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Dr. Larry Arnn Begins A Study Of Darkness At Noon In His Series On Totalitarianism

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HH: It is time for the Hillsdale Dialogue, our weekly ascent from matters political to matters enduring with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. He is, of course, my primary interlocutor in the Hillsdale Dialogues, four years of which now collected at, and beautifully rearranged, Dr. Arnn. I was just over at the site, and whoever you’ve got working on this has got binge listening made easy, beautifully marked, and people who are on long drives or who have a day walk, this is now the easiest part of the website to use, My hat tip to whoever redesigned that.

LA: Probably Brad Lowry, who is a genius.

HH: Well, he does. That is, we’ve got probably 200 of these conversations, and that one is really, it’s just been very well done. My hat is off to him. So Dr. Arnn, I wanted to begin today, I have never read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon. So I have begun this book because you are teaching it in a seminar. If someone has not been listening, would you tell them about the seminar? Then I’m going to read them a little bit about Arthur Koestler, and then we’ll plunge into Darkness At Noon.

LA: Yes, so there were five contemporary people, and their names were George Orwell, who wrote 1984, we’ve just been talking about that, Arthur Koestler, who was a Jew from Hungary, born into a Jewish family, emigrated to many places in the world and lived a lot of his life in England, died in 1983. And then there was Aldous Huxley, who was a well-born English fellow from a distinguished family, including a very academically distinguished family. And then there was C.S. Lewis, Oxford, later Cambridge don, extremely learned man, great Christian apologist, and there was Winston Churchill, the statesman. And those five guys were very different guys, and yet they were, they wrote, all of them wrote novels, and Churchill, of course, wrote many other things. But they wrote novels about a new phenomenon in human history, totalitarianism. Koestler, his name is actually said Koestler, but we’ll say Koestler, he was a member of the Communist Party until 1938, until the show trials, the Moscow Show Trials, which revealed the real nature of the tyranny, because the party turned on each other at the top. George Orwell fought with the communists in Spain, saw what they did there, was horrified and wrote 1984. Huxley didn’t have such an experience at that, but he saw the tendency, the fundamental thing which we’re going to get to by the end of this course, because Lewis and Churchill explain it with great clarity, is that we have got to a place in human society where we can potentially control everything, even every thought. And we can potentially manufacture human beings, get rid of the old process of breeding and birth. And we can manage everything. We can reduce everything to human control, and the question becomes what do we do with that power? And…

HH: Now Anne Applebaum, who is a terrific journalist, I’m unsure of her politics. I believe she is a left, but I don’t know, reviewed Michael Scammell’s biography of Koestler. And I’m glad you cleared up the pronunciation, because I was going back and forth online, and some people do say Koestler, or as you pronounced…

LA: Koestler.

HH: Yeah.

LA: It’s sort of Koestler is how it’s…

HH: Koestler. And so let’s go with Koestler, because it’s the only way I can do it.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: So anyway, Anne Applebaum writes this. “Koestler began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In inter-war Vienna, he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent communist, he ran into Langston Hughes. Fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he met W.H. Auden at a crazy party in Valencia before winding up in one of Franco’s prisons. In Weimar Berlin, he fell into the circle of Comintern agent Willi Münzenberg, through whom he met the leading German Communists of the era: Johannes Becher, Hanns Eisler, Bertolt Brecht. Afraid of being caught by the Gestapo while fleeing France, he borrowed suicide pills from Walter Benjamin. He took them several weeks later when it seemed he would be unable to get out of Lisbon, but didn’t die. Along the way he had lunch with Thomas Mann, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, made friends with George Orwell, flirted with Mary McCarthy, and lived in Cyril Connolly’s London flat. In 1940, Koestler was released from a French detention camp, partly thanks to the intervention of Harold Nicholson and Noël Coward. In the 1950s, he helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, together with Mel Lasky and Sidney Hook. In the 1960s, he took LSD with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, he was still giving lectures that impressed, among others, the young Salman Rushdie.” So I am tempted to say after reading that excerpt from Anne Applebaum that’s quite a life.
LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he, and you know, he was arrested himself, as she says, and he was a participant in these things, in the communist idea and in setting up communist regimes, fought for that. And then he saw, and he never, you know, he and George Orwell were more or less people of the left. You can tell from that list of people that he hung out with. And they were, especially Orwell, was a big believer in democratic socialism, whereas we’ll see as we get toward the end of this that Churchill thought that socialism itself would always turn into this totalitarianism that all five of these people abhorred. So there’s a dispute among them about that. But just think. Arthur Koestler was driven away from these extreme doctrines, but that doesn’t mean he discarded all unorthodoxy.
HH: I must say the late Christopher Hitchens, who was 70 times a guest on this show, probably the second-most frequent guest besides you, maybe Mark Steyn, although Steyn’s on hiatus for the time being while he travels and writes. Did you ever sit down with Hitch? Did you ever talk with him at length?

