Bertram D. Wolfe

Speech on the Moscow Purge Trials

Under the Auspices of the Trotsky Defense Committee, New York

(9 March 1938)

Speech made in New York on 9 March 1938.
From Robert Hessen (ed.), Breaking with Communism (1990), pp. 37–40.
Transcribed by Martin Fahlgren.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I want to begin by thanking the Trotsky Defense Committee for inviting me to participate in this meeting. I regret that it is not being held under much broader auspices. I believe that all labor organizations have been derelict in their duty in not arranging the broadest mass protest meeting under the broadest possible auspices, to show that the entire labor movement protests against this infamous and murderous farce. So far we have had only a meeting under the auspices of the Trotskyists, and this one, with invitation to spokesmen of other organizations, but under the Trotsky Defense Committee. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, because it gives the impression that the issue is Trotsky versus Stalin, or that our protest is primarily for the defense of Leon Trotsky. Nor is that sufficiently offset by the fact that my own organization [Independent Labor League of America] is holding a meeting of its own on the issues involved in this same hall next Wednesday night. I want to pledge my organization to work for the calling of a meeting adequate to the issues involved, under the joint auspices of every organization that is interested in the question. The Socialist Party has pledged itself to the same end, and leading figures in the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist Workers’ Party and Anarchists have given similar assurances. To my mind the issues are broader than the controversy between Trotsky and Stalin, or Bukharin and Stalin, broader than the defense of Leon Trotsky, or of all the defendants now on trial, or the thousands and hundred thousands crowding the jails of the Soviet Union, broader than the redemption of the good name of those who have already met death without trial at Stalin’s hands, or at the hands of his henchmen such as Yezhov.

The Russian purge and the methods it employs concern the very life of the labor movement in the Soviet Union and, by extension, in all the lands of the earth. Any one who fails to raise his voice unequivocally on this question makes himself a guilty accomplice by his silence. He who is indifferent we must brand for his indifference; he who excuses this accuses himself of being willing to introduce the same methods into our own labor movement; he who justifies it has bathed his hands, as did the conspirators in Shakespeare’s play, in the blood of the innocent victims. And that blood is the best blood of our generation, the blood of the men who led the opposition to the world war, of the men who led in the making of the Russian Revolution, of the men who led in the building of the Communist International, of the men who risked their lives in the tsarist underground, who exhausted themselves in the civil war and the famine, who performed miracles of socialist reconstruction, who led the Soviet Union in all of its achievements.

If one word of these charges is credited as true, then the Russian Revolution must have been made by traitors, bandits, imperialist spies, provocateurs, murderers, and counterrevolutionaries. If Trotsky was a spy since 1921, then he was conspiring to overthrow himself while he was the leader of the Red Army. If Bukharin was guilty of conspiring to kill Lenin in 1918, then Lenin was a dupe an a moron to have praised him before his death as the “darling of the party,” and the program of the Communist International is the program of a traitor. The rewriting of history has gone so far that Trotsky’s heroic efforts to build up a Red Army, drive out foreign intervention, and crush counterrevolution were all expended and, successfully mind you, at the orders of a Germany that was not yet Fascist, a Japan that was not yet through with its twenty-one points, an England that bribed these men to build up a mighty Soviet power so that they might later have more work and more fun trying to crush it.

These mad charges have at last gone so far that Lenin himself is on trial in Moscow. How else shall we interpret the charge that his closest associates were the agents of foreign governments? Is not the charge of German spy levied against the then commissar of war [Trotsky] but a revival of a charge levied in those days against all th Bolsheviks, and first of all against Lenin? Was it not Lenin who passed through Germany in a sealed train? Lenin who was most insistent of all on a separate peace with Germany? Lenin who insisted on the signing of the Brest Litovsk peace while the accused Bukharin and the accused in absentia, Trotsky, were still hesitant?

