The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


V. Military Science And Publications

[An English translation of part of ‘Profound verbiage’ appeared in Workers’ Dreadnought, December 13, 1919.]

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

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The journal Voyennoye Dyelo, which carries many useful articles on special subjects, has not managed to find its spiritual equilibrium. And that should not surprise us. Events have taken place in the world arena, and especially in our own country which were far from having been foreseen by all the staff of Voyennoye Dyelo. At first it seemed to many of them that it was impossible to make head or tail of all this, no criteria were applicable, and therefore the best line to take was to renounce all criteria and quietly wait and see what would come out of it all. As time went by, however, it began to become apparent that, amid the great chaos that the staff of Voyennoye Dyelo had not foreseen, some features of order were emerging. Man’s mind is, generally speaking, somewhat lazy and passive, and finds it easiest to grasp that which it finds familiar and which therefore calls for no extra thinking. That is the case here. Some military specialists who were, in the first place, sure that there would be a demand for their expertise, and who then noticed a number of familiar features in the new organisation, immediately drew the rather hasty conclusion that there is nothing new under the sun and that they could therefore happily continue in the future to be guided by their old criteria.

Furthermore, having concluded that everything in the military sphere would eventually come back to what prevailed earlier, these lovers of old-time ways, taking heart, decided that a restoration was also to be expected in the military milieu. In this connection certain contributors to Voyennoye Dyelo have hastened to put forward general opinions of theirs which had long lacked an airing – primarily, on the theme of the place held by war and the army in the history of human development. Evidently they consider themselves ‘specialists’ in this department as well. A fatal delusion! A good artillery or supply officer by no means always has a vocation for the philosophy of history. We will now demonstrate this by means of two or three examples. In No.15-16 of Voyennoye Dyelo we find printed in the place of honour an article by Citizen F. Herschelman entitled: Is war possible in the future? [41]

Everything in this article is wrong, starting with the title. What the author does, essentially, is to raise the question: are future wars inevitable, and he comes to the conclusion that they are. On this question there exists, as is well-known, a considerable body of writing. In our time the question has moved from the sphere of literature into that of most intense conflict, which is assuming in every country the character of overt civil war. A political party has come to power in Russia whose programme has clearly and precisely characterised the socio-historical nature of past and present wars, and just as clearly and precisely defined the conditions under which wars will become not only unnecessary but also impossible. No-one requires Citizen Herschelman to adopt the Communist standpoint. But if a military specialist ventures to write about war in a semi-official Russian publication – not in 1914 but in 1919! – it would seem that one might require him, at the very least, to show an elementary knowledge of the programme which is our official state doctrine and constitutes the basis of our international and internal policy. But of this there is no trace.

The writer begins, as befits a lover of old-time ways, from the beginning, that is, from the scholastic Leer, who was helpless where historical problems were concerned, and quotes from him, as major premise, the most commonplace banality to the effect that ‘conflict is fundamental to everything that lives’. [General G.A. Leer was the head of the General Staff Academy in the 1890s. He wrote numerous works on military theory and compiled Russia’s first military encyclopaedia.]

This aphorism, based on a boundlessly wide interpretation of the word ‘conflict’, simply deletes the whole of human history, or dissolves it in biology without leaving any residue. When we talk of war, and are not just playing with words, we mean planned collision between groups of men organised as states, who use the technical means available to them in order to achieve aims set by the rulers of the respective groups. It is quite clear that nothing like this exists outside the history of human society. While conflict is the lot of everything that lives, war is a purely historical, human phenomenon. Whoever has not noticed this has therefore not yet approached even the threshold of the problem.

There was a time when people ate each other. In some places cannibalism has survived even to this day. To be sure, the Ashanti do not publish military journals, but if they did, their theoreticians would doubtless write: ‘Hopes that man may renounce cannibalism are unrealisable, for conflict is fundamental to everything that lives.’ On this point one might reply, with Citizen Herschelman’s permission, to the anthropophagous savant, that what is being discussed is not conflict in general but that particular form of it which finds expression in men hunting down their own kind for meat.

There can be no question but that cannibalism ceased not as a result of homilies but owing to changes in economic life: when it became more advantageous to turn prisoners into draught oxen, anthropophagy (cannibalism) died out. But didn’t ‘conflict’ remain? Of course. However, we are talking here not about conflict in general, but about cannibalism.

