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On Grover Furr and the Moscow Trials

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On Grover Furr and the Moscow Trials


Grover Furr spoke on March 8 at the Center of Marxist Education in Cambridge, MA on his book, "Khrushchev Lied." A shortened remarks were delivered in response to reading two of Grover Furr's  articles purporting to prove that both Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin did in fact collaborate with foreign imperialist powers and lead a conspiracy of wreckers and assassins to murder high-ranking Soviet leaders and restore capitalism in the USSR. The full remarks of my response to Furr are printed below.


"The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence.”

-Nikolai Bukharin

Professor Furr, I want to thank you for coming to the Center for Marxist Education today and for delivering your talk. The question, or rather the questions, I would like to ask you do not deal directly with your book, “Khrushchev Lied”, but with two long essays written for the journal Cultural Logic, the first entitled  Stephen Cohen's Biography of Bukharin: A Study in the Falsehood of Khrushchev-Era 'Revelations'" and “ Evidence of Leon Trotsky's Collaboration with Germany and Japan. It is your contention in the former essay that “The evidence we possess today is consistent with only one hypothesis: that Bukharin was, in fact, guilty of those crimes to which he himself confessed. However, some people will say that Bukharin might still have been innocent, or even that he must be innocent, despite this fact.”1 In the latter essay you make the following claim, “Given the evidence available today there is only one objective conclusion: our hypothesis has been confirmed. On the evidence we are forced to conclude that Leon Trotsky did collaborate with Germans and Japanese officials to help him return to power in the Soviet Union.”2 After closely reading your works on these questions and a number of primary and secondary sources, I believe would like to raise the following objections to your arguments and would be most interested in your reply to them.


Firstly, if the verdicts at the Moscow Trials were correct, then a vast conspiracy of a number of Soviet government officials, party members (current and former), and military leaders was in league with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Polish intelligence, and British intelligence. However, no evidence has come to light from the archives of any of these countries to substantiate these extraordinary claims. For instance, historians and scholars have been working in the archives of Nazi Germany for decades and found nothing to prove the existence of a vast conspiracy.


You claim that the Trotsky archives contain evidence of a bloc in 1932 with Riutin and Zinoviev (along with other elements of the former right opposition). And that this is confirmed by the archival evidence of J Arch Getty and Pierre Broue. However, neither makes the claim that the bloc contemplated terrorist or wrecking activities. Nor does any of the available evidence support that. In fact, the evidence supports the conclusion that this bloc broke up in May 1933 after “Zinoviev and Kamenev had capitulated to Stalin, recanted their sins and repledged their loyalty to the Stalinist faction. Their departure from opposition embittered Trotsky. In a 23 May article he described the two as pitiful, tragic, and subservient. On 6 July he railed against them once again and denounced their capitulation in strong terms. The leaders (if not the lower workers) of the bloc were gone. Both of Trotsky's non-public strategies were now in ruins.”3


However, that Trotsky had underground followers does not confirm that he was working with Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. The question here is not who Trotsky was in touch with, but if in fact he was engaged in espionage with a foreign power. The evidence does not support such a conclusion.

And it is certainly true that Trotsky was opposed to the political line of Stalin. No one would deny such a thing. And it is true that he maintained contacts within the USSR. It can certainly be argued that Trotsky's line was wrong and would have potentially been disastrous to the USSR if implemented. Let that be conceded for the sake of argument. However, all that being said, a poor political line does not make one a spy. Political opposition is not synonymous with treason and collaboration with fascist or imperialist powers. While you do acknowledge that there is no physical evidence for the conspiracy, you claim that the “absence of evidence is only “evidence of absence” when evidence should indeed be present. We believe that the single most likely reason is simply that no one should expect a conspiracy like this to be documented anywhere, ever, much less “in archives.” The demands of secrecy and security require that such information be exchanged only by word of mouth.”4 In my opinion, this does not hold water for the following reason:


Every conspiracy that has existed has left behind a paper trail of one sort or another (ex. The Wannsee Conference which organized the Holocaust, Watergate, Iran-contra, etc), despite their best efforts to remain secret, with various types of documentation which prove their existence (memos, receipts, reports, etc.). Your position is that Bukharin, Trotsky, and the various co-conspirators in their alleged anti-Soviet activities managed to leave behind absolutely no evidence of any sort. This would make them the first conspiracy in history that managed this incredible feat.


It is your contention that the confessions of the various defendants at the Soviet trials during the 1930s are valid and should serve as proof. However, during these trials, no corroborating evidence of any kind was introduced to substantiate the claims of the defendants. A confession without supporting corroborating evidence raises the immediate question that the accused were coerced in one form or another to incriminate themselves.

You claim that the confession are valid because "There is no evidence worthy of the name that the defendants were threatened, or tortured, or induced to give false confessions by promises of some kind."5 However, we know from declassified Soviet Archives, such as those compiled by a scholar, who's work you have consistently praised, J Arch Getty in a collection entitled The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (referenced in the following four notes) prove the existence of varying methods of coercion in the Soviet judicial system such as the following:

-Arrest Quotas for suspects (p. 471-76, Document 170).


