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21 August 1940 Mexico’s most famous murder

21 August 2008

Leon Trotsky had a more important role in Mexican history than just being the country’s most famous foreign murder victim.

People are apt to forget that the Mexican Revolution preceded the Russian one and the original Soviet Constitution was strongly influenced by the Mexican Constitution of 1917.   This isn’t the place to get into the theories of Communism (if anyone is still following them for more than historical interest) but for those who claim the Mexican Revolution was a “failure” because it didn’t follow the prescriptions laid out for these events in European political theory, a good portion of at least one European’s theories (those of Leon Trotsky) were incorporated into the Mexican system, though in a less-than-doctrinaire fashion.  Trotky’s idea of state control through a party of competing factions and unions; and that could, when necessary, co-opt, or cooperate with “class enemies” (famously, Trotsky suggested the Communists work with the Catholic Church to counter the Nazis) worked pretty well in Mexico. The Revolutionary (and later Institutional Revolutionary) Party ran the country longer than the Stalinists ran the Soviet Union (and outlasted the Soviet Union) and the Mexican Communist Party.

Not that Trotsky “influenced” Mexican thinking (Mexican politics has always been about building stategic alliances and achieving concensus), just that it fits more easily into Mexican political thinking.  “If the Mexican left looks for foreign validation, they are more likely to describe themselves as “Trotkyites” than Stalinists… or even Communists.

There’s one theory that Trotsky lost out to Stalin in 1923 (after Lenin died) because Trotsky was attempting to neutralize the opposition politically and Stalin to permanently liquidate them.  Or, as Trotky put it in his 1935 “Diary of Exile”:

Stalin conducts a struggle on a totally different plane.  He seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent, but at his skull.

Was Leon psychic?   Lynn Walsh’s “The Assassination of Trotsky” — with only a minimum of Socialist jargon (originally published in Socialism Today # 49, (July 2000 ) — tells the story of how Stalin managed to do just that… in Coyocan in August 1940:

Raymond Mercader, who was living under the pseudonym Jacques Mornard… had joined the Communist Party in Spain, and became active in its ranks in the period 1933-36 when it was already a Stalinised party. Probably through his mother, Caridad Mercader, who was already a GPU agent and associated with Eitingon, Mercader too entered the service of the GPU. After the defeat of the Spanish republic, aided by Stalin’s sabotage of the revolution in Spain, Mercader went to Moscow where he was prepared for his future role. After meeting Ageloff in Paris in 1938 he later accompanied her to Mexico in January 1940 and gradually ingratiated himself with members of Trotsky’s household.

After gaining the acceptance of Trotsky’s household, Mornard arranged to meet with Trotsky personally on the pretext of discussing an article that he had written – which Trotsky considered to an embarrassing degree banal and devoid of interest. The first meeting was clearly a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the actual assassination.

The next time he came was on the morning of 20 August. Despite the misgivings of Natalia and Trotsky’s guards, Mornard was again allowed to see Trotsky alone – “three or four minutes went by”, Natalia relates. “I was in the room next door. There was a terrible piercing cry… Lev Davidovich appeared, leaning against the door frame. His face was covered with blood, his blue eyes glistening without spectacles and his arms hung limply by his side…” Mornard had struck Trotsky a fatal blow in the back of the head with a cut-down ice axe concealed in his raincoat. But the blow was not immediately lethal; Trotsky “screamed very long, infinitely long”, as Mercader himself put it – and courageously grappled with his assassin, preventing further blows.

“The doctor declared that the injury was not very serious”, says Natalia. “Lev Davidovich listened to him without emotion, as one would a conventional message of comfort. Pointing to his heart, he said, ‘I feel… here… that this is the end… this time… they’ve succeeded'”. (Life and Death of Leon Trotsky, p268 )

Trotsky was taken to hospital, operated on, and survived for more than a day after that, dying at the age of 62 on 21 August 1940.

Mercader seems to have hoped that, after Siqueiros’ lenient treatment, he too might get a light sentence. But he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, which he served. However, even after his identity had been firmly established by fingerprints and other evidence, he refused to admit who he was or who had ordered him to murder Trotsky. Although the crime was almost universally attributed to Stalin and the GPU, the Stalinists brazenly denied all responsibility. There is ample evidence, however, that Mercader’s mother, who escaped from Mexico with Eitingon, was presented to Stalin and decorated with a high bureaucratic honour for her son and herself. Mercader himself was honoured when he returned to Eastern Europe after his release. In spite of his silence, a chain of evidence, which can now be constructed from the elaborate testimony of Russian spies brought to trial in the USA, top GPU agents who defected to Western countries at various times, and the belated memoirs of the Stalinist leaders themselves, clearly link Mercader to Stalin’s secret terror machine based in Moscow.

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