I am rereading Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s masterwork limning the psychology of Soviet totalitarianism, and realized you can justify anything if you believe you are on the right side of History. Kill babies, sell off the parts, then lie about it? That’s amateur night.
Here is a portion of the classic colloquy between Ivanov, a veteran of the civil war and an Old Bolshevik, and Rubashov, legendary former member of the Central Committee, erstwhile Commissar of the People, about to be purged for his sentimental ideas about the brutal tactics employed by the Revolution.
Ivanov: “There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian example? You can’t point out one. In times of need—and politics are chronically in a time of need—the rulers were always able to evoke “exceptional circumstances,” which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism…”
Rubashov: “In the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it’s a matter of submarines, manure, or the Party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in the administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequently in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its 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; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism, and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see…. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles, and nerves….”
Ivanov: ”Well, and what of it? … Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. This is not an occupation for people with weak nerves…. This sudden revulsion against experimenting is rather naïve. Every year several million people are killed quite pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history? Not to mention the legions of those who die from undernourishment and tuberculosis in coal and quicksilver mines, rice-fields, and cotton plantations. No one takes any notion of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth. Yes, we liquidated the parasitic 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?”
There lies deep within every soul an inkling, an intimation, that things are not as they should be—that something is fundamentally wrong, with society, culture, government, our very selves. We do not do what we want, and we do what we don’t want. In short, we act in self-destructive ways even as we protest that we are exercising our freedom in the name or survival and self-expression. We have “fallen” from a great height, a status, a stature, that we can still vaguely discern. Call this “golden age” a myth, if you like, but if we are merely material byproducts of an inexorable and natural process, with one trajectory, then we should be more comfortable in our skin than we are. Instead, an uneasiness about the state of things troubles everyone, as does the burden of putting down the Old Man and his anarchic predations so that a New Man can arise.
So again, there are two ethics at work in our world: the Christian and the Collective. One accepts the New Nature in a purely passive manner, as sheer gift, as grace, but also aware that it cost Someone a great price to win. Those who accept the New Nature must also bear it in a worthy manner, not out of compulsion but out of gratitude, always failing, always repenting, always striving again to witness to their new reality (as opposed to a mere abstraction or fantasy, an idea to be incarnated in some imaginary future).
The other, the Collective, seeks to construct a New Nature, a New Human, by law, coercion, threats, shame, mass-media manipulation. It demands compliance and conformity, plays god because it has outlawed Him as not up to the task of constructing the New Eden “which only we can see.” It rips the skin off babies with an eye toward a future that will be numb to any absolute notion of the truly human that is not first vetted by the Collective, always with an eye toward how this New Human will benefit that same Collective, and especially the elites that sit on its Central Committee.