Formerly, male fought with male to get a female. Drevlyan bridegrooms ‘carried off girls by capture’. Nowadays, as Citizen Herschelman is aware, this procedure is not followed, even though ‘conflict is the lot of every living creature’. [The Drevlyans were a people who lived in Polesia in the early Middle Ages and whose wars with the Princes of Kiev are recorded in the oldest Russian chronicle, from which Trotsky is quoting.] Mutual skull-cracking in wood and cave was later replaced by chivalrous tournaments in the presence of ladies, and also by duels. But tournaments and duels have vanished into the past, or have been transformed, in the majority of cases, into a masquerade that echoes basely the bloody encounters of former times. To understand this process we need to trace the development of the economy, the mutual relations of men and women in the economy, the changes that have occurred, on this basis, in the forms of tribal and family life, the rise and development of social estates, the historical conditions governing chivalrous and, in general, noble views and prejudices, the role of the duel as an element in the ideology of a certain estate of society, the disappearance of their social soil from under the feet of the privileged castes, the transformation of the duel into a meaning less survival, and so on. You won’t get far into this problem, or into any others, with the bald aphorism about ‘conflict as the lot of every living creature.

The Slav tribes and clans fought against each other. In the period of the appanages and the town assemblies, [’The period of the appanages and the town assemblies’ is the expression used by Russian historians for the period between the 12th and 15th centuries in Russia’s history.] the principalities fought against each other. It was the same with the various Germanic tribes and with the feudal principalities of what later became a united France. The bloody internecine struggles of the feudalists, the wars between province and province, and between the towns and the forces of the knights appeared on history’s agenda not because ‘conflict is the lot of every living creature’ but because they were determined by the specific economic relations of a certain epoch, and they passed away with those relations. The reasons that caused the Muscovites to fight the men of Kiev, the Prussians to fight the Saxons, the Normans to fight the Burgundians were, in their own epoch, no less profound and imperative than the reasons that brought about the last war between the Germans and the British. Again, therefore, we are concerned not with a law of nature, as such, but with those specific, particular laws that determine the development of human society. And, even with out going beyond the most general historical considerations, one might ask: if man overcame wars between Burgundy and Normandy, Saxony and Prussia, the principalities of Kiev and Moscow, then why should he not overcome wars between Britain and Germany, or Russia and Japan? ‘Conflict,’ in the broadest sense of the word, will, of course, remain, but was a particular form of this conflict which appeared only after man began to build society and use tools. This particular form of conflict, war, changed along with changes in human economy, and may, under certain historical conditions, disappear altogether.

In their separate and scattered character, the wars of the feudal order expressed the disjointed nature of the mediaeval economy. Each region looked on its neighbour as a closed world at whose expense it might profit. The knights watched with a predatory eye the developing and prospering towns. The sub sequent development of the economy united provinces and regions into a single whole. Upon this new economic foundation there arose a united France, a united Italy, a united Germany, as the Outcome of fierce struggles, both internal and international. In this way, economic unification, transforming extensive countries into single economic organisms, made impossible further wars waged within the framework of the new, enlarged historical formation – the nation-state.

But the progress of economic relations did not stop there. Industry has long since broken through national barriers and united the whole world in links of mutual dependence. Not only Burgundy or Normandy, not only Saxony or Prussia, not only Moscow or Kiev, but also France, Germany and Russia have long ceased to be self-sufficient worlds, and have become dependent parts of a world-wide economy. We have been made all too well aware of this now, in this period of war blockade, when we are not receiving the products of German and British industry that we need. But the German and British workers, too, are suffering no less from the mechanical disruption of an economic whole, which means that they are not obtaining the grain of the Don region or the butter of Siberia.

The economy has become fundamentally world-wide in character. But the appropriation of profit, that is, the right to skim the cream of this world economy, has remained in the hands of the bourgeois classes of particular nations. Thus, if the roots of our present wars are to be sought in ‘nature’, this is not biological nature and not even human nature in general, but the social ‘nature’ of the bourgeoisie, which was formed and developed as an exploiting, appropriating, ruling, profiteering and plundering class that forces the working masses to fight for its bourgeois aims. The world economy, closely bound together into a single productive entity, creates unprecedented sources of enrichment and power. The bourgeoisie of each nation tries to seize these sources for itself, thereby disorganising the world economy, just as, in the period of transition to the new order, the feudalists disrupted the national economy.

A class that is doomed to disrupt the economy, and to do this to an increasing extent, cannot long remain in power. It is for this reason that the bourgeoisie itself has felt obliged to seek a way out of the problem by establishing a ‘League of Nations’. Wilson’s idea amounts to this, that the united world economy is to be seen as a joint-stock company of brigands in which the profits should be shared among the capitalists of all countries without any wars between them. The principal shares, of course, Wilson wants to keep for his own stock-exchange operators of New York and Chicago, but the bandits of London, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere do not agree.

