A suicide note to Trotsky that displayed political passions we should not forget

Tariq Ali discusses “The Last Words of Adolf Abramovich Joffe” as part of the Guardian’s “A Book That Changed Me” series.

A year and a half ago Lucio Magri, one of Italy’s most respected leftwing intellectuals, flew to Switzerland, entered a clinic and drank the fatal hemlock; in his case it meant swallowing a death pill. For a few days most of Italy was in shock. Suddenly Magri was everywhere. Parliament observed a minute’s silence, newspaper comment was broadly sympathetic, but his closest friends were unhappy. His wife had died after a long illness two years earlier, and had discouraged Magri from following suit, insisting that he finish his book on the fate of Italian communism. With The Tailor of Ulm completed and published, he decided to say farewell to life. The loss of his wife was the trigger, but there were other reasons. He no longer felt contemporary.

This series, A book that changed me, will run throughout August
Italian communism and those on its left had committed political suicide. A bankers’ clique governed the country, with the staunch backing of an octogenarian, ex-communist president, the left intelligentsia had collapsed – so what was the point of living? Most of his friends were unconvinced, even angry. They tried to talk him out of it, but Magri was unmoved. “To be true, simply true,” Stendhal once wrote, “that is the only thing that matters.” For Magri, truth meant taking his own life. He was neither the first nor the last to depart in this fashion.

It reminded me of a short pamphlet I had read over four decades ago. The Last Words of Adolf Abramovich Joffe (published by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Ceylon, 1950). It was a suicide note dated 16 November 1927, and addressed to Leon Trotsky. After completing it, Joffe, one of the most trusted of Soviet diplomats, put a pistol to his head and pressed the trigger. What struck me at the time was not so much the suicide itself but the human qualities on display, visible in the first few paragraphs: “Dear Leon Davidovich: All my life I have thought that the man of politics ought to know how to go away at the right time, as an actor quits the stage, and that it is better to go too soon than too late. Read more