“WHY THE GPU TRIED TO KILL ME”
News Line January 6, 1977, page 9
Julian Gorkin, the Spanish POUM leader who was in Mexico City in 1940 when Trotsky was assassinated, speaks passionately about the crucial role of security in the revolutionary movement.
Today, at 75, he lives in Paris still keenly following the political developments on Spain. He obtained all the police records of the investigation into the raid on Trotsky’s house at Coyoacan on May 24, 1940, carried out by the Stalinist painter Alfaro Siqueiros.
He worked with General Sanchez Salazar, chief of the Mexican secret police, to produce Murder in Mexico, the first book to attempt an explanation of the GPU murder plot which succeeded on August 20, 1940. Gorkin stole the documents from the police department because he said it was the only way to keep them safe. In a forward to Salazar’s book, Gorkin explained what he had done:
“These documents have been in my possession for more than six years. They act as a guarantee for the statement contained in this book. I have deposited them in a safe place. It is unnecessary to say that all precautions have been taken to prevent them falling into criminal hands. The acquiring and keeping them have, incidentally, almost cost me my life.”
Gorkin is not and never has been a Trotskyist. But his political opposition to Stalinism, which dated from 1929, and his persistent probing into Trotsky’s death, made him the target of physical attacks by the Stalinists. During the civil war in Spain, two plots on his life were foiled by a miracle. As he took on the investigation of Trotsky’s murder in Mexico further attempts were made.
On September 21, 1940, he was stopped by comrades as he walked towards the Palace of Fine Arts where a memorial meeting for Trotsky was under way. Four well-armed Stalinist thugs were waiting nearby to gun his down. “Another minute I should have fallen riddled with bullets”, Gorkin said later.
On two occasions GPU agents posing as police officers and journalists and photographers attempted to enter the home of Diego Rivera, where he was staying, with the intention of murdering him. On another occasion two men arrived in a car to collect him “on behalf of Albert Goldman”, Trotsky’s lawyer. But Goldman and Gorkin had worked out in advance a communication system and he did not fall for the GPU trap.
In a lonely Coyoacan street, seven thugs jumped him and tried to force him into a waiting car but he managed to get away.
At a memorial meeting in Mexico City in 1943 for the anarchist leader Carlo Tresca (shot in a New York street by the GPU), Gorkin and other speakers were attacked by about 150 Stalinists wielding iron bars. Gorkin still carries the scar on his forehead. “That has done nothing to modify my feelings or my resolution to continue the struggle against Stalinism and its methods”, Gorkin said.
Gorkin has had more life-and-death brushes with the GPU that any of the “veteran battlers” on the platform at Joseph Hansen and George Novack’s meeting in London on January 14 to whitewash the GPU
In an interview with the International Committee in Paris in October 1976, Gorkin agreed at once to support the call for an international commission of inquiry into Trotsky’s murder. He explained why:
Q: Why did the GPU attack you?
JG: It’s very simple. I’d been living as a condemned man for 18 months in Spain. It was only by chance that they didn’t kill me along with [Andres] Nin. Nin had his office on the first floor. I was on the second floor, with other party representatives and my secretary, Max Petel who is still alive today.
I was downstairs talking to Nin about the danger we were in., and a court case I was involved in as editor of the paper, La Batalla – and my secretary came down and said: “We have to answer a letter from the ILP right away”. So I said right, I’m coming.
And two minutes later, as I was dictating the letter, a comrade came up and said, “Don’t go downstairs, the police have arrived looking for you and Nin, they’re taking Nin away.” So I said right I’m coming. Nin left the building quite calmly, but we never saw him again. So it was a miracle I escaped with my life.
And then I was secretary in Mexico, along with Marceau Pivert, Victor Serge and Gustav Regler – the German who had been secretary of the Communist International Brigades – with Jewish refugees, followers of Largo Caballero, etc. I was the secretary of an international committee, and president of the Spanish-American Cultural Society. And we published books and all kinds of things. And the biggest danger for them at that time was me.
For example, Jean-Paul Satre published Victor Serge’s notebooks – Les Carnets de Victor Serge – here in France. And he says quite a lot about the persecution we suffered. In one case he records that an aid of the President of the Republic came to find us and warn us that there was plot to kill me, because I was the secretary and organiser of the committee. And he said that the Mexican President had decided to take special measures to protect us – because he didn’t want another assassination on his hands after the killing of Trotsky.
