Karl Radek

The Red Army

(April 1918)

From Kommunist. Ezenedel'nyi zurnal ekonomiki, politiki i obsenstvennosti. Organ Moskovskago Oblastnogo Byuro RKP (bol'sevikov) [The Communist. Weekly Magazine for Economics, Politics and Social Questions. Organ of the Moscow District Office of the RCP(B)], No. 2, April 1918.
Source: Internationalist Communist Tendency.
Transcribed & marked up by Zdravko Saveski for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

With its preliminary work done, the Russian workers' and peasants' government has created the workers' and peasants' Red Army. After a brief period of reflection, they drafted a plan of action and presented it to the Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the Soviets.

The week before the 1 May (the festival of peace and fraternity of the peoples), the day a representative of German imperialism arrived in Moscow,[1] Trotsky outlined the basis of the military organisation to the CEC tribune.[2] Although they had already been approved by the vast majority of the CEC, the discussions at the heart of the party revealed that there was no unanimity in the ranks of soviet democracy on how the revolutionary army was to be constructed. Creating the army would require not only great efforts of organisation, but of politics and propaganda as well. The question of how to create the soviet army was extremely complex and totally unprecedented for the soviet masses, as well as for their leaders, and we will have to face this question time and time again. Today, we can only deal with the questions that that have been raised in the discussion, and how we should resolve them.

Do we need a soviet army like this one? Comrade Trotsky has stated, quite correctly, that to prevail over the Russian counter-revolution, there is no need for any great military unit. As long as the popular masses support us, we can combat the counter-revolutionary attempts of the bourgeoisie with the help of the hastily formed partisan divisions. In the event of our failure to resolve the organisational problems posed by the revolution, or in the event that the masses abandon us because of our inability to build this new organisation, this army that we have been constantly working towards will not save us. However, the more audacious among the Mensheviks and the SRs, who have tried to keep hold of their power against a popular insurrection by putting bayonets back in the hands of mindless people, could have thought that we were planning to build an army to keep ourselves in power even if the working masses were against us. The army is necessary to the Russian Revolution mainly for the purpose of its struggle against global imperialism, although we did not want to reconquer the seized territories of Russia with our weapons.[3] We have declared that we had no desire for military revenge, and that was not just empty diplomacy to reassure the German imperialists. Clearly, we are staying where we are and we trust the popular masses of Europe to defend the interests of the oppressed people of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Finland. But we must create a military force to prevent German imperialism and its allies from seeing the Russian Revolution as an easy target. The Japanese intervention showed that when we speak of the imminent threat to the Russian Revolution posed by global imperialism, these were not just empty words - this is a very real fact.

We are witnessing an era of profound upheavals, and when the thunder of the European Revolution sounds, the Russian revolutionary army will have an active role to play: not only as the initiator, but also as the organised detachment giving aid to the popular masses in revolt, who will have to carry out a difficult struggle against a well organised class enemy.

How then should the Red Army be built? The creation of the army of the revolution, the army of the working class and the poor peasants - this is the task we have been set by the nature of October's seizure of power. This is why, after the reservations expressed in Comrades Podvoisky and Trotsky's famous statements on compulsory education in military arts,[4] we can only commend the decision by the government of workers and peasants to educate only the workers and poor peasants. If Martov sees this as a concession to the "Bukharinite fraction", the left wing of the Bolshevik Party, if he thinks that this concession does not change anything about the essence of the nascent army, this only proves that this old Menshevik-Internationalist leader has shed the last remains of his Marxist baggage after being welcomed back into the "Dan family".[5]

An army which would tolerate in its ranks the bourgeoisie, and, subsequently, the petty bourgeoisie masses opposed to the proletarian revolution, would not be able to fulfil its revolutionary aims. It is not a question of arming a percentage of the proletarian or non-proletarian stratum of the population, but of the role that the bourgeoisie could play given their higher level of intellect compared to that of the workers. The fact is that class conflict would divide the army, destroying its internal relations and, consequently, the source of its strength - the consciousness of the common goal uniting all the soldiers.

