3. From Five-Year Plan to the Purges
After years of pandering to the kulaks, the Stalin/ Bukharin leadership was taken completely by surprise by the crisis of 1927-28. All the warnings of the Left Opposition were proved entirely correct. Stalin panicked and ordered a complete turnaround in policy. After eliminating the Left Opposition, Stalin leaned on the workers to launch a series of blows against the Right Opposition. By 1930, Stalin had the Right Opposition leaders Bukharin, Tomsky and Rykov removed from the Party leadership. These individuals – the head of the Communist International, the head of the Soviet government and the leader of the Russian trade unions – were now all denounced as agents of the counter-revolution! Taking up some of the points of the Left Opposition, but in a twisted and bureaucratic fashion, Stalin swung in an ultra-left direction. Had it not been for the campaign of the Left Opposition, Stalin would have continued his pro-kulak policy, leading to the liquidation of all the gains of the October Revolution.
Without the Opposition’s bold criticism and without the bureaucracy’s fear of the Opposition, the course of Stalin-Bukharin toward the kulak would have ended up in the revival of capitalism. Under the lash of the Opposition the bureaucracy was forced to make important borrowings from our platform. The Leninists could not save the Soviet regime from the process of degeneration and the difficulties of the personal regime. But they saved it from complete dissolution by barring the road to capitalist restoration. The progressive reforms of the bureaucracy were the by-products of the Opposition’s revolutionary struggle. For us it is far too insufficient. But it is still something. (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 179.)
Lenin always advocated the collectivisation of agriculture gradually and by voluntarily means. But he certainly never entertained the mad idea that millions of scattered peasant holdings could be forced to collectivise overnight at gunpoint. Collectivisation was to take place through example. The peasant was to be convinced by patient argument and through the setting up of model collective farms and the introduction of the latest modern technology, tractors, fertilizers, electricity, schools, etc. Such a perspective was obviously linked to the development of Soviet industry through five-year plans. The idea of collectivisation on the basis of wooden ploughs was self-evident nonsense. As Trotsky explained, this problem “is far from settled by these general historical considerations. The real possibilities of collectivisation are determined, not by the depth of the impasse in the villages and not by the administrative energy of the government, but primarily by the existing productive resources – that is, the ability of the industries to furnish large-scale agriculture with the requisite machinery. These material conditions were lacking. The collective farms were set up with an equipment suitable in the main only for small-scale farming. In these conditions an exaggeratedly swift collectivisation took the character of an economic adventure”. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 38.)
To safeguard and entrench itself as a privileged caste, the Stalinist bureaucracy was forced to lean on the workers to smash the incipient bourgeois counter-revolution. Armed detachments were now sent into the countryside to release the grain stocks to feed the cities. The Stalinists veered from opportunism to an ultra-left position. This led to the insane policy of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” and the complete collectivisation of agriculture “at the earliest possible date”. As a consequence, the proportion of collective farms rose in 1929 from 1.7 per cent to 3.9 per cent. In 1930 it increased dramatically to 23.6 per cent, in 1931 to 52.7 per cent, in 1932 to 61.5 per cent, in 1933 to 64.4 per cent, in 1934 to 71.4 per cent, in 1935 to 83.2 per cent, and in 1936 to 89.6 per cent. The percentage of crop area collectivised rose from 33.6 per cent in 1930 to 94.1 per cent in 1935.
The methods used by Stalin to collectivise the peasantry had nothing in common with the ideas of Lenin. “They collectivised not only horses, cows, sheep, pigs, but even new-born chickens,” noted Trotsky. “They ‘dekulakised,’ as one foreign observer wrote, ‘down to the felt shoes, which they dragged from the feet of little children.’ As a result, there was an epidemic selling of cattle for a song by the peasants, or a slaughter of cattle for meat and hides.” (Ibid., p. 39.) By 1932 grain production fell by nearly 250 million hundredweights; sugar beet fell by half; the number of horses by 55 per cent; horned cattle fell by 40 per cent; the number of pigs by 55 per cent; and sheep by 66 per cent. “Stock was slaughtered every night in Gremyachy Log. Hardly had dusk fallen when the muffled, short bleats of sheep, the death-squeals of pigs, or the lowing of calves could be heard,” writes Sholokhov in Virgin Soil Upturned. “Both those who had joined the kolkhoz and individual farmers filled their stock. Bulls, sheep, pigs, even cows were slaughtered, as well as cattle for breeding. The horned stock of Gremyachy was halved in two nights.” (Quoted in Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 174.)
The human and economic consequences were appalling. Millions perished in the ensuing famine. The death-toll for the period 1931-33 has been estimated at around seven million. Unlike 1921, there was no relief for the starving. In fact, the existence of the famine was officially denied. Victor Kravchenko, then an officer in the GPU, recalls the position:
“I will not tell you about the dead,” she said. “I’m sure you know. The half-dead, the nearly-dead are even worse. There are hundreds of people in Petrovo bloated with hunger. I don’t know how many will die every day. Many are so weak that they no longer come out of their houses. A wagon goes around now and then to pick up the corpses. We’ve eaten everything we could lay our hands on – cats, dogs, field mice, birds – when it’s light tomorrow you will see the trees have been stripped of their bark, for that too has been eaten. And the horse manure has been eaten.” I must have looked startled and unbelieving. “Yes, the horse manure. We fight over it. Sometimes there are whole grains in it.” (Victor Kravchenko, I Chose Freedom, p. 67.)
Part of this insane collectivisation were measures to liquidate “the kulaks as a class”. According to N. Ivnitsky roughly 300,000 kulak households were deported. (Quoted in Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 167.) The whole of agriculture was reduced to a state of acute crisis. The bureaucracy was forced to beat a disorderly retreat. Consequently, they were forced to grant the peasantry, alongside the collective farms, small personal farm holdings. Nevertheless, Soviet agriculture was never fully able to recover from this debacle. This was a terrible consequence of the bureaucratic commandism of the Stalinist regime.
On the industrial front, Stalin also ordered a complete about change in policy. The Stalin- Bukharin policy of slow, cautious growth of industry was abandoned. Industrialisation was now placed on the order of the day. Industrial growth was to be achieved a breakneck speed. In December 1929, a Congress of ‘shock brigades’ adopted a call to fulfil the Five-Year Plan in four years. On the 4th February 1931 Stalin spoke of fulfilling the plan “in three years in all the basic, decisive branches of industry”. In the same speech, he declared: “It is sometimes asked whether it is possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible. The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it…” As Trotsky said: “All the old criteria were turned upside down; minuses and pluses changed place.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 36.)
This dramatic shift to the left created confusion amongst a layer of the scattered forces of the Left Opposition. Since 1928 the leading group of the Opposition had been separated through exile from one another by enormous distances. A mood of conciliation and capitulation developed amongst a layer of the former Oppositionists. First of all, Zinoviev and Kamenev recanted their ‘errors’, then others, like Radek and Preobrazhensky, followed suit. Trotsky condemned these actions as a betrayal, as they could not further the aims of reforming the Party or the Soviet Union. Commenting on these capitulations, he observed: “Revolution is a mighty devourer of people.” A layer had been worn out in the stormy events of the previous decade and more. Trotsky stood out firmly against this mood: “A capitulation of the Opposition would mean: (a) condemning ourselves to a Zinovievist vegetable existence – nature knows no more shameful state, and (b) an immediate swerving of the Stalinists to the right.” (Trotsky, Writings 1929, p. 136.) In any case, this capitulation of former Oppositionists did not save them. Most were framed and shot by Stalin as ‘enemies of the Soviet Union’ between 1936 and 1938.
In assessing what had happened, Trotsky commented:
The bureaucracy conquered something more than the Left Opposition. It conquered the Bolshevik Party. It defeated the programme of Lenin… not with ideas and arguments, but with its own social weight. The leaden rump of the bureaucracy outweighed the head of the revolution. That is the secret of the Soviet’s Thermidor. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p. 94.)
With supreme confidence in the working class, he concluded:
We regret nothing and repudiate nothing. We are living with the same ideas and attitudes that moved us in the days of October 1917. We can see beyond these temporary difficulties. No matter how much the river bends, it flows to the ocean. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, p. 369.)
On the 5th September 1929, the principle of one-man management was introduced. The factory party organisation was told not to interfere with the director’s powers whereas the trade unions were to be “the energetic organisers of production activity and of the initiative of the labouring masses”. A series of decrees between 1930 and 1933 punished absenteeism with the sack and eviction from factory housing. On the 21st November 1931, the working-week was lengthened, which eliminated Sunday as a regular day of rest. Resources were channelled away from consumption to investment in heavy industry. Those who stood against the wildly exaggerated norms of production were denounced as Menshevik saboteurs. At the end of 1930 and early in 1931 two big trials – based upon false confessions – were held concerning economic sabotage and wrecking activities. A large number were shot.
The new ultra-left zig-zag now led to economic adventurism, and a drive in the 1930s to build ‘communism’ within the confines of the USSR. Draconian methods were used to catch up as rapidly as possible with the West. Stalin declared: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years.” This adventurist aim wrought havoc in the economy.
In January 1931, Stalin declared that the first Five-Year Plan had been completed in four years and three months. But the dash for growth hit deep crisis in 1933, as limits and bottlenecks were encountered throughout the economy. Agricultural production had reached its lowest point. Living standards suffered as a consequence. By 1934 things began to partially recover. Despite this dislocation, during the first Five-Year Plan about 1,500 big enterprises had been constructed. These included the Dneproges, the Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsk metallurgical complexes, the Ural machine factory, the Rostov agricultural-machinery plant, tractor factories at Chelyabinsk, Stalingrad, and Kharkov, car factories in Moscow and Sormovo, the Ural chemical works, the Kramatorsk factory of heavy machinery, and so on.
“Whatever the validity of certain official claims,” says Alec Nove, “it remains true beyond question that the second Five-Year Plan period was one of impressive achievement.” (Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, p. 231.) In 1932, 338 million roubles’ worth of machine tools were imported, which represented 78 per cent of all machine tools installed that year. By 1937, however, all the basic tools of industrialisation, and of arms production, were made in the Soviet Union. The economic growth between 1935-36 was considerable. In 1934 gross industrial output rose by 19 per cent, in 1935 by 23 per cent, and in 1936 by 29 per cent. Agricultural production also steadily recovered.
New sectors of industry were established that never existed before, such as machine tools, car and tractor manufacturing, a chemical industry, motor works, aircraft factories, production of turbines and generators, high grade steel, ferrous alloys, synthetic rubber, artificial fibres, nitrogen, and other products. The construction of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of railroad and canals were undertaken. The eastern part of the country became the second metallurgical and oil centre of Soviet industry. Hundreds of new cities and settlements were founded. In the following years, while the capitalist world was paralysed by the worst slump in history, the USSR took giant strides forward.
The Stalin regime brought in piecework, and its corollary, the shock brigades of the Stakhanovite movement to increase the productivity of labour. New higher work norms were introduced across the board. In early 1936, norms were sharply increased by 30-40 per cent in engineering, 34 per cent in chemicals, 51 per cent in electricity generation, 26 per cent in coal mining, and 25-29 per cent in oil production. At the same time the Stalin regime proclaimed the “final and irrevocable triumph of socialism”. Piecework, described by Marx as “the most suitable to capitalistic methods of production”, was hailed as socialist piecework! It was applied in its most naked form and provoked bitter resentment in the Russian working class.
State ownership of the means of production does not turn manure into gold, and does not surround with a halo of sanctity the sweat-shop system, which wears out the greatest of all productive forces: man. As to the preparation of a ‘transition from socialism to communism’ that will begin at the exactly opposite end – not with the introduction of piecework payment, but its abolition as a relic of barbarism. (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 82-3.)
Only during the second Five-Year Plan did real wages begin to rise. Bread rationing was abolished from the 1st January 1935, and by October, the rationing of meat, fats, fish, sugar, and potatoes was also abandoned. In January 1936, rationing of industrial products for general consumption was also dropped. Money relations – after a period of chronic inflation – were restored. Also in 1935, the system of planned distribution gave way to trade. Bread and flour prices were reduced. In 1937, the average price of all non-food items fell by 3.8 per cent. According to Malafeyev, the retail price index rose by 80 per cent between 1932-37, while average wages rose by 113 per cent. Allowing for services, he concludes that real wages rose in this period by “at least 20 per cent”.
Alec Nove believes the increase was even greater given the greater availability of goods and better trading arrangements. Nevertheless, although life improved it was still very grim as real wages still trailed below the level of 1928. The comments of Stalin, “life has become easier, life has become happier, and when life is happy then work goes fast”, were an obviously exaggerated view of Soviet life. However, in marked contrast to the capitalist West, unemployment was abolished. In fact, the economic advance gave rise to a shortage of labour, which was overcome by millions of peasants entering Russian industry.
Increased social divisions
Stalinism meant the obliteration of basic workers’ rights – the right to strike, organise, freedom of speech, etc. – that exist in the ‘democracies’ of the capitalist West. Political counter-revolution had already begun in 1924 with the intrigues of Stalin and his domination of the Party and state apparatus. However, it was a protracted process. The old cadres of the revolution were gradually eliminated and replaced by the all-powerful bureaucracy. By the early 1930s, the defeat of the Left and then the Right Oppositions cleared the way for the complete domination by the Stalinist faction. “The Jacobins have been pushed out by the Thermidorians and Bonapartists,” Trotsky wrote. “Bolsheviks have been supplanted by Stalinists.”
From 1932 to 1947 no trade union congresses were held in the USSR. The trade unions were transformed into mere appendages of the state. The soviets had long ago changed into organs of bureaucratic rule. Stalin drew up a new constitution in 1936 and hailed it the “most democratic” in the world. On the eve of the 1937 general elections, Stalin declared: “Never before – no, really never – has the world ever seen elections so completely free, and so truly democratic! History has recorded no other example of the kind.” (J. V. Stalin, Speeches at Pre-election Meetings of the Stalin Election District in Moscow Province. 11th December 1937 and 9th February 1946 (Russian), Moscow 1946, p. 5. Quoted by T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, p. 121.) However, this ‘democratic’ constitution did not prevent the rigging of all elections with the CP candidate getting around 99.9 per cent of the votes. At one election to the local soviets on 21st December 1947, Stalin polled 2,122 votes, despite the fact that the constituency only had 1,617 voters! This was explained by Pravda the following day: “The extra ballot papers were put into the urns by citizens of neighbouring constituencies anxious to seize the opportunity to express their gratitude to their leaders.”! (Ibid., p. 121.)
Blatant ballot rigging was clearly revealed in the referendum in Lithuania on the 12th July 1940 concerning the union of Lithuania with the USSR. Through bungling, Moscow announced the result after the first day of a two-day referendum! As one commentator explained: “It was an unfortunate slip by which a London newspaper published the official results from a Russian news agency twenty-four hours before the polls were officially closed.” (Ibid, p. 122.)
