Arthur Koestler: 20th century man

Arthur Koestler, whose turbulent life charts the intellectual history of the 20thc in the West, has finally found a worthy biographer in Michael Scammell. A youthful communist and survivor of Franco’s prisons, Koestler developed into one of the West’s most persuasive crusaders against communism.

Arthur Koestler’s centenary in 2005 was barely noticed in Britain. The man who was one of the first to understand the inhumanity  of communism and the danger of appeasing the Soviet Union, whose turbulent life seems to have touched all the major events of the 20th century and whose books were bestsellers in Europe and America has been as good as forgotten in the country which adopted him in 1940 and where he lived till his suicide in 1983.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler’s centenary in 2005 was barely noticed in Britain

The reasons for this are complex. Koestler’s own break with politics in the 1950s, his shift from writing  novels to writing about science and his interest in the paranormal in later years are certainly among them.  Another factor is David Cesarani’s reputation-damaging biography “The Homeless Mind”, published in 1998, which caught the popular imagination and made readers think of Koestler  primarily as a serial rapist or worse. But, more importantly, the near oblivion of this remarkable figure seems to stem from an apparently universal reluctance to contemplate the intellectual battles of the 20th century and their consequences for our time.

Michael Scammell’s  600-page biography seeks to redress the balance. It is not polemical in tone, but his detailed and objective portrait of the man, writer and thinker, based on  two hundred interviews, previously unpublished  private letters and diaries and valuable material from the archives,  proves surprisingly convincing. 

A Way of Seeing

Koestler wrote  about the first 35 years of his life  in the two volumes of his autobiography, “The Arrow in the Blue” and “The Invisible Writing”. A lonely childhood in Budapest, where, aged 14, he witnessed  1919 communist revolution; his education at the Vienna Polytechnic; a passionate interest in Zionism stirred up by the writings of Vladimir Jabotinsky.  A trip to Palestine, the beginnings of journalism. Then disappointment with Zionism, and  return to Europe. A brilliant career as a science correspondent  in Berlin with the publishing tycoon Ullstein, which culminated in his reporting from the Graf Zeppelin  on its first flight to the North Pole.

Then came a passionate attraction to communism;  an eighteen month stay in the Soviet Union; anti-fascist propaganda work in Paris for the Comintern leader Willi Munzenberg, who sent him on assignments to  Spain several times  during the Civil War. An arrest and ninety days in Seville prison, which proved a life-changing event. Then his break with the Communist party, internment in France, and finally a narrow escape from the advancing Nazis via Casablanca and Lisbon to Britain.

The autobiography, which is among Koestler’s finest works, gives an honest account of how he saw his extraordinary life and himself in 1952. However,  a biographer armed with a wealth of documents is in a position to see more and  to analyse what is behind the narrative, especially when dealing with a writer, who, as Scammell remarks, “loved to see his life in terms of burned bridges and leaping off cliffs, blinding revelations and psychological revolutions”.

First of all, with the help of  numerous memoirs, he lets us look at the writer through other people’s eyes: an ambitious, adventurous, boisterous, courageous and often aggressive young man, perceived by a woman (Eva Striker) as ”romantic, charitable and loving”  and by a male friend, who managed to  see through him (Manes Sperber), as touchy  and painfully insecure. “ His lower lip invariably trembled after he had made an especially aggressive or deprecating remark about someone. There was a contradiction in his blue eyes as well: they reflected mockery and self-irony, and then, suddenly, an uncommon sensitivity and fear of deception and disappointment, fear that a pain one cannot prepare for could destroy one’s strength to bear it”.

Scammell also suggests that Koestler’s  life changes were not necessarily as swift as he describes, especially the most important one in his life – his  conversion to communism  and rejection of it.  Taking the decision to join the Communist party took Koestler about a year. He was drawn to it  by a group of Berlin friends gathered around his childhood friend from Budapest  and later – although no longer - his lover, Eva  Striker, and  also by reading the classics of Marxism –Leninism, which led him to experience a semi-mystical excitement, exactly the same as he felt when embracing Zionism.  His taste for black and white political solutions  prompted  an unequivocal answer to the popular question of the day “Germany - Fascist or Soviet?” And  after becoming a Party member  he was excited by its secretive world and “warm comradeship”, all of which, as Scammell puts it, “appealed to his romantic temperament”.

