Trotsky with troops

Leon Trotsky addressing Red Army troops at the front

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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The problems connected with the creation of the armed forces of the revolution are of immense importance for the Communist Parties of all countries. Disregard of these problems, or, even worse, a negative attitude towards them, hidden behind humanitarian pacifist phraseology, is really criminal. Arguments to the effect that all violence, including revolutionary violence, is evil and that Communists therefore ought not to engage in ‘glorification’ of armed struggle and the revolutionary army, amount to a philosophy worthy of Quakers, Dukhobors [A Russian Christian sect who refused to perform military service. To escape persecution many emigrated to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century] and the old maids of the Salvation Army. Permitting such propaganda in a Communist Party is like permitting Tolstoyan propaganda in the garrison of a besieged fortress. He who desires the end must desire the means. The means for emancipating the working people is revolutionary violence. From the moment of the conquest of power, revolutionary violence takes the form of an organized army. The heroism of the young worker who dies on the first barricade of the revolution when this is beginning differs in no way from the heroism of the Red soldier who dies on one of the fronts of the revolution after state power has been taken. Only sentimental fools can suppose that the proletariat of the capitalist countries is in danger of exaggerating the role of revolutionary violence and showing excessive admiration for the methods of revolutionary terrorism. On the contrary, what the proletariat lacks is, precisely, understanding of the liberatory role of revolutionary violence. That is the very reason why the proletariat still remains in slavery. Pacifist propaganda among the workers leads only to weakening the will of the proletariat, and helps counter-revolutionary violence, armed to the teeth, to continue.

Before the revolution, our Party possessed a military organization. This had a dual purpose: to carry on revolutionary propaganda in the armed forces, and to prepare strong points within the army itself for the overthrow of the state. Since revolutionary enthusiasm seized hold of the army as a whole, the purely organizational role of the Bolshevik cells in the regiments was not particularly noticeable. But it was very important, given the possibility that existed for selecting elements which, though small in numbers, were decisive – elements whose significance proved so great in the most critical hours of the revolution. At the moment of the October insurrection these men played their part as commanders, commissars of units, and so on. Later, we encountered many of them in the role of organizers of the Red Guard and the Red Army. [2]

The revolution grew directly out of the war, and one of its most important slogans was for the ending of the war, which corresponded to the phenomenon of war-weariness and loathing for war. Yet the revolution itself gave rise to new dangers of war, which kept increasing. Hence the extreme external weakness of the revolution in the first period. The almost complete defenselessness of the revolution was revealed at the time of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. Men did not want to fight, considering that war had been altogether consigned to the past: the peasants were seizing the land, the workers were building their organizations and taking over industry.

Hence there emerged the colossal experiment in pacifism of the Brest-Litovsk period. The Soviet Republic declared that it could not sign the enforced treaty, but neither would it fight, and issued an order for the Army to disband. This was a very risky step to take, but it followed from the circumstances of the time. The Germans resumed their offensive, and that became the point of departure for a profound turn in the consciousness of the masses: they began to realize that it was necessary to defend ourselves with arms. Our pacifist declaration introduced a ferment of disintegration into Hohenzollern’s army. The offensive of General Hoffmann helped us to get down to serious work for the creation of a Red Army.

