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Leon Trotsky and the Dewey Commission
(part 1 of 3)

Whenever I describe some of the activities of the Russian Communists that Dewey approved of in 1929, a respondent tries to salvage Dewey’s fast fading reputation with an argument involving Leon Trotsky.

Before we get to his argument, recall that Trotsky was one of the three major figures in the Red Terror:

Vladimir Lenin  (1870-1924)

  • Bolshevik revolutionary, leader of communist revolution of 1917.
  • Soviet premier 1917-24.

    Leon Trotsky  (1879-1940)

  • Bolshevik revolutionary, Commissar of War under Lenin 1918-24.
  • Deported 1929.
  • Tried in absentia 1937 as Stalin consolidated his power.
  • Assassinated by Soviet agents 1940.

    Joseph Stalin  (1879-1953)

  • General secretary of the Communist Party 1922-53.
  • Soviet premier 1941-53.

    In my words here is the respondent’s argument, with some added historical background:

    In 1936-1937 Stalin, as part of his purge of Russian leaders who he thought might oppose him, accused most of the original Bolsheviks of plotting to assassinate him, industrial sabotage, spying for foreign governments, and other treasons.  There were 18 charges in all against Trotsky.  (One charge which the respondent leaves out:  killing masses of Russian workers — the Stalin pot calling the Trotsky kettle black.)

    Trotsky, having already been deported some years before, avoided arrest and attending trial, which was as phony as the other purge trials.

    The “American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky” elected Dewey honorary chairman, and then asked him to chair a preliminary commission to investigate Stalin’s charges.  The commission, held in Mexico where Trotsky was living, deliberated for one week in 1937, giving Trotsky a forum to defend himself. [Footnote 1.]  Back in the U.S. Dewey chaired the final commission, which found Trotsky innocent of all charges, saying the Moscow trials were a frame-up. [2]

    As a result, apologists for the Soviet Union changed from praising Dewey to vilifying him for defending Trotsky.

    Therefore, the respondent argues, we can just ignore all the admiring things Dewey said about Russia from 1917 to the early 1930s.

    There are at least three fallacies in this argument.  Two of these are obvious, one requires a little historical background.

    Fallacy 1:  The fact that some Communists hated Dewey after his defense of Trotsky, is relevant to Dewey’s character.

    Reply:  Just because a bad guy hates X is not much evidence that X is good.

    What went on in the twisted minds of the Communists is irrelevant to our judgment of Dewey.  The Nazis hated the communists, therefore the communists were good — is the same argument.

    Fallacy 2:  Confine the argument to personalities.

    On the contrary, we should address what, if anything, Dewey admired in the Soviet system, not whether he liked, or was liked by, Communists.

    Fallacy 3:  Trotsky was worthy of being defended.

    It’s this last which requires a little historical research.  We need to consider Trotsky’s career prior to his losing favor with the regime he helped set up.

    I have before me the book Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary by Robert Wistrich, Library of Congress cat. no. DK254.T6 W57.  It contains many quotes from Trotsky’s books and articles translated into English.  I paraphrase Mr. Wistrich, and repeat Trotsky verbatim.  I start with Trotsky’s theory and end with his practice.

    THEORY — Here’s Trotsky in 1920:

    “We are for regulated labor on the basis of an economic plan, obligatory for the whole people and consequently compulsory for each worker in the country.  Without this we cannot even dream of a transition to socialism ... [O]bligation and, consequently, compulsion are essential conditions for overcoming bourgeois anarchy, securing socialization of the means of production and labor, and reconstructing economic life on the basis of a single plan.” [3]

    At an assembly of Bolshevik trade unionists in April 1920 Trotsky asked rhetorically:  “Is it true that forced labor is always unproductive?”  and went on (he, or the translator, uses “liberal” in the now old fashioned sense):

    “That is the most wretched, vulgar liberal prejudice;  even chattel slavery was productive ...  Forced labor did not grow out of the feudal lords’ ill-will.  It was a progressive [that is, a wave of the future] phenomena.” [4]

    At the tenth Party Congress in March 1921 Trotsky said that

    “the revolutionary historical birthright of the party” was obliged to maintain its dictatorship “regardless of temporary vacillations in the elemental moods of the masses.” [5]

    Trotsky believed the Party’s interest was working class interest.  In his book Terrorism and Communism, composed aboard his armored train — Trotsky was War Commissar at the time — he wrote:

