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22 September 2020

From the NS archive: the Moscow purge

5 September 1936: The world has less than it had expected to fear or to hope from Soviet Russia.

By New Statesman

In 1936, this magazine editorial trod a fine line in response to the latest deadly purges in Moscow which had resulted in the execution of Stalin’s former allies Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev. While the death of a number of Trotskyites was cautiously deplored the writer concentrated on the larger forces at work in Stalin’s Soviet Union. A free press and free elections had been promised but would inevitably be compromised, to the dismay of many of the regime’s supporters in the West. “We believe that it is bad tactics as well as bad morals to meet their disillusion with a fanatical pretence that nothing can be amiss in Soviet Russia,” said the editorial. “The right reply is honestly to admit that there is a great deal amiss, and that political liberty has a long battle to fight before it becomes a reality in Soviet Russia.” Nevertheless, the writer thought, the Soviet Union had accomplished more for its workers than anywhere else in the world and that excessive state control might just be a price worth paying.

***

Historically the new Bolshevik purge is more important than former mass executions in Russia. It marks the end of the Bolshevik Party; only Stalin survives from the Old Guard. It marks, too, the final triumph of Stalin’s nationalist policy. It means that the outside world has less than it had expected either to fear or to hope from Soviet Russia.

The truth about the plot for which Zinoviev, Kamenev and the others were executed, we do not know. We outraged the feelings of a number of readers last week by saying that we were “unconvinced” by the confessions. We meant exactly what we said. We are unconvinced just as we were by the trial of the British engineers in Moscow. We did not deny then, and we do not deny now, that the confessions may have contained the substantial truth. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. Mr. Pritt, K.C., who should be a good judge of evidence was present at the proceedings and cabled that the trial was fair. No doubt the conduct of the trial itself was fair. It was a far more elaborate business than the usual press reports suggest, and Russian procedure has advantages as well as disadvantages in comparison with Western methods. The prisoners could have withdrawn their confessions: they could defend themselves as they liked. But to say that they themselves refused counsel of their own free will makes the problem no easier. Clearly, if they were going to plead guilty and ask to be shot they had no need of a lawyer to do it for them. It is their confession and decision to demand the death sentence for themselves that constitutes the mystery. If they had a hope of acquittal, why confess? If they were guilty of trying to murder Stalin and knew they would be shot in any case, why cringe and crawl instead of defiantly justifying their plot on revolutionary grounds? We should be glad to hear the explanation. . .

Very likely there was a plot. The public evidence is not of a kind to enable us to speak with confidence. We must allow for the traditions of the G.P.U., for its tendency to regard all criticism as treachery and to label as Trotskyism any protest, however subdued, against the increasing nationalism of official Soviet policy – a protest that has gathered force with Russia’s acceptance of a non-intervention policy in Spain. Allowance must be made for the intrigues and rivalries that are inseparable from dictatorship. Even assuming the whole story of the plot, such a general purge means much individual injustice. In the absence of safeguards against arbitrary arrest, informers are encouraged by the general atmosphere of suspicion and fear engendered by wholesale arrests. But there may well be more than this. Nazi agents have been even more active in Soviet Russia than elsewhere, and it would be surprising if they had found no discontent to exploit. When we hear that so close and trusted a friend of Stalin as Radek is suspected and that one of the ablest of Soviet generals is recalled for examination and that a hunt is going on for men and women who may have at some time said something critical of official policy, we are compelled to wonder whether there may not be more serious discontent in the Soviet Union than was generally believed.

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Every effort is, of course, being made to exploit this proof of difficulty and violence in Soviet Russia. It is grist to the mill of Conservatives, who hate Socialism as it presents the official Labour Party machine with a powerful argument against Communist affiliation, and even against a working “popular front”. This demand was supported by the publication of a democratic constitution to be put in operation in Russia this autumn. It guarantees in specific terms the rights of free association, free publication and a free press. It even guarantees halls for meetings and papers for argument at elections. This was taken as a welcome sign that the Soviet Union was approaching the stage when the Government would feel sufficiently secure to permit of the exercise of individual liberty. Whatever view we accept of this plot and of the general round-up of Trotskyites we must admit that the present atmosphere is not favourable to the feeling of security that is essential if opposition opinion – even Trotskyist opinion – is to be freely expressed at an election.

Let us see this matter in perspective. A social revolution is accompanied both by violence and by idealism. Its success must be judged primarily by the permanent achievement of its economic aims. But it is right also to take into account the continuance or relaxation of the violence and the persistence or obliteration of the idealism. Enthusiasts without adequate historical background are apt to react too violently to phases of revolution. In the early stages of the French Revolution, liberal England felt with Wordsworth that it was “bliss to be alive”, and hailed revolutionary Paris as Utopia, just as unwise idealists have refused to see any regrettable aspects in the building of Soviet Russia. When successive juntas surpassed one another in violence at each stage of the French Revolution the unwary apostles of the new world too often relapsed into cynicism or were transformed into high Tories. We fear the same process today. Some idealistic people, finding few secure investments for their spiritual capital, have staked their all on Soviet Russia and may feel spiritually bankrupt when the dividend is beneath expectations. We believe that it is bad tactics as well as bad morals to meet their disillusion with a fanatical pretence that nothing can be amiss in Soviet Russia. The right reply is honestly to admit that there is a great deal amiss, and that political liberty has a long battle to fight before it becomes a reality in Soviet Russia. But that makes no difference to the essential fact that Russia is a Socialist country with an overwhelming desire for peace.

The Russian Revolution is in any case the greatest achievement of this generation. It always takes a totally disproportionate amount of steam to accomplish an obviously necessary social change. In the 18th century the crying need was for a release of the middle class, for the abolition of privilege and feudalism, for the ownership of the land by the people who worked on it. In the 20th century, the prime economic necessity is of the release of the working classes to the fair share in the new wealth, which is denied them by a system that leaves the basic means of life in the hands of private owners. When the smoke had cleared away from the Napoleonic wars, it was found that the French Revolution had been successful in its main objective. The peasants owned the land of France, and the ideas of liberty and equality which went with the abolition of feudal landlordship were spread not only in France, but all of Europe.

In exactly the same way the essential economic change of our generation has been carried out in Russia and in Russia only, and the power of the G.P.U. and the excessive and increasing control of the Soviet bureaucracy are, historically speaking, of secondary importance. The necessity for this economic change in other countries grows every day more obvious; every day the fear of it drives Fascism to more violent assaults. This is our problem and in confronting it Russia is necessarily our ally, even though at times a singularly awkward ally. Much that is disappointing in Russia today is due to the fear of invasion and the vast military preparations that follow from such a fear. We must expect the Soviet Union to be, before all things, concerned with its own defence. Russia will, to an increasing extent, want the alliance of foreign governments, and therefore be correspondingly careful in aiding proletarian movements. The Left must recognise this in shaping its future course.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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