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The Trial of the 21

Editors, The New International

April, 1938

From New International, Volume IV, Number 4, April, 1938, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Editor’s Comments


THE TRIAL OF THE 21 indicates, even more plainly than its predecessors, the superficiality of a merely “juridical” analysis of the Moscow trials. Apart from the Stalinist press, there is scarcely a newspaper or magazine in the world which did not openly. express its disbelief in the latest trial. There is hardly a person outside of the Stalinist ranks—and not so many even there—who thinks that Bukharin, Rykov and their co-defendants were actually guilty of the crimes with which they were charged in the indictment.

This trial, then, like the others, cannot be understood as a juridical procedure designed, together with the preliminary investigations, to determine the truth or falsity of charges brought against the defendants. It must, rather, be subjected to historical, sociological, political analysis as an expression and instrument of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It must be grasped in its concrete historical context, as an integral phase in the life-history of Stalinism. Only in this way can we avoid being driven to psycho-pathology, the Arabian Nights, or the “dark mysteries of the Russian soul”—the explanatory devices in which the surface-commentators finally take refuge.

We, and others, have already traced the historical evolution of the system of Moscow trials, and its relation to the general development of Stalinism. We shall confine ourselves here to filling in the background of this latest trial with those new or special features added during the thirteen months since the prior public trial, the Piatakov-Radek trial of January, 1937.

1. The first factor to take note of is the further working out of the internal logic of the system of trials itself. No trials, public or secret, and no purges solve anything for Stalinism. The trials and purges do not in the slightest degree affect the causes which, among other things, bring about the trials and purges themselves—causes which have their root in the fundamental conflict between the bureaucracy and the Soviet masses. The trials and purges express this conflict, and far from resolving it only aggravate it further. Since the conflict is deepening, one set of executions merely leads to another; and periodically certain of the executions are accompanied by the theatrical display of a public trial. Each trial must “outdo” the one preceding. Stalin is compelled to sink the wedge ever further between himself and the selected defendants—in reality between himself on the one side, and, on the other, the masses and their revolution. The crimes must be dated back to the revolution and even before it, so that Stalin will himself remain as the only authentic symbol of “the power”. Likewise each trial commits its inevitable and glaring “mistakes”; so that a new trial must be held to cover up the mistakes; but it in turn only commits still graver mistakes.

2. During the past year, for the first time in the past decade, not merely did the Plan fall far behind schedule, but, from all available evidence, production ran below that of the year preceding. The “final and irrevocable victory of socialism” was accompanied by a terrible paucity in consumers’ goods, and by breakdowns in many sectors of the economy. These shortages and breakdowns undoubtedly called vividly back to mind the sufferings and privations which were earlier endured under the illusion that they were rapidly ushering in the era of universal plenty.

3. The past year witnessed the outbreak of war in the Far East, and the intensification of the war crisis generally.

4. During recent months the diplomatic hopes of the regime were smashed by the slow, sure triumph of the Chamberlain policy in Great Britain—a policy which in Stalin’s eyes changes Great Britain from a potential friend to a potential enemy, and by the shift of Poland from its French alliance toward Berlin.

5. Likewise during this time the whole policy of Popular Frontism, the garb under which Stalinism was presented to the masses, went up in smoke. The growing international dissatisfaction with Stalinism was unmistakable.

These factors provide the key to the Trial of the 21.

What the Trial Said

STALIN’S PUBLIC TRIALS are not designed to prove the truth or falsity of anything whatever, certainly not of the guilt of the defendants. History, facts, dates, evidence are as of little moment in these trials as human lives and human dignity. The trials are political instruments, fashioned to serve specific political aims. Such an instrument, it is true, could be shaped only by such an agent—a bureaucracy released from all mass control, surviving solely through police terror, itself caught in an inescapably crunching trap, fighting vainly and insanely to get free. But the instrument is nonetheless fitting and appropriate.

Our brief review of the new developments faced by Stalinism was at the same time a review of the latest trial. A year ago Poland and Great Britain were friends or at least potential friends; therefore the defendants conspired only with Germany and Japan. Today they are potential enemies; therefore the defendants in the new trial conspired also with Poland and Great Britain. A new change in the fleeting coalitions of the great powers will bring new changes in the espionage connections. If the Franco-Soviet Pact is abrogated, we will doubtless discover that Litvinov has been in the French secret service since the time of Napoleon.

