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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Speech at the Session of the Moscow Soviet of Workers’,
Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, March 19, 1918
[From Pravda, March 21, 1918.]

Comrades! Our Soviet Socialist Republic needs a well-organized army.

In the world situation in which it has been the will of history to place us, amid the conditions of unprecedented difficulty that surround us, conditions that, again, are not of our making, we need to be strong. This is given sharp emphasis by the entire international situation. To describe that situation, together with the international developments we expect, I will mention some of the most important facts in this sphere.

The most recent telegram received from the West informs us that Germany has approached the governments of our fomer ‘allies’ with a peace proposal, in which the Germans offer to withdraw their troops from France and Belgium and above all, to restore Alsace-Lorraine to France. [4] If we look more deeply into this matter, we see that it means they have in mind a peace at Russia’s expense.

Already at the beginning of the war we said that world war would inevitably entail the complete exhaustion of the less rich among the belligerent states, and that the weakest of the contending countries, regardless of which camp they belonged to, would suffer severe defeat and become so much ready cash for settling accounts when the booty was shared out. That is precisely the fate that threatens us.

Furthermore, the bourgeois newspapers of nearly all countries falsely allege that along the Trans-Siberian Railway there are up to 20,000 well-organized prisoners of war who are hostile to the ‘Allies’. The source of these false and provocative statements is the Japanese General Staff, which is spreading such rumours with the clear intention of creating a legal pretext for occupying Vladivostok and Siberia.

In Britain a struggle is going on between two political trends, one of which – embracing all the parties of capital – favours a certain compromise with Germany at the expense of Russia, while the other, reflecting the revolutionary ferment among the masses of the British people, warns against making such a deal at Russia’s expense. But in Britain, too, power is held by the extreme imperialists. We are surrounded by enemies. If our ‘Ally’ France were really to be offered Alsace-Lorraine, the French Stock-Exchange would unhesitatingly sell Russia out. This would not, of course, be hindered by the ‘friendly’ feelings entertained towards the Russian people on the part of our counter-revolutionary ‘Allies’, who are so warmly defended by the representatives of the right-wing trends. In view of this, we say, comrades, that Russia, exhausted and unarmed, will inevitably become the slave of international imperialism united against her if the international proletariat does not save her in time by its support, and if we ourselves do not organize our own defence.

We are reproached for not having given everything that we promised. In reply I say that, first and foremost, we must arm and fight, so as to ensure the mere possibility of carrying out our programme; and that, if the European proletariat fails to come to our aid in the fatal moment of our tragic lonely struggle, then, by remaining unarmed, we may perish altogether. We were the first to raise the flag of revolt amid this bloody and black night of imperialist war, and it is hard for us, sometimes almost beyond our strength, to fight against the iron ring of enemies that surrounds us. Is it surprising if we are not accomplishing all that we wanted to accomplish?

We need an army, which would give us powerful strength for the inevitable coming struggle with international imperialism. With the aid of this army we shall not only defend ourselves but shall be in a position to help the struggle of the international proletariat.

For there can be no doubt that, the more international imperialism grabs and strangles, the more passionate and terrible will be the wrath of the European worker-soldier who, emerging from the trenches, will find at home, as the result of his inhuman sufferings, his family reduced to poverty and hunger, and his country in a state of economic collapse.

Let those of little faith, yielding to weariness, no longer wish to hear of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat of other countries, of the victory of the world revolution: we declare that the moment of social explosion in all states is inevitably approaching, and we, to whom history has given victory sooner than the rest, with all the possibilities that follow from this, must be ready, at the first thunderclap of the world revolution, to bring armed help to our foreign brothers in revolt.

And, in particular, at the moment when the German proletariat, which is nearer to revolution than any other, when this proletariat, enveloped in the flames of militant enthusiasm, comes out into the streets – and it will come, whatever has been said by the croakers of ill-omen in their party, who have struck themselves forever out of the International – we must be ready prepared, organized in fighting units to go to their aid.

Our party deliberately set out to break up the old Tsarist Army. But the whole course of the war itself led to the complete disintegration of the ranks of the old army. Even without the work of our party, the army would have broken up into its component parts all the same. This result was fully prepared for both by Tsardom and by the entire policy of the Kerensky period. So early as the beginning of the February Revolution the question of peace and war sharply confronted the soldiers: upon the answer to this question depended the fate of the country’s armed forces. Precisely then, in the interests of the country and of the army, it was necessary to undertake in a practical way the solution, first and foremost, of the problem of peace, on the Russian and international scale. But just at that moment, when our army, which was already quite exhausted and deprived of strength, was burning with impatient expectation of peace, Kerensky and his colleagues and allies hurled the worn-out forces into the bloody offensive of June 18. [5] The Russian offensive of June 18, 1917 is usually referred to in Western books as the ‘July offensive’, owing to the difference in the calendar used at that time.] That offensive dealt a mortal blow to the army! There has been talk here of the Constituent Assembly. Let it be known to the party which predominated numerically in that assembly [6] that it was precisely itself that on June 18 destroyed the army, raised the country against itself, and thereby killed the Constituent Assembly!

