The Party Was Not Always Right

The tragedies, brutalities, and absurdities of Stalinism are all there onscreen in Costa-Gavras’s classic 1970 film The Confession.

Yves Montand in a scene from The Confession, 1970. (Paramount / Getty Images)

“The party’s always right.” This phrase weighs like a nightmare on the events portrayed in The Confession, the 1970 film by Greek-French director Costa-Gavras based on a book of the same name by Artur London, a high official of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) who was swept up in the infamous 1952 Slánský trial. London was sentenced to life in prison, but eleven of the fourteen accused, including KSČ general secretary Rudolf Slánský, were hanged for allegedly conspiring against the state.

The trial was totally absurd — the accused were all loyal Communists, not “Trotskyists,” “Titoists,” or “Zionists” in cahoots with the Americans, as the prosecution claimed. But it served the perceived interests of the Kremlin, whose agents instigated the proceedings and literally wrote its script. It also gave a brief reprieve to Czechoslovak president Klement Gottwald, who sacrificed his erstwhile friend and comrade Slánský to avoid being purged himself. Gottwald, who became the party’s general secretary in Slánský’s wake, died the next year of an aneurysm brought on by alcoholism and untreated syphilis.

The iconic French-Italian actor Yves Montand plays London, known as “Gérard” in the film, and the equally iconic Simone Signoret, Montand’s actual wife, plays Gérard’s wife, Lise. Montand and Signoret were themselves leftists, which heightens the film’s moral and political force. Montand’s family fled Italy after Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922. They moved to Marseille, where his father was a Communist Party militant and young Ivo Livi (Montand’s birth name) inherited his father’s leftist political faith.

Neither Montand nor Signoret joined the Communist Party, but the two were open fellow travelers and were very popular in the Soviet bloc as well as in the West. Amid controversy, they toured the USSR while Soviet tanks rumbled into Hungary to crush the uprising there in 1956. Despite their Communist sympathies, Montand and Signoret were horrified by these events and told Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev so to his face while on tour. By the time they starred in The Confession, the couple was openly critical of Stalinism and the Soviet Union while maintaining their basic leftist commitments.

In doing so, they followed the example of London himself. Until his death London insisted that he was still a Communist, “but I have nothing to do with [Gustáv] Husák, [Leonid] Brezhnev, not even [Georges] Marchais,” the leaders of the Czechoslovak, Soviet, and French Communist parties, respectively.

“The party’s always right.” Lise says this in a flashback Gérard has after being arrested off the street in the film’s first act. Two guards repeatedly slam him face first into the wall, then spin him around. The camera assumes Gérard’s point of view as the hammer and sickle on a guard’s hat takes up most of the frame, which dissolves into a montage of archival footage depicting scenes from Communist history. They all depict acts of violent conflict: the armed uprising of 1917, the vicious civil war between Reds and Whites, Red Army tanks, and troops on the move during World War II.

The montage dissolves, replaced again by the guard’s stern young face. “Walk!” he barks at Gérard, who’s forced to pace the floor of his dank cell for hours between beatings and trips to the interrogation room.

London avoided the gallows, and in 1955 he was freed amid a relaxation of Stalinist terror. He and Lise moved to France in 1963, where he remained until his death in 1986. In You Speak of Prague, his documentary about the making of The Confession, Chris Marker describes London’s story as “the tragedy of a Communist trapped by his loyalty who had the courage to denounce the trap without denying his loyalty.”

Still from The Confession. (Paramount)

Loyalty to what, exactly? Above all, London was loyal to the anti-fascist struggle that shaped so many of his generation and gave their lives meaning. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, joined the French Resistance after Spain fell, and survived the Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen — a fact that was perversely used against him as evidence of treachery in the Slánský trial. How could a Jewish Communist possibly survive the camps, according to the prosecution’s twisted logic, without collaborating with the Nazis?

“The fight against Fascism was a great fight,” London recalled in an appearance on French television available through the Criterion Collection. “In that fight, all the good men were on the same side, the anti-Fascist side. That period of struggle was a fantastic time,” when Communists could feel unequivocally that they were on the right side of history. London’s arrest and persecution was a terrible trauma for him, shattering the party’s identification with all that was good and true. Nevertheless, he continued to insist, “I never confused the Inquisition of Torquemada with Christianity, and I won’t confuse Stalin, Beria, and that whole group with Socialism . . . it didn’t make me lose faith in authentic Socialism.”

“Arise, Lenin! They’ve Gone Mad!”

London’s use of a religious analogy is not an accident. The Confession is, whether the filmmakers intended it or not, a deeply religious film.

