Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

6. The Red Army blooded


UP TO NOW we have dealt with the Red Army largely by describing its structure. However the Red Army was built and steeled in the civil war itself. Unlike ‘normal’ armies, which enjoy years of peace in which to be equipped and trained, the Red Army was built under the direct pressure of the civil war.

In late summer 1918 the Soviet regime faced the abyss. In the west the Germans had occupied not only Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, but also Belorussia, and a considerable part of Great Russia. The Ukraine had become an Austro-German colony. In the north the French and British occupied Murmansk and Archangel, and threatened an advance on Vologda. In Iaroslav an insurrection of White Guards was organised by Savinkov at the instigation of the French and British, with the object of connecting the northern troops with the Czechoslovaks and White Guards on the Volga.

In the south, on the Don, an uprising was spreading under the leadership of General Krasnov, then in alliance with the Germans. The newly established Tartar-Bashkir Republic was already lost to the Bolsheviks and Baku was occupied by the British. In the east the revolt of the Czechoslovak expeditionary force rapidly gained control over a huge zone, including much of the Volga region, the Urals and Siberia. On 6 August the town of Kazan fell, laying the road to Moscow open. If the Czechs had succeeded in crossing the river at this point, they could have marched unhindered across the open plain towards Moscow.

Two days later Trotsky ordered the first compulsory call-up of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, and stern measures against any dereliction of duty in the Soviet camp. On the same day he himself left for the front in the train that was to serve as his abode and mobile headquarters during the following two and a half years. In an order of the day issued before his departure, Trotsky wrote:

I send my greetings to all those who ... are honestly and valiantly defending the freedom and independence of the working class and the working peasantry.

Honour and glory to the valiant fighters.

At the same time I issue this warning: no quarter will be given to the enemies of the people, the agents of foreign imperialism, the hirelings of the bourgeoisie. In the train of the People’s Commissar for Military Affairs where this order is being written, a Military Revolutionary Tribunal is in session ... [which] has been given unlimited powers within the zone of the railway line, which is placed under martial law.

... I warn responsible Soviet officials in all areas where military operations are in progress, and in the zone of military movements, that we shall be doubly exacting towards them. The Soviet Republic will punish its negligent and criminal servants no less severely than its enemies ...

The Soviet Republic is imperilled! Woe to those who, directly or indirectly, aggravate its peril! [1]

Trotsky arrived at Sviiazhsk, a little town on the western bank of the Volga, opposite Kazan. He found the Red Army completely demoralised – there had been mass desertion from the ranks and prostration among commanders and commissars. In his autobiography Trotsky described the situation he found:

Each unit lived its own distinct life, sharing in common only a readiness to retreat ... The soil itself seemed to be infected with panic. The fresh Red detachments, arriving in vigorous mood, were immediately engulfed by the inertia of retreat. A rumour began to spread among the local peasantry that the Soviets were doomed. Priests and tradesmen lifted their heads. The revolutionary elements in the villages went into hiding. Everything was crumbling; there was nothing to hold to. The situation seemed hopeless. [2]

The fate of the revolution was hanging on a thread. Its territory

was now reduced to the size of the ancient Moscow principality. It had hardly any army; it was surrounded by enemies on all sides. After Kazan would have come the turn of Nizhni-Novgorod, from which a practically unobstructed road lay open to Moscow. The fate of the revolution was being decided here, at Sviiazhsk. And here, at the most critical moment, it rested on a single battalion, on one company, on the courage of one commissary. [3]

Out of the panic-stricken undisciplined mob, Trotsky created within a few weeks a fighting force which, as the Fifth Army, was one of the best of the sixteen armies that were organised during the civil war. Despite all the demoralisation in the Red Army ranks, Trotsky writes,

the revolution was saved. What was needed for that? Very little. The front ranks of the masses had to realise the mortal danger in the situation. The first requisite of success was to hide nothing, our weakness least of all. Not to trifle with the masses, but to call everything by its right name ...

The propaganda throughout the country was being fed by telegrams from Sviiazhsk. The soviets, the party, the trade unions, all devoted themselves to raising new detachments, and sent thousands of communists to the Kazan front. Most of the youth of the party did not know how to handle arms, but they had the will to win, and that was the most important thing. They put backbone into the soft body of the army. [4]

Gusev, who later became a supporter of Stalin, was in Sviiazhsk at the time. In 1924, when he was far from friendly to Trotsky, he described the impact Trotsky had on the Red soldiers:

The arrival of Comrade Trotsky worked a decisive change in the situation. In Comrade Trotsky’s train to the obscure station of Sviiazhsk there came a firm will to victory, a new sense of initiative, and resolute pressure in all phases of the army work.

