Friday, 23rd May, 2014
I was recently carrying out research into the Dewey Commission that took place in April 1937. It is a long forgotten event and when I typed in the words “Dewey Commission” at Google I got a short list of relevant pages. Top of the list was of course Wikipedia. When I read the entry I was deeply shocked. In my opinion it had been written from the perspective of a Joseph Stalin apologist. However, if someone did not know too much about the subject, they would be totally unaware of it. As far as I can see there is not one inaccurate fact on the page. It is the information that the entry leaves out that is important.
The Wikipedia entry begins: “The Dewey Commission (officially the "Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials") was initiated in March 1937 by the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. It was named after its chairman, the philosopher John Dewey. Its other members were Carleton Beals, Otto Ruehle, Benjamin Stolberg, and Secretary Suzanne La Follette, Alfred Rosmer, Wendelin Thomas, Edward A. Ross, John Chamberlain, Carlo Tresca, and Francisco Zamora. It was seen by some at the time, as Dewey feared it would be, as a Trotskyist front organization. Following months of investigation, the Dewey Commission made its findings public in New York on September 21, 1937."
Without explaining what Leon Trotsky was accused of in the Moscow Show Trials or the evidence that the Dewey Commission was a “Trotskyist front organization” it immediately goes onto look at the hearings that took place between 10th April to 17th April, 1937.
The man behind the Dewey Commission, the American philosopher, Sidney Hook, is not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry. It is this omission that reveals the lack of objectivity in the article. Hook later explained that the Show Trials of 1936 and 1937 shocked and angered him. "The Moscow Trials were also a decisive turning point in my own intellectual and political development. I discovered the face of radical evil - as ugly and petrifying as anything the Fascists had revealed up to that time - in the visages of those who were convinced that they were men and women of good will. Although I had been severely critical of the political program of the Soviet Union under Stalin, I never suspected that he and the Soviet regime were prepared to violate every fundamental norm of human decency that had been woven into the texture of civilized life. It taught me that any conception of socialism that rejected the centrality of moral values was only an ideological disguise for totalitarianism. The upshot of the Moscow Trials affected my epistemology, too. I had been prepared to recognize that understanding the past was in part a function of our need to cope with the present and future, that rewriting history was in a sense a method of making it. But the realization that such a view easily led to the denial of objective historical truth, to the cynical view that not only is history written by the survivors but that historical truth is created by the survivors - which made untenable any distinction between historical fiction and truth - led me to rethink some aspects of my objective relativism. Because nothing was absolutely true and no one could know the whole truth about anything, it did not follow that it was impossible to establish any historical truth beyond a reasonable doubt. Were this to be denied, the foundations of law and society would ultimately collapse. Indeed, any statement about anything may have to be modified or withdrawn in the light of additional evidence, but only on the assumption that the additional evidence has not been manufactured."
As Hook explained in Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The charges against the defendants were mind-boggling. They had allegedly plotted and carried out the assassination of Kirov on December 1, 1934, and planned the assassination of Stalin and his leading associates - all under the direct instructions of Trotsky. This, despite their well-known Marxist convictions concerning the untenability of terrorism as an agency of social change. Further, they had conspired with Fascist powers, notably Hitler's Germany and Imperial Japan, to dismember the Soviet Union, in exchange for the material services rendered by the Gestapo. In order to allay the suspicion flowing from the Roman insight that no man suddenly becomes base, the defendants were charged with having been agents of the British military at the very time they or their comrades were storming the bastions of the Winter Palace. In addition, although the indictment seemed almost anticlimactic after the foregoing, they were accused of sabotaging the five-year plans in agriculture and industry by putting nails and glass in butter, inducing erysipelas in pigs, wrecking trains, etc."
Sidney Hook went on to argue: "Despite the enormity of these offenses, all the defendants in the dock confessed to them with eagerness and at times went beyond the excoriations of the prosecutor in defaming themselves. This spectacular exercise in self-incrimination, unaccompanied by any expression of defiance or asseveration of basic principles, was unprecedented in the history of any previous Bolshevik political trial. Equally mystifying was the absence of any significant material evidence. Although there were references to several letters of Trotsky, allegedly giving specific instructions to the defendants to carry out their nefarious deeds, none was introduced into evidence. The most substantial piece of evidence was the Honduran passport of an individual who claimed to be an intermediary between Trotsky and the other defendants, which was presumably procured through the good offices of the Gestapo, although it was common knowledge that such passports could be purchased by anyone from Honduran consuls in Europe for a modest sum."
