The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


V. Military Science And Publications


Speech at the conference of editors of and contributors to military publications

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

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My proposal that the journals Krasnyi Ofitser and Voyennoye Dyelo be merged into a single publication met with a strong protest from the military writers who contribute to Voyennoye Dyelo. [42] Here at this conference we have heard a number of objections, which can all be reduced to one, namely, that a journal of military science ought not to be killed for the sake of a ‘popular’ publication. But I did not propose anything of the kind. I have sufficient respect for military science, in so far as it deserves the name, that is, in so far as it generalises accumulated military experience. However, it must really be military science, and a journal that claims to be a journal of military science must really perform its task, that is, must check the old conclusions of military science against current experience, in the social setting and historical circumstances of today. There is nothing, or almost nothing, of that to be found in Voyennoye Dyelo. The gentlemen who write for it try to speak a timeless language and set forth some sort of timeless truths. To be sure, the editor of Voyennoye Dyelo, list of articles in hand, claimed that the editorial board have ‘responded’ to all problems: they have written about fortresses, about artillery, about company training, about German military doctrine and about much else.

This list is very impressive, but it proves only that Voyennoye Dyelo has written about military problems. Nothing more than that. The question is, though: how has it written about them? Military science is not geometry. And those few ‘geometrical’ truths, of rather meagre practical value, that were set forth by old Leer can hardly be supplemented by new ‘timeless’ truths in the pages of Voyennoye Dyelo. What we need today is direct and immediate participation by the journal in the work of forming, materially and ideologically, the Red Army that is now being created. On that process however, the editors have turned their backs, or, at any rate, they have half-turned away from it.

The army of the Great French Revolution was formed by way of an ‘amalgam’. That word was common in the military-political usage of those days. The old line regiments, with their old commanding personnel, were brigaded with new revolutionary units. This amalgam signified in practice the combination of old, accumulated experience with the new revolutionary heroic spirit of the popular masses, which found expression in the revolutionary army. A certain amalgam is taking place in our case too. True, our old regiments have not been retained and we have begun to create formations from scratch. But we have not rejected the old experience and the old specialists. On the contrary, we have recruited them. Many of them are working well. And a real amalgam, that is, a sort of chemical combination, is taking place with us, too, at the front, and very successfully. Our military publications ought to reflect this, ought to give expression to this process in the realm of ideas. Voyennoye Dyelo does not do this. That is its basic defect.

The proposal was put forward here that, in order to secure closer connection between the work of publication and the Red Army, certain publishing departments should be subject to the heads of the corresponding central administrations. I am resolutely opposed to this suggestion. Such a connection would be purely mechanical, and I agree completely with Comrade Svechin that it would lead to a thorough bureaucratisation of the work of publishing. To force the heads of administrations to theorise about their own practice, with which they have, up to now, not coped very well, is a quite unrealisable undertaking. Our central administrations are themselves most seriously in need of criticism, stimulation, ideological prompting. And if we allow them to conduct a journal they will use its pages only to ratify their own profiles. Bringing them into participation in the journal is quite another matter. That is, of course, the editors’ responsibility. Personally, as a reader, I was pleased to come upon the articles written by the old quartermaster Grudzinsky about problems of supply.

This specialist opposes the amateurish approach which is unwilling to study, and hopes to be able to solve all problems through intuition. The military specialist has good grounds for his discontent and criticism. But, alas, the articles written by the specialist did not justify my expectations in any way. I found in them a collection of quotations along with some passable jokes, which show that even in difficult situations a quartermaster retains his sense of humour. That was pleasing, but I found absolutely no practical, businesslike criticism with a wide application. And yet what a rewarding and responsible theme we have here: the supply officer in conflict with the People’s Commissariat of Food and the Supreme Economic Council. These are new and complex formations, in which the multiform process of socialist construction is being expressed, along with mistakes, deviations, a heritage of routine, lack of experience, and a search for new paths. It might seem that there would be no-one better than an experienced quartermaster to make a principled and practical critique of the way the People’s Commissariat of Food and the Supreme Economic Council work, from the angle of getting supplies for the army. The army is an organism which is in the highest degree demanding and imperative: its needs brook no delay. Consequently, all the defects that exist in all branches of the economy are felt most sharply in the sphere of the army’s supply services. Our specialist quartermasters see the People’s Commissariat of Food and the Supreme Economic Council as constituting a fatal misfortune that has fallen upon them and which has to be put up with. Instead of criticism, even if this should be of the most vigorous and cutting sort, we get either muttering, or silence, or jokes. That is what is wrong with Voyennoye Dyelo.

The link that is needed with the Red Army is not a mechanical one, not one achieved by handing over some departments of the journal to the heads of administrations. The link needed is an internal, ideological, organic link.

