Continuing this saga about a fascinating time in both Russian and American history. Here again is the proper order in which to read this series of posts — and, by the way, the reason I keep listing them out like this (even though it generates an annoying series of pingbacks every time I post a new one), is because I am concerned about new readers who might pop in, feel an interest in the story, but not even know where to start!
And then this current one, Part II-(G), which you are reading right now!
Where we left off, Trotsky is facing a mutiny in his own ranks within his American flagship organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It is nearing the end of 1939, and Trotsky has accepted an invitation to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC is taking hearings on the current issue, which is how to zap the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and declare them agents of a foreign power, namely the Soviet Union!
Professor Chase ascribes sinister motives to Trotsky’s acceptance. He links Trotsky’s gambit with the chronologically current case of NKVD defector Walter Krivitsky who, after an agonizing biography, finally escaped to the U.S., appeared before HUAC, and started singing like a canary about his experiences as a Soviet master spy.
Krivitsky joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917, while still a teenager. Like those early Jewish Chekists, he was a True Believer. He distinguished himself during the Russian Civil War, and went on to rise through the ranks of the NKVD and Military Intelligence in the mid 1920’s. During the early 1930’s he ran important spies and moles in Western European nations. His most important Celebrity-Mole recruit was Pierre Cot, a minister in the Socialist Léon Blum government of France. Although the NKVD foreign cells were properly compartmentalized, Krivitsky knew enough to almost give away the Soviet Union’s greatest foreign spy ring ever, namely the Kim Philby circle in England. Later, when he was singing to the FBI (July, 1939) Krivitsky divulged knowing “a Scotsman of a very good family”, he didn’t know the exact name, who was working as a Soviet mole within the British diplomatic corps. He was talking about Donald Maclean, of course. Fortunately for Philby-Maclean and the others, MI-5 was too dense to figure it out, even with such a great clue.
During the Spanish Civil War, Krivitsky was dispatched to Spain, along with fellow NKVD agent Alexander Orlov (née Leiba Lazarevich Feldbin) as military-intelligence advisors to the Popular Front government. Recall that Orlov-Feldbin was the bully who kidnapped POUM leader Andrés Nin Pérez, tortured him for days, and ended up slicing his face off. His wiki entry quotes historian Donald Rayfield as to the true purpose of men like Krivitsky/Orlov being assigned to Spain, and it wasn’t just, or even mainly, to help heroic anti-Franco guerrillas, nor to inspire Pete Seeger to write great songs:
“Stalin, Yezhov, and Beria distrusted Soviet participants in the Spanish war. Military advisors like Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, journalists like Mikhail Koltsov were open to infection by the heresies, especially Leon Trotsky’s, prevalent among the Republic’s supporters. NKVD agents sent to Spain were therefore keener on abducting and murdering anti-Stalinists among Republican leaders and International Brigade commanders than on fighting Francisco Franco. The defeat of the Republic, in Stalin’s eyes, was caused not by the NKVD’s diversionary efforts but by the treachery of the heretics.”
Whatever the Stalinophiles believe about their leader, all of the historical facts and records support this (Trotskyist) account of the Spanish Civil War. Namely, that the main task of the entire Soviet apparatus was to remove all remnants of the Trotsky faction, both within the Soviet Union, and everywhere else in the world. Any concerns about the Spanish proletariat, or even the Loyalist government, took second place to Stalin’s overriding (and possibly even personal) quest.
And among “Stalinophiles”, by the way, sadly, I have to place Professor Chase, since, even within such a great monograph as he wrote, he parrots the simple meme that “the Trotskyists, by not supporting the Popular Front government, objectively aided the fascists.” More like, Stalin objectively aided the fascists, by encouraging the violent antics of thugs like Orlov and Krivitsky.
Good-Bye Old Boss, Meet The New Boss
Well, all good things come to an end, even great spy careers. Although Krivitsky was later to claim (for his new masters) that he had some doubts earlier about the validity of Communism, in reality he believed in it, and his life was not so bad until that fateful day when Nikolai Yezhov replaced Genrikh Yagoda as head of the NKVD. Remember, my friends: In the end, everything in the workplace comes down to Office Politics.
Readers, please perform this thought experiment: You are a Soviet spy, a glamorous secret agent, a Chekist, in the mid-1930’s. You work abroad, you might even be privileged to have your family with you. Then one day you open your encrypted mail and see your burn notice: “Return to Moscow for further instructions.” Your heart sinks. Rumors have been swirling. You know that your career, and possibly your life is over. At this point, you have 3 options: (1) Return to Russia with your family. You will be arrested, possibly tortured, and possibly executed, but your family will be okay, your children will be allowed to grow up without you; (2) Take your family and go on the run. If you are lucky, you might find asylum with a friendly non-Stalinist socialist government somewhere… (lots of luck with that)…; or (3) Take your family, defect to an enemy capitalist country, and sing like a canary.
Of these, option (1) is probably the best, and the most honorable one. But sometimes that mysterious life-force just kicks in, you balk at death, you want to go on living!
Back in Russia, Phase II of the purges was beginning. It was time to purge the purgers and clean out a few more Old Bolsheviks in the foreign spy corps.
As part of the “restructuring” of the Communist Party and State Organs, Nikolai Yezhov had, in 1937, set up a new section of the NKVD euphemistically called the Administration of Special Tasks. One of the Special Tasks was to liquidate former employees of the NKVD, including Old Boss Genrikh Yagoda. Yezhov and his cronies were concerned that, once Old Boss Yagoda was arrested and executed, certain NKVD agents stationed abroad might start to feel paranoid, for some ungodly reason, and possibly even defect. By the way, this is the textbook definition of a self-fulfilling prophesy!
To prevent this horrible thing from happening, Yezhov set up the so-called “Mobile Group” whose aim was to psyche out and assassinate future defectors. The Mobile Group was headed by a man with the hilariously Jewish name Mikhail Spiegelglass. In addition, a new law was passed making it possible to punish even the innocent families and relatives of defectors. This is why options (2) and (3), are dodgy: If you go on the run after receiving your burn notice, then you are risking the lives of your wife and kids, and anybody else you know back at home. Yezhov is a vindictive man!
By the summer of 1937, over 40 Soviet spies had been recalled from abroad, and duly executed by Yezhov’s team. As the lemmings continued to return home, Krivitsky grew more paranoid by the day, and started to feel that his life might possibly be in danger!
Krivitsky is connected to Trotsky via a mutual friend, Ignaz Reiss, also an NKVD spy, who was a Trotskyist faction member but still managed to keep his job in the NKVD right up until 1937, the height of the Moscow Trials. At which point, he decided to bail. Hiding out in Paris, Reiss sent a letter to Stalin explaining why he had decided to abandon his post: “Dear Stalin: I have been fighting for socialism since my twentieth year. Now on the threshold of my fortieth I do not want to live off the favours of a Yezhov. I have sixteen years of illegal work behind me. That is not little, but I have enough strength left to begin everything all over again to save socialism. … No, I cannot stand it any longer. I take my freedom of action. I return to Lenin, to his doctrine, to his acts. Sincerely yours, Ignaz.” Stalin was not impressed, he ordered Yezhov’s Mobile Group to assassinate Reiss and family, to serve as an example for the other wannabe defectors. Reiss was subsequently gunned down by machine-gun wielding NKVD goons. Fortunately, his wife and son survived because they didn’t eat the poisoned chocolates that had been left for them in their hotel room.
After the death of his childhood friend, Ignaz Reiss, Krivitsky made the fateful decision to take option (3) and defect. He didn’t bother writing a letter to Stalin. And he was worried, rightfully, about his child. Spies should not have families! On 7 November 1937 Krivitsky met with Trotsky’s elder son, Lev Sedov, in Paris. Sedov was a bit of a secret agent himself. He had been running his dad’s European section for years, and had many contacts with Soviet citizens of all stripes, including NKVD agents. See, Stalin was not completely wrong, when he feared that Trotsky’s network was plotting against him (=Stalin). One of Trotsky’s main goals in life was to remove Stalin from the leadership of the Communist Party. And Stalin knew this. The whole point of the Stalin Purges and the Moscow Trials was to eliminate anybody and everybody who could possibly be connected with Trotsky, whether directly or indirectly. And if the net swept too widely and innocent people suffered, well, that was the price that Stalin was willing to pay.
Long story short, Krivitsky ended up in the United States writing anti-Communist exposes for the Saturday Evening Post. It is said that J. Edgar Hoover was furious, when he read in the newspaper that Stalin was cavalierly sending spies the U.S. and parading them past the noses of the FBI. Krivitsky became everybody’s fave, though, hooking up with the most odious red-baiters in the world, such as Whittaker Chambers and Martin Dies. And he attained his full glory and apothesis with the Stalin-Hitler Pact, developing his brand new ideology of “dual totalitarianisms” to retroactively justify his treasonous defection.
When publicly blasted by Communist Party leader Earl Browder, Krivitsky responded tit-for-tat, by outing Browder’s sister as an agent of Soviet Military Intelligence. Krivitsky testified before HUAC on 11 October 1939, including super-duper secret closed testimony. As his reward, the former spy received political asylum, was allowed to remain in the U.S. and went on to gain fame as a writer and political philosopher. Krivitsky, the first major Soviet defector, sang well for his supper and acquired American citizenship as his reward.
What does this have to do with Trotsky? Well, aside from the fact that Krivitsky was connected to Trotsky by only one degree of separation (Reiss or Sedov, take your pick), the main point here, for our purposes, is that Professor Chase wants to promote this combination: That Trotsky wishes to follow, two months later, in Krivitsky’s path. Trotsky will sing for HUAC and hopefully gain his U.S. citizenzhip papers, just like his old friend Walter did!
More Trotskyist Than Trotsky
According to Trotskyist doctrine of that era, plus a code of conduct which Trotsky himself had laid out to his followers: Communist Parties such as the CPUSA were seen as degenerated entities, pathetic deformed children of the healthy ones that Lenin raised, parties corrupted by the curse of Stalinism, which Trotsky called the “syphilitic infection of the working class movement” — yet still technically “cousins” and on the same side of the class line as the “One True Party”. Therefore it was considered inadmissible to take the side of the class enemy against these entities. Or to snitch them out to the capitalist police. Of course, in the real world there are always more than 50 shades of grey, and even the Pirate Code is sometimes more like “guidelines” than a set of rigid rules.
If seen through the religious analogy, it would be like Catholics and Protestants being in somewhat solidarity with each other against Muslims, or at least not ratting each other out to Muslim police. Although the analogy doesn’t hold, exactly, because Stalinists don’t see Trotskyists in the same way, they see them as the class enemy personified and therefore Stalinist cadre are not only permitted, but encouraged to rat Trotskyists out to the capitalist police, or even kill them on sight, whenever feasible.
In this light, Trotsky’s willingness to appear before HUAC can be seen as a breach of his own rules, the very rules that he himself had devised, and imbibed to his loyal followers. There are two possible explanations for this: (1) Following in Krivitsky’s path, Trotsky was getting ready to cross over to the other side, which is what Professor Chase has been inferring all along; or (2) Trotsky is employing a subtlety of the Dialectic. He is a Great Leader, just like Lenin, and therefore is permitted to take a sudden and unexpected tack, even against the “infantile Leftism” of his own base.
The mutiny began in the SWP leadership circle, the Political Committee, with soon-to-be renegade James Burnham leading the charge. Which is highly ironic, since Burnham shortly went on to renounce the very concept of Dialectical Materialism and to make his peace with the American Empire, on the eve of World War II.
Sidebar: Note that SWP nomenclature is a bit different from the usual Leninist terms, perhaps reflecting the SWP’s old connections to the Second International plus a period of factional activity within the American Socialist Party. Hence, instead of the “Central Committee”, the SWP had their “National Committee” (which was elected by the entire memberhip). And instead of the “Politburo”, they had their “Political Committee”, which consisted of an elected (by Central Committee) core of leaders who guided the policy and made organizational decisions in between Party Plenums.
To modern people around today, all of this seems like Shadow Theater, having very little meaning in the real world. But it did not seem so at the time. The whole purpose and raison d’être of Marxist-Leninist cadre parties, was to keep themselves together and prepare for the next revolutionary opportunity. They were like an aging actress keeping herself in shape, as best she can, and waiting for her next big role. Like, if the United States had started to disintegrate during the Great Depression, and the Hoover government had resigned or been chased out by angry mobs, then the communist cadre organizations should be ready to step in, take over governmental functions, and start to build the new socialist society. That was the plan, at least.
But part of the “keeping self together” issue means remaining ideologically pure. You can’t just suddenly start making up your own ideology as you go along. There are rules and traditions! New events, as they arise, must be met with carefully-worked-out position papers in line with the Party’s core doctrines and values. What is our position on China? What is our position on Spain? What is our position on HUAC?
Hence, although it is easy to mock, this explains the intensity and desperation of debates and frequency of “splitting” on “principled issues”, especially among Trotskyist cadre. In my previous post I quoted the emotional appeal of those six “rank-and-file” SWP members who went over the heads of their own leadership and wrote to Trotsky directly, begging him not to appear before HUAC. Like Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, Trotsky should have taken some well-meaning advice offered to him. But no… He read the letter very carefully, but was unwavering in his decision. Hence, on 5 December 1939 Trotsky’s right-hand man Joseph Hansen duly appeared at the American consulate in Mexico City to ask them, how was it going with Trotsky’s temporary visa, since Trotsky needs to get himself to Austin Texas for his HUAC gig?
From Mormon to Communist Revolutionary
Joseph Leroy Hansen was born in 1910 into a struggling Mormon working-class family in Richfield, Utah. Hansen was the first member of his family who was able to attend college. During the Great Depression, he was radicalized and became a communist. During that era, newbie American communists had to choose between Stalinist and Trotskyist parties, both competing for the same customer base. Hansen’s biography is silent on the reason why he picked Trotsky over Stalin. He would have been a prime recruit for either side: of proletarian stock, who would feel at home organizing communist cells in the Merchant Fleet or Teamsters Union; but also a college-educated intellectual and highly literate; and a strong young buck of athletic and sporty build. He was perfect, in other words!
In 1937 Hansen and his wife Reba went to Mexico to meet Trotsky, and ended up staying on for three years, with Hansen serving as Trotsky’s personal secretary and bodyguard. Hansen was just outside the room when Trotsky was attacked by NKVD assassin Ramón Mercader, wielding the famous ice-pick, which he had opportunistically swiped from Trotsky’s kitchen. Along with another bodyguard (Charles Cornell), Hansen, hearing Trotsky’s screams, rushed into the room. They met a sight of blood and horror. The mortally wounded Trotsky had somehow pulled himself off the floor and was grappling with his assassin. Hansen launched himself at Mercader and floored him with several brutal punches to the face. Hansen and Cornell then proceeded to beat Mercader half to death, but were restrained by Trotsky’s pleas to spare the attacker’s life: “Please, Comrades… don’t kill him… We need him alive … we need to make him talk… find out who hired him…. (gasp).”
In the ensuing chaos, Hansen and Cornell somehow delivered Mercador to the Mexican police, thus proving that there are exceptions to the Trotskyite “Don’t snitch” rule. Mercader should consider himself lucky that he was handed over to the authorities and not left alone for five minutes to Hansen’s tender mercies.
Finishing up Hansen’s bio post-Trotsky with a generous quote from his wiki entry, which shows him to have remained on the socialist side of the aisle, despite a touch of oiliness in him that we shall see once we return from this flash-forward:
Hansen returned to the United States and started working as a merchant seaman. At this time, he became editor of the SWP’s newspaper, The Militant for a number of years. From 1940 to 1975, Joe Hansen served on the SWP’s National Committee. In 1950, he ran on the SWP ticket for U.S. Senator from New York. (….) Joseph Hansen strongly supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and wrote a book about it, Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution. A Marxist Appreciation. He visited Cuba together with Farrell Dobbs in the early 1960s. They were both active in launching of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
Which is très ironic, because Hansen would have been visiting Cuba during the exact same time that Assassin Mercader was living there (early 1960’s). What if the two men had actually met face to face in Havana? Perhaps a chance encounter of The Assassin and The Bodyguard who had once tried to beat this honorable NKVD agent into a pulp? This would be a playwriter’s dream. The Castro government, like all post-war Communist governments, counts itself on the Stalin line of the Schism and ritualistically rejects Trotskyism as counter-revolutionary; thus Castro took in Trotsky’s assassin with high honors as soon as the latter was parolled from Mexican prison. But, by the same token, Fidel must have known that Hansen was a Trotskyist, and yet he still allowed him in to Cuba. More delicious irony!
Hansen died in 1979, in New York City, ten years away from watching the Soviet Union collapse. Fate spared him that, at least, one thinks he would have been distressed at the spectacle of the world’s first socialist government dying an ignoble death. Hansen widow, Reba remained a member of the SWP until she died in 1990, just as Gorbachov-Yeltsin were planting their own ice-pick into the skull of the USSR.
Forty years earlier:
So, it’s December of 1939, and our sporty Joseph Hansen is waiting inside the American Consulate in Mexico City, having raised the awkward question of Trotsky’s visa. Trotsky needs to get to Austin to perform, like a dancing bear, in front of HUAC!
Professor Chase, because this is the whole mantra of his monograph, believes that Trotsky bucked his own party on this issue out of his desperate unrequited longing for American citizenship. That was his Holy Grail. He wanted to follow in Krivitsky’s path and make a spectacular defection. Of course, Krivitsky wasn’t also running an international party with thousands of followers who hung on his every word…. Minor detail!
And, by the way, Hansen came away empty-handed from his trip to the consulate. Professor Chase documents that Ambassador James B. Stewart, whom I mentioned in Part II-D of this series, was flummoxed when Hansen came strolling into his office. Stewart immediately dispatched a telegram to Adolf Berle, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, requesting “instructions”. Berle telegraphed back that Stewart should “delicately” deny Trotsky’s application for a visa. The oily-tongued Hansen tried to play the HUAC card, arguing with consulate personnel, that “nobody better than Trotsky” could explain the nature of the Third International to Senator Dies. This probably goes down in history as the (or a) low moment when Hansen crossed over the class line, in case anybody is keeping score. But once again, Fate saved everybody from themselves: Within a few days Senator Martin Dies simply annulled his invitation to Trotsky. The decision had been made, behind the scenes, by the American government.
Trotsky was no Krivitsky: Krivitsky had named names and exposed entire spy networks, all over Europe and the United Kingdom. Trotsky had never been a spy, and had been out of the real game for over a decade. All that Senator Dies could expect from him was the usual spouting of arcane Marxist doctrine.
[to be continued]