SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

Stalin’s one-sided civil war

Capitalist historians claim that there is straight-line continuity between the Russian revolution and Stalinist brutality. In this way, democratic socialism can be dismissed as an alternative to profit-driven exploitation. Stalin’s repression consolidated his grip on power, targeting the defender of genuine workers’ democracy, Leon Trotsky. It is rare to find a book which breaks this conspiracy of falsification. PETER TAAFFE reviews an important contribution to our understanding of Stalin’s terror from the late Vadim Rogovin.

Stalin’s Terror of 1937-1938: political genocide in the USSR

By Vadim Z Rogovin

Mehring Books, 2009, £25

AFTER GREAT CRIMES ‘against humanity’, there is usually some kind of atonement, blame is apportioned, the guilty are charged, and the lessons are hopefully learned. But not always. The Turkish genocide against the Armenians has still not received full historical recognition. The crimes of the Nazis against the Jews have been pored over again and again, but not how the Nazis rose to power with the help of the capitalists, in Germany, Europe, Britain, etc, nor that, for Hitler, his main target was the organisations of the working class.

However, from the standpoint of the labour movement and Marxism, the greatest blank page is the role of Stalinism, and particularly the crucial role played by the purge trials of 1938 which have left their mark on the former Soviet Union (USSR) even today. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the alleged chronicler of Stalin’s crimes, was not objective in dealing with these events in his hailed work, Gulag Archipelago. He never mentioned that the main defendants in the Moscow trials were Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov. He scandalously downplayed the thousands of Trotskyists who resisted Stalinism to the end – relegating them to an historical footnote. Although largely unknown outside Marxist circles, they provide an inspiration for the struggle against Stalinism and its legacy in today’s barbaric Russian capitalism.

Solzhenitsyn – who started off as a radical critic of Stalinism and ended as a Great Russian chauvinist mystic – tried to show that Stalinism was an outgrowth of Bolshevism and the genuine expression of the Russian revolution. Many have sought to imitate him – for instance Oliver Figes in his book, Whisperers, and Robert Service’s latest book on Trotsky. But now we have this magnificent book from the late Vadim Rogovin which shatters the thesis of the Solzhenitsyns et al. But it does more. It illuminates for a new generation just how Stalin used the purge trials to consolidate his regime and how this put its lasting stamp on Russia. In fact, between Stalinism, the regime of a privileged bureaucratic elite, and Bolshevism, existed a ‘river of blood’. On virtually every page, Rogovin shows how the mechanism of Stalinism as a political system took root, how it caught up in its machine and demoralised the heroic generation that had made the October revolution.

Stalinism as a social and political system largely disappeared with the collapse of the regimes in the USSR and central and eastern Europe 20 years ago. Only remnants remain in the state in China, and outposts like North Korea. It is highly unlikely that the working class will ever again tolerate the rule of a greedy, bureaucratic elite. But that does not mean that elements of the same bureaucratic approach towards the state and society in a future ‘socialist’ regime cannot manifest themselves. Cuba today, despite its considerable social achievements and planned economy, does not have workers’ democracy. In Venezuela, the Chávez government has carried through some progressive measures that have benefited the working class and poor, which we wholeheartedly support. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by an increasingly top-down elitist approach carried out in a semi-militaristic fashion, which can and has alienated many workers who have been elbowed aside by the Chavista ‘cadres’.

One of the factors that leads to the use of these methods is that there has not yet been a full mass accounting, from a socialist and Marxist standpoint, of the real causes of Stalinism and its record. Trotsky’s ideas and analysis in the 1930s were a small voice which did not then reach a mass audience. It is time to prepare the ground for this today.

Rogovin is nothing if not thorough. His account could be a little daunting to those unacquainted with this period. But it is a must for all those who wish to understand what happened in Russia and the consequences today. Even those without knowledge of Stalinism will find much in this book to understand what happened and, hopefully, lead them towards clear Marxist, that is, Trotskyist conclusions. One of the great merits of Rogovin is that, unlike others, he faithfully reproduces at each stage Trotsky’s analysis, supplemented by his own research and other sources. Even those who have already read Trotsky’s material can gain enormously by going over his analysis set in the context of the development of the trials, the reaction to them, how the purges unfolded, their aftermath and the imprint left behind today.

