Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Arthur Koestler, a former member of the German Communist Party, published Darkness at Noon, a novel that revealed the evils of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union. The work became a best seller in several countries and influenced attitudes toward the Soviet Union and communist movements worldwide.

Summary of Event

Arthur Koestler, born in Hungary and raised in Austria, joined the German Communist Party as a young man. After a trip to Stalinist Russia during 1932-1933, however, Koestler became disillusioned with communism and left the party in 1938. His participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) provided materials for Spanish Testament (1937), Spanish Testament (Koestler) a work that established his reputation in England and on the Continent as a critic of both communism and fascism. The Gladiators, Gladiators, The (Koestler) his first novel, was published in 1939. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Koestler was living in Paris with his mistress, Daphne Hardy, and they escaped to England through Portugal. They managed to bring the English translation she had made of Koestler’s second novel, for which Hardy had suggested the title Darkness at Noon, and the book was published by Jonathan Cape in December of 1940. [kw]Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism (Dec., 1940) [kw]Communism, Koestler Examines the Dark Side of (Dec., 1940) Darkness at Noon (Koestler) [g]England;Dec., 1940: Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism[10350] [c]Literature;Dec., 1940: Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism[10350] [c]Government and politics;Dec., 1940: Koestler Examines the Dark Side of Communism[10350] Koestler, Arthur Hardy, Daphne Stalin, Joseph Bukharin, Nikolay Ivanovich

Arthur Koestler.


In Darkness at Noon, Koestler was careful not to identify either the specific country or the leaders who inspired the work. Instead, the fictional hero of the novel, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is described as one of a group of revolutionaries who helped establish communism in his country. The leader who had spearheaded the revolution is dead, and his successor, referred to as No. 1, has systematically eliminated all of the old guard. Koestler describes Rubashov’s interrogations, in which he is interviewed first by one of his old comrades and later by one of the newly minted revolutionaries. Although Koestler uses these men to highlight the differences between the first and second generations of the revolution, his account of Rubashov’s imprisonment makes it clear that the protagonist has no alternative but to confess that he has been engaged in counterrevolutionary activities for years.

The incarceration of his main character was a convenient way for Koestler to create an opportunity for internal monologue, in which the imprisoned leader could think about communism’s philosophical and ethical roots. Rubashov’s thoughts reveal communism to be a system in which the ends, however brutal, justify the means, and it is also one in which the individual counts for nothing, while the community—represented by the party—was of paramount importance. In the conversations between Rubashov and his interrogators, Koestler exposes the methods the party uses to build an ingenious case against Rubashov for crimes he did not commit. Through the protagonist’s confession at a public trial to trumped-up charges, Koestler shows that even the most dedicated communists are being made into sacrificial figures to advance party leaders’ revolutionary agenda.

Although Koestler did not mention any real persons by name, readers were able to see that Darkness at Noon was on one level a thinly disguised roman à clef that fictionalized the Moscow show trials Moscow show trials Show trials, Soviet Union of 1935-1936. In these sham trials, a number of prominent Communist leaders were called upon to confess crimes against the state and the people. Among these supposed counterrevolutionaries was Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin, on whom the character of Rubashov was loosely based.

Bukharin was one of the original Communist leaders who had been in Vladimir Lenin’s inner circle when the Communists came to power in Russia in 1917. After Lenin’s death, Bukharin had sided with Leon Trotsky during the power struggle in which Joseph Stalin eventually secured power in Soviet Russia. Although he was briefly reconciled with the new dictator, in the mid-1930’s Bukharin was one of several prominent figures identified for elimination by Stalin. People in Western countries had received some information about these trials prior to 1940, but Koestler’s novel vividly dramatized the nature of the proceedings, the megalomania that drove Stalin’s actions, and the moral bankruptcy of communism.

The novel achieved only modest initial sales in Britain, but it was picked up as a selection by the American Book-of-the-Month Club, Book-of-the-Month Club[Book of the Month Club] and a wide audience became aware of the ideology behind the Soviet experiment in government. Many former Communists in the West saw in Darkness at Noon a vindication of their decision to leave the party. At the same time, the novel prompted strong reaction against loyal Communists.

The book’s popularity eventually forced members of the party to take action to refute Koestler’s accusations. In 1945, two members of the British Communist Party published a pamphlet titled The Philosophy of Betrayal, which cataloged the propagandistic nature of Koestler’s work. The strongest reaction, however, came from the French Communists after a French translation of the novel was published in 1945. Party leaders directed members to buy and destroy all copies of the novel; perhaps because of this notoriety, sales in France reached a quarter million. Important French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merlau-Ponty felt compelled to write strident attacks against Darkness at Noon, defending not only Marxist theory but also the practice of communism under Stalin.


In the first decade following its publication, Darkness at Noon brought home to Western readers the philosophical underpinnings of what was becoming not only an important alternative system of government but also a radically different view of human nature. Claims by Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, that they were creating a workers’ paradise were undermined by Koestler’s portrait of the ruthless methods being employed by the revolutionaries against citizens who dared challenge any action by the party or its leader. Koestler’s novel made it clear that under the Soviet system, there was no respect for individual freedoms or even for individual lives. In contrast, the party’s power was so far-reaching that any action taken by party leaders was automatically deemed appropriate and justified.

This chilling portrait of communism’s effects was influential in shaping the French elections of 1946. Although the French Communist Party was the largest party in the country at that time, it was unable to exert its will in the elections the following year, when France’s bicameral legislature was created. Several commentators attributed this failure to the campaign mounted by conservatives and socialists that used Darkness at Noon to illustrate communism’s evils. The novel played a part in shaping attitudes in other countries as well, including the United States, so that by 1946, when former British prime minister Winston Churchill spoke about the Iron Curtain that had descended over much of Eastern Europe, citizens in the West were predisposed to approve their governments’ moves toward the Cold War. Darkness at Noon (Koestler)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Collection of previously published works includes an essay on Cold War discourse and one on the novel’s reception in France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calder, Jenni. Chronicles of Conscience: A Study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968. Examines the careers of two writers whose political novels had significant impacts in building awareness of and revulsion for totalitarian systems of government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cesarani, David. Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind. New York: Free Press, 1998. Comprehensive biography attempts to place Darkness at Noon within the framework of Koestler’s development as a novelist and essayist. Also explains the novel’s importance as a political statement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harns, Harold, ed. Astride Two Cultures: Arthur Koestler at Seventy. London: Hutchinson, 1975. Collection of essays about Koestler’s work includes a perceptive analysis by Growny Rees of Darkness at Noon, outlining the political events on which Koestler draws for his fiction and discussing the impact the novel had in the decades immediately after its publication.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levene, Mark. Arthur Koestler. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984. Chronicles Koestler’s career and discusses his works in their social, political, and historical contexts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merrill, Reed, and Thomas Frazier. Arthur Koestler: An International Bibliography. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1979. Includes an introduction that provides insight into Koestler’s intellectual development, helping to explain the ideology that lies at the heart of his political fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Sidney A., Jr. Arthur Koestler. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Features a chapter that outlines the plot and themes of Darkness at Noon. Includes a separate discussion of the novel’s influence in shaping attitudes about communism in Western democracies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sperber, Murray A., ed. Arthur Koestler: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1977. Collection of essays includes several that focus on Koestler’s political novels and the reception that Darkness at Noon met in England, the United States, and France.

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Categories: History