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Steiner P. “Edible” revolutionaries: The Rudolf Slánský trial as a romance [Full text]

Russian version: Штайнер П. «Съедобные» революционеры: процесс Рудольфа Сланского как роман
University of Pennsylvania, USA

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"Revolution is like Saturn", observed Danton in Georg Büchner's play with the eponymous title, "it devours its own children". Of the many ironies this catchy quip triggers, article focuses on the historical: the reiteration of a saturnal paedophagy in time. And the show trial of Rudolf Slánský, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and thirteen co-defendants in 1952 that resulted in eleven death penalties provides ample material for such a study.

The paper proceeds from Karl Marx's insight that historical irony is a product of geneстric catachresis: a tragic event turning comic when repeated for a second time. Which begs the obvious question: to which genre does a confessional trial belong?

Marx's master story about the downfall of humankind from primitive communism to various forms of a classed society and its ascent to the classless harmony of a communist future exhibits the basic characteristics of a romance. This generic matrix is further enhanced by Vladimir Lenin's claim that socialist revolution is above all an identity quest: the recognition by the proletariat of their historical role and their acting accordingly. The self-confessions of Slánský and his fellow conspirators actualize this romantic script. They are records of a heroic struggle against the false consciousness to which the defendants previously had succumbed, culminating in their (re)discovery of true class awareness, an end to their embarrassing alienation from the history of humankind as outlined in the Marxist narrative.

Keywords: Danton's irony, false confession, proletariat identity


Die Revolution its wie Saturn, sie frißt ihre eignen Kinder.
Georg Büchner, Dantons Tod


"Revolution is like Saturn, it eats its own children", says Danton when Lacroix warns him that Robespierre and his like is ready to sacrifice him on the altar of revolution. Yet, Danton is unfazed by this grave threat for, as he tells his friend, "they will never dare" [Büchner, 1971, p. 1]. He was wrong; dare they did. True, they allowed him to tell the Revolutionary Tribunal his side of the story, to flaunt in front of his accusers the numerous services that he had rendered to the common cause, to warn France about approaching dictatorship. To no avail. The jury was rigged and the simile actualized. The blade of the guillotine fell on his neck.

Büchner's alimentative image is striking for many reasons. What puzzled me ever since I stumbled upon it was the question of by which aperture the ingested revolutionaries would exit their progenitor. Would they do so emetically, like Jonah after three nights in the belly of the beast, or scatologically, in a manner vaguely resembling Dante's leaving Hell along, so to speak, the lower part of Satan's body [Frye, 1976, p. 119][1]. Let me leave this puzzle aside, for there trope. At one level, it speaks of the limits of human understanding: of a marked reversal of fortune, of an astonishing divergence of expectation from actual outcome, of a man who drew his sword in the name of "égalité"only to fall upon this same sword. As if, to recast Bertolt Brecht's famous aporia, the more innocent he was, the more he deserved to be executed [Hook, 1955, p. 493][2]. Brecht's adage made amidst the confessional trials taking place in Moscow in the 1930s brings to mind a second irony that the image of saturnal paedophagy evokes. It could be termed historical. Danton is not the only revolutionary hoisted by his own petard. The same has happened many times since, for example in 1952 to the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Rudolf Slánský and thirteen of his co-defendants – prominent members of the local political establishment. Motivated by a desire for social justice they succeeded in installing people's democracy in their homeland in 1948 only to die at the hands of their comrades on December 3, 1952. Is this a paradox of historical materialists turning a deaf ear to lessons of the past? Or, to turn the screw of irony a notch up, did Slánský & Co. learn only too well from Danton's case the futility of defending oneself in front of a state court and, therefore, readily confess to all the crimes with which they were charged? It is the historical irony that provides the most convenient gateway for my discussion.

According to Marx's famous dictum erroneously ascribed by its author to Hegel, a historical irony is a particular instance of generic catachresis. "Hegel remarks somewhere", wrote the man who on occasion refused to call himself a Marxist, "that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce" [Marx / Engels Collected Works (further as MECW), 1975–2004; Assoun, 1978; Mazlich, 1972, p. 335–337] [3]. Can this historiographic insight be applied to the material at hand? Despite its alluring simplicity this is a hard question to entertain because the objects to be compared are not at all alike. Büchner's play is indeed classified as tragedy by some critics because its plot follows the norms of this genre [Szondi, 2002, p. 95][4]. But the Slánský trial is above all a political event generated by a specific ideological "deep structure" – the intersection of many partial "texts", the trial itself, the propagandist campaign surrounding it, public opinion expressed in various ways, as well as the defendants' private reactions to their predicament – leaving a wound in the collective memory that is not fully healed even today. Can anything like this be subsumed under a single generic umbrella?

