Lies to Abuse: the Practice of Communism
“First we have to annihilate our enemies”
“Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses. And I do not wish to build new Potimkin villages on these ruins.”
“We will mercilessly destroy anybody who, by his deeds or by his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin.”
Stalin, Toast, Nov. 7 1937
“Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.”
Stalin to Yezhov, 1937
Lying often leads to conflict and confrontation because lying is a tool for gaining advantage, grasping power, perpetuating domination or covering up a wrong doing. As Cecila Bok says, “Lying requires a reason, while truth-telling does not,” as Cecilia Bok wrote [Bok, Lying 22] the liar lies because something is in it for him, something that means more than the truth.
The systematized, institutionalized lying typical of Communist dictatorships needs to be carefully managed and orchestrated so as to give maximum flexibility and protection to the liars. Entire agencies are created and devoted to distorting and mangling the appearance of events so as to enhance the credibility of the Party elites and guard their power. No facts or appearance or events can be publicly presented that are not in conformity with the pronouncements of the governing ideology because the ideology is both comprehensive in its reach and exclusive of explanatory competition.
Enormous resources must be invested in the coordination of the constant production of lies, a challenging task because each one of the many lies has a limited and uncertain durability and an unpredictable time-span span of utility. Since the lies are in conflict with reality, but at the same time crafted and launched to represent reality, they are inevitably tested against reality – which unfolds often in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways – by the lied-to. The lie must compete with the truth, and even though the competition is blunted by the coercive party organs, still the lie is at a disadvantage with the truth. Once launched, the lie at some point falls under scrutiny and invites detection. The liar, of course, will have some level of investment in the lie, a practical investment with some gain or advantage to be anticipated. The more ambitious the lie, the more is at stake for the liar if the lie gets exposed – loss of friends, spouse, reputation, career, etc. For governments that are built on lies, of course, the investment in them is huge and what is at stake is their existence in fact. This explains why Communist governments have never been able to continue to function without massive and unrelenting coercion. Communists govern not only in opposition to their own people but against the truth – a perpetual war on two fronts which takes a toll. Once the coercion is relaxed, the institutionalized lies, long privately doubted, can be publicly contested and repudiated as they were all across Eastern and Central Europe in 1989-1991. Once the lies are openly acknowledged and impossible to uphold, the leaders have nothing left to offer and no authority to govern. Cynicism and resentment fill the void. They must either resort to force or quit.
Once exposed, the author of the lie becomes a loser—his credibility and reputation, are damaged, sometimes irreparably. The liar under scrutiny is pressed to defend the indefensible. The original lie metastasizes rapidly into a multiplicity of dishonest faces of reality. The liar at some point will likely encounter a truth-teller who attempts to expose him. Truth is a personal threat to the liar and the truth teller an enemy. The liar cannot engage the truth-teller openly and directly with a discussion, with facts, with an argument. Argument is not an option for the liar for in doing so he would have to conform to the norms of logic, observe the protocols of respectful discourse, bend in the direction of empirical reality, follow the evidence and face the facts.
When confronted or challenged, the liar has several options – more lies to cover the original, which increases his exposure, or, confession, which puts him out of commission. A third alternative, one often resorted to, is to go on the offensive and divert attention away from the substance of the lie – attack the truth-teller and abuse him. Nicolae Ceausescu in July 1989 as the Warsaw Pact was crumbling, denounced the Solidarity union in Poland as “the hireling of international imperialism.” [Sebestyen, Revolution, 1989, 309] This strategy of abuse ranges from intimidation, insinuation, character assassination to ridicule. Abuse is a highly effective strategy. It is done often and is a step down into an amoral slippery slope. For the liar to prevail the truth-teller must be discredited, undone, as a person. The truth-teller’s character, personality and intelligence come under attack. The liar intentionally impugns motives, attempts to undermine character and questions associations. If the truth-teller’s character can be cast under shadows or destroyed, then the lie and the liar can survive, perhaps even be strengthened because the reservations the truth-teller raises about the lies are discredited and do not need to be taken seriously. The liar’s strategy of abuse and defamation is so often successful and so regularly pursued because no one’s life is without flaws and almost anyone’s shortcomings can be discovered and represented in a damaging and distracting way.