If the Plan is going to pieces, that is not in the least surprising. Rosengoltz, Chernov, Rykov and the others ruined one industry after another, from gold mines to butter to cotton, and still further upset the budget by shipping out a million dollars to Trotsky. What Stalin was doing while all of this was going on he has never seen fit to explain. Apparently he was following the advice of the three monkeys to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

If the previous trials were somewhat mismanaged—well, no wonder! They were directed by Yagoda, and look what kind of fellow Yagoda is! If it seems odd to you that the leaders of the revolution turn into traitors, that is only because you do not understand that these men were not leaders of the revolution, but fascist mad-dogs from 1918 on, many of them in fact in the pay of the Czar long before that.

And if the Popular Front and Popular Frontism have collapsed, that, too, is easy to comprehend. They have been stabbed consistently in the back by the international allies of the defendants. Here, then, is Stalin’s parable, performed under Klieg lights in the old Hall of the Nobles. It has the same symbolized characters as the age-old parables: a god who is all-mighty, all-just and all good; a devil, or rather a set of devils, the pure incarnation of evil; the flock of the faithful who believe (unlike the doubting Thomas) because they are told to believe; the heathen, heretics, outcasts, damned eternally for their unbelief (the “hard of heart”).

But, if we look behind the parable for a moment, we will discover that this new trial tells us an extraordinary number of things which are true, or at any rate confirms them. To tell these things was not the purpose of Stalin or Vyshinsky, but perhaps even God overlooks certain details.

For example, this trial features what is in effect a full admission by the State of the terrible ravages of the forced collectivization period. The accounts of famine, vast peasant unrest, violent coercion of the peasantry, fantastic dislocations of the food supply, which have always been officially denied by the Kremlin and ascribed to the slanderings of fascists and provocateurs, appear in the proceedings of the trial as facts which everyone knows. Indeed, the trial reveals that as usual the objective observers had said too little, and were over-optimistic. The testimony of Bukharin, Rykov, Chemov and others pointed not merely to peasant unrest, but to widespread peasant revolts and uprisings.

Again, the trial, in its own way, indicates graphically the bureaucratic unevenness of the Plan’s development, the impossible administrative conditions introduced by G.P.U. interference, and the appalling scarcity of key consumers’ goods.

The methods of the G.P.U., likewise, are as if taken for granted by the trial. No surprise is expressed at Yagoda’s having had a poison laboratory under his jurisdiction. The testimony of the doctors is eloquent:

BRAUDE (“Defense Counsel”): Perhaps you will sum up concretely the internal causes which led you, an old doctor in practice for 40 years, to agree to the foul, horrible proposal of Yagoda?

DR. LEVIN: Psychologically, I explain it by some cowardice, but not for my own life. I was more terrified at Yagoda’s threats to ruin my family.

BRAUDE: Please tell the court, was there a difference in the way Yagoda incited you from the time when he persuaded you regarding the murder of Peshkov and the latter time when he spoke of further crimes?

LEVIN: Of course, the difference was a very big one. At first he said I was doing a necessary thing. He spoke of this crime as of an act necessary to save Gorky from some enemies. And then, when I came to him, he immediately told me I was in his hands. . . .

VYSIUNSKY: Why did you not refuse to execute this criminal plan?

DR. PLETNEV: I was threatened by Yagoda.

VYSKINSKY: Why did you attach serious importance to Yagoda’s threats ?

PLETNEV: After all, he was People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs....

DR. KAZAKOV: ... Yagoda replied, “With Dr. Levin you must work out a method of treatment for Menzhinsky which will soon put an end to his useless existence, which hinders many people. I warn you that if you dare to resist, I will be able to deal with you. You won’t escape me anywhere. . . .” I realized I was in his clutches. . . . You’ll probably ask me what were my motives for keeping silence. I must say, motives of base fear. Yagoda held a high post. . . .

