Podium: A humanist at work, a bully at home

From a talk by the professor of Jewish history at Southampton University to the South Place Ethical Society
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The Independent Culture
TO THE politically aware in the 1940s and 1950s, the name of Arthur Koestler brought to mind a fighter for freedom. Today, he is almost forgotten. When he is recalled it is for his notorious private life. Yet this does an injustice to a heroic figure of the "totalitarian age" who wrestled with the most difficult questions of the century.

Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 and raised in a Jewish family. At Vienna University he became a Zionist and in 1926 emigrated to Palestine.

From 1933 to 1940 he lived among the German Communist exiles in Paris. He travelled to Spain for the CP in 1936-7, was caught by Franco's troops and threatened with death. Koestler served briefly in the British army before doing propaganda work and writing. He was involved with the Zionist movement from 1945 to 1948, but broke with it. He lived in France and America before settling in Britain in 1952.

Koestler was consistently preoccupied by political and ethical questions. In the 1930s his anti-Fascist writing helped to rally opinion against Franco. His novel of ideas, Darkness at Noon (1940), was one of the first and certainly the most potent books to expose Stalinism. Although the USSR was at the height of its popularity, thanks to the role of the Red Army in the defeat of Hitler, in The Yogi and the Commissar (1945) Koestler unrelentingly denounced Communism.

His anti-Communism rested on a rejection of determinism in the form of historical materialism. He showed that a revolutionary vanguard that believes it possesses the secret of history feels able to commit endless atrocities "for the good of the cause". Certain of reaching utopia, revolutionaries argue that the end justifies the means: the life of a man is disposable to fulfil the destiny of mankind.

This conviction also spawned the doctrine of the useful lie, that any untruth could be deployed to hasten the revolution. Because they dispensed with the "bourgeois morality" that protected civil and human rights, both Fascism and Communism crushed the individual.

Although he rejected conventional politics in the mid-1950s, Koestler continued to address "the human predicament". In Insight and Outlook (1947), he had tried to found a new morality and politics on scientific truths. His later science writing was driven by a humanistic imperative. In The Lotus and the Robot (1958) he delivered a blistering critique of Hinduism and Zen, which he believed eroded the individual's sense of responsibility.

However, his approach was flawed and his legacy is cloudy. His analysis of Marxism was simplistic: in debunking the vulgar popularisers of Stalinism he blinded himself to the emancipatory elements in the Marxist tradition.

Instead of exploring ways to change society, he tinkered with ways to change man. He believed in predestination. While he condemned behaviourism, he interpreted neurological discoveries to mean that man was enslaved to a primitive part of the brain that obliged humans to behave like animals. In The Ghost in the Machine (1967) he recommended the mass distribution of tranquillising drugs via the water system.

Koestler's politics became self-contradictory. In his Zionist novel, Thieves in the Night (1946), he qualified the maxim that the end can never justify the means. Instead, he maintained that Jewish terrorism in Palestine was justified by Jewish suffering and the need for a homeland. He berated the USSR, but was silent about the conduct of "authoritarian" capitalist regimes. For the sake of the Cold War alliance he refused to denounce Franco. Indeed, the anti-Communist end justified increasingly dubious means. During the 1950s he concealed the knowledge that the CIA was covertly funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This was a version of the "useful lie". Worse, he implicitly condoned the terroristic and murderous activity of the CIA.

Finally, Koestler's personal beliefs and behaviour stand in contrast to what he preached. Duplicity and infidelity scarred personal relationships. He was violent towards women and committed rape. He castigated the Japanese for using abortion too freely, but his rejection of parenthood led his wives and mistresses to terminate their pregnancies. At home he was a bully and a tyrant.

Yet he didn't cajole his wife, Cynthia, aged 55, to live on when he decided in early 1982, as a result of a terminal illness, to commit suicide. In a pamphlet on suicide he advised young people faced by the death of a loved one to seek counselling and focus on the possibilities that life still offered. He seemed not to apply this advice to his own wife.