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Terrorism, Coups and Civil War

Domenico Losurdo

Translated using the Portuguese edition of the book, often consulting the Spanish edition, not the original Italian edition.

Translated by David Ferreira

Terrorism, Coups and Civil War

The Fall of the Romanov dynasty was preceded by a long series of attacks promoted by organizations which, despite heavy blows from repression, always managed to reconstitute themselves. In Trotsky’s opinion, a similar process was unfolding in the USSR in response to the ‘betrayal’ consummated by the bureaucracy. What threatens it aren’t individual acts of terrorism, but precursors of another great revolution:
All indications lead us to believe that events are headed toward a conflict between the popular forces, motivated by cultural promotion and the bureaucratic oligarchy. This crisis doesn’t allow for a peaceful solution [...]; the country is clearly headed toward a revolution.223
A decisive civil war appears on the horizon and, “in the atmosphere of civil war, the assassination of some oppressors is no longer a matter of individual terrorism”; in any case, “the Fourth International supports a struggle to the death against Stalinism”, destined to eliminate “a faction already condemned by history."224

As you can see, the attack against Kirov evokes the spectre of civil war among the forces that had toppled the old regime. In reality, this spectre follows the history of Soviet Russia like a shadow  from the moment it is established. To sabotage the peace of Brest-Litovsk, interpreted by Bukharin as a capitulation to German imperialism and a betrayal of proletarian internationalism, he harbors for a moment the idea of a type of coup d’état that would see removed from power, at least for some time, the man who was until that moment the undisputed leader of the Bolsheviks. If it was already out in the open while Lenin was still alive, despite his enormous prestige as a leader, the spectre of the division of the Bolshevik leadership group, and of civil war within that same revolutionary bloc, took complete form in the following years. It’s what unequivocally appears in the important testimony from within the anti-Stalinist opposition and from the deserters of the communist movement, in whom the old faith had transformed into unrelenting hatred. Let’s see how Boris Souvarine describes the situation created in the CPSU around ten years after the October Revolution:
The opposition considers forming its own organization as a clandestine party within the one party, with its miniature hierarchy, its Politburo, its central committee, its regional and local agents, its groups on the ground, its participation quotas, its memos, and its code for correspondence.225

The expectations were not just for a political clash, but a military one as well. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the memoirs of Ruth Fischer are published in the United States, at  the time a leading figure within the German communist movement and member of the presidium  of the Comintern from 1922 to 1924. In this memoir she explains the way in which, in her time, she participated in the “resistance” organization in the USSR against the “totalitarian regime” that had been installed in Moscow. This is in 1926. After breaking with Stalin the year before, Zinoviev and Kamenev drew close to Trotsky: they organize the “bloc” to win power. They then develop a clandestine network that reaches “as far as “Vladivostok” and the Far East: messengers distribute classified party and state documents, transmit coded messages, armed guards provide security to secret meetings. “The leaders of the bloc made preparations for definitive steps”; based on the assumption that the clash with Stalin could only be resolved with “violence”, they met in a forest in the outskirts of Moscow with the aim of analyzing in depth “the military aspect of their program,” starting with the “role of those army units” willing to support the “coup d’état.” Fischer continues:

It was a question that was mostly technical, which should be discussed between the two military leaders, Trotsky and Lashevich [vice-commissar for War, who died soon after, before the purges]. Since as vice-commissar of the Red Army he was still in a favorable legal position, Lashevich was tasked with planning the military action against Stalin.226

The street demonstrations the following year, to mark the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, should be read in that context: from Moscow and Leningrad they extended to “other industrial centers” so as to “force the party hierarchy to give in."227

In Europe during those years, it wasn’t a mystery to anyone the severity of the political battle that went on in Soviet Russia: “The history of the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky is the history of the attempt by Trotsky to take power [...], it is the history of a failed coup d’état." The brilliant organizer of the Red Army, still enjoying “immense popularity”, certainly didn’t accept defeat: “His violent polemic and cynical and foolhardy pride made him a type of red Bonaparte backed by the army, the popular masses, and by the rebellious spirit of the young communists against the old Leninist guard and the high clergy of the party." Yes, “the high tide of sedition advances upon the Kremlin."228

The author, Curzio Malaparte, who was in Moscow and had interviewed figures at the highest level, gives a reading of the tensions of 1927 which is confirmed by Ruth Fischer, that’s to say, by an authorized representative of the anti-Stalinist opposition:

On the eve of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, the imprisonment of Trotsky would provoke an unpleasant reaction [...]. The occasion chosen by Trotsky to seize state power couldn’t be any better. Like the good tactician he is, he stayed in the shadows. To not appear as a tyrant, Stalin wouldn’t dare arrest him. When he would dare to, it would be too late, thought Trotsky. By the time the lights would go off on the tenth anniversary of the revolution, Stalin would no longer be in power.229
As is already known, these plans fail and Trotsky, expelled from the party, sees himself obligated to transfer first to Alma Ata and later to Turkey. There “the Soviet consulate authorities” pay him $1,500 for ‘royalties’ as an author.230 Although it’s a “ridiculous quantity”, as affirmed by a supporter, historian, and biographer of Trotsky,231 the gesture could be read as an attempt to not sharpen the contradiction any further.

