International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 2 (June 1988)

Soviet Union Repudiates Moscow Trials: A Historic Vindication

This statement originally appeared in the Bulletin, weekly newspaper of the Workers League, on June 17, 1988.

The Supreme Court of the Soviet Union announced on Monday, June 13, the rehabilitation of Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Yuri Pyatakov, and other “Old Bolshevik” leaders of the Russian Revolution who were sentenced to death during the Moscow trials of 1936-37 and executed.

According to the newspaper Izvestia, the Supreme Court ruled that all those who had been found guilty of spying for Nazi Germany and other anti-Soviet activities were innocent. The court reversed the convictions and sentences that had been imposed on 33 defendants.

“Now it is clear that they are not enemies, that they are not guilty before the law, the state, or the people,” Izvestia stated. “The state which they helped to create 70 years ago gives them back their honor and their name.”

The repudiation of the Moscow trials follows a government decision to cancel this year’s final history examinations for millions of elementary and high school students because official textbooks are full of lies.

The Izvestia article conceded that the Old Bolsheviks were condemned to death because they were political opponents of Stalin.

“Why was the struggle against the policy of Stalin considered anti-party?” Izvestia asked. “It seemed that if you had another opinion, then you are a heretic and should be burned at the stake.”

For the first time since they were murdered at the conclusion of the first of the three Moscow trials in August 1936, the political contributions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two of Lenin’s closest associates in the decade leading up to the 1917 October Revolution and major figures in the early years of the Soviet state, were commented upon favorably in the Soviet press.

And yet, though the ruling completely discredits the judicial frame-ups employed by Stalin to physically destroy all that was left in the Soviet Union of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, the Supreme Court still failed to rehabilitate the one man who was the principal target of the Moscow trial frame-ups: Leon Trotsky, the coleader of the October Revolution, implacable opponent of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and founder of the Fourth International.

The attempt to exclude Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov, from the official rehabilitation is untenable. The conviction of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov, and all the other defendants in the Moscow trial frame-ups was based on fantastic and utterly groundless allegations that they were part of an anti-Soviet terrorist organization set up by Trotsky.

Moreover, in the trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev, Trotsky and Sedov were the chief accused. They were found guilty and sentenced to death in absentia.

During the second round of purge trials in January 1937, Pyatakov and others, including Karl Radek who has also been rehabilitated, were accused of receiving terrorist instructions from Trotsky.

But in posthumously overturning the convictions and acknowledging that the defendants were innocent of all charges, the Supreme Court has implicitly conceded that Trotsky and Sedov were the victims of the most terrible campaign of slander and falsification in history.

The fact that the Supreme Court did not issue a forthright statement declaring Trotsky innocent is a measure of the fear that his name still evokes within the Soviet bureaucracy.

But despite the cowardly evasion, the declaration of the Supreme Court represents a monumental historical vindication of Trotskyism, the world revolutionary movement whose entire historical existence is bound up with the struggle against Stalinism and its monstrous crimes against the Soviet and international working class.

Tens of millions of Soviet workers are learning for the first time that the Stalinist bureaucracy consolidated its power through the brutal extermination of the entire generation of Bolshevik leaders who, alongside of Lenin and Trotsky, carried through the revolutionary overturn of capitalism in Russia and established the first workers’ state in world history.

Having now been told that the victims of Stalin’s frame-ups were genuine communists and revolutionaries, the Soviet working class will demand to know the political reasons for the extermination of the Old Bolsheviks.

These are questions that cannot be answered by Gorbachev, for he himself is part of the bureaucracy whose existence is rooted in the very crimes which are now being exposed before millions.

Beginning in 1923, with the founding of the Left Opposition, Trotsky began the fight against the growing power of the bureaucracy, whose existence was materially rooted in the extreme economic backwardness of the Soviet state during the first years of its existence. This backwardness, a legacy inherited by the Bolsheviks from the old Russian regime they had overthrown in 1917, was intensified by the imperialist encirclement of the young Soviet state.

Trotsky, while advocating a program of carefully planned industrialization to strengthen the Soviet economy and improve the conditions of the masses, insisted that the survival of the workers’ state and development of socialism depended on the extension of the proletarian revolution beyond the borders of the USSR—above all, into the powerful bastions of capitalism in Western Europe and the United States.

But by 1924, Stalin, emerging ever more openly as the spokesman of a conservative bureaucratic caste, repudiated the internationalist principles of Marxism and declared that socialism could be built in a single country. This reactionary nationalist perspective provided a political banner for the bureaucracy, which was increasingly intent on protecting its social privileges within the Soviet Union.

The epic battle between the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and the bureaucracy led by Stalin was a struggle between two irreconcilable political and social tendencies. Defending the program of permanent revolution, upon which the October 1917 victory was based, Trotsky demonstrated that the growing power of Stalin and the systematic suppression of the soviets (workers’ councils) and inner-party democracy reflected a political reaction against the October Revolution by the bureaucracy and the petty-bourgeois forces upon which it rested.