Koestler kept faith with the cause even on his trip to the Soviet Union. For a sharp-eyed journalist  it must have required a special effort not to notice the poverty and  hardships of the country in 1932-33, but, as Koestler was writing a propaganda work about the Soviet miracle, he developed a special vision which allowed him to ascribe anything good that he saw to the  achievements of the party and anything bad to lingering traces of the tsarist past. Unlike “ Winter in Moscow”, a book by the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge  who was in the Soviet Union at  exactly the same time, Koestler’s “White Nights and Red Days”  did not touch on the famine in Ukraine  or any other subjects undesirable for his Soviet hosts. It is not that he did not see these things - he did and was able to remember them many years later - but in conversations with his  Berlin friends, the same  Eva Striker and  her husband, physicist Alexander  Weissberg, who  were now living in Kharkov, he, and they too, tried to justify the need to be loyal to the regime by fear of counterrevolution.

Parting with illusions.

His break with communism, a pivotal moment of his life, was described many times by Koestler himself, but Scammell manages to add vital details to this too. He stresses that although to the end of his stay in the Soviet Union Koestler outwardly kept to the party line, seeds of doubt had already been planted in the 28-year-old communist, whose book incidentally was rejected by Soviet publishers as” frivolous and light-hearted”. This is clear from the fact that in the last weeks of his stay in the USSR, and on the train back to Europe, he was furiously writing a play about the nature of utopia and a couple of years later was re-examining his arguments about communism in a forgotten novel for children.

The real turning point, however, came later after his “dialogue with death”, his three month imprisonment in Spain, when he was “an almost daily eyewitness  of the execution of his comrades and awaited his own execution at any moment”. It was then that Koestler suddenly fully understood the meaning of revolutionary violence and the value of human life.

This breakthrough received forceful support from an unexpected quarter: in September 1937 Eva Striker was expelled from the Soviet Union as an undesirable alien. Her miraculous escape, as she told Koestler when she saw him in London, had been preceded by her arrest, a charge of plotting to assassinate Stalin, and 18 months in solitary confinement, punctuated by interrogations. The uncanny similarity of their experiences, Koestler’s in a fascist cell, Eva’s in a communist one, was reflected in the opening pages of “Darkness at Noon”, where Rubashov on waking up can’t immediately understand what prison he is in. Scammell sensitively remarks that the affinity between the  two systems was first grasped by Koestler on an emotional level, because  when he was writing these pages he was not yet ready to acknowledge it consciously.

His letter of resignation from the German Communist party, which explained how disgusted he was with “the degradation” of the party and the immorality of the revolutionary ethics of “ the ends justify the means”, ended with the hope that “the  Soviet Union is  the foundation of the future”. The letter was written in April 1938, 16 months before the Soviet-Nazi pact, which crushed any remaining illusions.

Darkness at Noon - cover

The novel originated as a response to the confessions of improbable crimes made by old Bolsheviks 

A Lonely Fight

From that moment and for the next eleven years Koestler put  much of his energy into attempts to explain the dangers of communism. He wrote “The Vicious Circle“( the original title of “Darkness at Noon”) while awaiting arrest in France and  during his internment in the Le Vernet camp as an “undesirable alien”. The novel originated as a response to the confessions of improbable crimes made by old Bolsheviks (in particular Bukharin, whom Koestler knew) at Stalin’s show trials. It analyses thoroughly the psychological mechanisms which make a man convince himself  that he is wrong and the party is right and exposes the ultimate damage done by communist ideology. The book was translated from the original German into English at breakneck speed and sent to Britain, while its author had to flee from the approaching Nazis. His next book, “Scum of the Earth”, written immediately after his escape - and the first one written in English - combines an account of his internment and flight with his reflections on the capitulation of France and the Soviet-Nazi pact.

The books were well received, yet Koestler’s active nature demanded much more. Just as in 1944 he was ready to go to Budapest to save Hungarian Jews from the inevitable gas-chambers and went to Palestine trying to ensure that it would become a home for Jewish survivors, he wanted  practical measures to be taken against the Soviet threat which he began to perceive at  about the same time, before the war ended. However, and  Scammell makes a point of showing this, despite Koestler’s growing fame and his friendship with many influential people in Britain his warnings about it were not taken seriously. Moreover, the general tendency of the time was to admire the Russians for their valour and victories in the war and nobody  wished to remember either the brutality of their show-trials or even their alliance with Hitler, when they supplied the petrol for German planes to bomb British cities.

