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R. Fahan

Koestler: A Pathetic ‘Knight’ Who Lost His Armor

(February 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 8, 22 February 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I cannot recall having read a sadder article for, a long time than Arthur Koestler’s A Challenge to “Knights in Rusty Armor” in the New York Times Magazine Section of February 14. Koestler is the writer and ex-revolutionist whose fame rests on that exciting and provocative portrait of Stalinist bureaucratism, the novel Darkness at Noon. He writes this article frankly as a member of the “left intelligentsia,” which, in recent years, has abandoned its Marxist adherence in order to support the imperialist war, but which still maintains a sort of vague hope that somehow, somewhere socialism will result from the present world mess.

Koestler is refreshing because honest: he admits that which has been becoming completely apparent to the left intellectuals, but which they have refused to admit with an unholy fear – the war shows itself, on the part of the Allies, as well as the Axis, to be nothing more than a conservative struggle for the maintenance of the capitalist status quo. It is this fact which impels Koestler to indulge in the weary, dispirited reflections contained in his article.

Admissions That Buttress Marxism

He writes:

“... The nearer victory comes in sight, the clearer the character of the war reveals itself as what the Tories always said it was – a war for national survival, a war in defense of certain conservative nineteenth century ideals, and not, what I and my friends of the left said it was – a revolutionary civil war in Europe on the Spanish pattern.”

And again:

“Let us be frank; while we rejoice over the victory of our arms, let us recognize the defeat of our aims.”


“The American elections, the burlesque Darlaniad, the melancholy Crippsiad and other events make it increasingly clear that the scales are moving more and more to the conservative side, almost in direct proportion to the approach of victory ... Thus, if nothing unexpected happens, the coming victory will be a conservative victory and lead to a conservative peace. It will produce no lasting solution of the minority problem in the European jigsaw puzzle. It will provide no cure for the inherent disease of the capitalistic system.”

These are, you will readily see, some rather remarkable admissions, especially from one of those who, not so long ago, were seeing a peaceful social revolution in England as a result of the war and who waxed indignant with old-fashioned Marxists who still dared speak of such things as imperialist wars. But here, out of the mouth of one of the most intelligent of these war-baby intellectuals, comes the very admissions that buttress our Marxist case against them.

Thus, if it be true that “our aims” (i.e., a better world) have been defeated even though “our arms” (the Allied armies) approach victory, then what will be the significance and value of that victory? Koestler is not bashful about specifying the signs that “our aims” – which were NEVER the aims of those who control the conduct of the war, but to which they partly paid vague lip service when they were in dire straits – have met defeat. “He understands the mockery of democracy which is the pro-fascist and anti-Semitic regime of Darlan-Giraud-Peyrouton in North Africa; he understands the mockery of national independence which is the British attitude toward India.

A Man Without Armor – Rusty or Shiny

And yet this one-time socialist intellectual, writing as if the very life-blood of his former beliefs had been sucked out of him, still grasps onto the slippery armor of the imperialist cause, even though he cuts his fingers and shames his heart in doing so. And why? Because he hopes that with victory there will come, at least, a “certain minimum of liberty, decency, security ... a new, perhaps slightly improved, edition of the pre-Hitlerian old order ...”

But the two phrases contradict each other, and the second answers the first. Koestler and his friends know that there “was neither security nor decency, and hardly enough liberty in the “pre-Hitlerian order.” He no doubt wrote plenty of articles in his day to prove that. And Koestler knows that if this is all that we can expect from victory – “that it will provide no cure for the inherent disease of the capitalist system” – then we must face the dreadful prospect of once more living through the same nightmare: Versailles, inflation, and eventually the new Hitlerism and the Third World War!

It is a sorry and pathetic spectacle, indeed, to watch a man like Koestler state all his disillusions in public print, with the partial purpose of berating those leftist intellectuals who, through cynicism or naiveté, still speak of the war as a crusade for a better world. The pro-war intellectuals are acquiring a nervous political itch: their eyes tell them that their tongues are lying.

A few, like Koestler, have the honesty, to admit: No, it is no crusade, it is the same old game, and there’s nothing new or wonderful to expect. That Koestler, who has lived through so many revolutionary defeats that it has become part of his psychological and political makeup, cannot see his way to return to the socialist camp is more a matter of pity than indignation. He may speak of us as “knights in rusty armor with a well-thumbed handbook of Marx-Engels quotations” which he feels are of but “modest use on this topsy-turvy battleground today” but the words we have quoted from his article show that he has NO political armor, rusty or shiny.

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