Here again is the proper order of episodes in which to attack this mini-series, in case you are just diving into this story:
Intro to my series.
Part I-(A), Part I-(B), Part I-(C), Part I-(D).
Part II-(A), Part II-(B), Part II-(C), Part II-(D), Part II-(E), Part II-(F), Part II-(G), Part II-(H), Part II-(I), Part II-(J), Part II-K.
And then this current one, Part II-(L), which you are reading right now! Thus proving to the world that I learned my English alphabet well enough. And all of this material based on this relatively brief monograph penned by Professor Chase!
But When Did He Pen It?
I have been saying the Professor penned this work in 2003, because that is the date on the Russian-language monograph. However, a friend sent me this link yesterday, and there are several others out there very similar. I had mentioned before that various Stalinist and/or Maoist cadre parties around the world were inspired and bolstered by Professor Chase’s research. They cite his work, but I had not noticed before that (they say) his research was actually published a decade earlier than I thought, namely in 1993.
For example, the writer from the above-linked Maoist-leaning “Red Youth” magazine cites a 1993 article from The Independent dealing with the Diego Rivera revelations. Presumably this material was written by, or based on, the research of Professor Chase himself. I couldn’t find that Independent piece, all this time I have been going on the assumption that Professor Chase blew the lid off this a decade later, with his 2003 monograph written for a Russian journal. I would be interested to get my hands on the original Independent piece, if anyone has the link. Mainly because I am tired of transliterating names from Russian back into English or Spanish. In any case, I am sort of glad that I was previously unaware of the earlier piece. Since it was in English already, I would not have felt the need to give it my “special treatment”, and therefore would have deprived myself of a great education, which I acquired while working my way through this material.
Essence Versus Causality
Anyhow, the Maoist Red Youth piece covers the meat of Professor Chase’s allegations against Trotsky. The “Youth” believe that Chase has proved what they have been saying all along, namely that “Trotskyism is truly the agent of the ruling class within the ranks of the working class.”
Well, separating out for just a minute Trotsky-ism from the figure of Trotsky himself, the Chase-ite case against Trotsky is built on 5 main building blocks:
- Trotsky badly wanted a visa to travel to the United States, and would have done anything short of contort himself into somebody else’s suitcase.
- Trotsky only pretended to break ties with Diego Rivera.
- Both Rivera and Trotsky burned with desire to testify at the HUAC hearings regarding the nature of Stalinism.
- It has been proved, from material in U.S. government archives, that Rivera had confidential meetings with American officials and provided names of known Mexican Communists.
- Trotsky also had private meetings with U.S. officials and FBI agents.
All five of which points (especially #4 and #5 which are the actual meat in this dinner) leading to the “inescapable conclusion” that Trotsky, at least during this final stage of his life, had become a “confidential informant” of the FBI.
And then, Red Youth, using that Stalinist propensity to form logical combinations involving a teleological view of the world plus chronological “backwards causality”, implying that this proves Stalin to have been right all along about the counter-revolutionary “essence” of Trotskyism.
Trotskyists, on the other hand, from what I understand with my poor grasp of philosophy, don’t so much believe in “essences”, as they believe in materialism, in the random collision of particles and quarks and suchlike, and in chronologically-based cause and effect. Or, as my mom likes to put it, “Things happen, people change…”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is a picture of a gun…”
For example, if this were a trial, and the Prosecution had just finished their case with the above 5 planks, then what would the Defense say in return? Well, they could deny what could be denied, and explain the rest. But suppose it were all true. Suppose Trotsky did actually cross the class line at that point in his life? Went over to the Dark Side? Surely there were mitigating circumstances, which his Attorney could plead to the proletarian jury? Let us hear Trotsky himself, in that very last work that he penned right after the Home Invasion (in which David Siqueiros and his goons pumped machine-gun bullets into the bed of Trotsky’s 14-year-old grandson) and just a few weeks before the old man’s actual assassination:
In recent years the GPU has destroyed several hundred of my friends in the USSR, including members of my family. In Spain the GPU killed my former secretary, Erwin Wolf, and a number of my political co-thinkers; in Paris they killed my son, Leon Sedov, who was hunted by Stalin’s professional murderers for two years. In Lausanne, Switzerland, the GPU killed Ignace Reiss, who came over from the ranks of the GPU to the side of the Fourth International. In Paris Stalin’s agents killed another of my former secretaries, Rudolph Klement, whose body was found in the Seine. This list could be continued indefinitely.
