Militant International Review
Summer 1980 | Home
Trotsky's Assassination, published on the web for the first
time, originally appeared in the quarterly theoretical magazine of
the Militant Tendency, now the Socialist Party, England and Wales section
of the CWI, in 1980.
Forty Years Since Leon Trotsky’s Assassination
Exile And Repression
Stalin conducts the struggle "on a different plane with different
By Lynn Walsh, writing in 1980
year is the fortieth anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky.
On 20 August, 1940, Trotsky was struck a fatal
blow with an ice-pick by Ramon Mercader, an agent sent to Mexico by
Stalin's secret police (the GPU) to murder the exiled revolutionary—alongside
Lenin, the leader of the October revolution, the founder and leader of the
Red Army, and the co-founder of the Third, Communist International.
Trotsky in 1919
Trotsky's assassination was not just a malicious
after-thought on the part of Stalin.
It was the culmination of a systematic and bloody
terror directed against a whole generation of Bolshevik leaders, and
against the young revolutionaries of a second generation prepared to
defend the genuine ideas of Marxism against the bureaucratic, repressive
regime developing under Stalin.
By the time the GPU reached Trotsky in 1940, they
had already murdered— or driven to suicide—many members of Trotsky's
family, scores of his closest friends and collaborators, and countless
numbers of the leaders and supporters of the International Left
Despite the murder of a whole generation of
Bolshevik-Leninists, however, and the bureaucracy's Herculean efforts to
bury the ideas and historical personality of Trotsky under a mountain of
distort ions, lies, slanders, and grotesque historical fabrication,
Trotsky's ideas have never had more relevance or more appeal to
working-class activists than they have today, at the beginning of the
1980s, when there is unmistakably a perspective of new revolutionary
developments in the advanced capitalist countries, the underdeveloped
lands of the ex-colonial world, and the deformed workers' states of Russia
and Eastern Europe.
This will no doubt be grudgingly conceded by even
the capitalist press this August. But, predictably, an enormous amount of
rubbish will be written, whether through an inability to understand the
real historical role of Trotsky or a deliberate effort to obscure and
confuse the political issues involved.
For instance, despite the incontrovertible
evidence—some clear at the time, much more which has since come to light—some
journals (e.g. the 'New Statesman', 8th December 1978), anxious, it seems,
to exculpate Stalinism, have even tried to cast doubt on the GPU's
responsibility for Trotsky's murder.
More fundamentally, however, the old question
(raised, for instance, by Max Eastman in the 1930s) will inevitably come
up. Why, if Trotsky was one of the foremost leaders of the Bolshevik party
and the head of the Red Army, did he allow Stalin to concentrate power in
his hands? Why did Trotsky not take power himself? The idea will no doubt
be put forward again that Trotsky was "too doctrinaire", that
his policies were "impractical", and that he allowed himself to
be "out-manoeuvred" by Stalin. As a corollary, it will again be
suggested that Stalin was more "practical" and that he was a
more "astute" and "forceful" leader.
Trotsky himself completely refuted these ideas,
not just in answering Max Eastman's point, but through his whole analysis
of the degeneration of the soviet workers' state and his criticism of the
bureaucracy's policies. From the standpoint of Marxism, it is completely
false to pose the conflict that opened up after 1923 as a personal
struggle for power between rival leaders.
"In view of the prolonged decline in the
international revolution," wrote Trotsky in 1935, "the victory
of the bureaucracy—and consequently of Stalin—was foreordained. The
result which the idle observers and fools attribute to the personal
forcefulness of Stalin, or at least to his exceptional cunning, stemmed
from causes lying deep in the dynamics of historical forces. Stalin
emerged as the half-conscious expression of the second chapter of the
revolution, its 'Morning after'." ("Diary in Exile', p.38)
Neither Trotsky, nor any of the Bolshevik leaders
in 1917, had imagined that the working class of Russia could build a
socialist society in isolation, in an economically backward and culturally
They were convinced that the workers had to take
the power in order to carry through the largely unfinished tasks of the
bourgeois-democratic revolution; but in pressing forward to the imperative
tasks of the socialist revolution, they could proceed only in
collaboration with the working class of the more developed capitalist
countries—because, as compared to capitalism, socialism requires a
higher level of production and material culture.
The defeat of the German revolution in 1923—to
which the blunders of the Stalin-Bukharin leadership contributed—reinforced
the isolation of the Soviet state, and the enforced retreat of the New
Economic Policy speeded up the crystallisation of a bureaucratic caste
which increasingly put its own creature comforts, desire for tranquillity,
and demands for privileges before the interests of the international
The ruling stratum of the bureaucracy "was
rapidly discovering that Stalin was flesh of its flesh," and
reflecting the interests of the bureaucracy, Stalin began a struggle
against "Trotskyism"—an ideological bogey which he invented to
distort and stigmatise the genuine ideas of Marxism, and of Lenin, upheld
by Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
It was the bureaucracy's fear that the
opposition's programme for the restoration of workers' democracy would
find an echo among a new layer of young workers and give new momentum to
the struggle against bureaucratic degeneration that motivated Stalin's
bloody purge against the Opposition. Its ideas were "the source of
the gravest apprehensions of Stalin: that savage fears ideas, since he
knows their explosive power and knows his own weakness in the face of
them." ('Diary in Exile', p.66)
This fear also explained Stalin's personal
craving for revenge against Trotsky and his family. Stalin, remarked
Trotsky, "is clever enough to realise that even today I would not
change places with him [in 1935, while living in "modified prison
style" in France]... hence the psychology of a man stung."
