International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 2 (June 1988)

50 Years Since the Assassination of Leon Sedov

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin, February 19, 1988.

Fifty years ago, on February 16, 1938, Leon Sedov died at the hands of the Stalinist GPU. The assassination of the elder son of Leon Trotsky was an integral part of the counterrevolutionary campaign of frame-up and terror that wiped out an entire revolutionary generation inside the Soviet Union.

Today, as the political heirs of those who murdered both Trotsky and Sedov are proclaiming a policy of glasnost, or “openness,” and “an end to the blank pages in our history,” these heinous crimes against the international working class still stand as the most damning indictment against the parasitic bureaucratic caste represented then by Stalin and now by Gorbachev. No amount of selective “rehabilitations” can hide the fact that their assassinations were indispensable in defending the bureaucracy’s usurpation of political power from the working class. Nor can there be any doubt that this bureaucracy is prepared to use these same methods against revolutionary opponents of Stalinism to this day.

Sedov, born in 1906, was part of a younger generation. But he was marked by Stalin for execution, along with all the leaders of the October 1917 Revolution, because of the vital role he played alongside his father in the struggle against Stalinism and in the fight to extend the revolution through the building of the Fourth International.

Between August 1936 and March 1938, virtually the entire Bolshevik Central Committee of Lenin’s time appeared in the dock in the three Moscow trials, monotonously reciting confessions to absurd and unbelievable crimes of treason, murder and sabotage. After the trials, nearly all the accused, men like Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Pyatakov and Bukharin, were shot.

Through these killings and thousands more which took place without benefit of trials, the Soviet bureaucracy led by Stalin sought to exterminate all those who had any connection with the October Revolution, and who thereby could emerge as an opposition to that revolution’s bureaucratic gravediggers. But its most ruthless operation was aimed at destroying the movement for the Fourth International led by Leon Trotsky from exile. It correctly identified in this movement the conscious leadership of revolutionary proletarian opposition to the bureaucratic caste.

Trotsky and Leon Sedov, his son and cothinker, were the principal defendants-in-absentia at each of the trials. Every defendant, men who had been completely broken politically many years before and were now being used by Stalin, placed Trotsky and Sedov at the center of the mythical conspiracies against the Soviet state.

The Trotskyists, in spite of the enormous blows they suffered at the hands of the bureaucracy, represented a genuine and mortal threat to the bureaucracy. Trotsky ruthlessly exposed the role of the bureaucracy, its fraudulent claim to represent the traditions of the revolution, its character as a parasitic growth on the Soviet workers’ state, its abandonment of proletarian internationalism in favor of “socialism in one country” and collaboration with imperialism.

While inside the USSR, Stalin killed thousands of Left Oppositionists and all who had had even past connection with the Opposition, around the world, GPU killers were sent to carry out the same bloody work. Between June 1937 and September 1938, prominent leaders and supporters of the Fourth International were hunted down and assassinated throughout Europe.

Erwin Wolf, secretary to Trotsky, was murdered by the GPU in Spain in July 1937. Ignace Reiss, who defected from the GPU to join the Fourth International, was machine-gunned in Switzerland in September 1937. Sedov himself was the victim of a GPU medical murder while hospitalized in Paris. And, the headless and limbless corpse of Rudolf Element, another of Trotsky’s secretaries, was found in the Seine River near Paris in July 1938.

Leon Sedov was born just after the 1905 Revolution. He spent most of the first 10 years of his life in exile with his parents, during the period between the first revolution and the second in February 1917. Returning to Russia at the age of 11, the young boy matured in the midst of the revolution itself. In his moving tribute to his son, Leon Sedov: Son, Friend, Fighter, Trotsky wrote about Leon during these months before the October seizure of power:

In Petrograd he found himself immediately plunged into the atmosphere of Bolshevik-baiting. In the bourgeois school where he happened to be enrolled at the beginning, sons of liberals and Social Revolutionaries beat him up because he was Trotsky’s son. Once he came to the Wood-Workers’ Trade Union, where his mother worked, with his hand all bloody. He had had a political discussion in school with Kerensky’s son. In the streets he joined all the Bolshevik demonstrations, took refuge behind gates from the armed forces of the then People’s Front (the coalition of Kadets, SRs and Mensheviks)....

