From Fourth International, Vol.2 No.10, December 1941, pp.317-319.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.
Scum of the Earth
by Arthur Koestler
287 pages, Macmillan Publishers, 1941. $2.50.
Koestler’s latest narrative deals with the tail of France. It gives a first-hand account of the individual and mass misery which follows the ool1aee of a “democracy.” But this book Is also, quite without Intention, the story of the political decomposition of a “man of the left” – Arthur Koestler.
Between the great depression of 1939 and the opening of the second World War, Koestler and his generation of “radical-intellectuals” passed through a political cycle, and ended where they began; the only difference being that they return to their starting point in a more advanced stage of decay. Frightened on one hand by the economic collapse of the capitalist democracies and on the other by the swift rise of fascism and Its potential menace to their own skins, they stampeded into the Communist Party – blindly, unquestioningly, uncritically. Without understanding fundamental social problems, without firm faith or interest in the workers of the world, they sought for some miracle to save them from catastrophe.
For seven years Koestler remained a member of Stalin’s Communist Party and then became disillusioned after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. As a result he abandoned not only Stalinism, but the working-class revolutionary movement, the only social force capable of smashing fascism, to return to – the bosom of capitalist “democracy.”
The impotence of this generation of demoralized intellectuals is sharply drawn in Koestler’s book, in which he offers capitallam as the only salvation of mankind while at the same time devoting 287 pages to expose the leprous sores, disintegration and finally death of one of the last three remaining “democracies” – France.
“Stalinism had soiled and compromised the Socialist Utopia,” apologises Koestler; “... Trotsky, although more appealing as a person, was in his methods not better than his opponent ... the central evil of Bolshevism was its unconditional adaptation of the tenet that the End Justifies the Means.” To this ex-Stalinist, the means used by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks to build the first workers state in Russia are exactly the same as the means employed by Stalin who throttled the revolution in Russia and the rest of the world in order to secure power and privileges for himself and his bureaucracy. From this point the next step is easy. He concludes that “... all parties of the Left had outlived their time and that one day a new movement was to emerge from the deluge, whose preachers would probably wear monks’ cowls and walk barefoot on the roads of a Europe in rains.” Koestler wants to return not only to a dying “democracy” but also to a defunct religious mysticism of the Middle Ages.
Having lost confidence in great social ideas, Koestler’s only remaining concern is his own precious self. He seeks personal escape in a world that has grown so small there are no places left for escapists. He does find temporary refuge in a picturesque house in an Alpine village where, together with a sculptress companion, he attempts to pursue an intellectual and pastoral life. “We were very happy,” he says, “writing novels and carving stones and cultivating our garden, like sensible people should do during their short stay on this earth.” But social forces relentlessly pursue him. The fever of the approaching war hangs in the air and the “Sleeping Beauty” of the countryside is being awakened by noisy and crowded garrisons of grumbling soldiers. “They were sick of the war before it had started,” writes Koestler. They were sick of being torn away from their homes and families for months at a time with each war crisis; cynical about their rulers, about the lies printed in their newspapers. They wished only to “put an end to it once and for all,” by which they meant not so much the extermination of the Germans as the elimination of the instability and insecurity of their own lives. Most of all they were sick of another impending world war. These inarticulate French workers and peasants, thrown into the army, understood instinctively what a tourist-intellectual could not understand: that the French ruling class was less fearful of the Nazis than of its own proletariat aind the threat the latter represented to its own power. The French workers were asking intelligent and probing questions, as Koestler shows by citing a letter written to him by a young worker named Marcel.
The great French Democracy was crumbling, wrote Marcel, that all the disasters were the “fault of the few reforms towards a more human life which the French working class had achieved after decades of struggle. Well, the 40 hour week was gone and the 1936 tariffs were gone and if the war for liberty were a question of sacrifices the French working class had paid more than its share; but so far the rulers had failed to explain to them whet their share of the victory was to be ... nobody in France bothered even to hint at what the social order would be after the war. Daladler had come to power in the Popular Front ... and had crushed the general strike in 1938 by unconstitutional methods. Than there was the reign of the police, the concentration camps, the censorship. For years the Populaire (the organ of French ‘socialists’) had denounced Hitler’s concentration camps as a blot on European civilization end the first thing France had done in this war against Hitler was to imitate his example. And who were in the concentration camps? The fascists, perhaps? No, Spanish militiamen, Italian and German refugees, those who had been the first to risk their lives against fascism. But the worst was that whenever they tried to prove France was fighting a war for democracy it sounded as if an old pot-bellied comedian tried to act the part of Brutus.”
Yes, this French worker knew what the workers wanted to fight against – fascism and its annihilation of the workers’ trade unions and their democratic rights. “But what are we fighting for?” he asks, “for the preservation of a world which burns it, stocks of coffee and corn while millions starve? ... for the democracy of Stavisky. Bonnet and the Two Hundred Families? ... Can one Fight without a banner to fight for?”
