D.N. Pritt & Pat Sloan

The Moscow Trial Was Fair

Publisher: London: Russia Today, 1936-1937(?)
Transcription: Josh Sykes for the Marxist-Leninist
HTLM Markup: Brian R. for the Marxists Internet Archive
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works.


By D.N. Pritt, K.C., M.P.

I STUDIED the legal procedure in criminal cases in Soviet Russia somewhat carefully in 1932, and concluded (as published at the time in “Twelve Studies in Soviet Russia”) that the procedure gave the ordinal accused a very fair trial. Having learnt from my legal friends in Moscow on my return this summer that the principal changes realised or shortly impending were all in the direction of giving greater independence to the Bar and the judges and greater facilities to the accused, I was particularly interested to be able to attend the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev and others which took place on August 1923.

Here was, born the point of view of a lawyer, a politician, or an ordinary citizen, a very good test of the system.

The charge was a serious one. A group of men, almost all having earned high merit for their services at various stages of the anxious and crowded history of Soviet Russia, still not two decades old, almost all having been under some measure of suspicion for counter-revolutionary or deviationist activities, and most of them having had such activities condoned in the past on assurances of the loyalty in the future, were now charged with long, cold-blooded, deliberate conspiracy to bring about the assassination of Kirov (who was actually murdered in December, 1934), of Stalin, of Voroshilov and other prominent leaders.

Their purpose, it seemed, was merely to seize power for themselves, without any pretence that they had any substantial following in the country and without any real policy or philosophy to replace the existing Soviet Socialism.

With all its difficulties and shortcomings, with all the opposition, military or commercial, of the outside world, Soviet Socialism has raised a terribly backward Asiatic State in some 19 years to a State of world importance, of great industrial strength, and above all of a standard of living which, starting somewhere about the level of the more depressed peoples of India, has already overtaken that of many races of Eastern Europe and will soon claim comparison with that of the most favoured of Western industrial people.

And the charge against the men was not merely made. It was admitted, admitted by men the majority of whom were shown by their records to be possessed of physical and moral courage well adapted to protect them from confessing under pressure. And at no stage was any suggestion made by any of them that any sort of improper treatment had been used to persuade them to confess.

The first thing that struck me, as an English lawyer, was the almost free-and-easy dameanour of the prisoners. They all looked well; they all got up and spoke, even at length, whenever they wanted to do so (for the matter of that, they strolled out, with a guard, when they wanted to).

The one or two witnesses who were called by the prosecution were cross-examined by the prisoners who were affected by their evidence, with the same freedom as would have been the case in England.

The prisoners voluntarily renounced counsel; they could have had counsel without fee had they wished, but they preferred to dispense with them. And having regard to their pleas of guilty and to their own ability to speak, amounting in most cases to real eloquence, they probably did not suffer by their decision, able as some of my Moscow colleagues are.

The most striking novelty, perhaps, to an English lawyer, was the easy way in which first one and then another prisoner would intervene in the course of the examination of one of their co-defendants, without any objection from the Court or from the prosecutor, so that one got the impression of a quick and vivid debate between four people, the prosecutor and three prisoners, all talking together, if not actually at the same moment—a method which, whilst impossible with a jury, is certainly conducive to clearing up disputes of fact with some rapidity.

Far more important, however, if less striking, were the final speeches.

In accordance with Soviet law, the prisoners had the last word—15 speeches after the last chance of the prosecution to say anything.

The Public prosecutor, Vishinsky, spoke first. He spoke for four or five hours. He looked like a very intelligent and rather mild-mannered English business man.

He spoke with vigour and clarity. He seldom raised his voice. He never ranted, or shouted, or thumped the table. He rarely looked at the public or played for effect.

He said strong things; he called the defendants bandits, and mad dogs, and suggested that they ought to be exterminated. Even in as grave a case as this, some English Attorney-Generals might not have spoken so strongly; but in many cases less grave many English prosecuting counsel have used much harsher words.

He was not interrupted by the Court or by any of the accused. His speech was clapped by the public, and no attempt was made to prevent the applause.

That seems odd to the English mind, but where there is no jury it cannot do much harm, and it was noticeable throughout that the Court’s efforts, by the use of a little bell, to repress the laughter that was caused either by the prisoners’ sallies or by any other incident were not immediately successful.

