Ramon Mercader, the man who murdered Leon Trotsky, died in Havana on October 18th. Four days later his ashes were flown to Russia, the country whose secret policy, in 1940, recruited Mercader to kill Trotsky in his Russian exile.
“I was a Trotskyist until one day I realised that the leader who claimed to be struggling for the liberation of the working class was in reality just a fanatic thirsty for revenge against Stalin.” These were the words Mercader, who afterwards served a 20-year prison sentence, used to explain to the Mexican police his motives for splitting Trotsky’s skull with a pickaxe.
How close to the truth was Mercader’s appraisal of Trotsky? Well, Trotsky’s writings do manifest an intense personal hatred of Stalin, the man who robbed him of what he considered his rightful place as leader of Bolshevik Russia. But they also expose with substantial accuracy the terrible cruelties which members of the former Bolshevik hierarchy and the Russian people were subject to under Stalin. And as for fanaticism it would be hard to beat Stalin himself. He had a special branch of his secret police set up at New York employing agents with the sole duty of eliminating Trotsky, a defeated rival who had long since ceased to be a direct threat.
Following Trotsky’s murder the sympathy evoked by his failure in the struggle for power and the circumstances of his death, led many people to the opposite view of Mercader. They came to believe that had Trotsky, and not Stalin, succeeded Lenin at the head of the Russian ruling group in 1924 the terror and suffering endured by the Russian people would have been avoided and Russia would have achieved genuine socialism.
All the evidence militates against this hypothesis. Trotsky had been a party both to the outlawing of other organisations by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and to the murderous activity of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, in the years following. He favoured exterminatory measures against minorities such as the Jews (despite being one himself) and in 1921 personally supervised the smashing by artillery fire of a revolt by sailors at Kronstadt, who had passed a resolution seeking relaxations of the regime’s laws on forcible requisitioning of food from the peasants.
So quite clearly Trotsky had no compunction about shedding blood and inflicting suffering on those who stood in his way. But even had he been a different kind of man, once in power the circumstances of a huge, backward country dragging itself up out of feudalism into the modern industrial world would have inevitably imposed upon him policies which, while perhaps not as harsh as the excesses of Stalin’s reign, would have involved trampling on all opposition to the speedy development of Russian state capitalism.
Several years before his death Trotsky expressed the view that socialism would develop out of a second world war, soon to occur. He was only partly right. A second world war did occur but of course socialism did not come out of it. And perhaps we should be thankful; for it socialism looks anything like what Trotsky helped to rule over in Russia before his fall from grace, we want none of it. The use of the term ‘socialist’ by Trotsky and his ilk to describe repressive one-party dictatorships makes all the harder the spreading of the idea of a democratic world society based on majority will.