The bureaucracy, with Stalin at its head, was consolidating its hold over power. By the mid-1930s, the bureaucracy had secured for itself a privileged and powerful position far greater than any other bureaucracy in history. Using the whip of bureaucratic commandism, and its auxiliary in the Stakhanovite movement, the productivity of labour as a whole rose substantially in these years. This propelled industry forward, but it also provided greater privileges for the bureaucracy. The increase of production “on the basis of commodity circulation, means at the same time a growth of inequality”, noted Trotsky. “The rise in the prosperity of the commanding strata is beginning to exceed by far the rise in the standard of living of the masses. Along with an increase of state wealth goes a process of new social differentiation.” (Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 115-6.) While rationing was abolished, and real wages increased for the majority, the privileges of the bureaucracy grew enormously. With economic growth came, not growing equality, but increased social division. There thus occurred a division not only between the workers and bureaucracy, but also between the lower and higher paid workers.
As the economy leapt forward, the wages and perks of top officials grew much faster than the real wages of the workers. Some bureaucrats held several positions, thereby drawing several salaries. A system of subsidies for officials was also introduced from the level of chairman of a city soviet upwards. As Marx explained, on the basis of “generalised want”, the struggle for existence threatens to revive “all the old crap”. Under the Stalin regime, this took an aggravated form. “Always and in every regime,” notes Trotsky, “the bureaucracy devours no small portion of the surplus value.”
The rule preventing Communist Party officials receiving more than a skilled worker (the ‘party maximum’) was formally abolished on the 8th February 1932. The bureaucracy was eager to share in the growing surplus produced by the labour of the Russian working class. It devoured, wasted and embezzled a considerable proportion of the national income. A small group of top officials were receiving privileges as early as the first Five-Year Plan by the creation of a system of special shops, distributing centres and dining-rooms, where goods could be obtained at fixed prices – a great privilege in a period of high inflation. Other privileges were gradually built up: special hospitals, holiday homes, dachas, etc. Extra perks were also received by Party officials for conferences, congresses and so on. As parasites, the bureaucracy sought a bigger and bigger share of the national wealth. To prevent collapse, this corruption had to be curtailed or limited in order to preserve the well-being of the bureaucratic caste as a whole. This was the role of the chief arbiter, Stalin.
Before the Second World War, Trotsky calculated that the Soviet bureaucracy – made up of the officials of the state apparatus, the party, trade unions, co-operatives and the military-industrial complex – together with their families and dependants, constituted as many as 20-25 million people, which was 12-15 per cent of the population. However, the bureaucracy was not a homogeneous grouping, unlike the proletariat or peasantry. The ruling caste in the proper sense of the word, was likely to be made up of around 500,000 persons, resting upon a “heavy administrative pyramid with a broad and many-faceted foundation”. It was a heterogeneous grouping ranging from Kremlin dignitaries to local Party and state officials. Trotsky was very careful not to describe these parasitic strata as a new social class.
Exiled to Alma-Ata and then expelled from the borders of the Soviet Union, Leon Trotsky undertook the organisation of an international Left Opposition to continue the defence of the ideas and traditions of Bolshevism. In order to defeat Stalinism, it became essential to define and understand the nature of the bureaucratic reaction within the Soviet Union. With the degeneration of the Comintern, Trotsky devoted the remainder of his life to organising and theoretically rearming the young revolutionary cadres of the Marxist movement. At a time when the world was mesmerised by the startling advances of the Soviet Union under the original Five-Year Plans, Trotsky was the only one to provide an exhaustive scientific analysis of Stalinism. For this achievement alone, his place in history as one of the great pioneers of Marxist thought would be guaranteed. Yet he did not immediately arrive at a fully-fledged conclusion. This flowed from the nature of the phenomenon itself. The bureaucratic degeneration did not take place overnight. It was a contradictory process, which unfolded over a period of more than a decade. This explains the on-going nature of Trotsky’s evaluation of Stalinism. Scrupulously following the dialectical method, he carefully charted all the twists and turns, laying bare at each stage the contradictory tendencies, and showing how the process was likely to unfold.
In their drive against ‘Trotskyism’ from 1924 onwards, the Stalinists carried through a purge of the Communist Parties internationally in the name of Bolshevisation. These organisational methods had caused splits and divisions in all the national sections. It resulted in a layer of members and ex-members of the Communist Parties who opposed Stalinism moving in all kinds of political directions. Some moved towards Menshevism and accepted that capitalism had been restored in Russia. Others defined it as ‘state capitalism’ or some kind of new exploitative society, which for them meant the total eradication of the Soviet regime. Others simply renounced the revolutionary movement altogether. Trotsky took issue with these ‘new’ theories which abandoned the USSR as a workers’ state. Such ideas even began to surface within the international Left Opposition itself, reflecting the prevailing moods of pessimism and despair in the face of the apparently irresistible advance of the Stalinist political counter-revolution. Trotsky, in an article written in 1929, entitled Defence of the Soviet Republic and the Opposition, took up sharply a leading German Oppositionist, Hugo Urbahns, for misinterpreting his views on the class nature of the Soviet state and asserting that the capitalist counter-revolution had been completed and everything had been lost. Trotsky argued that, while a degeneration had taken place, the basic gains of the revolution were still intact:
We fight against the Stalinist course. But Soviet Russia is something quite different from Stalin. Despite all the degeneration, which we fight and will continue to fight most resolutely, so long as the class-conscious workers are armed, Soviet Russia remains for us a proletarian state, which we defend unconditionally in our own interests, in peace as in war, in spite of Stalin, and precisely in order to defeat Stalin, who is incapable of defending it with his policy. Whoever is not absolutely firm on this question of the proletarian character of Soviet Russia hurts the proletariat, hurts the revolution, hurts the Communist Left Opposition. (Trotsky, Writings 1929, pp. 284-5.)
Trotsky at that time described the Soviet bureaucracy as a form of bureaucratic centrism, reflecting Stalin’s shift from left to right and back again. It reflected the attempts of the bureaucracy to regulate the antagonisms in Soviet society, between the workers’ state and world imperialism, but in an increasingly Bonapartist manner. For Trotsky, the task facing the Left Opposition was not to form another party, but to fight for the reform of the Communist Party as a faction within it; and to struggle not for a new revolution, but for reform of the USSR. This position was staunchly defended by the International Left Opposition up until 1933, when events in Germany forced Trotsky to re-evaluate his position. He regarded the catastrophe in Germany, culminating in the victory of Hitler, as the historical equivalent of the betrayal of Social Democracy in August 1914. This time, the part played by the leaders of the German Communist Party and the Comintern was even more disastrous. With their mad policies of ‘Social Fascism’, and the so-called united front from below, the German Communist leaders, together with the miserable role of the Social-Democratic leaders, split the working-class movement and delivered it without a struggle into the hands of Fascism. The theory of ‘Social Fascism’ held that all political parties, with the exception of the Communist Party, were fascist. This idea was summed up in Stalin’s notorious phrase “objectively, Social Democracy and Fascism are not antipodes, but twins”.
Soviet foreign policy
Everywhere we issue the call for a world workers’ revolution… Russia will become mighty and abundant if she abandons all dejection and all phrasemaking, if, with clenched teeth, she musters all her forces and strains every nerve and muscle, if she realises that salvation lies only along the road of world socialist revolution upon which we have set out.
( Lenin, LCW, Vol. 27, pp. 160-1.)
Howard: Does this statement of yours mean that the Soviet Union has to any degree abandoned its plans and intentions to bring about a world revolution?
Stalin: We never had any such plans or intentions.
Howard: You appreciate, no doubt Mr Stalin, that much of the world has long entertained a different impression?
Stalin: This is the product of misunderstanding.
Howard: A tragic misunderstanding?
Stalin: No, comic. Or perhaps tragicomic…
(Roy Howard, Stalin interview, Communist International, March/April 1936.)
US right-wing forces and propaganda portray our interest in Latin America as an intention to engineer a series of socialist revolutions there. Nonsense! The way we have behaved for decades proves that we don’t plan anything of the kind.
(Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika – New Thinking for Our Country and the World, pp. 187-8.)
Foreign policy is the continuation of domestic policy. When the Bolsheviks came to power their whole perspective was based upon the world revolution. The key issue was to hold out for as long as possible, while promoting the socialist revolution abroad. Immediately the Soviet government issued a decree for peace without annexations. This appeal, in the words of Lenin, “must be addressed both to the governments and to the peoples. We cannot ignore the governments, for that would delay the possibility of concluding peace, and the people’s government dare not do that”. (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 252.) And he added: “Nor must our proposal for an armistice have the form of an ultimatum, for we shall not give our enemies an opportunity of concealing the whole truth from the peoples, using our irreconcilability as a pretext.” (LCW, Vol. 29, p. 256.)
As a consequence, the Russian Revolution sent a wave of revolutionary fervour through the ranks of the working class throughout the world. To the war-weary, disillusioned and embittered masses, it came as a message of hope, of inspiration and courage, it showed the way out of the bloody chaos into which capitalism had plunged society.
However, Soviet Russia was surrounded by hostile powers, and was forced into a humiliating peace with German imperialism at Brest-Litovsk. Soon afterwards, the Soviet republic was faced with civil war and foreign intervention sent to crush her. However, by November 1918, revolution had broken out in Germany. The Soviet government had received the message: “Greetings of peace and freedom to all. Berlin and the surrounding districts are in the hands of the Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies…” As soon as the news of the German Revolution reached Russia there were spontaneous demonstrations, which were described by Karl Radek:
From every corner of the city demonstrations were marching towards the Moscow Soviet… Tens of thousands of workers burst into wild cheering. Never have I seen anything like it again. Until late evening workers and Red Army soldiers were filing past. The world revolution had come. (Karl Radek, The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power, p. 35.)
Lenin wrote to Trotsky and Sverdlov that:
The international revolution has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days… We are all ready to die to help the German workers advance the revolution which has begun in Germany. In conclusion: (1) Ten times more effort to secure grain (clean out all stocks for ourselves and for the German workers). (2) Ten times more enrolments for the army. We must have by the spring an army of three million to help the international workers’ revolution. (LCW, Vol. 28, pp. 364-5.)
The breakdown of imperialism and capitalism was signalled by revolutions in Germany, Austria, Hungary, revolutionary situations in Italy, France and even in Britain. Unfortunately, the German Revolution was derailed by the Social-Democratic leaders who conspired with the Junkers and capitalists to destroy the revolution, and handed back power from the workers to the capitalists. This was to result in a series of bloody defeats for the German workers and the murder of its two finest representatives, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. A Soviet Republic was declared in Bavaria and in Hungary but was defeated by the counter-revolution. Social Democracy saved capitalism. The powerful trade union and socialist bureaucracies placed themselves at the head of the upsurge of the masses to divert it into harmless channels.
But precisely because of the breakdown of international socialism in the Second International, which had betrayed Marxism, the new Third Communist International was formed in March 1919, in Moscow, made up of groups which supported the Bolshevik Revolution. Its declared aims and objectives were the overthrow of world capitalism and the construction of a world chain of united Soviet Socialist Republics to join up with the USSR; which itself was not conceived as an independent entity but merely as the base for the world revolution. Its fate would be determined and was bound up with the fate of the world revolution. The revolutionary wave that swept across Europe, through Austria to Italy, France and Britain, gave rise to great expectations of the workers coming to power elsewhere. The spectre of revolution hung all over Europe. The memoirs and writings of nearly all the capitalist politicians of that time bear witness to the despair and the lack of confidence of the bourgeoisie in the face of developing revolution. In Italy, by 1920, the workers had seized the factories. Instead of leading the workers to the conquest of power, the Socialist Party bade them cease this ‘unconstitutional’ procedure. So it was throughout Europe.
The failure of the revolution outside of Russia was primarily due to the betrayals of the old leaders and also the weakness of the Communist Parties and groups that existed. Only in 1920, after the formation of the Third International, did mass Communist Parties emerge in Germany, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia, out of the splits and turmoil within the traditional mass organisations. Yet, compared to the Russians, these parties were very young and inexperienced. This led to tragic mistakes in the period 1920-23. Many of these newly formed parties suffered from ultra-leftism and sectarianism. In 1920, Lenin was forced to take issue with these ‘childish’ illnesses at the Second Congress of the Comintern, and also wrote a work on this question entitled “Left Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder.
The resolutions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International forged in the years 1919-22 are a worked out set of strategy and tactics with which to guide the communist movement. The success of the world revolution seemed to be assured by the development of events. Everything was in place for the impending revolutionary wave. However, the correct positions of Lenin were undone by Zinoviev and Stalin. Their bureaucratic policies had a particularly disastrous effect in Germany, where the Communist Party leadership was disoriented by the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919. First Paul Levy took charge. Levy displayed opportunist leanings which were bitterly criticised by the Party’s ultra-left wing (Ruth Fischer and Arkadi Maslow). Lenin and Trotsky were also critical of Levy, but defended him against the ‘Lefts’. They never had the policy of bureaucratically removing leaders, even when they made mistakes. Lenin once warned Bukharin that “if you want obedience, you will get obedient fools”. They preferred to educate the membership through patient explanation, discussion and friendly criticism.
When, against Lenin’s advice, the ‘Lefts’ finally removed Levy, and the latter moved to the right, Lenin commented: “Well, he lost his head. But he had a head to lose.” His scepticism of the new ‘left’ leadership was soon shown to be correct. In March 1921, under Fischer and Maslow, the inexperienced German Communist Party embarked on an ill-prepared insurrection with no mass support, which culminated in a heavy defeat for the Communists. The so-called revolutionary offensive of the ‘March Action’ led to the loss of 200,000 members and the isolation of the Party. As a result of this debacle, Lenin and Trotsky had to open up a sharp struggle with the ultra-lefts who defended this adventure, for such actions, if they were allowed to continue, would have wrecked the communist movement. In place of impatience and adventurism, the Communists needed to ‘patiently explain’, and win the majority of the working class to its side. Pursuing his usual methods, Zinoviev had Fischer and Maslow removed and replaced by the ‘Rights’, Brandler and Thalheimer. Instead of attempting to re-educate both the party and the leadership in the course of common action and discussion, these Zinovievite methods of manoeuvres and the use of the apparatus to ‘solve’ inner party disputes had the effect of demoralising sections of the Party and disorienting the leadership.
