Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Man Who Was Friday (3) Triumph and Tragedy

HIS OLD FRIENDS. Lenin and Krupskaya. Lenin's widow protested when secret police tried to frame Piatnitsky. But she was unable to save him from the Great Purge.

Abroad again, Piatnitsky went to Liepzig, where the German Social Democrats' presses printed the Russians' literature. Once again it was his job to organise the smuggling. In 1912 he helped organise the Bolsheviks' conference in Prague. Lenin and Krupskaya visited him in Liepzig. The following summer he was invited to stay with them near Zakopane, and went hiking with Lenin in the Tatra mountains. The friends had their disagreements. Lenin ribbed Piatnitsky over his respect for the German Social Democrats, Piatnitsky warned Lenin not to trust Malinowski (who was later proven to be a police agent).

In 1914, having trained as an electrical engineer, Piatnitsky returned to Russia and took a job with the Siemens company in Moscow. They sent him to work in Samara, on a tramway project. The socialists there, Menshevik and Bolshevik, had a recreational society as a cover for political lectures. But once again the authorities were on Piatnitsky's trail, armed with a photograph which he guessed an informer called Zhitomirsky had supplied. Osip was arrested and sent to a fortress prison, and then away to a remote valley in Siberia.

He was out in the wilds on March 1917 when he heard that Czar Nicholas II had been overthrown. Somehow he reached Moscow, reported for party duty, and found work with the railway union. A few years after the revolution, party members were asked to write up their stories. Piatnitsky's account was published in 1925 and translated into German and French before it was published in English by Martin Lawrence as Memoirs of a Bolshevik, and in the United States bv International Publishers (1933).

The Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Moscow enthused in a preface: 'These Memoirs should serve as an excellent material for training our younger generation of workers who are joining the Communist Party. In this respect Comrade Piatnitsky's book might serve as a sort of textbook, and an excellent text book at that, which would help our comrades abroad, who are carrying on their revolutionary work in capitalist countries, to learn the methods of organising underground work and help them to become model Bolshevik party members.'

With its tales of true adventure, and the author's frankness and humour, Memoirs of a Bolshevik is also an enjoyable read. Yet for three quarters of a century it has been kept out of print. The Bund crops up repeatedly in the book, and not just in Osip's native Lithuania where it was particularly strong. Another thing that strikes the reader is how, despite differences and polemics, factions could work together against the autocratic regime, whether planning prison breaks, smuggling papers, or fighting off attacks.

On the eve of the First World War, Piatnitsky found that Zhitomirsky, whom he suspected was a police agent, had been investigated by a three-person committee, comprising one Bolshevik, one Menshevik and one Bundist. Such procedure might sound like common sense, but those of us who have experienced the 57 varieties of the British Left will know that sense is rarely common, and co-operation less so.

What is remarkable about Piatnitsky's book is its timing and its provenance. In the late 1920s, along with brutal forced collectivisation in the Soviet Union, came a period when revolutionary willpower could supposedly conquer everything -environmental, economic, or political. Soviet railway engineers who warned of limits on how much freight their system could carry were condemned as saboteurs. The 1929 crash was seen as the final crisis of capitalism. Failure to carry out revolution was the result of bad leadership. Any element of truth in this was distorted by Stalin, to imply not theoretical critique, but denunciations of left-wing opponents, even potential allies, as the worst-possible enemy.

'Fascism is the military organisation of the bourgeoisie, which leans upon Social Democracy...,' proclaimed Stalin, but'Social Democracy, objectively speaking is the moderate wing of Fascism!' If anyone thought this crude, over the top, or even contradictory, they knew better than to risk voicing their doubts and being branded a 'Trotskyist'. Social democrats and the unions they still led were dubbed 'social fascist', and left-wingers like the British Independent Labour Party (1LP), were 'left social fascists', a more insidious variety.

In Britain, the Communist Party had been growing since the 1926 General Strike and Ramsay Macdonald's abandonment of Labour. It had limited success with breakaway 'red' unions, and repelled valuable friends by its attack on the Left. In Poland, Communist Party members attacked the Bund and its institutions, as 'social fascist', thereby antagonising the very workers with whom they needed to unite in the fight against fascism.

In Germany, the Communist Party was bigger. Its hostility to the Social Democrats, seen as betraying the November 1918 revolution, was understandable. But in the face of Hitler's rise to power, it was suicidal. The Depression made workers who were still in the factories cling tightly to their jobs and their Social Democratic unions, while the Communists were outside competing with the Nazis for support from the unemployed.

