In August 1936, the Soviet Union held the first of a series of trials of former Bolsheviks who had been accused of various crimes against the state. The first group accused were Old Bolsheviks who had been allies of Stalin at one point. They had later sided with Trotsky and been stripped of their positions. By this point Trotsky was in exile and his supporters were all in various states of disfavor. One element of the first trial was the claim that the accused were still in contact with Trotsky.
At the time, the international Left was firmly in the Bolshevik camp, as this was the first successful radical government in the world. Whatever the doctrinal difference within the international radical camp, no one could deny that the Bolsheviks had managed to take power in a large important country. As a result, radicals found a way to justify what was happening to the accused. The cause was more important than any man, so no one dared criticize what was happening.
Even when it should have been clear that the trials had little to do with the alleged crimes, radicals around the world found a way to justify what was happening in the name of solidarity. “No enemies to the left” was never a real thing in radical politics, as left-wing politics has always been defined by endless schisms and disputes among rival factions but as the show trials progressed, it became a useful way to rally support in the face of criticism from outside radicalism.
What followed, of course, was more show trials of Old Bolsheviks, who were found guilty and then shot. A few escaped death and were sent to labor camps where they were expected to die. The show trials were then followed by waves of arrests, executions, and purges of the party. No one knows for sure how many died in Stalin’s purges, but the general consensus is between seven hundred thousand and one million people were killed in the process.
There are a lot of lessons about the nature of human society to be drawn from the Bolsheviks and especially Stalin. Radicalism since the French Revolution has always been about a radical break from the past, but in every case, it turns out be a horrific replay of the worst of mankind’s past. Stalin was the extreme example of the worst Tsar, an industrial strength version of Ivan IV, rather than the leader of a revolutionary movement to usher in a radical new form of society.
Another lesson of the purges was that there is never any appeal to the humanity and compassion of the radicals. Even when Stalin purged the beloved Nikolai Bukharin, radicals found a way to justify it. Stalin’s decision to murder his old friend and most loyal Bolshevik should have been viewed as a monstrous crime that could only be committed by a monster, instead radicals found a way to explain it away. Again, the cause is bigger than any one man or group of men.
Of course, the greatest lesson of all is that when the old rules break down or are willfully destroyed, what is left is a lawless world. Once the law collapses, everyone becomes an outlaw by definition. In a world where everyone lives outside the law, the people who survive and thrive are always the most cunning and ruthless. In the case of the Bolsheviks, Stalin was not the smartest or the most persuasive, but he was the most cunning and ruthless, so he came out on top.
All of this would be ancient history if not for what we see happening in Washington with the show trials being run by the ruling junta. Calling the people in charge the Biden administration is no longer sensible as it is clear that Biden is deep in the throes of dementia and barely able to do basic things. The government is now run by a collection of people who operate in the shadows. They control things through the people appointed to various posts in the administration.
Much like Stalin’s trials, the process has moved from arresting minor figures on trumped up charges to now arresting the former president. It is not inconceivable to think they may exile Trump in order to keep him off the ballot. Of course, the viciousness and cruelty of the show trials grows worse with every turn. A judge just sentenced the leaders of the Proud Boys to decades in prison. The judge used the sentencing hearings as a chance to denounce the enemies of the party.
That is another feature of the Stalin trials that bears attention. In every one of the show trials, the judges were outlandish supporters of the party and the charges brought against the accused. These were men picked because of their uncertain status within the party, particularly with regards to Stalin. The judges in the current show trials seem to feel the same pressure, so they are making sure the cases proceed exactly as the party expects them to proceed.
Of course, the radicals in the cheering sections are following the same script as the radicals who cheered the show trials. The same people who cry salty tears over a black criminal getting shot in the commission of a crime are cheering the harsh penalties handed down to grandmothers in these show trials. The cause is more important than the rule of law and their thirst for the blood of their enemies trumps whatever sense of justice that ever existed in their souls.
The most important lesson of the Stalin years is that the terror that Stalin inflicted ended when Stalin’s life ended. At no point was he talked out of murdering people. He never had second thoughts or pangs of guilt. After his death, a letter from his old friend Bukharin was found in which Bukharin appealed to Stalin as a friend. Stalin kept it in his desk so he could read it from time to time, presumably so he could remember how he outmaneuvered even his closest friends.
Tyranny ends when the tyrant and his supporters end. That last part is the most important part of the process. When Stalin died his supporters were then purged and sidelined, with some ending up in the camps. The party leadership went through a de-Stalinization phase. The reason is the tyrant is always a symptom. It is his supporters in the cheering section who are the ultimate cause. It is only when you remove the fanatics and psychopaths that normalcy can return.
During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a British officer named Sir William Sidney Smith who was particularly good at vexing Napoleon in battle. Eventually, the French captured him and Napoleon had him put in a Paris prison. Smith was able to escape with the help of royalist enemies of Napoleon. In the prison was found a shingle on which he had written a letter. In the letter Smith quoted a passage from Rousseau that should be inspiration for all political prisoners
“Fortune’s wheel makes strange revolutions, it must be confessed; but for the term revolution to be applicable, the turn of the wheel must be complete. You are today as high as you can be. Very well. I envy not your good fortune, for mine is better still. I am as low in the career of ambition as a man can well descend; so that, let this capricious dame, fortune, turn her wheel ever so little–I must necessarily mount, for the same reason you must descend.”
The men and women rotting in dungeons at the hands of the regime are in the very condition of Sir William Sidney Smith. They are in prison because they vex the regime, not because they are outlaws. In a general sense, all of us are in the same condition, just free to talk around until another example is needed. Like Sir William Sidney Smith, fortunes wheel will turn, and we will rise the regime shall fall. Those who cheered the loudest for the show trials will be remembered the most.
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