Inside the Soviet Union, the sharpening contradictions between the bureaucracy and the working class led to the liquidation of the remnants of the Bolshevik cadre.

The “Communist” parties internationally were presenting the Soviet Union as the happy fatherland of socialism. Stalin’s successor, Krushchev, at the 20th party congress in 1956, lifted a corner of the veil on what was really happening:

Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation and patient cooperation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion… He abandoned the method of ideological struggle for that of administrative violence, mass repressions and terror.

Quoted in The Moscow Trials

Bureaucratic tyranny takes on a logic of its own. As repression intensifies, the rulers’ fear of revenge increases. Opponents, driven from power, are mistrusted. Even if they recant, won’t they become a threat again? Might they not provide the spark for insurrection from below?

Whole layers of the party came under intense suspicion from Stalin and the bureaucracy – none more so than the surviving “Old Bolsheviks”, who could remember the party of Lenin, who kept silent about the bureaucracy’s crimes only out of fear.

Bukharin, as early as 1928, shrank back from the monster he had helped to create. In a secret discussion with Kamenev he exclaimed in terror:

What can we do? What can we do in the face of an adversary of this sort, a debased Genghis Khan…?

Quoted by Serge, From Lenin to Stalin

While the old Bolsheviks kept their heads down, a younger generation was coming to the fore, eager to restore the ideals of October. Contradictions were sharpening between the regime and the growing working class. The whole party seethed with discontent. Expulsions in the early 1930s ran into hundreds of thousands.

Yet the old Bolshevik leaders, despite their capitulations, commanded vastly greater respect than Stalin and the ruling bureaucratic clique – many of them disreputable ex-Mensheviks and former enemies of the October revolution who had crossed to the winning side after the war.

These contradictions were brought to a head by the Spanish revolution in 1936, sending shock waves through the workers’ movement internationally, inspiring the Russian masses afresh with the example of workers’ democracy in action.

The bureaucracy moved to nip the danger in the bud. With grisly irony, while protesting their commitment to bourgeois-democracy internationally, they unleashed a reign of purest nightmare in the Soviet Union itself.

There now took place the “Moscow trials”: incredible frame-ups where broken old Bolsheviks were accused of murder, sabotage, terrorism – any fantastic crime to discredit them and terrorise others.

But the main charge against them was “Trotskyism”. One after another they were accused of “conspiring with Trotsky”, now vilified as an “agent of capitalism” and a “German spy” since 1921!

In this way the regime betrayed the real motive for the “purges”: their obsessive fear of Marxism, of workers’ democracy and the workers’ revenge, and their hatred of the foremost representative of Marxism in the labour movement internationally – Leon Trotsky.

As the Times correspondent in Russia admitted:

The root of the matter is that Stalin never completely won the battle between his own policy and Trotsky’s internationalist policy. Nor can final victory ever be his… Communism remains an international creed … lately, the discontent of zealot communists [revolutionaries] has increased… More still are alarmed at the great wage inequalities… It has been determined to silence the voice of opposition once and for all, and break the remnants of Trotskyism within the country.

21 August 1936

Thus there passed before Stalin’s “judges” a tragic parade of human wrecks who had once been Bolshevik leaders, blackmailed and cowed into admitting anything and everything demanded of them.

Three “trials” were staged: in August 1936 (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Smirnov and others); January 1937 (Radek, Pyatakov and others); and February 1938 (Bukharin, Rykov, Rakovsky and others). Their accuser was the former Menshevik lawyer, Vyshinsky, who during the civil war had collaborated with the Whites. Now he could shriek the hatred of the bureaucracy against the former leaders of the revolution: “Mad fascist police dogs!” “Despicable rotten dregs of humanity!” Scum of the underworld!” “Shoot the reptiles!”

No evidence was brought against the accused except their GPU-dictated “confessions”. But, with one or two token exceptions, all were condemned to be shot.

Each of these murders, every curse by Vyshinsky, was admiringly reported and defended by the “Communist” parties internationally.

Trotsky explained the logic of the whole grotesque performance: 

To justify the repressions, it was necessary to have framed accusations. To give weight to the false accusations, it was necessary to reinforce them with more brutal repressions. Thus the logic of the struggle drove Stalin along the road of gigantic judicial amalgams.

The Moscow Trials

The Moscow trials were only the façade of what Trotsky termed “a one-sided civil war of the bureaucracy against the Bolshevik Party”. Arrests followed waves of arrests. Countless old Bolsheviks, who refused to “confess” in public, were assassinated in prison. Left Oppositionists in Siberian labour camps were taken out in groups to be shot. Altogether tens of thousands – the flower of the Russian workers’ movement – were wiped-out.

The Left Oppositionists remained revolutionaries to the end. An example of their unbending courage were the events at the Vorkuta labour camp in Siberia towards the end of 1936, when the Trotskyists led a massive fight-back by prisoners against the petty tyranny of the authorities with the only weapon still available to them – the hunger strike.

After four months, all their demands were conceded. But soon the executions began. When a male political prisoner was shot, his wife and any children over the age of twelve would normally be killed as well.

Of the 1,966 delegates to the 17th CP congress in 1935, 1,108 had been arrested by 1938 for “anti-revolutionary crimes”. Of 139 central committee members, 98 were shot.

Of 1,558,852 CP members in 1939, only 1.3 percent had belonged since the October revolution. Of Lenin’s central committee of 1917, only Stalin survived as a leader, surrounded by ex-Mensheviks and bootlickers. The last vestiges of the Bolshevik Party had been eradicated.

One of the leaders of 1917, Raskolnikov, survived during the 1930s as Soviet ambassador to Bulgaria. Recalled to Moscow in 1938 for “promotion” (i.e., to be shot), he fled into exile instead and wrote an open letter to Stalin:

With the help of dirty forgeries, you staged false trials and made up accusations which are more ridiculous than the witch trials of the middle ages… Inert pulp writers glorify you as a semi-deity born of the sun and the moon and you, like an Eastern despot, enjoy the incense of crude flattery. You mercilessly exterminate talented writers who are personally displeasing to you… sooner or later, the Soviet people will put you on trial as a traitor to socialism and the revolution.

Published for the first time in the USSR in the magazine Ogonyok in June 1987

The total death toll under Stalin in the 1930s is estimated at 12 to 15 million. Survivors, such as Raskolnikov, were understandably embittered and filled with hatred towards Stalin. But it must not be forgotten that this slaughter was not simply the consequence of power-hunger, ruthlessness or (as Krushchev falsely explained it) the “cult of the individual”. It was the culmination of the political counter-revolution by the bureaucracy against the revolutionary working class tendency in the Russian workers’ state.

The regime established under Stalin had nothing in common with the regime of Lenin and Trotsky, though the outward trappings (the “Communist Party”, the “Politbureau”, the title “soviets”, etc.) were preserved to give the opposite impression. Rivers of blood separate Marxism from the regime of the Russian bureaucracy.

Testimony as to the historical significance of Stalinism is contained in the gloating poem that appeared in a White magazine after the first Moscow trial:

We thank you, Stalin!

Sixteen scoundrels,

Sixteen butchers of the Fatherland

Have been gathered to their ancestors…

But why only sixteen?

Give us forty,

Give us hundreds,


Make a bridge across the Moscow river,

A bridge without tower or beams,

A bridge of Soviet carrion –

And add your carcass to the rest!

Continue to Chapter Twenty-One