In the early hours of 24 May 1940, twenty men in uniform led by a world-famous artist burst into the last refuge of Leon Trotsky. The muralist David Siqueiros and his Stalinist cohort riddled Trotsky’s Mexican sanctuary with over 300 shots.
Seventy three bullet holes were counted in the doors, walls, windows and mattresses. Trotsky survived because his partner Natalia had the presence of mind to slide out their bed and drag the Old Man into a corner. Trotsky’s grandson Seva scrambled under his bed and was grazed by a bullet shot through his mattress. Several unexploded bombs were found on the patio – intended to obliterate the Trotsky archives – testimony to the horrors of Stalinism.
The assault was the first attempt to carry out Operation Utka (Duck), the Stalinist secret service (NKVD) codename for Stalin’s order, issued in 1939, to liquidate Trotsky by whatever means necessary. The second attempt, by a lone assassin would prove successful just three months later.
Bertrand Patenaude’s account of the last years of Leon Trotsky is the opening salvo of what promises to be a renaissance of interest in arguably the greatest Marxist revolutionary of the twentieth century.The book, published in Britain as Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky and the United States as Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary has been widely reviewed and discussed in both the bourgeois press and on the left. His account has some of same breathless literary-journalistic intensity that characterises Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky. The book cannot be faulted for readability; despite the known ending, the author has composed a compelling narrative.
An outline of a revolutionary life
Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on 7 November 1879. In his youth he was won to Marxism. He faced exile in Siberia, escaped to take his place in the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party leadership, largely between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. He developed his celebrated theory of permanent revolution – that it would be the Russian working class would overthrow Tsarism and take power, as the first step in an international socialist revolution. Aged 26, Trotsky put this into practice when elected chair of the St Petersburg Soviet during the 1905 revolution. A decade later he would be a leading socialist internationalist opposed to the carnage of the First World War.
But this was the prelude to the zenith of his life. Trotsky returned to Russia in 1917 after the February revolution, joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks and again chaired the Petrograd Soviet. He led the Military Revolutionary Committee, which organised the October insurrection. As Commissar for Foreign Affairs he ended Russian involvement in the imperialist carnage. As Commissar of War, he constructed the Red Army and led it to victory in the civil war. At the same time he played a central role in the Communist International, which brought together a global general staff of proletarian militants to fight for international socialism.
If the first twenty five years of his adult life were a triumph perhaps unsurpassed in working class history, Trotsky’s remaining years consisted of heroic tragedy. With the isolation of the Russian revolution and the growth of the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky was driven into opposition to Stalin. He led the Left Opposition after 1923 until his expulsion from the Bolshevik Party in 1927. Exiled to Alma Ata, expelled from the USSR to Turkey, hounded through France, then Norway and finally Mexico.
Trotsky continued to make original and stimulating contributions to Marxism, including his penetrating analysis of Britain at the time of the general strike, the Chinese revolution (1925-27), his demand for a united front against Hitler, his analysis of the Spanish revolution and of the popular front in France. However it was his persistent critique of Stalinism, tracing every twist in the evolution of the bureaucracy until it became, in his words, the sole master of the surplus product. It was his efforts to build an authentic independent Marxist current within the working class movement in the 1930s that provided both his outstanding legacy, but also sealed his fate.
What do we learn from Patenaude that has not been known before?
Patenaude account is important because it brings together a wide range of sources on Trotsky’s murder, some of them scarcely used and others not available in English. Firstly he uses the Trotsky papers at Harvard University and from the Hoover Institution, as well as the Alexander Buchman, Albert Glotzer and Joseph Hansen papers. Second, there are Russian sources, which significantly expand on the operations to kill Trotsky. Thirdly there are a range of biographies of key characters, not only of Trotsky but also Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jean Van Heijenoort and others. The main hiatus is some Spanish language sources, such as Olivia Gall’s book Trotsky en México (1991), which contains important Mexican recollections of the period.
What do we learn from Patenaude that has not been known before? Politically almost nothing. There is a little more about Trotsky as a person – particularly in the realm of his sexual indiscretions.
