Seventy-five years since the assassination of Leon Trotsky

The basic task for which Trotsky fought remains the central issue facing the working class today: the building of a revolutionary leadership.

Why and How the GPU Murdered Leon Trotsky

Why and How the GPU Murdered Leon Trotsky—online interviews with David North

World Socialist Web Site perspective, 30th September 2015 by David North

On August 21, 1940, Leon Trotsky died from wounds inflicted the previous day by an agent of the Soviet Union’s secret police, known then as the GPU. The assassination occurred in the context of a historically unprecedented wave of political reaction. In Europe, fascist regimes held power in Germany, Italy and Spain. The Second World War had begun nearly a year earlier with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, just days after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact. The lives of tens of millions were to be destroyed in the ensuing paroxysm of imperialist violence. This was the terrible consequence of the deliberate sabotage of the revolutionary struggles of the working class by the mass Social Democratic and Stalinist parties in the years that preceded the outbreak of the Second World War.

The assassination of the greatest and last surviving leader of the 1917 October Revolution marked the climax of the Stalinist regime’s eradication of the heroic generation of socialist workers and intellectuals who had secured the victory of the Bolshevik revolution, founded the Soviet Union as the first workers’ state in history, and posed before the international working class the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism as a realizable strategic objective.

By the time Trotsky was assassinated, Stalin’s regime of bureaucratic terror had already murdered hundreds of thousands of revolutionists within the USSR. The frame-up trials held in Moscow between 1936 and 1938, which doomed dozens of the principal leaders of the Bolshevik Party, were only the public manifestation of a broader wave of murderous terror. Stalin’s homicidal rampage was not confined to Old Bolsheviks whom he perceived as a direct political threat to his regime.

The Stalinist terror was nothing less than a war aimed at the extirpation of the entire Soviet culture, profoundly influenced by socialist internationalism, which developed in the aftermath of the October Revolution. Writers, musicians, painters, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, economists and engineers were persecuted, sent to brutal prison camps, tortured and slaughtered. Members of foreign Communist parties, on the mere suspicion of harboring sympathy for Trotsky, were shot en masse. Entire party leaderships were liquidated.

The monstrous crimes committed by the Stalinist regime were carried out under the banner of the “Struggle against Trotskyism.” The unrelenting campaign of hate directed against Trotsky was not only the expression of Stalin’s obsessive desire for revenge against his unyielding political opponent. More significantly, Trotsky represented—in the history he personified and the program for which he fought-—the conscious socialist-internationalist negation of Stalin’s bureaucratic-nationalist regime.

It is a commonplace among most contemporary academics that Trotsky represented no threat to the Stalinist regime. Such cynical appraisals are contradicted by a study of Stalin’s personal archive. Though in exile, without any of the external trappings of power, Trotsky’s specter haunted Stalin. Stalin’s biographer, General Dmitri Volkogonov, has recounted that Stalin had a “special cupboard in his study” where he kept “virtually all of Trotsky’s works, heavily scored with underlinings and comments. Any interview or statement that Trotsky gave to the Western press was immediately translated and delivered to Stalin.” Describing the dictator’s fear of Trotsky, Volkogonov wrote:

The thought that Trotsky was speaking not only for himself, but for all his silent supporters and the oppositionists inside the USSR, was particularly painful to Stalin. When he read Trotsky’s works, such as the Stalinist School of Falsification, an Open Letter to the Members of the Bolshevik Party, or The Stalinist Thermidor, the Leader almost lost his self-control.

For Stalin, the threat posed by Trotsky was not limited to hidden and potential opposition within the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s struggle for the Fourth International—that is, to reestablish socialist internationalism as the program of the working class in all countries—was seen by Stalin as the most dangerous threat to the nationalist policies pursued by the Kremlin in the interests of the ruling bureaucracy.

The assassination of Trotsky in August 1940 was prepared over many years through the infiltration of the international Trotskyist movement in Europe and the United States by agents of the GPU. In the initial stage of their activity, the Stalinist agents sought to disrupt, through factionalism and intrigues, the activities of the small Trotskyist organizations that were part of the International Left Opposition (predecessor of the Fourth International).