Expulsion and Exile
Answering in advance the false idea that the
conflict was in some way the result of "misunderstanding" or
unwillingness to compromise, Trotsky related how, while he was exiled at
Alma-Ata in 1928, a "sympathetic" engineer, probably "sent
surreptitiously to feel my pulse", asked him whether he didn't think
some steps towards reconciliation with Stalin were possible:
"I answered him to the effect that at that
moment there could be no question of reconciliation, not because I did
not want it, but because Stalin could not make his peace with me. He was
forced to pursue to the end the course set him by the bureaucracy. 'How
will it end?' 'It will come to a sticky end.' I answered. 'Stalin cannot
settle it any other way.' My visitor was visibly startled; he obviously
had not expected such an answer, and soon left." ('Diary in Exile'
Beginning in 1923 Trotsky led a fight in the
Russian Communist Party. In a series of articles (published as 'The New
Course') he began to warn of the danger of a post-revolutionary reaction.
The isolation of the revolution in a backward country was leading to the
incipient growth of a bureaucracy in the Bolshevik Party and the state.
Trotsky began to protest at the arbitrary behaviour of the Party
bureaucracy crystallising under Stalin.
Shortly before he died in 1924, Lenin agreed with
Trotsky on a block in the Party to fight bureaucracy.
When Trotsky and a group of left oppositionists
began a fight for a revival of workers' democracy, the Politbureau was
obliged to promise the restoration of freedom of expression and criticism
in the Communist Party. But Stalin and his associates made sure that this
remained a dead letter.
Within four years—on the 7th November 1927, the
10th anniversary of the October revolution— Trotsky was forced to leave
the Kremlin and take refuge with oppositionist friends. A week later,
Trotsky and Zinoviev, the first Chairman of the Communist International,
were expelled from the Party. Next day, Trotsky's fellow oppositionist and
friend, Adolph Joffe, killed himself in protest at the dictatorial action
of the Stalin leadership. This was the first of Trotsky's comrades,
friends, and family to be driven to death or directly murdered by Stalin's
regime, which through systematic and ruthless repression of its opponents,
opened up a river of blood between genuine workers' democracy and its own
bureaucratic, totalitarian methods.
In Janaury 1928, Trotsky was forced into his
third foreign exile. First he was deported to Alma-Ata, a small Russian
town near the Chinese border, and from there he was deported to Turkey,
where he took up residence on Prinkipo Island, on the Sea of Marmara near
Constantinople (now Istanbul).
In an attempt to paralyse Trotsky's literary and
political work, Stalin struck at his small 'apparat', which had consisted
of five or six close collaborators: "Glazman, driven to suicide;
Butov, dead in a GPU prison; Blumkin, shot; Sermuks and Poznansky
vanished. Stalin did not see that even without a secretariat I could carry
on literary work, which, in its turn, could further the creating of a new
apparat. Even the cleverest bureaucrat displays an incredible
short-sightedness, in certain questions!" ("Diary in Exile', p.
40) All these revolutionaries had played important roles, particularly as
members of the military secretariat or on Trotsky's armed train during the
civil war. But Stalin, as Trotsky remarked, "Was conducting the
struggle on a different plane, and with different weapons."
If Stalin subsequently devoted such a large part
of the resources of his secret police (known by its various abbreviated
names: Cheka, GPU, NKVD, MVD, and KGB), to planning and executing the
assassination of Trotsky, why did Stalin allow his opponent to go into
exile in the first place?
In an Open Letter to the Politbureau in January
1932, Trotsky publicly warned that Stalin would prepare an attempt on his
life. "The question of terrorist reprisals against the author of this
letter," he wrote, "was posed long ago: in 1924/5 at an intimate
gathering Stalin weighed the pros and cons. The pros were obvious and
clear. The chief consideration against was that there were too many young
Trotskyists who might reply with counter-terrorist actions."
(Writings 1932, p.l9)
Trotsky was informed of these discussions by
Zinoviev and Kamenev, who had briefly formed a "ruling
triumvirate" with Stalin, but later moved—temporarily— into
opposition against Stalin.
But "Stalin has come to the conclusion that
it was a mistake to have exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union", wrote
"...contrary to his expectations it
turned out that ideas have a power of their own, even without an
apparatus and without resources.
The Comintern is a grandiose structure, that
has been left as a hollow shell, both theoretically and politically. The
future of revolutionary Marxism, which is to say of Leninism as well, is
inseparably bound up from now on with the international cadres of the
Left Opposition. No amount of falsification can change that.
The basic works of the opposition have been,
are being, or will be published in every language. Opposition cadres, as
yet not very numerous but nonetheless indomitable, are to be found in
Stalin understands perfectly well what a grave
danger the ideological irreconcilability and persistent growth of the
International Left Opposition represent to him personally, to his fake
'authority', to his Bonapartist almightiness." (Writings, 1932,
In the early period of his Turkish exile, Trotsky
wrote his monumental 'History of the Russian Revolution' and also his
brilliant autobiography, 'My Life'. Through voluminous correspondence with
oppositionists in other countries and especially through the 'Bulletin of
the Opposition' (published from Autumn, 1929), Trotsky began to draw
together the nucleus of an international opposition of genuine Bolsheviks.
