Alexander Buchman’s Revolutionary Life

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Susan Weissman

ALEX BUCHMAN, THE last survivor of Trotsky’s American guards at Coyoacn, died on January 7, 2003. Although he was 91, he died before his time. Alex was not in ill health, but slipped and fell during a rainstorm and fractured his hip. He made it through the surgery, but his heart gave out a week later.

Alex was one of my dearest friends. He leaves behind his wife of sixty-two years, Debbie (Bloomfield) Buchman, son David Buchman, and many grieving relatives, friends and comrades around the world.

Alex was a retired aeronautical engineer and amateur photographer. He went to Mexico in 1939 to show `the Old Man’ his photos and films from his six years in China, where he was active in the Trotskyist Left Opposition along with Frank Glass and Harold Isaacs.

It was Glass who convinced Alex that Trotsky should see his photographic record of those years, and Harold Isaacs who wrote the letter of introduction to Trotsky. While he was in Coyoacn, Alex was enlisted to improve the security system and served as a guard.

He stayed five months in 1939-40 and took hundreds of still photos of Trotsky (including color pictures) and a film of Trotsky. He also rebuilt the alarm system in the compound, adding several switches.

Alex was replaced on guard duty by Robert Sheldon Harte in mid-April 1940. One month later, the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a staunch Stalinist, led an assassination attempt on Trotsky which failed.

Trotsky survived unharmed, but Sheldon Harte was kidnapped and murdered, his body thrown into a shallow pit filled with lime on a property rented by Siqueiros’ brother-in-law.

When Soviet archives were opened after 1992, it was revealed that Sheldon Harte had been a Stalinist agent, killed before he could divulge what had happened. Alex never doubted that Harte had let Siqueiros in, but carefully kept his feeling out of print until there was confirmation from the Soviet archives.

Trotsky’s Home Movies

Alex’s motion pictures and still photos are among the last taken prior to the assassination of Trotsky, and are the most extensive record of the Old Man’s final years.

I mentioned to Tariq Ali, on one of his visits to Los Angeles, that Alex Buchman had very interesting films of Trotsky; we went right over to Alex’s house in Echo Park to meet Alex and see the films.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination in 1990 British television aired the documentary Tariq Ali produced, “Trotsky’s Home Movies.” Alex and his films are featured, along with a roundtable discussion with Alex Buchman, Tamara Deutscher, historian Stuart Hood, Sieva and Veronica Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson and great granddaughter.

Alex was “discovered” in the United States a decade later, when he was approaching 90. He struck up a friendship with a neighbor on his street, Rick Morton, a photographer known for his pictures of LA street gangs.

Alex gave Rick the negatives that had been stashed in his basement for sixty years — scenes of Shanghai in the 1930s that Alex surreptitiously photographed with a camera hidden in a special pocket in his jacket, the lens peering out through a buttonhole. An extension trigger ran around his neck and into his pocket.

It was the only way Alex could capture Chinese street life naturally. In an article published in Leica Viewfinder in 2000 featuring his China pictures, Alex explained that he “tried to show the exploitation,” but his work actually shows much more. “It reflects the international glamour, vibrancy, chaos and political changes” in a pre-war Shanghai that was a “City of sin and gin and multiple races.”

Alex also had two hours of motion pictures of Shanghai — scenes of workers who spent the whole day turning water wheels, or operating pile drivers by dropping weights from a scaffolding. Alex managed to catch on film the misfiring of cannons from a Chinese man-of-war which accidentally killed hundreds of Shanghai citizens.

These were the very photos and films Alex had shown Trotsky, and Morton was astonished with the find. Two one-man shows followed, and a profile in the November 2001 GQ (“Say Cheese, Comrade Trotsky,” by John Brodie).

At the opening of the exhibition at Fototeka gallery, I saw Alex standing outside by his car, amazed that so many people had come to see his work. The pictures started selling, starting at $400, and true to form Alex refused to take any money, donating it instead to the gallery and to Amnesty International.

