The assassination of Leon Trotsky

December 9, 2009

Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky
By Bertrand Patenaude
Faber and Faber, 2009
340 pages, $50 (pb)

On August 20 1940, Leon Trotsky invited Frank Jacson into the study of his house in Coyoacan, Mexico City, so he could look over an article Jacson had written.

Trotsky was a central leader of the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia in October 1917. He founded the Red Army, and led it to victory in the brutal civil war that followed the invasion of the young socialist state by several foreign armies in 1918.

Exiled by Joseph Stalin from the Soviet Union in 1929, by 1940 Trotsky had been living in Mexico City for three years, and had recently survived an assassination attempt in which Stalin's stooges had sprayed his bedroom with machine gun fire in the middle of the night.

Despite the constant threat from Stalin, and despite turning his house into a small fortress, Trotsky had refused to subject visitors to the indignity of a personal search.

Jacson — alias Jacques Mornard — was in fact Ramon Mercador, a member of the Spanish Communist Party and an agent of Stalin's secret police.

He had wormed his way into Trotsky's circle through his relationship with Sylvia Ageloff, whose sister Ruth was a reliable and devoted comrade of Trotsky's.

Concealed within the raincoat slung over his arm, Mercador had an ice pick and a 14-inch blade. As the defenceless Trotsky leaned over his manuscript, Jacson-Mornard-Mercador plunged the ice pick into his skull.

Despite his mortal injury, Trotsky fought back, and restrained the assassin until his bodyguards entered the room. Although the injury at first appeared relatively superficial, Trotsky died a day later after an unsuccessful operation.

So ended the life of a man who was an exemplary Marxist theoretician and revolutionary leader. His cowardly murderer, Mercador, was jailed by the Mexican authorities, but on his release was awarded the Order of Lenin by Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in 1961.

Bertrand Patenaude, a researcher at Stanford University, provides a detailed and vivid account of the events that led up to Trotsky's assassination. He starts the narrative with Trotsky's arrival in Mexico in January 1937, and interweaves it with accounts of key events in earlier parts of Trotsky's life.

The book is something of a depressing read. One thing that stands out from Patenaude's narrative is his claim that Trotsky's Fourth International (FI) was doomed from the start due to infiltration by Stalinist provocateurs.

For example, when Trotsky was unable to take his seat on the executive at the founding conference of the FI, Mark Zborowski, a Soviet spy and member of Stalin's secret police, took his place.

Patenaude also repeats the claim made by some in the socialist movement that Sylvia Caldwell, a secretary working for James Cannon, the leading US Trotskyist and confidant of Trotsky, was also an informant for Stalin.

He also claims that Trotsky's searing analysis of Stalinism, The Revolution Betrayed, was delivered to Stalin by his spies even before the book had been published. One can only wonder what he made of it.

Books on Trotsky by mainstream historians are typically marred by crass anti-communism and smug anti-Marxism. It is refreshing that Patenaude's book is for the most part free of this vice — until we reach the epilogue.

There, the idea that the October Revolution was a workers' revolution is predictably and without argument described as a "myth", and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is said to have attempted "to salvage the original Bolshevik project".

Remarkably, Patenaude goes on to imply that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 somehow discredited Trotsky and the Marxism to which he subscribed.

Referring to Trotsky — and by implication to any Marxist — Patenaude ends the book with the comment: "Optimism was all that he really had."

This is an incredible sleight-of-hand.

In The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky argued that if the bureaucracy that formed Stalin's power base were not overthrown in a political revolution led by the working class, it would eventually preside over the restoration of capitalism.

In fact, the bureaucracy was not thus overthrown, and Gorbachev — a creature of the same bureaucracy that awarded Trotsky's assassin the Order of Lenin — paved the way for the wholesale sell-off of Soviet state property, the restoration of capitalism, and the complete capitulation of the Soviet Union and its satellites to the forces of world imperialism.

Trotsky's prescience in predicting this on the basis of a Marxist analysis shows that he had a lot more going for him that mere optimism.

It also shows that almost 70 years after his murder, Trotsky's detractors are still attacking him with the same kind of twisted logic he had to fight continually during his lifetime.

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