Among the first and most significant of these agents were the Sobolovecius brothers—known as Senin and Well—who wreaked havoc within the German section of the Left Opposition, thus undermining its political effectiveness during the two crucial years that preceded Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Following the political catastrophe in Germany, Senin and Well would continue to play a central and deadly role in GPU operations against the Trotskyist movement, both in Europe and the United States.

Of all the GPU agents, the most notorious was Mark Zborowski, an émigré from Poland who infiltrated the Trotskyist movement in France. With the unflagging assistance of his collaborator, Lola Dallin (who once described herself as his “Siamese Twin”), Zborowski, using the party name “Etienne,” successfully wormed his way into the leadership of the Fourth International. He became the ever-present political assistant of Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s eldest son and the leader of the Fourth International in Europe. With information provided by Zborowski-Etienne, the GPU was able to steal in November 1936 a valuable portion of Trotsky’s archive that had been secretly stored in a research center in Paris. However, in the aftermath of the first trial in Moscow, at which Trotsky and Sedov were sentenced to death in absentia, the Kremlin demanded that its agents find the means to carry out the sentences.

While the Stalinist regime sought to justify its persecution of Trotsky by slandering him as an agent of imperialism, the ruling elites in the capitalist countries left no doubt as to where their sympathies lay in Stalin’s war against the persecuted revolutionary. In the United States, the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, vouched for the legal integrity of the frame-up trials. Countless liberal intellectuals, in the interest of strengthening ties between the American Communist Party and the Roosevelt administration, went to extraordinary lengths to justify the murder of Old Bolsheviks in Moscow and lend credence to the preposterous accusations against Trotsky.

When the first trial began in August 1936, Trotsky was living in exile in “democratic” Norway. His efforts to expose the frame-up were blocked by that country’s Social-Democratic government, which was anxious to avoid giving offense to Stalin. Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, were placed under house arrest and denied all contact with the press and their own supporters. Trotsky was denied the right to communicate with his closest political assistants. For a time the Norwegian Social-Democratic regime even toyed with the idea of returning Trotsky to the Soviet Union. Finally, with the assistance of the great painter Diego Rivera, the left nationalist government of Lazar Cárdenas granted Trotsky asylum in Mexico, where the aged but still vigorous revolutionist arrived in January 1937.

Trotsky immediately set about to organize a great “counter-trial.” Its purpose was to not only refute Stalin’s charges but also to expose the proceedings as a criminal frame-up. In a public statement denouncing the trial, recorded on film, Trotsky declared:

Stalin’s trial against me is built on false confessions, extorted by modern Inquisitorial methods, in the interests of the ruling clique. There are no crimes in history more terrible in intention and execution than the Moscow trials of Zinoviev-Kamenev and of Pyatakov-Radek. These trials develop not from communism, not from socialism, but from Stalinism, that is, from the unaccountable despotism of the bureaucracy over the people!

What is my principal task now? To reveal the truth. To show and to demonstrate that the true criminals hide under the cloak of the accusers.

Trotsky’s appeal led to the formation of an international commission of inquiry, chaired by the celebrated American liberal philosopher, John Dewey. In April 1937, members of the commission traveled to Mexico where they held public hearings at which Trotsky answered questions dealing with all aspects of his political principles, ideas and activities. He testified for eleven days. The commissioners then returned to the United States, where they pored over the evidence and finally rendered their verdict in December 1937. They found Trotsky not guilty and denounced the trials in Moscow as a frame-up.

The Stalinist regime responded to Trotsky’s exposure of the Moscow Trials by escalating its attacks on the Fourth International. In July 1937, the German Trotskyist Erwin Wolf, one of Trotsky’s most capable secretaries, was kidnapped while on assignment in Spain. He was tortured and murdered. In September 1937, Ignace Reiss—who had defected from the GPU, denounced Stalin and declared his support for the Fourth International—was tracked down by the Stalinist secret police and murdered in Switzerland. The circumstances of Reiss’ murder raised suspicions that he had been betrayed by an agent planted by the GPU inside the Paris center of the Fourth International. The principal target of these suspicions was Mark Zborowski-Etienne. However, with the assistance of Lola Dallin, who wrote regularly to Natalia Sedova in Mexico and portrayed herself and Zborowski as selfless comrades and assistants of Leon Sedov, the accusers of the GPU agent were kept on the defensive.