But Trotsky's prognosis that, using the GPU, Stalin would ferociously
purge and attempt to destroy everything working against him, was soon
Towards the end of his Turkish exile, Trotsky
suffered a cruel blow when his daughter, Zinaida, ill and demoralised, was
driven to suicide in Berlin. Her husband, Platon Volkov, a young
opposition militant, was arrested and disappeared forever. Trotsky's first
wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, the woman who first introduced him to
socialist ideas, was sent to a concentration camp where she died. Later
Trotsky's son, Sergey, a scientist with no political interests or
connections, was arrested on a trumped-up charge of 'poisoning the
workers'—and Trotsky later learned that he had died in prison. Alongside
his morbid fear of ideas, "the motive of personal revenge has always
been a considerable factor in the repressive policies of Stalin."
('Diary in Exile', p.66)
From the start, moreover, the GPU began to
penetrate Trotsky's household and the groups of the Left Opposition.
Suspicion surrounded a number of people who appeared in Opposition
organisations in Europe, or who came to Prinkipo to visit Trotsky or
assist in his work. Jakob Frank, for example, a Lithuanian Jew worked at
Prinkipo for a time but later went over to Stalinism. Another, known as
Kharin (or Joseph) handed over the text of one edition of the
"Bulletin of the Opposition" to the GPU, thus seriously
disrupting its production. There was also the case of Mill (Paul Okun, or
Obin) who also went over to the Stalinists, leaving Trotsky and his
collaborators uncertain whether he was just a turncoat or a GPU plant.
Why were such people accepted as genuine
collaborators? In a public comment on Mill's treachery, Trotsky pointed
"The Left Opposition is placed in
extremely difficult conditions from an organisational point of view. No
revolutionary party in the past has worked under such persecution. In
addition to repression by the capitalist police of all countries, the
Opposition is exposed to the blows of the Stalinist bureaucracy which
stops at nothing...it is of course the Russian section which is having
the hardest time...
But to find a Russian Bolshevik-Leninist
abroad, even for purely technical functions, is an extremely difficult
task. This and only this explains the fact that Mill was able for a time
to get into the Administrative Secretariat of the Left Opposition. There
was a need for a person who knew Russian and was able to carry out
secretarial duties. Mill had at one time been a member of the official
Party and in this sense could claim a certain personal confidence."
('Writings 1932, p.237)
Looking back, it is clear that the lack of
adequate security checks was to have tragic consequences. But resources
were extremely limited, and Trotsky understood that a phobia about
infiltration and an exaggerated suspicion of everyone who offered support
to the work of the Opposition could be counter-productive. With his
positive, optimistic view of human character, moreover, Trotsky was averse
to subjecting individuals to searching enquiries and personal
One visitor to Prinkipo, however, was quite
definitely a professional GPU agent. The subsequent course of this agent's
treacherous career was much later to throw considerable light on the GPU's
deadly manoeuvres against Trotsky and the Opposition. This was Abraham
Sobolevicius, who as "Senin" was a leading member of the German
Left Opposition, together with his brother, Ruvin Soblevicius, known as
These brothers conspired to disrupt the
activities of the German group—with considerable success. In 1933, with
Hitler's seizure of power, they returned to the GPU headquarters in Moscow—but
not before Trotsky had confronted "Senin" while on a brief visit
to Copenhagen in 1932 and denounced the "so-called Trotskyite"
as "more or less an agent of the Stalinists." "At the
mildest estimate," Trotsky wrote, "we can call these people [the
Sobolevicius brothers] nothing but the garbage of the revolution,"
and commented that there were certainly connections between such agents
and the GPU in Moscow.
Much later, this was confirmed by "Senin"
himself: "My services for the Soviet secret police went back to
1931," he confessed (though they almost certainly began
"The job was to spy on Leon Trotsky for
Joseph Stalin, who was obsessed with the idea of knowing everything his
hated rival was doing and thinking even in exile... for two years, in
1931 and 1932, I spied on Trotsky and the men around him. Trotsky,
suspecting nothing, invited me to his heavily guarded home at Prinkipo,
Turkey. I duly reported back to the Kremlin everything Trotsky told me
in confidence including his pungent remarks about Stalin."
This was revealed in the United States in 1957/8,
when "Senin", now under the name of Jack Sobel, was put on trial
as the key member of a Russian spy ring in America. In the course of his
testimony, at his own trial, at the perjury trial of his fellow agent,
Mark Zborowski, and also at Senate hearings on espionage, Jack Sobel,
together with his brother, now known as Robert Sobel, confirmed in detail
the murderous role of the GPU in relation to Trotsky, his family, and his
Trotsky was eager to escape the isolation of
Prinkipo and find a base nearer to the centre of European events. But the
capitalist democracies were far from willing to grant Trotsky the
democratic right of asylum. Eventually, in 1933, Trotsky was admitted to
France. The sharpening of political tension, however, and particularly the
growth of the nationalist and fascist right, soon led the Daladier
government to order his expulsion. Practically every European government
had already refused him asylum. Trotsky lived, as he wrote, on "a
planet without a visa." Expelled in 1935, Trotsky found refuge for a
short time in Norway where he wrote "The Revolution Betrayed' (1936).
