International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 3-4 (July-December 1988)

Stalinists rehabilitate Zinoviev and Kamenev

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin on June 24, 1988.

As reported in last week’s Bulletin, the Supreme Court of the USSR declared on Monday, June 13, that “before the law, the state, and the people,” Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov and Radek, leaders of the Bolshevik Party, were completely innocent of the charges for which they were tried and found guilty in 1936 and 1937.

This declaration confirmed what the Trotskyist movement has always maintained: that the Moscow trials were the most monstrous frame-ups in history. Under Stalin’s direction, the trials were organized in order to slander and then execute the greatest leaders of the October Revolution. The central target of the proceedings, Leon Trotsky, was condemned in absentia and assassinated in 1940.

The statement of the Workers League Political Committee published last week, stressed that the present Stalinist leadership’s attempt to rehabilitate Zinoviev and Kamenev without rehabilitating Trotsky was untenable. The ink was hardly dry on that article when Yuri Afanasiev, the rector of the Marxist-Leninist Institute and director of the central archives of the USSR, announced at a press conference that Trotsky should be exonerated of criminal charges and that his works should be published in the Soviet Union.

“We have to rehabilitate all those people who were repressed and who were accused of false evidence, and all those accused must be rehabilitated,” Afanasiev stated. “And in line with those people is Trotsky.” While noting that clearing Trotsky’s record did not mean endorsing his ideas, Afanasiev’s statement is another sign that the mountain of lies built up by the Stalinist bureaucracy to legitimize and sustain its rule is collapsing.

The objective significance of the facts which are now being admitted is enormous. Literally millions of workers can now read that the bureaucracy which they hate has for decades been propagating the most outrageous lies about history, and in particular about those oppositionists who fought Stalin.

The article in Izvestia which reported the rehabilitation of Zinoviev and Kamenev was written by Yuri Feofanov. It begins by noting that the Soviet public has been awaiting the rehabilitations, particularly in light of the earlier exoneration of victims from the other Moscow trials, such as Bukharin and Rykov.

Feofanov stresses that Stalin exploited the assassination of S. Kirov in December 1934 to prepare the destruction of his opponents among the surviving cadre who had once led the Bolshevik Party. After Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov’s murderer, had been shot, along with 13 others, a trial was organized in January 1935, at which Zinoviev and Kamenev were convicted of political responsibility for the assassination. Feofanov writes:

This was a first written attempt, a trial balloon to test public opinion: would people accept a conviction without evidence, a sentence without proof? The Promparty [The Industrial Party] had already been convicted, and there was the Shakhty Trial. These, however, involved figures who were not well known nationally....

The concluding indictment stated cautiously: ‘The investigation did not establish facts which would provide the foundation to directly indict the members of the “Moscow Center” for giving consent to or issuing any instructions for the organization of the terrorist act directed against comrade Kirov.’ There were no facts, but the indictment of 19 men was signed by the assistant public prosecutor of the USSR, A. Vyshinsky, and the investigator of the most important cases under the Public Prosecutor of the USSR, L. Sheinin. It was confirmed by the Prosecutor of the USSR, I. Akulov. And the sentence was passed by the assizes of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR—V. Ulrikh, I. Matulevich, A. Goriachev. The high court also ‘established no facts,’ but considered it to be sufficient that the indicted ‘knew about terrorist moods of the “Leningrad Group” and themselves stirred up these moods.’ For which: Zinoviev was sentenced to ten years, Kamenev—five, and the rest received similar sentences. From a legal point of view, this was not very convincing ... but the trial balloon was successful.

Feofanov argues that Stalin needed a more convincing triumph over his enemies, and thus opened up the first show trial in August 1936, at which Zinoviev and Kamenev were convicted. The two main causes, the consolidation of the bureaucracy’s grip over the working class, and the assurance to the world bourgeoisie that Stalin had irrevocably broken from any perspective of world revolution, remain unmentioned by Feofanov. There is, to be sure, not the slightest trace of a Marxist analysis of the social interests which underlay the preparation of the legal assassinations.

