The God That Failed was published in 1949. Edited by Richard Crossman, who was later to become a cabinet minister in Labour governments in the United Kingdom, it contained six essays by well-known figures of the time. Three (Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone and Richard Wright) were dubbed as the initiates, because they had been members of Communist parties for some time and the other three (Andre Gide, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender) were ‘worshipers from afar’, because either they were never members or members only for a brief period.

Just as religious conviction is impervious to logical argument and, indeed, does not result from logical processes, just as nationalist devotion or personal affection defies a mountain of evidence, so my pro-Soviet attitude maintained a complete independence from day-to-day events  - Louis Fischer

The contexts of their experience varied from Germany, Italy, the United States, France and the United Kingdom. All six were great writers and they described their experiences vividly. There is no substitute for reading their narratives. Nonetheless, common themes, stages in a progression, can be identified.

1. The initial attraction. The 1930s - ‘a low dishonest decade’[1]  – was a period of crisis for democracy. Koestler regarded Germany as on the verge of a civil war in 1932. Silone spoke of peasant distrust of the state, always standing for swindling, intrigue and privilege. Wright believed that in the realm of revolutionary expression, black experience could find a home, a functioning value and a role. Gide felt the regime under which he lived did not protect men from grievous abuses. Fischer preferred fresh sweeping winds to stale stagnant air, and well-intentioned pioneers to proven failures. Spender took the view that that liberal could no longer support unrestricted freedom for both employers and workers. Both should base their conception of freedom on social justice restricting exploitation. All regarded communism as the right response to the conditions in which they found themselves. They were willing to sacrifice ‘bourgeois liberties’ in order to defeat a growing fascism.

2. The sacrifice. For people in a state of extreme tension, Crossman observed that ‘the emotional appeal of communism lay precisely in the sacrifices – both material and spiritual – which it demanded of the convert’. The sacrifice was particularly demanding for brilliant intellectuals for two reasons: first, because of their power of observation which had to be subordinated to the party line, and secondly, because communist parties, although they needed intellectuals, mistrusted them. The sacrifice was often accompanied by emotional exaltation. Thus Koestler:

To say that one had “seen the light” is a poor description of the mental rapture that only a convert knows. The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic in one stroke.

3. The mounting doubts and the internal struggle. Doubts arose because of the gap between inner acceptance and external fact. For Koestler and Gide, visits to the Soviet Union - the fatherland of communism – raised the issues of inequality, dull conformity and grotesque Russian views of the outside world. When an English communist protested that a proposal in the Communist International in Silone’s presence would be a lie, he was met with loud laughter. Wrote Silone:

In my memory, the storm of laughter aroused by that short, almost childishly simple little expression outweighs all the long, heavy oppressive speeches I hears during sittings of the Communist International, and has become a kind of symbol for me.

The subordination of the International Brigade, formed to defend the Spanish republic against Franco, to Soviet interests, the Russian mass purges of 1937 and the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 all strained belief. Worst of all, Wright witnessed the internal trial of a communist in Chicago. When the man was given his chance to speak:

“Comrades,” he said in a low charged voice. “I’m guilty of all the charges, all of them.” His voice broke in a sob. No one prodded him. No one threatened him. He was free to go out of the hall and never see another communist. But he did not want to. He could not. The vision of a communal world had sunk down into his soul, and it would never leave him until life left him.

4. The crises and their aftermath. By 1949, every author had broken with communism.  Koestler did it in a 1938 speech with three sentences anathema to communists:  

No movement, party or person can claim the privilege of infallibility. Appeasing the enemy is as foolish as persecuting the friend who pursues your own aim by a different road. A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.

Silone left the Communist Party as early as 1930. For Wright, the moment came during the May Day parade of 1936:

I sat upon a bench. I was not thinking; I could not think. But an objectivity of vision was being born within me. A surging sweep of many odds and ends came together and formed an attitude, a perspective. “They’re blind,” I said to myself. “Their enemies have blinded them with too much oppression.”

For the worshippers from afar, the break was easier. Gide, who never abandoned his individualism, thinking that communism was the highest expression of it, simply shed his illusions following his Soviet visit. Fischer observed:

I have not changed my attitude to the dangers of excessive power. But now I realize that Bolshevism is not the way out because it is itself the world’s biggest agglomeration of power over man.

Spender concluded:

I believe that the only solution of the world’s problem is: for the peoples and nations who love liberty to lead a movement throughout the world to improve the conditions of people who care more for bread than for freedom; thus raising them to a level of existence where they can care for freedom.

Crossman declared that the contributors to the book were not in the least interested in swelling the flood of anti-communist propaganda. The book went much deeper as a study of a state of mind. It is relevant to our time and place.


Charles Simkins
Senior Researcher


[1] W H Auden’s phrase