Political commentators today tend to celebrate a certain kind of skepticism promoted by Cold War intellectuals, men who counseled a vigorous response to evil while remaining humbled by the persistence of evil lurking in all human effort. As an antidote to the failed utopian schemes and totalitarian ideologies that burned through the 20th century—and as an alternative to the cowboy crusading of George W. Bush—this kind of restrained pragmatism makes sense. But it leaves out men like Arthur Koestler, one of the most influential anticommunists of his day.
Perhaps the current popularity of the chastened outlook explains the title of Michael Scammell's new biography: Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic. As Scammell's fantastic account makes clear, Koestler was hardly a skeptic. He was an impassioned believer who swerved this way and that—Zionism, communism, anticommunism, science, and -pseudoscience—searching for the absolute that would save him (and us all).
Born to an assimilated Jewish family in Central Europe before World War I, Koestler lived in a half dozen countries, spoke several languages, slept around, and wrote some 30 books, including four autobiographies, along with essays and articles on topics as varied as antifascism and ESP.
Koestler's life is marked by paradoxes and ironies. One of them is that he was inspired to write one of the best-known anticommunist novels, Darkness at Noon, by an experience suffered while still technically a communist. Koestler wrote Darknessafter emerging from prison in fascist Spain, where he had been suspected of working for the Communist Party (which was true). Upon his release, he quickly became a perceptive, persuasive, and passionate critic of totalitarianism. Moscow's show trials appalled him; Stalin's nonaggression pact with Hitler was the last straw.
Darkness illustrates the sick end of communism's dialectical thinking: Rubashov, a wavering revolutionary, under the pressure of an almost superhuman interrogator, argues himself into accepting his own execution for the good of history. Rubashov is never beaten, but his body constantly asserts itself. At one point, he has a toothache and visits the prison doctor, who offers to do an extraction without anesthesia. The scene recalls a torturous tonsil extraction in Koestler's childhood. Scammell, following Koestler, suggests that the experience may have helped Koestler identify with people in pain. Koestler had a hypersensitivity to suffering and a startling ability to describe abuse. When he repudiated the Soviet Union, he pointed out that a regime that depends upon the pain of its people is sick.
One might ask whether the same was true for Koestler, who sometimes took pleasure—often followed by deep self-loathing—in inflicting pain on -others, especially lovers. He liked to use force; long after his death, Koestler was accused of rape. Scammell casts doubt on that charge, but it starts to feel like semantics.
Scammell's position is awkward. However careful we should be to separate Koestler's work from his behavior, we should not forget that the self-proclaimed champion of the individual so often played the part of a tyrant. "Like everyone who talks of ethics all day long, one could not trust him half an hour with one's wife, one's best friend or one's wine merchant," said one of Koestler's erstwhile friends. And "yet I believe he is probably one of the most powerful forces for good in the country," for Koestler was "a dynamo generating the energy which the enlightened left had almost despaired of." We need the Niebuhrs of the world. As unsettling as it is, we may also need the Koestlers.