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Albert Goldman

False Light on the Moscow Trials

(November 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 9, November 1941, pp. 280–282.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Darkness at Noon
by Arthur Koestler
267 pages. Macmillan Publishers. $2.00. 1941

This time the attempt to answer the question – Why did they confess? – is made in the form of a novel. Ever since renowned leaders of the Russian revolution were brought into a Moscow court and startled the whole world by their eagerness to plead guilty to all the crimes in the counter-revolutionary calendar, many people have claimed that no satisfactory explanation has been given of their conduct. In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler provides us with his answer to the all-engrossing riddle.

It would be more accurate to say that Koestler gives us his solution with reference to one type of defendant in the Moscow frame-ups. For he intimates that some of the defendants might have “confessed” because of torture or because of threats to their families or because of promises to spare their lives. In Rubashov, the main character of the novel, the author deals with an educated and cultured Old Bolshevik who played an important role in the Bolshevik Party from its very beginning and in the Russian revolution. And since Rubashov typifies practically all of the chief defendants in the trials it is correct to say that the author attempts to explain the confessions of all of them, such as Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rakovsky, etc.

Anyone who has studied the trials, knows the history of the individuals involved and, above all, understands the history of the Bolshevik Party and the causes of its degeneration can have no hesitation in concluding that Koestler’s attempted solution is a complete failure.

Koestler’s Explanation Worthless

That the reasons for the disproved and unbelievable confessions can form the subject-matter of a novel and can, perhaps, best be explained in a novel can be taken for granted. But it must be written not only by a great artist who can probe into the psychological depths of the individual but by one who understands Marxist politics. In the form of a novel the author is able to present (and if he is a real craftsman, in an artistic way) many psychological factors that would be out of place in a political tract. But all of the interesting psychological factors must revolve around and be connected with a correct basic theory explaining the social conditions and their causes at the time of the trials. Let the novelist ignore those conditions or assume an incorrect theory in explaining them and his excursions into the psychic processes of his characters, while interesting and even offering elements of truth, cease to have any real value as far as explaining the motives and actions of the defendants is concerned.

Almost all of the reviews dealing with the book conclude that it is a great piece of literature. It is difficult to understand why, unless the reviewers have been convinced by the author’s solution of the mystery of the confessions. They are overawed by the superficially dazzling psychological analysis of Rubashov as he argues with himself whether to sign or not to sign the document which will constitute his confession at the public trial. The book in many spots is quite dull and since the explanation advanced for the confessions is more than nine-tenths false, the novel has no value. It must be reviewed only because it raises important problems concerning the nature of a Bolshevik party and its alleged amoral character.

Reduced to the simplest formulations (and doing this may distort the author’s theory to some extent) the central thesis of the novel is as follows: Rubashov, an intellectual of long-standing in the Bolshevik Party, is arrested for “oppositional activities”; he capitulates and “confesses” to everything his jailors indicate, because he thinks that the advancement of those ideas in which he believes and for which the party stands demands that he confess.

“Questions of personal pride; prejudices such as exist elsewhere against certain forms of self-abasement; personal feelings of tiredness, disgust and shame – are to be cut off root and branch ...”

In deciding to plead guilty to any crime designated by the bureaucrats Rubashov argues that he is simply carrying out to its logical conclusion the fundamental principle of the Bolshevik Party, even in the days of Lenin, that the end justifies the means.

We are here confronted with the stock accusation made by all the ex-radicals who have seen the error of their ways and have embraced “democracy,” to the effect that the crimes of Stalin are the logical and inescapable consequences of the party regime under Lenin and Trotsky. It is this idea, that Stalinism is the inevitable outgrowth of Leninism and even of Marxism, that is used most frequently as a justification by those who have turned their backs not only on Stalinism but also on revolutionary Marxism.

Bolshevism Has Nothing in Common with Stalinism

Not one of the recent converts to capitalist democracy has shown or even attempted to show how the theories and practices of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin gave birth to the crimes of Stalin. It is enough for most of them simply to state that Lenin’s party adopted the principle that the end justifies the means and that therefore it was inevitable that the degeneration of the party under Stalinism would ensue.

What means did the party of Lenin use that were ignoble and criminal? Did any party member in the days of Lenin ever suggest the possibility of having a member confess to counter-revolutionary crimes that he was never guilty of in order to serve the interests of the party? Was there ever a suggestion ‘that torture to obtain false confession, even from class enemies, was justifiable? What conduct was ever justified by Lenin’s party, what principle was ever enunciated in Lenin’s days, which could by any reasonable deduction be considered as the starting point of an inevitable degeneration into the practices of Stalin?

