The Long Shadow of History: The Moscow Trials, American Liberalism and the Crisis of Political Thought in the United States

This lecture was delivered on April 23, 1996 at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Just about one month ago, The New York Times published a review of the new biography of Leon Trotsky by the late Russian historian General Dmitri Volkogonov. The reviewer was Richard Pipes, a professor of history at Harvard University. Being familiar with the writings of both Pipes and Volkogonov, I hardly expected the review to be anything other than a diatribe against Leon Trotsky. After all, if the Times had been interested in producing a critical review of Volkogonov’s book it would not have given the assignment to a man whose academic work, like that of so many other members of the Harvard faculty, has been merely an extension of his services to the US government as a Cold War strategist and ideologist.

The review proceeded along predictable lines. Pipes examined Volkogonov’s biographical indictment of Trotsky not as a conscientious historian, but rather as a witness for the prosecution. Even less than Volkogonov, Pipes does not care to examine Trotsky’s life in the context of history. Instead, he seeks to blame Trotsky for everything in this history of which Professor Pipes does not approve. Whether or not Volkogonov’s—or his own—judgments are supported by facts is of no importance to Pipes. Rather than drawing attention to the many crude mistakes contained in Volkogonov’s biography, Pipes adds a fair number of his own, including lies taken directly from the old Stalinist school of historical falsification.

For example, Pipes’ review depicts Trotsky as “Inordinately vain, arrogant, often rude…” This hostile caricature of Trotsky’s personality was standard fare in Soviet textbooks for over sixty years. Pipes denounces Trotsky’s inability to accept “the kind of disciplined teamwork that the Bolshevik Party required of its members.” [1] Trotsky’s unyielding opposition to the bureaucratic discipline imposed by Stalinism is presented as if it were the expression of a serious personal and political failing.

In the same review—it is amazing how many lies appear in a review of less than one thousand words—Pipes asserts that Lenin “had a very low opinion” of Trotsky’s political and administrative abilities. [2] This false statement corresponds entirely to the version of history that was retailed in the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship. This lie is refuted by Lenin’s political testament of December 1922, in which he wrote that Trotsky “is distinguished not only by outstanding ability. He is personally perhaps the most capable man in the present C.C. [Central Committee]…” [3]

Finally, Pipes refers to Stalin as “Lenin’s true disciple and legitimate successor.” [4] This is precisely what Stalin wanted, or, to put it more accurately, demanded that everyone believe during his years in power. Those who are familiar with Soviet history know that Lenin, in the final period of his politically-active life, called for Stalin’s removal from the post of general secretary and then threatened to break off all personal relations with him. Not even Volkogonov attempted to deny these well-known facts.

Cold War ideology and Stalinist lies intersect

Before proceeding any further, I should attempt to clarify what must appear to be a paradox. Why would Pipes, a Cold War anti-Soviet ideologue, make use of lies that were concocted by the Stalinist regime to defend itself against its political opponents? This paradox can only be understood by examining the political interests that were disguised for so many years by the ideological clichés of the Cold War era.

Notwithstanding the conflicts between them, the ideologists of the Soviet bureaucracy on the one hand and American capitalism on the other shared a common and politically indispensable lie: that the Soviet leaders were dedicated Marxists and that the Soviet Union was, more or less, a socialist society. The leaders of the Soviet state used this lie to preserve the legitimacy of the bureaucratic regime. Even when Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes in the “secret speech” of February 1956, he was at pains to absolve the bureaucratic regime of the atrocities that were committed in its interests. The “cult of personality” theory—which portrayed the Great Terror as merely the consequence of one leader’s excesses—preempted an examination of the relation between Stalin’s crimes and the consolidation of political power by the ruling bureaucracy.

As for the Cold War ideologists in the United States, the identification of Stalinism with Marxism and socialism was necessary to discredit all left-wing opposition to capitalism. That the rise of Stalinism was opposed from the left by tens of thousands of socialists within the Soviet Union was a historical fact which Cold War ideologists found rather inconvenient. After all, what would become of the thesis that forms the basis of 98 percent of everything ever written in the United States about the Soviet Union—that Stalinism was the unavoidable outcome of both Marxist theory and the 1917 October Revolution—if American historians and journalists acknowledged that the consolidation of the Stalinist regime was achieved through the physical extermination of virtually the entire socialist working class and intelligentsia in the Soviet Union?

The physical elimination of Soviet Marxists took place in the course of the Great Terror that swept the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1939. The central events of this terror were three horrifying show trials, in which the principal defendants were leaders of the October Revolution and former members of the Central Committee that ruled Soviet Russia in the days of Lenin. They stood accused of crimes ranging from sabotage to plotting the assassination of Stalin. In the course of these trials, all the defendants abjectly confessed to the crimes of which they were accused. Only Trotsky, who was living in exile and was charged in absentia, denounced the trials as a frame-up.

This brings me back to Pipes’ review of Volkogonov. Had the Harvard professor confined himself to the standard collection of falsehoods that are found so commonly in the field of American Sovietology, his review might not have merited any special comment. But Pipes included one passage which made it impossible to ignore: “Trotsky and Lev Sedov, his son and closest aide, frequently said and wrote that Stalin’s regime had to be overthrown and Stalin himself assassinated.” [5]

The Moscow Trials

If ever a passage evoked the ghosts of the unquiet dead, it is Pipes’ assertion that Trotsky and his son called for the assassination of Stalin. This is the allegation that provided the legal pretext for the Moscow Trials, the death sentences pronounced upon dozens of innocent defendants, and the campaign of politically directed antisocialist genocide that took place against the backdrop of the trials. [6]

By the time the trials began, Stalin had exercised virtually unlimited political power in the Soviet Union for nearly a decade. The Left Opposition, formed in 1923 to fight the growing power of the bureaucracy, was finally defeated in 1927. The leaders of the opposition were expelled from the Soviet Communist Party and exiled to the far reaches of the USSR. Trotsky was exiled to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, which borders China. Despite the organizational defeat of the Left Opposition, Trotsky continued to wield considerable political and moral influence as the greatest Marxist critic of Stalin’s policies. In 1929 the Politburo, dominated by Stalin, ordered Trotsky deported from the Soviet Union. Trotsky was exiled first to the island of Prinkipo, off the coast of Turkey; later, in 1933, to France; and then, in 1935, to Norway.