All this said, I cannot but notice that the Slánský trial is a curiously centripetal event. It is by no means an ordinary court transaction driven by the contingencies of an adversarial situation whose outcome is uncertain to the very end. This was as scripted an event as any dramatic play from its inception to the very end, a public spectacle whose overall effect was calculated by its collective author well in advance. All participants, whether prosecutors, defendants, or observers, speak alike, share the same imagination, impart a similar message. Like its aesthetic counterpart, this ideological fiction, too, tells a story which is shaped by narrative devices that inform all texts belonging to a specific genre.

So what is the generic rubric befitting the Slánský trial? Let me answer this question by returning to Marx's dictum quoted above. It seems to me that this reference to literary genres was not mere accident. Marx, it seems, was well aware of the persuasive power wielded by story telling and he shaped his philosophy of history accordingly [Jameson, 1989, p. 105; Brooks, 1985, p. 12][5]. His is a well-formed narrative whose structure can be described in terms of its constitutive actants, as Algirdas Greimas humorously illustrated [Greimas, 1983, p. 208]:

Subject – man,
Object – classless society,
Sender – history,
Receiver – mankind,
Opponent – bourgeois class,
Helper – working class.

But how are these actants correlated in time, how did Marx emplot his(s)tory? It is not difficult to recognize in it the genre of romance which, according to Northrop Frye's most general definition, is a narrative concerned with "man's vision of his own life as a quest" fueled by his keen desire to transcend the unsatisfactory situation to which he is confined [Northrop Frye, 1976, p. 15]. These stories are constructed around disrupted harmonies to be subsequently realigned and the mental landscape that these tales project reflects this fact. They are made up of clear-cut polar oppositions where the good guys are better than sliced bread and the villains worse than Saddam Hussein. A romance begins with its hero's fall from a happy and a secure setting into a world of suffering and horror. His / her identity is questioned – the hero is confused, bewitched, metamor­phosed – only to be re-asserted as genuine at the end of the story. Through this happy return to the beginning, however, the narrative potential of romance is exhausted. Truth, justice or beauty has triumphed over lie, injustice or ugliness, and there is nothing more to speak about. The romance ends.

History according to Marx and Engels follows this romantic emplotment rather closely though its hero is not one but many: humankind in its entirety. Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a society that produced only as much as it could consume so its members lived in peace with each other. But, alas, increased productivity created a surplus and its unequal distribution spoiled everything. A division of labor followed, together with a host of other undesirable phenomena: alienation, exploitation, etc., etc. Good men and women became slaves, serfs, or proletarians all depending on the socio-economic formation into which they were born. As bad as it looks, however, Marx's story has its happy ending. The inescapable proletarian revolution will eventually come to wrest the means of production away from those who usurped them and abolish all private property. And since the division of humankind into antagonistic classes was begun by the skewed distribution of surplus, in a classless society people will be rewarded solely on the basis of their natural needs. Only then will initial harmony return, albeit on a dialectically higher level.

Lenin's revision of Marx's basic design, made in his What Is to Be Done? (1902), adds additional romantic overlays to the scheme. He, first of all, conceived of revolution as a quest for self-identity. A roadblock hindering the progress, his argument went, is the proletariat's unawareness of its signal historical role. And its spontane­ous­ striving for immediate economic gains (shorter work hours, higher salaries) by ameliorating social inequities in fact prolongs the existence of retrograde capitalism instead of overthrowing it. The only way to bring about the desired revolutionary change, Lenin argued, is to inculcate the minds of the masses with socialist ideology, the Marxian romance of their own ascension. To raise them from their self-oblivion, to make them conscious of what they really are: not passive objects of history but its ultimate makers. Without such a revolution in people's minds actual social revolution is impossible.

The split of the Russian Social Democratic Party into reformist Mensheviks and revolution­ary Bolsheviks heralded by Lenin's book was a powerful re-affirmation of the Manichean view of the world so proper to the genre of romance. Those striving toward gradual improvement in the working class' situation were diverting the proletariat from its destined revolutionary path and so they were nothing but its traitors, unwitting assistants of the oppressors. Bolshevik logic, their leader declared, is disjunctive: "the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course" [Lenin, 1969, p. 40–41]. Such a black-and-white picture of the world, I am ready to admit, might appear quite shallow in every conceivable respect, yet it is not entirely void of appeal. By ridding decision-making of all-embarrass­ing doubts or incomprehensible dilemmas, it corre­sponds to that fundamental human yearning for pure and simple justice, from which, Frye reminds us, the genre of romance draws its inspiration.

But how can one raise the proletariat from its spontaneous lethargy, impute to it genuine class-consciousness? Only through story telling, it seems – the Communist Party doing the talking. Workers are aware of their wretched social situation though only instinctually, in an uncogitated manner. In considering Marx's master narrative the oppressed and downtrodden match their immediate frustrations to this transcendental historical scheme. And in realizing the obvious correspondence the proletarians become aware of their true class interests. Individual trauma, so the story goes, is transformed into organized political action. The tactic is clear, yet its implementation is not. Obviously, hungry and tired workers whose education might be quite limited do not enthuse over the abstruse philosophical points with which Marx's texts abound. Secondary stories, which convey the message in a more comprehensible way, are necessary. The mythical, to use Frye's language, must be supplemented with "hymns to the gods and encomia on virtuous men" [Frye, 1976, p. 21], or, more to the point, the theory of history with Party propaganda. And it is the trope of personification which Marx, scoffing at the political impotency of speculative German philosophy, chose as the chief poetic device for forging idle verbal critique into an effective revolutionary weapon. "Theory", he insisted, "becomes a material force once it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp things by the root. But for man the root is man himself" [MECW, p.182][6].