The only reason for this was that we were preparing against Stalinism – not just denouncing Stalin and his pact with Hitler, but preparing to go back to Spain and to Europe and renew the socialist movement in opposition to Stalinism.
And none of them – Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev – have ever been able to tolerate revolutionary elements outside of their control, out of the control of the GPU. So they knew that after the world war there would be a new upsurge in the workers movement, and they wanted to suppress this nucleus, which we were preparing with an international perspective.
Q: How long did you spend in Mexico?
JG: I was secretary of the POUM and I was nominated by the Committee here to go to the United States and then Mexico to direct the activities there. France was occupied and our relations with the US and Mexico were broken off. So I went there and I was there from 1940 to 1948.
During that time there were constant attacks on us and on the Trotskyists by the Stalinist press, especially in the press of Lombardo Toledano, the trade union chief, who was a Stalinist tool for the whole of Latin America.
They published this pamphlet – The Genealogy of Treason – with a cartoon, in which Trotsky is the trunk and we are the branches – Pivert, Victor Serge, Gorkin, Munis. That is to say, they saw that once Trotsky was dead they would have to cut down all the branches of Trotskyism.
So there was a series of attempts on my life, including the time they cut my head open – you can see the scar on my forehead. On that occasion they operated on me on the same table they operated on Trotsky when he was dying, in the Green Cross hospital.
I have just re-discovered a pamphlet in which the whole thing was reported and a petition signed by 222 intellectuals, trade unionists, left-wingers, writers and actors asking the President of Mexico to guarantee our safety so that they wouldn’t assassinate us as they had assassinated Leon Trotsky.
And there was something else that happened, something very strange. Carlo Tresca was an Italian anarchist of exceptionally high principles. He was assassinated coming out of the offices of his paper, Il Martello. He defended Trotsky, he defended us, and he was assassinated by Vittorio Vidali, who together with Alfaro Siqueiros set up and led the first attack on Trotsky’s house, he was also the commander who assassinated Andres Nin, he was known then as Carlos Conteras.
In Mexico we held a memorial meeting for Carlo Tresca and for two leaders of the Polish Bund, Alter and Ehrlich, who had fled to Russia and disappeared when Poland was divided between Stalin and Hitler. We carried out a campaign, together with Jews of the Bund in Mexico, to discover the whereabouts of the leaders of the Polish Bund – which had organised the first Bolshevik congress, with Lenin and Vera Zasulich etc. They disappeared, and then it came to light – Litvinov said at a meeting in New York – that they had been executed in Tiflis. So we organised a protest, and this was when they invaded our centre. The Stalinists invaded the meeting and wounded me and another comrade.
We were in such danger that when we published this book of four studies on Problems of Socialism in Our Time – one by Victor Serge, one by Pivert, another by me – going back to it I see this dedication on the fly-leaf, I had forgotten about it: “For Julian Gorkin, with communist greetings, after discussing how to prevent his assassination – signed by Victor Serge and Marceau Pivert, 24.1.44.” [Text as original – Ed]
This was because in the paper, El Popular, an article had been published saying I would be assassinated on a street corner in Mexico City. And I said the following day to the press that they could assassinate me on any street corner in Mexico, but I gave warning that on the following day my comrades would execute two leaders of the Mexican Communist Party and two officials of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico.
They were terrified. So with this campaign – which was supported internationally, including in England by some ILP Members of Parliament –we were able to avoid being murdered.
Q: In Intercontinental Press six weeks ago Joseph Hansen wrote that Tresca was killed by the fascists or the Mafia. What do you think of this?
JG: No. Shortly before Tresca was assassinated, he wrote a letter to Marceau Pivert and myself in Mexico, saying, “Vittorio Vidali is currently in New York and I am afraid for my life. I want you to be warned.” They were the ones who said that Tresca had been killed by gunmen for some big Italian firm in the US etc. Tresca himself told us he feared he would be killed.
Julio Melia, the Cuban student leader who declared his support for Trotsky on the Central Committee of the Mexican Communist Party – he was in exile from Cuba in Mexico, he was the leader of the Cuban students – and in a meeting of the Mexican Communist Party Central Committee, he stated in front of Vittorio Vidali, who had been Moscow’s agent in Mexico since 1928 – he said that Stalin’s policy towards Trotsky was criminal. And Vittorio Vidali told him; “People who think like you do – you know how they end up.”
