The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 1, 1918

How the Revolution Armed


A Letter to a Friend

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Dear Friend,

You ask how it can have happened that the question of specialists, such as the officers of the old General Staff, has assumed such great importance among us. Let me tell you that what is at issue here is actually not the matter of military specialists – it is a question both broader and deeper than that.

We are the party of the working class. Together with its advanced elements we spent decades in underground conditions, carried on our struggle, fought on the barricades, overturned the old regime, cast aside all the in-between groups such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks and, at the head of the working class, took power into our hands. But though our party is deeply and unbreakably linked with the working class it has never been and cannot become a mere flatterer of the working class, expressing gratification with whatever the workers may be doing. We treated with contempt those who preached to us that the proletariat had taken power ‘too soon’, as though a revolutionary class can take power when it likes and not when history forces it to take power. But at the same time we never said, and we do not say now, that our working class has attained full maturity and can cope ‘as though it were child’s play’ with all tasks and resolve all difficulties. The proletariat and, all the more so, the peasant masses, have only recently emerged, after all, from many centuries of slavery and bear all the consequences of oppression, ignorance and darkness. The conquest of power, in itself, does not at all transform the working class and does not confer upon it all the attainments and qualities it needs: the conquest of power merely opens up for it the possibility of really studying and developing and ridding itself of its historical shortcomings.

By a tremendous effort the upper stratum of the Russian working class has accomplished a gigantic historical task. Even in this upper stratum, however, there is still too much half-knowledge and half-skill, too few workers who, by virtue of their knowledge, breadth of horizon and energy are capable of doing on behalf of their class what the representatives, hirelings and agents of the bourgeoisie did for the former ruling classes.

Lassalle once said that the German workers of his day – more than half a century ago – were poor in understanding of their own poverty. The revolutionary development of the proletariat consists also in the fact that it arrives at an understanding of its oppressed position, its poverty, and rises against the ruling classes. This gives it the possibility of seizing political power. But the taking of political power essentially reveals to the proletariat for the first time the full picture of its poverty in respect of general and specialized education and government experience. The understanding by the revolutionary class of its own inadequacies is the guarantee that these will be overcome.

It would undoubtedly be most dangerous for the working class if its leading circles were to suppose that with the conquest of power the main thing had been done, and were to allow their revolutionary conscience to go to sleep upon what has been achieved. The proletariat did not, indeed, carry through the revolution in order to make it possible for thousands or even tens of thousands of advanced workers to settle into jobs in the Soviets and commissariats. Our revolution will fully justify itself only when every toiling man and woman feels that his or her life has become easier, freer, cleaner and more dignified. This has not yet been achieved. A hard road still lies between us and this, our essential and only goal.

In order that the life of the working millions may become easier, more abundant and richer in content, it is necessary to increase in every sphere the organization and efficiency of work and to attain an incomparably higher level of knowledge, a wider horizon for all those called to be representatives of the working class in all fields of their activity. While working it is necessary to learn. It is necessary to learn from everyone from whom anything can be learnt. It is necessary to attract and draw in all forces that can be harnessed to work. Once more – it is necessary to remember that the masses of the people will evaluate the revolution, in the last analysis, by its practical results. And they will be quite right in so doing. Yet there can be no doubt that a section of Soviet officials have adopted the attitude that the task of the working class had been fundamentally fulfilled by the mere calling to power of workers’ and peasants’ deputies who cope ‘somehow’ with their work. The Soviet regime is the best regime for the workers’ revolution just because it most truly reflects the development of the proletariat, its struggle, its successes, but also its inadequacies, including those of its leading stratum. Along with the many thousands of first-class people whom the proletariat has advanced from its ranks, people who learn and make progress, and who undoubtedly have a great future before them,. there are also in the leading Soviet organs not a few half-equipped people who imagine themselves to be know-it-alls. Complacency, resting content with small successes – this is the worst feature of philistinism, which is radically inimical to the historical tasks of the proletariat. Nevertheless, this feature is also to be encountered among those workers who, with more or less justification, can be called advanced: the heritage of the past, petty-bourgeois traditions and influences and finally, just the demand of strained nerves for rest, all do their work. In addition, there are fairly numerous representatives of the intelligentsia and semi-intelligentsia who have sincerely rallied to the cause of the working class but have not yet had a thorough internal burn-out and so have retained many qualities and ways of thought which are characteristic of the petty-bourgeois milieu. These, the worst elements of the new regime, are striving to become crystallized as a Soviet bureaucracy.

I said ‘the worst’ without forgetting the many thousands of technicians merely lacking in political ideas who are employed by all Soviet institutions. Technicians, ‘non-party’ specialists, carry out their tasks, well or badly, without accepting responsibility for the Soviet regime and without charging our party with responsibility for themselves. It is necessary to make use of them in every possible way, without demanding from them what they cannot give ... Our own bureaucrat, however, is real historical ballast – already conservative, sluggish, complacent, unwilling to learn and even expressing enmity to anybody who reminds him of the need to learn.

