Max Shachtman

In Memory of a Stainless
Revolutionist: Leon Sedoff


From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 8, 24 February 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In February 1938, Leon Sedoff, son of Leon Trotsky, the great revolutionist whom Stalin murdered this last August, mysteriously died in a Paris-hospital of a suddenly acquired stomach ailment. The circumstances of his death pointed clearly to the GPU, though the methods and weapons they used to achieve their foul purpose have not yet been discovered. Now, on the third anniversary of his death, which follows only by a few days the murder of another GPU victim, Walter Krivitsky, we reprint, in part, the text of a speech delivered by Max Shachtman at the memorial meeting held in New York at the time of Sedoff’s death.


It is not customary among revolutionists to pronounce conventional and meaningless panegyrics upon departed comrades and to extol them for virtues they never possessed.

But our times are so darkened by treachery, by the backsliding of renegades and turncoats, by retirements of those who have become wearied or frightened at the rigors of the struggle – that we do no more than our simple duty when we gather to pay tribute to a soldier who knew neither fear nor fatigue, in whom were mingled modesty, courage, devotion and a stubborn selfless determination to fight without thinking of the possible consequences to himself, for the final victory of history’s greatest cause.

Leon Sedoff was cradled in the revolution. He was born at the time when the Russian working class experienced its first great tumultuous awakening – in the period of the Revolution of 1905. His father was chairman of the first soviet in history, the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

From his earliest childhood he learned in the school of life the meaning of the struggle for the proletarian revolution. For 12 difficult years of reaction in Russia, he shared with his father the vicissitudes of exile, living one day in Austria and another in Switzerland, now in France and then deportation through Spain to the United States.

The revolution in Russia released the family from Czarist exile and enabled it to devote itself for the next ten years to the direct work of building and defending the socialist republic. Leon Sedoff, as a 12-year-old child, was already in 1917 a partisan – in his own immature way – of the Bolsheviks and this brought down upon his head more than one struggle.

In the Thick of the Fight

He was only 18 when the fight broke out between the Stalinist machine and the Trotskyists, who were then known as the Moscow Opposition of 1923. But like most of the active and militant young communists of his time, he flung himself into the thick of the fight on the side of the revolutionary internationalists who were defending the heritage of the already dead Lenin.

I remember what he told me when I first met him in Turkey in 1930. In spite of the difficulties and machine-maneuvers, the Opposition received the majority of the votes in the nuclei of the young workers in the schools – those whom Trotsky described as the most accurate and sensitive barometer of the party. He remained an uncompromising adherent of the Bolshevik-Leninists throughout the four long and intense years of struggle inside the party.

When the expulsions came, and with them exile to Siberia and Turkestan, he continued to remain loyal to his principles. The bureaucratic machine made strenuous efforts, especially among the younger members of the families of the Oppositionists, to have them renounce their parents. To this day, the bureaucracy takes special pride in printing statements from the sons or daughters or wives of its victims, from whom they have extorted denunciations and disavowals of their parents or husbands.

But they could get none from Leon Sedoff. When his father was exiled to Alma-Ata, he joined him voluntarily and applied himself with all his energy and talent to the enormously difficult work of continuing the fight of the Opposition – an inseparable collaborator of Leon Trotsky.

It was during this period that he worked with his father on two documents which constitute perhaps the two most important works of Marxism in our generation: The Criticism of the Draft Program of the Communist International and The Permanent Revolution. In the first Trotsky subjected the nationalist doctrine of Stalin and Bukharin – socialism in a single country – to a classic, merciless, thorough-going criticism in the great Marxian tradition. In the second, a polemic against Radek and Stalin, Trotsky forged an unbreakable link between the theory of the permanent revolution as enunciated by Marx and his own elaboration of this theory, applied to the complexities of the international class struggle in the twentieth century, which is undoubtedly the greatest contribution Trotsky or anyone else has made in our time to the science of living Marxism.

The year in Alma-Ata was one of intense literary activity and of a voluminous correspondence among the exiled Oppositionists, in the course of which the basic cadres of the Leninists were tempered and kept together in spite of the capitulators who abandoned the Opposition and bent the knee to the reactionary regime. The effectiveness of this activity infuriated the Stalinists and decided them in favor of even more Draconian measures, in the hope of breaking the ties that bound Trotsky and Sedoff to the proletarian revolutionists in Russia. In January 1929, an administrative order of the GPU banished Trotsky from Soviet soil and deported him to Turkey. It marked the beginning of Trotsky’s third exile from Russia and the beginning of Sedoff’s second.

Despite the Greatest Handicap

But the Stalinist machine had miscalculated. In exile. Trotsky was freer to tighten and harden the ranks of the International Left Opposition in the capitalist countries, at the same time that he was able – at least for a while – to continue contact with the Bolshevik-Leninists in the Soviet Union. Once more he found in his son a loyal, untiring and resolute collaborator.

Like his father, Sedoff looked upon revolutionary duty as standing above all other considerations. Grievous as was a separation from his parents, he nevertheless left them to take up residence in Germany – the country where it was most easily possible and feasible to publish the first printed organ of the Russian Bolshevik-Leninists. He was the managing editor of the Bulletin and despite the indescribable difficulties, he organized its distribution on a wide scale and kept it going month in month out.

On the eve of the Nazi conquest of power in 1933, Leon, who had remained by his post in Berlin to the very end and was being hunted by the Hitlerites, was compelled to flee to France. There he immediately resumed publication of the Russian Bulletin. Without his conscientious supervision it would not have appeared.

There too he became one of the founders of the Fourth International, for his interests, like those of every revolutionary Marxist, went far beyond the boundaries of the problems of the Soviet Union. I remember him at the conference in August 1936, where the foundation stones were laid for the Fourth International. In spite of the maddening ravages of a headache and a disorder of the throat which reduced his voice to a whisper, he participated actively and energetically in the reports and discussions, especially on the Russian question, giving the other delegates the benefit of the solid Marxian learning and the revolutionary experiences which, although he was then only 30, he had already accumulated in the movement and in the class struggle.

He was not unaware of the danger of his activity, but he was unmindful of it. He knew that the work he was carrying on, the work carried on by his father, was unforgivable in the eyes of the counter-revolutionists in the Kremlin. They, in turn, knew that neither Trotsky nor Sedoff could be bought or bribed into that Byzantine sycophancy which Stalin demands of all his followers: that they could not be intimidated or silenced by threats, even when these threats were backed, as they were, by the vast and sinister power of the GPU.

Hunted and Hounded by the GPU

And when it became clear that while others, like Zinoviev or Radek, might capitulate. Trotsky and Sedoff would continue unflinchingly by their posts: when it became clear that their work was like a thorn that every day dug deeper into the hide of the Stalinist bureaucracy throughout the world. Stalin determined to rid himself by violence of the opponents against whom his reactionary political arguments were of no avail.

The Stalin clique determined to make Trotsky and his family pay with their lives for their steadfastness and devotion to the international revolution. And one by one, the bestial machine of the modern Genghis Khan has struck down the children of that unbending revolutionist who remained adamant in the face of adversity.

In June 1928, while he was still in exile in Alma-Ata, Trotsky and his life-companion, Natalia Ivanovna Sedoff, learned of the death of their first daughter, Nina – learned of it 72 days after it occurred. Tubercular, her husband arrested and exiled, she died in Moscow, deprived of proper care and treatment by a cynical gang of bureaucratic monsters.

In January 1933, their second daughter died in Berlin, Zinaida Volkov committed suicide, but she felt herself driven to it by the murderous persecutions of her father’s enemies in the Kremlin. In the same way, Trotsky’s secretary, Glazman, was driven to suicide in 1924. In the same way, his life-long friend, the noble and unforgettable revolutionist, Adolf Abramovich Yoffe, was driven to suicide in Moscow in 1927.

