Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

5. The spirit of the Red Army

THE MOST IMPORTANT factor steeling the Red Army was the ideas inspiring it. Napoleon said that in war moral factors are to physical as three to one. For Trotsky the morale of the army was the most crucial factor in its formation and struggle. In a speech on 29 July 1918, The Socialist Fatherland in Danger, when the regime’s very life was threatened by Czech troops, he said:

... we need to revive the traditions of [the French] revolution to the full. Remember how the Jacobins in France spoke, even while the war was still going on, about complete victory, and how the Girondins screamed at them: ‘You talk about what you are going to do after victory: have you then made a pact with victory?’ One of the Jacobins replied: ‘We have made a pact with death.’ The working class cannot be defeated. We are sons of the working class: we have made our pact with death, and, therefore, with victory! [1]

At a meeting in Moscow celebrating the first anniversary of the founding of the Red Army, on 24 February 1919, Trotsky said:

... we did not doubt that the army would be created, if only it were given a new idea, a new moral foundation. There, comrades, was the whole part of the matter.

An army is, of course, a material organisation, put together, to a certain degree, in accordance with its own internal laws, and armed with those instruments of technique that are provided by the state of industry in general, and, in particular, of military-technical science. But to see in an army only men exercising, manoeuvring and fighting, that is, to see only their bodies, to see only rifles, machine-guns and cannon, means not to see the army, for all that is merely the outward expression of a different, an inner force. An army is strong if it is bound together by an internal ideological bond. [2]

In the past, the fighting spirit of the Russian soldier, that is, in the main, of the Russian peasant, had been passive, patient, all-enduring. They took him from his village, put him in a regiment, and drilled him. They sent the regiment off in a certain direction, and the soldier went with his regiment, he shot, slashed, chopped, and died ... with each man individually unaware of why and for what he was fighting. When the soldier began to reflect and criticise, he rebelled,and the old army disappeared. To recreate it, new ideological foundations were needed: it was necessary that every soldier should know what he was fighting for. [3]

The Red Army men knew what they were fighting for, and believed in it passionately.

The internationalist spirit of the Red Army

Trotsky’s Red Army was from its origin not simply a national organisation. E.H. Carr writes:

The Red Army was not in origin and conception exclusively national. Simultaneously with its creation, an appeal signed by three Americans appeared in Pravda of 24 February 1918, for recruits to an ‘international detachment of the Red Army’ whose language was to be English. The appeal itself is said to have been distributed in five languages. [4]

John Erickson, a historian of the Red Army, writes:

The search for trained men led into the prisoner-of-war camps. In January 1918 a Prisoner-of-War Congress held in Samara petitioned that it might be allowed to form Red Army units. From this point forth the Soviet command did not neglect the possibilities for winning recruits to their army from this manpower pool. The result was the formation of the ‘International Battalions’ of the Red Army, as well as the Chinese Battalion, which drew its recruits from the labour reserves of Chinese in the rear areas. [5]

Estimates of the number involved vary from 50,000 to 90,000. [6]

In his first speech as people’s commissar for war, at the Moscow soviet on 19 March 1918, Trotsky emphasised the internationalist spirit that should imbue the Red Army:

We need an army, which would give us powerful strength for the inevitable coming struggle with international imperialism. With the aid of this army we shall not only defend ourselves, but shall be in a position to help the struggle of the international proletariat.

... we, to whom history has given victory sooner than the rest ... must be ready, at the first thunderclap of the world revolution, to bring armed help to our foreign brothers in revolt. [7]

On 22 April 1918, the all-Russian executive committee of the soviet approved the Oath of the Red Warrior, written by Trotsky. It included the following:

I, a son of the working people and a citizen of the Soviet Republic, assume the title of a soldier of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.

Before the working class of Russia and the whole world I pledge myself to bear this title with honour.

... I pledge myself to respond to the first call from the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government to defend the Soviet Republic against any dangers and attacks from any enemy, and to spare neither my strength nor my life in the fight for the Russian Soviet Republic and for the cause of socialism and the brotherhood of peoples. [8]

At the time when General Iudenich, armed by Britain, was threatening the very existence of Soviet rule in Petrograd, Trotsky issued an order entitled The Two Britains.

Red warriors! ...Your hearts are often filled to overflowing with hatred for predatory, lying, hypocritical, bloody Britain, and your hatred is just and holy. It multiplies tenfold your strength in the struggle against the enemy.