"Lies, falsification, forgery, and judicial
perversion have assumed a scale hitherto unheard of in history..."
('Diary in Exile', p45) wrote Trotsky while still in France. But shortly
after his arrival in Norway, the first big Moscow purge trial exploded in
the face of the world. "Disturbing trials are now taking place in the
USSR," Trotsky commented in his Diary; "Stalin's dictatorship is
approaching a new frontier."
In the first monstrous show trial, Zinoviev,
Kamenev, and other prominent leaders of the Bolshevik Party were tried on
trumped-up charges—based on false confessions extorted by brutal
pressure, torture, and threats against the defendants' families. The
leading defendants were sentenced to death and immediately executed.
Stalin's campaign against "Trotskyism" reached a climax.
In these great purge trials, Trotsky was the
chief defendant in absentia, accused of staging innumerable conspiracies
with the alleged purpose of assassinating Stalin, Voroshilov, Kaganovich,
and other Soviet leaders, and of acting in secret collusion with Hitler
and the Emperor of Japan in order to bring about the downfall of the
Soviet regime and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, Stalin exerted intense pressure
on the Norweigan government to restrict Trotsky in order to prevent his
replying to and refuting the vile charges hurled against him in Moscow. To
avoid virtual imprisonment, Trotsky was obliged to find an alternative
refuge, and he eagerly accepted an offer of asylum from the Cardenas
government in Mexico. En route, Trotsky recalled his Open Letter to the
Politbureau in which he had anticipated Stalin's "world-wide
bureaucratic slander campaign," and predicted attempts on his life.
With chilling premonition, Trotsky added: "Stalin conducts a struggle
on a totally different plane. He seeks to strike not at the ideas of the
opponent, but at his skull." (Writings 1936/37, p44)
The purge in Russia was not confined to a handful
of old Bolsheviks or Left Oppositionists. For every leader who appeared in
a show trial, hundreds or thousands were silently imprisoned, sent to
certain death in Arctic prison camps, or summarily executed in prison
cellars. At least eight million were arrested in the course of the purges,
and five or six millions rotted, many of them to death, in the camps. It
was undoubtedly the supporters of the Left Opposition, adherents of
Trotsky's ideas, who bore the heaviest repression.
Writing in his recent memoirs, Leopold Trepper, a
genuine revolutionary caught up in the machinery of the GPU, posed the
"But who did protest at the time? Who rose
up to voice his outrage?" (The Great Game', 1977). He gives this
answer: "The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following
the example of their leader who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the
end of an ice axe, they fought Stalinism to the death and they were the
only ones who did.
By the time of the great purges, they could
only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had
been dragged in order to be exterminated. In the camps, their conduct
was admirable. But their voices were lost in the tundra. Today, the
Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the
Let them not forget, however, that they had the
enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable
of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of
their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not
'confess', for they knew that their confession would serve neither the
Party nor socialism." (p56)
The purges in Russia were also linked to Stalin's
direct, counterrevolutionary intervention in the revolution and the civil
war which erupted in Spain in the summer of 1936. Through the agency of a
bureaucratic leadership of the Spanish Communist Party controlled from
Moscow, the apparatus of Soviet military advisers, and through the GPU's
"Special Tasks Force," Stalin extended his terror to the
anarchists, left-wing militants and especially the Trotskyists who stood
in the way of his policies.
Stalin's secret police also intensified his measures to destroy the centre
of the International Left Opposition, based in Paris and under the
direction of Trotsky's son, Leon Sedov.
In 1936 the GPU stole part of Trotsky's archives
stored in Paris, a move intended to undermine Trotsky's ability to reply
to the monstrous charges and faked evidence put forward in the Moscow
trials. But a far heavier blow to both Trotsky personally and to the
Opposition in general was the death of Leon Sedov.
Sedov had been indispensable to Trotsky in his
literary work, in preparing and distributing the 'Bulletin of the
Opposition', and in maintaining contacts between groups of oppositionists
internationally. But Sedov also made an outstanding, independent
contribution to the work of the opposition.
Early in 1937, however, he was taken ill with
suspected appendicitis. On the advice of a man who had become his closest
collaborator, "Etienne", Sedov entered a clinic—which
subsequently turned out to be run by both "White" Russian
emigres and Russians with known Stalinist leanings. Sedov appeared to
recover from the surgery which was carried out; but shortly afterwards he
died with extremely mysterious symptoms.
The evidence, and the opinion of at least one
doctor, pointed to poisoning, and further investigation produced a strong
suggestion that his illness had in the first place been produced by
sophisticated, virtually undetectable poisoning.
Trotsky wrote a moving tribute to his dead son,
"Leon Sedov— Son, Friend, Fighter". (Writings 1937/38, pp
166-179). He paid tribute to Sedov's role in the struggle to defend the
genuine ideas of Marxism against their Stalinist perversion. But he also
gave some indication of the depth of the personal blow. "He was part
of both of us," Trotsky wrote, speaking for himself and for Natalia:
"Our young part. By hundreds of channels our thoughts and feelings
daily reach out to him in Paris. Together with our boy has died everything
that still remained young within us."
