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Fourth International, August 1944


Charles Cornell

With Trotsky in Mexico


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.8, August 1944, pp.246-249.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


When the Stalinists succeeded in persuading the Norwegian government to deny L.D. Trotsky the right to remain in that country, he appealed to every nation in the world for admission. Mexico was the only country that answered his plea favorably. Why Mexico? The answer lay, not in some abstract principle of bourgeois justice or democracy, but in very real political and economic factors. The national revolution which began in 1910 and overthrew the dictator Diaz had gone through many stages, but the reforms envisioned by the revolutionary masses remained, for the most part, unrealized. Land was still held by a handful of wealthy landowners. The campesinos – agrarian workers and farmers – were landless. Foreign imperialists continued to plunder the country of its oil and mineral wealth.

Soon after he was elected President in 1934, Lazaro Cardenas broke up the reactionary camarilla that had dominated the country under President Canes and gave new impetus to the aims of the national revolution. He initiated a program of social reforms, began an attack on imperialist interests and commenced re-distribution of the land to the campesinos.

In order to counter-balance the bitter opposition of the reactionary elements to the reforms, Cardenas needed the support of the Mexican masses. He was aware of the sympathetic attitude the workers had toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. He was aware that Trotsky, an enemy of all imperialists, a man who had fought for the oppressed throughout the world, was held high in the esteem of the Mexican masses. Knowing that a friendly gesture toward the great revolutionist would be warmly welcomed by the masses, Cardenas granted Trotsky’s request for asylum in 1937.

Preparation for the Assassination

Upon Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico the Stalinist and Stalinist controlled press immediately began a campaign of vilification directed toward the demand for his expulsion. Their lying accusations linked Trotsky with whatever reactionary group or foreign power happened for the time to be in disfavor with the Kremlin. And at all times and under all conditions, they accused him of interfering in Mexican politics. At one time this campaign became so intense that Cardenas intervened and in an interview published in La Prensa, declared that Trotsky, a man of honor, had scrupulously kept his promise not to interfere in Mexican politics.

While the press campaign attempted to create a hostile atmosphere, the GPU organized the physical assault. GPU executioners of the Spanish revolution, among them the notorious Sormenti, were sent to Mexico. From January 1940, as the war spread over Europe and the Mexican elections approached, we more and more frequently received reports of GPU agents arriving. Stalin hoped that in the maelstrom of world events and the disturbances accompanying a Mexican presidential election, the murder of Trotsky would pass with slight notice.

The tempo of the slander campaign in “the Stalinist press was accelerated. Not an issue of an organ controlled by them was printed without some slanderous article or vicious cartoon about the Old Man. However, this campaign had no effect out. side their own ranks. The other papers retained an objective tone and continued to print everything Trotsky released for publication.

The May 24th Assault

On the morning of May 24, 1940, around four o’clock in the morning, David Alfaro Siqueiros led a group of about fifteen GPU gunmen in a machine-gun assault directed at Trotsky’s bedroom. They gained entrance to the courtyard through some ruse, and after establishing machine-gunners to cover the doors to the guards’ rooms, they fired hundreds of rounds of bullets through a shuttered window and a closed door, covering Trotsky’s bed with deadly cross-fire. It was done with mathematical precision. No one could have remained alive on the beds. Somehow L.D. and Natalia got on the floor in a corner of the room at the first sound of firing and stayed there until it was over. Trotsky’s amazingly quick action and the murderers’ reliance on a mechanical solution to their assignment saved his life.

Our comrade, Bob Sheldon Harte, the guard on duty at the time of the assault, was taken away by the assailants. They murdered Bob – in true GPU style, a bullet through the base of his brain and one in the temple.

Immediately after the machine-gun attack the Stalinist press accused Trotsky of organizing the assault himself! They asserted that a crime against the country had been committed and that it must not go unpunished. They demanded that Trotsky be driven out of the country. This campaign met with as little success as those they had carried on previously. A short time later the Stalinist agents, discovered and arrested by the police admitted in court their complicity in the attempt.

Although the attackers were Mexicans and some of them well-known artists, they were severely condemned by the Mexican people. The Mexican press expressed its sympathy for Trotsky and decried the difficulties from which he suffered. Magazines carried many articles and stories defending Trotsky and castigating the GPU.

Gunsmoke from the attack had barely lifted from the patio, empty machine-gun shells were still on the floor of his study, when L.D. began uncovering the identity of the attackers. In characteristic manner. he put all of his energy into the task. He reviewed and analyzed the Stalinist publications for the preceding period. This review of Stalinist literary activity, supplemented by information from friends, enabled him to establish almost immediately that Siqueiros was one of the Stalinists implicated. As investigations proceeded, he proved to the satisfaction of every honest person, the GPU’s guilt.

Jacson Appears

In the period immediately following the May attack the sinister figure of Jacson, known only as Sylvia Ageloff’s husband, was first seen at the house. She was in Mexico City at the time and on occasion visited the house. On a trip to Europe, while she was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, she had met Trotsky. During a visit to France in 1937 she became acquainted with Jacson and subsequently married him.

Hearing that Trotsky’s friends, the Rosmers, were leaving, Jacson volunteered through Sylvia to take them to Vera Cruz in his car. The morning that he came to get them was the first time he was ever seen at the house. He never became intimate with members of the household. He always remained at a distance.

Following this initial appearance he and Sylvia had tea with Trotsky and Natalia a few times. On one occasion he stated that he was writing an article and would like Trotsky’s comments on it. L.D. was always anxious to aid in the development of a person who appeared to be approaching the movement. Naturally, he granted the request.

On August 17, Jacson came to the house in the afternoon, for the first time unaccompanied by Sylvia. He asked Trotsky to read the draft of his article. L.D. took him into his study, looked over the article and made some suggestions for its improvement.

Jacson left. His rehearsal was over. He knew the location of the tables and chairs in the Old Man’s study. His plan could now be perfected to the last detail.

The Assassination

Jacson returned on August 20, 1940 at 5:30 in the afternoon. Trotsky was in the patio. After a few remarks, he led Jacson into his study. Trotsky sat down at his work table and began to read the article Jacson had brought. Jacson laid his raincoat on a small table in back of Trotsky’s chair and took a seat to the rear of Trotsky. He was within easy reach of his concealed weapon. While the Old Man was looking at the article, Jacson reached into his raincoat, took hold of the pick-axe with both hands and struck with all his might at Trotsky’s head.

He expected the blow to first stun and then kill the Old Man. But Trotsky struggled, shieIding his head from further blows. Jacson, fearing failure, struck blindly at L.D.’s head. Trotsky’s cry brought Natalia and the guard.

Trotsky’s resistance prevented Jacson from escaping and made certain that the crime would be traced without question to the GPU. Even while the mortal wound began to paralyze his body he thought the problem out carefully. “Don’t let them kill Jacson. He must talk,” he admonished us.

Trotsky was taken to the Cruz Verde hospital where the most prominent surgeons in Mexico did everything possible to save his life. For over twenty-four hours after the blow was struck, fearful despair alternated with desperate hope.

On August 21, at 7:45 p.m. he breathed his last. Stalin’s pick-axe had found its mark. The greatest revolutionist of our day lay dead.

* * * *

Trotsky’s Habits of Work

One must understand Trotsky’s passionate devotion to the cause of the oppressed to appreciate the full import of his work. He hated the injustices and indignities forced on man with his whole being. His polemics against political opponents are not at all the brilliant stylistic exercises which his petty-bourgeois critics make them out to be. Nor did he dash them off with the literary glibness which they attribute to him. Trotsky’s powerful and incisive writing merely reflects his ardent convictions in the struggle for the liberation of mankind. The barbs of his sharp pen were completely at one with his hatred of all that degraded humanity. The style was truly the man. He did not write with facility at all; his polished writing was the result of strenuous and lengthy application.

Although the Old Man considered himself a slow writer, his literary output was prodigious. A shelf five feet long could be filled with his published works prior to 1918 alone. The secretary who was with him in Prinkipo relates that he finished the three volumes of the History of the Russian Revolution in thirteen months. His writings testify not only to the extraordinary fertility of his brain, but to his remarkable self-discipline.

Knowing that his time was limited, that Stalin’s order for his death would be executed before he had contributed all he could in the task of preparing the Fourth International, Trotsky worked indefatigably. It was a race against time in which he spared nothing of his tremendous energy.

As was characteristic of him in all things, he sought for preciseness of expression and scientific exactitude in his writing. After the Russian stenographer had transcribed his first draft L.D. would make corrections and revisions, cutting and pasting the manuscript until it was a long and continuous sheet. Part or all of the work was often revised and re-typed several times, before he was satisfied with the final draft.

