The House in Coyoacan: reflections on Trotsky's last years

I recently visited Mexico at the invitation of Esteban Volkov, Trotsky's grandson, to participate in the filming of a documentary about the life and death of the great Russian revolutionary. The documentary, by the Argentine-Mexican director, Adolfo Videla, was filmed in the house in Coyoacan where Leon Trotsky lived for the last few years of his life, together with his faithful companion and comrade, Natalia Sedova. The documentary draws on rich archive material and includes valuable contributions by people like the French Trotskist historian Pierre Broue. It is due to be shown on Mexican television in the autumn.

The story of Trotsky's last years - his exile and assassination - has often been told, usually in the most trivial way. The latest essay in trivialization was the recent film about Frida Kahlo. Esteban Volkov, who knew Frida well, dismisses the film as yet another Hollywood falsification of history. "Frida was nothing like what was shown in the film," he told me.

"Actually, she was a very manipulative person who saw everybody around her as an instrument for her intrigues. It was as if the whole world was like one big theatre where she could direct the action, with people as mere puppets, always reserving the main role for herself. She was a specialist in staging rows and scandals in order to draw attention to herself."

People who have no life of their own always love to read about the so-called "personal life" of famous people. This forms a kind of sub-genre of literature that is the staple diet of a certain kind of tabloid newspaper. From the reading of such material certain people derive a kind of pleasure akin to voyeurism. For them, history begins and ends here. In reality, however, such things have nothing whatever to do with history. They belong to the realm of anecdotes, accidents and cheap fiction. Hegel wrote scathingly about this kind of "psychological history":

"These psychologists are particularly fond of contemplating those peculiarities of great historical figures which appertain to them as private persons. Man must eat and drink; he sustains relations to friends and acquaintances; he has passing impulses and ebulliations of temper. 'No man is a hero to his valet-de-chambre,' is a well-known proverb; I have added - and Goethe repeated it ten years later - 'but not because the former is no hero but because the latter is a valet.' He takes off the hero's boots, assists him to bed, knows that he prefers champagne, etc. Historical personages waited upon in historical literature by such psychological valets come poorly off; they are brought down by these attendants to the level with - or rather a few degrees below the level of - the morality of such exquisite discerners of spirits." (Hegel, The Philosophy of History, p. 32.)

Elsewhere Hegel writes that whoever approaches history from this point of view "merely gets a glimpse of the great world through a miserable cranny." (ibid. p.4.) What have such things to do with the towering tragedy of Leon Trotsky, which is itself a reflection of the tragic destiny of the Russian Revolution? Alongside the great events of the epoch, the amorous adventures of individuals - even if they are famous Russian revolutionaries and female Mexican artists - appear merely tasteless and trivial. In an age of iron, where millions of people were killed and the will of brave men and was women broken by the torturers of the GPU using the methods of the Spanish Inquisition, those who are more interested in the personal foibles of individuals can only be answered with a shrug of the shoulders.

To trivialise the history of these years in this way is both offensive and stupid. These were years when the working class was fighting desperately against the brown flood of fascism, and when the October revolution was being buried under a mountain of corpses. And at the centre of this maelstrom was the man who together with Lenin led the Great October Revolution, Leon Trotsky. To rescue the real, that is to say, the historical Trotsky, from the hands of the falsifiers and trivialisers is the task of the projected documentary.

Stalinism and Bolshevism

After Lenin's death in 1924, Trotsky and the Left Opposition carried on a courageous struggle to save the revolution from bureaucratic degeneration. This titanic struggle was at bottom a class struggle. It was not a polite academic debate, as some people imagine, but a life-and-death struggle in which literally millions of people perished, including the flower of the Russian revolutionary movement. This fact is usually passed over in silence by those professional cynics who now write bulky volumes trying to "prove" that there was really no difference between Bolshevism and Stalinism, and that if Trotsky had won, he would have acted the same as Stalin.