In our work to create an army we shall undoubtedly come up against a number of obstacles. Whether we like it or not, we are heirs to all the previous ‘way of doing things’ of our political adversaries, and the entire burden of recent events, above all, the Brest peace, has fallen tragically upon us only through the previous management of affairs by the Tsarist regime and, following it, by the regime of the petty-bourgeois compromisers. And if the spirit of revolutionary enthusiasm has not yet been finally extinguished in the depths of the masses, that spirit without which the victory of the revolution is inconceivable, this is only because, at the time when the people are suffering these present tragic experiences, all power is really in their hands.

In the October days the people fought for power and seized it. We are now entering, armed with the plenitude of this power, into an epoch of construction and renovation of the life of the revolutionary people. Before us are immense tasks: restoring railway transport, the necessity of feeding the hungry, the need to draw the masses into creative and properly organized work. There can be no doubt that these tasks are at the given moment considerably complicated by the fact that the old discipline has been uprooted among the masses, while the new, revolutionary discipline has not yet taken shape. There is in the country a great deal of wanton behaviour, due to ignorance which, though awakened, has not yet been enlightened. All this is, of course, the inevitable product of all our previous history

All the sooner do we need, rolling up our sleeves, to get down to the rough work, with a mighty effort dragging out of the bog the cart of state which is so deeply stuck in it. We need exact, persistent and systematic work in all fields!

While we were fighting with the Kaledinites [7] we could successfully remain content with units which had been put together in haste. Now, however, in order to cope with the creative work of reviving the country which is what we have to perform, in order to ensure the security of the Soviet Republic under conditions of international counter-revolutionary encirclement, such units are already inadequate. We need a properly and freshly organized army!

When we speak of this need, those who formerly collaborated with the Tsar’s Generals blame us for having called up the regular officers and entrusted them with responsible posts. Yes, we are making use of the military specialists, for, after all, the tasks of Soviet democracy do not in the least consist in casting aside technical resources which can be usefully applied to ensure the success of its historical work, after subjecting them politically to the established order. In the matter of the army, too, all power will remain exclusively in the hands of the Soviets, which will despatch into all military organs and units reliable political commissars who will exercise overall control. The importance of these commissars must be recognised as very high indeed, and their authority will be unlimited. The military specialists will be in charge of the technical side, of purely military matters, operational work and combat activities, while the political side of the organization, training and education of the units must be wholly subject to the plenipotentiary representatives of the Soviet regime, its commissars. There is and can be at the present time no other way. We must remember that, in order to fight, we need, besides the enthusiasm which is latent among the people, technical knowledge as well.

For proper organization of the army and, in particular, for expedient utilisation of the specialists, we need revolutionary discipline. We are introducing this with determination at the top, but we need with no less vigour to introduce it down below, arousing a sense of responsibility among the masses. When the people realise that discipline is being introduced now not in order to defend the moneybags of the bourgeoisie, not to restore the land to the landlords, but, on the contrary, in order to consolidate and defend all the conquests made by the revolution, they will approve even the strictest of measures aimed at the establishment of discipline. We must at all costs and at any price implant discipline in the Red Army – not the previous sort, the automatic discipline of the rod, but conscious, collective discipline, based on revolutionary enthusiasm and clear understanding by the workers and peasants of their duty to their own classes.

We shall not be halted by any difficulties. It may be that, in order to bring our cause to triumph and accomplish our great tasks, we shall have for a time to work not eight hours but ten and twelve hours a day. So what? We shall work twice as hard, we shall harness ourselves together, we shall go forward along the road of labour discipline and creative work. We did not say, and we do not say now, that everything will come by itself. No, the difficulties that face us are beyond counting. But we have proved to be richer in spirit, resources and forces than we ourselves had thought we were: and that is no small thing, that is the pledge of victory.

Let us work tirelessly, so that at the moment when the European proletariat rise up, we shall be able to go fully armed to their aid and, together with them, in a combined effort, overthrow forever the power of capital!


3. In order that the reader may appreciate more precisely the speeches and articles that follow, it is necessary to give a brief historical review of the struggle waged by the Soviet Republic down to April 1918.

In the October days the Red Guards constituted a force that was sufficiently strong for its task, even though it was weakly organised. Kerensky’s attempt to liquidate the Bolshevik insurrection with the aid of a single Cossack division under General Krasnov’s command ended in failure. The front gave no help to Kerensky. In the fighting on the Pulkovo Heights the Red Guards defeated Krasnov: on November 1 our units captured Gatchina. The counter-revolution shifted to the poorly proletarianised border regions. The first fighting units were formed in the proletarian centres. The old army, which was in the grip of its urge to demobilise, played, on the whole, no part in this struggle. The disintegration of the old army, which was accompanied by the separation from it of the national units, [‘The national units’ means those units made up of non-Russian nationalities (Ukrainians, etc.) which held together amid this disorder, making it their task in the new period to fight for the independence of their homelands] reached its climax, and by January 1918 that army could be regarded as having been demobilised.

