The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


III. Going Over to the Militia System


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

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Professor Svechin, of our Military Academy, has criticised the militia programme. His criticism aims to show that a militia, besides being not very useful militarily, is incompatible with an epoch of civil war and is a lifeless survival from democratic ideology (Voyennoye Dyelo, No.40-41).

The writer’s point of departure is an extremely simple one: a militia is the reflection in arms of a whole people, of all of its classes and parties. In an epoch of civil war, however, only one party, one class, can rule. Such a dictatorship will be the more secure the less the army has of militia-type amorphousness, the more fully every regiment is ‘steeled with its own corporate regimental spirit’.

A viable army is inconceivable without the authority of commanders, but militia commanders, as school instructors, will possess no real authority.

Hence the conclusion: ‘Give back to the barracks its wonder-working powers, make use of its qualities for meticulously moulding the Red Army man into that type which is now missing on the battlefields, and you will see smiles, hands stretched out, grain pouring forth and the factory wheels beginning to turn.’

Having thus annihilated the militia, Professor Svechin proceeds to deal with the supplementary question: why do the Soviet Army’s leaders not renounce the ideal of the militia? The military academician has no hesitation in explaining this: it is, you see, because they ‘are not resolute enough in breaking with the old militia programme of the Second International’. How far we have progressed, if you please! Yet there are misanthropes who groundlessly accuse the military specialists of not wanting to assimilate the principles of the new world-outlook. True, it must be admitted that it is not quite clear from Svechin’s article whether he is dismissing the Second International in the capacity of a secret supporter of the Third, or as a semi-explicit Bonapartist and one who still kneels before Wallenstein’s camp. [37] [Wallenstein, the most outstanding general on the Imperial side in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), was a pioneer in methods of military training and building a modern regular army. Schiller wrote a play about him, entitled Wallenstein’s Camp (1798). ‘It portrays the soldiers with their lusts and their diverse beliefs, their courage in battle, and their greedy violence in pillage; above all, it emphasises their devotion to their leader and their trust in his superb generalship.’ (Oxford Companion to German Literature)] (See his article in Voyennoye Dyelo, No.15.)

But let us come back to the military and political arguments against the militia. According to Svechin, as we have heard, the militia cannot be ‘red’ because it reflects all classes and tendencies in the country. But why does this not apply equally to a standing army? If it is based on universal service, a standing army equally reflects all the contradictions of class society. After driving the propertied classes from power, the proletariat, in order to sustain and consolidate its dictatorship, first disarmed them and then kept them out of its new military organisation. Professor Svechin has forgotten one little thing: the class character of the Red Army and the strict class basis of universal military training. All citizens who exploit the labour of others or who have discredited themselves as counter-revolutionaries are debarred from military training.

But a militia-type army does not pass through the barracks, with its ‘wonder-working powers’. A militia cannot give its regiments ‘the necessary steeling with a corporate spirit’. This holy faith in the self-sufficient power of the barracks seems a little anachronistic in an officer of the old Russian army – in 1919! After all, this ‘wonder-working barracks’ with its capacity for meticulous moulding saved nobody and nothing. And it was not only our Russian barracks that failed to save, but also the most barrack-like barracks of them all, the most carefully conceived and methodically run, the most highly perfected – the German barracks. It would appear that Professor Svechin either does not want to think about that fact, or else he is unable to. He has heard something about the collapse of the Second International. But he has heard nothing about the collapse of barracked armies: he has simply not studied that sort of thing.

Svechin recalls the arming of Party workers in the July days of 1918 and draws this conclusion: ‘In a period of civil war only a Party militia is conceivable, since the Party, with its moral influence and education, to some extent takes the place of the barracks.’

That is not badly put. Undoubtedly, those best and most necessary features which Svechin hopes to get from the barracks are indeed fostered by the Communist Party: discipline, capacity for concerted action, subordination of the individual to the collective, a high degree of self-sacrifice. We need no proof that our Party has in fact given and is giving its members that sort of training. But, after all, this has been and is being done without the aid of barracks!

