The following is part of a post I scrubbed back in October (of last year!):
I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon a few weeks ago, right after finishing Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey. I read of Trilling’s novel in Sam Tanenhaus’s Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, which I was compelled to read after consuming Chamber’s Witness.
Trilling and Chambers were classmates at Columbia University in the 1920’s. From what I remember of Tanenhaus’s biography, Trilling wasn’t anything like a close confidant of Chambers–he may have detested him–but he was in accord with Chamber’s view of communism as a stultifying and degrading force on the individual.
Chambers was a communist and a spy in the pay of agents of the Soviet Union. The horrific show trials of the 1930’s and the subsequent disappearances of his handlers and contacts within the American Communist Party drove him into hiding, and eventually into a dramatic ideological reversal. He became a Christian and strove to uncover the activities of some of his communist confederates, an act which culminated in the trial of Alger Hiss, a young Washington operative hand-picked by Chambers.
I’m glad I read these books one after the other. They fit each other hand-in-glove in important ways.
The Middle of the Journey is a fictional account of a sort of denouement between Chambers and the Hiss family as seen by John Laskell, a progressive intellectual recovering from a nearly deadly attack of scarlet fever and the death of his lover. Trilling’s stand-in for Chambers is Gifford Maxim, a former communist firebrand who indoctrinated Arthur and Nancy Croom, a young and successful couple still tied to the ideology Maxim has painfully shed.
The break between Maxim and the Crooms occurs because of that great cleaning of house in the USSR that consumed members of the revolutionary vanguard in Russia and the United States. Here’s Maxim, close to the end of the book, in an argument with Arthur Croom:
“It’s not so different as you think. We all have a passion for faith in the unseen. It is really the only thing we have faith in. You, for example, have a profound faith in what our clerical friend, Mr. Gurney, calls the Research Magnificent, the Great Experiment. You believed me when I brought you good news of it. Now that I bring you bad news of it, you not only will not listen to me, but you fear me and call me names. I am sure that you will say that I have no proof. But I had no proof before. You believe as you want to believe.”
Darkness at Noon is what Arthur Croom wouldn’t listen to. It’s another fictional account, this time of the imprisonment of revolutionary father, Rubashov. What’s haunting about the book is the cold rationality Rubashov brings to his arrest and imprisonment. He knows what he’s going to go through because he put others through it. He isn’t even surprised about the turn of events that lead to his arrest for “counter-revolutionary activities.” While in prison, he patiently works through the sequence of events and perverse internal logic of the revolution. The lesson I took from this book was that revolutionary aims must inevitably bend to reality, and how much blood gushes and sinew gets torn depends on how rigid the revolutionary ideology. An illustrative passage:
“‘Why did you execute Bogrov?”
‘Why? Because of the submarine question,’ said Ivanov. ‘It concerns the problem of tonnage–an old quarrel, the beginnings of which must be familiar to you.
‘Bogrov advocated the construction of submarines of large tonnage and long range of action. The Party is in favour of small submarines with a short range. You can build three times as many small submarines for your money as big ones. Both parties had valid technical arguments. The experts made a big display of technical sketches and algebraic formulae; but the actual probelm la y in a quite different sphere. Big submarines mean: a policy of aggression, to further world revolution. Small submarines mean: coastal defense–that is, self-defense and postponement of world revolution. The latter is the point of view of No. 1, and the party.
‘Bogrov had a strong following in the Admiralty and amongst the officers of the old guard. It would not have been enough to put him out of the way; he also had to be discredited. A trial was projected to unmask the partisans of big tonnage as saboteurs and traitors. We had already brought several little engineers to the point of being willing to confess publicly to whatever we liked. But Bogrov wouldn’t play the game. He declaimed up to the very end of big tonnage and world revolution. He was two decades behind the times. He would not understand that the times are against us, that Europe is passing through a period of reaction, that we are in the hollow of a wave and must wait until we are lifted by the next. In a public trial he would have created confusion amongst the people. There was no other way possible than to liquidate him adminstratively. Would not you have done the same thing in your position?”
Conflict between the vanguard and the second generation is the logical consequence of revolution stubbing its toe against reality. Questions that linger with me: which were the real revolutionaries? The ones who started the revolution or the ones who want to maintain it? The ones that said, no pun intended: “Damn the torpedoes, let’s get this world revolution thing on,” or the ones that said “We have to wait; we have to preserve the fatherland if we want revolution to spread?” I suppose the answer doesn’t really matter, or is dependent upon which party is in power. The Rubashovs light the fire, the Bogrovs stoke it, the Ivanovs kill the Bogrovs and Rubashovs presumably to preserve the kindling supply.
Leave aside for a moment whether Gifford Maxim or Whittaker Chambers was right in coming to oppose communism, and think instead about what revolution tends to mean for its early principle exponents. To maintain revolution, the ideas of the revolution must be preserved. Therefore ideological rigidity is necessary. But ideological rigidity prohibits dissent. What’s the point in revolt if your revolution is allowed to morph into something else? There was formal ideological rigidity in the Soviet Union; the revolution was perpetual and applied to everything from submarine tonnage to allocations of bread and jogging shorts. But reality asserted itself; treaties were made with capitalist countries, trade embargoes were lifted so that a former net-exporter of grain could feed its starving people. Those who noticed these ideological inconsistencies were liquidated. Were they to expose the ad hoc nature of the perpetual revolution, they would have created “confusion amongst the people.” And that wouldn’t be good.
I’m reminded of this quote from The Teaching Company’s Great Ideas of Philosophy lectures(Daniel Robinson‘s my man):
Once one confers on a select and denominated group ultimate epistemological authority on core questions arising from the problem of knowledge, the nearly inevitable result is philosophical paralysis. What is more likely to happen is positions will become quite hardened, and the only thing left for scholarship is to interpret the words of the wise.