Peter Sedgwick

The Mind Of An Assassin

(November 1960)

Peter Sedgwick, The Mind Of An Assassin, New Left Review, No.6, November-December 1960, p.68-9. (review)
© 1960 New Left Review. Reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holders.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Mind Of An Assassin by Isaac Don Levine, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 25s.

IT IS now only a matter of a few months since a Czechoslovak passport was issued, in the name Vandendresch, to the man who, in August 1940, murdered Leon Trotsky with an ice-pick. The destroyer of one of the greatest brains of this century has now been whisked off to sanctuary in the Soviet bloc. He may now, in a Black Sea home for Pensioned Executioners, be reminiscing with Rakosi; or else be reposing, for safety’s sake, in quicklime, by courtesy of General Serov: in any event, for the rest of his life we are unlikely to hear more of him.

The grounds that the assassin gave for his dreadful act were various and misleading. In a document found on his person at the time of the murder he stated that Trotsky was an agent of the United States government and the Committee of Martin Dies (the forerunner of Joe MacCarthy). By the time of his trial in a Mexican court in 1942, the United States was an ally of Russia, and the American Communists as keen on nosing out “Un-American Activities” as anybody else. Vandendresch thereupon suddenly remembered that Trotsky was actually an agent of the Nazis, as he had been in the standard Soviet story up till the conclusion of the Stalin-Hitler pact. After his conviction, the assassin spent nearly twenty tolerable years in a Mexican prison, running a radio business and a mistress or two, until his release and departure in an East European direction.

This curious being, who at no time volunteered any information on his identity or motives beyond a pack of obvious falsehoods, was identified as long ago as 1944 by Spanish refugees resident in Mexico. Isaac Don Levine has compiled several independent lines of evidence, from acquaintances, photographs and fingerprints, which establish the old identification beyond the slightest doubt: Ramon Mercader, born in Barcelona in 1914, Communist strike-leader and military volunteer against Franco by the age of 23, and then political commissar and Moscow-trained assassin.

Mr. Levine is successful in his dismantling and exposure of the complex machinery of terror that came into play even before the Moscow trials had passed Trotsky’s death-sentence: the international couriers of murder such as Carlo Contreras, alias Vittorio Vidali, the present CP leader in Trieste; the Mexican dacoit-gang under David Siqueiros; the smuggling of Mercader into Trotsky’s entourage as “Jacques Mornard”, through a carefully arranged affair with the naive Sylvia Ageloff; the NKVD’s infiltration of mock-Trotskyist narks like Zborowski and Soble, whose informing on anti-Stalinist Socialists continued until their arrest for espionage in the United States two or three years ago.

The two hostile power-giants that straddle today’s globe feed on a diet of one another’s excrement; Mr. Levine, the sponsor of Whittaker Chambers, is absorbed in the detailed contemplation of this prize specimen of stink. Soble, Orlov, Sylvia Ageloff, the Dallins, Zborowski and Budenz (parasites, whether as witnesses or agents) on a revolutionary’s doom, help fill out the interminable volumes of Congressional committee hearings on Internal Security and Un-American Activities. The frontiers barred to Trotsky when hounded and alive, now swing open to give unsolicited asylum to his corpse.

Across Mr. Levine’s compulsive pages the names of the dead parade, soldiers in a battle whose aims the Cold-War chronicler shows no hint of understanding. The tragedy of the Russian Oppositionists, forced to slander themselves to death under public arc-lights, has been amply hymned in the fiction and reportage of two decades. It is not sufficiently well-known that a disquieting number of Oppositional Socialists were done to death more inconspicuously in the West: Leon Sedov, murdered mysteriously but surely by the NKVD in a French hospital; Ignace Reiss, waylaid and shot near Lausanne; Erwin Wolf, Trotsky’s dogmatic young secretary, shot on his arrival in Spain; Rudolf Klement, secretary of the Fourth International, found headless in the Seine; Andres Nin, whose courage under torture is witnessed in the memoirs of Jesus Hernandez, sometime Communist Minister in the Spanish Republican government; Willi Muenzenbcrg, whose hanging in France in 1941 may have been the responsibility of either the Gestapo or the NKVD. The roll-call could be extended. In those days it took some courage to be an active anti-Stalinist Left-winger, even outside Russia. The police-details are mostly there in Mr. Levine’s book; but we are given precious little insight into the minds of the assassinated.

Nor, despite the title, is the assassin’s mind explored with any profundity. Hampered by Mercader’s persistent attempts to mislead (even the possibility of faking the personality tests cannot be excluded), the Mexican prison psychiatrists seem to have tried to squeeze every drop of Freudian significance from their meagre data. On the basis of the prisoner’s own statements about his childhood (which are materially contradicted by the recollections of his father, still alive in Spain), they interpreted the assassination in Oedipal terms, Trotsky being of course the hated father-substitute. Of a hundred words which Mercader wrote down ad lib, “the most significant words, virgin and corpse, according to the psychologists, suggested an addiction to his mother and a wish to kill his father” (p.183). In any case, Mercader’s overt attitude of hostility towards his father could conceivably be re-explained as a “reaction-formation” against unconscious excessive dependence on that parent; Stalin could then function plausibly as the prisoner’s loved father-substitute!

This eclectic and superficial Freudianism (Mercader was never actually psycho-analysed) enables Mr. Levine to repeat the familiar explanation of Communist commitment in terms of infantile conflicts, and to pontificate glibly on the unique character of Mercader as political assassin: “the prototype of the coming race as seen from Moscow”, “the pioneer of a line of soulless monsters”, “the Kremlin’s happy robot of the future”, et cetera, et cetera. Mercader’s Stalinist convictions are seen as so much steam emanating upward from the overheated mechanism of his Oedipus complex, not as an independent causal force, influencing, and influenced by, the further factors of temperament and social identification. Indeed, even Mercader’s manifest rejection of his father seems to have been at least in part, a crude consequence of the Spanish class-struggle: Don Pablo Mercader was, and still is, a Catholic reactionary who refers to Franco’s rebellion as “the national uprising”.

Mercader, according to Mr. Levine, is “beyond redemption”. As much could easily have been said of his mother Caridad, a butcher of Trotskyists in her time, who later underwent the hell of the Spanish emigration in the Soviet Union, and, until her disappearance at the time of her son’s release this year, lived a recluse in Paris, shattered by the truth. Nobody seems to have tried to argue with Mercader, or to tell him about Caridad’s suffering, or to ask him how he reconciled Trotsky’s allegedly anti-Soviet role with the Old Man’s passionate support, in the months before his murder, for the Soviet invasion of Finland. Mercader was given Rorschach ink-blots, projective drawings and word-associations to work on, but never, it would appear, Khruschev’s secret speech.

In withholding from Mercader the means of his disillusionment, the Mexican authorities performed no act of mercy. As it is, he has departed from Kruschevite territory with the bubble of pre-1956 Stalinist myth still tensed intact within him. He has been left to achieve alone the full consciousness of his corruption, whether in the agonised last moments of his own murder, or as the result of a traumatic interview with Caridad. If his masters have indeed permitted him to survive, it is doubtful whether he can permit himself so insupportable a luxury as living.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 21.11.2004