[Bukharin's] letter, in effect, is addressed over the heads of the plenum right to the editors of these Laborite newspapers in England, to the editors of the American left-bourgeois magazine The Nation, which is a mouthpiece for Trotskyites. It's not by accident that you write in the beginning of the letter: “For many months I have suffered unbearable moral tortures. I am being accused of Trotskyite crimes, etc.” And then, so that a photograph of your letter could be printed just like that, you write: “But I declare that, when I make it through the gauntlet of these unheard-of tortures, the most horrifying tortures...” The word “moral” isn't there anymore."Speaking Truth to Power" has been a self-deluding intellectual fantasy probably for as long as intellectuals as a class have existed (although the phrase itself is quite recent). On the face of it, the idea is ridiculous. What could we possibly say to Power that it doesn't already know, or that would change its nature? Are we to appeal to its supposed better instincts, or perhaps trust in a transformative act of individual self-assertion through speech act to totally reconfigure the schemata of domination? (The latter is the "courtroom drama" model.) No, neither of these suggestions can possibly bear the weight the concept places on them. It is increasingly clear that it is simply yet another instance of the way intellectuals exaggerate and puff up the value of their own discourse--a concealed power claim if there ever was one.
Why did you write this? So that you could say, with your pack of fascists, traitors, and spies, that you suffered the same tortures that must have been used, according to the slanderous theory of these bourgeois magazines, to extract confessions from the Trotskyites. Radek—a scumbag of scumbags—found the courage to say that he wasn't tortured, it was he that tortured the investigator; you, of course, could find nothing of the kind. I must say that you are torturing us in the most unacceptable underhanded manner, you're not being tortured. (Voices from the audience: Right, right!) For many, many years, you have tortured the Party, and you owe the fact that we haven't politically torn you apart for your vile terrorist work only to the angelic patience of Comrade Stalin. We would have done it a long time ago, two months ago, if it was not for Comrade Stalin, if policies guided by the interests of the working class did not, for him, outweigh the feeling of righteous indignation, if it was not for his ability to see farther and better than all of us.
And how do you repay the Central Committee for its long-suffering tolerance of your filth? You declare “a hunger strike.” Indeed, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich [Molotov] said it right, that future generations would laugh at Bukharin, who starved every day from 12 o'clock at night to 10 o'clock in the morning! (Laughter.)
- from a speech delivered by V. I. Mezhlauk at the February-March (1937) plenum of the All-Union Communist Party Central Committee
A more nuanced account of what speaking truth to power entails would look something like this. Power depends upon an underlying network of lies, propaganda, and half-truths. If people knew the truth, power would no longer be able to survive, to maintain its domination. It is then the intellectual's job to cut straight through the bullshit and expose the dissimulation in order to score a victory for the cause of liberty. (This theme comes through most strongly in the eighteenth-century political press. Its most vivid metaphor is the 1984 Apple Super Bowl ad, with the woman breaking Big Brother's telescreen.) There is a sense in which the act of telling the truth itself is something that cannot be processed or accommodated by the system, and must lead inevitably to its downfall.
Bukharin's letter to the Central Committee suggests that this hope is an act of self-delusion as well. Far from shaking the epistemological foundations of the Stalinist system of repression, the implication that confessions were extracted by torture leads to ridicule and jeering on the part of the apparatchiks. We are not torturing you, Mr. Bukharin, you're torturing us. Speaking truth to power only acts as a piece of meat thrown to the sharks, raising the totalitarian orgy to its highest triumphant pitch.
In fact, what this model of speaking truth to power presupposes is not that power itself will hear the indictment and obligingly dissolve, but that the lies of power will be exposed before the eyes of the people. One does not speak truth to power, one speaks truth to a public. And what this allows the Stalinist system to do in this instance is to completely recuperate this liberating movement into its worldview; the nature of the public being addressed (allegedly being addressed!) is sufficient to discredit the speaker and brand him even clearer as an agent of Trotskyite counterrevolution. It is immaterial whether what he had in mind was really to address the left-bourgeois Western press: by reconfiguring the circumstances in which his statement was presented, Stalinism could have always partitioned off the real public (faithful and utterly trusting of Pravda) from the illegitimate and ideologically suspect one.
This problem goes to the heart of why "speaking truth to power" is an idealistic fantasy at best and an ideological mystification at worst. It assumes that the mode of address is neutral, that the discursive circumstances in which a statement comes to operate are somehow independent from the more general atmosphere of repression. In other words, it seeks to give discourse a privileged place in political praxis as an eternally unassailable high ground. A vain hope, but one which it is in power's interests to carefully and deliberately build up.