Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s brutal assassination by a Stalinist agent in Mexico City. We publish here an account written by Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, in 1999 about the life and legacy of his grandfather, as well as his memories of that fateful day. For more information about Trotsky’s ideas, don’t forget to check Trotsky.net, a website dedicated to give an overall view of the ideas and struggles of Trotsky.
On that afternoon of August 20th, a professional assassin of the sinister GPU or NKVD, the mere mention of whose initials made any Soviet citizen shudder, carried out a perfidious and treacherous plan that had been painstakingly worked out. Under the pretext of correcting an article, he managed to gain access to the creator of the Red Army. While the two men were alone together, the assassin struck from behind, wielding a sharp steel ice-pick used by mountaineers, with a shortened handle. In a few seconds, the brain of one of the most brilliant fighters for socialism was destroyed.
With the assassination of Leon Trotsky – that implacable enemy of the bureaucracy that had usurped power from the hands of the revolutionary proletariat – Stalin’s counterrevolutionary extermination of a long list of leaders and participants in the October revolution was completed. Thus Stalin was confirmed as the grave-digger of the Bolshevik revolution – a title bestowed on him by his victim long before.
To me, that bloody and tragic afternoon of the 20th of August still seems to have happened yesterday. I was a young man 14 years of age, Vsevolod (Seva) Esteban Volkov, grandson of Trotsky on my mother’s side, and had arrived in Mexico only one year before after a period living with the Rosmers, those close friends of Natalia and Lev Davidovich. I was given the bedroom next to my grandparents and had already had a taste of gunpowder and felt the heat of a bullet grazing my right foot during the first attack on the family led by the Stalinist painter Alfaro Siqueiros and his machine-gunners in the early hours of the 24th of May 1940.
Nearly three months later I was returning home from school in a cheerful frame of mind, walking along the long Vienna Street at the end of which stood the old house. Suddenly I noticed something unusual in the distance: a car obviously badly parked was straggling the dusty way and various uniformed police officers in navy blue and wearing military berets seemed to be standing in the entrance of the house. Such a disturbance was a bit unusual. A sharp pang of anguish gripped my breast as I had a foreboding that something awful had happened in the house and that this time we were not going to be so lucky.
Instinctively I hastened my pace, stepping quickly through the gate which was open, hurrying through the garden, where I bumped into an American comrade, Harold Robins, one of my grandfather’s secretaries and bodyguards. He was very agitated, with a revolver in his hand, and could only shout at me in a desperate voice: “Jackson! Jackson!”
At the time I could not grasp the meaning of this hasty exclamation. What had the husband or boyfriend of the American Trotskyist Sylvia Ageloff and friend of the Rosmers and the guards got to do with what was happening? But as I made my way across the garden path towards the house I came across a man with his face covered in blood whom I did not immediately recognise, being held up by two policemen. The man whom I supposed must be the Jackson referred to by Harold, was making a lot of noise, complaining and sobbing, which merged into a kind of howling. He was a real mess.
When I entered the library and looked through the half-open door of the dining-room, I immediately understood the magnitude of the tragedy. My grandfather was lying on the floor with a wound to the head, in a pool of blood, with Natalia and a group of comrades standing around him, applying ice to the wound to stem the flow of blood.
So Jackson – the generous and attentive husband of the Trotskyist comrade Sylvia Ageloff, the man who took the Rosmers in his car to Veracruz when they went back to Europe, and who entertained some of the guards at good restaurants in the centre of Mexico city, the man who displayed a total indifference to politics, and who pretended to have a wealthy Belgian mother who always looked after his material well-being, and a boss overseas who paid juicy commissions for his business deals – was no more than a vulgar agent of the sinister GPU who had wormed his way into the life of the revolutionary leader.
He belonged to that army of murderers and torturers who exercised their reign of terror over the Russian people. These were the shock troops of the counterrevolution, the main pillar of the dictatorship of Stalin and his bureaucracy. They disposed of limitless resources derived from the wealth squeezed from the Soviet working class by the bureaucracy. They were the elite of the elite and the pampered favourites of the dictator.