-NKVD instructions for watching and punishing families of suspects (p. 477, Document 170)


-Various forms of solitary confinement. (p. 3)


-Torture (p. 489)


It remains for reasonable people to doubt the validity of confessions in a judicial system which practices such methods. In fact, I would go so far as to say that such methods are in contradiction to communist ethics and morality. The presumption of guilt based on confessions without substantiating evidence, the threatening of families of suspects cannot be defended as a valid communist practice in matters of interrogation or law. Our goal as communist should not be to uphold such methods and the fruits which come from them, but to denounce them.


Let us now turn to the case of Nikolai Bukharin and the validity of his confessions.


That being said, we have no evidence that Bukharin was tortured before his trial. Neither you nor his biographer Stephen Cohen make that claim. Rather the claim is that Bukharin held out for three months while imprisoned until his wife and newborn son were threatened (Cohen, p. 375). This alone should make us doubt the validity of Bukharin's confessions.


Furthermore, at Bukharin's trial according to Cohen, he would claim to be fully “'political responsibility' for everything, thereby saving his family...while at the same time flatly denying or subtly disproving his complicity in any actual crime.”6 We do know that Bukharin wrote to Stalin asking for mercy. It stands to reason that perhaps Bukharin expected that by confessing, he would gain some measure of leniency.


While it can be reasonably argued that those placed on trial were not tortured, in fact Stephen Cohen, biographer of Bukharin does not claim he was tortured. However, Cohen argues that Bukharin did not confess until his family was threatened. While you claim that Bukharin did indeed confess to specific crimes, a contention shared with Cohen and confirmed by the trial transcript, I ask the following:


-Bukharin denied his involvement in a plot to kill Bolshevik leaders in 1918-9.-He flatly denied any involvement in espionage activities.


-He denied discussing wrecking activities with the co-defendants.And what are we to make of the March 11, 1938 closing statement of Soviet Prosecutor-General Vshinsky that "Bukharin shrinks from the admission of his guilt as the devil from incense. Bukharin denies his guilt here."7


What should we conclude from this statement? Judging by all the methods employed, the lack of corroborating evidence, this leads me to not merely to doubt as to the validity of the proceeding, but a conclusion that the said defendants were in fact innocent.


All of these statements and facts lead me to conclude not only was there no vast conspiracy of Bukharin and Trotsky in league with foreign powers, but that both Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky were in fact innocent of the crimes in which they were accused of during the 1930s trials.

1 Grover Furr and Vladimir L. Bobrov,”Stephen Cohen’s Biography of Bukharin:

A Study in the Falsehood of Khrushchev-Era “Revelations,”” p. 94.

2 Grover Furr, “Evidence of Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan” p.165.


3 J. Arch Getty, “Trotsky in Exile: The Founding of the Fourth International” Soviet Studies, 38.1 (Jan., 1986): 31. See also Pierre Broué,The “Bloc” of the Oppositions against Stalin
in the USSR in 1932,”


“Evidence of Leon Trotsky’s Collaboration with Germany and Japan” (note 2) p. 30-31.


Ibid. p. 43.


Stephen Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 376.


7 Robert C Tucker and Stephen Cohen, ed. The Great Purge Trial (New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers,1965), 521.



"Study because we will need all your intelligence.
Agitate because we will need all your enthusiasm.
Organize because we will need all your strength."

-the motto of the first issue of L'Ordine Nuovo the Italian revolutionary left newspaper organized by communist leader Antonio Gramsci in 1919.


  • I would like to make two points. First, "Every conspiracy that has existed has left behind a paper trail of one sort or another" is more properly, every conspiracy that we know of. It is possible that conspiracies existed which did not leave a paper trail, and that is why they have remained undetected. This is a small quibble, however, because it would be impossible for a conspiracy of the scope alleged to have existed to have done so without leaving behind physical traces. Only a small conspiracy could exist without leaving detectable traces. The one alleged here was so vast, that even assuming the Nazis successfully destroyed all of their documents, they would have appeared in Japanese and Italian archives.

    The other point I would like to make is that confessions are virtually worthless, unless supported by corroborating evidence. In our own country, we see again and again false confessions, even when coercion wasn't used, and isn't alleged to have been used. A skilled interrogator can twist you up and turn you around so much you'll confess to something you didn't do, and know you didn't do. This is why you always need a lawyer when dealing with the police.

  • Guest - Jim Farmelant

    I would second Chegitz's points. I would also add since the conspiracy that Stalin alleged that Trotsky and Bukharin had been involved in was supposed to have involved their consorting with officials of the German and Japanese governments, we would have expected that at least some of those officials would have confessed to their involvement after the Second World War. At the very least, one would have expected at least some of those officials to have discussed the matter in their memoirs. The lack of any such admissions is quite telling IMO.

  • Guest - Daniel

    Alexander Zinoviev in 1993: "I was already a confirmed anti-Stalinist at the age of seventeen... The idea of killing Stalin filled my thoughts and feelings… We studied the 'technical' possibilities of an attack… We even practiced. If they had condemned me to death in 1939, their decision would have been just…When Stalin was alive, I saw things differently, but as I look back over this century, I can state that Stalin was the greatest individual of this century, the greatest political genius."

    Lenin on Bukharin: "This is just the basic theoretical failure of Gen. Bukharin, the replacement of the dialectic of Marxism by the eclecticism (which is particularly widespread among the authors of the various "fashionable" and reactionary philosophical systems).