The show trials start

THE GREAT PURGE trials unfolded roughly from July 1936 to the end of 1938. Not to this day has the ‘entire truth’ been published because, as Rogovin writes, this "threatened to undermine the post-Stalin political regime". Following the famous 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, where Stalin was toppled from his ‘supreme leader’ pedestal by Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations, only ‘admissible’ doses of some truths were allowed by Stalin’s heirs. Even these mixed partial truths with "untouched Stalinist myths and falsifications".

At the end of the 1980s, with the flood of new material it would have been possible to present a clear picture of the purges. However, the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s and early 1990s – and the return to capitalism – put paid to any honest investigation. The few who tried were overwhelmed by the wave of anti-communist propaganda, in so-called ‘democratic’ journals, which maliciously distorted what had happened. Rogovin was correct: "These ideological operations served the same purpose as the historical falsifications produced by the Stalinist school: to cauterise, deceive, distort and poison the historical memory and social consciousness of the Soviet people".

Stalinist totalitarianism, it was argued, arose from the ‘criminal’ character of Bolshevism. Rogovin meticulously refutes the attempts to relate the monstrosities of Stalinism to the heroic period of the Russian revolution and the democratic regime of Lenin and Trotsky. In fact, Stalinism was not an outgrowth of Bolshevism but its negation. This is underlined by the chapter, Mass Operations, describing how the great purge was initiated at the CPSU’s politburo meeting of 2 July 1937.

The scale of the repression, the arbitrary selection of victims and how their punishments were carried out, are both nauseating and overwhelming. A first directive in 1937 proposed arresting more than a quarter of a million people: around 72,000 were to be convicted, with a plan "to shoot 10,000 people in the camps". One bureaucrat described how this was carried out: "In the course of one evening we would go through up to 500 cases, and we tried people at the rate of several per minute, sentencing some to be shot, and others to various prison terms… We weren’t able to even read the summons, let alone look at the material in the dossiers"! While the social bases of fascism and Stalinism were different – one resting ultimately on capitalism, the other on a planned economy – there was nevertheless a symmetry, as Trotsky commented, in their arbitrary, bloodthirsty methods. In fact, the murderers and torturers of the Nazi SS openly confessed that they learnt from the Russian ‘security’ apparatus, the NKVD.

The second ‘mass operation’ was taken against representatives of several nationalities, primarily those having their own territories under the Russian empire but which had become independent states after the October revolution – Poles, Finns, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians. The Stalinist reprisals were especially ferocious against communists from these states. They were arbitrarily condemned as agents of the governments of these countries. Most had been forced to seek exile in the Soviet Union because of the oppression ‘at home’. Leopold Trepper, the heroic leader of the Russian underground intelligence organisation under the Nazis, the Red Orchestra, and who broke from Stalinism and praised Trotskyism, estimated that 80% of the revolutionary emigrants in Russia were repressed in the purges.

Eight hundred Yugoslav communists were arrested. Repression was launched against the Communist Party of Poland, which had committed the unpardonable sin of supporting the Left Opposition in 1923-24. The 70-year old Adolf Warski, a founder of the Polish social-democratic and communist parties, was shot. The same fate was meted out to the leaders of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), who sought refuge in Russia from the horrors of Nazism only to meet the horrors inflicted by the NKVD. In January 1989, at the ninth congress of the Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED), the governing party of the former German Democratic Republic, it was reported that at least 242 prominent members of the KPD had perished in the Soviet Union. By the beginning of 1937, the majority of Austrian Schutzbundists had already been arrested. They were members of the socialist military organisation which, after the defeat of the anti-fascist uprising of 1934, emigrated to Russia and were received as heroes. Rogovin comments: "Altogether, more communists from Eastern European countries were killed in the Soviet Union than died at home in their own countries during Hitler’s occupation".

