Michel Pablo

Twenty Years of the Fourth International

(A History of Its Ideas and Its Struggles)


From Fourth International (Paris), No. 3, Summer 1958, pp. 33–40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

From the Outbreak of the War (September 1939)
to the Assassination of Leon Trotsky (August 1940)

Divergences in the International

The declaration of war and the new crimes and betrayals of Stalinism subjected the International to enormous pressure and to a decisive test. Would it capitulate in its turn to social-patriotism or to anti-Soviet hysteria? Would it change course by reversing its fundamental positions about the war, the USSR, and Stalinism?

The quality of a revolutionary movement is tested by the most decisive events of history, wars and revolutions, which raise class tensions to the pitch of paroxysm, With the declaration of war, the Fourth International began to live in a growing isolation – as it had foreseen – from mass trends. News arriving about the activities of the sections indicated an almost desperate struggle against the stream, and reflected the first measures of repression taken precisely against the revolutionary Marxists who were fighting against the imperialist war. In September 1939, the Belgian police arrested Walter Dauge, secretary of the Parti Socialiste Revolutionnaire, the organization of the Fourth International, for his activity against the war.

In Canada the Trotskyist militant Frank Watson experienced the same fate, as well as several militants in France.

The declarations of the organizations of the Fourth International against the deepening imperialist war, appealing to the proletariat to take action, were multiplied: in Belgium, France, Greece, Denmark, England, Canada, Australia, the United States, China, and in several countries of Latin America. At the same time, while criticizing Stalin’s action, the organizations of the Fourth International energetically made a distinction between the Kremlin, political representative of the bureaucracy, and the USSR as a social state; they stood up against the anti-Soviet hysteria encouraged by Stalin’s crimes and called for the unconditional defense of the USSR against imperialist plots. With courage, lucidity, and cool heads, the Fourth International fought on every front to defend its line, that of revolutionary Marxism applied to a given situation. It was a splendid struggle, carried on by forces which, though limited, saved the honor of the revolutionary proletarian movement and prepared with absolute confidence for the future. The Fourth International, however, forms an integral part of the social context, and the pressures that were being exercised on the working class also ran through its own ranks, though in an inevitably deformed way. A serious ideological struggle soon took place in its ranks, centred around its policy toward the war, and more particularly toward the USSR. The centre of this struggle was the Socialist Workers Party, the Trotskyist organization in the United States, the country which, by the evolution of circumstances, was at the heart of the resistance against the fascist countries and which encouraged and was soon to lead the camp of the “democracies.”

It is not by accident, furthermore, that the divergences crystalized around the question of the USSR and Stalinism. This question had occupied a key place, a central place, in the ideological formation of our movement, whose origins go back to the struggle following Lenin’s death inside the CP of the USSR and the Third International against the rising Stalinist bureaucracy. Furthermore, the years 1936–1939 marked the Peak of Stalinist Thermidorian reaction: the Moscow Trials; the defeat of the Spanish revolution; the reactionary reversal of the situation in France; the Hitler-Stalin Pact; the unleashing of the war; the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland, In face of such a development in the situation, it was almost inevitable that voices, even within our own ranks, should rise up to cast doubt on our positions about the USSR and Stalinism. The revisionist trend, of which there had already been some manifestations before the outbreak of the war, was taking root in the specific context of the evolution of Stalinism and the international situation. It took on its most highly developed expression within the American organization, which played, beginning with the formation of the Fourth International and up to the end of the war, a central role in the life of the International. This is explained both by the fact that it happened to be located outside the zone of military operations and Stalinist repression, and by the importance of its human and material means.

