EXCLUSIVE NEWS LINE INTERVIEW WITH HAROLD ROBINS
News Line 18 August 1976 page 8
What I Learned From Leon Trotsky
[Harold Robins was the guard who apprehended Trotsky’s assassin Ramon Merceder]
When did you join the Trotskyist movement?
It must have been in September or October 1928. I joined in Cannon’s apartment. It was just around the time Cannnon, Shachtman and Abern had published the second issue of the Militant
I had bought a copy of The Real Situation in Russia by Trotsky, which convinced me that it was Trotsky and the Trotskyists who were the real champions of the working masses who were exploited and oppressed.
I had been in the Young Workers (Communist) League. I was 19 years old, a member of the Downtown No. 2 branch, which was considered the best proletarian branch in the YWL.
I had been proposed for membership in 1927, but I didn’t join because I was upset with the expulsion of Trotsky from the Russian Communist Party. I didn’t believe he was a member of the White Guards.
However, I did join the YWL in 1928. Soon after, I got Trotsky’s book and agreed with it.
When I got hold of The Real Situation in Russia I was able to use the book to convince other comrades to join the Communist League of America.
What was the Trotskyist movement like in the early days?
Well, Cannon, Shachman and Abern were out selling the Militant outside the Communist Party headquarters in Union Square. They were being pushed around. Some of the workers defended them, but most were confused and didn’t know what the issues were.
Jay Lovestone organised the first goon squads to break up our meetings.
When we had meetings, Cannon would read to us from some of Trotsky’s articles. There would be from 6 to 10 comrades in the room, including one stool pigeon who was pretty obvious.
We’d all be listening to what Cannon was saying, but this one guy would be looking at us carefully so that he could report on our identities.
During one of the meetings, I interrupted Cannon when he was talking about Trotsky’s position on the trade union leaders in Britain. I said that I didn’t really understand Trotsky’s arguments too well.
Then, the others chimed in to say that they didn’t either. That was the level of our development. We could understand what Trotsky had to say about party democracy and about the struggle to improve the living standards of the workers in Russia.
But we had a hard time following some of the more subtle arguments about the role of the trade union bureaucracy and opportunism.
Many of the party members would say to us: “We don’t know who’s right. Trotsky may be right. Stalin may be right. But we have to go along with the majority. I didn’t agree with that method, so we had to part company.
How were you chosen to serve on Trotsky’s guard in Mexico?
Comrade John G. Right nominated me as a candidate for Trotsky’s guard.
Trotsky had laid down a condition that no worker in the trade unions should be taken out of that work to come down to Mexico. But I had just been taken out of the Party’s UAW work in Detroit, where I was a member of the auto council.
So, because I wasn’t in a union at that point, I was accepted by Trotsky to come the Mexico.
Although I was not at that time in trade union work, I was the only member of the guard who had connections with the organised workers movement until Jake Cooper came along.
Trotsky would always say that the SWP must do nothing to disturb the connections with the organised workers movement because we had too few forces.
Could you recall some of your impressions of Trotsky?
Trotsky was a great revolutionary leader, teacher and thinker. And I should add educator. That impression has been reinforced continuously over the years. I’ll give you an example.
Trotsky came over to me one day after I had been there about three or four weeks. He asked me, “Comrade Robins, how long have you been in the movement?”
I replied that I had been in the party 10 or 12 years.
“And what have you written?” Trotsky asked.
“Oh, I’m not a writer”. I answered. Trotsky looked at me quite intently as if he was wondering, “Is this comrade serious?”
And Trotsky asked, “Why haven’t you written? Haven’t you any political ideas?”
I responded, “Yes, I do. I’ve spoken for the Party on the German events and on other questions at Stalinist forums with some success in making recruits. I’ve been in charge of some educational work. I’ve been the leading Trotskyist in the auto faction in Detroit.”
Trotsky said: “How come you didn’t write about any of these things?”
I repeated again: “Some comrades are writers and some are not writers. I’m one of those who aren’t writers.”
Comrade Trotsky stared at me in silence for about 30 seconds, threw both hands up in the air and exclaimed, “I’ve never heard anything like this in my life.” He turned around abruptly and walked away.
My first reaction was, “What the hell is the matter with him?” That evening I tried to figure out why he raised the question and then took that attitude.
Then I remembered that for years Trotsky had been arguing for a proletarian revolution, complaining that the voice of the worker rarely appears in the Militant. For years, he had been campaigning for us to prevent the petty-bourgeois elements from running the Party apparatus. And I agreed with him for years.
Then, I realised, “What the hell kind of agreement is this. You agree that workers should write, but you don’t.” Then I saw that my agreement had just been a verbal agreement, which meant nothing.
Hansen tries to suggest that Trotsky was uninterested in questions of security within the revolutionary movement. Was that your impression of Trotsky?