The decision to deport Trotsky was the most serious political error that Stalin ever made. As a man whose power was based exclusively upon his control of the bureaucratic machinery of the Soviet state and the Communist Party, Stalin had underestimated the power that Trotsky could wield, even as an exile, through his mastery in the sphere of ideas.

In the early 1930s, political opposition to the Stalinist regime grew steadily within the USSR, even within the ranks of the Communist Party. The catastrophic results of Stalin’s collectivization policies, the general chaos that prevailed in Soviet industry as the result of adventuristic “Five Year Plans,” and the suppression of every manifestation of independent political thought stimulated opposition to Stalin. Many historical works have already cited as a sign of widespread opposition the surprising results of the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, in which a large number of votes were cast against Stalin’s reelection to the post of general secretary. More recent political studies, particularly those by the Marxist historian Vadim Rogovin, have shed new light on the depth of political hostility to Stalin and the growing influence of Trotsky.

Following the victory of fascism in Germany in January 1933, for which he held Stalin principally responsible, Trotsky called for the construction of a new International and the overthrow of the Stalinist regime in a political revolution. His writings commanded the attention of an international audience and made their way into the Soviet Union through the Bulletin of the Left Opposition. In the mid-1930s, even after years of repression, the traditions, principles and political culture of the October Revolution and the old Bolshevik Party remained powerful factors in the consciousness of broad sections of the Soviet population. A sudden change of events, especially in the volatile international situation, could strengthen revolutionary elements within the Soviet working class and produce a revival of mass support for genuine Bolshevism, that is, for the political line represented by Trotsky.

That is why Stalin decided to destroy Trotsky, his known supporters and all those who represented in any way the program and traditions of the October Revolution. The assassination of Leningrad party leader Kirov in December 1934 was the pretext for mass arrests of former oppositionists. During the next year Zinoviev and Kamenev, the closest political associates of Lenin in the old Bolshevik Party, were tried in camera on trumped up charges and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Many articles written by Trotsky in 1935 warned that Stalin was exploiting Kirov’s mysterious assassination to create the pretext for an all-out assault on the surviving representatives of Bolshevism. Trotsky’s warnings were vindicated. The arrests and trials of 1935 set the stage for the first of the Moscow show trials of the principal leaders of the October Revolution in August 1936.

Once again Zinoviev and Kamenev were placed on trial, but this time on capital charges. Other defendants of the first Moscow show trial included such famous Old Bolsheviks and former leaders of the Left Opposition as Mrachkovsky, Ter-Vaganian and Smirnov.

But the chief accused was Leon Trotsky, who was charged in absentia with having masterminded a vast conspiracy against the Soviet Union and its leaders. The indictment claimed that Trotsky had entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany and Japan for the purpose of dismembering the Soviet Union and restoring capitalism to its former territories. Stalin and other leading members of the Soviet Communist Party were, according to the indictment, to be assassinated. Somehow, Trotsky had communicated this plot to his confederates inside the Soviet Union, who supposedly enthusiastically agreed to implement it. Under his supposed direction, the plot had been set into motion through numerous acts of industrial sabotage that had resulted in the deaths of scores of people.

There was no evidence to support these allegations other than the personal confessions of the accused. All the defendants placed on trial proclaimed, in response to questions put to them by the prosecutor Vyshinsky, that they were guilty of all the charges leveled against them. There existed absolutely no other corroborating evidence. An attempt by Stalin to endow the testimony with an element of realism went disastrously awry. A lesser-known defendant, E.S. Goltsman, testified that he had traveled to Copenhagen in 1932, where he supposedly met with Sedov, who then arranged for a conspiratorial rendezvous with his father. According to Goltsman, the first encounter with Sedov took place in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol. But it was soon established by Danish journalists that the Hotel Bristol had been torn down in 1917. This devastating exposure had no impact on the outcome of the trial. On August 24, 1936 all the defendants were sentenced to death. They were shot within twenty-four hours.

When the trial began, Trotsky was living in Norway. He had just completed his comprehensive analysis of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime entitled The Revolution Betrayed. He immediately denounced the trial as a frame-up and set about to expose it. But his first efforts were interrupted by the Norwegian government, which feared that Trotsky’s exposure of the trial and denunciations of Stalin might harm relations between the Soviet Union and Norway. The Social Democratic government placed Trotsky and his wife under house arrest, where he was held under conditions resembling solitary confinement for the next four months. Finally, in December 1936, Trotsky and his wife were placed aboard a freighter bound for Mexico, where he had been granted asylum by the radical nationalist government of Lazaro Cardenas.

Trotsky arrived in Mexico on January 9, 1937, less than two weeks before the start of the second show trial in Moscow. Among the new defendants were world famous Bolsheviks such as Yuri Piatakov, former head of Soviet industry; Grigory Sokolnikov, who had been among the first leaders of Soviet finance; Muralov, the hero of the civil war; Mikhail Boguslavsky, another Old Bolshevik; and the renowned Marxist journalist, Karl Radek. The accusations were as astonishing as those presented at the first trial, and once again the entire case rested on the confessions of the accused.

The credibility of the second trial suffered a devastating blow when another attempt to support the confessions of the accused with a bit of local color blew up in Stalin’s face. Piatakov testified that he had flown from Berlin to Oslo in December 1935 to meet Trotsky and receive directives for the conduct of terrorist activities against the Soviet regime. Unfortunately for the organizers of the trial, the official records of the authorities at Oslo airport established that due to bad weather not a single aircraft had landed at that facility in the month of December 1935. Piatakov’s “phantom flight,” as Trotsky referred to the episode, never took place. Commenting on this dramatic exposure, Trotsky wrote:

Stalin’s misfortune is that the GPU cannot dispose of the Norwegian climate, the international movement of airplanes, or even the movement of my thought, the character of my affiliations, and the progress of my activities. That is why the elaborate frame-up, imprudently raised to great heights, has fallen from the nonexistent airplane and has been smashed to bits. But if the accusation against me—the principal defendant, inspirer, organizer, director of the plot—is built upon grossly false testimony, what is the rest of the business worth? [7]

By any objective standard the credibility of the indictments and the legitimacy of the proceedings in Moscow were dealt a shattering blow. Despite this, all but two of the defendants were sentenced to death. The two spared men, Radek and Sokolnikov, were sentenced to terms of ten years imprisonment, but were murdered shortly thereafter in prison.