Stalinism – false and dishonest from its inception – thrived and grew out of massive abuse. Moreover, abuse became a central, predictable aspect of Stalinism in all of its manifestations. All of its mobilizing resources were poured into the creation and manipulation of a false dichotomy – its own regime of virtuous equality opposed by an outside world governed by the corrupt haves against the exploited have-nots.
The abuse that so conspicuously marked the Soviet Union under Stalin was from the beginning neither contingent nor accidental. It was inevitable by virtue of the conflict-eschatology embedded in Marxist-Leninist ideology. The revolutionaries believed that Communism was destined to prevail. However, the bold action taken to bring it into being inevitably forced reaction, violent reaction. The revolutions once underway had to deal with counter-revolutionaries. There could be no peaceful transition to a better society. Opposition and violent conflict were imbedded in the forces of history and would always play out “dialectically,” conflict, then resolution. Lenin in What is to be Done? excoriated Eduard Bernstein who had rendered Marxism as an evolutionary movement rather than a revolutionary one, as a betrayer of Marx, co-opted by the capitalism that was to be overthrown. Capitalism was an irremediable evil in Lenin’s view and as such would not pass away without overcoming resistance, without the use of force, without killing the capitalists. Revolution was a form of just warfare and abusing the opposition was an essential part of it. Violence on a massive scale was inevitable, and for the Communists who were theoretically destined to prevail in the inevitable struggle, their use of violence was morally vindicated. No amount of it could be judged excessive and no application of it could be condemned because it was a justified means to ensure the transition to the new order.
The link between lying and abuse comes sharply into focus when considering how Lenin typically dealt with those with whom he was contending for power. In 1918 Lenin was attempting to consolidate his dictatorship. He was busy ordering the summary execution of counter-revolutionaries and looters. They were to be shot immediately without any trials or proceedings to determine guilt or innocence. This was how Fidel Castro would proceed forty years later once Batista was gone. Guilt or innocence, ultimately the question of the truthfulness of the charges, was the least of his concerns. His ruling interest was in the physical destruction of anyone unenthusiastic about the future he was planning for the Russians and the empire. The Socialist Revolutionary, I. N. Steinberg who was the Commissar for Justice went to Lenin to protest. “‘Then why do we bother with a Commissariat of Justice at all? Let’s call it frankly, the ‘Commissariat for Social Extermination’ and be done with it!’ Lenin’s face lit up and he replied: ‘Well that’s exactly what it should be; but we can’t say that.’” [Quoted from Hiroaki Kuromiya, Stalin, London: Pearson, 2005, 41] This exchange is astonishing and horrifying. It should disabuse anyone who believes that Stalinism was a betrayal of Leninism rather than a continuation of it. In at least two ways it is remarkable: first it reveals the ruthless and murderous impulses deeply embedded within Lenin’s character with his relish for violence and enthusiasm for the “extermination” of his opposition. It also shows the cynical and the profoundly deceitful and reflexively dishonest dimensions of Lenin’s personality and his approach to dealing with people. Lenin’s “morality” was the diametrical opposite to that of Immanuel Kant: for Lenin people everywhere and always were always disposable material, to be treated as means and never as ends.
