1940: Assassination of Trotsky

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Sixty years ago on 20th August 1940, Trotsky died, assassinated by Stalin’s underlings; the second imperialist war had just begun. In this article, we want not only to remember a great figure of the proletariat, sacrificing a little to the fashion for anniversaries, but also to use the event to examine some of his mistakes, and the political positions that he adopted at the beginning of the war. After a life of ardent militant activity, entirely devoted to the cause of the working class, Trotsky died as a revolutionary and a fighter. History is full of examples of revolutionaries who have deserted, and even betrayed the working class; few are those who remained faithful all their lives and died fighting, as did Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Trotsky was one of them.

In his later years, Trotsky defended a number of opportunist positions, such as the policy of entryism into the Social Democracy, the workers’ united front, etc. - and the communist left rightly criticised these during the 1930s. But he never went over to the enemy camp, the camp of the bourgeoisie, as the Trotskyists did after his death. On the question of imperialist war in particular, he defended until the end the traditional position of the revolutionary movement: the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war.

The closer came the imperialist war, the more Trotsky’s elimination became a key objective for the world bourgeoisie.

To consolidate his power, and to develop the policy which had made him the chief architect of the counter-revolution, Stalin had first eliminated swathes of revolutionaries, old Bolsheviks, and especially Lenin’s companions who had built the October revolution. But this was not enough. As military tensions rose at the end of the 1930s, he had to have his hands completely free at home to develop his imperialist policies. With the beginning of the war in Spain, 1936 witnessed the trials and execution first of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Smirnov1, then of Piatakov and Radek, and finally of the so-called “Rykov-Bukharin-Kretinsky” group. But although in exile, Trotsky remained the most dangerous of all the Bolsheviks. Stalin had already reached out to assassinate Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, in Paris in 1938. Now Trotsky himself had to die.

In his book I was Stalin’s agent2, general Walter Krivitsky, the head of Soviet military counter-espionage in Western Europe during the 1930s, asks “Was it necessary for the Bolshevik revolution to put to death all the Bolsheviks?”. Although he claims to have no answer to the question, on the contrary his book gives a very clear one. The Moscow trials and the liquidation of the last Bolsheviks was the price to pay for the march towards war: “In secret, Stalin’s aim [an understanding with Germany] remained the same. In March 1938, Stalin set up the great ten-day trial of the Rykov-Bukharin-Kretinsky group, who had been Lenin’s most intimate associates and the fathers of the Soviet revolution. These Bolshevik leaders - detested by Hitler - were executed by Stalin’s order on 3rd March. On 12th March, Hitler annexed Austria (...) On 12th January, took place before the assembled Berlin diplomatic corps, the cordial and democratic conversation between Hitler and the new Soviet ambassador”. This was followed on 23rd August 1939 by the Germano-Soviet pact between Hitler and Stalin.

However, while the elimination of the old Bolsheviks was first and foremost a matter of Stalin’s internal policies, it also suited the whole world bourgeoisie. Henceforth, the fate of Trotsky himself was sealed. For the whole world’s capitalist class, Trotsky, symbol of the October Revolution, had to die! “Robert Coulondre3, French ambassador to the Third Reich, gives a striking testimony in the description of his last meeting with Hitler, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Hitler had boasted of the advantages he had obtained from his pact with Stalin, just concluded; and he drew a grandiose vista of his future military triumph. In reply the French ambassador appealed to his ‘reason’ and spoke of the social turmoil and the revolutions that might follow a long and terrible war and engulf all belligerent governments. ‘You are thinking of yourself as a victor...’, the ambassador said, ‘but have you given thought to another possibility - that the victor might be Trotsky?’ At this Hitler jumped up (as if he ‘had been hit in the pit of the stomach’) and screamed that this possibility, the threat of Trotsky’s victory, was one more reason why France and Britain should not go to war against the Third Reich”4. Isaac Deutscher rightly highlights Trotsky’s remark on hearing of this conversation: “They are haunted by the spectre of revolution, and they give it a man’s name”5.

