In an old Soviet joke, three prisoners are in a Stalinist gulag. The first asks the second why he’s there, and the second replies, “Because I criticized Karl Radek.” The first man responds, “But I’m here because I spoke in favor of Radek!” They turn to the third man and ask him why he’s in prison. He answers, “I’m Karl Radek.”
The real Karl Radek was a significant figure in the Marxist movement, going back to his time in Rosa Luxemburg’s Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. He was a delegate to the Zimmerwald conference of revolutionary internationalists during World War I. He rode in Lenin’s sealed train during the Russian Revolution. After the revolution, he helped Soviet Russia negotiate the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Through the Communist International, he served as a liaison between the Russian and German Communists during Germany’s own revolutionary upheavals of 1918-1923. And, faced with Stalin’s bureaucratic counter-revolution, he lent support to Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Initially, at least.
For all this, his reputation was irreparably tarnished by his high-profile capitulation to Stalinism in 1929. He went from being a serious revolutionary journalist to one of the crudest propagandists for the Stalinist bureaucracy. Even this wasn’t enough to save Radek from the purges of the Moscow show trials in the 1930s.
Stefan Heym’s Radek: A Novel was originally written in 1995. But it’s only now available in English, translated from German by Alexander Locascio.
Heym, who died in 2001, had his own contentious relationship with Stalinism. While Radek was being jailed and tortured during the Moscow show trials, Heym was drawn towards the Communist Party through his anti-fascist activism. He fled Nazi Germany, first to Czechoslovakia and then to the US. With the rise of McCarthyism and the Korean War, he returned to Stalinist-run East Germany. Confronted with the failures of Stalinism, he participated in the anti-Stalinist uprisings of 1953 and 1989, and drew the wrath of East German dictator Erich Honecker. But, even after the collapse of Stalinism, he remained committed to socialism and rejected capitalist triumphalism.
Radek: A Novel represents Heym’s attempts to come to terms with Stalinism. The novel goes through Radek’s life, tracing the monumental events that transformed him from a principled revolutionary into a broken man confessing to made-up conspiracies on Stalin’s behalf. The resulting novel, like Radek himself, is flawed, but engaging nonetheless.
A Tour Through Revolution And Counter-revolution
The novel begins shortly before the First World War, where infighting between Radek and Luxemburg gets tangled up in the growing bureaucracy of the German Social Democratic Party. The story progresses through the betrayal of the Second International in the war, the regroupment of revolutionaries, the Russian Revolution, and the building of the Third (Communist) International.
The post-revolutionary situation isn’t straightforward, however. Far-right White Guards, backed by global imperialism, plunge Russia into civil war in a violent effort to regain their privileges. Radek is sent to Germany where a new revolution is brewing. There, he’s faced with the disarray in the German revolutionary movement. Its leading figures, Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered by counter-revolutionary forces, backed by the old Social Democracy. The remaining revolutionaries have little base in the working class and are prone to ultra-left adventures. Radek ends up tasked with re-orienting this German revolutionary movement, all while evading the counter-revolutionary government that wants to do to him what they did to Luxemburg and Liebkhecht.
During this time, the Bolshevik leaders understood that the revolution wouldn’t be able to survive in Russia alone, and were counting on the revolution spreading to western Europe. But, as these revolutions are defeated, a bureaucratic clique around Stalin consolidates itself in Russia and in the Communist International. Politically, Radek actually agrees with many of the wrong policies of Stalin’s bureaucracy, but Stalin makes him a scapegoat for the failure of the 1923 German Revolution. As Stalin moves to crush all dissent, Radek is drawn into an uneasy alliance with Trotsky’s left opposition.
A key moment in the book comes when the opposition is physically crushed and Radek, exiled to Siberia, is visited by the Hungarian economist Eugen Varga. Varga convinces Radek that, precisely because of Stalin’s dangerous trajectory, “a clever man like Radek was needed, not in Siberia, but in the center of power, his voice, his power of words.” This helps Radek justify his capitulation. But instead of reining Stalin in, Stalin reins in Radek. The price of admission into “the center of power” is that Radek’s “power of words” is reduced to nonsense glorifying Stalin as the “Great Architect” of socialism.
Throughout this section of the novel, Heym depicts Radek’s increasingly untenable attempts to rationalize his Stalinist propaganda as secretly exposing Stalin. This continues into the start of the Moscow show trials, where Radek issues a frothing-at-the-mouth call to “Destroy the vermin!” and demands that the show trial victims “must pay for this monstrous [and fabricated] guilt–with their heads.” Radek is rewarded by being made a defendant in a subsequent show trial, in which his own words are directed against him. After months of interrogation, he finally confesses to a series of nonsensical conspiracies. He manages to be spared official execution only to be assassinated in prison.
