The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed



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

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German soldiers are hastening back to their own country from all the countries into which the criminal will of the German aggressors had cast them. On their way home these soldiers are fallen upon by newly-formed Polish regiments, disarmed, and sometimes massacred. The Anglo-French and the Americans have grasped Germany by the throat and, looking at their watches, are counting her feverish pulse. This does not prevent them from demanding of the German Government that what remains of the German forces should engage in battle with Soviet Russia, to stop her from liberating the lands that were occupied by German imperialism. The Belgians, whose country was only yesterday being crucified by German imperialism, are now seizing purely German provinces of the Rhineland. Half way to beggary, cleaned out by their own thieving rulers, the Romanians, whose capital has been, turn and turn about, the booty of the Germans and of the Anglo-French, are them selves grabbing Bessarabia, Transylvania and Bukovina. American troops from across the sea are awkwardly perched upon our cold and hungry North, wondering why they have been brought there. The streets of Berlin, that city not long ago so proud of its iron order, are awash with the bloody waves of civil war. [2] French troops have landed at Odessa [3], though extensive areas of France itself are occupied by American, British, Australian and Canadian forces, who treat the French like the natives of colonies. Restored after nearly a century and a half of suppression, Poland, in a sort of ardent impatience, is involving herself in war with the Ukraine and with Prussia, and provoking Soviet Russia. [4]

The American President, Wilson, patently a sanctimonious hypocrite, a Tartuffe in pious Quaker guise, travels around blood-drained Europe as the highest representative of morality, as the Messiah of the US dollar, chastising, pardoning and deciding the fates of nations. Everyone asks him in, welcomes him, pleads with him: the King of Italy; the traitor Mensheviks who rule in Georgia; humble, ingratiating Scheidemann; Clemenceau, that mangy tiger of the French petty-bourgeoisie; all the fireproof safes of the City of London; and even the midwives of Switzerland. With his trousers turned up, Wilson strides through the puddles of European blood and, by grace of the New York stock-exchange, which did so well to place the last stake in the European lottery, unites the Yugoslavs with the Serbs, estimates the price of the crown of the Habsburgs, between two pinches of snuff rounds off Belgium at the expense of plundered Germany, and meditates whether or not to despatch orangutangs and baboons to save Christian civilisation from Bolshevik barbarism.

Europe resembles a madhouse, and at first sight it seems the Inmates themselves do not know from one half-hour to the next whom they are going to cut up and with whom they are going to make friends. One lesson, though, stands out irrefutably from the troubled waves of this chaos – the criminal responsibility borne by the bourgeois world. Everything that is happening in Europe now was prepared over centuries past by the structure of the economy, the state relationships, the system of militarism, morality and philosophy of the ruling classes, the religion of all the priests. The monarchy, the nobility, the clergy, the bureaucracy, the bourgeoisie, the professional intelligentsia, the masters of wealth and rulers of states – these it was who prepared the incomprehensible events that are causing the old ‘civilised’ and ‘Christian’ Europe to resemble so closely a lunatic asylum.

Europe’s ‘chaos’ is chaos only in form: what it essentially expresses is the highest laws of history, which are destroying the old in order to create the new in its place. The population of Europe are now embattled, using exactly the same rifles, in the name of different tasks and programmes which reflect different epochs of history. Fundamentally, they amount to these three imperialism, nationalism, communism.

This war began as a conflict between the great capitalist vultures for the conquest and partition of the world: it is this that constitutes imperialism. But, in order to get the many millioned masses to fight, to set them against each other, to sustain a spirit of hatred and frenzy in them, ‘ideas’, or ‘sentiments’, were needed that were close to the masses, deceived and doomed to slaughter. The idea of nationalism served as this hypnotic agent at the disposal of the imperialist bandits. The mutual tie between people who speak the same language and belong to the same nation is a great force. This tie was not felt when people lived a patriarchal life in their own villages or provincial districts. But the further bourgeois production developed, the more closely it united village with village, the province with the town, the more did the people who were drawn into this whirlpool come to value a common language, that great medium of material and spiritual community. Capitalism strove to consolidate itself first of all on a national basis, and engendered many national movements: in fragmented Germany, in dismembered Italy, in lacerated Poland, in Austria-Hungary, among the Balkan Slays, in Armenia.