Koestler was outraged  when in 1944 the Soviet army did not come to the aid of the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis, but could not get an article about it published, because the newspaper owner did not want to offend the Russians.  He watched a debate in the House of Commons and was stunned to hear about plans to “reward” the Soviet Union with the post-war partition of Germany. Scammell gives his diary entry: “Nobody seemed aware that “the future frontiers of  Soviet Poland “ would run “only a few miles east of Berlin. In two years it will be a natural deduction. If I said it aloud today, nobody would believe me and I would probably be interned”. Feeling like a Cassandra whose predictions fell on deaf ears, Koestler could only  try yet again to explain what he meant by writing a series of essays: “Anatomy of a Myth”, “Soviet Myth and Reality” and “The End of an Illusion”, which were published in the collection “The Yogi and the Commissar” in 1945.

If one man in England was a natural ally of Koestler’s it was George Orwell, who at the same time was getting rejections from British publishers unwilling to print “Animal Farm” for the same fear of offending the Russians.  Scammell describes an unlikely friendship between the two difficult and completely different  men, based on a brutal honesty. The day after Orwell published  a very critical review of Koestler’s play “The Twilight Bar” he came to stay with him for a week. “Koestler wondered why Orwell hadn’t mitigated his harsh remarks with a single redeeming phrase and was expecting Orwell to say something in the car, but Orwell said nothing and they rode in silence. Finally Koestler blurted out: “That was a bloody awful review you wrote, wasn’t it?” “Yes” said Orwell, “and it’s a bloody awful play, isn’t it?” It was to Orwell that Koestler came to with a project to start a successor to the old League for the Rights of Man, which could allow intellectuals to have some influence on politics. Orwell enthusiastically wrote a manifesto, but their attempts to enlist others came to nothing in the end.

Gathering Forces

By the end of the 1940s, however, former communists in different countries had discovered each other. They realized they had knowledge that other people did not have and felt it was their duty to share it. As Koestler famously said to the Labour politician and author Richard Crossman: “You comfortable, insular, Anglo-Saxon anti-communists…hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies, but when all is said, we ex-communists are the only people on your side who know what it’s all about”. It was out of this sentiment that the volume “The God that Failed” originated. It carried the subtitle  “Six Studies in Communism”, was edited by Richard Crossman  and contained essays by Koestler, Andre Gide, Stephen Spender, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright and Louis Fisher, who all told their stories of disillusionment with communism.

Communism meanwhile was gaining ground in the West. The Soviet propaganda machine wasted no time in mounting a huge ideological offensive, with the new Cominform agency  and peace conferences  and mass rallies, with Picasso’s dove as symbol, in New York and Paris. And they did not lack support among the intelligentsia, especially the French, gripped as they were by anti-Americanism. At this point it was not just Koestler, but  a number of American and European ex-communists - Sidney Hook, Ignazio Silone, Franz Borkenau  and others - who felt the urgent  need for  a counter-attack, and  their efforts  led to the creation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The Congress, one of the most remarkable initiatives of the 20th century, a union of European and American intellectuals striving to preserve liberal values, was  discredited, particularly in Britain, years later when in 1967at the height of the Vietnam war, its CIA funding became a sensational  public discovery. Today, a favourable account of the Congress by Peter Coleman, ”The Liberal Conspiracy” (1989) is largely forgotten and a more recent hostile book by Francis Stonor Saunders, “Who Paid the Piper” (1999), further helped to block out a worldwide movement for the defence of human rights and  free exchange of ideas as an unpleasant historical blot. Michael Scammell’s biography  gives a completely new  picture of its origins and its influence on Koestler’s life.

Triumph  and Rejection

The Congress’s founding conference,  attended by about a hundred leading writers, scholars and scientists from different countries, was due to take place in West  Berlin at the end of June 1950. A copy of the programme made its way to Washington and the newly-founded CIA agreed to fund it. At this point very few people knew about the CIA connection, perhaps, as Scammell suggests, because the CIA was so new and little known, but they knew they were funded by some branch of the American government. However the paradox exposed by Scammell’s research was that the CIA was actually pleading for less overt anti-communism than the conference organisers seemed to desire.

Koestler, naturally, became heart and soul of it all. He actively participated in  the preparations, wrote several papers, including the main document of the Congress, a “Freedom Manifesto”, and  spoke at the conference several times. Its opening  coincided with news of the communist North Korean army’s invasion of  South Korea, and its participants felt they were on the eve of global conflict. This lent more urgency to proceedings and the Congress concluded with a public rally, attended by about fifteen thousand people. It was there that Koester read out his Manifesto and finished by shouting in German, “Friends, freedom has seized the initiative!”, to the delight of the audience. He was entirely in his element and it was acknowledged  that the conference  owed its success largely to him.