But now came the final test. The 15 guilty men, who had sought to overthrow the whole Soviet State, now had their rights to speak; and they spoke.

Some at great length, some shortly, some argumentatively, others with some measures of pleading; most with eloquence, some with emotion; some consciously addressing the public in the crowded hall, some turning to the court.

But they all said what they had to say.

They met with no interruption from the prosecutor, with no more than a rare short word or two from the court; and the public itself sat quiet, manifesting none of the hatred it must have felt.

They spoke without any embarrassment or hindrance.

The executive authorities of U.S.S.R. may have taken, by the successful prosecution of this case, a very big step towards eradicating counter-revolutionary activities.

But it is equally clear that the judicature and the prosecuting attorney of U.S.S.R. have taken at least as great a step towards establishing their reputation among the legal systems of the modern world.


Recently returned after 5 years in the U.S.S.R.

Whenever there has been a big trial in the U.S.S.R., there has been a flutter in the world Press. This is natural, for big trials in any country are News, and when the trial has the additional feature of being “Bolshevik” into the bargain, its possibilities of making the trial a pretext for any and every kind of anti-Soviet slander, credible or incredible.

And the trial which has just concluded is no exception. It is particularly sensational this time: (a) because a number of well-known ex-members of the Bolshevik Party were the chief accused; (b) because, in connection with the new Draft Constitution, the capitalist press of all countries has been longing to get additional copy for the purpose of minimising the significance of this important document; and (c) because the fascist offensive against Peace and Democracy is at a critical stage to-day.

As in all previous big Soviet trials, this one has been declared a “frame-up.” But just as Mr. Alan Monkhouse’s outburst in court, during the famous Metro-Vickers trial, that the trial was a “frame-up,” was never supported by one iota of evidence; so to-day, the allegation of “frame-up” remains unsupported in the slightest degree.

The most serious statements which have appeared in the Press, and the most misleading, are: (a) that Stalin now stands alone, having “murdered” all the “Bolshevik Old Guard”; (b) that the trial was a “frame-up” because the accused all confessed their guilt; and (c) that this trial detracts from the significance of the new Draft Constitution.

If we just examine the present leadership in the Bolshevik Party, and the positions held by the leading personalities, we find that practically all are Bolsheviks of over thirty years standing. For nearly twenty years, therefore, they worked with Lenin. Just consider these:

Kalinin, President of the U.S.S.R. since 1922, was originally a metal worker. He joined the Party in 1898 (even before it bore the name of “Bolshevik”), and has been a member of the Central Committee of the Party since 1919. Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, has been a member of the Party since 1906, was a member of the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee in 1919, and Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the years following 1920, and one of Lenin’s closest collaborators. Ordjonikidze, Commissar for Heavy Industry, has been a member of the Party since 1903, was elected to the Central Committee in 1912, and played an active part in the leadership of the Revolution in the Caucasus. Voroshilov, Commissar of Defence, was a worker who joined the Party in 1903, played an outstanding part in the Civil War, and was then elected to the Central Committee of the Party. Kaganovitch was a leather-goods worker, who joined the Party in 1911.

So that the youngest of these leaders had worked under Lenin’s leadership for at least ten years, and most of them for twenty years, and have now been thirty years in the Party. So it is fair to say that Stalin remains alone, and the “old guard” has been killed off? Ah, but it may be argued that only those now remain in power who were in minor positions when Lenin was alive.

So let us look at two individuals who, up to 1917, worked in close contact with Lenin all the time. People who had leading positions. Let us examine the records of these persons. In 1917, when the Party was preparing the armed uprising, the two intellectuals, Kamenev and Zinoviev, opposed this uprising in a meeting of the Central Committee. When defeated, they carried their opposition into the public Press—and gave away the Bolsheviks’ plans to the government. At that time Lenin wrote: “I should consider it disgraceful on my part if, on account of my former close relations with these former comrades, I were not to condemn them. I declare outright that I do not consider either of them comrades any longer and that I will fight with all my might, both in the Central Committee and at the Congress, to secure the expulsion of both of them from the Party. Let Messrs. Zinoviev and Kamenev found their own party from the dozens of disoriented people. The workers will not join such a party.”

