Bertram D. Wolfe

Trotsky’s Defense

(November 1937)

From The New Republic, November 24, 1937.
Transcribed by Martin Fahlgren.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Case of Leon Trotsky
by John Dewey and members of the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry in Mexico City
New York: Harper and Brothers. 639 pages. $3

IN ALL the annals of political and doctrinal trials there is no stranger, more absorbing, more puzzling one than “The Case of Leon Trotsky.” The present contribution to the dossier is a six-hundred-page printed stenogram of the hearings of the “Preliminary Commission of Inquiry,” which took this testimony from Leon Trotsky in Mexico.

I approached the bulky report with considerable misgiving. The whole idea of the “Impartial Commission” seemed such a preposterous one. Fathered by Trotsky partisans, it had of necessity to be one-sided and reduce itself to a stage for a single, all-important actor. The Commission was chosen with some ineptness to include a majority (Stolberg, Ruehle, La Follette – three out of five) already publicly on record as convinced of the innocence of the “accused.” One of the remaining two, Carleton Beals, resigned before the hearings were at an end. And the undoubted impartiality of the chairman, Professor Dewey, seemed to offer no guarantee that he would be equal to judging the intricacies of Russian factional strife.

The earlier portions of the stenogram tended to deepen the misgiving as to the possibility of any illumination coming from the hearings. Lawyer Goldman proved a not very effective attorney for the “defense.” As for Mr. Finerty, who acted as attorney for the investigating commission, his chief qualification seemed to be that he had served as lawyer for Earl Browder in a recent suit against the Electoral Commission of the State of Illinois. Throughout the hearings he showed no awareness of the fact that he might have strengthened the usefulness of the investigation by really trying to break down some of the testimony of Trotsky and his witnesses. He seems rather to have conceived it as his major duty to keep reminding Trotsky during the latter’s ironical references to “my sabotage” and “my wrecking” that he should say “alleged sabotage” and “alleged wrecking.” For the rest, he joined Dewey in asking naive questions designed to convince the “defendant” that a liberal philosophy is superior to the tenets of proletarian dictatorship and social revolution. Stolberg, Ruehle and Suzanne La Follette contributed leading questions aiming to get light on their pet doctrinal puzzles. Finally, through a series of avoidable misunderstandings, the Commission lost Carleton Beals after the tenth of thirteen sessions, though its work would have carried more weight if it had followed out Mr. Beals’s line of thinking up searching and embarrassing (if sometimes indelicate, or irrelevant) questions.

Yet, despite the ineptness of the procedure, as the hearings continued the outlines of Trotsky’s case became steadily clearer, and all else became dwarfed and unimportant, until audience, attorneys and Commission seemed to disappear and the “investigation” became at last a monologue of the exiled War Commissar expounding his doctrines, fighting for his revolutionary honor and becoming the accuser of those who had accused and convicted him without putting him directly on trial. About four-fifths of these six-hundred-odd pages, while not uninteresting in view of the light they throw on Trotsky’s doctrinal views, might well be discarded. But Trotsky’s powerful closing speech taking up 115 pages of the book should not be missed by anyone interested in getting at the truth in these perplexing trials: in retrospect the chief function of the Commission turns out to be that it served as occasion and sounding-board for this speech.

Not that the stenograms of the Moscow trials and the present one (they should be read together for a complete picture) resolve all the difficult problems connected with the trials and executions. No matter which “verdict” one pronounces in the end, there are painful and intolerable dilemmas to he faced. If it is hard to believe that Trotsky could conspire with Germany and Japan, desire to hasten war, hope for the defeat of the Soviet Union, work for the restoration of capitalism; it is also hard to believe that the leader of the Communist Party and the Comintern is capable of framing all these accusations and executing innocent men who like Yagoda, Tukhachevsky and Gamarnik – were but yesterday the chief pillars of his regime. Yet one of these two series of monstrous and discreditable hypotheses must be true. What the study of the trial records and this “counter-trial” helps us to do is to remove from the realm of merely subjective preference the choice between them. The writer owns that his previous position was to give credence rather to Stalin than to Trotsky, but a rereading of the Moscow confessions together with the present work, or rather its closing speech, carried literally overwhelming conviction that Trotsky could not have done the things charged against him in the Zinoviev-Kamenev and Radek-Piatakov trials.

Moreover, the subsequent epidemic of executions of “Trotskyist-Bukharin-Zinoviev-foreign-spy-diversionist-bourgeois-nationalist-scoundrel-wrecker-traitor-Gestapo-agent hyphenates” has been on such a scale as to make the Mexican hearings largely superfluous. In picturing the long exiled Trotsky as in control of virtually all the leading posts in the army, the GPU, the Party, youth, industry, agriculture and the premierships and party secretaryships of over a score of the autonomous republics of the USSR, Stalin has literally proved too much and reduced the original charges to absurdity.

But this confronts Trotsky with a new dilemma. Throughout the hearings he maintains that the others were being tried and executed merely to make a case against him. Now it is becoming clear that he has been made into a devil largely to make a case against others – leaders of a new opposition which has grown up against Stalin and his methods among his closest supporters. What then happens to Trotsky’s central theory that the entire military and police and party and state machinery were so degenerate that no opposition could any more arise within the Party, and that a new revolution was necessary as the only road to renovation? On this question, both in his testimony at the hearings and in his subsequent utterances on the executions, Trotsky is completely silent, for he has no way of squaring his theory with what has long been his central position.

Bertram D. Wolfe

Last updated on 30 October 2014