However we learn rather more about the conduct of the assassination, particularly from the Russian side.
The account of Trotsky’s intervention on the Russian question in 1939-40, which split the American section, reveals very little politically. Patenaude quotes Trotsky’s letter to Cannon (29 December 1939) about the need to unmask “Stalinist agents working in our midst”. This has long been in print (In Defence of Marxism  1990 p.67) and was not meant as a description of the Minority. On 20 February 1940, Cannon wrote to Trotsky that the Minority were “enemies and traitors” who had to be “fought without mercy and without compromise on every front” and subject to “the most ruthless punishment in the form of a war of political extermination”. (2009 p.202-03) Again, this letter is published in full in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943 p.176). Patenaude quotes a letter from Buchman to Trotsky (3 May 1940), regretting the split: “The war broke out and we did nothing. The Old Man did nothing. One of the most important events of our epoch took place, and we were asleep. And we stayed asleep.” (2009 p.204) He points to some of the flaws in Trotsky’s arguments – such as the claim that the USSR’s invasion of Finland was a civil war in which the Red Army was imposing workers’ control of industry. But otherwise he fails to get to grips with the significance of the debate, not least for Trotsky’s own position, where he conceded that the war would prove to be the decisive test of whether the USSR was still a workers’ state or a new exploiting society.
The book contains is no account of Trotsky’s assessment of Mexico under Cardenas as a bourgeois Bonapartist regime and not very much about the activities of Trotskyists elsewhere, which Trotsky remained very closely involved with. There is nothing on the preparation and discussion around the Transitional Programme, which summarised many of the programmatic lessons from the high point of the Comintern and sought to orientate his forces in the expected forthcoming war. Patenaude has no sympathy or even much feel for the Trotskyist movement, denigrating its “sects” and confounded by its “splits and mergers”. He quotes Trotsky, that “disloyalty of a state power towards a private person is especially despicable”, only to comment: “These, the words of a man who helped create the world’s first totalitarian state, which even now he championed as the world’s most advanced country”. (2009 p.251)
The book carries some comment by a few of Trotsky’s secretaries and guards, whose correspondence has long lain buried in the archives. Among the best were Harold Robins (Rappaport), the chief of the guard, who was previously imprisoned for his role in the 1934 hotel workers strike and helped organise the wave of sit-down strikes in car plants in Detroit and Flint in 1937. He remained a Trotskyist until his death in 1986. (2009 p.215, p.271)
Apparently Joe Hansen, who became Trotsky’s favourite, was originally hired for his driving skills. Hank Stone (Henry Malter) had been a Trotskyist since 1930 and had volunteered for action in Spain in the Eugene Debs column, but never fought, unlike another candidate for guard, Harry Milton, who never made it to Mexico. There are brief comments about Chris Moustakis, who had a master’s degree from Harvard, as well as about Hank Schultz, Charles Cornell and Otto Schüssler. The book recounts the fractious Bill and Emil, who arrived from Minneapolis and complained about the food and hospitality. At the other end Bernard Wolfe served as Trotsky’s American secretary. He later wrote numerous pornographic, science-fiction and other novels. (2009 p.107) However Patenaude does not make use of other published memoirs – for example by Jake Cooper – that add to the human and political element.
We learn a little more about Trotsky as a person. The personal tragedy of his last years is well brought out. Trotsky youngest daughter Nina, from his relationship with Alexandra Sokolovskaya, died of tuberculosis in 1928 at the age of 26, “a victim of the privations and persecution she was forced to endure because of her association with her father”. Her husband had been arrested and exiled, she had lost her job and had difficulty getting proper medical attention. (2009 p.92)
Trotsky’s eldest daughter Zina had been active in the Opposition and was permitted to follow her father into exile, leaving her daughter and husband behind. Already suffering from depression, she had a tumultuous ten months with her father in Turkey in 1931 and after her departure, was barred from returning to the USSR. On 5 January 1933 she barricaded herself into her apartment in Berlin and turned on the gas taps. She was 31 at the time of her suicide. Only her son Seva of Trotsky’s immediate family would survive. (2009 p.93-94, p.105)
Both the husbands of Trotsky’s daughters were executed. In 1935 Alexandra was exiled to Siberia, to be shot in 1938. Trotsky’s sister Olga Kameneva was arrested with her husband Lev Kamenev, the old Bolshevik and one-time oppositionist. He and their two sons were shot in 1936, while Olga suffered the same fate in 1941. Trotsky’s older brother Alexander was shot in 1938. Natalia’s brother Sergei Sedov died in a prison camp the same year. Both of Nina’s children disappeared, having been placed in the care of Alexandra’s sister in the Ukraine.