So we find that two intellectuals, who were having “former close relations” with Lenin before October, 1917, and who are now hailed from “Daily Mail” to “Daily Herald” as the “Bolshevik Old Guard,” were condemned by Lenin for their treachery at one of the most serious moments of the Revolution, and he tried to get them expelled from the Party. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks who are working in closest collaboration with Stalin to-day are working men, who have been in the Party for from 20 to 30 years, and who rose to power as a result of their activities in the Civil War, after Zinoviev and Kamenev had already discredited themselves.

And as for Trotsky, there is no claim that this man was with Lenin for years before the Revolution. Actually, he called Lenin the “leader of the reactionary wing of the Party” in 1903, and in 1917 he said that the “Bolsheviks had de-Bolshevised themselves” and that “Bolshevik sectarianism” was an “obstacle to unity.” And to-day, in a recent interview with the “News Chronicle,” he refers to the “new Conservatism” of the Soviet leadership—a direct repetition of his attack on Lenin as far back as 1903.

But even when inside the Party, between July, 1917—when it was clear that only the Bolsheviks could lead the masses to success—until his expulsion, Trotsky opposed Lenin, who was supported throughout by Stalin, on one issue after another. And in the leadership of the Red Army, for which Trotsky became famous, there were continual conflicts with the Party leadership and with Lenin and Stalin. But while Trotsky won fame by his speeches, Stalin was sent to one critical front after another as the representative of the Central Committee, and was determining policy by short and concise telegrams to Lenin.

And when Lenin died, Trotsky buried all his old quarrels with Lenin. No longer did he refer to his earlier accusations that the Bolsheviks had been “bureaucratic” and “reactionary” under Lenin, but introduced his attacks now on the “Stalinist bureaucracy,” accusing Stalin of breaking with the policy of Lenin.

It is when the facts are seen in this light that the real position of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, to mention only three of them, can be understood. They are all three discredited ex-leaders, who have lost the confidence of the masses, and therefore could never be elected back to the leading positions in the Party or the State. They are the Ramsay MacDonalds and the Snowdens and the Thomases of the Russian working-class movement.

But the Ramsay MacDonalds and the Snowdens and the Thomases were discredited under capitalism. Therefore, when they lost their leadership of the Labour Movement, when the workers threw them out, they could still find means of advertising their personalities—in politics or capitalist business according to choice—within the framework of capitalism.

But in the U.S.S.R., once the workers have power, a discredited “leader” has no capitalist class to give him a job or finance him for a political career against the workers. In the U.S.S.R. he must submit to work under the leadership of those very leaders who have replaced him. And a worker, as a rule, recognising the need for class discipline above all else, can recognise his mistakes and work in a minor position when defeated on an issue. But the revolutionary intellectuals, time and again in moments of crisis, have shown their tendency to put personal prestige before everything else, and to fight to the bitter end against political opponents, even if this sacrifices the very principles that they were verbally accepting.

Kamenev and Zinoviev had to accept Stalin’s leadership—but it rankled. Their “independence” demanded that they should not submit to this domination by an elected leader with whom they did not agree. Therefore, from open opposition they started to fight in secret. And thus they came in contact with others fighting in secret—the fascist agents in the U.S.S.R.

Trotsky was expelled from the country. Since his expulsion he has never ceased to attack the “Stalinist bureaucracy.” But if a bureaucracy rules the U.S.S.R.—then remove the bureaucracy, and Trotsky can return as a hero! It is therefore consistent with Trotsky’s theory that the whole people of the U.S.S.R. are Trotsky was expelled from the country. Since his expulsion he has never ceased to attack the “Stalinist bureaucracy.” But if a bureaucracy rules the U.S.S.R.—then remove the bureaucracy, and Trotsky can return as a hero! It is therefore consistent with Trotsky’s theory that the whole people of the U.S.S.R. are dominated, against their will, by a small “bureaucracy,” that only the “bureaucracy” need be removed, for him to be welcomed back as a liberator. Is it unreasonable to assume that Trotsky, putting this theory into practice, was working with all and sundry to put an end to the few individuals composing his “bureaucracy,” as a way back to power?