From Mexico, Trotsky issued an appeal for the establishment of an international tribunal to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations made by the Stalinist prosecutors. In a speech delivered in English before newsreel cameras, Trotsky stated:

Stalin’s trial against me is built upon false confessions, extorted by modern Inquisitorial methods, in the interests of the ruling clique. There are no crimes in history more terrible in intention or execution than the Moscow trials of Zinoviev-Kamenev and of Piatakov-Radek. These trials develop not from communism, not from socialism, but from Stalinism, that is, from the unaccountable despotism of the bureaucracy over the people!

What is my principal task now? To reveal the truth. To show and to demonstrate that the true criminals hide under the cloak of the accusers. What will be the next step in this direction? The creation of an American, a European and subsequently, an international commission of inquiry, composed of people who incontestably enjoy authority and public confidence. I will undertake to present to such a commission all my files, thousands of personal and open letters in which the development of my thought and my action is reflected day by day, without any gaps. I have nothing to hide! Dozens of witnesses who are abroad possess invaluable facts and documents which will shed light on the Moscow frame-ups. The work of the commission of inquiry must terminate in a great countertrial. A countertrial is necessary to cleanse the atmosphere of the germs of deceit, slander, falsification and frame-ups, whose source is Stalin’s police, the GPU, which has fallen to the level of the Nazi Gestapo.

Esteemed audience! You may have many varying attitudes toward my ideas and my political activity over the past forty years. But an impartial inquiry will confirm that there is no stain on my honor, either personal or political. Profoundly convinced that right is on my side, I wholeheartedly salute the citizens of the New World. [8]

The Moscow Trials produced a stunned reaction throughout the world. The spectacle of old and internationally-renowned revolutionaries, the founders of the Soviet Union, confessing to having entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany for the purpose of murdering Stalin and restoring capitalism staggered public opinion. Could the accused be guilty of such crimes? Were the proceedings in Moscow a legitimate exercise of justice? But despite the widespread skepticism toward the trials, Trotsky’s call for an international commission of inquiry encountered serious political obstacles.

The Communist parties throughout the world, acting under the supervision of the Soviet secret police, mounted an international campaign to build support for these trials, particularly among the radical and substantial left-liberal sections of the European and American intelligentsia.

In the United States the efforts of the Stalinists were boosted by The New York Times, whose Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty declared his confidence in the legitimacy of the trials and the confessions. He suggested that those who had doubts about the reliability of the confessions would profit by reading Dostoevsky and learning more about the mysteries of the “Slavic soul.” Another prominent defender of the trials was the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies, who declared that he was convinced of the guilt of the accused.

To a far greater degree than has been generally appreciated, the Moscow Trials were a critical episode in American political life, particularly for one of its most important constituent elements, liberalism. To understand this, one must review the political context, both domestic and international, within which the Moscow Trials took place.

American liberals and the Moscow Trials

The extent to which the Great Depression, which began in late 1929, transformed the intellectual and political climate within the United States has been largely forgotten. But not since the Civil War had the United States confronted such a fundamental crisis. The secession crisis of 1860–61 had called into question the survival of the Union. The Wall Street crash and the Great Depression called into question the viability and moral legitimacy of the capitalist system. Nowadays, when successful Wall Street speculators and the titans of big business are glorified in the popular media as the human embodiment of all that America holds dear, it is hard to imagine a time when such individuals were denounced publicly by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as “the malefactors of great wealth.” Capitalism had become something of a dirty word in the United States.

The liberalism of the American intelligentsia was not based on clearly defined political and economic conceptions. It was as amorphous as the term itself, which generally meant nothing more than a vague commitment to the gradual improvement of social conditions and the curtailment of corruption in urban politics. The Depression produced within this social milieu a certain sense of urgency, a heightened interest in social problems and even a degree of sympathy for radical politics.

The prestige of the Soviet Union grew considerably among sections of the American liberal intelligentsia. With 25 percent of the workforce unemployed, the gospel of self-regulating markets, unfettered competition and rough individualism was less convincing than it had been before October 1929. The conditions that developed after the Wall Street crash undermined old assumptions about the compatibility of market economics with social progress. Against the backdrop of the American crisis, the apparent successes of the Soviet economy, the “excesses” of collectivization notwithstanding, generated respect and even admiration for the concept of economic planning. It appeared to many liberal intellectuals that the world had something to learn from the Soviet Union.

The growing sympathy for the USSR was accelerated by a critical change in Soviet foreign policy. The rise of fascism in Germany and the growing strength of reactionary movements throughout Europe were seen by many liberals as the harbingers of a general collapse of bourgeois democracy. At this critical point, from the standpoint of democratic liberalism, the significance of the Soviet Union in world politics changed dramatically. In 1935, at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, the Soviet Union unveiled the policy of “popular frontism.” Frightened by the danger posed by Nazi Germany, the Soviet bureaucracy henceforth would direct its energies toward the establishment of alliances with the democratic imperialist powers: Britain, France and the United States. As a necessary corollary of this policy, local Communist parties were to ally themselves with, and support in every way possible, the liberal and progressive parties of what they referred to as the “democratic” bourgeoisie. Parties, politicians and governments were no longer to be defined and analyzed according to the class interests they served. Rather, they were to be evaluated as either “fascist” or “antifascist.” The political independence of the working class and the goal of socialism were to be sacrificed by the Communist parties in the interest of what was really an imperative of Soviet foreign policy.