Conspiracy, Infiltration of the State Apparatus, and “Aesopian Language”

The exiled revolutionary didn’t renounce his plans. But how would he seek to carry them out? Malaparte writes:

The acts of sabotage on the railways, power stations, telephone and telegraph lines increase every day. Everywhere Trotsky’s agents worm their way in. Screwing with the gears of the state’s technical organization, they provoke once in a while the partial paralyzation of sensitive agencies. They are the skirmishes that proceed the insurrection.232

Is this a matter of mere illusions or the echo of the regime’s propaganda? The book cited here, after being published, circulated widely in Europe and the thesis within it did not appear to provoke contemptuous smiles or scandalized laughter. Just like with “terrorism”, so we must not lose sight of the particular history of Russia when it comes to “sabotage." In 1908, both the petroleum executives and Stalin repeatedly condemned, with obviously different motives, the certain tendencies within the working class to achieve their demands by resorting to “economic terrorism." Despite stressing that the ultimate cause of this phenomenon was capitalist exploitation, the Bolshevik leader had welcomed “the latest resolution by the strikers from the Mirzoiev [factory], directed against the fires and ‘economic’ assassinations”, and against “the old terroristic” and anarchist tendencies.233 By the start of the 1930s, had this tradition totally disappeared, or did it continue to manifest in new forms? In any case, we saw the White Guards take advantage of it. What of the left opposition?

The “insurrectionary” plans that Malaparte mentions reveal an important confirmation, at the very least. Here Trotsky’s biographer describes the attitude his hero continued to maintain while in exile: “The instructions are simple: the opposition must take on a solid military training, with a serious commitment to the party and, once expelled from it, in the proletarian and soviet organizations in general, referring always to the International."234 Here he turns against Soviet power the tradition of conspiracy which greatly contributed to its establishment. In What is to be Done? Lenin especially emphasizes that: We, the revolutionaries, “have to give maximum attention to propaganda and agitation among the soldiers and officers, and the creation of ‘military organizations’ belonging to our party."235

Taking note of that lesson, the opposition organizes a clandestine network that gives particular attention to the military apparatus. The tortured process of its creation made the task of  infiltrating it easier. What happened at the time the Cheka―the first political police force in Soviet Russia―was created is significant. On July 6th, 1918, an attack takes the life of the German ambassador: the perpetrator was Yakov G. Blumkin, a socialist revolutionary who sought to protest the Brest-Litovsk treaty and reopen the debate on it. When the chief of the Cheka, Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, went to the German embassy in Moscow to offer the apologies of the Soviet government, he is informed the authors of the attack appeared with the Cheka’s credentials. To discover the truth, he proceeds to  the headquarters of that institution where he is then arrested by “Cheka dissidents”, themselves either members or close to the Revolutionary Socialist party. Later freed by the Red Guard, Dzerzhinsky then purges the political police and orders the execution of those responsible for the conspiracy and the mutiny. In conclusion, the first victims of the “purge” are members of the  Cheka, although they formed part of the opposition.236

The perpetrator of the attack managed to flee, but doesn’t yet exit the scene: “Trotsky publicly recognized, toward the end of 1929, having received Blumkin as a guest, while still an agent of the intelligence services of the Red Army.” Lev Sedov, son and colleague of Trotsky, sought to make it appear as something casual, however a document archived in Stanford “shows that the contact between Trotsky and Blumkin didn’t come about by coincidence, but from an organized link within the USSR”; in this content “the secret agent evidently had an important role." It would be this link that pushes Stalin “to order Blumkin’s execution."237

As you can see, the opposition “agents infiltrate everywhere."238 Even “in the GPU” a “small nucleus of Trotsky’s loyalists” remain hidden for a time.239 According to a contemporary American historian, it’s possible that Genrikh G. Yagoda played a role as a double agent, the man who led the first phase of the Great Terror, before even he is consumed by it.240 According to the accounts of militant anti-Stalinists, it’s known that “some [opposition] documents were printed in the typography of the GPU”; looking closely, there’s “permanent tension within Russia’s  [state] terrorist apparatus."241

The infiltration is made easier by the regime’s cautious opening. Upon calling for struggle against the “bureaucratic dictatorship”, Trotsky points out that “the new constitution offers at the same time a semi legal trench from which to fight against it."242 It is best fought with camouflage, disguising their intentions of seeking to undermine and topple state power. On this point, the leader of the opposition leaves no room for doubt: “the subversive work demands some conspiratorial precautions”; it’s necessary “to observe in the struggle [...] the rules of the conspiracy." Further:
This life and death struggle can’t be conceived without the cunning of war, in other words: without lies and deceptions. Could the German workers possibly avoid deceiving Hitler’s police? Would Soviet Bolsheviks be unethical in deceiving the GPU?243
Again the Bolshevik conspiratorial tradition is turned against the regime that emerged out of the revolution. In 1920, Lenin had called for the revolutionaries’ attention to “the obligation of combining illegal forms of struggle with legal forms, with the obligatory participation in the most reactionary parliament and a certain number of other institutions under reactionary laws." And that’s not all: revolutionaries should know how to “face all sacrifices and―in case of necessity―resort to  all sorts of tricks and illegal methods, and to silence and to hide the truth with the objective of infiltrating the unions and remaining in them, and realizing there, at whatever cost, the work of a communist."244 It’s exactly how the opposition conducts itself in relation to the political and social organizations of the hated “Thermidorian” regime. The conspirators follow a precise rule of conduct:
Carry out self criticism, recognize your “errors” and that they are generally corrected. Those called “two faced men” by the Stalinist press, or even the “left-right faction”, from this moment on seek contacts which would allow the broadening of the resistance front to Stalin’s policies. Meet up with other groups on this path...245
It’s understandable then the obsession over “duplicity”, the obsession for which Khrushchev condemned Stalin.246 Meanwhile, the abandonment of NEP culminates in the rupture with Bukharin. Due to the position assumed by the latter, it’s interesting to read the testimony of Humbert-Droz, leader of the Comintern who was expelled from the Communist Party of Switzerland in 1942 over his differences with Stalin. On a trip to the First Conference of the Revolutionary Labor Unions of Latin America in the spring of 1929, he meets with Bukharin and has a meeting with him, which he recalls in these words: “He got me up-to-date on the contacts his group made with the Zinoviev-Kamenev faction to coordinate the struggle against Stalin’s power”, that he anticipated the struggle including “individual terrorism”, whose central objective “was eliminating Stalin” and, to be clear, “eliminate him physically."247 Three years later, it is another representative of the “right”, Martemyan N. Ryutin, who draws up and circulates a document that passes from hand to hand and which classifies Stalin as a “provocateur” who they must rid themselves of, resorting even to tyrannicide.248 When Bukharin reveals his plans, Humbert-Droz objects that “the introduction of individual terrorism in the political struggles born out of the Russian Revolution would run the risk of turning against those that used it”, but Bukharin isn’t persuaded.249 On the other hand, it would be difficult for the objection just seen to persuade a man who, as we now know―as he himself secretly revealed in 1936―harbored a profound “hatred” toward Stalin, in fact, the sort of “absolute” hatred that is reserved for a “demon."250 While he expressed himself like this in private, Bukharin was in charge of Izvestia, the newspaper of the Soviet government. Are we dealing with obvious incoherence? Not from the point of view of  the Bolshevik leader, who continued to combine legal and illegal work, with the aim of toppling a  regime that he considered detestable, and who valued another of Lenin’s lessons. In reference to Tsarist Russia, we can read in What is to be Done? that:
In a country ruled by an autocracy, with a completely enslaved press, in a period of desperate political reaction in which even the tiniest outgrowth of political discontent and protest is persecuted, the theory of revolutionary Marxism suddenly forces its way into the censored literature and, though expounded in aesopian language, is understood by all “interested” parties.251
This is exactly how Bukharin uses the Soviet government’s newspaper. The condemnation of the “all-seeing total state”, founded on “blind discipline”, “Jesuit obedience”, and on “the glorification of ‘leader’” pretends to alone make reference to Hitler’s Germany, but in fact points to the USSR as well. The “aesopian language” recommended by Lenin becomes immediately transparent when the denunciation refers to “cruel and uncultured provincialism."252 It’s clearly the portrait of Stalin painted by the opposition. We saw Trotsky refer to him as a “small provincial man”, and in discussions behind closed doors it is Bukharin himself that expresses his disdain for the leader that has succeeded Lenin, despite not knowing any foreign languages.253

