Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
THE Russians have a word "chistka" which means "purge." Foreigners have been in the habit of stretching this word to cover all aspects of the "governmental housecleaning" which has been going on in the Soviet Union in recent years. Called by any other name, this rapid turnover in Soviet offices would seem less formidable. In capitalist countries, managers and directors are dismissed or succeed each other in numbers large enough to make impressive totals; and in Russia itself the recently promulgated doctrine of the "career open to the talents" has speeded up the normal process of personnel replacement. In Russian usage, many of these dismissals do not come under the word "purge." That term is applied specifically to the process by which Communist Party members are brought to book -- and in recent times, often arrested and even executed -- in order to preserve the Party's orthodoxy and integrity.
Yet even in this restricted sense, the most recent Bolshevik purge has been of large dimensions. In December 1932, the All-Union Communist (Bolshevik) Party listed 2,000,000 members and 1,200,000 candidates (Communists of slightly junior status). Two years later, on January 1, 1935, after the traditional purging process had been completed, the Party numbered 1,655,000 members and 334,000 candidates. One out of every three had been expelled. Since then further expulsions have taken place as a result of a "verification of party documents," an "exchange of party documents," and the campaign for political vigilance. Although no detailed figures have been published on the extent of these latest cleansings, it is believed in Moscow that in November 1937 the Communist Party numbered approximately 1,500,000 members and candidates, less than half its strength five years before.
Even these figures do not indicate the full cost to the Party of its latest campaign to keep its structure "monolithic" -- to use a favorite Communist adjective. The highest organ of the Party between congresses is the Central Committee. At the last congress, held in January and February 1934, a Central Committee was elected containing 71 members. Less than four years later, only 21 of these were still active in political life. Three had died; one had been assassinated; 31 had lost their jobs with varying degrees of disgrace, many of them while under arrest; one had committed suicide; nine had been sentenced to the "highest measure of social defense -- shooting;" while only five had disappeared from the public eye quietly and without reproach.
No branch of the Communist Party has been spared the purge. Two members of the Politburo itself, the small executive body which reputedly meets every day inside the Kremlin, have disappeared within recent months. Three former candidates for the Politburo, including men who were known to have Stalin's closest confidence, are now listed among the casualties.
Finally, it must be noted that even those who have done the purging have by no means been immune. In the later phases of the weeding-out process -- that is, since the "exchange of party documents" was completed on May 1, 1936 -- official expulsion from the Party has often been preceded by police action on the part of the Commissariat of Home Affairs, or the NKVD as it is usually called. Yet of the 20 persons who were leaders of this organization on November 25, 1935 -- at which time their anonymity was ended by the public distribution of titles of rank -- one has been executed, one has died, ten have dropped out of sight, five have been denounced as traitors, and only three are still alive and working.
The purge is nothing new in Communist history. The Bolshevik faction originated in the expulsion of the Mensheviks from the Russian Social Democratic Party. The traditional claim of the Bolsheviks to act as the workers' trustees during the dictatorship of the proletariat rests, in their own words, on their pledge to purge their own ranks of all who threaten the honest fulfilment of this trusteeship. "All the revolutionary parties that have hitherto fallen," Lenin wrote, "have fallen because they became proud and were unable to see where their strength lay and were afraid to speak of their weakness. We shall not fall, because we are not afraid to speak of our weakness, and we will learn to overcome our weakness."
The Control Commission of the Party was set up in 1920 to cope with the problem of detecting such weakness, and its chief instrument was the purge. The 76,000 organized workers who had been members of the Communist Party at the time of the sixth conference in April 1917 had grown to 600,000. The first major purge, undertaken in 1920, employed the procedure of re-registration, and when this had been completed 250,000 of the 600,000 had been excluded from the Party.
There came a series of minor actions, called "testings." In 1924, with the New Economic Policy in full swing, all members not actually involved in production jobs were thus "tested." They made up one-fourth of the party, and 60 percent of those "tested" were expelled. In 1926, there was a similar "testing" in the villages; and in 1927 a partial re-registration dropped 46,000 members. The next major purge took place in 1929, after the struggle with Trotsky. This time approximately 100,000 members were expelled, more than 10 percent of the Party's total strength.
Then came the most recent purge, which was started on January 1, 1933, and was expected to be completed in a year. Lazar M. Kaganovich, as the head of the Control Commission, was put in charge of it. The procedure followed traditional Communist lines. Open meetings were held by every party unit in the country and at these each member was required to review his own personal history and recent activities before his fellow-members, as well as before non-party workers and peasants. Usually a "troika," a three-man commission of party stalwarts, was delegated by a higher party unit to supervise each local purge. It was generally understood that the purge was intended to clean up the débris of the first Five-Year Plan, to eliminate careerists and adventurers who had been overlooked while the Party's attention was focused on industrial construction and the collectivization of the land.
A year later, Kaganovich announced that 182,500 party members and candidates, or 16.8 percent of those examined, had been expelled. An additional 6.3 percent were demoted to the status of "sympathizers," a form of modified expulsion. Many were expelled for personal reasons: drunkenness, loose living or irregularities in their private finances. During this initial phase of the purge, a relatively new charge -- "passivity" -- was levelled against many members, and it is now clear that it was used in many cases against Communists who were simply following Stalin's current injunction to "master technique" and who had buried themselves in work to the neglect of their party duties. During this same year, the purge turned up 56,500 "dead souls," people who had died or had been swallowed up in the swarming confusion of the first Five-Year Plan. Kaganovich asked, and was given, a year's extension in which to complete the purge.
The proceedings of the seventeenth congress of the Party, held at the beginning of 1934, provide convincing evidence that Stalin, Kaganovich and other party leaders believed then that the purge could be successfully and quickly completed along the lines on which it had been started. At this congress former leaders of the party opposition competed with each other in protestations of repentance. The struggle with the peasantry had been won. Bread cards were to be abolished within twelve months. The congress gave its Communist blessing to the popular mood which Stalin himself expressed in the slogan: "Life has become better, comrades, life has become happier."
But beneath the surface of party unity, it now is clear, there were problems which cut as deep as the revolution itself. In the first place, the Party was no longer a small, cohesive group, insulated from responsibility and temptation. During the early years of the revolution it had been a state within a state; but by 1934, out of 861,000 responsible offices in government institutions 250,000 were filled by Communist Party members. In the second place, the ordeal of the first Five-Year Plan and of collectivization had left festering sore spots where they were not easily seen, especially among those Communists who had earlier balked at the speed with which the revolution was moving. Thirdly, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, followed by Hitler's rise to power in Germany, had freshened old doubts about the certainty that Russia would enjoy that breathing space, free from foreign attack, on which the Stalinists counted for the construction of socialism in one country.
When the higher ranks of the Party realized this situation, they looked for assistance to measures other than the purge. On May 25, 1935, the Society of Old Bolsheviks was abolished. The campaign in the party press against doctrinal deviations was intensified. But purge begets purge in the Soviet Union, and control begets opposition. The facts behind the assassination of Sergei Kirov, one of Stalin's most trusted lieutenants, in Leningrad at the end of 1934 have by now been thoroughly confused through charges and counter-charges made at successive trials. The only thing quite clear is that the incident was a symbol to the Kremlin of the failure of two years of purge. By January 1935, Kaganovich had been sent back to industry; his Control Commission job had been given to Nikolai I. Yezhov, a young and intransigent Bolshevik without the encumbrance of a prewar revolutionary past. And oppositionists inside the Party, who may have hoped until then to squeeze unharmed through the purge and later to bend the revolution to their own pattern, had been reminded of the Bolshevik doctrine that there is no middle ground between orthodoxy and betrayal.
Under Yezhov's control the purge continued along different lines. Instead of open meetings, members faced small boards of examiners who worked under strict instructions from the Central Committee. In a confidential circular dated May 13, 1935, every district Communist unit was instructed to verify the party documents of all members. As a result, an additional 8.9 percent of the members and candidates had lost their party tickets by the end of the year. From February 1 to May 1, 1936, a further check-up was instituted through a complete exchange of party documents. This is estimated to have cut the membership by another 5 percent.
The first of the major treason trials, that of Kamenev, Zinoviev and others in August 1936, was the signal for what Bolsheviks began to call, instead of "the purge," "the great cleansing work." The 16 defendants in this trial, who included several "old Bolsheviks" of Lenin's generation, were found guilty and executed. Although the fact was realized at the time by few persons, even among the party leaders, this trial laid down the general lines along which the Party was to undertake, during the following two years, its greatest internal reconstruction since 1917. These lines were more clearly defined at a plenum of the Central Committee in March 1937, when Stalin threw the entire machinery of the Party into gear behind a new assignment -- "master Bolshevism." There were three principal points in the Kremlin analysis of Russia's political situation, and although they were stated at this plenum, they became fully articulate only in the program of action which was revealed during the next eighteen months.
The first of these was the conviction, amply reinforced by Soviet experience with "reformed Trotskyists," that deviation from the "party line," if persisted in, inevitably becomes counterrevolution. Contemporary Bolsheviks are unconcerned with the problem -- and this is the chief reason why the purge is not understood abroad -- of whether an oppositionist has become a traitor consciously or unconsciously: the pressure and the logic of the class struggle have come to identify party opposition with treason; the measure of conscious choice involved in the case of any individual is therefore regarded as unimportant. The party leaders have translated this conviction into action, first, by repeatedly restating it through the press, party meetings and a series of spectacular trials, and secondly by increasing the organized vigilance against possible heresy to such a point that it has threatened to stifle intellectual activity inside the Party.
The second contention was an identification of bad work with sabotage. Few Communists whose work was going well suffered during the wholesale cleansings of 1937 and 1938, whereas thousands who had failed to fulfill their schedules according to the plan faced political charges before the Party. Here also the problem of individual motivation has been disregarded by the Bolsheviks. The simple assumption that failure was a symptom of political unreliability was based, in the first instance, on the undoubted existence of a large amount of real sabotage, and secondly, on the difficulty, under a Socialist economy, of removing venerable but inefficient heroes of the barricades from sinecure positions. The problem was made easier by the political advantages of holding up enemies who could be blamed for many of the small miseries of life. Finally, it was made irresistible by the upward pressure, within the Soviet system, of a new generation which is confident, single-minded and inclined to be exigent.
The third factor was the extreme urgency of the situation two years ago. Both inside Russia and abroad, the Kremlin was faced with issues which would hardly wait for mild methods, even had these been congenial to the Bolshevik mind. Stalin's few published speeches during 1937 all underline the necessity of speed and thoroughness. Lenin liked to quote Peter the Great: "The loss of time is like unto irretrievable death," and the younger generation inside the Communist Party has been carefully taught to be impatient. The systematic way in which department after department and region after region was purged of elements with which the Bolsheviks had been glad to work in temporary alliance only a few years earlier suggests a decision some time at the end of 1936 to push the "great cleansing work," once started, to its bitter end.
In 1937 Nikolai Yezhov was still at the head of the Control Commission; but he had also become Commissar of the NKVD, which combats treason instead of mere unorthodoxy. The ranks of this commissariat had been strengthened by a special mobilization of younger Communists. Yezhov appears to have been their spokesman inside the Kremlin. The traditional purging methods of the Party were now implemented by arrest. Responsible workers were sent from Moscow to every district of the Soviet Union, where rank and file indignation against the abuses of individual leaders began suddenly to appear. Although subsequently published details have left little doubt that this indignation was real, it could hardly have become articulate with such synchronization throughout the country without a clear signal from the Kremlin.
The cleansings reached their peak in October and November 1937. On one hand, every party leader whose past was tainted with "Trotskyism," "Bukharinism" or "bourgeois nationalism" was removed from office. On the other, a large number of party officials whose work was not up to plan, or who had made more enemies than friends in their own constituencies, were voted out. The later fate of both groups appears to have depended directly on the amount of opposition they presented to the moves to oust them. Many of those purged during 1937 accepted their disgrace with what Bolsheviks call "self-criticism," and have survived in lesser posts. Others, including the Red Army group led by Marshal Tukhachevsky and the People's Commissars who were tried in March 1938, undoubtedly were at first unwilling to admit their errors and began to take counsel with each other. How far these discussions fell short of being conspiracies and how far they were motivated by sincere desire to save the revolution are interesting psychological questions on which there is little evidence. The Kremlin saw only a political question, and "liquidated" it.
When disclosures of opposition among the Party's leaders reached their highest point -- in the autumn of 1937 -- there apparently was little talk of popular revolt. In the tangled motives confessed by defendants in subsequent treason trials there is no mention of any consciousness of mass support, even inside party ranks. The "generals without an army," as the defendants were called in the Soviet trials, apparently had no press, no organization and only conspiratorial meetings.
In spite of this, the expulsions were on a mass scale. The nearest approach to an official figure is the admission by Leo Mekhlis, now one of Stalin's closest colleagues, that they numbered "several tens of thousands." The heightened vigilance inside the Party naturally led to increased activity by the political police and to a certain degree of nervous tension among almost all groups of people in the Soviet Union. Foreigners living in Russia came to be regarded as centers of political infection if not as actual spies. Revolutionary vigilance developed to a pitch where it was indistinguishable from promiscuous denunciation.
In Kursk province, for example, 1,832 Communists (9 percent of the membership) were expelled during 1937. Archangel province expelled 1,254, with some sections purging more than a quarter of their members. Nearly half the Communists living in Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, were purged by one secretary in less than nine months. Many of these expulsions had little in common with the traditional Communist purge. In Azerbaidjan, at a single meeting on November 5, 1937, 279 members were expelled en masse; in Novosibirsk two days later a similar meeting expelled 72; in Stalingrad, on November 26, a single meeting expelled 69. Individuals have been found who wrote and signed as many as 67 denunciations of their comrades.
Most of these expulsions were justified by the formulas "enemy of the people" or "links with enemies." But individual unscrupulousness, combined with an officially-fostered "vigilance" amounting almost to terror, made it impossible for the accused to defend themselves against such charges or for their judges to prove them. At Sverdlovsk in 1936, 15 Communists attended a birthday party: one of their number was arrested in 1937; the other 14 were immediately expelled from the Party. When the director of the Tartar Pedagogical Institute was arrested, every party member teaching or studying in the institute was at once expelled and the unit disbanded. In Kamenets-Podolsk, a school-teacher was expelled from the Party on the basis of an individual denunciation which declared that she had had a baby every year as a cunning disguise to conceal her real politics beneath this appearance of loyalty to the Soviet régime.
By January 1938, the leaders of the Party were prepared to begin the slow, hard job of stopping this "great cleansing." The plenum of the Central Committee openly declared that the purge had been misused by careerist Communists guilty of "a criminally light-minded attitude toward the fate of individual members." Vigilance was still the order of the day, but excesses committed in its name were severely censured. The campaign " to master Bolshevism" was redefined as a struggle for political education rather than as a promiscuous rounding up of traitors. Party units were instructed to speed up the hearing of appeals from expelled members, and to take immediate action against those who had thought to find safety in the denunciation of others.
The resulting "purge of the purgers," as it has been called, is still continuing. It is easier to start an avalanche than to stop it. Each successive phase of the purge since 1934 has disclosed new reservoirs of fear, ambition and mistrust pent up during Stalin's "iron age" between 1929 and 1933. But the results of recent appeals from expulsions, of which approximately 50 percent are reported to be successful, and a new recruiting campaign for members, indicate that this purge has at last reached its final phase.
By the end of August 1938, according to figures of the Central Committee, a total of 154,933 appeals had been received, of which 85,273 had been heard. Of the latter, 54 percent had been reinstated. It is difficult to base conclusions on the results of these appeals, since only an unknown fraction of those expelled have filed appeals. We do know, however, that in 1938, when the influence of the Kremlin was thrown definitely against all excesses of "super-vigilance," fully as many reinstatements were won by members expelled during the early years of the purge as by those who fell in the "great cleansing work" of 1937. This is especially true on the periphery of the Soviet Union. In Kirghizia, for example, more than 1,000 appeals had been heard by September 1938. Of those whose expulsion dated from the period of the purge proper -- that is, between 1933 and 1935 -- 43.6 percent were reinstated. Many of these were found to be honest workers expelled for "passivity" by Communist leaders who themselves were later arrested. In the case of the expulsions that took place during the verification and exchange of party documents, 52 percent of those who appealed were reinstated. Among those who were expelled during 1937, only 22 percent of the appeals were granted.
Admission to the Communist Party was closed at the beginning of the purge in 1933, except for rare cases of "Heroes of the Soviet Union" and a few Stakhanovist workers. It was officially reopened only on November 1, 1936. For three years and ten months it was impossible to join the ruling party. Even after the ranks had been declared open, the purge was found to have created such widespread suspicion that relatively few applicants could secure the necessary testimonials from party members. Between November 1, 1936, and the end of 1937, 46,289 persons were admitted to the status of candidate, and 51,675 candidates were advanced to full membership. After the January 1938 plenum had quieted the fears of many members, admissions multiplied. At the end of September 1938, it was announced that 450,000 applications had been received since November 1936, that 250,000 new candidates had been admitted and 100,000 candidates made full members.
These new members represent a sharp break with the Bolshevik tradition of professional revolutionists. For the most part, they are young workers or collective farmers. They have reached maturity in the years of socialist reconstruction. They have no first-hand knowledge of any other social and economic system, and the imperative demands of their daily work leave them with little time or desire for theoretical speculation. Instead they have a technical proficiency -- something new in the ranks of the Party. Figures showing the increase in educational qualifications among Communists help more than many Kremlin speeches to explain the acute personnel difficulties of the first two Five-Year Plans and the political problems which they in turn produced. In 1927, on the eve of Stalin's "iron age" of industrialization, there were exactly 751 Communists in Russia with a higher education in some field of engineering. Ten years later, they numbered 47,000. In addition there were 42,000 skilled mechanics who had not yet completed engineering courses. In 1927, there were 9,600 Communists who had completed higher education in any field; in 1937, there were 105,000. Communists who had graduated from secondary schools numbered 104,000 in 1927, 260,000 in 1937.
These younger Communists, educated along predominantly practical lines, have not only taken over fledgling industries; they have in large measure taken over the Party itself. The following figures are based on an analysis of the delegates elected to the 1938 conferences of the Communist organizations in six representative cities: Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and Tashkent. Of a total of 2,929 delegates, 2,021 (or 69 percent) were delegates to such conferences for the first time in their lives. In Moscow, 11 percent were under thirty years of age and 63 percent were between thirty and forty. In Leningrad, 14 percent were under thirty and 70 percent between thirty and forty. Figures for the other cities show the same preponderance of younger people. Between 11 and 16 percent of the delegates were women. In Tashkent, 8.6 percent of the delegates had higher education, in Kiev 16 percent, in Moscow 20 percent, in Leningrad 24 percent. Most striking of all was the relative absence of prewar Communists. In Tashkent, 57.3 percent of the delegates had been members of the Party for less than ten years. In Ulan-Ude, capital of Buryat-Mongolia, 52 percent had joined the Party in 1931 or later. In Moscow, 65 percent had been admitted to the Party since 1925 and 37.5 percent since 1928.
The heavy turnover in the executive personnel of the Communist Party can be understood only in its Russian context of human backwardness with which the Communists have had to struggle even in their own ranks. In Uzbekistan, this year's party congress was featured by the inclusion among the delegates of educated young Central Asians, former herdsmen who have become engineers. Yet the party ranks in this region still contain 1,212 (or 4 percent of the total) who cannot read or write, and an additional 12,719 who can read but who have not yet had even elementary schooling.
The Bolsheviks have found this problem of backwardness harder to solve in the Russian countryside than in the cities. From November 1936 to July 1938, only 27,997 new candidates out of a total of 141,132 admitted to the Party lived in rural districts. Under specific orders from the Central Committee, an effort has been made to change this proportion, and in the four months after July 1938, 49,000 collective farmers were enrolled. Although the purge affected rural party units far less than urban, the development of party machinery in the new collective farms is still inadequate. In Voronezh province, for example, where there are 5,328 collective farms, only 319 have party units. In Rudnyansky, Smolensk province, a typical Soviet farming area, 81 of the district's 150 collective farms do not include a single Communist; and of the 61 Communists in the district, 35 live in Rudny, its semi-urban trading center.
The Bolsheviks have not been reluctant to break with their own leaders. Lenin broke with Plekhanov, Kautsky and Martov before the War; while Stalin has purged Trotsky and many others who at one time enjoyed great power.
But more important than leaders in the history of the Russian Communist Party have been two features which sharply distinguish it from other revolutionary movements: its party discipline and its expounded doctrine. The first has given the Bolsheviks their ability to manœuvre, to adjust the party line to Lenin's "stubborn facts." The second has given them the assurance that these manœuvres will not defeat themselves, that successive tactical zigzags in policy will not become sheer opportunism. What has Stalin's purge done to these?
For the first time, Bolsheviks have been executing each other on a large scale. Before the war, spies were found in the Central Committee of the Party, but never in the past were they able to push the Party so perilously close to demoralization. Further, the current identification of opposition with treason has threatened more seriously than ever before the intra-party democracy on which, according to the Communists' own claim, party discipline has always rested.
In recent months, the Kremlin has shown that it sees this problem. It has launched a campaign intended to salvage as much as possible of the Communist Party's former moral strength inside Russia. Parts of the "mystique" on which this rested may have gone forever: building factories and purging "enemies of the people" are less exciting tasks than storming the Winter Palace. But the Party has now been mobilized in a fresh offensive -- a reaffirmation by its members of that confidence and pride which the purge had undermined. A Central Committee decree dated November 14, 1938, ordered the first steps in an attempted return to "comradely discussion." Theoretical speculation again has the blessing of the Kremlin, although it is likely to win favor slowly in many Communist minds grown rusty with discretion. In a new political Bible, "A Short Course in Communist History," which Stalin is believed to have written and which has been published in a first edition of 6,000,000 copies, the Party has been given the latest version of its recurring assignment: "master Bolshevism."
This is certain to prove a difficult task for the older Communists. In this historical introduction to 1938 orthodoxy, Trotsky's services to the Red Army are not mentioned, while he is described as having disobeyed Lenin's and Stalin's direct instructions when he refused to sign the first draft of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in February 1918. Marshals Tukhachevsky, Egorov and Bluecher are not listed among the generals who helped to win the civil war. It is declared as historical truth that Bukharin planned to arrest and murder Lenin, Stalin and Sverdlov in 1918.
For a younger generation of Communists, already past the threshold of power in Russia, this rewriting of history to meet present political demands will present fewer problems. The Biblical adage, "By their fruits ye shall know them," has its equivalent in contemporary Soviet language, and there are few young Russians who are not convinced that Trotsky, the executed generals and the other leaders who were purged were in effect giving aid and comfort to the Fascist enemy. It is on this basis that Stalin is now trying, as Lenin tried immediately after the seizure of power in 1917, to establish a new orthodoxy in which party democracy and discipline may again flourish side by side.
In this attempt, Stalin is greatly strengthened by the fact that the basic doctrines of the revolution have not been altered in the course of the purge. For this the tough elasticity of Marxism is in part responsible; but most Russians sincerely believe that the ideas of 1917 are nearer realization now than when the purge began. One of the goals of Communism -- that "withering away of the state" which so many gentle-minded Communists have tried to hasten, only to wither away themselves -- has now been officially scheduled to arrive only when Russsia's "capitalist encirclement" has disappeared. The other chief goal -- the distribution of the good things of life " according to need" instead of "according to work done" -- is, in the belief of the young men now running the Russian Revolution, already in sight.