“My mother is in their hands! They forced me to do it!” Jackson blurted out amidst whimpering and complaints, as the bodyguards, alerted by the first deafening cries of the “Old Man”, rushed to the scene of the murder and overcame and beat the assassin. “Jackson!” Lev Davidovich said, as he clung to the door-frame of his office, covered in blood, pointing out the aggressor to Natalia who had come running. It was as if he was trying to say: here it is, Stalin’s attack which we were waiting for. With laboured gestures, he tried to point to the study, “Don’t kill him – he must talk!” he managed to say while lying on the floor of the dining-room to those who surrounded him. And he was right. This was the best way to shed light on the character of the crime.
Now there are no secrets. The plot proceeded in stages: Stalin, Beria, Leonid Eitingon, his lover Caridad Mercader anf her son, the Catalan, Ramón Mercader (alias Jackson) were the people who murdered the founder of the Red Army and the comrade-in-arms of Lenin.
“We have been given another day of life, Natasha!” Lev Davidovich used to cheerfully exclaim to his inseparable companion Natalia Sedova every morning, as daylight streamed into their darkened bedroom – the same place where they had miraculously escaped with their lives on the night of May 24th when the house was machine-gunned by Siqueiros and twenty other assailants. But the truce was a brief one! “To die is not a problem when a man has accomplished his historic mission,” Trotsky once told a group of young comrades.
Leon Trotsky was not the sort of man to die peacefully in bed of old age. He fell in the front line of the struggle for real socialism – the socialism that was conceived by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky himself. This is the way in which the heroes of the proletarian revolution give their lives – with a red flag in one hand and a combat rifle in the other. He left this life with the immutable serenity of one who has done his duty and has accomplished his historic mission.
Side by side with Lenin, he provided a Marxist ideological basis for both the defeated revolution of 1905 and the victorious October revolution of 1917. In the latter, Trotsky’s intervention was decisive. In order to remove any doubts or remnants of Stalinist falsification, we reproduce the remarks of the Swiss military expert, Commander E. Léderray: “The Red Army, created and led by Leon Trotsky, was a key factor in the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution.” He was on two occasions elected president of the Petrograd Soviet, in 1905 and 1917. He was also appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet state.
But the pages that will be forever engraved in the annals of history will be the last period of his life: the indomitable and heroic fight to the death which he waged, together with a small group of comrades, against one of the most sanguinary and bestial dictatorships known to humanity, which arose from the usurpation and betrayal of the first socialist revolution in the world.
Initially, from 1923, Trotsky waged the struggle inside the Communist Party of the Soviet Union through the Left Opposition, in an attempt to re-direct the Party away from the road of bureaucratic degeneration and abandonment of Marxism-Leninism, and back to the traditions of the proletarian revolution and October. But the fiery speeches and declarations of the organiser of the Red Army fell on deaf ears. The Party was already thoroughly infiltrated by the creatures of Stalin. The prevailing mood was one of careerism and the pursuit of personal ambition, or fear of the nascent dictator.
In 1927 Trotsky was expelled from the Party and deported to Alma-Ata. The Left Opposition practically ceased to function. In 1929 he was expelled from Russia. Beginning with Turkey, he commenced his long journey through what he called the “Planet without a visa.” Later he went to France, Norway, and finally Mexico. He was fully aware that his days were numbered. From the beginning of his exile, accompanied by his wife Natalia and his son Leon Sedov, and with the help of loyal collaborators, Trotsky made use of every minute of his existence to keep ablaze the beacon of Marxist revolutionary thought and denounce before international public opinion and the working masses all the crimes and betrayals of Stalinism.
After the terrible defeat of the German working class and the triumph of fascism and Hitler’s rise to power as the result of the capitulations, betrayals and mistakes of the German Communist Party and the Stalinised Third International, which Trotsky characterised as a “stinking corpse”, he concluded that the attempt to regenerate it was a lost cause, and from that moment he dedicated himself to what he considered to be the most important task of his life – the creation of a new revolutionary advanced guard in the shape of the Fourth International, which he succeeded in launching just two years before his assassination by Stalin.