Continuing on the effectiveness displayed in Tsarist Russia by the revolutionary message expressed in “aesopian language”, What is to be Done? proceeds as follows:
Quite a considerable time elapsed (by our Russian standards) before the government realized what had happened and the unwieldy army of censors and gendarmes discovered the new enemy and flung itself upon him. Meanwhile, Marxists books were published one after another, Marxist journals and newspapers were founded, nearly everyone became a Marxist; Marxists were flattered, Marxists were courted, and the book publishers rejoiced at the extraordinary, ready sale of Marxist literature.254
Bukharin and the opposition hoped that a similar phenomenon would create a climate favorable to Stalin’s overthrow. But Stalin also read What is to be Done? And knew the rules of Bolshevik conspiracy well. In conclusion, we witness a prolonged civil war. The clandestine network organizes itself, or seeks to reorganize itself despite successive rounds of repression that become increasingly unforgiving. According to the words of an active militant in the struggle against Stalin: “Despite being stomped on and annihilated, the opposition survived and grew; in the army, in the administration, in the party, in the cities, in the rural areas, every terrorist wave [from Stalin’s regime] brought forth a resistance movement."255 The leading Bolshevik group now appears divided in a conflict that doesn’t exclude coups and that, at least in the expectations and hopes of Stalin’s enemies, from one moment to another could become open and generalized, involving the entire country. While the opposition turns to Lenin’s lessons and to the conspiratorial tradition of Bolshevism to weave their plans in the shadow, this double game provokes the outrage of Soviet power, which identifies in false friends the most dangerous and insidious enemy: the tragedy heads toward its conclusion.

Infiltration, Disinformation, and Calls for Insurrection

The “rules of the conspiracy” theorized by Trotsky, do they only imply the concealment of one’s own political identity, or could they include the recourse to false denouncements, in order to spread confusion and chaos in the enemy camp and to make more difficult the identification of the clandestine network struggling to topple Stalin’s regime? In other words, do the “rules of the conspiracy” include just the rigorous protection of private information, or do they also allow the use of disinformation? It’s not just the American journalist Anne Louise Strong, sympathetic to the government, who raises such suspicions.256 In the Secret Report itself it speaks of false charges and “provocations” realized by “authentic Trotskyists”, thereby carrying out their “revenge”, but also “careerists without a conscience” willing to clear the way by using the most contemptible means.257 Noteworthy is an episode that takes place when the assassination of Kirov is made public. Most reactions―according to Andrew Smith, who at the time worked in the Kuznecov Elektrozavod factory―are of shock and concern in relation to the future; but there’s also those who express regret that it wasn’t Stalin who was shot. Later an assembly is held, during which the workers are encouraged to denounce enemies or possible enemies of Soviet ruling.

Smith recalls his surprise at how, during the debate, the dissident group he was in contact with proved to be the most active in attacking the opposition and deviationists, and seeking the most severe measures against them.258

Indicative as well is an episode that occurs outside the USSR, but could help in understanding what occurs inside that country. When general Alexandr M. Orlov, a former high-level collaborator with the NKVD (and in 1938 sheltering in the United States), is accused by the journalist Louis Fischer of having participated in the liquidation of anti-Stalinist communists during the Spanish Civil War, he responds with the false revelation that it was his accuser, in fact, who was a spy in service to Moscow.259

In the Soviet Union of the 1930s, we have seen the opposition infiltrating the repressive apparatus at the highest levels: it would be very strange if, after having achieved this objective, it limited itself to obeying Stalin’s orders. Disinformation carries the double advantage of obstructing the machinery  of repression and redirecting it against an especially hated enemy; it’s an integral part of war: and that’s what it’s about, at least judging by Trotsky’s argument in July of 1933, when he considers the counter-revolutionary civil war carried out by the “Stalinist bureaucracy” to be “already underway”, and which culminated in the “infamous annihilation of the Leninist-Bolsheviks." Therefore it’s necessary to be aware of the new situation. “The slogan for the reform of the CPSU” doesn’t make sense anymore. A head-on struggle is imposed: the party and the International led by Stalin, now on their last leg, “can only bring misfortune and nothing but misfortune” to the “world proletariat”; on the opposing side, the authentic revolutionaries certainly can’t be inspired in their actions by “petty bourgeois pacifists."260 There can be no doubt: “Only with violence can the bureaucracy be forced to return power to the hands of the proletarian vanguard."261 Hitler’s rise to power for Trotsky doesn’t mean that unity is necessary, in the aim of confronting the enormous danger which looms, starting from Germany; it means that they can’t stop half-way in the struggle against a power, Stalinism, which had led to the defeat of the German and international proletariat.

