Trotsky in Mexico

How former New Statesman editor Kingsley Martin went to Mexico to interview Trotsky in 1937

Taken from the New Statesman and Nation archive, 10 April 1937

Like so many on the intellectual left in the 1930s, the New Statesman's editor Kingsley Martin was perplexed by Joseph Stalin's show trials of prominent Bolsheviks. Were their admissions of treason genuine, or fabrications forced out of them? Martin travelled to Mexico to meet Stalin’s worst enemy – the exiled Leon Trotsky – to find an answer to that question. On 20 August 1940, Trotsky was attacked by an assassin on Stalin's orders; he died the following day.

Selected by Robert Taylor

I went to see Trotsky in the house which Diego Rivera and his wife have lent him in an outlying suburb of Mexico City. He is very well guarded and cannot go out, I am told, without a bodyguard of detectives and armed patrols on motorcycles. Four armed guards were standing at the gate. Once inside, I thought an exile could scarcely hope to find a lovelier refuge. Trotsky was sitting in a long, cool room looking out onto the patio – a gay and beautiful courtyard, the walls bright blue and the bougainvillea a blazing glory in the sunshine. He was working, he told me, on his new book, The Crimes of Stalin.

Pictures of Trotsky are apt to suggest the stage revolutionary in the fuzzy hair and a certain untidy vehemence about the neck. Nothing could be further from the fact. Dapper was the word that came into my head, when I first saw him. He looked as if he had just come out of a hot bath, just had his hair cut, his beard trimmed and his suit pressed. His hair and beard are grey and his face a fresh pink. He looked like a Frenchman, not, I decided after a few minutes, a French politician but, in spite of his neatness, a French artist,

As we talked I retained the impression of Trotsky as an artist, an intuitive and imaginative man, vein and very able, a man of fierce will and unruly temperament. If I had met him without knowing who he was, or what he had done, and without having read his books, I should have been impressed; but I doubt I should have recognised his genius. In conversation it grew upon me that he lacked one of the qualities of greatness which I think Lenin had to an extraordinary degree. Trotsky, I think, has always seen events in relation to his own career; even when he was throwing his immense energy into the task of building the Soviet army and reorganising the shattered railway system, he must even then have been saying to himself "I, Trotsky, am doing this great thing and doing it as superbly as only I can." He is a dramatist and plays his own title-roles; I doubt if his judgement has ever been objective. But, in exile, objectivity is almost impossible. Its destruction is the worst damage that exile inflicts. Perhaps Lenin is the only political refugee who has ever lost his sense of proportion.

Trotsky was charming and friendly. Yes, he was pleased to talk to me because he regarded the NEW STATESMAN AND NATION as one of the few honest and genuinely radical papers. I suppose that he had read a recent article expressing scepticism about the evidence of the Moscow trials. I asked him at once about the "archives" of which he had spoken in the press. He had promised detailed refutation of the evidence of the confessions. How soon would it be ready? Would it contain material similar to the points that no Hotel Bristol had existed in Copenhagen when he was said to have been plotting there (there was, it seems, a Café Bristol next to an hotel), and that no aeroplane flew to Oslo in December of 1935? H e replied that far the most convincing proof that the trial was fake lay in the obvious impossibility of the plot that he and his former friends in Russia were supposed to have hatched. The inherent absurdity of the story was more important than a hundred Hotel Bristols. But there were of course many other detailed proofs of the falsity of the evidence, and he would fully expose them in his book. It must take a considerable period to establish them full. His archives were numerous, but they needed a great deal of sorting – several secretaries were engaged on the job – and they were incomplete. On some points he could only advance complete proof with the aid of foreign governments. In France, for instance, the only people who knew his address and his movements were the heads of the police; he had written to the French authorities to aid him in showing the falsity of the about an alleged meeting in Paris. Such investigations could not e completed in a minute. But in a few months’ time his book would appear, and all the people who had not spoken out clearly on his side would be ashamed at ever having any doubts.

All the evidence relating to Romm, Trotsky thought, had been introduced at the last minute by the G.P.U. in order to discredit him in America, where Romm himself had been well known and liked as a newspaper correspondent. The G.P.U. had expected him to be in Norway during the trial and had been taken by surprise when he was moved in strict secrecy to Mexico. Another point lf which we will probably hear more when Trotsky’s book appears was his confident assertion that Sosnowski had been secretly assassinated by the G.P.U. because he had refused to sign a joint statement which Radek, Piatakof and Rakovsky had been induced to sign.

I told him that I was still puzzled about the confessions. They were difficult to explain on any hypothesis. What possible pressure could be brought on all these experienced revolutionaries which would make them not only confess, but stand by their confessions when they had the opportunity of publicly repudiating them in open trial? Trotsky explained that I did not understand the methods of the G.P.U. He described how they first got hold of a woman and questioned her until she made a confession which incriminated her husband; how this was used to break down her husband’s resistance and how he in turn was induced to incriminate his friends, all of whom were gradually persuaded by pressure of one sort or another to sign what was required. The G.P.U. knew, he said, how to attack each of its victims in his weakest spot, this man signing from sheer nervous exhaustion, that one because of a threat to his wife and children, and the other in the hope of pardon and release. The preparation of such a case took years, and the trials were the climax of a determination which Stalin had taken in 1927 (when the split in the Party occurred) completely to eliminate all those who had sympathised with Trotsky and who might in the future swing opinion against Stalin’s policy. The G.P.U. would not stage a trial until they were sure of all their men. Tomsky, it should be noted, had committed suicide or had been killed.

