Leon Trotsky

The New Course

Appendix 2
(Functionarism in the Army and Elsewhere)

December 3, 1923

In the course of the last year, the military workers and I have on many occasions exchanged opinions, orally and in writing, on the negative phenomena visible in the army stemming from moldy functionarism. I dealt with this question thoroughly enough at the last congress of political workers in the army and navy. But it is so serious that it seems to me opportune to speak of it in our general press, all the more so because the malady is in no sense confined to the army.

Functionarism is closely related to bureaucratism It might even be said that it is one of its manifestations. When, as a result of being habituated to the same form, people cease to think things through; when they smugly employ conventional phrases without reflecting on what they mean; when they give the customary orders without asking if they are rational; when they take fright at every new word, every criticism, every initiative, every sign of independence – that indicates that they have fallen into the toils of the functionary spirit, dangerous to the highest degree.

At the conference of the military political workers, I cited as an (at first sight) innocent example of functionary ideology some historical sketches of our military units. The publication of these works dealing with the history of our armies, our divisions, our régiments, is a valuable acquisition. It attests that our military units have heen constituted in battle and in technical apprenticeship, not only from the standpoint of organization but also from the spiritual standpoint, as living organisms; and it indicates the interest shown in their past. But most of these historical outlines – there is no reason to hide the sin – are written in a pompous and bombastic tone. Even more, certain of these works make you recall the old historical sketches devoted to the guard régiments of the tsar. This comparison will no doubt provoke gleeful snickers from the White press. But we would be old washrags indeed if we renounced self-criticism out of fear of providing our enemies with a trump. The advantages of a salutary self-criticism are incomparably superior to the harm that may result for us from the fact that Dan or Chernov will repeat our criticism. Yes, let it be known to the pious (and impious!) old ladies who fall into panic (or create panic around themselves) at the first sound of self-criticism.

To be sure, our régiments and our divisions, and with them the country as a whole, have the right to be proud of their victories. But it wasn’t only victories that we had, and we did not attain these victories directly but along very roundabout roads. During the civil war we saw displays of unexampled heroism, all the more worthy because it most often remained anonymous, collective; but we also had cases of weakness, of panic, of pusillanimity, of incompetence, and even of treason. The history of every one of our “old” régiments (four or five years is already old age in times of revolution) is extremely interesting and instructive if told truthfully and vibrantly, that is, the way it unfolded on the battlefield and in the barracks. Instead of that, you often find a heroic legend in the most banal functionary manner. To read it, you would think there are only heroes in our ranks; that every soldier burns with the desire to fight; that the enemy is always superior in numbers; that all our orders are reasonable, appropriate for the occasion; that the execution is brilliant, etc.

To think that by such procedures a military unit can be enhanced in its own eyes, and a happy influence be exerted on the training of the youth, is to be imbued with the moldy spirit of the functionary. In the best of cases, this “history” will leave no impression at all; the Red soldier will read it or listen to it the way his father listened to Lives of the Saints: just as magnificent and uplifting, but not true to life. Those who are older, or who participated in the civil war, or who are simply more intelligent, will say to themselves: the military people too are throwing sand in our eyes; or simpler yet: they’re giving us a lot of hokum. The more naive, those who take everything for good coin, will think: How am I, a weak mortal, to raise myself to the level of those heroes? ... And in this way, this ᰴhistory,” instead of raising their morale, will depress them.

Historical truth does not have a purely historical interest for us. These historical sketches are needed by us in the first place as a means of education. And if, for example, a young commander accustoms himself to the conventional lie about the past, he will speedily reach the point of admitting it into his daily practical and even military activity. If, for example, he happens to commit a blunder, he will ask himself: Ought I report this truthfully? He must! But he has been raised in the functionary spirit; he does not want to derogate the heroes whose exploits he has read in the history of his régiment; or, quite simply, the feeling of responsibility has deadened in him. In that case he trims, that is, he distorts the facts, and deceives his superiors. And false reports of subordinates inevitably produce, in the long run, erroneous orders and dispositions from the superiors. Finally – and this is the worst thing – the commander is simply afraid to report the truth to his chiefs. Functionarism then assumes its most repulsive character: lying to please superiors.