Lenin invented a raging disputation style that became the twentieth-century prototype of Communist polemical abuse for vanquishing rivals. Stalin perfected it. In Lenin there was never to be found the slightest trace of humility, no sense of fallibility appeared to reside within. He seemed almost un-human in his intellectual self-regard. His absolute self-certainty and conviction of omniscience rendered him unable to view those who opposed or resisted him as anything but human garbage to be swept aside and dumped into an abyss. Bertrand Russell, himself a critic of capitalism and curious about the Bolshevik experiment, visited the Soviet Union in 1920, met with Lenin and commented on his impressions of the man. He was particularly impressed with his cruelty after meeting with him in 1920. “When I met Lenin … my most vivid impressions were of bigotry and Mongolian cruelty. When I put a question to him about socialism in agriculture, he explained with glee how he had incited the poorer peasants against the richer ones, ‘and they soon hanged them from the nearest tree—ha ha ha!’ His guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.” [Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays, Routledge Classics, London & New York, 2009 (1950) 167]
Lenin’s language was a potent and poisonous mixture of vituperation, calumny and vengefulness. His enemy always was his opponent, not error or falsity. Disagreement was not for him to be settled by logical progression or careful consideration of the facts, but by ad hominem argument, by abuse. Lenin invented for his opponents corrupted motives, lack of intelligence, failings of character or personality. The goal was not to arrive at the truth (it was settled once and for all in Lenin’s own view) but to destroy the character of the opposition. Ultimately, he would order their physical destruction as well. Before he gained power Lenin abused his rivals with words. Once he had power he quickly moved toward their physical elimination – “liquidation” an appropriately dehumanized term, what was what he often ordered, a term he seemed to favor. Lenin churned with deep and ferocious resentments. He was above all a destroyer, a man all of whose impulses seemed bent on the dismantlement of everything before him.
Because the ideologue operates on the premise of infallibility, all opposition and all differences of opinion must be judged to be illegitimate, unprincipled, or stupid. Oppositionists are not just mistaken. They are enemies. Nothing of a positive, legitimate or even neutral character can be attributed to them. No rules of civility or norms for engaging in respectful disagreement apply. The opposition simply becomes an obnoxious material obstacle, an irritant, a thing to be removed. “Insects” was one of Lenin’s, and later, Stalin’s, favorite epithets to characterize those who resisted his policies.
Lying and abuse are tightly interlocking and mutually escalating activities that have marked every Communist dictatorship. Communists are moralists. Only societies ordered in a certain way they view as good. Those that are not must be removed. There is no toleration for those they oppose, only warfare. Their moralism is often fortified and intensified by arduous and bitter struggles to attain power. Their perception of an unjust world that must be radically changed justifies all that they do. Lying becomes essential to justify abuse that falls upon those who oppose the changes. The abuse must be represented as just, and seen as deserving and appropriate. The Kulaks whom Stalin first abused and then destroyed by the millions deserved their fate because they were in Stalin-speak, “exploiters” of the other peasants. Stalin abused the Jews after WWII in his campaign of anti-Semitism were “rootless cosmopolitans”, “American spies.” In 1951 and 1952, with Korea in play and Berlin contested by the U.S. Stalin peddled the lie that Soviet Jews were undercover agents for the Americans. [Snyder, Bloodlands, 362] Abuse in its extreme forms aims to terrify and then eliminate truth-tellers.
Under Stalin, as Zbigniew Brezezinski says in his The Grand Failure, “doctrinal excommunication” became the justification for physical extermination. (Brezezinski, Grand Failure, 56) Here again, ideological dissent or opposition becomes treason. Even laxity or indifference to ideological probity becomes suspect. Stalin’s powerful propaganda machine aimed “to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as jarring dissonance.” [Leonard Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 2nd Edition, New York: Random House, 1970, 477] as was noted by Leonard Shapiro. The constant and egregious lying that was the essence of Stalinism in its instrumental form singled out both individuals and groups to be the objects for torrents of abuse. The abuse inevitably escalated. It began with words – harsh, violent, vituperative language. It was menacing and full of scorn and contempt. The violent and abusive language then turned into threats and intimidation. It culminated in physical abuse – incarceration, isolation, beatings, individual killings and assassination, and mass murder.
