Joseph Hansen

“But Why Did They Confess?”

(Summer 1956)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.17 No.3, Summer 1956, pp.102-105.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Ritual of Liquidation, Bolsheviks on Trial
by Nathan Leites and Elsa Bernaut
The Free Press, Glencoe, Ill. 1954. 515 pp. $6.50.

The political and ideological representatives of capitalism have manifested a dual attitude toward Stalinism. For them the Stalinist bureaucracy from the beginning constituted an indispensable agency in the reactionary work of undermining, misleading, betraying and crushing revolutionary movements. This led the imperialist statesmen, in the interests of the counter-revolutionary combination, to deliberately facilitate the efforts of the Stalinist bureaucracy to present itself to the oppressed masses of the world as “progressive.” A typical instance out of hundreds that could be cited is the Hollywood film Mission to Moscow, which justified the infamous Moscow Frame-up Trials and pictured the mass-murderer Stalin as a kindly, well-meaning leader alert to “plots” and “conspiracies” subversive to the interests of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the bourgeois propagandists have missed few opportunities to voice pious indignation at the horrors of the Stalinist regime and to “explain” them as inherent in socialism itself. Their objective is to instill in the minds of politically conscious workers the paralyzing fear that their own struggle for a better society can lead nowhere except to the extension or duplication of Stalinist totalitarianism with its purges, frame-ups, firing squads and slave-labor camps.

Ritual of Liquidation is an example of this kind of anti-Stalinism. Through a “documented study” of the Moscow Trials, the book attempts to turn the crimes of Stalinism against the cause of revolutionary socialism and the Soviet Union. The theme is that Stalinism is the logical continuation of Leninism and that the Moscow Trials, down to minute nuances, were all foreshadowed in the development of Lenin’s views. The theme is put in the form of a highly elaborated but completely speculative answer to the question, “Why did they confess?”

The authors accept the findings of the Dewey Commission, which proved in 1937 that the Moscow Trials were frame-ups. Without this, of course, they could not even pretend to objectivity in their study. They also call attention to the fact that neither the Nuremberg nor Tokyo post-war trials of heads of the German and Japanese war machines turned up the slightest evidence to support the Stalinist allegations that the victims of the Moscow Trials had engaged in espionage for these powers. The authors are silent, however, about the obliging failure of the Western powers to embarrass their Stalinist allies in these trials by seeking verification of the Moscow Trial allegations. (Not even Hess, who was named in the Moscow Trials, was questioned about the role ascribed to him in the “confessions” of the defendants.) They are silent, too, about Trotsky’s Marxist interpretation of the meaning of the Moscow Trials.

“Psychological Predispositions”

What Leites and Bernaut seek to prove is that there was a psychological predisposition on the part of the accusers to stage the frame-up trials and a similar psychological predisposition on the part of the defendants to willingly cooperate in their own victimization.

