August 21, 2020

On the backwall in a garden in the borough of Mexico City is a plaque that reads ‘In Memory of Robert Sheldon Harte. 1915-1940. Murdered by Stalin’.

It is slightly hidden away from the house, not far from what was once the chicken coop. Or to be more precise, not far from Leon Trotsky’s chicken coop. For it is in Leon Trotsky’s garden that the plaque sits. And it is there that it caught my eye as I was moseying around the garden earlier this year.

The story of Robert Sheldon Harte is both deservedly forgotten and slightly suggestive. For Harte was not just a communist, he was an American communist — born in the US in 1915. A member of the Communist Party of the USA, he offered his services as a guard at the Trotsky household in Mexico at the age of 25. On 24 May, 1940, a GPU unit turned up at the house intending to kill Trotsky. The attempt failed, and so the unit settled with abducting Harte who was subsequently shot in the head and buried in quicklime in a shallow grave.

Since Harte’s death, there have been claims and counter-claims about exactly who he was working for. Was he merely an idealistic supporter of the exiled Trotsky or was he in fact — as some have claimed — a double agent, recruited by the NKVD and sent by Stalin’s agents to help in the assassination of the man he was purporting to protect? Whatever the answer, Trotsky himself believed that Harte had been loyal and had the plaque erected himself.

Though he wasn’t able to enjoy it for very long. For only a few months later – 80 years ago today, as it happens — Stalin’s agents were successful in their attempts to get Stalin’s greatest enemy. On August 21, 1940, agents of the NKVD managed to get into the Trotsky compound and one – Ramon Mercader – successfully killed Trotsky with an ice-pick while he was in his study.

There remains something not just gruesome but impressive about this act of political assassination. Impressive because of the message of strength it sent out. By the time of his assassination, Trotsky had been away from the Soviet Union for over a decade. He had eked out that time in a variety of comfortable and miserable surroundings, moving from Turkey to France, to Norway and eventually — not least thanks to the efforts of Frida Kahlo — to his final home of Mexico.

By the time he was there, his name — indeed any association with it — had become more dangerous than any other inside the Soviet Union. At the show trials of 1936, it was enough to be accused of having been in league with Trotsky, to be assured a death sentence. Though, of course, for Stalin it was not necessary for there to be any such connection. Trotskyist connections or tendencies were enough on their own: a routine, useful cipher when the regime needed to make up its quotas of people who needed to be killed.

And of course the impressive thing — the impressive, typically Stalinist message — is that Stalin was able to pursue this enemy to the other end of the earth and, after numerous attempts, actually get him. The assassination of Trotsky was more than an assertion of vengeance, it was an assertion of power. A demonstration that the writ of Stalin ran wherever he wanted it to run. For a dictator, this is a most useful fear to spread around.

But in many ways, what is most interesting about Trotsky is not his death, or life, but his afterlife. For, to a great extent he remained (and for some people amazingly remains still) the great ‘might have been’ of the Soviet era. Never mind the people who actually grew up while the horrors of the Soviet system were ongoing, I have heard people in my own adult life, born in my own lifetime, and sometimes younger than myself (people in their twenties or thirties), seriously describe themselves as being (or at some point having been) a Trotskyist.

How is this possible? Nobody alive, let alone any reasonably intelligent person under the age of 40, would describe themselves as having gone through a period of following Ernst Rohm, before moderating their political views somewhat.

The explanation lies in a corner of Sovietology which is still not settled, though goodness knows it should have been by now. This is the corner which continues to imagine that had Stalin not taken over (or even Lenin, in the views of some), then the catastrophe that all but the most deluded communists now admit to, might never have taken place. Of all the might-have-beens and roads tantalisingly-never-travelled, none has continued to have such appeal as that held out by Leon Trotsky.

In the Fifties and Sixties, Isaac Deutscher performed a work of personal hero-worship in his fluent and slanted three-volume biography (The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast). Although this work had significant critics – not least in the form of Isaiah Berlin – the works helped to cement among English-speakers a perception of Trotsky as the great what-if of Soviet history.

Of course, however long they have tried to sustain this belief, they could not have been more wrong. For all the what-ifs, history shows that had Trotsky been in power, the history of Russia in the 20th Century would hardly have been any different.

From the start of the revolution, till the day he died, Trotsky was the most fanatical and among the most persuasive of the communist leaders. He was as at ease and adept at the use of violence as any of those around him. His only aversion to the same began to emerge as he discovered that he, his associates, and his closest followers might have been on the receiving end of a thing he thought only worth dishing out. So why has the figure of Trotsky retained some allure even 80 years after his timely death?

Several reasons present themselves. One is the possibility that his undoubted intellectual ability, plus his assassination in a far-away land gave him a certain martyr-like glamour. He was working on his magnum opus about his enemy right up until the moment of his death; the combination of work ethic and premature demise can be a heady brew. Especially so for a certain type of Western intellectual who likes the idea of fanaticism for a cause precisely because they have themselves never had to suffer at the hands of such fanatics.

But the greater reason would appear to be that reason which remains perhaps the greatest bit of unfinished business of the 20th Century. The recognition that the Soviet, Communist, Marxist experiments were not trees which just happened to give off some poison fruits. Or beautiful ideas which were just mishandled and misappropriated by misguided hands. But rather that the whole dream was a nightmare from beginning to end. And always was going to be. That the Communist experiment had no more likelihood of delivering peace on earth than did the Fascist attempt to try to produce the same.

Yet it is strange, this. There are still no shrines around the world (as the house of Trotsky in Mexico effectively is) commemorating and glamorising any of the intellectual heroes — let alone physical progenitors — of fascism. Yet here still, on several continents, these memorials to the glamorous heroes of communism remain. And it is an intellectual, as well as moral, failing that this should still be the case.

There is a passage in Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev worth bearing in mind. One of the novel’s many characters, who is hauled away for a crime which he had nothing to do with, is a man who has been a member of the party since 1907. For more than 20 years he has seen his colleagues, superiors, underlings and many others taken away. And now — for a suspected association with something he has no more to do with than all those others did — it is his turn to be taken away. It is a trap, he realises. The whole thing.”That’s the trap,” he realises. “The beast in the trap is you, the trapped beast, you old revolutionist, it’s you… And we’re all in it, all in the trap… Didn’t we all go absolutely wrong somewhere?”

Certainly they did. Sometimes the beast in the trap was a whole population, sometimes it was a single individual. Sometimes it was an unintelligent young fanatic like Robert Sheldon Harte.  Sometimes it was a cultured and intelligent intellectual like the man he apparently wanted to protect. It didn’t matter. They all got caught in the trap. And it is quite hard to feel any admiration or sadness for those caught in a trap that they themselves set.