Moreover, between 1924 and 1927, Trotsky warned that the anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country” was having ruinous effects on the international proletariat and leading to catastrophic defeats which would, in turn, intensify the isolation of the USSR.

Separating the defense of the Soviet Union from the extension of the socialist revolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy systematically subverted the Third (Communist) International, which had been established in 1919 to organize and direct the revolutionary struggles of the working class against world capitalism, and transformed it into simply an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. The political corollary of “socialism in one country” was “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. After the Soviet bureaucracy had orchestrated the expulsion of Trotsky’s supporters from the Communist International, the policies of local Communist parties were increasingly determined by the practical needs of Soviet diplomacy, i.e., extracting diplomatic concessions from the imperialists.

This was especially the case after the defeat of the German working class by the Nazis in 1933, caused by the disastrous policies pursued by the Communist International and the German Communist Party under the leadership of Stalin, completed the transformation of the Soviet bureaucracy into an openly counterrevolutionary force in the international workers’ movement.

It was in response to the historic betrayal of the German working class by Stalinism that Trotsky, now living in exile, declared the Communist International completely destroyed as a revolutionary force and issued the call for the building of the Fourth International.

Two factors underlay Stalin’s launching of the “Great Terror” in the mid-1930s.

First, the Soviet bureaucracy was determined to consolidate its political power by destroying all the human remains of the Bolshevik Party that had led the greatest revolution in history. Although Zinoviev, Kamenev, Pyatakov and the other defendants had long since repudiated their political opposition to Stalin’s policies and were themselves bitter opponents of Trotsky, the Soviet bureaucracy feared their physical existence as a potential rallying point of working class opposition to the Stalinist regime.

Second, frightened by the danger posed by the Hitlerite regime in Germany and desperately seeking alliances with the imperialist “democracies,” Stalin wanted to give the international bourgeoisie convincing proof that the Soviet regime had broken completely with the perspective of world revolution with which the Old Bolsheviks were identified. Despite his demoralized capitulation to Stalin, Zinoviev, had been, after all, the first chairman of the Communist International. By murdering the entire generation of political leaders who had led the October Revolution, Stalin intended to convince world imperialism that the Soviet Union had broken irrevocably with revolutionary internationalism and firmly defended the international political status quo.

That is why the Moscow trials and the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Marxists inside the USSR was accompanied by the murder of countless thousands of European revolutionists. Communist refugees who had fled to the USSR from Germany, Poland, Italy and other European countries were arrested by the GPU, tortured and summarily shot. Virtually the entire leading cadre of the Polish Communist Party was murdered on Stalin’s instructions.

Beyond the borders of the USSR, especially in Spain, revolutionary opponents of Stalin’s policies were liquidated by special detachments of the Soviet secret police, the GPU. In Spain, the purpose of these assassinations was to prevent the struggle against the fascist forces led by Franco from assuming the form of a proletarian revolution against Spanish capitalism—a development which Stalin feared would undermine his relations with France and Britain. Moreover, Stalin dreaded the political impact that a successful proletarian revolution in Europe would have on the moral and political consciousness of Soviet workers. He knew full well that any revolutionary advance by the European working class would strengthen Soviet workers and undermine the position of the bureaucracy.

In 1936, Trotsky published his greatest scientific work, The Revolution Betrayed. He established that the Soviet bureaucracy was a counterrevolutionary caste, i.e., a parasitic social stratum whose existence was the material expression of the pressure of world imperialism upon the workers’ state. Trotsky opposed the view advanced by many petty-bourgeois theoreticians that the Soviet bureaucracy was a new ruling class, inasmuch as the bureaucracy lacked, from the standpoint of Marxism, the essential historical attributes of a social class, i.e., an independent relation to the means of production in which it plays a historically necessary role in the production relations of society. Far from creating new forms of property, the bureaucracy rested upon the nationalized property relations established by the proletariat as a result of the 1917 Revolution.

However, noting the presence of bourgeois tendencies within the bureaucracy and its striving to establish definite social forms to consolidate and perpetuate its privileges, Trotsky warned that bureaucratic rule would lead ultimately to the restoration of capitalism inside the Soviet Union.

That is why Trotsky insisted that the gains of the October Revolution and the progressive evolution of the USSR toward socialism could be achieved only through the overthrow of the bureaucracy in a political revolution—that is, a revolution which preserved the nationalized property relations established in 1917 while ridding the country of the privileged bureaucracy.

While murdering millions of communists inside the Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy lived in mortal fear of Trotsky and the Fourth International, precisely because it recognized that they represented the conscious articulation of the Soviet proletariat’s undying hatred of the bureaucratic parasites.