  1. As Russians, the participants in the Moscow Trials were conditioned in childhood for their later ignominious role. Study of the statements of the prosecutor and the victims reveals patterns of thought and feeling strikingly similar, the authors contend, to those evident among families of Russian intellectuals under Czarism. In proof of this, the authors take selections from the records of the trials and juxtapose to them apt quotations from classic Russian literature. Some of the statements in the trials seem almost plagiarized from Dostoevsky and other Russian novelists.
  2. On top of these conditioned reflexes, set up by the petty-bourgeois Russian family, came Bolshevik training in youth and early adulthood. Bolshevism, according to the authors, viewed everything in black and white; any political or theoretical position, in the final analysis, represented the interests of either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Any deviation, therefore, from Bolshevism must, if persisted in, serve the bourgeoisie. In Lenin’s time this was interpreted only in a general ideological sense. In Stalin’s time the view was translated into the literal sense of wishing for the restoration of capitalism and of deliberately selling out to the bourgeoisie. In proof, the authors select statements by the victims in the trials of literal service to the bourgeoisie and juxtapose to them statements from Lenin’s polemics charging that the positions of his opponents served the interests of the bourgeoisie. Lenin meant this in an objective sense, the authors acknowledge, but by its own logic Bolshevik extremism wound up in the subjective sense apparent in the “confessions” of the victims of the Moscow Trials when they said they “desired” the restoration of capitalism. As Bolsheviks the defendants had been conditioned to regard deviations as service to the bourgeoisie, therefore as “crimes.” and therefore to consider themselves as “guilty” insofar as they represented oppositional tendencies that had been proved wrong by events.
  3. Psychoanalysis, with “further research” as to exact facts, the authors hold, may give us deeper insight into “the unconscious significance of Bolshevik attitudes,” and thus help us appreciate better the motivation of Bolsheviks on trial willingly confessing to “guilt.” Perhaps Stalin constituted a “father” image and the Bolshevik Party a “mother” image. The unconscious rebellion against the “father” led to feelings of “guilt.” This was rationalized politically. For example, Zinoviev and Kamenev participated in a political opposition to Stalin; but their predictions about the disastrous consequences of Stalin’s policies proved wrong and Stalin proved right. Unconscious guilt thus became translated into political guilt which was further translated by the NKVD in cooperation with the defendants, into guilt of a criminal character. By “confessing,” the defendants performed a “last service” for the party and thus won atonement.

Let us start with the last “speculation” – which is much more than speculation, since the authors use the word “guilt” so heavily in connection with the defendants as to obscure the clear findings of the Dewey Commission on their innocence. In psychoanalytic terminology, unconscious “guilt” is a form of neurotic anxiety having nothing to do with legal guilt or innocence in a juridical trial, still less a juridical frame-up. To speculate about the possible “guilt” feelings of a mass of frame-up victims is beside the point. Worse than that is the injustice it does the victims. Why should they be singled out for such speculations? The prosecutor Vishinsky may have had deeper “guilt” feelings than the defendants, but that did not lead him to join the prisoners and confess even though he was actually guilty of both conspiring against and of murdering leaders of the Soviet Union.

Vulgar Parody

Anxiety is a common mass phenomenon of our times. Psychoanalysts no doubt see its manifestations, in their daily practice, in an endless variety of individual forms. But to attempt to utilize this common phenomenon as a specific explanation of “why they confessed,” as Leites and Bernaut do, is an unspeakably vulgar parody of psychoanalysis. “Further research” – to use a favorite phrase of the authors – might disclose that more to the point is the projection in the book of the “attitudes” of the authors, including their own “unconscious guilt.” It is a rule of psychoanalysis, which is a serious science, that its practitioners must first undergo psychoanalysis themselves preliminary to trying it out on others.

Before passing on, we note what our amateur psychologists were willing to pay politically to the Stalinist frame-up system for the sake of their dubious speculation: They granted the truth of those parts of the frame-up script prepared by the secret political police which have the victims speak about the good treatment they received in prison, their free will in “confessing,” and their relief at finally unburdening their guilty souls in public.

Leites and Bernaut fare no better with their second attempted explanation – that Stalinism is the end product of Bolshevism. To maintain this thesis they had to maintain that the defendants in the show trials were genuine Bolsheviks. Even more, that those on the side of the prosecution were genuine Bolsheviks. And, on top of this, that no special selection was involved on either side, all of them running true to type like random samples from a garbage truck.

They thus left out of consideration:

  1. Cases where “confessions” were repudiated. (Except the lone case of Krestinsky, who retracted his “confession” one day in court only to reaffirm it the next day.)
  2. Cases where no ‘‘confessions” were made and which therefore did not come to court although the victims were shot just the same.
  3. Cases where Bolsheviks exposed the whole frame-up and “confession” system and denounced it as the complete antithesis of everything in Bolshevism.

Not much “further research” is needed to establish that the authors apparently deemed it inexpedient to deal with such unwelcome “exceptions” flatly contradicting their not-so-original thesis. From the viewpoint of method – if they can be accused at all of concern about scientific method – the authors were thus guilty of assuming what they sought to prove: that both the organizers of the frame-ups and the victims who “confessed” were genuine Bolsheviks truly representative of the species.