DR. LEVIN: He [Yagoda] said, “You must help in this. Bear in mind that you cannot but obey my orders, you will not get away from me. . . .” He once again repeated that failure to fulfill this would threaten myself and my family with ruin. I considered I had no other way out, I had to give way to him. . . . These crimes were committed. A few days after the funerals. . . Yagoda again called me to his place and said, “Well, now you have committed these crimes, you are completely in my hands, and you must undertake what I now propose to you. . . .”

That the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs has the immediate power of life and death over any man, without recourse and for any purpose, and over his family, is not questioned by Vyshinsky, Ulrich, or the Kremlin’s commentators.

RAKOVSKY: I want to tell what made me confess everything. For eight months in solitary confinement I pondered over all my previous Trotskyist views but did not confess. I did not know what was going on in the outside world. . . .

And again it is simply taken for granted that at a nod from the G.P.U., a man 68 years old, with years of imprisonment under the Czar behind him, with six years of Stalin’s exile, should be placed in solitary confinement—solitary confinement, which has been often known to drive men insane in twenty days. Why do they confess!

It is furthermore assumed by all parties to the trial—this comes out particularly in the testimony of Bukharin—that the holding of any political view contrary to the official line is ipso facto treason against the State. That this is the case has naturally been known by everyone for many years; but now it is incorporated formally into the records of the totalitarian court.

And how much more is revealed by this nightmare trial, to those who really read its true content! The complete abrogation of the rights of national self-determination, with the consequent deepening of separatist sentiment throughout the “federated” republics; the unutterably tragic weakening of the defense and the economy under the bureaucratic whip; the universal terror, fear, suspicion; the frightful collapse of social morality; the immeasurable gulf between the regime and the people; the mad desperation of the bureaucracy itself in the midst of its death struggle. . . .

The Role of Yagoda

THE APPEARANCE OF Yagoda among the defendants has a peculiar and unprecedented importance. Alone among the leading defendants of the three great public trials of the present series, Yagoda played no role whatever in the October Revolution. Yagoda never figured m any of the oppositions. For a decade he was Stalin’s right-hand man, the active head of the G.P.U., the “bright shield” defending Soviet honor and integrity.

It was Yagoda who perfected the organization of the G.P.U., who devised and consolidated its innumerable activities. It was Yagoda who, under Stalin’s orders, developed the system of the Trials, and for many years was the executive in charge of the “investigations” and the conduct of the trials themselves. Among the trials managed by Yagoda was the Trial of Zinoviev-Kamenev in August, 1936.

When Yagoda was first demoted and later arrested, the charges against him were immorality, misuse of funds, indulgence in orgies and general luxurious living. No mention of any other type of charge was made, and no suggestion of any connection with the various “centers”. The reason for this is clear: it was necessary to get rid of Yagoda, but the particular fable in which he was to be involved had not yet been invented. The “Right-Trotskyist” bloc of the Trial of the 21 had not yet come into existence. Yagoda was kept on ice, to be served up when the time came.

Yagoda, the Trial of the 21 now tells us, was a traitor, fascist and spy from the beginning. He had a Napoleonic complex, and was a great admirer of Mein Kampf. He was a poisoner and a murderer and a liar. He plotted and conspired continuously against the State.

But, let us repeat: it was Yagoda who managed a whole series of earlier trials, climaxing in the trial of Zinoviev-Kamenev. No attempt is made to deny or hide this. In fact, the latest trial goes with some detail into Yagoda’s arrests of the defendants in the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial, his visits to them in prison, his conducting of the preliminary investigation, his advice to them on what to say in court, etc.

In this way, through the person of Yagoda, the Trial of the 21 passes judgment on the Trial of Zinoviev-Kamenev. There is no getting around this. By indicting Yagoda, the system of trials indicted itself.

This does not, of course, mean that the charges against Yagoda in the Trial of the 21 were true. Yagoda was no doubt guilty of murder, poisoning, oppression, and also of immorality and misuse of funds. But these were not the charges against him. There is no more evidence that he was guilty on any of the specific counts in the indictment than that anyone else was. The framer was himself framed. Yezhof is only Yagoda multiplied.

