Leon Trotsky


by George Novack

This book contains the verbatim transcript of the hearings held by the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. The Dewey Commission, as it is known, was an independent, impartial body initiated in March 1937 by the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky.

Its sole purpose was to ascertain all the available facts about the Moscow Trial proceedings in which Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov, were the principal accused and to render a judgment based upon those facts. Its sub-commission conducted thirteen hearings at the home of the exiled revolutionary in Coyoacan, Mexico, D.F., from April 10 to April 17, 1937. During these sessions it received Trotsky’s testimony and that of his secretary, Jan Frankel, cross-examined both witnesses, heard Trotsky’s answer to the charges against him and his countercharges against the Soviet government. It accepted, subject to verification, such documentary evidence as he had to introduce.

The reasons for the commission’s formation and its work were bound up with one of the most momentous and tragic political events of the nineteen-thirties: the prolonged blood purges and frame-up trials through which Stalin consolidated his personal terroristic tyranny over the Soviet Union.

His henchmen staged four key trials from 1936 to 1938. The first was “the trial of the sixteen,” with Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov, Mrachkovsky, and others as defendants; the second, “the trial of the seventeen,” which included Pyatakov, Radek, Sokolnikov, Muralov, Serebryakov, and others, took place in January 1937. Then came the secret trial of Marshal Tukhachevsky and a group of the highest Red Army generals in June 1937; and finally, “the trial of the twenty-one” (Rykov, Bukharin, Krestinsky, Rakovsky, Yagoda, and others) in March 1938.

The men in the dock included all the members of Lenin’s Politbureau, except Stalin himself. Trotsky, though absent, was the chief defendant in these proceedings. He and the Bolshevik old guard were charged with plotting to assassinate Stalin and other Soviet leaders, of conspiring to wreck the country’s economic and military power, and of killing masses of Russian workers. They were likewise accused of working, from the earliest days of the Russian Revolution, for the espionage services of Britain, France, Japan, and Germany and of making secret agreements with agents of Hitler and the Mikado to cede vast slices of Soviet territory to imperialist Germany and Japan. The defendants in Moscow abjectly confessed to their guilt; Trotsky alone did not.

The trials of these notables were accompanied and followed by a frightful purge of people from every walk of Soviet life: party members, military men, Comintern leaders, intellectuals, officials, ordinary workers and peasants. It is still undetermined how many were caught in its bloody net, since the post-Stalin regimes still refuse to divulge such facts. But the victims numbered in the millions.

Stalin did not spare his closest associates or members of his own family. Even the secret police chiefs, Yagoda and Yezhov, who organized the early trials, were later slaughtered.

Stalin arrested and executed almost every important living Bolshevik participant in the Revolution. Of 1,966 delegates to the seventeenth Soviet party congress in 1934, 1,108 were arrested. Of 139 members of the Central Committee, 98 were arrested. Along with the three Soviet marshals, one-third to one-half of the 75,000 Red Army officers were arrested or shot.

The purges of the nineteen-thirties were so sweeping that no major party figure of the October Revolution, which gave power to the Bolsheviks, survived to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the event, except Stalin’s faithful lieutenant, Vyacheslav Molotov, who was retired in disgrace in 1958. The terror has left enduring scars upon Soviet society. There are few families there today which did not in one way or another suffer from its effects.

The sub-commission hearings in Mexico took place in April 1937 between the second and the third Moscow Trials. In the trials of August 1936 and January 1937, Trotsky and Sedov had been declared convicted without any opportunity for their cases to be heard. They had denied their guilt through the world press and in their turn had accused the Soviet government of having based their “convictions” on false evidence. Indeed, the forced confessions of the defendants in the public trials were the only basis for the verdicts.

Trotsky was the only one among the accused Bolshevik leaders who was beyond Stalin’s grip. When Zinoviev and Kamenev were put on trial, Trotsky had challenged Moscow to request his extradition from Norway, where he was then living as an exile from the Soviet Union. This procedure would have brought his case before a Norwegian tribunal. Instead, the Norwegian government, under heavy economic and diplomatic pressure from the Kremlin’s ambassador, interned Trotsky and his wife. For six months he was gagged and unable to answer the monstrous charges against him.

As soon as he gained asylum in Mexico in January 1937, Trotsky publicly demanded the formation of an international commission of inquiry, since he had been deprived of any opportunity to reply to the accusations before a legally constituted court. He asked that such a body be constituted of unimpeachable personages who would take his testimony and consider documentary proofs of the innocence of himself and Sedov.

In a speech prepared for delivery by telephone from Mexico City to a large meeting at the New York Hippodrome on February 9, 1937, Trotsky made the following dramatic declaration: “If this commission decides that I am guilty in the slightest degree of the crimes which Stalin imputes to me, I pledge in advance to place myself voluntarily in the hands of the executioners of the GPU [Soviet secret police].”

Such an inquiry was imperatively justified in view of the controversy and consternation stirred up by the trials, the widespread suspicion of their authenticity, the many lives at stake, and the gravity of the issues they posed. Trotsky was entitled to have his day in court and establish the credibility of the charges, not only to defend his honor and reputation as a revolutionist but to try and forestall further trials and executions.