And so, as Ostap Bender might say, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, are these not mitigating circumstances…
To which the Stalinists would just sneer: “Oh Boo hoo! There is no excuse for what you did, Trotsky! You never should have gone against Comrade Stalin – Stalin was right, he was always right, and the proof of that is that he won the war against Hitler!”
Teleology and Mitigation aside, let us deal with the actual 5 planks of the Prosecution case. Well, glossing over #1, let’s just say that Professor Chase has not convinced me that Trotsky’s desire for a U.S. visa (for research and/or medical treatment, or just to live a safer life, whatever) impelled him to become the butt-monkey of the FBI. Now, if he had actually gotten the visa, we could probably ask ourselves: What did he have to do to get it? But he didn’t get it, so that’s moot.
Moving on to #2:
“Rivera and Trotsky broke personal relations on May 31, 1940” – this is not factual, Dear Red Youth. The date of May 31, 1940 was when Trotsky wrote to the Mexican District Chief that he had broken with Rivera 15 months earlier, which puts their actual break-up at February-March 1939.
That could just be a forgivable typo, though. But get a load of this:
“But many people were mutual friends of the two, both of them worked in the same organisations such as the American Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky (ACDLT). Charles Curtiss was such a friend who sent Trotsky several reports of his meetings with Rivera: ‘During my visit in Mexico, from July 4, 1938 to approximately July 15, 1939, I was in close association with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky…. I served as an intermediary between them,’ (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40). Trotsky of course knew of this, thus helping Rivera in supplying information to the FBI.”
Okay, leaving aside that last barb about “Trotsky of course knew” about Rivera finking to the FBI. We don’t actually know that. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but we don’t know one way or the other. This is a good example of [Proof by Assertion], but let’s look at the actual dates here. For starters, Curtiss said he served as an intermediary between Trotsky and Rivera during the period July 4, 1938 to July 15, 1939. Well, if you take those dates to be exact, then we need to partition this swath of time into two segments: Pre-breakup months July 1938 – February 1939. And post-breakup months February 1939 – July 1939.
If the Curtiss timeline is accurate, then it does indeed include a few months (say, March-July, 1939) after the break-up. When Trotsky said he wasn’t speaking to Rivera. But, like my mom says, there are always two sides to every story. According to the Curtiss wiki, Charles was merely attempting to reconcile two old friends who had become enemies:
Charles Curtiss, who was fluent in Spanish, was repeatedly sent as a representative of the American Trotskyist movement to Mexico in the 1930s. There he was known as Carlos Curtiss. He also visited Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán several times. From June 1939 to August 1940, Curtiss lived in the Trotsky household and his wife, Lillian Ilstien, who he had married in 1935, served as secretary for Trotsky’s wife Natalia Sedova.Charles Curtiss functioned as Trotsky’s primary link with the Mexican Trotskyists. It would have been illegal and unwise under the terms on which Trotsky was granted asylum in Mexico for Trotsky to maintain direct political contact with radical communist revolutionaries in his host country. Curtiss also tried to resolve the personal differences between Trotsky and the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
Curtiss used his printing skills to produce the SWP’s weekly newspaper
And just finishing up with Curtiss before we move on, this is an interesting man with an interesting biography. Born Samuel Kurz, the son of Polish immigrants, Curtiss was a true proletarian revolutionary, who earned his living as a miner, sailor and skilled printer. I am just egregiously plagiarizing his wiki here, but apparently Kurz joined the American Trotskyist faction as early as 1928. (The organization didn’t become the SWP until a decade later, under Trotsky’s personal direction.)
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the SWP took a principled opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, and were rewarded with jail sentences (under the Smith Act), while Earl Browder publicly gloated at their misfortune. What with 18 of the SWP’s most important leaders in the pokey, Curtiss (who was in the second tier of leadership) was forced to move to New York City to take the reins of the Party. However, he was soon drafted into the army, served in Italy during the war, returned alive, went back into the movement, only to retire from revolutionary politics in 1951; and died of heart failure in that fateful year 1993, when Professor Chase first published his revelations about Trotsky. Coincidence? You be the judge!