Again the Confessions

ONCE MORE THE whole structure of the trial is built on the confessions of the defendants. One or two irrelevant letters; and then confessions and more confessions; that is all. But in none of the trials has it been more strikingly apparent that—with only occasional exceptions to be noted below—there is no distinction between judge, defendants, witnesses, prosecution, and defense attorneys. In a normal trial, each of these has different specific interests to defend; in the Moscow Trials, all cooperate toward a single end. This is shown grotesquely in large sections of Bukharin’s testimony. It read not in the least like questions and answers of prosecutor and defendant, but exactly like the script of a play which has been carefully rehearsed, with each character taking up cues promptly:

ULRICH: Do you confirm your testimony. . . .

BUKHARIN: I wholly and completely confirm my testimony.

VYSHINSKY: Formulate briefly of what exactly you admit yourself guilty.

BUKHARIN: First1y, of belonging to the counter-revolutionary Right-Trotskyist Bloc.

VYSHINSKY: Since what year?

BUKHARIN: Since the moment of the formation of the bloc. . . .

VYSHINSKY: What aims did this counter-revolutionary organization pursue? . . . It stood for the overthrow of the Soviet power?

BUKHARIN: The overthrow of the Soviet power was the means for the realization of this aim.

VYSHINSKY: By violent overthrow?

BUKHARIN: Yes, by violent overthrow. . . .

VYSHINSKY: With the aid of?

BUKHARIN: With the aid of the utilization of all the difficulties confronting the Soviet power. . . .

VYSHINSKY: Which prognostically stood in perspective with whose aid?

BUKHARIN: From foreign powers.

VYSHINSKY: On conditions?

BUKHARIN: On conditions, to speak concretely, of a whole series of concessions. . . .

Perhaps more like a catechism than the script of a play. But suddenly one actor departs from the script, and the other fails to catch the cue:

VYSHINSKY: For the benefit of?

BUKHARIN: For the benefit of Germany, Japan and partly of Great Britain.

VYSHINSKY: And also by weakening the defensive power?

BUKHARIN: I don’t see the use of this question, it was not discussed, at least in my presence.

VYSHINSKY: But what was the position regarding wrecking?

Vyshinsky admitted his slip, and hastened to get back to the text, without another word as to the false cue.

All rests on the confessions. As in all the trials, evidence one way or another bearing on the statements of the confessions would have been extremely easy for the prosecutor to obtain—if, that is, he had not been aware that any evidence whatever would have smashed the fabric of the confessions. How simple to trace the alleged million dollars paid to Trotsky, the “meeting” between Krestinsky and Trotsky at Merano, the activities of Rakovsky in Japan. . . .

All rests on the confessions. But here we find, in this latest trial, a new departure. A number of the defendants, outstandingly Bukharin, do not confess to many of the charges made against them. To many of Vyshinsky’s accusations, Bukharin answers flatly, No.

VYSHINSKY: . . . I would like to ask you regarding your contacts with White Guard circles and the German fascists. Are you aware of this circumstance ?

BUKHARIN: No I am not. . . .

VYSHINSKY: Accused Bukharin, you knew of this, you knew Pivovarov?

BUKHARIN: I did not know Pivovarov. . . .

VYSHINSKY: Were you aware that Karakhan was a German spy?

BUKHARIN: No I was not. . . .

VYSHINSKY: Accused Bukharin, do you admit yourself guilty of espionage?

BUKHARIN: I do not. . . .

VYSHINSKY: . . . the assassination of Kirov was carried out under instructions of the Rightist-Trotskyist Bloc.

BUKHARIN: I know nothing about it. . . .

It is difficult to be sure just what accounts for this phenomenon. It may be all part of the prepared script, inserted to break the monotony of 100% confessions; but it seems more likely that in at least some of the cases Bukharin is deliberately departing from the text. (When Vyshinsky objected strenuously at one point to Bukharin’s way of replying to the questions, Bukharin stated: “I have the right to answer questions as I want to, not as you want.”) But whatever the reasons for Bukbarin’s denials, the fact that they occurred is a very significant commentary on the structure of the trial as a whole.