But he does record how Stalin prepared for the trials in the months leading up to Kirov’s assassination. On the same day of Kirov’s murder, Feofanov notes, “the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR passed a resolution ‘On the Conduct of Cases concerning the Preparation or Execution of Terrorist Acts.’ On the very same day! Is this the peak of drive and energy? Is it possible to draw up a judicial document in such a short time? Or is this a special gift of foresight? But the fact is that this document appeared, and it established hitherto unprecedented ‘procedures.’ The length of investigation was shortened to ten days; the service of the indictment to twenty-four hours before the trial; the exclusion of prosecutor and lawyer from the trial; the abrogation of cassation [the right to appeal] and even the request for clemency—leading to swift execution by firing squad.”

All these “procedures” were used to exterminate the old Bolsheviks during the Moscow trials. In the second half of his article, Feofanov describes the emergence of the opposition to Stalin:

The 1920s, after Lenin became inactive and then died, were filled in the upper echelons of the party and the state, of course, with the struggle for influence and power. At first it was Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin against Trotsky; then it was Stalin and Bukharin against Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, and then later, Stalin against his faithful ally Bukharin. Read the transcripts of the congresses—there everything is out in front. Officially they weren’t arguing about personal power: they were debating the possibility of constructing socialism in a single country, the paths of such construction, the perspectives of world revolution, NEP, the conception of Leninism and so forth. To answer who was occupied with the very essence of the problems, and to what degree, is the task of historians. But it is not difficult to follow the lines of the discussion: each of Stalin’s competitors defended his conception in order that it would win him a place in the leadership. Stalin was prepared to adopt any program in order to achieve absolute power. Once he had routed the creator of the theory of ‘tightening up the screws,’ he calmly transformed this theory into his own practice.

He remembered everything and was incapable of forgiving anyone. Once he had become leader, he could hardly have forgotten Kamenev’s words which had been pronounced from the speaker’s platform at the XIVth party Congress:

‘We are opposed to creating a theory of the “leader,” we are opposed to creating a “leader.” We are against having the Secretariat, which in fact combines both politics and organization, standing above political organs. We are in favor of having our leadership organized internally in such a way that the Politburo is actually fully-empowered.... I have come to the conclusion that Comrade Stalin cannot fulfill the role of unifying the Bolshevik high command.’

To speak in such a way, incidentally, was not something unusual at that time. People didn’t shy away from it, it was the norm. What would have seemed strange is the opposite: to hang on some leader’s words in order to guess what was really on his mind. Lenin was a passionate polemicist. We know this from his speeches, replies, and notes. They testify to Lenin’s toleration of the views of others. He was incredibly sharp in condemning factional struggle, but he respected the arguments even of his enemies. In citing Lenin, we do this often out of the context of other words and of the situation itself. You might find with Lenin such expressions as ‘he must be shot,’ ‘throw the bureaucrat in prison,’ and so forth. But it would be blasphemous to say that Lenin was in favor of extra-judicial repression. During lively arguments he spoke not for draft laws or even for newspaper leads. And his other comrades-in-arms, opponents and enemies were just as sharp. They argued fiercely, keeping in mind not the assessment of their words in the future, but the issues of the day. Let us recall the ‘Brest conflict,’ the introduction of the NEP, the national question and much more.

Feofanov’s reference to Trotsky as being an advocate of “tightening the screws” is of special political significance. The bureaucracy is making an attempt to justify anti-Trotskyism on the preposterous grounds that Trotsky—the most implacable defender of inner-party democracy and politically consistent opponent of Stalinism—was really no different than Stalin! But our purpose here is not to debate with Feofanov, but to bring to the attention of the working class important admissions which the crisis within the bureaucracy has forced to the surface. For the first time, the Soviet regime has repudiated the old Stalinist lies that Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were enemies of Bolshevism. Feofanov’s article concedes that they were instead engaged in principled debates over questions related to revolutionary policy. In an example of how Stalin manufactured hysteria against the accused, Feofanov reports:

