Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923


THIS IS the second volume of a political biography of Leon Trotsky. It starts with the consolidation of Bolshevik power after the October revolution of 1917, follows Trotsky as commissar for foreign affairs in the peace negotiations with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey at Brest-Litovsk, and deals with his greatest achievement in these years: his creation and leadership of the Red Army in the civil war. The book ends with Trotsky’s isolation in the politburo after Lenin’s disappearance from the political scene.

Trotsky’s building of the Red Army is rightly considered a gigantic achievement. By combining contradictory elements he produced a mighty army out of a void. The defence of the workers’ revolution called for a correct military strategy, which meant that Trotsky had to use former Tsarist officers – yet a social abyss separated these from the mass of the soldiers on whose enthusiasm and self-sacrifice the Red Army depended. It was against these same officers that the soldiers of the Tsarist army had rebelled. The conflict between soldiers and officers was congruent with that between peasants and landlords. Nonetheless, Trotsky argued strongly that without the passionate support of the soldiers and the technique of the professionals the Red Army could not be victorious.

The heterogeneous nature of the soldiers of the Red Army – a minority of workers in a sea of peasants – added to the difficulties. The proletarian elements were the backbone of the Red Army, while the peasants were unstable, vacillating throughout the civil war. They favoured the Bolsheviks for giving them the land, but resented the Soviet government that requisitioned grain and introduced compulsory conscription. Hence mass desertions were common. To keep control over the former Tsarist officers, and at the same time preserve political leadership over the mass of the soldiers, the political commissar played a crucial role.

One of the most serious developments in the Red Army was the rise of a military opposition to Trotsky. This was made up largely of old Bolsheviks, who had been commanders of Red Guard units before the Red Army was created and now resented taking orders from former Tsarist officers. They thought they did not need to learn from the specialists. They spoke about ‘proletarian military strategy’ and ‘proletarian military doctrine’. Often half-educated, crude and conceited, they criticised Trotsky’s attitude to culture in general and military doctrine in particular.

When there were setbacks in the war this military opposition became more and more aggressive, and at times very strong indeed. For instance at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, in March 1919, the official thesis on military policy, written by Trotsky and supported by Lenin, met widespread resistance: 174 delegates voted for it, 85 against and 32 abstained.

The full significance of the early formation of the military opposition in the Red Army, as the embryo of the future Stalinist faction, became apparent only in the light of much later developments. Thus Trotsky, in his creation and leadership of the Red Army, sowed the seeds of an opposition that in the end contributed to his undoing.

The war dominated every aspect of Soviet life, and the Red Army was to a large extent the foundation of the future bureaucracy. The hierarchical structure of the Red Army, rising on a socially heterogeneous base of which the atomised peasantry formed the bulk, inevitably strengthened bureaucratic trends. The strength of the bureaucracy in an organisation is in inverse proportion to the strength of the rank and file. Party organisation in the army modelled itself along military lines. The conditions of civil war, which made it imperative for military and civilian administrators to be transferred from one place to another in order to deal with states of emergency, further strengthened this bureaucracy. Trotsky himself recognised this, writing that at the end of the civil war, ‘the development of the Red Army of five millions played no small role in the formation of the bureaucracy’.

Social and political changes during the civil war also encouraged the rise of the bureaucracy. The decline in the size of the proletariat and its disintegration and atomisation, the decline of the soviets – the directly elected workers’ councils, the merger of party and state, all contributed to the process.

At the end of the civil war, the impasse of War Communism encouraged Trotsky (with Lenin’s agreement) to move towards using Red Army units as armies of labour and towards the militarisation of labour in general. This was the background to the trade union debate in the winter of 1920-21, when Trotsky argued for the statification of the trade unions, while the newly formed Workers’ Opposition argued for the unionisation of the state. Lenin shied away from both extremes.

This volume also deals with the role of Trotsky in leading the Communist International, and in teaching its sections strategy and tactics.

It deals also with Lenin’s turn on his death bed towards Trotsky, to form a bloc against the bureaucracy, against Great Russian chauvinism, and against Stalin. The final chapters discuss the Twelfth Congress of the party – the first without Lenin – at which Trotsky failed to carry out his agreement with Lenin that he would fight Stalin, and try to explain this lapse.

The volume ends in April 1923. This was a short time before a number of great historical events: Lenin’s complete disappearance from the active scene, the defeat of the German revolution in October-November 1923, which marked the end of the revolutionary wave that had started at the end of 1918, the first appearance of Hitler, who led an unsuccessful coup in Bavaria in November 1923, and the formation of the Left Opposition in December 1923.

The first volume of this biography, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 [1], covered Trotsky’s life from birth to the October revolution. The first two volumes of my political biography of Lenin [2] similarly covered the period of his life up to the revolution. Only now and then throughout the long political struggles of there years did the paths of the two men cross. Trotsky met Lenin first in 1902 and a year later broke with him politically. He came to Bolshevism only in May 1917. In the five months between May and October that year Lenin and Trotsky were in very close partnership, leading the Bolshevik Party and the proletariat towards the revolution. Except for these months, however, the story told in Trotsky’s biography is not congruent with Lenin’s.

But when it comes to the period of Trotsky’s life described in the present volume – from the October revolution until Lenin’s withdrawal from political life in 1923 – the story dovetails completely. In these five and a half years Lenin and Trotsky worked closely: the party at the time was often called the party of Lenin and Trotsky, likewise the government and the Communist International. In parts of the present volume, therefore, I have borrowed heavily from the third volume of my biography of Lenin.

TONY CLIFF, January 1990


1. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (Bookmarks: London 1989).

2. Tony Cliff, Lenin (four volumes, Pluto Press: London 1975-9; reprinted in three volumes, Bookmarks: London 1985-7).

Last updated on 28 July 2009