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 First All-Russia Congress of Military Commissars,
June 7, 1918 [47]

Comrades, we are present at a congress of exceptional importance. The parties represented in this assembly have behind them a great revolutionary past. Nevertheless, at this time we are learning, and we must succeed in learning, how to build our own revolutionary socialist army, which shall be the complete contrary of those regiments, now demobilised, which were held together by the will of the masters, who introduced compulsory discipline into them. Before us lies the task of creating an army organised on the principle of comradely trust and revolutionary labour-order. This is, without any doubt, an extraordinarily great, complex and difficult task. Incidentally, the bourgeois press writes a lot about our having only now, at last, understood that to defend the country an armed force is needed. That is nonsense, of course: we knew, even before the October Revolution, that so long as the class struggle continues between the exploiters and the working people, any revolutionary state must be strong enough to repulse successfully the imperialist onslaught. The Russian Revolution, unprecedented in strength, could not, of course, retain the old Tsarist army, within which had been formed, like a stout strong point, a heavy class discipline that established a bond of compulsion between soldier and commander.

We were faced, first of all, with the complex task of completely destroying class oppression within the army, thoroughly smashing the class fetters, the old discipline of compulsion, and creating a new armed force for the revolutionary state, in the form of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Army, acting in the interests of the proletariat and the rural poor. We know from experience that that part of the old army which was left after the revolution was in no state to offer active resistance to the advancing forces of the counter-revolution. We know that improvised units were formed, in rough-and-ready fashion, from the best sections of the workers and peasants, and we remember well how these heroic units succeeded in crushing the treacherous movement organized by all sorts of Black Hundred activists. We know how these volunteer partisan regiments fought victoriously against those within the country who wanted to be the revolution’s executioners. But when it became a matter of combating the counter-revolutionary forces coming from outside, our forces proved unreliable, owing to their inadequate technical training and the excellent organization of the enemy’s units.

Taking this into account, we see that the question of life and death for the revolution which confronts us is the question of immediately creating an army of corresponding strength, which will fully answer to the revolutionary spirit and programme of the workers and peasants. In trying to fulfill this complex task of first-priority state importance, we are, of course, encountering great difficulties. In the first place must be mentioned the difficulties in the field of transport and the movement of food-supplies, difficulties caused by the civil war. Civil war is a direct duty for us when what is involved is the suppression of counter-revolutionary hordes, but the fact that it exists nevertheless gives rise to difficulties in our work of urgently bringing a revolutionary army into existence.

In addition, the task of organising this army is hindered by an obstacle that is purely psychological in character: the whole preceding period of war considerably impaired labour discipline, and an undesirable element of declassed workers and peasants appeared among the people.

In no way do I make this a matter of reproach either to the revolutionary workers or to the working peasantry. We all know that the revolution was crowned with heroism such as history had never seen before, heroism displayed by the working masses of Russia, but it cannot be concealed that in many cases the revolutionary movement weakened for a time their capacity for systematic and planned work.

Elemental anarchism, the activity of bagmen, debauchery – these are phenomena which we need to combat with all our strength, phenomena which must be opposed by the best section of the conscious workers and peasants.

And one of the fundamental tasks falling to the lot of the military commissars is that of bringing to the working masses, by means of ideological propaganda, awareness of the need for revolutionary order and discipline, which must be persistently mastered by each and everyone.

Besides all these phenomena that hinder the work of planned organisation of the army, we come up against obstacles of a purely material order. We have destroyed the old apparatus for administering the army, and we need to create a new organ. Owing to this in-between situation, there is at present a lack of complete order in this sphere. The military property of our state is scattered chaotically all over the country, and has not been registered: we do not know precisely either the number of cartridges, of rifles, of heavy and light artillery, of aeroplanes, of armoured cars. There is no order. The old recording apparatus has been smashed, while the new one is still only in process of being organized.

In the sphere of building a military administration, we must regard our decree of April 8 as fundamental. As you know, European Russia has been divided into seven districts, and Siberia into three.

The entire network of local military commissariats which is being organised throughout the country is closely linked with the Soviet organisations. By putting this system into effect we shall obtain that centre around which planned work on organising the Red Army can be accomplished.

Everyone knows that, up to now, chaos has reigned in the localities, and this, in its turn, has created frightful disorder at the center as well. We know that many of the military commissars often express dissatisfaction with the central authority and, in particular, with the People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs. There have been cases when sums of money which had been requested for the upkeep of the army were not despatched in time. We have received very many express telegrams with demands for money, but no estimates were sent with these telegrams. Sometimes this put us in an extremely difficult situation: we could make only advance payments: all this produced disorder, owing to the fact that very often there did not exist in the localities any businesslike administrative organ.

