The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


I. The Organisation of the Red Army


Speech at the conference of political workers in the Red Army, December 12, 1919

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

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The problem of one-man management has acquired central importance. I suppose it is because this is a new problem. There are not a few tasks that are a great deal more urgent for us, and more important from the practical standpoint, than this one, the importance of which, though great, is such at present only from the standpoint of principle. It was Comrade Smilga who first raised in the press the question of going over to one-man management. [31] This matter, as something for immediate and practical discussion, was raised in the War Department with a view to its being settled as quickly as possible.

The considerations of principle which have been adduced against the merging of commanders and commissars are not very convincing. Some comrades said: there have been such a lot of revolts and conspiracies, and yet you want to abolish commissars. This argument could, however, be turned round I the other way. It could be said: although we have had commissars, there have been revolts and conspiracies. There are, of course, still some cases of betrayal. It happens that commanders go over to the other side: they have to be caught and shot, but this is not always done by the commissars. A special department attends to this, the Political Department whose responsibility it is in the given situation.

One cannot say that the institution of commissars has proved to be a guarantee against individual acts of betrayal and flight to the enemy’s camp. The establishment of the institution of commissars signified a political assurance: in so far as the mass of the Red Army men were utterly lacking in confidence in the commanding personnel, and in so far as the commissars acted as intermediaries between the commanders and the mass of the Red Army men, the commissars served as sureties for the commanders. I presume that this period is now behind us. The mass of the Red Army men have now realised that we had to recruit the military specialists. The masses who have taken part in battles and have been in difficult situations have seen commanders at work, and have seen how some died at their posts while others ran away. Comrades, a colossal proportion of our commanding personnel have become casualties in battle, and among them have been former officers. The Red Army men know this. And now the institution which served as a sort of screen for the commanders is no longer needed for that purpose. The army has become sufficiently consolidated.

Another argument is put forward, to the effect that this institution serves as a school for commanders. But it was quite properly observed here that, if it is a school, then it is an artificial one, which detaches the pupils from the work to be done. If we are dealing with a former private soldier, we make him a section commander, if with a former NCO we make him a company commander; we send him on a command course, and subsequently to the academy. After all, we do possess schools in the proper sense of the word. In so far as someone needs military experience, he can get it as a Red Army man or as an assistant to the commander.

We need to take a much more direct line where this question is concerned. When we created the institution of commissars, we saw in it, of course, not just a school for commanders, but a political institution of a certain kind. The institution of commissars was, so to speak, a scaffolding. When a house is to be built, you first set-up scaffolding. Our Soviet construction work in the military sphere is, if considered as a building job, a very unwieldy affair, generally speaking, and it calls for a great deal of work in addition to the direct leadership provided by the commissars. This edifice is now reaching completion. The scaffolding can gradually be dismantled, but, of course, only gradually, so that the edifice does not collapse and so that the people who are on the building site don’t get killed.

I insist on the principle that every unit must be headed by a commander. One must not bisect the personality of the commander. The commander must enjoy authority both in respect of command and morally, in the political if not in the Party sense. It would, of course, be ideal if he enjoyed authority in the Party sense, too, but if he has moral-political authority, so that the mass of the Red Army men know that this commander will not deceive or sell them, then that is quite sufficient. I consider, furthermore, that measures need to be taken in this sense, starting with the least healthy of our institutions, namely, the supply organs. In this connection everything needs to be thought out calmly. For example, it would be risky to appoint as commander of a regiment a Communist who lacked experience in this field, but in the supply organisation, the apparatus includes an enormous number of Communists working along side specialists. It has to be said that the specialists in this apparatus frequently work as badly as can be. The efficient workers among them can be counted in ones and twos, so that the Communists are obliged, to a considerable extent, to duplicate the work of the others. In this field, we can leave a minimum number of indispensable specialists and turn over all the rest of the work to the Communists. If, for example, a Communist is not yet technically competent to take charge of the work by himself, we can leave a specialist with him as assistant. If the specialist is a very good worker, but there are no grounds for trusting him completely from the political stand point, one can always arrange for him to be kept under observation. And it is not at all necessary that this be done through a commissar. The observer can be a typist, somebody from the office staff, even a driver, but there is no reason at all for this task to be imposed on a commissar. Let us take, for example, the army medical department, in which the principle that a Communist must be in charge everywhere is applied so strictly. Yet one has to admit that this is the rottenest institution we have!