As you can see, it’s the very leader of the opposition who speaks of “civil war” within the party that he in part led during the October Revolution and in the first years of Soviet Russia. Before us is the topic which constituted the starting thread of the investigation by a Russian historian who is a convinced and self-declared Trotskyist, author of a monumental and multi-volume work, dedicated precisely to the detailed reconstruction of this civil war. He speaks, regarding Soviet Russia, of a “preventive civil war” carried out by Stalin against those who had organized to topple him. Even outside the USSR, this civil war takes shape and at times intensifies within the front that fought against Franco; in fact, referencing Spain from 1936-1939, he speaks not of one, but “two civil wars."262 With great intellectual honesty and taking advantage of new and rich documentary material available thanks to the opening of Russian archives, the author cited here reaches this conclusion: “The Moscow trials weren’t a crime without motive nor in cold blood, but more accurately Stalin’s reaction during an acute political struggle."263

In arguing against Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who paints the victims of the purges as a bunch of “rabbits”, the Russian Trotskyist historian cites a pamphlet which in the 1930s called for the Kremlin to be cleared of “the fascist dictator and his clique." He then comments: “including from the perspective of Russian legislation in force today, this pamphlet would be judged as a call for the violent overthrow of the government (the ruling elite to be more precise)."264 In conclusion, far  from being an “irrational and senseless outbreak of  violence”, the bloody terror carried out by  Stalin is in fact the only way he could defeat the “resistance of the true communist forces." “The party of the executed”, is how he defined those targeted, “in an analogy to the expression used to identity the French Communist Party, the principal force of anti-fascist resistance and privileged target of Hitler’s terror.".265 Thus, Stalin is compared to Hitler; highlighting the fact that the communist and French partisans didn’t limit themselves to a passive or nonviolent resistance while opposing the latter.

Civil War and International Maneuvers

It’s no surprise that, from time to time, this or that superpower had sought to take advantage of the latent civil war in Soviet Russia. Who solicits or hopes to provoke foreign intervention is, sometimes, the defeated faction, which believes it has no other hope for success. Such a dynamic unfolds starting from the first months of Soviet Russia. Let’s return to the attack of July 6th of 1918. It is an integral part of a very ambitious project. On one end, the Left Revolutionary Socialists promote “counter-revolutionary uprisings in a number of urban centers against the Soviet government”, or rather “an insurrection in Moscow which hoped to topple the communist government”; on the other end, they also propose to “assassinate various German representatives” with the aim of provoking a military reaction from Germany and the subsequent resumption of the war. It would be confronted with a levée en masse by the Russian people, which would inflict a simultaneous defeat to the traitorous government and the enemy invader.266 The perpetrator of the attack against the German ambassador is a sincere revolutionary: well before entering into contact with Trotskyist circles, he intends to emulate the Jacobins, protagonists of the most radical phase of the French Revolution and of the heroic mass resistance against the invasion by the counter-revolutionary powers. However, in the eyes of Soviet authority, Blumkin could very well be a provocateur: the success of his plan would have resulted in a new advance by the armies of Wilhelm II and, perhaps, the toppling of the authority born out of the October Revolution.

The interaction between internal and international politics appears in all historical changes. Hitler’s rise to power, with the annihilation or decimation of the German section of the Communist International, represents a hard blow to the Soviet Union: what consequences would it have for internal political stability? On March 30th, 1933, Trotsky blames the ruling bureaucracy in the USSR for the defeat of the communists in Germany, and writes that “the liquidation of Stalin’s regime” is “absolutely inevitable and [...] isn’t far off."267 In the summer of that same year, Daladier’s government in France allows Trotsky to visit: only a few months after the previous rejection by Herriot, and doubts arise about the reasons for this change. Ruth Fischer thinks that the French government did so on account of “Stalin’s weakened position”, the “reorganization of the opposition against him”, and Trotsky’s nearing return to Moscow with leading responsibilities at the highest level.268

A new and dramatic turn of events arises with the outbreak of the Second World War. In the spring of 1940, the Soviet Union is still outside the gigantic conflict, and it even remains committed to the non-aggression pact with Germany. It is an intolerable situation for the countries already facing Hitler’s aggression; taking the Finno-Russian conflict as a pretext, they consider a plan to bombard the petroleum centers in Baku. It’s not just a matter of striking the Third Reich’s energy supply line: “the Franco-British military plans sought to break the military alliance between the Soviet Union and Germany through attacks against the oil industries in the Caucasus region and bringing a post- Stalinist regime to their side against Germany."269

Let’s return for a moment to the attack against German ambassador Mirbach. The perpetrator certainly had in mind triggering a German attack, but not because he hopes for their victory: on the contrary, he hoped the assault would awaken Russia, leading it to a decisive response. Later we see Blumkin participating in the conspiracy led by Trotsky. And the latter, for his part, in clarifying his position, compares himself in 1927 to French Prime Minister Clemenceau who, during the First World War, assumed leadership of the country after denouncing the lack of military effectiveness by his predecessors, and therefore proposing himself as the only statesman capable of leading France  to victory against Germany.270 Of the many number of possible interpretations and reinterpretations for this analogy, only one thing was made clear: not even the invasion of the Soviet Union would have put an end to the attempts by the opposition to seize power. Even more disturbing is the already cited comparison of Stalin to Nicholas II: during the First World War, read and denounced as an imperialist war, the Bolsheviks had put forth the slogan of revolutionary defeatism and had identified the tsarist autocracy as the internal and principal enemy, that which they first sought to combat and defeat.

In the years to follow, Trotsky goes way beyond evoking the spirit of Clemenceau: on April 22nd, 1939, he declares his support for “the liberation of so-called Soviet Ukraine from the Stalinist yoke."271 Once independent, it would later be unified with western Ukraine upon being separated from Poland, and with Carpathian Ukraine, annexed earlier by Hungary. Let’s reflect on the moment in which this position is taken. The Third Reich had just carried out the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and rumors grow which indicate that the Soviet Union (and especially Ukraine) is Germany’s next objective. In these circumstances, in July of 1939, it is even Kerensky who takes a stand against Trotsky’s surprising project which, according to the Menshevik leader, only favors Hitler’s plans. “It’s the same opinion from the Kremlin” was the quick response from Trotsky who, on the other hand, in an article from April 22nd had written that with Ukraine’s independence “the Bonapartist clique will reap what they have sown”; it’s good for the “current Bonapartist caste to be undermined, shaken, destroyed and swept away”; only that way is the road paved for a real “defense of the Soviet Republic” and its “socialist future."272 Soon after the invasion of Poland begins, Trotsky goes even further. In foreseeing the final ruin of the Third Reich, he adds: “However, before going to hell, Hitler could inflict such a defeat on the Soviet Union that it could cost the head of the oligarchy in the Kremlin."273 That prediction (or that desire) of the liquidation (physical as well) of the “Bonapartist clique” or “caste” carried out by a revolution from below, or even by a military invasion, couldn’t not be seen in the eyes of Stalin as confirmation of the suspicions about the convergence, at least the objective convergence, between the Nazi leadership and the Trotskyist opposition; both had an interest in provoking the collapse of the internal front in the USSR, even if the first saw that collapse as the precondition for the Slavic nation’s enslavement, and the second saw it as the precondition for the outbreak of a new revolution.

Also, it’s not a particularly ignominious suspicion: acting like the new Lenin, Trotsky aspired to use to his advantage the dialectic that had led to the defeat of the Russian army, the toppling of the tsarist autocracy and the victory of the October Revolution. Once again, the past history of Bolshevism is turned against Soviet power. Kerensky, who in 1917 had denounced the treason by  the Bolsheviks, now warns of the treason by those who define themselves as “Bolshevik-Leninists." From Stalin’s point of view, there’s been a radical change with respect to the First World War:  now it’s a matter of confronting a political party or faction which, at least with respect to the first phase of the conflict, hopes for the collapse of the country and the military victory of a Germany not yet depleted from three years of war, as was the case with Wilhelm II, but at the height of its power and explicitly dedicated to building its colonial empire in the East. Given this context, it’s certainly not surprising that the accusation of treason is raised. Let’s return to the article by Trotsky from April 22nd, 1939. In it there’s but a single affirmation which could have received Stalin’s agreement: “The impending war will create a favorable atmosphere for all sorts of adventurers, miracle-hunters and seekers of the golden fleece."274

While the flames of the Second World War burn ever higher, destined as well to reach the Soviet Union according to the same prediction by Trotsky, he continues making declarations and statements that are anything but reassuring. Let’s see a few of them: “Soviet patriotism can’t be separated from the irreconcilable struggle against the Stalinist clique” (June 8th, 1940); “The Fourth International has recognized for some time now the need to topple the bureaucracy [in power in Russia] through a revolutionary uprising by the workers” (September 25th, 1939); “Stalin and the oligarchy led by him represent the principal danger to the Soviet Union” (April 13th, 1940).275 It is quite understandable that the “bureaucracy” or the “oligarchy”, branded as the “principal enemy”, is convinced that the opposition, if not at the direct service of the enemy, is in any case ready from the start to follow-up its actions.

Any government would have found organizations of this orientation to be a threat to national security. Only to fuel Stalin’s concerns and suspicions is the prediction by Trotsky (September 25th 1939), of an “imminent revolution in the Soviet Union”: only “a few years or perhaps months away from the inglorious collapse” of the Stalinist bureaucracy.276 Where does such certainty come from? Is it a prediction formulated while only taking into account the internal developments within the country?
It becomes even more complicated upon analyzing the interplay between internal political conflict in Russia and international tensions; the suspicions and accusations are in fact encouraged by the existence of a fifth column and by disinformation operations carried out by Nazi Germany’s intelligence services. In April of 1939, Goebbels writes in his diary: “Our clandestine radio station in Eastern Prussia which broadcasts into Russia has caused an uproar. It operates in Trotsky’s name and causes trouble for Stalin."277 Immediately after the start of Operation Barbarossa, the leader of the Third Reich’s propaganda services is even more pleased: “now we are using three clandestine radio stations in Russia: the first is Trotskyist, the second separatist, the third Russian-nationalist, all are critical of the Stalinist regime." It’s an instrument the aggressors give great importance to: “We work with all methods, especially the three clandestine radio stations in Russia”; these “are a model of cunning and finesse."278 On the role of “Trotskyist” propaganda, the diary entry from July 14th is especially significant, which references the treaty between the Soviet Union and Great Britain and the joint statement by the two countries, it proceeds as follows: “This is an excellent occasion to show the compatibility between capitalism and Bolshevism [here a synonym for official Soviet authority]. The statement will find scarce acceptance among Leninist circles in Russia” (having in mind that Trotskyists like to define themselves as “Bolshevik-Leninists”), in contrast to the “Stalinists”, considered traitors to Leninism.279

