The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


I. The Organisation of the Red Army


A talk with representatives of the press [21]

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

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I shall not, unfortunately, be able to take part in the Party Congress, which will be of exceptional importance and at which, in particular, the work of the War Department will be discussed.

I do not think that the question of the Party programme will give occasion for disputes and heated arguments. The formulation of the programme cannot, of course, be regarded as irreproachable, but I think that, by and large, this task will be disposed of. It may be that there remain just a few formulations here and there still needing to be clarified.

What may give rise to big debates and conflicts of opinion at the congress is the question of organisation. In some fairly extensive circles of the Party there can be no doubt that dissatisfaction is to be observed with the work of the Party’s central apparatus.

Comrades complain of the inadequacy of systematic guidance from the centre, the absence of correct distribution of the Party’s forces, and so on and so forth.

However, I consider it necessary to say that a good deal of the criticism that we hear on this matter is too sweeping.

Our Party of the working class has had to give answers to questions of world importance under historical conditions without precedent. It has had, depending on changes in the world situation, to alter its own course – not, obviously, in the sense of principle but in the operational, the ‘manoeuvring’ sense, so to speak: from the offensive it has had to go over to a temporarily defensive position, to discern the most dangerous enemy at each given moment, in internal and external politics alike, to concentrate the Party’s whole attention and all its forces now on one, now on another urgent task, and so on. I think that this aspect of the conduct of our Party’s policy has been well performed, and our Party has emerged with honour from very great difficulties. But precisely the gigantic scale of events has created ever new combinations of political conditions and groupings and has to an extraordinary degree hindered correct, systematic work, correct assessment of all the Party’s forces and correct allocation of these forces to different branches of work.

Thus, when our military situation greatly worsened last summer, the Party, on the initiative of the Central Committee, gave many thousands of its best executives to the front. Such a re-shuffling of the Party’s forces could not, of course, be carried out in completely orderly fashion, with proper evaluation of the qualities and capacities of each individual. But that resulted from the very situation itself.

In the 17 months of its existence the Soviet Republic first expanded, then contracted, then expanded again. These processes could not be foreseen, of course, by any Central Committee. They took place with extreme rapidity and evoked direct organisational consequences. In the first period there was a spontaneous scattering of Party forces over the whole expanding territory of Soviet Russia. Then there was an equally spontaneous concentration of these forces within the boundaries of Great Russia. Then, once more, an equally rapid dispersion of Party forces over the liberated regions, though in this last period the distribution of Party forces undoubtedly took place in a more planned way.

Finally, we have to pay attention to yet one more important circumstance which the comrades from the provinces are inclined to ignore. In the first period of the Soviet regime an extraordinary growth of spontaneous separatism was observed. Local executive committees and Party organisations, occupied with fresh and pressing problems in the localities, became almost completely cut off from the centre, troubled themselves little about establishing links with it, and were even inclined to regard any intervention from the centre, whether Party or departmental, as interference, an enormous amount of energy was expended in that period in establishing the most elementary links between the centre and the periphery and restoring some sort of centralised apparatus that could function.

After that crisis had passed, a phenomenon of the opposite kind began to be noticeable in Party circles. The localities often started to demand of the centre more than it was really in a position to give. Unable to cope with local tasks owing to their tremendous complexity and novelty, the comrades in the localities often groundlessly blamed the centre for not giving them guidance. No doubt the congress will, in this matter too, in a purely practical, businesslike way, so to speak, pose and decide all the relevant questions.

The other acute issue is the military question: lam personally very sorry that I cannot take part in the debates on this question: with the Central Committee’s approval, lam again leaving for the front. But I feel no disquiet regarding the decision that the Party may take where further work in building the army is concerned.

By force of circumstances we were obliged to concentrate our main efforts, most of the Party’s executives and a considerable share of the country’s material resources in the War Department. Thanks to the intense work that we were compelled by those circumstances to carry out, we acquired great experience in building the army.

Some comrades thought, at first, that the army would have to be built in the form of well-organised guerrilla units. This view was widely held in the period following the breakdown in the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. Those who defended this view proceeded from the conception that we had neither the time, nor the material means, nor the necessary commanding personnel, to build a centralised army.

However, the work took a different road. The guerrilla detachments were transformed into a provisional screen behind which work went on in the rear for the building of a centralised army.