On the day before the trial, on August 21, Karl Radek wrote a major article ‘The Trotskyite-Zinovievite Fascist Gang and its Hetman [the title of a hereditary Ukrainian tribal chieftain]—Trotsky.’ Here there are such words as the following: ‘The case is being investigated in the presence of hundreds of people, and tens of foreign correspondents, and no one who has not lost his mind would believe that the accused are slandering themselves....’ What must it have been like on the next day for the author to read in the same newspaper Vyshinsky’s declaration that instructions had been given to begin the investigation of Tomsky, Rykov, Bukharin, Radek and Pyatakov? And the next year to slander himself in exactly the same way? And to hear from Vyshinsky quotations from his own articles branding the ‘enemies of the people?’

These were terrible times—dreams about a radiant future coupled with unanimous approval of bloody repression.

In such an atmosphere, ‘justice was decided.’ We are now returning to those times, we are trying to understand them and reevaluate them. But I think that we are doing this extremely inconsistently, somewhat spasmodically, and we still don’t want to look the truth in the eyes. The whole truth! For example, Bukharin, Rykov, Tukhachevsky, Vavilov and many others were rehabilitated in the eyes of society long before the official acts were carried out. Now everyone already knows that Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was a friend of Lenin, the favorite of the Party and its greatest theoretician. The figures of Rykov, who was condemned along with him; of Pyatakov, who was the chief defendant at the second ‘Moscow Trial,’ and dozens of other major characters are above suspicion. Their rehabilitation—and I am speaking here at least of my own impressions—is perceived as the restoration of the honor and names of ‘innocent victims’ of Stalinist voluntarism.

Feofanov concludes his article by addressing directly the role of Zinoviev and Kamenev in the Bolshevik Party:

But then there are Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were first to be condemned at the trial of 1935 and 1936? Who were they? They were oppositionists. And this in fact meant: they advocated their own views on important problems of the development of the revolution. After Lenin’s death, as was felt then, and is still felt now, they were against the ‘general line,’ they moved away from Leninism and slipped into Trotskyism, they fought against the Leninist Central Committee. The majority condemned their factional struggle and thereby predetermined, as it were, and justified their indictment in legal form of unthinkable crimes. No one has believed for a long time that they were terrorists or the murderers of Kirov. But I believe that there are those who still doubt that they were honest revolutionaries, devoted to the ideas of socialism, and that they were not enemies of the Party and the state. People will say that they are not guilty of everything of which they were accused, but nevertheless they were guilty, if only ‘in general.’

Feofanov then cites a letter from a soviet scholar who claims, “As should be well known,... the Trotskyites and Zinovievites were transformed into a counterrevolutionary opposition, which ... resorted to antiParty and anti-Soviet actions.”

Feofanov then replies:

What were these actions against the Soviets, i.e., against the state? There are none and there never were. Why is the struggle against Stalin’s line considered anti-Party? And of what does this anti-Party character consist? A candidate of sciences should know that one cannot indict without any evidence at hand. But Vyshinsky had no evidence in 1936. An opinion which had at some time been openly expressed and which had been different from the official line, determined one’s fate under the conditions of the intolerance of the Stalinist absolute rule. Once someone had a different opinion, it meant he was a heretic, and that meant he deserved the fire. But why should we now stir up the fire which has long since died down?

Feofanov points out the lack of accurate information about the oppositionists:

But, as a matter of fact, is it well known who the oppositionists were? I would like to acquaint our readers with the basic figures of the first of the ‘Moscow Trials,’ with those about whom shades of doubt have not been dispelled. About those, as you will see, who are still spoken about as persons who are in every respect suspicious.

Grigorii Evseyevich Zinoviev and Lev Borisovich Kamenev took the road of revolutionary struggle early and until Lenin’s death were with him. I will omit their prerevolutionary biographies: they are irreproachable. I will mention only the fact that everyone knows: on the eve of October, they spoke out in the open press with warnings about the risks of an uprising. Lenin angrily denounced this act, and even used the term ‘strikebreakers.’ But what conclusion did he draw from this? It is best of all to let the facts answer this question.