Between August 1939 and April 1940 there occurred within the SWP an important ideological struggle which had consequences in the entire International and which in every way raised basic questions on the theoretical and political as well as on the organizational plane for the whole of our movement. The results of this struggle were later incorporated in a durable and organic way in the formation and development of the Fourth International – whence the need to insist upon it in a more detailed way. The divergences which had been for some time ripening within the SWP leadership burst out on the occasion of the signature of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 22 August 1939. The very day the pact was signed, Max Shachtman, at that period one of the leaders of the SWP, declared: “The next meeting of the Political Bureau [of the SWP] must begin with a discussion of our evaluation of the Hitler-Stalin Pact with regard to our characterization of the Soviet state and future perspectives.” On 5 September 1939, James Burnham, another leader of the SWP at that period, submitted to the Central Committee a document on “the character of the war,” in which he brought into question the evaluation of the USSR as a workers’ state “in any sense whatever.”

Burnham considered that the involvement of the USSR in the imperialist war would not create any distinction concerning the particular case of the USSR, and declared himself to be opposed to its unconditional defense, i.e., independently of this or that policy of the Kremlin, of Stalin.

From then on, the struggle in the SWP was opened up. Leon Trotsky soon (25 September 1939) replied to Burnham’s document by his article, The USSR in the War, whose importance in the ideological history of our movement could not be minimized even today. From the theoretical and political point of view, the struggle against the Shachtman-Burnham revisionist tendency was carried on almost exclusively by Leon Trotsky, who found the occasion to reaffirm and deepen his former conceptions about the USSR and Stalinism. [1] His behavior in the course of this struggle, furthermore, is highly interesting from the viewpoint of the conceptions he developed concerning the way of treating divergences in an organization of our movement and on the organizational level, properly speaking – hence the need to draw all the lessons from this experience, which is among the most important and richest in the history of the Fourth International.

On the theoretical and political plane, the ideological struggle inside the SWP quickly raised all the most fundamental questions: the dialectical materialist essence of Marxism’s method of analysis; the character of the social regime of the USSR; the character of the period; perspectives.

The Method of Marxism

In a given political context, characterized by the outbreak of an imperialist war in which the USSR would soon be involved, in alliance with Hitler or, once more, with the “democracies,” it was a question of grasping once again the social character of the USSR and of determining the line and the tasks of the revolutionary proletariat toward both the war and the USSR. How to proceed in this difficult and complicated matter? with what criteria? with what method? The discussion quickly turned on the bases, the structure, and the functioning of the analysis itself. Was it possible, in defining the special character of the USSR, to start out from the “concrete political questions” of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, of the invasion of Poland or of Finland by the Kremlin, political acts carried out in a style related to that of fascism and imperialism? Or was it necessary rather to start out from class criteria, from the class definition of political phenomena, so as to arrive at valid conclusions?

Let us take for example the war question. War is a political phenomenon, a function and not a characteristic constitutive organ of society. To understand war, its “just” or “unjust,” progressive or reactionary, character, and to define a correct line toward this political phenomenon, one must start out from, not the function, but the state and the society of which it is a function. In other terms, a far-reaching class analysis is needed in order to determine the character of this or that war.

At the given conjuncture of the period, only such a dialectical materialist method could permit of getting away from the dangers of pragmatism and eclecticism and taking a correct position toward the war carried on by the “democratic” allies and their fascist adversaries, toward the “defense” of Finland, toward the USSR’s “aggression” against it, toward the resistance of the colonies against the homelands. In what case was it a question of an imperialist war, of an “unjust war,” and in what case was it a question of a “just war”? By starting out only from the “concrete facts,” from the “circumstances,” from the forms of the war, it was easy to end up for example by endorsing the cause of the “democracies” against fascism, or of the “defense” of “poor little Finland” against the “aggression” of the USSR. But the conclusions might be quite different if one looked upon the war as a political phenomenon, as a function of states and societies of a different class character.

The first way of proceeding was that of Burnham, an open adversary of the dialectic, and of Shachtman. The second was that of Leon Trotsky. In a famous passage of his article, From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene (24 January 1940), Trotsky defined in an epigrammatic way the divergences about the conception of method. Here is the passage:

In Marxist sociology the initial point of analysis is the class definition of a given phenomenon, e.g., state, party, philosophic trend, literary school, etc. In most cases, however, the mere class definition is inadequate, for a class consists of different strata, passes through different stages of development, comes under different conditions, is subjected to the influence of other classes. It becomes necessary to bring up these second and third rate factors in order to round out the analysis, and they are taken either partially or completely, depending upon the specific aim. But for a Marxist, analysis is impossible without a class characterization of the phenomenon under consideration.