The members of the full commission were John Dewey, its chairman, America’s foremost philosopher and liberal; Otto Ruehle, biographer of Karl Marx and former member of the Reichstag who alone with Liebknecht had voted against war in 1914-15; Benjamin Stolberg and Suzanne La Follette, American journalists; Carleton Beals, authority on Latin-American affairs; Alfred Rosmer, who in 1920-21 had been a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International; Wendelin Thomas, leader of the Wilhelmshaven sailors’ revolt in November 1918 and later a Communist member of the German Reichstag; Edward A. Ross, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin; John Chamberlain, former literary critic of the New York Times; Carlo Tresca, well-known Italian-American anarchist leader; and Francisco Zamora, Mexican journalist.

The first five made up the subcommission which went to Coyoacan. John Finerty, famous as defense counsel in such great American political trials as those of Tom Mooney and Sacco-Vanzetti, acted as the commission’s legal counsel. Albert Goldman of Chicago was Trotsky’s attorney.

The commission members held widely divergent political and ideological views, and none was a follower of Trotsky. They were concerned with the interests of historic truth as well as the desire to ascertain the facts in the case. They had been mandated by similar committees in France, England, and Czechoslovakia to fulfill that responsibility.

The taking of testimony in Mexico was followed by months of assiduous investigation. The commission made its findings public in New York on September 21, 1937. It stated: “(1) That the conduct of the Moscow trials was such as to convince any unprejudiced person that no effort was made to ascertain the truth. (2) While confessions are necessarily entitled to the most serious consideration, the confessions themselves contain such inherent improbabilities as to convince the Commission that they do not represent the truth, irrespective of any means used to obtain them.”

The commission therefore concluded that the Moscow trials were frame-ups and Trotsky and Sedov were not guilty of the eighteen specific charges of the prosecution against them. (The complete report of the findings was published by Harper & Brothers in 1938 under the title of Not Guilty in a companion volume to this one.)

* * *

That verdict was rendered thirty years ago. Since then enlightened opinion the world over, not only in the capitalist but in most Communist countries, has come to recognize the monstrous falsifications perpetrated by Stalin against his political opponents.

Stalin’s successors at the head of the Soviet government have likewise acknowledged this truth in their own manner by their indictment of the dead dictator and posthumous rehabilitation of some of his victims (Trotsky is not yet among these). In his famous secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev partially disclosed the enormity of Stalin’s pogroms and the means by which his agents extorted false confessions from the self-defamed defendants. Stalin now clearly emerges as the real criminal of the proceedings, the sinister figure who mounted to unrestricted supremacy over the mountain of corpses he had besmirched. Thus history has already vindicated the work and conclusions of the Dewey Commission. A full and final accounting for these crimes will very likely have to wait until Stalin’s bureaucratic disciples are themselves replaced by honest representatives of the Soviet people who will undertake a thorough review of the trials and purges and restore all their victims to honor. This volume will facilitate that task.

It has still another value. In the course of the thirteen-day counter-trial, Trotsky was subjected to the most searching examination by his attorney and cross-examination by the commission members and their counsel. He had to do more than expose the falsity of Moscow’s allegations. He had to recount the main events of his career, expound his beliefs, describe and explain the bewildering changes that had taken place in the Soviet Union from Lenin to Stalin. He had to analyze the issues in the factional disputes within Russian and world communism, portray the leading personalities in the struggles, and touch upon every phase of the terrible contest between Stalin and himself which led up to the trials.

I attended the hearings as national secretary of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky and vividly remember the tension in the long, narrow, barricaded room as day after day Trotsky strained to answer all the questions directed at him in the unfamiliar English tongue. It was a prodigious intellectual performance.

“By the end no question had been left unanswered, no important issue blurred, no serious historic event unilluminated,” wrote Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Outcast. “Thirteen years later Dewey, who had spent so much of his life in academic debate and was still as opposed as ever to Trotsky’s Weltanschauung, recalled with enthusiastic admiration ’the intellectual power with which Trotsky had assembled and organized the mass of his evidence and argumentation and conveyed to us the meaning of every relevant fact.’ The incisiveness of Trotsky’s logic got the better of his unwieldy sentences, and the clarity of his ideas shone through all his verbal blunderings. Even his wit did not succumb; it often relieved the gloom of his subject-matter. Above all, the integrity of his case allowed him to overcome all external restraint and constraint. He stood where he stood like truth itself, unkempt and unadorned, unarmoured and unshielded yet magnificent and invincible.” [1]

The record of the hearings is therefore an extensive and valuable compendium of information about the events, personalities, and problems of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. It presents the ideas and positions of Marxism, Bolshevism, and Trotskyism on a wide range of questions.

Trotsky made his summary speech on the last day of the sessions. It concluded with a reaffirmation of his confidence in the ultimate triumph of the cause of socialism to which he had dedicated his life. The tragic backdrop of circumstances against which his words were spoken made them all the more moving and impressive.

“Esteemed Commissioners! The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack either of successes or of failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaiev – this faith I have preserved fully and completely. It has become more mature, but not less ardent.

“In the very fact of your Commission’s formation – in the fact that, at its head, is a man of unshakable moral authority, a man who by virtue of his age should have the right to remain outside of the skirmishes in the political arena – in this fact I see a new and truly magnificent reinforcement of the revolutionary optimism which constitutes the fundamental element of my life ...”

A hush fell over the assemblage as the Promethean revolutionary ended his prolonged and passionate presentation. The shadows of late afternoon had begun to cut across the patio outside. “Anything I can say will be an anti-climax,” the white-haired John Dewey remarked and pronounced the hearings closed. Their content is preserved in the following pages.

George Novack
March 1, 1968


1. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, Oxford 1963, pp.381-382.

Case of Leon Trotsky Index   |   Foreword

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Last updated on: 3.4.2007