Book Review from the June 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard
Because of its inner contradictions Capitalism is a dying and decadent social order. This decadence is reflected not only in its institutions but in its literature. That is why some of its most effective literature is that of despair, cynicism and protest.
The first World War did much to shatter the complacency of 19th century Capitalism. The slumps, massive unemployment and wide “Labour unrest” which followed it, seemed for many to threaten social disintegration.
It was in this period of shell-shock disillusionment that many “intellectuals” began to lose faith in Capitalism and to search desperately for a new faith. Having no real historic evaluation of social development, they had no real solution to existing social problems. It became easy—fatally easy—for them to seek escape from the obsessional anxieties of a dark capitalist reality in the wishful thinking of an enchanted socialist fairy-land—Soviet Russia.
A miracle had happened. Socialism had been established in an economically backward country, All things were now possible. Not only were the “toiling masses” to be freed but art and literature would also be freed from its degrading commercial morality and cash payment. For many “intellectuals” well might Russia look to be “ All this and Heaven too.”
The six contributors to “The God That Failed” (Hamish Hamilton) could easily be fitted into that category of intellectuals. The dust cover also announces it as “Six Studies in Communism.” The contributors are Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, the American negro writer Richard Wright and the poet Stephen Spender. All are Soviet apostates, ideological crusaders in an holy war against their once adopted Russian Fatherland.
This book is not primarily about the objective state of affairs in Russia but the subjective state of mind of each of the writers over Russia; their doubts, inner conflicts and guilt feelings as part of the protracted process of disillusionment resulting from the shattering impact of their experiences inside Russia or the Communist Party or both. Each appears not so much as an objective commentator on Russia but rather in the role of a Dostoevsky of a fallen and disgraced ideology.
In the first fine careless rapture of their conversion they regarded themselves as “servants serving a higher purpose”—vide Mr. Crossman, M.P.. who writes the preface. They were however “intellectuals” and, according to Mr. Crossman, better able to interpret the social significance of an age than were the inarticulate millions. How catastrophically they failed in this respect their own confessions bear damning testimony.
The totalitarian requirements of Russian State Capitalism were unwilling or unable to make concessions even to gifted servants. Mr. Crossman tells us that these intellectuals were treated with indifference by the Party apparatus. He also makes the suggestion that the Kremlin might have regarded their influence as negligible. It does seem that this “indifferent’ of the Kremlin towards them gives the book its strong personal edge on Russia. This accounts for their concern when “The Party line” affected them as individuals and consequently clashed with their own preconceived ideas on their role and status as “intellectuals.” It might also explain why on matters that affected them less, i.e. the glaring anomalies in Russian social life, they showed, in spite of the overwhelming proof at their disposal, an almost unbelievable capacity to believe what they wanted to believe and an almost incredible credulity in swallowing Kremlin rationalisations of the ugly contradictions and crass inconsistencies existing in Russia.
Indeed Mr. Crossman in a revealing passage tells us that “If the Comintern had only shown an occasional mark of respect for the western intellectual it could have won the support of the largest body of progressive thought in the world.” He adds that “not one would have hesitated to have returned in the protracted process of withdrawal if the Party had shown a gleam of understanding of his belief in human freedom and human dignity.”
So for “an occasional mark of respect” these intellectuals could have got round the awkward dilemma of vast social inequalities in “Socialist Russia;” have ignored the brutality and repression of its state machinery, its Moscow trials and slave camps. They might even have returned to the cess pool unconscious of its mud and slime, all for “ an occasional mark of respect.”
Perhaps these people were deceived by the Kremlin but most of all they deceived themselves. In spite of their inner conflicts and Dostoevskian torments they never achieve the level of objective self-criticism; never see that their own attitude as intellectuals and their claim to interpret social reality in a way different from the “ inarticulate millions ” has, in its way, contributed to the perpetration and perpetuation of the Russian myth as effectively as Soviet inspired propaganda.
People like Gide and Silone are in essence religious idealists. They preferred to regard Soviet Russia less as a social phenomenon than as a religious revival, and Socialism as not basically the transformation of one set of productive relations to another set, but as a way of living like the early Christians. To their patronage of Marxism they brought the authority of the Gospels. Marx, it seemed, played the role of “ John the Baptist ” to Lenin’s “Jesus Christ.”
