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Communists and Capital Punishment

Communists and Capital Punishment

EPW (“Hanging Afzal Guru”, 23 February 2013) should be praised for its splendid editorial on the execution of Afzal Guru. However, while admiring this severe indictment of the powers that be I fail to understand why the editorial does not say a word about the position of the Left – particularly the seriously compromising position of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which seems to have chosen to align itself with the arch Hindu communalists and what the party itself calls the “bourgeois-landlord” classes. To their credit the two other communist parties of India have (one with some initial faux pas) denounced this miscarriage of justice.

In 2004, the CPI(M) – then ruling West Bengal – made unabashed public propaganda for the execution of Dhananjay Chatterjee, on the correctness of which human rights activists had cast grave doubts.

This stand of the communists in defence of the death penalty should not surprise anyone with knowledge of their claimed Leninist heritage. The horrendous acts of executions under the Stalin regime are too well known to need any specific discussion here. However it is not very much known that years before Stalin had acceded to power as Lenin’s nominee, the death penalty was already well established in the Leninist regime. The claim by Prabhat Patnaik (The Telegraph, 12 December 2012) that the Bolsheviks had abolished capital punishment in Russia in 1917 is a blatant untruth.

Capital punishment in Russia was abolished not by the Bolsheviks but by the Provisional Government, almost immediately after the fall of the ancien régime (see Bunyan and Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1918: Documents and Materials, Stanford University Press 1934; see also Russian Provisional Government 1917: Documents, Volume 1, Stanford University Press, 1961). Of course, shortly afterwards Kerensky restored the death sentence partially, at the front to dis­cipline soldiers. After the Bolshevik victory, at the last session of the second Congress of Soviets, Kamenev issued a decree in the name of the Congress to abolish totally the death penalty. However, on receiving this news Lenin was furious. On page 124 of their book, Bunyan and Fisher cite Trotsky’s book on Lenin:

When Lenin learned of this first legislative act his anger knew no bounds. ‘This is madness. How can you accomplish a revolution without shooting? ...What repressive measures have you then? Imprisonment? Who pays any attention to them in a time of bourgeois war when every party hopes for victory?’ Kamenev tried to show that it was a question of repeal of the death penalty which Kerensky had introduced especially for deserting soldiers. But Lenin was not to be appeased… He repeated, ‘it is an inadmissible weakness. Pacifist illusion.’ He proposed changing the decree at once. We told him this would make an extraordinarily unfavourable impression. Finally someone said ‘the best thing is to
resort to shooting only when there is no other way’.

By the way, there was no civil war yet. However Trotsky himself was instrumental in reviving the death sentence the very next year. The occasion was the bitter relation that developed between Trotsky and the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Aleksei Shchastny, on the question of the movement of the Baltic Fleet for demolition, faced with the German threat. Trotsky charged him with neglect of duty. He submitted his resignation which was rejected by Trotsky who summoned Shchastny to Moscow where he singlehandedly organised the investigation, sham trial and death sentence on the spurious charge of attempting to overthrow the Petrograd Commune with the larger aim of fighting the Republic. The execution symbolised the restitution of judicial capital punishment. I have taken all this from the recent authoritative book The Bolsheviks in Power by the eminent historian Alexander Rabinowitch (Indiana University Press, 2007, pp 242-43, 283). The same book adds, “Trotsky was the sole witness allowed to testify at the commander’s trial, possibly the first Soviet show trial. In 1995 he was cleared of all charges and officially rehabilitated” (p 435). The rest is history.

Paresh Chattopadhyay



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