The skeletal and muscular systems do not exhaust the anatomy of an animal; nevertheless an anatomical treatise which attempted to “abstract” itself from bones and muscles would dangle in midair. War is not an organ but a function of society, i.e., of its ruling class. It is impossible to define and study a function without understanding the organ, i.e., the state; it is impossible to gain scientific understanding of the organ without understanding the general structure of the organism, i.e., society. The bones and muscles of society consist of the productive forces and the class (property) relations. Shachtman holds it possible that a function, namely, war, can be studied “concretely” independently of the organ to which it pertains, i.e., the state. Isn’t this monstrous?

This fundamental error is supplemented by another equally glaring. After splitting function away from organ, Shachtman in studying the function itself, contrary to all his promises, proceeds not from the abstract to the concrete but on the contrary dissolves the concrete in the abstract. Imperialist war is one of the functions of finance capital, i.e., the bourgeoisie at a certain stage of development resting upon capitalism of a specific structure, namely, monopoly capital. This definition is sufficiently concrete for our basic political conclusions. But by extending the term imperialist war to cover the Soviet state too, Shachtman cuts the ground away from under his own feet. In order to reach even a superficial justification for applying one and the same designation to the expansion of finance capital and the expansion of the workers’ state, Shachtman is compelled to detach himself from the social structure of both states altogether by proclaiming it to be – an abstraction. Thus playing hide and seek with Marxism, Shachtman labels the concrete as abstract and palms off the abstract as concrete!

The Social Character of the USSR

The question of method, once settled, naturally does not give a master-key for solving the problems raised by the war and the behavior of the Kremlin. For even while admitting that the character of the war must in the final analysis be determined by the social character of the state and the society that wage it, that does not solve the problem of grasping whether the USSR might be considered a workers’ state, even a degenerated one. And even though Shachtman in particular did not dare to bring directly into question, during the August 1939 – April 1940 discussion, the Fourth International’s position on the social character of the USSR [2], this question in reality lay behind the whole discussion and determined the positions of the revisionist tendency.

During this discussion Trotsky was led to specify, for a last time, almost on the eve of his death, the organic whole of the reasons which justify the Fourth International’s position on the social character of the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state. Here is an example of applying the dialectical materialist methodology of Marxism to a given social phenomenon, grasped in its history, its birth, its evolution, its contradictions, its perspectives, i.e., grasped in its concrete dialectical totality.

Those who – like the Burnham-Shachtman revisionist tendency during the struggle within the SWP – have struggled or are still struggling against the definition given by the Fourth International to the social character of the USSR generally err by pragmatism or eclecticism or by a combination of both, by attacking this or that separate aspect of the conception of our definition of the USSR and showing themselves unable to grasp it, we repeat, in its concrete dialectical entirety.

To understand the USSR and its definition, there must be taken into account: its birth, through a proletarian revolution that overturned old property relations and installed new relations based on a statified and planified. economy; its evolution, always on the basis of these relations, despite the expropriation from government and political power that the proletariat had undergone in the meantime, and consequently despite the contradiction set up between production relations, fruits of the Revolution, and political power in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy; and its historic perspectives, as a transitional formation set in the dynamic of our period, which is that of the irresistible and irreversible development of the world revolution, destined to put an end to the isolation of the USSR within what is historically a relatively brief time.

The revolutionary birth of the USSR is important as an argument against those who pretend to forget or want to forget that the new property relations established in the USSR (statified and planified economy) are not the attribute of a sort of peaceful and organic evolution of capitalism toward a “state capitalism” or a “bureaucratic collectivism,” but the result of the struggle of concrete social forces, a struggle culminating in the proletarian revolution. That is to say that these relations prove to be the fruit of a proletarian revolution, without which it is practically impossible to arrive at such relations.