This trial and this purge involve issues, it seems to me, that are even broader than the labor movement and the issue of honesty and democracy within it. Precisely because the working class is the most significant class in modern society, precisely because it is the main bearer of social progress, destined by its position in society, and its own class needs, to be in the vanguard of every forward-looking movement, therefore must we recognize that if it is lacking in respect for human life and human integrity, then humanity itself is doomed to retrogression, rebarbarization, degeneracy and self-destruction. When Robert Minor [editor of The Liberator and The Daily Worker, communist periodicals] delivered himself of his famous declaration, “Honesty is a bourgeois virtue,” thereby he calumniated the labor movement, slandered the working class, gave the bourgeoisie – whose rule is based upon devices of hypocrisy – an honor they did not deserve, and by his attack upon the working class, he read himself and the party he speaks for out of its ranks, out of the ranks too of decent human beings of any class whatsoever.

Stalin’s bloody deeds against the Communist Party, the Soviet State Apparatus, the Red Army, the Political Police, the Party Press, the Planning Commission, the leaders of industry and agriculture, and the Soviet peoples serve to complement the fearful crimes he committed against the Communist International and the labor movements in all other countries. Public trials have been mostly directed against those who were former oppositionists. But he uses the men whose names he has already blackened and continues to blacken, the Trotskys and Bukharins, chiefly to frame up those who but yesterday were his closest associates and the leaders of literally every branch of Soviet life: the entire general staff, the admiralty of the navy, the GPU [political police] – all the apparatus of defense internal and external; the premiers and presidents of every autonomous soviet republic and region, excepting only three; the party secretaries of every district but two; 90 percent of the editors of party papers – all the apparatus of political leadership of the country; already more than a third of the central committee and two members of the Politburo have been included; two vice-commissars of foreign affairs and all ambassadors but two – virtually the entire apparatus of diplomacy; the authors of the five-year plans, heads of ten departments of the Planning Commission, and a score of state trusts – all the apparatus of leadership of industry and agriculture; even doctors, inventors, poets, dramatists, composers, sociologists – the apparatus of cultural life is wrecked by Stalin the arch-wrecker.

He has made infinitely harder the task of those of us who love the Soviet Union and would make the world understand its wonders of achievement of those who would defend it against attack from the ruling class of all lands. He has murdered his comrades in arms, spewed such filth upon their names and on the fair name of the Russian Revolution that all of us feel unclean even to have to discuss this vileness. Today we can only help the Soviet Union if we succeed in making clear that Stalinism is the very opposite of what we are aiming at and defending. Only by exposing Stalinism, only by wiping out its foul influences, can we redeem the honor of the Russian Revolution and of our class whose greatest effort in history it so far represents.

Time will not permit me to attempt tonight to give a positive exposition of the causes of this frightful phenomenon, or the prospects of overcoming it. Our organization is more convinced than ever that we were right in making, as we did, a clean break with the growing system of corruption in the Communist International. In retrospect it is clear that we should have done it earlier. We are more convinced than ever that we were right in denouncing and breaking with the system that made a world party a tail to a faction in the Russian party. Even the best of the Russians after Lenin’s death, men like Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, failed to understand that. Our organization is more convinced than ever that today the Soviet Union can go forward only if the Russian Communists and the Russian working class throw off the monstrous yoke of Stalinism, that the labor movement elsewhere can flourish only if it repudiates as vile and obscene the gangster methods and the traitorous policies of Stalinism.

If I am asked, “Can Stalinism be overthrown?” I answer: “How can Stalinism possibly continue in power? Has it not taken a path which leads from arrest to arrest, from forgery to forgery, from murder to murder? Is not the Soviet Union for the first time in a decade without a five-year plan? Is not Stalin forced by his policies to destroy his own tools? Has he not been obliged to purge a second layer which replaced the first, and a third replacing the second? Is he not destroying his very base for existence?”

Our task is to make clear what is happening, to redeem the Russian Revolution from its destroyer, to defend and spread what was positive and heroic and progressive, and still is so, in the Russian Revolution, to clean out the seepage of filth that threatens to infect the movement, and to deal with scrupulous cleanliness, clarity, decency, and honesty, and maximum working class democracy, with the problems of our own working class.

Last updated on 30 October 2014