Subsequently it was revealed that Leon Sedov had
been betrayed by "Etienne", a GPU agent far more insidious and
ruthless than the previous spies and provocateurs who had infiltrated
Trotsky's circle. Etienne was later unmasked as one Mark Zborowski, who
like the Sobels was exposed in the United States in the late 1950s as the
key figure in the GPU's American espionage network.
By that time, Zborowski, already had a long trail
of duplicity and blood behind him. In his US trial, Zborowski confessed
that he had led the GPU to Trotsky's archives and had been responsible for
"fingering" Rudolf Klement (Trotsky's secretary, murdered in
Paris in 1938), Erwin Wolf (a supporter of Trotsky who went to Spain and
was murdered in July 1937), and Ignace Reiss (a top GPU agent who
renounced Stalin's terror machine and declared his support for the Fourth
International, murdered in Switzerland in September 1937).
By his own admission Zborowski had been a
professional GPU agent since 1931 or 1932 (though more likely since 1928).
He may at one time have been a member of the Polish Communist Party
(though he denied this), but he was undoubtedly a mercenary Stalinist
agent. He undoubtedly had contact with Jack Sobel in Paris, and also with
the agents of the GPU's "Special Tasks Force" in Spain, which
was responsible for the murder in Barcelona of Erwin Wolf—and which
included in its ranks the infamous Colonel Eitingon.
It was this man, under numerous pseudonyms, who
was to direct the assassination attempts against Trotsky in Mexico, in
conjunction with his GPU associate and lover, Caridad Mercader, and her
son Ramon Mercader, the agent who eventually murdered Trotsky. Zborowski
was also responsible for beginning the task of infiltrating Mercader into
Trotsky's circle. Nearly two years before the assassination, he set up an
elaborate scheme to enable Mercader to seduce a young American Trotskyist,
Sylvia Ageloff, as a means of gaining entry to Trotsky's household.
Show Trials And Bloody Purges
"Stalin’s dictatorship is approaching a new frontier..."
All the evidence at the time pointed to the GPU's
responsibility for the murder of Trotsky, his son Leon Sedov and other
But later this was more than amply confirmed, not
only by the detailed evidence of the Sobels, Zborowski, and others forced
to testify in the United States courts and Senate hearings in the late
1950s and early 1960s, but also by the detailed evidence of a number of
top GPU officers who fled from Russia and revealed the truth about the
murderous activity in which they had been involved.
The first had been Ignace Reiss himself,
who soon paid with his life for his denunciation of Stalin's crimes. Later
Alexander Orlov, who had been director of the GPU machine in Spain during
the civil war, escaped to America. He attempted to warn Trotsky of the
plot against his life, though this was only partially successful because
of Trotsky's understandable fear of being misled by a provocateur.
But Orlov, both in evidence to the US government
and in his revealing book, 'The Secret History of Stalin's Crimes',
confirmed in detail the role of Zborowski, Eitingon, and Mercader. Further
corroborative evidence was brought out much later by other GPU defectors,
like Krivitsky (tracked down and murdered by the GPU in 1941) and later
still by Colonel Vladimir Petrov who fled to Australia and Captain Nikolai
Khokhlov. Khokhlov testified that:
"Trotsky's assassination was organised by
Major General Eitingon, the same general who was in Spain under the name
of General Katov," and who "recruited Spaniards for
diversionary activities of the Soviet intelligence."
"And that is where he recruited a Spaniard
who was brought to the Soviet union and who was briefed in detail and
who was later sent to Mexico under the name of Mornard" (i.e.
Mercader or 'Jacson'). (Quoted in Isaac Don Levine, The Mind of an
Assassin', 1960, p.34)
Armed Raid And Assassination
"Retribution will come to the vile murderers…"
Trotsky, Natalia Sedova, and a handful of close
collaborators arrived in Mexico in January 1937.
The administration of General Lazaro Cardenas was
the only government in the world that would grant Trotsky asylum in the
last years of his life. In marked contrast to his reception elsewhere,
Trotsky was given a flamboyant official welcome and went to live in
Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, in a house lent by his friend and
political supporter, Diego Rivera, a well-known Mexican painter.
Trotsky's arrival, however, coincided with a
second Moscow show trial, shortly followed by a third, even more grotesque
"We listened to the radio," related
Natalia, "opened the mail and the Moscow newspapers, and we felt
that insanity, absurdity, and outrage, fraud and blood were flooding us
from all sides, here in Mexico as in Norway..." ('The Life and
Death of Leon Trotsky', page 212).
Once again Trotsky exposed the internal
contradictions of the manufactured evidence used in these monstrous
frame-ups, and in a stream of articles completely refuted all the
accusations against him and his supporters. It proved possible, moreover,
to organise a "counter-trial" presided over by the liberal
American philosopher, John Dewey, and this commission completely
exonerated Trotsky of the charges hurled against him.
