Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky, by Bertrand M Patenaude

Stalin's Nemesis cvr

As Isaac Deutscher put it in the titles of his three-volume biography, Leon Trotsky was in turn armed, unarmed, and outcast.  Bertrand M. Patenaude has focused on the years in which Trotsky was outcast, as he moved from country to country after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929, washing up in Turkey, France and Norway (where shamefully he was interned) before being offered a safe harbour in Mexico.  He lived in Coyoacán, now part of Mexico City, from 1937 to his murder in 1940, initially in the Blue House, where artist Frida Kahlo had grown up and which was now owned by her husband Diego Rivera, until Trotsky fell out with Rivera and moved to another house close by.

Patenaude’s narrative is cleverly, if occasionally clumsily, structured: rather than following a strict chronological order it focuses on the Mexico years, with flashbacks where necessary to amplify relevant points.  These sketch in aspects of his earlier life, the tumultuous political events through which he moved as a revolutionary and as a senior figure in the Bolshevik government, developments in the Soviet Union and further afield, not least Mexico itself, during the 1930s, and the fate of his family and intimates.  This approach entails some lengthy digressions but in general works well.

The treatment of Trotsky’s personality captures his strengths and weaknesses.  He displayed political charisma and possessed undoubted intellectual abilities.  A fine orator and writer, he was able to enthuse and energise, his whole being devoted to the cause.  However, Patenaude balances these merits with his flaws.  There was a strain of arrogance which prevented Trotsky being a people person, and contributed to his comprehensive political defeat.  Critics, including Anatoly Lunacharsky, noted his inability to organise others: ‘He could electrify crowds, but not persuade individuals’.  Throughout his career he managed to alienate close comrades and squander his advantages.  Such traits meant he was never, despite what Lenin might have thought, a credible alternative to Stalin.  Patenaude too stresses Trotsky’s late conversion from Menshevism to Bolshevism, which did not help him forge alliances.

This is certainly not hagiography, but it is always sympathetic to his plight.  That plight should not be underestimated, with a constant barrage of slander from Stalinists in the Soviet Union and in Mexico.  The Dewey Commission, headed by the liberal philosopher John Dewey, was set up to examine the fake allegations being made against him during the Moscow show trials as the head of a vast conspiracy responsible for sabotage and espionage in the Soviet Union.  Many of the lies were shown to have been sloppily constructed and were easy to refute, though hard words he had used to denigrate Lenin prior to the Revolution were hard to shake.  While enabling Trotsky to put his views to a wide audience, the Commission’s verdict in his favour changed few opinions.

There is at times a strain of the absurd which Patenaude plays up, for example in the idea of the former Commissar for War reduced to playing with rabbits, but tinged with tragedy in a figure once of enormous political significance fulminating about disputes over dialectical materialism in the American Socialist Workers Party (Patenaude is particularly good on the complexities of Trotskyism in the US) while the Soviet Union had made a non-aggression pact with Germany, central Europe was being carved up, and the continent was about to go up in flames.  Trotsky was infuriated by the characterisation of dialectical materialism as incoherent and an article of faith rather than based on evidence, given it was the foundation of his political worldview, though others thought there were more pressing matters needing attention.

In these later years his Achilles heel became his handling of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921.  He had advocated its suppression to defend the Revolution, and later critics argued that in doing so he was no better than Stalin organising purges.  Trotsky had called the Kronstadt sailors counter-revolutionaries just as Stalin was using the same epithet against the opposition groups.  The means had justified the ends for him just as they did for Stalin.  At the same time Trotsky could not bring himself to condemn the Soviet invasion of Poland and Finland, instead seeing the aggression as the implementation of workers’ control, to the astonishment, and increasing alienation, of his comrades.  Towards the end of his life ‘Trotskyism’ was more about what it was against than what it was for, not a credible method of building a coherent political platform.  Stalin had it right when he said the only important Trotskyist was Trotsky, and once he was removed the rest counted for nothing.  The subsequent history of the Fourth International indicates how sound his judgement was.

While supported by comrades who put up with a lot in return for little thanks, Trotsky was often let down by those around him, not least when they were Soviet agents who had infiltrated the movement.  He could though be his own enemy.  He often seemed to go out of his way to sabotage his prospects, whether it was not returning to Moscow when hearing of Lenin’s death, which logistically he could have done, or continuing a Mexican trip when news of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact broke and he was in demand as a commentator.  Despite their ultimate failure to ensure Trotsky’s safety, the Mexicans come out of it very well, offering asylum, providing some of his security, and finally purchasing the house after his death and allowing his widow and then grandson to continue to live there until finally it was turned into a museum.  Rivera too made strenuous efforts to secure the asylum offer, then purchase a house by mortgaging his own to provide extra security, for which efforts Trotsky repaid him by the affair with Kahlo and the falling apart of their relationship by Trotsky’s insistence on prioritising ideological matters over gratitude.

Money was always a cause for concern because although the American comrades were supporting the security measures, both financially and with voluntary manpower, he relied on his writing for living expenses, and while successfully completing an autobiography and The History of the Russian Revolution,  he became bogged down in a biography of Stalin (which Patenaude amusingly considers ‘tedious and repetitive, as though written for the Society of Old Bolsheviks instead of the Book of the Month Club’), while finding his style unsuited to popular magazine articles.  The necessity to spend money on Trotsky’s safety was amply demonstrated when NKVD operatives launched a raid, well armed and with incendiaries to destroy Trotsky’s extensive archive.  This fifteen-minute assault, facilitated by an agent on the inside to circumvent the alarm system (who was taken away and later killed by the attackers), failed miserably, the only casualty being Trotsky’s grandson’s toe – so miserably in fact that the Mexican police were initially suspicious it was a put-up job by the Trotskyists to smear Stalin.

Eventually though the campaign to assassinate Trotsky was successful.  While the conclusion is never in doubt, there is an air of horrible inevitability.  The reader knows when the last day has arrived as Patenaude goes through it action by action, leading up to the terrible moment when the murderer strikes.  Contrary to myth, we learn Ramón Mercader did not use an ice pick but rather a kind of prospector’s pick or ice axe, one end pointed, the other end flat and wide, with a sawn-down wooden shaft, and struck him from the front rather than from behind.

A hypothetical question is what would have happened had Mercader not been successful, and bearing in mind his incompetence he was lucky, only succeeding due to the sloppiness of Trotsky and his guards.  It seems reasonable to conclude that Trotsky would have become less and less relevant to world affairs and his reputation among his followers further tarnished thanks to his refusal to discard the characterisation of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state.  Increasingly his reluctance to discard dogma meant his analyses were diverging from the reality, to the astonishment of those who looked to him for guidance.  While a tragedy for him and his family, his untimely death spared him from an undignified decline.  The wonder is that he was able to find enough SWP supporters in the United States to fund the security he needed in Mexico as all but a small core must have seen he was a spent force.

Domestically Patenaude details the love and irritation the Old man, as he was often called, could inspire in equal measure, his touching relationship with his wife Natalia, with whom he had gone through so much, and the unlikely affair with Frida Kahlo which so pained Natalia.  The house was a pressure cooker of emotions, while outside the ever-present Stalinist threat hovered, a situation that might have crushed a lesser man, and Trotsky’s fortitude deserves respect.  Rigorously researched, Stalin’s Nemesis is at the same time a pacy read despite its 400 pages.  Finally, the title is a puzzle.  Was Trotsky Stalin’s nemesis?  Hardly; an irritant certainly, but nemesis suggests an agent accomplishing the downfall of another.  In that sense, Stalin was Trotsky’s nemesis.


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