In any case, comrades, I ask you to believe that we are not indulging in any leaps where this problem is concerned. I am against issuing an order that, where the commander is a Communist, the Communist commissar is to be removed. Such a decision would cause great embarrassment both to the commissars and to the specialists. What, for example, about those commanders who are neutral or who joined the Party only yesterday? Who is to decide whether or not they need to have commissars attached to them?

Moreover, I want to direct attention to some practical problems which must play a very big role here.

The first fundamental problem is the insignificant number of our bayonets as compared with the overall number of conscripts. We have mobilised millions, but our bayonets are numbered in hundreds of thousands. Somehow, an enormous number of soldiers have slipped through our fingers! In this sphere, our fundamental task is to establish a stricter system of registration. We must introduce service books for the Red Army men, so that it may be known what each man has received and what he possesses. Commissions for combating desertion have been introduced by order in our armies, commissions each composed of a commissar, a commander and a commissar from the Political Department. These commissions come under the Central Commission on Deserters. The provision of a service book for each Red Army man is a very important measure towards ensuring that all Red Army men are registered. Later, we issued an order that the Revolutionary War Council of an army, or the commander and the commissar in each division, were to keep a sharp eye open to ensure that there were no superfluous men kicking their heels about the place. Groups without any definite assignment are frequently formed in our localities, and there area very large number of such groups. We have mobilised several millions, and we still have to call up the 1901 age-group, and the next period of mustering for checking will give us something, but that is not enough. Battles lie ahead, and we must learn to have a more economic attitude to our human material, because otherwise we may miscarry through internal difficulties of an organisational character.

First and foremost, we need to achieve, in a word, a more correct correlation between the number of bayonets and the number of conscripts. We must not allow a single conscript anywhere to loaf about in idleness.

Then, we need to set up a leading organ charged with looking after army property. We are now supplying the army better than we were doing a year or six months ago – we all acknowledge that this is so – but the expenditure of material that takes place in the army goes beyond our resources. The figures of the indents made by the Central Supply Administration or the Central Army Procurement Department are fantastic: tens of millions of pairs of underwear, many millions of overcoats, boots – for example, three or four pairs of boots per year per man! This is not normal. Such excessive expenditure goes on everywhere without any supervision, and so we need to establish a good regime in the company and the regiment. It is not possible to establish this through the administration of the Political Department, and there is no point in attempting that. What we need is simply to introduce individual clothing and equipment records. Comrades, I don’t want to frighten you, but I do want to say that, although we have not been brought down by Denikin or Kolchak, we may yet be brought down by overcoats or boots.

Next, I should like to touch on the question of the guerrilla movement, which is a question of great importance for the South and East. On the Southern front the guerrilla movement is already being liquidated. A certain opportunism has been shown where the guerrilla movement is concerned, and this has recently done us some harm. In some armies there have been attempts to include guerrillas in active units. Where this question is concerned, comrades, those of you who have come from the Southern front must go back with profound conviction and desire to put an end at all costs to these disgraceful measures. Commanders of active units must not admit volunteers into the ranks of the regular forces. Those commanders who do so must be court-martialled. This applies especially to those Ukrainian elements who, in their own words, burn with the desire to fight: three-quarters of them burn with the desire to loot. These elements cannot in any circumstances be allowed to join active units straightaway – only those of them who have joined a holding battalion and spent at least a month there, proving that they wish to be good Red Army soldiers. As soon as we make contact with the guerrilla units they at once exercise a bad influence on the active units: therefore, no military participation by guerrillas in our active units is to be permitted in any circumstances, and if any commissar shows weakness in this matter, the Political Department must sound the alarm over all the direct lines, both at the front and also to us here in Moscow. Such occurrences are impermissible, and no guerrilla units must regard this as an insult, but must understand that this is our rule, that nobody is allowed to join the Red Army unwashed and unkempt. First of all, he has to take a bath, then he has to listen to us at meetings, then he has to work under supervision by one of the senior comrades – such is our regime, which has been given legal force. If we are firm about this and apply our principle undeviatingly, not a single guerrilla detachment will see it as an insult, but will know that this is the Red Army’s rule. In this sphere we must observe the greatest consistency. If some rebel unit gets through to us, it is better to let it dive back again, to the front against the Whites, and show there what it can do, than to let it disrupt our ranks.