No, it’s absolutely untrue. In the writings of Trotsky, there should be listed the 21 points of the Comintern which Trotsky wrote with amendments by Lenin.
He called for purging the Communist Party of all non-revolutionary elements, including reformists, centrists, and all those who failed to carry on a fight against the illusions of bourgeois democracy.
If you check Trotsky’s archives, you will find that he opposed the recruitment of White Guard elements into the Cheka in 1920. He was concerned with security.
He once discovered a comrade missing from his guard post and shortly afterward discovered that this same guard was missing for a second time.
Trotsky came up to me and asked, “Comrade Robins, how do you explain this? Who is the comrade assigned to this post?”
I told him who it was. He happened to be a leading member of the International Secretariat. Both Trotsky and I went looking for him and soon found him.
I asked the comrade why he wasn’t at his assigned post. Comrade Trotsky was a very interested observer.
I told the delinquent comrade to return to his post immediately and to stay there until relieved. I went about a check of the defence arrangements and Comrade Trotsky went his own way.
Five minutes later, Comrade Trotsky came back to me and said, “Comrade Robins, there is no one at this post again. Who is responsible for this?”
Again, we both went looking for the delinquent and we soon found him. This time I said to him, “You were told to stay at your post until you were relieved. Twice you disobeyed orders.
“You must function here as a guard, not as a member of the International Executive. Go back to your post and stay there or turn in your gun and get the hell out of here.” The delinquent volunteer, who was a heroic Trotskyist in his own country under fascism – was not a hero in this particular instance. He grinned sheepishly and apologised and went back to his post.
Comrade Trotsky, who is noted for his hostility to slang and cursing, said nothing about my choice of language or anything else.
He put his arm around my shoulder, patted me on the shoulder twice, smiled with a pleased expression and walked off.
In the civil war, communists who ran off from their post were shot on orders of Comrade Trotsky. He was not indifferent to matters of security and he demonstrated it by having the fortifications constructed at Coyoacan.
During the fight with the Shachmanites, Trotsky wrote a letter on 27 December 1939. He wrote that the Party should be on its guard against Stalinist agents working for a split.
In Hansen’s story you have Trotsky saying, “Welcome GPU, welcome FBI.” That’s what Hansen and company say. Hansen’s picture doesn’t correspond with the facts. It corresponds with Hansen’s policy.
Why did you leave the Socialist Workers Party.
They abandoned the whole proletarian programme of Trotskyism in order to adapt to the petty-bourgeoisie. From the mid-1950’s on, the SWP deliberately abandoned the proletarian orientation and with it the revolutionary programme of Trotskyism.
After 1963, they decided that there was no revolutionary development in the American working class, that they would find a new social base among non-working-class elements. Then they would proceed to do what Pablo did; drop their Trotskyism and become petty bourgeois critics of Stalinism.
They dropped the Leninist maxim that we must teach the workers to have no trust in the capitalist state. And they dropped the 21 points of the Comintern which insisted on the fight against centrism.
Why do you support the fight of the International Committee for the establishment of a commission of enquiry to investigate all the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Trotsky?
Permit me to reply in the words and spirit of Comrade Trotsky. He wrote somewhere that if you want to find out who committed the crime, find out who benefitted.
Trotsky ascribed this maxim to the French police. He recommended it for our consideration when trying to solve political crimes, which includes assassination of proletarian leaders and cadres, frame-ups and slanders.
Such political crimes are invaluable to the capitalist class and their system. In efforts to solve in their own favour the crisis, they want to kill revolutionary leaders, demoralise and disorient their ranks politically, and these crimes are often committed on behalf of the ruling class by Stalinists and social democrats.
This includes Hansen and company. Let us be clear. This includes Hansen and company. Their policies have nothing to do with the Communist Manifesto.
These crimes committed by agents of the bourgeoisie serve the interests of capitalism. I’m fighting this because I’m a Trotskyist. I’m 69 years old, but I’m active in my trade union and I’m still fighting to raise the consciousness of the working class to its revolutionary tasks.
James P. Cannon (1890-1974): Founder of American Trotskyism, leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) until he retired in the 1960’s
Max Shachtman (1903-1972): Founder member of the SWP but became an opponent of Trotsky and split from the movement in 1940.
Joseph Hansen: One of the founders of the SWP. Indicted by the International Committee of the Fourth International on 1 January this year as an accomplice of the GPU
Martin Abern (1898-1949): Founder member of the American Communist Party, joined the SWP and split along with Shachtman in 1940.
Jay Lovestone: Founder of the Communist Party of the United States. Supporter of Stalin. Later collaborated with the CIA
John G. Right (-1956): Leader and writer of the SWP. Translated many of Trotsky’s works into English.