    Gen. Bukharin speaks of "logical" reasons. His whole argument shows that he here – perhaps unconsciously – to the point of view of the formal or scholastic logic, but not the dialectical or Marxist logic.

    He approaches without the slightest concrete study, with mere abstractions and takes a piece of Zinoviev a piece of Leon Trotsky. This is eclecticism." From V. I. Lenin Selected Works in 6 Volumnes, Volume 6, between pages 104-107.

    Bukharin and Trotsky, Lenin declared, "actually helped the German imperialists and hindered the growth and development of the revolution in Germany." (Lenin, Collected Works, Russ. ed., Vol. XXII, p. 307.)

  • I don't understand this comment. What does Zinoviev's late-in-life quote have to do with Trotsky or Bukharin?

  • Guest - Daniel

    Zinoviev had no reason to confess in 1993 unless he wished to tell the truth. Comrade Lenin has sufficiently trashed Trotsky's bourgeois ideology, as well as that of Bukharin and Zinoviev, for those who will read his works non-selectively. He has gone into great detail about the un-dialectical methods of Trotsky, Bukharin, and Zinoviev. This non-dialectical attempt at "socialism" inevitably leads to outright anti-communism.

  • I also have to agree with chegitz guevara's two points. I have lawyers in my family and they have told me that the worst kind of evidence is an eye-witness account. Confessions probably come at a close second because they are not evidence at all. They are merely personalized accounts of what individuals want to tell others they saw. They are nothing compared to concrete evidence. Truly lawyers are good to have when they are not on the side of the police. I would say that lawyers would still need to be used in socialist states.

  • Guest - Ismail

    1. The Bukharin quote is taken out of context. This is the full paragraph: "The point, of course, is not this repentance, or my personal repentance in particular. The Court can pass its verdict without it. The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence. But here we also have the internal demolition of the forces of counter-revolution. And one must be a Trotsky not to lay down one's arms."

    In other words, what was occurring was not an individual "heretic" asked to confess his "sins" and get burned at the stake, but a trial in which various defendants not only gave individual testimonies, but were called upon to confirm and/or clarify the testimony of their co-defendants, while all of them explained in considerable detail how they carried out that which they were being charged with. Bukharin's guilt wasn't based on what he said, it was based on the whole proceedings of the trial.

    2. Physical evidence was presented at the trials. To quote myself elsewhere:

    "From Soviet Policy and Its Critics by J.R. Campbell, 1939, pp. 262-263, discussing the second trial:

    'There were the Experts Committee of three, which showed that some of the explosions could not have occurred accidentally. Further, letters that Knyazev, a prominent railway official concerned in wrecking, had received from Japanese agents and had omitted to destroy, were found amongst his personal effects and were identified at the trial.

    The diary of the accused Stroilov, who had been blackmailed by German Secret Service agents into engaging in espionage and sabotage, was produced and was found to contain their telephone numbers, which were checked and confirmed by the appropriate telephone directory.

    The movements of the German agents mentioned in the trial were confirmed by the production of official records of their arrival. Their identity photographs were produced, and the accused Stroilov picked them out from a number of other photographs.'

    During that trial Radek claimed that he had been receiving letters from Trotsky in the early 30s, but had burned them afterwards for obvious security reasons. When Trotsky's archives at Harvard opened up in the 80s J. Arch Getty confirmed that he did maintain contact with Radek and some others but that, 'Unlike virtually all Trotsky's other letters (including even the most sensitive) no copies of these remain the Trotsky Papers. It seems likely that they have been removed from the Papers at some time. Only the certified mail receipts remain. At his 1937 trial, Karl Radek testified that he had received a letter from Trotsky containing 'terrorist instructions', but we do not know whether this was the letter in question.'"

    3. There is no evidence that the defendants in the Moscow Trials were tortured. That torture was used in many other cases across the land is common knowledge, but it makes little sense to automatically assume that because the activity of local NKVD units was generally injudicious (Robert Thurston once wrote of how "the head of the [Leninsk-Kuznetsk] NKVD, another police officer, and a procurator had cooperated in 'exposing' a counterrevolutionary organization of children between the ages of ten and twelve" before they themselves were placed in the dock after the Yezhovschina and admitted they had no evidence) this means that the Moscow Trials defendants must have been tortured, or can even assumed to have been tortured, because of what happened in areas not under the direct purview of Stalin or any other central authority. Furthermore the "Arrest Quotas for suspects" (including family bit) you mention was issued on July 30, 1937, in other words after the first and second trials.

    @Patrick, Vyshinsky was a lawyer (who, as Thurston and others have noted, actually had a reputation in the mid-30s against arbitrariness), as was American Ambassador Davies who saw little to complain about in regards to legal procedure.

  • Guest - mike ely

    On Chegitz's point: It is true, of course, that it is theoretically possible to have conspiracies that leave no paper trail. We don't know about those conspiracies that were successfully hushed up. And "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

    However.... absence of evidence CAN be a damning refutation of particular conspiracies.