In those units of our army which are in contact with Makhno’s forces we must strengthen the complement of Communists, and ensure that they have commanders and commissars there who are capable of exercising maximum influence, because disintegration takes place in unstable units of our army when they come into contact with Makhno’s forces. The commissars must carry out extensive agitation against Makhnovism in every unit, by the spoken and the written word. It is understandable that Makhno’s name enjoys popularity at present. He is capturing towns and railway lines. But it has to be appreciated that Makhno will just as easily surrender the Ukraine to Denikin as take it from him. As soon as Makhno sets foot on Soviet territory he will act treacherously towards the Red Army. No opportunism must be shown where Makhnovism is concerned. We have an order relating to this [32] from which we must not retreat one single step. [Subsequent note by the author: This refers to secret order No.180, – L.T.]

As regards the formation of a Ukrainian army, I must say this. We are not, of course, against forming a Ukrainian army, but in the Ukraine at present everyone is in such a shattered state psychologically, where discipline is concerned, that we need to approach the formation of such an army very cautiously. The most that can be done in this direction, to start with, is the forming of four or five model regiments. How are we to go about that? We have to select the best Ukrainian fighters, Communists and sympathisers, and send them on Ukrainian command courses of longer duration than usual, if only for six or eight months, and there either train them or else distribute them among the best courses in Russia, so as to form certain cadres: then build military units around these cadres, including in them, so as to establish discipline, some experienced comrades from other units. In this way we can proceed toward the mobilising of the Ukrainian workers. But we shall not proclaim general mobilisation in the Ukraine at present, because a Ukrainian conscript whose psychology has been shattered and who is still greatly influenced by the kulak element, will pass through our barracks only so as to get hold of a rifle and then return home. You know that the question of disarming the entire peasant population of the Ukraine is bound up with this. It may be that we shall have to organise the most reliable cadres of the garrison troops, the battle-police and the special-assignment forces, singling out particular individuals, and use them to disarm the whole population in the area where the army is operating. We must, all of us, give our most serious attention to this matter.

Now we must say someihing about the question of the feeling of military ambition. Our army is too anonymous, and our Red Army men and our commissars are too little seized with military ambition. Our military censorship has reached such a pitch that the newspapers always write about the N Army, the N regiment, the N unit. When I was in Petrograd I issued an order to the Seventh Army. A military censor – a woman, as it happened – informed a representative of the newspaper Petrogradskaya Pravda: ‘I am closing you down for disobeying Trotsky’s order. You mentioned “the Seventh Army” in your paper.’ But, after all, Yudenich has taken many thousands of prisoners, and they know very well not only the numbers of our armies but also the number of every division and every regiment. We shall have to request the military censorship to give us a little ‘constitution’, so that we are allowed to make mention of our major military operations. Of course the Revolutionary War Council of an army realises very well that, if it has a new unit, then this fact must be concealed, but, if an army has been holding a sector for six months, the enemy knows quite well that he is faced on this front by the 26th Division or the 28th, and it is senseless to write ‘the N Division’ when we ought to be popularising the 28th Division, so that every soldier will strive to uphold the honour of his own division, while another division will strive to equal its achievements and distinguish itself. After all, this is a perfectly legitimate feeling of emulation. Popularity is necessary. In those cases when the political workers feel doubt as to whether a particular fact should be made public, they must clear this question through the commissars of the army and the Revolutionary War Council.

Now, comrades, about the command courses. Things there are not as they should be. In order to bring the command courses up to the right level we must lengthen the period of instruction. This is bound up with the problem of the commissar personnel. The more Communists we put through these courses, the better the situation will be.

Now, about agitation in the enemy’s ranks. It is obvious that the Political Directorates as a whole, especially the Political Departments of particular armies and divisions, must now, when we are advancing victoriously on all fronts, give special attention to disintegration in the ranks of the enemy, and literature specially adapted to particular fronts needs to be prepared. Publications of this sort are already being brought out in some armies and divisions – in some cases they are excellent, in others not so successful. These publications must be sent here. The need for centralism in this matter is obvious. Publishing activity for the purposes of agitation among the enemy must be developed to the utmost.

