The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Fight for Petrograd


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

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The Soviet’s North-Western front has rolled back to Petrograd itself. Despite the enemy’s undoubted lack of numbers, our units are still retreating. There has so far been no turn at the front. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that events are taking place which herald an inevitable turn.

Why have we fallen back from the Narova to Petrograd? The first reason is the insufficient staunchness – which means the insufficient consciousness – of the units concerned. The second reason is the considerable number of worthless commanders. The third reason is the insufficient vigour, persistence and vigilance of the political workers. The fourth reason is the pre mature reassurance of the advanced workers of Russia, and of Petrograd itself, regarding the North-Western front. We had reached the borders of Finland and Estonia. The compromisers in the Baltic countries had started peace negotiations with us. Yudenich had come to blows with Balakhovich. Therefore it seemed that complete liquidation of the North-Western front was approaching.

An army is an artificial organisation. When the pressure of circumstances slackens, an army starts to come unravelled, vigilance is weakened, will-power grows soft. In one place a nut works loose, in another a screw, and at the first serious jolt the whole mechanism starts to break down.

An active army must be in a constant state of tension: other wise it is quite useless. There was no such tension in the Seventh Army in recent weeks, and the Petrograd proletariat, which has given so many of its sons to all our fronts, was paying too little attention to its own front. When defeats were suffered, first before Pskov and then at Yamburg, the Petrograd proletariat, having seen all sorts of sights and undergone all sorts of experiences, just shook its head and said: ‘We’ll cope.’ But Yudenich’s offensive developed. Our units, weakened inwardly by their own passivity, continued to retreat. The front drew nearer and nearer to Petrograd.

At first the advanced workers could not believe what was happening, they were at a loss: how could a band of a few thousand men, even if well-organised, threaten the great city of the revolution? But after the fall of Krasnoye Syclo, and then, especially, of Gatchina, the Petrograd proletariat understood that the situation was very serious. And from that moment on, feverish work began, in two directions: strengthening the front and creating the conditions for defending Petrograd from with in.

In order to strengthen the front it is necessary to tighten the screws where they have worked loose. The units have to be purged of commanders who get by through making false operations reports about ‘enemy pressure’, about ‘fighting retreats’ and so on, instead of actually leading their units into battle, smashing resistance and advancing. A commander without will-power, without energy, without the urge to win, is just a rag, not a commander. A commissar – and, in general, a Communist – who puts up with shakiness in his unit, and patiently retreat along with it, is good for nothing. We need commissars of steel, who incarnate the revolutionary will of the working class. Weak-will, flabbiness and sluggishness in his leaders inevitably induces demoralisation in the soldier. Egoism, cowardice, self-seeking lift their heads. But war is war. For victory it is necessary that the individual shall subordinate himself to the whole. Those self-seekers who do not want to accept this must be compelled by brute force to do their duty. A long-drawn-out war cannot be waged and brought to a victorious conclusion by means of improvisation, enthusiasm, individual elan. It demands organisation, precision, assiduity and a strict regime.

Under the impact of defeat, Red Petrograd and the best workers of the Seventh Army have again appreciated all this in all its acuteness, and have called for ruthless measures against everyone who disrupts unity of action, who shows an irresponsible attitude towards military duty, or who does not devote all his efforts to the task. Slovenliness, irresponsibility, laziness, and, even more so, treachery, in wartime bring death and destruction to hundreds and thousands of others. Those guilty of such crimes must themselves be punished with death.

The necessary conditions for a rapid rebirth of the army are: reinforcement of the best workers, and harsh treatment of the worst.

At the same time, the proletariat of awakened Petrograd has resolved not to leave the fate of its Red capital to the field forces alone: it has resolved to defend, if need be, the city of the October revolution from within its own walls. All workers, men and women alike, who, for one reason or another, cannot take part in the fighting in the field, are now being drawn into the organisation of the city’s defence. Revolutionary determination to defend themselves is being combined, in this work, with the application of all the technical forces and resources in which Petrograd is so rich. The task of transforming every district of the city into an armoured section of a single, dreadful labyrinth, is perfectly within the capacity of the advanced workers of Petrograd, and is being successfully carried out by them in these days and hours.

The line of the front has worsened in the last twenty-four hours. But the proletariat of Petrograd has understood the danger more profoundly. It wants to eliminate that danger, and it can do this. And that means that the overall situation has improved. Within a day or two the inevitable turn will take place on the Petrograd Front!

October 18, 1919
Pravda, No. 234

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Last updated on: 23.12.2006