LA: I met him but once, but I heard about him for years from you and Victor Hanson, who loved him. And Mark Steyn used to talk about him a lot, too, but no, I didn’t know him really.
HH: That is my failing not to have brought you together at least on the radio. He is a great admirer of Koestler, but as I said at the beginning, I had never read this. So I sat down to it, and I was reading it on the Acela from D.C. to New York, and the guy kept looking at me next to me, because I’m reading Darkness At Noon. And everyone is supposed to have read it, and nobody has now. Of your seminar students at Hillsdale College, how many of them have previously encountered Darkness At Noon?
LA: Yeah, that’s interesting. Most of them had read 1984.

HH: Correct.
LA: I think maybe two of 20 had read Darkness At Noon.
HH: Do you attribute that to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, that it’s gone off of reading lists, whereas totalitarianism remains number one Stalin and the Soviet empire have gone the way of all human things?
LA: Well, I’ve stumbled because of the magnificent Kyle across the terrible fact that C.S. Lewis reviewed 1984 and didn’t like it.
HH: Oh, what?
LA: Isn’t that amazing (laughing?
HH: What?
LA: Yeah, he negatively reviews 1984, and says that, and we can post it on if you want to. He actually makes an argument that I regard as bad, not true. Do you want me to tell you what it is?

HH: Yes, please. We’ve got two minutes to the break.

LA: He says that the stuff about sex in 1984 is imported and artificial and shouldn’t really be in there. And I think that’s just a misunderstanding, and you know, clutch my chest when I say that about, because first of all, in C.S. Lewis’ own That Hideous Strength…

HH: Yes.

LA: There is a proposal that we get rid of the way we raise families.

HH: That is the same thing. Yes, the youth anti-sex league in Orwell is the same thing as That Hideous Strengh.

LA: Yeah, exactly.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. I wish I could be in his seminar every week on totalitarianism, but you can be there via the Hillsdale Dialogue.

— – – – –

HH: Interesting, Dr. Arnn, during the break, the magnificent Matt Dowd, ABC News analyst, and what, I think, the most coherent analyst of American politics today, tweeted out one of my favorite books in college, Darkness At Noon. And I responded that you know, my admission, I never read it, and that only two of your seminar members had read it, whereas everyone had read 1984. And perhaps, he went back, yes, he read it twice in college. He finds it interesting as well, which reminds me of two things. One, there’s an audience out there for these conversations, which is really vast and unusual to me. Wherever I go, as I was going across the country last week with Jon Voight and Sheriff Clarke, and a bunch of people come up to me and they talk to me about this. I think maybe we can spark a little renaissance for Darkness At Noon here. I don’t think 1984 will ever need that renaissance, but Darkness At Noon matters quite a lot. And I want to read one paragraph that is just chilling. But before I do, any comment on that, on why these things resonate so much?

LA: Well, one of the things, first of all, it’s a characteristic thing, and an extremely dangerous thing in our age, and it’s one of the inventions of the age in which we live that there are these scientific governments that try to reduce everything to human control – every thought, every child, everything. And so these books that we’re reading explain their dynamic. And this book explains a particular thing about the dynamic. It turns out that in the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, they all started out a bunch of equals, and they ended up with one of their number in utter control, and more than that, he shot most of the rest, and more than that, most of the rest confessed to crimes they had not committed knowing that they would be shot when they were done with the confession. And as far as we can tell, the chief cause of those confessions was not torture. What caused them to do that? Darkness At Noon is an answer to that question. And therefore, it’s an answer to what drives this thing and makes it coherent and makes it sustain.

HH: You know, long ago, I read Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made A Revolution. I don’t know if that book has ever crossed your table. And it stuck with me that the Soviet Revolution is unique and difficult to understand. But Rubashov in Darkness At Noon, and in fact, how do you want to introduce this? Do you want to introduce Rubashov before I quote Rubashov?

LA: Yeah, well, so we meet Rubashov when he’s arrested. And we learn in little asides along the way that he is one of the makers of the revolution, and that everybody knows his picture, recognizes him. He’s a famous man. And he is, we learn soon after that of the original senior people, only he and number one, and number one is Stalin, and the actual name for Stalin among his colleagues became the boss, not number one. They are the ones remaining, right? So he is in a way the most second famous man in the land. And we learn a lot about him. He’s tough, he’s sentimental, he calls himself a militant philosopher, a unique species, we were, militant philosophers.

