Darkness at Noon is concerned with the laws by which history functions: it asks fundamental questions about whether historical laws should be considered scientific or social, whether historical laws can be used to predict or enforce change, and whether it’s wise, in the first place, to reduce to a “law” the complex interplay of forces that shape a society over time. Each major character’s actions and choices about his relationship to the Party and his use of power are shown to be predicated on his own ideas about the workings of historical laws.
Indeed, the major distinction between the “old” and the “new” guard of Party committee members may turn on the interest, or lack thereof, in history. The new guard is content to let the central committee emit its decrees and its specific points of policy without questioning them. Gletkin and others like him are bureaucrats, rather than intellectuals: they have little concern for overarching laws or philosophies that may justify their actions. But the old guard, represented by Rubashov and Ivanov, was involved in shaping this very system and, as such, is still deeply invested in these laws. They have shepherded the country through the socialist revolution, one that was supposed to lead to greater happiness. In fact, for Karl Marx, the author of the Communist Manifesto, there was even more at stake: he thought it was inevitable for this revolution to eventually occur, at which point all the strife and conflict of history would end—meaning that, in some ways, the revolution would spell out the end of history itself. Indeed, the form of Bolshevik communism that this old guard espouses is directly tied up with a theory of history: it characterizes capitalist production as necessarily leading to failure, and the growing class consciousness that results from capitalism’s failure as inevitably leading to a revolution that will do away with all material want and scarcity. What Rubashov calls the “laws of motion” are, therefore, not just political goals to strive after. To him, they are inevitable to the course of history, like the laws of physics are inevitable to motion. What distinguishes the Party, he argues at one point, is that it simply learned enough about human beings and history to understand these laws.
Nonetheless, as time goes on, Rubashov increasingly questions the confidence of those who presume to know how historical laws work. He begins to look at the arc of history on a longer scale, past the current-day political situation, and he realizes that he can’t know what will happen in the future, and thus he can’t know if the laws he believes to be true will actually be proved true in time. This realization troubles Rubashov; he has been acting all along on the assumption that he is right, which justified his own willingness to betray people to the Party. The climactic choice of the novel—Rubashov’s decision about whether or not to confess—hinges on his understanding of historical laws. In his decision-making process, he asks himself whether he might be wrong about the inevitability of history, as well as what it might mean if history were to prove No. 1 and all of his violent tactics right. This uncertainty is part of what makes the book both a vivid novel of suspense and also a philosophical novel of ideas: these two genres are closely associated in Darkness at Noon, precisely because, in this society, ideas have taken on a deadly, world-historical force.
Change and the Laws of History ThemeTracker
Change and the Laws of History Quotes in Darkness at Noon
The horror which No. 1 emanated, above all consisted in the possibility that he was in the right, and that all those whom he killed had to admit, even with the bullet in the back of their necks, that he conceivably might be in the right. There was no certainty; only the appeal to that mocking oracle they called History, who gave her sentence only when the jaws of the appealer had long since fallen to dust.
“The Party can never be mistaken,” said Rubashov. “You 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.”
“Yet I would do it again,” he said to himself. “It was necessary and right. But do I perhaps owe you the fare all the same? Must one also pay for deeds which were right and necessary?”
The Party’s warm, breathing body appeared to him to be covered with sores—festering sores, bleeding stigmata. When and where in history had there even been such defective saints? Whenever had a good cause been worse represented? If the Party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective.
For the movement was without scruples; she rolled towards her goal unconcernedly and deposed the corpses of the drowned in the windings of her course. Her course had many twists and windings; such was the law of her being. And whosoever could not follow her crooked course was washed on to the bank, for such was her law. The motives of the individual did not matter to her. His conscience did not matter to her, neither did she care what went on in his head and his heart. The Party knew only one crime: to swerve from the course laid out; and only one punishment: death.
“But we had descended into the depths, into the formless, anonymous masses, which at all times constituted the substance of history; and we were the first to discover her laws of motion. We had discovered the laws of inertia, of the slow changing of her molecular structure, and of her sudden eruptions. That was the greatness of our doctrine. The Jacobins were moralists; we were empirics. We dug in the primeval mud of history and there we found her laws. We knew more than ever men have known about mankind; that is why our revolution succeeded. And now you have buried it all again….”
“Yet for the moment we are thinking and acting on credit. As we have thrown overboard all conventions and rules of cricket-morality, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic. We are under the terrible compulsion to follow our thought down to its final consequence and to act in accordance to it. We are sailing without ballast; therefore each touch on the helm is a matter of life or death.”
He had sacrificed Arlova because his own existence was more valuable to the Revolution. That was the decisive argument his friends had used to convince him; the duty to keep oneself in reserve for later on was more important than the commandments of petty bourgeois morality. For those who had changed the face of history, there was no other duty than to stay here and be ready. “You can do what you like with me,” Arlova had said, and so he had done. Why should he treat himself with more consideration?
“History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience. To want to conduct history according to the maxims of the Sunday school means to leave everything as it is. You know that as well as I do. You know the stakes in this game, and here you come talking about Bogrov’s whimpering….”
“We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh….Those are the consequences of our consequentialness.”
“We all thought one could treat history like one experiments in physics. The difference is that in physics one can repeat the experiment a thousand times, but in history only once.”
“In periods of maturity it is the duty and the function of the opposition to appeal to the masses. In periods of mental immaturity, only demagogues invoke the ‘higher judgment of the people.’ In such situations the opposition has two alternatives: to seize the power by a coup d’état, without being able to count on the support of the masses, or in mute despair to throw themselves out of the swing—‘to die in silence.’ There is a third choice which is no less consistent, and which in our country has been developed into a system: the denial and suppression of one’s own conviction when there is no prospect of materializing it.”
Instead of the old portraits, a light patch shone from Ivanov’s wallpaper; philosophical incendiarism had given place to a period of wholesome sterility. Revolutionary theory had frozen to a dogmatic cult, with a simplified, easily graspable catechism, and with No. 1 as the high priest celebrating the Mass.
“Rubashov laughed at my father, and repeated that he was a fool and a Don Quixote. Then he declared that No. 1 was no accidental phenomenon, but the embodiment of a certain human characteristic—namely, of an absolute belief in the infallibility of one’s own conviction, from which he drew the strength for his complete unscrupulousness.”
“The policy of the opposition is wrong. Your task is therefore to make the opposition contemptible; to make the masses understand that opposition is a crime and that the leaders of the opposition are criminals. That is the simple language which the masses understand. If you begin to talk of your complicated motives, you will only create confusion amongst them.”
“Covered with shame, trampled in the dust, about to die, I will describe to you the sad progress of a traitor, that it may serve as a lesson and terrifying example to the millions of our country…”
They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.