Abuse then became and remained a spectacular, predictable and ubiquitous institutional feature of Stalinism in its original domain of the Soviet Union and then in all of the other regions of the globe to where it was later exported. The most notorious Stalinist invention of institutional abuse was the Gulag, a hellish, murderous prison system, purposely designed and operated so as to subject people to maximum suffering and degradation and to forcibly extract as much labor from them as possible while simultaneously turning them into corpses. The presentation of the Gulag to the outside world was one of Stalin’s most egregious lies, described as a reform instrument, a “corrective labor” organ, when in fact its design and operation were deliberately intended to create terror and to punish and destroy individuals most of whom were “criminals” accused and convicted of offenses that were fictions, inventions to justify incarceration to possible onlookers. “Punish” is perhaps the wrong word because punishment implies wrong doing while many of the Gulag inmates were there because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group, were falsely fingered by NKVD torturers, expressed an idea Stalin did not like, or simply a random victim of the vast terror apparatus that formed the backbone of the Soviet state.
Michael Mann in his book on ethnic cleansing points out that in the organized murder campaigns conducted by the ancients the killing that was done was on the basis of where the victims were. Invaders came upon vulnerable populations, took advantage of their vulnerability and massacred and enslaved them. In the modern world the mass killings were based upon who the victims were. This we see in Stalin’s Ukraine, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Hitler’s genocide. They targeted specific groups with properties – being a Kulak, a bourgeoise oppositionist, a Jew – that made them, from the perspective of the Party Theorists, deserving of their fates.
Stalin and Mao did not, of course, kill the millions of their victims by themselves. The victimization always began with systematized campaigns of lies targeting groups of people. The victim groups were vilified, slandered, lied about. It is difficult, I would conjecture, to persuade most people to mistreat and abuse people they perceive to be largely innocent of major wrong doing, people who are very much like themselves. And so it is necessary to “convict” the target group collectively of dark and collusive endeavors and to stain them permanently with invented attributes that disgust and horrify their fellow citizens, with attributes that make them fundamentally different. Here the “theorists” go to work. They invent the rationales for the dehumanizing treatment that the offending groups will endure. Systematic lying lays the ground work for collective abuse which then follows and which in extreme forms turns into mass murder. Systematic lying is possible only in a modern society where there exist means for mass communication, for the distribution of lies.
The behavior of the political class of the Soviet Union throughout its seventy-four year history is a study of the close junction of ideologically-motivated lying and abuse of power. The character of the men who were so essential to the perpetuation of such a perverse order is relevant in this regard. They were not simply liars. Real liars are seldom free of other vices. Lying inevitably drags the liar deep into the corruption and even disintegration of character. Stalin’s men were the very worst sorts of human beings. They were vicious, treacherous and corrupt. This was not a coincidence or an accident. Lying destroys character, and a regime of liars would be composed of just the sort of men that ended up “governing” the Soviet Union. Lavrenty Beria was known to be a rapist and a sadist. He participated personally in the torture and murder carried out by those in his command. Lazar Kaganovich presided over the Ukraine famine. Nikolai Yezhov was a drunkard and a sadist. These were some of the most notorious of Stalin’s abusers, men very close to him who carried out his wishes.
One of Stalin’s most notorious abusers especially worthy of comment was known as “The Jackal,” his show trial prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinski. Roy Medvedev speaks of what a thoroughly depraved character he was. “It is easy to understand the degeneration of Vyshinski, the Menshevik turncoat: he had apparently always been an unprincipled, cowardly person, hungry for power and fame. (Thus, it is not surprising that he persecuted first his former Menshevik comrades and later his new comrades, the Bolsheviks).” [Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, 691] Though Vyshinski’s official role in the rigged show trials of the mid-1930s was as a government prosecutor, his real responsibility was, under strict orders from the Kremlin chief, to savage the framed and physically abused defendants and make certain that they would quickly perish under a cloud of ignominy. Vyshinski’s infamous rant in the 1937 “the Anti-Soviet Trotsky Center” trial against Stalin’s old Boshevik comrades in arms, Radek, Piatakov, Solkolnikov and Serebriakov was a masterpiece of Stalinist-era abuse. In his prosecutorial summation in their trial, Vyshinski poured out the invective: “This is an abyss of degradation! This is the last boundary of moral and political decay! This is the diabolical infinitude of evil!” [Quoted from Robert Tucker, Stalin in Power: the Revolution from Above, 403] The hideous irony is inescapable, and the denunciations would apply most appropriately to Stalin and his cohorts. Stalin no doubt wrote this script that captures perhaps some theological tones from his seminary days. One cannot help but think of this as a subliminal self-projection, perhaps, of his public characterization of innocent men (innocent of the charges, not politically or morally innocent), of his former friends and colleagues who had aroused his jealousy and paranoia.
