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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I think it necessary to return – for the last time, I hope – to the question of the military specialists, in connection with our general policy in the matter of building the army. The occasion for this seems all the more opportune in that criticism of our military policy has recently found printed and, so to speak, principled expression.

There have been, even earlier, not a few critical remarks made regarding the enlistment of former regular officers, but these remarks were essentially of a passing and non-committal kind, and almost always put forward in a semi-humorous way.

‘So then, aren’t your military specialists going to betray you?’

‘As for that, it’s as God wills. If we’re strong they won’t betray us.’

The matter rarely went further than such exchanges as that. But discontent became apparent. Discontent in the lower units, discontent in the middle strata, so to speak, of the Party, and even sometimes ‘at the top’. The source of this discontent was the simple fact that, because we lack our own military leaders we have had to have recourse to men who are ‘not our own’. When the carping became more persistent in one quarter or another, recourse was had to an argument that was not so much logical as empirical: ‘Can you give me, here and now, ten divisional commanders, fifty regimental commanders, two army commanders and one front commander – all from among the Communists?’ In answer to that, the ‘critics’ would laugh evasively and change the subject of conversation.

But uneasiness and discontent continued. It was merely unable to find ‘principled’ expression. For there could be no serious theoretical solution to the problem, but only a practical one – selecting suitable commanders from among the former regular officers and NCOs, while at the same time energetic ally pushing ahead with the training of new commanders.

Consequently, the criticism also furnished hardly any grounds for a principled rejoinder. Now, however, some articles which have appeared in the Party’s central organ have sought to provide the quite comprehensible discontent that exists with a principled expression that is profoundly blameworthy.


There is no need to say that, all other things being equal, the Soviet power would always prefer a Communist commander to a non-Communist one. The moral factor plays a very great role in military matters, and a close moral-ideological, and, even more, a Party bond between the commander and the best, most self-sacrificing section of the soldiers constitutes an inestimable factor of success. But nobody is asking us to choose between Communist commanders and non-Communist ones. Until recently we had hardly any commanding personnel who were our own men, in the Party sense. The moral bond in an army is most directly ensured by the lowest level of the commanding apparatus. But even for the roles of section, platoon and company commanders we could provide only an insignificant percentage of Communists. The higher the category of commander, the fewer the number of Communists we could find to fill it. From outside one can, of course, philosophize as much as one likes about the advantages of a Communist commanding apparatus over the other sort. But whoever is engaged in cur rent work on building the army, and has to deal with actual regiments, battalions, companies and platoons, which need today, at once, real live regimental, battalion and company commanders, will not philosophize but will choose commanders from the material that is at hand.

The obvious interests of the revolution demanded that we enlist, to fill the lowest posts of command, men who had formerly been NCOs or even private soldiers who had shown themselves outstandingly able, or even just possessed of common sense. This method was and is being utilized by the War Department on a very wide scale. However, in these cases, too, regular officers were intermingled wherever possible with the NCOs. And experience has shown that only those divisions are good ones in which both of these categories work side by side.

We are often referred to cases of betrayal and flight by members of the commanding apparatus into the enemy camp. Such desertions were numerous, in the main, among officers who held the more prominent positions. But we do not hear so often about the entire regiments that have been squandered owing to the military incompetence of their commanding personnel, owing to the fact that the regimental commander was unable to organize a system of communication, did not post sentries or send out field patrols, failed to understand an order, or could not read a map. And if it be asked which has done us most harm up to now: betrayal by former regular officers or incompetence on the part of many new commanders, I personally should find it hard to give an answer.

Some comrades who think themselves very resourceful suggest this solution to the problem: appoint as commander of a division only a Communist from among the soldiers, but assign to him, as consultant or chief of staff, a specialist, a General Staff officer. One may, of course, evaluate in different ways this sort of practical combination, which, incidentally, we often do employ when circumstances call for it (we have no stereotyped approach to this question), but it is quite plain that this solution offers us no line that is distinct in principle, because with this distribution of roles the leading role in a battle situation will obviously belong to the chief of staff, with the commander retaining, essentially, a supervisory role, that is to say, precisely the role which is at present played by the military commissar. So far as the job to be done is concerned, it is perfectly indifferent whether the military specialist betrays the Red Army in the capacity of commander of a division or as its chief of staff. ‘But, as against that, what is different under this system,’ some reply, ‘is that the Communist holds all the powers, while the military specialist is allotted only a consultative voice.’ Such an argument can be put forward only by persons who think in a bureaucratic way (Soviet-bureaucratic ‘communism’ is a rather widespread and nasty disease). If the consultant or chief of staff wants to destroy the division, he will palm off his treacherous plan on the Communist who bears the title of commander. The fact that Kerensky was appointed Commander-in-Chief did not, after all, prevent the ‘chief-of-staff’ Kornilov from surrendering Riga to the Germans. [64] Moreover, it is precisely a consultant, who has no powers of command, and, therefore, no responsibility for command, who can, almost with impunity, palm off a perfidious plan upon a commander who does not know his job. Who will answer for it? The commander, that is, the one who holds the power of command. If it be supposed that the Communist, as commander, will be able to see through the treacherous trickery of his consultant, it is clear that he would have been able to see through it if he had been a commissar. And a commissar has the right to deal with treachery and traitors by means of the severest measures, as no commissar with a head on his shoulders has ever doubted. In short, it is plain to any serious person that merely renaming commissars ‘commanders’ and commanders ‘consultants’ will do us no good either practically or from the standpoint of principle: it is essentially aimed at playing on the instinct to strive for precedence, and at serving as a blind to hoodwink the less conscious.