At elections in May 1928 the Social Democrats gained 29% of the vote and the Communist Party 10.6%. The Nazis that year had a mere 2.6%. Two years and a slump later, the Social Democrat vote in September 1930 was down to 24.5%, while the Communists got 13.1%. But the Nazi vote had risen alarmingly to 18.3%. Had the two workers' parties combined their strengths, they could have gained wider support and blocked the Nazis on the streets as well as in the polling booths. The gap between them became the gateway through which Hitler marched, to destroy both.

All this time Osip Piatnitsky, promoted into the secretariat of the Communist International, had loyally transmitted the line to the German party and others. As treasurer, and head of the inner OMS, with a trusted person in each party, he could see they complied.

In 1928 he authored a paper snappily entitled 'The Bolshevisation of the Communist Parties of the Capitalist Countries by Eradication of the Social Democratic Tradition'. It was meant to turn them into efficient disciplined revolutionary organisations with militant workplace cells, modelled on an idealised Bolshevik Party, which Piatnitsky's memoirs show, never existed. In reality. 'Bolshevisation1 was about moulding the Comintern and its parties into tools of the Russian state. Stalin came to despise them as ineffective tools, to be disposed of when he could.

Even after Hitler took power in 1933, Piatnitsky's pamphlet 'The Current Situation in Germany', assured readers that the fascists would not last, that workers were resisting, and the Communist Party growing. Had the Nazis attacked social democracy too? They just wanted to give their own supporters good jobs. Of course the Party line had been right.

When workers experiencing the difference between fascism and democracy said there should he a united front, the Communist Party had offered one 'from below'. If the Social Democrat workers did not accept, that was because the leaders in whom they still had illusions held them back. Piatnitsky did admit mistakes. The party should lave made more of the national burden which workers bore. If they just repeated that Social Democrats were 'social fascists'", the Social Democrat workers felt affronted and concluded the Communist Party was not serious about unity.

This came close to what Trotsky had said, but Piatnitsky would not admit that Trotsky had been right. In his Memoirs, recalling Trotsky's past opposition to Lenin, he branded him a 'Liquidator'. As Comintern treasurer he could withold funding from the Canadian CP whose leaders didn't take up the fight against 'Trotskyism'. His criticism of the German party leaders did not acknowledge that they had faithfully followed the Moscow line.

All the same, Piatnitsky remained too honest to be trusted in his Comintern job. There was worse to ccme. As the Soviet leadership lurched towards 'popular front' diplomacy, with its beautifully democratic 1936 constitution, it also launched the purges and show trials in which lifelong communists 'confessed' to being in league with Hitler, the British or whoever, in plots to assassinate Stalin and destroy the Soviet Union.

Piatnitsky was no oppositionist, but he refused to accept the stories of ever widening conspiracies. He knew some of the accused, and had mentioned them in his Memoirs. At a party plenum he accused the NKVD secret police of fabricating evidence and using illegal methods to obtain confessions. Lazar Kaganovich and other Politburo members surrounded him afterwards, begging him to retract, but Piatnitsky replied that he had expressed his opinion and would not withdraw it.

Yezhov, the chief of the NKVD, alleged that Piatnitsky had been a provocateur in the pay of the Czarist secret police. But Piatnitsky was not arrested. He challenged Yezhov to confront him with evidence. Meanwhile the Gestapo and Russian White Guard officers abroad surreptitiously fed the Soviet authorities with material to be used against Piatnitsky. Piatnitsky underwent 220 hours of harsh interrogation but refused to confess anything, instead writing a letter to the Politburo protesting his innocence and loyalty as a communist.

At a night meeting in the Kremlin in May 1938, on Stalin's initiative, they produced a 'witness' from jail to testify that Piatnitsky had been plotting. 'He's lying! He is a fascist, he is a scoundrel!' exclaimed Lenin's widow Krupskaya. 'You know Piatnitsky well, he is after all the most honest man. Lenin loved and respected him very much.'

On 19th June 1938, Piatnitsky was accused of introuducing Trotskyist formulations' into Marxist literature - not quite putting glass in the butter -and of infiltrating Trotskyists into the Comintern. But without his confession to these dastardly crimes the authorities were frustrated in their plans to follow up their trials and purges of Bolsheviks and Red Army commanders with a Comintern trial. This did not stop them locking up many foreign militants like the Invergordon naval mutineer Len Wincott, or executing others, including British Communist Rose Cohen. But British CP leader Harry Politt, who made discreet inquiries in Moscow in 1938 about Rose Cohen's fate, may have been spared in the wake of it because Osip Piatnitsky, being tortured at the time, refused to 'confess'. Piatnitsky was finally executed on 30th October 1939. Yezhov, who had himself been purged in March that year was executed a few months later.

Piatnitsky was among those officially rehabilitated following Khrushev's 'secret speech' to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1956. But Memoirs of a Bolshevik has still not been republished.

I don't know why.

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