At this point Koestler thought he might take six months off from his writing and devote himself entirely to the new organisation. He was hoping to create a Radio network, which he nicknamed “Deminform” as opposed to the Soviet “Cominform”, and to send books to the  countries of the Eastern bloc. He was also thinking of establishing committees  in all the large provincial towns of France,  to put up anti-Communist posters and organize mass meetings on subjects like the Korean war and Yugoslavia. In short, he was eager to use all his energy and  experience to serve the cause he believed in passionately.

And suddenly all this was over. Just two months after the opening conference Koestler handed in his  resignation from the Congress. The mystery of what happened has never been solved. Scammell  does not offer an explanation, but  just  some known facts: Koestler’s nervous breakdown, which preceded his resignation;  his later confession  in a letter to Manes Sperber that he had not withdrawn from the Congress, but had been made to withdraw “in a very gentle and effective way”; and  a letter by his former  American friend and sponsor James Burnham to the CIA, where he explained that Koestler with his “neurotic personality” was more of a liability than an asset. The biographer suspects that CIA bureaucrats must have found Koestler too militant and too difficult to control for their comfort.  A hint from a Congress colleague that he was not welcome must have profoundly disappointed and hurt Koestler, and the nervous breakdown that followed was read by him as a “warning from fate” directing him – as it had happened before - to move to the next stage of his life.

The Right Decision?

It was just a couple of  years later - after writing his autobiography – that Koestler  announced: “Cassandra has grown hoarse” and retired  from politics altogether.

It could not have been easy for a man of his temperament and energy to suddenly stop all his activity. And he carried some of it on, only not in the sphere of international politics. The only thing that was a continuation of his previous initiatives was the fund he created, with the royalties from his play based on “Darkness at Noon”,  to help intellectuals who had fled  from Eastern Europe: the Romanian playwright  Eugene Ionesco, Polish poet Czeslav Milosz, Russian writers Bunin and Remizov  and the Russian émigré periodical “Literaturny Sovremennik” (“Literary Contemporary”) were among its beneficiaries. In the mid-fifties he started a campaign for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain and when it was finally abolished in 1970 it was widely acknowledged that it was Koestler’s efforts and his book “Reflections on Hanging” that helped to change public opinion.

But when the Hungarians revolted against Soviet rule in  Autumn 1956, Koestler, after an initial surge of energy which made him drive to the Hungarian embassy at night, advise the editor of “Encounter “on what needed to be done and help to organise a meeting of support for the uprising, refused to make any public speeches or sign any public protests. Scammell makes it unambiguously clear that this was “a rare tactical mistake on Koestler’s part which “deprived the Hungarians of a matchless powerful advocate”. Yet on seeing the western governments  distracted by the Suez crisis and Hungary forgotten, Koestler congratulated himself on the correctness of his decision to quit politics and remain silent.

The remaining nearly thirty years of Koestler’s life are carefully described by Scammell with his usual  remarkable  ability to blend the private and  public  domains. Koestler did not seem to have regretted his decision  and in his old age  used to get angry when he  was still greeted as the author of “Darkness at Noon”, claiming that his achievements of later years were no less important.

The Congress  for Cultural Freedom and other organisations  eventually implemented some of Koestler’s proposals on how to fight back against communism, although without crediting him for them. Koestler, as Scammell repeatedly points out, was in most cases far ahead of his time – and his ideas  were put into practice only when public opinion became ready to accept them. What  was not appreciated at the time, and not  learnt from later, was Koestler’s unique capacity for seeing the political situation as it is was at a given  moment and for predicting its further development. Trapped within the conventional  notions of left- right, communism - anticommunism, anti-Russian  - anti-American, most western intellectuals failed to grasp what started happening after the collapse of the Soviet Union and missed the revival of old totalitarian ways in new incarnations.

Koestler by Scammell

Michael Scammell. “Koestler. The Indispensable Intellectual.” Faber and Faber.2010

Masha Karp is Russian born journalist based in London

About the author
Masha Karp is a London-based journalist with a special interest in Russian-Western cultural links. 
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Stephen Koch Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the seduction of the intellectuals, NY: Free Press 1994

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, Vintage Classics, 1998

George Orwell, Animal Farm, Signet Classic, 1996

Malcolm Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow, Little Brown, 2002

Michael Scammell’s web site

A Life of Ignazio Silone by Stanislao G. Pugliese, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2009, 448 pages

The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress For Cultural Freedom And The Struggle For The Mind Of Postwar Europe, by Peter Coleman, Free Press 1989, 333 pages