The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 1, 1918

How the Revolution Armed


Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Through Five Years

The idea of publishing my articles, speeches, reports, appeals, orders, instructions, letters, telegrams and other documents devoted to the Red Army arose in connection with the celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Red Army. Comrade V.P. Polonsky took the initiative in publishing these papers. Selection, critical checking, arrangement and correction of the material was undertaken by Comrades Ya. G. Blyumkin, F.M. Vermel, A.I. Rubin and A.A. Nikitin. The notes, the chronology and the indexes of names and subjects were compiled by Comrade S.I. Ventsov. When I looked quickly through the manuscripts after they had already been assembled for printing, the general impression I got was – how inadequately and, most important, with how little concreteness, all this material reflects the actual work involved in building the Red Army.

Today, when it has become possible for us to survey the entire achievement of the revolution through five years, it stands out quite clearly that 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. Any opposition there might be to these decisions was tested in action there and then, on the spot. Hence, by and large, the inner logically in the building of the Red Army, the absence of any wild leaps from one system to another. It can be said that, in a certain sense, it was precisely the acuteness of the danger to which we were subjected that saved us. If we had had more time for discussion and debate we should probably we would of made a great many more mistakes.

The most difficult period of all was the first – covering approximately the second half of 1918. Partly through necessity, partly through mere inertia, revolutionary effort was directed above all into breaking all the old links, removing from all posts the representatives of the old society. But at the same time it was necessary to forge new links and, in the first place, the strictest, most peremptory and coercive of links – namely, the links of new, revolutionary regiments. Our Party alone, with its still far from numerous, though sturdy cadres was capable of effecting this turn, under a hail of shrapnel. The difficulties and dangers involved were colossal. At the time when the vanguard of the proletariat had already accomplished, though not without internal problems, the transition to ‘work, discipline and order’, the broad masses of the workers, and, even more so, of the peasants were only beginning to shake themselves free, wiping out, as had to be done! Everything that remained of the old order, and they were not as yet thinking in a practical way about the new one. This was a very critical moment in the development of the Soviet power. The party of the Left ‘Socialist-Revolutionaries’ – an organization of intellectuals, one wing of which extended to the peasantry and the other to the mass of the urban philistines – reflected most vividly, in its fate, the painful transition from the spontaneously-destructive period of the revolution to the state-building period. The petty-bourgeois who has taken the bit between his teeth (der rabiat gewordene Spiessburger, to use Engels’s expression) does not want to know about any limitations, any concessions, any compromises with historical reality – until the moment when the latter bangs its beam against his skull. Then he collapses into prostration and helplessly surrenders to the enemy. The Socialist-Revolutionary party, which reflected! The peripheral spontaneity of the revolution’s yesterday was utterly incapable of understanding either the Brest peace, or centralized authority, or the regular army. The opposition of the Left SRs on these questions was quickly transformed into revolt, which ended in the political ruin of that party. It has pleased fate that Comrade  Blyumkin, a former Left SR who in July 1918 staked his life on the fight against us, but who is now a member of our party, should have turned out to be my collaborator in putting together this volume, which in one of its sections reflects our mortal conflict with the Left SR party. The revolution is highly skilled both in separating men from one another and also, if need be, in bringing them together. All the most courageous and consistent elements that existed in the Left SR party are now with us.

Taken as a whole, the revolution signifies a sharp turn in history. But, if we examine it more carefully, we find within it a series of turns which are the more acute and critical, the further the events of the revolution unfold, at a furious pace. Each of these partial turns is, above all, a very great test for the leading party. Schematically, the task of the party – or, to be still more precise, that of its fighting center – breaks down into the following elements: appreciating in good time the need for a new stage; preparing the party for this new stage; carrying through the turn without detaching the party from the masses who are still governed by the inertia of the previous period. At the same time it is necessary to remember that the revolution is very sparing in its allowance to the ruling party of that basic raw material, time. If the leading center makes the turn too sharply, it may find itself in opposition to its own party, or the party may find itself in opposition to the revolutionary class: but, on the other hand, a party that drifts with the current of yesterday, along with the class that it leads, may turn out to be too late in fulfilling urgent tasks posed by the objective course of events – and every such violation of the dynamic equilibrium threatens to prove fatal for the revolution. This applies, with the necessary modification regarding tempos, not only to the army but also to the economy.