In order to implement this policy, the Soviet Union and the national Communist parties began to aggressively court the liberal and radical intelligentsia of Europe and the United States. The day-to-day politics of the Communist Party assumed an increasingly liberal coloration, most notably in the American Stalinists’ endorsement of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Many liberal intellectuals were flattered by the new attention devoted to them by the Stalinists, and were pleased to find that their opinions and concerns were taken so seriously. Their personal identification with the Soviet Union seemed, at least in their own eyes, to make up for the fact that they lacked any substantial program for radical action in the United States.

The liberals’ uncritical admiration for Soviet accomplishments did not signify an endorsement of revolutionary change within the United States. Far from it. Most liberal intellectuals were inclined to view an alliance with the USSR as a means of strengthening their own timid agenda for social reform in the United States, and of keeping fascism at bay in Europe. The Soviet Union was no longer feared as a spearhead of revolutionary upheavals. The liberals understood that the defeat of Trotsky had signified the Soviet Union’s abandonment of international revolutionary aspirations. By the mid-1930s the Stalinist regime had acquired an aura of political respectability.

In examining the liberal response to the Moscow Trials, one more important political fact must be kept in mind. Just one month before the beginning of the first trial, the Spanish Civil War erupted in July 1936. Spain was threatened with fascism, whose victory would certainly lead to the outbreak of World War II. Soviet Russia was seen as the most important ally of the Republican, antifascist forces. Few liberal intellectuals were inclined to examine too carefully the real significance of Stalinist politics in Spain. For the most part, they ignored the manner in which the Stalinists were destroying, through political terror, the revolutionary movement of the working class and ultimately guaranteeing the victory of Franco. On the surface—and few liberals cared to look beyond it—the Soviet Union seemed to be the rock upon which all the hopes of “progressive forces” depended for the defeat of fascism in Spain.

This is why Trotsky’s call for an international commission of inquiry to investigate the Moscow Trials encountered, especially within the United States, widespread hostility among the liberal intelligentsia. Two of the most prominent journals which represented the views of this milieu, The New Republic and The Nation, endorsed the trials and opposed the call for an independent investigation. The Nation bent over backwards to support the trials, suggesting that those who expressed doubts simply were not familiar with the criminal justice system in the USSR. It was necessary to understand, The Nation wrote, that “Soviet public law differs from ours in several essential respects.” [9]

Malcolm Cowley, the editor of The New Republic, exemplified the intellectual laziness and somewhat frightening political stupidity of American liberals. He was a prominent figure in American letters. Even today you will come across numerous anthologies or still current editions of major American novels whose introductions were written by Cowley. This sophisticated and urbane liberal offered his considered opinion on the proceedings in Moscow in an essay entitled, “The Record of a Trial,” published in the April 7, 1937 issue of The New Republic:

By all odds the most exciting book I have read this year is the stenographic record of the recent trial in Moscow, as translated into English by the People’s Commissariat of Justice. I started reading it from a sense of duty: having heard so many arguments about the trial, and having read so many attacks on the good faith of the Soviet courts, I wanted to learn as much as I could from original sources. I learned a great deal, but chiefly I continued out of pure fascination with the material. Judged as literature, “The Case of the Anti-Soviet Trotskyite Center” is an extraordinary combination of true detective story and high Elizabethan tragedy with comic touches. I could accept it as a fabricated performance only on the assumption that Marlowe and Webster had a hand in staging it. Judged as information, it answers most of the questions raised in my own mind by the brief newspaper accounts of the trial.

But before discussing the testimony, I had better explain my attitude toward Russian affairs as it has developed during the last few years. I am not a “Stalinist” except insofar as I deeply sympathize with the aims of the Soviet Union, and insofar as I believe that Stalin and his Political Bureau have in general followed wiser policies than those advocated by his enemies. … But without paying allegiance to Stalin I am certainly against Trotsky. My opposition is partly a question of temperament: I have never liked the big-city intellectuals of his type, with their reduction of every human question to a bald syllogism in which they are always right at every point, miraculously right, and their opponents always stupid and beneath contempt. I have never liked Trotsky’s books … But most of all I am against Trotsky on political grounds. It has seemed to me for several years that hatred of Stalin is his deciding principle, and that his slogan of “the permanent revolution” is likely to destroy the revolution permanently, by attacking and weakening socialism in the one country where it now exists.

… Stalin, with all his faults and virtues, represents the Communist revolution. Trotsky has come to represent the “second revolution” that is trying to weaken it in the face of attacks from the fascist powers. [10]

With its insufferable smugness and pomposity, this essay was a sorry illustration of all that was corrupt and rotten in modern American liberalism. Old revolutionaries were being publicly humiliated and then murdered in Moscow. But people like Cowley found ways to rationalize the horrors and keep a smile on their faces. They evaluated the greatest historical and moral issues on the basis of their own narrow social interests and petty individual concerns. To the extent that the international policy of the Stalinist regime coincided with their own political agenda, liberals such as Cowley resented and opposed what they considered to be the “disruptive” activity of Trotsky. His analysis of the contradictions of Soviet society produced in these layers a feeling of annoyance. As far as people like Cowley were concerned, Trotsky, by insisting on the counterrevolutionary character of the Stalinist regime, was introducing into their lives unnecessary political and moral complications.

John Dewey and the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky

Despite Stalinist opposition and the hostility of broad sections of the liberal intelligentsia, the Trotskyist movement established a defense committee. It found support among a small section of liberals and left radicals. Among the most prominent defenders of Trotsky was the writer James T. Farrell, the author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. The committee achieved its greatest success when it persuaded John Dewey, then seventy-eight years old and the foremost American philosopher, to serve as its chairman. Dewey agreed to travel to Mexico and preside over a subcommission of inquiry that was to take Trotsky’s testimony regarding the charges brought against him in the Moscow trials.

John Dewey (1859–1952) was, for many decades, the foremost representative of a genuinely democratic and idealistic tendency within American liberalism. He towered intellectually over the liberal community to which he addressed his essays and lectures. In contrast to the vast majority of those who called themselves liberals, Dewey took his democratic convictions very seriously. His decision to associate himself with the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, indeed to become its chairman, expressed the depth of the democratic idealism that permeated his thought.