But even today, when we are engaged in a bitter fight against Britain’s hireling, Iudenich, I demand this of you: Never forget that there are two Britain. Besides the Britain of profits, violence, bribery and bloodthirstiness there is the Britain of labour, of spiritual power, of high ideals, of international solidarity ... The Britain of labour ... will soon rise to its full height and put a strait-jacket on the criminals ... Death to the vultures of imperialism! Long live workers’ Britain, the Britain of labour, of the people! [9]

In the midst of the Polish-Russian war, on 30 June 1920, Trotsky suspended a military journal and punished its editors for a chauvinistic attack on the Polish nation, which spoke about the ‘innate Jesuitry of the Polacks’, contrasting this with the honesty and straightforwardness of the Great Russians. Trotsky commented:

There is no need to explain how greatly this sort of crude and false generalisation contradicts the spirit of fraternity which inspires the attitude of the Russian working class towards the working masses of Poland ... [10]

Revolutionary discipline

It was on the basis of this revolutionary inspiration that Trotsky founded the discipline necessary for victory against overwhelming odds. In his speech to the Moscow soviet on 19 March 1918, he said:

We must at all costs and at any price implant discipline in the Red Army – not the previous sort, the automatic discipline of the rod, but conscious, collective discipline, based on revolutionary enthusiasm and clear understanding by the workers and peasants of their duty to their own classes. [11]

Trotsky made it clear that discipline in the Red Army was qualitatively different from that in capitalist armies. In the Red Army the discipline was to be built on the awakened personality of the workers and peasants. Thus, in The Red Army in the Civil War, a report to the Fifth Congress of soviets at its session of 10 July 1918, he stated:

We do not want the old discipline, that discipline by which every ignorant peasant and worker was slotted into his regiment, his company and his platoon, and marched off without asking why they were leading him away, why they were making him shed blood.

The revolution gave land to the peasants, the revolution gave power to the workers and the peasants: these were great achievements, but no achievement of the revolution is more important than the awakening of the human personality in every oppressed and humiliated individual.

This process of awakening of the individual personality assumes chaotic form, in the early stages. Whereas yesterday still the peasant did not think of himself as a person, and was ready, at the first order from the government, to go forth blindly to shed his blood, now he is unwilling to subordinate himself blindly. He asks: where are they telling me to go, and why? And he declares: I’m not going, I don’t want to submit! He says that because awareness of his human dignity, his personality has been awakened in him for the first time, and this awareness, which is as yet too crude, which is not sufficiently digested, takes anarchical forms when expressed in deeds.

We have to reach the situation when every peasant and every worker is aware of himself as a human personality with a right to respect, but also feels that he is part of the working class of republican Russia and will be prepared unquestioningly to lay down his life for this Soviet Republican Russia ...

This is the psychological cement by means of which we can create a new army, a real, conscious Soviet army, bound together by a discipline that has passed through the soldiers’ brains, and not just the discipline of the rod. This is the discipline we advocate, and we do not want to know any other. [12]

The higher the rank the harsher the discipline. Without iron discipline, said Trotsky, the Red Army is doomed. But discipline is not possible without the confidence of the soldiers in the ability and decisiveness of the commanders:

The soldier, the Red Army man, will execute a command precisely and sharply if the commander’s voice is clear and distinct, if the commander feels within himself that he can give orders. If he is not sure of himself, if he gets confused, and his word of command sounds more like a request or a proposal, the whole unit senses that the commander lacks self-confidence. Woe to that unit, and woe to that commander ... [13]

In case of the breakdown of discipline, the commander and commissars should be punished first of all. Trotsky’s report to the Sixth Congress of soviets on 9 November 1918 stated:

... we have introduced a rule which some find severe, but which remains fully in force: for every panicky withdrawal, for every case of desertion, the commander and the commissar are to be answerable first and foremost. If they have not taken all the necessary measures, have remained unharmed, or have deserted along with their unit, then, of course, they will be the first to fall beneath the sharp blade of our revolutionary punishment. Apparently, some comrades have considered, and have voiced their opinion, that we are acting too harshly, too mercilessly. Our time is, in general, a harsh and merciless time for the working class, which is compelled to defend its power and its existence against a swarm of external foes ... [14]

The bitter and heroic struggle demanded iron discipline, and Trotsky’s hand did not tremble in imposing it.

The struggle for truth

One important aspect of the revolutionary discipline Trotsky sought to instil was honest reporting. Lying is a weapon of reaction, truth is a weapon of Communism; the Red Army must fight for truth, he argued. In an order of 5 June 1919, Trotsky attacked any cover-up. Keeping things in the dark, he writes,

is the despicable psychology of old-time civil servants, and not that of revolutionary warriors who must boldly face not only the enemy, but also the most cruel truth. Commanders and commissars who see the shortcomings and weaknesses of their units and frankly admit them will unfailingly take steps to eliminate these weak sides. Commanders and commissars who conceal cases of desertion or panicky retreat like a secret disease merely drive this disease inward and completely ruin their units.