Marx and Engels carried out an exhaustive and masterly study of capitalist society which Lenin developed in his analysis of the imperialist phase of capitalism. Trotsky too, following the Marxist method, made a masterly analysis of the transitional period following the overthrow of capitalism. He explains how Stalinism arose as a political counterrevolution, in the form of bureaucratic Bonapartism in the Soviet Union. His analysis and definitions in The Revolution Betrayed – a work written over 60 years ago – are extremely rigorous and totally valid today. Here we have a description of a society in transition – neither capitalism nor socialism – under the domination of a caste of bureaucratic usurpers.
Such a social formation did not have any functional role in production, nor could it have any permanent significance, and thus, in itself, it did not rise to the category of a class in the Marxist sense of the word. It could only maintain itself in power through the falsification of history and through terror. The end result was the restoration of capitalism in Russia. Trotsky urgently advocated a political revolution in Russia, in which the working class would reconquer the power usurped from them by the bureaucracy, save whatever had survived of the gains of October, and reconstruct the basis for genuine socialism, based on workers’ democracy with genuine soviets, the abolition of one-party rule and the introduction of workers’ democratic control and management of the planned economy.
To this day, this has not been implemented, as a result of the political inertia of the Russian working class after 70 years of suffocating bureaucratic dictatorship. According to the historian Volkogonov, the publication of The Revolution Betrayed in 1936 (it was immediately translated into Russian for Stalin) led to an acceleration of the plans to assassinate Trotsky from December of that year. Volkogonov – who had access to the archives of the KGB – states that Stalin was always afraid of Trotsky. So the publishing of his biography of Stalin, which was in preparation in 1939-40, cannot have done much to calm the murderous fury of the master of the Kremlin. Contrary to what one might think, Trotsky wrote this book without much enthusiasm, out of economic necessity, at the request of an American publisher, leaving to one side a biography of Lenin, a work which he was far more interested in.
The contribution of Trotsky to the arsenal of the workers’ movement is vast: Marxist theory, polemics, historical works, autobiography, to name only the main ones. The English Professor Sinclair has published a bibliographical index of more than 400 pages which contains only the list of the titles collected by him. As Ernest Mandel, who died recently, put it: “Trotsky will go down in history as the most important strategist of the socialist movement”.
In his tenacious and uninterrupted struggle against the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship, which turned him into the most slandered and persecuted revolutionary in the world, one thing stands out for its historical importance: the Counter-trial which he organised in answer to Stalin’s Purges. After his brief period of exile in Scandinavia, which turned into six months of enforced silence and house arrest imposed by the “socialist” government of Norway, on Stalin’s insistence, Trotsky finally went to Mexico. Having been granted asylum by the Mexican president General Lazaro Cardenas, immediately after his arrival in January 1937, Trotsky set to work. He now had complete freedom to prepare his defence, and also that of his son, Leon Sedov and all the other revolutionaries falsely accused in the bloody farce of the Moscow Trials. By these means, Stalin and his Kremlin clique hoped to find a legal fig-leaf to justify the extermination of all those who could provide living testimony to the traditions of October.
At Trotsky’s suggestion, an investigating commission was set up, presided by the celebrated American philosopher and educationalist, John Dewey, and composed of persons of absolute integrity, with no connection with the accused. Trotsky announced his willingness to hand himself over to the GPU executioners if any of the charges were proven. His aim in organising this Counter-trial was not just to save his honour and reputation as a revolutionary and to denounce before humanity and before history the crimes of Stalinism, but also to make it difficult for Stalin and the Bureaucracy to carry out further trials and exterminations. After 13 days of exhausting sessions, with the presentation of 18 accusations and decisive answers, the commission delivered a “Not guilty” verdict, and characterised the Moscow Trials as the most monstrous falsification in the whole of history.
The brilliant revolutionary career of Leon Trotsky – in preparing the revolution and in carrying it out; in later defending it against its enemies and usurpers – was at all times based on Marxism, providing irrefutable proof of its vitality and truthfulness right down to the present day. The correctness of his analysis is further underlined by the collapse of the Stalinist and neo-Stalinist regimes, which Trotsky predicted with unshakeable confidence to the end. His heroic life remains a source of inspiration and a great example for all revolutionaries.
-Vsevolod (Esteban) Volkov,
Mexico City, August 1999