HH: Is he supposed to be Trotsky?

LA: Well, maybe not, because there’s, you know, Bukharin is another one he might be, really important guys. But of course, Trotsky went out pretty early.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And Bukharin was late among the ones who had to go through their show trials.

HH: These are revolutionaries. Again, let’s assume we’re talking to Steelers fans.

LA: Yeah, yeah.

HH: These are communist…

LA: Makers of the Bolshevik Revolution.

HH: Yeah, and Lenin’s number one, and Stalin becomes number one. But there are lots of other equals as you said – Bukharin and Trotsky among them, and Beria and others.

LA: Yeah, and Lenin never really had a name implying priority. He had priority, but you know, they called him the old man. But you know, the others, so he was first among equals. Stalin was something else. They weren’t equals anymore.

HH: We’ll talk about that when we come back. Don’t go anywhere. We’re beginning two weeks in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, maybe three. Stay with us.

— – — –

HH: I’ve often said the second most important book I’ve ever read is One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, which is the same subject that we’re talking about by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn is not on your reading list, Dr. Arnn, for this seminar. Why is that?

LA: Too modern. I don’t know.

HH: (laughing)

LA: He should be on there, but what does he add? And these books were all written, you know, in this similar time period. The West is in early and full confrontation with the Bolshevik Revolution, but complicated by Nazism, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And you know, Solzhenitsyn comes later, right after the Second World War, after it’s the United States and the Soviet Union both against each other, and after we know a very great deal about all of this, right? These books are revelatory.

HH: Yeah, I think the reason, if you have time at the end to add Ivan Denisovich…

LA: Yeah…

HH: …is because it teaches you to survive. It tells you why it doesn’t win in the end. But interesting, this week, NPR interviewed Kenneth Ackerman, author of Trotsky In New York. And it turns out Trotsky lived in Brooklyn for three months in 1917, in the Bronx, excuse me, and wrote for Novy Mir. All these communists were here. They were in the West. The West nurtured them in a very real way, and then it accepted their exiles like Koestler afterwards. And it’s a remarkable back and forth that goes on while the poor Russia is injected with this virus that takes over it.

LA: You know, in England, there’s been a lot of good writing about this, including by David Pryce-Jones. The social and intellectual left liked the Soviet Union, and in Britain, and gravitated to it. And the social and intellectual right, I don’t know that there is much social and intellectual right left in America, but they gravitated toward Hitler. And so these, you know, Koestler and Orwell, those are people who’ve been with the left, right, and in the ranks.

HH: Right.

LA: And so yeah, and they turn against it, see, and that means that, you know, they get a mixed reception. Of course, to anybody who had big left-leaning sympathies, Trotsky was a hero, because the way it seemed, because of his exile, was he was purer than Stalin. He wanted the revolution to spread internationally rapidly, and that the Soviet Union was not particularly important, and his fight with Stalin was about socialism in one country. Stalin understood about power.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And he was getting it, and he drove Trotsky away. And then remember, Trotsky’s off in Mexico. And it is true that he emerges, and he, like he did, once he did a conference call hook-up with a communist party national gathering in San Francisco from Mexico. It’s one of the last things he did. I know somebody who knew somebody who heard him, and they, everybody was astonished by what a high, squeaky voice. He said his first voice was Comrade, and it sounded…(laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: But you know, not long after, assassins got into his compound in Mexico sent by Stalin, and killed him with an axe.

HH: With an axe.

LA: Yeah.

HH: The founder of the Red Army got cleaved.

LA: Yeah, that’s right.

HH: So I want to read to you, this is early in the book. It’s about one-sixth into the book, and I marked it all out. Rubashov, who is the key character here who’s being purged, is having a flashback in a conversation with Richard, a young communist party member who has in the aftermath of the disaster and an early gone bad effort at taking power, has been scattered all over. And Rubashov is running around trying to pick up the remnants. And he says this to young Richard in a museum. “’The party can never be mistaken,’ said Rubashov. ‘You, Richard, and I, can make a mistake, not the party. The party, Comrade, is more than you and I, and a thousand others like you and I. The party is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course, she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in history does not belong in the party’s ranks.’” He then goes on to upbraid him for distributing other than the party’s literature. And then he says, “I have to inform you in accordance with the Central Committee’s decision that you are no longer a member of the party, Richard.” What’s amazing about this, the party is disaster. It’s bereft. It’s broken. But Rubashov comes all this way to find one of its remnants to exile him.