Thus a future fighter took shape. For him, the revolution was not an abstraction. Oh, no! It seeped into his very pores....

While but a child—he was going on twelve—he had, in his own way, consciously made the transition from the February revolution to that of October. His boyhood passed under high pressure. He added a year to his age so that he might more quickly join the Komsomol (Communist youth), seething at that time with all the passion of awakened youth. The young bakers, among whom he carried on propaganda, would award him a fresh loaf of white bread which he happily brought home under his arm, protruding from the torn sleeve of his jacket. Those were fiery and cold, great and hungry years. Of his own volition Leon left the Kremlin for a proletarian student dormitory, in order not to be any different from the others. He would not ride with us in an automobile, refusing to make use of this privilege of the bureaucrats. But he did participate ardently in all Red Saturdays and other ‘labor mobilizations,’ cleaning snow from the Moscow streets, ‘liquidating’ illiteracy, unloading bread and firewood from freight cars, and later, as a polytechnic student, repairing locomotives. If he did not get to the war front, it was only because even adding two or as much as three years to his age could not have helped him; for he was not yet fifteen when the civil war ended. However, he did accompany me several times to the front, absorbing its stark impressions, and firmly understanding why this bloody struggle was being waged (Leon Trotsky, Leon Sedov: Son, Friend, Fighter [New York: Labor Publications, 1977], pp. 14, 23).

Sedov’s early manhood coincided with the growth of the bureaucracy and the struggle against it launched by Lenin and Trotsky. Sedov joined wholeheartedly and actively in this struggle.

This was not simply the action of a son, but of a cothinker, a revolutionary fighter. “The platform of the Opposition simply gave political expression to traits inherent in his nature,” wrote Trotsky. When the. Stalinists launched the ferocious repression of the Opposition in 1927-28, Sedov joined his parents in internal exile in Alma Ata. One year later, he left with them for Turkey, as Trotsky began his final exile.

It has often been pointed out that Stalin undoubtedly came to recognize that the decision to deal with the Opposition by expelling Trotsky from the USSR completely backfired. If the exiling of Trotsky turned out to have been his biggest mistake, then allowing Sedov to accompany his parents was certainly next in significance. For the young man, who had already played an important role in the struggle of the Left Opposition, played an even more vital part in the coming years.

Sedov worked as Trotsky’s secretary, researcher, collaborator and as an organizer of the International Left Opposition, first in Turkey and later, leaving his parents’ side in order to carry out vital revolutionary work, in Germany and France.

For most of this period, Sedov was the editor of the Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, which was launched in mid-1928, while Trotsky and his son were in internal exile.

Trotsky wrote of “our joint literary work.” “Vast in point of quantity, his collaboration was by no means of a ‘technical’ nature. His independent selection of facts, quotations, characterizations, frequently determined both the method of my presentation as well as the conclusions. The Revolution Betrayed contains not a few pages which I wrote on the basis of several lines from my son’s letters and the quotations which he sent from Soviet newspapers inaccessible to me. He supplied me with even more material for the biography of Lenin. Such collaboration was made possible only because our ideological solidarity had penetrated our very flesh and blood. My son’s name should rightfully be placed next to mine on almost all my books written since 1928” (Ibid., p. 18).

Sedov’s major independent work was The Red Book on the Moscow Trial, in which he painstakingly exposed every detail of the frame-up of Zinoviev, Kamenev and the other defendants at the August 1936 trial, while showing the real political reasons for the executions and accurately predicting future trials.