In February 1938, Sedov suddenly fell ill with what appeared to be a routine appendicitis. He was transported to a hospital—the Clinic Mirabeau—chosen by Lola Dallin. It was known to be infested with anti-Bolshevik Russian émigrés as well as GPU agents. Zborowski informed the GPU of Sedov’s illness and whereabouts. Following a routine operation, Sedov appeared to be recovering. But he suddenly took a turn for the worse, fell into a delirium, and died in agony. The physical cause of Sedov’s death was never precisely determined. The available evidence indicates that he was the victim of either a peritonitis attack caused by deliberate medical malpractice or poisoning. But while the means employed to bring about Sedov’s death remain unknown, there is no reason to doubt—to quote the words of the old Trotskyist Georges Vereeken (1896–1978)—“that Trotsky’s son was deliberately handed over to the GPU killers by Zborowski.”

Following the murder of Leon Sedov, Zborowski and Dallin sent a tender message of condolence to his bereaved parents. However, suspicions against both Zborowski and Dallin mounted, and an effort was made by Trotsky to establish a commission of inquiry. It is believed that Rudolf Klement, the secretary of the Fourth International, was in possession of an appeal from Trotsky for the creation of a commission when he suddenly disappeared from his Paris apartment in July 1938, just six weeks before the founding congress of the Fourth International was to be held. Klement’s decapitated torso was eventually pulled out of the Seine River. Within the space of one year, four major figures in the Fourth International had been murdered. In each case, the GPU assassination squads acted with information provided by Zborowski-Etienne. And with both Sedov and Klement murdered, Zborowski participated in the founding congress of the Fourth International as the official Russian delegate.

As the GPU murdered his closest collaborators and supporters, the preparations for Trotsky’s assassination intensified. Seeking information about and access to Trotsky, the GPU successfully placed an agent in the New York headquarters of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1938. The agent was a young member of the Communist Party by the name of Sylvia Franklin, who was married to a Stalinist agent named Zalmond Franklin. Louis Budenz—the editor of the Stalinist Daily Worker who was also heavily engaged in anti-Trotskyist espionage operations—introduced Franklin to one of the top Soviet GPU operatives in the United States, Gregory Rabinowitz (alias “John”), who selected her for the assignment. She adopted the party name Sylvia Caldwell, and soon managed to become the personal secretary of SWP national secretary James P. Cannon. In that position, she had access to all communications between Cannon and Trotsky. She systematically copied documents in Cannon’s office and turned them over to the GPU.

Another critical step in the conspiracy against Trotsky was taken when Budenz, again working with Rabinowitz, carefully stage-managed the rekindling of a friendship between Ruby Weill, a member of the Communist Party, and an old acquaintance named Sylvia Ageloff, who had become active in the Trotskyist movement. Weill accompanied Ageloff on a trip to Europe in 1938, and it was there that Ageloff was introduced by Weill to Ramon Mercader, alias “Frank Jacson,” the future assassin of Leon Trotsky.

The GPU also planted agents inside Trotsky’s villa in Coyoacan. Many years later, in May 1956, in the course of a US Senate investigation into Soviet espionage, an American ex-GPU agent by the name of Thomas L. Black testified that he was selected by Rabinowitz to take part in the conspiracy against Trotsky. He told the Senate committee:

First, I was to go to Coyoacan, and there would be other Soviet agents in Trotsky’s household, and I asked him who they would be.

He said that I would find out that when the time came.

Black was asked if he knew the nature of the planned assignment. He replied: “To arrange for the assassination of Trotsky.”

As it turned out, Black did not travel to Mexico and participate in the assassination. However, agents were already in place in Coyoacan, and—as subsequent evidence eventually confirmed—at least one other American GPU operative in the SWP was sent down to Mexico from New York in the spring of 1940 to participate in the assassination conspiracy.