By means of revolutions and wars the European bourgeoisie solved somehow or other, through tearing and patching, some of the national tasks. A united Italy was created, and a united Germany – without German Austria but, instead, with a dozen crowned heads. The peoples of Russia were clamped together in the steel vice of Tsardom. In Austria and in the Balkans fierce struggles continued between nations that, while doomed to live in close proximity, were unable to establish peaceful forms of coexistence.

Meanwhile, capitalism quickly outgrew national frame works. The national state was only a springboard for capitalism, something needed in order to take a leap forward. Capital soon became cosmopolitan. At its disposal were world-wide means of communication, it had agents and servants speaking all languages, and it sought to plunder the peoples of the whole world regardless of their language, the colour of their skin, or the religion of their priests. At the same time as the middle and petty bourgeoisie, and also wide circles of the working class, were still breathing an atmosphere of national ideology, capitalism developed into imperialism, into the striving for world-wide domination. From the outset, the world slaughter presented a menacing picture of imperialism coupled with nationalism: the powerful clique of finance capital and heavy industry succeeded in harnessing to its chariot all the feelings, passions and sentiments fostered by national ties, unity of language, common historical memories and, above all, life in common within the national state. As they stepped forth on to the highroad for plunder, conquest and extermination, the imperialists of each of the contending camps knew how to inspire the masses with the notion that what was going on was a fight for national independence and national culture. Just as the bankers and large-scale manufacturers exploit the small shop keepers and the workers, so imperialism, without exception, brought nationalist and chauvinist feelings and aims under its sway, pretending to serve and to safeguard them. From this terrible psychological battery the great slaughter was powered and kept going for four and a half years.

But communism appeared on the scene. It, too, had in its time arisen first on a national basis, together with the awakening of the labour movement, amid the first, still uncertain rumbling of the capitalist machine. In the doctrine of communism the proletariat counterposed itself to the bourgeoisie. And while the latter soon became imperialist and world-plundering, the advanced proletariat became internationalist and world-uniting. The imperialist bourgeoisie constituted a numerically insignificant minority of the nation. It maintained itself as the ruling and dominating power so long as it was able, by means of the ideas and sentiments of nationalism, to hold in bondage the broad masses of the petty-bourgeoisie and the working class. At the other pole, the internationalist proletariat was a minority. It rightly hoped to wrest the majority of the people from their spiritual slavery to imperialism. But before the last great slaughter of the peoples even the best and most perspicacious of the leaders of the proletariat did not suspect how much power the prejudices of bourgeois statehood and the habits of national conservatism still retained in the consciousness of the masses. All that became clear in July 1914, which was without exaggeration the blackest month in world history – not because the kings and stockbrokers unleashed the war, but because they succeeded in mastering inwardly hundreds of millions of people, deceiving and ensnaring them, hypnotising them and drawing them psychologically into their brigands’ enterprise.

Internationalism, which had for decades been the official banner of a mighty organisation of the working class, seemed suddenly to have vanished in the fire and smoke of the international slaughter. Later it showed itself as a weak, flickering flame among isolated, scattered groups in various countries. The priests and lackeys, learned and unlearned, of the bourgeoisie sought to depict these groups as the dying remnants of a utopian sect. But the name of Zimmerwalds [5] resounded already with an alarming echo through all the bourgeois press.