That is why the GPU singled out the leaders of the Fourth International for elimination. In the summer of 1937, Erwin Wolf, one of Trotsky’s secretaries, was murdered in Spain. In February 1938, Leon Sedov was assassinated in France. Rudolf Element, the secretary of the Fourth International, was murdered in France in July 1938. And finally, in August 1940, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico by the Stalinist agent, Ramon Mercader.

But before his death, Trotsky had not only succeeded in founding the Fourth International. In the face of what might have appeared to be superhuman obstacles, he undertook the exposure of the Moscow trials and the purge of the Old Bolsheviks as the greatest frame-up in history.

Under conditions in which the leading capitalist newspapers, such as the New York Times, were giving credence to the Stalinist indictments, the local Communist parties were demanding the blood of the Old Bolsheviks, and petty-bourgeois radicals and so-called friends of the USSR were singing the praises of Stalin and endorsing the “findings” of the Moscow court, Trotsky and his supporters in the Fourth International tore the indictments to shreds.

In January 1937, Trotsky issued the call for the establishment of an international commission to investigate the Moscow trials at which he offered to make himself and his files available for a complete and public examination. On February 9, 1937, Trotsky made the following pledge:

“If the commission decides that I am guilty in the slightest degree of the crimes which Stalin imputes to me, I pledge in advance to place myself voluntarily in the hands of the executioners of the GPU. That, I hope, is clear. Have you all heard? I make this declaration before the entire world. I ask the press to publish my words in the furthest corners of our planet. But if the commission establishes—do you hear me?—that the Moscow trials are a conscious and premeditated frame-up, constructed with the bones and nerves of human beings, I will not ask my accusers to place themselves voluntarily before a firing squad. No, eternal disgrace in the memory of human generations will be sufficient for them. Do the accusers of the Kremlin hear me? I throw my defiance in their faces. And I await their reply.”

The international commission was convened under the chairmanship of the famous American educator and philosopher John Dewey. In April 1937, it traveled to Mexico to publicly question Trotsky. In December 1937, the commission found Trotsky not guilty and labeled the Moscow trials a frame-up.

Fifty years later, the repudiation of the Moscow trials by the Soviet regime is the direct outcome of the intense political crisis gripping the bureaucracy. The ferocious faction fight that has broken out within the bureaucracy has as its cause the economic impasse produced by the policy of socialism in a single country. Gorbachev is seeking a solution to that crisis in a way that will protect the overall interests of the bureaucracy which he leads through the integration of the Soviet economy into that of world capitalism. On the basis of these policies, he is attracting large sections of the middle class, including broad elements within the bureaucracy, who seek to strengthen their own social positions through the legitimization of private property and capitalist enterprise. However, in attacking the state industry which serves as the source of privileges for certain sections of the bureaucracy, and in order to gather popular support, Gorbachev has been driven to sanction ever more open attacks on the entire historical legacy of Stalin. There is nothing principled in Gorbachev’s motives. It is significant that only seven months ago, in his speech on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, Gorbachev was still praising Stalin’s contribution to the Soviet Union. But now the ruling of the Supreme Court amounts to a shattering denunciation of Stalin and it is accompanied by reports that Stalin may soon be posthumously expelled from the Communist Party!

The fact that the action of the Supreme Court goes far beyond and even contradicts what Gorbachev said in November simply demonstrates that far more profound historical processes are manifesting themselves. The rehabilitation of the Old Bolsheviks arises, in the most fundamental sense, out of the irreconcilable antagonism between the historic perspective of October and that of the bureaucracy which usurped political power from the Soviet proletariat. Trotsky’s life work, summed up in the founding of the Fourth International, embodied the world significance of the October Revolution.

That revolution has been desecrated but not destroyed by the bureaucracy. Decisions as to the destiny of the revolution are inextricably linked with the historical fate of those who were the victims of Stalinism. As Trotsky insisted, the revolution lives in the consciousness of the masses. Once questions of history are raised, they impinge directly upon the lives of millions of workers who contributed to the revolution and the construction of the proletarian state. How many millions of workers lost parents and grandparents as a result of the purges and the related crimes of the bureaucracy? They will not rest content with the official statement of the Supreme Court. They will demand to know more, and they will seek political retribution.

Moreover, the rehabilitation raises countless questions which cannot be answered by either the faction of Gorbachev or that of his purported opponent, Ligachev. No doubt that Gorbachev hopes to make use of these rehabilitations to strengthen his own hand; but he would much rather rehabilitate the old metropolitans of the Russian Orthodox Church than the Old Bolsheviks of Lenin’s central committee. Ultimately, the process now underway is fraught with dangers for Gorbachev. The coming confrontations with the working class will unfold under conditions in which the bureaucracy no longer has at its disposal the monstrous falsifications which were employed by Stalin to destroy the revolutionary opposition.

