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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


Robert Chester

Biography of a Young Soviet Official


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, p.155-156.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Child of the Revolution
by Wolfgang Leonhard
Henry Regnery Co., Chicago. 1958. 447 pp.$6.50.

This is the personal account of the son of the first Soviet ambassador to Germany, a young man reared in the tradition of the Soviet bureaucracy from the age of thirteen.

Leonhard and his mother, refugees from Hitlerite Germany, arrived in Moscow early in 1935, a few months after the Kirov assassination. Stalin utilized this mysterious murder to touch off the infamous Moscow Trials and mass purges. Leonhard’s mother, a prominent member of the German Communist party, was picked up with thousands of other emigré Communists.

She was charged with “counter-revolutionary Trotskyite activity,” a charge that actually signified only that she was acquainted with some of the principal victims of the purges or that she belonged to the older generation of Communists. For this she was sentenced to twelve years in Siberia.

Even the elite Karl Liebknecht school, which the young Wolfgang attended, was closed down in 1938 after a good percentage of its teaching staff, and its students too, had been arrested.

How did the young students rationalize the charges in the purges which they knew from their own experiences were false? They devised variants of the official arguments. They avidly studied the French Revolution and the the Jacobin dictatorship to find historical precedents. They did this to “find justification for the purges, in order to maintain our ideals and beliefs in the Soviet Union as the first Socialist country.”

Throughout the swift changes that engulfed the emigre groups, the young Leonhard managed, at every turn, to find a favored spot for himself. He won entrance into the Moscow Teachers Institute when he was about to be transferred to a regular Russian public school. After the Hitler invasion, when official anti-German Russian chauvinism reached its height, and the German emigrés were deported to Kazakhstan, Siberia, Leonhard wangled his way into the Karaganda Educational Institute. From there, through the intercession of Walter Ulbricht, Stalinist Comintern official, he obtained appointment to the top secret Comintern school.

This is one of the few personal accounts available of the training of a Soviet “apparatchik” under Stalin. In an austere seminary-like regime of intense indoctrination, the students were drilled in Marxism, economics, national and party history. Detailed analyses were made of the ideology of fascism and Catholicism. However no studies of socialist viewpoints opposed to Stalinism were allowed; instead, stereotyped arguments from official sources were memorized.

But ideological training was not all. Every student had to submit to the ordeal of “criticism and self-criticism.’” Leonhard tells about his bewilderment and dismay on being hailed before a commission after a minor incident, and finding chance remarks, simple observations and light-hearted comments he had made, blown up into deadly charges. His words had been carefully documented by one of his classmates. He was not allowed to defend himself. The requirement was admission of guilt and repentance. Failure in this meant expulsion and near starvation. The effect of this “self-criticism” was to develop a group of fearful, obedient, close-mouthed individuals, trusting no one.

With the dissolution of the Comintern and its school, Leonhard was assigned to sorting out Comintern archives that had been hurriedly evacuated from Moscow during the war. While working on the American archives he came across a copy of The Militant containing an article by Trotsky. “I could not have been more startled if I had found a packet of dynamite,” he writes.

Thereafter he arranged his work so that he could snatch time to read this forbidden material. Why the interest?

“The bourgeois newspapers ... contained nothing that could really interest us. The Trotskyites, on the other hand, wrote in our own language, using our own terminology and dealing with things about which I had already doubts of my own, so that my excitement and interest in this case can be easily understood.”

After this assignment Leonhard was transferred to Moscow to work in the National Committee for Free Germany, the organization that propagandized the German army and civilians. He was in the first planeload of functionaries, under the leadership of Ulbricht, that went into Germany to set up agencies for “self-government.”

“Our political task was not to consist of establishing socialism in Germany or encouraging a socialist development.”

“Democratic” anti-fascists were made heads of local administrations, while the deputy head, or police chief, was invariably a Communist functionary. The purpose was to assure, as Ulbricht stated, that it would “look democratic, but we must have everything under our control.” On Ulbricht’s orders the Anti-Fascist Committees of the workers, who had fought in the underground or who had returned from the concentration camps, were dissolved. Initiative from below, criticism of the Russian occupation or of the official line were either ignored, soft-pedalled or suppressed.

To workers who had carried on the struggle against Nazism and who had expected something more after its defeat, this treatment did not sit well. Their sullen opposition found expression within the bureaucracy in differences between the leaders who had fled to the Soviet Union and those who had carried on the underground struggle in Germany. The latter group was more responsive to the ranks than the “Russian functionaries.”

In December 1945 Anton Ackerman published an article maintaining that different countries might take different roads to socialism. The speed with which his views were picked up (it was even included in the party program) worried the Soviet authorities. Under their pressure the view was gradually proscribed and Ackerman was removed from all posts of responsibility.

Doubts expressed, by functionaries over official program or policies were dubbed “collywobbles.” In addition to the heresy about separate roads to socialism, “collywobbles” included: equality of Communist parties instead of subordination to the Russian party; the “withering away of the state” in contrast to its growth; direction of nationalized industry by elected workers committees instead of by bureaucratic decree; the possibility of errors among the top leaders; the right of freely expressing dissident opinions in the party; and the need to reduce the immense privileges of the party officials.

Leonhard emphasizes that these differences were “an expression of opposition ideas within the system itself: an expression of the contradictions between the teachings of Marx and Lenin on the one hand, and the Stalinist theory and practice on the other hand.” A party member, wrestling with his “collywobbles” in agonizing fashion, will nevertheless “stubbornly, and apparently with complete conviction defend the official party line. His western interlocutor then leaves him with the firm conviction of having been talking to a 150% Stalinist.”

The Tito-Stalin break had a profound effect on all those holding dissident views. The 27-year-old Leonhard was among those who felt that Tito was right against Stalin. After a period of undercover propaganda work in favor of Tito’s viewpoint he escaped via Czechoslovakia to Yugoslavia. After two years there he was sent to West Germany to set up the Independent Workers Party, a centrist group that tried to amalgamate diverse tendencies around a pro-Titoist orientation. With the collapse of this organization he emigrated to England and is now at Oxford.

Leonhard claims to be a Marxist. Judgment on the accuracy of this claim can be made more precisely when the second volume of his account, on which he is now working, appears. In this he promises a theoretical appraisal of the Soviet Union and Stalinism. In the present volume he makes no attempt at analysis but simply recounts his experiences. This volume therefore stands in its own right as an inside view of the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin and as source material for a better understanding of the unrest in East Europe and its repercussions in Soviet ruling circles.

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