Hook was disturbed by the way liberals reacted to the Moscow Show Trials. He compared this to the way that they behaved in response to events in Nazi Germany. Most journalists covering the trial were convinced that the confessions were statements of truth. The Observer reported: "It is futile to think the trial was staged and the charges trumped up. The government's case against the defendants (Zinoviev and Kamenev) is genuine." The The New Statesman commented: "Very likely there was a plot. We complain because, in the absence of independent witnesses, there is no way of knowing. It is their (Zinoviev and Kamenev) 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 would be glad to hear the explanation."
Walter Duranty was the New York Times journalist based in Moscow. He wrote in the The New Republic that while watching the trial he came to the conclusion "that the confessions are true". Based on these comments the editor of the journal argued: "Some commentators, writing at a long distance from the scene, profess doubt that the executed men (Zinoviev and Kamenev) were guilty. It is suggested that they may have participated in a piece of stage play for the sake of friends or members of their families, held by the Soviet government as hostages and to be set free in exchange for this sacrifice. We see no reason to accept any of these laboured hypotheses, or to take the trial in other than its face value. Foreign correspondents present at the trial pointed out that the stories of these sixteen defendants, covering a series of complicated happenings over nearly five years, corroborated each other to an extent that would be quite impossible if they were not substantially true. The defendants gave no evidence of having been coached, parroting confessions painfully memorized in advance, or of being under any sort of duress."
We now know, Duranty, who amazingly won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Soviet Union, was under the control of Joseph Stalin, and was able to use his position as America's senior correspondent in Moscow, to cover up the truth concerning the Great Purge. As Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990) has pointed out: "As for the number of resulting casualties from the Great Purge, Duranty's estimates, which encompassed the years from 1936 to 1939, fell considerably short of other sources, a fact he himself admitted. Whereas the number of Party members arrested is usually put at just above one million, Duranty's own estimate was half this figure, and he neglected to mention that of those exiled into the forced labor camps of the GULAG, only a small percentage ever regained their freedom, as few as 50,000 by some estimates. As to those actually executed, reliable sources range from some 600,000 to one million, while Duranty maintained that only about 30,000 to 40,000 had been killed."
James William Crowl, the author of Angels in Stalin's Paradise (1982 has argued: "Although Louis Fischer reserved judgment on the trials, Duranty vigorously defended them. According to him, Trotsky had created a spy network at the very time that Germany and Japan were spreading their own spy organizations in Russia. He explained that the two groups shared a hatred for Stalin, and fascist agents had cooperated with the Trotskyites in Kirov's assassination. The show-trials, Duranty insisted, had revealed the Trotskyite-fascist link beyond question. The trials showed just as clearly, he argued (on 14th July, 1937), that Stalin's arrest of thousands of these agents had spared the country from a wave of assassinations. Duranty charged that those who worried about the rights of the defendants or claimed that their confessions had been gained by drugs or torture, only served the interests of Germany and Japan."
Sidney Hook, who had little sympathy for Trotskyists as a group, believing that they "were capable of doing precisely what I suspected the Stalinists of doing - if not on the same scale, at least in the same spirit. It was indeed ironical to find the Trotskyists, victims of the philosophy of dictatorship they had preached for years, blossoming out as partisans of democracy and tolerance." However, Hook believed that Leon Trotsky should be given political asylum in the United States: "The right to asylum was integral to the liberal tradition from the days of antiquity. It was shocking to find erstwhile liberals, still resolutely engaged in defending the right of asylum for victims of Nazi terror, either opposed or indifferent to the rights of asylum for victims of Stalin's terror. Of course more than the right of asylum was involved. There was the question of truth about the Russian Revolution itself."
Hook persuaded Freda Kirchwey, Norman Thomas, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, Franz Boas, John Chamberlain, Carlo Tresca, James T. Farrell, Benjamin Stolberg and Suzanne La Follette to join a group that might establish a committee to look into the claims made during the Moscow Show Trials. Hook believed that the best place to hold the investigation was in Mexico City where Trotsky was living in exile and the ideal person to head the commission was his close friend, the philosopher, John Dewey.