Rogovin deals in some detail with the third open trial (March 1938). The 21 defendants were former top leaders of the USSR, including Nikolai Bukharin and Alexei Rykov, and former Trotskyists. Stalin’s signature was on the death sentences carried out. His malevolent personality was expressed in the case of Avel Yenukidze, a long-time collaborator of Stalin in the persecution of others, including the Left Opposition. He fell to the executioner’s axe because of a disagreement with Stalin over the fate of Lenin’s former close collaborators, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. He confided: "My entire crime consisted of this: when he told me [at the end of 1934 – VR], that he wanted to stage a trial and then shoot Kamenev and Zinoviev, I tried to talk him out of it. ‘Soso’ [Stalin’s nickname], I told him, ‘there is no argument, they have done you a lot of harm but they have long since paid enough for it: you have expelled them from the party, you hold them in prison, their children have nothing to eat… They are Old Bolsheviks, just like you and me’… He looked at me as if I’d murdered his father and said: ‘Remember, Avel, he who is not with me is against me’."

Yenukidze, as Trotsky remarked, was a bureaucrat, but he could not go all the way in wiping out all those connected to the Russian revolution. Stalin had other intentions. The purge trials were a one-sided civil war, the aim of which was to secure the bureaucratic counter-revolution personified by Stalin and his circle against the last remnants of the Bolshevik party and the connection that they had with the Russian revolution. Many of those tried and shot had long since capitulated to Stalin. Rogovin’s description of the pitiful grovelling of such formerly giant figures as Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and even of the closest collaborator of Trotsky, Christian Rakovsky, shows the physical and moral degradation to which they had been reduced. Bukharin, appealing for his life, declared: "In recent years I… have learned to value you in an intelligent way and to love you". To no avail; he was shot, as was Rakovsky.

Trotsky accused

WHY DID STALIN need to annihilate those who had capitulated in this fashion? The bureaucratic apparatus resting on a planned economy was a regime of crisis by its very nature. The inevitable discontent of the masses at the constant zigzags of Stalinist policy provoked questioning and a challenge to this apparatus. In the period of the forced collectivisations – late 1920s and early 1930s – Stalin could invoke as a scapegoat the threat of the nascent capitalists in the form of the kulaks (rich peasants) to explain the Soviet Union’s difficulties, which were, in reality, the product of bureaucratic misrule. But after their annihilation, which cost the equivalent of a war – there were more victims than in the civil war of 1920-21 – there was no obvious figure or trend that could be demonised. Trotsky, and his son Leon Sedov, were therefore selected by Stalin as the main accused.

Stalin feared the influence of Trotsky and the International Left Opposition more than anyone else. Despite the paucity of his resources, Trotsky’s brilliant descriptions of the waste and corruption of the bungling bureaucratic misrule struck home. Even sections of the bureaucracy were affected by his diagnosis and the call for a political revolution to overthrow Stalinism.

Other figures were linked to Trotsky in an absurd amalgam. The alleged collaboration went back to the pre-1917 period when they had seemingly been agents of foreign powers, now agents of Hitler! Trotsky noted at the time that, according to the trial material, the figures on trial as well as ambassadors and marshals, had subordinated themselves to one person (Trotsky) and, on his orders, had been destroying the nation’s productive forces and culture. Trotsky added: "But here a difficulty arises. A totalitarian regime is the dictatorship of the apparatus. If all the key points of the apparatus are occupied by Trotskyists, who are at my command, why in this case is Stalin in the Kremlin, and I’m in exile?"

In chapter 18, Trotsky on the Moscow Trials, Rogovin gives a faithful reproduction of Trotsky’s incredibly accurate analysis of the trials, Stalin’s motives, the role of the defendants, etc. He pointed out that the heads of Russian industry, transport, agriculture and finance were almost entirely saboteurs, according to Stalin. Yet they had given the revolutionary movement 30, 40, even 50 years (as had Rakovsky), but had then conducted ‘subversive work’ for the sake of restoring capitalism!