Trotsky and Natalia’s eldest son and chief political collaborator in the 1930s, Lyova died in a Paris hospital in suspicious circumstances, a week after an emergency appendectomy. He was a week shy of 32. His wife was shot in Russia a month before Lyova’s death and their son vanished completely.
Their youngest son, Seryozha, was executed in a Soviet prison cell with a bullet to the base of skull on 29 October 1937, though his fate was not known to his parents. Only Seryozha’s daughter Yulia Akselrod would survive in Russia, eventually revealing her identity to Harold Robins after emigrating to the US and attending commemoration meeting at Columbia University in 1979. (2009 p.69, p.270)
It is not surprising to learn of Trotsky’s ill-health, which was more than just the product of what he called “the sixties”. This included well-known and longstanding headaches, dizziness and high blood pressure, psychosomatic fevers as well as agitation, sweats and persistent insomnia. In February 1940, fearing he had advanced arteriosclerosis and would have a brain haemorrhage, Trotsky wrote his last will and testament.
Trotsky’s ascetic ways are also well known. He was offended by tobacco smoke and rarely drank alcohol. Trotsky would admonish his staff: “Health is revolutionary capital and must not be wasted.” (2009 p.168) His “obsession” with matters of health and fitness extended to hunting and fishing, and even in his dotage to cactus hunts, keeping chickens and rabbits and gardening.
Trotsky does not come out of the book as a terribly likable human being. He was famed for his explosive temper. The book quotes the memoirs of his long time secretary Van Heijenoort: “Trotsky displayed all his amiability with visitors and newcomers. He would talk, explain, gesture, ask questions and at all times be really charming. The presence of a young woman seemed to give him special animation. But the more one worked with him, the more demanding and brusque he became.” (2009 p.50)
Patenaude also quotes Max Eastman’s verdict on Trotsky as a person in several places. Trotsky lacked “the gift of personal friendship” and had “no real friends”, according to Eastman. “He had followers and subalterns who adored him as a god, and to whom his coldness and unreasonable impatience were a part of the picture... But in a close and equal relation he managed to get almost everybody ‘sore’.” Meals were either taken in near total silence, or else were replete with Trotsky’s wounding jests. Eastman said Trotsky knew “no laughter but of mockery”. (2009 p.115)
Perhaps the harshest verdict came in a letter from Lyova to his mother, which he never sent. He wrote: “I think all Papa’s deficiencies have not diminished as he has grown older but under the influence of his isolation... have gotten worse. His lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy have increased.” (2009 p.96-97)
Patenaude’s account is probably the most extensive account to date of Trotsky love life. He describes in detail Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo, who apparently told Van Heijenoort that her view of life was “make love, take a bath, make love again”. Trotsky was judged to be an “experienced philanderer”, though apparently the relationship with Kahlo was his first “romantic adventure” since he left Russia in 1929.
Kahlo called Trotsky piochitas – little goatee. They met at her sister Cristina’s house and not surprisingly, Natalia threatened to separate. Patenaude quotes a sexually explicit letter, dated 19 July 1937, in which he wrote to her: “Since I arrived here, not once has my poor cock stood up straight. It’s as though it doesn’t exist. But inspite of it, I myself am thinking tenderly of your old, dear cunt. I want to suck on it, shove my tongue all the way inside it. Natalochka, my dear, I will ever more strongly fuck you with my tongue and with my cock. Forgive me, Natalochka, these lines, it seems it’s the first time in my life that I wrote to you like this.” (2009 p.62) Apparently later that year after he had reconciled with Natalia, Trotsky also made unwanted advances to Cristina, “one four or five occasions directly and insistently propositioned her”. (2009 p.64)
The narrative does none of the characters any favours. It verges on voyeurism – though this is much in keeping with modern biographical writing.