    In this case, the Soviet government position was quite detailed:

    It is that the existing political oppositions within the Soviet party had:
    1) become active agents of German and Japanese imperialism, and the reactionary Polish government too (taking money, taking orders etc.)
    2) That their political plan was to facilitate German and Japanese victory and the dividing up of the Soviet Union.
    3) That they had created and then led a vast conspiracy of saboteurs, assassins, and agents reaching from the central committee down to the local levels.

    The accusations included long lists of specific acts and accusations.

    And in such a specific, elaborate and countrywide conspiracy (which was supposedly under the command and pay of specific intelligence agencies) it is inconceivable that there should not be a paper trail of many kinds (and a money trail). Thousands of people were arrested (and executed) for being the agents of this plot... without the credible recovery of its directives, internal documents, etc. The archives of the warring powers have been laid bare. (So for example, we can read detailed scholarship of the conspiracy to kill all Jews -- learning what was written down, and what was confined to the presumed oral communications of "plausible denial")

    But nothing comparable exists for this "vast conspiracy" -- because it doesn't exist.

    Obviously the Germans, Japanese and Poles had intelligence agencies, and networks in the Soviet Union. (That is not in dispute.)

    And just as obviously, Trotsky and bukharin had political followers that formed oppositional movements within the Soviet party. (That too is not in dispute.)

    The issue in dispute is whether the latter was consciously recruited to serve the former.

    Literally the ONLY evidence of this is the elaborate confessions of the people on trial.

    As has been mentioned above: Convictions based solely on confessions are always suspect. But they are particularly suspect when the prisoners have no access to the outside world, no access to the media, when they are facing death sentences, and when their families are capable of being threatened by the prosecution.

    I appreciate that Ismael joins these discussions, and I think the weakness of his arguments shows again the lack of any convincing evidence.

    Just to deal with a few point:

    1) Evidence of political opposition (letters between Radek to Trotsky or whatever) is not sign of a Nazi conspiracy. It is simply sign of political opposition. And (frankly) many of the people defending these trials believe that such political communications a) should be punishable, and b) that they are defacto sign of crime. This suggests a particular kind of mind set (and a disturbing vision of future socialism) that we should steer away from.

    No one questions that there was a political opposition to Stalin. (Stalin and Molotov tried to prevent the formation of ANY organized opposition -- a project that was both deeply damaging to Soviet socialism, and also impossible). Proving (over and over) that there were such oppositions is not evidence that the trials or executions were justified.

    2) On the question of torture:

    No one knows what was done to Bukharin in prison. And the argument on the confessions doesn't REST on the assumption of torture.


    It is disturbing that the Soviet state legalized torture in this period in the interrogation of prisoners. This is a characteristic of witchhunts -- where innocent people seek to escape extreme abuse by fingering others or signing absurd confessions.

    There are different speculations about what motivated the confessions.

    Obviously, Bukharin (if you read his last letter) always hoped to evade execution. And cooperation (in the form of a confession) is part of a plea for clemency. He had been knocked down before, and allowed to return to work and influence -- he had ample reason to hope for survival if he played along.

    Even once it became clear that execution was coming, the defendants had family who were suffering (and who would face prison camps later). Clearly this excerts a great deal of pressure on prisoners to confess. (And it is a second disturbing thing about the Soviet system that they increasingly allowed families to be punished for the "crimes" of individuals within those families -- so that the families of Soviet generals in WW2 were defacto held hostage behind the lines. This is a feudal form of operation that does not belong as part of a socialist and progressive system).

    But really, the dismissal of the trials and the verdicts does not REQUIRE us to know what EXACTLY was done to extract absurd confessions. We can simply observe that they happened. And we can observe that there is zero corroborating evidence for the elaborate and sweeping claims of those confessions.

    Finally: Ismael points to the fact that some people (at that time) believed the confessions and the trials. this is true, including famously the American ambassador. At the time that was significant -- and is a sign of the elaborate and audacious nature of the frame-ups. But now (over seventy years later) the fact of this real-time naivite does not impact our modern judgements.

    Everyone in the world knows that these trials were frame-ups, and that there were not elaborate Nazi networks run out of Trotsky's headquarters and Bukharin's Pravda office. the only people who believe it are those who literally believe ANYTHING that was the official line of the Soviet government. It is a statement of faith, not of analysis.

    And as such, the defense of the trials has two deep problems with it:

    1) It arises from a deep disinterest in fact. It is profoundly anti-materialist in its approach and methodology. It is an attempt to defend a fragile belief system (of mythology and verdicts) that have been eroded and exposed by history.

    2) It is a proclamation of a disturbing set of values: that really sees no problem with the mass arrest and wholesale execution of hundreds of thousands of people -- without evidence and trial. And that is willing to grasp at straws to defend the horrific Yersovschina witchhunts of the late 1930s. the trials of party leaders is the formal justification of the mass arrests of Soviet citizens (aimed above all at the general bureaucracy and republic Party structures). The trials have to be justified to uphold the mass arrests and executions.

    Well it won't work. The mass arrests and executions were a wild witchhunt that raged without control or oversight. (Police literally had a quota of enemies to find -- the ultimate measure of indifference to evidence or justice). And the trials were a fabrication resting on coerced confessions... which (with the hindsight of history) we can see had not a shred of evidence to support it.

    Those are the facts. We need to be clear about them -- so that we can make sure we don't go there again.