Take the question of the social composition of our army. We are building the army on a class basis. Has this question been subjected to investigation from the military standpoint? Not once. [The German bourgeois economist Louis Brentano once made an analysis, based on the experience of the war of 1870-1871, of the comparative qualities of workers and the peasants in the German army, and came to the conclusion that the proletarians were superior from the military standpoint. Have our military specialists touched on this highly important question in their journal? Never. And yet in our epoch the life of the army revolves around this question. An enormous body of experience has been accumulated. Has it been studied? Not at all. – L.T.] Or perhaps it is a matter of indifference from the military standpoint? But just see. In the Ukraine Skoropadsky made an attempt that was different from ours to build an army on the class principle. He, apparently, mobilised peasants who had holdings of not less than 25 desyatins. Finally, we had the attempt made by the Constituent Assembly’s supporters to build a ‘people’s’ army on a non-class basis. That attempt ended in ruin. Thus, we live in an epoch in which the class principle imposes itself when an army has to be built: What military conclusions are to be drawn from this fact, for the tasks of formation, education and tactics? What are the practical military consequences? Your journal has never paid any attention to this question. Isn’t that monstrous?

Let us go on. An army without a commanding apparatus is not an army at all. We have taken our commanders from two sources – from the reserve provided by the old officer corps, and from among the workers and peasants who have passed through instructors’ courses. An attempt to evaluate this commanding apparatus of ours, such as could facilitate our work in recruiting it, and in educating and re-educating it – where will you find that? It would be vain to look for it in the pages of Voyennoye Dyelo.

What about problems of technology, tactics and strategy in the present war? You have barely touched on them. Of course you write about fortresses and about many other things. But the whole heart of the matter is, how to write. Nobody is asking for anything specially, artificially popular. That is not the point at all. You have to write as the subject requires. One must, of course, avoid the bureaucratic language or caste pedantry, but in the last analysis the popular character of one’s writing depends on the scale of the subject, the complexity of the concepts and their inter-relations. I repeat, however, that is not the point at issue. One can write about fortresses, about tanks, about the British navy, about the new establishment of the Australian division, from the standpoint of the internal requirements and tasks of the Red Army, that is, in an attempt to widen its horizon and enrich its experience. Or one can write as a detached spectator who sits down, looks around him, and writes about something or other. That’s the trouble – the fact that many articles in Voyennoye Dyelo are written in the tone of persons who are merely hanging about waiting for the rain to pass, and making a few notes, just for the record.

One can, of course, look upon the whole revolutionary epoch – as a misunderstanding, or in the way that a pedestrian sees a rainstorm which obliges him to wait around under his umbrella. It is possible to sit down under one’s umbrella for an hour or two, calculating that the weather will eventually change and enable one to fold one’s umbrella and proceed on one’s way. But, alas! One can’t produce a journal in that state of mind. The very word ‘journal’ comes from a word meaning ‘day’, and ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. It is still possible, perhaps, to be a chief clerk at a headquarters, or an inspector of infantry, or even the commander of a division (a bad commander, of course), while in one’s heart looking forward to the coming of something or somebody. But it is not possible to produce a journal in that mood. A writer, after all, deals entirely in pronouncements. He summons, teaches, generalises, denounces: but whither can he summon people, if he himself is sitting things out under his umbrella? It is that mentality which is the main trouble with Voyennoye Dyelo.

Of course you write about fortresses and about many other things. But these articles make me think of the articles on fortresses that appeared in French military journals during the present war, in the period when all our Russian fortresses were falling. A feverish re-evaluation of the importance of fortresses then took place in the military press. Were fortifications of the old type still valid, or would they be ousted by fortified positions of the new entrenched variety? But those French articles were written from the standpoint of the fate of Verdun, of Belfort, and of the French fortresses generally, of their defence – in short, they were written from inside the French army and for the French army. Your articles about fortresses, however, are written like seminarists’ writings, ‘in general’, without relevance to anything in particular. This is a sort of military geometry, a bad sort of geometry, which often resembles idle chat.

One of the contributors to the journal, V. Borisov, declared here quite categorically that, however clever we might be, nothing would get done without a chief of general staff. And when the chief of general staff arrived, he would at once revive Voyennoye Dyelo, even if we had closed it down. But what is a chief of general staff? He is, don’t you see, a certain individual who has to calculate, check and distribute everything and assign to everyone his place and importance. The author of this saying was supported by one of the journal’s editors, Lebedev.

Pardon me, please, but that philosophy of history can lead one into the depths of depression. Where are you to find this providential chief of general staff if you have no ideas about the general staff, or, rather, no fundamental guiding ideas about how to form the army and put it into action? You turn your backs on all the problems of the actual life of our army – of the army which now exists and is growing. Sighings in honour of the chief of general staff who is to come and save you merely express your ideological helplessness. This is the passive Bonapartism of people who are utterly disorientated. I repeat: anyone who wishes to do so can sit in a hermit’s hut under a tree, awaiting the coming of a chief of general staff. But that man sitting under a tree cannot conduct a military journal.