This preciseness was apparent in everything he did, even in his relaxation. Making the most of conditions imposed upon him by necessity, he had taken up the hobby of raising chickens and rabbits, since they could be kept in the restricted area of the high-walled yard. The chore of caring for them he performed, too, with method and precision. The feed was prepared according to the most scientific formula he could obtain. The amount of food was carefully measured. He inspected the animals regularly for any signs of sickness or parasites. The chicken yards and pens were kept scrupulously clean. It was obvious that he enjoyed this diversion from his sedentary tasks.

L.D., a master of self-discipline, bent every minute of his time to his will. Not a moment was wasted. He arose early, at about six in the morning, performed the chores in the yard, returned to his study and worked until breakfast. After breakfast he dictated letters and went on with his writing. Shortly before the noon meal he again took care of the animals. Unless some particularly urgent piece of work pressed for attention, he rested for an hour after lunch in accordance with the doctor’s instructions. Sometimes at three in the afternoon a visitor would come and L.D. would spend an hour or so with him. Longer visits were infrequent, for his time was too limited.

Having fed and tended the chickens and rabbits in the evening he returned either to his study or, if dinner were ready, directly to the dining room. Dinner was usually a lively meal during which L.D. engaged everyone in conversation and joked with members of the household.

On many such occasions he would relate some occurrence or anecdote. I recall one following the May attack. Col.Salazar, head of the Mexican secret police had brought two of us back from jail, where they had tried to exact “confessions” of complicity in the assault from us. L.D. was, naturally, angry and indignant. Col. Salazar, L.D. told us, had tried to apologize and explain the act by saying that they had “only tried to uncover every possibility, to unravel every thread.” L.D. replied to the Colonel, “But this time, Colonel, you happened to have a thread fastened to my coat!”

Most of his time was spent within the structure L.D. often referred to as “the jail”; the routine of the day being repeated monotonously. On occasion, but less frequently as reports of a GPU concentration in Mexico reached us he went on “picnics.” These were actually expeditions to gather cactus for L.D.’s collection. He especially admired this odd Mexican plant and as was typical of him, aspired to make his collections as nearly complete in its many varieties as possible.

He never undertook anything half-heartedly and his cactus collecting was no exception. On one occasion we accompanied some friends to Tamazunchale, a distance of about 380 kilometres from Coyoacan, in hopes of finding a special variety of cactus. We were unsuccessful, but on the way down L.D. had noticed some “viznagas” nearer to Mexico City. He decided, despite the fact that we reached the spot long after dark, to stop and collect a carful. It was a balmy night; L.D. was in a cheerful mood; he moved briskly about the little group digging cactus by the light from the headlamps of the cars.

This whole-heartedness permeated his entire activity. It was visible in his soldierly bearing, in his lively stride, in his punctuality. Whether it was a meal, a trip or a meeting, he insisted that it begin on time. I recall a conference held in his study with some friends from New York at which some of the guards came in late. After the first one arrived, L.D. got up and locked the door, putting the key in his pocket. Each time one of the latecomers knocked at the door L.D. arose from his chair, walked to the door and let the guard in. It was a most effective demonstration.

* * *

Trotsky’s Relations with Mexico

Before granting Trotsky permission to enter the country, Cardenas had requested that Trotsky pledge himself not to intervene in internal Mexican politics. Trotsky agreed to this stipulation and strictly adhered to it, to the last. Many reactionary elements, both in the United States and Mexico manufactured out of whole cloth lies attempting to prove Trotsky’s close relations with Cardenas. Numerous absurd and utterly false articles appeared in Catholic organs stating that Cardenas never made a move without first consulting the “Red Demon of Coyoacan.” The intent of such articles was to create the impression that the country was racing towards “atheism” and “bolshevik” revolution.

Trotsky did indeed hold Cardenas high in his appreciation, because of all the “democratic” politicians in the world who espoused the right of asylum for political exiles, Cardenas was the only one who lived up to the principle. However, Trotsky neither saw Cardenas nor anyone representing him, nor did he communicate with him except in matters pertaining to the security of the household.

Remaining true to his promise not to intervene in the political life of Mexico did not, however, prevent Trotsky from following systematically and carefully the political developments in the country. One might say Mexico was no exception, for he followed the news of every country with avid interest. Conversations with friends, artists, intellectuals, workers and campesinos – with people from the varied social categories he encountered – supplemented and rounded out the news he gleaned from the press and gave him a profoundly intimate understanding of Mexican life.