Trotsky had to die6, and he himself realised that his days were numbered. His elimination had a greater significance than that of the other old Bolsheviks, and the Russian left communists. The assassination of the old Bolsheviks had served to strengthen Stalin’s absolute power. That of Trotsky represented a need for the world bourgeoisie, including the Russian bourgeoisie, to have its hands free to unleash world war. Its way was a good deal clearer once the last great figure of the October Revolution, the most famous of the internationalists, had been eliminated. Stalin called on all the efficiency of the GPU to liquidate him. Several attempts were made on his life, and these could only be repeated. Nothing seemed able to halt the Stalinist machine. On 24th May 1939, shortly before Trotsky’s death, a commando attacked his house during the night. Stalin’s henchmen had succeeded in placing a machine-gun opposite the windows of his bedroom. They fired between 200-300 rounds, and threw firebombs. Happily, the windows were placed high above the floor, and Trotsky, his wife Natalia, and his grandson Sjeva had a miraculous escape by hiding under the bed. But in the attempt that followed, Ramon Mercader succeeded with his ice pick where the others had failed.

But for the bourgeoisie, Trotsky’s assassination was not enough. As Lenin so rightly said in State and Revolution: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes relentlessly persecute them, and treat their teachings with malicious hostility, the most furious hatred, and the most unscrupulous campaign of lies and slanders. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to surround their names with a certain ‘halo’ for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping them, while at the same time emasculating the revolutionary doctrine of its content, vulgarising it and blunting its revolutionary edge (...) They omit, obliterate and distort the revolutionary side of [Marxism’s] doctrine, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie”7.

As far as Trotsky is concerned, this dirty work has been done by those who claim to be his heirs, the Trotskyists. They have used his “opportunist” positions to justify every national war since the last imperialist world war, as well as their defence of the USSR’s imperialist camp.

When the 4th International was founded in 1938, Trotsky based his thinking on the idea that capitalism was in its “death throes”. The Italian Fraction of the Communist Left (the Bilan group) defended the same idea; we agree with Trotsky’s evaluation of the period, although not with his idea that as a result “the productive forces have ceased to grow”8. He was perfectly correct in declaring that in its “death throes”, capitalism had ceased to be a progressive social form and that its socialist transformation was on the historical agenda. However, he was wrong to think that conditions were ripe for revolution during the 1930s. Unlike the Italian Left, he announced the onset of revolution with the arrival of the Popular Front, first in France, then in Spain9. This mistaken understanding of the historic course, which led him to believe that revolution was on the immediate agenda, when in fact World War II was looming, is key to understanding the opportunist positions that he developed during this period.

Concretely, Trotsky this was expressed in the concept of the “Transitional Programme”, which he put forward at the foundation of the 4th International. This in fact was a series of practically impossible demands, supposed to raise the consciousness of the working class and sharpen the class struggle. It was the lynchpin of his political strategy. Trotsky did not see the measures in the Transitional Programme as reformist, since they were never intended to be applied, nor indeed could they be. In fact, they were designed to demonstrate capitalism’s inability to offer lasting reforms to the working class, and in consequence to reveal its bankruptcy and to push the class to struggle for its destruction.

On the same basis, Trotsky developed his famous “Proletarian Military Programme” (PMP)10, which was basically an application of the Transitional Programme to a period of universal war and militarism11. This policy hoped to win over the millions of workers under arms to revolutionary ideas. It centred around the demand for obligatory military training for the working class, overseen by elected officers, in special training schools run by the state but under the control of working class institutions like the trades unions. Obviously, no capitalist state could grant such demands to the working class, since this would deny its own existence as a state. For Trotsky, the perspective was the overthrow of capitalism by the workers under arms, all the more so since he thought that the war would create favourable conditions for a proletarian insurrection, as had happened during World War I.

We have said more than once that the present war is only a continuation of the last. But continuation does not mean repetition (...) Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat with regard to the second imperialist war, is a continuation of the policy worked out during the first imperialist war, above all under Lenin’s leadership””12

According to Trotsky, conditions were even more favourable than they had been in 1917, inasmuch as capitalism, on the eve of a new war, had proven objectively that it was in a historical dead end, while subjectively the working class world wide had accumulated a whole new experience.

It is this perspective [the revolution] that must be at the root of our agitation. It is not just a matter of having a position on capitalist militarism and the refusal to defend the bourgeois state, but of the direct preparation for the seizure of power and the defence of the socialist fatherland”13

Trotsky had clearly lost his bearings in thinking that the course of history still ran towards proletarian revolution. He failed to understand the situation of the working class and the balance of class forces with the bourgeoisie. During the 1930s, only the Italian Communist Left was able to demonstrate that humanity was living through a profoundly counter-revolutionary period, that the proletariat had been defeated, and that only imperialist world war, the bourgeoisie’s solution to history’s dilemma, was then possible.