Dewey joined the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky because, in the first place, he believed that Trotsky should not be denied the right to answer the charges against him. Dewey did not have the type of opportunistic, fifty-fifty attitude to democracy and truth that was characteristic of so many popular front liberals. For people like Malcolm Cowley, truth was in general an excellent thing. It was, especially when expedient, to be defended with all due eloquence. Their problem with truth only arose when it got in the way of more pressing personal and political concerns—like their professional status, their standard of living and the fate of the Democratic Party.

But Dewey’s concern with the issues raised by the Moscow Trials was not merely that of a sincere civil libertarian. Or, to put it somewhat differently, his concern with civil liberties was bound up with his preoccupation with more profound problems of social and economic life. Dewey spoke for a strain of American liberal thought that believed deeply in social progress and did not presume the identity of democracy and market economics. It believed that a democracy without social equality was a hollow shell. Dewey opposed the New Deal on the grounds that it provided nothing more than reformist palliatives that would leave capitalism intact. In the early 1930s Dewey worked strenuously, though rather ineffectively, for the formation of a third political party opposed to the existing capitalist parties. He viewed the Depression as an irrefutable demonstration of capitalism’s failure.

Dewey argued—with a certain naïveté—that nothing that was essential to liberalism, as he understood it, required that its fate be tied to that of the capitalist system. He insisted that the democratic principles espoused by American liberalism, above all a commitment to social equality, were in irreconcilable conflict with the contemporary development of capitalist society. Dewey acknowledged that in its historical development, liberalism was an expression of bourgeois economic interests and its general world outlook. But the democratic ideals that had been championed by liberalism in the nineteenth century had come into conflict with the social and political realities of twentieth century capitalism. Those who failed to recognize the change in historical conditions had become, in Dewey’s eyes, “pseudoliberals,” paying a purely verbal homage to democracy, while legitimizing market economics and all the social injustice and misery it produced.

Dewey was not a Marxist or a revolutionary. He explicitly rejected the class struggle as a means through which socialism should or could be realized. He was never able to answer to either his own or anyone else’s satisfaction how socialism could be realized. But that is not the issue here. What strikes one in the political and social writings of old Mr. Dewey is how much further he was prepared to go in his criticisms of American capitalism than any representative of our contemporary “liberal intelligentsia,” to the extent that one can even speak at the present time of such a social grouping.

As he assumed the chairmanship of the commission, Dewey denounced the intellectual dishonesty of those liberals who opposed Trotsky’s right to defend himself. He stated that it was impossible to separate the cause of historical progress from the struggle for historical truth, and that the questions that confronted liberals who sympathized with the Soviet Union could not be evaded. In a speech delivered shortly before his departure to Mexico, Dewey declared:

Either Leon Trotsky is guilty of plotting wholesale assassination, systematic wreckage with destruction of life and property; of treason of the basest sort in conspiring with political and economic enemies of the USSR in order to destroy Socialism; or he is innocent. If he is guilty, no condemnation can be too severe. If he is innocent, there is no way in which the existing regime in Soviet Russia can be acquitted of deliberate, systematic persecution and falsification. These are unpleasant alternatives for those to face who are sympathetic with the efforts to build a Socialist State in Russia. The easier and lazier course is to avoid facing the alternatives. But unwillingness to face the unpleasant is the standing weakness of liberals. They are only too likely to be brave when affairs are going smoothly and then to shirk when unpleasant conditions demand decision and action. I cannot believe that a single genuine liberal would, if he once faced the alternatives, hold that persecution and falsification are a sound basis upon which to build an enduring Socialist society. [11]

Dewey concluded this speech by quoting words written by Zola in the era of the Dreyfus case: “Truth is on the march and nothing will stop it.”

Dewey traveled to Mexico in April 1937. He could not be dissuaded from undertaking this mission, despite appeals from his family and friends, who were frightened by the denunciations and even physical threats that were being orchestrated by the American Communist Party. The questioning of Trotsky spanned more than a week, from April 10 to 17, 1937. The transcript of Trotsky’s testimony runs to nearly 600 printed pages. It offered a detailed account of Trotsky’s political life and convictions.

Trotsky and Dewey presented a fascinating contrast. The former was the very embodiment of revolutionary passion and energy, a man who had stood at the center of the most tumultuous events in modern history, a master dialectician who employed striking metaphors to illuminate the political and social complexities that had given rise to the proceedings in Moscow. Dewey was a very different man: an old Yankee from Vermont, ponderous and sparing with his comments, a man of the college lecture hall, not mass rallies and battlefields. And yet, for all their differences in temperament and political conceptions, they shared a passionate commitment to the truth, which they considered the intellectual and moral mainspring of progress.

In his own way Trotsky paid a rare and poignant tribute to Dewey. In the final session of the hearing in Mexico, Trotsky delivered a four-hour defense of his life, beliefs and reputation. His speech, whose eloquence was accentuated by the fact that it was delivered in English and required of the great orator the most intense intellectual concentration, was followed in rapt silence.

“Esteemed Commissioners,” Trotsky declared as he came to the end of his speech:

The experience of my life, in which there has been no lack of either successes or of failures, has not only not destroyed my faith in the clear, bright future of mankind, but, on the contrary, has given it an indestructible temper. This faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity, which, at the age of eighteen I took with me into the workers’ quarters of the provincial Russian town of Nikolaiev—this faith I have preserved fully and completely. It has become more mature, but not less ardent. In the very fact of your Commission’s formation—in the fact that, at its head, is a man of unshakable moral authority, a man who by virtue of his age should have the right to remain outside of the skirmishes in the political arena—in this fact I see a new and truly magnificent reinforcement of the revolutionary optimism which constitutes the fundamental element of my life.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Commission! Mr. Attorney Finerty! And you, my defender and friend, Goldman! Allow me to express to all of you my warm gratitude, which in this case does not bear a personal character. And allow me, in conclusion, to express my profound respect to the educator, philosopher and personification of genuine American idealism, the scholar who heads the work of your Commission. [12]

To this Dewey replied, “Anything I can say will be an anticlimax,” and he quickly brought the hearing to a dignified conclusion.