The Grand Theory
Returning to the issue of Cause and Effect. Did the assassination attempt against Trotsky set a milestone mark in this chronicle, or was it relatively irrelevant? In other words, was Trotsky already communicating improperly with the American government even before the assassination attempt against him (as Professor Chase apparently believes)? Or were his private communications a later result of the Home Invasion and the sequelae to that crime?
In our previous episode, we ran into some issues with Diego Rivera’s timeline of rat-finkery. According to Trotsky himself (whom we have no reason to doubt, unless he was deliberately dissembling), the aging revolutionary had broken ties with Rivera around February-March 1939. The Curtiss wiki stated that the rift was “personal”, but Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban (“Seva”) alleged that it was due to unspecified “political differences”. Since this was still a few months before Molotov-Ribbentrop (the event which drove away most Trotskyists and decimated the Fourth International), one can only speculate what exactly were these political differences? Possibly the same differences which caused the earlier split between Trotsky and Andrés Nin Pérez of the Spanish POUM?
Nin disproved the theory that pipe-smoking is a feature only of Stalinism.
This is pure speculation, but in the world of Trotskyism, virtually all factional splits are caused by issues of defining exactly what the Soviet Union was, or wasn’t. An exact definition, an almost perfect Theory of the Soviet Union — this is the Holy Grail for Trotskyist theoreticians. Trotsky’s own Grand Theory (dubbed the “Thermidor” theory, due to the analogies with the French Revolution) threaded the camel through the needle very finely, was too sophisticated/convoluted for most followers to understand; and needed later modifications (after Trotsky’s death) to account for new things appearing in the world, for example, the Cuban Revolution. In fact, we saw, in a previous episode of this mini-series, that Trotsky’s bodyguard, Joseph Hansen — the same guy who beat the old man’s assassin Ramón Mercader to a pulp — later went on to become a “Friend of Cuba”, and was wandering through the streets of Havana around the same time as the guy he once beat half to death. So, this was a (former?) Trotskyist who sort of tilted in the “Friendly Stalinist” direction. Who realized that Communism (with a capital “C”) wasn’t so bad after all if you had a decent guy like Fidel Castro in charge, instead of that Thermidorian brute, Stalin.
Other Trotskyists (like other Stalinists) went the other way, crossed over to the Truly Dark Side, made their peace with Kapital and became imperialist apologists. The power of Kapital being like a giant black hole that uses its gravitational force to suck in everybody who has not strapped themselves to the mast, like Captain Ahab in the Grand Storm off the Cape of Good Hope.
Victor Serge: The lone survivor.
In Trotsky’s lifetime, fellow-travellers such as George Orwell and Victor Serge had come to the conclusion that the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s leadership, had degenerated all the way (like that final scene in “Animal Farm”) and become a full-fledged capitalist or perhaps even fascist country. Trotsky could not agree with that; but even his own wife, Natalia Sedova (who outlived her husband by 22 years!) eventually broke with the Fourth International in 1951, having come round to the Serge-ite view that “Animal Farm USSR” was a capitalist state. Ah, if only these people had lived until 1991 to see the glory that was Boris Yeltsin, then they could have tasted the bitter cup of reality; and yea verily known the true difference between a “degenerated” socialist government and actual real-life sharky capitalism!
But returning to our talented Diego and his troubled timeline: Let’s just stipulate that he broke with Trotsky in February-March of 1939, due to whatever personal (wikipedia) or political (Esteban Volkov) differences. And that our diligent Agent Carlos (Curtiss) either was, or was not, successful, in his diplomatic efforts to bring those two old pals back together again. “C’mon, guys, let’s see a big hug!”
Left to Right: Natalia, Frida, Trotsky, and … some other guy
So, nine months after his break-up with Trotsky, in December 1939 Rivera is bragging to the world that his testimony to the American HUAC will disclose the activities of Stalinist agents in Mexico. A month after that, January 1940 Rivera is documented rat-finking to the American consul in Mexico City, giving up names of “secret Communists” and whatever other tidbits he knew or pretended to know about the local Stalinists.