The life-stories of men and women by which Marx-Leninist fictions complement their underlying theory were of two kinds. On the one hand, synaxaria of ideal Communist heroes, best instantiated by the Communist anti-Nazi resistance member Julius Fučík's Notes from the Gallows. This is a detailed account of Fučík's captivity by the Gestapo which he managed to have smuggled out of his Prague prison before being dispatched to Germany for beheading. The final sentence of this text, "People, I loved you, watch"! together with its author's portrait were, undoubtedly, the most emblematic images of Stalinist Czechoslovakia [Fuchik, 1948, p. 112][9]. At the opposite pole stand confessional trials presenting absolute villainy, epitomized locally by the Slánskýites. Theirs were the lives of men alienated from the working class by their bourgeois origins (only two Slánskýites could boast of a proletarian pedigree), their "cosmopolitan" upbringing (only three were Gentiles) and their prolonged stay in the West (seven of fourteen), inching inexorably toward treason and culminating in their confessions. Such stories can be classified as demonographies, compendia of personal characteristics, social behavior and attitudes that through the lens of their time were deemed beyond the pale. Yet, in those days when, according to Kundera, "Dichter und Henker" [Finkielkraut, 1982]. made an inseparable pair, ideological fiction like a fabulous Janus displayed two opposite faces: its synaxaria and demonographies are like Siamese twins attached to each other head-to-tail. As for as values presented, The Trial of the Leadership of the Anti-State Conspiratorial Centre Headed by Rudolf Slánský is a mirror image of Fučík's Reportage. Both are plotted as romances.

According to Frye, such narratives must begin with a fall from a happy, harmonious past to an unbearable presence. This occurs in both texts under inspection in the form of a brief flashback. In Fučík's story, the prisoners awaiting interrogation in the anteroom of the Gestapo headquarters in Prague project onto the yellowish wall at which they must stare a "film of one's mother, wife or children" which seems lost forever [Oborsky, 1952, p. 7].

The indictment of the fourteen anti-state conspirators that begins their trial methodically lists the prestigious political positions these men had occupied: "secretary general of the CPCS Central Committee", "minister of foreign affairs", "deputy minister of national security". But always with the caveat “former” that clearly relegates any prestige to the past. Tragic downfall in romance is accompanied by the occlusion of the hero's identity. Fučík is trudging along the streets of Prague in the company of a Gestapo agent – bait in the Nazi trap for snaring résistance fighters still at large. Meritorious party functionaries turn into agents of the bourgeoisie, meta-morphing, according to the Party daily, from human beings into "rats whose world is mud and reeking, putrid feculence" [Oborsky, 1952, p. 7].

Yet, the romantic genre requires that the descent stop at some point and change into ascent. The protagonist must ultimately recoup his/her genuine identity, the romance must culminate with a happy ending. But how can this be achieved in stories ending with the hero's death? Fučík's narrative offers a solution. Only at the very end of The Reportage does the author reveal to the reader his true, heroic face. Even in prison he continued fighting the Nazis. His seeming collaboration with the Gestapo was just a high-stake game that enabled him to feed his captors false information about the résitance, thus saving some of his comrades' lives. Though physically mortal, Fučík dedicated his life to a cause which transcended individual existence and, in this way, overcame the confines of his limited being. But it was not just through heroism that Fučík fooled death but, above all through his narrative about it. The Reportage's immortality rests on the one hand in Fučík's ability to present an ideal image of himself that is beyond Thánatos's reach and, on the other hand, in a rhetorical gesture that closes the gap between the author and his future audience. "If the hangman's noose strangles [me] before I finish", Fučík wrote in the introduction to The Reportage, "millions remain to write its ‘happy ending'" [Ibid. P. 14]. By empowering the reader to bring the narrative to an appropriate conclusion, the author appeals to his/her sense of ideological appurtenance and historical devoir. The man who is to be soon executed extends his hand to those who come after him, charging them to continue in the transpersonal mission for which he sacrificed his life.