In practice, furthermore, in the concrete historic case in which the proletarian revolution is developed by means of nationally limited victories, beginning by backward countries on the periphery of the capitalist system, the beginning also of the socialist reconstruction of society must inevitably pass through the establishment of such relations. History has given no proof that it is possible to proceed otherwise, through other relations.

This last argument is of value against those who, for example, while assigning primacy to the character of the political power, minimize the importance of production relations as the decisive criterion for characterizing the social nature of a regime.

Since the proletariat in the USSR has been expropriated from political power, which is held by a privileged bureaucracy, reason the adepts of “state capitalism” or “bureaucratic collectivism,” production relations are not sufficient to characterize the USSR as a workers’ state, even a degenerated one.

Let us recognize first of all that these relations are those by which the reconstruction of the society that follows the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, of imperialism, in a given country, inevitably begins. That is a historical fact. Another historical fact, already proved by an experience of some 40 years, is that these relations constitute an immense progress over capitalism from the viewpoint of the development of productive forces. This aspect of the question has long remained covered up by the enormous difficulties that the USSR, which was among the most backward countries in the world, had to overcome before laying the foundations for a modern economy, and by the monstrous errors and deformations arising from Stalinist administration.

Despite that, the new property relations have successfully passed all the tests of isolation and war, have grown stronger, and are at present expanding with a rapidity, a strength, and a brilliance, which in the coming years will toll the knell of capitalism, including on the economic plane.

But can one not conceive, on the basis of these relations, of the consolidation of an intermediate social regime, for example, between capitalism and socialism, not foreseen by the classics of Marxism? To this question also the only satisfying answer is that which Leon Trotsky gave at the time of the struggle inside the SWP. Writing to James Cannon on September 12th 1939, he specified:

The USSR question cannot be isolated as unique from the whole historic process of our times. Either the Stalin state is a transitory formation, it is a deformation of a worker state in a backward and isolated country, or “bureaucratic collectivism” (Bruno R., La Bureaucratisation du Monde, Paris 1939) is a new social formation which is replacing capitalism throughout the world (Stalinism, Fascism, New Deal, etc.). The terminological experiments (workers’ state, not workers’ state; class, not class; etc.) receive a sense only under this historic aspect. Who chooses the second alternative admits, openly or silently, that all the revolutionary potentialities of the world proletariat are exhausted, that the socialist movement is bankrupt, and that the old capitalism is transforming itself into “bureaucratic collectivism” with a new exploiting class.

The tremendous importance of such a conclusion is self-explanatory. It concerns the whole fate of the world proletariat and mankind. Have we the slightest right to induce ourselves by purely terminological experiments in a new historic conception which occurs to be in an absolute contradiction with our program, strategy and tactics? Such an adventuristic jump would be doubly criminal now in view of the world war when the perspective of the socialist revolution becomes an imminent reality and when the case of the USSR will appear to everybody as a transitorial episode in the process of world socialist revolution.

In his writings against the revisionist tendency, Trotsky found the occasion for a broad development of this argumentation, obviously of extreme importance. The events of the war and later developments only justified the general significance of this argumentation. The war ended, not with a decline of the proletariat and of the revolution, but with the opening of a long revolutionary period, in which the relationship of forces between capitalism and the revolution changed, and in which also the relationship of forces between the bureaucracy and the proletariat is more and more changing in the latter’s favor.

That is the general meaning of events both in the capitalist world and in the USSR and the “people’s democracies.”

It is true that this whole process has taken and is still taking the most sinuous and complicated forms, as well as a longer time than that foreseen by Leon Trotsky. It could hardly be otherwise, given the depth and breadth of the overturns that have occurred in the world situation since the outbreak of the war, the multitude and complexity of the factors involved therein, factors themselves modified in the course of events. But the general line of developments is following the perspective sketched by Leon Trotsky, and fully justifies his revolutionary optimism.