  • Guest - Ismail

    1. "Evidence of political opposition (letters between Radek to Trotsky or whatever) is not sign of a Nazi conspiracy. It is simply sign of political opposition. And (frankly) many of the people defending these trials believe that such political communications a) should be punishable, and b) that they are defacto sign of crime."

    Radek spoke of two letters he and Pyatakov received from Trotsky. According to them, Trotsky had two plans of coming to power: the first through "the simultaneous performance of terrorist acts against a number of leaders of the C.P.S.U. and the Soviet government, and of course in the first place against Stalin and his immediate assistants. The second variant, which in Trotsky's opinion was the more probable, was a military defeat. Since, as he said, war was inevitable, and moreover in the very near future—a war in the first place with Germany, and possibly with Japan—the idea therefore was to reach the necessary agreement with the governments of these countries and thus ensure that they would regard the coming to power of the bloc favourably; and that meant obtaining the necessary support to maintain ourselves in power by making a number of concessions to these countries on terms to be agreed upon beforehand." This was just one of the letters described.

    In other words, Radek and Pyatakov were not confessing to "Trotsky sent me a letter that called Stalin a bad man."

    2. "No one knows what was done to Bukharin in prison... Obviously, Bukharin (if you read his last letter) always hoped to evade execution. And cooperation (in the form of a confession) is part of a plea for clemency. He had been knocked down before, and allowed to return to work and influence -- he had ample reason to hope for survival if he played along."

    Stephen Cohen has said that Bukharin could not have been tortured in the Lubyanka.

    That Bukharin didn't want to die is not a surprise. Practically every single defendant at the Trials said in their last pleas to the court that they had now totally changed in their ways and wished for clemency. Humans tend towards survival, after all. But Bukharin confessed (and was named by various other defendants) to involvement in a bloc that carried out the assassination of various officials, planned uprisings and conducted sabotage. "He had been knocked down before" when he headed a right-wing faction within the CPSU, engaging in factionalist activity contrary to party rules. It's not comparable.

    3. "And that is willing to grasp at straws to defend the horrific Yersovschina witchhunts of the late 1930s. the trials of party leaders is the formal justification of the mass arrests of Soviet citizens (aimed above all at the general bureaucracy and republic Party structures). The trials have to be justified to uphold the mass arrests and executions."

    No one is defending the Yezhovschina. To quote Furr, "Under Beria many of the NKVD officers and First Secretaries responsible for thousands of executions and deportations were tried and often executed themselves for executing innocent people and using torture against those arrested. Transcripts of the trials of some of these policemen who used torture have been published. Many people convicted and either imprisoned, deported, or sent to the camps were freed. Beria reportedly said later that he had been called on to 'liquidate the Yezhovshchina.' Stalin told aircraft designer Yakovlev that Yezhov had been executed for killing many innocent people." See:

  • Guest - jouhou

  • My only question is why Grover Furr would be invited to speak anywhere.

  • Guest - Ismail

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    Because the group obviously agrees with Furr?

    He's actually been at quite a few "Stalinist" meetings in the USA and elsewhere.

  • I guess I ask because Doug Greene always struck me as a (mostly) reasonable person. For someone with even a superficial understanding of Marxism to have Furr speak at a Marxist school is like inviting a creationist to speak at the Museum of Natural History.

  • Guest - Ismail

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    For that analogy to work Furr would have to not be (or at the very least not claim to be) a Marxist.

  • You're right. A poor analogy. It would be more something like inviting Alex Rodriguez to speak at Cooperstown on the integrity of baseball.

  • Guest - James Farmelant

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    I think that Doug's stated rationale for engaging Furr was that in the course of his political work he has bumped into more than a few people who buy into the sorts of thing that Furr professes to believe. It'd sad that three-quarters of a century after the events in question occurred there should still be people who swallow Stalin's line on these events but, apparently, that's where we are. It's sad that 150 years after Darwin first published his work there are still many millions of people who are ardent creationists but that is the case too. Since someone like Furr presents his views in the guise of disinterested scholarship it is good that there is someone like Doug Greene who has the patience to critically examine and deconstruct this "scholarship."

  • I should mention that Furr was on Marxmail for a while. When he refused (or proved incapable) of writing about anything except Stalin, I had to remove him. As a moderator with immoderate tendencies, I am much more on the lookout for boredom than anything else. If Furr had only been capable of discussing film or ecology once in a while, he'd still be subbed. This was around the time that the editor of Cultural Logic unsubbed in anger because I had removed Furr. It was there that his very long article on Trotsky's guilt appeared. The editor was a very bright and well-meaning fellow but had a blind spot on this nonsense.

  • It is precisely like asking a creationist to speak at a Museum of Natural History (including because creationists actually claim to be "scientific" and "objective" and "fact based.")

    It is in the nature of pseudo-science that it adopts the garb of scholarship and science to promote views that are completely unbased in reality. They adopt the form, the language, the pretense, the footnotes, the tone of scientific discourse -- to make arguments that are amazingly and completely crackpot.

    Sure Furr claims to be a Marxist and a scholar, and a researcher, and a brave defender of unpopular truths, and so on.

