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James Burnham

Aftermath of the Trials

(March 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 13, 26 March 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Time, in its current issue, observes that no daily or weekly journal in the entire world, outside of the press of the Communist International, believes the trial of the 21 was an honest affair.

Probably never before in history has any trial met with such immediate and universal rejection. Everyone, from the hitherto silent Populaire, organ of the French Socialist Party, to the New York Times, from Hearst to the Oswald Garrison Villard group of liberals, to Jack Altman and Jay Lovestone, is compelled to say that the charges in this trial are plainly and flatly false.

Even the Stalinists

The last week has shown that this recognition of the falsity of the trial of the 21 extends even further, goes right down into the ranks of the Stalinists themselves, in particular to the proletarian strata of the party.

Why is it that disbelief in the latest trial has been so much more widespread than in the case of the former two?

First, there is the character of the charges. Fantastic as were the charges in the earlier trials the last went far beyond them, into the realms of the madhouse. This is perhaps most obviously the case with “little” points which the trial featured: Trotsky’s million dollars; Rakovsky’s espionage negotiations with Lady Paget; Max Eastman as liaison officer with the British Intelligence Service ...

Makes Revolution Absurd

Second, tracing the “crimes” back to 1918 is not merely a shameless libel on the Revolution (a point naturally of no concern to the Times or Altman or Villard) but it makes the course of the Revolution simply absurd. If only two of the leaders of the Revolution were reliable and the remainder all fascist traitors from the beginning, then the Revolution was a miracle that makes the Bible seem like a report of scientific experiments.

Third, the appearance of Yagoda among the defendants has a special importance. Everyone knows that Yagoda was the stage manager of the early trials, including the trial of Zinoviev-Kamenev. By the indictment of Yagoda, the whole system of trials stands self-indicted.

Fourth, in this trial even more than in the others, there is absolutely no psychological basis for ascribing any motivation for the purported acts of the defendants.

Confessions to Order

Fifth, in this trial the relevance of Stalin’s present political needs to the substance of the charges is too patent to be ignored. Great Britain and Poland suddenly appear among the “conspiring” nations. Every defendant “confesses” to just the difficulties in Soviet economy for which Stalin imperatively needs to find scapegoats.

In addition, the work of the International Commission of Inquiry, and the political analysis of the Fourth Internationalists, with reference to the first two trials, have consciously clarified ever wider circles of public opinion as to the real nature and meaning of the system of trials.

Lastly, it should be remarked that in many cases the changed attitude toward the new trial has nothing to do with the evidence, but comes rather from new doubts about the stability of the Stalin regime and the strength of Stalinism internationally. Many were willing to “go along with” the trials (though not really believing them) when they felt that Stalinism would last more or less forever. Now they begin to wonder whether the ship may not be sinking. And suddenly they become very concerned over the “truth” – which they themselves were often leaders in attempting to suppress.

Disbelief Not Enough

Merely not believing in the trials, is not the least identical with facing the full issue of the trials: and we have said from the beginning that no more crucial issue than that of the trials has ever faced mankind.

With the trials exposed before world public opinion, what is now being done by the newly-converted “friends of truth”? The past week or two are giving the answers.

As might be expected, the reformists, liberals, reactionaries, many of whom a year ago were busily making use of belief in the trials for their own purposes, re now trying to exploit disbelief for those same purposes – after all, truth for them has never been anything more than a word to agitate with.

They Come to Life

The Villard group of liberals – most of whom were so very conveniently silent during the past two years – suddenly jumps into print in an effort to take the “leadership” in the unmasking of the new trial. Jack Altman – who less than a year ago devoted all of his (vain) political efforts to smashing the American Committee for the Defense of Trotsky and the International Commission of Inquiry so that the truth could not be known – calls a special Socialist Party meeting to “expose” the trial of the 21. The Lovestoneites, who defended the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial publicly, become, though without a word of explanation for their past, the “experts’” on the trials. All these unprincipled weather-cocks want to jump on the band-wagon of changing mass opinion before it gets beyond their reach.

Two “reactions” among the new disbelievers may be traced to sources among the Stalinists themselves. So shatteringly have the trials exploded in the face of the Stalinists that they must now provide “theories” which can keep in line even those who disbelieve the trials.

Smoke-Fire Theory

On the one hand, we are told that even though the trials are not true “as they stand,” nevertheless, “somebody is undoubtedly guilty of something,” on the theory that “where there is so much smoke there must be some fire.” Harold Denny, Times Moscow correspondent, the Nation and the New Republic belong to this school.

With reference to this point of view: (1) In any frame-up, many statements included are true. Only one fact – whether or not the specific defendant is guilty of the specific crime with which he is charged – is relevant. Everything else alleged may be true, but still the trial would be a frame-up! (2) However, with the exception of Yagoda, there is not the slightest evidence that any of the leading defendants in any of the trials is guilty of any of the acts with which they are charged – or of any other crime for that matter. Neither physics nor jurisprudence beats out the “where there is so much smoke there must be some fire” theory. The smoke of a thousand similar trials will do nothing to prove the guilt of any defendants – they would be proof only of Stalin’s needs and of the character of his regime. Even Yagoda, though guilty of plenty of crimes, was not guilty of some or even all of the specific crimes with which he was charged. Even Yagoda, the framer, was framed.

For Straying Faithful

On the other hand, we are asked to “submerge” the trial in “other more important issues” – Austria, Spain, the war; and to “forget about the trial.” The Stalinist machine adopts this attitude sub rosa as one way of pulling back the straying faithful who have seen through the trial.

But: (1) There is no more important issue. And: (2) The trials are not accidents. They are an integral part of Stalinism, as integral to Stalinism as war is to capitalism. Really facing the issue of the trials means facing the issue of Stalinism in its entirety, and all of its policies. Whoever fails to do this, thereby fails to face the issue of the trials themselves, in spite of any self-congratulating “enlightenment” with respect to them.

Socialism Attacked

But above all, the collapse of public belief is being used by the whole swarm of reactionaries, liberals and reformists as the basis for a vicious attack upon the ideal of socialism and the methods of revolutionary Marxism. These people, whose record on the trials itself is the clearest possible demonstration of their corrupt opportunism and the utter bankruptcy of their own ideologies and methods, try to swing the mass revolt against the trials into a line of attack on revolutionary socialism, whose record again on the trials, alone of all currents in the world, stands up throughout to any and every examination.

No! The exposure of the falsity of the trials does not finish “the issue of the trials.” The issue remains in all its burning actuality, and will remain to the very end. The working class will not grant certificates of political health to every charlatan merely because he now (after that half of the battle is nearly won in spite of him and his friends) finds it useful to “protest” and “expose” the trials.

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