On the scale of history, the time elapsed since then is still only a moment, which has yet been filled with tremendous revolutionary gains, and which stores up a revolutionary dynamism destined to shake “heaven and earth” from top to bottom.

The Soviet Bureaucracy and the “Unconditional” Defense of the USSR

The problem of the class nature of the USSR is obviously connected with that of the class nature of the Soviet bureaucracy which assumes political power in the USSR. A new social class or a parasitical and temporary social caste? – that is the whole question, and not only from a purely terminological point of view.

Leon Trotsky tried to clarify it, at the time of the struggle within the SWP, from a scientific and political point of view. Once more he analyzed the formation of the Soviet bureaucracy historically, noting that it was a question of a social stratum in evolution, not yet having reached stable forms. He posed the question in these terms: “does the bureaucracy represent a temporary growth on a social organism or has this growth already become transformed into an historically indispensable organ?” [3]

The convulsions, the permanent crisis, in which the Soviet bureaucracy keeps Soviet society, demonstrate that this organ, before stabilizing itself and becoming historically necessary, has in reality entered into a deep contradiction with the interests, the aspirations, and the needs of that society. From this viewpoint it appears to be rather a temporary parasitical excrescence than a stable class having a historic function to fulfil.

As was the case with the class nature of the USSR as a state, so with the class nature of the Soviet bureaucracy, the definitive answer can be found only by adopting a historical perspective. If the proletariat should in the long run show itself unable to take political power in the USSR back into its own hands, and if in the advanced countries the revolution should also end up with the abdication of proletarian power to the profit of that of the bureaucracy, it would be necessary to conclude that capitalism would be followed internationally by a new social regime of exploitation assumed by the bureaucratic class (and not caste), as it is currently being formed in the USSR. A few decades, however, do not constitute a historically conclusive experience – all the more so in that there is still no valid reason to suppose that the international proletariat has exhausted its revolutionary capacities, or that the regime of the Soviet bureaucracy has been able to achieve a lasting stabilization. All post-war experience is there to demonstrate the contrary, the world as a whole having entered into a stage, of deep revolutionary transformations, the most dynamic and radical in the whole history of humanity. How, under these conditions, can conclusions be drawn about processes in full development? The most controverted point of this class analysis of the USSR and the Soviet bureaucracy in reality was – and in one sense still remains – the “unconditional” defense of the USSR, i.e. the defense of the basic social and economic structures of the USSR against imperialism and internal reaction, independently of this or that policy of the Kremlin, of the political leadership of the Soviet bureaucracy. That is a key position of our movement, which has distinguished us from all the other currents of the communist movement and which we have maintained inflexibly throughout the worst difficulties.

The “unconditional” defense of the USSR is not a slogan, but a political line subordinated to the defense of the interests of the world revolution. The confusion that exists around this question arises from the confusion about the methods and means of this “defense.” This nowise means any embellishing of the Kremlin bureaucracy, or any rapprochement with it, acceptance of its policy, or conciliation with the policy of its bourgeois or other allies.

The defense of the USSR coincides for us with the preparation of world revolution. Only those methods are permissible which do not conflict with the interests of the revolution. The defense of the USSR is related to the world socialist revolution as a tactical task is related to a strategic one. [4]

The defense of the USSR – as, now, of the other workers’ states – takes on meaning in case of an attack by imperialism or native reactionary forces, or of a war involving workers’ states and capitalist states. In such cases our movement, independently of this or that policy of the Kremlin, would stand for and put into practice revolutionary defeatism in the capitalist camp, but would be for a sort of united front with the leadership of the workers’ state against imperialism. In no case would we write an equal-sign between a capitalist state and a workers’ state, or adopt an equally “neutral” line toward both, or leave to imperialism the task of overthrowing the bureaucracy.