Nonetheless, we can say that despite his “militarist” fantasies, which led him towards opportunism, Trotsky continued to stand firmly on internationalist ground. But in trying to be “concrete” (as he tried to be “concrete” in the workers’ struggle with the Transitional Programme, and in the army with his military policy) to win over the working masses to the revolution, he ended up distancing himself from the classical vision of marxism and defending a policy opposed to proletarian interests. This policy, intended to be very “tactical”, was in fact extremely dangerous since it tended to tie the workers to the bourgeois state for the satisfaction of their economic demands, and to make them think that a good bourgeois solution was a possibility. During the war, the Trotskyists were to develop this “subtle” tactic to justify the unjustifiable, in tactic to justify the unjustifiable, in particular their rallying to the bourgeois camp through their defence of the nation and their participation in the Resistance.

But how, fundamentally, should we understand the importance that Trotsky gave to his “military policy”? For him, the perspective facing humanity was a total militarisation of society, which would be increasingly marked by armed struggle between the classes. Humanity’s fate would be settled above all at the military level. Consequently, the proletariat’s primary responsibility was to prepare, immediately, to wrest power from the capitalist class. He developed this vision especially at the beginning of the war, when he said:

In the conquered countries, the position of the masses will be immediately worsened. National oppression will be heaped on class oppression, and the main burden will be borne by the workers. Of all forms of dictatorship, the totalitarian dictatorship of a foreign conqueror is the most intolerable”14.

It is impossible to place an armed soldier next to every Polish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and French worker”15.

We can certainly expect the rapid transformation of all the conquered countries into powder-kegs. The danger is rather that the explosions will come too early, without adequate preparation, and will lead to isolated defeats. In general, however, it is impossible to speak of a European and world revolution without taking account of partial defeats”16

However, this does not alter the fact that Trotsky remained a proletarian revolutionary to the end. Proof lies in the content of the Manifesto of the 4th International, known as The Alarm, which he wrote to take an unambiguous position from the sole standpoint of the revolutionary proletariat against the generalised imperialist war:

At the same time, we do not for a moment forget that this war is not our war (...) The 4th International bases its policy, not on the military fortunes of the capitalist states, but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists, for the overthrow of the ruling class in every country, on the world socialist revolution (...) We explain to the workers that their interests and those of bloodthirsty capitalism cannot be reconciled. We mobilise the workers against imperialism. We propagate the unity of the workers in all the belligerent and neutral countries”17

This is what the Trotskyists have “forgotten” and betrayed.

By contrast, from the class standpoint, Trotsky’s “Transitional Programme” and “Proletarian Military Policy” turned out to be a fiasco. Not only was there no proletarian revolution at the end of World War II, the PMP allowed the 4th International to justify its participation in the slaughter by turning its militants into good little soldiers for “democracy” and Stalinism. It was at this point that Trotskyism passed irrevocably into the enemy camp.

Clearly, Trotsky’s greatest weakness was his failure to understand that history’s course was running irrevocably towards counter-revolution, and so towards world war, as the Italian Communist Left clearly demonstrated. Thinking that the course was still towards revolution in 1936, he proclaimed that “The French revolution has begun”18; as for Spain, “The workers of the whole world eagerly await the new victory of the Spanish proletariat”19. He thus made a major political mistake in telling the working class that what was happening, in France and Spain in particular, was heading towards revolution, when in fact the world situation was moving in the opposite direction: “From his expulsion from the USSR in 1929 until his assassination, Trotsky constantly interpreted the world upside down. At a time when the task at hand was to assemble the revolutionary energies that had escaped the defeat, and first and foremost to undertake a complete political balance-sheet of the revolutionary wave, Trotsky insisted blindly that the proletariat was still marching forward when in fact it had been defeated. Hence the 4th International, created more than 50 years ago, was never anything more than an empty shell, where the life of the working class could not flow for the simple and tragic reason, that it was ebbing before the counter-revolution. On the basis of this mistake, all Trotsky’s action only contributed to the dispersal of the world’s all-too-feeble revolutionary forces during the 1930s, and worse still to drag the greater part into the capitalist mire of “critical” support for Popular Front governments, and participation in the imperialist war”20.

Trotsky’s position on the USSR is among his most serious mistakes. While he attacked Stalinism, he always considered, and defended, the USSR as the “socialist fatherland”, and at the least as a “degenerated workers’ state”.

But despite their dramatic consequences, all these political errors did not make Trotsky an enemy of the working class, as his “heirs” became after his death. In the light of events at the beginning of the war, Trotsky was even able to admit the possibility that he would have to revise his political judgement, in particular as far as the USSR was concerned.