This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution, even though they are not guilty of any conspiracy. Our factories work not better than those belonging to the bourgeoisie, but worse. The fact, therefore, that a number of workers stand at their head, as managers, does not in itself solve any problems. If these workers are filled with resolve to achieve great results (and in the majority of cases this is so or will become so), then all difficulties will be overcome. It is necessary to move, from all directions, towards a more rational, more improved organization of the economy and command of the army. It is necessary to arouse initiative, criticism, creative power. It is necessary to give more scope to the great mainspring of emulation. At the same time, it is necessary to draw in specialists, to find experienced organizers, first-class technicians, to give opportunities to all talents, both those that emerge from the depths and those that remain as a legacy from the bourgeois regime. Only a wretched Soviet bureaucrat, jealous for his new job, and cherishing this job because of the personal privileges it confers and not because of the interests of the workers’ revolution, can have an attitude of baseless distrust towards any great expert, outstanding organizer, technician, specialist or scientist – having already decided on his own account that ‘me and my mates will get by somehow’.

In our General Staff Academy there are some party comrades now studying who have in practice, in bloody experience, conscientiously understood how hard is the stern art of war and who are now working with the greatest attention under the guidance of professors of the old military school. People who are close to the Academy tell me that the attitude of the pupils to their teachers is not at all determined by political factors, and apparently it is the most conservative of the teachers who is honored with the most notable marks of attention. These people want to learn. They see beside them others who possess knowledge, and they do not sniff, do not swagger, do not shout, ‘tossing their Soviet caps in the air’ – they learn diligently and conscientiously from the ‘Tsarist generals’, because these generals know what the Communists do not know and what the Communists need to know. And I have no doubt that, when they have learnt, our Red military academicians will make substantial corrections to what they are now learning, and perhaps will even make some fresh contributions of their own.

Insufficient knowledge is, of course, not a fault but a misfortune, and moreover a misfortune which can be put right. But this misfortune becomes a fault and even a crime when it is supplemented by complacency, reliance on ‘maybe’ and ‘most likely’, and an attitude of envy and hatred towards anybody who knows more than oneself.

You asked why this question of the military specialists has aroused such passion. The essence of the matter is that behind this question, if we dig far enough, two trends are hidden: one, which proceeds from an appreciation of the magnitude of the tasks confronting us, endeavors to utilize all the forces and resources which the proletariat has inherited from capitalism – to rationalize, i.e., to comprehend in practice, all social work, including military work, introducing in every sphere the principle of economy of forces, achieving the greatest possible results with the minimum of sacrifices – really to create conditions under which it will be easier to live. The other trend, which fortunately is much less strong, is nourished by the moods of limited, envious, complacent (and yet at the same time unsure of itself) philistine-bureaucratic conservatism

‘We’re managing somehow, aren’t we, so we’ll keep on managing all right.’ It isn’t true! We shall not manage ‘somehow’, in any case: either we shall manage completely, as we ought, in accordance with science, applying and developing all the powers and resources of technique, or we shall not manage at all, but collapse in ruin. Who has not understood this has not understood anything.

Returning to the question you raise, old friend, about the military specialists, let me tell you this, from my own direct observation. There are certain corners in our armed forces where ‘distrust’ of the military specialists is particularly flourishing. What corners are these? The most cultured, the richest in political knowledge of the masses? Not a bit! On the contrary, these are the most deprived corners of our Soviet republic. In one of our armies it was considered not long ago a mark of the highest revolutionariness to jeer rather pettily and stupidly at ‘military specialists’, i.e. at all who had studied in military schools. Yet in this very same army practically no political work was carried on. The attitude there was no less hostile, perhaps even more so, towards Communist commissars, those political ‘specialists’, than it was towards the military specialists. Who was sowing this hostility? The worst sort among the new commanders – military half-experts, half-guerrillas, half-party people who did not want to have anyone around them, be they party workers or serious military workers. These are the worst sort of commanders. They are ignorant but they do not want to learn. Their failures – how could they have successes? – they always seek to explain by somebody else’s treachery. They quail miserably before any change in the morale of their units, for they lack any serious moral and military authority. When a unit, not feeling the hand of a firm leader, refuses to attack, they hide behind its back. Hanging on for dear life to their jobs, they hate the mere mention of military studies. For them these are identified with treachery and perfidy. Many of them, after getting finally into a hopeless mess, have ended up by simply rebelling against the Soviet power. In those units where the level of the Red Army men’s morale is higher, where political work is carried on, where there are responsible commissars and party cells, they have no fear of the military specialists; on the contrary, they ask for them, use them and learn from them. Moreover, in those units they catch the real traitors much more successfully, and shoot them in good time. And, what is most important of all, those units win victories.

That is how it is, dear friend. Now, perhaps, you can better grasp the root of the differences that exist on the question of military and other specialists.

En route. Tambov-Balashov* January 10, 1919
Voyennoye Dyelo, No.5-6 (34-35), February 23, 1919

[* Balashov is a railway junction about 175 kilometers south east of Tambov on the line linking Moscow with Kamyshin, on the Volga.]

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Last updated on: 15.12.2006