We now come to the contention of Leites and Bernaut that Russian literature is rich in prototypes for passages in the scripts of the trials and that this casts a revealing light on the national psychology and family background of the defendants and the motives for their “confessions.” What does this really prove except that the literary background of the authors of the frame-up scripts was more Russian than, let us say, Spanish? It is not unusual to trace the literary influences visible in the work of a playwright. It is somewhat more than unusual, however, on the part of a dramatic critic to attempt to estimate the unconscious attitudes of an actor by the content of the lines he recites, especially if the lilies are chosen for him by someone else and he is forced to recite them with a Mauser at the base of his skull.

No New Light

Ritual of Liquidation casts no new light whatsoever on the Moscow Trials. Not a single new fact is added to the ones already uncovered by the Trotskyists and the Dewey Commission. Instead of light, Leites and Bernaut offer a sticky cobweb of worthless speculation.

The Moscow Trials can be properly understood only in the context of the social and political relations that developed in the isolated workers state under the influence of the counter-revolutionary imperialist world that surrounded it and that actively sought to crush it. In this context Stalinism appears as the counter-revolutionary internal reflection of the external pressures. It is the logical extension – not of Leninism! – but of bourgeois reaction pushing for the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s frame-up system bears no resemblance to the outlook of the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. But it does bear a strong resemblance to the “justice” of Fascism and Nazism and the lynch-law of the Bourbon South or the anti-unionism of the economic royalists in the corporation-dominated North. Stalinism was not the product of Bolshevism but a throw-back, a reversion toward everything the Bolsheviks fought against. Thus the Communist Party under Stalin was not the same as it was under Lenin – it was qualitatively different. The old roots into the working class withered. New roots were sunk into the petty-bourgeoisie, into the most backward and reactionary elements left as a heritage from Czarist Russia.

The crushing of the Left Opposition marked the crushing of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. After that the scene was left mainly to the usurpers of the power and to those who weakened and capitulated, giving up their Bolshevik tradition and program. The crushing of the Left Opposition constituted the first preparation for the frame-up system that reached its most spectacular expression in the Moscow Trials. The capitulations to Stalinism in the twenties constituted the first preparation of the Zinovievs, Kamenevs, and Radeks for their ultimate “confessions” in the Moscow Trials.

I call attention to this not to set Leites and Bernaut right, for they know better. They indicate by their references that they have read Trotsky’s analysis of the Moscow Trials. Their silence about the analysis shows that they reject it. However, it remains the only materialist explanation, the only explanation of the frame-ups in terms of economic, social and political relations. To reject it means in advance to stultify any further analysis of the trials.

This has now been demonstrated in a way that should put the finish once and for all to books like Ritual of Liquidation. The first new facts about “why they confessed” came just two years after publication of this exercise in scholastic speculation. We refer to Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party:

“The commission has become acquainted with a large quantity of materials in the NKVD archives and with other documents and has established many facts pertaining to the fabrication of cases against Communists, to glaring abuses of Socialist legality which resulted in the death of innocent people. It became apparent that many party, Government and economic activists who were branded in 1937-38 as ‘enemies,’ were actually never enemies, spies, wreckers, etc., but were always honest Communists.

“They were only so stigmatized and often, no longer able to bear barbaric tortures, they charged themselves (at the order of the investigative judges – falsifiers) with all kinds of grave and unlikely crimes.”

Not only tortures, we observe, but barbaric tortures. What happens to the thesis about the willingness of the victims to participate in the frame-up show?

We skip much of interest in Khrushchev’s revelations until we come to the order issued at Stalin’s instance, after the killing of Kirov, ordering a “speed up” in the processing of frame-ups and immediate execution of death sentences.

“This directive,” says Khrushchev, “became the basis for mass acts of abuse against Socialist legality. During many of the fabricated Court cases the accused were charged with ‘the preparation’ of terroristic acts; this deprived them of any possibility that their cases might be re-examined, even when they stated before the court that their ‘confessions’ were secured by force, and when, in a convincing manner, they disproved the accusations against them.”