Coyacan2 Image own workAlan Woods studies the filmscript with Esteban Volkov / Image: own work

The answer to these slanders is quite simple. If Stalinism and Bolshevism are the same, how come that Stalin, in order to consolidate his bureaucratic-totalitarian regime, had to murder all the Old Bolsheviks? The regime established by the October Revolution had nothing whatever in common with the monstrous police state of Stalin and his heirs. It was a regime of workers democracy - the most democratic regime ever seen in the whole of history from the standpoint of the working people. That regime was destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucratic caste that he based himself on. This involved the physical extermination of Lenin's Party, which was a barrier in Stalin's path. The last act in this drama was the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940.

The decision to liquidate Trotsky was taken in secret quite early on. As early as the 1920s Zinoviev and Kamenev warned Trotsky of this. They said: "You think that Stalin will fight you in the field of ideas, but Stalin fights with other weapons. He will strike at your head." But in 1927, when Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party, the rule of the bureaucracy was not yet consolidated. It was too early to murder the man who most people still knew to be, after Lenin, the main architect of the October Revolution, and the founder of the Red Army. Stalin had to be content with exiling his rival to Turkey.

Stalin did not succeed in silencing his enemy by such means. From exile, first in Turkey, then in France, Trotsky continued the work of defending the ideas of Lenin and the October revolution against the Stalinist usurpers. He organised the International Left Opposition and appealed to the rank and file of the Communist Parties to return to the ideas and principles of Bolshevism-Leninism.

Trotsky could count on no help from any bourgeois government. They hated and feared him as a committed revolutionary and Bolshevik. Every one of the so-called bourgeois democracies shut their doors in the face of the great Russian revolutionary. Britain, which had given shelter to both Marx and Lenin in the past, refused. The French surrealist poet Andre Breton, who at that time sympathised with Trotsky, wrote of "the planet without a visa."

One-sided civil war

Meanwhile, Stalin was preparing a terrible revenge against the leaders of Lenin's Party. The consolidation of the bureaucratic totalitarian regime in the USSR required the destruction of all the democratic and egalitarian traditions of October, and Stalin wanted no witnesses or reminders of the past. The victory of the Stalinist political counterrevolution was accomplished through the physical extermination of all the Old Bolsheviks. This was achieved through the notorious Purge Trials, which Trotsky characterised as a one-sided civil war against the Bolshevik Party. Between 1937 and 1938 between five and five and a half million people were arrested by Stalin. Of these, at least one third were shot, and most of the rest perished in the camps. Trotsky wrote:

"Stalin has destroyed the entire Bolshevik old guard, all of Lenin's collaborators and assistants, all the fighters of the October Revolution, all the heroes of the Civil War. He will go down in history under the despised name of Cain."

But Stalin was not satisfied. He knew that his most dangerous enemy had escaped and was continuing the work of regrouping the Communists who remained loyal to Leninism. In reality, the central figure in the Moscow trials was Trotsky, who was repeatedly accused of leading the Russian Opposition - in league with Hitler and the Mikado! The most grotesque slanders were invented to discredit Trotsky and his followers as "counterrevolutionaries". All this was intended as a preparation and a cover for murder. Early in 1935, Soviet intelligence agent Mikhail Shpigelglas received verbal instructions from Yagoda, who had in turn received them from Stalin, to "speed up the liquidation of Trotsky." Shpigelglas mobilised the entire agency in France, including a Polish Communist called Ignace Reiss, who had worked for the GPU from 1925. But Reiss was not a typical GPU mercenary. He was a genuine Communist who was sickened by Stalin's crimes.

Showing great courage, Ignace Reiss came out in favour of Trotsky and wrote to the Central Committee of the CPSU: "I have come thus far with you, but I will not go one step further […] Whoever remains silent now becomes an accomplice of Stalin and a traitor to the cause of the working class and socialism." He returned his Order of the Red Banner that he had received as "a heroic fighter for Communism," commenting that "to wear it while the executors of the best representatives of the working class are also wearing it is beneath my dignity." Six weeks later, on September 4, 1937, Reiss was found murdered in Zurich.