Though allegedly on the other side of the proverbial barricade from Fučík, given the perspective of the romantic plot and its resolution the anti-state conspirators did not behave very differently from him. They too revealed a truth that hitherto had remained hidden. Like Fučík, they led an inauthentic existence pretending to be what they were not. But while his cunning was a weapon against reactionary violence, they used fraud to obstruct the force of progress. And only in police custody did they realize that their betrayal of the Party was more than a garden-variety case of political disloyalty but the betrayal of their true human selves. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Iliych, only at the very end did they glimpse the light of truth. But what a joy despite its brevity! In the last letter to his family written on the eve of his execution Rudolf Margolis described his rebirth in the following way: "This time in detention has been a great education for me even though, unfortunately, it came too late. All the personnel with whom I have been in contact, wardens and interrogators, have behaved wonderfully toward me. I was their enemy but they always saw in me a human being who was not born an enemy but became one under the influence of class relations. Only here have I fully recognized the futility of my previous petit bourgeois life in contrast to the strength and purposeful­ness of the working class building a new life" [Kaplan, 1990, p. 266]. Confessing, then, (according to the romantic script) was like awakening from a bad dream, tearing off a false mask, a return to a genuine, integral identity.

Is this the happy ending of a confessional trial? Not entirely. The hero of the Communist romance is not an isolated individual but a collective being, so a selfishly existential solution would not do. It is not enough to admit one's own guilt. One must consciously join the noble effort to eliminate other internal enemies from the Party. This is how Ludvík Frejka judged his contribution to the revolutionary cause in his letter to the Chairman of the CP and President of the Republic, Klement Gottwald (Frejka's family publicly renounced him and so he did not write them): "I held onto this false subjective consciousness of who I am and what my intentions were ten months ago when I was first arrested. I couldn't understand it at the beginning. But after four days or so, I saw that you, esteemed Mr. [!] President, obviously regarded me as a villain and a traitor, and that this too, was the opinion of [the state] security who in my eyes represented the working people. At that point I realized that my subjective ideas as to who I am and what I wanted must be false. From that day on I acted like the thirty-year veteran of the labor movement that I am and – please believe me, Mr. President – I sincerely and mercilessly adopted the objective position of the Czechoslovak working people. I forced myself to view all my activities through the eyes of my interrogators.... I just hope that my attitude during interrogation and in court, in baring all I knew about myself and others in what little time there was, contributed at least somewhat to restoring economic planning and accelerating the construction of socialism. I hope I thereby contributed at least a little to the struggle for peace and that my behavior in the last ten months will be considered my finest" [Ibid. P. 261–262].

In the Marxist-Leninist romance the protagonist's return to his/her original, unproblematic identity often results in his/her quietus. As a happy ending, though, such a death must be represented as a negation of a death: a joyful self-sacrifice that helps the collectivity and transcends the individual's demise. Fučík's Reportage is quite eloquent in this respect. Yet, in a seeming paradox, even ex-communicated Communists cannot die on gallows without communicating such a message. The laws of the genre simply do not permit it! Even they, if only in their lives' finale, join the rank of fighters for a better future, albeit just as a poignant exemplum to those who might be led astray. This is exactly how André Simon envisioned his "postmortem existence" when bidding the Prosecutor not to spare his life: "I was a writer. According to a beautiful formulation, a writer is an engineer of human souls. What kind of an engineer was I when I poisoned souls? An engineer of souls like me belongs to the gallows. The only service that I can still render is to be a reminder to those whose origins, characters, and temperament might tempt them to take the same hellish path which I took. The sterner the punishment, the greater the warning" [Proces s vedením ... , 1953, p. 229].

Simone, alas, did not finish his plea with an exhortation to humankind to be watchful. But he did not have to, for this immortal locution entered the trial anyway. The Party propagandists knew quite well that in the romance evil alone cannot be presented. Only against the background of the sublime can the abject be recognized for what it truly is. Fučík had to come to court if only by proxy. On the trial‘s sixth day the hero's widow, Gusta, made an "unexpected" appearance in the court, to accuse one defendant, Bedřich Reicin, of informing the Gestapo not once, not twice but thrice about the wherabouts of her husband in the underground. This testimony was never supported by any material evidence but the chief motivation for Gusta's appearance was not factual but rethorical. Through her deposition entered the court proceedings a medley of quotaions from Fučík's Reportage, including the hallowest phrase urging people to watch. Needless to say, Ms. Fučíkova and her husband's name figured most prominently next morning on the first page of the Party daily covering the trial [Kundera, 1992, p. 189–192][7].

So far I have concerned myself primarily with the narrative structure of the romance in order to illustrate how well the two texts under consideration fit its generic specifications. But romance, it is important to emphasize, does not merely exhibit a specific formal pattern but also carries out a significant social function. This genre, Frye observes in his Anatomy of Criticism, "is nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream". For this reason romance better than any other story-type can serve as a narrative vehicle for the most different political utopias, "where the virtuous heroes and beautiful heroines represent the ideals and the villains the threats to their ascendancy" [Frye, 1957, p. 186][8]. The exaltation of the protagonist serves the motivational purpose of role modeling: through empathy the reader should internalize the protagonist's values and implement them in his/her life. Fučík wrote his Reportage with this rationale explicitly in mind, and many exploited its propagandist potential to the hilt, Rudolf Slánský among them. "Just read Julius Fučík's book", he urged his audience in 1947. "Fučík describes how inhumanly they tormented him, how they wanted him to speak. He was beaten again and again, he was tortured, his life hung by a thread. And at this moment, recalling the May First [celebrations] in Moscow, he realized that he was not alone, that together with him millions of people waged the ultimate battle for human freedom.... And this awareness endowed him with strength not to submit, to persist" [Komunistická strana ..., vol. 2, p. 92].