Trotsky warned that the purpose of the trials was
to justify a new wave of terror—which would be directed against all
those who represented the slightest threat to Stalin's dictatorial
leadership, whether as active opponents, potential bureaucratic rivals, pr
simply embarrassing accomplices from the past. Trotsky was well aware that
the death penalty pronounced against him was far from being a platonic
From the moment of his arrival, the Mexican
Communist Party, whose leaders loyally followed the Moscow line, began to
agitate for restrictions to be placed on Trotsky to prevent him answering
the show trial allegations, and ultimately to bring about his expulsion
from the country. The newspapers and journals published by the Communist
Party and the Communist-controlled trade union federation (CTM) poured out
a stream of slanderous allegations, to the effect that Trotsky was
plotting against the Cardenas government and allegedly collaborating with
fascist and reactionary elements. Trotsky was well aware that the
Stalinist press was using the language of people who decide things, not by
votes but by the machine gun.
In the middle of the night on 24th/25th May, came
the first direct assault on Trotsky's life. A group of armed raiders
forced their way into Trotsky's house, raked the bedrooms with machine-gun
fire, and set off incendiaries evidently intended to destroy Trotsky's
archives and cause the maximum possible damage. Trotsky and Natalia
narrowly escaped death by lying on the floor beneath the bed. Their
grandson, Seva, was slightly injured by a bullet.
A large bomb left by the raiders failed—fortunately—to
go off. Afterwards, it was found that the raiders had been let in by
Robert Sheldon Harte, one of the secretary-guards, who was apparently
tricked by someone in the raiding party he knew and trusted. His body was
later found buried in a lime pit. The raiders, moreover, knew the layout
of the building and the security devices—they clearly had inside
information. Although an accusing finger was pointed at Sheldon Harte as
an accomplice, he was undoubtedly duped—as Trotsky emphatically
maintained at the time—by somebody familiar to him. No one fits this
inference better than Mornard, alias 'Jacson.'
All the evidence pointed to the Mexican
Stalinists and, behind them, the GPU. Through a detailed analysis of the
Stalinist press in the weeks before the raid, Trotsky clearly showed that
they had foreknowledge of, and were preparing for, an armed attempt on his
life. The Mexican police soon arrested some of the minor accomplices of
the raiders, and their evidence soon incriminated leading members of the
Mexican Communist Party.
For a start, the suspects had previously been
involved in the International Brigades in Spain— already notorious as
the recruiting ground of Stalin's agents and killers. The trail soon led
to David Alfaro Siqueiros, like Diego Rivera a well-known painter, but
unlike Rivera, a leading member of the Mexican Communist Party. Siqueiros
had also been in Spain and had long been suspected of connections with the
GPU. Despite the Stalinists' outrageous attempt to portray the attack as a
"self-inflicted attack," supposedly organised by Trotsky to
discredit the CP and the Cardenas government, the police eventually
arrested the ring-leaders, including Siqueiros. However, as a result of
pressure from the CP and the CTM, Siqueiros and the others were released
in March 1941, for "lack of material and incriminating
Siqueiros did not deny his role in the assault.
In fact, he openly boasted about it. But the Communist Party leadership,
clearly embarrassed—not so much by the attempt itself, but by the way it
was bungled—tried to disassociate itself from the raid, blaming it onto
a gang of "uncontrollable elements" and "agents
The Stalinist press alternated between
proclaiming Siqueiros a hero, and, on the other hand, a "half-crazed
madman" and "irresponsible adventurer"—and even... as
being in Trotsky's pay! With shameless 'logic', the CP press asserted that
the attack was an act of provocation directed against the Communist Party
and against the Mexican state—and therefore Trotsky should be expelled
Thirty-eight years later, however, a leading
member of the Mexican Communist Party admitted the truth. In his memoirs,
'My Testimony', published by the Mexican CP's own publishing house in
1978, Valentin Campa, a veteran member of the party, flatly contradicted
the official denials of the party's involvement and gave details of the
preparation for the attempt on Trotsky's life. Key extracts from Campa's
memoirs, moreover, were published in the daily paper of the more
influential French Communist Party ("L'Humanite', 26/27 June 1978) on
the authority of the party's general-secretary, George Marchais. (see ‘Militant',
Campa relates how, in the autumn of 1938, he,
together with Raphael Carrillo (a member of the Mexican CP’s central
committee), was summoned by Herman Laborde (the party's general secretary)
and informed of "an extremely confidential and delicate affair."
Laborde told them he had been visited by a Comintern delegate (in reality,
a GPU representative) who had informed him of the "decision to
eliminate Trotsky" and had asked for their co-operation "for the
task of carrying out this elimination."
After a "vigorous analysis", however,
Campa says that they rejected the proposal. "We concluded... that
Trotsky was finished politically, that his influence was almost zero,
moreover we had said so often enough throughout the world, besides, the
results of his elimination would do great disservice to the Mexican
Communist Party and the revolutionary movement of Mexico and to the whole
international Communist movement. We therefore concluded that to propose
the elimination of Trotsky was clearly a serious mistake." For their
opposition, however, Laborde and Campa were accused of "sectarian
opportunism," of being "soft on Trotsky," and were driven
out of the party.
