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 made to the Petrograd Manoeuvring Battalion of
Non-Commissioned Officers, at Kozlov, in Autumn 1918

Comrades! When I arrived here I asked the commander of the Southern Front how the Petrograd Maneuvering Battalion of NCOs was looking. He replied: ‘Splendid’. I had no doubt, comrades, that this would be so. The majority of you are, I know, from that very battalion of NCOs. From the technical standpoint you do not possess the advantages that the officers had. You are military men who know the soldier’s trade precisely because the old army brought you forward, and from private soldiers turned you into NCOs. But you have at the same time enormous advantages from the class standpoint. You belong, flesh and blood, to the working class and the peasantry. That is why, comrades, what happens to your maneuvering battalion, and what happens to each one of you individually, is of very great importance for the Soviet Republic, for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.

You know why and how the old Tsarist army perished. When it advanced on the front against Germany and Austria-Hungary it seemed all-powerful: in it there was much heroism, there were many self-sacrificing soldiers, there were honorable officers. True, in the highest posts of command these were only a tiny minority. This army went to pieces, collapsed and perished. Why?

The representatives of the old order said that the army had been ruined by agitators. We can answer that like this. The Tsar surrounded the army with all possible safeguards – police and gendarmes, prisons and gallows – and yet this army was not safeguarded. The army went to pieces, it collapsed. Why did the agitators prove all-powerful? We can say, for example: let Tsarist agitators, agitators on behalf of the landlords’ and the bourgeoisie, try to get into our army in order to destroy it. They will burn their fingers, and their tongues. The Red Army does not give access to Tsarist counter-revolutionary agitators. Why did the old army refuse a hearing to revolutionary agitators and why does the army of today not refuse it? We have come to the heart of the matter. The old army mostly consisted, like the present one, of workers and peasants. How could it be otherwise? Workers and peasants make up the overwhelming majority of our country’s population. In all countries the army is nowadays recruited from the working masses. But an army’s character, its purpose, its aim is determined by the commanding apparatus, by those who form, educate and organize it, and to what end? For a long time Tsardom made of the army an automaton in which consciousness was not awakened and which obeyed orders even when these were mortally harmful to the interests of the masses. The old army consisted mainly of men from the peasant and worker masses. But above these peasants always stood a closely-welded officer corps drawn from the rich and educated classes. Every soldier was held in the grip of the discipline imposed by the commanding apparatus of officers. And the latter belonged, by virtue of their interests, habits and education, not with the soldiers whom they commanded, but with the powerful class which was headed by the Tsar.

This old army was strong down to a certain time. What ruined it, what disintegrated it? The same force which is now disintegrating the German army: the awakening of the soldier’s mind and conscience. Only so long as the soldier obeyed his commander’s orders automatically without thinking about their purpose, only so long did the army hold together. But an army cannot be kept in hand by police discipline alone. For every army, discipline must be created by the army itself. An army must understand what it serves, what its purpose is, what it is that obliges every honorable soldier to devote his strength and labor, and even his life and his blood, on behalf of these interests. And once an army has woken up, once the soldier’s consciousness has spoken, then the old discipline and the old stories and catch phrases of the monarchy, the nobles and the bourgeoisie cease to be able to sustain this army. That is why our old Tsarist army broke up, splitting at every seam, and that is why today the strongest army in the world is breaking up – I mean the German army, which is headed by the most skillful, cunning and experienced officer corps and the most solid landlord-bourgeois government in the world. The end has come for the German army, and it is collapsing.

After the break-up of the old army, the Soviet power set about creating a new one, on new foundations. Wherein, comrades, did our difficulty lie? It lay, on the one hand, in the weariness of the mass of the soldiers. They were sick and tired of their four years of war. It was hard to bring it home to the mind, the consciousness, the conscience of each individual worker and peasant that, despite the fact that our country was in a state of collapse, we had to fight. Despite the weariness of our army we had to make the army fight in defense of new interests, not those of the nobles and landlords, but those of the worker and peasant masses. And this difficulty was quickly overcome.

