Saturday, June 24, 2006

Objectivity: the case of the Moscow Trials


In 1936, 1937 and 1938 the famous public Moscow Trials were held. The defendants included many leading Bolsheviks and associates of Lenin. They were charged with such crimes as assassination, economic sabotage, planning a coup d'├ętat and the murder of Stalin and others, and conspiring with the German and Japanese military.

At the time opinion about these trials was divided. But since Khrushchev, it has been widely assumed—that's the correct word—that the defendants were innocent, their confessions coerced in some way. During the last years of the Soviet Union's existence, the Gorbachev government and Communist Party actually declared virtually all these defendants "rehabilitated"—meaning, they were declared innocent. However, no evidence of their innocence was produced. Members of the "rehabilitation" commissions—materials from them have been published during the past 15 years—were worried about this.

During the past few years I've tried hard to gather and study all the material from the formerly secret Soviet archives that's been published and that bears upon these Trials. Only a very small part of what we know still exists has been published. Still, it permits—or rather, demands—a complete rethinking of Soviet history.

Leon Trotsky was an indicted co-conspirator in absentia in each of the three public Moscow Trials. Many of the defendants charged Trotsky with collaborating with the German and Japanese fascists. This was a charge many found to be scarcely credible at the time, and one Trotsky indignantly rejected.

These charges—against the Moscow Trial defendants, and against Trotsky—are considered by many to be so outrageous that they are almost never taken seriously today. What's more, nobody—as far as I can determine—has bothered to search the documents from the former Soviet archives to see what is there. I have endeavored to do this, and so I'd like to say a few words about it.

What dominates discussion of the guilt or innocence of the Moscow Trial defendants is a lack of objectivity, or even the attempt to be objective. Argument by insult, fabrication, or dismissal, or by simply assuming that which is to be proven, characterizes this discussion on all levels.

This is a big problem and a grave danger to those of us in the Marxist tradition. Thinking of this kind rules out the very possibility that a person can ever discover the truth.

Marx and Engels wrote that the proletariat "has nothing to lose but its chains". I take it that means that we who side with the working class should not fear to face the truth and learn from it, regardless of how much that truth may shake our "precious" preconceived ideas.

Marx also wrote that we should "doubt everything". If this doesn't mean "Question your own preconceived ideas", then it doesn't mean anything.

An essential part of objectivity is to gather all the evidence, study it carefully, and then see which hypothesis is supported by the preponderance of the evidence. If and when new evidence comes to light, you are prepared to change your conclusions, if necessary, to account for it.

The issue of Trotsky and the Germans and/or Japanese is as good as any other to consider, so I would like to discuss it a bit.

It's not objective to declare the idea "absurd" from the beginning. This is no different than declaring it "certain" from the beginning. What we have to do is to look at the evidence. No objective person would reject the Trial transcripts. Confessions of alleged co-conspirators are evidence—to be refuted or corroborated through analysis or additional evidence.

It may be beyond most students and researchers to approach this question seriously. But it wasn't beyond Trotsky to do so. Trotsky may, or may not, have conspired with the Germans and/or Japanese. But Trotsky was a very intelligent man.

He didn't declare the allegations "absurd", "crazy", etc. He knew that, if he did that kind of thing, objective persons would not only not believe him, but would lose respect for him, and wonder why he wasn't taking the trial testimony seriously. That's why he encouraged the "Dewey Commission", testified himself, asked his followers to testify, elicited testimony from abroad, and so on.

So the Trial transcripts and the evidence and testimony from the Dewey Commission -- all this has to be taken into account and studied.

And until the end of the USSR that's where things stood. No additional evidence, one way or the other, was forthcoming. Khrushchev, the "Khrushchevites" like Roy Medvedev, Gorbachev and the "rehabilitators" never provided any evidence concerning the question of Trotsky and the Germans/Japanese.

But now, since the end of the USSR, we have more evidence from former Soviet archives. Not as much as we'd like to have, of course. Historians are never satisfied, and always want more evidence, and yet more! But nevertheless, we now have quite a bit more evidence. And all of it supports the allegation that Trotsky did, in fact, conspire with the Germans and the Japanese.

During the past year I researched and drafted an article in which I tried to put all this evidence together. It's not ready for publication yet. But I can tell you two things, because there's nothing secret about these:

* the vast preponderance of the NEW evidence suggests that Trotsky was, in fact, in touch with the Germans AND the Japanese.

* there is no "smoking gun". It's a matter of weighing the circumstantial evidence available to researchers now. If more evidence becomes available, then an objective scholar will be prepared to alter his or her conclusions, or even change those conclusions altogether.

If this were some matter nobody cared or had preconceived ideas about—something that could be approached with, say, the sense of detachment that jurors are supposed to have, and very often really do have, about a case they are empanelled to decide—there'd simply be no controversy at all. Trotsky would be found "guilty", because the evidence is "beyond a reasonable doubt". Not beyond any conceivable doubt; not "certain"—how many issues in history are "certain"? But still, the evidence we have against Trotsky greatly outweighs any evidence he was innocent, and certainly overwhelms his own denials.

Doing this research I changed my own mind. I was dubious—that is, open-minded—about this. What does it cost me to say, "Stalin, or Ezhov, framed Trotsky?" Nothing! So I was prepared to find that. But instead, I found the opposite. So would any objective student, who studied the evidence now available.

Incidentally, I have done the same kind of thing concerning Bukharin. It is a shibboleth of anti-communism, whether liberal, conservative, Russian, Western, etc., that Nikolai Bukharin, who confessed and was convicted in the 1938 Moscow Trial, was really "innocent". Rubashov, the hero of Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon, who confesses out of "loyalty to the Party", was based on Bukharin. Yet the vast preponderance of the evidence we now have suggests that Bukharin was guilty of precisely what he confessed to, both before and during his Trial. This is simply un-mentionable, "taboo". But it is so.

Is it—the evidence, and an objective study of it—going to change anybody's mind? Two things:

* "Changing minds" is not my concern. The researcher's job is a scientific one. Gather the evidence; study it carefully; draw the conclusions. Be objective. Follow the evidence, and the logic, and "let the chips fall where they may". "Tell the truth, and run!" (the title of muckraking journalist George Seldes' autobiography).

* Many people are capable of being objective. I talk with a lot of younger people who see the horrors of capitalism. They want to change the world—good for them! They see that the legacy of the communist movement has to be studied, but studied critically. They want to be objective because they see—more clearly than do many of my own generation—that objectivity, the truth, is the ONLY way forward for the working class. I think that too.

But there are those who are simply not capable of questioning their long-held prejudices. People who are devoted to something—Trotskyism, anti-communism, capitalism, anarchism, social democracy—that means more to them than objectivity. They aren't going to change their minds merely because the evidence says they should. I can't worry about them.

Like medieval mariners whose maps were more imagination than fact, we have been misled by canonical histories of the USSR that are mainly false. The process of discovering the real history of the world's first socialist experiment has scarcely begun. I believe this is of immense importance for the history of the communist movement, for the future of the Marxist project, and for the future of human society

Grover Furr is a professor at Montclair State University, is active in the Radical Caucus of the MLA, and the author of several essays, including “(Un)critical Reading and the Discourse of Anti-communism, Protest, Rebellion, Commitment: Then and Now”, and “Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform”. His works have shed new light on the Stalin era, and have been met with attack from right-wing critics like David Horowitz