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

* * *

Speech at the ceremonial meeting of November 8, 1918
at the Military Academy (on the day when it opened)

Comrade instructors, pupils of the Academy and guests! Allow me to congratulate the pupils, the instructors, and, in the persons of our guests, all the citizens of the Soviet Republic, on the opening of the Military Academy – the highest military training institution of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.

The Academy has appeared later than it should have done. We wanted to open it sooner, because, in the War Department and in the Government as a whole, there was, of course, not even for one day any doubt about the Army’s need for a higher institution of military training. Most, if not all, of you know what the circumstances were that hindered and, at a certain moment, prevented resumption of work at the Military Academy. [65] Only now, over a year after the October Revolution, are we able to assemble here to celebrate together this triumphant day of the opening of the highest military training institution of Workers’ and Peasants’ Russia.

First of all, I should like to remove a misapprehension which is often associated with the question of the army and the art of war. There is a prejudice, or, at least, something that takes the outward form of a prejudice, not always sincere, that the army, the science of war, the art of war and the institutions of war can stand outside of politics. That is not true. It never was true. It is not the case anywhere, and never will be the case anywhere. One of the greatest theoreticians of military matters, the German Clausewitz, wrote that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means. [In German, as in Russian, the same word is used for ‘policy’ and for ‘politics’.] In other words, war, too, is politics, realized through the harsh means of blood and iron. And that is true. War is politics, and the army is the instrument of this politics.

The Academy is an institution which is needed by the Army, and therefore by politics. The essence of the matter is that, in epochs when institutions and ideas are passed on successively from one generation to the next, and when people see no turning-points or revolutions during their lifetimes – in epochs like that, politics is as imperceptible as the air itself. The old army existed: nobody in particular bears any guilt for that: among us, among the instructors, there are many persons who worked all their lives in the old army: and I do not doubt, none of us has any grounds for doubting that they worked with the very best of intentions, conscientiously: but, owing to objective historical circumstances, the old army, with its old institutions, including those concerned with education and training, served as an instrument of the politics pursued by the ruling classes of those days. That was also the politics – monarchist, noble men’s, bureaucratic politics, which in its last decades was combined with capitalist politics. We have experienced a revolution, one of the mightiest revolutions human history has ever known. And if, until recently, some people may have thought, or hoped, or feared, that this revolution was an accident, or an outcome of our native barbarism (this reproach has been thrown at us from the West), now, after the revolution in Germany, where the wheel of fate has not yet stopped, and where it is rolling in the same direction as the wheel of Russian history: after the revolution in Austria-Hungary, and after those first phenomena of revolution that we observe in countries further to the West – it is clear to every thinking man, even if in the past he did not belong to a revolutionary party, that we have entered a new phase in world history, in which all events are being moved forward in accordance with the same laws, though in different national mileu. Germany is only now catching up with us, in the road and the form of her revolutionary development, and she will soon be level with us. Then it will be the turn of France, Britain and the other capitalist countries. Everywhere politics is changing, the social organism is changing, new ruling classes are appearing on the scene, classes which wield power temporarily in order to do away with the entire development of classes and all class rule. And here we are, living in this moment of a transition period when the old ruling classes, those classes which exploited the masses, have been or are being overturned, when the new ruling classes of labor have taken hold of the state system in order to do away with the very foundations of class rule and to transform society into a single planned and organized collective which works, produces and defends itself on comradely co-operative or communist principles.

It is clear that in such a period the army must be reconstructed, must come into line with the classes that have taken power. It is clear that the Academy, as the highest spiritual institution of this army, must come into line with the Workers and Peasants’ Red Army as a whole. It must get rid, so far as the very essence of the matter permits, of all outward academicism, what is associated with pedantry, scholastics, routine and mannerism of every kind, must extract from its shell and rind the very kernel of military knowledge, that kernel which must, especially now when we find ourselves beneath the lash of international military necessity, possess a directly and profoundly utilitarian character: that is, you must study so as immediately to be able to impart your knowledge to others and apply everything practically. We are obliged to defend ourselves: we want to defend ourselves well, that is, with the maximum economy of the forces, means and blood of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. True, our position cannot be called easy, but it we look back over these four years and more of world war we must conclude that history has changed inter-relations on the world scale more to our advantage than otherwise. We suffered a frightful defeat in the world war. It is now clear that there were three fundamental reasons for this defeat.

First, our technical backwardness. Military technique is always a product of the entire economic might of a country. We were economically and technically the more backward country. In the first period of the war, this was not so perceptible because we had been able to arm ourselves with a certain quantity of those deadly weapons that class society makes necessary; but the longer the war dragged on, the more the material means of war became used up, the greater the demands imposed on the country’s economic organism, the more plainly revealed was our economic backwardness, and therefore weakness.

