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Books in Review

Anatomy of Murder

(September 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 5, September–October 1950, pp. 315–317.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Murder in Mexico
Salazar and Gorkin
Secker and Warburg, London, 1950. $2.50.

Ten years after the assassination of Trotsky an account of that tragic event written by Leandro A. Sanchez Salazar in collaboration with Julian Gorkin has finally appeared in English. Salazar was the Mexican police officer in charge of the investigation of the two attempts upon Trotsky’s life, Gorkin is a former leader of the POUM.

The belated appearance of the book is political in origin.

“Circumstances due to the war have delayed the publication of this book for several years,” says Gorkin. “We were in the course of preparing it when the rupture of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the invasion of Russia by the German Army occurred. Stalin thus became, in spite of himself, an ally of the democratic governments, and Russia one of the principal factors in the fight against Nazi militarism. I was given to understand by those in high places that the publication of the book was not opportune.”

It is a useful, small reminder of the role played by the democratic capitalist countries in creating the Stalinist monster.

The book is the story of the police investigations into the two attempts made upon Trotsky’s life in 1940 – the first one led by the Stalinist painter and GPU agent Siqueiros, and the second by Jacson, which ended in Trotsky’s death.

With one major and one minor exception there is little new material in the book. The major exception consists of the facts adduced to argue the theory that Robert Sheldon Harte, believed by Trotsky to have been a loyal secretary and guard, was in reality a GPU agent. The evidence is impressive. The minor exception is the almost certain establishment of the identity of Jacson. He is believed to be the son of Caridad Mercader, a woman born in Catalonia but who has lived for extended periods in France, Belgium, and Russia. She has involved almost her whole family in GPU work. (See Serge diary in this issue. – Ed.)

The book is valuable in revealing the nature and extent of the power of the GPU and of its control of the world communist parties. If there could have been legitimate doubt in the radical movements in 1940, the ten years that have elapsed since the assassination of Trotsky have depressingly confirmed what our tendency contended in 1940: that what apparently remained of proletarian policy in the actions of the Kremlin was, in the context of the whole, solely demagogy serving the interests of the Russian bureaucracy, which increasingly achieved its external ends by military violence and preserves them internally by the violence of the GPU. In retrospect the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Trotsky take on a more typical character than many in the revolutionary movement may have been inclined to accept at the time.

Gorkin pointedly describes the emergence of the new, automaton type in the Stalinist epoch, a type which is created all over the world wherever Stalinism gains a foothold:

“Such men are explosives in human form – explosives more terrible than those which were discovered during the last war, for they pass for human beings and are quite unsuspected by the rest of the world. They form, in any case, the most dangerous political arm of which Moscow disposes in this tragic epoch. They are the messengers of death, as mysterious and as threatening as death itself. The victim is pointed out to them and they fall upon him. Humanity will be threatened as long as such men exist, blind agents of a power and organization which can dispose as it pleases of all which life and death hold most sacked. The future of man is threatened. And moral values, dignity, truth, right, justice, freedom – simple bourgeois prejudices, according to Stalinism – all are threatened. It is not a question of simple intellectual juggling or flights of fancy, but one of the most tragic realities of our time.

“Such types, with one degree of variation or another, occupied numerous posts in the Mexican government and actively participated in the attempts against Trotsky. They hid Siqueiros from the law, others were approached for police uniforms to use in the first assassination attempt, the secretary of the penitentiary was a Stalinist. Members of the Chilean diplomatic staff were Stalinists – and eventually got Siqueiros scot-free out of Mexico. Members of the Mexican CP did everything including prostituting themselves in the literal sense in closing the trap on Trotsky. And nine-tenths of it was done in the name of a social myth – Russia, the Workers’ State.”

The assassination of Trotsky was possible because the resources of a whole state were brought to bear upon him. Gorkin estimates that the assassination ultimately cost $600,000 – a price which Stalin assuredly considers a cheap one. Yet, for all of this, it was crudely done and crudely motivated. The only interesting element, in one respect, is that the Stalinist versions of the murder could be so easily imposed upon the followers of the CP and upon others not politically committed.

One of the most chilling scenes – for this reviewer, at least – concerns the preparations for the first murder attempt when Siqueiros’ gunmen were trying on the uniforms which helped gain them entry into the Trotsky household. One of the participants is talking:

“‘On Siqueiros’ orders, we tried on the uniforms. The one intended for me fitted me very well. Pujol put on an Army lieutenant’s uniform, the others policemen’s uniforms. We laughed and joked as though it were a feast day ...

“‘Towards two o’clock Siqueiros came back wearing a major’s military uniform; he did not tell us where he had put it on and we did not ask him. He wore a raincoat, glasses and a false mustache. We greeted him with great bursts of laughter. Turning around a little he asked us: “How does it suit me?” We replied in chorus: “Very well.” Then we went out into the street, in uniform and well-armed.’”

The attempted machine-gunning of one of the most gifted men of our times followed in a few minutes.

The story, of course, is an unfinished one. Among other things, the threads which lead to New York, to Europe, and to Russia have yet remained to be traced. It would indeed be interesting to know the full story of the activities of GPU bodies like Jack Stachel, Alex Bittelman, Eugene Dennis, and several score others, including the reprehensible Earl Browder and the sanctimonious Louis Budenz.

Yet out of this bloody tale of the actions of debased men and women emerges an intimation of the glory and promise of 1917 – of Trotsky, master of the political moment to the very end, and of Natalia, his selfless wife and co-thinker. Her statement describing the day of the assassination, which forms a chapter of the book, is an almost unbearably moving document. We can only hope that she will commit her memoirs to paper. They would form an irreplaceable record of one of the most ennobling and tragic events in modern history – the rise and decline of the revolutionary socialist movement in Russia.

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