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Ernest Erber

Pros and Cons: A Critical View on Civil Rights for Stalinists

Should We Defend the 12 Indicted CP Leaders?

(13 September 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 37, 13 September 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The indictment of the national leaders of the Communist Party by a grand jury that heard the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, confessed former agent of the Russian spy apparatus, indicates that the federal prosecutors will seek to link the defendants to espionage activities, in addition to the charge of conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence. This line of attack on the part of the government raises a problem for the defenders of civil liberties that is not easily resolved today.

The radical movement has, in the past, proceeded on the formula that it was obliged to defend the civil liberties of all political tendencies, except the fascists. Whereas the Marxists never called upon the government to act against fascist organizations and periodicals, it never rallied to the defense of the latter when they were prosecuted. The Marxists differed in this respect from the American Civil Liberties Union’s point of view, which demanded civil rights for everyone, including fascists.

During the time when the CP was already a bureaucratic, monolithic organisation that waged a war of “rule or ruin” against all its rivals but was yet considered basically a labor organisation, Marxists defended the civil liberties of the Stalinists without reservations. Today our Workers Party no longer finds it possible to consider the CP a workers’ party. We have designated it in official resolutions as a totalitarian, anti-socialist and anti-working-class party that aims to destroy the civil liberties of everyone and establish its own rule on the Russian model of a slave state.

Along with this designation we have recognized that the CP bases itself primarily upon the working class and makes the labor movement the main arena of its operations. As a result, an attack upon the CP can often be a simultaneous attack upon a section of the labor movement, especially when the prosecution is guided by reactionaries who have as little use for progressive unionism as for the CP.

We have avoided, therefore, taking a stand against defending the civil liberties of individuals because they are Stalinists. Where the defense of a Stalinist official of a trade union is a defense of the union itself, the Stalinist politics of the official must not be a barrier to rallying to his defense. However, do the interests of the labor movement demand the defense of the arrested leaders of the CP in the present case?

Compares Case of Fascists

The argument has been made that though the conduct and aims of the CP are such as to make them undeserving of civil rights, the denial of their civil rights would constitute a reactionary victory and a threat to the civil rights of all other political minorities. In my opinion, this argument is not different from the traditional position of the ACLU, and its logical application by one who believes the CP to be a totalitarian organization must lead to the defense of the civil liberties of fascists as well.

Otherwise one would have to make an exception for the CP solely on grounds that it camouflages itself as a socialist and labor organization and, therefore, has the external appearances of a genuine labor and socialist movement. In this case, one ends up by making a virtue of the CP’s worst vice, its deceitful misrepresentation of iteself. Such a position, therefore, contradicts what should be the main task of Marxists today in relation to Stalinism, that is, exposing its fraudulent claim to being part of labor’s great struggle for the emancipation of humanity.

We have followed a policy for some years now of disregarding the fate of the known agents of the GPU (the Russian secret police) when they were arrested by capitalist governments. The latest instance is the case of Gerhart Eisler. The latter’s role as an operative in the Kremlin’s international network is well known. We took the position that his imprisonment or deportation was no concern of the American working class. The question that arises, however, is whether a genuine distinction can be made between an Eisler and a Foster.

All the evidence that is available (and it is considerable) establishes that it is impossible to make a clear-cut distinction between the GPU apparatus and that of the Stalinist parties. That is why the GPU is unlike any other intelligence service in the world, with the possible exception of the relationship between the Jesuit order and the Catholic Church as a whole.

GPU and Communist Parties

The Russian state is not merely a police state in the traditional sense of a state that maintains itself through police powers. The Stalin state is a police state because the GPU is its very essence. The GPU regulates life in Russia in the coal mines, in the theater, in the scientific laboratories, in the military academies, in the Orthodox Church, in academic lecture halls, in the party cells, in the diplomatic corps – in fact, wherever two Russians get together for any purpose. The international Stalinist movement, now doing business as the Cominform, is merely an arm of the Stalinist state. If the GPU is the essence of the Russian state, it is likewise the essence of the international Stalinist movement.

If there is a division in Stalin’s international apparatus between specialists in espionage and specialists in political infiltration, the division exists only in the interests of efficiency. Eisler and Golos (Bentley’s immediate superior) operated as part of the same international machine, though functioning in different spheres, Eisler was a specialist in politics and gave orders to Browder, while Golos was a specialist in espionage and gave orders to a motley crew of agents.