Richard Wright came to Communism he says knowing nothing of economics which meant he knew nothing of Socialism (the terms Socialism and Communism are of course synonymous). He also was a religious convert to the Communist Party and brought to it that humourless, deadly earnestness with its readiness to live and even die for “ the cause,” so typical of many Communist converts. For him, the cause was mainly the "coloured question.” It was Stalin’s National and Colonial Question that won his interest. His internationalism was in effect merely a black and white cosmopolitanism. He fails to appreciate that only the abolition of Capitalism can guarantee the emancipation of workers, black or white, from their real thralldom, the thralldom of those denied access to the productive resources to a privileged section who own those resources. His writing becomes at times almost hysterical. His account of his persecution at the hands of the Chicago Local is more reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan than a so called proletarian party.
Louis Fischer’s is the most objective account—that of a humane and sympathetic supporter whose sentiments over Russia led him badly astray. Stephen Spender is just another of the pink poets who left the Fabian drawing-room in search of red-blooded political adventure. He appears to have wandered back without ever finding out what it was all really about.
Koestler is the most orthodox of these “ Communist ” converts. He even claims to have accepted Marxism, although his account of it is never more than the tedious rubber-stamped version of the typical communist editorial. In effect he was one of the many highly emotional anti-Fascists who believed that the Communist Party was the best instrument for serving such ends.
Koestler’s account of his seven year membership of the Communist Party is a piece of sheer self-dramatisation. Indeed Marxism merely serves as a somewhat dubious literary device for sustaining the suspense and tension of a thriller. The chief impressions one gathers from his tale are of a temporary period of conspiratorial anonymity; visits of party “contacts,” from whom he received instructions and to whom he gave bits of information gleaned in his journalistic capacity in a big newspaper publishers; his studies in the art of going underground and acquiring techniques for insurrection; his participation—although he was, he says, never in the actual shooting frays—in the political cum Chicago— gangster warfare between Nazis and Communists. All of which activity suggests not so much adult political reasoning but rather an adolescent desire to play “Cops and Robbers.”
He left the Communist Party as the result of three carefully chosen phrases which he used at a meeting of German emigre writers. One was “ No movement, party or person can claim the privilege of infallibility.” Another was a quotation from Thomas Mann—“A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.” Although at the meeting he uttered no criticism of Russia or the Communist Party, it was, he says, a declaration of war. A few days later he resigned his membership.
This piece of typical Koestlerian crypticism simply adds up to the plain fact that he had merely discovered that lies and corruption are still lies and corruption no matter under what guise they appear; that the end does not justify the means because in such practices the means themselves become the end. It took seven years of intense political experience and on-the-spot observation for this intellectual to painfully acquire what the newest convert to our organisation regards as an almost self evident proposition.
Nevertheless “ Fight Fascism ” was still for him the political categorical imperative. He supported the war. He regarded it in the character of a crusade. In an article in the New York Times Magazine during the war he referred to the war as a showdown between the powers of light and darkness. He did make the half hearted reservation that it was not the final showdown. Nevertheless he left no doubt about his belief that it was a showdown.
Koestler is always getting his political objectives mixed up with his “ id ” and “ super ego ” As an admirer of Freud he is always seeking truth, not at the level of empirical observation but in the dark depths of his “unconscious,” to which he seeks to descend. Occasionally he comes up for air but it is never with the truth but always another error.
Koestler tells us in the preface to “The Yogi and the Commissar” that since his schooldays he has not ceased to marvel at the fool he was the year before. He says this is still true today although in a modified form. For some that may be a Koestlerian epigram. For us it would be fitting words for his political epitaph.
We cannot resist the temptation of saying that what is happening in Russia today is an empirical confirmation of the correct position we took up right from the first as to the real nature of Russian social and economic development, while the intellectual Christopher Columbuses were feverishly discovering “The Socialist Sixth of the World.”
“The God That Failed” might provide one of the popular formula’s which serve as current explanations of Russia. They are often successful because, although they do not say anything objectively valid about Russia, they do give the illusion of understanding what they do not really understand. It will perhaps be accepted by people who are politically naive and no more than merely curious about social affairs.
The writers of this book seem to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Russia still remains for them a sinister historical enigma. All of them still believe Russia had got on the right path but somehow has taken the wrong turning. Believing as they do in a non Marxist sense that men make history, they believe that bad men make bad history.
Having started with illusions they were ripe—rotten ripe one might say, for disillusionment. In substance their disillusionment consists of the replacing of one set of illusions with another set. One hardly knows whether to call the book a study in tragic futility or a lesson in futile tragedy.
But this is where we came in.