At the outset, though, we did not yet decide to have recourse to compulsory enlistment: neither the political nor the organizational possibilities were present for mobilizing the peasants who had lust been demobilized. The Army was built on the voluntary principle. Naturally, it was filled not only with self-sacrificing young workers but also with the vagabond, unstable elements that were so numerous at that time, and which were not always of the highest quality. Our new regiments, created in the period of the spontaneous break-up of the old ones, were lacking in steadiness and not very reliable. This was made fully obvious to friend and foe alike when the revolt of the Czechoslovaks, inspired by the SRs and other Whites, broke out on the Volga. [The Czechoslovak Corps was formed in Tsarist Russia from among prisoners of war. After the October Revolution the Corps wanted to ‘go home’, and the route chosen for their move was along the Trans-Siberian Railway and through Vladivostok.] Our regiments’ capacity for resistance was infinitesimal: town after town fell, during the summer of 1918, into the hands of the Czechoslovaks and of the Russian counterrevolutionaries who joined them. Their center was Samara. They captured Simbirsk and Kazan. Nizhny-Novgorod was threatened. From beyond the Volga they prepared to strike at Moscow. At that moment (August 1918) the Soviet Republic put forth extraordinary efforts to develop and strengthen its Army. For the first time, the method of mass mobilization of Communists was applied. A centralized apparatus of political leadership and education was formed for the troops on the Volga front. Along with this, in Moscow and the Volga region an attempt was made to mobilize certain age-groups of the workers and peasants. Small units of Communists ensured the carrying-out of this mobilization. In the provinces of the Volga Region a strict regime was established, in accordance with the extent and acuteness of the danger. At the same time an intense agitation was carried on, by means of both the spoken and the written word, with groups of Communists proceeding from one village to the next. After initial hesitancy, mobilization developed on a wide scale. It was backed up by a stern struggle against desertion and against those social groups which sustained and inspired desertion – the kolas, part of the clergy, and what remained of the old bureaucracy. The newly-created units were infused with worker-Communists from Petrograd, Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, and so on. For the first time, commissars were given in the units the status of revolutionary leaders and direct representatives of the Soviet power. By means of a few exemplary sentences the revolutionary tribunals warned everyone that the socialist fatherland, which was in mortal danger, required unconditional obedience from all. This combination of measures of agitation, organization and repression brought about within a few weeks the turn that was needed. Out of a shaky, unsteady, disintegrating mass, a real army was created. We took Kazan on September 10, 1918, and recovered Simbirsk on the following day. That moment was a notable date in the history of the Red Army. Immediately, we felt firm ground under our feet. These were no longer our first helpless attempts: from now on we could fight and win.

The apparatus of military administration was built at that time, all across the country, in close combination with the local soviets of every province, uyezd and volost. [Gubernia (‘Governorate’) the largest administrative unit in Russia at that time, has been translated as ‘province’. An uyezd was a subdivision of a province, and a volost was the smallest administrative unit – a group of villages.] The territory of the Republic, which, though split up by the enemy, was still enormous, was divided into districts, each comprising several provinces. [Originally six military districts were formed: Yaroslavl, Moscow, Orel, Ural, Volga and Northern Commune (White Sea).] In this way the necessary centralization of the administration was achieved.

The political and organizational difficulties were incredibly great. The psychological change-over from the destruction of the old army to the creation of the new, was achieved only at the cost of continual inner friction and conflict. The old army had thrown up committees elected by the soldiers, and elected commanders who were actually subordinate to these committees. This measure was, of course, not military but revolutionary-political in character. From the standpoint of controlling troops in battle and of preparing them for battle, it was intolerable, monstrous, fatal. There was and could be no question of controlling troops by means of elected committees and commanders who were subordinate to these committees and might be replaced at any moment. But the army did not want to fight. It had carried out a social revolution within itself, casting aside the commanders from the landlord and bourgeois classes and establishing organs of revolutionary self-government, in the shape of the Soviets of Soldiers’ Deputies. These organizational and political measures were correct and necessary from the standpoint of breaking up the old army. But a new army capable of fighting could certainly not grow directly out of them. The Tsarist regiments, after experiencing the Kerensky period, disbanded after October and were reduced to nothing. The attempt made to apply our old organizational methods to the building of a Red Army threatened to undermine it from the very outset. Electivity of commanders in the Tsarist army was a way of purging it of possible agents of restoration. But the system of election could in no way secure competent, suitable and authoritative commanders for the revolutionary army. The Red Army was built from above, in accordance with the principles of the dictatorship of the working class. Commanders were selected and tested by the organs of the Soviet power and the Communist Party. Election of commanders by the units themselves – which were politically ill-educated, being composed of recently mobilized young peasants – would inevitably have been transformed into a game of chance, and would often, in fact, have created favorable circumstances for the machinations of various intriguers and adventurers. Similarly, the revolutionary army, as an army for action and not as an arena of propaganda, was incompatible with a regime of elected committees, which in fact could not but destroy all centralized control, by allowing each unit to decide for itself whether it would agree to advance or to remain on the defensive. The Left SRs carried this chaotic pseudo-democracy to the point of absurdity when they called upon the individual regiments to decide whether they would fulfill the conditions of the armistice with the Germans or would go over to the offensive. In doing this the Left SRs were merely trying to raise the Army against the Soviet power which had created it.

The peasantry, taken by itself, is incapable of creating a centralized army. It cannot get beyond local guerrilla units, the primitive ‘democracy’ of which is often a screen for the personal dictatorship of their atamans. These guerrilla tendencies, reflecting the element of peasant spontaneity in the revolution, found their most finished expression among the Left SRs and the Anarchists, but also took possession of a considerable section of the Communists, especially those who came from the peasantry or had formerly been soldiers or NCOs.