Furthermore, the Party’s methods are directly opposite to the methods of the barracks, which Svechin would like to perpetuate.

The barracks is compulsory, whereas the Party is a voluntary union in all respects. The barracks is hierarchical, whereas the Party is an ideal democracy. The Party selected its members in the hardest underground conditions, summoning them to self-sacrificing struggle, and neither promising nor giving them any reward. And today, when it has become the ruling power in the land, the Communist Party lays very heavy burdens upon thousands and tens of thousands of its members, placing them in the most difficult, responsible and dangerous posts. Party discipline, despite all trials, has not wavered and remains unshakeable. Yet the ties of Party membership are of a purely voluntary, non-compulsory character. The Party [is the] direct opposite of a barracks.

Professor Svechin seems to have forgotten that the revolutionary underground Party, with its voluntary discipline, engaged in struggle with the wonder-working barracks of the autocracy, defeated it, and wrested power from the hands of the classes that relied on the stupefying (‘wonder-working’) properties of the barracks.

If it is not possible to introduce universal military training, this is true to the same extent and for the same reasons as it is not possible at present to engage in extensive economic and cultural constructive work. We have been obliged not only to postpone the organisation of universal military training but also to close down Soviet labour schools. When, being attacked in my workshop, I seize hold of the barrel of a rifle I have not finished making, and use it to get rid of the bandit, that does not mean that the rifle is useless or is not needed for that purpose. As of now, they have prevented me from finishing it, but, after smashing the bandit’s skull with the barrel, I shall finish making the rifle and will then be better armed and defended than I was before.

In order to reconstruct our armed forces on militia principles and thereby to make them incomparably stronger, we need to gain a new, more or less protracted historical ‘breathing space’. This will enable us, in the sphere of building our armed forces as well, to apply more broadly, fully and systematically that lengthier, deeper-going and more reliable method which Professor Svechin himself admits ‘to some extent takes the place of the barracks’ – the method of Communist unification and education. In the period of a new and more protracted historical breathing-space the present Red Army will produce excellent cadres for developing and strengthening universal military training and forming a militia-type army.

Professor Svechin is right, of course, when he says that the Party replaces the barracks only ‘to a certain extent’. The Party, as a party, does not give its members military training, and we are talking specifically about the army. But nobody would deny that if 3,000 Party members were to spend a month or two at a military school (‘the barracks’) they would form a splendid regiment. Communists, conscious builders of a new world, have no need of the ‘education’ given by the barracks. All that they need is military training, and since, owing to their ideology and receptivity, they quickly master whatever they study, their period in barracks would merely be equivalent to a short course at a military school. But the entire working class, the working people as a whole, are only the mighty reserves of the Communist Party: the backward strata will be raised up and from them will emerge an ever larger number of conscious enterprising elements. The revolution awakens, teaches, educates Ignorance and darkness are conditions unfavourable for a militia. But that is precisely the basic historical task of the Soviet power – to raise the working masses up from their vegetable existence half-outside of history, to rescue them from that deadly darkness in which they have for so long been exploited, subjected to ‘meticulous moulding’ in those barracks that are being exalted as jewels of creation. If Professor Svechin thinks that the Communist Party has taken power in order to replace the tricolour barracks [The tricolour referred to here is the flag – white-blue-red in horizontal bands – of Tsarist Russia.] by a red one, that means that he has not mastered very well the programmes of all three Internationals.

The objection that under a militia system the command would not enjoy proper authority strikes one by its political blindness. Has the authority of the present command of the Red Army been established in barracks? You can ask any combatant officer about that. A commander’s authority is based today not on the salutary hypnosis of the barracks but on the authority of the Soviet power and the Communist Party. Professor Svechin has simply overlooked the revolution and the enormous spiritual upheaval it has brought about in the Russian working man. To him the ignorant, drunken mercenary, poxed and numbed by Catholicism, who served in Wallenstein’s camp, the Parisian apprentice who, led by journalists and lawyers, destroyed the Bastille in 1789, the Saxon worker and member of the Social-Democratic Party in the period of the imperialist war, and the Russian proletarian who, for the first time in world history, took power – all these are to him more or less the same cannon-fodder to be meticulously moulded in the barracks. But isn’t that a mockery of the history of mankind?

