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 Fronts and the Armies and to all responsible workers in the Red Army and the Red Navy

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

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The Communist order signifies equal or, at least, similar conditions of existence for all members of society, regardless of the work they do or the difference in their abilities. We shall move towards this goal as soon as our society becomes richer and as, at the same time, the grossest and most unjust survivals of the old order are eliminated. We are now living in a transitional epoch. Old habits and practices still have great power over men. Also, the material goods necessary for life are in extremely inadequate supply. We are forced to apply, where the distribution both of means and of forces is concerned, a system of priority, that is, to guarantee workers and material resources first and foremost to the most important branches of state activity. This is the reason for the privileged situation which is undoubtedly enjoyed in Soviet Russia by our military organisation. The slogan ‘All for the front’ meant and continues to mean the weakening of local Soviet, party and trade-union institutions, the weakening of educational work, the weakening of the supply of food to the workers, both men and women – so as to guarantee to the armed forces of the Soviet Republic everything they need. In this way it has come about that for a worker to be put on the Red Army’s ration-scale means his attaining something like an ideal which is beyond the reach of most people.

The working class and the revolutionary section of the peasantry understand what the Red Army means and the need to meet its needs first and foremost. If that consciousness did not exist, the Red Army would not exist, either. We are reassured of the readiness that there is to support the Red Army with everything it requires every time that we test it, whether by forming volunteer reinforcement squadrons or by collecting warm clothes, and so on.

Nevertheless, the mass of workers, living on hunger rations, cannot but watch closely that the army shall not demand for itself more than is actually necessary, and that all supplies for the army shall be actually delivered to their proper destination. Since, in this respect, of course, all is not well, there exists among the worker masses a natural dissatisfaction with the irregularities, injustices and abuses of some of the organs of the War Department.

To this must be added the fact that inequality exists within the military organisation – inequality which in some cases is quite explicable and unavoidable, but which in other cases is not at all due to necessity, but is excessive and sometimes downright criminal.

Every Red Army warrior fully accepts that the commander of his unit should enjoy certain privileges as regards lodging, means of transport and even uniform.

An honest and thoughtful Red Army man knows that a commander must be able to study a situation, make dispositions, and so on, in conditions which more or less facilitate the performance of these tasks. If the commander catches cold, or in any other way falls ill, that has repercussions for the unit that are much more serious than sickness on the part of a rank-and-file soldier, however brave he may be. It would, of course, be desirable that every soldier in the Red Army should have to the same extent everything that he needs. But, on campaign, this is not possible, especially not in our exhausted country. And, consequently, the overwhelming majority of Red Army men recognise without murmuring, through their common sense, that it is necessary for their commanders and commissars to enjoy certain material privileges which ensure the interests of the common military cause.

But these privileges must result precisely from the needs of the work. It would, of course, be very fine if every infantryman could be transported by motor-car. But we have only a tiny number of motor-cars. It is quite natural if light cars are assigned only to commanders and members of the Revolutionary War Councils of armies, and, in particular instances, to the commanders and commissars of divisions who have to travel round units spread over a very wide area. Just as comprehensible is it that a battalion commander should have a horse to ride. The Red Army man will not argue against these privileges, or, if he does, one can always explain them to him and, in most cases, convince him.

Every soldier understands that the first pair of boots and the first overcoat must be given to the commander, for, if the worst comes to the worst, a barefoot Red Army man with no overcoat can stay behind in his hut, whereas a commander must always be in a position to fight.

But when the motor-car is used for merry outings, before the eyes of the tired Red Army soldiers, or when commanders dress with flashy foppishness, while their men go half-naked, such facts cannot but provoke exasperation and murmuring among the Red Army soldiers.

Privilege is, in itself, in certain cases, inevitable, I repeat – an unavoidable evil for the time being. Ostentatious indulgence in privilege is not just an evil, it is a crime. And the mass of Red Army men can, by and large, very well distinguish where necessary privilege, due to the needs of work, ends and where abuse of privilege begins.

Especially demoralising and disintegrating in its effect on the army is any utilisation of privileges which is connected with violation of the established regulations, decrees and orders. This means, above all and in the main, evening parties with drink, with women present, and so on and so forth.

Phenomena of this sort are by no means exceptional. Every Red Army man knows about them. They talk a lot in the units – often, of course, with exaggerations – about the feasting and boozing that goes on ‘at headquarters’. When setbacks occur, the mass of Red Army men frequently – with or without good grounds – see the reasons for them in the excessively gay life led by the commanders. Besides which, when retreats take place the tired and often half-shod soldiers notice that there are numerous women in the headquarters and supply trains, and so on.