We took steps urgently to establish in the localities the nuclei of commissariats, to consist of two representatives of the local soviets and one military specialist.

This local board, a sort of local military commissariat, will be the organization that can, in a given locality, fully ensure the planned formation and servicing of the army. Everyone knows that the army which we are now building on voluntary principles is regarded by the Soviet Government as merely provisional.

As I said, our programme has always included the slogan: defence with all our strength of our revolutionary workers’ country, the hearth of socialism. Voluntary recruitment is only a temporary compromise to which we have had to resort in a critical period of complete collapse of the old army and intensification of civil war. We appealed for volunteers for the Red Army in the hope that the best forces of the working masses would respond. Have our hopes been realised? It must be said that they are realised only 33 1/3 per cent. There are, of course, in the Red Army very many heroic, self-sacrificing fighters, but there are also many worthless elements – hooligans, near-do-wells, the dregs.

Undoubtedly, if we were to give military training to the whole working class, without exception, this element, which in quantity is comparatively small, would not constitute any serious danger to our army: but now, when our forces are so small, this element is an unavoidable and undesirable thorn in the flesh of our revolutionary regiments.

It is the responsibility of the military commissars to work tirelessly to raise the level of consciousness within the army and ruthlessly to eradicate the undesirable element which has got into it.

In order to implement conscription, to defend the Soviet Republic, we need to take into account not only weapons, not only rifles, but also people.

We must draw into the work of creating the army the younger generations, the youth who have not yet experienced war, and who are always distinguished by the elan of their revolutionary spirit and their display of enthusiasm. We must discover how many persons we have who are liable for military service, must establish complete order in the registering of our forces, and must create a distinctive Soviet system of accounting. This complex task is now the responsibility of the military commissariats in the volosts, uyezds and provinces, and of the districts which unite them. But here arises the question of the commanding apparatus: experience has shown that lack of technical forces has a baneful effect on the success of attempts to form revolutionary armies, because the revolution has not brought forth from the midst of the working masses warriors with a knowledge of the military art. This is the weak spot in all revolutions, as we learn from the history of all previous risings.

If among the workers there had been a sufficient number of comrades who were military specialists, the problem would have been solved very simply, but, unfortunately, we have extraordinarily few persons with military training.

The duties of members of the commanding apparatus can be divided into two parts: the purely technical and the moral-political. If both of these qualities are united in one person, that gives us the ideal type of leader-commander for our army. But, alas, that phenomenon is met with very rarely indeed. There is not one of you, I am sure, who will say that our army can manage without specialist commanders. This in no way belittles the role of the commissar. The commissar is the direct representative of the Soviet power in the army, the defender of the interests of the working class. If he does not interfere in military operations, it is only because he stands above the military leader, watches everything he does, checks on every step he takes.

The commissar is a political worker, a revolutionary. The military leader answers with his head for all his activity, for the outcome of military operations, and soon. If the commissar has observed that there is danger to the revolution from the military leader, the commissar has the right to deal ruthlessly with the counter-revolutionary, even to the point of shooting him.

In order that we may be able quickly to train our own peasant and worker officers, fighters for socialism, we have in a number of places set about organizing schools of instruction which will train and instruct representatives of the working people in the art of war.

There is one other task which our army must perform. This task concerns the struggle against the bagmen and the rich speculators who hide grain from the poor peasants.

We need to throw our best organized units into the regions rich in grain, where energetic steps must be taken to combat the kulaks, through agitation or even by applying decisive measures.

We are faced, in general, by colossal tasks, but I think we shall not lose heart, despite the fact that even amongst us Soviet workers one sometimes meets sceptics and moaners.

If they fall into despair, let them get out of the way while we stubbornly continue with our titanic work. It must be kept in mind that the working people were cruelly oppressed for many centuries, and that, in order finally to throw off the yoke of slavery, we shall need many years of learning from experience and from the mistakes and blunders which we ourselves often commit, but which will feature ever more rarely in our activity.

At this congress we shall exchange our observations, we shall learn something from each other, and I am sure that you will go back to your localities and continue your creative work in the interests of the labor revolution. In the name of the People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs and the Council of People’s Commissars I greet you, and I conclude my speech with – Long live the Soviet Republic! Long live the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army!


47. The First All-Russia Congress of Military Commissars was convened by the Military Commissars’ Bureau and began on June 7, 1918. Reports from the localities were given and questions discussed concerning the rights and duties of military commissars, and also concerning cultural and educational work in the army.

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Last updated on: 20.12.2006