Trotsky was not unaware of, let alone indifferent to, the Stalinist efforts to murder him and strangle the Fourth International. In November 1937, he wrote “An Open Letter to All Workers’ Organizations.”

Never before has the labor movement had in its own ranks so vicious, dangerous, powerful, and unscrupulous an enemy as Stalin’s clique and its international agents. Remissness in the struggle against this enemy is tantamount to betrayal. Only windbags and dilettantes but not serious revolutionists can confine themselves to pathetic outbursts of indignation. It is necessary to have a plan and an organization. It is urgent to create special commissions which would follow the maneuvers, intrigues, and crimes of the Stalinists, warn the labor organizations of dangers in store, and elaborate the best methods of parrying and resisting the Moscow gangsters.

This passage refutes the absurd and lying claim—propagated by the SWP in the aftermath of the assassination—that Trotsky emphatically opposed any discussion of, let alone counter-measures against, the danger posed by the GPU to the Fourth International. The historical record establishes that Trotsky actively sought to expose and counteract the operations of the GPU. These efforts, however, were frustrated by agents already positioned inside the Fourth International.

In late 1938, Alexander Orlov, who had occupied a high position in the GPU, defected from the Soviet Union. He was intimately familiar with the murderous operations of the GPU against the Fourth International. Though his motivations remain unclear, Orlov sent Trotsky a secret communication that identified a certain “Mark” as an agent of the GPU. Though he did not know the last name of the agent, it was clearly Zborowski-Etienne. Trotsky—who did not know of Orlov—immediately sought to make contact with the unknown correspondent. The effort, for reasons that remain unclear, was not successful.

Several months later, Orlov sent a second and even more detailed denunciation of the agent in Paris. The letter also warned Trotsky that a female GPU agent would come to Mexico and attempt to poison him. Shortly afterwards, in the summer of 1939, Lola Dallin arrived in Mexico. Trotsky confronted her with the letter. In testimony later given to a Senate subcommittee, Dallin claimed that she persuaded Trotsky that the letter was a GPU hoax. She told Trotsky: “See how they work? They want that you should break with the only people that are left over in France, Russians, let us say, in France, in Paris.” Despite Dallin’s attempt to discredit the warning, Trotsky attempted again, but without success, to make contact with its anonymous author.

As for Dallin, upon returning to Paris she immediately—according to her Senate testimony—warned Zborowski of the messages Trotsky had received. This information effectively rendered useless Trotsky’s proposal that his followers in Paris secretly track Zborowski’s movements.

In the early morning hours of May 24, 1940, a Stalinist raiding party armed with machine guns, led by the painter and fanatical Stalinist David Alfaro Siqueiros, was able to enter the grounds of Trotsky’s villa on the Avenida Viena. They did not need to scale the walls of the villa or use explosives to blow the front gate open. The gate was opened for them by Robert Sheldon Harte, a 25-year-old Stalinist from New York City who had gained admission to the SWP. With the indifference to security that characterized the SWP leadership, Harte—whose personal and political background was all but unknown—was soon sent to serve on Trotsky’s guard detail.

Miraculously, Trotsky and Natalia managed to survive the assault by slipping under the bed as the assassins sprayed their bedroom with machine gun fire. The raid exposed the utter lack of preparation by Trotsky’s guard detail. After the raiding party retreated from the villa, believing that it had accomplished its mission, Trotsky was the first to walk out onto the grounds. He had to search for his guards. None of them had fired their weapons. The few who had attempted to fight back were unable to do so because their machine guns jammed, apparently because they were using the wrong ammunition.