Why did Leites and Bernaut overlook the possibility of such cases in deciding what represented the Bolshevik tradition and what didn’t?

Khrushchev did not make a slip of the tongue in specifying barbaric tortures as the device for securing confessions:

“Now when the cases of some of these so-called ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’ were examined it was found that all their cases were fabricated. Confessions of guilt of many arrested and charged with activity were gained with the help of cruel and inhuman tortures.”

Khrushchev’s Alibi

As his own alibi for active participation in Stalin’s frame-up system, Khrushchev avers:

“At the same time Stalin, as we have been informed by members of the Political Bureau of that time, did not show them the statements of many accused political activists when they retracted their confessions before the military tribunal and asked for an objective examination of their cases. There were many such declarations, and Stalin doubtlessly knew of them.”

That should be underlined: “There were many such declarations ...” Mathematicians Leites and Bernaut, interested in proving the truth of the false equation: Stalinism = Leninism, overlooked that possibility.

As an example of “vile provocation, of odious falsification and of criminal violation of revolutionary legality,” Khrushchev cites the case of Robert I. Eikhe:

“Eikhe was forced under torture to sign ahead of time a protocol of his confession prepared by the investigative judges, in which he and several other eminent party workers were accused of anti-Soviet activity.

“On Oct. 1, 1939, Eikhe sent his declaration to Stalin in which he categorically denied his guilt and asked for an examination of his case.”

Eikhe tried to prove that he was a loyal Stalinist but that did not save him. He was shot just the same. We note that it was a case of “confession” under torture and a “confession” that was later repudiated in court. But the record of that court case was never made available. We can see why Stalin would be interested in hiding such records from public knowledge, but it is difficult for us to account for the psychological blindness in Leites and Bernaut that would not permit them to visualize cases like that.

How the Scripts Were Prepared

Khrushchev utilizes the case of Rozenblum to illustrate how the “NKVD workers manufactured fictitious ‘anti-Soviet centers’ and ‘blocs’ with the help of provocatory methods”:

“When Rozenblum was arrested in 1937 he was subjected to terrible torture, during which he was ordered to confess false information concerning himself and other persons.”

He was offered his freedom if he would cooperate, and Rozenblum quoted NKVD official Zakovsky on how everything would work out:

“You yourself will not need to invent anything. The NKVD will prepare for you a ready outline for every branch of the center; you will have to study it carefully and to remember well all questions and answers which the court might ask. This case will be ready in four to five months, or perhaps a half year. During all this time you will be preparing yourself so that you will not compromise the investigation and yourself. Your future will depend on how the trial goes and on its results. If you begin to lie and to testify falsely, blame yourself. If you manage to endure it, you will save your head and we will feed and clothe you at the government’s cost until your death.”

In the light of that revelation from a most authoritative source on how the NKVD prepared its scripts and its actors, what happens to the “psychoanalysis” of the victims, thought up by Leites and Bernaut, to explain the smooth cooperation when the show was finally staged?

Khrushchev emphasizes repeatedly that the “confessions” were obtained by torture:

“When Stalin said that one or another should be arrested, it was necessary to accept on faith that he was an ‘enemy of the people.’ Meanwhile, Beria’s gang, which ran the organs of state security, outdid itself in proving the guilt of the arrested and the truth of materials which it falsified.

“And what proofs were offered? The confessions of the arrested, and the investigative judges accepted these ‘confessions.’ And how is it possible that a person confesses to crimes which he has not committed ? Only in one way – because of application of physical methods of pressuring him, tortures, bringing him to a state of unconsciousness, deprivation of his judgment, taking away of his human dignity. In this manner were ‘confessions’ acquired.”