However, the cadres that served Eisler and those that served Golos were often the same and were always interchangeable. It is a notorious fact that even public leaders in the CP “disappear” for whole stretches from open activity while on secret GPU missions, either within the country or abroad. Trotsky accused Duclos of being the head of the GPU in France at a time when the latter was vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. At another time, Trotsky flatly stated that the national leaders of every CP were part of the GPU apparatus.

To say that no clear-cut distinction can be made between the GPU and the CP is not the same as saying that they are one and the same thing. Obviously the millions of members of the Stalinist parties are not conscious agents of the GPU. Yet they belong to organizations that are merely extensions of the GPU.

As such even the lowliest rank-and-file member is utilized to facilitate the work of the GPU, even though he is rarely aware of it. One of the Swiss Stalinists who played an important role in the murder of Ignace Reiss claimed she was told that Reiss was an arms runner for Franco and willingly played her part as a service to the anti-fascist cause. Several of the Stalinists caught up in the GPU passport ring that was exposed as a result of the Robinson-Rubens case in 1939 said they were under the impression that the fake passports were being used to send volunteers to fight in Spain.

When a Stalinist fraction chairman in an industrial plant or engineering office sends in detailed reports on production he assumes it is for the trade-union department of the CP. When Stalinists in the army keep the party informed of their whereabouts and activities of their units, they assume it serves Stalinist propaganda among the troops. Yet all such information is collated and channelized to the proper authorities in GPU headquarters in the Lubyanka.

Nature of Stalinist Spying

Is such espionage immoral in itself? Obviously not. It depends upon whom it serves and against whom it is directed. Such a network of espionage by anti-fascists in Hitler’s industry and army would have won the approval of democrats everywhere. Similarly, such activity in Stalin’s industry and army by a democratic opposition would likewise receive the approval of all democrats today.

What is immoral about the espionage of the Stalinists is that (a) it cloaks itself in the garments of socialism and liberty in order to advance the interests of totalitarianism and slavery; and (b) it debauches and corrupts the labor movement and seeks to turn it into an agency of espionage on behalf of a power that destroys everything the labor movement stands for.

To say that the American intelligence services seek to corrupt democratic political movements behind the Iron Curtain and to turn them into agencies of American espionage is as specious as the Stalinist reference to lynching in the South whenever one raises the question of slave labor in Russia. The attempt of the American OSS to subordinate democratic opposition movements in Stalinist countries to American strategic aims must be exposed for what it is and fought. However, it cannot serve as a cause for disregarding the role of the GPU in the United States and elsewhere, including those of its activities that are not specifically directed against its socialist opponents.

Mickolaczyk, the former leader of the legal opposition to the Stalinist government of Poland, was an agent of Anglo-American designs in Eastern Europe. Socialists who supported his fight against the Stalinist regime had the duty of combatting his efforts to convert the peasant and socialist opposition into a tool of Anglo-American imperialism. Yet his pro-Anglo-American role was not a bar to supporting his struggle against Stalinist totalitarianism. Our press repeated this upon innumerable occasions in its articles on the Polish situation.

However, one cannot take the same attitude toward totalitarian agents, whether fascist or Stalinist, operating in democratic countries. What a Poland ruled by a Mickolaczyk would eventually look like we don’t know. Even if we assume it would revert back to the Poland of the infamous “colonels” of the 30s, the overthrow of the present regime by Mickolaczyk forces would be a huge step forward that would open new prospects for the workers and peasants. However, a France ruled by a Duclos or a United States ruled by a Foster would in no wise be a step forward. On the contrary, it would be a catastrophe of historic dimensions.

It is my opinion that the socialist and labor movement has no obligation whatsoever to defend the leaders of the CP in the present case, no more so that they had in the case of Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund. Foster, Dennis et al. are not martyred labor leaders; they are the arrested leaders of the Russian-American Bund.

We do have the obligation of fighting all reactionary legislation that in any way curtails civil liberties. Among such laws is the Smith Gag Act. However, the fact that fascists were convicted under laws we opposed was no basis for our rallying to their defense. We owe no more defense to the Stalinists indicted under the Smith Act than we owed to Eisler on grounds that aliens should have the same political liberties as citizens. Our struggle to repeal the Smith Act must go on, but it must not be linked to the defense of the arrested Stalinists.

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