Secret Societies: Trotskyites Versus the Comintern

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: SECRET SOCIETIES

By: Professor Richard Spence, University of Idaho

During the early 1900s, there were many Soviet loyal operatives in the United States as well as Europe who worked in secret to achieve the goal of communism. However, ideological differences between the two most popular Russian socialists—Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin—led to an internal struggle for power among the communists. This created a rift between the Trotskyites and the Comintern.

Symbol of communism on USSR's flag
The flag of the USSR, used the symbols of communism, the sickle and the hammer. (Image: patrice6000 / Shutterstock)

Agents of Influence

In the 1920s and 1930s, many communist operatives had established successful businesses and made friends in high places. Their main objective was not to engage in espionage but to influence policy by shaping opinions and perceptions. These operatives were known as ‘agents of influence’.

One such agent was Russian-American businessman Alexander Gumberg. In 1917, Gumberg infiltrated the American Red Cross mission in Russia as a translator and spy. Another agent of influence was Baroness Moura Budberg. She was supposedly a White Russian émigré who successfully won the confidence of the authors H. G. Wells and Maxim Gorky, and filmmaker Alexander Korda.

The Amtorg Case

In 1924, the Soviets had opened a trade bureau called Amtorg in New York City. Amtorg functioned as a quasi-diplomatic outpost, and as a base of operations for the Comintern and Soviet intelligence. This was mainly because Moscow and Washington did not maintain diplomatic relations. To head the Amtorg operations, Moscow sent a Bolshevik reformist called Isaiah Khurgin. Khugin became highly successful and became a threat to some of the most influential businessmen. Among them were Julius Hammer and his son, who dabbled in everything from medicines, to pencils, and even an asbestos mine. They were also close allies with Trotsky.

Photo of Leon Trotsky’s right-hand man: Ephraim Skliansky
Ephraim Skliansky was Leon Trotsky’s right-hand man. (Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

In July 1925, Julius Hammer took his complaint to Trotsky, who had recently assumed a post overseeing foreign concessions in the USSR. In the following month, Trotsky’s right-hand man, Ephraim Skliansky, arrived in New York. Although Skliansky’s official mission was to negotiate cotton and wool contracts, nobody believed him.

Skliansky and Trotsky were close allies who shared a hatred of Stalin. It was suspected that Skliansky had come to the US on Trotsky’s orders to turn Amtorg into a base of conspiratorial action against Stalin. As soon as Skliansky arrived in the US, he asked Khugin and a few other Amtorg officials to join him at the Sagamore Hotel in Long Lake that was nestled deep in the Adirondack mountains.

The Soviet press reports called the Long Lake gathering a conference of “senior officials of Soviet institutions in the United States.” But no one could recall how many officials were there or what was the main objective of the meeting. 

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Ephraim Skliansky and Sergei Gusev

The Trotskyites and the Comintern always tried to stay one step ahead of the others. Just as Skliansky and the others reached Long Lake, the underground American communists were holding their annual meeting in Chicago. However, this was not believed to be a coincidence. The Communist International or the Comintern sent an emissary, Sergei Gusev, to oversee the convention. Gusev was a loyal Stalinist whose main job was to purge Trotskyism from the American Party; Gusev loathed Skliansky.

On the afternoon of August 27, 1925, Skliansky, Khurgin and a few others decided to go canoeing on Long Lake, although the weather was unseasonably cold. Skliansky and Khurgin got into a canoe, while the others followed in a rowboat. Skliansky also brought along a briefcase full of papers, which was very odd. The canoe soon left the rowboat behind and headed across the lake. This was quite unexpected and soon the members in the rowboat lost sight of the canoe.

A few hours later, a capsized canoe and the drowned corpses of Skliansky and Khurgin were found on the opposite shore. An eyewitness recalled that immediately after the bodies were recovered, a group of unknown people appeared to retrieve the briefcase. The official verdict was that it was a terrible accident, but in Moscow, the rumor quickly spread that they had been murdered on the order of Stalin.

Did a Trotskyite Secret Society Actually Exist?

In later years, Stalin exploited fears of a vast Trotskyite conspiracy within the party to unleash mass terror and the infamous Moscow show trials. The existence of a Trotskyite secret society remains unproven. It is true that Trotsky had loyalists in the Communist Party, with whom he maintained secret communication after his expulsion from the USSR in 1929. It also involved some level of conspiracy against Stalin.