Melia had a wife, a model called Tina Modotti. She was a close friend of Vittorio Vidali. And when Melia was murdered, the police found on her an itinerary of everything Melia and she were going to be doing that day, with a mark indication the spot where Melia was shot dead.
Later Tina Modotti, who worked in Spain for the GPU as the lover of Vittorio Vidali – “Carlos Contreras” – under the name of Maria Ruiz, when she returned to Mexico, said to a group of friends, “He is a murderer. He has made me do the most monstrous things.”
And she said that El Campesino had wanted to restrain Vittorio Vidali and threatened to kill him if he didn’t obey. Maria Ruiz said, “It would have been better if he had killed him. He is a murderer.” She said this to some of her friends, and shortly afterwards Tina Modotti was found dead in the back of a taxi in Mexico City.
I said all this in a pamphlet at the time, in spite of all the threats to kill me too. So it wasn’t only in the book The Assassination of Trotsky that I accused them, but earlier too.
Q: Why do you think the GPU wanted to kill Tresca?
JG: The GPU wanted to get Tresca because he was bringing out a paper called Il Martello, and he was the one who carried out all the campaigns in Italy, not just against Mussolini but against Stalin. And he had a big audience in the United States – not just in anarchist circles, he had a lot of influence in the trade unions.
And Tresca took up our defence and Trotsky’s defence – he stood up for Bukharin and Zinoviev and Kamenev – all of us. So he was a real obstacle in the United States for the Italian Stalinists.
Vittorio Vidali later admitted that Tresca had held a key position. He had a lot of influence in the American unions, the Italian unions which were very strong in the United States. And the Stalinists wanted to get control of them, so they had to get rid of an opponent like him who fought them all the time and defended us. He was the one who welcomed me when I arrived there in 1940. He challenged them for the leadership of the Italian unions. This was why they killed him.
Q: It is also said that at the time of his assassination Tresca was working on a book about the assassination of Trotsky, and that this might have been a reason
JG: Yes, yes, I knew about this from Tresca himself and from his wife. He was passionately interested in it. By some miracle I’ve saved some of Tresca’s letters – one of them contains this warning about his death …
Here’s a leaflet by the Stalinists, saying that if I came to the United States they would get me. Well, it was Tresca who sent some of his boys to protect me. And here’s a report of a meeting in New York where Tresca was denouncing the crimes of Stalinism, the murder of Nin, etc …
I have one fantastic recollection of Tresca. The day I left New York to take a coach down through the United States. Carly Tresca came to see me off. We bought the morning papers and saw the report of the first attack on Trotsky – it had happened just the day before. And I said to Carlo Tresca, “this time they haven’t managed to kill him, but Trotsky is under sentence of death and Stalin won’t pardon him.” And then later Tresca himself was assassinated.
Q: Do you remember the circumstances of the Stalinist’s attack on your meeting in Mexico?
JG: We were preparing a meeting in the centre of the Spanish-Mexican Cultural Society – of which I was President. We were holding a protest meeting against the killing of Alter and Ehrlich and the assassination of Carlo Tresca. American and Mexican journalists were coming, along with all the Polish Bund people. Russian refugees, Victor Serge, Germans, Italians, Spanish anarchists, Trotskyists etc.
But before we could begin, lorry loads of 150 of them arrived – they invaded the place. We hid Victor Serge in the kitchen because we thought he was in the greatest danger and I, naïvely enough – as the American press reported – went out to ask them, “what do you want?” And at that point one of them smashed me over the head … and there was quite a battle – some of them had revolvers in their hands and my comrades, who had defended me on previous occasions, had grabbed some bottles, and fought them off – someone went for the police and when the police arrived 80 of the Stalinists were arrested.
Later, after they had operated on me, they asked me to identify some of them. I didn’t know any of them, but they were all working for the GPU.
There is one thing to bear in mind – there was a whole GPU detachment left behind in Mexico to watch over Mercader. They even stopped Caridad Mercader visiting her son. They directed all the activities against us, and at the same time made sure Mercader couldn’t talk.
Caridad Mercader blackmailed Beria* into letting her leave Moscow, and promised that she wouldn’t leave Cuba and go to Mexico, but she did. And one time Cooper, who was head of the GPU outfit – a Pole – even planned a car accident to get rid of Caridad Mercader in Mexico. And she was so terrified she had to come and hide here with her daughter, Montserrat, who was married to a banker. It’s through this bank that the GPU paid its subsidies to the French Communist Party.
Q: What do you think of the escape of Robert Sheldon Harte, Trotsky’s guard who disappeared with the Stalinists after the May 24 raid?
JG: I have thought for a long time that he was working for the GPU. Now the Mexican Trotskyists agree with me, and so does Seva Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson.
At the time of the first attack Sheldon Harte was not kidnapped. He went with them voluntarily in a car. He was on guard and he opened the door. Later when he was being held in the Sierra de los Leones he made no attempt to escape. They let him walk around freely but he didn’t try to escape.
There is something else too. Fanny Yanovich, Trotsky’s Russian secretary, later told me that every night when Sheldon Harte drove her home after work he was very anxious about the progress of Trotsky’s book about Stalin and asked her about it constantly. Trotsky was working on the biography and he used to dictate his work to Fanny Yanovich took it down. And she said that every night Sheldon Harte used to ask her how far had Trotsky got, what was he saying about Stalin.
You must understand that Stalin was very worried about this book – he wanted to stop it appearing. They were worried about the effect it would have. This was after the Stalin-Ribbentrop pact and everything and the Kremlin wanted at all costs to stop it from appearing in the West.
The one thing I reproach Trotsky with is that in his urgency to have people around him that he could train and teach, he was too trusting to those recommended to him by his section in the United States.
Q: Could you say something about the role of security in the revolutionary movement?
JG: It’s of the very first importance. It’s very important – because the whole labour movement today is under the heel of two super-powers. They are subject to the vigilance of American imperialism because of its economic and political interests and strategic objectives, and to Soviet imperialism.
Unquestionably both of them maintain surveillance of the revolutionary movements which stand in their way. It’s important for young revolutionaries today not just to learn about ideology, questions of doctrine, strategy and tactics, but to learn to be suspicious of everything, to take great care to learn from out past to be on their guard against infiltration of the movement by both the American CIA and the KGB.
We knew there were agents in our midst – there was one in our group in Mexico, and in one of the Cheka’s jails in Barcelona, where my wife, (who died in Mexico) was imprisoned. In her cell there was a GPU agent, whom I discovered later thanks to the Menshevik Abramovich, and we were able to expose her and then she tried to poison herself.
She was in jail with my wife and later I sent her to see Sneevliet* in Amsterdam. Eventually we found out everything. She received money from her father and brother in Sweden. Then I discovered that her brother was a Communist Party member working for the GPU and that the Thursday visits were to pass on information to a GPU agent called Leopold. You find them everywhere.
She was in jail with my companion and she went every Thursday to give her report to the GPU about what my companion said and what we were doing etc.
Q: Our movement believes that security is absolutely vital and because we have this attitude we are accused of being “paranoid”. What do you think of this?
JG: They’ve accused us all of being paranoical! All of us who disagreed with them.
Q: In a recent article George Novack of the Socialist Workers Party in the United State said Leon Trotsky and his son Sedov were partly responsible for their own deaths, because they were lax on the question of security. What do you think?
JG: It’s a ridiculous thing to say. They wanted to train followers in the struggle against Stalinism. If in that they ran certain risks – well, all Trotsky’s methods show that to say he was in any way responsible for his own death seems to me to be nothing but a slander. They said Trotsky was an agent of Hitler’s and they called us “Trotskyite-Hitlerite agents”. This is another slander and lie heaped on all the rest.
Q: The International Committee of the Fourth International is proposing that all the crimes of Stalinism should be fully catalogues and published for the education of the new generations of revolutionaries. We believe that there should be a Commission of Inquiry that should assemble all the evidence and publish its findings. What do you think of this?
JG: It is very necessary and very important. It is of the very first importance. Lenin used to say that without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice. I say that without training the active members to face concrete reality, to be suspicious of everything and everyone there can be no revolutionary movement.
*Lavrenty Beria, head of the GPU and NKVD under Stalin
*Henk Sneevliet, leader of the Dutch Communist Party who was murdered by the Nazis in 1942