Naturally, even in such an extreme case, our movement would not abandon its revolutionary propaganda against the political regime of the bureaucracy, preparing for its overthrow, but, for the “next immediate period,” subordinated to the interests of the immediate military fight in common against imperialism. The complexity of such a line, which remains to be concretely defined in each case, is caused by the complex and contradictory dialectical nature of the USSR and the bureaucracy. Questions which history has made complex cannot be solved by simplistic formulae, without thereby falling into a pragmatism that imperceptibly carries us far from a correct class line. The experience of both the “neutralists” toward both camps and the adepts of the “third camp,” has clearly demonstrated their practical and objective slide into one single “camp,” that of imperialism.

How to Handle Divergences Within the Proletarian Party?

The struggle carried on by Leon Trotsky against the revisionist tendency within the SWP and the International possesses even today another important aspect for us: that concerning the way of handling divergences arising within a section of the International. There is, first of all, the need to allow to tendencies that may arise the possibility of expressing clearly and freely, in writing, in documents, their exact political positions, without hasty characterizations of their possible class nature, and without organizational restrictions or threats.

The ideological struggle, however implacably it must be waged on the strictly theoretical and political plane, must at the same time be paralleled by “very cautious and wise organizational tactics.” [5]

Majority and minority must accept free political discussion and the verdict of a democratic-centralist organization.

After several months of discussion, Trotsky had reached the conclusion that the revisionist tendency within the SWP had strong petty-bourgeois characteristics. But he hastened to add that these characteristics were neither the only traits of this tendency nor definitively crystalized. In another conjuncture this tendency might possibly put forward other characteristics.

There is no fatal predestination in political struggles, which develop in a moving social and political context, in which the subjective factor, the maturity, the efforts, and the tact of the truly revolutionary Marxist tendency can have much influence on the final result. Trotsky raised the question whether the then dominant petty-bourgeois character of the revisionist tendency excluded their living together in the same organization with the “proletarian” tendency. He answered his own question in the negative, and he even considered the possibility of the “proletarian” tendency’s being a minority and remaining disciplined within an organization led by the revisionist tendency. He naturally foresaw that such an eventuality would in any case have only a provisional character, but one that would permit a better political clarification.

In order to avoid a split, Trotsky went to the length even of accepting the publication of the internal discussion documents before the general public. Trotsky’s organizational flexibility, however, was not sufficient to outweigh the centrifugal forces that were precipitating the revisionist tendency outside the Fourth International.

The national conference of the SWP, held from 5 to 9 April 1940, after an ample and democratic discussion of several months’ duration and the publication of some 13 internal bulletins, ended in a factual split, the revisionist tendency categorically rejecting the democratic-centralist functioning of the organization.

Trotsky drew the final political conclusions from the split that occurred in the SWP in his 23 April 1940 article titled Petty-Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party. He noted therein that the revisionist minority, despite the serious organizational concessions granted it by the majority, wanted to break the democratic-centralist framework that characterizes every revolutionary proletarian organization. The minority, an intellectual “aristocracy,” felt that it was rendered inferior in a proletarian organization that it did not lead. But the basis for this capricious, undisciplined, and irresponsible attitude was obviously to be found elsewhere. Trotsky wrote:

The petty-bourgeois minority of the SWP split from the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism. Burnham proclaimed dialectical materialism to be incompatible with his moth-eaten “science.” Shachtman proclaimed revolutionary Marxism to be of no moment from the standpoint of “practical tasks.”

The minority grouped itself under the banner of the “third camp.” “What is this animal?” Trotsky ironically asked. “There is the camp of capitalism; there is the camp of the proletariat. But is there perhaps a ‘third camp’ – a petty-bourgeois sanctuary?” “Advanced workers!” Trotsky concluded. “Not one cent’s worth of confidence in the ‘third front’ of the petty bourgeoisie!”

Scarcely a month after the split, James Burnham, co-leader with Max Shachtman of the revisionist tendency, abandoned that tendency as well, his ideas having already developed toward those contained in his well-known book, The Managerial Revolution which appeared a few months later.

