Trotsky, Guest of the Revolution

Against the Current, No. 147, July/August 2010

Olivia Gall

“INFAMOUS AND IMPOTENT handful of vile assassins and traitors!” “raging dogs that must be brought down with no pity!”(1) These were some of the words that Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet Prosecutor General, pronounced on August 24 1936, against four founding members of the Bolshevik Party, among them Zinoviev and Kamenev.

The great accused, in absentia, of this first and subsequent Moscow Trials was Leon Trotsky. August 1936 marked the rising anguish of Trotsky’s comrades, friends and sympathizers who filed petitions for asylum for Trotsky in many countries, only to be met with an international and absolute “NO.” Between August and December 1936, according to André Breton’s famous formula, “the world became a planet with no visa for León Trotsky.”(2)

Then suddenly, under the incredulous eyes of the civilized world, of the Trotskyists, of Stalin and of Trotsky himself, the savage, the exotic Mexico that had become famous during its own revolution (1910-1920) thanks to Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, spoke up (Gall, 1991:20): on December 7, Mexico’s president, General Lázaro Cárdenas, officially declared his decision to shelter Trotsky and his wife Natalia.(3)

How did this happen? Why did Cárdenas decide to grant asylum to León Trotsky? Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist who by then had become a Trotskyist militant, and Octavio Fernández, Secretary General of the Liga Comunista Internacionalista, went to see Cárdenas. They brought with them a letter of support written by Mexico’s Minister of Communications and Transportation, General Francisco Múgica.

In exactly five minutes, the Mexican President said to them: “Mister Trotsky can come to Mexico. The government that I represent will grant him asylum as a political refugee […]. All the necessary guarantees will be given to him […].”(4) Immediately after that, Cárdenas gave the following instructions to his Foreign Affairs Minister, Eduardo Hay:

“In regard to our international relations as well as to the way we treat other countries’ citizens or subjects, Mexican politics have not only respected the universally established norms, but have also represented all along our history a permanent effort directed to achieve the evolution of Law, through a straight sense of justice for all nations and of liberality for all men, whatever their origin. Loyal to this behaviour México now feels obliged to defend, with its attitude, one of the most humane conquests that Common Law has already achieved: the privilege of asylum for all who have been exiled because of political reasons.” (Fondo Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, Expedientes 546-677 y 705-173. Unidad de Presidentes, Archivo General de la Nación)

Why were these basic principles of the Right of Asylum so clear to General Cárdenas, while at that moment the rest of the world seemed to have completely forgotten them?

First, Cárdenas’ position toward this issue was a part of his clear vision regarding sovereignty, which together with land, education and oil,  was one of the four pillars of what historian Adolfo Gilly has called “the utopia that cardenismo (the Cardenista régime) bequeathed to the country”(5) (Gilly, 1995:179).(6)

One of these pillars, education, was guaranteed in the 1934 reform to the Article 3 of the Constitution, which ratified a secular national system of public education, and installed “socialist education: an education for work.” The nation’s ownership of the second and third of these pillars — land and oil — was assured through the State’s control over them, guaranteed by the 27th Article of the Constitution that had been adopted in 1917. The State’s control of these important natural resources guaranteed, but only in a partial way, the fourth pillar: sovereignty. For there were other aspects of the defense of this pillar that were very dear to President Cárdenas.

One of them was the relationship between national sovereignty and solidarity among different nations. In January 1937 Denegri, the Mexican ambassador in Spain, suggested to Cárdenas that the fact that Mexico and the USSR were the only countries in the world supporting the Spanish Republic presented the ideal circumstances for them to renew their diplomatic relations broken in 1931.

Cárdenas answered him immediately: Mexico’s attitude toward Spain, based on principle rather than diplomatic alignments,

“absolutely spontaneous and uninterested, would lose its humane nature, its generous policy with no partisan aspirations, if we decided to renew our diplomatic relations with a country like Russia, which regarding its geographical situation as well as its present political evolution must surely consider the fight in Spain as an experience in which its own national ambitions are at stake.” (Ibid: 294-295)

Between the end of 1936 and the end of 1939, the Mexican government agreed to give asylum to Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova, and to some 30,000 refugees from the war in Spain. In the late 1930s, when the world was heading directly toward the rise of fascism and to the consolidation of the criminal Stalinist régime, these decisions taken by the Mexican president constituted a beacon in the deep, growing and violent political waters of that period.

In 1938, Trotsky wrote that “the Cárdenas’ régime was with no doubt the bravest and most honest government of those times.” Even today we can still clearly see that President Cárdenas has been the best representative that the social ideas of the Mexican Revolution have had at the head of the State.

Throughout Trotsky’s stay in Mexico (January 9, 1937 until his assassination on August 21, 1940), Lázaro Cárdenas never changed his attitude towards him and his right to asylum in Mexico — an attitude guided not by the Mexican president’s agreement with Trotsky’s ideas, but by the fact that he respected the principles that guided his own political views.

Trotsky could always count on Cárdenas’ support: against the right or against the Stalinist left who wanted him out of the country; during the counter-trial organized by the Dewey Commission, in which, as Dewey himself stated, “a group of foreigners is judging another foreigner on Mexican soil”;(7) facing Senator Dies who as the head of the U.S. Senate’s Unamerican Activities Commission wanted to use Trotsky in his war against the CPUSA; and, finally, when Cárdenas accused the Mexican Communist Party of “having betrayed the nation, for having accepted to act as an armed force serving the interests of a foreign nation against a distinguished guest of the Mexican Revolution.”


  1. “The trial against the Trotskyist-Zinovievist Center”, Moscow, 1936, and Arkadi Vaksberg, “La reine des preuves”, Literatournaia Gazeta, January 27, 1988: 10-14, cited in Pierre Broué, Trotsky, 1988, Fayard, Paris. 1988: 826.
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  2. In 1934, when France wanted to expell Trotsky from its land, his sympathisers asked the United States to give him asylum. Roosevelt rejected the petition.
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  3. Olivia Gall, Trotsky en México (y la vida política durante el período presidencial de Lázaro Cárdenas, 1937-1940), Era, México, 1991.
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  4. Octavio Fernández’s testimony of this vist to Cárdenas was published in Olivia Gall, “Comment fut obtenu le droit d’ asile pour Trotsky,” Cahiers Léon Trotsky, Number 11: 68, Institut Léon Trotsky, Grenoble, France.
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  5. This utopia is “the desire to see the development of a possible country, which listens carefully to the most profound pulsations of its real and its imaginary history, of its long postponed and oppressed needs, which have never disappeared ”. (Gilly, El cardenismo, una utopía mexicana, México, Cal y Arena, 1995: 179).
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  6. Adolfo Gilly, Op. Cit.
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  7. The Dewey Commission was basically constituted by American liberals (such as Suzanne Lafollette and John Finerty), by anarchists such as Carlo Tresca and by former European communists (such as Otto Rühle). Journalist Carleton Beals also participated in it. It was headed by the famous educator and philosopher John Dewey. It came to Mexico in April 1937, and for 10 days thoroughly interrogated Trotsky, to determine if he was guilty of the crimes he was accused of in the Moscow Trials. They also interrogated his son Lev Sedov in Paris. At the end of 1937 they published their verdict: “NOT GUILTY.”
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  8. ATC 147, July-August 2010