The alleged proof of guilt is admittedly based on the confessions alone. Bukharin failed, with reference to many of the charges, to confess—quite the contrary, he denied guilt. But this did not in the least phase Vyshinsky. Sometimes he turned to a co-defendant to get his confession of Bukharin’s guilt on the particular point in question (which was often not forthcoming). But usually he merely sailed right on with the next question. There was of course no material evidence. Where, then, even according to the reasoning of those who hold the confessions to be true, is the proof of Bukharin’s guilt? Obviously, by their own account, there is no proof whatever. There is no evidence (in any of the trials), so we are asked to believe the confessions. What then when there are no confessions?

One more conclusive demonstration that the Moscow Trials are a political fabrication having not the slightest relation to truth or falsity. Perhaps some future trial will even omit defendants, or have professional actors take their place. Then at least Vyshinsky would be certain of no departures from the script.

When Is a Frameup a Frameup?

THE TRIAL OF THE 21 was believed by virtually no one, even among the Stalinists themselves. However, in the reactions to this trial there is one piece of sophistry which is frequently appearing, and which is made use of even by certain Stalinists who despair of making out a convincing case for the trial as it stands. The New Republic, for example, writes: “Our guess is that neither the Trotskyists nor the Stalinists are completely right about the guilt of the accused. Most of them are probably guilty of something, though not of the extremes of treachery that the indictment charges. Undoubtedly there was a widespread opposition to Stalin. . . . Undoubtedly also there were from the start a few real spies and traitors. . .”

This is a classic example of what logicians call ignoratio elenchi—arguing beside the point. It is being vigorously utilized as a backhanded defense of the system of trials and of Stalinism against the world-wide realization that the trials are false.

In the first place, no one denies that there have been and still are spies and traitors in the Soviet Union. This has nothing whatever to do with the trials.

Secondly, no one denies that there are some and even many true statements made during the course of the trials. Third, no one denies that some of the defendants may have been guilty of something.

What we maintain first of all is that in these trials none of the leading defendants is guilty of the specific charges in the indictment; that the prosecution knows none is guilty and makes no effort to discover the truth about the specific charges; and that consequently the trials are frame-ups. They are not partial frameups or half-frameups (there is in reality no such thing) but one hundred percent frameups. In the trial of Mooney, innumerable true statements appear in the record. That has nothing to do with the question whether or not he was framed. A trial might have every statement but one true—namely, the name of the perpetrator of the specific criminal act charged in the indictment—and that one falsehood could make the entire trial completely a frameup. When the New Republic writes that the accused are not guilty “of the extremes of treachery that the indictment charges” it is logically committed to the view that the trial is a frameup and that the Trotskyists are completely right about the guilt of the accused—though the New Republic has neither the courage nor the honesty to say this openly.

In general, no proofs that there have occurred whatever number of murders, poisonings, wreckings, spyings, treacheries, plottings, in the Soviet Union have in themselves anything to do with the guilt of defendants brought to court. The business of a trial is not to prove that a criminal act has occurred, but that the given defendant is guilty of a particular criminal act which has occurred.

But aside from this, it should be observed that there is not the slightest evidence that any of the leading defendants (with the exception of Yagoda) in any of the trials is guilty of any criminal acts whatsoever. There may be, of course; there is always, as Bukharin remarked, a certain “mathematical probability”, however low, that they are. But no proof has been offered. The mere fact that such grandiose public trials are held does not prove it; the thousands of times that Vyshinsky denounces them does not prove it; if a hundred more such trials are held it will not prove it. Stalin follows the old rule that if you say something often enough and strongly enough someone will begin to believe it; but a lie a million times repeated is still a lie.

This is very well worth remembering with reference to the new “light” on the secret trial of the eight generals. It will be remembered that these generals, headed by Marshal Tukhachevsky, were suddenly arrested and executed late last Spring. The story given out at that time by the special military tribunal which signed their sentence was that they were guilty of espionage, and of having prepared for the defeat of the Red Army in case of war against the Soviet Union. In the Trial of the 21, however, it was declared that they, in conjunction with the “Right-Trotskyist Bloc”, were planning a military coup d’etat in order to seize control of the Soviet government.