Good for Fučík, one might say. But what about Slánský and his cohort? The basic social function of their life-stories seems to be "demotivational", prophylactic, so to speak, which does not square well with the utopian tenor of the Marx-Leninist romance. So were the confessional trials romances only formally without any positive communal purpose? To solve this quandary an excursion into the unconscious of this revolutionary Weltanschaaung is called for. It is not difficult to see that the narrative it puts forth was to legitimize the political project of creating what Benedict Anderson aptly termed "an imagined community" which, as he illustrates, was very much a 19th century thing to do. In this context, however, the Marxian vision of the future exhibits two peculiar characteristics. First of all, in contrast to its coeval rivals, it was inclusive, not exclusive, for the bond tying together the projected society was not a fixed ethnic/tribal marker but relative economic status. Secondly, eschewing the fruitless pursuit of the ellusive concept of national identity (Blut und Boden, so to speak), dialectic materialism advanced its quest for a new communal order in the name of social science not some mythical utopia [Anderson, 1991, p.11][9]. History is not just his story, Marx insisted, but an objective, law-governed process fueled by an inexorable necessity to innovate the means of production. A more efficient socio-economic formation inevitably displaces a less fecund one and the arrival of socialism will eliminate all the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system obstructing its further development. This is economic necessity not wishful thinking.

Those who know Marx's thought better than I do might object to my cameo presentation of it. Was his system as consistent as I make it and did not the mature Marx, they could ask, reject the unidirectional and progressive view of history as too Eurocentric, admitting the possibility of an uneven global development? [Shanin (ed.), 1983][10]. Yes, sure, perhaps. But it is quite obvious that Lenin's blunt rejection of Marx's postulate about the proletarian revolution taking place in the economically most developed capitalist country has more to do with robust political ambition than sober social science. The historical breakthrough, he contended pace the economic determinists in his own Social Democratic Party, will take place in a country bereft of an industrial proletariat – "the weakest link in the imperialist chain" – a semi-feudal, predominantly rural Russia [Shanin, 1986, p. 25, p. 41][11]. The working class should not matter much anyway, Lenin's argument went, because its actual mentality is not, after all, truly revolutionary but merely spontaneous – seeking crumbs off the bourgeoisie's table rather than grabbing its place at the feast. It has to be supplemented by an organization of professional revolutionaries – an embodiment of class-consciousness proper – capable of assigning the proletariat its historical role according to Marx's script.

Suplementarity, though, every reader of Derrida knows by heart, is a tricky process [Derrida, 1976, p. 141–164][12]. As a chain of substitution it is open to infinite regress. Furthermore, it not only supplies what was originally missing but, in an intriguing turnabout, what was intended as an addition often supplants that which it was supposed to just supplement. The difference between the primary and the secondary is, therefore, subverted and the surrogate postures as the real. The relationship between the Russian proletariat and the Bolshevik Party followed this logic well: the Great October Revolution was not carried out by an enlightened, self-conscious working-class but by its said supplement. Similarly, the change in the ownership of productive assets did not result in a society where all alienation would cease and everybody would be justly rewarded but in "a dictatorship of proletariat" managed by the very same Party. Yet, despite all of this, Lenin's re-interpretation of the march of history retained the initial generic impulse. The romantic epiphany was not cancelled, only deferred. In his State and Revolution written during fall 1917 Lenin does distinguish between a "transition from capitalism to Communism" which requires class terror and a true Communist society where "the state withers away" [Lenin, 1932, p. 71–75]. The only piece missing was a timetable of the move whereby Russia will pass from the former into the latter.

It was Stalin who eventually provided a supplement for this infelicitous lacuna by his famous thesis about the sharpening of class struggle as socialism draws nearer, thus transforming the originary Marxist romance into a never-ending story. As he pointed out in the June 1928 Pravda "it became clearer than a year or two earlier that the [antagonistic] class relations sharpened internally and externally... the subversive activity of the class enemies of the Soviet state came to light, exploiting our weaknesses, our mistakes against the working class of our country" [Stalin, 1949, t. 11, p.130]. Thus, the happy-ending of the Marxian narrative turned into a vicious circle: the closer society moves to its Communist ideal, the farther it recoils from it. For at the very moment when the victory of the working class seems at hand and the state can finally wither away, a desperate bourgeoisie just upends its futile resistance which, needless to say, requires that the dictatorship of the proletariat harden commensurately [Ibid. P. 171–171][13]. Stalin's thesis about the sharpening of the class struggle (enunciated with an explicit reference to the Sakhty case – the first confessional trial which took place in Moscow a few months before his article appeared) laid the ideological foundation for all subsequent show trials not only in the Soviet Union but in all People's Democracies as well [Bacílek, 1953, p. 18][14]. It was, for example, deftly exploited by Gottwald in February 1951 after most of the eventual Slánskýites were arrested: "When class struggle is, so to speak, normal and the course of things tranquil, class enemy agents in the Communist Party crouch down, hide, assimilate. But when it sharpens, when the bourgeoise loses one position after another then, naturally, class enemy tries to deal its ultimate, yet highest card. This means the mobilization of its agents within the Communist Party" [Zpráva soudruha ..., 1951, p. 25]. And nothing could better validate Gottwald's insight than a conspiracy headed by his own Party's General Secretary.