Shachtman in his turn soon adopted Burnham’s thesis on the USSR as a “bureaucratic collectivist” state, neither capitalist nor proletarian, and naturally gave up the “unconditional” defense of that state, already involved in the war.

The split in the SWP was followed by a split, although a very small one, in the International, where a series of elements like Lebrun, Johnson, Trent, and Anton, who had seats on the International Executive Committee, had in reality adopted the political and organizational positions of Shachtman.

The Assassination of Leon Trotsky

Scarcely had the struggle within the SWP and the International been closed than a fateful date approached: that of the assassination of Leon Trotsky by the agents of Stalin. As Victor Serge wrote quite correctly:

Beginning with the Moscow Trials, the assassination of Leon Trotsky became both a political and a logical necessity. It is of no use to shoot tens of thousands of men if the loftiest head of the revolutionary generation, the one that it will be impossible to strike out of history, freely survives.

And it is obvious that against Trotsky, denounced as the most diabolical character in history, anything is permitted in the eyes of the Russian world poisoned by the frame-up trials.

It was the declaration of World War II and the prospect that the USSR would be involved in the conflict that speeded up Trotsky’s assassination. The frantic campaign of the Mexican Communist Party against Trotsky’s presence in Mexico was preparing the ground. In March 1940 the Hernan Laborde leadership of the Mexican CP, accused of being “pro-Trotskyist,” (!) was purged by the GPU, and the campaign against the right of asylum and against Lazaro Cardenas, President of Mexico, Trotsky’s “protector,” redoubled in violence.

In May 1940 Trotsky’s fortified house at Coyoacan, in the suburbs of the capital, was attacked by 20 Stalinists armed with machine-guns, who had succeeded in tying up the police who were guarding the house, and in carrying off Trotsky’s bodyguard, Robert Sheldon Harte, a young American militant of the SWP. [6] Comrade Natalia Trotsky relates:

They had fired on us, in our bedroom, sixty bullets in cross-fire aimed from four different directions. It was precisely this excess in machine-gunning that saved us. The killers had no doubts about getting us by these combined salvos, and they were afraid of killing one another. [7]

The Mexican police soon got their hands on several of the organizers and executants of the attack, all members and sympathizers of the Mexican Communist Party. But those who were principally responsible, foreign agents of the GPU, remained in the shadows. Trotsky engaged in great activity to denounce Stalin’s role in the outrage and to unmask in the eyes of international public opninion the way the GPU functioned inside each Communist Party, prepared and introduced its crimes. He was convinced, furthermore, that there would soon be a new attempt to assassinate him, Stalin having decided on his death.

In his 8 June 1940 article, Stalin Seeks My Death, he wrote with cool lucidity:

The accidental failure of the assault so carefully and so ably prepared is a serious blow to Stalin. The GPU must rehabilitate itself with Stalin. Stalin must demonstrate his power. A repetition of the attempt is inevitable.

Indeed, his physical extermination had for a very long time already become an imperious necessity for Stalin. Trotsky knew that he was condemned and destined to die from one day to another, for the immense means at Stalin’s disposal must in the long run prove more powerful than whatever measure of protection taken by himself and his friends. Reasoning with his usual serenity, he concluded in this same article: “I can therefore say that I live on this earth not in accordance with the rule, but as an exception to the rule.”

The new attack, this time fatal, occurred during the day of 20 August 1940. Leon Trotsky got up that day in excellent humor, Natalia Trotsky relates. “A double dose of barbiturates had assured him of a sleep that had done him good. Not for many days . had he felt so alert. ‘Ah, I’m going to work well,’ he said.”

Toward five o’clock that afternoon he received in his study one Jacson Mornard, a self-styled Belgian, son of a diplomat, who had been introduced into the circles of several close friends of Leon Trotsky by Sylvia Ageloff, a member of the American Trotskyist organization. Jacson Mornard, who had succeeded in winning the affection of Ageloff and the unanimous sympathy of other people close to Trotsky, came, so he said, to present an article. Natalia Trotsky reports what then followed:

Not more than three or four minutes had elapsed when I heard a terrible, soul-shaking cry and without as much as realizing who it was that uttered this cry, I rushed in the direction from which it came. Between the dining room and the balcony, on the threshold, beside the door post and leaning against it stood ... Lev Davidovich. His face was covered with blood, his eyes, without glasses, were sharp blue, his hands were hanging.