In one of his last pieces, dated 25th September 1939 and entitled The USSR in the war, he wrote:

We do not change our orientation. But suppose that Hitler turns his weapons to the East and invades the territories occupied by the Red Army (...) The Bolshevik-Leninists will combat Hitler, weapons in hand, but at the same time they will undertake a revolutionary propaganda against Stalin in order to prepare his overthrow at the next stage...”.

He certainly defended his analysis of the nature of the USSR, but he tied its fate to the outcome of the trials it would undergo in the test of World War II. In the same article, he says that if Stalinism were to emerge victorious and strengthened by the war (something he did not envisage happening), then it would be necessary to revise his judgement of the USSR and even of the general political situation:

If however we consider that the present war will provoke, not the revolution but the decline of the proletariat, then there is only one possible outcome to the alternative: the further decomposition of monopolist capital, its fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy, where it still survives, by a totalitarian regime. In these conditions, the proletariat’s inability to seize the leadership of society could lead to the development of a new exploiting class emerging from the Bonapartist and fascist bourgeoisies. In all likelihood this would be a regime of decadence, and would signify the twilight of civilisation.

We would reach a similar result should the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries take power and prove unable to hold on to it, abandoning it, as in the USSR, in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy. We would then be forced to recognise that the new decline into bureaucracy was due, not to one country’s backwardness and capitalist environment, but to the proletariat’s organic inability to become a ruling class. We would then have to establish retrospectively that in its fundamental traits today’s USSR is the precursor of a new regime of exploitation on an international scale.

We have strayed a long way from the terminological controversy on the definition of the Soviet state. But our critics should not protest: only by basing ourselves on the necessary historical perspective can we formulate a correct judgement on such a question as the replacement of one social regime by another. Taken to its conclusion, the historical alternative appears thus: either the Stalinist regime is an awful setback in the process of the transformation of bourgeois society into a socialist society, or else the Stalinist regime is the first step towards a new society of exploitation. If the second forecast proved correct, then of course the bureaucracy would become a new exploiting class. However dire this second perspective may appear, should the world proletariat indeed prove itself unable to carry out the mission entrusted to it by the course of historical development, then we would be forced to recognise that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, has finally turned out to be a Utopia. It goes without saying that we would need a new “minimum programme” to defend the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society” (our emphasis).

If we leave aside the perspective he develops here, which reveals a discouragement, not to say a profound demoralisation where he seems to lose all confidence in the working class and its ability to assume historically its revolutionary perspective, it is clear that here Trotsky is beginning to call into question his positions on the “socialist” nature of the USSR and the “working of the USSR and the “working class” character of the bureaucracy.

Trotsky was assassinated before the end of the war, and Russia ended in the victorious camp alongside the “democracies”. Historical conditions demanded of those who claimed to be his faithful followers that they undertake, as he had planned to do, a revision of his position to, as he had said, “establish retrospectively that in its fundamental traits today’s USSR is the precursor of a new regime of exploitation on an international scale”. Not only did the 4th International fail to do this, it passed, bags and baggage, into the camp of the bourgeoisie. Only a few elements escaped from Trotskyism to remain on the revolutionary terrain, such as those who formed the Chinese group which published The Internationalist in 1941, the members of the 4th International’s Spanish section around Munis, the Revolutionaren Kommunisten Deutschlands (RKD), the Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France, Agis Stinas in Greece, and Natalia Trotsky21.

Faithful to the spirit of her companion in life and comrade in the revolution, Natalia Trotsky, in a letter written on 9th May 1951 to the Executive Committee of the 4th International, insisted particularly on the counter-revolutionary nature of the USSR:

Obsessed by old and outmoded formulations, you continue to consider the Stalinist state as a workers’ state. I cannot and will not follow you on this point (...) It should be clear to all that Stalinism has completely destroyed the revolution. And yet you continue to say that Russia is still, under this iniquitous regime, a workers’ state”.

Natalia drew the logical conclusions from this clear position, and quite rightly continued:

The most intolerable is the position on war to which you have committed yourselves. The third world war threatening humanity places the revolutionary movement before the most difficult and complex situations, the gravest decisions (...) But faced with the events of recent years, you continue to call for the defence of the Stalinist state, and to commit the whole movement to it. Now, you even support the Stalinist armies in the war which is crucifying the Korean people”.

She concluded bravely: “I cannot and will not follow you on this point (...) I find that I must tell you that I find no other way out than to say openly that our disagreements make it impossible for me to stay any longer in your ranks”22.

Not only, as Natalia Trotsky says, did the Trotskyists fail to follow Trotsky’s example and revise their political positions following the USSR’s victory in World War II, but the Trotskyists’ own discussions and questioning today - when they exist - deal with the “proletarian military policy”23. These discussions continue to maintain a deafening silence on fundamental questions like the nature of the USSR or proletarian internationalism and revolutionary defeatism in the face of war. Pierre Broué recognises this, in the midst of a pseudo-scientific babble: “There is no doubt that the absence of any discussion or evaluation of this question (the PMP) weighed very heavily in the history of the 4th International. An in-depth analysis would have shown it as being at the bottom of the crisis which began to shake the International during the 1950s”24. How nicely put!

It is a fact that the Trotskyist organisations betrayed and changed camp. But Trotskyist historians like Pierre Broué or Sam Levy try to drown the question in a mere crisis of the Trotskyist movement:

The fundamental crisis of Trotskyism came from its confusion and inability to understand the war and the immediate post-war world”25.

It is quite true that Trotskyism failed to understand the war or the post-war world; this is why it betrayed the working class and proletarian internationalism by supporting one imperialist camp against another during World War II, and why ever since it has constantly supported little imperialisms against bigger ones in the all too frequent so-called “national liberation” struggles, or the struggles of “oppressed peoples”. Pierre Broué, Sam Levy and the others may not know it, but Trotskyism is dead for the working class, and there is no hope of its rebirth as an instrument of the class’ emancipation. There is no point their trying to recuperate for themselves the real internationalists, and in particular the activity of the Italian Communist Left during the war, as the Cahiers Leon Trotsky try to do in their issue no.39.

A little decency gentlemen! Don’t mix up the internationalists of the Italian Communist Left with the chauvinist 4th International that betrayed the working class. We of the Communist Left have nothing to do with the 4th International and its avatars today. By contrast, hands off Trotsky! He still belongs to the working class.


1 See 16 Fusillés à Moscou by Victor Serge, Spartacus editions.

2 J’étais l’agent de Staline, Editions Champ Libre, Paris 1979.

3 Robert Coulondre (1885-1959), French ambassador to Moscow, then to Berlin.

4 The Prophet Outcast, Isaac Deutscher, Oxford Paperbacks, p515.

5 In the Manifesto of the 4th International on the imperialist war and the world proletarian revolution.

6 Like Jean Jaurès immediately before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, but with this difference: Jaurès was a pacifist, while Trotsky was always a revolutionary and an internationalist.

7 Essential works of Lenin, Bantam Books, 1971, p272.

8 For us, the fact that the system has entered its decadence does not mean that it can no longer develop. By contrast, for us as for Trotsky, a system in decadence has lost its dynamism, and the relations of production have become a fetter on society’s further development. In other words, the system has ceased to play a historically positive role and is ready to give birth to a new society.

9 See our book The Italian Communist Left, and our pamphlet Le Trotskisme contre la classe ouvrière.

10 This was not a new position for Trotsky, since it had already found an expression during the war in Spain: “... we must clearly distinguish ourselves from treachery and traitors, while remaining the best fighters on the front”. He compared the idea of being the best worker in the factory, with being the best soldier on the front. This formulation was also used in the Sino-Japanese war, since China was an “aggressed” nation, “colonised” by Japan.

11 "Our military transitional programme is a programme for agitation” (Oeuvres, no24).

12 Trotsky, Fascism, Bonapartism and war.

13 Ibid.

14 Trotsky, Our course does not change, written 30th June 1940.

15 Ibid. These nations are cited because they had just been defeated when the article was written.

16 Ibid.

17 Trotsky, Manifesto of the 4th International, 29th May 1940.

18 La Lutte Ouvrière, 9th June 1936.

19 Ibid.

20 See our pamphlet Le Trotskisme contre la classe ouvrière.

21 See International Review no.94, the article “Trotsky belongs to the working class, the Trotskyists have kidnapped him” in Le Trotskisme..., International Review no.58 and the article “In memory of Munis” published on his death in 1989, also Stinas’ memoirs published by La Breche, Paris 1990.

22 Les enfants du prophète, Cahiers Spartacus, Paris 1972.

23 See Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.23, 39, and 43, and Revolutionary History no.3, 1988.

24 Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.39.

25 A veteran of the British Trotskyist movement, quoted in Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.23.



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