The findings of the Dewey Commission

The commissioners returned to the United States. Nine months later they issued detailed findings which refuted every aspect of the case that had been presented by the Stalinist regime at the trials in Moscow. Permit me to cite the most important of the findings:

  • Finding Number 16: “We are convinced that the alleged letters in which Trotsky conveyed alleged conspiratorial instructions to the various defendants in the Moscow trials never existed; and that the testimony concerning them is sheer fabrication.”
  • Finding Number 17: “We find that Trotsky throughout his whole career has always been a consistent opponent of individual terror. The Commission further finds that Trotsky never instructed any of the defendants or witnesses in the Moscow Trials to assassinate any political opponent.”
  • Finding Number 18: “We find that Trotsky never instructed the defendants or witnesses in the Moscow trials to engage in sabotage, wrecking, and diversion. On the contrary, he has always been a consistent advocate of the building up of socialist industry and agriculture in the Soviet Union and has criticized the present regime on the basis that its activities were harmful to the building up of socialist economy in Russia. He is not in favor of sabotage as a method of opposition to any political regime.”
  • Finding Number 19: “We find that Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he has always uncompromisingly advocated the defense of the U.S.S.R. He has also been a most forthright ideological opponent of the fascism represented by the foreign powers with which he is accused of having conspired.”
  • Finding Number 20: “On the basis of all the evidence we find that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the U.S.S.R. On the contrary, he has always uncompromisingly opposed the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and its existence anywhere else.”

The commission summed up its findings with the following conclusion: “We therefore find the Moscow trials to be frame-ups. We therefore find Trotsky and Sedov not guilty.” [13]

Trotsky made the point that the commission could have limited itself to a finding that he was not guilty of the charges. It went beyond that, stating unequivocally that the Moscow trials were a frame-up. In effect, the commission found that the organizers of the trials, principally Stalin, were among the worst criminals in world history. Stalin and his accomplices had orchestrated a state frame-up in order to provide a legal cover for the murder of not only the trial defendants, but also of hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims.

By now I hope that you will understand why the Socialist Equality Party has publicly protested Richard Pipes’ gratuitous rehabilitation of the Moscow Trials. Stalin’s criminal proceedings legitimized the Terror that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and dealt a staggering blow to the cause of international socialism. The fight to expose the trials consumed the final years of Trotsky’s life. The Moscow Trials were finally discredited. Even the Soviet bureaucracy, shortly before its downfall in 1991, was compelled to admit that the proceedings were a legal travesty. More than fifty years after their execution, all of the victims of the trials were officially rehabilitated.

In light of this history, we could not observe with passive equanimity the attempt by Pipes, in the interests of his own reactionary political agenda, to rehabilitate the Moscow Trials. When lies are told about such events, a blow is struck against the historical consciousness of mankind. Every one of us is outraged when we read or hear of attempts to deny the fact of the Holocaust. Behind the denial that six million Jews were murdered by fascism is the preparation of future acts of genocide. The event in modern history that bears the closest comparison to the Holocaust is the Stalinist terror against the socialist working class and intelligentsia of the Soviet Union.

Both the Holocaust organized by the Nazis and the Great Terror organized by the Stalinists were criminal products of a counterrevolutionary reaction to the mass political movement of the socialist working class throughout Europe. It is true that the economic and social bases of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes were very different. But in their political orientation, both Russian Stalinism and German fascism embodied a reactionary nationalistic response to socialist internationalism which, under the influence of Marxism, had become such a powerful force in the European working class during the first decades of the twentieth century. Hitler and Stalin, each in his own way, sought to destroy the political, intellectual, cultural and ethical foundation built up in the working class movement by Marxism over generations. Hitler used the methods of ethnic genocide. Stalin was more precise: his genocide based itself on a process of political selection. He identified those who, through their politics or intellectual achievements, reflected the influence of the socialist traditions that had inspired the October Revolution, and he ordered their destruction.

Let us now return more directly to the issue raised in the title of this lecture: the relation of the Moscow Trials to the present-day crisis of political life in the United States. The trials produced a deep and lasting effect on the development of political life in this country. The opportunistic flirtation of a section of popular front liberals with Stalinism left a bitter political aftertaste. In a fundamental sense, many liberal intellectuals were deeply embarrassed, if not thoroughly discredited, by the Moscow Trials. By the third trial in March 1938—this time Bukharin was the chief defendant—it was all but impossible to maintain the pretense that all was well with the Soviet system of justice. However, the erstwhile liberal defenders of Stalinism were not inclined to admit honestly that they had made a mistake or examine why their judgment had been so faulty. A new mood began to emerge within these circles. The liberal admirers of Stalinism now began to acknowledge that the trials were, perhaps, a travesty of justice. But the unfortunate events in Moscow, they claimed, showed what happened when social change was sought through revolutionary methods. “Violence begets violence!” “The Moscow Trials arose out of the amoralism, if not immoralism, of Bolshevism.” “What occurred in 1937 began in 1917!” “Stalin may be bad, but Trotsky would have been worse!”

To a great extent, the very arguments which have become the clichés repeated endlessly over the years to discredit socialism have their origins in the defensive justification by American liberalism for its complicity in the horrifying events of the late 1930s. Liberal disillusionment with Stalinism proceeded along the line of least resistance—not to a revolutionary Marxist critique of the Soviet bureaucracy, but toward a general abandonment of any sort of active interest in and support for socialism. This trend became especially pronounced after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact in August 1939, which the former friends of the USSR interpreted not as a betrayal of the working class and international socialism—that they could have forgiven—but as a betrayal of the foreign policy of the Roosevelt administration.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the entrance of the United States into the Second World War the following December, there was a temporary, opportunistic rapprochement between the liberal intelligentsia and Stalinism. Liberals could, without any risk to their reputations and careers, combine patriotism with the expression of friendly sentiments toward the USSR. But this happy situation lasted only until the end of the war, or more precisely, until Churchill formulated his “iron curtain” metaphor in a speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946.