”What happened? What happened?”

I flung my arms about him, but he did not immediately answer [...]

And he said to me calmly, without any indignation, bitterness or irritation, “Jacson.” L.D. said it as if he wished to say, “It has happened.”

Jacson Mornard had struck him on the head with a short mountain-climbing pick hidden under his raincoat. The murderer had tried to hit a second blow, but Trotsky had hurled himself on him. Meanwhile Trotsky’s bodyguards, Comrades Charlie Cornell, Joe Hansen, and Harold Robbins, who had run in, had roughly overcome the assassin, who was shouting: “They forced me to strike him! ... They’re holding my mother! ... They’ve imprisoned my mother! ...”

Despite rapid treatment by doctors and the extraordinary resistance of his organism, Leon Trotsky died calmly on August 12st 1940 at 7:25 p.m. He was 60. Before he underwent trepanning, he called Joe Hansen to him and dictated a few words by way of a political testament. They were these: “Say to my friends, please, that I have no doubt about the victory of the Fourth International. Go forward!”

The Mexican government took charge of the funeral. For five days, the body, with an honor guard of militants, was shown to the public in a hall in the Calle Tacuba; about 100,000 persons, mostly simple Mexican workers and peasants, paid silent homage to the heroic and exalting life of the revolutionary. “Jacson Mornard” was quickly identified as a false name hiding an authentic GPU agent. All the details of the organization of the outrage, the international figures who contributed to it, and even the exact identity of the assassin, are still not entirely known. According to the revelations of General Sanchez Salazar, former chief of the Mexican Secret Service, who carried out the investigation of the murder, the real name of “Jacson Mornard” is Mercader, he is of Catalan origin, and his mother, who lived in France and Belgium, had gone over to the service of the GPU during the Spanish Civil War.

The death of Leon Trotsky occurred at a moment when the international situation was dominated by the resounding victories of Hitler in Europe. The campaign of France had just been victoriously ended by Hitler, and England’s turn was awaited. Italy, speculating on the eventuality of a rapid ending of the war, had decided to enter the conflict. Hitler seemed to be at the apogee of his power.

Under these conditions, Stalin’s crime was not forcefully brought into question either in the fascist countries, which were still treating Stalin carefully, or in the “democratic” countries, which were speculating on a possible break between Stalin and Hitler.

Only vanguard revolutionary militants had painfully felt this terrible blow. The most powerful head of the world revolution had just been fractured by the Thermidorian reaction. The richest and most living contemporary Marxist thought, the most indomitable revolutionary character, a stimulus and example for all, had just disappeared. Thenceforward it was necessary to find the path alone, it was necessary to carry on the struggle by forging in action th’e intelligence and characters of those who would keep high the banner of the Fourth International.

In spite of everything, it was indeed necessary to go forward!

[In the next issue: The Fourth International during the Second World War]


1. The collection of all Leon Trotsky’s writings during this struggle have been published in English with the title In Defense of Marxism by Pioneer Publishers, New York.

2. As contrasted with James Burnham, who at this period affirmed that the USSR was neither a “capitalist” nor “workers’” state.

3. The USSR in War.

4. Ibid.

5. Letter of 19 December 1939 from Leon Trotsky to John G. Wright.

6. Suspected of having betrayed Trotsky, Sheldon Harte was found dead on June 25th 1940, killed during his sleep and buried in an isolated cottage in the mountains, at Talminalco, in the Desierto de los Leones, rented by the brothers-in-law of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Leopoldo and Luis Arenal.

7. Life and Death of L. Trotsky, by Victor Serge.

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Michel Pablo
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Marxist Writers’

Updated on: 11 October 2015