The novel is very “lore-heavy.” Well-known figures in the Marxist movement play key roles: from Luxemburg to Lenin to Trotsky to Stalin. Hardcore Marxist history geeks may also perk up a bit at the cameos from lesser -known, but politically significant, figures like Parvus, Paul Levi, Larissa Reissner, Adolph Joffe, and Evgeny Preobrazhensky. But readers less familiar with the intricacies of 20th-century revolutionary history may find themselves like Marvel newbies watching Infinity War.
Even for the unfamiliar, however, the novel provides a compelling tour through revolution and counter-revolution. It pieces together the personal stories of a number of revolutionaries into the big social upheavals that shaped them. Radek’s strange political trajectory might seem nonsensical taken in isolation, but Heym shows a disturbing rationality behind that trajectory in the context of the blows of events.
The best parts of Radek: A Novel depict Radek trying to persevere in the face of events far beyond his control. His maneuvers in and out of German prison — avoiding assassination, facing interrogation, and politically debating his captors — provide nail-biting tension. When the counter-revolutionary prisons switch from Germany to Russia, that tension ramps up even more.
A particularly strong bit of gallows humor comes at the end when Radek finally agrees to confess to Stalin’s trumped-up charges in the Moscow show trials. But when he’s handed his confession, he’s embarrassed at how badly written it is. To save what dignity he has left he insists on rewriting his confession to something with more literary merit.
However, the more optimistic side of the events — the mass revolutionary upheavals themselves — don’t get the same attention. Part of this stems from the focus on Radek. While Radek was on Lenin’s sealed train, he was blocked from entering Russia and spent the Revolution in Sweden trying to secure funding for the Bolsheviks. He only arrived in Russia afterward, just in time for the start of the civil war. Similarly, his arrival in Germany only came after the overthrow of the Kaiser in 1918 when the revolutionary situation became much more complex and demoralizing. And, while the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 played an important role in the Left Opposition’s struggle against Stalinism, Radek’s involvement was from a distance at Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow.
The result is a book about revolution — “the direct interference of the masses in historical events,” as Trotsky put it — that doesn’t actually depict the masses interfering in historical events. Instead, we get a portrayal of revolution, and counter-revolution, as the product of power struggles and backroom deals between small groups of revolutionaries. This is a rather cynical view, even coming from someone like Heym who defends the revolution. A cynical depiction of Stalin makes sense. But Heym portrays everyone, including Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Radek himself, as Machiavellian schemers to some degree or other.
For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Heym has his fictionalized incarnation of Lenin tell Radek, “Please note, Comrade Radek, from the basic law and logic of the revolution: the revolution, ours of course, knows no wrong except for a wrong done to it; whatever it does, and however it acts, is benevolent.” Marxists of course reject morality based on suprahistorical absolute principles. But this fictionalized Lenin quote is a crude, Stalinist caricature of Marxist conceptions of morality, back-dated to 1917.
In Victor Grossman’s introduction to the English translation, he quotes an enlightening interview Heym gave during his time of butting heads with East Germany’s Honecker regime. Heym addressed “the gulf between the imperfections of socialism and the promise it holds,” which he explained as follows: “The purpose of revolution is to create freedom. The danger of too much freedom in a revolutionary society is that it gives the enemies of the revolution freedom to destroy it. For that reason the revolution, which is made for freedom, must therefore limit it in order to maintain itself. . . . This immediately raises the question of who is to limit freedom and how far to limit it. History, in coming up with a Bonaparte or a Stalin, has not always answered that question in a satisfactory manner.“
So, while Heym accepts revolution and rejects Stalin, he lacks Trotsky’s understanding of the social forces that brought the Stalinist bureaucracy to power. Heym sees Stalin’s system as inevitable, and Heym’s criticism is that it was the wrong person who ended up deciding “who is to limit freedom and how far to limit it.” But it was precisely the revolutionary upheavals — relegated to the background in Heym’s book — that provide the key to understanding how Stalinism developed, and how it could be challenged.
This understanding was also a key point of difference between Trotsky and Radek within the Left Opposition. The bureaucracy grew out of the isolation of the Russian Revolution in the face of capitalist encirclement. There was no eternal “danger of too much freedom.” Rather, the spreading internationally of the revolution was key to thwarting the capitalists attempts to destroy it. While Radek had an instinctive understanding of the evils of Stalin’s bureaucratism, he ultimately accepted Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” that the bureaucracy leaned on to develop.
In the immediate aftermath of Radek’s capitulation, Trotsky wrote a critical assessment of Radek’s historical strengths and weaknesses. He praised Radek’s journalistic abilities, specifically “his ability to react with amazing quickness to new phenomena and tendencies and even to their first symptoms. This is Radek’s strong point. But the strength of a journalist becomes a source of weakness in a politician. Radek exaggerates and anticipates too much. He uses a yardstick when it is only a matter of inches. Therefore he almost always finds himself to the right or to the left—much more often to the right—of the correct line.”
While Radek: A Novel fails to come up with a clear-cut explanation of Stalinism it does so in a way that lines up with Radek’s own political trajectory. As a literary depiction of revolutionaries thrown off guard by the rise of Stalinism, the novel excels.