In the first period, guerrilla warfare was a necessary and adequate weapon. The fight against the counter-revolution, which had not yet pulled itself together, uniting and arming its forces, was waged by small, independent bodies of troops. This kind of warfare called for self-sacrifice, initiative and independence. But as the war grew in scope it increasingly called for proper organization and discipline. The habits of guerrilla warfare began to turn their negative pole towards the revolution. Transforming units into regiments, putting regiments into divisions, subordinating divisional commanders to commanders of armies and of fronts was a task of great difficulty, and one that was not always effected without loss.

Indignation against the bureaucratic centralism of Tsarist Russia formed a very important constituent feature of the revolution. Regions, provinces, uyezds and towns vied with one another in trying to show their independence. The idea of ‘power in the localities’ assumed an extremely chaotic character in the initial period. On the Left SR and Anarchist wing it was linked with reactionary federalist doctrinairism, but among the broad masses it was an inevitable and, so far as its sources were concerned, a healthy reaction against the old regime which had stifled initiative. From a certain moment onward, however, with the tighter unification of the counter-revolutionary forces and the growth of external threats, these primitive tendencies to autonomy became ever more dangerous, both from the political and, in particular, from the military standpoint. This problem will undoubtedly play a big role in Western Europe, above all in France, where prejudices in favor of autonomism and federalism are stronger than anywhere else. The quickest possible overcoming of such prejudices, under the banner of revolutionary proletarian centralism, is a prerequisite for future victory over the bourgeoisie.

The year 1918 and a substantial part of 1919 were spent in constant stubborn struggle to create a centralized, disciplined army, supplied and controlled from a single center. In the military sphere this army reflected, though in sharper forms, the process that was going forward in all spheres of the construction of the Soviet Republic.

The selection and creation of commanding personnel involved a number of very great difficulties. We had at our disposal what was left of the old corps of regular officers, a broad stratum of the officers commissioned during the war, and, finally, the commanders brought forward by the revolution itself in its first, guerrilla period.

Of the old officer corps there remained with us either the more idealistic men, who understood or at least sensed the meaning of the new epoch (these were, of course, a very small minority), or the pen-pushers, inert, without initiative, men who lacked the energy to go over to the Whites: finally, there were not a few active counter-revolutionaries, whom events had caught unawares.

When we took our first constructive steps, the question of these former officers of the Tsarist army came up in an acute form. We needed them as representatives of their craft, as men who were familiar with military routine, and without whom we should have to start from scratch. Our foes would, in that case, hardly permit us to pursue our self-training until it had reached the required level. We could not build a centralized military apparatus, and an army to correspond, without drawing into the work many representatives of the old officer corps. They now entered the army not as representatives of the old ruling classes but as henchmen of the new revolutionary class. Many of them, to be sure, betrayed us, going over to the enemy or taking part in revolts; but, in the main, their spirit of class resistance was broken. Nevertheless, the hatred felt for them by the rank-and-file masses was still intense, and constituted one of the sources of the guerrilla attitude: within the framework of a small local unit there was no need for qualified military workers. It was necessary, while smashing the resistance of the counter-revolutionary elements among the old officers, to secure for the loyal elements among them, step by step, the possibility of working as part of the Red Army.

The oppositionist ‘Left’ tendencies (which were actually intellectual and peasant tendencies) in the sphere of building the Army tried to find a generalized theoretical formula to serve their purposes. The centralized army was declared to be the army of an imperialist state. The revolution must, in conformity with its whole nature, give up for good and all not only positional warfare but also the centralized army. The revolution was entirely based upon mobility, the bold stroke, and maneuvering. Its fighting force was the small, independent unit, made up of all types of arms, not linked with any base, relying on the sympathy of the population, moving freely into the enemy’s rear, and so on. In short, the tactics of the revolution were proclaimed to be the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Serious experience of civil war very soon refuted these prejudices. The advantages of centralized organization and strategy over local improvisation, military separatism and federalism were revealed so quickly and vividly that today the basic principles of the building of the Red Army are beyond dispute.

A most important role in the creation of a commanding apparatus for the Army was played by the institution of commissars. They were chosen from among the revolutionary workers, the Communists, and in part also, in the first period, the Left SRs (until July 1918). The role of the commander was thereby bisected, so to speak. Only purely military leadership was left in the hands of the commander himself. Political and educational work was concentrated in those of the commissar. But what was most important was that the commissar was the direct representative of the Soviet power in the Army. The commissar’s task was, without encroaching on the purely military work of the commander, and in no case lowering his authority as commander, to create conditions such that this authority could not be used against the interests of the revolution. The working class gave its best sons to the fulfillment of this task. Hundreds and thousands of them fell at their posts as commissars. Later, no small number of revolutionary commanders emerged from the ranks of the commissars.