The social-democrats are fond of referring to the advice of Lenin to have party members do anything and everything necessary to fool and deceive trade union bureaucrats anxious to expel revolutionists from the trade unions. Here we must state frankly that revolutionary morals demand that every revolutionist deceive the oppressor and his servants in order to be able to continue with his work. No one can ever convince us that this type of “cheating” and deception will inevitably lead to Stalinist degeneration.

There is, of course, and there can be no general principle enabling one to determine, in all cases, what means are justifiable in the pursuit of an end which one considers as great and noble. In general the struggle for socialism can be achieved only through, and therefore demands, a propaganda that is based on accuracy and truth. They who fight for a cause that is progressive are compelled to base themselves on the truth and are compelled to reject methods that are despicable. All revolutionary propaganda that has as its aim to convince the masses to follow a revolutionary course can, in the long run, have no effect if it is based on lies, half-truths and distortions.

But to conclude from this general principle that a revolutionist, at all times, must tell the truth, even to his enemies anxious to betray and destroy his revolutionary activities, would mean in practice to give up all revolutionary activities.

There is no denying that revolutionists can make serious errors on some tactical question. It is quite probable that things were done by members of the Bolshevik Party or by the party itself during the Russian revolution that can now be seen to have been mistakes. If, in the heat of the struggle, some Bolshevik is unnecessarily cruel to an adversary it is absurd to attribute it to the alleged fact that the party believes in the principle of the end justifying the means.

Unfortunately no one has discovered a method by which the class struggle can be conducted in a gentlemanly way, according to rules and regulations. Bloodshed is terrible, cruelty is abominable, and it is regrettable that the oppressed masses, in their struggle to advance, have been and will be guilty of excesses. The revolutionists as well as the moralists can regret that fact but the revolutionists will proceed with the struggle to advance the interests of the masses and do their best to prevent excesses while the moralists will do nothing to advance the interests of the masses.

It is only the Stalinist bureaucrat in a novel, written by one who does not understand the real problems involved, who can argue that, because Gandhi’s pacifism is of service to the masters, therefore Stalin’s cruelty and violence against the millions of peasants and against the proletarian revolutionists are justified. The revolutionary Marxist says: Gandhi’s pacifism serves the interests of the British imperialists and their Indian servants while Stalin’s violence serves the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy,

Bourgeois Moralists Slander Bolshevism

Our moralists point to the fact that show-trials were held even under Lenin and Trotsky. But these show-trials were not Moscow trials. There is nothing wrong in utilizing a trial of the enemies of the Soviet regime in order to show the masses the real character of those enemies. What was wrong with the Moscow trials was not that they were showtrials but that they were frame-ups against revolutionists; they were based on false evidence obtained by torture.

Does that mean that frame-ups and false evidence would be justified if used by revolutionists against counter-revolutionists? By no means! Revolutionists would not have to use these methods. If anyone could prove that they were actually used we would have no hesitation in condemning them. A mistake could be made in some individual case but it is excluded that a system of torture and frame-ups would be introduced by revolutionists against any group.

The author of the novel makes the intellectual Old Bolshevik Rubashov argue on the basis of the liberal moralist. One must choose between Gandhi’s pacifism and Stalin’s cruelty; between personal integrity and complete indifference to the moral character of any act so long as it serves the interests of the cause; between decency and reason. Rubashov who by nature prefers decency and personal integrity finally is convinced that he should choose reason and social utility and therefore confesses to crimes he never committed. What complete and utter nonsense!

Unquestionably in the course of a great upheaval delicate and perplexing personal problems may confront an individual member of the party, A relative or close friend is found to be on the other side of the fence. Shall one spare him because of that ? It is quite possible that some innocent person is accused of counter-revolutionary activities. Shall one spend valuable time in defending him? Some members of the party will act one way; others in another way. What is infuriating, because it is false, is the proposition that the Bolshevik Parry demanded that the sentiment of kindness and decency be destroyed. To permit such a sentiment to violate one’s revolutionary duty, to endanger the revolution because of sentimental reasons is one thing, to suppress sentimental kindness and be cruel as a matter of principle is quite another thing. The Bolshevik Party has never and will never demand that.

