Quotes of the Day – March 16, 2012

I read Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, today. It was a nice change from my usual focus on non-fiction, and I thoroughly enjoyed the philosophical debates so neatly incorporated into the book’s prose. That said, there were a few clunky metaphors here and there, and one or two instances of hyperbole taken too far. I recommend reading the book in a single day or sitting, since it is short enough to get through in a single sitting and since it’s power is best felt when one is immersed in the text. Being a work of fiction,Darkness at Noon has fewer passages I want to highlight on philosophical or political grounds, but there are a few. There are also a few passages so well written I could not resist highlighting them.

As a likely history major in college (when I finally escape from the doldrums of high school), I’ve always found the description of History (yes, capital “H” in the Marxist sense) as a science strange. The explanation of history is a matter of interpretation, not a study of scientific fact. Koestler’s comparison between history and astronomy points out this strangeness.

“That was probably the reason that history was more of an oracle than a science. Perhaps later, much later, it would be taught by means of tables and statistics, supplemented by such anatomical sections. The teacher would draw on the black board an algebraic forumla representing the conditions of life of the masses of a particular nation at a particular period: ‘Here, citizens, you see the objective factors which conditioned this historical process'” (pg. 17).

I mentioned this before in one of my posts on To the Finland Station – what attracts me to Marxism is the idea that one can interact with history. It is possible to fuel the engine of historical change.

“‘Certainly,’ said Rubashov. ‘A mathematician once said that algebra was the science for lazy people – one does not work out x, but operates with it as if no knew it. In our case stands for the anonymous masses, the people. Politics mean operating with this  x without worrying about its actual nature. Making history is  to recognize for what it stands for'” (pg. 85).

With such an uplifting and inspirational tenor, this passage reminds of me of a song that seems to embrace the idea of making history. (Make Your Own History, by Stray from the Path)

I recently had a discussion with a friend about the obligations of the currently existing, living generations to the generations of the future. He asked, is it worth making the world better for a generation that has yet to be born if this entails making life for the living generations more difficult? We went back and forth for a while, and I was reminded of Natasha Lennard’s piece in the latest issue of the New Inquiry. In it, she discusses how certain strands queer theory challenge the child- and future-centric nature of policy and all forms of society. In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, too, weighs in on this issue through his character of Rubashov, the aging revolutionary now put on trial for betraying the revolution.

“Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that it’s average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies” (pg. 162).

Not only does the above passage assert that no, it is not worth immiseration of the living generations in order to provide the potential of a better life to the generations to come. For Rubashov, and other revolutionaries, the Revolution represents the promise of that better life for future generations; it has not yet been realized, and in order to realize it, significant sacrifices must be made. Rubashov’s heresy – just one of many – is that he rejects the idea that the present must be made miserable in order to make the future better.

One of the remarkable things in Koestler’s writing is the way he captures the brutal logic of the State establishment. Ivanov, Rubashov’s initial prosecutor, lays out the chilling moral calculus that underlies the foundation of the totalitarian state.

“Yes, we liquidate the parisitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It was a surgical operation which had to be done once and for all; but in the good old days before the Revolution just as many died in any dry year – only senselessly and pointlessly. The victims of the Yellow River floods in China amount sometimes to hundreds of thousands. Nature is generous in her senseless experiments on mankind. Why should mankind not have the right to experiment on itself” (pg. 165)?

An orthodox adherent to the faith of the Revolution, Ivanov believes that death, if achieved with the purpose of furthering the Revolution, is more meaningful than death due to natural causes. Thus, those who die due to political experimentation should be considered lucky; they died for a reason rather than at the hands of indifferent Nature. This kind of reasoning is dangerous, as thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Sir Isaiah Berlin have noted. The glorification and worship of death characteristic of totalitarian regimes, be it Nazi or Stalinist, make stopping tyranny difficult; adherents to the governing ideology are ready and willing to die to protect the cause. Likewise, there is no cost too great if there is an objective moral goal. If the Revolution and the realization of emancipatory existence is the end, all means are justifiable, regardless of cost or impact on other people. An ideology that imbues death with a sense of purpose therefore justifies endless suffering.

To address philosophical matters in the novel, Koestler employs a nice, though not necessarily original technique. He begins several chapter with excerpts from Rubashov’s prison diaries; these writings provide an intellectual backdrop to the plot. In one of these excerpts, Koestler appears to address the problem of revolutionary politics – democracy has a tendency to retard revolutionary progression.

“The maturity of the masses lies in the capacity to recognize their own interests. This, however, presupposes a certain understanding of the process of production and distribution of goods. A people’s capacity to govern itself democratically is thus proportionate to the degree of its understanding of the structure and funding of the whole social body” (pg. 170).

A vanguard, then, is needed until the people attain the proper level of consciousness to understand the processes of production and distribution. The need for the vanguard, or some variant of a dedicated intellectual revolutionary cadre (maybe an epistemic community), is compounded by the constant change in conditions of the post-industrial age.

“Now, every technical improvement creates a new complication to the economic apparatus, causes the appearance of new factors and combinations, which the masses cannot penetrate for a time. Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses as a step behind and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer” (pg. 171).

A more apt way to descrive the “political-maturity thermometer” is to view it as a measure of mass-political elasticity. How significantly does political behavior given a change in the conditions of production. Of course, such a metric could not exist, but it certainly is interesting to think about. For Rubashov, once the measure of mass-political elasticity is perfectly inelastic, the masses are mature enough for democracy.

“When the level of mass consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy, either peaceably or by force. Until the next jump of technical civilization…again sets back the masses in a state of relative immaturity and renders possible or even necessary the establishment of some form of absolute leadership” (pg. 171).

During an exchange with another prisoner, in which messages are tapped in a form of code on the walls of prison sells, Rubashov challenges the reactionary and aristocratic conceptions of honor with a simple and perhaps admirable phrase:

“Honor is to be useful without vanity” (pg. 177).

If only we could all incorporate even just a small sense of that sentiment into our daily lives. Things would be much different.

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