The violence and brutality of Vyshinski’s language captures the abusive character of the Stalinist mentality. Consider also his call for Bukharin’s execution in the 1937 show trial , “[T]he traitors and spies who sold our motherland to the enemy [should] be shot like vile dogs. The people demand one thing: that the accursed vermin be squashed! Time will pass. The hated traitors’ graves will become overgrown with weeds and thistles, covered with the eternal contempt of the entire Soviet people…” [Naimark, 101-02] Again, Bukharin one of the star young Bolsheviks, a darling of Lenin, had fallen afoul of Stalin who feared him as a rival. He had allied himself with Stalin in 1924 in the early internecine party struggles and helped Stalin to marginalize his arch-competitor at that time, Leon Trotsky. Bukharin’s own path to destruction followed a predictable escalating pattern of lies and abuse that Stalin used to take down most of his old colleagues: no longer of use to Stalin, Bukharin’s fall began with gossip and innuendos, then accusations of doctrinal deviations, then bad faith, and finally betrayal and treason. The conclusion after a long game of ‘cat and mouse’ play by the Boss was the ultimate form of Stalinist abuse – a bullet in the back of the neck. In many cases the bullet came after a promise from Stalin of a spared life in exchange for confession and spared family members. Promise keeping, however, was not in Stalin’s moral repertoire. Bukharin’s young wife too was slain. His infant son was raised under a different name, not knowing who his real parents were. Stalinist abuse washed over the victims in waves – first his chosen victims then their families, friends and associates. Stalin had developed an expansive concept of ideological contamination. Entire families were contaminated with the virus of counterrevolution and subversion. In the late 1930s he had arranged for forced resettlement of “wives of Enemies of the People.” [Anne Applebaum, review of Children of the Gulag, by Cathy Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky in the New Republic, May 21, 2010, 4]
For his good and faithful work Vyshinski was later appointed by Stalin as the Soviet deputy foreign minister during the Nuremberg trials. For all of his shortcomings, he delivered whatever Stalin ordered. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more revolting scenario than to watch a moral cretin like Andrei Vyshinski presiding officially in an international tribunal for war criminals. His charge from Stalin, flushed with victory over his former partner, was to suppress any public mention of the Soviet-Nazi pact of 1939-41, particularly the secret protocols. [FN Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, 18] Stalin, of course, might have been a bit embarrassed by this historic, world-altering collaboration. None of the Soviet’s WWII allies, however, seemed to be up for making a serious issue of this at this juncture. And so the lying, mass-murdering, Nazi-complicit Soviets sat side by side with the Americans and British at Nuremberg in judgment of the Germans. One of the most shameful aspects of this proceeding to be credited to the Western governments was the failure of the judges to challenge the Soviet claim that the Nazis had murdered the 20,000 Polish officers, the cream of the Polish professional class in the Katyn Wood in 1940. Even then they suspected that it was Stalin himself who planned and authorized the killings that the NKVD carried out. [Naimark, Stalin’s Genocide, 20] The Americans and British had guessed the truth, but were unwilling to pursue the investigation, follow the facts and confront the Soviets. Instead they gave Stalin a pass and helped him to perpetuate the outrageous lie. No justice for the slain Polish officers – double agony for their families who then had to live under the domination of the government that had ordered and carried out the murder of their sons, brothers and husbands and was permitted to shift the blame elsewhere. Winston Churchill, sliding into a colluding passive voice, later made this depressing confession: “It was decided by the victorious governments concerned that the issue should be avoided and the crime of Katyn was never probed in detail.” [Quoted from Naimark, Stalin’s Genocide, 20]
Trials and purges. Stalin forced his underlings to make up lies as justification to remove people he did not like or he perceived as rivals, the most famous being Leon Trotsky, whom he defamed and maligned for over a decade, before he finally had him murdered in Mexico City in 1940. It is likely that Stalin also arranged for the elimination of his perceived rival Sergei Kirov in December of 1934 and then used it as a pretext to trump up false charges to try and eliminate other potential rivals and launch a massive purge of the Party that was conducted through 1938. From Stalin there emanated a miasma of paranoia out of which appeared invented enemies, both domestic and foreign, who could then be justifiably persecuted and exterminated. . Liars strain to be taken as truth tellers. Stalin was a Bolshevik, Lenin’s rightful successor, and Bolshevism’s claim to power and legitimacy rested on the weight of the narrative of the USSR’s hostile encirclement of capitalist powers.
