There's an interesting piece on BBC News Online by John Rettie, the former BBC correspondent who broke the story of Khrushchev's Secret Speech, denouncing Stalin, to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union fifty years ago. It appears Rettie was fed the information by a KGB source, possibly on direct orders from Khrushchev.
For 10 days in February, Moscow's few Western correspondents had been covering the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, where "the cult of personality", a veiled reference to Stalin, was repeatedly denounced. But the night after the congress formally closed, the party's Central Committee building was humming with activity into the early hours, its windows ablaze with light. Why, we wondered, after the congress was over?
And then the rumours began. Khrushchev, it was said, had made a shattering report to a secret session, openly denouncing Stalin by name as a murderer and torturer of party members. This was so traumatic that it is now said some delegates had heart attacks during the speech, and others committed suicide afterwards.
Rettie notes that the speech had immense influence in the Eastern European satellite states, while in the Soviet Union "the [post-Congress] thaw turned to deep freeze". In fact, it was worse than that. The liberalisation was largely - not entirely - in name alone. It could scarcely have been otherwise, because the problem with Soviet rule was not fundamentally one of arbitrary despotism (Stalinism being a variant of Leninism rather than an abnegation of it) so much as a society without law. Two years after the Secret Speech, new "Fundamental Principles of Criminal Law and Procedure" were enacted that had no practical impact whatever. The rule of law is alien to Communism; an independent judiciary can't exist in a society where the Party has a monopoly of power. Among Western Marxists there was in the 1980s a brief rediscovery of the work of Evgeny Pashukanis, a sophisticated Soviet legal theorist whose case demonstrates the point. Pashukanis argued that law under Socialism would be superseded by the Plan - as indeed it was in his case when he was murdered during the purges in the 1930s, according to Stalin's plan.
John Rettie's reference to the rumours of suicide among some delegates who heard Khrushchev's speech reminded me of a letter sent by the great Sidney Hook - pragmatist philosopher, socialist, scholar of Marxism and foe of totalitarianism - to Corliss Lamont. Lamont was nominally also a professor of philosophy (at Columbia), whose contributions to that discipline were nugatory, while his apologetics for Stalin outdid in mendacity almost anyone else on the American Left. Hook wrote to him ten years after the Secret Speech, with Lamont clearly still unable to accept its implications (the letter is reproduced in Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism and the Cold War , 1995, pp. 289-90):
Voltaire once remarked that everyone has a natural right to be stupid, but that beyond a certain point it was a privilege that should not be abused. Your letter of 30 June replying to my attempt to reason with you has gone far beyond that point.
I did not suggest that you hang yourself. Nor did Max Eastman. He merely expressed the fear that you would do so after Khrushchev's revelations of the crimes of Stalin, whom you had so zealously supported against the criticisms of [the philosopher] John Dewey, [the Socialist Party leader] Norman Thomas, and other democratic and socialist thinkers. Your thunderous silence as our charges against Stalin were being confirmed seemed to indicate a state of despair. That you should read this fear as a suggestion on our part is such an obvious projection of your own state of mind that it is tantamount to an acknowledgment. I predict that more revelations about Stalin's barbarities will come to light. The longer you live - and I hope you live a long time because personally I bear you no ill, objecting only to your defense of terror - the greater will be your punishment....
Unfortunately Lamont escaped punishment owing to his having, on the evidence of his long life and voluminous polemical writings, no sense of shame. It is an obstinate problem on some parts of the Western Left.
(Max Eastman, incidentally, was another fascinating figure of the American Left, who became a staunch anti-Communist. A friend and English-language tutor of Trotsky, and an early defender of the Russian Revolution, he was the first writer to publish in English the Testament of Lenin, which detailed the factional fights within the Politburo. Eastman probably received the document directly from Trotsky, who then betrayed his friend by repudiating it. Trotsky lied: the document was authentic.)