Selected in October 1917 as a member of the Politburo of the Party’s Central Committee, Zinoviev remained a member after the victory. In November, he traveled to the Ukraine to organize the struggle against the Rada. He headed the Petrograd Soviet. In January 1918, he became head of the committee for the Revolutionary Defense of Petrograd, and in February, he became chairman of the Sovnarkom of the Petrograd Workers’ Commune. At the time of the Brest conflict, he firmly defended Lenin’s position. Later, he was the organizer of the defense of Red Petersburg from Iudenich, and a member of the Revolutionary Military Soviet of the Seventh Army. In 1919 Zinoviev was chairman of the executive committee of the Communist International—and this became his main work for ten years. At the Xllth and XIIIth Party Congresses he delivered the political reports of the Central Committee.

Before October, L.B. Kamenev was a member of the Party’s Central Committee and one of the editors of Pravda. It was Kamenev who opened the II Congress of Soviets, declared Soviet power and who became the first chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the RSFSR. In connection with his participation in the delegation for the Brest-Litovsk Peace negotiations, he yielded this responsibility to Sverdlov. In 1918, he was chairman of the Moscow Soviet; in 1919—extraordinary plenipotentiary of the Soviet of Defense on the civil war fronts. In 1922, he was Deputy Chairman of the Sovnarkom, and after Lenin’s death—Chairman of the Soviet of Labor and Defense. A supplementary volume to the Granat Encyclopedic Dictionary—an edition, which can perhaps still be considered objective—states: ‘During his illness, V.I. [Lenin] gave K. his personal archive, from which later grew and developed the Institute of V.I. Lenin, the director of which became K.’

Those fifty-year-old trials, and chiefly, everything that surrounded them, are today’s important topics. We are learning democracy, and we observe the rules of political discussion also during times of intense struggle. Our predecessors—people of the 1920s—were not able to control the situation and received the 1930s; they themselves perished in the fires of repression. They professed intolerance for the opinion of their opponents and prolonged the terror—both physical and moral. The suppression of those remaining in the minority led to the situation where one crushed the majority. And the absence of the very concept of the right to one’s own opinion created that savage ‘mob syndrome,’ which sanctified any whimsical action with the name of the people.

In short, for a long time discussions were done away with about the ways to build socialism. The debates have now been renewed, more than half a century later, and where they left off; they deal with the ways of developing the revolution, the role of the Party, and the place of the ‘leader.’ And with the tragic figures, who, half a century later, are being given back their honor and name by the very government which they created and ‘let slip away.’

The Supreme Court, of course, has not reviewed ‘the party profile’ of the rehabilitated citizens, and has not evaluated their correctness or incorrectness in the distant debates. But it has said clearly: before the law, the state, and the people, they are not guilty.

Today we have renewed the discussion about the ways to build socialism. Therefore everything that took place yesterday is so contemporary. And the discussions have just barely begun.

Most striking in the above passages is the admission that the oppositionists, the “Zinovievites and Trotskyites,” never committed any acts against the party or the state. They opposed Stalin, but this was done within the framework of developing party policy. This statement alone forces a complete reexamination of Trotsky’s role in the Bolshevik Party and the Comintern, something which Gorbachev indicated was not on the agenda in his speech on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution last fall.

The admission that the true biographies of the oppositionists are virtually unknown is an additional condemnation of Stalinist “historical science.” It adds weight to the assertion that the discussions have just barely begun. But what is involved is much more than a debate among Soviet historians. What none of them can say is that the political debates reflect the social contradictions ripping apart the Stalinist bureaucracy. As the working class comes into collision with the bureaucracy’s counterrevolutionary policies in Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union itself, these fundamental questions of history take on vast political significance.

That is why we demand that the full crimes of Stalinism against the working class internationally be exposed; that Trotsky be fully rehabilitated and his complete works published; that all the closed files of the Stalinist secret police be opened to the working class. The task confronting Marxists is to exploit the crisis within the bureaucracy and go on the offensive against Stalinism, the main prop of imperialism. This is the historical task of the Trotskyist movement, the International Committee of the Fourth International.