German Revolution 1923
The world war had not solved any of the problems of world capitalism. In fact, it had aggravated them. Capitalism had broken at its weakest link. The attempts to destroy the young Soviet Republic by the wars of intervention had completely failed. German capitalism, the mightiest in Europe, found itself stripped of its assets and resources, part of its territory, burdened with staggering reparations payments, and generally placed in an impossible position. British and French imperialists, the ‘victors’ in the war, fundamentally, were not in a much better position. Encouraged by the Russian Revolution, the colonial and semi-colonial masses were stirring and preparing to revolt. The masses at home were restless and uneasy and the economic position of Anglo-French imperialism had worsened considerably in comparison with that of Japanese and American capitalism. It was against this international background that the crisis broke out in Germany in 1923. Germany, with her high productive capacity, was crippled by the restrictions imposed by Versailles and had now become the weakest link in the chain of world capitalism. The failure of Germany to pay the instalments on the reparations resulted in the French capitalists marching into the Ruhr. This helped to complete the collapse of the German economy, and the German bourgeoisie endeavoured to unload the burdens onto the shoulders of the working and middle classes. This produced an acute crisis and a growing revolutionary situation throughout the country.
The success of revolution does not depend exclusively upon the objective conditions which exist in a country at a given time. It also depends crucially on the existence of what Marxists call the subjective factor – a mass revolutionary party with a clear-sighted and determined leadership. Old Engels long ago explained that, at times, a single day can seem like 20 years, whereas at other times, the history of 20 years can be summed up in 24 hours. That is to say, it can take decades for a revolutionary situation to develop, but the opportunity can be lost in a few days, unless the revolutionary leadership is prepared to take advantage of the moment. If they fail, the revolutionary opportunity may take decades to return. There are good reasons for this, which are evident for anyone who thinks about them for a moment. How does it come about that a tiny handful of exploiters can impose its rule over millions of men and women? The capitalist system does not usually have to resort to violence to maintain itself (although it will use the most brutal means if necessary). The secret consists in the tremendous force of habit and routine which predominates in ‘normal’ periods. The masses become habituated to the life of slavery and submission to their ‘betters’ from the moment they become conscious. This ‘normality’ is sanctioned by religion, morality, law and custom, and is not questioned by the overwhelming majority, who regard it as something eternal and natural. Only in certain critical moments, when great events shake the masses out of their torpor, do they begin to free themselves from the dead hand of custom and begin to seek a way out along new and untried paths. Such periods are exceptional by their very nature.
For this reason, it is necessary to prepare the revolutionary party in advance. It is not possible to improvise it on the spur of the moment. This, in essence, is the message of Trotsky’s book Lessons of October, written in 1924, with the aim of acquainting the cadres of the young Communist Parties, especially the German party, with the real experience of Bolshevism in 1917. The Russian Revolution was not an exception. True, like every revolution, it had certain concrete peculiarities. True, it took place in a backward country, very unlike industrialised Germany or Britain. But there are many features that are common to all revolutions, and this means that parallels can be drawn and lessons learned. If the Russian Revolution demonstrates the correctness of Bolshevism positively, the German events of 1923 demonstrate the same thing, only negatively. In both cases the leadership played the decisive role. But whereas the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky led the Russian workers to victory, the German CP leaders, acting on advice from Stalin and Zinoviev, led the revolution to defeat.
In 1923, the collapse of the Mark and the seizure of the Rhineland by the armies of French imperialism gave rise to a revolutionary situation in Germany. Had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht not been murdered in 1919, there is little doubt that they would have provided the necessary leadership to ensure the victory of the working class. This assertion may seem paradoxical, given the fact that Rosa Luxemburg always insisted on the central role of the spontaneous self-movement of the proletariat in the revolution. In reality, there is no contradiction. Even the stormiest mass movement requires organisation and leadership in order to overcome the power of the bourgeois state and transform society. The events of 1923 are the clearest proof of this. In the absence of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, there was a crisis of leadership in the German party. The subsequent chopping and changing, in which the Communist International under Zinoviev’s inspiration played a most harmful role, effectively beheaded the party. The policy of removing leaders who were out of favour with Moscow set a very bad precedent, which was later used to Stalinise the Communist International and, ultimately, destroy it. It was entirely alien to the methods of Bolshevism. The workers had no possibility of learning by experience, of debating the issues, and deciding for themselves which leaders were right and which wrong. This process is necessarily slow. It takes years and decades to develop cadres and allow a genuine revolutionary leadership to emerge. But there is no other way. This was just how the Bolshevik Party developed over a long preparatory period before 1917. They also made all kinds of mistakes. But through mistakes – provided they are honestly admitted and evaluated – one learns and develops. By bureaucratic manoeuvres and the attempt to establish the infallibility of the leadership, it will not be possible to build a genuine revolutionary party even in a thousand years.
By these means, Zinoviev and his supporters completely undermined the German leadership. The result was that, when the revolutionary wave broke in 1923, they were disoriented. Brandler went to Moscow to seek advice on what to do. Here accident played a role. Both Lenin and Trotsky were ill, and unable to see him. He was met instead by Stalin and Zinoviev, who gave him completely wrong advice. Repeating his error of October 1917, when he and Kamenev opposed the insurrection, Zinoviev expressed his open scepticism about revolutionary prospects in Germany. As always, the verbal radicalism of people with bureaucratic tendencies is only the reverse side of their innate conservatism and distrust of the masses. Zinoviev urged caution, and, in effect, advised the Germans to do nothing. Stalin was even more crudely opportunist. He differed from Zinoviev only in that he was not even interested in the problems of the German Revolution, which was only a distraction from his manoeuvres in the apparatus. Narrow minded and parochial, he had a deep-seated contempt for the workers of Western Europe, who he believed would never make a revolution. With his organic opportunism, Stalin urged the German party not to take any action. His advice to the German leaders was astonishing – “Let the fascists try first!”
The leadership of the International and the German party failed to stand up to the test and take advantage of the opportunity. Success in Germany would inevitably have led to victory throughout Europe. But as in Russia in 1917, so in Germany of 1923, sections of the leadership vacillated. Brandler and the German leadership were in effect restrained by Stalin, Radek and Zinoviev. They dismissed Trotsky’s proposal for a schedule for an insurrection and blundered into a belated and botched attempt to take power that turned into a fiasco. Because of this, the opportunity was allowed to slip, and the German Revolution was aborted. Alarmed and scandalised, Trotsky wrote The Lessons of October in an attempt to get the leaders of the Communist Parties to draw the necessary conclusions from the German events. But the Stalin-Zinoviev-Kamenev clique, which, behind the scenes, was jockeying for power, could not accept an honest discussion of the German events which would damage its prestige. Trotsky’s work was taken as the signal for a furious onslaught against so-called Trotskyism, and its central message was buried under a mountain of slander and abuse. The methods of Lenin were already being substituted for the alien methods of a commanding bureaucracy which demands uncritical acceptance of its ‘all-seeing’ leadership and Papal infallibility.
Socialism in one country
The defeat reinforced the bureaucratic reaction in Russia. With Lenin dying, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev intrigued against Trotsky. These moves simply served to reinforce Stalin’s position and strengthen the grip of the bureaucracy. Never particularly interested in the broader international perspectives, Stalin now became increasingly sceptical about the prospects of international revolution. This began to manifest itself in the Soviet Union with the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, the shift to the right in economic policy and the pandering to the kulaks and NEPmen. This ‘theory’ sprang directly from the defeat which the revolution had suffered in Germany. It indicated a turning away from the principles of revolutionary internationalism on which the Russian Revolution had been based and on which the Third International was founded.
At that time, Stalin had not the slightest notion of where the theory of socialism in one country would lead the Soviet Union and the Comintern. The transition from the policy of world revolution to that of socialism in one country expressed a sharp turn to the right in the Comintern. The young and immature leaders of the International were quickly brought under the control of the Stalin clique in the Kremlin which cynically used them as agents of its foreign policy. Those who showed resistance were purged.
In 1928, Leon Trotsky predicted that the acceptance by the Communist International of the theory of socialism in one country could mark the beginning of a process which would inevitably culminate in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world – whether in or out of power. In a brilliant prediction, Trotsky warned the leaders of the Communist Parties:
If it is at all possible to realise socialism in one country, then one can believe in that theory not only after but also before the conquest of power. If socialism can be realised within the national boundaries of backward Russia, then there is all the more reason to believe that it can be realised in advanced Germany. Tomorrow the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany will undertake to propound the theory. The draft programme empowers them to do so. The day after tomorrow the French party will have its turn. It will be the beginning of the degeneration of the Comintern along the lines of social patriotism. (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, p. 73.)
Foreign policy became dominated by Stalin, who had lost complete confidence in the working class internationally, and was desperate to find allies to “defend the Soviet Union from attack”. The Comintern was already being reduced to the role of a border guard and the passive tool of Moscow’s foreign policy. In regard to the Chinese Revolution during 1925-27, where millions were being stirred into action in Asia, the Comintern, instead of relying on the workers and peasants to carry through the revolution, as was the Leninist policy in Russia, preferred to subordinate itself to the Chinese capitalists and generals around Chiang Kai-shek in the nationalist Guomindang. Stalin described the Guomindang as a revolutionary “bloc of four classes”. In early 1926, it was admitted as a member of the Communist International. Chiang was elected, against the solitary vote of Trotsky, an honorary member of the Executive Committee of the Comintern. The Left Opposition warned about the consequences of this Menshevik policy. The Chinese Communist Party was the sole workers’ party and had a dominating influence over the working class; the peasantry was looking towards the example of Russia to show them the way out of their centuries-long suffering at the hands of the landlords, through the seizure of the land.
Under Stalin’s orders, and for fear of alienating the capitalists and landlords of the Guomindang, the Chinese Communists were prevented from putting themselves at the head of the agrarian revolution. The Comintern stubbornly refused to take the road of working class independence, which Lenin had insisted on as a prerequisite for communist policy in relation to the revolutionary-democratic and anti-imperialist revolutions in the East. On the 20th March 1926, the militarist leadership of the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek staged a counter-revolutionary coup. Chiang then proceeded to arrest leading Communists and trade unionists. In order to shield Stalin’s authority, all news of this right-wing coup was suppressed in the Soviet Union. Inprecor (the organ of the Third International at the time) dismissed the coup reports as “an invention of the imperialists”. Chiang staged a further coup in the revolutionary stronghold of Shanghai, carrying through a massacre of Communist workers. Only when the defeat of the revolution was complete did Stalin order a bloody insurrection in Canton – a pure adventure – that beheaded the proletarian vanguard. Stalin drew the conclusion that “Chiang Kai-shek’s coup is one of those zigzags in the course of the Chinese Revolution, one that was needed in order to cleanse the revolution of dross and to impel it forward…” (Stalin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 265.)
Meanwhile, a similar opportunist policy was pursued in Britain where the masses were undergoing a process of intense radicalisation. As a means of combating intervention against the Soviet Union the Russian trade unions entered into an agreement with the General Council of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to co-operate through an Anglo-Russian Committee. The tendency towards revolutionary developments in Britain is seen in the fact that a million members, a quarter of the trade union membership, were organised in the Minority Movement. Trotsky, analysing the situation in Britain, had predicted the outbreak of a general strike. The task of the Communist Party and the Communist International should have been to prepare the workers for the inevitability of a betrayal on the part of the trade union leadership. Instead, they sowed illusions in the minds of the workers, especially as the British trade union bureaucrats had covered themselves with the prestige of the Anglo-Russian Committee. After the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike by the trade union bureaucracy, Trotsky demanded that the Russian trade unions break off relations with the British TUC. This Stalin and the Comintern refused to do. After using the Anglo-Russian Committee for as long as they needed, more than a year after the General Strike, the British trade union leadership took the initiative to break off relations. The Comintern let out a howl that they had been betrayed.
The young British Communist Party should have increased its membership and influence by leaps and bounds as a result of these great events. Unfortunately, following the line of the International, it trailed behind the ‘lefts’ on the TUC General Council, who in turn, trailed behind the likes of right wingers, Citrine and Thomas. It was disoriented by the opportunist policy of the International, and proved unable to take advantage of the opportunities that had opened up. Their outlook was summed up by J. T. Murphy, a Central Committee member, who wrote on the eve of the strike:
Our party does not hold the leading positions in the trade unions. It is not conducting the negotiations with the employers and the government. It can only advise and place its forces at the service of the workers led by others… To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis and visions of new leadership ‘arising spontaneously in the struggle’, etc., is fantastic… (Quoted in The History of Communism in Britain, by Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse, p. 99. London, 1995.)
These defeats for the Communist International in China and Britain, due directly to the policy of Stalin and the bureaucracy, paradoxically, increased the power of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union. The Left Opposition led by Trotsky, which had correctly analysed and forecast these developments, was now expelled from the Communist Party and from the International.
The Third Period
Stalin had burned his fingers badly in his attempts to lean on the capitalist elements in China and to conciliate the trade union bureaucracy in Britain. Now he turned the Comintern sharply in the opposite direction. In violation of its statutes, the International had not held a conference for four years. A new Congress was called in 1928 which introduced officially the programme of socialism in one country into the programme of the Communist International. It also proclaimed the end of capitalist stability and the beginning of what was termed the ‘Third Period’. In contrast to the period of revolutionary upheavals following 1917 (the First Period), and the period of relative capitalist stability after 1923 (the Second Period), this so-called Third Period was supposed to usher in the final collapse of world capitalism. At the same time, Social Democracy, according to the once famous (but now buried) theory of Stalin, was supposed to have transformed itself into ‘Social Fascism’. No agreement was now possible between the Communists and the ‘social fascists’ who constituted the main danger confronting the working class.
It was just at this period that the unprecedented slump of 1929-33 affected the capitalist world. In particular, it hit Germany especially hard. Living standards collapsed. The German workers faced degradation and misery, while the middle classes were also ruined. Germany’s figures of unemployment rose steadily. At the peak, it reached six million. The middle class, having failed to receive anything from the revolution of 1918, and disappointed with the failure of the Communists in 1923 to take power, now in anguish and despair began to look for a solution to their problems in a different direction. Subsidised and financed by the capitalists, the Nazis began to secure a mass basis in Germany. In the elections of September 1930, they secured nearly six and a half million votes. The policies of Stalin had a disastrous effect in the Communist International. The lurch to the left in the USSR, expressed in the policy of forced collectivisation and the madness of ‘Five-Year Plans in four years’, found its reflection internationally in the ultra-left theory of the ‘Third Period’ and ‘Social Fascism’. This had the most terrible consequences in Germany, where it was directly responsible for splitting the working class and allowing Hitler to come to power without a fight.
The German working class was one of the strongest in the world, with powerful labour organisations and hundreds of thousands of workers organised in communist and socialist militias. The German Communist Party, together with the Social Democracy constituted the mightiest force in Germany. At the time of Hitler’s first big electoral advance in 1930, when the Nazis got six and a half million votes, the Communist Party had won four and a half million, and the Social Democracy eight and a half million – taken together, more than twice the Nazi’s. The combined strength of the Communist and Social-Democratic forces was more than sufficient to defeat the fascists, had they been united around a serious programme of struggle. Yet in 1933 Hitler could boast that he had come to power “without breaking a window pane”.