From the Point of View (POV) of the American government, this was apparently: “Ho-hum.” Now, if Rivera had been a member of the Mexican Communist Party, then he might have really known some interesting stuff, or perhaps even been recruited as a double agent. As it was, he probably didn’t know much that the Americans didn’t already know.
Whatever the usefulness or uselessless of Rivera’s dishings, Professor Chase proved his point, which I covered in Part II(I) of this series, by doing what good historians do: He delved into the archives of the American Secretary of State. The archives in question being numbered, e.g., RG84 and RG59. All of Diego’s rat-finkery occuring well before the two assassination attempts against Trotsky; and, in any case, Rivera himself was not in danger of assassination, although he might have thought he was. Recall that Rivera’s loyal secretary and biography Leah Brenner, whose archives are kept at the University of Texas (in case any budding historians out there want to check them out) received death threats and had to flee to the U.S. for protective custody, for at least a short period of time. Leah was an American citizen, by the way, which Rivera was not.
The McGregor Meetings
Now, Professor Chase, as we have mentioned, insinuates that Trotsky actually crossed over to the Dark Side around the same time as Rivera, with the same motives, and that even before the infamous Home Invasion. For example, Trotsky’s desire to testify at the HUAC jamboree, etc. But Trotsky’s plan to grandstand in front of HUAC was public, not secret, and was known to everybody in the world. It almost caused a major split within the SWP, which was averted only by Trotsky stubbornly asserting his authority. “You will NOT stop me from using them as a tribune for my oratory!”
Did Trotsky’s chickens come home to roost?
Hence, technically, the Stalinists could make this point: Stalin, reading in his morning newspaper that Trotsky intended to testify at HUAC and name names of his precious NKVD agents, made a firm decision, however much it pained him to do so, to liquidate the Trotsky family. In order to avert this threat to legitimate Soviet espionage interests.
Unfortunately for Stalin, the Home Invasion did not go well, Nahum Eitingon’s team screwed up badly, that’s what you get for hiring fresco painters to do the work of professional hitmen. But now Trotsky is super-mad and biting back like a rabid dog backed into a corner.
“Red Youth” picks up the story:
‘In June , Robert McGregor of the [US] Consulate met with Trotsky in his home… he met again with Trotsky on 13 July… Trotsky told McGregor in detail of the allegations and evidence he had compiled… He gave to McGregor the names of Mexican publications, political and labour leaders, and government officials allegedly associated with the PCM [Mexico and the USSR were the only countries in the world to materially support the fight against Franco’s Fascism in the Spanish Civil War 1936-39]. He charged that one of the Comintern’s [the Communist international’s] leading agents, Carlos Contreras served on the PCM Directing Committee. He also discussed the alleged efforts of Narciso Bassols, former Mexican Ambassador to France, whom Trotsky claimed was a Soviet agent, to get him deported from Mexico.’
‘Upon receipt, the State Department transmitted McGregor’s memo to the FBI.
‘…The Information, while not new, responded to both bodies’ concerns.’
But let’s hear this same story from the horse’s mouth, namely Professor Chase; you see, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, “Red Youth” has omitted a key reason why Trotsky met with McGregor:
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury…”
“… After 24 May Trotsky and his colleagues began to assist the [American] consulate in their investigation of the abducted [and murdered] bodyguard Robert Sheldon Harte. Trotsky’s secretaries gave testimony at the consulate regarding the (Home Invasion) and about Mr. Harte. In June Robert G. McGregor of the American consulate met with Trotsky at his home to discuss the Harte matter. He (McGregor) met with Trotsky again on July 13 to find out how the investigation was going. Trotsky told him all about his suspicions…” (etc, this is where Trotsky dishes his crazy conspiracy theory about Stalin and the Comintern being behind the hit squad…)
It makes a bit of a difference when additional facts are added to the mix, no? “Red Youth” never even mentioned Harte’s name. Harte was an American citizen, this explains the interest of the American consul in investigating his murder. And I venture to guess, that if “Red Youth” were staging Trotsky’s trial, this factor never would have been adduced into evidence. I could get even snarkier and imagine the methods these “youth” would use to extract confessions of the accused, but I don’t think I’ll go there… We are conducting an honest trial here, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury…
[to be continued]