Ernest Mandel

The causes and consequences
of Bukharin’s rehabilitation

(March 1988)

From: Inprecor, March 21, 1988, pp. 6–7.
Transcription/Markup: Martin Fahlgren in 2014 for the Marxists Internet Archive

A WHOLE series of factors contributed to the penal rehabilitation of the third Moscow Trial defendants by decree of the USSR Supreme Court on February 4, 1988.

ABOVE ALL, there was strong pressure for a review of all the Moscow trials from two sectors of public opinion.

The first were survivors and descendants of Stalin’s purge victims, who identify the cause of the accused in these trials with their own, that is, with unqualified condemnation of the purges. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of them. In contrast to the era of “de-Stalinization” under Khrushchev, they are no longer limiting themselves to individual, private, actions. They voice loudly their indignation and their demand for justice in public meetings, many of which have already brought together thousands of people. This pressure has struck a chord with the pro-Gorbachev liberal intelligentsia.

More and more, it is becoming an unavoidable problem for the resolute defenders of glasnost, of openness. For them, “openness” about the current situation is not credible, if not impossible, without “openness” about the past, without the reestablishment of the historic truth.

The second sector of public opinion that is on the same track is the young historians. The archives are now mainly – although not completely – open to them. Because of this they know the truth about the 1930s, and are, to differing degrees, determined to broadcast it. Here also, the difference of mentality and behaviour from the years 1956–62 is striking. This young generation is much more independent from the regime (but that does not mean totally independent) than the generation of Khrushchevian liberals.

We should remember that in the USSR, because of the still upheld dogma of the “leading role of the Communist Party”, all questions concerning the history of this party are relevant to today. Study of this history is compulsory for millions of young people. By the same token, the content of history books is an eminently political matter. All these text books are being rewritten. Once again, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this and sidestep or minimize the question of the 1930s purges and the Moscow trials.

This pressure coincides with a demand by a strong sector of the middle layers of the bureaucracy for a much stricter application of the principles of “Soviet legality”, in other words for restricting the arbitrary police manipulation of the juridical apparatus. Going far beyond the human rights campaign of a small layer of “dissidents”, this demand expresses an evident desire for self-protection on the part of the bureaucracy’s middle layers, which include millions of people. Gorbachev is looking for political support in these strata. For the time being they are divided between the “reformers” and the “conservatives”. Gorbachev is hoping to win them over, among other things, by offering them protection against any threat of radical purges. But this also leads to obligations to denounce the illegal character of past purges.

Alongside these not unimportant social forces there is the deeper political interest of Gorbachev’s “frontline supporters”. For the radical supporters of the perestroika (restructuring) of economy and society, the economic model of development supposedly advocated by the main defendants in the third Moscow Trial, Bukharin and Rykov (Lenin’s successor and head of the Soviet of People’s Commissars), is a direct inspiration for their own model of development: build socialism in a very gradualist way; protection and extension of the private sector; deliberate support for the greed and the desire for private enrichment of large layers of the population; much greater recourse to market mechanisms; franker and more open encouragement of social inequality (this happened in a rather more illegal manner under Stalin and Brezhnev, but was clearly encouraged and stimulated by the bureaucratic dictatorship).

So, it is now politically useful for these reformers to politically rehabilitate Bukharin and his co-thinkers. And such political rehabilitation is impossible without a juridical rehabilitation.

Conservatives continue to hail Stalin period

Gorbachev – a pragmatic political leader worlds away from Khrushchev’s impulsiveness – has long hesitated to heed the clamours of his own most committed lieutenants. This is not only to protect his back, or to ensure that there will not be too violent an opposition from the conservatives, who continue to hail the Stalin period. It is, above all, because he understands perfectly the inextricable contradictions of a juridical rehabilitation solely of the accused in the third Moscow Trial, without juridical rehabilitation of those of the second trial (Piatakov, Radek and their comrades), and those of the first trial (Zinoviev, Kamenev, their comrades and, explicitly, Leon Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov).

