.

Darkness at Noon shares a lot of linguistic traits with Nineteen Eighty-Four though. Language often finds a prominent role in societies that have heavily ritualised politics. Authoritarian regimes, fascist states and other systems which glorify a leader figure and utilise a cult-like worship of the state all use language as a means of reinforcing loyalty. Language has been treated by many thinkers, including Orwell, as both a source of knowledge and as a symptom of knowledge, or when used coercively, a means of denying knowledge. His language of Newspeak permits words to have singular meanings only: for example, ‘free’ can only be used to describe the absence of, or freedom from, something else. The institution of this language will allow no capacity for unorthodoxy:

“In the end we will make ThoughtCrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” (Nineteen Eighty-Four).

This moves beyond traditional forms of coercion, and permits a means of control in an age when physical coercion is far more difficult to engineer, in an almost Sapir-Whorfian manner. It is no new conclusion to suggest, therefore, that controlling language in a ritualised or sacralised context is an important feature of coercive regimes, if not any political use. Certain words, phrases or images gained the same significance as their visual counterparts, and became ritualised through repetition.

The ritualism and willing coercion could not last forever, however, for Rubashov. At its very core, Darkness at Noon is a bittersweet and self-doubting tale of how the former revolutionary had never lost his faith in the ideals he had fought for, but could no longer lie to himself that this regime represented those same ideals. There was an inherent contradiction between words and action that unsettled many ex-communist authors; they struggled to reconcile Communist activity with the core tenets of belief they tried to follow.

“Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it–an abstract and geometric love.” (Darkness at Noon).

shelvesA peculiar duality of belief existed, for a brief period of time, in which Rubashov inhabited both the ideology of the faith and his own ethical ideology: this mode of holding two opposing thought patterns is described by Koestler, in his discussion of the ‘Grammatical Fiction,’ and Orwell as doublethink. Key to the existence of this fragile state was the denial of guilt associated with any actions that seemed to denigrate the faith. It can be seen in contemporary discussions of the ends-and-means schema- for a better contemporary explanation you could try Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means (an Enquiry Into the Nature of Ideals and Into the Methods Employed for Their Realization).’ In essence, it was a coercive demand for followers to believe that the political ends would always justify the means, even if that involved violence, death or suffering. Which, in Darkness at Noon, it did. The contradiction that existed between killing in order to prevent deaths, or being violent in order to prevent violence, is a contradiction that exists in all modern nations today. As citizens around the world struggle with the morality of military action, of surveillance to prevent crime, and the ethics of anti-terrorism, we all weigh our beliefs on the kitchen scales of ends-and-means.

“The conflict of the liberal conscience of men of good will in the 1930’s centred on the problem of means and ends. It was argued that in order to gain power you had to use bad means, while indignantly denying that you were doing so.” (Stephen Spender, Worshippers form Afar).

Rubashov cannot support his continued activity in the Party, and cannot believe that they will one day be absolved by history. He is coerced into confessing crimes he did not commit, in order to provide the Party with a narrative that explains his fall from grace and his subsequent execution. Rubashov weighs up the situation, and puts his faith in the Party that promises to spare his life one more time. They execute him regardless, to complete their neat history-book story.

…the denial and suppression of one’s own conviction when there is no prospect of materializing it… the public disavowal of one’s conviction in order to remain in the Party’s ranks is obviously more honourable than the quixotism of carrying on a hopeless struggle. (Rubashov is convinced, before death. Darkness at Noon).


Recommended reading from this post (free to access wherever possible):

Other useful reading:


If you have any thoughts or comments on this post I’d love to hear them – especially if there’s a book, tract, text or anyting else you’d like to see in a future ‘Reviews for the Revolution’ post.  Leave a comment below, or find The Slow Pulse on twitter, facebook, tumblr etc. via the contact page.

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