Liquidating the ruling strata

THE REASONS FOR and the methods employed in the Moscow trials were multifaceted. The rise of the bureaucracy and, particularly, inequality had provoked opposition and indignation from the masses. At the same time, the defeat of the Spanish revolution was bound to affect even those from the previous period who had accommodated themselves to the regime. The bureaucracy did not arrive at these monstrous trials in one leap but gradually, in the process of fighting for its domination. As Trotsky stated, this rising bureaucracy "in words… fights for communism. In actual fact, it fights for its own income, its privileges, and its power".

Fearing a mass uprising, Stalin looked askance even at those who were under his sway but were connected to the experience of the October revolution. In the event of an uprising, even discredited figures like Kamenev and Zinoviev could have become, in the first instance, immediate focal points of opposition for the masses. Imre Nagy, formerly an NKVD agent, played a similar role in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Therefore, as soon as there were protests at the repression by even Stalinist-inclined sections of the apparatus, Stalin decided to liquidate the entire ruling strata in the form it had developed by 1937. Its place was taken by a new generation without a revolutionary past or links to Bolshevik traditions. Almost all the former representatives of the ruling layer were exterminated. The new layer of bureaucracy became politically homogenous and fully subordinated to the will of the leader.

The purges, monstrous trials and mass executions renovated the bureaucracy under Stalin’s whip. This had a decisive effect on changing the character of the bureaucracy. The development of a ‘fascist’ wing was reflected in Fedor Butenko, an envoy to Romania. He resurfaced in Rome in 1938, where he declared that he had never been a communist by conviction and that in his political views he was closer to Ukrainian fascism. Trotsky subsequently commented: "Did [Butenko] have to renounce much? Did he have to destroy much within himself? We do not think so. A very significant and growing part of the Stalinist apparatus consists of fascists who have not recognised themselves. To identify the Soviet regime as a whole with fascism is a vulgar political mistake into which ultra-left dilettantes are inclined to fall who ignore the difference in the social foundations. But the symmetry of the political superstructures, the similarity of the totalitarian methods and psychological types, is striking. Butenko is a symptom of enormous importance: he shows us the careerists of the Stalinist school in their natural form".

At the same time, sections of the former bureaucracy, such as Ignace Reiss, defected towards the left, towards the Fourth International. Reiss was murdered by Stalinist agents. But, as Trotsky commented, the "ranks of the Soviet apparatus are filled with bureaucrats of a bourgeois frame of mind". Rogovin points out that this layer grew considerably in the 1980s as the stultifying effect of the bureaucracy began to choke up the pores of the planned economy.

Resistance in the camps

THERE ARE MANY illuminating chapters in this book. But the heroic role of the Marxists, particularly the Trotskyists, in the camps is tremendous. The incidents that Rogovin deals with are quite well known from earlier scattered fragments, including the (successful) hunger strike and uprising in Vorkuta in 1937. Sketched out here is the resistance of what were at one time 10,000 Trotskyists who shouted their defiance of Stalin in the frozen tundra. Their hunger strike in March 1937 ended in complete victory. From this, they were treated as political prisoners, with all their demands met. But this set the scene for brutal reprisals, carried out in the strictest secrecy. One thousand two hundred Trotskyists were gathered in a brick factory, 20 kilometres from the Vorkuta mine. The executions were carried out by Lieutenant Kashketin, an NKVD officer suffering from ‘schizoid psychoneurosis’. The order for the executions was signed by Stalin.

This was followed by group shootings with, almost daily, tens of prisoners sent into the tundra. According to Rogovin, "they shot not only the Trotskyists themselves, but any members of their families who were with them". This mass slaughter of the bravest of the brave, taken with the mass purges, played a crucial role in cutting the knot of history, of throwing back the ‘memory’ of the working class. No significant group was left in Soviet society capable of challenging Stalin on a clear programme of workers’ democracy.