When the peasants had taken over the land, when the worker masses had made themselves masters of the factories, and the working people looked round, they saw that the greedy capitalists of Germany, Britain and France had fallen upon Russia, upon the Soviet land of honest labor.

In these circumstances we needed to create an army, and realization of this fact penetrated deeply into the consciousness of the masses. But here a new difficulty arose. This was the question of the commanding apparatus. The soldiers of the workers and peasants’ country were, in the main, honest working men, but they did not have the technical preparation needed to defend the workers’ interests. Where were we to find a commanding apparatus? Nine-tenths of the old officer corps, as I said, had sold its soul to the bourgeoisie and the landlords, and now, when the privileges and power of the monarchy and of the bourgeoisie had fallen, the old officer corps fled from the Soviet land. In the Ukraine nine-tenths of these officers sold their swords to German militarism. Over there, in the Archangel region, they are hiring themselves out to the British bandits. In Siberia, in the Far East, they are selling themselves to America, or to the Japanese, just as everywhere they are taking service against the Russian workers and peasants. Until recently, before Skoropadsky’s position was shaken, officers of the General Staff were emigrating to the Ukraine. However, a section of the officers did remain, to serve the Soviet power – only a minority of them, though. Among the officers there are, of course – and you, as NCOs, know this from your own experience – some honorable men. These honorable men from the officer corps understood that it was necessary to defend Russia, to safeguard the independence of the Russian people, and that this could only be done by a new army, constructed on new principles, with a new, solid, comradely discipline. And they are serving the Soviet army: but, I repeat, they are the minority, and they are not enough. We have set up training schools, in which soldiers – workers and peasants – are taught the art of commanding small units, at least. But these schools cannot provide us in a short time with the commanding apparatus we need. Although the courses are short, it will take four or five months before we can create out of rank-and-file soldiers our new workers’ and peasants’ corps of officers. But we possess ready-made material for a commanding apparatus, in the shape of the many thousands of NCOs – of you! You have now been called up, and some of you have been embodied in the Maneuvering Battalion. In you the Soviet power sees the future commanders of the workers’ and peasants’ Red Army. After the temporary interruption, you must refresh your military knowledge and revive the fighting spirit which lived in you and thanks to which you were, in your time, promoted and made NCOs. You need to get into close contact with the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army we are forming. I do not doubt that many of you, ninety-nine out of a hundred, will become in a very short time real leaders in our Workers’ and Peasants’ Army. You lack a completely finished education. We shall strive to ensure that in our new, workers’ and peasants’ country of labor, the children of the workers and peasants, your children – shall receive education in all subjects. But what you do possess is living military experience and devotion to the cause of the workers and peasants. You have a sound popular consciousness, not clouded by lies, which you can and you want to put at the service of the workers and peasants. From such men, who do not fear danger, a real commanding apparatus will emerge, for the defense of the interests of the revolution.

Over a hundred years ago there took place the great French Revolution, which broke up the old army of the monarchy. Then, as now, the mass of the officers went over to the enemies of the French people, to the side of Britain against the French Revolution, just as now they are waging dishonorable war against us alongside the British capitalists. A section of the French officer corps went over to the side of Germany, and we know that they fought against the revolutionary people of France. They called the French working people sansculottes which means men without breeches. And those sansculottes, those men without breeches, created a real Red Army. Where did they get their commanders from? From the corporals, the NCOs? And Napoleon, who later became Emperor, when he was still a revolutionary general [There is no hard evidence that Napoleon ever uttered this famous saying. He could hardly have used the expression when he was still a revolutionary general, since the rank of field marshal (marechal de France) was in fact abolished by the Convention in 1793. It was restored only by Napoleon himself, after he became Emperor, in 1804.], that every solder carried in his knapsack the baton of a field-marshal – meaning that in a revolutionary country every energetic and steadfast soldier may and must, in a moment of danger, take over the post of command, however high. Those marshals, forever NCOs, some of whom could not write their own names, became great revolutionary commanders. They not only threw the Germans and the British out of their country, but marches all across Europe at the head of the victorious French army, and everywhere dealt blows at the rule of serfdom and the clergy. This means that there they created a real people’s army; forward from its own midst a real commanding apparatus.