The reason for this monstrous state of affairs was the paralysis of the German proletariat as a result of the policies of both the Social-Democratic and Stalinist leaderships. In 1931, the Stalinists went so far as to form an unofficial united front with the Nazis to bring down the Social-Democratic government in Prussia (the so-called Red Referendum). At one point, they issued the slogan “Beat the little Scheidemanns in the school yard” – an invitation to the children of Communists to beat up those of the Social Democrats. Jan Valtin, at that time a Communist Party activist in Germany, recalled his experience of this policy:
It was a weird alliance, never officially proclaimed or recognised by either the Red or the Brown bureaucracy, but a grim fact all the same. Many of the simple Party members resisted stubbornly; too disciplined to denounce openly the Central Committee, they embarked on a silent campaign of passive resistance, if not sabotage. However, the most active and loyal communist elements – I among them – went ahead energetically to translate this latest Parteibefehl [Party order] into action. A temporary truce and a combining of forces were agreed on by the followers of Stalin and Hitler whenever they saw an opportunity to raid and break up meetings and demonstrations of the democratic front. During 1931 alone, I participated in dozens of such terroristic enterprises in concert with the rowdiest Nazi elements. I and my comrades simply followed Party orders. I shall describe a few of such enterprises to characterise this Dimitrov-Hitler alliance and to illustrate what was going on all over Germany at that time.
In the spring of 1931, the socialist Transport Workers’ Union had called a conference of ship and dock delegates of all the main ports of western Germany. The conference took place in the House of Labour in Bremen. It was public and the workers were invited to listen to the proceedings. The Communist Party sent a courier to the headquarters of the Nazi Party, with a request for co-operation in the blasting of the trade union conference. The Hitlerites agreed, as they always did in such cases. When the conference opened, the galleries were packed with two to three hundred Communists and Nazis. I was in charge of operations for the Communist Party and a storm troop leader named Walter Tidow – for the Nazis. In less than two minutes, we had agreed on a plan of action. As soon as the conference of the Social Democrats was well under way, I got up and launched a harangue from the gallery. In another part of the hall Tidow did the same. The trade union delegates were at first speechless. Then the chairman gave the order to eject the two troublemakers, me and Tidow, from the building. We sat quietly, derisively watching two squads of husky trade unionists advance toward us with the intention of throwing us out. We refused to budge. As soon as the first trade union delegate touched one of us, our followers rose and bedlam started. The furniture was smashed, the participants beaten and the hall turned into a shambles. We gained the street and scattered before ambulances and the Rollkommandos of the police arrived. The next day, both the Nazi and our own Party press brought out front page accounts of how ‘socialist’ workers, incensed over the ‘treachery’ of their own corrupt leaders had given them a thorough ‘proletarian rub-down’. (J. Valtin, Out of the Night, pp. 252-3.)
By these means, the mighty German working class was handed over, bound hand and foot, to the Nazis. The workers’ organisations were destroyed. Communists and Social Democrats alike ended up in Hitler’s concentration camps. And the USSR was placed in terrible danger. This was the balance sheet of the policy of ‘Social Fascism’.
Despite their expulsion from the Communist International, Trotsky and his followers still considered themselves as part of it, and insistently demanded that they be allowed to return to the ranks. At the same time, they subjected the suicidal theory which had now been adopted by the Comintern to sharp criticism. In place of it they demanded a return to the realistic Leninist policy of the United Front as a means of winning the masses in action and through their own experience, to communism. With the victory of Hitler at the polls Trotsky sounded the alarm. In a pamphlet entitled The Turn in the Communist International and the Situation in Germany, he issued a signal for a campaign, which was carried on for three years by the International Left Opposition of the Comintern, as the Trotskyists looked on themselves. In Germany, France, USA, Britain, in faraway South Africa, and in all countries where they had groups, the Trotskyists conducted a campaign demanding that the German Communist Party set into motion a campaign for a united front with the Social Democrats to prevent Hitler from coming to power.
The victory of Hitler
At the direct instructions of Stalin and the Comintern, the German Communist Party denounced this policy as a counter-revolutionary ‘social fascist’ one. They insistently fought against Social Democracy as the main enemy of the working class and argued that there was no difference between democracy and fascism. In September 1930, the Rote Fahne, organ of the German Communist Party proclaimed: “Last night was Herr Hitler’s greatest day, but the so-called election victory of the Nazis is the beginning of the end.” Throughout these years, the Comintern continued its fatal course. As late as May 1932, the British Daily Worker could proudly indict the Trotskyists for their policy in Germany thus: “It is significant that Trotsky has come out in defence of a united front between the Communist and Social-Democratic Parties against Fascism. No more disruptive and counter-revolutionary class lead could possibly have been given at the time like the present.” Meanwhile Trotsky had written four pamphlets and dozens of articles and manifestos. Everywhere the international Trotskyists explored every avenue to exert pressure on the Comintern to change its policy. In vain. In January 1933 Hitler was able to take power without any organised opposition whatsoever in a country with the most highly organised working class and with the strongest Communist Party outside of Russia. For the first time in history, reaction was permitted to conquer power without any resistance on the part of the working class.
By this betrayal, the German Communist Party was doomed forever. But the Comintern was far from recognising the nature of the catastrophe. Instead it solemnly endorsed the policy of the German Communist Party and of the International as having been perfectly correct. Rather than recognise the episode as a massive defeat for the German workers, the Comintern declared it a victory, with the slogan “After Hitler, Our Turn!” This provoked not a ripple of protest or opposition within the ranks of the Communist Parties internationally, so politically degenerate had they become. The only conclusion that could be drawn, as with the Second International in 1914, was that the Third (Communist) International was politically dead and could no longer be considered a vehicle for socialist revolution. In March 1933, Trotsky changed the perspectives for the reform of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Rather than fight for the reform of the German Communist Party, he now called for a new party to be built in Germany to replace the Communist Party. In July, Trotsky wrote:
With the further impotence of the Comintern, with the paralysis of the international proletarian vanguard, and, under those conditions, with the inevitable growth of world fascism, the victory of the counter-revolution in the USSR would be inevitable. Naturally, the Bolshevik-Leninists will continue their work in the USSR regardless of the conditions. But the workers’ state can be saved only by the intervention of the world revolutionary movement. In all of human history, the objective conditions for this regeneration and redevelopment have never been so favourable as now. What is lacking is the revolutionary party. The Stalinist clique can rule only by destroying the party, in the USSR as in the rest of the world. Escape from this vicious circle is possible only by breaking with the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is necessary to build in a fresh place, under a clean banner. (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, p. 21.)
An organisation which cannot learn from the lessons of history is doomed. As a force for world socialism, the Communist International was dead. The International Left Opposition broke away and proclaimed the necessity of a new International. But what was apparent to the vanguard who had abandoned the attempt to reform the Comintern, could not be apparent to the broad masses. Only great events could teach them. On the basis of these events Trotsky came to the conclusion that new revolutionary parties and a new Fourth International had to be built. This was a task to which he dedicated himself until his assassination by a Stalinist agent in August 1940.
In the Soviet Union, it became clear that the Stalinist bureaucracy had become increasingly independent from the working class. The last vestiges of workers’ control had been eliminated. Stalin had boasted that the “cadres could only be removed by civil war”. Quantity had changed into quality. This led Trotsky to the conclusion that the Stalinist counter-revolution had reached a new turning-point and that a new supplementary revolution – a political revolution – was needed to remove the bureaucracy and re-establish a regime of genuine workers’ democracy.
“After the experiences of the last few years, it would be childish to suppose that the Stalinist bureaucracy can be removed by means of a party or Soviet congress,” stated Trotsky. “In reality, the last congress of the Bolshevik Party took place at the beginning of 1923, the 12th Party Congress. All subsequent congresses were bureaucratic parades. Today, even such congresses have been discarded. No normal ‘constitutional’ ways remain to remove the ruling clique. The bureaucracy can be compelled to yield power into the hands of the proletarian vanguard only by force.” (Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, pp. 117-8.) He concluded: “What will be involved is not an armed insurrection against the dictatorship of the proletariat but the removal of a malignant growth upon it.” The previous position of reform of the party and Soviet state was now obsolete. This analysis was soon confirmed by the bloody experience of the Purges.
The Communist International continued to carry on this false policy right up to 1934. When the fascists in France, encouraged by the successes of fascism in Austria and Germany, conducted armed demonstrations for the overthrow of the Liberal government and parliament, the Communist Party issued orders to demonstrate with them. But now the full danger which Hitler represented to the Soviet Union was apparent to everyone. Stalin and the bureaucracy became panic-stricken. Contemptuous and cynical of the capacity of the Comintern as an instrument of world revolution, Stalin more openly converted it into an instrument of Russian foreign policy. An organisation in class society which ceases to represent the working class inevitably falls under the pressure and influence of the bourgeoisie. Stalin, in his search for allies, now turned to the bourgeoisie of Britain and France. The Popular Front policy was initiated and endorsed at the last Congress of the International held in 1935. This policy of coalition with the Liberal capitalists is one against which Lenin had struggled all his life. It represented a new stage in the degeneration of the Comintern and the first workers’ state.
Although the 1930s saw the consolidation of Stalin’s personal power, the bureaucratic regime was not a stable phenomenon. Bonapartism by its very nature is a regime of social crisis. Stalin became obsessed with internal security and therefore attempted to establish ‘normal’ diplomatic relations with the capitalist powers. After 1933, Stalin hoped to establish closer relations with Hitler’s Germany. “Of course, we are far from being enthusiastic about the fascist regime in Germany,” stated Stalin. “But fascism is not the issue here, if only for the reason that fascism in Italy, for example, has not prevented the USSR from establishing the best relations with that country.” But after being rebuffed by Hitler, and alarmed by the rapid rearmament of Germany that was taking place, Stalin began searching for other allies. He quickly joined the League of Nations, which had been previously denounced as a ‘thieves’ kitchen” by Lenin. In order to counter the military threat, the Comintern was called upon to promote ‘collective security’. This was part and parcel of a sharp change in policy announced at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935: the policy of Popular Frontism. In 1943, as a further gesture to the imperialist allies, Stalin dissolved the Comintern altogether.
The policy of Popular Frontism was based upon alliances between workers’ parties and bourgeois parties. This was entirely alien to the method of Lenin and Marx, who always insisted on a policy of class independence. The notion that it is possible to arrive at an agreement between the working class and the so-called democratic wing of the bourgeoisie is false to the core. This type of ‘unity’ is like the unity between horse and rider! It overlooks the class conflict between wage labour and capital. The policy of the capitalists, whether the Liberal or Conservative variety, is always dictated by their economic interests. In times of crisis, the bourgeois may try to lean on the labour leaders in order to keep the workers under control, only to kick them in the teeth once they have served their purpose.
The Popular Front was merely the resurrection of the old ‘Lib-Lab’ policy of class collaboration, which was implacably criticised by Marx, and still more so by Lenin, who all his life fought against illusions in the liberal bourgeoisie. While, under certain conditions, it might be permissible to enter into episodic blocs with the liberals for practical purposes, all history shows that programmatic blocs with the liberals end in disaster. In the writings of Marx and Engels, and especially those of Lenin, the liberal bourgeoisie was always portrayed as a cowardly and reactionary class, incapable of carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution.
The counter-revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie was already understood and explained by Marx and Engels in 1848-49, in writings such as Revolution and counter-revolution in Germany. In 1904, in his book Results and Prospects Trotsky pointed out that the bourgeoisie in backward, semi-feudal, countries like tsarist Russia had arrived on the stage of history too late to carry out its historical mission. Tied to the banks on the one hand, and linked by a thousand threads to the landowning class and imperialism on the other, the bourgeoisie was organically incapable of fighting against the monarchy and feudalism. The capitalists invested in land, and the landowners in industry. They formed a reactionary bloc against progress. No matter what differences might exist between them (and the Russian liberals did clash with the autocracy frequently, up to 1905-06), they would always close ranks when threatened with a movement of the revolutionary workers and peasants. The whole thrust of Lenin’s argument was that democracy in Russia would not be brought about by the liberals, but only by the revolutionary unity of the proletariat and poor peasants against the liberals, as well as the autocracy. This was shown to be correct in 1905-06, when the liberals sold out the revolution and did a deal with the autocracy at the expense of the workers and peasants.
Even in the period when Lenin did not believe that there could be a socialist revolution in Russia before Western Europe, he was always implacably hostile to deals or alliances with the bourgeois (except for episodic blocs on secondary issues). The idea of any kind of programmatic bloc with the liberals was an anathema to him. He knew that they would inevitably betray the struggle. A fact which has been amply borne out, not only by the experience of the Russian Revolution, but by the role of the national bourgeoisie in the colonial revolution in the entire period following the Second World War. The idea of entry into a coalition government with the liberal bourgeoisie was not the policy of Lenin, but the Mensheviks. Opposition to this policy constituted the central point of difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism from 1904 onwards. It reached its clearest expression in the Provisional Government of 1917.
This Provisional Government was a classic example of a popular front, in which the ruling class, through its ‘left’ representatives ( Kerensky), leans on the leaders of the workers’ organisations in a coalition, in order to head off a revolution. Behind the facade of the popular front, the reaction regroups its forces, and prepares a counter-stroke. Once the masses have been demoralised by the experience of Popular Frontism, which, having left the basic system of exploitation untouched, passes from reforms to counter-reforms. Lenin subjected the Menshevik and SR leaders to a withering criticism for entering the Provisional Government, demanding a break with the ten capitalist ministers and the formation of an independent workers’ government based on the soviets. This was the basis upon which the October Revolution was prepared.
In essence, the policy now adopted by the Comintern in 1935 was, to quote Trotsky, “a malicious caricature of Menshevism”. The Popular Front governments formed in France and Spain allegedly to prevent the danger of fascism, had the opposite effect. Under conditions of extreme economic and social crisis, only the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism, and a radical transformation of society could show the way out. The alliance with the bourgeoisie (or, more correctly, with the shadow of the bourgeoisie) was a recipe for disaster. In every case, under the pressure of big business and the liberal allies, the living standards of the workers, peasants and middle class were cut. The promises of reform were soon turned into their opposite, preparing the ground for reaction. The most terrible example was what happened in Spain.
The Spanish Revolution
In July 1936, the heroic proletariat of Spain rose up against the fascist coup of General Franco. In Catalonia and elsewhere the workers took power into their own hands. The state collapsed as the bulk of the army officer caste went over to Franco. The Spanish workers made one attempt after another to take power. In Barcelona, the workers of the anarchist trade union CNT and the left-wing POUM stormed the barracks, armed with nothing more than kitchen knives, clubs and old hunting rifles. They smashed the fascists and power was in the hands of the working class. This would have been possible throughout Spain, but for the policies of the leaders of the workers’ organisations, who clung to their alliance with the bourgeois Republicans, in effect the shadow of the Spanish bourgeoisie.