The revolutionary internationalists kept to their path. As their first task they made a clear appraisal of the reasons for what had happened. A long period of ‘peaceful’ bourgeois development, with its day-to-day trade-union struggle, reformist hair-splitting and petty parliamentary clashes had created an organisation of many millions, opportunist in its leadership, which laid strong fetters upon the revolutionary energy of the proletariat. By the power of historical events, official Social Democracy, which had been initiated under the sign of social revolution, became transformed into the most counter revolutionary force in Europe and throughout the world. It had knitted itself so closely into the national state, its parliament, its ministries and commissions, it had got so used to bargaining with its friendly enemies, the parliamentary swindlers of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie, that it could see nothing in the bloody catastrophe of the capitalist order, when this began, but a threat to national ‘unity’. Instead of calling on the proletarian masses to launch an offensive against capitalism, it called on them to defend the ‘national’ state. This Social- Democracy of the Plekhanovs, Tseretelis, Scheidemanns, Kautskys, Renaudels and Longuets mobilised to serve imperialism all the national prejudices, all the slavish instincts, all the scum of chauvinism, everything dark and putrid that had accumulated in the souls of the oppressed working masses during their centuries of slavery. To the party of revolutionary communism it was clear that this gigantic historical blackmail was bound to end in a frightful crash for the ruling cliques and their lickspittles. In order to arouse in the masses a fighting spirit, readiness for self-sacrifice, and, finally, simple willingness to spend years in filthy, stinking pits of trenches, it was necessary to implant in them very great expectations, monstrous illusions. The disillusionment and bitterness of the masses would inevitably be proportionate in scale to the deception they had suffered. The revolutionary internationalists (they did not yet call themselves communists at that time) foresaw this, and built their revolutionary tactics upon this foresight: they ‘set their course’ towards social revolution.

The two conscious minorities, imperialist and inter nationalist, declared war to the death upon each other, and before their rivalry emerged on to the city streets as open civil war it matured in the minds of millions and millions of working people. These were no parliamentary conflicts, which even in the best moments of parliamentarism had been found to have only a quite limited educational effect. Now, the entire people, right down to its most ignorant and stagnant depths, was gripped in the steel claws of militarism and dragged by force into the very whirlpool of events. Imperialism was confronted by communism, which said: ‘You are now really showing the masses what you are and what you are capable of, and next will come my turn. The great contest between imperialism and communism will not be decided by reform legislation, by parliamentary votes or by the strike bulletins of trade unions. Events are being inscribed with iron, and every step of the struggle leaves bloody footprints. This fact alone predetermines that the outcome of the struggle between imperialism and communism will not be found along the road of formal democracy. To decide the basic questions of social development by way of universal suffrage would necessarily mean, in present circumstances, when these questions are being put point-blank, suspending the battle between mortal class enemies and appealing to arbitration by those in-between, mainly petty-bourgeois masses that have not yet been drawn into the struggle, or have taken part in it only half-consciously. But precisely these masses, deceived by the big lie of nationalism, exhausted by war, distracted, seeking only a way out, experiencing the greatest variety of contradictory moods – these masses cannot appear as authoritative arbiters in the eyes either of imperialism or, still less, of communism, or even in their own eyes.

To put off the settlement of the argument until the troubled in-between masses have come to themselves and drawn all their conclusions from the lessons of the war – how can that be? Artificial pauses are possible in contests between athletes, in the circus ring, or at the parliamentary tribune, but not in civil war. The greater the tension reached in all the relations, all the needs, all the calamities resulting from the imperialist war, the less the objective possibility that is left for waging the struggle within the limits of formal democracy, by simultaneous universal raising of hands. ‘In this war you, imperialism, have shown what you are capable of, but now my turn has come: I shall take power into my hands and show the still wavering, still troubled masses what I am capable of, whither I am leading them, what I want or am able to give them.’ This was the watchword of the October insurrection of communism, this the meaning of that terrible war that the Spartacists declared on the bourgeois world in the streets of Berlin.

The imperialist massacre was ended by civil war. The more thoroughly the capitalist war taught the workers to handle a rifle, the more resolutely do they begin to use the rifle for their own purposes. However, the old bloodbath has not yet been liquidated: here and there, fresh bloody conflicts are still breaking out along the line of nations and states, threatening to give rise to a new conflagration. At the very moment when communism is already celebrating its first victories and has every right not to be frightened by particular defeats, the yellow tongues of imperialist flame are still breaking out from beneath the volcanic soil.