But the allegation is then raised—that Stalin is a personal Dictator, without the support of the masses, and that this trial itself would bring mass struggles. Actually, no mass struggles have materialised except in the German fascist press, copiously requoted by the “Daily Herald” in the past few days. And two “aged mortals,” students of the working-class movement for sixty years, have been studying the working of the U.S.S.R., and they too have asked the question: “Is Stalin a Dictator?” Here is the reply of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in “Soviet Communism”:—

“First let it be noted that, unlike Mussolini, Hitler and other modern dictators, Stalin is not invested by law with any authority over his fellow citizens, and not even over the members of the Party to which he belongs. He has not even the extensive power which the Congress of the United States has temporarily conferred upon President Roosevelt.” (p. 431.)

“If we are invited to believe that Stalin is, in effect a dictator, we may enquire whether he does, in fact, act in the way that dictators have usually acted?

“We do not think that the Party is governed by the will of a single person; or that Stalin is the sort of person to claim or desire such a position. He has himself very explicitly denied any such personal dictatorship in terms which, whether or not he is credited with sincerity, certainly accord with our own impression of the facts.” (p. 432.)

“The Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. has adopted for its own organisation the pattern which we have described as common throughout the whole Soviet constitution. In this pattern individual dictatorship has no place. Personal decisions are distrusted and elaborately guarded against. In order to avoid the mistakes due to bias, anger, jealousy, vanity and other distempers, from which no person is at all times, entirely free or on his guard, it is desirable that the individual will should always be controlled by the necessity of gaining the assent of colleagues of equal grade, who have candidly discussed the matter, and who have to make themselves jointly responsible for the decision.”

Well, so much for the allegations that Stalin personally now stands alone, having put an end to all the “Bolshevik Old Guard.” Incidentally, this is the first time in its history that the “Daily Herald” and the “Daily Mail” have wept tears of salt in unison over the fate of “old Bolsheviks.” And not as to the “frame-up.” The actual question is: Why did sixteen accused men all confess guilty, participate in a lively way in the court proceedings, and show all their old capacity for public speaking and repartee, and yet plead “Guilty”?

It is not because they had been rotting in dungeons or anything of that kind. Actually, the most recently arrested of the accused were at liberty in the U.S.S.R. until May of this year. And anyway, if they had been maltreated in prison, surely some signs of this would have been visible to the public, or at least one of them would have made some sort of a statement on the matter!

No—the fact is this: The prisoners had four alternatives. First, to plead innocent. Second, to plead guilty—making political speeches against the Soviet government, the “Stalinist bureaucracy,” and justifying their crime. Third, to plead guilty and say no more. Fourthly, to confess, and give a full account of their activities. Besides these possibilities, there was no other way open to them—except suicide, the way chosen by Tomsky alone.

To plead innocent was impossible because the proofs were overwhelming, and all these people knew this. They knew what additional evidence could be brought against them if they tried to prove their innocence.

To attack the Soviet government and the “Stalinist bureaucracy” was impossible—because for nearly ten years now these people have had absolutely no political policy to oppose to that of Stalin. The fact is that Stalin’s policy is a success, and this has robbed his opponents of every excuse of a political attack. This fact is openly admitted by the accused.

Outside the U.S.S.R., from his refuge in Norway, Trotsky does issue an “opposing” policy. It is: (a) to proletarianise the non-proletarian elements in the U.S.S.R.; (b) to organise a Workers’ Front, as oppose to a People’s Front, in the capitalist countries. It seems that all the accused were sufficiently alive to political tendencies to realise that to put forward such a line in the court, as their political justification, would be worse than frankly admitting that they had no real alternative policy; that is, no political programme at all.

Actually, the policy of Stalin has consistently been to “proletarianise” the non-proletarian elements in the population, and the policy is now almost completely fulfilled. And internationally, to suggest the disrupting of the People’s Front, and forming a Worker’s Front in its place, hardly deserves mention.

And so, before all the men, against whom the proofs were overwhelming, who had no policy, there was the one possibility of pleading Guilty—with, or without, details of their crime.

Now it happens that not one of the individuals brought to trial has ever in his political career renounced the possibility of making a speech before the whole world. And they remained true to type. And in the court they made their speeches, showed signs of their old joy in “putting it over” and their old oratorical brilliance—and they told the truth to the whole world.

The newspaper, the “Observer” of August 23, no lover of the Bolsheviks, “old guard” or new, was bound to conclude:—

“Stalin is now the acknowledged leader of the unified Party, whose prestige in the country is now unquestioned.

“The defendants admitted frankly that they resorted to individual terror as a last resort, fully knowing that disaffection in the country now is not sufficiently strong to bring them into power in any other way.