From the very start we set about establishing a network of military training schools. At the beginning, these reflected the general weakness of our military organization. Short courses lasting a few months produced, in the main, not commanders but merely middling Red Army soldiers. Since, however, more often than not, those who went into battle in that period were masses who handled a rifle for the first time when they entrained, those Red Army soldiers who had undergone a four-month course were frequently given command not merely of sections but also of platoons and even of companies.

We assiduously recruited former NCOs of the Tsarist army. However, it must be appreciated that a considerable proportion of these had been drawn, in their time, from among the better-off sections in country and town. They were, predominantly, the literate sons of peasant families of the kulak type. At the same time, hostility towards the ‘men with the golden epaulettes’, meaning the officers, with their noble and intellectual background, was always a characteristic of theirs. Hence the split running through this category: they gave us many outstanding commanders and army leaders, whose most brilliant representative is Budyonny; but this same set of men also furnished many commanders for counter-revolutionary revolts and for the White Army.

Creating a body of revolutionary commanders is a most difficult task. And while the higher command was selected already in the first three or four years of the Red Army’s existence, where the lower levels of commanding personnel are concerned this cannot be said to have been fully accomplished even today. Our principal efforts are now being directed to providing the Army with section commanders who are completely capable of performing their responsible task. The work of military training can be proud of its very great successes. The training and education of Red commanders is steadily improving.

The role played by propaganda in the Red Army is widely known. The political work which with us preceded every step forward along the path of construction, in the military sphere as well as elsewhere, led to the need for creating an extensive political apparatus for the Army. The most important organs of this work are the commissars, already mentioned. However, the bourgeois press of Europe patently misrepresents the matter when it depicts propaganda as some devilish invention of the Bolsheviks. Propaganda plays an immense role in all the world’s armies. The political apparatus of bourgeois propaganda is very much more powerful and richer technically than ours. The superiority of our propaganda lies in its content. Our propaganda invariably united the Red Army, while disrupting the enemy’s forces, not by any special technical methods or procedures but by the Communist idea which constituted the content of this propaganda. This military secret of ours we openly divulge, without fearing any plagiarism on the part of our adversaries.

The Red Army’s technique reflected and reflects the general economic situation in our country. In the first period of the revolution we had at our disposal the material legacy of the imperialist war. In its way, this was colossal, but extremely chaotic. Of some things there was too much, of others too little, and besides, we did not know just what we possessed. The chief voluntary administrations artfully concealed that little which they themselves knew about. ‘Power in the localities’ was in the hands of whoever happened to be present in a given territory. The revolutionary guerrilla leaders took supplies for their units from anything and everything that came their way. The railway authorities cunningly directed trucks laden with ammunition, even entire trainloads, to destinations other than those for which they were intended. The first period was thus a time of frightful squandering of the resources left over from the imperialist war. Individual military units (mostly regiments) dragged around after them armored cars and airplanes while they had no bayonets for their rifles, and often even lacked cartridges. War industry had stopped production at the end of 1917. Only in 1919, when the old supplies began to near exhaustion, was work begun on reviving the production of arms. In 1920 nearly the whole of industry was already working for war purposes. We had no reserves. Every rifle, every cartridge, every pair of boots was dispatched, straight from the machine or the lathe that produced it, to the front. There were times – and these lasted for weeks – when every one of a soldier’s stock of cartridges counted, and when delay in the arrival of a special train bringing ammunition resulted in whole divisions retreating along several dozen versts [A verst is 3,500 feet, or 1,067 meters.] of the front.

Despite the fact that the subsequent development of the civil war led to collapse of the economy, the supplying of the army – thanks, on the one hand, to the direction given to the forces of industry, and, on the other, and mainly, thanks to the increasing degree of regulation of the war economy itself – became, and continues to become, more and more what is needed.