The events of the past week have already demonstrated the validity of Trotsky’s observation that the laws of history are stronger than the most powerful general secretary. Some 25 years ago, Stalin’s corpse was removed from its mausoleum. Now the demand for his posthumous expulsion from the CPSU is being raised. What Trotsky proposed as fit punishment for the Stalinist assassins is now being realized: “The task is to strip the criminals naked before the consciousness of mankind and to cast them into the garbage heap of history. It is impossible to reconcile oneself to less.”

Neither the Workers League nor our international cothinkers in the International Committee will retract anything we have written about Gorbachev, nor will we in any way revise our assessment of the counterrevolutionary character of his social program.

Indeed, Gorbachev has risen to his commanding position precisely because his policy of perestroika (“restructuring”) expresses most consciously and consistently the interests of the powerful bourgeois-restorationist tendencies within the Soviet bureaucracy.

But our intransigent hostility to all factions of the bureaucracy does not prevent us from recognizing the profound significance of the objective historical processes which are at work. This is not the first time in history that political cracks in the ruling circles of a bankrupt regime have provided the opening for the movement of revolutionary forces. It was, after all, Louis XVI who summoned the Etates General in 1789.

The issue of Trotsky, after so many decades, has been brought once again to the forefront of history. Behind the murder of Trotsky and the Old Bolsheviks lay the betrayal of the October Revolution and the program of world socialism. Only that program, which includes the political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy as one of its component parts, can provide the answer to the crisis confronting the Soviet Union.

In giving public voice to the historical issues posed by the rehabilitation of the Old Bolsheviks, the Workers League joins the International Committee in preparing the next stage of the offensive of the Soviet and international proletariat.

Precisely because our party turns its face toward the working class and prepares for the future, we denounce those renegades from Trotskyism, like the British opportunist Gerry Healy who, forgetting all the lessons of history, are jumping pathetically on Gorbachev’s bandwagon and accepting his bureaucratic maneuvers as a substitute for the revolutionary initiative of the masses.

Little more than 30 years ago, following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the famous “secret speech,” the Pabloite revisionists seized on this event as a vindication of their opportunist theory that the Soviet bureaucracy was capable of carrying out a progressive “self-reform.” These opportunists were left politically naked when just eight months later Khrushchev sent troops into Hungary to suppress the uprising of workers in Budapest.

The task confronting Marxists is to exploit the crisis within the bureaucracy by advancing the independent revolutionary program of the Fourth International.

First of all, we do not rest content with the paltry terms of the Supreme Court’s rehabilitation. Not only has it failed to include Trotsky and Sedov, it has shed no light whatsoever on the actual mechanics of the frame-ups and juridical murders.

We demand to know all the facts relating to the purges! Who plotted the trials? Who supervised the extraction of false confessions from the accused? What tortures, psychological and physical, were used to force the defendants to testify against themselves? How were the accused killed and who supervised and carried out their executions?

We demand to know the fate of all the victims of the purges, including the thousands of Trotskyists who were condemned to death in secret proceedings.

We demand to know all the relevant facts relating to the murder of members of the Fourth International outside the USSR, including the assassination of Leon Trotsky. Who were the GPU agents who worked inside the sections of the Fourth International to help prepare the assassination? All the facts relating to the activities of the GPU agent-provocateur Mark Zborowski—who still lives in San Francisco—must be revealed. This applies as well to the activities of the Stalinist agent Sylvia Franklin—living today in Chicago under the name Sylvia Doxsee—who spied between 1938 and 1947 for the GPU while working as secretary for James P. Cannon, founder and leader of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.

During the last decade, the International Committee has uncovered evidence which, while exposing the crimes of Zborowski and Franklin, also incriminated the late Joseph Hansen, another leader of the Socialist Workers Party. We demand the public release of all the files of the GPU-KGB to expose for once and for all the full magnitude of the crimes committed by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Moreover, we demand that the works of Leon Trotsky be published in Russian and placed in libraries and bookstores throughout the Soviet Union.

Finally, we address demands to the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), which not only provided political support for the Moscow trials and the related crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy, but also functioned as a direct accomplice in a number of its political assassinations. To this day there are members of the Communist Party, including its 78-year-old general secretary, Gus Hall, who applauded the murder of Stalin’s opponents and who continued, for years after Stalin’s death, to use the slur of “fascist” against Trotskyists.

We demand that the Communist Party repudiate this entire filthy legacy and that it make public all that it knows about the crimes which were carried out against the opponents of Stalinism in the workers’ movement.

The crisis of Stalinism has undermined the most important prop upon which the survival of imperialism has depended for the last half-century.

This crisis imposes upon the Workers League and the International Committee the greatest responsibility, while presenting it the greatest opportunity—to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership in the American and international working class and in that way prepare the final victory of world socialism