But the relevance of Stalin's 1928 article for my topic goes beyond its providing an ideological justification of all later Communist witchunting. Its historical significance could be compared (exaggerating just slightly) to that of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) for the Catholic Church which simmultaneously promulgated both: "the obligation of confession at least once a year, and the institution of an inquisition to eradicate heresy" [Brooks, 2000, p. 46]. For the title of Stalin's article was "Against the Vulgarization of the Thesis of Self-Criticism", and it was intended to give a powerful boost to the campaign launched a few months earlier to promote this curious social practice [Slepnev, 1929][15]. "Self-criticism", Stalin instructs his audience, is not "something transitory, passing". Rather, it "is a particular method, a bolshevist method of educating Party cadres and the working class in general in the spirit of revolutionary development" [Ibid. P. 127] whose utility for the Party in the context of an intensified class struggle cannot be overstated. Stalin – a master dialectician – differentiates carefully between constructive and destructive samokritika (promulgated allegedly by the Trotskyite opposition). But the article is rather vague as to what a positive self-criticism consists of (save the fact that it helps the Party, the government, and the Soviet economy).

This gap was left open, one might argue, quite intentionally. For at closer look it is obvious that the primary function of samokritika was not an exercises in self-improvement (as initially billed). In fact, this all-pervasive social practice laid psychological ground from which the future confessional trials would grow. First of all, since self-criticism was not "something transitory, passing" in its iterancy, it became a collective ritual set up to perpetuate the existing Party's hegemony. The symbolic performance of samokritika became, a historian tells us, "a process of self-representation and self-construction", through which the Party's authority to arbitrate and the individual willingness to submit were validated and affirmed [Getty, 1999, p. 56]. Secondly, this self-accusatory game heightened the fallibility syndrome among the Party members. There are numerous reasons why a formerly exemplary Communist may go aberrant: non-proletarian origins and the corresponding lack of class instincts, unawareness of the latest shifts in Party line, an erstwhile association with somebody who was later outed as an enemy of the people, to mention just a few. But an individual alone is unable to objectively interpret the purport of his/her actions and relegates this task fully to the Party. Third, in its structure self-criticism closely resembles the happy resolution of the Marxist-Leninist romance of which I spoke above in connection with some of the Slánskýites' confessions. A good comrade is confused, unable to act correctly. But he/she overcomes this unhappy state through self-reflection, purging him/herself of mistakes, thus changing from an unwitting prey of contingent circumstances into a conscious agent of "revolutionary development".

But while all Communist functionaries charged in the Slánský case underwent the auto-da-fé of self-criticism many times throughout their careers, they all balked when the all too familiar Party protocol turned into legal self-incrimination. The reasons for this are obvious: as seasoned practitioners of samokritika they were conditioned to accept political responsibility for their inevitable errors in judgment but not criminal culpability, especially not for deeds as egregious as murdering or conspiring to murder other members of the movement, high treason, or seriously wrecking the socialist economy. The role of the security organs was to erase an altogether precarious line between a mistake and intention, to make the accused admit that they acted maliciously, fully aware of the harmful consequences that their deeds would effectuate [Loebl's, 1969, p. 17–30][16]. To impute to their captives a correct conscience, State Security personel resorted to any persuasive means at its disposal – from brutal force to an appeal to Party duty – making the offer to confess as hard to refuse as possible.

Hegel remarks somewhere that "a darned sock is better than a torn one, but it is not so with self-consciousness" [Rosenkranz, 1844, p. 552][17]. He forgot to add that while this might be true in quotidian life, in romance it is the other way around. Not only is a darned sock an altogether unromantic image but, more apropos, in this genre the torn psyche must be healed, the hero regain an undivided identity. Yielding to the law of genre all the Slánskýites eventually reached such a "happy" resolution, confessing to all crimes with which they were charged. Had they not, somebody else fitting just as well the specifications of the role of repentant sinner would replace them and they would be dealt with in some secondary trial receiving no publicity at all [Loebl, 1976, p. 143][18]. For without the accused confessing a confessional trial would lose its raison d'être, it would tell a different story. A tragic one perhaps, like the one offered by Büchner's play. But it would not be a romance.