A special place in the development of the Red Army is held by the creation of the cavalry. Without going here into the argument about the role to be played by cavalry, in general, in future wars, we can say that, in the past, it was backward countries that had the best cavalry: Russia, Poland, Hungary, and, still earlier, Sweden. For cavalry one needs Steppes, wide open spaces. Here, it naturally came into being on the Kuban and the Don, and not in the environs of Petersburg and Moscow. In the civil war in the United States the advantage as regards cavalry was wholly in favor of the Southern plantation-owners. Only in the second half of the war did the Northerners master this arm. It was the same with us. The counter-revolution entrenched itself in the backward borderlands, and tried, pressing inward from there, to squeeze us into the central area round Moscow. The most important arm wielded by Denikin and Wrangel was the Cossacks, and, in general, the cavalry. Their bold raids often, in the first period, created very great difficulties for us. However, this advantage possessed by the counter-revolution – an advantage derived from backwardness – proved to be within the reach of the revolution, too, once it had grasped the significance of cavalry in a civil war of maneuver, and had set itself the task of creating a force of cavalry at whatever cost. The Red Army’s slogan in 1919 became: ‘Proletarians, to horse!’ After only a few months our cavalry could stand comparison with the enemy’s, and subsequently it seized the initiative once and for all.

The Army’s unity and self-confidence steadily increased. In the first period not only the peasants but also the workers were unwilling to join the Army. Only a very narrow stratum of devoted proletarians consciously set about creating armed forces for the Soviet Republic. And it was this stratum that bore the burden of the work in the first, most difficult period. The mood of the peasantry vacillated unceasingly. Entire regiments composed of peasants – true, in most cases they were quite unprepared either politically or technically – surrendered in the first period, sometimes without putting up a fight, and then later, when the Whites had enrolled them under their flag, crossed over to our side again. Sometimes the peasant masses tried to show their independence, and abandoned both Whites and Reds, going off into the forests to form their ‘Green’ units. But the scattered nature and political helplessness of these units foredoomed them to defeat. Thus, at the fronts of the civil war the relation between the basic class forces of the revolution found expression more vividly than anywhere else: the peasant masses, for whose allegiance the landlord-bourgeois-intellectual counter-revolution contended with the working class, constantly wavered from this side to that; but in the end it gave its support to the working class. In the most backward provinces, such as Kursk and Voronezh, where the numbers who evaded the call-up for military service amounted to many thousands, the arrival of the Generals’ forces on the borders of these provinces produced a decisive change in attitude, and impelled the masses of former deserters into the ranks of the Red Army. The peasant supported the worker against the landlord and the capitalist. In this social fact is rooted the final cause of our victories.

The Red Army was built under fire, and consequently, far from always in accordance with a definite plan, and often by way of rather disorderly improvisations. Its apparatus was extraordinarily unwieldy and, in many cases, clumsy. We made use of every breathing space to tighten, simplify and refine our military organization. In this respect we have had undoubted success during the last two years. In the period of our fight with Wrangel and with Poland, in 1920, the Red Army had in its ranks more than five million men. Today as of May 1922 it includes, together with the Navy, about one-and-a-half million, and is still contracting. This contraction has proceeded and is proceeding more slowly than would have been desirable, because it is paralleled by an improvement in quality. The tightening-up in the rear and auxiliary apparatus has been incomparably greater than in the combatant units. In contracting, the Army has not become weaker but, on the contrary, stronger. Its capacity for deployment, if war should come, is increasing steadily. Its loyalty to the cause of the social revolution is beyond doubt.

May 21, 1922 Moscow


1. This article was written for Yezhegodnik Kominterna (Comintern Annual), May 21, 1922. It appeared previously in No.8/1922 of the journal of the Chief Administration of Military Schools. It is reproduced here as the introduction to this work because it generalizes all the material which has now been printed in these volumes.

2. The Military Organization of our Party began in 1905 and played a considerable role in developing the revolutionary movement in the army. The first attempt to unite the work of the Party cells in the army was made at the end of March 1906, when a conference of the ‘military organizations’ was convened in Moscow. After the arrest of those who took part on that occasion, the conference was held in Tammerfors in the winter of 1906.

In 1917, after the February revolution, the Military Organization developed its influence first in Petrograd and later also at the front (especially in the Northern sector and in the Baltic Fleet). On April 15 appeared the first issue of the newspaper Soldatskaya Pravda, the central organ of the organization. At the congress of the Military Organization in Petrograd on July 16 up to 500 separate units were represented, with a total membership of not less than 30,000 Bolsheviks. The Military Organization carried on direct preparation for the rising and sent some active comrades from its membership to serve in the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, and later in the War Department (comrades Podvoisky, Mekhonoshin, Krylenko, Dzevaltovsky, Raskolnikov and many more).

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Last updated on: 26.12.2006