As Jay Martin, the author of The Education of John Dewey (2002), has pointed out: "The leaders of the American committee... realized that a tribunal consisting entirely of Trotsky sympathizers could scarcely achieve credibility on the international stage. What they needed was a group, and especially a chairman, who had an international reputation for fairness and whose integrity could be accepted by liberals, Soviet sympathizers, and intellectuals everywhere. Encouraged by the socialist philosopher Sidney Hook, their hopes soon fastened on Hook's dissertation adviser, the seventy-eight-year-old John Dewey, as the best possible choice for chair. After all, Dewey had been celebrated in the Soviet Union when he went there in 1928 and had been asked by the Socialist Party to run on their ticket for governor of New York. But he was quoted every week or so in the moderate New York Times; he was invited to the White House for dinner; he was the friend of powerful capitalists."
Hook was aware that Dewey had been working on Logic: The Theory of Inquiry for the last ten years and was desperate to finish the book. Hook later recalled in his autobiography Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987): "The first and most important step of the commission was to appoint a subcommission to travel to Mexico City to take Leon Trotsky's testimony. It was crucial for the success of the commission that John Dewey consent to go, because without him the press and public would have ignored the sessions. It would be easy for the Kremlin to dismiss the work of the others and circulate the false charge that they were handpicked partisans of Trotsky. Only the presence of someone with Dewey's stature would insure world attention to the proceedings. But would Dewey go? And since he was now crowding seventy-nine, should he go? Dewey must go, and I must see to it."
Dewey was warned by family and friends of the dangers of becoming entangled in "this messy business." However, he eventually agreed to carry out the task. Dewey wrote to a friend: "I have spent my whole life searching for truth. It is disheartening that in our own country some liberals have come to believe that for reasons of expediency our own people should be left in the dark as to the actual atrocities in Russia. But truth is not a bourgeois delusion, it is the mainspring of human progress."
Upon hearing that John Dewey was willing to head the commission Leon Trotsky gave a speech transmitted by telephone to a large audience at the New York Hippodrome, stating: "If this commission decides that I am guilty of the crimes which Stalin imputes to me, I pledge to place myself voluntarily in the hands of the executioner of the G.P.U."
The Dewey Commission conducted thirteen hearings at the home of Diego Rivera in Coyoacan, from 10th April to 17th April, 1937, that looked at the claims against Trotsky and his son, Lev Sedov. The commission was made up of Dewey, Suzanne La Follette, Carlo Tresca, Benjamin Stolberg, Carleton Beals, Otto Ruehle, Alfred Rosmer, Wendelin Thomas, Edward A. Ross and John Chamberlain. Dewey invited the Soviet Union government to send documentary material and legal representatives to cross-examine Trotsky. However, they refused to do that and the offer for the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Andrei Troyanovsky, to attend, was also rejected.
John Dewey opened the hearings with the words: "This commission, like many millions of workers of city and country, of hand and brain, believes that no man should be condemned without a chance to defend himself.... The simple fact that we are here is evidence that conscience demands that Mr. Trotsky be not condemned before he has had full opportunity to present whatever evidence is in his possession in reply to the guilty verdict returned in a court where he was neither present nor represented. If Leon Trotsky is guilty of the acts with which he is charged, no condemnation can be too severe."
Leon Trotsky and Lev Sedov were defended by the lawyer Albert Goldman. In his opening speech he argued: "We are determined to convince the members of this commission, and everyone who reads and thinks with an independent mind, beyond all doubt, that Leon Trotsky and his son are guiltless of the monstrous charges made against them." According to Jay Martin: "The commissioners raised various questions about the charges against Trotsky. He answered vigorously, with a remarkable command of detail and capacity for analysis... Despite his heavy accent, Trotsky spoke with exceptional clarity, sometimes even with wit and beauty, and always with impeccable logic."
Wikipedia, interestingly, does not tell the reader how those journals under the control of the American Communist Party, reported on the Dewey Commission. Its newspaper, The Daily Worker, attacked Dewey as a "deluded old man" who was being "duped by the enemies of socialism" and was charged with being "an enemy of peace and progress". An editorial in the New Masses mocked "the so-called impartial inquiry". It added that the "hearings merely presented a rosy picture of Trotsky while blackening the Moscow defendants who implicated him." The Soviet Union government issued a statement describing Dewey as "a philosophical lackey of American imperialism".
Wikipedia does tell us about the resignation of commission member, Carleton Beals. It points out that "Beals subsequently wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post... criticizing the Commission as biased and in the hands of a purely pro-Trotsky clique." It then provides a link to the article that has been posted on a Forum run by RevLeft, that describes itself as "Home of the Revolutionary Left". Once again this is completely true. Beals did resign and wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post: "I was unable to put my seal of approval on the work of our commission in Mexico. I did not wish my name used merely as a sounding board for the doctrines of Trotsky and his followers. Nor did I care to participate in the work of the larger organization, whose methods were not revealed to me, the personnel of which was still a mystery to me. Doubtless, considerable information will be scraped together. But if the commission in Mexico is an example, the selection of the facts will be biased, and their interpretation will mean nothing if trusted to a purely pro-Trotsky clique."