Poland, which yesterday was still strangled, dismembered, torn and drained of blood, is now, in a last, belated intoxication of nationalism, trying to seize Prussia, Galicia, Lithuania and Byclorussia. But the Polish proletariat is already building its soviets. Serbian nationalism is seeking a robber’s satisfaction for former humiliations and lacerations in territory inhabited by Bulgars. Italy is seizing Serbian provinces. The Czechs, only just escaped from under the German-Habsburg heel, and drunk with the pseudo-independence offered them by the mighty sharks of imperialism, are raping the towns of German Bohemia and attacking the Russians in Siberia. The Czech Communists are sounding the alarm. Events are being piled upon events, the map of Europe is altering incessantly, but the most profound changes are those that are taking place in the minds of the masses. The rifle which yesterday served national imperialism is today, gripped by the same hand, serving the cause of social revolution. The American stock-exchange, which long and artfully kept the European bonfire alight, so as to enable its bankers and industrialists to warm their hands at those flames, has now sent to Europe its chief salesman, its supreme broker, the honey-tongued rogue Wilson, so as to take a closer look and see if things have gone too far. ‘Hee-hee!’ the American billionaires were laughing not long ago into their shaven chins, rubbing their hands the while: ‘Europe has become a madhouse, Europe is exhausted, ruined, Europe has been transformed into a graveyard of the old culture. We shall now pay a visit to its ruins, we shall buy up its best monuments, we shall give generous tips to the most august scions of all the European dynasties, European competition will die out, industrial life will finally move over to us, and the profits of the entire world will begin to pour into our own American pockets.’

But this gloating chuckle has now begun to stick in the throats of the stock-exchange Yankees. Amid Europe’s chaos an idea of order is raising its head, ever more commandingly and powerfully – the idea of a new, communist order. In the turmoil and confusion of the bloody conflicts – imperialist, national and class conflicts – the peoples that have been most backward from the revolutionary standpoint are slowly but steadily drawing level with those whose first victories are already behind them. Out of the prison-house of peoples that was Tsarist Russia, with the liberation of Riga, Vilna and Kharkov, a free federation of Soviet republics is arising in our time, before our very eyes. [6] There is no other way out, no other path, for the peoples of Austria-Hungary and the Balkan Peninsula. A Soviet Germany will join this family, which, a month sooner or later, will also include among its members a Soviet Italy and a Soviet France. The transformation of Europe into a federation of Soviet republics is the sole conceivable solution to the demands for national development of the peoples, great and small, without prejudicing the centralist needs of economic unity – first of Europe and later of the whole world.

In their day, bourgeois democrats dreamt of a United States of Europe. Those dreams found hypocritical and belated echo in the speeches of the French social-patriots in the early stages of the last war. The bourgeoisie was incapable of uniting Europe, because to the unifying tendencies of economic development it counterposed the divisive will of national imperialism. In order to unite the peoples it is necessary to free the economy from the fetters of private property. Only the dictatorship of the proletariat can ensure the requirements of national development within their natural and legitimate limits, and co-ordinate the nations in a unity of co-operation in labour: and this will be a federation of Soviet republics of Europe on the basis of free self-determination by all the peoples inhabiting it. There is no other solution. This union will be directed against Britain, if that country lags behind the Continent in its revolutionary development. Together with a Soviet Britain, the European federation will direct its blows against the imperialist dictatorship of North America, until the time comes when the Transatlantic republic ceases to be the republic of the dollar – until the triumphant grunting of the New York stock-exchange changes into its death-rattle.

Bloody chaos still reigns in Europe. The old is mingled with the new. Events are piled upon events, and blood is poured out upon blood. But out of this chaos there is emerging ever more resolutely and boldly the idea of communist order, from which the bourgeoisie will not be saved either by its Versailles treaties or by its mercenary bands, or by its volunteer lackeys of com promise and social-patriotism, or by the great Transatlantic protector of all the imperialist murderers.