After several months of exertion and failure, the Party succeeded, thanks to a great concentration of forces, in breathing life into this work.

Opposition to the recruitment of military specialists was very strong, and to a certain extent given justification by the fact that, especially in the period of our external reverses, the majority of the military specialists held back from work, and sometimes even went over to the enemy.

The Central Committee, however, considered that this phenomenon was of a transient character, and that if we man aged to cope with our other tasks we should, at the same time, get the military specialists to work in the way we wanted.

The facts showed that we were right. We created at the fronts an army with a centralised apparatus of administration and command, and we went over from retreat to advance, from failure to big successes.

Many of the most serious and responsible Party workers who left for the front as determined opponents of our military system, and, in particular, of our appointment of regular officers to responsible posts, became after a few months’ work convinced supporters of this system. Personally, I do not know of a single exception to this statement.

There were, of course, among the comrades who left for the fronts, not a few chance elements, and even real adventurers, who had found the ground under their feet had become too hot in the rear and who, having, by fair means or foul, made their way into the Party, then tried, at the front, to play tricks to their own advantage upon the military leaders.

When they found themselves up against a firm regime there, and sometimes actual repressive measures, such elements naturally set up a howl of resentment against our military regime. They are a minority, of course, but their criticism reinforces the dissatisfaction with the War Department which exists in some Party circles.

The causes of this dissatisfaction are numerous. The army now absorbs forces and means to an extent that violates the laws and interests of work in other spheres. The comrades who serve in the Red Army, being always subject to the imperative pressure of its needs and requirements, sometimes, in their turn, exert pressure in an extremely sharp form upon workers and institutions belonging to other departments- This then produces a sharp reaction on the part of the latter.

War is a very harsh and severe business, especially when it is waged by an exhausted country which has undergone a revolution and is setting before the working class immense tasks in every sphere. Discontent with the fact that the army and the war are exploiting and exhausting the country seeks ways of expressing itself, and is far from always directed to the right address. Since it is not possible to deny the need for the Red Army and the inevitability of waging the war that has been forced on us, all that is left is to attack the method and the system.

However, of the previous, principled presentation of the question, advocating purely guerrilla units, headed - by revolutionary workers, without any participation by military specialists and without any attempt to create centralised army fronts and state-wide apparatuses of command – of that principled presentation of the question not a trace remains.

For example, the criticism expressed in the resolution from the Urals Regional Committee is abstract, fortuitous and shape less in character, and amounts – if the Committee will pardon my saying so – to a mild grumble.

The military specialists, they claim, are needed, but we should act, so far as possible, as though we did not need them. We ought, they claim, to create a body of Red commanders – as though the War Department were not already doing this.

It would be a good thing if the Congress were to ask the Urals Regional Committee just how many Red officers it has contributed, what is the percentage of Communists among the Red officers from the Urals, what is the quality of the units formed by the Urals Regional Committee, and in what way these are superior to the Red regiments formed in other places. It must be said, in all conscience, that this superiority would not be apparent.

I have more than once had to put it to our comrade critics ‘from the Left’: ‘If you consider that our method of formation is bad, create for us one single division by your methods, choose your commanders, show us your way of carrying on political work: the War Department will help you by providing all the resources you will need.’

Such an experiment, even if it succeeded, would, of course, be far from possessing demonstrative force, because they might be able to find a choice complement of both Red Army men and commanders for a single division. In any case, though, our critics might have learnt something from trying this experiment.

But alas, I have met no desire among them to take up this challenge, and criticism has shifted from one question to another, keeping up its irritated tone but remaining, in general, absolutely abstract and formless.

En Route*
March 17, 1919

* En Route (V Puti) was the title of the newspaper published from Trotsky’s train.


21. The Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was held in Moscow on March 18-23, 1919 (see note 69 to Volume 1). Comrade Trotsky’s theses entitled Our policy in creating the army were included in Volume I. Owing to Comrade Trotsky’s departure for the Eastern front, the fundamental report on military matters was given by Comrade Sokolnikov. After a co-report by Comrade Smirnov a prolonged debate on military policy took place in the special military commission of the Congress. After discussion, the Congress approved the theses presented by Comrade Trotsky.

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Last updated on: 18.12.2006