Turning to another question, I have received a few letters stating that, in certain headquarters and even higher centres of authority, drunkenness is flourishing. A struggle against that phenomenon must be started. The commissars not only fail to show the necessary vigour in this struggle but are sometimes guilty of drunkenness themselves. Measures will have to be taken, through the Political Directorate, to ensure that drunkenness ceases. We are moving into regions that are rather well-stocked with alcohol in all its forms, and we may take a heavy fall as a result of that. Mamontov’s cavalry destroyed themselves through drunkenness and looting. The greatest vigilance is called for here. It would be especially easy for the army to disintegrate in the Ukraine.

I have received letters to the effect that in some units the practice of striking soldiers in the face is even flourishing. One such statement reached me through Maxim Gorky, saying: ‘They beat us!’ Even some Communists have told me frankly: ‘I hit him in the teeth with the butt of my revolver.’ It is one thing to shoot a man in battle, under fire, for some offence, but if a Red Army man knows that he may be struck in the teeth, that is such loss of moral dignity, such foulness, that it must be eradicated at all costs. Respect for the personality of the Red Army man must be ensured.

In connection with the problem of one-man management, we must regulate the procedure for promulgating orders. We have said that commissars’ orders are invalid unless signed by commanders. Has the commissar or a member of the Revolutionary War Council of an army the right to issue an order dealing with administrative or supply matters without getting the signature of the army commander? No, of course not. Yet this does happen, and it is wrong that it should happen. A complaint on this account has been made by one of our best army commanders. Comrade Tukhachevsky, who was on the Eastern front. He says that he has always had excellent relations with his commissar, but that this question has not been subjected to regulation and ought to be settled.

In conclusion I want to say a few words about the optimistic tone being used about peace. Our Party press continues, as though by inertia, to talk about peace. However, things are far from going that way. In Copenhagen, for instance, there is talk of deporting Comrade Litvinov on the grounds that certain elements are allegedly gathering around him and he is carrying on agitation. [33] The Allies are still pretty strong, and the strong man never gives in without a fight. They are very well aware of the state of our transport and our supply services, and it is to their direct interest to wear us out. They are waiting for us to reach the Black Sea, where, perhaps, we shall find ourselves up against Arabs, Negroes [By ‘Arabs and Negroes’ are meant the French colonial troops from North and West Africa who were sent to the Ukraine.], Indians and the like. Perhaps our Political Departments [For the history of the Political Directorates (or Administrations) and the Political Departments (or Sections) see Erickson, J.: The Soviet High Command (1962).] ought to learn African languages too! It would be extremely dangerous if the impression were to be created in the army that we are finishing the war, entering upon negotiations, and so on. This is not so at all and, when we send commissars out to carry on agitation in the army, they need to have our declaration on peace, which has received no reply so far, and also the statement issued by Comrade Smilga, that a very severe, harsh winter lies ahead of us and that we must shorten this period of great hardship for the army and the country by exerting the maximum effort.

This can be ensured by our Communist Party, in the shape of the political organs of the Red Army.


31. The proposals advocated by Comrade Smilga were set forth in his speech in December 1919 at a conference of political workers. Objecting to the system of collegial management, Comrade Smilga proposed that, instead of the War Councils, special commissars be appointed to whom the political department, special section and revolutionary tribunal should be directly subordinate. These same commissars, as he saw it, should have charge of the apparatus for making awards. In addition, Comrade Smilga considered it possible: (1) to grant commanders the right to issue orders by themselves and (2) to abolish commissars in those institutions and units which were headed by persons of proven loyalty. Comrade Smilga’s article on one-man management was published in No.2 of 1919 of Voyennoye Mysl, the organ of the Revolutionary War Council of the Eastern Front.

32. Order No.180 (secret), dated December 11, 1919.

33. With the defeat of Kolchak, Yudenich and Denikin, the British Government – the leading force in the European counter-revolution – recognised that the plan to conquer Soviet Russia by force of arms was impossible of realisation. Our government turned its whole attention already at the – December 1919 Congress of Soviets to considering the problems of restoring the ruined economy. It wasin December 1919 that Comrade Litvinov began his negotiations with O’Grady, the British Government’s representative in Copenhagen.

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Last updated on: 18.12.2006