LA: Yeah.

HH: It’s ruthless. It’s amazing.

LA: Yeah, see, so it, to understand, and maybe I’ll say a word about where this fits in the structure of the novel.

HH: Please.

LA: Koestler is explaining in this novel why, what is the dynamic that made these guys confess to things they hadn’t done, known. You know, what the Western press would do was they would cover these confessions and say well, they weren’t even there at that time, right, because there was records of where they’d been. Why did they confess? And early in the novel, there’s an argument between Rubashov’s two interrogators. And one is an old man whom Rubashov has known for decades named Ivanov. And the other is a young man, whose name is Gletkin. And Gletkin is styled in the novel as the kind of man that Rubashov and Ivanov have produced. He’s very buttoned-down. He never undoes his top button of his jacket. He looks fresh after 20 hours of work. And he wants to use physical torture. He wants to break Rubashov by brutality. That’s the only way, he says. He himself has a great reputation for bravery and for surviving under torture. And Ivanov, who says that Rubashov will be broken by logic. All I have to do is think, give him food, give him pencil and paper and cigarettes, and he will work this out and see that he has to confess. And it turns out in the novel that Ivanov tries his way and is getting somewhere, but then Gletkin turns on him, gets him arrested, and he becomes the interrogator. And then that way is tried. Now, so the question is, so remember, we’re trying to answer the question why did these guys confess to crimes, right?

HH: Why do they confess?

LA: And there are two methodologies proposed, and both are tried, and both are successful. And Rubashov does confess. But along the way, you will see it’s not just weariness and tiredness and having bright lights in his eyes. He’s actually never tortured in the way Winston Smith is tortured in 1984, although the audience should remark that that speech that you just read from Rubashov to Richard, that’s just like O’Brien in 1984.

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: That’s, he’s O’Brien there. And one of the things to understand now in the logic part of why would he break, it turns out in the novel there are three people with whom, who are named and described and come into the novel a lot. And Rubashov has been tough with them in just the way he is with Richard, one of the three. The other is a man up in the Baltic ports named Little Loewy. And the other is a fellow communist operator and lover of Rubashov, Arlova. And to all of those three people, in different ways, Rubashov does the hard thing. He does things that lead to their destruction. And he remembers that. And that is painful to him. And Gletkin, the second interrogator, who understands that he is very ready to do such things, does them to both Ivanov and Rubashov, but on the other hand, he also knows that those things will be painful to Rubashov. And he uses those as elements of logic to indicate to Rubashov what he has to do.

HH: Wow. Very complicated. And take me back to Richard and to this idea of the party and history, because long ago, we talked about Hegel. I mean, it’s probably been two years since we talked about Hegel, and there is this view of history that is out there that you and I do not subscribe to, but which the party does. And that’s why this novel is important, and why I hope people pick it up. They don’t understand. This is where the left has to go. They have to believe this.

LA: Yeah, and you know, this is, you know, this is not a controversial point. If you read the founders of the American left, the modern American left, of which you know, there’s a representative in the presidential race this year, if you read those founders, they agree with this reasoning, right? They agree that back when we thought about nature, and they’re more quiet about this, but back when we thought about God as permanent and abiding things to provide a standard for the shifting circumstances in which we live, back when we thought about that, there was a comfort in that. But that was also naïve, because what we know now is everything changes, and we are changed, ourselves. Everything changes, including us, and this process of change we call history is the ultimate determiners of us. Now that’s the first step, and that’s the step of despair. That’s kind of a sad thing to hear, right? Woodrow Wilson writes, and John Dewey writes in different language, both write the same point. The founders thought they were discovering something eternally so, but no, that was just the thoughts that were appropriate to a pioneer frontier society.

HH: Right.

LA: Now, we live in a different time, and we have different precepts. So after you get through that despair stage where you’ve lost the Declaration of Independence, and for that matter, the Bible, and for that matter, Shakespeare, then you start thinking we’ve got something, too, because now we live in the really exciting time when we know about this process of change. What if we took control of the process? What if we became the makers of everything? Then we could reshape everything according to our will. Since things are malleable, let’s manipulate them. And so the communist party of the Soviet Union is a force for that. And the Nazi Party of Germany is a force for that. And in a mild, democratically intended, kindly intended way, the modern American left is a force for that. And you know, one of the controversial points to be discussed that you know, because Winston Churchill is, you know, in my opinion, a very great man, but also, he was a very radical man in this sense, he said that the mild democratic versions of this in the American West would necessarily, if they keep up pursuing the aims they’re pursuing, lead to the use of the same techniques.