Liberalism and the Cold War

With the onset of the Cold War, public opinion shifted rapidly to the right. A ferocious anticommunism swept the ranks of American liberalism, and it contributed decisively to the reactionary environment without which the witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s could not have taken place.

There are many reasons for the disgraceful role played by American liberalism in contributing to the wave of political reaction that was to have such a devastating effect upon the intellectual level and political climate of the United States. Certainly, the economic upturn that followed the war was a decisive material factor in the weakening of radical political tendencies. The return of prosperity and the new dominance of the United States in world affairs produced a revival of confidence in the prospects for capitalism. The so-called American Century had begun. The amelioration of social conditions, or at least the sense that American capitalism possessed the material resources to deal with its ongoing domestic problems, contributed to the increasing conservatism and complacency of liberalism.

But the peculiar ferocity of American anticommunism, especially the fact that it encountered so little organized resistance, cannot be attributed exclusively to the material environment of postwar prosperity. Other political and ideological factors must be considered. First of all, one cannot underestimate the degree to which the dishonesty and cynicism of American Stalinists had succeeded in making them utterly loathsome to broad sections of the working class. The term “Stalinist hack” became part of the everyday vocabulary of the American labor movement, and it conjured up the image of a two-faced petty labor bureaucrat who simply “toed a line” without any real concern for its effect upon the welfare of the working class.

The American Stalinists were directly involved in the GPU conspiracy that led to the assassination of Trotsky in August 1940, and they supported the prosecution of leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party on trumped-up charges of sedition in 1941. They endorsed the utilization against their political opponents in the workers movement of the very laws that were to be used against them several years later. Unlike the Stalinist parties in Western Europe, which managed to salvage their reputations on the basis of their role in the anti-Nazi resistance movements, the Communist Party in the United States opposed all manifestations of industrial militancy or political radicalism during World War II. Thus by the end of the war, the Stalinists had lost virtually all credibility among the most militant sections of the working class. Only an organization as unprincipled, cynical and deceitful as the American Communist Party could have enabled its right-wing opponents in the CIO bureaucracy to pose as dedicated champions of the rights of the American working class.

But neither the activities of the American Stalinists nor, for that matter, the policies of the Soviet Union provide an adequate explanation for the liberal intelligentsia’s postwar lurch to the right. The question that must be answered is why their opposition to Stalinism found its principal mode of expression in support for the Cold War policies of American imperialism. An important part of the answer to this question must be found in a basic failure of their understanding, both theoretical and political, of the origins and nature of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. There was a dramatic change in the attitude of the liberal intelligentsia to the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1946. And yet, there was a definite political and theoretical continuity between the pro- and anti-Soviet positions. When they supported Stalin against Trotsky, and then Truman against Stalin, the liberal intelligentsia proceeded from the identity of Stalinism and Marxism.

This placed the liberal intelligentsia in a politically and intellectually untenable position. On the basis of the facile formula that Stalinism equals Marxism and socialism, the liberals left themselves only two alternatives: The first was to oppose Stalinism from the right as supporters of American imperialism; the second, to serve as apologists of Stalinism. The New Republic wound up in the first camp; The Nation, in the second.

The fate of the liberal and democratic intelligentsia in the United States demonstrated the impossibility of combining a principled radical opposition to both Stalinism and imperialism without understanding the nature of the Soviet regime. In the 1930s the liberal intelligentsia had, with few exceptions, accepted the identification of Stalinism with Marxism. Ten and fifteen years later, it was still proceeding on the basis of this false and reactionary identity. Those who simply reversed their assessment of the Soviet Union, converting the positives that had been attributed to Stalinism in the 1930s into negatives a decade later, inevitably fell into line behind the political and cultural witch hunters.

In the final analysis, the evolution of the liberal intelligentsia in the late 1940s was rooted in the material interests of the petty-bourgeois social strata from which its membership was largely recruited. The personal characteristics that are found so commonly within these social strata—egotism, selfishness, cowardice, etc.—were contributing factors in determining the part played by different individuals in this process. But the intellectual factor—that is, the absence of a general theoretical comprehension of the October Revolution and, in particular, the political origins and significance of Stalinism—must not be discounted. It was not only the scoundrels and cowards among the liberal intelligentsia who fell into line behind American imperialism in the 1940s. Even John Dewey, notwithstanding his intelligence, integrity and courage, stumbled badly following the trials. He exposed the trials, but he could not explain them. Dewey took refuge in empty platitudes about Bolshevik methods leading inevitably to the crimes of Stalinism. On this basis, in the final years of his life, Dewey shared the Cold War conceptions of so many of his inferiors in the liberal camp. If Dewey left behind no real successor, it was because American liberalism no longer had anything to say that was remotely progressive.

We have tried to show how the tangled relationship between the liberal intelligentsia and Stalinism contributed to the stagnation of political and intellectual life in the United States. The paralysis of social thought is mired in its false identification of Stalinism with Marxism. The lies of pseudo-scholars like Pipes, amplified to the nth degree by the mind-numbing media, serve to reinforce the reactionary and conformist politics in the United States. Without an understanding of the rise, decline and fall of the October Revolution—which cannot be achieved except on the basis of the careful study of the struggle waged by the Trotskyist movement against Stalinism—no way can be found out of this blind alley.

Intellectual conformism and the crisis of US society

The need to come to grips with this problem is demonstrated by the condition of contemporary political life. The United States is passing through a social crisis, the signs of which are apparent to all who wish to open up their eyes and be honest with themselves. Yet it is virtually impossible to find any serious questioning of the prevailing economic system. Of course, nothing of the sort is to be expected of the mass media. But even in the more selective journals one comes across virtually nothing except vulgar, mundane and hackneyed ideas. Rarely is there even a suggestion that an alternative to capitalism must be found. And even when, almost by accident, one comes across a writer or lecturer who appears to be attempting to say something intelligent, one senses that this individual is engaged in self-censorship, taking care not to go beyond the bounds of what is possible and permissible within the framework of capitalism.