Already it is not the spectre of communism that is haunting Europe, as it did 72 years ago, when the Communist Manifesto was written: it is the ideas and hopes of the bourgeoisie that are being turned into a spectre, while Communism marches across Europe in flesh and blood.

January 13, 1919,
Supplement to Pravda,January 26, 1919


1. The article Order out of Chaos was published as a separate pamphlet by the press of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, Moscow, 1919.

2. The reference is to the January 1919 revolt of the workers and soldiers of Berlin. This revolt was caused by the treacherous policy of the Social-Democratic Government of Ebert and Schiedemann. In reply to the Government’s order dismissing the Berlin police-chief, the Independent Social-Democrat Eichhorn, the workers held mass demonstrations. Next day a general strike began. The movement was headed by a revolutionary commit tee consisting of Karl Liebknecht, Ledebour and Scholz. This committee was supported in its work by the Spartacists and by the Berlin organisation of the Independent Social-Democrats. The Government began negotiations for an agreement, while at the same time assembling armed forces recruited from the bourgeois youth, the White-Guard students and NCOs of the old army. On January 11 under Noske’s leadership, the bloody suppression of this revolt began. On January 15 Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were killed by officers who were escorting them to prison.

3. The landing of French troops at Odessa at the beginning of January 1919 took place in accordance with the general plan for Allied aid to Denikin. Foreign and Russian capitalists were interested in the industry of the Donbas and Caucasia. Despite the lack of unanimity on the Russian question between France and Berlin, which became apparent already when the German occupation forces were withdrawing, active support began to be given to the White-Guard movement. At the beginning of January the Allies unloaded some six million shells at the port of Novorossiisk, a large number of aeroplanes at Sebastopol, and 30 tanks at Odessa. During January and February a squadron of French, British, Italian and Greek naval vessels arrived at Odessa and Sebastopol, bringing units of Allied troops destined for garrison service and the guarding of railway lines. Ships both naval and commercial began regularly plying between the ports. The French General Franchet d’Esperey was appointed commander-in-chief of all the Allied troops in Russia.

4. After the departure of the German troops from Polish territory, the leader of the Polish legionaries, Pilsudski, was proclaimed ‘Head of the Polish State’. Owing to the evacuation of a large number of big factories to Russia, the Polish working class was scattered and weakened. This circumstance enabled Pilsudski to set up without difficulty a bourgeois government headed by Moraczewski, which at once took up a markedly militant attitude towards the Soviet Government. Already at the time of the negotiations at Brest Comrade Trotsky proclaimed recognition of Poland’s complete independence. Our government approached Moraczewski with a proposal to establish diplomatic relations. The Polish Government protested against the establishment of Soviet power in Lithuania and Byelorussia. On January 2, 1919, our Red Cross Mission was fired on by agents of the Polish Government. At the same time, on Poland’s western border (sic), conflict flared up in Eastern Galicia, Austrian Silesia and East Prussia. [Austrian Silesia was certainly on Poland’s western border, but East Prussia lay to the north (both are included in present-day Poland), and Eastern Galicia (now included the Ukraine) was on its south-eastern border.]

5. On the Zimmerwald conference see note 106 to Volume I.

6. After the revolution in Germany, the German troops occupying Estonia, Laivia, Lithuania, Byelorussia and the Ukraine rushed back home to Germany. The Red Army, meeting no resistance, began to advancewestward and southward. Between November 25, 1918 and January 10, 1919 our forces occupied, in the West: Pskov, Narva, Dvinsk, Minsk, Yuriev, Riga and Mitau. In the Ukraine, when left by the Germans to the mercy of fate, the Skoropadsky government was unable to cope with the rebellious workers and peasants, and fled from Kiev. For a short time it was replaced by Petlyura. But Red units, their numbers continually increased by new formations, were already advancing from the North. On January 3, 1919 Kharkov was taken, on January 12 Chernigov, and on January 18 Poltava.

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Last updated on: 23.12.2006