Almost exactly four years after the death of Zinaida, early in 1937, Sergei Sedoff was arrested on the charge of plotting the mass poisoning of workers in the factory where he worked. He has not been heard of since, and we do not know if he is alive.

Even before that, Alexandra Lvovna Bronstein, past the age of 70, was exiled to Siberia, in total disregard of her 50 years in the service of the Russian Revolution, and only because she was guilty of the unforgivable crime of being the first wife of Leon Trotsky.

And now, the last of Trotsky’s children, Leon Sedoff, lies dead and buried in the cemetery of the Communards massacred in Paris in 1871. The circumstances of his death are sufficiently suspicious. We know that he was under the surveillance of the GPU. We know that he was being watched by the same gangsters who murdered Ignace Reiss in Switzerland. We know that he was a special object of hatred of Stalin and the crew of wretched assassins who rule the Soviet Union today. And even if it should turn out that his death was directly due to the consequences of an innocent operation, we stand here today and charge that the despot of the Kremlin – who hounded and persecuted Leon and his parents, who drove them from Russia and from one country to another, who murdered their comrades of today and yesterday in the cellars of the GPU, who made them outlaws at the mercy of any gunman’s bullet by virtue of the verdicts of his hand-picked courts, who set assassins to spy upon him and to plan his death – we charge that this modern Cain is just as guilty of the death of Leon Sedoff as if he had himself driven a dagger through his heart.

How miserable are the miscalculations of these autocrats in power! Is the past of these power-drunken bureaucrats so completely obliterated in their own minds that they forget how impossible it is to crush a rising, progressive, revolutionary movement by mere force – by persecution, by trials that are an infamous travesty upon justice, by imprisonment, by execution and by assassination?

The early socialist movement of the last century suffered no less heavy blows, and it survived: while its detractors and traducers disappeared into oblivion.

We do not fear extinction, for we know, as did Leon Sedoff. and all true Marxian revolutionists before him, that our cause is linked with the inexorable processes of social evolution, that reaction may delay its triumph, but never prevent it. We remember the inspiring words of Ferdinand Lassalle, the flaming tribune of the German proletariat:

“From the high watch-towers of science, gentlemen, one can discern the red dawn of the new day sooner than if one is situated in the turmoil of daily life.

“Gentlemen, have you ever witnessed a sunrise from a high mountain top?

“A purple border tinges the extreme horizon with a red and bloody glow that announces the new light; mist and fogs rise and contract into great mounts, attacking the rosy dawn, and for the moment concealing its rays: but no power on earth is capable of hindering the slow and majestic ascent of the sun itself, which, but a single hour later, will stand bright and warm in the sky visible to all the world.”

The untiring work of the fearless champion of revolution. Leon Sedoff, was a herald of that rising sun.

His life, so young, so cruelly cut down before it had an opportunity to reach its full flowering, was a shining example for the revolutionists of our generation and the next.

The stigma which Stalin’s Bloody Assizes sought to besmirch him with in the trials of the Old Bolsheviks, the monstrous slanders with which it sought to cover him – those are badges of honor well earned by the dead revolutionist.

We dedicate ourselves to the work of rescuing his name from slander. The calumniators of the dead are, the oppressors of the living. The vindication of the martyred dead lies in the unrelenting struggle against the tyrants and against all tyranny.

Stalin has wreaked a frightful revenge upon the family of Leon Trotsky, the revenge of the common criminal.

We are pledged to avenge our dead. But we disdain the methods of the gunman and the skulking assassin.

Ours are the methods of the great teachers. Ours are the methods of the class struggle, of the fight in open combat, of the victory honestly won. In open combat, the Bolsheviks won their revolutionary triumph over capitalism. In open combat, we shall win ours. In open combat, we shall win the struggle to destroy the horrible plague of Stalinism which is eating out the vitals of the labor movement.

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Last updated on 12 September 2015