The second reason lay in the human composition of the army, the soldier masses. The many millions of Russian peasants, oppressed by Tsardom, ignorance, and poverty, were without the initiative and individual enterprise which is inseparable from modern methods of war, engendered by modern war technology. For the peasant, snatched from his village, with his old-established prejudices, without any habit of individual initiative, it was hard to find his way amid the conditions of contemporary warfare. He fell, he died heroically, but he proved to be the weaker as an individual military entity.

And, finally, the third reason: the commanding apparatus, whom, both rightly and wrongly, the mass of the soldiers saw as responsible for all the setbacks, all the fruitless bloodshed, all the humiliations, just because it was the commanding apparatus, and just because the commanding apparatus had throughout all its past been closely bound up with those ruling classes which, in the minds of the rank-and-file soldiers, held the country’s destiny in their hands, led it into war, and brought upon it a frightful defeat. Hence the terrible split that came about between the mass of the soldiers and the commanding apparatus, that split which at certain moments of the revolution assumed such dramatic and bloody forms, well known to us all.

If we now ask ourselves what changes have taken place in these three factors as a result of recent events – the events of the last few years and months – we shall have to acknowledge that, as regards the first question, the question of technique, we have not, of course, grown any stronger. But all countries have grown immeasurably weaker. The organism of German technique is beyond compare even among the European countries themselves, but from that perfect organism, or, rather, mechanism, it was enough to remove merely this link or that for it to fall into utter disorder. In one country, certain valuable metals ceased to be available, in another fuel ran out, elsewhere there was not enough petrol – in different countries there were different shortages, and so war industry became disorganized.

In Germany this situation has already found catastrophic expression. Tomorrow it will be manifested in France and Britain, and then in America and all the other countries. Consequently we have all come into line with one another, along a line of poverty and exhaustion.

Now, about the soldier masses and the experience of war with all its misery and degradation. First and foremost, the colossal shock of the revolution has aroused the human personality in the most downtrodden, oppressed and ignorant peasant. It is natural that persons unaccustomed to revolution and its psychology, persons who have not previously experienced in the realm of ideas that which has unfolded before them physically, materially, may view with some sorrow, if not disgust, the anarchic wildness and violence which appeared on the surface of the revolutionary events. Yet in that riotous anarchy, even in its most negative manifestations, when the soldier, yesterday’s slave, all of a sudden found himself in a first-class railway carriage and tore out the velvet facings to make himself foot-cloths, even in such an act of vandalism the awakening of a personality was expressed. That downtrodden, persecuted Russian peasant, who had been struck in the face and subjected to the vilest curses, found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, in a first-class carriage and saw the velvet cushions, while on his feet he had stinking rags, and he tore up the velvet, saying that he too had the right to a piece of good silk or velvet. After two or three days, after a month, after a year – no, after a month – he understood how disgraceful it was to plunder the people’s property, but the awakened personality, the individuality – not just number such-and-such, but a human personality, will remain alive in him forever. Our task is to adjust this personality to the community, to make it feel that it is not a number, not a slave, as it was before, and not just Ivanov or Petrov, but, one, Ivanov the personality, and, two, at the same time, a part of a community of the whole people, with neither slaves nor masters. This is a task of broad education in the broadest sense of the word. And in this respect we have undoubtedly taken a tremendous step forward. Not only the proletariat of the towns but also extensive strata of the many millioned peasantry have been completely reborn in this period. The French revolutionary Boissy once said that in the five years of the French Revolution the French people accumulated more experience than in another period lasting six centuries.

Karl Marx says that revolution is the locomotive of history. And that is true. During the present period, despite the grossness, the prejudices, the backwardness and ignorance of the Russian peasantry, they have, first and foremost, become inwardly regenerated, and capable of very much greater initiative and independence: and when the lessons of history have been finally assimilated, the people, who were kept down for centuries, will make a mighty leap forward, to come level with and, perhaps, ahead of many other peoples.

The question of the commanding apparatus is the third, and the most difficult up to the present moment. Here, at this gathering of academicians of today and tomorrow, we can distance ourselves somewhat from events, with that objectivism which we do not and have not the right to allow ourselves in the revolutionary struggle: we can understand, from the psychological standpoint, how and why it is that wide circles of the old officer corps have not joined and have not wanted to join the Workers’ and Peasants’ Army. There were those who sold themselves, but there were also, undoubtedly, some honorable men. What I said about objectivism applies to this observation ... There were also some who were honorable but who, through their psychology, their habits, views and judgments, had developed into a definite historical formation in which no further changes could take place, and they showed a certain integrity. There were others, who were able to understand – these, of course, were of a higher type – that what was happening was not the caprice of some gang of backward people, nor was it the arbitrary conduct of a particular party, but a profound geological, so to speak – shift in the social foundations of life, and that to fight against it by means of curses or White-Guard mutiny is, at best, Quixotism of a wretched and shameful sort. But there were many of them who found it impossible to submit to the spirit of the new age. They entered the ranks of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army as agents of our enemies. Perhaps a certain percentage of such men are still with us even now. But there were others of a higher type who realized that our country is being raised to a higher level, out of the bloody swamps into which it had been dragged by the trials and humiliations of this dreadful war. But such men were few.

