Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

There’s No Place Like CounterPunch

There's no place like CounterPunch, it's just that simple. And as the radical space within the "alternative media"(whatever that means) landscape continues to shrink, sanctuaries such as CounterPunch become all the more crucial for our political, intellectual, and moral survival. Add to that the fact that CounterPunch won't inundate you with ads and corporate propaganda. So it should be clear why CounterPunch needs your support: so it can keep doing what it's been doing for nearly 25 years. As CP Editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, succinctly explained, "We lure you in, and then punch you in the kidneys." Pleasant and true though that may be, the hard-working CP staff is more than just a few grunts greasing the gears of the status quo.

So come on, be a pal, make a tax deductible donation to CounterPunch today to support our annual fund drive, if you have already donated we thank you! If you haven't, do it because you want to. Do it because you know what CounterPunch is worth. Do it because CounterPunch needs you. Every dollar is tax-deductible. (PayPal accepted)

Thank you,
Eric Draitser

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

The novel makes no attempts to make Grand Statements about the world after the fashion of Kingsolver or Padura but simply tells the story of how Ramon Mercader ended up assassinating the man that Lenin favored to lead the Soviet Union after his death. In some ways, the novel reads like a very good spy thriller—and after all, that’s what Mercader was, a spy. I was reminded of two of my favorite novelists who work within this genre, Eric Ambler and Alan Furst. What, you haven’t heard of them? Boy, do you have some great reading in front of you.

Despite knowing how the story will end, you find yourself sitting at the edge of your seat as the GPU closes in on Trotsky. Oddly enough, I couldn’t help but think of the assassination of Jesse James as that dirty coward Frank Howard shot poor Jesse in an unguarded moment. Now, of course, we know better Obedient-Assassin-by-John-P.-Davidsonnowadays that James was a filthy bushwhacker but not so long ago he was more often seen as a modern day Robin Hood. When American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon was sent to prison for violations of the Smith Act in 1941 (his party opposed WWII), he liked to kid the bank robbers he ran into in the yard. Why bother with small change, he told them, we were after the whole thing.

Muralist David Siquieros, who led a hit squad that despite firing machine guns into Trotsky’s bedroom for twenty minutes failed to meet their target except for a minor scratch on Trotsky’s grandson’s foot, was much more skilled with a paintbrush.

It was up to Mercader to finish the job. Mercader was known to the people at Coyoacan as Frank Jacson, the name on the passport he used to get into the U.S. But his wife, a New York Trotskyist named Sylvia Ageloff, knew him as Jacques Mornard, supposedly a Belgian playboy. Among the thousands of lies he told her was that he had to use a fake passport as Jacson since he was supposedly wanted for avoiding military service in Belgium. The truth is that he was a Spaniard named Ramon Mercader and a member of the Communist Party who fought in Spain. His mother was Caridad, also a Communist and deeply involved with the GPU. She was the one who recruited him to penetrate the Coyoacan fortress and provide intelligence for Siquieros’s raid. When the raid failed, it was up to Jacson to carry out the hit with the weapon he chose for the occasion, a pickax used for mountain climbing.

In order to make Mercader a somewhat more sympathetic character, Davidson portrays him as someone who grows increasingly averse to his assignment—arguing to his GPU handlers that the Trotskyists were intellectuals and no threat to the Soviet Union. Of course, the Stalinists were totally psychotic by this point so reasoning would be useless. They told Mercader that unless he did his duty, he, his mother and his wife would all be killed. Like the mafia, the Kremlin had a way of enforcing obedience. As a title, “The Obedient Assassin” reflects this reality, but the title could have just as easily been “The Reluctant Assassin” since this was Mercader’s state of mind as the date drew near for the fatal encounter.

To refresh my memory on the assassination, I reread Isaac Deutscher’s account in volume three of his biography “The Prophet Outcast”. He describes Mercader as “nervous and gloomy” in the final days. Of course, we don’t know exactly what caused him to appear this way. It might have been fear of being caught rather than moral reservations. That lacuna, to use Kingsolver’s term, enables a writer of fiction like Davidson to mold reality to his artistic intentions.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the assassination of Leon Trotsky was a much more current event. I was near enough to Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard who disarmed Mercader, to be able to chat with him from time to time—or to be more accurate allow him to reflect on what was happening in the world.

Hansen and many others from his generation were like Trotsky’s disciples. It is not hard to picture them at a Last Supper in Coyoacan as the “prophet” shares wine and dinner with the faithful.

Trotskyism, needless to say, never enjoyed the success of the sect that was launched in Jesus’s name. When I was a young member, the world seemed ours for the taking. The Fourth International was growing everywhere and capitalism appeared on the ropes. Now, nearly a half-century later, capitalism seems as in charge as it ever was and the once-proud movement I belonged to is in tatters everywhere. This does not change the obligation for me and for every other human being of conscience to take a stand against a system that is capable of killing the planet just as decisively as Mercader’s pickax took the life of an outstanding Marxist thinker. Mercader might have been right in describing Trotsky as nothing but an intellectual but he was one for the ages.

Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.


Louis Proyect blogs at and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation wasted $32.2 million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians