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Dwight Macdonald

How the Spectre of Trotsky’s Ideas
Haunted the Press

(September 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 22, 9 September 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“All the principal events of his career are surrounded by an atmosphere of secrecy and furtiveness. He moved through the world subterraneously, like a mole burrowing from the sun ... Desiring the fulfillment of the Marxian dream for a proletarian dictatorship, he demanded rebellions everywhere on earth and did his best to bring them about. ‘Only this struggle,’ he insisted, ‘will bring real peace to the blood drenched world.’ But the serenity he wanted was the submission of society to a form of slavery as cruel, as any the mind can conceive ... Now he has died a martyr to the logical development of the errors he taught. But the evil that he did lives after him to the sorrow of millions.”

Thus the Washington Star paid tribute, in its way, to the greatest revolutionary of our age on the day after he was brutally murdered by a GPU pickaxe in the brain. This strange mixture of hatred, fact and nonsense is typical of all the comments in the bourgeois press on Trotsky. The editorial hacks who articulated, in the banal and vulgar phrases of daily journalism, the attitude of the American ruling class towards their fallen enemy, managed to make one thing clear; Stalin’s pickaxe removed from the world scene a leader their bosses hated and feared. The world ruling class has neither forgotten nor forgiven Leon Trotsky for expropriating their Russian colleagues.

“Died as He Lived ...”

Far from expressing the slightest human sympathy for the victim or even of indignation over the brutality of the act itself, the bourgeois press played endless variations on the theme expressed most succinctly in the Scripps-Howard press: “Trotsky, who once lived by the sword, died by the pickaxe.”

The Chicago Tribune, whose editorial writer performed the apparently impossible feat of believing both that Jackson was a factional opponent of Trotsky inside the movement and that he was also a GPU agent, put it thus: “If Trotsky dies of this, he will have died as he lived and as all the old Bolshevists died of violence or execution.” The N.Y. Times rose to fiery heights of moral indignation:

“Brutal? Of course it was; but it was no more brutal than the Stalin tyranny as a whole, no more ruthless than the Russian Revolution which this consummate firebrand in exile had himself set alight and kept aflame a generation ago. Trotsky prided himself on, being a true revolutionary who shrank at nothing. The victims of his cold cruelty, and of Lenin’s, can be numbered in the millions; the wastes of Siberia are bleached with their bones.”

“No Tears ...”

The frankest in its hatred was that most debased and rotten of warrnongering “left” papers, the Social Democrats’ New Leader, which began its editorial:

“We cannot pretend to weep any bitter tears over the death of Leon Trotsky. The shades of Russian workingmen and peasants whom in his days of glory he caused to be shot down rise between us and his bier.”

Thus the New Leader, which calls itself a “Marxist” organ – the “Marxism” of Noske and Scheidemann! The editors, in fact, went so far in their venomous slandering of Trotsky’s memory that one of their own contributors, Leon Dennen, wrote in a letter of protest.

It is plain that the ruling class, like their ally, Stalin, knows their enemy. The hypocrisy of all this moralizing over Trotsky’s revolutionary blood-letting is exposed by the fact that in the same day’s papers as announced Trotsky’s death could be read articles about women and children being blown to bits by the bombers of England and Germany. The mouthpieces of a capitalist system which for months now has been slaughtering tens of thousands of the people of Poland, England, France, Holland, Norway, Belgium, and Germany – these gentlemen still recall with horror the loss of life in the Russian revolution. The fact is that when people die in a senseless war to perpetuate the existing system of slavery and exploitation called capitalism, their deaths arouse no horror in the breast of editorial writers since such human sacrifices are necessary to maintain “law and order”. But when a revolutionary leader sheds blood to bring a better world into being, he is attacking “law and order” and those who die in the revolution are victims of cruel massacre.

The Left-Wing Press

Finally, a few words on what is generally referred to as the left-wing press. (I exclude, of course, the Trotskyist press – Labor Action and the Socialist Appeal.) Workers Age, organ of the Lovestone groups, and the Weekly People, organ of the Socialist Labor Party, are the only papers I have seen which expressed real regret at Trotsky’s death and some sense of his historical greatness as a revolutionist. A section of the Weekly People’s revolutionary tribute is printed elsewhere in this issue. The Socialist Call was very characteristically cautious and lukewarm. committing itself no farther than to note that Stalin had made Trotsky “the last great martyr of the Russian Revolution”. The Nation printed a remarkably sympathetic editorial – perhaps to make up for an earlier article by one Harry Block which implied that the first murder attempt this spring was a fake arranged by Trotsky. The Nation even went so far as to argue that Trotsky would have run the Soviet Union more humanely and intelligently than Stalin has, which is a really amazing thing to read in those pages after the treatment of Trotsky at the time of the Moscow Trials. The New Republic, on the other hand, which has been in the last year much more Stalinized than the Nation, printed an extremely vulgar and malicious editorial note on Trotsky, probably from the pen of Malcolm Cowley. The Stalinist press at first tried to ignore the killing entirely. The only daily paper in New York not to mention the attack within twenty-four hours of its occurrence was the Daily Worker. After Trotsky had died, the Worker ran a front-page news story headed “FOLLOWER OF TROTZKY TELLS MOTIVES IN ASSASSINATION”, as well as a lead editorial which began: “Leon Trotzky died at the hands of one of that small gang of dubious social elements and provocateurs who alone remained for him to lead after he had long been exposed as an enemy of the working class.” The rest of the editorial was in this vein, an inchoate mass of garbled facts, rumors, slanders and abuse from the gutter. And the masses in Soviet Russia learned of Trotsky’s death from a notice exactly seven lines long in the official press.

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