Almost immediately, well-grounded suspicions were raised about the role of Sheldon Harte in the assault. He disappeared with the raiding party, and eyewitness accounts indicated that Harte had left the villa of his own volition. A picture of Stalin was discovered in Harte’s New York apartment. A dictionary in his possession bore the signature of Siqueiros. Several weeks after the raid, Harte’s body was discovered. Members of the Siqueiros gang had executed him. At that point, Trotsky did not accept the allegations against Harte. But the peculiar and highly suspicious aspects of Harte’s behavior did not allow Trotsky to categorically declare the dead man’s innocence. He left open the possibility that Harte may have been involved in the attempt on his life. In any event, documents discovered after the dissolution of the Soviet Union have irrefutably established that Harte was, indeed, a Stalinist agent. He had been murdered because Siqueiros doubted that he could be trusted with information relating to the organization and execution of the raid.

In the final weeks that remained of his life, Trotsky devoted his immense reserves of energy to the exposure of the Stalinist murder machine. He wrote two major documents relating to the May 24th raid: “Stalin Seeks My Death,” completed on June 8, 1940, and “The Comintern and the GPU,” completed on August 17, 1940, just three days before his assassination.

On August 20, 1940, shortly after five in the afternoon, Frank Jacson arrived unexpectedly at the villa on the Avenida Viena. Following his previous visit, on August 17, Trotsky had expressed displeasure with Jacson’s odd behavior. He voiced doubts about Jacson’s claim that he was a Frenchman. Except for his relationship with Sylvia Ageloff, the nature of his interest in the Fourth International remained entirely unknown and unexamined.

But no notice was taken of Trotsky’s concerns, and Jacson was admitted into the compound. Though it was a warm and sunny day, Jacson was carrying a raincoat, in which he concealed an alpenstock, an automatic firearm, and a large dagger. In violation of the most elementary security procedures, Jacson was permitted to accompany Trotsky alone into his study. Minutes later, while Trotsky reviewed an article written by Jacson, the assassin struck Trotsky from behind with the alpenstock. Jacson had expected that the blow to the head would immediately render Trotsky unconscious. But Trotsky screamed, rose from his chair and fought back against his assassin. Guards ran into the study, and disarmed Jacson.

Trotsky gradually lapsed into unconsciousness as he was driven to the hospital. He died 26 hours after the assault, on August 21, 1940. He was two months short of his sixty-first birthday.

The assassination of Trotsky was a devastating blow to the international working class. To the extent that any one man or woman can be described as politically indispensable to the cause of socialism, Trotsky was such a person. He embodied a vast and unequalled political experience. With the possible exception of Lenin, there was no other figure who played such a monumental role in the political history of the twentieth century. Moreover, seventy-five years after his death, Trotsky remains an extraordinarily contemporary figure. He has not yet passed entirely into history. He is as much a figure of the present as he is of the past. The writings of Trotsky, his theoretical and political conceptions, his revolutionary internationalism, still speak with immense power to the problems of the world in which we live today. Trotsky remains the great voice of the unfinished revolutionary tasks bequeathed by the twentieth century to the twenty-first.

David North

“Seventy-five years since the assassination of Leon Trotsky,” World Socialist Web Site perspective 20th August 2015 by Joseph Kishore

Seventy-five years ago today, on August 20, 1940, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution and founder of the Fourth International, was assaulted with an ice pick by Stalinist agent Ramón Mercader. The attack took place at Trotsky’s villa in Coyoacán, Mexico, his final place of exile. The great revolutionary died the next day from his wounds, at the age of 60.

The murder of Trotsky came at the high point of international political reaction that included the victory of fascism in Germany in 1933, the defeat of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-39, the Moscow Trials and Great Terror of 1936-38, and the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. The assassination of Trotsky was the response of the Stalinist bureaucracy—which, as Trotsky explained, was a political agency of imperialism—to the danger posed by the Marxist principles for which he fought. As long as Trotsky lived, Stalin would have to contend with his most implacable opponent.

Against incredible odds, however, Trotsky had managed to form the Fourth International, which has outlived the assassins who struck him down. Seventy-five years later, Trotsky’s unique position in the history of international socialism is indisputable. He emerges ever more clearly as a world historical figure who not only influenced the course of the 20th century, but whose writings and ideas remain an essential guide for orienting the working class as it enters a new period of revolutionary struggle.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Kustodiev

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Kustodiev

Trotsky’s life and fate were inextricably tied to the great events of the first half of the 20th century. Trotsky and Lenin were the principle leaders of the Russian Revolution, the pinnacle of an enormous upsurge of international working-class struggle against the depredations of capitalism and the horrific slaughter of the First World War. The political theory of the revolution itself was provided by Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, forged in the midst of the 1905 Russian Revolution, which explained that the democratic tasks in underdeveloped countries such as Russia could be completed only by the working class taking power as part of a world socialist revolution.