Before Trotsky was exiled from the USSR, he received a letter from someone in New York identified as “Abram.” In a coded attachment, Abram mentioned plans to smuggle Trotsky out of Russia and also set-up special bank accounts for him in New York—a war chest. After his exile, Trotsky enlisted a Soviet intelligence operative called Yakov Blumkin. Blumkin was personally devoted to Trotsky and agreed to carry a message back to Moscow for Trotsky’s former protégé, Karl Radek. Radek, however, betrayed Blumkin, who ended-up in front of a firing squad.

This is a transcript from from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Red Octopus Influence in the United States

Photo of Benjamin Gitlow, a prominent American communist during the early 20th century
Benjamin Gitlow was a prominent American communist during the early 20th century (Image: Carrite at en.wikipedia / Public domain)

Before World War II, the United States did not possess any domestic counter-intelligence. In 1929, the American Communist Party emerged from its underground existence and reabsorbed the Workers’ Party. However, the party also had a secret group of members.

Benjamin Gitlow, a prominent American communist during the early 20th century, said this secret “membership is known only to the Central Executive Committee…, perhaps only to the political committee, and in some cases only to the secretariat.”

One of the best examples was the American civil rights attorney Joseph Brodsky. As a legal counsel for Willi Münzenberg’s International Labor Defense, Brodsky participated in the high-profile Sacco and Vanzetti murder case and the racially motivated Scottsboro Boys rape trial. Brodsky publicly denied any connection to the Communist Party. In reality, he was an elite member of the party.

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Project Venona

In 1943, Stalin abolished the Comintern, partly as a wartime gesture to his new American and British allies, and partly because he felt that the organization carried the stench of Trotskyism. However, he did not slow down Soviet intelligence and its infiltration of the US and British governments. In reality, Soviet clandestine activity accelerated behind the mask of wartime Allied solidarity.

Army intelligence officer Carter Clarke, on the other hand, was suspicious of the Soviet’s activities. Clarke oversaw a select group of military cryptologists dubbed Arlington Hall. In 1943, Clarke allowed his group to intercept Soviet cable traffic. The top-secret project was code-named Venona. This group pored over thousands of Soviet cables and managed to decode about 3,000 of them.

The Venona decrypts uncovered hundreds of Soviet agents and informants disguised behind a shocking array of codenames; some identifiable, some not. The most disturbing was evidence that communist agents had infiltrated America’s top-secret atomic project—the Manhattan Project.

Cryptologists of the Venona project
The top-secret Venona Project uncovered the truth that hundreds of Soviet agents were wroking in the USA. (Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

Soviet clandestine activities were hit when two party members and Soviet agents defected to the US. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley revealed all their secrets to the FBI. In the 1950s, the American Communist Party was infiltrated by numerous FBI informants.

Communist success had always depended on secret society techniques: selective recruitment, rigorous discipline and fanatical loyalty. The communist party still had loyal comrades, but years of Stalinist tyranny and factional disagreements had taken a toll. A secret society can survive the loss of initiates, but it can never survive the loss of their faith.

Commonly Asked Questions About Trotskyites and the Comintern

Q: What was the function of the Soviet trade bureau, Amtorg in New York City?

Amtorg functioned as a quasi-diplomatic outpost, and as a base of operations for the Comintern and Soviet intelligence. This was mainly because Moscow and Washington did not maintain diplomatic relations.

Q: Why did Stalin abolished the Comintern?

In 1943, Stalin abolished the Comintern, partly as a wartime gesture to his new American and British allies; and partly because he felt that the organization carried the stench of Trotskyism.

Q: Why did Trotsky’s right-hand man, Ephraim Skliansky come to New York?

Trotsky’s right-hand man, Ephraim Skliansky’s official mission in New York was to negotiate cotton and wool contracts, nobody believed him. It was suspected that Skliansky had come to US on Trotsky’s orders to turn Amtorg into a base of conspiratorial action against Stalin.

Q: What was Project Venona?

Army intelligence officer Carter Clarke oversaw a select group of military cryptologists dubbed Arlington Hall, that was involved in a top-secret project that intercepted Soviet cable traffic. This project was known as Project Venona.

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