Trotsky was warned of Stalin's plans by Ignace Reiss before his assassination, and left France before Stalin could have him killed. He went to Norway, but was pursued by Stalin's agents. The Moscow Trials were in full swing, and the Stalinists were loudly demanding that the Norwegian government hand him over. Well aware of the hypocrisy and cowardice of the Scandinavian middle class Social Democratic leaders, Trotsky had every reason to fear that they might give in to Stalin's blackmail. In a conversation with one of these leaders, he was asked if he thought that they would be willing to sell him, Trotsky replied diplomatically. "No, but Stalin would be ready to buy."

The question of asylum for Trotsky assumed a burning importance. In the end, only Mexico was prepared to welcome him. Octavio Fernandez, the veteran Mexican Trotskyist, who unfortunately died shortly after being interviewed for the documentary, was responsible for arranging Trotsky's asylum in Mexico. He recalls the circumstances:

"The Old Man was in danger of being handed over to the GPU - Stalin's secret police - by the Norwegian authorities. Attempts were made all over the world to obtain a visa but nowhere were they successful, on the contrary, there were threats from fascist groups, which backed Stalin in his demands to extradite Trotsky from Norway."

Trotsky in Mexico

Finally, with the help of the famous Mexican painter and communist, Diego Rivera, they succeeded in persuading the government of Lazaro Cardenas to grant asylum to Trotsky. Octavio Fernandez recalls in the documentary:

"We were received by Cardenas, who said that, since Trotsky's life was in danger, the government would grant him asylum. For us this was tremendous news, since we had torn Trotsky from Stalin's grasp. The newspapers published the news of the agreement with Cardenas.

"Trotsky knew nothing about it. Later, we found out that the "Old Man" thought that it might be a plot because they told him he would have to travel on an oil tanker - the Ruth. He thought they might have planned a shipwreck and that would be the end of the matter. Anyway, they boarded the Ruth and arrived in Tampico with Natalia, who thought she had arrived in paradise, in a country from another world."

However, the last phase in the long exile of Trotsky and Natalia was anything but a paradise. On arrival, they were met with great pomp and ceremony and taken to the capital in the president's personal train, the Hidalgo. Cardenas was a bourgeois nationalist of a radical type, who fiercely defended the independence of Mexico and confronted US imperialism with great courage. Of course, he was not a socialist, but generally pursued a progressive line, within the limits of capitalism. In 1938 he carried out the nationalization of the Mexican oil industry, in defiance of imperialism and the big US oil companies.

In October 1939 Trotsky's lonely existence was brightened by the arrival of his grandson, Sieva, now thirteen years of age. Having lost both their sons, he and Natalia were overjoyed to welcome the young Sieva (Esteban Volkov), who had also lost his mother, father, and grandmother- all victims of Stalin's bloodlust. His young sister, from whom he had been separated at a very young age, disappeared into Stalin's Gulag system. Esteban thought she had died, too. But they met decades later in Moscow under the most tragic circumstances. She was alive, but dying of cancer. Tragically, they could not communicate because Esteban had forgotten how to speak Russian, and she spoke neither Spanish nor English. She died shortly after.

It is always interesting to speak directly to people who have had experience of great historic events and known the protagonists personally. Esteban Volkov recalls that Lazaro Cardenas treated the Trotsky family with great generosity and kindness. Lazaro, he says, was basically a simple man who liked to mix with the people, sleeping in the huts of Indians, talking about their problems. As a child, Esteban used to play with the president's son, Cuhatemoc Cardenas, now the leader of the PRD. Lazaro was furious about the assassination of Trotsky and accused the Mexican Stalinists of betraying the Fatherland.

After Trotsky's death, he continued to treat his family with kindness and consideration, says Esteban. He showed me old photographs of himself as a child on picnics with Lazaro and the young Cuhatemoc. "But on one occasion I had a disagreeable surprise when coming out of their house. As I was leaving so Lombardo Toledano was entering." This hardened old Stalinist had strenuously opposed the granting of asylum to Trotsky, pressing Cardenas to expel the "chief of the vanguard of the counter-revolution". Later he participated actively in the political preparations for Trotsky's assassination, launching a series of slanderous attacks in his paper El Popular. Trotsky commented: "People write like this only when they are ready to change the pen for the machine-gun."