For six years, Trotsky played an indispensable role in organizing and defending the workers’ state that was established by the events of October 1917, including as Soviet Russia’s first commissar for foreign affairs and as the founder and commander of the Red Army.

For his role in the Russian Revolution, which took place as he turned 38, Trotsky would have secured a place in history as one of the greatest leaders of the working class and the socialist movement. However, Trotsky would later write that it was in the struggle against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, culminating in the founding of the Fourth International, that he made his most significant and lasting political contribution.

The conflict that emerged between Stalin and Trotsky was not a subjective fight between two individuals over personal power, but a fundamental battle waged between irreconcilable political programs. The consolidation of power by Stalin, and the bureaucratic dictatorship that he personified, was not the inevitable outcome of the Russian Revolution. Rather, it developed out of the specific conditions of an economically backward workers’ state isolated by the defeats of the world revolution. Seven years of war and imperialist-backed civil war had exacted an enormous toll on the working class, the social base of the revolution. Stalin’s rise to power was facilitated by the illness and death of Lenin, who in his last year had issued a call to Trotsky for joint action to combat the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union.

Rally in Hyde Park, London, during the 1926 British General Strike

Rally in Hyde Park, London, during the 1926 British General Strike

Stalin articulated the interests of a conservative apparatus that usurped power from the working class and repudiated the essential link between the revolution in Russia and the international class struggle. The program of “socialism in one country,” first articulated in 1924, was based on the false and anti-Marxist claim that socialism could be achieved in the Soviet Union independent of revolution outside the borders of Russia. It legitimized the subordination of the international working class to the national interests of the Soviet bureaucracy and served to justify policies that produced the defeat of the British General Strike of 1926 and the crushing of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. Trotsky later recalled in his autobiography, “The sentiment of ‘Not all and always for the revolution, but something for oneself as well,’ was translated as ‘Down with permanent revolution.’”

In his critique of Stalinism, Trotsky developed a theory of world socialist revolution that proved immeasurably more far-sighted than the pragmatic maneuvers of the Stalinist bureaucrats. Based on the Theory of Permanent Revolution, the Left Opposition that he founded in 1923 insisted that progress toward socialism within the Soviet Union depended on the development of the world socialist revolution. In a passage written in 1930 that applies with even greater force today, Trotsky explained:

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follow, on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.

The repudiation of socialist internationalism by the Stalinist bureaucracy required a campaign of historical falsification aimed at obliterating Trotsky’s political influence and denying the connection between the perspective for which he fought and that which had guided the Russian Revolution itself. This was coupled with an ever more direct and violent campaign against Trotsky and his supporters.

Trotsky with leading members of the Left Opposition

Trotsky with leading members of the Left Opposition

In November 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Russian Communist Party, followed one month later by the expulsion of all supporters of the Left Opposition. In January 1928, he was exiled to Alma Ata, in the mountains of present-day Kazakhstan. One year later, in February 1929, Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union and took up temporary residence in Prinkipo, Turkey. Confronting what he later called “a planet without a visa” due to the combined hostility of the Stalinists, social democrats and the imperialist powers, Trotsky was forced to move from Turkey to France in 1933, to Norway in 1935, and, finally, to Mexico in 1937.

In the eight years between Trotsky’s expulsion from the Soviet Union and his arrival in Mexico, the working class experienced a series of defeats produced by the treachery of the Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracies. The victory of fascism in Germany in 1933 was followed by the strangulation of revolutionary uprisings in France and Spain, where the working class was subordinated to the political rule of the capitalist class under the banner of the “Popular Front.”