The title doesn’t simply reference the false confession his torturers wrung out of him. In Marker’s documentary, London visits the set where The Confession is being filmed. Upon seeing Montand’s striking physical transformation into the former version of himself — Montand lost twenty-five pounds to fully inhabit the role — London exclaims, “his attitude, the stigmata of suffering, his exhaustion, all that is fantastic.”

London’s suffering, played with harrowing verisimilitude by Montand, is portrayed as Christlike in its redemptive power. The film’s emotional structure is grounded in the sacramental power of penance, one of the central tenets of Catholic interpretations of Christian theology. The act of confession gives a believer the opportunity to admit one’s sins, receive absolution, and be reconciled with God. One is redeemed and strengthened in one’s faith by telling the truth and making penance for mistakes.

This is precisely what London’s book and Costa-Gavras’s film attempt to do, in their own secular way, for the Communist faithful. As London put it in his television appearance:

If Communists themselves, with honesty and courage, undertake a critical examination of the different stages of socialism, if they examine the errors, lay them bare, in this way they give socialism its purity back. Or to use an expression from my country, they “put a human face back on socialism.”

The Stalinist show trial was a ritual of abuse; to give witness to crimes committed in the name of socialism was a ritual of absolution — including for London himself, who surely must have committed his own share of misdeeds on the path from Spain to a high position in the party-state.

“Socialism with a human face” was the slogan of the Prague Spring movement for democratic reform in Communist Czechoslovakia. The Confession concludes with Gérard arriving in Prague to publish his exposé. But he arrives just in time for Soviet tanks to crush the movement, in a bleak echo of the generals’ coup that crushes hopes for justice at the end of Costa-Gavras’s previous film, Z.

This scene doesn’t quite end the film. A brief coda shows a group of young militants painting the slogan “Arise, Lenin! They’ve Gone Mad!” on a Prague wall. Calls to return to Vladimir Lenin as the original repository of revolutionary virtue were common among critical Communists. London does this himself in Marker’s documentary when he insists that “Lenin always affirmed that the relationship between the Party and the people should be based on absolute trust, on its ability to always tell people the truth and to recognize any mistakes that might be made.”

Lenin did not pursue (and, had he lived longer, likely would not have pursued) the kinds of show trials that were so central to Joseph Stalin’s rule. Lenin was not Stalin, but there is not a bright line separating them either. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks fought to exclude other socialist parties from government participation after the October Revolution and subordinated all institutions of state and society to the Communist Party. Arbitrary acts of repression and violence, carried out through party-dominated organs like the Cheka, began shortly after the Bolsheviks took power.

Historian S. A. Smith, who is sympathetic to the motivations that drove the October Revolution, concludes in Russia in Revolution: “Lenin was the architect of the party’s monopoly on power; it was he who subordinated the soviets and trade unions to the party; he who would not tolerate those who thought differently; he who dismantled many civil and political freedoms; he who crushed the socialist opposition.”

Still from The Confession. (Paramount)

Even if Stalin had lost the struggle for power after Lenin’s death, it is difficult to imagine a fundamentally different trajectory for the Soviet Union or Communism generally unless the fundamental principle of exclusive Communist Party rule that Lenin — backed by Leon Trotsky and Stalin alike — insisted on was abandoned. London’s stance, whatever its limitations, was superior to that of former Communists turned professional anti-Communists. But it’s tragic that he and others like him could not escape the need for identification with an alternative Bolshevism that did not exist.

The Soviet leader most committed to reviving Lenin was, quite ironically, the one most responsible for the system’s demise. Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, bent on saving Communism from itself by returning to first principles. In Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, historian Vladislav Zubok describes Gorbachev as “the last true Leninist believer.” According to Zubok, one of his aides reported an occasion when “Gorbachev began to impersonate Lenin, mimicking his style and gestures, his accent and favorite words, his acrimony and ire. This bizarre performance lasted over an hour.”

Zubok astutely observes the deeply paradoxical nature of Gorbachev’s identification with Lenin. In seeking to remake the Soviet Union,

Gorbachev consistently rejected methods and features that were at the core of Lenin’s revolutionary success. He preferred speeches to action, parliamentary consensus to violence, and devolution of power to dictatorship. In a word, his messianic idea of a humane socialist society was increasingly detached from the realities of Soviet power and its economy.

In Zubok’s estimation, Gorbachev’s attempt to conjure the spirit of Lenin — or, more precisely, his idea of what Lenin represented — made him the proverbial “sorcerer’s apprentice; he did not know how to regain control over the forces he had unleashed.” Much the same could be said of Lenin himself, who spent his last years trying and ultimately failing to keep Stalin from mastering the system he founded.

Socialists looking to the Communist movement for a usable past would do well to heed C. Wright Mills’s advice to the young radicals of his day: “Read Lenin again (be careful).” Watch The Confession, too.