Coyacan3 Image own workAdolfo Videla directs / Image: own work

These words proved to be prophetic. Trotsky knew that he was living on borrowed time. Stalin had decided to kill him, and would spare no effort to carry out this plan. One of the factors was the biography of Stalin on which Trotsky was working when he was assassinated. According to Dimitri Volkogonov, every morning Stalin had Trotsky's latest articles on his desk in the Kremlin - often before they were published. In March 1938, in the middle of the Moscow Purges, in a letter to the editor of the Bulletin of the Opposition, Trotsky wrote:

"I am committed to write a book on Stalin and to finish my book on Lenin in the next 18 months. All my time, at least over the next few months, will be devoted to this work […] I will need your help with the book on Stalin. Tomorrow I'll send you the list of books I have on Stalin. I can tell you now that I don't have Barbusse's book. I don't know if there are any special files on Stalin in Lev's archive."

Volkogonov remarks:

"It is not hard to imagine the effect of this letter on Stalin when it landed on his desk. In 18 months a book on him, written by his best-informed enemy, would be published. It must not happen. It was precisely at this time, late 1938 and early 1939, that Stalin's verbal instructions to liquidate Trotsky became frantic." (Volkogonov, Trotsky, p. 197.)

Shpigelglas, the GPU agent put in charge of Trotsky's assassination, was arrested, condemned and shot. The reason was very simple, as his successor, NKVD officer Pavel Sudoplatov, confirmed: "He didn't carry out the job of killing Trotsky. So he couldn't be forgiven." (ibid., p. 443.). Sudoplatov was put in charge of a special department to murder Trotsky. It took orders right from the top - that is, from Stalin himself and reported to him on its progress. In 1989, in a letter to the Procurator General of the USSR, Sudoplatov wrote:

"For the 30 or more years that I worked in intelligence, all the operations I took part in emanated not from Beria, but from the Party Central Committee […] All the reports on my special operations are to be found in the General Department of the Central Committee, and one of them is a one-page report in my own hand." (ibid., pp. 440-1).

That handwritten report was on the assassination of Leon Trotsky.

The assassination

On the night of May 24, 1940 a gang of Mexican Stalinists led by the painter David Siqueiros burst into the house in the dead of night and blasted the bedrooms with machine guns. Trotsky himself described the attack:

"I was fast asleep as I had taken a sleeping tablet after a hard day's work. I was awoken by the sound of bullets, but as my mind was still clouded I imagined that they were celebrating the National Festival by launching rockets outside the house. But the explosions sounded too close for that. They were inside my room, very close, near my head. The smell of gunpowder was ever more acrid and penetrating. It was obvious that something we had always awaited was happening: we were being attacked. But where were the policemen stationed outside? And the guards inside? Tied up? Kidnapped? Dead? My wife had jumped out of bed. The hail of bullets continued. My wife told me later that she had pushed me to the floor so that I could squeeze into the space between the bed and the wall. It was perfect. She lay on top of me alongside the wall, in order to protect me with her body. Speaking in a whisper and with gestures I persuaded her to lay on the floor. Bullets were landing everywhere. It was difficult to see where they were coming from. Pieces of glass from the windows and plaster from the walls were flying in all directions. A little later I realised that I was slightly wounded in the leg in two places.

"When the shooting stopped we heard the voice of our grandson from the next bedroom: 'grandfather!' The voice of this child in the darkness amidst the gunshots remains the most tragic memory of that night."

Esteban Volkov remembers being awakened by the sound of gunfire, coming from different directions.

"It was a well planned operation, like a military manoeuvre. But they made one mistake: they did not put the lights on. Maybe they did not want to see the faces of their victims. For whatever reason, they fired in complete darkness. If there had been light they would not have missed their targets. I was hiding in a crouched position under the bed but was hit in one foot. Then the firing stopped and I heard a voice outside the door. I caught the word 'bombas' and realised that they were about to throw bombs inside the room to finish off the job. I managed to escape by running into the next room - then they threw incendiary bombs in."