For a militia to be created, Svechin explains, it is necessary that there be no civil war. And for the creation of a standing army? Civil war begins with the break-up of the army, which did not result from the civil war but preceded it. Victorious civil war creates a new army, in its own image and likeness.

But is civil war, in the narrow sense that Svechin gives it – that is, class war within the limits of one and the same nation, an inevitable law of social existence? Civil war signifies an acute period of transition to a new order. It is succeeded by the fully consolidated rule of the working class, which will, without interference from within, develop its economic and cultural work, eventually dissolving the old bourgeois elements into the organic texture of the new society, leaving no social soil for other classes, with their particular interests and claims. When it has fundamentally completed this task, the proletarian dictatorship will be dissolved without trace in the new Communist order, that is, in a harmonious co-operative society which by its entire organisation rules out the possibility of internal wars.

The Communist regime will thus have as little need of the barracks for educating its members as the primitive society of equal herdsmen and hunters had for ensuring the common defence of their pastures, their quarry and their families from an external foe. Between Communist community life and the primitive hunting tribe there certainly lies a very long historical path, with all the gains that have been made along that path. But at each end of it we find something similar. The primitive tribe was not yet divided into classes, and Communist society will have superseded class divisions. There was no antagonism in interests in the one, nor will there be in the other. Consequently, in a moment of danger, voluntary and conscious participation in struggle by all members of the community, trained in the arts of war, will be achieved in good time, without the need for any artificial ‘corporate’ spirit.

The development of the Communist order will run parallel with the growth in the spiritual stature of the broadest mass of the people. What the Party gave in the past, mainly to an advanced section of the workers, will be given increasingly to the entire people by the actual organisation of society, with all its internal relationships. If the Party has in this sense ‘replaced’ the barracks, so that it has given its members the necessary cohesion and made them capable of self-sacrificing collective struggle, communist society will be able to do this on an incomparably vaster scale and higher level. The corporate spirit, in the broad sense, is the spirit of collectivism. It is fostered not only in barracks but in a well-ordered school, especially one which is connected with physical labour. It is fostered by the co-operative principle of labour. It is fostered by broad, purposefully organised sport. If the militia is based on the natural, occupational-productive groupings of the new society, the village communes, the municipal collectives, the factory unions, the local labour societies, bound together by community of school, sporting associations and circumstances of labour, then the militia will be infinitely richer in ‘corporate’ spirit, and this will be a spirit of much higher quality, than is the case with barracks-bred regiments.

Svechin himself knows an example of a ‘combat-ready’ militia – the German Landwehr of 1813-1815 [The Landwehr of 1813-1815 was the patriotic volunteer force, in which university students (Burschen) were prominent, that was formed in Prussia after Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, in order to contribute to the liberation of Germany from French domination.], when all Germany was gripped by a single sentiment, when the most complete civil peace prevailed, professors and students in their masses swelled the ranks of the Landwehr, and so on ... Svechin quotes the German example as proof that a combat-ready militia requires a high level of national development. This, evidently, has to be understood to mean that the level of national development in the Russia of 1919 is lower than that in the Germany of 1813. It is hard to conceive of a proposition more monstrous, more caricatural, more historically ignorant than that! A few thousand German students have hidden from the military professor the ignorance, the darkness, the slavery both political and spiritual, of the worker and peasant masses of Germany at the beginning of the 19th century. And even those few Burschen, with whom Svechin, because of his bourgeois-intellectual cast of mind, identifies the German people, were in their development at an infinitely lower level than tens and hundreds of thousands of advanced Russian workers. True, the Burschen knew Greek irregular verbs, but of the laws that govern the development of human societies they knew less than some professors at military academies. And that’s murderously little.

