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September 2004 • Vol 4, No. 8 •
Arsenal of Marxism

Preface to Leon Trotsky’s “My Life”

By Esteban (Vsievolod) Volkov

This article appears as a preface to a new edition of Leon Trotsky’s book, My Life, to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the brutal assassination of Leon Trotsky by a Stalinist agent in Coyoacan, Mexico on August 20, 1940. Esteban Volkov is Leon Trotsky’s grandson.

Leon Trotsky once wrote: “The locomotive of history is truth, not lies.” It is very important to re-establish the historical truth within the framework of class struggle amidst the sea of confusion, falsifications and alterations created by the oppressors and exploiters of the world in an attempt to maintain the status quo. The publication of a new edition of my grandfather’s autobiography, My Life, is an important step in establishing the truth.

It is entirely untrue that Stalinism and Bolshevism are the same. Having usurped power, the privileged caste of officials dedicated themselves single-mindedly to the task of annihilating Lenin’s Party. Stalin erected his dictatorship over the dead bodies of the leaders of the October Revolution. But one man remained to expose the crimes of Stalin and the bureaucracy.

For more than a decade, Stalin devoted unlimited economic and human resources to eliminate Trotsky. One by one, Trotsky’s supporters and family fell victim to the GPU murder machine. Finally, on August 20, 1940, the great revolutionary fighter, theoretician, and martyr, Leon Trotsky, died of the wounds inflicted in a cowardly attack by a Stalinist agent.

The writer of these lines, Sieva [Estaban] Volkov is the last remaining survivor, the last remaining witness of the last chapter of Leon Trotsky’s life in Mexico. I arrived in Mexico in August 1939 with the Rosmers who were close to Trotsky and Natalia,[1] coming from Paris, where I had lived with Leon Sedov’s [2] widow. It was a big change. I was 13 at the time when I arrived at the house—Vienna 19—in Coyoacan, Mexico. I remember it as a small community and a big family.

In this small vanguard of socialism, there was a tremendous atmosphere of work, solidarity, and human worth. That is how I saw it at the time. But now I can see that it was so much more: it was the barracks of the political struggle. Natalia and Leon Trotsky were surrounded by a group of young comrades from different nations, but mainly from the U.S. They were volunteers. And they participated in the house activities: guards, secretaries.

The house there was always a bustling hive of activity. They had not long moved from Frida’s [3] house. The new house was half ruined and there was a lot of refurbishment needed. One of the qualities that must be brought out about Lev Davidovich [4] was his great admiration for human labor. He did not admit privileges or distinctions of any kind. I remember a problem that happened in the house once with a septic well; Trotsky himself took up a pick and started the work of cleaning the sewage.

Everyone participated in the work. A Mexican comrade, Melquiades, built the chicken cages and the rabbit hutches. Alex Buckman, who was a professional photographer and an expert in electricity, installed the security system. The best photographic archive, and the last ones, were taken by Alex Buckman who died recently.

In the descriptions of the house that have been made elsewhere there have been many mistakes and falsifications. The house is frequently referred to as a fortress. In fact, it was not a fortress at all. We only had walls of a certain height and on the inside some wires were installed, which, if they were broken set the alarm off. Unfortunately, there were a lot of pigeons who did not know this, and those pigeons certainly gave us a lot of headaches.

Trotsky was very active and lively. He knew very well that his days were numbered, and he wanted to carry out as much work as possible in the little time left. He never forgot the political education of the comrades. And frequently there were meetings in the afternoon or evening in his office, where there were polemics and discussions.

One of the outstanding features of Lev Davidovich was his marvelous sense of humor, the interest he took in comrades, his human warmth; but at the same he was also very strict with norms and order. On one occasion a young American guard, Sheldon Hart, left the door open. Trotsky with a premonitory sense said that this mistake cannot be forgiven and that Hart himself might be the first victim. This warning proved to be only too true.

The Stalinist press in Mexico was always attacking and slandering Trotsky. Thousands of rubles were brought from Moscow and were distributed in a generous fashion to corrupt journalists. At the beginning of 1940 we saw an increase in the number of the slanders and attacks. Trotsky’s comment was: “It seems that these journalists are about to exchange their pens for the machine gun.” This laconic observation was soon proven to be correct.

On May 24 a gang of GPU assassins headed by the painter Alvaro Siqueiros entered the house. They took control of the house. One group took up a position behind a tree in front of the guardhouses. They established such a level of fire that the guards were unable to move. Another group went after LD and Natalia and they fired from three different angles with a Thompson into the darkness.

One of the assailants entered the room where I was sleeping and opened fire. Trotsky was sleepy as a result of the sleeping pills he had taken. His first impression was that this was some Mexican religious celebration with fireworks. But the smell of gunpowder and the closeness of the attack convinced him otherwise. It was a real miracle that Trotsky survived. This was partly because of the swift reaction of Natalia who pushed him under a table and protected him with her own body.

I remember when the attackers left we immediately heard Trotsky’s voice, and he managed to fire with his gun against the shadow moving through the canal near the house. Shortly afterwards all the members of the family met together with everyone else in the house. Trotsky was really euphoric at having escaped this assault on his life. I remember that shortly afterwards the telephone rang and Trotsky picked it up and started to swear. He obviously thought that these were his attackers trying to get some information. But there was one detail which made the mood more sober and that was the fact that Sheldon had been kidnapped by the attackers.