The absurdity and extremes of the language that characterize those he framed are matched by the violence and brutality of their treatment. Sleep deprived, tortured, beaten and threatened with harm to their family members, the “defendants” in these trials memorized and recited fabricated confessions before the courtroom cameras and international witnesses that had been made up for, and beaten out of them. The abuse they felt was not only visited upon the unfortunately targeted individuals themselves, but on their families and associates as well.
One might be tempted to ask: why did Stalin go through this kind of elaborate charade rather than just privately kill his opponents? In fact, he did order the murder of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens without the benefit of any formal or public proceedings, but the prominent ones he needed to put through the traces with a highly orchestrated appearance of legality. Prominent party leaders and Red Army officers could not simply disappear the way ordinary citizens would.
Stalin and his henchmen had turned the Leninist view of modern history with its underlying theme of the triumphal ascendency of the Socialist Man into an elaborate yet flexible explanatory construct that was an amalgam of morality play and melodrama. In the Stalinist script, the arch enemy, the capitalist order, was emitting its dying gasps, yet in its final throws it resembled in its behavior a wounded and dangerously powerful animal. To be complacent with regard to the capitalist enemy was equivalent to being complicit with the enemy. So while the ending to the human story was soon going to be a very happy one with Communism achieved and the imperialists vanquished, the capitalists were now unleashing every possible element of treachery and cunning in a desperate attempt to hold on to their exploitative order and to undo the revolution and deny its promise. The Soviet people were under extreme compulsion to believe and act on this invention since it was the legitimizing rationale for the entire Bolshevik enterprise. It amounted to no less than their writ for the complete dismantlement of the old order, with all of its messiness and dislocation, and the creation of the new one.
With the treachery-of-capitalism as the controlling motif, Stalin elevated his routine mendacity and manipulation into a theatrical art form. He invented one of the twentieth-century’s unique and spectacular genres of farce and fraud, the “show trial.” This he unrolled in the late 1920s. The most notorious of these spectacles were performed in the middle 1930s. With these he personally stage managed the infamous railroading of his old Bolshevik comrades-in-arms: Bukharin, Zinoviev and Radek and others. These “trials” with no material evidence, no independent defense council, no independent judiciary, were elaborate, choreographed lies – implausible confessions of treason, conspiracy and industrial wreckage from life-long dedicated Bolsheviks – that were gullibly swallowed by Western observers like U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies, appointed by FDR, who in spite of being a lawyer himself failed to see through Stalin’s charade in spite of all the inconsistencies and incongruities. These elaborate deceptions fooled many observers in the West including the New York Times ace reporter Walter Duranty.