But now we have been presented with a principled consideration of the problem of the specialists, and a principled solution thereto. ‘Member’ of the Central Executive Committee Kamensky [A.Z. Kamensky was a member of the staff of Voroshilov’s Tenth Army, which had retreated from the Donbas to Tsaritsyn. Trotsky’s inverted commas may hint that he suspects that Kamensky is writing on someone else’s (Voroshilov’s?) behalf.] writing in our central organ, does not confine himself just to brushing off the military specialists – he thinks his idea through and, in essence, denies the very existence of military expertise, that is, of the science and art of war. He puts before us as our pattern some ideal army, in the creation of which he himself has taken part, and it turns out that precisely this army, the best, most highly disciplined and successfully functioning army, was built without military specialists, under the leadership of a man with absolutely no previous military knowledge. In Kamensky’s opinion, all the other armies ought to follow the same road. To be sure, Napoleon, who knew something about military matters and led armies of the revolution not without success, ascribed very great importance to military science, to the study of past campaigns, and so on. True, Hindenburg investigated theoretically during several decades the combinations that would be possible in a war with Russia, before he applied them in practice. Yes, there are military training institutions, middle-grade and higher-grade, and an extensive literature on military subjects, and hitherto we had supposed, as our socialist teachers supposed, that the art of war becomes more complicated as technique becomes more complicated, and that it is as difficult to be a good divisional commander as to be a good technical manager of a factory. Now, however, we learn that all this is a mistake. You need only be a Communist, and everything else will be given unto you.

‘We are often told,’ says Comrade Kamensky, ironically, ‘that the conduct of war is such a delicate thing that we cannot get by at all without military specialists. Even if military expertise is a delicate thing, it is, all the same, only one of the components of a more delicate thing still – the conduct of the machinery of state as a whole. Yet, by making the October Revolution, we took the liberty of conducting the state... And we have managed somehow (!!)’, our author triumphantly concludes.

That is what is called putting the question as it should be put. It follows, then, according to Kamensky, that, having accomplished the October Revolution, we are, as it were, obliged to replace the specialists, in every branch of the state system, by good Communists who ‘even if they get things a bit wrong, do, after all, stay sober.’ [The allusion is to Krylov’s fable The Musicians. A man invites a friend to hear his group of singers, and they are terrible. When the friend says that it was a poor performance, their patron apologizes for them, saying:]

‘They do into a false note fall:
But then, they liquor never touch at all.’

The fabulist comments:

‘For my part, I say: rather drink, and show
That that which you profess you know.’

Comrades who are familiar with socialist and anti-socialist literature know that one of the principal arguments used by the opponents of socialism was that we should not be able to cope with the machinery of state because of our lack of sufficient specialists of our own. It did not occur to any of our old teachers to reply that, once we had taken over such a ‘thing’ as the state, we should then cope ‘somehow’ (!), even without specialists. On the contrary, they always replied to the effect that the socialist regime would open up a broad field of creative work for the best of the specialists, and thereby increase their number; that the rest of them we should either compel or bribe with high salaries, just as the bourgeoisie had bribed them; and, finally, that the majority of them would simply have no choice, and they would be obliged to serve us. But nobody ever supposed that the victorious proletariat would simply get along, ‘somehow’, without specialists.

Kamensky tells us that, when he and his comrades were cut off from the Soviet power, they themselves succeeded in transforming separate units into regiments. That is, of course, a very pleasing fact, it cannot be denied. But Marxist politics is not at all the politics of Tyapkin-Lyapkin [Trotsky’s ‘Tyapkin-Lyapkin’ is Lyapkin-Tyapkin, a conceited ignoramus in Gogol’s play, The Government Inspector, who proclaims: ‘I came to my views myself, by my own thinking.’], who arrived at everything entirely by his own unaided power of thought, for history is not going to wait while we, having cast out the specialists, gradually think our way through to the transformation of isolated units into regiments – or, more correctly, to the renaming of them: for, let it be said without offense to Comrade Kamensky, in the matter to which he alludes what actually happened was just that the commanders of the separate units called themselves commanders of regiments, brigades or divisions, according to taste – which, however, did not bring their units any closer to being military formations with the right internal proportions.