The book is probably at its best in describing the assassination, particularly from the Russian side. Trotsky arrived in Mexico on the Norwegian oil tanker Ruth on 1 January 1937. Time magazine printed a blunt assessment of the situation: “Today Trotsky is in Mexico – the ideal country for an assassination”. His first months were spent refuting the slanders of the Moscow Trials at the Dewey Commission. Dewey, then a world famous philosopher in his late seventies became convinced of Trotsky’s innocence. Apparently he told Trotsky, “If all Communists were like you, I would be a Communist”, to which Trotsky replied, “If all liberals were like you, I would be a liberal.” Dewey wrote to his former student (and Trotsky’s translator) Eastman that his experience of the Commission, “if it wasn’t exactly a ‘good time’, it was the most interesting single intellectual experience of my life”. (2009 p.43)
The Moscow trials were, in Lyova words, “a labyrinth of sheer madness”. (2009 p.98) They were also a precursor to the assassination. Lyova was betrayed by Étienne (Mark Zborowski), whose NKVD codenames were Mack and Tulip. (2009 p.99) In 1936 he was responsible for the theft of part of Trotsky’s archives in Paris, some 103 letters including his correspondence with Eastman, which ended up in the Kremlin. Zborowski also supplied his masters with a copy of The Revolution Betrayed before its publication and a copy of Lyova’s notebook, containing the addresses of Trotskyists living outside the USSR. (2009 p.123)
In March 1939 Pavel Sudoplatov, head of the Administration for Special Tasks, which included sabotage, abduction and assassination was taken by NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria to meet Stalin. He was told by Stalin: “Trotsky should be eliminated within a year.” Sudoplatov planned his operation from room 735 of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the NKVD in Moscow. He recruited Leonid Eitingon, the chief of intelligence in Spain. The details were finalised on 9 July 1939. Operation Duck envisioned an assortment of methods: “poisoning of food, of water, explosion in home, explosion of car using TNT, a direct strike – suffocation, dagger, blow to the head, gunshot. Possibly an armed assault by a group.” They requested a budget of $31,000 over six months. Stalin authorised the operation in the first days of August 1939. (2009 p.158, p.178-79)
In Spain, Eitingon started a relationship with Caridad Mercader. As a result her son Ramón was recruited to the NKVD in February 1937. In late 1937 Eitingon sent him to Paris, with forged Belgian identity papers as Jacques Mornard. His NKVD codename was Raymond. He hitched up with Sylvia Ageloff, an American Trotskyist whose sister Ruth had served during the Dewey hearing. Leaving Europe on 1 September 1939, he became Frank Jacson, a Canadian born in Yugoslavia in order to enter the US. From there Eitingon and the Mercaders went to Mexico, setting up an operation codenamed “Mother”. (2009 p.218)
At the same time the NKVD had a larger network in Mexico City, around Siqueiros and codenamed after his flaring nostrils, Horse. Siqueiros had enlisted in the International Brigade in Spain, working with well-known Stalinists such as Vittorio Vidali, known as Carlos Contreras. The leading figure in the network was Iosif Grigulevich, codename Felipe who had taken part in the suppression of socialists and anarchists in Barcelona in May 1937, In February 1940 Grigulevich and Eitingon met in Mexico City to coordinate their operations. (2009 p.223)
Patenaude argues that the NKVD had contacts in the Trotskyist movement. He states that Robert Sheldon Harte was recruited in New York, and known by his codename Amur. Harte took over as a guard in Coyoacán on 7 April 1940. He held clandestine meetings with Felipe, who told him the objective was the destruction of Trotsky’s archive, including his “slanderous” biography of Stalin, said to be based on forged documents supplied by Hitler. (2009 p.217, p.225)
It was Harte who, upon hearing Felipe’s voice, opened the heavy bolt on the door of Trotsky’s house on 24 May 1940 to let in the raiders. Harte left with the attackers, although it was not clear whether this was under duress. Local paper reports at the time said a picture of Stalin had been found in his room in New York, but his family denied this. More seriously, the police found a key to Room 37 of the Hotel Europa, where he had spent the night of 21 May 1940 with a prostitute. She told police he was carrying a large amount of money that night. He was further implicated as participants were caught. Only the manner of Harte’s death sustained his reputation. He was killed by the attackers in his sleep and buried in quicklime in the hills above Mexico City. Trotsky identified his remains at the morgue and continued to protest his innocence. (2009 p.226, p.229, p.230, p.232)
In the two and half months following the Siqueiros raid, the American SWP raised over $2,250 to improve Trotsky’s security. The sale of Trotsky’s archives raised an additional $6,000 – the precious cargo arriving at Harvard as fate would have it on 20 August 1940.