The Red Book was written while Trotsky was held as a virtual captive by the Norwegian Social Democratic government, which forbade him, under pressure from the Kremlin, from undertaking any literary or public activity. “What a priceless gift to us, under these conditions, was Leon’s book, the first crushing reply to the Kremlin falsifiers,” wrote Trotsky. “The first few pages, I recall, seemed to me pale. That was because they only restated a political appraisal, which had already been made, of the general condition of the USSR. But from the moment the author undertook an independent analysis of the trial, I became completely engrossed. Each succeeding chapter seemed to me better than the last. ‘Good boy, Levusyatka!’ my wife and I said. ‘We have a defender!’.... Many comrades who were inclined to regard Sedov merely as ‘Trotsky’s son’—just as Karl Liebknecht was long regarded only as the son of Wilhelm Liebknecht—were able to convince themselves, if only from this little book, that he was not only an independent but an outstanding figure” (Ibid., p. 22).

These were the circumstances under which the net of GPU surveillance and intrigue tightened around Sedov. At the center of it was a Stalinist agent by the name of Marc Zborowski, whose full role was only exposed decades later. Zborowski, who was born in the Ukraine and later lived in Poland, was recruited by the GPU in 1932 or 1933, and over the next several years played a critical role in spying and assassinations.

By 1936, using his secretarial abilities and his knowledge of Russian, Zborowski had wormed his way into the confidence of Sedov in Paris, despite the suspicions that were voiced by others in the movement.

Zborowski passed the necessary information to the GPU which made possible the murders of Wolf, Reiss, Klement and Sedov. He also played a key role in arranging the theft of Trotsky’s Russian archives in Paris in November 1936.

As early as January 1937, the kidnapping and murder of Sedov had been set up in connection with a trip he was due to make to the town of Mulhouse in Switzerland, near the French border. This was aborted only because an attack of the flu kept Sedov from making the trip at the last moment. But Zborowski and his masters continued their work, and the death sentence was carried out in February 1938.

Although the exact details are still hidden in the archives of the GPU, the main outlines of the assassination are clear. Sedov, who had been in good health, suddenly began complaining of abdominal pains in late January. These worsened on February 8, and he was taken to a clinic run by Russian emigres, among whom the GPU had planted many of its agents.

Zborowski later admitted that he tipped off the GPU on Sedov’s whereabouts. Surgery disclosed an intestinal inflammation, and not appendicitis as had at first been thought. Sedov made an uneventful recovery for several days, but suddenly developed delirium and a high fever on the night of February 13-14. He went into a coma and died on the morning of February 16.

Trotsky strongly suspected poisoning. As he later wrote in a letter to the investigating judge, “At the time of the Bukharin-Rykov trial in Moscow in March of this year, it was revealed, with cynical frankness, that one of the methods of the GPU was to help a sickness along by precipitating the moment of death ... through the Moscow trial, humanity learned that the advances made by Russian medicine, under the direction of the former chief of the secret police, Yagoda, had precipitated death of patients with the aid of methods impossible or difficult to detect subsequently.”

It is a bitter irony that as we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Sedov’s early death, Marc Zborowski, the man who set up this assassination, as well as those of Wolf, Klement and Reiss, lives in comfortable retirement in San Francisco, having recently celebrated his eightieth birthday. But the full story of Zborowski’s role, unearthed and publicized by the Trotskyist movement in its investigation of Security and the Fourth International, has brought the vital lessons of the history of the movement to new generations of revolutionary fighters who will avenge the deaths of Trotsky, Sedov and all the leaders of the October Revolution.

The investigation carried out by the International Committee of the Fourth International beginning in 1975 documented and demonstrated in practice the role of Stalinist and imperialist agents and their accomplices in the Trotskyist movement who had assisted Zborowski in his deadly work. It showed the role of longtime

Socialist Workers Party leader George Novack. Novack helped Zborowski enter the US in 1941, although there was already substantial evidence of his role inside the movement. After arriving in the US, Zborowski continued spying for the Stalinists inside the Fourth International, contributing to the deaths of still more European Trotskyists at the hands of both the GPU and the Gestapo.

