Leon Trotsky

The Priests of Half-Truth

(March 1938)

Written: 19 March 1938.
Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 16, 16 April 1938, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The Nation and the New Republic are now playing the sorriest and most ignoble role in the American press. These journals lay claim to the role of oracles of “liberal” public opinion. They have no ideas of their own. The social crisis that began in 1929 and caught the “liberals” unaware compelled them to cling to the U.S.S.R. like a saving anchor. In popularizing the successes of the planning principle and in the cautious counterpoising of this principle to capitalist anarchy, these gentlemen temporarily found a mission. They had absolutely no independent program of action for the United States; but for that, they were able to cover up their own muddle-headedness with an idealized image of the U.S.S.R.

In fact, the “friendship” with Moscow signified the reconciliation of bourgeois liberalism with the bureaucracy which had strangled the October Revolution. The more extensive the privileges of the new leading stratum became, and the more conservative it grew in the defense of its privileges – the greater became the number of its friends among the bourgeois intellectuals and the liberals, snobs who keep up with the vogue of the day. The inspirers of this state of mind became Walter Duranty and Louis Fischer, downright sycophants of the Soviet oligarchy. Under their guidance, small-minded professors, mediocre poets, lawyers who had not succeeded in attaining prominence, bored widows, and ordinary lonesome ladies, seriously began to take their friendship with the Soviet Embassy in Washington for service in the interests of the October Revolution. Many of them displayed a readiness to defend the Soviet Union to the last drop of. blood ... not theirs, to be sure, but that of the “Trotskyists.”

Reed and ... Duranty

In the heroic epoch of the revolution, the representative of American public opinion in Moscow was John Reed. At that time, Walter Duranty was located in Riga, working as professional calumniator of the revolution and of its leaders. In later years, Duranty became the principal link between the Soviet bureaucracy and “liberal” public opinion in the United States. The moral contrast between John Reed and Walter Duranty well reflects the political antagonism between Bolshevism and Stalinism. If the editors of the Nation and the New Republic tax their ingenuity to avoid an understanding of this antagonism, it is because such petty tradesmen in lies as Duranty and Louis Fischer are incomparably closer to them in spirit than the heroic John Reed. [1]

Is it surprising that the present bureaucracy of the Kremlin is incomparably more suitable to the democratic oracles than was the revolutionary party of Lenin? Just as in the past they did not understand the laws of the revolution, so today they do not understand the laws of reaction. They hoped that the bureaucracy, not without their benevolent cooperation, would become increasingly respectable and “human.” Faith in uninterrupted and automatic progress has not been extirpated, to the present day, from the heads of these people. They have been unable to draw any conclusions at all even from the fact that the democratic petty bourgeoisie, whose flesh of the flesh they are, transformed itself in a few years in Germany into an army of fascism. They were even less capable of understanding the malignant evolution of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Logic of Class Struggle

Lamentable indeed is he who, in the great turns of history, confines himself to empirical conjecture instead of penetrating into the imminent logic of the class struggle. In the psychological sense, the defendants were merely instruments in the hands of the G.P.U. Inquisition. In the historical sense, the Inquisitor, Stalin, is merely an instrument in the hands of the bureaucracy which has landed in a blind alley. The bureaucracy itself is merely an instrument of the pressure of world imperialism. The Soviet masses hate the bureaucracy. World imperialism regards it as a tool that has outlived its usefulness and makes preparations to overturn it. The bureaucracy seeks to dupe the masses. It seeks to dupe world imperialism. It lies on both fronts. So that the truth shall not filter out past the frontier nor filter into the country from abroad, the bureaucracy allows only “reliable” people to enter or leave the country.

It surrounds the Soviet Union with a border patrol palisade such as the world has never seen and with a countless pack of police dogs.

The period when world imperialism subjected the Soviet land to a blockade is now lost in, the past. The blockade of the U.S.S.R. today is organized by the Soviet bureaucracy itself. Of the revolution as it understands it, it has preserved only the cult of police violence. It thinks that with the aid of police dogs the course of history can be altered. It fights for its existence with a conservative fury such as has not been displayed by any ruling class in history. Along this road, it has arrived in a short time at the commission of crimes such as not even fascism has yet perpetrated. Of this dialectic of the Thermidor, the democratic oracles have understood nothing, understand nothing now and – let there be no illusions – will not understand anything. Otherwise they would be obliged to shut down immediately the Nation and the New Republic and thus upset the equilibrium of the solar system!

Opposites Identified

Since the Thermidorean reaction came out of the revolution, the Nation and the New Republic have sought tirelessly to prove that revolution and reaction are one and the same thing. They have systematically approved or at least kept silent about the work of falsification, of lies, of corruption, which the Stalinist bureaucracy has accomplished throughout the world. They have covered up the repression against the Oppositionists which has been going on now for fifteen years. Yet there has been no lack of warnings. The literature of the Left Opposition is fairly rich, in all languages.

For fifteen years it has showed, step by step, how the methods of the bureaucracy came into increasingly sharp conflict with the requirements of a new society; how the bureaucracy was obliged to screen its own greedy interests, not only by making its own the mechanics of lying of all the ruling classes, but also by investing these mechanics – in view of the acuteness of the situation in a country scarcely emerged from a revolution – with an unprecedentedly poisonous character. With irrefragable facts and documents we showed how a whole school of falsification came out of the Thermidorian reaction – the school of Stalin – which envenomed every domain of social ideology; we explained how and why it was precisely Stalin (“the cook of peppery dishes,” according to Lenin’s definition as far back as March 1921.) who became head of the avid and conservative caste of usurpers of the revolution; we predicted the Moscow trials ten years before they took place and we explained to the most backward that the judicial frame-ups are only convulsions of the Thermidorean agony.

Finally, in 1937, the International Commission of New York, composed of persons of high moral authority and accustomed to critical judgment, subjected the accusations of Stalin and Vyshinsky to a patient and meticulous analysis. In all the accusations, they found nothing but lies, falsifications, frame-ups. They stated this openly to the entire world. The verdict of the Commission was intended essentially for the “man in the street,” the farmer, the small tradesman, the backward worker, in a word, the majority of those whose conditions of existence deprive them of the necessary training and broad horizons.

From the editors of the Nation and the New Republic, these breveted teachers of the people, one might, it would seem, have demanded a critical sense of their own. They might, for example, have recalled from what they learned under their old schoolteachers, that the Thermidorean reaction in France proclaimed the Jacobins to be “Royalists” and “agents of Pitt,” in order to justify in the eyes of the masses the sanguinary repression against them. From these professional moralists, one might, it would seem, have expected some sense of morality. Does not the moral degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy stink to high heaven? Alas, the moralists have been found to be devoid even of a simple sense of smell.

Panorama of Narrowness

The Moscow trials not only took this circle of people unawares but have destroyed the tranquillity of their souls for a long time to come. A collection of all the articles of the Nation and the New Republic, dealing with the three big trials – what a panorama of narrowness, vanity, hypocrisy and above all of confusion. No, they did not expect them! How could this have happened? Yet, while they lack in perspicacity and a sense of smell, they possess to the highest degree the feeling for self-preservation of the priestly caste, thenceforth, their whole behavior was determined by concern with the obliteration of their traces, that is, with seeing to it that the faithful remain unaware of the fact that inside the oracle, all this time, were concealed not very far sighted priests. Theoretically, these Pharisees indignantly reject the principle: “The end justifies the means,” failing to understand that a great historical goal automatically discards those means that are unworthy of it. But in order to bolster up traditional petty prejudices and especially their own authority in the eyes of the simpletons, they are always ready to resort to artful dodges, and frame-ups of picayune scope.

At first, they tried openly to fulfill their duty as “friends,” that is, attorneys for the G.P.U. But this proved to be too risky. They speedily shifted to the position of philosophical agnosticism and diplomatic non-intervention. They declared the trials to be “puzzling.” They refrained from judgment. They warned against premature conclusions. “We cannot decide anything from the outside.” “We must not interfere in the affairs of Soviet justice.” In a word, they sought evasively to reconcile world public opinion to the abominations that were being concocted in Moscow. These people wanted at all costs to remain on friendly terms with the executioners of the revolution but not to assume direct responsibility for the frame-ups of the G.P.U.

Obliged to Veer Again

However, they were unsuccessful in keeping to this second line for any length of time. Under the blows of the disclosures they sang at a continually lower pitch: of course, the charges are obviously improbable but ... but there is “something” behind them. “We are not with the Stalinists, but we also do not believe the Trotskyists.” Only the soothsayers of the Nation and the New Republic represent the truth. If, yesterday and the day before, they were blind, that is all the greater guarantee that today their sight is flawless. “There is something behind these charges.” Indeed! If the ruling clique is executing all who are left of the Bolshevik party, it has imperious reasons for doing so. However, we must look for these reasons in the objective interests of the bureaucracy and not in the speeches of Vyshinsky, nor in the frame-ups of Yezhov. But we already know: the dialectics of the class struggle remain for these empiricists a book sealed with seven seals. What can you ask or expect from philosophers and publicists who foresaw nothing, see nothing and who were caught completely unawares by the trials? There is nothing left for the bankrupt oracles but to divide the guilt in two: Fifty percent is allowed to the executioner, fifty percent to his victim.

The petty bourgeois always stands in the middle and judges a question by the formula: “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” If the capitalists are unbending, the workers are too exigent. This line of the golden mean, the Nation and the New Republic merely draw to its logical conclusion when they wear out half of their moral lymph on the G.P.U. and the other half on the real or fancied “Trotskyists.” And in the end, the liberal American finds out from his teachers that Zinoviev and Kamenev were only half-terrorists; that Pyatakov sabotaged industry only six months out of twelve; that Bukharin and Rykov are spies for only two and not four countries; and that Stalin is merely a half-falsifier and a half-scoundrel. Cain? Perhaps he is Cain, but not more than fifty percent.

Their World

Their philosophy reflects their own world. By their social nature they are intellectual semi-bourgeois. They feed upon half-thoughts and half-feelings. They wish to cure society by half-measures. Regarding the historical process as too unstable a phenomenon, they refuse to engage themselves more than fifty percent. Thus, these people, living by half-truths, that is to say, the worst form of falsehood, have become a genuine brake upon truly progressive, i.e., revolutionary thought.

A New Masses is simply a garbage can which puts people on their guard by its own odor. The Nation and the New Republic are considerably more “decent” and “nice” and less … odorous. But they are all the more dangerous. The best part of the new generation of American intellectuals can proceed on the broad historical highway only on the condition of a complete break with the oracles of “democratic” half-truth.

Coyoacan, D.F., March 19, 1938


1. W. Duranty, in spite of his genuine Anglo-Saxon “soul,” participates in the Moscow frame-ups in a strictly planful manner, side by side with the judges, the prosecutor, the defendants, and in general with people who have a “Russian soul.” However, Durantv was not even confronted with the necessity to choose every day between life and death. His colleague, Mr. Harold Denny, a man who obviously has an American soul, even if not of very large dimensions, has speedily adapted himself to the totalitarian regime. Faced with the need of choosing between lean-stomached truth and fat sandwiches, he unhesitatingly took his stand with the sandwiches and Vyshinsky. It is creatures of his stripe who are the source of inspiration for “liberal” public opinion.

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