... We must teach and compel commanders and commissars to call a battle a battle, a panic a panic, a feat of arms a feat of arms, and cowardice cowardice. They must report with as much accuracy as possible the actual number of casualties, that is, the number of dead and wounded, the number of men taken prisoner, and the number of those who fled in panic – adding whether or not they came back ...

Bragging, frivolous evasiveness and plain lying must all be ruthlessly eliminated from operational reports.

It was necessary to

denounce and brand the braggarts, boasters and liars. There is no place for them in the ranks of a revolutionary army, and still less in the post of commander or commissar. [15]

What, asks Trotsky, are the roots in Russian society of the prevailing inaccuracies?

Ask any peasant on a country road how many versts it is to Ivashkovo village. He will answer: three versts. From experience we know that it could turn out that the distance to Ivashkovo is seven versts, or even eight. If you are exigent and persistent, and start to cross-examine him as to whether it is exactly three versts, not more, not perhaps five or seven, in most cases your interlocutor will answer: ‘Who has measured it?’ ...

Undoubtedly the source of this sort of attitude towards one’s own and other people’s time is the nature of rural Russia. There the harsh climate and the harsh enslavement to the state and landlord serve as a school of passivity and patience, and, therefore, of indifference to time. Ability to wait for hours outside someone’s door, quietly, passively, is an age-old feature of the Russian peasant. ‘Donk worry, he’ll wait’, is a very familiar ‘formulation’ of the mean contempt shown by the lord for the peasant’s time, and his equally mean certainty that the peasant will put up with anything, since he is not used to valuing his time. [16]

Tensions in the Red Army

Because the mass of the soldiers resented the former Tsarist commanders, the commissars tended to become intermediaries between the commanders and the soldiers. Sometimes the anger of the soldiers burst upon the heads of the commissars. Thus, for instance, Commissar Bych was killed near Lvov in July 1918 during disturbances in the Red Army units of the district, created by the agitation of Left Social Revolutionaries for an offensive against the Germans in the Ukraine. [17] Again, one of the members of the revolutionary military council of an army on the eastern front, Lindov, was killed by mutinous soldiers. [18]

Often the commissar was not only in conflict with the rank-and-file soldiers on the one hand and the commanding personnel on the other, but also with the higher military authorities. Thus Trotsky’s order of 30 August 1918 refers to the execution of several commissars of the Fifth Army:

Yesterday twenty deserters were shot, having been sentenced by the field court-martial of the Fifth Army.

The first to go were commanders and commissars who had abandoned the positions entrusted to them. Next, cowardly liars who played sick. Finally, some deserters from among the Red Army men who refused to expiate their crime by taking part in the subsequent struggle. [19]

This was the case of Commissar Panteleev, which later gained a great deal of notoriety. Trotsky brought Panteleev and the command of the regiment before a court martial for running away at the height of the battle of Sviiazhsk. The case of Panteleev was later used by opponents of Trotsky in the party to accuse him of shooting Communists.

Despite all this friction, the Red Army still worked. The Communists led the proletarian core of the army, which led the peasant conscripts. One concentric ring influenced a wider concentric ring. The conflicting camps of soldiers and former Tsarist officers would have led to blows and disintegration of the Red Army if not for the intervention of the commissar. Under the uncontrolled leadership of former Tsarist officers the army would have collapsed socially and politically. Without the officers it would have been doomed to defeat. For the control over the former officers, the commissars were crucial.


1. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 301.

2. Trotsky, HRA, volume 2, pages 18-19.

3. Trotsky, HRA, page 20.

4. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923 (London 1953), volume 3, page 16.

5. J. Erickson, The Soviet High Command (London 1962), page 25.

6. Erickson, page 675.

7. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 21.

8. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 160.

9. Trotsky, HRA, volume 2, pages 580-1.

10. Trotsky, HRA, volume 3, page 209.

11. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 24.

12. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 419-20.

13. Trotsky, HRA, volume 4, page 95.

14. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 459-60.

15. Trotsky, HRA, volume 2, pages 289-90.

16. Trotsky, HRA, volume 4, pages 151-2.

17. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 356-8.

18. Bubnov, volume 1, page 168.

19. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 322.

Last updated on 28 July 2009