Even the CP leaders had to admit that the revolutionary movement had already gone far beyond the limits of a bourgeois republic:
The destruction of the old ruling order, as José Díaz observed, had already been achieved; the revolution had not limited itself to ‘defending the Republic established on 14 April and revived last 16 February’ as the Communist Party had maintained at the start of the war. Communist militants in the front lines around Madrid, like Miguel Nuñez, an education militiaman, were well aware of the depth of the popular explosion.
– It was a thorough-going revolution. The people were fighting for all those things which the reactionary forces of this country had so long denied them. Land and liberty, an end to exploitation, the overthrow of capitalism. The people were not fighting for a bourgeois democracy, let’s be quite clear about that… (Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain – An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War, p. 324.)
Power is, in the last expression, armed bodies of men. Whoever controls these holds power. But in July 1936, the workers of Spain rose against the fascists in reply to Franco’s military uprising. The old army was effectively destroyed and replaced by workers’ militias. These were the only armed forces that existed in the territory of the Republic. The only thing that prevented the working class from taking power was the leadership of their own organisations. They had smashed the fascist reaction, but the leaders of all the workers’ parties – anarchists, socialists, communists, and even the POUM, entered the bourgeois popular front government and became the main stumbling block in the path of the revolution.
In one way or another they betrayed the heroic spontaneous reaction to the fascist uprising. They blocked the elementary class movement of the workers by collaborating with the rotten Republican bourgeois leaders, who by this time represented nobody but themselves. As a matter of fact, this was not an alliance with the bourgeoisie, but the shadow of the bourgeoisie. The great majority of the landlords and capitalists supported Franco and had fled to the National zone. But the Republicans acted as a reactionary brake on the movement of the masses. They feared the workers and peasants much more than the fascists, to whom they were quite prepared to capitulate.
By this time most of the leaders of the parties of the Communist International had become agents of the foreign policy of the Russian bureaucracy. They unquestioningly carried out the instructions of Stalin. The latter was terrified that a successful socialist revolution in Spain, or in any other country of Western Europe, would undermine the power of the bureaucracy and lead to its overthrow. The workers of Russia were enthusiastic about the revolution in Spain, which stirred them more than any event since the usurpation of power by Stalin. In attempting to maintain their power through the Stalin regime, the bureaucracy was compelled to launch the modern equivalent of the medieval witchcraft trials, to annihilate practically all the leaders of the revolution and the Old Bolsheviks, to murder hundreds of thousands of the rank and file of the Communist Party. This was due partly to the repercussions of the revolution in Spain. The victory of the Spanish Revolution would have sounded the death knell for the Moscow bureaucracy.
In addition to this, the bureaucrats were not concerned with revolutionary diplomacy, as under Lenin, but were guided by purely nationalist considerations. They wanted at that time to placate the capitalists of Britain and France, to gain an alliance against Germany. They did not wish to upset this by a revolutionary conflagration, which would have spread to France and destroyed entirely the world political and social equilibrium. But by destroying the Spanish Revolution, they ensured the victory of Franco, and, in so doing, made the Second World War inevitable. For their part, the so-called democracies of Britain and France did all in their power to help Franco, while masquerading under the hypocritical banner of non-intervention. Stalin’s counter-revolutionary policy in Spain did not persuade the British and French imperialists to become allies of the Soviet Union but, on the contrary, placed it in the gravest danger.
A rank and file Communist Party member is quoted as saying:
Fighting and dying, we sometimes thought: “All this – and for what?” Was it to return to what we had known before? If that was the case, then it was hardly worth fighting for. The shamefaced way of making the revolution demoralised people; they didn’t understand. I think the Communist Party demonstrated the most correct understanding of what the war was about… (Ibid., p. 328.)
The workers of Spain strove time and again for a period of seven years, from 1931 to 1937, to take power into their own hands, but at every stage found themselves blocked by their own organisations. The last opportunity was in May 1937. The Stalinists, acting as the shock troops of the counter-revolution, attempted to seize the telephone exchange in Barcelona, which was under the control of the CNT. In reply to this betrayal, the anarchists and POUMist workers staged an insurrection in May 1937. This movement had the overwhelming support of the workers of Barcelona, even the rank and file communists and socialists. For four days, power was in the hands of the workers. But once again the POUM and the CNT refused to take power.
Despite the Stalinist propaganda, the POUM was not a Trotskyist organisation but contained elements who had once been Trotskyist such as Nin and Andrade. In the space of six weeks, it had grown rapidly from one thousand to 70,000 members, on the strength of its left-wing image and the radical-sounding declarations of its leaders. It had its own radio station and daily newspaper. But Trotsky warned that, without a correct policy, a class policy directed against the bourgeois Republicans, all the gains of the POUM would turn to dust. This remarkable prediction was soon shown to be correct. At the decisive moment, they led the workers to defeat. Lacking a consistent revolutionary policy, the CNT and POUM leaders demanded that the workers abandon the struggle and return to work. This call was obeyed, but that did not save them, and was disastrous for the revolution. Within six weeks, the main leaders of the POUM were murdered in the dungeons of the GPU. The POUM was illegalised and the CNT disarmed. The road was now clear for the bourgeoisification of the armed forces and the reconstruction of the state under bourgeois leadership.
In March 1937 José Díaz, PCE General Secretary, called for the elimination of those “agents of fascism – Trotskyists disguised as POUMists” – a reflection of the accusations being made at the Moscow show trials. But the real force behind the purge in Spain was Stalin’s GPU which was now present on all the leading bodies of the Spanish Communist Party. For example, the notorious Hungarian Stalinist Ernö Gerö, one of Stalin’s agents, always attended meetings of the leading body of the PSUC. The leaders of the Communist Party and the PSUC, however, actively participated in these activities. Pere Ardiaca, editor of the PSUC newspaper Treball, while denying the Party’s participation in the murder of Andreu Nin, admits that the Party supported the persecution of the POUM: “Though we had nothing to do with the POUM’s persecution, we regarded it with favour. Later, at the POUM trial, we were stupefied by the evidence given, but at the same time it never occurred to us to protest because we shared the prosecution’s opinion…” (Ibid., p. 390.)
Ardiaca and his comrades were ‘stupefied’ because they knew perfectly well that the accusations directed against the POUM militants were entirely false, as he admits: “I had been in the BOC [workers’ and peasants’ bloc, one of the main component parts of the POUM] before joining the Communist Party, so I knew that its militants were honest and sincere in their revolutionary beliefs, even if those were different to ours…” (Ibid., p. 390.) No wonder Ardiaca describes Nin’s assassination as “a heavy legacy indeed”. But nothing can change the fact that the Spanish and Catalan leaders at the very least were active accomplices of Stalin’s GPU in Spain.
The liquidation of the revolution led inevitably to the disaster that Trotsky had predicted. The Stalinists backed the so-called government of victory of Negrín, the right-wing socialist, which in fact presided over the most terrible defeats. That was inevitable once the bourgeois counter-revolution had triumphed behind the Republican lines. The working class was disillusioned and demoralised. In revolution, even more than in war, morale is the key factor. In purely military terms, the revolution can never triumph against the professional army with trained officers and military experts. The sole factor which gives the masses the advantage is their revolutionary élan. Without this, the victory of reaction is inevitable. The precondition for victory in Spain was political – the confidence of the masses in the cause for which they were fighting.
This assertion can be proven by many historical examples. The victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia was due above all to political factors. Power was in the hands of the workers, who defended it ferociously. Likewise, in the countryside, the peasants fought for the land which they had won thanks to the October Revolution. Some years later in China, Mao Zedong waged a semi-revolutionary war against the Guomindang. In the Chinese civil war, Mao’s forces were tiny when compared to the army of Chiang Kai-shek, armed by the USA. Basing himself on a simple revolutionary slogan – “land to the peasants” – Mao succeeded in winning over the rural masses. He even offered plots of land to the soldiers of Chiang’s army. Whole divisions came over to the Reds, and the forces of reaction simply melted away. A similar result was possible in Spain, but it would have required a genuinely revolutionary policy.
The Spanish Revolution constituted a deadly threat to Stalin and the bureaucracy. Here for the first time, Moscow carried out a policy deliberately aimed at preventing revolution. Previously, in China and Germany, it was a question of mistakes. But this was different. A victorious revolution in Spain would have meant the end of Stalin’s rule. The movement of the Spanish workers aroused hope in the minds of the Russian workers that a new workers’ state would be established at the other extreme of Europe. They were moved in a way not seen since the Revolution. This was dangerous for the bureaucracy, which responded by launching the Purge trials.
The Purge trials
“The First Five-Year Plan and the great rumblings in Germany which preceded Hitler’s rise (1931-33) once again threatened the bureaucracy’s domination,” stated Trotsky.
Finally, can we doubt for an instant that if the Spanish Revolution had been victorious and if the French workers had been able to develop their May-June offensive of 1936 to its conclusion, the Russian proletariat would have recovered its courage and its combativity and overthrown the Thermidorians with a minimum of effort? (Trotsky, Writings 1937-38, pp. 39-40.)
The growing Soviet working class, enthused by the successes of the Five-Year Plan, began to sense again the dramatic effects of world revolution and to resist the bureaucratic encroachments. Stalin was terrified that a new revolutionary wave in the West would stir the revolutionary feelings of the Soviet masses. That was why the Stalinist terror was unleashed to entrench the totalitarian state.
The Purge trials were organised as a result of panic at the effects of the Spanish Revolution on the Russian working class, and even in the Russian Communist Party. The spontaneous movement towards socialist revolution in Spain began to rekindle the flame of international revolution in the hearts of the Soviet working class. Fearing the success and spread of the Spanish Revolution, and looking to a deal with the Western ‘democracies’, Stalin deliberately strangled the Spanish Revolution. This was not the case in either Germany in 1930-33 or China in 1925-27. It is true that Stalin’s policies led to defeat in these cases also. But this was not the intention. On the contrary. Stalin wanted successes on the international stage at that time. But by 1936, the new ruling caste had been consolidated, and was anxious to defend its privileges against any real or perceived threat. The Spanish Revolution was seen as a very real threat by the leading clique. Stalin felt that a successful revolution would give rise to a new opposition within the Communist Party around those figures that still had direct links with the October Revolution. He therefore set out to eliminate such a threat by framing Old Bolsheviks on charges of counter-revolution and having them shot.
These were the biggest frame-up trials in history. The initial excuse for the trials was the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party boss, by a young Communist on the 1st December 1934. This was a provocation organised by Stalin himself. Evidently there were grumblings in the leading clique against Stalin at this time, and Kirov, a leading Stalinist, was seen as a possible replacement. After the Kirov assassination frame-up, a series of ghastly trials and confessions was staged. The fact that this assassination was the work of Stalin and had been prepared at a high level was exposed by Khrushchev in his reports at the 20th and 22nd Congresses:
The mass reprisals began after the assassination of Kirov. Great efforts are still needed to find out who really was to blame for this death. The deeper we study the materials connected with Kirov’s death the more questions arise. Noteworthy is the fact that Kirov’s killer had twice before been detained by Chekists (security men) near the Smolny and that arms had been found on him. But he was released both times on someone’s instructions. And the next thing this man was in the Smolny, armed, in the corridor through which Kirov usually passed. And for some reason or other at the moment of assassination Kirov’s chief bodyguard was far behind him, although his instructions did not authorise him to be such a distance away from Kirov.
Equally strange is the following fact: When Kirov’s chief bodyguard was being escorted for questioning – and he was to be questioned by Stalin, Molotov and Voroshilov – the vehicle, as the driver said afterwards, was deliberately involved in an accident by those who were taking the man for interrogation. They said that he had died as a result of the accident, although he was in fact killed by those who were escorting him.
In this way, the man who guarded Kirov was killed. Later, those who had killed him were shot. This was no accident, apparently, but a carefully planned crime. Who could have done this? A thorough inquiry is now being made into the circumstances of this complicated case. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 111.)
The Moscow trials were described by Trotsky as a “one-sided civil war” against the working-class vanguard. In August 1936, he stated that “the present purge draws between Bolshevism and Stalinism not simply a bloody line but a whole river of blood. The annihilation of the entire old generation of Bolsheviks, an important part of the middle generation, which participated in the civil war, and that part of the youth which took seriously the Bolshevik traditions, shows not only a political but a thoroughly physical incompatibility between Bolshevism and Stalinism”. (Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, p. 423.)
An entire generation of Old Bolsheviks was wiped out. The old tsarist state machine, which Lenin had repeatedly warned against, asserted its supremacy through the Purges, which aimed at exterminating the revolutionaries and obliterating the whole heritage of Bolshevism. The link with October became, in effect, a death warrant. This applied to anyone, not just Trotskyists, although they were the first and principal victims. But the followers of Bukharin soon joined them in the camps, followed by anyone else who provided a link to the past, including many Stalinists. This was a one-sided civil war against Bolshevism, which was launched by the ruling elite for two main purposes.
Firstly, in order to consolidate the rule of the Leader (the Vozhd in Russian, which, incidentally, is an exact translation of ‘Führer’ or ‘Duce’), Stalin wanted to cover up the fact that the role he had played in the revolution was quite insignificant, a fact which was well known in Party circles. Even members of his own leading faction, such as Sergo Ordzhonikidze, could not take seriously the idea of Stalin as the great Leader and Teacher, for which crime, either they were murdered or driven to suicide. Stalin did not want any uncomfortable witnesses. Already at this time, Stalin was showing signs of megalomania. But it would be wrong to see this as a personal or psychological phenomenon. Psychological deviations cannot explain a massacre on such an immense scale, which disrupted the economy, caused tremendous social upheaval, and even put the existence of the USSR in jeopardy, especially when it spread to the army.
The peculiar nature of the bureaucracy as a usurping ruling caste gave rise to all sorts of contradictions. The bureaucracy, which had politically expropriated the working class, nevertheless based itself on the nationalised property forms established by the revolution. It was compelled to speak in the name of Bolshevism, while systematically trampling underfoot all the traditions of Bolshevism. This is not the first time that such things have happened. After 1794, the leaders of the Thermidorian reaction in France still continued to speak in the name of the Revolution, while persecuting the Jacobins and restoring the customs and privileges of the old regime. To silence all criticism, it was essential to eliminate all those who could point an accusing finger and remind the masses – or even the bureaucrats themselves – of how things used to be.