His knowledge of Mexico and his sympathy for the struggle of the workers and campesinos against the imperialists and hacendados made it possible for him to engage a worker around the house in an intimate conversation or to discuss land reforms in the simplest terms with the campesino he met on a walk.

He believed that a revolutionist was characterized by his attitude towards colonial people and their struggle for freedom. Any expression of chauvinism, any reflection, no matter how veiled, of the typical bourgeois attitude towards colonial people aroused L.D.’s anger and brought down wrath on the head of the offender. One striking example of this sensitivity occurs to me. A letter was once received from a petty-bourgeois radical who was at the time a member of the Socialist Workers Party. This comrade, by the way, considered himself an authority on colonial problems. In the letter a comrade’s inability to visit the Old Man was explained as resulting from a delay at the border “due to typical Mexican stupidity.” Trotsky read the letter, underlined the phrase in blue and placed large red exclamation marks in the margin. He gave it to me with the statement that I should reply to this characterization of the Mexicans as being monstrously false and flowing from an arrogant Yankee imperialist attitude!

Mexican People Appreciated Trotsky

Instinctively, the Mexicans were aware of Trotsky’s devotion to their cause. The Mexican people admired Trotsky as one who had fought in the forefront of the struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people. They knew that, although he hadn’t participated in Mexican politics, he was in sympathy with their struggle against the imperialists who robbed their country.

Some of them were able to pay homage to the revolutionary hero while his body was lying in state. An endless, profoundly sorrowful procession of people, almost as varied and colorful as the masses to whom Trotsky had dedicated his life, filed by the bier. There were dark-skinned, barefoot Indian women carrying babies in their shawls. Fair-skinned, well-dressed intellectuals. Students from the university. Huarache-clad urban workers, the soil of their day’s work still on their knotty brown hands and blue overalls. Bronzed, quiet campesinos in their white outfits and bright serapes. Around a hundred thousand paused, hat in hand before the coffin, a moment in silent tribute to the revolutionist who had unceasingly fought for the liberation of the oppressed.

Mexican custom provides another moving gesture of honor to the dead – standing guard at the casket. Comrades, friends and special delegations took turns under the direction of the Mexican section of the Fourth International.

Fastened on the wall above the bier was a banner inscribed with Trotsky’s last words translated into Spanish: “I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International. Go forward!” Just before the funeral procession, Natalia came to the room and stayed alone by the casket for a long time. As she walked from the room a cry arose spontaneously from the crowd “Trotsky lives on! Death to Stalin!

In her dispatch to the Jewish Day in New York Jean Jaffe described the funeral:

“The funeral procession was gigantic. When the flower bedecked casket slowly passed through the streets, the roofs and windows were black with people.

“On the way to the cemetery, from time to time the cry was echoed ‘Trotsky lives! Down with Stalin, down with the GPU!

“The Mexicans at the cemetery were still. They are used to heroic deaths of revolutionary martyrs and each death is a sign for them that the struggle goes on from generation to generation, from man to man ...”

The Mexicans truly accepted Trotsky as one of their revolutionary martyrs. Corridos were written around his life.

A corrido is a popular ballad lamenting the death and recounting the accomplishments of a public figure. The poet gives the prevalent impressions and reactions of the masses towards the hero’s life work and the circumstances surrounding his death. They are printed on large, colored leaflets and vendors sell them on the streets for five centavos. The number written and the extent of their sale is a measure of the masses’ appreciation for a hero. Many were written about Trotsky and sold in the largest numbers.

In the almost crude and unpolished jingle of the popular ballad it is evident that the masses knew by whom the murder was committed: a verse from a corrido points unerringly to the Kremlin:

Stalin and the assassin
in frank cooperation
carried their crime with precision
to its final destination.

And they knew for whom Trotsky fought. Another verse from the same ballad sings their unadorned admiration:

Expelled from his country
he wandered through many nations;
always fighting bitterly
to combat oppression.

These simple verses reflect more eloquently than the most polished prose the warmth the masses had in their hearts for Trotsky. His passion for the oppressed was reciprocated with deep feeling. Trotsky’s leadership in the struggle was appreciated by all those whom it aroused to fight oppression in every country. He was cherished and loved by them in his lifetime and his name will forever live in their hearts as an inspiration spurring them on to the final victory, to the establishment of the socialist society which alone can mean a free humanity.

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Last updated on 12.9.2008