Stalin’s first show-trial victims were fifty-three engineers and technicians (“bourgeois specialists” in Stalinist parlance) from Shakthy in the Donbas coal and steel region who in 1928, early in Stalin’s power-consolidation were tried on entirely trumped up charges of “wrecking” i.e., “economic counter-revolution.” The Shakthy technicians were supposedly sabotaging the mining industry in collusion with foreign capitalists and financiers who were trying to thwart the advance of Soviet Communism. [Kuromiya, Stalin, 79-80, Black Book of Communism, 143, 169, 172] This show-trial as did all of the subsequent ones up until Stalin’s death served a triple purpose. First, the pre-determined outcome of guilt guaranteed the elimination of individuals who were either no longer of use to Stalin – perceived rivals, or potential obstacles to his plans. The Shakthy technicians were selected victims of Stalin’s frustration with the Soviet dependence on experts from a social-political class whose loyalties to the regime might be questioned and good targets for scapegoating. [Kuromiya, Stalin, 78-79]
Second, the alleged misconduct of the defendants elaborately scripted for public consumption at the trials was Stalin’s opportunity to reinforce the legitimizing eschatological narrative with particular dramatic instances that would indeed demonstrated the occult existence of the ever-threatening conspirators who were now attempting to destroy (engaged in “wrecking,”) the regime from the inside. The Shakthy technicians were “unmasked” (a favorite Stalinist participle) as fifth-columnists, “[s]aboteurs in the pay of foreign powers.” [Black Book of Communism, 143] Thus, blame for the persistent and inevitable economic failures of the regime could now be shifted to hidden traitors, conspiratorial forces in the pay of the capitalists, keeping the system and the Party that ran it blameless and vigilant.
Third and perhaps most important, each and every show-trial, at its conclusion, constituted a personal vindication of Stalin himself, a confirmation of his resolution, perspicacity, sound judgment and courageous leadership in an unpredictable world of endless danger and intrigue. The Shakthy show-trial was intended to demonstrate to the Soviet citizenry yet another dimension of Stalin’s genius: he was able to recognize danger and treachery where others around him were naïve, confused or relaxed. He, thus, was the man most fit to lead the besieged players into the end-game against the capitalists. The show trials and their predetermined outcome were designed to be dramatic vindications of Stalin’s vigilance, perspicacity and resolution. This in itself is a huge irony, since these events enabled Stalin to cover up the blame for his own massive failings. [“Part of the reasons for the show trials of the 1930s was to cover up his [Stalin’s] appalling mistakes.” [Michael Curtis, Totalitarianism, Transaction, 1979, 46]
Mao was from the start a grand imitator of Stalin’s governing method and political style. Like Stalin he was adept at targeting others to blame for his disastrous decisions and policies. In 1961 when the deaths, now counted in the millions, from the famine made by his Great Leap Forward into Communism could no longer be suppressed, Mao, using a script straight from Stalin, blamed the catastrophe on fictitious counter-revolutionaries and class enemies. “As counter-revolutionaries were not thoroughly suppressed and land reform not properly carried out, some landlords, rich peasants and bad men were left untouched and many of them sneaked into revolutionary organizations, collaborating with each other to carry out the restoration of the counter-revolutionary class and to conduct cannibalistic persecution of the masses.” [Quoted from Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts, 126] Castro, of course, had the U.S. close by to blame for any misfortunes Cuba would experience under his rule.
Stalin’s address to the Central Committee Plenum in January 1933 contains a multifaceted message that points to successfully vanquished enemies, their insidious persistence and ubiquity, and the Manichean-like structure of good and evil that underlies his struggle. “[T]he last remnants of the moribund classes – private manufactures and their servitors, private traders and their henchmen, former nobles and priests, kulaks and kulak agents, former White Guard officers and police officials, policemen and gendarmes, all sorts of bourgeois intellectuals of a chauvinist type, and all other anti-Soviet – have been tossed out.” Here then is an exhaustive enumeration from the old and defeated order of the Bolshevik enemies, the entire range, from money grubbing capitalists to kulaks and priests. [Kuromiya, Stalin, 110] And, while we know that Stalin has been as he always is, tough – has “tossed out” all of these anti-Soviet types – he now builds to the high point of his message, the theme of the ever-present enemies, their persistence and insidiousness. “But tossed out and scattered over the whole face of the U.S.S.R., these ‘have-beens’ have wormed their way into our plants and factories, into our government offices and trading organizations, into our railway and water transportation enterprises, and, principally, into the collective farms and state farms.” What then, having been routed by the superior and inevitable forces of advancing Socialism, could possibly motivate these scourges of the old order to persist? “What did they carry with them into these places? They carried with them hatred for the Soviet regime, of course, burning enmity toward new forms of economy, life and culture.” [Kuromiya, Stalin, 110] Envy and hatred were the driving motivation of the dying capitalists and explained to the Soviet people and whoever in the outside world may have wondered why these people were doing what they were doing. This was a unique Stalinist contribution to Marxian eschatology, comparable as a theoretical move to the Ptolemaic epicycles. Into this philippic with its own clinical pyscho-pathological self-projection the General Secretary had compressed the entire Stalin-invented world drama with the capstone of his own heroism.