The usurpatory character of the ruling caste, the illegitimate nature of its perks and privileges, the evident contradiction between the ‘socialist’ proclamations and the growing inequality, all meant that the upstart bureaucrats felt insecure. Their insecurity and fear of the masses meant that they sought safety in the shade of a Strong Man who would silence all opposition. The Strong Man (the Vozhd) was not to be questioned, for to question the Leader was to question the bureaucracy itself. The physical wiping out of all opposition, actual or potential, and the implantation of a totalitarian regime, was thus the prior condition for the consolidation of the ruling bureaucracy. Stalin’s psychological peculiarities, his psychopathic cruelty and megalomania, can explain the grotesque, monstrous character which he imparted to the Purges, but not the phenomenon itself.
Old Bolsheviks exterminated
We thank thee, Stalin!
Sixteen butchers of the Fatherland
Have been gathered to their ancestors!
Today the sky looks blue,
Thou hast repaid us for the sorrows of many years!
But why only sixteen?
Give us forty,
Give us hundreds,
Make a bridge across the Moscow river,
A bridge without towers or beams,
A bridge of Soviet carrion –
And add thy carcass to the rest!
The above lines were published in the Paris White Guard paper Vozrozhdenye on the 29th August 1938, following the announcement of the executions after the first trial. The enemies of October had good reason to rejoice. All the main defendants in the Trials were close associates of Lenin before, during and after the October Revolution. The defendants were originally charged with attempting to restore capitalism in Russia, which was then discarded in the 1936 trial and replaced by “lust for power” and pursuing a terrorist plan to exterminate Stalin and other Soviet leaders.
One of the foulest slanders now aimed at Lenin and Trotsky is that Stalin’s Purges were only the continuation of the Red Terror waged by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. Apart from the fact that it is impossible to compare the monstrous methods used by Stalin with those employed by the embattled workers’ government defending itself against powerful and ruthless enemies, this argument overlooks the most important question: against whom was the terror waged and for what purpose? In the same hypocritical way, the Pharisees throw up their hands in horror at the Terror of the French Revolution. But unfortunately, all history shows that a ruling class or caste does not normally give up its power and privileges without a fight.
From a revolutionary point of view, it is impossible to consider the question of violence in the abstract. Of course, every sane person abhors violence and will attempt to avoid it. But when one is attacked and in danger of being murdered, most people will fight to defend themselves. The revolutionary Terror, both in France and Russia, was a response to the violence of the reaction. Without the most energetic measures of self-defence, the revolution in both cases would have been smothered in its own blood. How can one seriously condemn such measures of self-defence of the revolution against those who wish to destroy it? The case is completely different with the violence of the counter-revolution. After Thermidor, terrible violence was directed against the Jacobins, but very little is said about this. The Pharisees pass over it in silence, or read us hypocritical morality lessons about the “Revolution devouring its own children” and so on. But the violence of the French Revolution in the period of its ascent was directed against the counter-revolution – aristocrats, priests, speculators and the like. The Thermidorian and Bonapartist terror was directed against the revolutionaries. There is a qualitative difference between the two. Not to see this is to understand nothing.
In 1922 the leaders of the SRs were put on trial charged with acts of terrorism against the leaders of the Soviet state. But there was absolutely nothing in common between this and Stalin’s frame-ups. The first difference is that the SRs were guilty of the crimes they were charged with. They not only admitted them, but proudly proclaimed their actions. That is not surprising. Unlike the Russian Marxists who were always implacably opposed to individual terror, the SRs (both the Right and Left) were the inheritors of the traditions of the Narodnaya Volya party which openly espoused the method of terrorism. There was not the slightest doubt that they were responsible for the assassination of Bolshevik leaders like Uritsky and Volodarsky and the attempted assassination of Lenin. They did not have to be forced to confess, since they regarded their actions as correct and legitimate. In tsarist times, they frequently handed themselves over to the authorities after perpetrating an assassination. There was yet another fundamental difference. Not only were the SR leaders allowed a legal defence, but they were able to employ lawyers from abroad, specifically the Belgian Social-Democratic leader Emile Vandervelde, who was also a prominent lawyer. The crimes were punishable by death, but the sentences were suspended. None of the accused was executed (although some were later to be shot by Stalin). They were not required to renounce their views, let alone slander themselves in court.
In the Purge trials things were different. The accused were compelled to confess to the most monstrous crimes which they did not commit, and before they were delivered to the executioner, forced to pour dirt over their own heads. Only one of the defendants, Krestinsky, attempted to repudiate his confession in court. He was sent back to the GPU torturers and when he returned 24 hours later confessed to everything. Bukharin attempted to fend off the most atrocious accusations, such as the fantastic charge that he had attempted to assassinate Lenin. He was helped by the courageous stand of an SR, Boris Kamkov, who was called as a prosecution witness but refused to substantiate the charge, although he had nothing to lose since he was already a prisoner of the GPU and Bukharin was a political opponent. He undoubtedly paid a terrible price for his defiance. Bukharin left his defence to posterity, making his wife, Anna Larina, learn his last letter by heart to pass on to future generations. She repeated it every day for 20 years “like a prayer” in Stalin’s concentration camps, which she survived by a miracle.
In this letter, Bukharin points out the fundamental difference between the old revolutionary Cheka under Dzerzhinsky and Stalin’s GPU:
To a Future Generation of Party Leaders
I am leaving life. I bow my head, but not before the proletarian scythe, which is properly merciless but also chaste. I am helpless, instead, before an infernal machine that seems to use medieval methods, yet possesses gigantic power, fabricates organised slander, acts boldly and confidently.
Dzerzhinsky [head of the secret police, or Cheka, under Lenin] is no more; the wonderful traditions of the Cheka have gradually receded into the past, those traditions by which the revolutionary idea governed all its actions, justified cruelty toward enemies, safeguarded the state against any counter-revolution. For this reason, the organs of the Cheka won a special trust, a special honour, an authority and respect. At the present time, the so-called organs of the GPU are in the main a degenerate organisation of unprincipled, dissolute, well-kept functionaries who, enjoying the former authority of the Cheka, seeking to satisfy the pathological suspiciousness of Stalin (I fear to say more), pursuing rank and glory, perform their foul deeds without, incidentally, understanding that they are simultaneously destroying themselves: history does not tolerate the witnesses to dirty deeds!
These ‘wonder-working’ organs can grind any member of the Central Committee, any member of the Party, into dust, turn him into a traitor-terrorist, saboteur, spy. If Stalin doubted in himself, confirmation would follow in an instant.
Storm clouds hang over the Party. My death alone, guilty of nothing, will implicate thousands more of the innocent. For, after all, an organisation must be created, a ‘Bukharinist organisation,’ that in reality not only does not exist now, when I am in my seventh year without a shadow of disagreement with the Party, but did not exist then, in the years of the Right Opposition. I knew nothing about the secret organisations of Ryutin and Uglanov. Together with Rykov and Tomsky, I expounded my views openly.
Since the age of 18, I have been in the Party, and always the goal of my life has been the struggle for the interests of the working class, for the victory of socialism. These days the newspaper with the hallowed name Pravda prints the most contemptible lie that I, Nikolai Bukharin, wanted to destroy the achievement of October, to restore capitalism. That is an unheard-of obscenity. This is a lie that in its obscenity could only be matched by the story that [Tsar] Nikolai Romanov devoted his whole life to the struggle against capitalism and the monarchy, to the struggle for the realisation of the proletarian revolution. (Quoted in Anna Larina, This I cannot forget, pp. 343-4.)
Let us recall when reading these lines that the man who wrote them was described by Lenin as “the Party’s favourite”, and one of its main theoreticians. True, Bukharin made many mistakes, some of them serious, but he was an honest revolutionary unlike those who murdered him. The main purpose of the Purges was to draw a line of blood between the bureaucracy and the real traditions of Marxism-Leninism. It was necessary to break the knot of history, to destroy utterly the old traditions of workers’ democracy and internationalism, to leave nothing behind that could remind future generations of the real meaning of October. Thus, it was not enough to torture and murder the Old Bolsheviks. They had to be made to cover themselves in filth, to publicly renounce their ‘crimes’, and to sing the praises of Stalin. Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Rykov, Radek, Rakovsky and a number of other revolutionaries confessed to being life-long imperialist agents. Their accuser, the chief prosecutor, Vyshinsky was an old Menshevik lawyer who had collaborated with the White counter-revolution.
Practically the entire Bolshevik Old Guard was exterminated. Among the victims was A.V. Shotman, an old Party member who was put in charge of protecting Lenin’s life when he was forced underground after the July days in 1917. In 1918, Lenin wrote: “Shotman is an old Party comrade whom I know quite well. He deserves absolute trust.” Yet he was arrested and died in 1939. A large number of foreign Communists perished. Fritz Platten, the Swiss revolutionary who had collaborated with Lenin and organised the famous sealed train which took him from Switzerland to Russia in 1917, survived tsarist, Swiss, German and Rumanian prisons but died in one of Stalin’s camps. The entire leadership of the Polish Communist Party was liquidated, including I.S. Ganetsky, whom Lenin had personally recommended for membership of the Russian Party.
The Purges effectively liquidated what was left of the Soviet Communist Party. Between 1939 and 1952 there was not a single Party Congress, although even during the most difficult period of the civil war this supreme body had met annually. By the beginning of 1939, out of the 139 members elected at the 17th Party Congress, where Stalin celebrated his victory over the Opposition, 110 had been arrested. Out of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party of October 1917, only two survived: Alexandra Kollontai, who was sent away to be ambassador to Sweden, and Joseph Stalin. Among the entire Party membership, only a few of Stalin’s hand-picked protégés and hatchet men were left – the Molotovs, Kaganoviches, Mikoyans and Voroshilovs.
The history of the Party was re-written. The notorious History of the CPSU (Bolsheviks) Short Course, reduced it to a series of lies and legends, designed to glorify the role of Stalin. John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which Lenin praised as a truthful account of the Revolution, was banned. Not only was the name of Trotsky erased, and his image removed from photographs, but even such figures as Krassin, Nogin, Chicherin and Lunacharsky were blotted out. The transformation of the Party from the vanguard of the revolutionary workers to a lever in the bureaucratic apparatus was at last complete. This is the final answer to all the slanderers of Lenin and Trotsky. Those who try to prove that Bolshevism and Stalinism are one and the same phenomenon have yet to explain how it comes about that, in order to triumph, the bureaucratic totalitarian regime was obliged to annihilate the Bolshevik Party, to uproot every vestige of Leninism, to rewrite history and to bury the old traditions of workers’ democracy and internationalism under a mountain of corpses. Surely, if Leninism and Stalinism were all the same, it ought to have been possible to arrive at a compromise? This would have been not only rational, but infinitely more economical. The enemies of October have no answer to this, other than the usual stale clichés about “Revolutions devouring their children” which explain nothing at all. Yet the answer is clear and undeniable to any genuinely objective observer: Bolshevism and Stalinism are as incompatible as revolution and counter-revolution. To those who are incapable of distinguishing between these things we have really nothing more to say.
Families wiped out
So deep was the gulf between Stalinism and Bolshevism, so great Stalin’s need to eliminate all vestiges of the past and all witnesses, that the slaughter extended far beyond the ranks of active Oppositionists. In this long and bloody nightmare, not only politically active people were affected. Stalin extracted his spiteful revenge on the families of his victims, their wives, children and grandchildren, even their neighbours. The children of arrested Oppositionists were taken from them and put in special orphanages from which most of them disappeared. In the concentration camps, the prisoners were not even allowed to keep photographs of their children. The son of Bukharin’s wife, Anna Larina, was taken from her when he was only one year old and she did not see him again until 20 years later. At least she survived and was eventually reunited with her son. But this was the exception.
Sverdlov escaped the executioner by dying a natural death in 1919, but his brother was killed. Sergo Ordzhonikidze had been a close companion of Stalin for years, but although a close ally of the General Secretary, was horrified by the Purges and attempted to shield some of the victims. He committed suicide in 1937, driven to this act by Stalin.
An older brother, Papuliia, was arrested and shot after terrible tortures, and a falsified record of the interrogation was sent to Ordzhonikidze. Some of Ordzhonikidze’s closest friends and associates were shot, while many executives in heavy industry, appointed by Ordzhonikidze, were arrested. Stalin sent him the false depositions extracted from the prisoners by torture, with the comment “Comrade Sergo, look what they’re writing about you.” (R. Medvedev, Let History Judge, p. 193).
Ordzhonikidze knew too much about Stalin. Like the other victims, his crime was that he was a reminder of the past. Many other Stalinists perished for the same reason.
In the whole history of the world labour movement, there is nothing similar to the persecution suffered by Trotsky and his followers. Trotsky’s entire family was wiped out in this murderous terror. His two sons-in-law, Platon Volkov and Nevilson were arrested as Oppositionists in the 1920s. After Trotsky’s deportation to Alma-Ata, his two daughters, Nina and Zinaida were deprived of all help, although Nina was seriously ill with tuberculosis. The persecution of her father and the imprisonment of her husband hastened her death at the age of 26 in June 1928. Both Nina’s and Zinaida’s husbands were later shot. Nina’s daughter Volina, born in 1925, was looked after by her grandmother, Trotsky’s first wife Alexandra Sokolovskaya. However, when Sokolovskaya was arrested, the child was taken into custody and disappeared without trace. Trotsky’s elder daughter Zinaida, who was also ill with tuberculosis and deeply depressed at the arrest of her husband and the death of her sister, applied for permission to join her father in Prinkipo, together with her small son, Vsevolod Volkov who was ill. This was granted, but when she was abroad, Stalin’s government treacherously revoked her citizenship. This blow, which cut her off from all prospects of ever seeing her husband and daughter again, finally unbalanced the mind of this unhappy woman who was already under treatment for deep depression. Zinaida committed suicide.
Her daughter Alexandra, whom she had left behind in the USSR, was sent to a concentration camp as soon as she was old enough. The fate of her mother Sokolovskaya was particularly tragic. Despite all the terrible suffering and adversity, she remained steadfast in her revolutionary activity, and paid the price. Exiled to Siberia in 1935, where the average life expectancy was two to three years, she died, having previously lost not only her children but her grandchildren also. By a miracle, Alexandra survived many years in the camps, although with her health undermined, and died in 1989. Only Vsevolod Volkov remains alive in Mexico, having survived one assassination attempt. Trotsky’s eldest son Leon Sedov, who played a crucial role in the International Left Opposition, was murdered by Stalin’s agents in Paris, while recovering from an operation in February 1938, on the eve of the trial of Bukharin. But the bitterest blow to Trotsky was the arrest of his younger son Sergei, who was not politically active and had stayed behind in the USSR when his father was exiled. Although not himself an active Oppositionist, Sergei conducted himself courageously. He refused to condemn his father, and was shot in 1937, although nobody knew about it at the time.