In the aftermath of the rise of Hitler to power—a monumental catastrophe for the German and international working class that was made possible by the disastrous policies of the Communist International—Trotsky issued a call for the formation of a new, Fourth International. He warned that the gains of the Russian Revolution could be defended only through a political revolution to overthrow the nationalist bureaucracy.

Terrified by the threat that Trotsky and the Fourth International represented, Stalin resorted to ever more brutal violence and repression, within the Soviet Union and internationally. While the Moscow Trials of 1936-38 were directed at all political opposition to the Stalinist regime, its principle targets were the supporters of Trotsky. Hundreds of thousands of socialists—the product of an immense tradition of revolutionary culture in Russia—were massacred in a political genocide.

The massive violence required to defend the regime constituted irrefutable proof that Stalin’s rule was not a continuation of the Russian Revolution, but its gravedigger. Stalinism and genuine Marxism, Trotsky wrote in 1937, were separated “not simply by a bloody line but a whole river of blood.”

Ignae Reiss, amongst the leading Trotskyist murdered by Stalin's GPU in 1937

Ignace Reiss, amongst the leading Trotskyist murdered by Stalin’s GPU in 1937

Trotsky waged a fearless campaign to expose the show trials and the political crimes of Stalinism. In response, the Stalinist GPU (state secret police) worked systematically to physically liquidate Trotsky’s closest supporters and cothinkers. Among those murdered by Stalinist agents were Erwin Wolf, one of Trotsky’s political secretaries, in July 1937; Ignace Reiss, who had defected from the GPU and declared his support for Trotsky, in September 1937; Trotsky’s son and close collaborator Leon Sedov in February 1938; and Rudolf Klement, secretary of the Fourth International, who was kidnapped and murdered in July 1938.

These assassinations were made possible by agents of the GPU who had penetrated the Trotskyist movement, including Mark Zborowski, who had wormed his way into the confidence of Sedov and served as his secretary.

Yet, so long as Trotsky lived, the Stalinist regime could not rest. Victor Serge wrote in 1937: “There is no other explanation for the mad proscriptions which are destroying the structure of the regime except hatred and fear… The substitute team has been shot as a precaution. Only the Old Man remains… As long as the Old Man lives, there will be no security for the triumphant bureaucracy.”

Despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances—including the murder of Klement only two months before—the Fourth International held its Founding Congress in September 1938. The founding document, written by Trotsky, warned: “The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.”

trotsky-1931The war drive of imperialism threatened to ignite once again a wave of revolutionary upheavals. It was precisely for this reason that world imperialism, through its Stalinist agents, sought to decapitate the leadership of the Fourth International. In an essay written in October 1938, Trotsky drew the connection between the impending war and the violence directed at the Trotskyist movement:

At the beginning of the last war, Jean Jaurès was assassinated, and at the end of the war, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg… The work of exterminating the internationalists has already commenced on a world scale prior to the outbreak of the war. Imperialism no longer has to depend on a ‘happy accident.’ In the Stalinist Mafia it has a ready-made international agency for the systematic extermination of revolutionists… Through its Stalinist gangsters imperialism indicates beforehand from what side mortal danger will threaten it in time of war. The imperialists are not mistaken.

The outbreak of World War II in September 1939, as world opinion was concentrated on the catastrophe in Europe, was seen by the Stalinist regime as an opportunity to escalate the campaign to assassinate Trotsky. A first attempt on his life was made on May 24, 1940 by an assassination team headed by the Stalinist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Trotsky and his wife Natalia survived the assault, but Trotsky knew it would not be the last attempt. “I live on this earth not in accordance with the rule but as an exception to the rule,” Trotsky wrote with remarkable objectivity two weeks later. “In a reactionary epoch such as ours, a revolutionist is compelled to swim against the stream. I am doing this to the best of my ability. The pressure of world reaction has expressed itself perhaps most implacably in my personal fate and the fate of those close to me. I do not at all see in this any merit of mine: this is the result of the interlacing of historical circumstances.”

Then, on August 20, 1940, Trotsky was felled by Mercader, a Stalinist agent posing as a supporter of the Trotskyist movement.

