Saints of the Fourth International: Remembering Joe and Reba Hansen

by Gregory Van Wagenen

Joe Hansen

On the morning of 20 August 1940, Ramon Mercader made his way from Mexico City to the small town of Coyoacan, where he was ushered into the study of Leon Trotsky.

He came ostensibly seeking advice from the architect of the Bolshevik Revolution, with an article he claimed to have written for the Spanish underground press. History reveals his true motive. Josef Stalin sent him as an assassin.

As Trotsky sat down at his desk to peruse the work, he was attacked from behind. It was a glancing but deadly blow from the pointed end of an ice-axe, the type of tool a mountain climber would use to scale a peak. Mercader had hidden the instrument in his attache case. Later he would describe the scenario as “a wonderful opportunity which I simply couldn’t let pass…”

Despite the perforation of his skull, Trotsky leapt to his feet, spat on Mercader, and knocked him to the floor before falling to his knees.

Leon Trotsky

The only other man present was Trotsky’s student and personal secretary, Joe Hansen, Hansen tackled the assassin before the death-blow could be delivered, shouting for help. While Hansen didn’t manage to save his teacher’s life, he certainly prolonged it. Trotsky would die the next evening.

Joseph “Joe” Hansen was born at home in Salt Lake City on 16 June, 1910. Joe would be the eldest of fifteen children to be born to Conrad, a Norwegian immigrant, and his wife Rose Hansen (née Christensen). Conrad and Rose were sealed in the Salt Lake City Temple in September of 1909, and his father became a U.S. Citizen that same year.

Conrad Hansen had been born to a fishing family in the Norwegian polar region, and had spent his childhood being trained in the family business. While religion had prompted his immigration, he found himself unable to make a prosperous living in Zion as a commercial fisherman.

After the birth of Joe’s younger sister, the Hansen family traveled to Richfield, Utah where Conrad worked as a tailor, and then to White Pine County, Nevada, where the family (including young Joe) worked in a hard-rock mining camp. Eventually the Hansens returned to settle in Central Utah.

Having nothing but the tenacious desire to pursue an education, Joseph Hansen left home at seventeen for Salt Lake City. He began auditing classes at the University of Utah in 1928, supporting himself with a series of odd jobs when he could find them. With the help of friends on campus he was able to matriculate the following year. While he only attended part-time, he made a name for himself as an editor of The Pen (the campus literary magazine) and was well regarded as a hard worker by his teachers and peers.

It was at school where he met and married his lifelong companion, Reba (née Hooper). They were married in a civil ceremony on 11 July 1931. Reba Hooper-Hansen was the granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball.

In 1934, Joe and Reba left Utah for San Francisco. Once on the coast, Joe signed on briefly to a merchant ship, while Reba took odd jobs. His time at port was spent working for the Communist League of America. He served as a staff writer for the Voice of the Federation (the newspaper for the Mariners Unions of the Pacific).

It was in 1937 that Joe left the United States to join the exiled Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico. Reba remained behind, becoming ever more personally active in politics.

About his teacher, Joe would later write:

“Trotsky’s name had come into my consciousness when I was nine years old. It was after World War I in a small Utah town where my father was working as a tailor. Even here the Russian revolution was regarded favorably and was much discussed…”

Joe would serve and study under Comrade Trotsky for over two years. His first published work, a current events piece critical of the pro-fascist “radio priest” Charles Coughlin, appeared in the Socialist Appeal on 12 July, 1939, while in Trotsky’s employ.

While Mercader was successful, he was not the first murderer sent by the Soviets to eliminate their theoretical rival. Only weeks before the fatal attack, Joe had witnessed an earlier attempt.

MEXICO – At approximately four o’clock in the morning of May 24, some twenty-five men under the direction of Stalin’s GPU penetrated the high walls surrounding Leon Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan, and riddled with machine gun slugs the bedroom where Trotsky and his wife, Natalia, slept. Robert Sheldon Harte, the secretary-guard on duty and member of the Socialist Workers Party, was kidnapped and murdered, his body thrown into a shallow pit filled with lime. Leon and Natalia Trotsky owe their lives only to their own cool-headedness in a moment of terrible danger and to a fortunate accident – the belief of the assassins that they had completed their assignment.

After the assassination of his friend and mentor, Joe rejoined his wife in San Francisco. There he enlisted as a merchant mariner, supporting the war against fascism. At the end of the conflict he resumed his work in politics.

In 1945, Joe and Reba moved to New York City, where both began working for The Militant, a socialist newspaper which, inspired by Trotsky, was critical of both the capitalist west and the institutionalized bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. That same year, Hansen declared himself a Socialist candidate for the New York delegation to the United States Senate. He ran again, for the same seat, in 1950. From 1950 to 1959 he was editor of the International Socialist Review, the theoretical magazine of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

In 1960 Joe traveled to Havana with Farrell Dobbs, returning to form the Fair Play For Cuba Committee. Among Hansen’s contacts during this time were Alan Ginsburg and Norman Mailer.

The Communist League of America, which had by now changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party, became increasingly popular with union members and student activists in the 1960’s. The party was one of the first to publish speeches by Malcolm X, and the organ of the SWP regularly took interviews from African-American political radicals.

In 1963, Joe was in charge of the Socialist Workers Party delegation to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in Paris. That year he wrote:

The healing of a ten-year-old division in the ranks of the majority of the Fourth International—the World Party of the Socialist Revolution—which took place at a Reunification Congress held in Italy in June, marks a most encouraging step forward for the movement founded by Leon Trotsky in 1938.

Throughout their lives, the Hansens would author dozens of books and articles. Joe regularly lectured in Paris and New York City on the desperate need for workers and farmers to transcend the racial and ethnic divisions that were and are used by the ruling class to divide and subjugate. The Hansens were unashamed critics of the excesses of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, consistently offering a third position to struggling workers and farmers in the west, and hope for reform to the dissidents within the sphere of the established Communist states of Eurasia.

Joseph Hansen died in January 1979 in New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. He was sixty-nine years old. George Novack wrote his obituary, in which he described the life of this Mormon boy as “exemplary”. Mary-Alice Waters organized Hansen’s funeral in New York, which drew over five hundred mourners. Simultaneous memorial services were held in Toronto, San Francisco, Mexico City and Bombay. James Cannon once described Joe as “a man of great determination, who patterned his life and working habits upon the moral examples of his parents and teachers.”

Reba Hooper-Hansen continued to tirelessly promote the cause of working people until her own death in 1990. She is best known for managing the Intercontinental Press between 1969 and 1985, which published dozens of Leon Trotsky’s essays and articles for a much wider audience than they were ever originally intended.

Joe and Reba’s papers are archived at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.