I still did not understand why none of the prisoners had repudiated his confession in court. I try to think of myself under such circumstances. I can see myself breaking down and confessing to anything under pressure, but the trial itself was free and open, and I think I should have withdrawn an exhorted confession when I saw the press correspondents hanging on my words. Russians tell me that this is an English view, that confession is a spontaneous impulse of the Slav soul, "an old Russian custom," not a peculiar invention of Dostoievsky and the G.P.U. However, I put it to Trotsky. Why, I asked, did none of the accused men imitate Dimitrov? It was strange that not one of them should have gone down that fighting and have appealed to the public opinion of the world. Most of them knew they were going to die, anyway. Trotsky grew very animated. I was wrong. Even after the example of the first trial these men did not know they were going to die. There was a world of difference between certainty of death and just that much hope of reprieve – here Trotsky made an expressive gesture with his fingers to indicate even a millimetre of hope. And in fact they had not all died. Radek and Sokolnikov and two others were still alive. He was completely convinced that there had been an understanding from the beginning between Radek and Stalin. Radek knew that he was to be reprieved. As for Dimitrov there was no parallel at all. He had been held only for a few months before the trial, and in those days the old democratic authorities were still mainly in charge of the prisons and the police. Dimitrov had never been subjected to the kind of pressure that broke the accused men in Russia. Moreover, he had all the press of the world in front of him, while in Russia the foreign correspondents were al "paid prostitutes" of Moscow. The arch-villain among the pressman was Duranty. But Trotsky had shown up Duranty in a correspondence with the New York Times; he had made the New York Times climb down, and he doubted whether they still had the same confidence in their Moscow correspondent. And what had I got to say for Mr. Pritt; how much had he been paid to write the account of things he did; how had he come to be on the spot so aptly for the first trial? This was more than I could bear. I explained to him that I knew Mr. Pritt well, that he might perhaps have been deceived, might even be accused of credulity when he went to Russia, but that his integrity was beyond question. Trotsky and I had a regular wrangle on the point, and I’m afraid that I failed to convince him. To see him get up and shout abuse at Mr. Pritt was revealing. He seemed to believe that anyone who had a word to say for Stalin or who hesitates to denounce the whole trial as a frame-up must be in the pay of Moscow. He made an exception in the case of the Webbs – they were merely poor credulous dupes.

I had had enough of the trial, and I asked Trotsky what he thought would now happen in Europe. He said that in any case this trial was the "beginning of Stalin's agony." He paraphrased Abraham Lincoln; it was not possible "to betray all the world all the time." Stalin had gone too far in betrayal. Repression had reached its limits in Russia and the disillusion of the workers had begun. The Russian people would throw off the yoke. Did he mean in war or before war? War, he said, would hasten things. He did not wish for it, but when it did come its inevitable result would be to release the proletariat everywhere and in Russia most quickly of all. "I tell you," he said, "that in three to five years from now the Fourth International will be a great force in the world." The Trotskyist trials in Russia had not convinced the workers abroad, had shown Stalin in his true light, and had dealt a great blow at the Third International. In any case, Stalin's policy was forcing the Second and Third Internationals to come together; this was the beginning of its end. The Fourth International must develop in any case. In war its development would be very rapid.

Afterwards, turning over this conversation in my mind, I did not find that it had cleared my perplexity about the Moscow trial. When I wrote that I did not know whether or not to believe in the confessions, I meant exactly what I said. It seemed to me the only honest thing to say. Trotsky, like other people, interpreted my scepticism as a vote against Stalin and he had tried to remove any lingering doubts. But I came away from our talk rather less inclined to scout the possibility of Trotsky’s complicity than I had been before, because his judgement appeared to me so unstable, and therefore the possibility of his embarking on a crazy plot more credible. I had not then read the verbatim report of Radek’s evidence nor a book called Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek, by Dudley Collard. Mr. Collard, who was present at the trial, is completely convinced of the truth of the confessions. On a number of points I must confess that he seems to be singularly naïve. But he has the wisdom to include in his book the full text of Radek’s confession and cross-examination, and I agree with him that it is almost impossible to believe that it was collusive. Radek’s testimony goes a long way towards convincing me that part at least of the evidence is true. The story that Radek tells of the stages in which he became implicated and the reasons which led him to try and withdraw read to me like truth. Some of the other evidence still strains my credulity, and to believe it is to be compelled to regard as astonishingly cold-blooded villains men whom Communists have wished us to respect as heroic leaders of the revolution. Worse still, to accept it involves also accepting a very unhappy picture of Soviet Russia to-day. In any case I shall not let myself become a partisan in this controversy until I have seen what evidence is produced before the inquiry which is now opening in New York an until I have read the facts and arguments which Trotsky is compiling in The Crimes of Stalin. But I fear this open-minded attitude will have no effect on Trotsky except to convince him that I too am a prostitute in the pay of Moscow.

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change