    And part of what we need to train people in (in the course of any revolutionary process) is to discern the true from the false, the revolutionary from the non-revolutionary, the materialist analysis from the looney analysis. (And revolutionary events will, and always have, draw a lot of loonies into the mix... just go look at the Munich soviet! Or every movement of rupture and consequence.)

    * * * * * * * * * *

    In general, life has (thank gawd!) moved on from Furr's particular form of pseudo-science.

    But it is a sobering fact: In the early fifties, this myth of "Trotsky leading nazi assassination and sabotage networks" was quite often accepted on faith (largely by dedicated communists who were trained to accept things that way) -- largely and simply because the world's only socialist government claimed it was true, and the world's reactionaries claimed it was not true.

    Ficton like the 1946 "The Great Conspiracy against Russia" were actually reprinted and circulated as true (including as late as the late-sixties when I was teenager reading on these things for the first time.)

    And the logic behind such belief was not hard to excavate: If the USSR said it was true, and if the professional anti-communists all said it was a lie -- then what more do we need to know?

    If you think about it, that is a method devoid of critical and materialist thought. (As Mao said "seek truth from facts.") It is belief based on authority ("I trust this authority to tell me the truth, they have laid down a verdict, I now believe it.")

    It is also an approach to truth based on partisan allegiances -- in a dynamic that has proven embarassing for all kinds of leftists caught defending the indefensible of "their own side."

    We now know that we can't deduce truth by simply checking out "what are the communists saying, and what are the reactionaries saying."

    The painful reason we can't is because sometimes (unfortunately) we have discovered that the communists were wrong (or lying), and the reactionaries were embracing (what was for them) both a convenient truth and an objective truth.

    The case of Lysenko: Partisan Soviet pseudo-science

    The classic example was the case of Soviet biologist Lysenko who announced that he could change the nature of grain by changing their environment -- i.e. that acquired traits could become inherited traits. This accompanied the argument that there was no "genetic material" passed between generations without modification during the lifecycle of individuals.

    But there was another argument: Lysenko was a living example of a worker-scientist. And his opponents within biological debates were among the old school privileged intellectuals (who argued that Lamarkianism was wrong and that there was some kind of immutable inherited genetic material).

    In other words, Lysenkoism was (in Soviet biology) a kind of banner of the new rising communist scientists, and they painted their opponents as old reactionary Tsarists promoting western imperialist notions. Lysenko had official support, and his opponents lost their posts (and worse).

    The problem was that Lysenko was wrong. There was an inherited genetic material -- DNA, as we all now know.

    And further, acquired traits are not (in the main) inheritable. And finally, Lysenko's many experiments proving his theories were false (and probably faked).

    (And meanwhile, Soviet efforts to reject and disprove Einstein's relativity theories were similarly, uh, misguided.)

    Critical materialist thinking, not authority-based belief

    In other words; Just because the Soviet government said the trials were just, and just because a world of anti-communists then howled that the evidence was faked -- doesn't mean that we communists can decide true or false based on that line-up.

    In fact, everyone in the world soon knew (by the late 1950s) that these trials and accusations were absurd, while communists felt required to prove loyalty to each other by claiming to believe the impossible. (And again: If you make issues of truth into issues of loyalty, you will be on thin ice.)

    Obviously, today, Furr's claims have no credibility. He claims to have proof of his thesis, and then simply cannot provide it.

    As for his speaking at left forums of various kinds: I'm not in favor of banning views (even if everyone thinks they are absurd) -- since it can be used to ban those unpopular views that ARE insightful. Often the majority are wrong... including on the left.

    Let Furr hold panels, and lay out his views. And use it as a learning moment. (Like having flat-earth people or believers in miracles lay out their views).

    but I do think that for it to be a learning moment, someone DOES need to present a counter argument (i.e. state the basic facts, refute the basic distortions, point out the illogical structure beneath the layering of data claims). And it looks like Doug, to his credit, chose to do that.

    Furr is saying something that millions of communists believed sixty years ago. It is worth thinking through how they could be so wrong, and learning to recognize pseudo-science (when we see it now).

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Mike Ely
  • <p>Since it has come up, I'd like to state my reasons for engaging with Furr and writing this short piece. I didn't write it hoping that I could convince Grover, I am not so naive. Rather, I wrote it more for the comrades I work with, in order to <em>convince them</em>. I work with at least two comrades who hold Furr's work in very high esteem (one of these comrades I have known for several years). About a month before Furr's talk, after a short argument with one of them about the Moscow Trials where Furr's name was brought up, I decided to read Furr's work on Trotsky and Bukharin with as an open mind as possible (I also read a number of secondary sources including the transcript to Bukharin's 1938 trial). If he had proof there, I was willing to listen. There was nothing. Nothing at all. I decided that if Furr was going to come to the bookstore I volunteer at, someone should object to his 'scholarship' with the facts. And it was my hope that my friends would see through Furr's position once I did so. I do think revolutionaries should not right off everyone who believes Furr's story on the trials, some of them can be won over (although I don't think that happened here).</p>

  • Ismail: I appreciate that you are willing to engage.

    At the level of this engagement, I think your efforts at rallying "the evidence" is helpful because (to anyone reading what you gather) it is clear, once again, that there is no evidence.

    And the fact that the various disjointed factiods you offer are presented AS IF they are evidence is revealing about what you consider evidence.

