In Arthur Koestler’s famous 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, a leader of the Communist Party is awoken in the middle of the night and thrown in prison by his own comrades. They torture him until he confesses to crimes of treason and sabotage that he did not commit. That’s pretty much the story. But the manner of the torture is unusual. Rubashov, the protagonist, has a reputation for being philosophical and stubborn. So instead of using physical torture, the Party breaks him down psychologically. He is isolated in his cell, deprived of sleep, and subjected to endless rounds of harsh interrogation. The interrogations make up the substance of the novel, combining a fierce political and philosophical debate with a final look at Rubashov’s career as a Party higher-up.
What makes the novel scary—like, “all human civilization is inherently doomed” scary—is why the Party is torturing Rubashov. It’s not to punish him, and it’s not to get information out of him. They’re torturing him so he’ll agree to publicly condemn himself as part of the Moscow Trials. The Moscow trials were a sham, staged by the Party, in which former Communist officials were forced to make false confessions and subsequently executed. The idea was to convince the country that Stalin and the Communist Party were infallible and/or omnipotent. Stalin himself, who was once a close friend of Rubashov’s, is a vicious and overwhelming force in the novel, but he never actually shows up, and is never referred to by name. They call him “No. 1.” Darkness at Noon is the story of how Rubashov succumbs to the sinister logic of the Communist Party, and realizes that he must lay down his dignity, his beliefs, and his life—all for a cause he knows is evil.
This is a good book.
In fact, it’s #8 on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. But I don’t know anybody who’s read it.
Today people are describing President Obama’s plan for America as “socialist,” calling White House appointees “czars,” and generally saying that we have become Russia. (To believe this you have to imagine that a lot of different things—Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, Karl Marx and Mikhail Gorbachev, czars and Bolsheviks and nuclear weapons—are synonyms for each other.) I’m guessing these people don’t understand the extent of the brutality and fanaticism of the Communist Party under Joseph Stalin. If they did, they’d know there is only one possible response to the comparison: