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The February 1937 decision to purge

Early in 1937, a crucial meeting of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee took place. It decided that a purge was necessary and how it should be carried out. Stalin subsequently published an important document. At the time of the plenum, the police had gathered sufficient evidence to prove that Bukharin  was aware of the conspiratorial activities of the anti-Party groups unmasked during the trials of Zinoviev  and Pyatakov.  Bukharin  was confronted with these accusations during the plenum. Unlike the other groups, Bukharin's  group was at the very heart of the Party and his political influence was great.

Some claim that Stalin's report sounded the signal that set off `terror' and `arbitrary criminality'. Let us look at the real contents of this document.

His first thesis claimed that lack of revolutionary vigilance and political naïveté had spread throughout the Party. Kirov's  murder was the first serious warning, from which not all the necessary conclusions had been drawn. The trial of Zinoviev  and the Trotskyists  revealed that these elements were ready to do anything to destroy the régime. However, economic successes had created within the Party a feeling of self-satisfaction and victory. Cadres had forgotten capitalist encirclement and the increasing bitterness of the class struggle at the international level. Many had become submerged by little management questions and no longer preoccupied themselves with the major lines of national and international struggle.

Stalin said:

`Comrades, from the reports and the debates on these reports heard at this Plenum it is evident that we are dealing with the following three main facts.

`First, the wrecking, diversionists and espionage work of the agents of foreign countries, among who, a rather active role was played by the Trotskyites,  affected more or less all, or nearly all, our organisations --- economic, administrative and Party.

`Second, the agents of foreign countries, among them the Trotskyites,  not only penetrated into our lower organisations, but also into a number of responsible positions.

`Third, some of our leading comrades, at the centre and in the districts, not only failed to discern the real face of these wreckers, diversionists, spies and assassins, but proved to be so careless, complacent and naive that not infrequently they themselves helped to promote agents of foreign powers to responsible positions.'


Stalin, Report and Speech in Reply to Debate at the Plenum of the Central Committee of the C.P.S.U., p. 241.

From these remarks, Stalin drew two conclusions.

First, political credulity and naïveté had to be eliminated and revolutionary vigilance had to be reinforced. The remnants of the defeated exploiting classes would resort to sharper forms of class struggle and would clutch at the most desperate forms of struggle as the last resort of the doomed.


Ibid. , p. 264.

In 1956, in his Secret Report, Khrushchev  referred to this passage. He claimed that Stalin justified `mass terror' by putting forth the formulation that `as we march forward toward socialism class war must ... sharpen'.


Khrushchev,  op. cit. , p. S24.

This is a patent falsehood. The most `intense' class struggle was the generalized civil war that drew great masses against each other, as in 1918--1920. Stalin talked about the remnants of the old classes that, in a desperate situation, would resort to the sharpest forms of struggle: attacks, assassinations, sabotage.

Stalin's second conclusion was that to reinforce vigilance, the political education of Party cadres had to be improved. He proposed a political education system of four to eight months for all cadres, from cell leaders all the way to the highest leaders.

Stalin's first report, presented on March 3, focused on the ideological struggle so that members of the Central Committee could take note of the gravity of the situation and understand the scope of subversive work that had taken place within the Party. His speech on March 5 focused on other forms of deviation, particularly leftism and bureaucracy.

Stalin began by explicitly warning against the tendency to arbitrarily extend the purge and repression.

`Does that mean that we must strike at and uproot, not only real Trotskyites,  but also those who at some time or other wavered in the direction of Trotskyism  and then, long ago, abandoned Trotskyism;  not only those who, at some time or other, had occasion to walk down a street through which some Trotskyite  had passed? At all events, such voices were heard at this Plenum .... You cannot measure everyone with the same yardstick. Such a wholesale approach can only hinder the fight against the real Trotskyite  wreckers and spies.'


Stalin, op. cit. , p. 278.

In preparation for the war, the Party certainly had to be purged of infiltrated enemies; nevertheless, Stalin warned against an arbitrary extension of the purge, which would harm the struggle against the real enemies.

The Party was not just menaced by the subversive work of infiltrated enemies, but also by serious deviations by cadres, in particular the tendency to form closed cliques of friends and to cut oneself off from militants and from the masses through bureaucratic methods.

First, Stalin attacked the `family atmosphere', in which `there can be no place for criticism of defects in the work, or for self-criticism by leaders of the work'.


Ibid. , p. 280.

`Most often, workers are not chosen for objective reasons, but for causal, subjective, philistine, petty-bourgeois reasons. Most often, so-called acquaintances, friends, fellow-townsmen, personally devoted people, masters in the art of praising their chiefs are chosen.'


Ibid. , pp. 279--280.

Finally, Stalin criticized bureaucracy, which, on certain questions, was `positively unprecedented'.


Ibid. , p. 296.

During investigations, many ordinary workers were excluded from the Party for `passivity'. Most of these expulsions were not justified and should have been annuled a long time ago. Yet, many leaders held a bureaucratic attitude towards these unjustly expelled Communists.


Ibid. , p. 294.

`(S)ome of our Party leaders suffer from a lack of concern for people, for members of the Party, for workers .... because they have no individual approach in appraising Party members and Party workers they usually act in a haphazard way .... only those who are in fact profoundly anti-Party can have such an approach to members of the Party.'


Ibid. , pp. 292--293.

Bureucracy also prevented Party leaders from learning from the masses. Nevertheless, to correctly lead the Party and the country, Communist leaders had to base themselves on the experiences of the masses.

Finally, bureaucracy made the control of leaders by Party masses impossible. Leaders had to report on their work at conferences and listen to criticisms from their base. During elections, several candidates had to be presented and, after a discussion of each, the vote should take place with a secret ballot.


Ibid. , pp. 282--283.

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Fri Aug 25 09:03:42 PDT 1995