When the Stalinist spy fell afoul of the imperialist authorities during the Cold War and stood trial in New York City in 1958 on charges of perjury, the SWP totally ignored the case, even though the testimony brought out dramatic details of the murderous Stalinist operations against the Trotskyists. Despite his trial and conviction as a Soviet spy, Zborowski soon resumed his career as a prominent anthropologist, clearly benefitting from imperialism’s approval of his counterrevolutionary crimes.

As the Security investigation showed, the SWP leadership covered up for Zborowski because longtime agents inside the party, led by the late Joseph Hansen, were desperately seeking to cover up their own still-secret role.

The solidarity of the police-infested SWP with Zborowski was then brought out completely into the open in 1982-83, when Alan Gelfand, an SWP member expelled for raising security questions, brought a lawsuit to expose the role of the agents inside the party.

During pretrial depositions in the Gelfand case, the SWP attorneys collaborated directly with Zborowski and his lawyers to prevent his scheduled deposition on his role as Stalin’s most important agent inside the Trotskyist movement and his knowledge of the continuing infiltration of the SWP.

As Zborowski’s own attorney spelled out in the proceedings, the SWP’s legal team actually prepared entire sections of the legal motions filed to prevent the Stalinist assassin from being forced to testify. Thanks in large part to the SWP’s assistance, the federal magistrate ruled that Zborowski could not be subpoenaed because if his testimony identified government agents inside the SWP, he would be in violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

At his own deposition in March 1982, SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes spelled out the party’s defense of the GPU agent:

QUESTION: Is it your job to protect GPU agents?

BARNES: It is my job to protect the rights of the American citizens, by fighting and working through the movement and defending the rights of our party, when they come under attack.

QUESTION: Are the rights of your party coming under attack, when investigations are conducted, within the confines of the law, into the activities of the GPU within your movement?

BARNES: When individuals are harassed by organizations, whose sole purpose is to harass them, their rights are affected. You referred to Mr. Zborowski earlier. He is a person who stated, under oath, associations with agencies alien to our movement. Even Mr. Zborowski has the same rights as any other citizens in this country.

The FBI-controlled SWP has now officially repudiated Trotskyism and expelled virtually all the veteran members of the party who retained any historical connection to the party that Trotsky was associated with in the 1930s. We can predict with absolute certainty that this organization will let the anniversary of the death of Leon Sedov pass without comment. It has not even bothered to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its own founding, on January 1, 1938!

The Kremlin will also ignore the anniversary of the death of Leon Sedov, although it knows everything about the circumstances and carrying out of the killing. Only two weeks ago, an official Soviet commission admitted that the March 1938 Moscow trial was a frame-up. The current Stalinist regime led by Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to win support from the intelligentsia and sections of Western “public opinion” by acknowledging some of its past crimes, but it will not and cannot explain why they were carried out, because its whole rule is completely bound up with this counterrevolutionary degeneration of the USSR.

On this anniversary of Sedov’s killing, revolutionists and class-conscious workers should demand, not the fraudulent “rehabilitation” half-measures of the Kremlin, but a full accounting of its role in the killing of Sedov, Trotsky and other revolutionists. They must demand that the Kremlin open up the files of the GPU and expose the identities and the crimes of its agents planted inside the Trotskyist movement and the workers’ movement as a whole. This is a demand that is inseparable from the struggle for the overthrow of the bureaucracy by the working class.

Leon Sedov lives on in the struggle of the proletarian and oppressed masses of the Soviet Union and throughout the world. His death will be avenged by the building of parties of the Fourth International which will lead the political revolution against the bureaucracy and bring all of its crimes to light, as part of the world socialist revolution.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in his final farewell to his son, “Goodbye, Leon! We bequeath your irreproachable memory to the younger generation of the workers of the world. You will rightly live in the hearts of all those who work, suffer and struggle for a better world. Revolutionary youth of all countries! Accept from us the memory of our Leon, adopt him as your son—he is worthy of it—and let him henceforth participate invisibly in your battles, since destiny has denied him the happiness of participating in your final victory” (Ibid., p. 28).