The pictures Alex shot of Trotsky in Mexico are his best work. Many have made their way into books about Trotsky (often omitting attribution to the photographer), or have been exhibited at left-wing colloquia and conferences on Trotsky.

The Trotsky Museum in Coyoacn has a set (including the motion pictures), as does Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Harvard University’s Trotsky Collection, the Russian Studies Institute at the University of Glasgow, the Institut Leon Trotsky at the University of Grenoble, and the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.

The Trotsky that Alex saw through his lens shows the revolutionary leader at home, or on picnics. Buchman’s artistic skills as a photographer are evident, as is the warm, playful atmosphere he recorded. There are pictures of the guards and guests, of the Old Man and Natalia, Sieva, Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, Van Heijenoort, Otto Schussler, Farrell Dobbs and Chris Moustakis.

The moving pictures depict a robust Trotsky. Alex admitted he “ran us ragged.” The silent film shows Trotsky speaking to his assembled guests, young Trotskyist leaders from Europe and America. In 1940 Trotsky was a condemned man and he knew it. He wrote furiously, grateful for each day that he survived to leave his written record — to correct the calumnies, educate a new generation and preserve the soul of socialism from Stalin’s blood-drenched usurpation.

Life in the Revolution

Alex Buchman came from a comfortable, talented family of musicians, intellectuals, and businessmen. He graduated from Case Western Reserve, then known as the Case School of Applied Science, with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering.

It was 1933, in the midst of the Depression. With few job prospects, Alex set sail for the Far East, hoping to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad from China through the Soviet Union. He wanted to travel in steerage, but “they wouldn’t let a white man do that” so he traveled in “Filipino” class for about eighty dollars.

In Japan Alex spoke out about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, met Japanese radicals and Indian revolutionaries. He caught the attention of the authorities.

Then he met the poet Langston Hughes, who was also being watched by the Japanese police. The story is told in the Arnold Rampersand book The Life of Langston Hughes: “A young white American . . . Alex Buchman, a graduate of Central High in Cleveland, came to pay his respects. Hughes warned Buchman about the police, but Buchman insisted on keeping him company.”

Alex had looked up Hughes as a fellow Clevelander but admitted that they didn’t have much to say to each other. “He wasn’t an engineer, and I wasn’t a poet.” Both were, at the time, communist sympathizers. Hughes left and from Hawaii learned that Alex Buchman had been deported from Japan, presumably for speaking to him.

Alex was told he was deported for “dangerous thoughts.” On the boat to China he met his future wife, Debbie Bloomfield, who was returning to Shanghai from a summer holiday in Japan. Debbie Bloomfield grew up in Shanghai. Her mother was Japanese, her father a Jewish Englishman who had anglicized the family name Blumenfeld.

Debbie and Alex became engaged in Shanghai. They didn’t marry in Shanghai, nor could they eight years later, when Debbie arrived in Los Angeles. California had laws against “bi-racial” marriages, so they drove to Gallup, New Mexico in 1941 to tie the knot. From that moment in 1933 until Alex’s death in 2003, he and Debbie were devoted to each other, madly in love.

In China Alex Buchman worked (officially) for the English language China Press, for Agence Havas (now Agence France-Press), for TASS News Agency, and for the Chinese financed Trans-Pacific News Agency, which transmitted images and dispatches to English language news organizations throughout the world.

Unofficially, Alex worked with Frank Glass, Harold Isaacs, Wang Fanxi and other Chinese revolutionaries, trying to “hold together the small and beleaguered Chinese members who saw the folly of Comintern policies” after the bloody triumph of Chiang Kai-shek in 1927. It was Glass who dispelled Alex of his Soviet sympathies, and he became a life long admirer of Trotsky, proudly calling himself a socialist to his dying day.

One of Alex Buchman’s photographs from China is of the Japanese “victory parade.” Just after shooting a roll of film of Japanese tanks rolling through the international section of the city, Alex was grabbed by two Japanese policemen, shoved into a car and taken to Japanese Headquarters where they demanded he turn over his film.