Ramón Mercader met Trotsky for the first time four days after the assault. He ingratiated himself with Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, and even drove Natalia back from Veracruz when she went to see off the Rosmers. On 17 August he visited Trotsky with an article he had written against Burnham and Shachtman. Trotsky told Natalia he didn’t like the man, while other guards had suspicions about his accent, the spelling of his name (Jacson) and his callous comments about Sylvia Ageloff. He came again about the article three days later, using the opportunity to bludgeon Trotsky with an ice-pick. Although Trotsky survived for a further day in hospital, he died on 21 August 1940, cut down by the Stalinists.
On 17 June 1941 Caridad Mercader and Leonid Eitingon were awarded the Order of Lenin at a ceremony in the Kremlin. After the war Iosif Grigulevich received the Order of the Red Star for his role. Ramón Mercader was imprisoned for 20 years. His real identity was revealed in 1950. Upon his release, he went to Cuba, Czechoslovakia and then the USSR. On 8 June 1961, Brezhnev awarded him the title Hero of the Soviet Union, and gave him the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star medal in a secret ceremony in the Kremlin. The award citation praised him for displaying ‘heroism and bravery’ in carrying out a ‘special task’. (2009 p.263-64) Mercader lived in the USSR and Cuba for the rest his days, dying in Havana in 1978. It was only in January 1989 that a Russian publication told its readers that the Kremlin had ordered Trotsky’s murder. (2009 p.272)
Patenaude’s book is an evocative description of Trotsky’s murder. But it is less good on why he was killed or its significance. At times his account appears to reduce the murder to a personal vendetta. He recounts the stormy scene in the Politburo on 25 October 1926, at which the opposition finally endorsed Lenin’s Testament, published in the US. After Stalin had railed against them, Trotsky declared: “The First Secretary poses his candidature to the post of gravedigger of the revolution”. Stalin turned pale and became flustered, then rushed out of the hall, slamming the door behind him. (2009 p.85-86)
But for all the undoubted desire of Stalin to “mark” his opponents (and even his allies), this explanation is insufficient. Stalin’s purge was the work of an ascendant bureaucratic ruling class sloughing off the last remnants of its distant origins. Stalin wanted to break all the living links with the great revolution of 1917 save his own, obliterate its actual leaders and annihilate its real tradition. Trotsky was the last and most powerful bond with that past.
The killing of Trotsky effectively meant the destruction of the classical Marxist tradition. What Trotsky embodied was the culture of Marxism, the accumulated wisdom of a century of working class self-emancipation, the congealed insights of countless battles on the economic, political and ideological fronts of the class struggle. With Trotsky’s death, the main living trunk that ran from Marx and Engels through the best of the second and third internationals was terminated, able to live on only in reified form spread among the branches of squabbling epigones.
Trotsky was killed, but Stalin did not succeed. It is Trotsky’s tradition, not Stalin’s that lives on. It is Trotsky’s line that represents the hope of the present and the harbinger of the socialist future. And it is Trotsky’s legacy that still provides vital signposts for our own struggles.