The campaign to prepare the Mexican CP for the
murder of Trotsky was carried through by a number of Stalinist leaders
already experienced in ruthlessly carrying out the orders of their master
in Moscow: Siqueiros himself, who had been active in Spain, probably a GPU
agent since 1928; Vittoria Codovila, an Argentinian Stalinist who had
operated in Spain under Eitingon, probably involved in the torture and
murder of the POUM leader Andreas Nin; Pedro Checa, leader of the Spanish
Communist Party in exile in Mexico, who actually took his pseudonym from
the Soviet secret police, the Cheka; and Carlos Contreras, alias Vittorio
Vidali, who had been active with the GPU's 'Special Tasks Force' in Spain
under the pseudonym of 'General Carlos'. Co-ordinating their efforts was,
of course the ubiquitous Colonel Eitingon.
After the failure of the attempt by Siqueiros and
his group to take Trotsky's house by storm, Campa writes; "a third
alternative was put into practice. Raymond Mercader who was living under
the pseudonym Jacques Mornard, assassinated Trotsky on the evening of the
20th August, 1940."
Trotsky regarded his escape from the Siqueiros
raid as "a reprieve". "Our joyous feeling of
salvation," wrote Natalia afterwards, "was dampened by the
prospect of a new visitation and the need to prepare for it."
('Father and Son'). The defences of Trotsky's house were strengthened and
new precautions were taken. But unfortunately—tragically—no efforts
were made to check up more thoroughly on the man who turned out to be the
assassin, despite the suspicions that several members of the household had
about this strange character.
Trotsky resisted some of the additional security
measures suggested by his secretary-guards: for a guard to be stationed by
him at all times, for instance. "It was impossible to convert one's
life solely into self-defence," wrote Natalia, "...for in that
case life loses all its value." Nevertheless, in view of the vital,
indispensable nature of Trotsky's work – and the inevitability of an
attempt on his life, there is no doubt there were serious deficiencies in
the security— and that tighter measures should have been
Shortly before Sheldon Harte's abduction, for
instance, Trotsky had noticed him allowing workmen strengthening the house
to pass freely in and out of the courtyard. Trotsky complained that this
was very careless, and added—ironically, this was only a few weeks
before Harte's tragic death—"You might prove to be the first victim
of your own carelessness." (Natalia Sedova, 'Father and Son.')
Mercader met Trotsky for the first time a few
days after the Siqueiros raid. But the preparations for his attempt had
already been in hand for a long time. Through Zborowski and other GPU
agents who had infiltrated Trotsky's supporters in the United States,
Mercader had been introduced in France to Sylvia Agaloff, a young American
Trotskyist who subsequently went to work for Trotsky in Coyoacan. The GPU
agent managed to seduce Sylvia Agaloff, and make her the unwitting
accomplice of his crime.
Mercader had an "elaborate cover,"
which although it aroused many suspicions, unfortunately served its
purpose well enough. Mercader had joined the Communist Party in Spain, and
become active in its ranks in the period 1933-36 when it was already a
Stalinised party. Probably through his mother, Caridad Mercader, who was
already a GPU agent and associated with Eitingon, Mercader too entered the
service of the GPU. After the defeat of the Spanish Republic, aided by
Stalin's sabotage of the revolution in Spain, Mercader went to Moscow
where he was prepared for his future role. After meeting Ageloff in Paris
in 1938 he later accompanied her to Mexico in January, and gradually
ingratiated himself with members of Trotsky's household.
After gaining the acceptance of Trotsky's
household, Mornard arranged to meet with Trotsky personally on the pretext
of discussing an article that he had written—which Trotsky considered to
an embarrassing degree banal and devoid of interest. The first meeting was
clearly a "dress rehearsal" for the actual assassination.
The next time he came was on the morning of 20th
August. Despite the misgivings of Natalia and Trotsky's guards, Mornard
was again allowed to see Trotsky alone—"three or four minutes went
by," Natalia relates: "I was in the room next door. There was a
terrible piercing cry... Lev Davidovich appeared, leaning against the door
frame. His face was covered with blood, his blue eyes glistening without
spectacles and his arms hung limply by his side..." Mornard had
struck Trotsky a fatal blow in the back of the head with a cut-down ice
axe concealed in his raincoat. But the blow was not immediately lethal;
Trotsky "screamed very long, infinitely long," as Mercader
himself put it—and Trotsky courageously grappled with his assassin,
preventing further blows.
"The doctor declared that the injury was not
very serious," says Natalia. " Leon Davidovich listened to, him
without emotion, as one would with a conventional message of comfort.
Pointing to his heart, he said to Hansen in English, ‘I
feel...here...that this is the end...this time...they've succeeded'."
('Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, p. 268)
Trotsky was taken to hospital, operated on, and
survived for more than a day after that, dying at the age of 62 on 21st
Trotsky in Mexico
Mercader seems to have hoped that, after
Siqueiros' lenient treatment, he too might get a light sentence. But he
was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, which he served.
after his identity had been firmly established by finger-prints and other
evidence, he refused to admit who he was or who had ordered him to murder
Although the crime was almost universally
attributed to Stalin and the GPU, the Stalinists brazenly denied all
responsibility. There is ample evidence, however, that Mercader's mother,
who escaped from Mexico with Eitingon, was presented to Stalin and
decorated with a high bureaucratic honour for her son and herself.