“It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The Government’s case against the defendants is genuine.”

And now, two final matters. First, it is said that the trial was “inopportune,” it was a “political blunder” to hold it just now. Of course, if it was a “frame-up,” specially staged by the Soviet government, that allegation would be true. But why should the Soviet government, at this most ticklish moment in international affairs, stage a frame-up calculated to run the risk of antagonising all that Liberal opinion all over the world that is more and more supporting the Soviet peace policy, but has a horror of death sentences, even against proven assassins? Three suggestions have been made. First, that the Soviet government wanted to prove that it is “becoming respectable.” But the Soviet leaders are intelligent enough to know that trials for treason are never likely to gain a reputation for respectability in Liberal circles, while Bolshevism as such, can never become respectable to the reactionaries, whoever might be killed off. And the second suggestion is that it was to turn attention off Spain within the U.S.S.R.! When the Soviet Trade Unions have collected more money for the Spanish workers than has been collected in any other country!

A third suggestion is—that mass unrest was growing in the U.S.S.R. But is this were so, and if the men who were brought to trial were the leaders of this unrest, then it is absolutely inconceivable, with foreign journalists and radio microphones in front of them, that not one prisoner should have said one word to mobilise this unrest, to give the disgruntled populace courage, and to set a light to that flame of dissatisfaction which was creeping over the country!

It is only the realisation that the accused knew they had no mass support, as they stated in the trial, that can explain their complete lack of any attempt to mobilise opinion and action against the existing Soviet government.

And finally, about the new Soviet Constitution. Is there a single word in this Constitution that says that Terrorists, planning acts of terror in co-operation with fascists, against the leaders of the Soviet State, shall not be tried, and if necessary condemned to death? No—not a word. Because, so long as there are fascist and capitalist states, there will be fascist and capitalist agents in the U.S.S.R.; and so long as the use of violence is a principle of capitalism, carried to all forms of bestial terrorism under fascism; so must the Workers’ State use force to suppress force.

In the Moscow trial the accused were offered the right to a defence counsel, and refused. They themselves pleaded guilty, and explained their crimes, because they had no better way of conducting themselves.

The old discredited leaders of the Russian workers, the MacDonalds and Snowdens of Russia, had no capitalist class to support their further political career, so they resorted to underground terrorism, and came into line with the capitalist class of Germany with its fascist agents.

The not-yet-completely discredited leader of the British workers, Sir Walter Citrine, who is already famous in the Nazi press for his attacks on the U.S.S.R., protested against the trial, asked for the use of “foreign lawyers” for the defence, and that there be “no shootings.” The “Daily Herald,” the not-yet-completely discredited “workers’” newspaper, has been quoting columns of false allegations against the U.S.S.R. It has invented the “disappearance” of Mme. Czersky, wife of the Soviet Trade Representative—who was on holiday in the country. It has given reports of “rumours in Moscow” as reported by a “German Press Agency.” And the Nazis, in their radio broadcasts, have been quoting chunks from the “Daily Herald”!

The line-up of the discredited “leaders” in the U.S.S.R. with the Nazi Gestapo for purposes of terrorism—which is the only method of struggle now possible against the leadership of the united Soviet workers, can only be distinguished in degree from the line-up of the not-quite-completely discredited Trade Union “leadership” in Britain, the “Daily Herald,” and the whole apparatus of Nazi propaganda. In both cases the enemies of the militant workers’ movement, losing the support of the masses, are ready to go to any length to hold on to, or get back, their power. In the U.S.S.R. it is now a struggle of physical force, as in Spain. In Britain it is still only a conflict of propaganda.

The “Daily Herald,” quotes Hitler’s propaganda agencies, and Hitler is quoting the “Daily Herald.” Their policy is the same.

Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and the others got assistance from the Hitler Secret Police, and worked with the help of the Nazi agents—their policy was the same.

This policy is: To weaken the Soviet Union by destroying its leadership, and to split the united struggle of the workers who are going forward in alliance with the middle class and peasantry of all countries to fight fascism—in fact, consciously or unconsciously, to strengthen the fascist offensive and its policy of suppression of the workers’ movement in all countries and of wars of aggression all over the world.

Our task is to expose these plans, and to fight with all our strength against this “united front” of all the forces of reaction!