The French ruling class, as Marcel charged, had no explanation to offer the French workers for this state of affairs; they left that dirty job to their liberal lackeys who volunteered for this service. Koestler’s reply to Marcel is typical: “Yes, repeatedly in history men have had to fight a merely defensive battle to preserve a state of affairs which was bad against a menace which was worse.”
Even as he wrote this, the “democracy” he was so piously upholding, was cracking down on Koestler in a most undemocratic manner. From the moment of his arrival in Paris, when he was secretly informed that the police were looking for him, there began a long and fantastic series of persecutions against him and he could discover no persons directly responsible for his arrests. Together with hundreds of others he was simply sucked into a bureaucratic morass of red tape and terror, which became more and more destructive as France staggered from pre-war crisis to war crisis to capitulation.
As a “neutral” visitor he attempted to leave the country but was refused a visa; as a supporter of democracy and a well-known fighter against fascism he offered himself for arrest if there were charges against him, but was scornfully rejected at the police station. For thirty nights he lived in a state of suspense with a pecked suitcase next to his bed – and then “they” came for him. During this period, when all around him there were “inexplicable arrests of apparently harmless people dragged off at night from their beds,” a friend whispered a kind of explanation to him: “There is a sort of silent pogrom going on against people of the Left ... but that is only one side of the matter – they try to put things on people who belonged to the anti-Munich camp.” Koestler bitterly reflects that there seems to be no place for an anti-fascist fighter in a “democracy” about to engage in a war against fascism
In the concentration camps Koestler met men of all political shades and tendencies. When the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed, the rank-and-file Communists in the camp tottered under the blow. Most of them, who bore the mental and physical marks of years of punishments and imprisomnents, asked: Had their sacrifices been in vain? Were they leaderless?
For Koestler, this meant merely “an historic opportunity for the French nation to regain control of their enfants terribles; they had but to revive the three words, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, from their heraldic petrifaction,” and enlist the support of these men in a “war against fascism.” But these ancient bourgeois-revolutionary slogans could not be revived in the France of 1940. “It was suicidal selfishness on the part of the French ruling class to prevent the war against fascism from becoming an anti-fascist war,” mourns Koestler. “Both In 1792 and 1870 the French ruling caste had betrayed the nation and preferred the Prussians to revolution. In 1940 there was no danger of a revolution; the proletariat was tired and apathetic ... it was an unreal drama of shadows; the ghost of the French ruling class committing suicide, scared by the specter of revolution.” Koestler is all the more mournful because he is sure that no one could or should remain a revolutionist now.
Since the days of the Communist Manifesto, the European ruling classes have been “scared by the specter of revolution.” In the decades since then, there have been many revolutions, including the first victorious proletarian revolution in history. In 1940, a Koestler could see no “danger of a revolution”; the French ruling class was more far-sighted and more experienced. Revolution was no “unreal drama” to them. It was a dreadful and imminent catastrophe. They knew that the main enemy was their own proletariat; the foreign enemy of Nazism was “the lesser evil.”
This did not become evident to Koestler even after he was thrown into Le Vernet concentration camp, with its sub-human living conditions. With the intellectual’s capacity for separating events from their causes, he vividly depicts life in this concentration camp of a “democracy.” The living and hygienic conditions in this camp were lower than in the most infamous of the Nazi camps – Dachau. True, in Dachau the men were subjected to a variety of sadistic tortures. The 2,000 men in Le Vernet were not tortured in this manner – they were merely compelled to work 12 or 14 hours a day at forced labor with practically no nourishment until they reached a “etate of semiconsciousness and numb idiocy,” or death. Koestler was luckily pronounced a “heart” case and so lived to tell his tale.
“The camp was run with that mixture of ignominy, corruption and laisser-faire so typical of the French administration,” writes Kes’tler, and then gives a picture of capitalist class divisions on the lowest and most vicious level – in a “democratic” concentration camp. “The nourishment provided by the camp was just sufficient to keep a man alive in a state of permanent, aching, stomach-burning hunger with constant daydreams of food. Yet in the same barrack, some of the crowd fed on tinned meats, sausage, bacon, butter, chocolate and fruit. The contrast between rich and poor reached the pungency of a social satire. The dark tunnel of our barrack became a nightmarish exaggerated model of human society, a kind of distorting mirror.” As a result, “capitalist corruption and decay took its inevitable course.” A few cigarettes, bits of food, became the medium for bribery. Prostitution – here the prostitutes were only male – appeared, just as its counterpart does in society outside. Political corruption and favoritism sprang up in the elected “chef de groups,” who had power to settle minor disputes, distribute vacant places, and had custody of the lists of those excused temporarily from work. Presently the “capitalists” secured special compartments, acquired a mattress, small table, stool, a few candles. And even, in some cases, “valets” to serve them! For the mass there were no such comforts. They slept packed like lifeless carcasses on hard boards in conditions that were “dirty and oppressing, the air unbreathable, for men smell worse than horses.”
