Article de Pat Flanagan paru dans Freedom, 10 July 1982, Vol. 43, No 13, p. 15
Iain Hamilton, Koestler: A Biography. Secker and Warburg, 1982. 398pp. £12
MOST on the left today are too young to know of Arthur Koestler’s life and work. Those who do—this is especially true of Marxists—tend to dismiss the 76 year old Hungarian as an ex-Communist supporter of capitalism who abandoned politics for speculative-mystical philosophy and psychology when his God—Stalinist Communism—failed. Koestler is, after all, the leading contributor to the ‘God That Failed’ essay-collection by ex-Communists edited by Richard Crossman and published in the early 1950s.
This is wrong on a number of counts. In the first place, while Koestler’s political activism largely ceased atter the War, his concern with and writings about politics certainly didn’t. Second, perhaps the chief motivation for Koestler’s subsequent efforts to reach a deeper understanding of human mind and nature was his almost unique first-hand experience of Stalinism and Nazism. As Orwell in 1944 wrote of Darkness at Noon and other books by Koestler, his ‘main theme is the decadence of revolutions owing to the corrupting effects of power’. Far from being mystical, much of Koestler’s post-War work has been an attempt to use the methods of natural science to try and explain these affects in terms of the workings and structure of the human brain. It’s unnecessary to accept his views (summed up in Janus, 1978) to appreciate their suggestive relevance for those interested to understand and oppose human domination and violence.
Last but not least there are, I suggest, important lessons to be learned from a study of Koestler’s life and work as a non-specialist, anti-academic would-be ‘revolutionary’ in art, science and politics. Though not as good as it could and should have been, Iain Hamilton’s biography provides valuable raw material for such a study. A Fleet Street journalist, Hamilton lacks the intellectual and political equipment to do critical justice to Koestler’s efforts to understand and change the world.
The first lesson concerns the importance of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater: in Koestler’s case, the baby is the revolutionary project ; in the case of his left critics, it’s Koestler’s true insights into the project’s warping dangers. It took Koestler almost the entire thirties as a leading agent of the Comintern in the USSR, Germany, France and Spain to realize that Marxian theory (the dictatorship of the proletariat) and Stalinist practice (the one-Party police state) meant lies, repression and unfreedom, rather than revolutionary liberation, democracy and justice. Correctly abandoning Marxian communism as part of the counter-revolutionary problem, Koestler’s mistake was to abandon the struggle for revolutionary change. All that follows from the failure of the revolutionary Marxist project is the ever-greater necessity for revolutionary libertarian socialism.
But Koestler’s ‘pessimistic Conservatism’ (Orwell) in no way invalidates his valuable first-hand account and critique of the psychology or psychopathology of the Communist’s loyalty to the Party, come what may. In The Invisible Writing, Darkness at Noon and other works, Koestler has given us as good an account as exists of the ‘Orwellian’ mechanisms whereby Party members convince themselves that black is white, 2+2=5, the earth is flat, Hitler is a friend of peace… you name it, if the Party says so. Rather than use Koestler’s insights into the pathology of power in the revolutionary (communist) world, left critics dismiss him simply as yet another ex-Communist ‘god that failed’. Even so sophisticated a Marxist as Isaac Deutscher in Heretics and Renegades can do no better than dismiss Koestler and offer in reply a not-so-subtle apology for Stalinism. Merleau-Ponty did the same in Humanism and Terror.
The second important lesson libertarians can learn from Koestler’s life and work is the extent to which most people, whatever their origins, background, status, nationality and religious or political beliefs, remain impervious to unpleasant facts. Consider in addition to Koestler’s critique of revolutionary Marxism, his continuous efforts from 1933 and throughout the War to alert people in the capitalist democracies to the terrible consequences of the Nazis’ rise to power. Consider in particular the persecution of the Jews. As Koestler shows in essay after essay, for example his classic ‘On Disbelieving Atrocities’ (1943), people just didn’t want to know—just as people now don’t want to know about Indonesia’s mass murder campaigns in its two annexed ‘provinces’, West Papua New Guinea, and East Timor, for example. Once again, it isn’t necessary to accept Koestler’s speculations about evolution and the brain to recognise the truth of this basic fact—a fact with profound consequences for libertarians concerned to persuade others to participate in a popular democratic movement to oppose the technological totalitarian trends of our age. ‘Already the name Hiroshima has become a historical cliche like the Boston Tea Party’ Koestler writes in the chapter on Hiroshima in his excellent series of selected writings, Bricks to Babel (1980). ‘We have returned to a state of pseudo-normality. Only a small minority is conscious of the fact that ever since it unlocked the nuclear Pandora’s Box, our species has been living on born owed time.’
The final lesson we can learn from Koestler’s life (he is still going strong at 76) is the value and importance of the effort to range freely and without compartmentalised blinkers over every area of human endeavour, from art to natural science, sexuality to humour, the sources of creativity to politics, law and ethics. I remember more than ten years ago writing a critique of the warping, tendencies in our culture which repress and stifle our free-ranging powers and turn us into moral, mental, emotional and physical cripples. The only respect in which things have changed since, is that they’re much worse. We become ever-more repressed, frag-mented myopic specialists in self-alienation. For all his faults, Koestler and his work are a valuable reminder and stimulus to do more and better.