After the attack modifications were made to the house thanks to the help of the American Trotskyist party: iron doors, new windows, towers for the guards were installed….Trotsky was a little bit skeptical about the usefulness of all this work. He was convinced that the next attack would not be of the same kind. And he was right. No one could have imagined that Jackson, who was the partner of Sylvia Ageloff, without any political interests—a generous businessman, friendly to the guards, etc—was a GPU agent. Finally he managed to carry out the wishes of Stalin.

On the 20th of August I was coming back from school, walking along Vienna Street, which is quite a long walk. When I was three blocks away from the house I noticed that something was happening. I rushed to the house, full of anxiety. There were several police officers by the door, which was open. There was a car wrongly parked. I entered and I saw Harold Robbins, one of the guards, who was carrying a gun and was very agitated. I asked him: “What’s happening?” And he replied: “Jackson, Jackson…”

At first I did not understand and I continued walking. But when I entered the house I realized the awful truth. Natalia and the guards were attending to my grandfather. When Trotsky realized I was there, he told the guards to take me away. Even in those moments, he did not want his grandson to have to see what had happened. That shows the humanity of the man.

Later, I saw a man with two police officers with blood on his face. At first, I did not even realize it was Jackson. In their fury, the guards had beaten Jackson and Hansen actually broke his hand beating him up. Despite his terrible injuries, the Old Man still had the presence of mind to indicate that Jackson should not be killed. He was more useful alive. He must talk.

When I saw Jackson—Mercader—he was in a very bad state, shouting and screaming hysterically. He caused a pitiful impression, more like a human dishrag than a man. When I think of the cowardly conduct of these great Stalinist “heroes,” I always mentally compare their behavior with that of the Trotskyists in Stalin’s camps, who fought and died under the bullets of the GPU shouting “Long Live Lenin and Trotsky!” and singing the Internationale. This is the difference between conscious proletarian revolutionaries and the hired gangsters of the Stalinist counterrevolution.

To the very end, the building of the revolutionary party, and a new International that would defend the priceless heritage of Marxism, Bolshevism and the October revolution, was uppermost in Trotsky’s mind. Some sentences that Trotsky made to the American comrades on the occasion of the foundation of the Fourth International come to mind:

“There was never a greater task on earth; our party requires from us that we give ourselves fully and as a whole. But in exchange it gives us the highest fulfillment, the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, and carries on one’s shoulders a particle of the hopes of humankind and that our life will not have been lived in vain.”

The entire life of the revolutionist Leon Trotsky confirms these words. A life dedicated fully to revolution, and was finally sacrificed to the cause of the revolution. One big question comes to our mind. Was it worth carrying out the great revolution of October 1917? The October revolution ended up destroyed by Stalinism which in turn saw the death of tens of millions, as well as the annihilation of the great majority of revolutionary movements, helping the survival of capitalism in its most destructive and parasitical phase.

The answer is clear; there is no doubt about it. In order to take humanity out of the hell of capitalism and bureaucratic totalitarianism; in order to arrive at a new civilization, where mankind will no longer be used as value and occupy its rightful place. To achieve this no sacrifice will be too high or wasted.

I am not an expert in religion, but I think they contain a great truth. The existence of hell. The only little mistake is about its location. It is not underground but here on the surface, under the domination of the empire of private production and capital. In this hell lives three-quarters of humanity or maybe more. All the technological and scientific advances made are used to exploit the workers and the natural resources more efficiently. The big choice is between death by hunger, and death by smart bombs.

What failed in Russia was not socialism but only a monstrous totalitarian-bureaucratic caricature of socialism. Trotsky more than anyone else understood the role of bureaucracy as a brake on the revolution. In the last part of his life, which he considered the most important, he set about the task of building a new revolutionary vanguard, as well as continuing the fight against, and to unmask, the bureaucratic regime of Stalin. His struggle made the tyrant in the Kremlin tremble because of his courage, his unswerving determination to defend the authentic traditions and ideals of October. This made the assassination of Lev Davidovich the main task of Stalin.

Stalin and his executioners have long since gone to the place where they belong—the chamber of horrors of the Nero’s and Caligula’s. The monstrous attempt of the Stalinists to extinguish the flame of world revolution, by assassinating its greatest defender, failed. Their ideas have been dumped in the refuse bin of history. But the ideas of Trotsky and of genuine Bolshevism live on and are more relevant today than ever.

I recall a comment that my grandfather made to André Malreaux when the famous French writer asked him his feelings about death. Maybe Malreaux intended to unsettle my grandfather with such a question, and that he would be lost for an answer, but if so he did not succeed. Trotsky, in a calm fashion, said that death is not a problem at all when a man has fulfilled his purpose in life. In this short answer we see the essence of Trotsky’s outlook.

It would, I think, be fitting to end this brief preface to My Life with the last sentences of Trotsky’s testament.

“For forty-three years of my conscious life I have remained a revolutionist; for forty-two of them I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again I would of course try and avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged. I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist. My faith in the communist future of mankind is not less ardent; indeed it is firmer today, than it was in the days of my youth.

“Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

[1] Trotsky’s wife and comrade.

[2] Sieva’s father and Trotsky’s son.

[3] Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and revolutionary.

[4] Lev Davidovich Bronstein, aka Leon Trotsky





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