The working class scored rapid victories in the fight against the internal counter-revolution. On January 18 combat groups in the Ural area put down Dutov’s revolt. [Ataman A.I. Dutov, leader of the Orenburg Cossacks, was one of the first and also one of the most persistent of the White commanders. He operated in an area of great strategic importance, which, because it blocked communication between Eoropean Russia and Central Asia (with its vital supplies of cotton), came to be called ‘Dutov’s cork’. Not until March 1920 did Dutov, with the remnants of his army, retreat into Chinese territory, where he was assassinated a year later] On January 26 the Red Guards occupied Kiev. On February 13 revolutionary units led by Comrade Berzin [The Berzin mentioned here is R.Yu. Berzin (1888-1939), a Party member who, after his victory on the Western Front, and service in the Supreme Military Inspectorate, took command in June 1918 of the North Urals and Siberia Front. Not to be confused with Ya.K. Berzin (1903-1938), who was one of the Red Army officers who participated in the Spanish Civil War, or with Ya.A. Berzin (1881-1938), a non-military figure who was Soviet ambassador in Switzerland in 1918. All three men were Letts] occupied Rogachev [Rogachev is on the River Dnieper, north-west of Gomel, and is a station on the north-south iailway line linking Mogilev and Mozyr] and put down the movement of the Polish Corps commanded by Dowbor-Musnicki. On February 21, after stuborn fighting, units made up of Donets miners, helped by workers from Petrograd and Moscow, took Rostov.

The fortuitous and chaotic organisation of the first units, their motley armament, the absence of any planned supply service or unified leadership, all were overshadowed by the enthusiasm and valour they displayed in their struggle against the internal counter-revolution. However, these weak sides made themselves sharply felt when the first clashes with foreign troops occurred.

On February 18, after the interruption of the negotiations at Brest, the Germans launched an offensive along the whole front. The disintegrated old army rolled back without resistance, abandoning in the trenches a large quantity of ammunition and a substantial proportion of their guns. The freshly formed units were also unable to put up adequate resistance. By the beginning of April all was quiet on the Western Front, and the Germans held the line that had been laid down in the treaty of Brest. In the Ukraine our forces continued, without success, to fight against the advancing Germans. (See map I).

4. Alsace-Lorraine, with its rich deposits of coal and iron, was taken from France by the Germans as a result of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Recovery of Alsace-Lorraine was France’s principal war-aim.

5. The offensive of June 18 1917. Carrying out the High Command’s directive of 18 June, the Eleventh and Twelfth Armies, on the South-Western Front, began an attack on the enemy’s positions: a little later, on June 23, the Eighth Army, under General Kornilov, joined in the offensive. Despite the intense preparation, the concentration of shock battalions, and Kerensky’s personal visits, the army, which was in a process of general disintegration, was incapable of sustaining a prolonged breakthrough: after two or three days, the attack came to a standstill. On July 6 the Germans, who had concentrated six divisions against the left flank of the Eleventh Army advanced quickly to Tarnopol, [Tarnopol (now Ternopol) was then Austrian, in ‘Eastern Galicia’, i.e. Western Ukraine] and already by July 15 the South-Western Front had rolled back, without offering any resistance, to the line of our former state frontier. The July debacle led to the Provisional Government taking a number of decisive measures by which it hoped to restore the fighting capacity of the front. Restoration of the death penalty and of military censorship, together with arrests of Bolsheviks, prepared the ground for Kornilov’s mutiny. The June offensive brought about a marked increase in the Bolsheviks’ influence in the army.

6. The majority in the Constituent Assembly was held by the SR party. This was due to the fact that the elections had taken place on the basis of lists drawn up before the October revolution. The Bolsheviks were then in a semi-underground situation, and the SRs, who were represented in the Government, possessed considerable advantages.

7. General Kaledin began so soon as June 1917 to concentrate on the Don the Cossack units that had been at the front. A little later, General Alekseyev, and, after his escape from Bykhov prison, Kornilov as well, began to form the cadres of a Volunteer Army, recruiting cadets and officers who had fled from the front and from central Russia. At the end of November Kaledin seized Rostov, and tried to extend his authority northward, into the Donets Basin. Under the overall leadership of Comrade Antonov-Ovseyenko, units of the Red Guard completed their concentration by the beginning of January 1918. Forces led by Sievers [R.F. Sievers, an ensign during the First World War: died of wounds later in 1918.], numbering 10,000 men altogether (the basic nucleus consisting of regiments of the old army), advanced through Nikitovka towards Taganrog. Forces led by Sablin, numbering some six thousand (the nucleus being formed of reserve regiments from the city of Moscow), moved along the line Zverovo-Likhhaya-Novocherkassk, this advance being helped by local units led by Comrade Petrov. The Whites were beaten in battles before Rostov and Novocherkassk, and the remains of Kaledin’s units withdrew into the Salsk steppe. Kaledin shot himself.

Seizure of the initiative and rapid concentration of Red Guard units which, though poorly organised, were numerically superior, gave quick victory to the Soviet Republic in this first period. (The course of events can be followed in detail with the aid of the chronological table) [The Salak steppe lies southeast of Rostov-on-Don, on the border of the Kulan territory.]

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Last updated on: 26.12.2006