The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


I. The Organisation of the Red Army


Letter to the Revolutionary War Councils of the Armies and the Fronts

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

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In recent months the armies of the Soviet Republic have suffered very serious setbacks, but have also had very important successes. Our setbacks have been due, if we leave partial factors aside, to one fundamental cause: inadequacy in the supply services, which has prevented us from sending reinforcements to the front in good time. The inadequacy of the supply services has, in its turn, been due to a considerable extent to the extreme insufficiency of organisation at the centre: the Central War Procurement Council has sometimes come under the War Department, sometimes under the Supreme Economic Council, while the Extraordinary Supply Committee has stood between these two departments, lacking its own apparatus, and the Central Supply Administration is concerned with distribution, and has no organisational link with the procurement organs. Now, under the influence of the severe lessons we have been taught, an organisation has been set up which, provided it is vigorously and completely set in motion, will give the desired results. Comrade Rykov has been put in charge of the entire work of supply for the armed forces, and the apparatuses of the Central War Procurement Council, the Extraordinary Supply Committee and the Central Supply Administration have all been placed under his authority. [24]

The fundamental reasons for our setbacks have not always been clear to wide sections of the Party. Moreover, the very fact that there have been setbacks has evoked a mood of alarm which is the more intense the further one goes from the front. This is also understandable. Those who work at the front not only know better what the reasons are for the setbacks, they also see more clearly that, essentially, not a great deal is needed in order to bring about a turn and secure victory. In the rear our set backs on the Southern front, which are certainly very palpable, have again given rise, along with panicky moods, to a wave of ‘criticism’ directed against the foundations of our constructive work in the military sphere, which have taken shape through long experience and collective work by many Party workers. Most loudly do we hear resounding, in the Party press and at meetings held in the rear, the voices of those Party members who make quick visits to the front and then give out their superficial observations as the latest conclusions from military practice. Also of no small importance in the rear are those executives who have been removed from the Revolutionary War Councils of various fronts owing to their patent unfitness for responsible military work. The result is an utter distortion of the actual state of things. In some circles of the Party, for example, we find an attempt being made to re-kindle the argument about the military specialists, at a time when, in those of our armies which are to some extent well-ordered and organised, this has long ceased to be a matter for argument. At the same time, the real questions which have arisen from the development of the army are left without any serious, practical discussion based on the experience we have obtained. The desire expressed by the Congress for periodical conferences of responsible Party workers active in the War Department is extremely difficult to satisfy, especially at the present grave moment. Such a conference would possess significance and authority provided that it was attended by the most responsible workers, but it is quite impossible to take them away from the front in these critical days and weeks.

Direct exchange of views between the most responsible workers in the army can be accomplished to some extent through written communications in the form of reports, resolutions and so on, where the most important and urgent questions relating to the construction of the army are concerned. The present circular deals with some of these questions.


Experience has shown that unification of each front [The term ‘front’ is used in this work both in its usual sense and in that of the group of forces responsible for a certain front more or less what is called in British military terminology an ‘army group’.] is effective, in the main, operationally. In the supply and political spheres the armies lead a life that is actually, to a considerable extent, independent of the front command. Attempts to secure an excessive degree of centralism in these spheres have up to now led to unfavourable results. Our railways work too slowly for it to be possible for us, relying upon them, quickly to manoeuvre military freight from the centre of a front. For this reason, supply to the armies of a front cannot be based on front depots. The decisive role is necessarily played by army depots and reserves.

The task of the front supply organs must therefore consist not in actually concentrating material reserves under their control and distributing them as required, but in ensuring that each army has in good time the supplies that it needs for a protracted period, and in establishing in every army a reliable, business like, enterprising supply apparatus which can independently issue all supplies with the necessary accounting and the appropriate economy. In other words, the role of the front supply organs is predominantly that of middlemen and that of super visors and inspectors.

While not aiming at excessive centralism in front supply work, we need to establish at the front some organs of guidance, vigorous and possessed of initiative, whose task will consist in setting up a mechanism of army supply which can ensure rapid and timely provision of footwear, rifles, grease and cartridges from army stores to the soldiers who need them. We must eliminate, at all costs, the criminal red-tapeism of the army supply organs and the barren bureaucratism which has succeeded the chaos which previously prevailed, not replacing but merely supplementing it. Indents go up from company level through regiment, brigade and division to army, taking an extremely long time, and the equipment asked for is sent down through the same channel by which the paper went up. Mean while, the units which asked for the supplies in question have changed their composition, have been transferred, dissolved, attached to different formations, and soon. As a result, the boot never reaches the soldier’s foot. We must ensure that the army supply organ has before it a clear picture of the entitlements and deficiencies of every unit, a picture continually checked through tours made by its inspectors, and through operational and political reports. The army supply organ must itself direct the through goods-trains and columns carrying the appropriate equipment to the units most in need of this, the transport to be accompanied by clerks who can issue the necessary articles on the spot and see to the relevant book-keeping. We have to make the supply chiefs look out for a soldier’s bare foot or empty bandolier, so as to see to it that the former is shod and the latter replenished, without waiting passively for the indents to come up and busying themselves with paper work that takes no account of the mobile character of the war, which calls for rapid initiative and mobility on the part of the army supply administration.