It is quite true that, after the October Revolution, the proletariat found itself obliged to draw its sword against specialists of all kinds. But why was that? Not, of course, because they were specialists, but because these specialists refused to serve the proletariat, and tried, by means of organized sabotage, to break its power. By its terror against the saboteurs the proletariat was not at all saying: ‘I shall exterminate the lot of you, and manage without specialists.’ Such a program would have been a program of hopelessness and doom. Scattering, arresting and shooting the saboteurs and conspirators, the proletariat said: ‘I shall break your will, because my will is stronger than yours, and I shall force you to serve me.

If the Red Terror had meant initiating a process of complete expulsion and extermination of the specialists, it would have been right to see the October Revolution as a manifestation of historical decadence. Fortunately, that is not so. The terror, as a demonstration of the will and the strength of the working class, obtains its historical justification precisely from the fact that the proletariat succeeded in breaking the political will of the intelligentsia, pacifying the professionals of different categories and branches of labor, and gradually subordinating them to its purposes, in the realm of their respective special skills.

We know that the telegraphists sabotaged us, as also did the railway engineers, the high-school teachers, the university professors, and the doctors. Should we conclude from this that, once we had taken power in October, we had no more need of medicine? One might even quote some salutary examples of how a Communist, somewhere out in Chukhloma, cut off from the Soviet Republic, successfully bandaged an old lady’s finger and even performed still other medical feats, without ever having been poisoned by bourgeois medical wisdom. Such a philosophy as this has nothing in common with Marxism – it is a philosophy of oversimplification, quackery and ignorant boasting.


‘But, all the same, if the British and French launch a serious offensive against us, bringing an army a million strong into action, the military specialists will betray us.’ This is the ultimate argument, both logically and chronologically.

No doubt, if Anglo-French imperialism proves strong enough to put a powerful army into action against us, without being hindered, then, in circumstances in which our direct defeat seems certain to the social groups which have been ‘pacified’ by the proletariat, desertions from those groups to the camp of our political adversaries will start to occur. Desertion will be the more extensive and the more of a danger to us, the less advantageous to us are the relations of armed force and the less favorable the whole world situation. That has happened to other classes, too, more than once in history.

For brevity’s sake, the military specialists are often spoken of among us as ‘the Tsarist generals’. Those who use this expression forget that when Tsardom got into difficulties, ‘the Tsarist generals’ betrayed it, took up an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the revolution, and directly went over into the service of the revolution. The Krestovnikovs, Ryabushinskys and Mamontovs are right when they say that their engineers betrayed them. The latter are now serving the regime of the proletarian dictatorship. If the specialists betrayed the class in whose spirit they were educated, when that class showed itself to be clearly and indubitably weaker than its adversary, there can be no doubt that these same specialists will betray the proletariat with incomparably greater ease if and when it proves to be weaker than its mortal foe. But this is not the case today, and we have not too much reason to suppose that it will ever happen.

The better, wider and fuller use that we make of the specialists today, when they are obliged to serve us, the better we build our Red regiments, with their assistance, the less chance will the British and French be given to lead our specialists into temptation.

Should the situation change, to our disfavor, we may have to change our internal policy again, going over once more to a regime of Red Terror, ruthlessly stamping out all those who try to help the enemies of the proletariat. But to do this in anticipation, rushing ahead of events, would merely mean to weaken ourselves. Rejecting the services of military specialists on the grounds that individual officers have played the traitor would be like driving out all the engineers and all the higher technicians from the railways on the grounds that there are not a few artful saboteurs among them. Not so long ago, at the Second All-Russia Congress of the Economic Councils, Comrade Lenin said: ‘It is time to abandon old prejudices and enlist all the experts we need in our work. Every one of our ‘collegiate’ institutions, every one of our Communist executives, must realize this. . . Capitalism has left us a legacy in the shape of its biggest experts. And we must be sure to utilize them, on a broad scale.’ [For the context of Lenin’s words, see Collected Works, Vol.28, pp.379-381.] This is not at all, as you can see, like Tyapkin Lyapkin’s readiness to cope with any and every ‘thing’ without the aid of specialists.

Comrade Lenin even concluded his speech with a direct threat addressed to the ‘Communist’ Tyapkins. Any attempt to replace action by arguments that are the epitome of short sightedness, gross stupidity and intellectual conceit will meet with ruthless punishment.

I do not doubt that some of our Communist comrades are splendid organizers, but in order to train a large number of such organizers many years would be needed, and for us ‘there is no time’ to wait. If there is no time for us to wait in the economic sphere, that applies still more in the military sphere.