HH: And we will come back to that after the break. Don’t go anywhere, America.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, am I correct? You are an ISI graduate?

LA: I am, yeah. I’m a trustee of ISI, too, right now.

HH: What do you think of ISI?

LA: Well, it’s great, I think, a lot of it. It’s probably, you know, first of all, it was born way back in the 50’s, I think.

HH: Yup.

LA: It was born because the university was going where it was going, right, which is not just left or right. It’s deeper than that. The modern university doesn’t believe in the truth, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: It’s explicit. And so what are we going to do about that? And the answer is, finally, to have a civilization, that is going to have to be repaired. That’s the only thing that can fix it. And that’s a distant dream. You know, I happen to run this very weird little college, right? And it’s, it is, I fancy and argue, what a university is supposed to be.

HH: It’s wonderful. It’s not weird. It’s wonderful, yeah.

LA: And you know, but it goes about the business in the way that it always did, like you know, I mean, we’re understood to be, by most people, a right wing university. I’m teaching about totalitarianism of the left and the right, and we’re reading original documents. That’s what you do. And then you argue that through with young people, and they get to learn every great thing, including every great evil thing. But the distinction between good and evil, which is the fundamental question of the Socratic Dialogues, becomes alive to them, right? ISI works to try to keep that alive on various college campuses by the indirect means that are available, and at that, I think it is the most effective thing of its kind.

HH: So you can go to, or go to Go to them both. I’ve got to also tell you, Matt Dowd tweeted out at me about Darkness At Noon. His favorite quote in the book, one of them, “Honor is decency without vanity,” which is one of those true things that you stumble across and you remember when you’re young, and you keep it going. In this context, and we will return to Darkness At Noon next week, I’ve got to ask you. Have you read Ross Douthat’s latest column – Hillary Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem?

LA: No.

HH: I’d encourage you to do so. Two paragraphs from it – “Outside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion, which may be one of the reasons the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp GOP gains at every level of the country’s government. The spirit of political cultural rebellion is obviously crucial to Trump’s act. As James Parker wrote in the Atlantic, he’s occupying, “A space in American politics that is uniquely transgressive, volatile, carnivalesque and from a certain angle, punk rock.’ The alt-rightist columnist, Steve Sailer, made the punk rock analogy as well. Like the Sex Pistols, Parker suggests, Trump is out to upend the culture. But in this case, it’s the culture of institutionalized political correctness, and John Oliver, explaining the news to you forever, his point being you can’t get away from PC no matter how fast and far you run, Dr. Arnn. And you’re not political. Hillsdale is not endorsing a candidate. But I think Ross has set a very, and he got a lot of blowback from Samantha Bee and all these other lefties, late night people. But I think that’s because he was directly on the target.

LA: Yeah, well, first of all, wouldn’t it be, wouldn’t it refute him best if they responded with a sense of humor?

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) But that didn’t happen.

HH: I was drinking when you said that, and it’s in my nose. You just put…I thought you would give, there’s Coke in my nose, dang it, Dr. Arnn.

LA: (laughing) Yeah, it, you know, isn’t it, the uniformity, I mean, I didn’t go this year, I’m pleased to report, but I’ve been forever a member of the American Political Science Association. And its conventions are among the best. That is to say, they let other groups, like the Claremont Institute, for example, forever and ever, has organized alternative panels. And so you can have real argument on those panels. But you know, I mean, one year, they did, and in 1984, they did a straw poll, who are you voting for, Reagan or Mondale. Mondale had 94% of the assembled political scientist of America. And Reagan had less than half the rest. So what does that mean, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: It means that this grinding, massive uniformity, and people challenge me, you know. Do you really have diversity at Hillsdale College? And I always respond yeah, we do, but we’re working on it. And what do I mean by that?

HH: (laughing)

LA: In a college, you’re always…

HH: I’m glad I’m not drinking Diet Coke right now.

LA: In a college, you’re always having an argument, right? And if two people disagree about something important, the attitude to take in a college is somebody is wrong, right? And that means you’ve got to figure that out.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And so, but that’s not what goes on anymore, right? And that’s a sad thing.

HH: No, but we’re going to, we’re doing our best, doggone it. We’re doing our best to spark it. Go to Hillsdale, you young people,, or go listen, you old people, to, all the Hillsdale Dialogues. Get smart. We return to Darkness At Noon. You can catch up. Go and get it. It costs $8 bucks at Amazon. Download it. Read Darkness At Noon. We’ll be back with Dr. Arnn next week on the next Hillsdale Dialogue.

End of interview.


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