Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual
By Michael Scammell
Faber & Faber, 2011,
720 pages, $32.99 (pb)
Arthur Koestler had a taste for political drama.
As a communist, he spied against Franco's fascists in the Spanish civil war; as a Jew, he escaped from the Gestapo in France by joining the French Foreign Legion; he saw the inside of five jails; he wrote a famous novel of Stalin's show trials; he became a vociferous anti-communist; and he enjoyed a fashionable vogue for his 1970s books on parapsychology.
Michael Scammell's biography of Koestler explores a man born in Hungary in 1905. Indignation at capitalist misery during the Depression, however, meant Koestler joined the German Communist Party as a writer and polemicist.
He waxed lyrical on turbines and tractors during a tour of the Soviet Union. The repulsiveness of Germany's Nazis kept his first seeds of doubt about Stalin dormant — but the seeds sprouted during Stalin's assault on the non-Stalinist left in the Spanish civil war and Stalin's mass purges and show trials in Russia.
In 1938, Koestler resigned from the party and left a trail of works renouncing communism.
These included The God that Failed, The Yogi and the Commissar, and Darkness at Noon — his novel that claimed to explain the show trial confessions of “Old Bolsheviks” as the fatal outcome of allegiance to the party, or, as Scammell puts it, “the logic of Communist ideology”.
Koestler's obsession with Stalinism drove him to an all-consuming crusade against the “communist menace”.
This included working with the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom, in which Koestler was a star performer.
“I knew from the beginning that there was American government money behind the Congress,” Koestler later said of the open secret that was CIA funding.
Koestler also joined hands with the CIA in advocating the denial of civil liberties to left-wing “totalitarians”, unaware of the irony.
This double standard was justified by smearing as Stalinists all dissenters from capitalism — to Koestler, the left are “not left, they're east”.
The irony of supporting Zionist terrorism in Palestine was also lost on the great defender of political morality. The principled man of liberty also had a convenient escape clause in his gender politics — belief that force “spiced-up” sex with women and could also be employed to keep them in line to fulfill their role of “typing, cooking, and looking after [their] husband's needs”.
Rounding out a dismal political degeneration, Koestler took aim at scientific materialism by embracing the “power of mind over matter” through the pseudo-scientific fads of ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, levitation and psychokinesis.
He also side-swiped Galileo for bringing about a regrettable breach between science and religion.
Koestler died in 1983, his belligerent words still ringing in right-wing intellectual circles, which includes his biographer, that communism was “the great illusion of our time”.
This shop-worn conservative mantra, however, denies the possibility that anti-Stalinism is compatible with democratic socialism. By eliminating the Old Bolsheviks, Stalin also eliminated the democratic and humanitarian ideals of the early socialists.
For the likes of Koestler, anti-Stalinism is a convenient halfway house for their uncritical, born-again faith in market capitalism — an ideology so out of touch with the needs of people and planet that it, rather than socialism, is the height of irrational delusion.