Naturally, the intention by Stalin and his collaborators to collectively condemn the opposition as a den of enemy agents appears grotesque today, but it’s important not to lose sight of the historical context broadly presented here. It’s especially necessary to have in mind that similar suspicions and accusations were raised against the Stalinist leadership. After having labelled Stalin as a “fascist dictator”, the pamphlets which the Trotskyist network circulated in the Soviet Union added: “The leaders of the Politburo are either mentally ill or mercenaries of fascism."280 Even official  documents of the opposition insinuated that Stalin could be the protagonist of a “gigantic and deliberate provocation."281 On both sides, instead of committing to an exhaustive analysis of the objective contradictions, and how political conflicts interrelate with them, they prefer to quickly resort to the category of treason and, in its extreme form, the traitor becomes a conscious and valuable agent for the enemy. Trotsky doesn’t tire in denouncing the “plot of the Stalinist bureaucracy against the working class”, and the plot is even more despicable because the “Stalinist bureaucracy” is nothing more than “imperialism’s transmission device."282 It’s not necessary to say that Trotsky is on the receiving end as well: he laments at seeing himself described as an “agent of a foreign power”, but in turn labels Stalin as an “agent provocateur at Hitler’s service."283

The most infamous accusations are exchanged by both sides; on closer examination, the most incredible are those coming from the opposition. The conflicted and tormented mood of its leader was carefully analyzed by a Russian historian not suspected of having Stalinist sympathies:
Trotsky didn’t want the defeat of the Soviet Union, but Stalin’s collapse. In his predictions on the imminent war, his unease is evident: the exile knew that only his country’s defeat could put an end to Stalin’s power [...]. He desired war, because in that war he saw the only possibility of toppling Stalin. But Trotsky didn’t want to admit this even to himself.284
“Bonapartist Reaction”, “Coup d’Etats” and Disinformation: The Tukhachevsky Case

With a civil war (latent or in the open) within the new leadership group born out of the toppling of the old regime, with mutual accusations of betrayal and collaboration with the imperialist enemy and the extensive activities of their intelligence services, dedicated both to the recruitment of agents as well as to subversion, it’s in this context that we must place the events that in 1937 led to the prosecution and execution of marshal Tukhachevsky and a number of other leading officers in the Red Army.

There’s a long history behind this case. Years earlier Lenin saw the Bonapartist danger threatening Soviet Russia and also expressed his concerns to Trotsky: would civil authority really be able to subordinate military authority? In 1920, Tukhachevsky seems to have wanted to make the decision regarding the march on Warsaw―a dream of his. There clearly emerges―a leading historian from  our time observes―the possibility of the brilliant general “becoming the Bonaparte of the Bolshevik Revolution."285 Ten years later, Stalin is warned by the GPU about the schemes that are being forged by military elements opposed to him. Was there no cause for alarm?286 In April of the following  year, it was Trotsky who expresses his great doubts regarding Tukhachevsky, offering the following analysis of the situation created in the USSR after the political defeat of Bukharin and his allies on the “right”: the principal danger for socialism is represented not by “Thermidorian reaction”, which would formally conserve the country’s Soviet character and the communist character of the ruling party, but by “Bonapartist reaction”, that will take “the most open, ‘most mature’ form of the counter-revolution, that will be waged against the Soviet system and the Bolshevik party as a whole, unsheathing the saber in the name of bourgeois property." In such a case, “the most adventurous praetorian elements like Tukhachevsky” could play a role of great importance. Those opposing  them “with weapons in hand” would be the “revolutionary elements” of the party, the state and―take note―”the army”, reunited around the working class and the “Bolshevik-Leninist  faction” (that is, the Trotskyists).287

This stance constitutes a new factor in the conflict between the Bolsheviks. Despite having “the armed forces under his control”, Stalin “was careful not to get them too closely involved in the controversies and intrigues that shook the party and the state”;288 now, clearly, the opposition seeks to gain entry or to consolidate its presence in the army in the name of the struggle against the Bonapartist threat; after all, only it would be able to meaningfully oppose it. However, not allowing himself to be intimidated by this Bonapartist threat, in 1935 Stalin grants Tukhachevsky and four other military officers the title of marshal. It’s a promotion made in the context of a reform that  sees the army abandon its “predominantly territorial militia character”, becoming “a true standing army” and restoring “the old pre-revolutionary discipline."289 On December 21st of the same year, together with other members at the apex of Soviet political and military leadership, the new marshall celebrates Stalin’s birthday at the latter’s home “until 5:30 in the morning!”, Dimitrov emphasizes.290

It’s precisely that reform which draws Trotsky’s outrage, who, on the one hand, returns to the old denunciation: the Red Army “was not spared in the Soviet regime’s degeneration; on the contrary, that degeneration found in the army its highest expression." On the other hand, Trotsky takes on a new tone, mentioning the “formation of a new kind of opposition faction in the army”, which,  from the left, laments the abandonment of the “focus on world revolution." And the text cited here, it somewhat suggests that this opposition could have lured in Tukhachevsky himself: a man who in 1921 had fought with “excessive zeal” for the formation of a “world high-command” could hardly have supported the abandonment of internationalism and the “cult to the status quo” that had taken hold in the USSR. What to say of this text? The agitation in the army continues and appears to be strengthening; only that now the approaching struggle doesn’t oppose a “Bolshevik-Leninist faction” against the Bonapartist generals, but a reliable part of the army and its leadership against the Thermidorian leaders and traitors in the Kremlin. The resistance by the Red Army, and its rebellion against state power, would be further justified by the fact that its new political course constituted a “double coup d’état” that, in breaking with the Bolshevik October, arbitrarily proceeded to the “elimination of the militias” and the “restoration of the officer caste, eighteen years after its revolutionary suppression”;291 rising up against Stalin, the Red Army would have, in fact, prevented the coup d’états he was planning and would have reestablished revolutionary legitimacy. As if all of that wasn’t enough, the Trotskyist Opposition Bulletin announces an imminent revolt by the army.292 Perhaps a measure taken in Moscow some months before the trials aimed to confront that possible threat. “On March 29th, 1937, the Politburo debated the removal from the Red Army of all commanders and officers who had been expelled from the party for political motives, transferring them to the economic ministries.293