    “In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all.  The communists express the fundamental interests of the working class.”
    And as long as “class society” exists,
    “repression remains a necessary means of breaking the will of the opposing side.” [6]

    According to Trotsky, state terror is justified if it hastens the destruction of the bourgeoisie (landlords, shopkeepers, manufacturers, etc.).  The form of repression is just “a question of expedience” and is directed against “a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations.”  Trotsky continues:

    Intimidation is a powerful weapon of policy, both internationally and internally.  War, like revolution, is founded upon intimidation.  A victorious war, generally speaking, destroys only an insignificant part of the conquered army, intimidating the remainder and breaking their will.  The revolution works in the same way: it kills individuals and intimidates thousands ...  The State terror of a revolutionary class can be condemned ‘morally’ only by a man who, on principle, rejects (in words) every form of violence whatsoever. ...  For this, one has to be merely and simply a hypocritical Quaker.” [7]

    PRACTICE — Trotsky acted as he wrote above.  He helped set up forced labor camps, revamp the czarist Cheka secret police to Bolshevik ends, instigate the Red Terror:  mass executions of people based on their class origins and beliefs.

    When the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base demanded freedom of speech and of the press for workers, peasants, anarchists, and socialist parties, free elections, liberation of political prisoners, and review of the cases of all held in prisons and labor camps, Trotsky denounced the uprising as a counter-revolutionary White Guard plot, and delivered the following ultimatum to the insurgents on March 5, 1921:

    “Only those who surrender unconditionally may count on the mercy of the Soviet Republic ...  I am issuing orders to prepare to quell the mutiny ... by force of arms.  Responsibility for the harm that may be suffered by the peaceful population will fall entirely upon the heads of the counter-revolutionary mutineers.  This warning is final.” [8]

    The rebels ignored this.  In his capacity as War Commissar, Trotsky ordered his shock troops to put down the up-rising on March 8, 1921.

    This is just one of countless examples of Trotsky’s tactics.

    Mr. Wistrich concludes (now quoting Mr. Wistrich): “all Trotsky’s broadsides against the ‘moralizing Philistines’ cannot alter his own complicity in the ruthless suppression of opposition — not only from the ‘bourgeoisie’ [landlords, shopkeepers, manufacturers, etc.] — but also from the Mensheviks, the SRs, the Workers’ Opposition [competing Marxist and anarchist groups] ... in the early years of Soviet power.”

    This is the thug Dewey never once denounced.  The extent of Dewey’s criticism was that Trotsky’s political philosophy was “pre-conceived.”

    The Dewey Commission, as it was informally known, whitewashed Trotsky, making him out as innocent victim of Stalin — instead of his partner in slaughter.

    To those who point out Dewey’s participation in the Trotsky hearings, and his vilification by some Lenin/Stalin apologists:

    1.  This doesn’t make Dewey’s book Impressions of Soviet Russia disappear.
    2.  The hearings are even more evidence against Dewey’s judgment and character.

    It’s true that by 1937 Dewey, along with many other intellectuals, had come to realize that Soviet Russia was a disaster. George Dykhuizen (see “An Admiring Account” on this website) quotes him as saying later that year:   “The dictatorship of the proletariat has led and, I am convinced, always must lead to a dictatorship over the proletariat and over the party.”  (He would have done better to stop before “and over the party” — the party was the problem.)  This is a vast improvement from 1929.  However, he never renounced what he admired about the Soviets in 1929, and indeed what he wrote then is consistent with his political and educational philosophy.

    [1] “The Case of Leon Trotsky: Report of hearings by the Preliminary Commission of Inquiry into the charges made against him in the Moscow trials.”  The complete transcript can be found at
    http://Marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1937/dewey .
    For a biased overview gushing with praise of Trotsky, see the page
    [2] “Not Guilty: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”
    [3] Tretii Syezd Profsoynzov, April 6-13, 1920  (I merely repeat Mr. Wistrich’s footnotes here and below.)
    [4] ditto
    [5] Desyaty Syezd RKP (b), Moscow 1921, pp. 350-1
    [6] Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, included in The Basic Writings of Trotsky I. Howe, ed., 1963, p. 142
    [7] ditto, p. 146
    [8] Sochenineniya p 518. See also Paul Aurich Kronstadt 1921

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