Below we republish an old article to mark the 75th Anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky
ON 20 AUGUST, 1940, Leon 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.
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 or condemned to labour camps – 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 Opposition.
Sixty years after the event, much media and academic commentary on Trotsky’s assassination will, as in 1940, present the Trotsky-Stalin conflict in personalised terms. It will no doubt be portrayed as a bitter rivalry between two ambitious leaders competing for power, one as bad as another from a bourgeois standpoint. The most acidic criticism, however, will probably be reserved for the ’romantic’ Trotsky’s idea of ’permanent revolution’, potentially more dangerous than the ’practical’ Stalin’s bureaucratic notion of building ’socialism in one country’. Some of the questions put to Trotsky at the time will be revived, apparently legitimate but usually aimed at belittling his role.
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 he allowed himself to be ’outmanoeuvred’ by Stalin. As a corollary, it will again be suggested that Stalin was more ’practical’, a more ’astute’ and ’forceful’ leader.
Trotsky himself confronted these questions, answering them on the basis of his analysis of the political degeneration of the Soviet workers’ state. Clearly, from a Marxist standpoint, it is completely superficial to present the conflict which developed after 1923 as a personal struggle between rival leaders. Stalin and Trotsky, in their different ways, personified conflicting social and political forces, Trotsky in a conscious way, Stalin unconsciously. Trotsky opposed Stalin with political means, Stalin fought Trotsky and his supporters with state-sponsored terrorism. “Stalin conducts a struggle on a totally different plane”, Trotsky wrote: “He seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent, but at his skull”. This was a chilling premonition.
The triumph of the bureaucracy
ANALYSING STALIN’S ROLE, in his Diary in Exile written in 1935, Trotsky wrote: “In view of the prolonged decline in the international revolution, the victory of the bureaucracy – and consequently of Stalin – was foreordained. The result which 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’.” (Trotsky, Diary in Exile, p38)
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 primitive country. They were convinced that the workers had to take 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 revolution.
The ruling stratum of the bureaucracy was rapidly discovering that Stalin was ’flesh of its flesh’. 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, p66)
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 in 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, p39)
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 had agreed with Trotsky on a bloc in the party to fight bureaucracy.
When Trotsky and a group of left oppositionists began a fight for a revival of workers’ democracy, the politburo 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 7 November 1927, the tenth 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. He was one of 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 January 1928, Trotsky (twice exiled under the tsarist regime) was forced into his last foreign exile. First he was deported to Alma-Ata, in Kazakhstan 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 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, p40) All these revolutionaries had played important roles, particularly as members of the military secretariat or on Trotsky’s armed train during the civil war.
top In exile: building the International Left Opposition
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 politburo 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 1924-1925 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 selfless young Trotskyists who might reply with counter-terrorist actions”. (Trotsky’s Writings, 1932, p19) Trotsky had been 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, Trotsky continued, “Stalin has come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to have exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union… 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 every country. 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, pp19-20)
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 borne out.
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, Sergei, a scientist with no political interests or connections, was arrested on a trumped-up charge of ’poisoning the workers’ – and later Trotsky 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, p66)
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 from Lithuania, for example, worked at Prinkipo for a time but later went over to Stalinism. 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 out that “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, p237)
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 investigation.
Sedov murdered in Paris
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 in 1936.
Shortly after his arrival in Norway, the first big Moscow purge trial exploded in the face of the world. Stalin exerted intense pressure on the Norwegian 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 politburo in which he had anticipated Stalin’s ’world-wide bureaucratic slander campaign’ and predicted attempts on his life.
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 million 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.
The purges in Russia were also linked to Stalin’s direct, counter-revolutionary intervention in the revolution and 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.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s secret police also intensified their measures to destroy the centre of the International Left Opposition, based in Paris and under the direction of Trotsky’s son, 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 1938, 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 émigrés 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, 1937/1938, pp166-179) 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’, who was 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 was exposed in the late 1950s as the key figure in the GPU’s US espionage network. By then, Zborowski already had a long trial of duplicity and blood behind him. In his US trial, Zborowski confessed that he had ’fingered’ Rudolf Klement, (Trotsky’s secretary, murdered in Paris in 1938), Erwin Wolf (a supporter of Trotsky who was murdered in Spain 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).
Zborowski had contact with the agents of the GPU’s ’Special Tasks Force’ in Spain, which was responsible for the murder 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.
The May 24th assault
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 trial. “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, p212). 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, or simply embarrassing accomplices from the past. Trotsky was well aware that the death penalty pronounced against him was far from being a platonic sentence.
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 (the 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 24 May, 1940, 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 fortunately failed 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.
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. The trial led to David Alfaro Siqueiros, like Diego Rivera a well-known painter, but unlike Rivera, a leading member of the Mexican CP. 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 ’self-inflicted’, supposedly organised by Trotsky to discredit the CP and the Cardenas government, the police eventually arrested the ringleaders, including Siqueiros. However, as a result of pressure from the CP and the CTM, they were released in March 1941 for ’lack of material and incriminating evidence’!
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 on a gang of ’uncontrollable elements’ and ’agents provocateurs’.
The Stalinist press alternated between proclaiming Siqueiros a hero, and, on the other hand, a ’half-crazed madman’, 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 immediately.
Thirty-eight years later, however, a leading member of the Mexican CP 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.
Campa relates how, in the autumn of 1938, he, together with Raphael Carrillo (a member of the 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, a 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 the ubiquitous Colonel Eitingon.
Stalin prepares a new attempt
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 20 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 ones 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 implemented. 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 Ageloff, a young American Trotskyist who subsequently went to work for Trotsky in Coyoacan. The GPU agent managed to seduce Sylvia Ageloff 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 became 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 1940 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 20 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 courageously grappled with his assassin, preventing further blows.
“The doctor declared that the injury was not very serious”, says Natalia. “Lev Davidovich listened to him without emotion, as one would a conventional message of comfort. Pointing to his heart, he said, ’I feel… here… that this is the end… this time… they’ve succeeded’”. (Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, p268)
Trotsky was taken to hospital, operated on, and survived for more than a day after that, dying at the age of 62 on 21 August 1940.
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. However, even after his identity had been firmly established by fingerprints and other evidence, he refused to admit who he was or who had ordered him to murder Trotsky. 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 USA, 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 Moscow.
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 enduring legacy
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.
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 catastrophic defeats. 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.