From the very first days, everyone began to feel that some abrupt change had taken place, not only at the station – the active campaign headquarters of the political section and the army supply staff, crammed with the supply trains of countless regiments – but even in army units stationed about fifteen versts away. It was first apparent in the matter of discipline. Comrade Trotsky’s harsh methods were most expedient and necessary for that period of undisciplined and irregular warfare. Persuasion counted for nothing, and there was no time for it. And so, during the twenty-five days that Comrade Trotsky spent at Sviiazhsk a tremendous amount of work was done, with the result that the disorganised and demoralised units of the Fifth Army were changed into the fighting units that later recaptured Kazan. [5]

Trotsky’s train remained within reach of enemy fire. The local commissars proposed that he should move to a safer place on a steam boat on the Volga, but he refused, fearing the effect this might have on the troops. However, Trotsky did go with sailors from Kronstadt on a torpedo boat, part of a tiny flotilla, on an adventurous night raid on Kazan. Most of the flotilla was destroyed, but it managed to silence the enemy batteries on the banks of the river and Trotsky returned safely to his base. His courage and inspiration worked wonders. After a bitter fight, the Red Army recaptured Kazan on 10 September 1918. Trotsky wrote:

This was a small war; on our side, there were only about 25,000 to 30,000 men engaged. But the small war differed from a big one only in scale. It was like a living model of a war. That is why its fluctuations and surprises were felt so directly. The small war was a big school. [6]

Sviiazhsk was a turning point for the young Red Army:

The army was taking shape magnificently. The lowest ebb of the revolution – the moment of the fall of Kazan – was now behind us. Along with this, a tremendous change was taking place in the peasantry. The Whites were teaching the muzhiks their political abc’s. During the ensuing seven months the Red Army cleared a territory of nearly a million square kilometres with a population of 40 million. The revolution was again advancing. [7]

Sviiazhsk was the Valmy’ of the Russian Revolution. The first victory of the French revolutionary army over the Prussians had been at Valmy on 20 September 1792. Afterwards the poet Goethe said: ‘From this place and from this day forth commences a new era in the world’s history, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’

At the end of September Trotsky returned to Moscow and reorganised the Supreme War Council into the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic – a body responsible for deciding military policy. Under it were the revolutionary war councils of the fourteen armies, each made up of the commander of the army and two or three commissars. Trotsky presided over the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic. His deputy, who managed the day-to-day work while Trotsky was away at the front, was Efroim Markovich Sklyansky, then 26 years old. He was a Kiev medical student who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1913, becoming an army doctor and a member of the Bolshevik military organisation. Trotsky paid generous tribute to the talent and energy of his deputy, describing him as ‘the Carnot of the Russian Revolution’. [1*]

The other members of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic were Vatzetis, who had just been appointed Commander-in-Chief, I.N. Smirnov and A. Rosengolts, who had served with Vatzetis on the Volga, and Raskolnikov, who commanded the Red flotilla at Kazan, Muralov and Iurenev. Thus the victors of Kazan were placed at the head of the army.

Trotsky’s armoured train

The trip to Sviiazhsk was only the first of 36 long journeys to the widely separated fronts of the civil war that Trotsky made in the special train from which he guided the war. The train was the heart of the Red Army. Trotsky writes:

During the most strenuous years of the revolution, my own personal life was bound up inseparably with the life of that train. The train, on the other hand, was inseparably bound up with the life of the Red Army. The train linked the front with the base, solved urgent problems on the spot, educated, appealed, supplied, rewarded, and punished ...

For two and a half years, except for comparatively short intervals, I lived in a railway coach. There I received those who brought reports, held conferences with local military and civil authorities, studied telegraphic despatches, dictated orders and articles. From it I made long trips along the front in automobiles with my co-workers. In my spare time I dictated my book against Kautsky and various other works ... it had ... become a flying apparatus of administration. Its sections included a secretariat, a printing press, a telegraph station, a radio station, an electric power station, a library, a garage, and a bath ...

I haven’t even the exact figures of the total distance covered by the train during the civil war. One of the notes to my military books mentions 36 trips, with a total run of over 105,000 kilometres. One of my former fellow-travellers writes that he reckons from memory that in three years we circled the earth five and a half times – he gives, that is, a figure twice as large as the one mentioned above. This does not include thousands of kilometres done by automobile from the railway line into the heart of the front line. Since the train always went to the most critical points, the diagram of its journeys gives a fairly exact and comprehensive picture of the relative importance of the different fronts. [8]

In the train, Trotsky writes,

We always had in reserve a few zealous communists to fill in the breaches, a hundred or so of good fighting men, a small stock of boots, leather jackets, medicaments, machine-guns, field-glasses, maps, watches, and all sorts of gifts. Of course, the actual material resources of the train were slight in comparison with the needs of the army. But they were constantly being replenished. [9]

The arrival of the train put the most isolated unit in touch with the whole army, and brought it into the life not only of the country, but of the entire world. Alarmist rumours and doubts were dispelled, and the spirit of the men grew firm. This change of morale would last for several weeks, sometimes until the next visit of the train. [10]

Without constant changes and improvisations, the war would have been utterly impossible for us. The train initiated these, and at the same time regulated them. If we gave an impulse of initiative to the front and its immediate rear, we took care to direct it into the channels of the general system. I do not want to say that we always succeeded in this. But, as the civil war has demonstrated, we did achieve the principal thing – victory. [11]

In the unstable poise of a scale, only a small weight is enough to decide. The role of that weight was played by the train and its detachments a great many times during its two and a half years of travel. [12]

In the train Trotsky demonstrated how the sword and the pen could act together in complete harmony. Trotsky’s prolific output is recorded in the five volumes of his How the Revolution Armed. This includes his articles, speeches, reports, appeals, orders, instructions, letters, telegrams and other documents devoted to the Red Army. Unfortunately the volumes do not encompass his correspondence (mostly with Lenin) and many of his speeches during the civil war. On the last point Trotsky explains:

The most important speeches, namely those which were addressed to military workers on the spot, at the fronts and in the army units, and which had profoundly practical, concrete significance, determined by the demands of the moment – these most important and significant speeches were, as a rule, not taken down in writing by anyone. [13]

The volumes of How the Revolution Armed are distinguished by a rich combination of broad historical sweep, originality, innovation and attention to the details of army life.

The army and society

An army is not external to society and does not develop independently from society. In any period of history military technique reflects the level of technique in the economy as a whole and the structure of the army reflects the structure of society as a whole. In medieval times the knight had a horse and a sword because the peasant had a horse and a plough. The mass armies of the First World War, involving millions, could not exist without a mass of workers working in factories producing the guns and shells. The nuclear bomb – the ability to press a button and thereby kill tens or hundreds of millions – parallels the multi- national corporations and their power to telex massive sums of capital from one country to another, close factories – so sacking thousands, or open others employing thousands.

If the dominant social relations are those between feudal lords and serfs, then the same feudal relations dominate the relations between the lord and his knights. If in the capitalist factory there is a hierarchy of manager, deputy manager, foreman and workers, then the same hierarchy is reproduced – in more extreme form – in the army: from general to major, NCOs to the rank and file.

The social conditions of the Soviet Republic affected the shape and the working of the Red Army. The Red Army throughout the civil war was constantly under pressure from the localist, fragmented nature of the peasantry, as well as the small size of the proletariat and the general cultural poverty. Throughout the civil war these circumstances again and again obstructed Trotsky’s efforts to secure the cohesion of the army. These conditions nurtured a continuous opposition to his military policy, which became the embryo of the Stalinist faction of the future.

The party cadres, reflecting the unevenness of consciousness in the working class and the conflict between the mass peasantry and the workers, showed a strong inclination towards substitutionism – the substitution of the state and party apparatus in place of the direct action of the workers – and towards the bureaucratic manipulation of the masses. This tendency was strengthened in the army, because the workers there were submerged in the sea of peasants. The fact that the army was an organism whose needs were in the highest degree demanding and imperative, and brooked no delay, further reinforced the bureaucratic, authoritarian tendencies among party cadres.


1*. Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) was a key member of the great Committee of Public Safety, which played the decisive role in defending the French Revolution in 1793-94 when it was besieged on all sides by invading foreign armies as well as facing internal counter-revolution. Carnot was in charge of the revolution’s military defence. His brilliant success in turning the tide against the invading armies earned him a reputation as ‘the organiser of victories’.


1. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 309-10.

2. Trotsky, My Life, page 396.

3. Trotsky, My Life, page 397.

4. Trotsky, My Life, page 397.

5. Proletarskaia Revoliutsiia, number 2 (25) (1924), quoted in Trotsky, My Life, page 399.

6. Trotsky, My Life, page 407.

7. Trotsky, My Life, page 410.

8. Trotsky, My Life, pages 411 and 413-14.

9. Trotsky, My Life, page 415.

10. Trotsky, My Life, page 418.

11. Trotsky, My Life, page 417.

12. Trotsky, My Life, page 420.

13. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page xxix.

Last updated on 31 July 2009