Professor Svechin is right in this respect, that in the Germany of 1813-1815 there was no civil war. The advanced elements of the bourgeoisie at that time reflected the interests of all the slumbering or semi-slumbering, classes of the German people in the struggle against foreign conquerors. The war was a war of emancipation: the bourgeoisie played a progressive role. They enjoyed the support, active or passive, of the mass of the people.

But reviving a ruined economy, restoring and developing industry, making its products available to the peasants, establishing proper economic exchange between town and country, providing the peasants with calico, horseshoes, doctors, agronomists, schools – that means establishing a most profound bond between country and town, bringing about the closest unanimity of the country’s masses. For this we need a lengthy breathing-space, during which the working class will finish off what remains of capitalism, raise the level of the productive forces, bring about unity of the working people, and thereby create the most favourable conditions for a militia-type army.

We need to develop and prepare in good time the military-technical elements of this army, for a militia is not something that can be improvised. Svechin is quite right when he says that the German militia of 1813 became fully combat-ready within eighteen months or two years. But was this militia organised, prepared and based upon a serious degree of military training of the masses? No, it was based entirely upon an upsurge, an improvisation. Whoever looks at a militia in that way naturally not have any confidence in its combat-readiness. But a militia is not an improvisation. The communist militia and its precursor, the class militia, must be prepared and organised with all the thoroughness of a regular army.

But in that case, what will this future army be for? After all, ‘the Soviet Government’, as Svechin writes, with misplaced playfulness, ‘has pledged itself not to wage any wars other than civil ones.’ Of course we have ‘pledged ourselves’ not to wage aggressive wars of conquest and pillage, imperialist wars. We have never served and do not intend to serve the interests of dynasties, privileged castes or capital. But that means that, having finished off the exploiters and established labour order in their own country, the working class of Russia will defend this new order with all their strength, heroism and enthusiasm against any attempts made upon it from without, and, if necessary, will go to the aid of a class risen in revolt in another country, so as to help them finish off their bourgeoisie.

The course of the revolution in Europe may give us a breathing-space of one, two, three or more years. It is hard to prophesy. The roads of history will be less linear than ever in the epoch that is beginning. The revolutionary jolt we have given to the West may, in three, five or ten years’ time, come back to us in the form of an imperialist attack by American or Japano-Asian capital. While developing and strengthening the new economic order we shall need to build and strengthen on this basis a new system of armed forces – a militia-type army. The cadres for this will be provided by the Red Army of today. Time spent in barracks will be reduced to the strictly necessary minimum. Education in the spirit of discipline and solidarity will give us a harmoniously ordered society that will absorb and transform into institutions the ideas of the Communist Party.

Professor Svechin’s little jokes about the imperfections of our system of universal military training are worth no more than any other petty-bourgeois-intellectual jokes about the difficulties and contradictions of building communism in the spheres of production, transport and food-supplies under the frightful conditions bequeathed by imperialist war and encirclement by the rest of the world. But what is really deathless is the attempt made by this military academician to explain that we are in favour of a militia merely because we have still not broken sufficiently with the ideology of the Second International. We are very much afraid that the worthy professor has incautiously wandered into a province which is somewhat strange to him, for there is much too good reason to suppose that our author learnt about the difference between the Second and Third Internationals in the course of some political ‘universal training’ course with a very short, less than 96-hour programme.

August 5, 1919
The periodical Voyennoye Dyelo, No.25 (51)


37. To show what Professor A. Svechin’s views were on ïWallenstein’s camp’, here are two sentences from his article Cultural and class types of army, in Voyennoye Dyelo, No.15: ‘Proper building of the Republic’s army will begin only when it masters its fear of the coming of a general on a white horse, renounces all reinsurance measures in the shape of the militia, universal training, War Councils and little councils that deprive every commander, and particularly every army commander, of real authority ... In its isolation from and independence of civilian influences, its anti-militia character, its toleranon (religious, political and social), and its concentration of all forces upon the formation of a special soldierly world-outlook lies the immense constructive power of Wallenstein’s camp.’

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Last updated on: 19.12.2006