Koestler, Arthur: The pseudo-dilemma

Speech in Berlin, June 1950. From: Peter Coleman’s paper ‘ARTHUR KOESTLER AND THE CONGRESS FOR CULTURAL FREEDOM‘.

koestler2The thesis which I wish to put before you is that the antimonies ‘Socialism and Capitalism’, ‘Left and Right’, are rapidly becoming meaningless, and that so long as Europe remains bogged down in these false alternatives which obstruct clear thinking, it cannot hope to find a constructive solution for its problems.

The term “Political Left” originated, as you know, with the distribution of factions in the French National Assembly after the Revolution in 1789. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it spread over the Continent and was applied to that section of a country’s legislature which sat to the left of the President’s chair and was traditionally associated with liberal and democratic opinions. Gradually, the word came to mean the radical or purist or extremist wing of any ideological school or movement, whether liberal and democratic or not. Later on it was used in an even more vague and metaphorical way, and the more it was drained of meaning, the stronger became its emotional appeal. At the beginning of the last war there existed about half a dozen political parties in France, all of them conservative to reactionary in their programme, all of them seated in the right wing of the Chamber, and all of them carrying the word “Left” in their names.

I mention this development as a semantic curiosity and because of its relevance to the present situation. For to this day European Liberals and Social-Democrats refer to themselves as “the moderate Left” which, if words are to be taken seriously, must mean that they differ only in degree but not in kind from their neighbours of “the extreme Left”. And “the extreme Left” is still regarded as synonymous with the Communist Party, in spite of the fact that virtually every tenet in the Communist credo is diametrically opposed to the principles originally associated, with the Left. In short, the term “Left” has become a verbal fetish whose cult sidetracks attention from the real issues. It is at the same time a dangerous anachronism, for it implies the existence of a continuous spectrum between liberal progressives and the worshippers of tyranny and terror, and such is the magic power of words over the mind that European Socialists who think of themselves as “men of the Left” were unconsciously led from a fallacious verbal identification to a real feeling of solidarity with the Communists. They may feel critical or even hostile towards their “extreme” neighbours of the Communist Party; they retain nevertheless an ambivalent neighbourly feeling for them, a conviction of “having the same historical roots”, of being, after all, “on the same side of the barricades”.

A good many American liberals fell into the same emotional trap during the thirties and even later. The victim of the witch-hunt supplied the whip which scourged him and became an accomplice in his own perdition. However, the relative safety and prosperity of that continent made the confused American liberal gradually accessible to reality and enabled him to get out of the trap, while a major portion of the French and Italian Left, and a smaller portion of the British, exposed to the neurosis-forming climate of Europe, have remained in it.

In the past it was always “the Left” who protested loudest against tyranny, injustice, and infringements of human rights. The failure of European “Leftists” and American liberals to lead the fight against the worst regime of terror and despotism in human history created a strategic vacuum on the ideological battlefield. This vacuum was filled by the Christian Democrats in Italy, the Gaullists in France, by Senator McCarthy and his associates in the U.S.A. McCarthyism represents the wages of the American liberal’s sins. If today everywhere in the world the parties who claim to represent the “moderate Left” are beaten or in retreat, it is because they were found wanting in the most crucial issue of our time.

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