#227: Darkness At Noon

A misunderstood story about a betrayed revolution

june gloom
4 min readFeb 19, 2024

This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 3rd, 2020.

Initial release: 1940
Author: Arthur Koestler

Nothing is as misunderstood and misused by reactionary dipshits than leftist critiques of other leftists. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm have been so twisted from their (likely) Trotskyist origins they’re unrecognizable. Conservatives don’t really understand the point that books like these make. They’re not “cautionary tales about communism,” they’re responses to the Soviet Union under Stalin. Koestler has joined other oppositional authors with a bold accusation, that of betraying the revolution. Thus we have Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a relatively thin novel that nevertheless is weighed down by a deeply philosophical examination of the upheavals of the early 20th century, where the revolution went wrong, and how revolutionary ideals can destroy the very people who hold them.

Koestler was a Hungarian-born communist who gradually became disillusioned by Stalinism and left the Communist Party in 1938; while he later became a conservative, even reactionary (and that’s not getting into the allegations, written well after his death, of being a misogynist and rapist,) Darkness at Noon was at heart a goodbye letter to a party and ideology he once supported. It’s obvious that Koestler had certain places and people in mind when he wrote this book, but it’s all euphemisms and truncated names (“Number One” being Stalin, for example.) This is an attempt to lend an air of universality to the book, similar to how 1984 feels universal due to its being an extreme exaggeration of a totalitarian state that by the real 1984 had yet to exist, even by Stalinist standards. (Though you could argue it for the DPRK.) Regardless, anyone with at some knowledge of history can grasp who “Number One” is, what “the country of the revolution” is, and so on.

Anyway, it’s 1939, and Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov, the last of the Old Bolsheviks (and a stand-in for several real individuals) has been arrested. He’s taken in the night to a prison and placed in an isolation cell. His only neighbor for much of the book is a czarist counter-revolutionary who’s been in prison for quite some time, and they communicate through tap code by banging on a pipe. He’s soon interviewed by an old friend of his from the civil war, Ivanov, who tries to compel Rubashov to admitting to a laundry list of crimes, culminating in attempting to assassinate Number One himself. Though Rubashov rejects all this, Ivanov gives him two weeks to think it over.

The important thing about this interrogation, however, is that it’s not what you would expect. There is no physical contact. nobody beats Rubashov up — though, pointedly, that’s what had happened to him in Germany. Rather, Ivanov’s approach is far more cerebral. This is high-level philosophical stuff, a rumination on the Russian revolution and how it’s betrayed its own ideals in the name of those ideals. Ivanov explicitly says as much, and justifies it by saying that the philosophy behind such hypocrisy was crafted by Rubashov himself. And that’s why it’s important to remember that this is not a sneering reactionary polemic on the evils of communism. There is no black and white here. Rubashov is, by his own measure, not a great person, who has thrown people close to him under the bus to save his own ass. Ivanov correctly points out that were their roles reversed, the conversation would play out just the same way, or at the very least it might have at one point in time or another, and that’s why Rubashov logically must confess in the end — because that’s the only option.

Over the course of two interviews, Ivanov and Rubashov have a philosophical battle of wits. In between, Rubashov has another such battle, with himself; in the end, with Ivanov’s prodding, Rubashov talks himself into confessing, for no reason other than cold rationality. It doesn’t work, however; Ivanov is himself arrested and shot, and the interrogation is taken over by the much younger, much less sympathetic officer Gletkin, who represents the dispassionate, suspicious youth who’ve never known a world before the revolution. Gletkin takes on much harsher measures, still never using force but relying on psychological torture — sleep deprivation, bright lights, mind games, going on for weeks, until he finally gets Rubashov to confess the way Gletkin wants him to. Between Rubashov, Ivanov, and Gletkin, the book carefully deconstructs the similarities and differences between all three. Rubashov isn’t an innocent victim of a brutal regime; he is the brutal regime. All three are, and all three have betrayed the revolution in their own ways.

A while back I watched the 1970s film adaptation of The Master and Margaret, in which a beleaguered playwright, frustrated under the oppressive disapproval of the Arts Committee, accuses a ballroom full of those lucky enough to be in it of betraying the revolution. As I read Darkness at Noon I kept thinking back to that film and that scene, and how the prevailing message in works like this isn’t that communism itself is bad, but that it’s filled with ideologues who forget what the revolution was about in service of the revolution. The core message of the book is clear: that communism was a dream of good government, betrayed by Stalin “even as some medieval popes had besmirched the ideal of a Christian empire.” And this is why this is not a book for reactionaries — they’ll never understand the nuance.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]