This article would not be complete, and would involve real injustice to the military specialists, if I were to say nothing here about the profound evolution that has been undergone by the consciousness of the best part of the old officer corps. We now have in our service thousands of former regular officers. These men have experienced an ideological catastrophe. Many of them, as they themselves say, only two years ago looked upon Guchkov [A.I. Guchkov was a big capitalist and leader of the Octobrist party, who became War Minister in the first Provisional Government: an extreme moderate if ever there was one.] as an extreme revolutionary, while the Bolsheviks belonged, so far as they were concerned, to the fourth dimension. They Passively believed the gossip, slander and baiting of the venal and dishonest bourgeois press. During the thirteen months of the Soviet regime they have seen us Communists at work, with our weak and our strong sides alike. We should really have too poor an opinion of ourselves and of our Party, of the moral power of our ideas, of the attractive force of our revolutionary morality, if we thought that we were Incapable of attracting to our side thousands and thousands of specialists, including military specialists.

What about the simple fact of the co-existence in the army of former ensigns, captains, colonels and generals with our commissars? Of course there is no family without its black sheep. There sometimes turn up, among the commissars, troublemakers who busy themselves with petty squabbles over precedence, about who is to sign his name above whose, and the like. But the majority of our commissars are excellent, self-sacrificing commissars, disinterested, fearless, capable of giving their lives for the idea of communism and of making others do the same. Can this not be without its moral effect upon the officers, most of whom entered our service in the first place merely for the sake of a crust of bread? One would have to be morally quite obtuse in order to think so. From my dealings with many military specialists and, still more, from my dealings with the Communist commissars, I know how many of the former ‘Tsarist officers’ have developed a close inner bond with the Soviet regime, and, while not in the least considering themselves Bolsheviks, live a common life with the best regiments of our Red Army.

The Council of People’s Commissars has decided to rename the station Krasnye Gorki, near Kazan, ‘Yudino’, in memory of the ‘Tsarist officer’ Yudin, who fell in the fighting near this station and was one of those who recovered Kazan for us.

The general public knows of almost every case of treason and betrayal by members of the commanding apparatus, but, unfortunately, not only the general public but also narrower Party circles know all too little about those regular officers who have honestly and consciously given their lives for the cause of the Russia of the workers and peasants. Only today a commissar was telling me about a captain who commanded nothing more than a section and refused to accept any higher post because he identified himself too closely with his men. This captain was killed in action a few days ago.

And today I also had a very interesting conversation with another of our commissars, one of the best by virtue of his energy and devotion to duty. I knew this comrade as an opponent of the employment of ‘Tsarist generals’.

‘Make yourself more familiar with the work,’ I said to him, with, if you like, a certain challenge in my manner, ‘and in a month or two we’ll turn you from divisional commissar into divisional commander.’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I can’t agree to that.’

‘How so?’

‘We have better divisional commanders. Men like L., or R.’

‘But, after all, they are General Staff officers!’

‘I have nothing against officers like them. It was L. who set the division on its feet, established firm order in it. R. works day and night, without sparing himself. He himself sticks by the telephone, checking on the execution of every order. I’m only against such specialists as Nosovich.’ [L.L. Nosovich, appointed Chief of Staff of the Northern Caucus District, went over to the Whites in November 1918.]

‘Well, of course, we are all against those specialists who worm themselves in among us so as to serve our enemies.’


Comrade Lenin spoke of educated self-conceit and crude obtuseness. Those were strong words, and yet (or, more correctly, just because of that) they were, as the report of the proceedings shows, received with tumultuous applause I mentally applaud along with the rest. Educated self-conceit, which promises to cope with everything out of whatever resources it happens to have at hand is indeed the reverse side of that obtuseness which does not understand the complexity of the tasks and the complexity of the paths that lead to their fulfillment. It has happened very often in history that false views and widespread prejudices have been given ‘principled’ expression just when it was time for them to die. Hegel said that Minerva’s owl takes wing at dusk. I should like to hope that this not very wise owl has concluded his principled flight, and, on this occasion, just because the effete tendency that he expresses is living out its last hours.

Liski [Liski is a railway junction about 80 kilometers south of Voronezh line linking Moscow with Rostov-on-Don.]
December 31, 1918


64. On August 18, 1917 the German Eighth Army, under Hutier, broke through the lines of our Twelfth Army in the area of Uexkull and began a rapid advance northward, outflanking the city of Riga. Our troops fell back a distance of 70 versts, losing all contact with the enemy. The Riga events were used by Kornilov and the whole bourgeois press for counter-revolutionary agitation, forecasting an advance by the Germans on Petrograd. There are grounds for asserting that the High Command deliberately paralyzed the army’s resistance before Riga.

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Last updated on: 20.12.2006