In 1975, the International Committee of the Fourth International launched an investigation into the circumstances behind Trotsky’s assassination that exposed the extent of GPU infiltration into the Trotskyist movement. The investigation documented not only the role of Zborowski, but also that of Sylvia Callen (who worked as a secretary for James Cannon, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, then the Trotskyist movement in the US); Robert Sheldon Harte (who was on guard detail on the night of the first assassination attempt); and Joseph Hansen (Trotsky’s secretary and guard at the time of his assassination, and the future leader of the SWP during the period of its political degeneration).


The ICFI exposed the infiltration of the Trotskyist movement

The Security and the Fourth International investigation was denounced and opposed by the SWP and all the political renegades from the Trotskyist movement. Subsequent material released from the archives of the Soviet Union, however, has confirmed many of the conclusions drawn by the ICFI about the individuals who helped prepare and implement this greatest of political crimes.

At the time of his death, Trotsky was the greatest representative of a tradition of classical Marxism that emerged out of the revolutionary upsurge of the first decades of the Twentieth Century. His assassination dealt an immense blow to the international socialist movement, yet he left behind a political and theoretical legacy that laid a firm foundation for the development of the Fourth International. Indeed, in the last years of his life Trotsky grappled with questions that would emerge as the central political issues facing the socialist movement following the Second World War.

In founding the Fourth International, Trotsky had to combat not only the Stalinists and imperialists, but a whole layer of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who, from the defeats of the 1930s, drew the conclusion that the working class was incapable of carrying out a socialist revolution. To justify their own abandonment of the fight for socialism, they foisted onto the working class responsibility for the treachery of its leadership. “If we grant as true,” Trotsky wrote, “that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself, then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless.”

The demoralized repudiation of socialism and the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class were to emerge repeatedly in the decades after the Second World War. Within the Fourth International, they found expression in the form of Pabloism, which was an adaptation to the Stalinist and social democratic bureaucracies and to the bourgeois nationalist movements.

Amidst the intensification of class conflict, these forces have moved sharply to the right, seeking ever more directly to assume the mantle of state power, as they have done in Greece. One can only imagine how Trotsky would have marshaled his literary skill and immeasurable wit to excoriate the selfish and self-obsessed upper-middle-class layers of today, how he would have exposed the rotten politics of Syriza and Podemos, how he would have flayed intellectual charlatans and pseudo-left celebrities like Slavoj Žižek.

What Trotsky understood and expressed with unequaled clarity was the decisive role of leadership. The essential lesson he drew from both the positive achievement of the Russian Revolution and the defeats that followed was that the victory of the socialist revolution and, therefore, the survival of mankind, required a relentless struggle to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership. This fundamental truth was to be demonstrated again and again in the decades after his death.

The centrality of the crisis of revolutionary leadership meant that the political struggle was the highest task. Trotsky had nothing but contempt for those who evaded their political responsibilities under the banner of personal freedom. “Let the philistines hunt for their own individuality in empty space,” he declared in a speech marking the founding of the Fourth International. “Yes, our party takes each one of us wholly. But in return it gives to every one of us the highest happiness: the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, that one carries on his shoulders a particle of the fate of mankind, and that one’s life will not have been lived in vain.”

The enduring significance of Trotsky is reflected in the relentless assault on his historical reputation. Yet those who blackguard Trotsky today will not succeed. History has vindicated Trotsky’s analysis of the death agony of capitalism. The power of his ideas and the historical tradition that he represented have stood the test of time. The movement that he founded has proven to be the only genuine and viable revolutionary tendency.


SEP candidate Elisabeth Zimmermann addresses rally in Germany. Banner reads “Against War, Dictatorship and Social Cuts”

Above all, the basic task for which Trotsky fought remains the central issue facing the working class today: the building of a revolutionary leadership.

These principles live on in the International Committee of the Fourth International, the world Trotskyist movement. The anniversary of his assassination must not only be an occasion to pay tribute to his memory, as fitting as this is, but to honor this memory through an intensification of the struggle to build the ICFI as the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Joseph Kishore