And so, comrades, the Soviet power looks to you with confidence and hope. The work you are doing at the moment is the phase of transition to posts of command. Each of you must see himself as an honorable worker for the Soviet Russia of the workers and peasants. The workers must know that you are masters of the soldier’s trade, that you know well how to use arms, and that you use them in the interests of the worker and peasant masses: that you swear before the whole country never to direct your weapons against the working people, the workers and peasants, on behalf of the landlords and bourgeois.

I do not doubt that you will acquire authority and influence throughout our young Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army now being formed. Then we shall have a workers’ and peasants’ commanding apparatus that is really our own. We need it urgently, for we have many enemies. The whole world is awakening, thanks to our workers’ and peasants’ revolution: in Germany militarism is collapsing, in Austria-Hungary it has already collapsed. Any day now it will collapse in France, Britain, America and Japan, and this collapse will be a severe blow to the bourgeoisie. But the bourgeoisie is not asleep: it may itself strike a hard blow at the revolution. As you know, the stable fly stings more painfully just before it dies. So it is with the bourgeoisie of imperialist Germany and Britain, who, feeling their death-agony coming on, are trying to strike a blow at Soviet Russia. But, meanwhile, we stand firm as an independent revolutionary country, our voice rings out like a toCsin for all countries. That is why the imperialist bourgeoisie has risen up against us, and why we must rise up in defense of the interests of the workers and peasant masses of the Soviet country.

Our enemies say that Soviet Russia will not create a new army. The German military press has said this. Not so long ago, three or four months back, a German general came to see me at the People’s Commissariat for Military Affairs, as Germany’s representative in the Soviet Republic. After the official statements had been made, he asked to stay and talk to me privately, and he put this question: ‘Here you are, denouncing our discipline in your papers, but allow me to inquire how you are going to be able to create a new army for yourselves? With your ways of doing things, without a firm monarchical power based on authority, you won’t be able to establish discipline.’ To this I replied, also in a private capacity: ‘Do you have discipline in Germany? You do. If, in the bourgeois countries, soldiers can put up with discipline against their inclinations, then our soldiers, who are beginning to understand better, as day follows day, that our discipline aims to promote the welfare of the soldiers and workers, will establish a discipline ten times firmer than yours.’ That is true. I think that you will help the Red Army to establish such a discipline in itself and in all Red Armies as a whole. The workers of all countries are watching anxiously: are we going to fall beneath the onslaught of the counter-revolutionary forces? This question is discussed with concern in the revolutionary press of the West.

How will the Soviet power create a commanding apparatus in the Red Army? So long as the army was small, no more than a few tens of thousands of men, it was possible to obtain commanders from that section of the old officers, that minority, which went over to the side of the Soviet power. But where are we to find thousands of officers for the new revolutionary army? We can now tell our enemies that we have created a new officer corps. We have issued a call, appealing to the non commissioned officers and to all advanced, conscious fighters in whose breast beats an ardent desire to defend the Soviet Republic on all fronts. The doors of all the schools and military academies are open to all of them. We have purged these schools of everything out-of-date and taken from the bourgeoisie only what we need. We have left in our academies only that which is necessary for a real military and political leader, who has to influence the soldier masses. He must not only speak the truth but also know well his trade as a soldier.

I address myself to you, comrades, with this appeal: look on yourselves as real leaders of the workers’ and peasants’ army! Tomorrow you will be at the head of platoons, companies, battalions, regiments, and you will really be called upon to command the new army which is being formed. Look on yourselves in such a way that the soldiers will look up to you. Train the young and create firm discipline! This discipline is not the discipline of the rod, it is the discipline of comrades. Formerly discipline was imposed by the rod. What we must have is a real Communist work-team. Let us take each other by the hand and establish among ourselves a firm, iron, co-operative discipline and proclaim to our workers and peasants that we will not let our country be desecrated.

I call on you to purge the bourgeoisie from our homeland!

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Last updated on: 15.12.2006