It should be noticed, to begin with, that these two accounts are not merely different, but entirely incompatible with each other. In the one case, they are said to have sought the defeat of the Soviet Union, acting as agents of a foreign power; in the second, they are said to have planned to capture power for themselves without reference to the actions of any foreign power and quite independently of any foreign intervention or armed attack. How did Vyshinsky discover the difference? Unfortunately, since the generals were all dead, there was no opportunity for them to change their “confessions”. In point of fact, of course, both stories were spun out of the brains of Stalin and Yezhov, in accordance with their immediate political needs.

But more than this: Some persons, even among those who believe that the trials “as a whole” are frameups, play with the notion that perhaps the generals were “guilty of something”, perhaps they really did have a “German orientation” or something of the kind. Such ideas bear witness to the effectiveness of the method of the continuous repetition of lies as a way of getting them believed. There is, in actuality, no evidence of any kind that the generals were guilty of anything. There is, for that matter, no evidence that they were ever even tried, even secretly. Evidently they were shot; that is all we know. The “sentence” passed on them was almost assuredly drawn up and its wording decided upon after they were already shot. Everything that is known about these generals proves their complete loyalty and devotion to the defense of the Soviet Union. Their fault—a great fault, but scarcely a crime in Soviet jurisprudence—was that they identified that loyalty with political subservience to Stalin. They, and the Red Army, paid a heavy price for that fault.

The Trial and the End of Austria

THERE IS A GRIM and tragic connection between the Trial of the 21 and the incorporation of Austria into Hitler’s Reich. As Stalin undermines the strength and vitality of the Soviet Union, the confidence and aggressions of imperialism increase. A healthy and mighty Soviet Union, ruled and guided by the Soviet masses, would indeed be a great “bulwark of world peace”. Not merely its own power, but the inspiration which it would bring to the workers throughout the world would check the hands of the imperialists, and would aid in their speedy downfall. The Soviet Union sapped by the wrecking crew of Stalinism is not merely far less effective in itself, but destroys the resistance of the international proletariat, throws the workers everywhere into passivity and despair, and leaves them easy prey for their own war-mongering bourgeoisies. Watching the first two trials and the execution of the generals, Japan breathed easier for its onslaught on China. With the new trial unfolding, Hitler’s last hesitation over a conclusive coup in Austria was removed.

The major disaster in the Austrian affair was not the loss of sovereignty for the tiny and impossible little orphan state, nor even the injuries and indignities now being heaped upon the backs of the Austrian Jews and workers—bitter as these indeed are. Far more threatening in their implications are the waves of chauvinism which the Austrian coup has let loose within the democratic countries, and the deepened isolation which is resulting for the Soviet Union. Hitler is the harvest from the crop sown by the engineers of the Versailles system, by the social democrats who smashed the post-War German revolution, by the Stalinists who gave their aid in smashing the potential revolution in 1932-33 and turning the German working class over to Hitler. And now these same social democrats and these same Stalinists call for a Holy War to make good their “errors” by enlisting the workers of the democratic powers to be slaughtered for the sake of upholding the tottering imperialist structure of the Versailles nations.

This is the more criminal because the immediate response of the masses everywhere to Hitler’s conquest of Austria expressed, on their part, a genuine and burning hatred of fascism, and a will to fight against it. Indeed, during the entire post-War period, the workers of Europe—how outstandingly the brave Austrian workers themselves!—have always shown their heroic and self-sacrificing readiness to fight fascism, whenever their parties have given the slightest lead. That hatred, that will and that readiness are more than ample to sweep aside in short order the Hitlers, the Mussolinis and the Francos. And it is these motive forces of the revolution which the social-patriots are chaining to imperialism.

But there are other plans afoot. Powerful interests within the dominant powers are driving to overcome the obstacles still impeding the consolidation of an inter-imperialist front which would solve the “German question” and perhaps also the Far Eastern crisis through allowing dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and its reduction to capitalist exploitation. There is no greater crime of Stalinism than its crime of leaving the Soviet Union ever more defenseless before its unappeasable enemies. More than ever before is it dramatically clear that the defense of the Soviet Union rests and can rest only on the international proletariat and the extension of the workers’ revolution. But such defense is everywhere inseparable from the struggle against Stalinism, hangman of the proletariat and destroyer of the revolution.

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