The same persons pointed reproachfully to the fact that, as they alleged, we have only general-staff clerks, who sit by the telephone and write out urgent orders concerning reinforcements. But I say to you that these clerks at the telephone are incomparably more valuable for army affairs and, if you like, for military science, than are lifeless pedants who turn their backs upon history and look forward to the coming of a Messiah from the general staff. Your pedantic disdain for the military work that history is carrying on now, before your eyes, found most striking expression in one of the notes that you added to my article on the military specialists – a note which, unfortunately, never got into print. I urge you very strongly to print all those notes. You say there that in the present civil or small-scale war, of course, one can permit oneself ‘anything one likes’, but it has nothing to do with science, for science has, in general, nothing to do with all that. But I say to you, military specialist gentlemen, that this is an utterly ignorant statement – and not from the political standpoint only, but, above all, from the military standpoint. It is not true that the civil war has nothing to do with military science and contributes nothing to its enrichment. Quite the contrary. With the mobility and flexibility of its fronts, the civil war offers immense scope for real initiative and real military creativity, and that is where the whole problem lies – achieving maximum results with minimum expenditure of forces. An analogy has often been drawn between the art of war and skill in chess-playing. Allow me to make an excursion into the field of chess. Whoever has read the games of Morphy, the greatest of chess strategists, will know that these games are characterised by their perfection: regardless of whether Morphy was waging a ‘big’ or a ‘small’ war, that is, whether he had against him a player of his own standard or a layman, Morphy always displayed the same qualities and achieved his results with the minimum number of moves. [P.C. Morphy, 1837-1884, American chess-player. Morphy’s Games, edited by J. Lewenthal, was published in New York in 1866.] And that is the fundamental requirement of military science, which is binding equally upon the strategist of civil war. The last great war gave comparatively little scope for creativity, as was very soon revealed on the Western front, in France. After that gigantic front has been established, between the Belgian Coast and Switzerland, the war at once became automatic, with the art of strategy reduced to the minimum, and everything was staked on the card of mutual exhaustion – whereas our war, which is wholly an affair of mobility and manoeuvres, presents opportunities for the greatest talent to be revealed in ‘small-scale’ war. Whoever shows contempt for this war reveals utter ignorance and pedantry, and is, naturally, incapable of teaching anything to others because he cannot learn anything himself.

Voyennoye Dyelo is not, of course, a popular publication for the masses, aimed at the Red Army men. The Red Army man is, in general, the Soviet citizen who has been armed with a rifle in order to fight for his own interests. The Red Army man’s ideological interests are satisfied through the pages of the general press. The commanders, however, are, to a greater or lesser extent, specialists, and have their own range of special military interests for which they need a special publication. There is an acute demand among them for such a publication. In order to satisfy this demand you need to see and sense your reader, to know very clearly for whom you are writing, but many articles in Voyennoye Dyelo resemble correspondence exchanged by good friends amongst themselves.

Complaints were made here about the censorship, which hinders people from writing and from criticising. I readily admit that the censorship has committed a multitude of blunders and I consider it most necessary to assign a more modest role to this worthy activity. The censorship must safeguard military secrets – which, be it said by the way, are too little safeguarded in our own military institutions – and beyond that task the censorship has no business to go. I hope that we shall be able, with our combined forces, to overcome this adversary of critical military thought. But it would be quite unjustified to blame the censorship for the meagreness of Voyennoye Dyelo.

It has also been said: so that we may get closer to present-day realities, give us access to the archives of the civil war. That is, of course, quite feasible. But in order to discover the present day there is no need to seek in the archives: it is walking, live, down the street, and only somebody who shuts his eyes can fail to see it.

On the other hand, someone said here that we ought to write off, in general, the experiment of publishing a journal of military science with the aid of old military writers. I do not go so far as that. Up to now, the experiment has not been a success, although elements of improvement are undoubtedly to be observed. I consider that, at present, the only correct step – forward must be to bring to light all the shortcomings of Voyennoye Dyelo: the editors must be made to say clearly and distinctly what it is that they want, how they conceive the building of the army, and why they have nothing to say about the most important questions. Muttering must give way to articulate criticism. We must make the pedantic gentlemen abandon their pseudo-science, and make the devotees of the idea of the chief of general staff measure their ideological swords in open combat with those who are actually building the army of today.

In our military institutions, especially at the fronts, many educated military specialists are now at work who have succeeded in ridding themselves of haughty academic pedantry and who, taking part in the practical work of creating the army, stand incomparably closer to real military science. An open polemic will shake military thinking out of its equilibrium of immobility, infuse a fresh spirit, and arouse those military writers who want to and can talk about the Red Army and for the Red Army without in the least overlooking the demands of science.

Down with complacent routine! It must be replaced by critical military-scientific thinking

Voyennoye Dyelo, Nos.5-6
February 23, 1919


42. Krasnyi Ofitser was a journal of military education which began appearing on October 1, 1918, being edited and published by the staff of the Central Directorate of Institutions of Military Education. Voyennoye Dyelo was a journal of military science directed by a group of military specialists working in the Commission on Studying and Using the Experience of the World War of 1914-1918. This journal was closed down, by Comrade Trotsky’s order, in 1920.

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Last updated on: 19.12.2006