The question of leave also plays a considerable role. The Revolutionary War Council of the Republic has frequently discussed this question with great care and has always reached the conclusion that it is quite impossible to introduce a system of leave for Red Army men. It is obvious that the rules governing this matter apply equally to rank-and-file soldiers and commanders and commissars. However, it is no secret to anyone, and least of all to the Red Army men, that commanders and commissars often get leave under the guise of official missions. For example, the deputy head of a divisional ordnance depot receives a visit from his wife (which itself is contrary to regulations) and then is sent on a seven-day official mission so that he can see her home. Yet, among the Red Army soldiers of the depot guard, there are men who have not seen their families for three years.

Such happenings as these are quite intolerable in the Red Army, which can develop only on the basis of growing internal solidarity among all its members.

The Red Army has been formed through extraordinary efforts by very many thousands of conscious and dedicated workers. Beginning with isolated guerrilla detachments or hastily-formed, unstable regiments lacking inner cohesion, it has been transformed into a powerful organisation which already possesses its own traditions and public opinion. Those Red Army men who have fought with the army for two years and more have learnt and are teaching younger comrades how to understand both the positive and the negative aspects of the army’s organisation, the legitimate and illegitimate privileges enjoyed by the commanding personnel, and so on. In the Red Army the best soldier does not mean at all the most submissive and uncomplaining.

On the contrary, the best soldier will nearly always be sharper, more observant and critical than the others. By his courage and resourcefulness he will, of course, acquire prestige among the Red Army men, and by his critical comments, based on facts that are accessible to all, he will pretty often undermine the prestige of the commanders and commissars in the eyes of the mass of the soldiers. To this it must be added that counter-revolutionary elements, agents of the enemy, make conscious and skilful use of the circumstances I have mentioned in order to stir up discontent and intensify antagonism between the rank and file and the commanding personnel.

There can be no doubt that the heart of our army is absolutely sound. But even the soundest organism needs to protect itself, for, otherwise, harmful phenomena may undermine it. Our Party’s last conference put on its agenda the question of mutual relations between the ‘summit’ and the ‘base’ and the need to bring them closer together through comradely ties. [34] This task must, as a whole, and even first and foremost, be put before the leading elements in the army.

The army cannot, of course, be compared to a Party organisa tion. An order must remain an order and military discipline must remain discipline. But the formal power of orders will be the more indestructible, the more fully that the advanced forces in the army succeed in eliminating the most abnormal phenomena, softening the inequality that exists, and bringing the ‘summit and the ‘base’ closer together.

In view of the immense importance, from the standpoint both of principle and of practice, of the problems raised, I request the Revolutionary War Councils of the fronts and the armies to discuss what measures can be taken to eliminate abnormal and unhealthy phenomena from the life of the Red Army. It would be desirable to convene conferences on this problem, to be attended by the most responsible workers in the armies and divisions.

The guiding principles for such a conference could be, I think, formulated roughly as follows:

  1. Without setting ourselves the impossible goal of immediate elimination of all and sundry privileges in the army, to reduce these systematically to the actually necessary minimum.
  2. To eliminate as quickly as possible all those privileges which are not in any way derived from the needs of the service and which inevitably offend the Red Army men’s sense of equality and comradeship.
  3. To reaffirm in full force the existing orders and regulations concerning leave, official missions, prohibition of entry by women into the areas where the army is operating, prohibition of spirituous liquor, and so on.
  4. The Revolutionary War Councils themselves to take the lead in combating breaches of the regulations and orders referred to.
  5. To pay careful attention to all complaints from Red Army men regarding wrong and unjust actions in the sphere of supply, illegal privileges and indulgences for some at the expense of others.
  6. In those cases in which guilt and [?] ill-will is clearly revealed, to bring the guilty to public trial in the presence of representatives of the interested parties, with wide publicity given to the sentences passed, along with the appropriate commentary.
  7. To watch carefully that counter-revolutionary provocateurs do not stir up discontent through fictitious rumours about all sorts of privileges and advantages enjoyed by the commanders and commissars, and, in cases where clearly malicious spreaders of such rumours are discovered, to bring them to public trial in the presence of delegates of the interested parties.
  8. To intensify supervision of the work of the supply organs, strengthening them and in every way increasing the effec tiveness and precision of their work.
  9. To intensify the work of political education.

I request you to inform me through the proper channels, as soon as possible, about all the measures you take, and also about your views on the problem posed, so that I may report to the Central Committee of the Party and the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic.

October 31, 1920


34. The All-Russia conference of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), held at the end of September 1920, took place against a background of serious defeats on the Polish front. After a long discussion of this question, the conference decided to try [?] for peace with Poland so as to concentrate all forces on the fight against Wrangel.

A very important item on the agenda of this conference was the question of the tasks of Party work. After discussion about relations between the leading circles of the Party and its rank-and-file, a resolution was worked out which contained a number of practical measures for improving the state of the Party and combating abuses, excesses and bureaucratism. At this conference the first members of a Party Control Commission were elected (on a provisional) basis, until the Party Congress), and the tasks of such a commission were defined.

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Last updated on: 18.12.2006