To give the army supply service a wide degree of independence, to place substantial stores at its disposal, to teach it to use this independence in the interests of the cause and to punish severely all sluggishness, bureaucratism and uneconomic expenditure of public property – that is the task of the front supply administration and of the centre which stands behind it.

With this kind of regime the army units will need to resort much less than now to ‘bagmanship’ [’Bagmanship’ alludes to the illegal, speculative activities of the ‘bagman’ – persons who set out from the towns into the countryside, equipped with bags, in order to buy grain privately and then sell it at inflated prices in the towns. Trotsky is saying that, owing to the deficiencies in the regular supply service, army units were having to engage in this kind of activity in order to feed themselves.] and other such forms of supply. Nevertheless, taking account of the volume of the requirements of our nine regimental divisions, [25]the inadequacy of means of transport and the variety of places in which the divisions have to operate, we need to allow for the fact that no foresight on the part of the higher organs can exempt the divisional apparatus from the necessity of satisfying some requirements through independent procurement activity in the localities. This type of activity is at present semi-legal and sometimes illegal in character, and for that very reason it often goes beyond the limits of strict necessity. This also applies to the borrowing of equipment from the depots of different institutions – mainly, of course, those of the War Department – when moving along the front line or during a retreat. Insofar as independent procurement operations on the spot, or borrowing from local depots and stores without the appropriate authority, are due to urgent need, this kind of activity cannot, of course, be subjected to regulation. Nevertheless, it can and must be legalised and brought to order through the working out of general instructions governing these matters. We have to instil in unit commanders and commissars, and in the local authorities, the realisation that, while maintaining absolute respect for centralism and proper form, they must put the interests of the cause first and foremost, and in those cases in which it is obvious what these interests are, independent initiative must be exercised by the appropriate command, acting with the appropriate Soviet authorities, on their own responsibility. Thus, when our forces withdrew from some uyezds of Kharkov, Kursk and Voronezh provinces, the nearest command did not take the decision to requisition the horses which it needed so badly. In the localities, the commissariats referred to the absence of permission from the district to take this action. As a result, the horses were left for Denikin’s men who used them to chase the Red Army forces still further off. In justification of this disgraceful conduct, some commanders and commissars mentioned their fear of being court-martialled for arbitrary conduct. A penalty should be imposed for this sort of passive washing of hands, a penalty not less severe than that for arbitrary squandering of public property not justified by circumstances.


After the political departments of the .fronts were reduced to small cells, a further tendency was observed to shift the centre of gravity of the work from the political departments of the armies to those of the divisions. This tendency was absolutely correct. Nevertheless, it ought not to lead (as it has been seen to lead in a few cases) to the almost complete abolition of army political departments, which has made it impossible to carry out constant supervision and guidance of the work of Communists in the fighting units. It remains one of the principal tasks of the political department of the army to guide by all available means the work of the commissars, especially the regimental commissars, on whom, to a considerable extent, the organisation of our army rests.

In some Party circles the criticism has been put forward that commissars sometimes reduce their role to formal supervision of the work of the military specialists, with a view to ensuring that no counter-revolutionary measures are taken, and do not concern themselves with the actual content of this work. This sort of thing happens, undoubtedly, to the extent that, in general, we have bad commissars, tad political departments and weak Revolutionary War Councils. The commissar is not, of course, called upon to replace the regimental commander or the head of the supply unit, nor even less to oust them, when they are present, but he is indeed called upon to supplement them, not only through vigilant supervision, so that all the regiment’s needs are attended to, but also by showing direct Initiative, direct creative effort, hand in hand with the commander or the head of the supply unit. And this is what happens wherever the commissar is up to his job, when he sees himself as the responsible representative of the workers’ and peasants’ power, and when, remaining free from vain concern about precedence or trivial fault-finding, he wins for himself the leading position in the regiment through his vigilance, thought fulness and indefatigability.