The rumors spread by White Russian exiles in Paris about a military coup d’etat that was being prepared in Moscow fueled even more the climate of suspicion and concern.294 Finally, during the latter half of January 1937, the Czechoslovakian president, Edvard Beneš, receives intelligence about the secret “negotiations” underway between the Third Reich and “the anti-Stalinist clique in the USSR of marshal Tukhachevsky, Rykov and others”:295 was there some basis to the accusation, or was it all a set-up by German intelligence services? Yet early on in 1937, in speaking with his foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, Hitler rejects the idea of an improvement in relations with the USSR, but adds: “It would be different if things in Moscow developed in the direction of an absolute despotism under the control of the military. It that case it would be wrong to miss the opportunity to make our presence felt again in Russia."296 Beneš also keeps the French leaders up to date on those “negotiations”, thereby “notably weakening confidence in the French-Soviet pact."297 Therefore it wasn’t Stalin alone who believed the information shared by the Czechoslovakian president. Moreover, even after the end of the Second World War, Churchill appears to confirm Moscow’s version, stressing, as we will see (infra, ch. 7, § 2), that the purge struck the “pro-German elements”, adding: “Stalin felt he owed a great deal of gratitude to president Beneš."298

At any rate, the question remains without an answer, and to conclusively answer it only a private conversation of Hitler’s in the summer of 1942 offers some assistance. Despite not mentioning a concrete military conspiracy, he observes that Stalin had serious reasons to fear being killed by Tukhachevsky’s inner circle.299 If it had all been a set-up with Hitler’s direct supervision or approval,300 he would have perhaps boasted of it at a time in which the memories were still fresh of the initial and unstoppable advances by the Wehrmacht.

In asking the key question (“was there really a military conspiracy?”) about the then recent “trials” and executions, Trotsky gives an answer that raises more questions. “It all depends on what one considers to be a conspiracy. Any sign of discontent and any contact made among those who are disgruntled, any criticism and any consideration about what to do, or how to oppose the government’s shameful policies, all of this, from Stalin’s point of view, is a conspiracy. It’s a totalitarian regime, all opposition is undoubtedly the seed of a conspiracy”; in that sense, the “seed” was the generals’ aspirations to protect the army from the “demoralizing intrigues of the GPU." Is it his rejection of the conspiracy theory, or is it his corroboration of it, expressed in the “Aesopian language” imposed by circumstances? Who calls attention to that ambiguous declaration is the fervent Trotskyist and Russian historian we’ve already encountered (Rogowin), who ends up accepting the thesis of the “anti-Stalinist conspiracy” by Tukhachevsky, putting it in a “Bolshevik” political context rather than a bourgeois one.301

To conclude, doubts remains, but it seems difficult to explain all that had happened with the usual deux ex machina, the power hungry and bloodthirsty dictator, eager to surround himself with puppets, blind and unconditional in their loyalty. This explanation is all the more fragile for the fact that in 1932 Stalin had no issues in attending, together with Molotov, classes by the commandant of the Military Academy, Boris M. Shaposhnikov; and Stalin gained a lot from these classes, given by a highly decorated strategist, yet who was not a member of the communist party.302 Moreover, “military science was one of the few politically important fields in which Stalin favored originality and innovation”, to the extent that “the officer corps” could exercise considerable “spiritual independence."303 Taking the place of Tukhachevsky and his subordinates are generals who, far  from being passive yes-men, frankly expressed their opinions and made arguments according to their own judgment,304 not hesitating to contradict the supreme leader, who, moreover, encourages and sometimes rewards that attitude (supra, ch. 1, § 6).

Three Civil Wars

If we don’t want to be held prisoners to the caricatures of Stalin drawn by Trotsky and Khrushchev during two different but equally intense political struggles, it’s necessary not to lose sight of the fact that the events that began in October 1917 are marked by three civil wars. The first war saw the confrontation between the revolution on one side, and the coalition of its enemies on the other, supported by capitalist powers committed to containing the Bolshevik contagion by any means possible. The second war is more or less the collectivization of agriculture, which is driven by a revolution from above or from afar, despite in part being driven by the peasantry from below. The third is that which divided the Bolshevik leadership group.

The last one is even more complex because it’s characterized by great mobility and by the dramatic shifts in its frontlines. We saw Bukharin, on the occasion of the Brest-Litovsk treaty, momentarily flirt with the idea of a type of coup d’état against Lenin, who he condemns for  wanting  to transform “the party into a dung heap." While at that moment Bukharin’s position is similar to Trotsky’s, in the eyes of the latter he becomes, ten years later, the privileged incarnation of Thermidorian reaction and betrayal by the bureaucracy: “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? Never."305 It’s a moment when Trotsky appears to predict Stalin’s turn against Bukharin: the latter would have immediately “toppled Stalin as a Trotskyist, exactly how Stalin had toppled Zinoviev." We are in 1928 and there’s already hints of the split between Stalin and Bukharin, who in fact, because of the abandonment of NEP, begins “privately describing Stalin as the representative of neo-Trotskyism” and as “an unprincipled schemer”; in the last analysis, as the worst and most dangerous enemy inside the party.306 Thus, the former member of the duumvirate proceeds down the path that will unite him with Trotsky. Ultimately, the opposing sides form coalitions against the victor; it becomes clear that in the mortal conflict between the Bolsheviks, the alignments change rapidly until the very end.