This intellectual stagnation has continued for so long, it is hardly recalled that serious doubts in the viability of capitalism as a social system were not unusual within a broad layer of liberal intellectuals up until the postwar period. For students who have been kept on a diet of intellectual and political conformity, it may come as quite a surprise to pick up a volume of the political writings of John Dewey from the early 1930s. Dewey was not a Marxist. He was not a revolutionary. Indeed, one could only with extreme reservations consider him a socialist. But when read within the context of today’s stagnation and conformity, this venerable dean of the old liberal tradition appears far more radical than he did in his own day, and certainly more courageous and far to the left of any tendency that defines itself as liberal or even radical today.

If one goes to the library and leafs through a volume of Dewey’s political and social writings, one finds passages which, were he alive and writing such things today, would likely bar him from employment at any major American university or, at the very least, consign him to obscurity.

Let me cite one characteristic passage, written during the Depression:

When the present crisis is over in its outward sensational features, when things have returned to a comparatively more comfortable state called “normalcy,” will they forget? Will they even complacently congratulate themselves on the generosity with which society relieved distress? Or will they locate the causes of the distress of unemployment and modify the social system? If they do the former, the time of depression will recur sooner or later with renewed violence until the social system is changed by force. The alternative is such a recognition of society’s responsibility for the evil as will by planned foresight and deliberate choice change the economic and financial structure of society itself.

Only a change in the system will ensure the right of every person to work and enable everyone to live in security. [14]

Such obvious truths are hardly spoken today. Discussion of all social and political questions is blighted by one great lie: the identification of Marxism with Stalinism. Especially today, the collapse of the Soviet Union is proclaimed to be the ultimate proof that socialism is not viable and that there can be no alternative to capitalism. The political effect of this lie is to block any serious attempt to come to grips with the deepening social crisis. Even where the existence of this crisis is acknowledged and described, no serious solution is offered. Take, for example, the recently-published book by the MIT economist Lester Thurow, The Future of Capitalism. This book is full of striking economic data which clearly demonstrate the failure of capitalism as a social system.

Thurow, however, does not draw that conclusion. He is one of those who is careful to censor himself. Nevertheless, Thurow provides shocking documentation of the growth of inequality and general poverty. He points out that all gains in male earnings during the 1980s went to the top 20 percent of the workforce. Sixty-four percent of that gain went to the top 1 percent. The pay of the Fortune 500 executives rose from 35 to 157 times that of the average production worker. Thurow notes the dramatic decline of real wages for males over the last quarter-century. Even though the Gross Domestic Product has risen 29 percent since 1973, average median wages have fallen by 11 percent. Only those in the upper-middle class and higher have seen, in real income terms, any genuine improvement in their living standards over this extended period. Those on the lower rungs, on the other hand, have suffered terribly. Real wages for workers between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four have dropped by a quarter since the early 1970s. For young workers under the age of twenty-four, the proportion earning less than the official poverty level for a family of four rose from 18 percent in 1979 to 40 percent in 1989.

Perhaps the most remarkable fact presented by Thurow is the following: he points out that the period between 1950 and the year 2000, if present trends continue to the end of this decade, will mark the first half-century in American history when living standards actually declined in real terms. Thurow states that there really is no precedent for the massive wave of corporate downsizing and restructuring that has had such a disastrous impact upon living standards across a very broad spectrum of the working population.

The impact of downsizing and restructuring has been severe and long-lasting. Of those who lost their jobs in the first wave of downsizing in the 1980s, 12 percent never reentered the workforce and 17 percent remained unemployed for at least two years. Of the 71 percent who were reemployed, 31 percent took a wage reduction of 25 percent or more. Thurow also writes about an expanding “lumpenproletariat” of homeless people and chronically unemployed. Forty percent of homeless unmarried men have been in jail.

He sums up the growth of social distress and inequality as follows:

No country not experiencing a revolution or a military defeat with a subsequent occupation has probably ever had as rapid or as widespread an increase in inequality as has occurred in the United States in the past two decades. Never before have Americans seen the current pattern of real-wage reductions in the face of rising per capita GDP. [15]

And, finally, Thurow concludes:

In the absence of any vision that could generate the enormous restructuring efforts that would be necessary to begin reducing inequality and to cause real wages to rise, what happens? How far can inequality widen and real wages fall before something snaps in a democracy? No one knows, since it has never before happened. The experiment has never been tried. [16]

The question that arises is precisely why there is no “vision” to guide the type of massive social restructuring that is so obviously necessary. The answer given by Thurow illustrates the very point that I have sought to make in this lecture. “Capitalism,” he writes, “has a current advantage in that with the death of communism and socialism, it has no plausible social system as an active competitor. It is impossible to have a revolution against anything unless there is an alternative ideology.” [17]

Thurow’s conclusion illustrates the impact of the identification of Stalinism and socialism. The rebuilding of a revolutionary workers movement on the basis of Marxist principles and genuine socialist traditions requires an implacable struggle against the falsifiers of history. This fight will be won, for if history proves anything, it is that, in the long run, truth is more powerful than lies.


Available: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/24/books/the-seeds-of-his-own-destruction.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm




V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 36 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966) p. 595.


Available: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/24/books/the-seeds-of-his-own-destruction.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm




See Appendices 1 and 2 of The Russian Revolution and the Unfinished Twentieth Century.


Writings of Leon Trotsky 1936–37 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), pp. 173–174.


Ibid., pp.179–80. Also available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3nD5bFm3Jg


The Nation, February 2, 1937.


The New Republic, April 7, 1937, pp. 267–269.


Jo Ann Boydston, ed., The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925–1953, Volume 11, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987) p. 318.


The Case of Leon Trotsky: Report of Hearings on the Charges Made Against Him in the Moscow Trials (New York: Merit Publishers, 1968), pp. 584–585.


The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 11, pp. 322–323.


Jo Ann Boydston, ed., The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925–1953, Volume 6 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 155.


Lester C. Thurow, The Future of Capitalism (New York: William Morrow, 1996), p. 42.


Ibid., p. 261.


Ibid., p. 310.