One of the most important duties of the army’s political department is the bringing forward of suitable candidates for the responsible post of regimental commissar.


The Red Army which is now in action was formed and, indeed, is still now being formed, in two ways: from guerrilla units, generally irregular or semi-regular in character, which arose in the process of the civil war, and from formations that came into being in the rear, organised by the military districts in accordance with the regulations laid down by the All-Russia General Staff. Both types of formation have been subjected, and continue to be subjected, to further processing at the fronts, and only as a result of that do they become units capable of combat.

The poor state of a number of units sent from the rear to the front has naturally evoked complaints from the workers at the front, and has even given rise to a demand for the ending of all the work of formation done in the rear, reducing the role of the rear to that of supplying raw human material as reinforcements for the units operating at the fronts. Some even extend this view retrospectively to the initial period of the building of the army, declaring that it was a mistake ever to have attempted to build divisions in the rear.

It is quite obvious, though, that until some more or less solid and reliable cadres had been created at the fronts, the building of the Red Army could not proceed otherwise than by way of formations organised in the rear. In the creation of those staunch divisions that we now have at the fronts the formations organised in the rear, with their proper organisation of supply and transport services, and so on, played a role no less important than that of the non-regular fighting units.

However, even after reliable divisions had been created at the fronts, the task of army-formation could not be reduced to the mere providing of reinforcement drafts. The progress of operations, the increase in the number of the fronts, always required that both front commanders and the central command should have at their disposal from time to time a fresh reserve in the shape of new formations. In the most recent period a considerable number of units have been formed in this way, especially in the fortified areas. The Revolutionary War Council of the Republic has endeavoured to keep these formations close to the fronts, empowering the latter to exercise general observation over them.

It is extremely important to check over all the experience we have accumulated in this sphere. Some responsible workers affirm that, in the last analysis, those regiments have proved to be the best that were formed in the rear, where they were given proper organisation from the start, and then subjected to education and tempering at the front. It seems absolutely necessary that each Revolutionary War Council should carry out, on the basis of all the information available to it, a survey of the regiments that make up its armies, noting the history of each regiment’s genesis, that is, whether it developed from a guerrilla detachment or was formed in the rear in conformity with staff establishments, or came into being as a combination of both. Only such a survey will provide us with precise pointers for further constructive work.

We have to create and develop an army under conditions that are quite exceptional and without precedent in their difficulty. While aiming at complete accuracy in military formation, we must at the same time avoid any stereotyping. We need to evaluate carefully the experience obtained from our own work, so as to avoid the riding of ‘hobby-horses’, such as the mechanical centralisation of supply work, the demand for complete abolition of formations organised in the rear, and so on. It is therefore absolutely necessary that the Revolutionary War Councils of the armies should formulate their conclusions concerning all the questions raised in this letter, after subjecting them to preliminary discussion by the most responsible workers, both military specialists and political executives.

In view of the extreme difficulty of taking responsible workers away from the armies for a conference, especially in the present grave period, a questionnaire like this can serve to a certain extent as a substitute for the exchange of experience which we need, and provide valuable material for further measures to be taken in the interests of developing and strengthening the Red Army.

Replies, even if only in preliminary form, must be submitted not later than August 15.

July 12, 1919


24. Unification of all the supply organs in the Republic was effected by a decree of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee dated July 9, 1919. The principal provisions of this decree were as follows: ‘In order to unify the entire work of supplying the Red Army, apart from the supply of products furnished by the People’s Commissariat of Food, and to increase the productivity of factories working for defence, and also the speed and accuracy of the distribution of articles of supply, both in the rear and at the front, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee has decided: (1) to appoint Comrade A. Rykov as Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Defence Council for Supply to the Red Army and the Red Navy: (2) to include the Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Defence Council in the membership of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic: (3) to subordinate all the supply organs of the People’s Commissariat for Military and Naval Affairs, central and local, in the rear and at the front, together with the Extraordinary Commission for Red Army Supply and the Central Department for Army Procurements, with all their local organs, to the Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Defence Council, on whom are conferred unlimited powers to appoint, dismiss, arrest and prosecute all officials subordinate to him or concerned with the work of army supply.’

25. The establishment laid down in Order No.220 provided for a large quantity of means of transport. An infantry division was to have 6l2 vehicles for food transport purposes alone, not counting 184 vehicles for each infantry brigade and the regimental transport. In reality the quantity of means of transport available was much less than that laid down in the establishment, and this caused great difficulty in the organising of supply to military units.

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Last updated on: 18.12.2006