Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

10. The Red Army and
the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy

THE WAR dominated Soviet life. The whole of the economy during the years of civil war was subordinated completely to the needs of the army. The Council of Workers’ and Peasants’ Defence, chaired by Lenin, was set up to organise the economy for war. It was vested with ‘full plenary powers in the matter of mobilising the human and material resources of the country in the interests of defence. The decisions of the Defence Council are unconditionally obligatory upon all agencies and institutions, central and local, and all citizens.’ The decree placed all workers in transport, food supply and the war industries under conditions of strict military discipline and made the unification of administration in these fields the central concern of the Defence Council. Trotsky explains:

The War Department determined the government work of the entire country. All the other governmental activity was subsidiary to it. After it in importance tame the Commissariat of Supplies. Industry worked chiefly for war. All the other departments and institutions were subjected to constant contraction or reduction and some were even completely closed. [1]

In 1919, 40.4 per cent of the published enactments of the government were devoted entirely to military matters, 13.1 per cent to food supplies, 10.1 per cent to transport, and 8.1 per cent to industry, while the remaining 28.3 per cent covered fields as diverse as posts and telegraphs, health, finance, agriculture and education. [2]

The Red Army took the dominant share of all industrial and agricultural supplies. In summer 1920 the army was taking the following proportions of the country’s centralised supplies: [3]


  25 per cent










Dried fruit
















Cotton material    


Other textiles



The hierarchical structure of the Red Army, rising on a heterogeneous social base of which the atomised peasantry made up the overwhelming majority, undoubtedly strengthened bureaucratic tendencies. The strength of a bureaucracy in any organisation is in inverse proportion to the cohesion and strength of the rank and file.

By a mixture of popular support, revolutionary ardour and firm will, the Whites were beaten. But the price paid was enormous. People make history, but in conditions not of their own choosing. In the process they change both the circumstances and themselves. The exigencies of building a disciplined army out of an often indifferent peasant mass inculcated into many of the best party members authoritarian habits. It was in the Red Army, more than in any other arm of the state, that party democracy gave way to the completely bureaucratic, non-elective principle.

On 25 October 1918 it was decided to abolish completely the elected party committees in the army above the level of the party cell. [4] The decline of party democracy in the army went so far that Gusev could write in January 1919:

party organisation in the army remodels itself along military lines and, as with the army, democratic centralism is replaced by military centralism. Instead of elections, appointment; in the place of resolutions, orders and reports. Party organisations lose all their ‘political rights’. They retain one right alone, the right to work, to carry out ‘without exception’ the orders and instructions of the political department. [5]

The Central Political Administration, abbreviated to PUR, subordinated to the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic, The sword of the revolution of which Trotsky was the chairman, had complete control over all political work inside the army, in particular the right to make all appointments and enforce all party decisions. PUR had the power to transfer people from one section or job to another. It had jurisdiction over the political commissars.

Generally during the civil war both military and civilian administrators were transferred from one place or job to another in order to deal with the constant state of emergency. A special bureau, the Records and Assignment Department of the Central Committee (Uchraspred) was responsible for the distribution of cadres according to the requirements of the state.

The Red Army spearheaded the most extreme forms of bureaucratic centralism. Accordingly, at the Eighth Party Congress, V. Osinsky accused Trotsky of ‘implanting bureaucracy under the flag of militarisation ... within our civilian apparatus there is an organic gravitation towards military methods of operation’. [6] Because of the heterogeneous composition of the Red Army – an overwhelming majority of peasants with a minority of proletarians, a combination of former Tsarist officers with Communist commissars – an iron ring was needed to hold these contradictory elements together; this strengthened bureaucracy in the army.

As the army reflects society, in more extreme forms and in both its weaknesses and its strengths, Trotsky was perceptive when he wrote:

nearly all, if not all, the questions of principle and the difficulties of Soviet constructive work arose before us first and foremost in the sphere of military affairs – and, in extremely hard, concise and compact form. In this sphere, as a general rule, no respite was allowed us. Illusions and errors brought with them almost immediate retribution. The most responsible decisions were taken under fire. [7]

The civil war itself, by making the speedy resolution of immediate problems essential, led to increasing centralisation of government decisions and to the decline of local soviets. It also led to increasing fusion of state and party, and to increasing centralisation of decision-making in the party itself. At the centre the central committee was more and more replaced by the politburo and orgburo. Thus, in the eight months beginning April 1919, the central committee met at five or six-week intervals, instead of fortnightly as the party rules required, whereas the politburo met on average every five days, and the orgburo every second day. [8] The party secretariat multiplied its tentacles, as can be seen from the number of people it employed: this rose from 15 in March 1919 to 80 in December 1919, then to 150 by March 1920. [9]