Trotsky had two sisters. One died a natural death in 1924. The other, Olga Kamenova, the wife of Kamenev, was first exiled after Kamenev’s arrest, then arrested again in 1935 and sent to prison and then a concentration camp. Together with thousands of other Oppositionists she was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1941. The persecution of the Trotsky family did not stop there. His nephews Boris Bronstein, and Yuri and Alexander Kamenev were all shot. His elder brother Alexander was another one of Stalin’s victims. Dimitri Volkogonov’s relatively recent biography of Trotsky is written from a blatantly anti-revolutionary point of view, and is generally of little value. However, he has had access to material from the KGB archives and other sources not previously available which serves to confirm everything Trotsky and the Left Opposition wrote about the Purges at the time. It is worth quoting what he says in this context:
Trotsky’s elder brother Alexander worked during the 1920s and 1930s as an agronomist in the Novokislyaevsk sugar mill in the province of Voronezh. As I was told by an inhabitant of the district, A.K. Mironov, Alexander was a learned expert who enjoyed the respect of the villagers. He apparently rode in a beautiful phaeton drawn by two fine horses. When Trotsky came under attack, Alexander was expelled from the Party, exiled, and made publicly to repudiate his brother. He underwent a marked change, shrinking into himself as if from the pangs of conscience. The recantation did not help him, however, and in the summer of 1936 he was suddenly arrested at night and the following year shot in Kursk prison as ‘an active, un-disarmed Trotskyist.’ Stalin’s long arm had reached them all, except the main target himself, his wife and his two sons.
After the deaths of Nina and Zina there was real fear for the safety of Trotsky’s sons, especially Sergei. He had not wanted to leave the country with his father, preferring to devote himself to his scientific interests. Uninterested in politics, Sergei had first wanted to be a circus performer, but then became interested in technology, completed polytechnic and became a teacher there. He was a professor before he reached the age of 30. He married twice and his daughter from his second marriage, Julia, is still alive in the USA. His first wife, Olga Grebner, a lively and intelligent elderly woman when I spoke to her in 1989, naturally endured Stalinist camp and exile. She recalled Sergei only fragmentarily: he had been a mischievous boy, and an amusing and talented man. Plainly, in the family it was the elder boy, Lev, who was the favourite. Olga and Sergei had married when he was 20 and she was 19.
“When the family was kicked out of the Kremlin to Granovsky Street,” she recalled, “we had nowhere to live. We took shelter in any corner we could find. Lev Davidovich was always welcoming. I was especially impressed by his lively, clever blue eyes. Outwardly, Natalia Ivanovna was not an interesting woman. She was short, fat and unattractive. But it was obvious how much they meant to each other. As I said, Sergei was talented, whatever he turned his hand to, he succeeded. When Trotsky was deported, Natalia Ivanovna said to me: ‘Look after Seryozha.’ He was arrested on the 4th March 1935. It seemed like a tragic play. Five of them arrived. The search took several hours. They took Sergei’s books and a portrait of his father. My husband was taken to the Lubyanka. He was there two or three months. They told him the charges: espionage, aiding and abetting his father, wrecking. Anyway, they sent him to Siberia. He was doomed.”
In January 1937, Pravda published an article under the heading ‘Trotsky’s Son, Sergei Sedov, Tries to Poison Workers with Exhaust Gas.’ At a meeting at the Krasnoyarsk Engineering Works, a foreman called Lebedev declared: “We have working here as an engineer the son of Trotsky, Sergei Sedov. This worthy offspring of a father who has sold himself to Fascism attempted to poison a large number of workers at this factory with gas.” The meeting also discussed Zinoviev’s nephew Zaks and the factory manager Subbotin, who was alleged to be protecting him and Sergei. All three were doomed. “Sergei was soon sentenced,” Olga Grebner recalled. “Some time that summer I received a postcard which he had somehow managed to send. It said: ‘They’re taking me to the North. For a long time. Goodbye. I embrace you.’” There were rumours that he was shot in 1941 somewhere in Kolyma, but Olga Grebner was not sure. In fact, he had been executed on the 29th October 1937. (D. Volkogonov, Trotsky, pp. 354-5.)
The slaughter of the general staff
Every murder had to be covered up with ten more. The Stalinist police butchers Yagoda and Yezhov were themselves purged. For every economic bungle, and they were inevitable without the democratic control of the workers, scapegoats had to be found. Every day another group of officials branded themselves as paid counter-revolutionaries. Bolshevik workers and light-fingered bureaucrats perished alike in the bloodbath. Beloved figures like the writer Maxim Gorky, whose constant pleading for victims of the Purges were inconvenient for Stalin, disappeared mysteriously. Since people were later accused of poisoning him, we may safely assume that his death was not natural. Literature (and especially drama in conditions of mass illiteracy) which had played an important role in mass communication since the revolution, was brutally suppressed. Anybody who had even the most tenuous connections with October was liquidated, even some of Stalin’s aides and accomplices, as was the case with Ordzhonikidze.
Denunciations and informers were encouraged and every friend or relative of any suspected malcontent was imprisoned. In the mass paranoia, every zealous policeman found as many victims as could be manufactured, to avoid denunciation himself. Children were encouraged to denounce their parents. General Petro G. Grigorenko recalls how he was almost denounced by his own wife. The scope of the repression was vast. No one can say how many perished. According to one estimate, one person in five in Leningrad was either killed, imprisoned or exiled. Not a single genuine letter, not a single document, not a single impeccable piece of evidence was presented at the trials. The only ‘evidence’ was the self-confessions of the defendants – extracted under torture. Kamenev and Zinoviev, already morally broken by capitulation, actually demanded their own execution, having been promised that they would be spared. But Stalin betrayed them. They were the first to be shot.
Not since the witchcraft trials and the Spanish Inquisition had such methods been used to break people and force them to admit to the most appalling crimes of which they were entirely innocent. In his autobiography, the former Soviet general and dissident Petro G. Grigorenko details the kind of tortures used on those who fell into the hands of the GPU, as witnessed by his own brother:
He talked about trumped-up sabotage, terrorism, and espionage charges, the biographies the ‘enemies’ were forced to write, and the tortures used – beatings, crushed fingers and sex organs, cigarette burns on the face and body, standing tortures, and torture by bright lights and with thirst.
Standing torture consisted of forcing a man to stand for a very long time in a special small locked closet in which he could not turn or change his position. Gradually, from a lack of air and from fatigue the prisoner would lose consciousness and sink downward. Then he would be taken out of the closet, aroused, and once again locked in. From standing up for so long the circulation in his legs would be interrupted and they would swell with stagnant blood. This man had those horribly swollen legs. He spoke in a whisper. “Do not be afraid of people here. I know what you are thinking: ‘They are all fascists, enemies of the people, and I got here by accident, by mistake’… I thought that too. But now I know: there are no enemies here. Someone is compelling us to call ourselves ‘enemies of the people’.” He told Ivan about his interrogation. He was an engineer from the Zaporozhye Steel Works; subsequently he signed a confession saying that he had been planning to bomb the factory. After subsequent interrogation, the man said to Ivan, “They are not yet torturing you. That means you may be released. They need that for some reason, too. If they let you out, try not to forget anything you’ve seen here”. (P.G. Grigorenko, Memoirs, p. 96.)
The methods used by Stalin in these and later trials, according to Khrushchev at the 20th Congress was as follows:
Stalin personally called the investigative judge, gave him instructions, advised him on which investigative methods should be used; these methods were simple – beat, beat and, once again, beat.
Confessions of guilt of many arrested and charged with enemy activity were gained with the help of cruel and inhuman tortures.
In his report to the 22nd Congress, he refers to the methods used to extract confessions from the leaders of the Red Army:
Many excellent commanders and political workers in the Red Army were destroyed. There are comrades among the delegates here – I don’t want to give their names so as not to cause them pain – who have spent many years in prison. They were ‘persuaded,’ persuaded in certain ways, that they were German, British or some other spies. And some of them ‘confessed.’ Even when they were told that the charges of espionage against them had been withdrawn, they themselves insisted on their earlier depositions as they felt that it would be better to abide by their false statements in order to have done with the torture, to die the quicker. (The Road to Communism – Report of the 22nd Congress CPSU, p. 113.)
The Purges, which touched every level of life, served to create havoc as leading Party cadres, army officers, technicians, statisticians, planners, managers and workers were swept away. A frenzy was unleashed against what Stalin termed the “enemies of the people”. After the initial successes of the Five-Year Plans, the 17th Party Congress in January 1934, called the “Congress of Victors”, was where Stalin sought to consolidate his power. Years later Khrushchev, in his famous ‘secret speech’, pointed out that out of the 1,966 delegates to this Congress, no less than 1,108 were later charged with counter-revolutionary crimes! In the words of Khrushchev, Stalin “chose the path of repression and physical annihilation”.
Just before the war, the whole of the General Staff was arrested and brilliant military strategists like Tukhachevsky, Yakir and Gamarnik, from the civil war days, were executed by Stalin who evidently feared a coup d’état. Hundreds of thousands were shot and millions sent to concentration camps, while Stalin solemnly condemned them all as spies, assassins and wreckers – and worst of all ‘Trotsky-Fascists’.
The Purges decimated the Red Army. Between 1937 and 1938, 20,000 to 35,000 Red Army officers were liquidated. 90 per cent of the generals and 80 per cent of all colonels were murdered by the GPU. 3 marshals, 13 commanders, 57 corps commanders, 110 divisional commanders, 220 brigade commanders, and all the commandants of the Military Districts were executed by GPU firing squads. The number of arrests carried out at this time included 3 out of 5 marshals; 3 out of 4 of the first-rank army commanders; 60 of the 67 corps commanders, 136 of 199 division commanders, and 221 of 397 brigade commanders; both first-rank fleet admirals (flagman), both second-rank fleet admirals, all 6 first-rank admirals, 9 of the 15 second-rank admirals, both first-rank army commissars, all 15 second-rank army commissars, 25 of the 28 corps commissars, 79 of the 97 division commissars, and 34 of the 36 brigade commissars.
There were also huge losses among the field-grade and junior officers. The shocking truth can be stated quite simply: never did the officer staff of any army suffer such great losses in any war as the Soviet army suffered in this time of peace.
Years of training cadres came to nothing. The Party stratum in the army was drastically reduced. In 1940 the autumn report of the Inspector General of Infantry showed that, of 225 regimental commanders on active duty that summer, not one had been educated in a military academy, 25 had finished a military school, and the remaining 200 had only completed the courses for junior lieutenants. At the beginning of 1940 more than 70 per cent of the division commanders, about 70 per cent of regimental commanders, and 60 per cent of military commissars and heads of political divisions had occupied these positions for a year only. And all this happened just before the worst war in history. (Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, pp. 213-4. 1976 edition.)
Countless people disappeared without trace in the prisons of the GPU, having died under torture or been shot. In fact, many more died without confessing than those who were broken by torture. Millions more perished in Stalin’s camps, where they were starved or worked to death, froze, or were shot. The food ration in the camps was always close to starvation level, in some cases as low as 400 grams of bread a day, and not every day. On such rations, the prisoners were put to work on heavy construction and mining, in freezing Arctic conditions. The following is a description of one of the camps:
I will not repeat all the things I heard but did not see myself. I will tell only about how people died before my eyes, every day, by the dozens, sent ‘over the hill,’ dying in the tents, freezing and crowding around the iron stoves, dropping from hunger and cold, from dysentery and malnutrition…
The high rate of illness and death at Adak was caused by the fact that when the people from Vorkuta arrived, not only were the tents not ready – so that people caught cold from sleeping on the frozen ground under the open sky – but also no food had been provided and there was no kitchen, bakery, or bathhouse. Out of desperation the starving people pounced on frost-bitten potatoes that were rotting out in the open. Because they were rotten, they caused dysentery and diarrhoea to all who ate them, after which the weaker ones began dying like flies. In kettles over open fires, a kind of foul-smelling codfish, some that had gotten frozen and some that had frozen and thawed, was boiled and then served in this boiled form right into people’s dirty hands. There was no bread. Instead they boiled lumps of dough in the same kettles over open fires. One of these, half-wet and boiling hot, would be doled out to each person to last the whole day. The starving people would bolt these down greedily and the next moment be clutching at their stomachs in pain. (George Saunders (editor) Samizdat: Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist, p. 170.)
Even in these hellish places, the Trotskyists maintained their organisation and revolutionary faith. They held political discussions, and attempted to follow events in the Soviet Union and internationally. Finally, under intolerable pressure, they organised a hunger strike, something without a precedent in Stalin’s labour camps. In October 1936, the prisoners declared themselves on strike. In the barracks occupied by the Trotskyists, the strike was 100 per cent solid. Even the orderlies struck. About one thousand prisoners participated in the strike in the Vorkuta mines which lasted more than four months, and only ended in March 1937 when the strikers received a radiogram from the headquarters of the GPU conceding all their demands. But later the prison regime got worse. Finally, in March 1938, the Trotskyists of Vorkuta were taken out into the tundra in groups and shot:
The executions in the tundra lasted the whole month of April and part of May. Usually one day out of two, or one day out of three, thirty to forty prisoners were called. It is characteristic to note that each time, some common criminals, repeaters, were included. In order to terrorise the prisoners, the GPU, from time to time, made publicly known by means of local radio, the list of those shot. Usually broadcasts began as follows: ‘For counter-revolutionary agitation, sabotage, brigandage in the camps, refusal to work, attempts to escape, the following have been shot…’ followed by a list of names of some political prisoners mixed with a group of common criminals.
One time, a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the Internationale, joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp.
At the beginning of May, a group of women were shot. Among them were the Ukrainian Communist, Chumskaya, the wife of I.N. Smirnov, a Bolshevik since 1898 and ex-peoples’ commissar; (Olga, the daughter of Smirnov, a young girl, apolitical, passionately fond of music, had been shot a year before in Moscow); the wives of Kossior, of Melnais, etc. … one of these women had to walk on crutches. At the time of execution of a male prisoner, his imprisoned wife was automatically liable to capital punishment; and when it was a question of well-known members of the Opposition, this applied equally to any of his children over the age of twelve. (Ibid., pp. 215-6.)
The mark of Cain
The horror of the Purges was such that for a time the Soviet working class was stunned. All the Old Bolshevik leaders, Lenin’s comrades in arms, were accused of being agents of the Gestapo. In this way, the living links with October were broken. This prepared the way for reaction at a later stage. A particularly pernicious role was played by the leaders of the Communist Parties internationally. Despite the monstrous nature of the charges and the history of the defendants, the leaders of the Communist Parties lost no time in condemning the accused and vindicating the hangman. So Stalinised had they become, that not one leader of the Communist Parties of the world spoke out against the horrors of the Purges. They had become the yes-men and -women of Moscow. The complicity of these ‘Communist’ leaders in Stalin’s crimes is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the world labour movement. They participated in every zig-zag of Moscow’s policy, justifying the murder of the Old Bolsheviks, and praising Stalin. By dishonestly covering up all the crimes of the bureaucracy, they prepared the way for the collapse of the USSR decades later, and must bear a heavy responsibility for the present catastrophe.