Juridically, the non-rehabilitation of all three Old Bolsheviks and of Trotsky is logically untenable in light of the rehabilitations of the accused in the third trial. Gorbachev and his associates are confronted with this problem today, after the decree of the Supreme Court in February. This decree, indeed, explicitly quashes the verdict of the third Moscow Trial.

But that verdict stated that practically all the main crimes attributed to the defendants had been carried out “under the instructions of the enemy of the people, L. Trotsky”. This applies notably to the accusations of collusion with foreign spy networks, of agreements to break up the USSR, terrorist activity, the decision to assassinate leaders of the state and the party, sabotage and other diversive activities and the assassination of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev and Gorky. Bukharin was also accused of having organized a conspiracy with Trotsky to overthrow Lenin’s government in 1918, at the time of the Brest-Litovsk peace talks.

These accusations were to a large extent the basis of the verdicts made in the first and second Moscow Trials, and of the claim in the first trial’s verdict that Trotsky and Sedov were guilty of crimes of terrorism, sabotage, assassination and so on. They have now lost all juridical value. Moreover, an attentive reading of the “debates” and verdict of the third trial confirms that Trotsky was the principal defendant.

But politically, a rehabilitation of Trotsky and Sedov – indeed of Zinoviev, Radek and their friends – seems difficult to conceive of for Gorbachev’s supporters, to say nothing of Gorbachev himself.

Trotsky personified an alternative to Stalin

Indeed Trotsky and his friends in the Left Opposition and the United Opposition personified an alternative to Stalin and the Stalinist dictatorship, with which the reformist wing of the bureaucracy has nothing in common: an orientation to the working class, nationally and internationally, towards more power and rights for the workers as against the managers; an orientation to greater equality, based on the democratic freedom of public inspection and exposure; an orientation towards international revolution (not the “revolutionary war” falsely attributed to Trotsky), based on the possibilities and resources of the proletariat themselves in each country, and not towards “socialism in one country” or “campism”, which subordinate the interests of the international revolution to those of the USSR. [1]

Can Gorbachev grant juridical rehabilitation to Trotsky, Zinoviev-Kamenev, Piatakov-Radek, while still condemning them politically? This is not impossible, but it is very difficult.

Juridical rehabilitation would lead to some extremely embarrassing practical legal consequences for the Soviet regime. How could it oppose free access to the writings of Trotsky and the Opposition, once they were no longer regarded as “counter-revolutionaries” and “enemies of the people”, but as honest communists who erred politically? How could it prevent in the future free access to these writings and their republication, even selectively?

But this is all political dynamite in the USSR today. Such republication would immediately expose the fact that not only the “criminal” charges of the Stalin period, but even the political charges wheeled out today by Gorbachev and his cronies, are mostly slanderous and would not stand up to even a cursory reading of the documents of the era.

These writings would show that, as early as 1923, the Opposition denounced the bureaucracy and called for socialist democracy in terms often identical to those used by Gorbachev today (something Bukharin by no means did). They would show that the Opposition was opposed to any forced collectivization of agriculture. They would show that the Opposition fiercely defended the rights and powers of workers against the bureaucracy. They would show that the Opposition demanded freedom for young people, women’s rights, cultural pluralism.

All this immediately raises the question: is it accidental that Stalin made Trotsky and Trotskyism his number one enemies? All this cannot fail to awaken and stimulate widespread sympathy for Trotsky and Trotskyism among critical layers of the Soviet masses. This is an additional reason for us to expand our campaign and the action of the whole international workers’ movement for a total and complete juridical rehabilitation for all the accused in the first and second Moscow Trials, including comrades Leon Trotsky and Leon Sedov!


1. The United Opposition was composed of the veterans of the 1923–25 Left Opposition led by Trotsky – which had continued the fight that Lenin had organized at the end of his active life against the course of the bureaucracy – and the Leningrad followers of Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had from 1923–25 allied with Stalin against the Opposition. The United Opposition was formed in April 1926. It lasted until the Opposition was expelled from the Party in December 1927, whereupon the Zinovievist leaders at once capitulated – Ed.

Last updated on 3 October 2014