    Again: No one denies that there were political oppositions. It does not surprise anyone that Radek was in communication with Trotsky. (Re Alexander Zinoviev's remark) it is not a shocker that there were people (in Soviet russia) considering armed opposition to the government (look what happened when the Nazis invaded!).

    None of that is contended. And none of it IS THE ISSUE AT HAND.

    The issue is whether leading figures of the Soviet party were Nazi agents, were paid and directed, were seeking Nazi and Japanese victory to carve up the Soviet Union, and were heading vast networks of saboteurs and assassins.

    That was what was charged at the trials. That was what they were convicted of. That was what Furr claims to be documenting.

    And (again) he can't present coherent evidence of this because there isn't any: The charges were invented, and were false.

    There are capitalist roaders and dissident circles that arise in Communist parties. They plot to seize power. They organize themselves in factions. They develop programs.

    But the analysis of the Stalin government was that the class transformation of the USSR was OVER, and there was (therefore) no domestic class basis for an anti-socialist movement, and therefore the figures emerging in opposition *had to be* foreign agents.

    It is a false theory, leading to false explanations, and false charges.

    And you can, if you choose, try to prove things that are not in contention. I.e. documenting that Trotsky and Radek corresponded does not involve anything in contention. And there is (again) zero evidence that this correspondence involved "terrorism" other than Radek's claim in court.

    In other words: (as I have been saying) the only evidence that supports the charges is the confessions of those in the hands of the government. And that kind of confession is not credible (or certainly sufficient alone) as evidence.

    If that kind of confession doesn't have (or lead to) corroborating evidence -- then it remains (forever) suspect, and deservedly so.

    And you can talk around the edges ("there is no proof of torture"), but that too is a red herring -- no one is claiming or insisting that coerced confessions are NECESSARILY the result of torture.

    The fact is that the Soviet government legalized torture at that time. One of the written confessions has drops of blood on it (though we can't prove whose blood) -- see Getty's discussion of that.

    But it is not the case that confessions are credible UNLESS someone can prove torture.

    the allegation is that they are COERCED. And the evidence of coercion is inherit in the situation of the defendants: i.e. that they were in prison, they did not have independent access to the outside, they faced death, and their families' fate were in the hand of the prosecuting authorities. That is an intensely coercive situation -- and there is no need to infer or prove torture.

    It simply means that if those confessions are the only evidence, then the whole case is suspect.

    Again: to end where I started. I appreciate that you engage, and you do your best to gather scraps and factoids to offer as "evidence." And I think that these fragments show (again) precisely that there is no credible evidence.

  • Guest - Ismail

    1. " And you can, if you choose, try to prove things that are not in contention. I.e. documenting that Trotsky and Radek corresponded does not involve anything in contention. And there is (again) zero evidence that this correspondence involved 'terrorism' other than Radek's claim in court."

    I took issue with your comment about the letters because you were presenting them as if it was alleged by Radek that they merely contained words of Trotsky's expressing disapproval over Stalin. Anyway, the point is that there was no evidence that Radek actually received letters from Trotsky, the allegation appeared as "unbelievable" as most any other aspect of the Trials to those who dismiss their legitimacy since Radek claimed he had burned them after reading them. It wasn't until decades later that Getty could independently confirm the fact that Trotsky did send clandestine letters to Radek. The content of those letters hasn't been established (and probably never will be), but their existence does at least give grounding to a significant claim of the Trials.

    2. " The fact is that the Soviet government legalized torture at that time. One of the written confessions has drops of blood on it (though we can't prove whose blood) -- see Getty's discussion of that."

    This is about the military trial of Tukhachevsky and others, which was not held in an open court and not generally counted among the three Moscow Trials (although certainly related.)

    As for the subject of torture, I'll repeat what I've written elsewhere, "Even then it'd be amazing for every single defendant to have been 'broken' by such torture, including those who had braved Tsarist prisons years earlier. Even Trotsky at the Dewey Commission had to cite 'Tibetan drugs' being used on the defendants as a possible cause, something no one else took seriously. Then there's the idea that all of the defendants, in three separate trials, in front of various Western diplomats, journalists and other observers, consistently told nothing but lies. For instance, in Origins of the Great Purges Getty notes (p. 208) that, 'If Stalin had used Iagoda to assassinate Kirov, it would have been very dangerous to allow him to appear later before the micro-phones of the world press. Iagoda knew that he would be shot anyway, and it would have been easy for him to let slip that Stalin put him up to it.' Then there's the claim that 'oh, well, they were probably promised mercy if they lied and did what they were told,' meaning that the defendants of the second trial were unaware of the death sentences passed in the first trial, or that the defendants of the third trial (which included Yagoda) were unaware of the sentences passed in the first and second trials. Let alone the fact that many of these defendants were admitting to crimes that obviously allowed for the death penalty if convicted."

    The idea that 54 persons confessed utter lies in open courts in full view of foreign journalists, diplomats and other figures is quite astounding.

  • The idea that 54 persons confessed utter lies in open courts in full view of foreign journalists, diplomats and other figures is quite astounding.