The old army was still straggling back across the country, spreading hatred for war, when we were already having to form new regiments. The Tsarist officers had been thrown out of the army, and in some places dealt with in merciless fashion. Yet we had to invite former officers to come and serve as instructors of the new army. The committees in the Tsarist regiments were the very embodiment of the revolution – in its first stage, at least. In the new regiments, committees could not be tolerated, being a source of disintegration. The curses cast upon the old discipline had not yet ceased to resound when we were already obliged to introduce a new discipline. Then followed the transition from voluntary to compulsory recruitment and from guerrilla bands to regular military organisation. The struggle against ‘guerrillaism’ was waged unremittingly, from one day to the next, and it called for the greatest persistence, intransigence and, sometimes, severity. ‘Guerrillaism’ was the military expression of the peasant background of the revolution, in so far as the matter had not yet been raised to the level of state consciousness. The struggle against ‘guerrillaism’ was at the same time a struggle for proletarian statehood against the anarchical petty-bourgeois spontaneity that was undermining it. Guerrilla methods and habits found expression, however, in the Party’s ranks as well: an ideological struggle against them within the Party was a necessary supplement to the organisational, educational and punitive measures that were taken in the army. Only through maximum pressure was anarchical ‘guerrillaism’ brought within the framework of centralisation and discipline. This pressure was both external – the German offensive, and then the Czechoslovak revolt – and internal, by way of Communist organisation within the Army.

The articles, speeches and orders assembled here reflect, as I have said, only to a very inadequate degree the work of actual construction that was done. The principal part of this work was generally performed otherwise than by means of speeches and articles. Besides which, 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. To all which it must further be added that even the speeches that were recorded were mostly recorded badly. The art of writing shorthand was in that period of the revolution at just as low a level as all the other arts. Everything was done hastily and ‘anyhow’. When deciphered, a shorthand transcript often consisted of a collection of enigmatic phrases, the meaning of which it was not always possible to reconstruct subsequently, and all the less so when this task was undertaken by someone other than the person who had delivered the speech.

Nevertheless, these pages do reflect the great years that have passed; which is why, with all the reservations set out above, I have agreed that they be printed. It is no bad thing for us, from time to time, to look over our recent past. Furthermore, these pages may prove to be not without use to our comrades abroad who are advancing, even though slowly, towards the conquest of power. The fundamental tasks and problems which we have overcome will in due course confront them too. Perhaps these materials will help them to avoid at least some of the mistakes that lie in wait for them. Nothing is ever accomplished without making mistakes and a revolution least of all: but it is good, at any rate, to reduce these mistakes to the minimum.


L. Trotsky
February 27, 1923

P.S. Included in the present publication are, predominantly, articles, speeches, documents and so on which were delivered publicly, or which have already been published in the press. A comparatively small section is made up of materials which, for one reason or another, were not published at the time they were written, and are printed here for the first time. The book does not include numerous documents (orders, reports, correspondence over the direct wire, etc.) the time to publish which has not yet come, and will not come so soon. This circumstance needs to be kept in mind when evaluating the book as a whole.




Blyumkin (or Blurakin), who killed the German ambassador Mirbach in order to provoke war between Soviet Russia and Germany, was pardoned after Germany’s defeat had made it safe to do this. He resumed his work in the Cheka (later the GPU). In 1929 he visited Trotsky in exile, taking back with him a letter to Russian oppositionists. He was betrayed (apparently, by Radek) and executed. [Note by transcriber: Blyumkin was a Left SR who helped coordinate terrorist actions against the Bolsheviks. His assassination of Mirbach was an attempt, as stated, to provoke Germany into attacking the Soviet Republic and workers’ state. The assassination of Mirbach was perpetuated by the same political fringe that attempted the assassination of Lenin. It was not done at the behest of the Bolsheviks, but rather it was directed against them. – David Walters with help from Joska Rabb]

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Last updated on: 20.12.2006