After the attack, one of the guards, a young American called Robert Sheldon Harte, was found to be missing. Later his body was found by the police. Harte had been on duty that night and had opened the gate to let the assassins in. The police believed he was an agent of Stalin, but Trotsky, who was always loyal to his comrades, refused to believe it. Esteban is now convinced that Harte was bought by the GPU. There are several circumstantial details that point in this direction, including the fact that he had been seen with large amounts of money. If that is true, he paid a heavy price for his betrayal. Esteban thinks that Siqueiros and the others used him as a scapegoat to cover up their failure to kill Trotsky.

Despite the enormous danger to his person, Trotsky continued to work normally, and even went out on expeditions to collect cactuses, driving twenty or thirty kilometres in the mountains and fields. He refused to let himself be treated like a trapped animal. He knew that sooner or later his life was forfeit, that eventually Stalin would claim his most important victim. In the meantime he must take advantage of the time left to him to write and educate the young cadres of the new generation of Bolshevik-Leninists.

Coyacan4 Image own workAlan Woods speaks about Trotsky's life at the desk where he was assassinated / Image: own work

Unknown to Trotsky, Stalin had placed an agent at the heart of his international organization in Paris and knew everything that was going on. Mark Zborowski, who was representing Trotsky's affairs in Paris after the murder of Leon Sedov, was an agent of the GPU. There were many others, including Sylvia Franklin, the personal secretary of James Cannon, leader of the American SWP. Last but not least, Ramon Mercader ("Jacson") managed to infiltrate himself into the Trotsky household by establishing a relation with Sylvia Agelov, the sister of one of Trotsky's secretaries.

Esteban Volkov remembers Mercader very well. He was a skilful agent who kept a low profile and never made any attempt to get close to Trotsky, which might have aroused suspicion. Instead he concentrated on establishing friendly relations with the guards.

"He was always smartly dressed, he had money and a flashy car," recalls Esteban, "and he was always doing favours. He would invite the guards out to restaurants and would let them borrow his car to take Trotsky out for excursions. He was always very diplomatic, and in that way directed suspicion away from himself."

The story of the assassination has been told many times, and there is no need to repeat it here. It showed that the arrangements for Trotsky's defence were extremely defective. In the moment of truth, Lev Davidovich was left alone with a relative stranger who, incredibly, had been allowed by the guards to enter in August wearing a heavy raincoat, inside which were hidden an ice-pick, a long dagger and a pistol. The guards did not even bother to "frisk" him before allowing him into Trotsky's study. Such an elementary precaution would have been sufficient to have aborted the whole mission. But those who were supposed to be defending Trotsky did not take the most elementary precautions.

From conversations with Ted Grant I know that when the news of Trotsky's assassination reached the comrades in London, they where aghast. They were deeply shocked that the American SWP could have allowed such a thing to occur and in such a way. Later on Healy attempted to "prove" that SWP leader Joseph Hansen was also a GPU agent. Ted never accepted this, considering it to be just another one of Healy's spiteful intrigues against political rivals, but on the other hand he considered the leaders of the SWP to be guilty of gross irresponsibility.

I put this to Esteban Volkov, who has always had fond personal memories of the mainly American guards. He thought for a moment and then said:

"Yes, it is true, they were really very amateurish." Then he added thoughtfully: "But you know, there was no way we could have escaped. My grandfather knew very well that one man could not defeat the mighty apparatus of the USSR. Sooner or later they were going to kill him. If Jacson had failed, they would have dropped a bomb on us and I would not be here talking to you today."

The day of the assassination, Esteban was coming home from school when he saw a crowd of people outside the house. He entered and saw the whole picture: Jacson was in a lamentable state, whimpering like a coward, while Natalia tried to comfort her husband. Incredibly, despite the seriousness of his injuries, Trotsky had summoned up his last reserves of strength to cry out and grapple with his assailant, who was unable to escape as planned. Natalia remembered that he cried out "They made me do it: they've got my mother." But he never repeated these words, having been instructed by his masters to maintain the myth that he was a disillusioned follower of Trotsky.