It is this clash between bourgeois appetites that makes it hard for the bourgeois governments to decide the question of the ‘League of Nations’. Nevertheless, one can say with confidence that, after the experience of the present war, the capitalist classes of the most important countries would have tried to create the conditions for a more or less united and centralised exploitation of the entire globe without wars, just as the bourgeoisie put an end to feudal wars within the confines of the territory of each nation. The bourgeoisie might have dealt with this new task if the working class had not risen up against it, just as in its time the bourgeoisie rose up against the forces of feudalism. The significance of the civil war which has ended in Russia with the victory of the proletariat and is approaching the same conclusion in all other countries amounts to this, that the working class has taken upon itself the accomplishment of the task which now stands before mankind, as a matter of life and death, namely, the transformation of the earth’s entire surface, together with what lies beneath it and with everything that man’s labour has added to it, into a single world economy, increasingly planned and conducted according to a single conception, in which the distribution of products will be carried out just as on one big co-operative estate.

Citizen Herschelman has, seemingly, not the slightest under standing of all this. He has discovered a book by some Professor Danevsky, entitled Systems of Political Equilibrium and Legitimism and the Principle of Nationality [The book referred to, by V.P. Danevsky, was published in St Petersburg in 1882.], and on the basis of a few feeble conclusions drawn by this official jurist he establishes the inevitability of wars until the end of time. In the pages of a journal of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army – in May 1919 – it is gravely explained in an editorial that the principle of legitimism will not save us from wars. Legitimism means recognition of the untouchability of all the estate, caste and monarchical swinishness that has accumulated upon this earth. Proving that recognition of the eternal rights of the Romanov and Hohenzollern rulers, or of the power of the Paris usurers, does not provide a guarantee against war really does mean indulging in profound verbiage. The same is true of the theory of so-called ‘political equilibrium’. No-one has exposed better than has Marxism (communism) the illusoriness and falsity of this theory. The diplomatic chicanery of ‘equilibrium’ was only a cover for the diabolical rivalry between military machines, on the one hand, and, on the other, for Britain’s endeavour to weaken France by means of Germany and Germany by means of France.

Two locomotives being driven towards each other along the same rails – that was what was meant by the theory of armed peace through ‘European equilibrium’, a theory which the Marxists exposed long before it crashed altogether in blood and mud.

Only petty-bourgeois dreamers or big-bourgeois charlatans can talk of the national principle as a basis for perpetual peace. Wars were waged under the flag of nationality when the development of industry demanded a transition from the province to a wider, nation-state unity. Present-day wars have nothing to do with the national principle. We do not even speak of civil wars in this connection. Kolchak sells Siberia to America, and Denikin is ready to make three-quarters of the Russian people slaves to Britain and France so as to be able to keep the possibility of plundering the remaining quarter. But in international wars, too, the national principle does not count. Britain and France are sharing Out Germany’s colonies and looting Asia. America is thrusting its paws into European affairs. Italy is annexing Slavs. Even half-strangled Serbia is strangling Bulgars. In every case, the national principle serves here only as a pretext. What is involved is world domination, that is, rule over the economy of the whole world. After subjecting legitimism, the theory of political equilibrium and the principle of nationality to superficial criticism, Citizen Herschelman has not even approached the question of the historical destiny of war. And yet this destiny is now being decided in practice. By driving the bourgeoisie from the helm of state and taking power into its own hands, the working class is preparing for the creation of a federal Soviet republic of Europe and of the whole world, on the basis of a unified world economy.

War has been and still is a form either of armed exploitation or of armed struggle against exploitation. The federal rule of the proletariat, as a transition to the world Commune, will signify suppression of the exploitation of man by man and therefore also the ending of armed conflicts between man and man. War will disappear just as cannibalism did. Conflict will remain, but it will be the collective conflict of mankind with the hostile forces of nature.


41. The main propositions put forward by Herschelman in his article were as follows. The hope that war will cease is unfounded: war will not cease, because it corresponds too closely to human nature. Further, as principal proof that it is impossible to decide fundamental political questions without war, Herschelman refers to the dogmatic historical work by Danevsky, The Systems of Political Equilibrium and Legitimism, and the Principal of Nationality. The three systems proposed for getting rid of wars have proved unsatisfactory, and the question of the possibility of preserving peace in a system of states has remained unanswered. Subsequently, Herschelman acquaints the reader in detail with Danevsky’s views on these three systems.

July 10, 1919
Voyennoye Dyelo, Nos.23-24

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Last updated on: 19.12.2006