And below them, like the derelicts of society, there was a still lower tier – the “social lepers.” Their barrack was a “real inferno,” infested with vermin and disease. Its inmates, after working hours, did odd jobs for the others, washing their linen, mending shoes, in return for a few pieces of bread ... “even the most wretched in the other hutments looked upon these with a mixture of horror and dismay.”
Koestler became embittered because these men of the “Leper Barrack” were the remnants of the International Brigades, the militant vanguard of the left-wing movement. They had been doubly betrayed and now, like the “scum of the earth,” they were “thrown on the rubbish-heap like a sackful of rotten potatoes, to putrefy.” This is the price they paid for fighting for “democracy” in Spain under the banner of Stalinism. Koestler invites others to reserve their places in the “Leper Barrack” by fighting under the banner of Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt.
Koestler’s influential friends finally succeeded in releasing him from the camp. The others were handed over to the Gestapo when the French Democracy finally concluded its deal with the Nazis. They were “handed over complete, all accounts properly made out, all confidential records of their past (given trustingly to the French authorities) neatly filed. What a find for Himmler’s black-clothes men! Three hundred thousand pounds of democratic flesh, all labelled, alive and only slightly damaged!”
At this point Koestler lost his faith in capitalist democracy – of the French variety. It was a stinking corpse despite all his efforts. He then proceeded to offer himself to English “democracy,” which was just as reluctant to receive an anti-fascist as had been the French “democrats.” “In the first days of the war I had applied for a visa and permission to enlist in the British Army,” complains Koestler; “it had been refused. When I was released from Vernet, I made a new application; it was turned down again. Meanwhile, England had progeeded, imitating the French example, to the wholesale internment of political refugees. Even should I succeed in getting out of France and crossing the Channel, I would be put behind barbed wire again. Anti-fascists were obviously a great nuisance in a war against fascism.” (Our emphasis.)
Again and again these facts are forced upon Koestler, said again and again be evades their implications, after his second arrest in France, he abandons “democratic” legalistic behavior and resorts to fraud and deception. He thus narrowly escapes the jaws of another concentration camp, just before it is turned over to the Gestapo. He joins the French Foreign Legion and thus hides his dangerous identity as a supporter of “democracy.” Finally, via Africa and Lisbon he escapes to England.
Koestler concludes his book with two letters. The first is a servile Thank You to the British ruling class for making a feeble attempt to distinguish itself from the traitorous ruling class of French “democracy.” He has learned nothing from his French experiences – he persists in identifying his own fears with the aims of the British ruling class: “In this fight against the common enemy we are tied to you in life and death,” he states. By common enemy, he means fascism. But the ruling classes everywhere in the capitalist world have a different common enemy – the proletariat of their own country. If they can profit by going to war against a rival ruling class, they will deceive the workers about their “democratic” aims, and the workers will die on the imperialist battlefields. If they can do ‘better by making a deal with a rival ruling class, they will turn the workers over to be crushed and enslaved by the foreign master – just as in France. The ruling classes abhor no means by which they can maintain all or part of their power and privileges. When the workers find the revolutionary road again, the ruling classes will set aside their immediate rivalries and combine against their common foe – the proletariat.
Koestler’s second letter is a rebuff to the “men of the Left.” Now that Stalin has betrayed the revolution, they are to turn back and support British “Democracy,” shutting their eyes to its similarity to the French “Democracy” which has just delivered their brothers over to the Nazi murder machine.
“A third way may exist theoretically,” admits Koestler, “but for all practical purposes there is none.” Koestler has forgotten, if he ever learned, that the first proletarian revolution was led to victory by a Bolshevik party which did not divorce practice from theory.
In conclusion Koestler offers his own “unique and ultimate war aim.” This is: “To teach this planet to laugh again.”
What does he wish the workers to laugh at? At the depressions of peace times with their unemployment, humiliation and misery? At a succession of World Ware, with the destruction of millions of lives and the accumulated wealth of centuries of labor?
At another betrayal and crushing of French workers or another Versailles Treaty and a smashing of German workers? The workers of the world would perhaps ‘like to laugh no less than Koestler, and to “cultivate their gardens like sensible people,” but first they must learn ‘how to struggle against these who are destroying every possibility for laughter and gardens. They will not learn this from the lackeys of capitalism, like Koestler; from him they hear only the hollow laughter of a political ghoul.
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Last updated on 13.9.2008