When Trotsky realised that Esteban was present he indicated that the boy should be taken away: "He was only concerned to protect me," says Esteban.

When Stalin struck at Trotsky's head he knew what he was doing. The young forces of the Fourth International were still weak and immature. The death of the Old Man deprived the International of its moving spirit and its theoretical leader. Without his guidance, the leaders of the Fourth showed themselves to be out of their depth. They proved unequal to the tremendous tasks posed by history. As a result, the Fourth International was stillborn.

Trotsky's real monument

The main reasons for the shipwreck of the Fourth must be found in the difficult objective conditions after the Second World War, which cut off the forces of Trotskyism from the Stalinist and Social Democratic workers. Things developed differently to what Trotsky had anticipated in 1938. As a result, Stalinism and capitalism were reinforced for a whole historical period. Even if Trotsky had remained alive, it would have been a difficult period, but at least we would have been able to keep our basic cadre united and preserved the organisation, in preparation for a change in the situation.

There are many parallels between the class struggle and wars between nations. In war there are periods when an army can advance and in such periods good generals are important. But in difficult periods when the army has to retreat, the importance of good generals is even greater. With good generals the army can retreat in good order, preserving the bulk of its forces to fight another day. But with bad generals a retreat can swiftly turn into a rout. That is exactly what happened to the Fourth International after Trotsky's death.

However, nothing remains static in nature or society. With a delay of some decades, Trotsky's perspectives for the Soviet Union, contained in The Revolution Betrayed, have been brilliantly vindicated. The bureaucracy, not satisfied with its power and privileges, has become transformed into a particularly corrupt and reactionary capitalist class - just as Trotsky predicted. But the collapse of the USSR has not solved the problems of capitalism, which is now experiencing a crisis on a global scale, threatening humanity with a future of wars, unemployment and poverty. The ideas, programme and methods of Trotsky remain the only basis for the achievement of socialism on a world scale.

Marx once said that ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses. Despite all the defeats and vicissitudes of history, the working class will always return time and again to the path of struggle. The events of the past two years alone are sufficient proof of this - if any proof is needed. Everywhere the workers and youth are moving into struggle, challenging the outdated and rotten system of capitalism.

The old organisations of the Stalinists and Social Democracy are everywhere in crisis. Their leaders have long ago abandoned the cause of socialism and communism and are clinging to the market economy - just when it is giving clear signals that it has exhausted any progressive content it may have once possessed. The rank and file of the trade unions and the mass workers parties are dissatisfied with the present leadership and policies. They are looking around for an alternative. The only alternative to capitalism is socialism, and the only consistent and coherent defence of socialism is to be found in the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and, last but not least, that great leader, theoretician and martyr of the working class, Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

Today the house at Coyoacan is a museum, where crowds of schoolchildren and tourists file past the desk where Lev Davidovich Trotsky was murdered. There are few traces of the terrible past - a pair of glasses broken in the struggle with Mercader lie on the desk, where a paper calendar, 63 years later, still shows the fateful date of 20th August. In the peaceful courtyard with its well-kept lawns ornamental cactus the sun shines on a simple stone monument, unadorned save for a hammer and sickle and the name of Leon Trotsky.

A Roman poet once wrote a famous work called Exigi Monumentum - "I have raised a monument". The monument he referred to was not one of stone or bronze, but his poetry. The real monument to Leon Trotsky is not in stone either, nor is it in a house in Coyoacan. The real monument to this great revolutionary has still to be built. It is an imperishable monument in the form of the revolutionary party and the International that will put an end to the monstrosities of capitalism once and for all and lay the basis for a new stage of human development in a socialist federation of the world. We, the militants of the international Marxist tendency, dedicate ourselves with renewed energy and commitment, to carry the struggle for the ideas and programme of Lenin and Trotsky to the end.

London, June 30, 2003.

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