Mercader himself was honoured when he returned to Eastern Europe after his
release. In spite of his silence, a chain of evidence, which can now be
constructed from the elaborate testimony of Russian spies brought to trial
in the United States, top GPU agents who defected to Western countries at
various times, and the belated memoirs of the Stalinist leaders
themselves, clearly link Mercader to Stalin's secret terror machine based
In the end, Stalin succeeded in murdering the man
who—alongside Lenin—was indubitably the greatest revolutionary leader
in history. But, as Natalia Sedova wrote afterwards: "Retribution
will come to the vile murderers. Throughout his entire heroic and
beautiful life, Lev Davidovich believed in the emancipated mankind of the
future. During the last years of his life, his faith did not falter, but
on the contrary became only more mature, more firm than ever. Future
mankind, emancipated from all oppression will triumph over coercion of all
sorts..." ('How It Happened', November 1940.)
Trotsky's Vital Role
"Arming a new generation with the revolutionary method..."
Many attempts have been made to portray Trotsky
as a "tragic" figure, as if his perspective for socialist
revolution in the capitalist states and for political revolution in the
Soviet Union was "noble"...but hopelessly idealistic. This is
the view implied by Isaac Deutscher in the third volume of his Trotsky
biography, 'The Prophet Outcast', in which he denigrates Trotsky's efforts
to re-organise and re-arm a new international Marxist leadership,
dismissing Trotsky's tenacious, painstaking work as futile. The latest
biographer, Ronald Segal, entitles his book The Tragedy of Leon Trotsky.'
But if there is a tragic element in Trotsky's
life, it is because his whole life and work after the victorious Russian
Revolution was inseparably bound up with the revolutionary struggle of the
international working class—in a period first of retreat and then of
For the very reason that Trotsky played a leading
role in the October revolution, his past dictated that with the ebbing of
the revolution he would be forced into exile and political isolation. But
while fainthearts and sceptics abandoned Marxist perspectives and made
their peace with Stalinism or capitalism—or both—Trotsky, and the
small handful who remained committed to the ideas of the Opposition,
struggled to re-arm a new generation of revolutionary leaders for the
future resurgence of the working class movement.
In exile, Trotsky enriched the literature of
Marxism with magnificent works: but he was far from accepting that his
role would simply be that of historian and commentator on events. "I
am reduced," wrote Trotsky in his 'Diary in Exile' (pp 53-54),
"to carrying on a dialogue with the newspapers, or rather through the
newspapers with facts and opinions.
"And I still think that the work in which
I am engaged now, despite its extremely insufficient and fragmentary
nature, is the most important work of my life—more important than
1917, more important than the period of the Civil War or any other.
"For the sake of clarity I would put it
this way. Had I not been present in 1917 in Petersburg, the October
Revolution would still have taken place—on the condition that Lenin
was present and in command. If neither Lenin nor I had been present in
Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution: the leadership
of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it occurring—of this I
have not the slightest doubt! If Lenin had not been in Petersburg, I
doubt whether I could have managed to conquer the resistance of the
Bolshevik leaders. The struggle with 'Trotskyism' (i.e. with the
proletarian revolution) would have commenced in May 1917, and the
outcome of the revolution would have been in question.
"But I repeat, granted the presence of
Lenin the October Revolution would have been victorious anyway. The same
could by and large be said of the Civil War, although in its first
period, especially at the time of the fall of Simbirsk and Kazan, Lenin
wavered and was beset by doubts. But this was undoubtedly a passing mood
which he probably never even admitted to anyone but me.
"Thus I cannot speak of the
'indispensability' of my work, even about the period from 1917 to 1921.
But now my work is 'indispensable' in the full sense of the word. There
is no arrogance in this claim at all. The collapse of the two
Internationals has posed a problem which none of the leaders of these
Internationals is at all equipped to solve. The vicissitudes of my
personal fate have confronted me with this problem and armed me with
important experience in dealing with it.
"There is now no one except me to carry
out the mission of arming a new generation with the revolutionary method
over the heads of the leaders of the Second and Third International. And
I am in complete agreement with Lenin (or rather Turgenev) that the
worst vice is to be more than fifty-five years old! I need at least
about five more years of uninterrupted work to ensure the
Books and articles with material relating to Trotsky's assassination:
Trotsky's Diary in Exile (London 1959);
Leon Trotsky: Writings 1929-40 (12 vols plus
two-part supplement, New York 1969-80);
Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova Trotsky: The Life
and Death of Leon Trotsky (London 1975);
Natalia Trotsky: How it Happened and Father and
Son ('Fourth International,' May 1941 and August 1941);
Jean van Heijenoort: With Trotsky in Exile
Elizabeth Poretsky: Our Own People: A Memoir of
Ignace Reiss (London 1969);
Isaac Don Levine; The Mind of an Assassin (London
Georges Vereeken: The GPU in the Trotskyist
Movement (London 1978);
Alexander Orlov: The Secret History of Stalin's
Crimes (London 1954);
Walter Krivitsky: I Was Stalin's Agent (London
Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Armed (1954), The
Profit Unarmed (1959), and The Profit Outcast (1963);
Ronald SegaI: The Tragedy of Leon Trotsky (London
Militant International Review
Summer 1980 | Home