Fought in a country without a liberal tradition and characterized both by the prolonged state of emergency and by the persistence of an ideology prone to liquidating as merely “formal” the norms that govern the rule of law, the third civil wars take on the ferocity of a religious war. Trotsky, who “considers himself the only man able to lead the revolution”, is inclined to use “any means available to make the ‘false messiah’ fall from his throne."307 A “zealous faith” inspires the opposing side as well (infra, ch. 4, § 4). And the more Stalin is determined to eliminate all conspiratorial threats, including the most unlikely, the more heavily loom the clouds of a war that threatens the very existence of Russia and the homeland of socialism, and which therefore represent a mortal threat both to the national cause as well as the social cause, two causes Stalin is determined to lead.

While their distinctions are hard to make out (acts of terrorism and sabotage can be the expression of a counter-revolutionary project or of a new revolution), the three civil wars become tied up in the interventions by this or that great power. The entirety of these convoluted and tragic conflicts  vanish in the differing accounts, described first by Trotsky and later by Khrushchev, that tell simple fables and construct a monster who at his mere touch transforms gold into blood and dirt.

223. Trotsky (1988), p. 986 (=Trotsky, 1968, pp. 263-64).

224. Trotsky (1967), pp. 75-76.

225. Souvarine (2003), pp. 547-48.

226. Fischer (1991), vol. 2, pp. 217-22.

227. Fischer (1991), vol. 2, pp. 256-57.

228. Malaparte (1973), pp. 105, 109-110 and 113.

229. Malaparte (1973), p. 125.

230. Broué (1991), p. 632.

231. Ibidem

232. Malaparte (1963), p. 124.

233. Stalin (1971-1973), vol. 2, pp. 101-06 and in particular p. 103 (= Stalin 1952,1956, vol. 2, pp.
126,144, and in particular p. 128).

234. Broué (1991), p. 516.

235. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 5, p. 432.

236. Mayer (2000), pp. 271-72.

237. Broué (1991), p. 597.

238. Malaparte (1973), p. 124 239. Broué (1991), p. 616.

240. Thurston (1996), p. 34

241. Fischer (1991), vol. 2, p. 250

242. Trotsky (1988), p. 986 (=Trotsky, 1968, p. 263).

243. Trotsky (1967), pp. 67, 69 and 63.

244. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 31, pp. 26 and 44.

245. Broué (1991), p. 680.

246. Khrushchev (1958), pp. 134-35.

247. Humbert-Droz (1974), pp. 263,64.

248. Graziosi (2007), p. 336; cf. also Tucker (1990), p. 211 and Mayer (2000), p. 647.

249. Humbert-Droz (1974), pp. 263-64.

250. Cohen (1975), p. 285; Tucker (1974), pp. 424-25.

251. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 5, p. 362.

252. Cohen (1975), pp. 356-60.

253. Wolkogonow (1989),. 295.

254. Lenin (1955-1970), vol. 5, p. 332-33.

255. Fischer (1991), vol. 2, p. 326

256. Strong (2004), cap. V.

257. Khrushchev (1958), pp. 136-37 and 139-40.

258. Flores (1990), pp. 215-16.

259. Khlevniuk (1998), p. 28

260. Trotsky (1997-2001), vol. 3, pp. 421-25.

261. Trotsky (1988), p. 490; italics in the original text

262. Rogowin (1998), pp. 91 and 404.

263. Rogowin (1998), p. 100.

264. Rogowin (1999), pp. 288-89.

265. Rogowin (1999), p. 11-12.

266. Carr (1964), p. 876; Daniels (1970), p. 145 speaks of “insurrection”; cf. also Mayer (2000), p. 271.

267. Broué (1991), p. 707.

268. Broué (1991), pp. 715-16.

269. Hillgruber (1991), p. 191.

270. Trotsky (1988), p. 117 and note 85 from the editor.

271. Trotsky (1988), p. 1179

272. Trotsky (1988), pp. 1253-54 and 1179.

273. Trotsky (1988), pp. 1258-59.

274. Trotsky (1988), p. 1183.

275. Trotsky (1988), pp. 1341, 1273 and 1328.

276. Trotsky (1988), pp. 1273, 1286.

277. Goebbels (1996), p. 123.

278. Goebbels (1992), pp. 1614 and 1619-20.

279. Goebbels (1992), p. 1635.

280. Rogowin (1999), pp. 288-89.

281. Broué (1991), p. 683.

282. Trotsky (1967), pp. 64 and 44.

283. Trotsky (1988), pp. 1334 and 1339.

284. Wolkogonow (1989) pp. 514-15.

285. Mayer (2000), p. 621, which for its part references Thomas C. Fiddick.

286. Khlevniuk (1998), p. 61.

287. Trotsky (1988), p. 61.

288. Deutscher (1968), p. 694.

289. Deutscher (1969), p. 531.

290. Dimitrov (2002), p. 59.

291. Trotsky (1988), pp. 913 and 918-28 (= Trotsky, 1968, pp. 192 and 195-205).

292. Wolkogonow (1989), p. 412.

293. Khlevniuk (2006), p. 162.

294. Wolkogonow (1989), p. 412.

295. Beneš (1954), pp. 19-20 and 47, note 8.

296. Nolte (1987), pp. 306-07.

297. Conquest (2000), p. 322.

298. Churchill (1963), p. 321.

299. Hitler (1989), p. 447 (conversation from July 21st, 1942).

300. Conquest (2000), p. 231.

301. Rogowin (1988), pp. 520 and 531-44.

302. Schneider (1994), pp. 248-232.

303. Deutscher (1969), pp. 694-95.

304. Roberts (2006), p. 16.

305. Cohen (1975), pp. 75 and 268.

306. Cohen (1975), pp. 288 and 285.

307. Feuchtwanger (1946), p. 95.

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