But let me return to my earlier question: does the confessional trial's narrative offer any affirmative value at all? In assessing this one must fit such trials into the context of Stalin's thesis about the sharpening of class struggle. As noted above, this is a supplement to a supplement presenting the epiphany of the proletarian revolution as an asymptotic paradox, a point that exits but cannot be reached. The Slánský trial story is homologous with the original Marxist romance in a fashion reminiscent of biogenetic law: ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny. It is, in fact, a telescoped version of the master narrative about human history as class struggle. It starts where the other ends – with the proletarian revolution – and reenacts its outcome. Once again the Party triumphs over the bourgeoise. But the surrogate reverses the hierarch of oppositions proper to the original. If the traditional class enemy was a capitalist, now he/she is a prominent Party official. While the economic violence of the burgeoise – stealing surplus-value from hired labor – was rather dianoetic , requiring an interpretation to be correctly understood, the extra-economic violence of these bushwhackers is "hidden" in plain view. After all, did not the villains themselves publically attest to all their fellonies? Furthermore, by coming to regard their past activities as criminal they, in fact, adopted the working class‘ perspective affirming, thus, its superiority. And the very fact that such a trial was taking place proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the the building of socialism in Czechoslovakia was moving ahead at full speed. Or otherwise, why would the bourgeoisie have mobilized its moles within the highest echalons of the Party? The flood of letters and resolutions from individual citizens, enterprises and various associations addressed to the Party CC, the State Court and the media reacting to the trial by pledging to overfill planned production targets demonstrated to the entire world that the sentencing of the Slánskýites would only accelerate progress.

But wait a minute, an attentative listener might interject at this point: this is nothing but hogwash! The defendants did not admit any crimes whatsoever but only pretended to do so for rather good reasons: to avoid savage torture and sleep deprivation, to protect their families, to strike a deal with the interrogators about a penalty, or to accommodate the Party. These and others are the explanations given by the victims of this ordeal as the rationale behind their existential decision to confess. Fair enough, and I myself don't wish to argue otherwise. But this is precisly why such a trial was emploted as a romance: the genre, which according to Frye, "is the structural core of all fiction" [Frye, 1976, p. 15]. Desire, whether erotic or political, is not concerned with reality but with wishfullfilment. And more frustrating the pursuit of the unattainable becomes, the more convoluted the artifice glossing over this frustration.

What makes Stalinism such a unique phenomenon is not the massive terror it employed but, rather, the paradoxic mode of its presentation. This peculiarity becomes quite palpable if we compare, in this respect, Stalin to the man whose ideological mantle he claimed. Lenin, Leszek Kołakowski observed in his magisterial survey of Marxism, was definitely not squeamish about using brutal force if the desired political objectives required it. Yet, "when [he] spoke of terror, bureaucracy, or an anti-Bolshevik rising by the peasants, he called these things by their names. Once the Stalinist dictatorship set in, the party (though attacked by its enemies) had no mistakes whatever to its discredit, the Soviet state was flawless, and the people's love for the government was unbound" [Kolakowski, 1978, p. 516-517]. Confessional trials – more real than real because they were made so – represent the crux of the "revolutional" symbolism of Stalinism. According to its logic, permit me to conclude, if there were no Slánský cabal, it had to be created.

Cyrillic letters are transliterated according to BSI standards.

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Brooks P. Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature. Chicago, 2000.

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[1] This reading of Dante is suggested by Northrop Frye in his Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, Cambridge, MA, 1976, p. 119. Further references will be given in the text.

[2] "Ja mehr unschuldig, desto mehr verdienen sie erschossen zu warden". Quoted in Sidney Hook, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century, New York, 1955, p. 493.

[3] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart in Marx / Engels Collected Works (MECW), New York, 1975–2004 (further as MECW), vol. 11, p. 103. According to Paul-Laurent Assoun, Marx got this catchy phrase from his friend Heinrich Heine (Marx et la répétition historique, Paris, 1978, p. 71–82). A different genealogy of this phrase is traced by Bruce Mazlich, "The Tragic Farce of Marx, Hegel, and Engels: A Note" in History and Theory, 1972, N 3, p. 335–37. For Marx's quip, "Ce qu'il y a de certain ç'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste", see Friedrich "Engels' letter to Eduard Bernstein of November 2/3, 1882" in MECW, vol. 46, p. 356.

[4] "Büchner's play is the tragedy of the revolutionary", Peter Szondi, An Essay on the Tragic, tr. Paul Fleming, Stanford, 2002, p. 95.

[5] As Fredric Jameson points out, "the first extended exercise in Marxist literary criticism – the letters of Marx and Engels to Lassalle about the latter's verse tragedy, Franz von Sickingen – was indeed essentially generic" (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic, Act. Ithaca, NY, 1989, p 105. In this respect Marx's thinking was shaped by the historical imagination of Romanticism for which "narrative" became "a dominant mode of representation and explanation" (Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot. New York, 1985, p. 12).

[6] "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law", in MECW, vol. 3, p. 182.