Alex refused. They confiscated his film anyway, but he had already turned in a thirty-six exposure roll of the parade earlier in the day. The photographs appeared in the local and international press, infuriating Japanese authorities.

At the Trans-Pacific News Agency Alex helped edit his friend H. J. Timperley’s manuscript detailing Japanese atrocities in China. Alex also helped smuggle the manuscript out of the country, and it was published in London in 1938 as What War Means — The Japanese Terror in China, the first uncensored account of the rape of Nanjing.

The pictures from this period are so alarming that I had to look away the first time Alex showed them to me.

Getting Alex to talk about his political activities in China was difficult because of his extreme modesty. In 1935 the Chinese Trotskyists set up a print shop and began publishing two monthly periodicals and brought out the writings of international Oppositionists.

They didn’t have money to buy a press, so some comrades who were printing workers rigged up a primitive wooden frame in which they inserted lead type — their only outlay. The result was surprisingly good.

Unfortunately, one of the printing worker-comrades defected and stole the press. This was a major blow, so they decided to stage a raid: Frank Glass (known in China as Li Fu-jen) and Alex Buchman dressed as inspectors of the International Settlement Police, and along with two Chinese comrades disguised as detectives, burst into the home of the defector and retrieved the press.

The incident is described in Wang Fanxi’s memoir, though Alex’s name is left out. In a letter to Alex on 24 November 1994, Wang corrected the omission. Alex formed a life-long friendship with Wang Fanxi, and their correspondence runs to hundreds of pages.Wang preceded Alex in death by one week.

Coming Home

In September 1939, just as the war was beginning in Europe, Alex received what was then known as a “Black Hand” note — a death threat. He realized his time was up in Shanghai, and he set sail for California. After a visit home, Alex went to Mexico with Harold Isaacs’ letter of introduction.

When Alex returned from Coyoacn in 1940 he got a job in Hollywood, working as a chauffeur for the comedian and author Robert Benchley. In 1942 he began working in the defense industry for North American Aviation, later known as Rockwell International.

He stayed there until his retirement thirty-four years later. He traded the political dangers (and excitement) of Shanghai and Mexico City for the seemingly sedate Los Angeles.

In the late forties Alex tried to organize an engineers’ union at Rockwell. This was the beginning of the Cold War, and the FBI began an investigation of Alex, digging up all his past political activities and associations since his college days.

The McCarthy period of intimidation was getting underway, and Alex Buchman’s loyalty came into question. He lost his security clearance for work on classified projects, and was suspended from work. If that wasn’t bad enough, he was accused of being a Communist.

Had he been called a “Socialist,” Alex conceded he wouldn’t have been so angry, so he decided to fight back. He had already been deported from Japan for his “dangerous thoughts,” and this time he was being unfairly associated with a political current that was responsible for the death of Trotsky and many of his associates.

Alex hired a very good, right-wing attorney, Rosalind Bates. After a lengthy hearing in 1951, Alex was cleared and returned to work. His FBI file contains the transcript of the hearing.

Alex was interrogated about his relationship to Frank Glass and the nature of their work in China, his `understanding of the doctrine of historical materialism,’ what books Glass read, and what his views were on works like The Communist Manifesto, The Problems of Leninism, whether or not Trotsky represented a continuation of Marxism, and “how the transformation from capitalism to socialism should be brought about?”

One wonders if FBI employees today would even know how to frame such questions.

Alex was loyal, critical and caring. He was like a father, comrade, friend, mentor, and fan, all rolled into one. He was also a gentleman, a caballero in the finest sense of the word, generous to a fault, giving of himself when he shouldn’t.

He financed some of my research on Victor Serge, introduced me to important sources of information, and always offered to help pay for my trips to Russia. He bought me a professional tape recorder for better quality recordings on my trips, and of course, a camera.

Alex Buchman wasn’t in the least religious — he even politely boycotted my own children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, but I’d like to think that he’s `up there’ now, taking pictures and having stimulating political discussions with his many comrades and friends.

ATC 104, May-June 2003