The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

I. The Red Army’s Offensive
Towards the Ukraine and the Don (January-May 15, 1919)


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

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Grigoriyev’s idiotic mutiny must first and foremost be put down. But at the same time some lessons must be learnt from it especially by those for whom earlier lessons have proved insufficient. In the present mutiny in the Ukraine the degeneration of the same old guerrilla-ism has found savage and drunken expression. Liquidating it is now bound to be the more painful because it has lasted so long, that is, because it has been so badly neglected.

Guerrilla detachments have been contrasted with the regular army and this is sometimes done even now without the necessary historical perspective. The problem is presented as though we had before us two self-sufficient ‘principles’, to be studied and evaluated outs.ide of space and time. Actually, guerrilla-ism has its own fully legitimate ‘rights’, defined by historical circumstances: beyond its proper limits it just as ‘legitimately’ degenerates, poisoning the political atmosphere around it.

One cannot ask a class which does not have state power at its disposal, but is only, as yet, fighting for that, to create a regular army. Such a class will naturally direct its efforts toward disin tegrating the regular army of the ruling class and detaching lsolated units from this enemy army, or else forming such units from scratch, in the underground, and later on in the arena of open civil war. In other words, guerrilla-ism is the weapon of a class (or an oppressed nation) which is weaker organisationally and in the purely military sense, in its struggle against the class to which the centralised state apparatus belongs. In this period, guerrilla-ism is not only a progressive factor, it is, in general, the only possible form of open struggle by the oppressed class for its own emancipation. In these circumstances too, of course, guerrilla-ism is not any sort of principle, or even anything particularly advantageous. On the contrary, the revolutionary proletariat tries to introduce as much planning as possible into its military organisation, overcoming, so far as it can, the features of amateurism that this reveals: proletarian military policy is in this way profoundly different, even in the period of the conquest of power, from peasant and petty-bourgeois ‘Chetnik’ activity.

In Kerensky’s time we had an illegal apparatus by means of which we maintained communication between separate regiments and sections of regiments, batteries, machine-gun crews and so on. Being a party of revolutionary opposition we could not, of course, think at that time of forming our own All-Russia General Staff, Central Supply Administration and so on. But even then we were concerned to overcome, so far as we could the negative aspects of guerrilla-ism, and to ensure unity of action and centralised. [48]

The historically progressive role of guerrilla struggle ceases when the oppressed class has taken state power into its own hands. The Left SR windbags (and, unfortunately, not they alone) were quite unable to understand this. Gentry like Kamkov blamed the Soviet power (not an underground party, but a government) for building a regular army instead of forming guerrilla detachments.

One can only ask: what, in general, is the point of the working class taking state power into its own hands if it is not then supposed to make use of this power to introduce state centralism into that sphere which, by its very nature, calls for the highest degree of centralisation, namely, the military sphere?

But the heart of the matter is this: the petty-bourgeois, even when he has come to power or has attached himself to the ruling authority, remains divided against himself: power is too much for him, it constrains him, frightens him, upsets him, exasper ates him, because it demands of him self-control and inner discipline to which he is not accustomed.

And so, while clinging to power, he tries to jump out of the state harness. As a ‘strong’ peasant he works in the Soviet and yet at the same time rises in revolt now and again, with the utterly senseless slogans that counter-revolutionary adventurers fabricate for him. As a Left SR intellectual he hesitates: should he enter the Council of People’s Commissars, or should he, just in case, throw a bomb at the Kremlin?

Our revolution has led to the most crying absurdities of behaviour on the part of the petty-bourgeois just because its development has brought to the forefront tasks of exceptional difficulty and called for the highest degree of persistence and concentrated effort in order that these tasks may be accomp lished. Building a proper army, that is, creating a complex, many-sided apparatus of military administration; registering the population in class categories; mobilising the non-. exploiting classes; combating in the right way the evasion of military duty; selecting the appropriate commanding personnel; supervising them; forming, welding and educating military units; bringing these together in formations of a higher level; remaining patient in face of a series of setbacks, correcting mistakes from one’s experience what a difficult and, in its details, what a humdrum task ... Could one not cheat history, capture it with a cheer, get round its flanks and into its rear with a small guerrilla detachment? Such is the secret thought of the revolutionary petty-bourgeois. He scoffs at military science, at the demands of technique, at system, at military specialists, at establishments and regulations, and promises to replace all that with revolutionary improvisation and he ends by knoCking his forehead against the first rake he steps on.

Overcoming guerrilla-ism, which is a very important task confronting the proletariat when it has come to power, has to be understood not in a formal, or, more correctly, verbal sense, as is often the case, when detachments rename themselves ‘brigades’ or ‘divisions’, with corresponding changes in the ranks of their commanders. The task goes deeper than that: it consists in transforming the internal structure of units and establishing a definite regime in them. Guerrilla-ism is, by its very essence, hostile to centralised state authority. Guerrilla-ism defends its independence jealously and by every means. It emphasises and cultivates everything that separates it from everyone else, starting with neighbouring guerrilla detach ments and ending with the centre of government, which it sees as alien and semi-hostile. The army of a victorious revolutio nary class must be grouped around the state apparatus, as its pivot. If the army tries to preserve the character of guerrilla detachments, it will inevitably find itself in opposition to the state. And opposition on the part of guerrillas means armed rebellion.

The Ukraine was quickly cleared of the White-Guard Anglo-Franco-Greco-Romanian vermin, by guerrilla forces, in the main. From this some dreamers have been trying to draw once more the conclusion that guerrillas are superior to regular troops. The Soviet victory in the Ukraine is indeed the victory of a mass uprising of workers and peasants over the bourgeoisie, but it is certainly not the victory of the guerrilla form of military organisation over the regular form. The pressure of the working masses was so great, all the old bonds that were only just holding burst so quickly, that the White-Guard forces suffered inevitable disintegration. Not only the Petlyurists but also the British, the French and the Greeks, who, after all, also needed a rear, felt that they were standing on a mountainside with the ground moving beneath them, with the rocks cracking under their feet and rolling downhill. While facilitating victory, the revolution at the same time hindered, for a long time, the establishment of regular formations. Thinking along the line of least resistance, it thereby promoted the cult of the guerrilla. We had been through all that in Great Russia. True, we had grounds for hoping that the Ukraine would learn something from our experience and would not repeat our mistakes. Those hopes proved only partly justified. The cult of the guerrilla, liquidated in Great Russia, has temporarily enjoyed a rank flowering on Ukrainian soil. And not only among the Left SRs ...

Yet we have already been given plenty of opportunities for comparison and verification. It might have seemed sufficient for us to transfer the guerrilla detachments to the other Soviet fronts where we do not find, on the one hand, a stormy upsurge of the working masses, or, on the other, complete panic and disintegration among the ruling classes, but where, on the contrary, the milieu is sufficiently differentiated and where properly organised armies confront one another, each with its own class rear: then, the military insolvency of the guerrilla detachments was exposed forthwith.

True, from this experience some unconscious and half-conscious ideologists of guerrilla-ism drew the conclusion that guerrilla detachments cannot be subordinated to ‘theoretical’, ‘scientific’ command, that they need some sort of special lead ership, and soon. But all that is extremely superficial, not to say childish. Actually, the fact is simply this, that guerrilla detach ments are victorious when they have a triumphant revolutio nary spontaneous upsurge behind them. When that spontane ous upsurge has died down, with the victory of the revolutio nary class, and further success depends entirely on organisation and operational skill, guerrilla detachments at once reveal their inadequacy.

In the period when civil war is beginning, the guerrilla movement is inspired by the idea of destroying the hated class state. But when power has passed to the working class, guerrila-ism, with its practice of separate detachments, becomes empty of ideas and reactionary. Developing cen trifugal tendencies, that is, distancing itself from the revolutio nary government, while at the same time possessing no particu lar idea of its own, no independent banner, the guerrilla move ment groups itself around individuals. We see appearing the detachments and the armies of the Grigoriyevs and of all sorts of other atamans, bafkos and dyadkos. [Bafko and Dyadko (’Father’ and ‘Uncle’) were the forms of address traditionally used towards the leaders of ‘Robin-Hood’-type brigand bands.] This personal cult of unprincipled atamanism serves, in its turn, as a bridge to counter-revolutionary degeneration of the guerrilla movement, to direct betrayal, in the service of the bourgeoisie either one’s own or a foreign one. All this we can fully observe in the case of Grigoriyev’s mutiny. On the other hand, we shall see in the next few days, from the same example, that the guerrilla movement, which once, when it was the weapon of a rising class in its struggle for power, accomplished miracles, proves to be pitiful and helpless, and ends in a drunken debauch, when it becomes the weapon of an adventurer against an historically progressive class.

While showing extreme unsteadiness and poor fighting capacity in the struggle against the properly-organised armies of Denikin, the guerrilla detachments in the Ukraine itself are turning, as we see, against the class whose revolutionary struggle brought them into being. This means that the guerrilla movement has at last outlived itself and become a reactionary factor. We must put an end to it at all costs.

The history of the clearing of the Ukraine, of the conquest of Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Odessa and the Crimea, will enter as a splendid page into the book of the revolutionary struggle. But history never turns the same page twice. Only pedants and dried-up mandarins can sniff contemptously at the work accomplished in the Ukraine by improvised detachments of proletarians and peasants. Genuine military-scientific thought embraces this work, too. For a science that is worthy of the name looks at armed forces, with their rise, development and internal changes, in connection with changes in historical circumstances. But no less ridiculous are the mandarins of guerrilla-ism who want to perpetuate a yesterday which they have but poorly understood.

Yesterday has passed and will not return. The guerrilla period has gone on for too long in the Ukraine, and for that very reason its liquidation has assumed a painful character. We now have to apply a red-hot iron to it. But this work has to be done. It is necessary to put an end to adventurers, not in words but in deeds, and, what is even more important, it is necessary to put an end to adventurism. We must create a real army, properly organised, with a firm uniform internal regime. We must ruth lessly crush these ignorant rascals who subordinate themselves to nobody and nothing. We must arouse and enhance in the Ukrainian army respect for military thought, military science and military specialists. We must put good and responsible workers in the places where they are needed.

We must ensure that the young army has proper political leadership. We must put an end to Tyapkin-Lyapkinism in all its forms.

This is not just a Ukrainian question, for the Ukraine is part of the Federative Soviet Republic. The Soviet land as a whole is very greatly interested in seeing that the Red Army in the Ukraine does not become a helpless instrument of highway robbers.

May 16, 1919
Svatovo station,
[Svatovo is south-east of Kupyansk, on one of the lines which link Kharkov with the Donbas.]
En Route, No.47


48. On our Party’s ‘Military Organisation’ see note 2 to Volume I. In spite of the difficult conditions of work, on June 16, 1917 an All-Russia Conference of Military Organisations was held, at which up to 500 separate units were represented, witha total membership of 30,000 Bolsheviks. A Central Bureau of Military Organisations was set up at this conference, to carry on unificatory work among the Party’s cells in the army.

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Last updated on: 21.12.2006