According to the English Stalinist Andrew Rothstein in a book written while Stalin was still alive: “The citizens of the Soviet Union felt the strength of their country, during these years, in a way that they had never felt before.” He went on:
In the late spring of 1936, a series of arrests of Nazi agents and Trotskyist conspirators revealed the existence of a much wider organisation – a central terrorist committee which included, not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but several leading Trotskyists. Preliminary investigations and evidence given at the trial revealed that, through Germans who had been sent to the USSR by Trotsky himself, the organisation was in close contact with the German Gestapo. Zinoviev, Kamenev and their associates were sentenced to be shot. (A. Rothstein, A History of the USSR, pp. 239-42.)
In a book published in 1939, another member of the CPGB ridiculed the idea that torture had been used to extract false confessions. J.R. Campbell quotes a passage from the official transcript of the trial of the Trotskyist and civil war hero Muralov:
Vyshinsky: Were you badly treated?
Muralov: I was deprived of my liberty.
Vyshinsky: But perhaps rough methods were used against you?
Muralov: No. No such methods were used. I must say that in Novosibirsk and here I was treated very decently and politely. (J.R. Campbell, Trial of Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre, pp. 231-2.)
This was a period when repressive measures in Stalin’s jails acquired the cruellest expression. With the replacement of Yagoda by Yezhov at the top of the GPU, torture was permitted in interrogation for the first time. Yet Campbell could write:
We are asked by Trotsky to believe that one of his more outstanding followers, a man who never made his peace with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, not only confessed to crimes of which he was guiltless, but actually falsely declared that he was treated most politely. (Campbell, Soviet Policy and its Critics, p. 250.)
Elsewhere he describes Trotsky’s comments on the case of Muralov as “a hypothesis from the padded room”. (Ibid., p. 252.) Campbell says: “Some of these activities were carried out on the direct instructions of the German Intelligence Service.” (Ibid., p. 220.) And again: “It is unfortunate that these people were in important positions. It is not unfortunate that those who were traitors have been executed and those who were degenerate and inefficient removed. The Trotskyist traitors also believed in a purge, a purge possible only on the basis of a fascist victory… The purge is the final and crushing answer to this fantasy. It reveals, not the triumph of bureaucracy, but the triumph of Socialist Democracy. It reveals the people of the Soviet Union against faint-hearts, renegades and deserters.” (Ibid., p. 236.)
The foul accusation that well-known revolutionists collaborated with Hitler to overthrow the Soviet Union was decisively disproved when the German archives were opened after the war:
The great mass of new material which has emerged since the defeat of Germany in 1945 has produced some evidence of conspiracy between the NKVD and the Gestapo, but none of any contacts between the Germans and the Oppositionists. Finally, wherever the evidence adduced at the trial related to past events, the distortion and falsification to which these events were subjected by the prosecution can easily be exposed by anyone in possession of the sources available to the historian. (L. Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, p. 424, my emphasis.)
The British Daily Worker carried articles demanding the execution of the accused with slogans such as “Shoot the reptiles”. During the Second World War the British Communist Party actually published a pamphlet directed against the British Trotskyists with the title “Hitler’s Secret Agents”. They even demanded that we be illegalised. This was typical of the hooligan methods which were the stock-in-trade of the Stalinists in the international labour movement at the time. Yet there was no substance whatsoever in the accusations. Every one of the victims was innocent of the crimes imputed to them. This was one of the vilest crimes committed in the whole of history. And the ‘mark of Cain’ will be forever branded not only on the perpetrators, but also on those who applauded them from the side-lines.
It cannot be argued that they were ignorant. Throughout this period, Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov published a vast amount of material showing conclusively that the charges were false. The CP leaders had access to this material. In one of the trials great stress was laid on an alleged meeting of Trotsky with one of the defendants who was supposed to have flown to Norway. Trotsky proved that no aircraft had landed at the relevant airport on or near the date alleged. There were many other similar discrepancies. In 1937, an impartial International Commission of Enquiry, under American philosopher John Dewey, conducted hearings into the Kremlin charges made against Leon Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov. After extensive examination of detailed evidence presented to the Commission, it concluded that the Moscow trials were frame-ups and Trotsky and Sedov were not guilty of the 18 specific charges of the prosecution against them. In 1956, in the secret session of the 20th CPSU Congress, Khrushchev admitted the trials were a frame-up, and that those shot were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused.
Khrushchev attempted to put the blame for these crimes against socialism on the shoulders of one man – as if one man could be responsible for such a monstrous regime! Leopold Trepper, who became the leader of the Soviet intelligence network in occupied Europe during the Second World War, refutes this idea. “How could they have looked on while their comrades in arms were sentenced without proof?” asks Trepper.
After the 20th Congress in 1956, all these leaders feigned astonishment. To hear them, Khrushchev’s report was a real revelation. In reality, they had been knowing accomplices of the liquidations, including those of members of their own Parties.
I still have memories from this dark period that time has not erased… The fear for tomorrow, the anguish that we might be living our last hours of freedom, dictated our actions. Fear, which had become our second skin, induced caution, guided us towards submission. I knew that my friends had been arrested and I said nothing. Why them? Why not me? I waited for my turn, and prepared myself for this end. (L. Trepper, The Great Game – Memoirs of a Master Spy, p. 54.)
Despite Khrushchev’s revelations, very few victims of the Purge trials were rehabilitated. With the coming to power of Gorbachev, some progress was made as part of glasnost (openness). In July 1987, a decision was taken to rehabilitate Bukharin and Rykov, who were shot in 1938. In February 1988, the Soviet Supreme Court reversed the verdict of its Military Collegium in the case of the Right Trotskyite Bloc of 1938. However, the trials of 1937, 1936 and 1935 as well as earlier show trials from 1928 to 1932 were left in abeyance. Gorbachev had a vested interest in rehabilitating Bukharin as he had drawn close to a number of his ideas, particularly the need to re-establish the market. Whereas in November 1987, Gorbachev denounced Trotsky as “a cunning politician”, and Trotskyism as “a current, whose ideologies… in essence occupied capitalist positions”, whilst “the political centre of the Party, headed by Stalin, defended Leninism in the ideological struggle” squarely against the Trotskyist Opposition.
Although the Purge trials were completely exposed as frame-ups, Trotsky was not rehabilitated, and there were renewed attempts to demonise him. This showed that the ruling elite still feared his ideas, the genuine ideas of Bolshevism-Leninism. As late as October 1988, Pravda published an article on Trotsky entitled The Demon of the Revolution, which accused Trotsky of causing the wave of political terror within the USSR by his propaganda activity outside of the country!
“Specifically in regard to Leon Trotsky,” says Medvedev, “his activities and tragic fate require a precise and carefully weighed political and legal evaluation.” He says, nevertheless, “Trotsky was never a spy for the Gestapo. And, we must remember, the death sentences passed against Trotsky in absentia at the three major Moscow trials did not remain a dead letter. The ‘verdict’ was carried out in 1940 in Mexico by an NKVD group ‘for special assignments abroad’.” (Medvedev, Let History Judge, pp. 18-9.)
We will give the final word to a man who, while never a Trotskyist, was well able to judge what happened in the light of his own tragic life. Examining his conscience decades later, Leopold Trepper recalled his harrowing experience in the university in Moscow at the time of the Purges:
Yugoslavs, Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs – all disappeared. By 1937, not one of the principal leaders of the German Communist Party was left, except for Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht. The repressive madness had no limits. The Korean section was decimated; the delegates from India had disappeared; the representatives of the Chinese Communist Party had been arrested. The glow of October was being extinguished in the shadows of underground chambers. The revolution had degenerated into a system of terror and horror; the ideals of socialism were ridiculed in the name of a fossilised dogma which the executioners still had the effrontery to call Marxism.
And yet we went along, sick at heart, but passive, caught up in machinery we had set in motion with our own hands. Mere cogs in the apparatus, terrorised to the point of madness, we became the instruments of our own subjugation. All those who did not rise up against the Stalinist machine are responsible, collectively responsible. I am no exception to this verdict.
But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage?
The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did. By the time of the great Purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra.
Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess,’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism. (L. Trepper, op. cit., pp. 55-6, my emphasis.)
The end of the Comintern
In its heyday, the Communist International moved hundreds of millions. Apart from the early Christians who led the oppressed masses against the Roman Empire, and Islam which roused the Arab nation, this was the biggest revolutionary movement in human history. Lenin and Trotsky had anticipated that the Russian Revolution would be followed by a wave of revolutions which would put an end to the isolation of the Russian workers’ state. To this end, they established the Communist International (Comintern). The first four Congresses of the Communist International were an extraordinary compendium of revolutionary theory, for the purpose of educating the newly formed and inexperienced Communist Parties of Western Europe, the USA and Asia. Even today these writings remain a rich mine of Marxist ideas and theory.
Had the Communist International remained on these lines, it would undoubtedly have ended in victory in one or more countries, thus changing the fundamental relationship of forces. But the Stalinist reaction made a fundamental difference, not only in Russia, but in all the Communist Parties. Here we see the superiority of the Marxist method over empiricism. As early as 1928, at a time when the leaders of the Communist Parties were genuinely trying to act as a revolutionary Marxist international, Trotsky predicted that, if the Communist International adopted the theory of socialism in one country, this would inevitably be the beginning of a process which could only end in the national-reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world. Trotsky’s prediction was greeted with derision by the leaders of the Communist Parties. But now, history has taken a cruel revenge. Seventy years later, the mighty Communist International is no more, and the Communist Parties have everywhere degenerated on nationalist and reformist lines, just as Trotsky predicted.
This process did not begin yesterday. Even before the Second World War, under the pernicious influence of Stalin, the Communist Parties had been steeped in opportunism of the worst sort. There was one zig-zag after another – from conciliating the Social Democrats to the ultra-left madness of the Third Period. Today, not one of the basic ideas of Marxist-Leninism are defended by the Communist Party leaders. Before the war, the Communist Parties developed the ‘anti-fascist alliance’ between the Soviet Union and the so-called democracies. Under this banner, they betrayed the revolution in Spain and France in 1936, when the working class could have come to power. Slavishly following the dictates of Stalin’s foreign policy, the revolution had to be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘alliance’.
With the rise of Hitler, again due to the policies of Stalin, the stranglehold of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union was further increased. Higher and higher over the Soviet masses the bureaucratic caste raised itself, increasing its power. But this progressive degeneration has had qualitative changes. From merely being incapable of insuring anything but defeats for the world working class, Stalinism has become opposed to the workers’ revolution in other countries. The Moscow trials, the murder of the Old Bolsheviks, the Purges, the murder and exile of tens of thousands of the flower of the Russian Communist workers, completed the Stalinist counter-revolution within the Soviet Union.
Events in France and Spain were fresh in every revolutionary’s mind. The Comintern played the main role in destroying the revolution which could have been accomplished. Indeed, it revealed itself as the fighting vanguard of the counter-revolution. The defeats of the world working class inevitably led to the new world war. Ironically, the war was ushered in by a pact between Hitler and Stalin. Thus, Stalin dealt new blows to the world working class and the Comintern. It now executed a somersault and conducted a campaign for peace in the interests of Hitler, with a skilful counterfeit of a ‘revolutionary’ policy. As Trotsky forecast in his prediction of the Stalin-Hitler agreement in an article written in March 1939:
“The fundamental trait of Stalin’s international policy in recent years has been this: that he trades in the working-class movements just as he trades in oil, manganese and other goods.” In this statement, there is not an iota of exaggeration. Stalin looked upon the sections of the Comintern in various countries and upon the liberating struggle of the oppressed nations as so much small change in deals with imperialist powers.
When he requires the aid of France, he subjects the French proletariat to the Radical bourgeoisie. When he has to support China against Japan, he subjects the Chinese proletariat to the Guomindang. What would he do in the event of an agreement with Hitler? Hitler, to be sure, does not particularly require Stalin’s assistance to strangle the German Communist Party. The insignificant state in which the latter finds itself has moreover been assured by its entire preceding policy. But it is very likely that Stalin would agree to cut off all subsidies for illegal work in Germany. This is one of the most minor concessions that he would have to make and he would be quite willing to make it.
One should also assume that the noisy, hysterical and hollow campaign against fascism which the Comintern has been conducting for the last few years will be slyly squelched. (Trotsky, Writings 1938-39, pp. 202-3.)
These prophetic lines were strikingly confirmed by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.
After five years of vociferous demands for an agreement between the Soviet Union and the ‘democracies’ of Britain, France and the USA, Stalin did a 180 degree turn to reach an agreement with Hitler in 1939. Trotsky warned that this would prepare the way for big fascist victories, as it would disorient the workers of Britain, France and other countries. This ushered in the Second World War, which Stalin thought he could avoid by this diplomatic trick of switching alliances. The Communist Parties then reversed the position of ‘collective security’ and begun attacking the ‘allied warmongers’. The British Daily Worker for example, in the so-called phoney war of 1939-40 was demanding peace on Hitler’s terms. Even the illegal German Communist Party had this position. After the German invasion of France, the French Communist Party (PCF) sent a delegation to the Germans asking permission to publish L’Humanité legally under the German occupation. They were shot. In Norway, however, the CP was actually allowed to publish legally for some months under the Nazi occupation, demanding ‘peace’, etc., while the Social Democrat papers were suppressed. Naturally, having done the dirty work, they in turn were suppressed when Hitler was preparing his invasion of Russia.
This policy of Stalin and the ‘stinking corpse’ of the Comintern suffered irretrievable ruin when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. After 1941, the line was changed again. After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Communist Parties were once again mobilised to support the ‘Democracies’ in their ‘war against fascism’. The British Daily Worker published a two-inch headline with the words: “The only good German is a dead one.” The Comintern had to execute a right about turn and convert itself once again into a doormat for Roosevelt and British imperialism. But with the increased dependence of Stalin on American and British imperialism, had come the increased pressure on the part of the capitalist allies. In particular, American imperialism was demanding the dissolution of the Comintern as a final guarantee against the danger of social revolution in Europe after the downfall of Hitler.
The long-drawn-out pretence was over. In 1943, Stalin dissolved the degenerate Comintern, in an attempt to gain the ‘good will’ of the imperialists. This criminal policy did not have the effect that Stalin wanted. The rank and file of the Communist Parties did heroic work in the resistance throughout occupied Europe after 1941. But when the Communist Party had the possibility of coming to power in France, Italy, Belgium, etc., they entered coalition governments. Having saved capitalism, they were then unceremoniously booted out. This opened up the cold war – a period of heightened superpower tensions and rivalries between Stalinism and the West.
 The name of Stalin’s secret police was changed several times – GPU, OGPU, NKVD, etc. For the sake of simplicity we have used GPU throughout, until the more recent period where it is referred to as the KGB.