In the whole book there is not a single reference to the actual conditions that compelled Rubashov to argue with himself – whether to confess or not to confess. The existence of a bureaucratic caste, the conditions that led to the growth of that caste, the struggle of the bureaucracy to preserve its power and privileges – of this there is nothing. A reader innocent of these questions would never guess that there was such a thing as a bureaucracy that was responsible for Rubashov’s arrest.

Why Did the Defendants Confess?

Assuredly the novelist is not obligated to write a thesis on the social and political developments in the Soviet Union but if he undertakes to write an explanation of the “confession” of an Old Bolshevik without taking those developments into consideration then his explanation is worthless. It is more correct to say that the author has a political explanation for the “confession” but one that has no value since it is based on the proposition that some original sin existed within the very make-up of the old Bolshevik Party.

A great novelist studying the psychological reaction of those called upon to confess and who do so would not leave the reader ignorant of the basic factors explaining the demand for the confession and the yielding to the demand.

That the character of the individual confessing is an important factor is not to be denied. In the last analysis that explains why some Old Bolsheviks preferred to die without confessing while others confessed. But still it is necessary to explain why people who in their youth showed readiness to die for an ideal played such a miserable role in their old age. What happened in the years after the revolution that made possible the march of Old Bolsheviks before Stalin’s appointed judge and their sickening self-betrayals? The skillful novelist would have shown the successful revolution, the creation of a bureaucracy of which these Old Bolsheviks were a part, the softening and weakening of their characters by virtue of their position in the bureaucracy.

Rubashov ceased to be a Bolshevik at the time when he either participated in a scurrilous attack on Trotsky or when he kept quiet in the face of such an attack. He is not in the tradition of Lenin who tolerates falsehoods against a loyal revolutionist. There may be polemical exaggerations but they can easily be distinguished from frame-ups.

And once one capitulates because of possible hardships – and the hardships for a revolutionist under Stalin were infinitely greater than for a revolutionist under the Czar – then the road to any confession in order to avoid torture is opened up.

The element of torture is practically excluded as the motive for Rubashov’s confession. The theory of the author that the defendants in the Moscow trials confessed because they believed it to be necessary for the good of the party, falls to pieces, for the simple reason that they were under arrest and understood that they would remain so unless they confessed. Were these confessions obtained from men who were free and who knew that nothing would happen to them if they did not confess, then there would be some plausibility to the theory advanced by the novelist. Not until one shows that a party member consented beforehand to be arrested and to go through the whole mumbo-jumbo of confessing, knowing all the time that nothing would happen to him if he refused, could we take such a theory seriously.

So long as they who confess know that the least they will suffer is prison, if they do not confess, then it is absurd to argue that they confessed voluntarily for the sake of the party’s welfare.

A novelist could make out a good case for the theory that some who confessed argued themselves into believing that they did so to advance the welfare of the party. The human mind will go to great lengths to rationalize and create excuses. But then one must not confuse the excuse with the real motive. The real motive for the confession was to avoid torture for themselves and their families. Not to avoid dying because that is exactly what the prisoners wanted. The real hold that the GPU had on the prisoners was their fear that they would be kept alive under conditions where life was so dreadful. The reason for the failure of the prisoners to renounce their confessions publicly at the time of the trial was not that they would be killed but the fear that they would not be killed. “If you say that the confession is false you will not be afforded the peace of death but the torture of living” was the ultimatum the GPU gave the prisoners.

The individual bureaucrats in the form of the jailors are dealt with not as bureaucrats fighting against people who they fear might possibly create an opposition and thus endanger the position of the bureaucracy but as people who are fanatically devoted to a great idea and who proudly boast of their belief that the end justifies the means. The bureaucrats of the novel are not fighting for their power and privileges but for a great end.

If you believe Koestler these bureaucrats will seriously argue that in a controversy as to the advisability of building large or small submarines, Stalin must kill those who oppose him on that question because they who advocate large submarines endanger the defense of the Soviet Union. The point is not that some fanatical, fifth-rate bureaucrat might not make such an argument but it is presented seriously as a logical and necessary development of the party’s alleged dictum that the end justifies the means. And there is more nonsense of a similar character in this novel that has been proclaimed as great by the ignorant, the naive, and by those who have turned their backs on revolutionary Marxism to embrace a dying capitalist democracy.

In his writings on the Moscow trials, Trotsky has given us a valid explanation of the “confessions.” He who wants to write a great novel explaining the confessions must first understand Trotsky’s political explanations.

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