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The New International, Spring 1956

Edward Hill

Books in Review

A Farewell to Politics


From The New International, Vol. XXII No. 1, Spring 1956, pp. 62–64.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Trail of the Dinosaur
by Arthur Koestler
Macmillan, $3,50.

In a recent issue of The New York Times, an article reported on the campaign in England for the abolition of capital punishment. And there, in the position of the movement’s polemicist, was Arthur Koestler. In the preface to The Trail of the Dinosaur, Koestler’s latest book, he announces

“This book, then, is a farewell to arms. The last essays and speeches in it that deal directly with political questions date from 1950, and are now five years old. Since then I felt that I have said all I had to say ... Cassandra has gone hoarse, and is due for a vocational change.”

The Times’ dispatch would seem to suggest that Cassandra is not quite that hoarse. But such conjecture is hardly needed to establish the point, since the last essay in a book which Koestler describes as a farewell to politics is about ... politics. And this in turn leads to a crucial point about Koestler, pervasive in this new collection of articles, that he is torn by a furious desire for commitment, for the Cause, and an equally furious fear of commitment. He has paid his devoirs to Stalinism, Zionist Revisionism, the Royal Air Force and American imperialism. Opposition to capital punishment is somewhat less grandiose, but it is part of a pattern.

As often happens in such attitudes toward Causes, there is a tremendous romantic element in Koestler which is always being shattered by reality. Thus, his criticisms against the British Labor government are subsumed under the title of his essays: Land of Virtue and Gloom. He notes that when the coal mines were nationalized there was little imaginative celebration of the event, and adds, “What a pageant Hitler or Mussolini would have staged to impress upon the people’s memory this historic event! What a glorious ballyhoo, if it had happened in America –” (The point is not, of course, that Koestler has any sympathy for Nazism or fascism; it concerns, rather, his romanticism which is more similar to that of the Daughters of the Confederacy than to any totalitarian movement.)

The same point emerges in another essay in which Koestler discusses what he considers to be the failure of socialism. He centers it upon “the collapse of the cosmopolitan elan in the Socialist movement.” Again, this is not to say that the shattering of international working class solidarity, its cosmopolitan elan if you will, is unimportant. It is to point out that Koestler requires the dramatic, the epochal, the general, that he is, in this aspect of his personality, uncomfortable when faced with the problem of drawing up an immediate program.

In this regard, the manifesto which Koestler drew up for the Congress for Cultural Freedom is illuminating. It consists of a ringing declaration against totalitarianism, much of which any socialist would accept. But two amendments were added by other members of the drafting committee. They introduced a thought which Koestler had omitted: ”The defence of intellectual liberty today imposes a positive obligation: to offer new and constructive answers to the problems of our time.” And where Koestler had come out in favor of preserving freedom, they added that it must be extended. Koestler’s omissions are not, I think, accidental. They flow from the romantic, epochal commitment which he regularly generates within himself, from his lack of concern with immediate program, his addition to the generality.

But this, the romantic and epochal side of his personality, does not exhaust Mr. Koestler. If he is Ashley Wilkes, the Confederate officer, he is also Rhett Butler, the blockade runner. It is in his Rhett Butler guise that he has given his support to American imperialism.

The rationale for this point of view Koestler has applied to both World War II and to the cold war. He writes:

“History knows no perfect causes, no situation of white against black. Eastern totalitarianism is black; its victory would mean the end of our civilization. Western democracy is not white, but grey. To live, even to die for a perfect cause is a luxury permitted the few. In 1942 or ’43 I published an article which began with the words, ‘In this war we are fighting a total lie in the name of a half truth.’ ... Today we face a similar emergency and a similar predicament.”

It is on this basis – that of the hardheaded acceptance of grey, a grey which he so roundly criticized in Labor Britain – that Koestler supports American imperialism. It is, he finds, a holding action. And he defends the holding action in the name of realpolitik, sophistication, etc., that is, in the name of all the qualities which Koestler the romantic finds abhorrent. If this were simply a case of personal schizophrenia, it might simply be a personal tragedy. But it goes beyond that.

For Koestler, like many liberals and ex-socialists, has accepted pro-Americanism in the name of the lesser evil, and has thereby cut himself off from the possibility of evolving any real kind of program against what he himself calls the total evil. His position is so based on the sophisticated defense of the status quo that it sees no possibility for anything beyond the present. In this guise of his personality, Koestler, and those like him, have stopped thinking of alternatives, i.e., they have stopped thinking of politics. In this sense, Cassandra has indeed become hoarse.

But in his final essay in this book, Koestler’s other self gives him new voice. The romantic conquers the hard-headed cynic. As a substitute for a political alternative to the stagnant struggle of American imperialism against Stalinism, Koestler invokes ... time. He writes:

“But if the deadlock lasts long enough, an unexpected mutation of mass-mind may occur, the inevitable choice [between two camps] no longer appears inevitable, passion drains away, and people simply become interested in something else.”

This “unexpected mutation” of the masses which is Koestler’s only answer to the obvious failure of the position which he holds is linked to his hope for an unexpected mutation in man’s nature allowing for a new religion. Not, to be sure, for any of the old institutionalized churches, not for dogma, not for any of the immediate programs about God which theology makes, but simply for religion. Here is the final outcome of the romantic espousal of the cause and its cynical rejection: a hopeless hope.

In this book, Koestler has said his farewell to politics even while he continues, ever so hoarsely, to talk about ... politics. There remains, in terms of practical action, only the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment.

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