An Infamous Telegram

Is all this new to Leites and Bernaut, who claim to have made The First Fully Documented Study of Why They Confessed? Khrushchev cites a new document they can add to any future edition of their work, a “coded telegram” sent by Stalin Jan. 20, 1939 “to the committee secretaries of oblasts and krais, to the Central Committees of republic Communist parties, to the Peoples Commissars of Internal Affairs and to the heads of NKVD organizations.” This infamous telegram, which sounds like something from the days of the Spanish Inquisition, “explains that the application of methods of physical pressure in NKVD practice is permissible from 1937 on ...” The order ends on a note typical of Stalin’s genius, “physical pressure should still be used obligatorily, as an exception applicable to known and obstinate enemies of the people, as a method both justifiable and appropriate.”

Khrushchev describes a judge who functioned under Stalin, one Rodos. “He is a vile person, with the brain of a bird, and morally completely degenerate.” Rodos told the Central Committee Presidium, according to Khrushchev:

“I was told that Kosior and Chubar were people’s enemies and for this reason, I, as an investigative judge, had to make them confess that they are enemies.”

“He could do this,” Khrushchev explained, “only through long tortures, which he did, receiving detailed instructions from Beria.”

After taking up Stalin’s conduct of the war, which cost the Soviet Union millions of unnecessary deaths, Khrushchev returned to the subject of how “confessions” were obtained, this time in relation to the Doctors Plot, which was being prepared at the time of Stalin’s sudden death.

Stalin “issued orders to arrest a group of eminent Soviet medical specialists. He personally issued advice on the conduct of the investigation and the method of interrogation of the arrested persons.”

“He said the academician, Vinogradov, should be put in chains, another one should be beaten. Present at this congress as a delegate is the former Minister of State Security, Comrade Ignatiev, Stalin told him curtly, ‘If you do not obtain confessions from the doctors we will shorten you by a head.’

“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.

“Shortly after the doctors were arrested we members of the Political Bureau received protocols from the doctors; confessions of guilt. After distributing these protocols Stalin told us, ‘You are blind like young kittens; what will happen without me? The country will perish because you do not know how to recognize enemies’.”

Khrushchev’s speech, of course, was aimed at getting rid of the mantle of Stalin under which the late dictator’s heirs feel they will be smothered. It is aimed at appealing to the universal hatred in the Soviet Union for “the most sinister figure in all history,” as Trotsky put it. Nevertheless Khrushchev’s speech cuts in two directions. At one stroke it smashes the Stalin cult. But it likewise wrecks the carefully balanced house of cards that tries to establish a psychological and political identity between Stalinism and Leninism. That is done by revelation of the simple formula, conceived in the fertile brain of Stalin, “beat, beat, and once again, beat.” Strange that sophisticates, familiar with the dark depths of the human mind uncovered by psychoanalysis, never thought of that.

Perhaps, in view of Krushchev’s revelations, Leites and Bernaut will feel a slight twinge of guilt about their speculations. If so, we think an apology is in order to the much-injured victims of the Moscow Trials.

While they are about it, they might note that the Stalinist machine itself no longer proclaims Stalinism to be the continuation of Leninism. This should be of interest to all who have peddled this thesis, for the Stalinists are the original authorities on the topic – they were the ones who invented it.

Khrushchev’s revelations do not add anything essentially new to what was already known about the Moscow Trials in general. The revelations consist simply of new facts to be added to the mountain of evidence already accumulated principally by the Trotskyists. The main interest in these new facts lies in their source. They come from one of Stalin’s own hand-picked lieutenants, who participated on the side of the NKVD in organizing the frame-ups. Their value, so far as the trials are concerned, lies in the additional confirmation they give to Trotsky’s basic analysis. They constitute the first confession by the Stalinist murder machine of the truth of its activities. This confession will be followed by others; but Khrushchev’s alone is definitive. It signified the end of the Stalin cult.

Leites and Bernaut dismissed Trotsky’s analysis of the Moscow Trials. For that they had to pay a severe penalty. The first confirmation from Stalinist sources of Trotsky’s analysis served at the same time to guarantee dismissal of their book from serious consideration as a study of the Moscow Trials.


Last updated on: 5.3.2006