[7] Julius Fuchik, Notes from the Gallows, New York, 1948, p. 112. There is no translator listed in the text, but given some of its wording (including the spelling of the author's name), the book was most likely translated into English from Russian. The last sentence is rendered as "I love you all, friends, be on guard" which closely corresponded to the reverberating ideological demand for vigilance. Further references will be given in the text.

[8] H.Sajnerová, "Fučík je s námi", Rudé právo, 1952, November 26, p. 1. The effect of Ms. Fučíkova was powerful enough for Milan Kundera to re-enact it in the crucial scene of his novel, The Joke, where the main protagonist is being expelled from the Party. It is his prosecutor's speech delivered in a room adorned by Fučík's portrait, weaving together a series of the most famous passages from Fučík's work which illustrated beyond any reasonable doubt the moral depravity of the accused, thus sealing his fate (The Joke: Definitive Version Fully Revised by the Author, New York, 1992, p. 189–92).

[9] As Zeus' daughter, the Muse of history must be delighted to see that myth provided a more compelling rallying point for creating desired societies than science. The trans-national state generated by Marxian political economy, the mighty Soviet Union, lasted less that three quarters of a century only to dissolve into a number of the successor nation-states. Anderson himself observed this fact somewhat wistfully in a "Preface to the Second Edition" to his book: "But having traced the nationalist explosion that destroyed the vast polyglot and polyethnic realms which were ruled from Vienna, London, Constantinople, and Madrid, I could not see that the train was laid at least as far as Moscow. It is melancholy consolation to observe that history seems to be bearing out the ‘logic' of Imagined Communities better than its author managed to do" (Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, 1991, p. 11).

[10] For more discussion of this issue see, e.g., Teodor Shanin (ed.), Late Marx and The Russian Road: Marx and "the Peripheries of Capitalism", New York, 1983.

[11] According to Shanin, in 1905 Russia had about 1.5 million industrial workers which for the country of 120 million represented some 1.25% of the entire population. The ratio of urban:rural population at the turn of the century was, according to the same source, 3:17, i.e., less than one sixth of the Russians lived in cities (Russia, 1905–07: Revolution as a Moment of Truth. Houndmills, 1986, p. 25, p. 41).

[12] For Derrida's discussion of "supplement" see, e.g., Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore, 1976, p. 141–64.

[13] Stalin further elaborated his thesis nine days later at the Plenary Session of the CC VKP(b): "Ob industrializatsii i khlebnoi probleme: Rech' 9 ijulia 1928 g.", [Stalin, 1949, t. 11, p. 171–72].

[14] See, e.g., Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Thirties. New York, 1973, p. 68. According to an assessment of Karol Bacílek, the minister of National Security from 1951: "As if the trial of Slánský and his gang brought together not only the Soviet experience from the period of the Shakhty trial but also from the trial against the Trotskyite gang of 1937" (Poučenie z procesu s vedením protištátneho špionážneho a sprisahaneckého centra na čele s Rudolfom Slánským, Bratislava, 1953, p. 18).

[15] For more details about the "self-criticism campaign" see, e.g., N.Slepnev, Samokritika v komsomole, 2nd ed., Leningrad, 1929.

[16] The gradual transition from an acceptable self-criticism to an accepted confession is well described in the first chapter of Eugen Loebl's Stalinism, in Prague: The Loebl Story, tr. Maurice Michael, New York, 1969, p. 17–30.

[17] "Ein geflickter Strumpf [ist] beßer als ein zerrißener; nicht so das Selbstbewußtsein". Quoted in Karl Rosenkranz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Leben, Berlin, 1844, p. 552.

[18] The selection of the accused in the Slánský trial illustrate how random, to some extent, this process was. Its initial impulse came from the campaign against the so-called Slovak bourgeois nationalists that was launched in April, 1950. With the arrest of Otto Šling – Secretary of the Brno CPCS Regional Committee – in October of the same year, however, "the enemies within the Party apparatus" became the projected stars of the forthcoming trail. The final scenario began to congeal only after November 23, 1951 when Slánský himself was jailed (see e.g., Kaplan, p. 65–151). The Slánskýite, Eugen Loebl, in prison from November, 1949, recollects in his memoirs the various felonious roles into which he was forced during his interrogations: "At first, I committed crimes because I was a Titoist agent; then I became a Zionist, a Slovak bourgeois nationalist, and, finally, a spy in the service of the Anglo-American imperialists" (My Mind on Trail, New York, 1976, p. 143).

Accepted 27 February 2009. Date of publication: 24 June 2009.

About author

Steiner, Peter. Ph.D., Professor, Department of Slavic Languages, University of Pennsylvania, 3451 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
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APA Style
Steiner, P. (2009). “Edible” revolutionaries: The Rudolf Slánský trial as a romance. Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 3(5). Retrieved from [in English, abstr. in Russian].

Russian State Standard GOST P 7.0.5-2008
Steiner P. “Edible” revolutionaries: The Rudolf Slánský trial as a romance [Electronic resource] // Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya. 2009. N 3(5). URL: (date of access: [in English, abstr. in Russian]

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