  • Guest - Ismail

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    I'm not quire sure what a link to your review of "Mission to Moscow" is supposed to prove. What's interesting is how much control Davies had over the movie, see for instance: (which notes that the producer, among others, took issues with what he wanted included, notably the trials themselves)

    Davies was obviously not a communist, but he remained on fairly good terms with the Soviets and tended to defend them both before and after WWII. Like D.N. Pritt in the UK, anti-communists attacked him as a "useful idiot." But as a lawyer who witnessed the trials, his words do have to be taken into account.

  • It's meant to prove that liberals in the Roosevelt administration and their friends at the NY Times like Walter Duranty were more inclined to agree with Vishinsky than John Dewey who was the chair of a Commission of Inquiry on Leon Trotsky.
    Even when the purges were at their height, Duranty grew hostile to anyone who questioned his reporting, or cast aspersions his way. When, in 1930, Duranty saw firsthand the exiled kulaks, he dismissed it, saying "[I've] seen worse debris than that, trains full of wounded in the Front in France going back to be patched up for a fresh bout of slaughter." Though he argued against the notion that "Patriotism and Progress" were worth the Allied effort, he rarely applied the same logic to Stalin's killing machine. Duranty even linked Stalin's persona to the survival of the Communist Party and, ultimately, the Soviet Union. The irony was apparently missed by Duranty: that a man single-handedly responsible for tens of millions of deaths of his own people could be inextricably linked to their survival. Just how many eggs it took to make this omelet, Duranty was happy to let Stalin decide.

  • Guest - Ismail

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    Except John Dewey was himself a liberal, and the Dewey Commission was staffed with liberals, a number of whom became noted anti-communists after the war. See IsItJustMe's two posts here:

    I don't know why you bring up Duranty (although, like Davies, he was an anti-communist who was relatively fair to the USSR both before and after WWII), since he's not particularly relevant to the Moscow Trials. I've read the Taylor work cited in the link, and I've read works by Duranty, who was considered the first serious reporter the New York Times sent to the land of Soviets. That reactionaries use the term "useful idiot" to describe him and Davies should be of little concern to communists.

  • Except John Dewey was himself a liberal,


    Surely you must understand the CPUSA had 10s of thousands of members during the Moscow Trials and the ear not only of the NY Times Moscow correspondent but the Nation Magazine and the New Republic as well. It also was allied with the FDR White House except for the brief time of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact. The point I am making is that coerced confessions from Bukharin et al would have raised no eyebrows from many if not most foreign correspondents. Stalin seemed reasonable compared to the intransigent Leon Trotsky.

  • Guest - Ismail

    In reply to: Louis Proyect

    I'm aware that the CPUSA had many liberals in it. So did the CPGB. That's why so many left when Khrushchev slandered Stalin and the Hungarian counter-revolution occurred. Some of those liberals became Trots, like Peter Fryer.

    I don't know why, just because Nation and New Republic weren't mouthpieces for Trotsky, they were somehow pro-Stalin. Trotsky had a good relationship with LIFE magazine, which printed excerpts from his biography of Stalin. Trotsky was also asked to testify before the Dies Committee.

  • Ismail writes: "The idea that 54 persons confessed utter lies in open courts in full view of foreign journalists, diplomats and other figures is quite astounding."

    We can note some agreement here.

    It is certainly an astonishing event, and people have (ever since) speculated intensely about how it was done. Some defendants didn't appear in open court, so the process was (presumably) not completely successful.

    And I don't assume there was a single process. Or a single motivation on the part of the defendants.

    Some were clearly just repeating a script written by others. Some (most notably Bukharin) was crafting a public statement that split hairs, declined to accept all charges and seemed intended to promote skepticism.

    We don't know the details. We will (apparently) never know.

    But we can know that there is zero credible evidence that the charges were true. Which strongly suggests they aren't true.

  • Louis writes: "It also was allied with the FDR White House except for the brief time of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact. The point I am making is that coerced confessions from Bukharin et al would have raised no eyebrows from many if not most foreign correspondents. Stalin seemed reasonable compared to the intransigent Leon Trotsky."

    I think this misunderstands the actual situation.

    I believe the trials were tied to sharp struggle over the Non-Aggression Pact. There is significant evidence that Bukharin (like Foreign Minister Litvinov) were advocates of continued attempt to set up a "collective security" arrangement between the USSR and western European powers.

    In other words, the purge trials were (I believe) exactly about the Non-Aggression Pact (which was very shocking for both liberals and non-communist leftists around the world).

    Stalin did become "Uncle Joe" for FDR Democrats, but that only happened after the Non-Aggression Pact failed and Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

    Put another way: Trotsky was popular among left-leaning liberals because he gave a detailed critique of the Soviet Union from within the circles of the radical left. There was a whole "scene" among leftist intellectuals in New York -- that claimed to uphold socialism, but not the Soviet Union. And for them Trotsky and his work was quite popular. And this was the scene in the last years of the thirties.

    Stalin only became popular (and acceptable) later when his USSR emerged as a key pillar of the war against Hitler -- specifically after 1941.

    The CPUSA supported FDR from 1936 on. But from the moment of the Non-Aggression Pact, that was far from some stable alliance. After 1941, the CPUSA basically became a junior coalition partner of the New Deal (without portfolio).... and its instrument within the labor movement (and elsewhere).

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