The infamous Soviet show-trials of the mid-1930s gained world attention and proceeded with this same template – a morally, economically superior system assailed by the bitter losers from the old order who were badly wounded but still dangerous. The individuals Stalin selected for elimination were his old Bolshevik comrades whom he had come to perceive as political rivals and as obstacles to the consolidation of his power. The most notable was Nicolai Bukharin, casted by Arthur Koestler as the main character, N. S. Rubashov, in his magnificent novel, Darkness at Noon. This was a good opportunity for Stalin, always a great nurturer of personal resentments and private grudges, to take revenge and settle old scores. Once Stalin had reached his summit of power, those unfortunate Bolshevik Party colleagues from the early years who had teased, slighted or mocked Stalin, would likely find themselves quickly accused, confessed and sent off to the Gulag or the Lubianka prison to wait for a bullet in the back of the neck.
The pragmatics of Party mobility was always a consideration for Stalin as well. Shooting and jailing his senior colleagues also enabled him to clear out the upper ranks of the party and make organizational room to advance younger and more personally loyal Bolsheviks. [Bloodlands, 399, I think] [“The February—March 1937 plenum of the Central Committee was surely one of the most grotesque meetings in the history of humanity. Two thirds of the 1,200 delegates would be dead within the next two years, yet in a frenzy they called for terror against more enemies.” Donald Rayfield, Stalin and his Hangmen, Random House, 2004, 318]
The center stage antagonist in this amazing unfolding of mid-1930s theater was Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s long-time hated rival. Trotsky, though thoroughly vanquished, pursued across the globe and hounded by Stalin’s assassins, was cast into the large and mythic role of the treacherous Bolshevik betrayer. In keeping with Stalin’s master narrative, Trotsky, tried in abstensia, was now a Nazi hireling, colluding and scheming along with the pinnacle of Soviet leadership to bring down the regime. His accomplices were Karl Radek, Grigory Piatakov, and Grigory Sokolnikov, life-long Bolsheviks whose entire lives were completely antithetical to the charges. The 1930s show-trials produced, once more, Stalin’s desired story-line, one completely consistent with the triumphal narrative: with the forces of dying, but desperate capitalism working their treachery against the successful workers state; Stalin, steadfast and resolute, pushing the banner of Communism forward while his old comrades opted for betrayal.
Trotsky, however, was to play for international Communism two diametrically opposed roles. He was for Stalin, as noted above, the consummate betrayer of Bolshevism. For the Leftists outside the Soviet Union who came to loathe the Georgian General Secretary as he turned the first successful Communist Revolution into his personal satrapy, Trotsky was the anodyne for the disillusion of the Communism that Stalin had put into place. For decades, Trotsky alive then dead became a portion of the Left’s counter-factual defense of the Bolshevik Revolution. If, the argument went, Trotsky rather than Stalin would have succeeded Lenin, then the Soviet Union would have avoided the personalized tyranny of Stalin and his “Bonapartist” perversion of the October revolution. Trotsky’s Soviet Union presumably would have been “Socialism with a Human Face.” But given Trotsky’s Lenin-like conviction of his theoretical infallibility, his unshakable confidence in the future of Bolshevism and his actual impressive record of brutal repression of dissent, experienced for example by the sailors in the Kronstadt Naval Yard in 1921 who had revolted against the Bolshevik’s suppression of free speech and repression of the trade unions. The “Trotsky-alternative” is one more of many variants of second-guessing and rationalizing that followed the failures of Bolshevism throughout its dismal career.