In that sense, the collective memory of the masses and their ability to gather themselves together to challenge the Stalinist regime in a conscious way was eliminated. A socialist alternative, the programme and ideas of workers’ democracy, was wiped out in the Soviet Union as a conscious force. This is why, in the aftermath of the trials, Trotsky said that the centre of gravity in the world revolutionary movement had passed temporarily from Russian soil – where a dark Stalinist night ruled – to other regions of the world. Of course, this did not prevent spontaneous movements in the direction of political revolution – as in Hungary 1956 – on the part of the masses. Uprisings took place in opposition to the suffocating influence of Stalinism.

Rescuing the truth

ROGOVIN POSES THE question: who benefited from the great purge? His answer, and which history attests to, is the new layer of the bureaucracy, without connections to the past, and raised in an increasingly bourgeois milieu, who identified ‘socialism’ with the closeted existence of their privileged layer. If they and Stalin were not overthrown then, especially after the catastrophe of the beginning of the second world war, it was mainly because of the advantages of a planned economy that allowed the regime to play a relatively progressive role for a time. This was the case even after 1945, when the Soviet Union made a phenomenal recovery from the devastation of war.

Rogovin gives examples of the pro-bourgeois antecedents of many of the bureaucracy who, after the purges, climbed the career ladder on the coat-tails of Stalin. The ruling elite which arose from these purges dominated society for half a century. Even after the 20th congress of the CPSU, they held back from really investigating the crimes of the Stalinist regime, because this would have threatened the foundations of their rule. Khrushchev’s slight lifting of the carpet in the so-called ‘thaw’, led to political revolution in Hungary in 1956. Terrified, the bureaucracy clamped down, eventually removing Khrushchev. Rogovin comments: "Continually changing their slogans, these ‘heirs of the heirs’ of Stalin led the nation with blindfolded eyes towards collapse, economic chaos, and political catastrophe. Thus the Great Purge redounded on the fate of our country a half century later".

The orgy of capitalist propaganda which has flooded the post-1989 Russia has, for the time being, crowded out those voices, like Rogovin’s, demanding a real examination of the Moscow trials. The bourgeois heirs of the Stalinist bureaucracy, who led society to the impasse of the late 1980s cannot carry through this examination. Therefore, in the land of the October revolution, the real lessons of the revolution and its subsequent degeneration remain unknown by the majority. Trotsky is a slandered figure in modern-day Russia, particularly by the pro-capitalist parvenus who have arisen from the bureaucracy. In their enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, they wish to obliterate all the real lessons of Stalinism and the heinous purge trials. Rogovin’s book provides us with the political ammunition to counter this.

In the capitalist world there is a deliberate falsification of how many were actually killed in the purges, with crude equations made to the number of victims of Hitler. Rogovin demonstrates in a detailed fashion that the numbers of purge victims are enormously exaggerated. Yet, even for one person to be tried and convicted on trumped-up charges is a crime. The purpose of this capitalist ‘scholarship’, however, is to heap more and more responsibility onto Bolshevism for this terrible chapter. The task of the new generation, particularly the working class, is to rescue from the heap of lies and distortions the clear ideas of socialism, free from Stalinist influence, and to unfurl the banner of workers’ democracy. In this book, Rogovin takes a giant step in this direction.

Without conscious control of the state machine by the working class, even if it carries through a revolution, the tendency towards bureaucracy can develop. This does not constitute a danger only in economically underdeveloped countries. Even in the ‘advanced’ industrial countries, the problems of a conservative bureaucratic layer in the trade union and workers’ movement manifest themselves today. Following a successful revolution these tendencies will reveal themselves anew. They can only be checked by a programme of workers’ control and management. This is the lesson of Stalinism and why the causes of its development must be understood today.

Trotsky predicted that, on the morrow of his overthrow, statues of Stalin would be toppled and in their place would stand plaques for the heroes of the Left Opposition who fought and perished in Vorkuta and other NKVD torture chambers. The first part of his prediction has been fulfilled. Unfortunately, not the second. It will take a renovation and renaissance of the Russian working class, together with their brothers and sisters internationally, for this to happen, as it will. In time, Trotsky will become even more widely known, not least in the former USSR itself. And this will be due in no small measure to the efforts of the author of this book, Vadim Rogovin.


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