We have begun to create a new commanding apparatus from among the workers and peasants. This new commanding apparatus is still extremely inadequate both in quantity and in quality, for we have no commanders from this background, no Red officers, who possess higher education.

It is the task of this academy to fill that gap. This task of creating and forming soldiers and commanders is a two-sided one – there is the education of the soldiers and commanders and there is their instruction – but we must say that here, too, the historical revolution, this entire social shift in the work of social education facilitates, in the highest degree, among other things also the work of military education, for one does not need to be a Communist and an old revolutionary in order to understand now, at all events, that the old system of education, which found its classical expression in Germany, and there likewise suffered classical shipwreck, amounted to taking millions from among the oppressed, the working classes, and educating them so that they would support the state system which upheld and consolidated their own oppression. That was where the difficulty lay in the old kind of military education. It was a complex social dressage, and absorbed much time, attention and effort. Our social education, military education included (I say ‘our’ meaning ‘of our epoch’), consists in making every worker, soldier and peasant understand the community which serves his own interests, and only those interests. Our advantage is that we have nothing to hide from the worker or the peasant, nothing to hide, for all the mistakes of our system, all the mistakes of this regime, are mistakes made by the government of the workers and peasants. Food is badly distributed here not because the bourgeoisie, or the nobles, or the Tsar have got hold of it, but because the peasants and workers have not learnt how to distribute it properly. From this we conclude: it is necessary to learn. Army supplies are not organized as they should be. There are many gaps, here, there and everywhere. We do too little to expose them in the press. Recently I was emphasizing, in a conversation with the chairman of the Supreme Military Inspectorate [66] that we must bring into the light of day, drag out in to the open, all the gaps and shortcomings in our mechanism, for we have nothing to hide from the classes which have now been called upon to govern, from the working classes. In this lies the enormous advantage of the situation wherein the present-day commander finds himself. If he demands strict discipline – and it is his duty to do so – and if he speaks up in this sense, nobody will dare to say that he is calling for discipline in the interests of the nobles or the Tsar. He will say that he has been appointed by the Soviet power of all Russia, embodied in its highest organ, the All-Russia Congress of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies: this means a colossal moral authority such as no officer in the world possesses to compare with our new Russian officer.

I began by saying that the Academy cannot stand outside politics. The task of the Academy is to make the body of officers who pass through it understand the nature of the new conditions, of the new classes and of the new army which serves them: and it is for these new classes, for this new army to study and apply all the conclusions for military science and technique that can be drawn from the experience of modern war.

The specialists have purged and freed the Academy’s program from merely ‘academic’ old junk and rubbish. There is no point in our studying now, in these short periods of study which history allows us, the way problems of war were solved by the Greeks and Romans, and in the Middle Ages. We now have behind us an epoch of four years’ war in which everything that existed in all countries, in all ages, in all nations, has been put into practice: in which, on the one hand, men have flown above the clouds, and on the other, men have, like moles, like troglodytes, hidden themselves in caves, in muddy underground trenches. All the poles, all the contradictions in the mutual extermination of peoples have found their expression and application here, and if the Academy wishes (and it will wish), if it is able (and it will be able), then it will mobilize this material from the last war and equip our commanding personnel with the practical conclusions to be drawn therefrom, so rendering a very great practical service. And that is not all, precisely because this will be an academy freed from pedantry, routine and mandarinism: it has not arisen amid the celestial spaces, but always under the direct impulsion of practice and internal need. This need exists. It is incontrovertible. We have to defend our country, which has become a workers’ and peasants’ country of honest labor. We have to defend it against any attack and all attempts to crush it. The will to defend it exists among the broad masses of the Russian people. This is the will of the working class and the peasantry. And the initiative of these classes, their consciousness, their enterprise, has undoubtedly increased. In many cases all that they need is military leadership. In the persons of those present here, I congratulate Soviet Russia once more on this triumphant occasion of the opening of our highest institution of military training.

Long live the Military Academy of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army!

Long live the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army! Hurrah!

November 8, 1918


65. When Petrograd was evacuated, the former Nicholas Military Academy was moved to Yekaterinburg. During the Czechoslovak revolt some of the students were employed for active work on the Red fronts. A very small section of them, led by the Head of the Academy, Andogsky, with part of the teaching staff, were moved to Kazan when Yekaterinburg was evacuated, and there they fell into the hands of the Whites. These were the circumstances which delayed for several months any organized work towards the opening of the Red Military Academy.

66. The chairman of the Supreme Military Inspectorate was Nikolai Ilyich Podvoisky. This inspectorate was established in April 1918 and played an important part in the reorganization of the army and its transference to regular forms. Direct visits to the localities by the Supreme Military Inspectorate were accompanied by big changes in the personnel of the commanders and commissars and the establishment of unity of views in all questions of military work. The Supreme Military Inspectorate was divided into two sections – military and political.

return return

Last updated on: 15.12.2006