Ritual of Liquidation: The Case of the Moscow Trials

By Nathan C. Leites; Elsa Bernaut | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11 The Irrelevance of Motives

In their testimony the former Bolshevik leaders on trial largely presented their alleged past actions as those of conscious enemies: if they had not been moved by ambition and vengeance, they had aimed at the "restoration of capitalism" in the Soviet Union and at its defeat by foreign aggressors. These statements were of course untrue, and the defendants knew them to be untrue. Yet they often found it possible to accept the demand of the NKVD that they make such allegations about themselves. In order to understand this, we have to discuss in some detail Bolshevik conceptions of intent and effect in political action.

According to Bolshevik doctrine, the incorrectness of political action is not mitigated by the fact that it was undertaken with proper intentions; in such a case the intentions are merely "subjective pious wishes" which "in no way change the objective role" of the action. What matters is that "consciously or non-consciously (soznatel'no ili bessoznatel'no)," "intentionally or unintentionally," "in this or in that way (tak ili inache)" a Party member, or a group of Party members cease, in certain of their actions, to be tools of the Party (that is, of the ultimate realization of Communism). They become tools of the Party's enemies; there is no third possibility. With what conscious motives they become enemy tools is irrelevant, as what matters in a political actor is only his impact, the difference he will have made.1*

In 1906 Lenin addressed Plekhanov:

"But it is not at all a matter of your wishes, thoughts, good intentions. . . . What matters is the results. . . ." (The Victory of the Kadets and The Tasks of The Workers' Party.)2

In 1912 he discussed certain positions of "Liquidators":

"On the whole this is reformism. . . . Nothing is changed by the fact that Ivan or Peter, defending these views . . . regard themselves as Marxists.

"For the important matter is not the good intents (to the extent to which they exist), but the objective significance of this policy, that is, what results from it, cui prodest, to whom this policy is useful, which mill in fact this water serves to drive." ( Nevskaia Zvezda, August 26, 1912.)3

He restated this in 1913:

"It is not important which aims the liquidators pursue with their advocacy of an open party, which are their intents and views. That is a subjective question. It

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