Supreme heroism, in the military art as in the revolution, is veracity and the feeling of responsibility. We speak of veracity not from the standpoint of an abstract morality that teaches that one must never lie or deceive one’s neighbor. These idealistic principles are pure hypocrisy in a class society where antagonistic interests, struggles, and wars exist. The military art in particular necessarily includes ruse, dissimulation, surprise, deception. But it is one thing consciously and deliberately to deceive the enemy in the name of a cause for which life itself is given; and another thing to give out harmful and misleading information, assurances that “all goes well,” out of false medesty or out of fawning or obsequiousness, or simply under the influence of bureaucratic functionarism.


Why do we now deal with the question of functionarism? How was it posed in the first years of the revolution? We have the army in mind here too, but the reader will himself make the necessary analogies in all other fields of our work, for there is a certain parallel in the development of a class, its party, its state, and its army.

The new cadres of our army were supplemented by revolutionists, fighting militants, and partisans, who had made the October Revolution and who had already acquired a certain past and above all character. The characteristic of these commanders is not lack of initiative but rather excess of initiative or, more exactly, an inadequate understanding of the need for coordination in action and firm discipline (“partisanism”). The first period of military organization was filled with the struggle against all forms of military “independence.” The aim then was the estab lishment of rational relationships and firm discipline. The years of civil war were a hard school in this respect. In the end, the balance necessary between personal independence and the feeling of discipline was successfully established among the best revolutionary commanders from the first levy.

The development of our young army cadres takes place quite differently during the years of truce. As a young man, the future commander enters military school. He has neither revolutionary past nor war experience. He is a neophyte. He does not build up the Red Army as the old generation did; he enters a ready-made organization with an internal régime and definite traditions. Here is a clear analogy with the relationships between the young communists and the Old Guard of the party. That is why the means by which the army’s fighting tradition, or the party’s revolutionary tradition, is transmitted to the young people is of vast importance. Without a continuous lineage, and consequently without a tradition, there cannot be stable progress. But tradition is not a rigid canon or an official manual; it cannot be learned by heart or accepted as gospel; not everything the old generation says can be believed merely “on its word of honor.” On the contrary the tradition must, so to speak, be conquered by internal travail; it must be worked out by oneself in a critical manner, and in that way assimilated. Otherwise the whole structure will be built on sand.

I have already spoken of the representatives of the “Old Guard” (ordinarily of the second and third order) who inculcate tradition into the youth after the example of Famusov: “Learn by looking at the elders: us, for example, or our deceased uncle.” But neither from the uncle nor from his nephews is there anything worth learning.

It is incontestable that our old cadres, which have rendered immortal services to the revolution, enjoy very great authority in the eyes of the young military men. And that’s excellent, for it assures the indissoluble bond between the higher and lower commands, and their link with the ranks of the soldiers. But on one condition: that the authority of the old does not exterminate the personality of the young, and most certainly that it does not terrorize them.

It is in the army that it is easiest and most tempting to estab lish this principle: Keep your mouth shut and don’t think. But in the military field, this “principle” is just as disastrous as in any other. The main task consists not in preventing but in aiding the young commander to work out his own opinion, his own will, his personality, in which independence must join with the feeling of discipline. The commander and, as a rule, anyone trained merely to say: Yes, sir! is a nobody. Of such people, the old satirist Saltykov said: “They keep saying yes, yes, yes, till they get you in a mess.” With such yes-men the military administrative apparatus, that is, the totality of military bureaus, may still function, not without some success, at least seemingly. But what an army, a mass fighting organizaton, needs is not sycophantic functionaries but men who are strongly tempered morally, permeated with a feeling of personal responsibility, who on every important question will make it their duty to work out conscientiously their personal opinion and will defend it courageously by every means that does not violate rationally (that is, not bureaucratically) understood discipline and unity of action.

The history of the Red Army, like that of its various units, is one of the most important means of establishing mutual understanding and continuity between the old and the new generation of military cadres. That is why bureaucratic obsequiousness, spurious docility, and all other manners of empty well-wishers who know what side their bread is buttered on, cannot be tolerated. What is needed is criticism, checking of facts, independence of thought, the personal elaboration of the present and the future, independence of character, the feeling of responsibility, truth toward oneself and toward one’s work. However, those are things that find in functionarism their mortal enemy. Let us therefore sweep it out, smoke it out, and smoke it out of every corner!

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