Deadly serious: DSA leaders “joke” about Trotsky’s murder in revealing tweets

Detail from "Man, Controller of the Universe," a 1934 mural by Diego Rivera in the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City.
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Leon Trotsky, the co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the Russian Revolution, tenacious organizer for international socialism, and pioneering anti-fascist agitator, died more than 80 years ago. Still, he continues to inspire workers and oppressed people around the world with his ideas about freeing humanity from exploitation. And for that very reason, he also continues to provoke assaults from various political corners.

The latest attackers are a significant number of leaders and members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who posted and circulated tweets reveling in Trotsky’s 1940 assassination by an agent of Stalin. This advocacy of violence within the left movement, even if traveling undercover as a “joke,” is deadly serious. With radicals of all sorts currently targeted by the far right and the state, this posturing is especially abhorrent and dangerous now.

Murder of an invaluable leader celebrated. In May, a spate of derogatory tweets by DSAers, including several Democratic Party activists, popped up cheering Trotsky’s assassination. More DSA members, along with other Trotsky-hating internet trolls, jumped in with scores of retweets and likes.

Several of the posts featured depictions of an ice pick, the weapon used by Ramon Mercader to end Trotsky’s life, or illustrated the actual act of murder. Messages included “Ice pick jokes will never not be funny,” “In memory of Ramon Mercader: he showed us the way,” and “We will all continue making ice pick jokes publicly and unapologetically.”

In glorifying the killing of this one man, Trotsky, the DSAers were aligning themselves with a historic purge of Stalin’s opponents that claimed the lives of thousands of revolutionaries and profoundly derailed the socialist movement. Stalin was the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution and all its best achievements and aspirations, while Trotsky was the antagonist who fought Stalin’s betrayals to his last breath.

Joining Trotsky in his battle against the Stalinist bureaucracy were family members and allies around the world. Many of them also paid with their lives, including Trotsky’s first wife, sister, brother, son, sons-in-law, and nephews.

Exiled by the Stalinist machine in 1928, Trotsky was a man without a country until given refuge by Mexico, where he settled in 1937. In the short time between his exile and his death, he continued to make lasting contributions to socialism, from his writings on fighting fascism and the importance of the united front to his founding of the Fourth International. (See Leon Trotsky: His Life and Ideas at Red Letter Press for more.)

Thousands of Trotskyists and other anti-totalitarian heroes died battling fascism as it marched to power in 1930s Europe. Their fight was unsuccessful largely because different sections of the Left — anarchists, communists, reform socialists — failed to come together against the common enemy. This extended even to physical infighting among people who should have been on the same side.

Can today’s DSAers learn nothing from this history? Faced today with rising right-wing hooliganism and growing state repression in the U.S., the last thing socialists need is to be inciting violence against one another!

Which side are you on? If you are wondering who could stoop so low as to make adolescent “jokes” that give a thumbs-up to the killing of one of history’s greatest working-class champions, read on.

Many of the DSAers who tweeted, circulated, and liked the posts have leading positions in DSA and its youth affiliate, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). Honda Wang is a member of the Lower Manhattan DSA Organizing Committee. Nickan Fayyazi is on the YDSA National Coordinating Committee. Blanca Estevez is on DSA’s National Political Committee. Jake Colosa is on the New York City steering committee. And the list goes on.

In “joking” about the Old Man’s assassination, the tweeters are siding not only with Stalin, but with capitalism, whose ruling class would like nothing better than to see Trotskyism’s revolutionary heritage poisoned and its proponents disappeared. The participation of DSA leaders in this exercise of contempt shows that they are not serious about socialist change.

And that can’t really come as a surprise. While DSA is made up of multitudes of sincere socialists who want nothing less than a wholesale transformation of society, the essential nature of DSA, and the basic orientation of its predominant leadership, is reformist, not revolutionary.

It’s no accident that many of the anti-Trotsky DSA tweeters are also Democratic Party operatives who campaign for candidates like Bernie Sanders and New York City mayor and tarnished “progressive” Bill de Blasio. DSA was formed explicitly as a left wing of the Democratic Party, and that is what it remains today — despite the wishes of members who oppose this orientation.

As an organization, DSA is a vehicle for turning socialism-minded activists into foot soldiers and lieutenants for the Democratic Party. Its commitment is to electoral politics as the path to socialism, and this is what underlies its strategy of “boring from within” to evolve the Democratic Party into something it is incapable of becoming.

FSP calls on DSA to reject sectarianism. DSA’s anti-Trotsky tweet attack was not only adolescent, it was dangerous. It fostered antagonism among forces on the Left that should be on the same side against the Proud Boys and the ultra-right. In the past, it has been Northwest fascists who subjected Freedom Socialist Party leaders to threats invoking Trotsky’s assassination, so we take this sort of thing very seriously.

As such, it is incumbent upon the DSA leadership to repudiate the tweet storm and make public the fact that DSA stands against violence among leftists, regardless of our significant differences.

In place of snarky smears, socialists should debate our varying politics in forums where the public can weigh for themselves what they think. At the same time, it is our job to strive for basic cooperation in the struggle against capitalist reaction in every form, whether in the social movements, the workplace or the unions. No group, including DSA, can claim to have all the answers to the complex array of political problems facing the global working class today. As socialists, we need to strengthen the left alternative by working together in united fronts to confront the threat of modern-day fascism.

Surely, socialists, whatever our disputes, can do better than simply not applauding each other’s murders! If DSA leaders cannot do this, any claim they make to the socialist cause is — just a joke.

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