It was no accident that Stalin was attracted to the military field, as Trotsky explained: ‘The front attracted him, because here for the first time he could work with the most finished of all the administrative machines, the military machine.’ [10] The Red Army rose above society and dominated it. Because the proletariat was a minority in the country the Red Army during the civil war, to use Gusev’s words, had to ‘look at itself as a foreign invader, an occupier who has seized an enemy nation, in which a significant part of the population is decidedly hostile to the invader.’ [11]

In retrospect, Trotsky emphasised the crucial role of the Red Army in the formation of the bureaucracy. Thus he wrote in 1936:

The demobilisation of the Red Army of five million played no small role in the formation of the bureaucracy. The victorious commanders assumed leading posts in the local soviets, in economy, in education, and they persistently introduced everywhere that regime which ensured success in the civil war. Thus on all sides the masses were pushed away gradually from actual participation in the leadership of the country. [12]

The number of soldiers in the Red Army, 5,498,000 on 1 October 1920, had fallen to 566,517 by 1 October 1923.

It was not the intrinsic nature of Bolshevism, neither its revolutionary Marxist ideology nor its democratic centralist form of organisation, that led to the rise of bureaucracy, but the objective conditions of the civil war. To quote Trotsky’s words of 1940:

The three years of civil war laid an indelible impress on the Soviet government itself by virtue of the fact that very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders. Those theoreticians who attempt to prove that the present totalitarian regime of the USSR is due not to such historical conditions, but to the very nature of Bolshevism itself, forget that the civil war did not proceed from the nature of Bolshevism, but rather from the efforts of the Russian and the international bourgeoisie to overthrow the Soviet regime. There is no doubt that Stalin, like many others, was moulded by the environment and circumstances of the civil war, along with the entire group that led him to establish his personal dictatorship – Ordzhonikidze, Voroshilov, Kaganovich – and a whole layer of workers and peasants [who were] raised to the status of commanders and administrators. [13]

The Red Army played a crucial role in the rise of the Stalinist faction that was later to be dominant in the bureaucracy. We have seen how a number of prominent army people collected around Stalin. After the end of the civil war they assumed significant positions in the party. At the Tenth Congress of the party (March 1921) Frunze, Voroshilov, Ordzhonikidze, Iaroslavsky, Mikhailov, Komarov, Tuntul, Molotov and Petrovsky, all associated with Stalin, were elected to the central committee. Gusev, Kuibyshev, Kirov and Chubar, also associated with Stalin, became its new candidate members. At the Eleventh and Twelfth Party Congresses the strength of Stalin’s supporters in the central committee increased further. During the Lenin levy in 1924 nearly 4000 Red Army officers were brought into the party, thus strengthening the power of the Stalinist faction.

The cadres of the Stalinist faction consisted of self-educated and half-educated people. The psychology of the Stalinist bureaucracy at the time when they adopted the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ had already been demonstrated during the civil war in their bragging, ignorance, bluff and bluster. ‘We can do anything’ – this was the theme of the ‘proletarian military doctrine’. They thrived in the cultural backwardness of the country. Pseudo-Marxist rejection of bourgeois specialists and bourgeois culture were a cover for their own lack of culture. These were the foundations for the national ‘messianism’, in which the bureaucracy saw itself as the embodiment both of Russia and of the communist future.

The full significance of the early formative phases of the bureaucracy in the Red Army, as well as of the proto-Stalinist faction, became apparent in the light of much later developments. It was the tragic fate of Trotsky that in the Red Army, which was one of his greatest achievements, the seeds were sown of his future isolation and defeat.


1. Trotsky, Stalin, page 275.

2. T.H. Rigby, Lenin’s Government: Sovnarkom 1917-1922 (Cambridge 1979) page 89.

3. L.N. Kritzman, Die heroische Periode der grossen russischen Revolution (Frankfurt-am-Main 1971), page 265.

4. Perepiska sekretariata TsK RSDRP(b) s mestnymi partiinymi organizatsiiakh (Moscow 1957) volume 4, document 111.

5. Pravda, 3 January 1919, quoted in Benvenuti, page 63.

6. Deviatii sezd RKP(b) (Moscow 1920) pages 101-2.

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

8. Rigby, page 182.

9. Rigby, page 181.

10. Trotsky, Stalin, page 295.

11. S.I. Gusev, Uroki grazhdanskoi voiny (Moscow 1921), page 8.

12. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York 1987), pages 89-90.

13. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 384-5.

Last updated on 29 July 2009