Since the construction of the Red Army and its social content are both predetermined by the character of the revolution itself and by the international situation, the conditions are more difficult than the method of achieving this goal. It would be easier to start with the military education of the working masses and peasants and construct the army from the popular masses from the outset. But for now, we are unable to realise this immense task; we lack a local control unit, an education unit, instructors and ranks for command; and we do not have enough arms at our disposal. Moreover, such an army would require immense resources, transport and connected industry. The modern army is more than a mere conglomeration of individuals, it must endow itself with a technical unit and a centralised administration. The creation of such an army requires a long process of building strength and organising the victorious revolution. But this process in turn requires a management unit ahead of assuming its important role in transportation, education and creating the conditions for this whole task of development. It is for this reason that, for now, the education of the ranks of the army of workers and peasants, currently made up of volunteers, is not only a first step towards the general arming of the working class and poor peasants in the future, but also a necessary condition for building the organisational strength of the revolution. The Mensheviks have stressed the danger that comes with the fact that the workers and peasants who have signed up to the Red Army voluntarily have in doing so cut themselves off from their social base. We are not ignoring the existence of this danger; the social stratum that has this army at its disposal is easily penetrated by a particular psychology and may become a class that reclaims its privileges, that has its own interests, and that transforms easily from an instrument of power into power itself. The propaganda that maintains the relationship of the Red Army to its working class background may curb this process of alienation, but it cannot completely stop it. In the barracks, playing cards easily replaces propaganda brochures and life is harder than in the brochure. The real way to save our military ranks from degenerating into a praetorian clique capable of dictating their conditions to the government of workers and peasants is by permanently inserting the working and peasant masses into the nascent Red Army and into education in military arts. Only as long as these ranks continue to compete to arm the population shall it remain the true instrument of the revolution and not the point of departure for the counter-revolutionary unit, whose social base is still difficult to discern. It seems to us that the leading elements of the Soviet Republic do not fully understand this danger and do not dedicate enough attention to the instruction of the ranks of the army, or indeed fully acknowledge that its task is to organise the compulsory education of the working and peasant masses. However, the danger we speak of is not merely the tendency of the ranks of the army to separate themselves from the popular masses, but also indeed the danger that once the armed forces have been formed, the supporters of soviet power will themselves give in easily to the temptation to be satisfied with these first results. In order to teach military arts to the popular masses, we cannot count on the small number of specialists at our disposal. For this, through long, dogged effort, we must engage the entire workers' democracy in military issues, and form an ideological interest in military art amongst the working masses. Given the mammoth task faced by the soviets, they could forget (settling for the voluntary ranks) the main objective, namely the education in military arts amongst the working masses.

Predictably, the problem has not been discussed at all in the CEC, nor in the fraction. We have certainly been made aware of the danger of the counter-revolutionary aspirations of the officers of the old regime, which worries most of those in the soviet camp. The workers, the old soldiers and the sailors, the workers of our old military organisations formed in the struggle with the counter-revolutionary tsarist officers, look upon them with alarm and see in them the main danger. We do not share the optimism of Comrade Trotsky who declared that he had found among these officers a considerable number of people who understood the changes. There are very few officers who understand the objectives of creating the new army and its strategic tasks; only a few isolated officers sympathise with our objectives. The majority of the officers joining our army seek nothing but bread. The elite of our most astute officers, from an intellectual and military perspective, are persuaded that we have chosen the path that will take us much further from what we would have liked, and that we don't know what we are doing. They do not want to play a counter-revolutionary role, but they are certain that we are ourselves marching towards a bourgeois republic. This is why we believe that the role of the old officers is, and should be, temporary; only a small percentage will join our army and live the same lives as them. It is clear that as long as we still do not have our own communist officers, we remain obliged to put the old ones in the posts of instructors and even in command. Furthermore, we must make every effort to create the conditions for the training of our own officers; the old officers must teach the basics of military arts and transfer them to soviet democracy.

The fate of the Red Army is closely linked with that of the revolution in general. The structure of the army still reflects that of the society that has created it. If the petty bourgeois peasant elements take it away from the revolution, if the government of workers and peasants prefers the path of compromise with Russian and international capitalism, no organisational tricks nor preventative measures will save the Red Army from transforming into an instrument opposed to the working class. This is why we cannot consider the Cassandra's cries of the Mensheviks and the Right SRs historically anecdotal. If the revolution had chosen the path towards which they were leaning (creation of a Constituent Assembly, i.e. a compromise with the bourgeoisie in giving them delegation of authority), the army of the revolution would be the army of the bourgeoisie. What the Mensheviks and the SRs proposed as the basis of the nascent revolutionary army threatens to transform the workers' revolution into a peasants' revolution. However, the task of the communist workers is to prevent the revolution from degenerating, by drawing on the mobilisation of the proletariat. The more the proletarian character of the revolutionary army is reinforced, the easier it will be to avoid the above mentioned danger.

We do not know whether history will give us enough time to create a solid Red Army and to accomplish a stable organisational effort. Maybe we will construct it in the midst of the perilous struggle? This then would mean we would have to ensure organisation and military instruction on a day to day basis. We must not forget that every lost minute will cost us blood. We must devote our best forces to the creation of the army and to the organisation of the economic apparatus. Yes, we shall not leave our army to the officers and specialists who can only contribute to it their knowledge of military technique; we shall take it into our own hands to inject into it our soul, without which, from our point of view, it would be dead before it was born.

Karl Radek


[1] In the second half of April, Russia and Germany exchanged ambassadors: Adolf Joffe (1883-1927) left for Berlin and Count Wilhelm von Mirbach (1871-1918) settled in Moscow. Von Mirbach would be assassinated by Left SR members of the Cheka within weeks of taking up his post.

[2] This speech by Trotsky to which the editor refers is dated 22nd April but the decree on obligatory military instruction and the decree that created the socialist oath were both adopted at this session had been passed on the 21st March 1918.

[3] This however is unfortunately exactly what the Bolsheviks did attempt to do two years later in Poland, in August 1920.

[4] The decree on obligatory military education adopted by the CEC on the 21st March 1918 has also been translated into English in: William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, Volume 1, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1965, pp 502-504.

[5] That is, to a more right wing fringe of the Mensheviks led by Theodore Dan (Martov's brother-in-law).

Last updated on 27.03.2021