In the article Beals made no attempt to defend the case made against Trotsky at the Moscow Show Trials. Instead he concentrated on stating his belief that Trotsky had been in contact with the people found guilty and executed in Moscow: "I decided to jump into the arena once more with a line of questioning to show Trotsky's secret relations with the Fourth International, the underground contacts with various groups in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. Trotsky, of course, had steadfastly denied having had any contacts whatsoever, save for half a dozen letters, with persons of groups in Russia since about 1930. This was hard to swallow."
Beals also accused Leon Trotsky of having an unreasonable hatred of Joseph Stalin: "His mind is a vast repository of memory and passion, its rapier like sharpness dulled a trifle now by the alternating years of overweening power and the shattering bitterness of defeat and exile; above all, his mental faculties are blurred by a consuming lust of hate for Stalin, a furious uncontrollable venom which has its counterpart in something bordering on a persecution complex - all who disagree with him are bunched in the simple formula of G.P.U. agents... This is not the first time that the feuds of mighty men have divided and shaken empires, although, possibly, Trotsky shakes the New York intelligentsia far more than he does the Soviet Union."
The disturbing aspect of this Wikipedia entry is that Beals comments are not questioned. In fact, it is the only opinion that is expressed on the page. Nothing is said about Beals's background. According to Sidney Hook, Beals was under the control of the Soviet Union and resigned in an attempt to undermine the findings of the Dewey Commission. Beals later admitted: "My resignation went in the next morning. Dewey accused me of prejudging the case. This was false. I was merely passing judgment on the commission. He declared that I had not been inhibited in my questioning. He declared that I had the privilege of bringing in a minority report. My resignation was my minority report. How could I judge the guilt or innocence of Mr. Trotsky, if the commission's investigations were a fraud?"
Anyone who read Wikipedia's entry would get the impression that the Dewey Commission was a "pro-Trotsky clique" and that the report published in September 1937 was of little value. With the opening up of the KGB archives we now know that the Dewey report was a very accurate account of what what had been going on in the Soviet Union. Published its findings in the form of a 422-page book entitled Not Guilty. Its conclusions asserted the innocence of all those condemned in the Moscow Show Trials. In its summary the commission wrote: "We find that Trotsky never instructed any of the accused or witnesses in the Moscow trials to enter into agreements with foreign powers against the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he has always uncompromisingly advocated the defense of the USSR. He has also been a most forthright ideological opponent of the fascism represented by the foreign powers with which he is accused of having conspired. On the basis of all the evidence we find that Trotsky never recommended, plotted, or attempted the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. On the contrary, he has always uncompromisingly opposed the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and its existence anywhere else.... We therefore find the Moscow Trials to be frame-ups. We therefore find Trotsky and Sedov not guilty".
However, historians did not have to wait until the 1990s when files in the KGB archives were released to know how the confessions, that had convinced western journalists that their had been a Trotsky-Nazi-Western conspiracy against Stalin, were obtained. In 1937, two senior officers in the NKVD fled to the United States. Walter Krivitsky and Alexander Orlov, had both been involved in obtaining false confessions from Bolshevik leaders.
The two men explained to the FBI that in July 1936 Nikolai Yezhov told Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, the first two senior Bolsheviks accused of being involved in the Trotsky inspired plot against Stalin, that their children would be charged with being part of the conspiracy and would face execution if found guilty. The two men now agreed to co-operate at the trial if Stalin promised to spare their lives. At a meeting with Stalin, Kamenev told him that they would agree to co-operate on the condition that none of the old-line Bolsheviks who were considered the opposition and charged at the new trial would be executed, that their families would not be persecuted, and that in the future none of the former members of the opposition would be subjected to the death penalty. Stalin replied: "That goes without saying!"
This strategy was used against all the other Bolshevik leaders that appeared in the Moscow Show Trials. If they agreed to confess, their trails were held in public. If they refused, they were shot without a trial. What is more, Stalin did not keep his promise, whenever possible, he killed the wives and children of the executed men. At the end of the Great Purge he ordered the elimination of all those NKVD officers who had organised and carried out these executions. Stalin's attempt to cover-up his crimes ended in failure. Well, not completely, it seems some people at Wikipedia are still under his control.
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