The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

II. Denikin’s Offensive (May 15-August 1919)


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

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Our setbacks on the Donets front have increased. We have not only been driven out of the Donets Basin but also out of the adjacent uyezds of Kharkov and Yekaterinoslav provinces, and Kharkov itself, the capital of the Eastern Ukraine has been lost. This is a serious blow. It will reverberate heavily all through the Ukraine and throughout Soviet Russia. Kharkov is a large, rich, industrial working-class city. Even our temporary loss of Kharkov gives great advantage to the enemy and does great damage to the revolution.

Hitherto it has been the case that defeats have produced among us not depression but, on the contrary, an intensification of energy that has resulted in a new advance. There can be no doubt that that will happen this time as well. It is in this way that a young, revolutionary class differs from a decaying old one. For the Tsarist monarchy, military defeats meant ruin: for the revolutionary working class they are stimuli, arousing its energy.

The Ukraine’s turn has now come. For the loss of Kharkov is, first and foremost, a blow at the Ukraine, and a lesson for the Ukraine – just as, last year, the loss of Samara, Simbirsk and Kazan was a harsh but salutary lesson for Great Russia. Not only the Ukrainian peasantry but also the Ukrainian working class have failed to appreciate until recently the full extent of the military danger threatening the eastern, that is, the more important, half of the Ukraine. The sentiments that prevailed among the working masses of the Ukrainian South hindered mobilisation and proper formation of armed forces. These sentiments had a cause, which must be understood.

We often hear it said: ‘In the Ukraine the kulaks are strong, and that’s why there are all these bands ...’ There is truth in that, of course. The kulaks play no small role in the Ukraine. But the immediate course of the revolution depends on who is to lead the middle peasants – the working class or the kulaks? Consequently, we have to explain why it is that the kulaks have gained ascendancy over the Ukrainian peasantry. Is this a per manent phenomenon or is it only temporary?

The Ukraine has experienced a large number of regimes during the last two years and more. After the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy, the Kerensky regime was established, taking in the Ukraine the form of the Kiev Rada. That was over thrown by the Soviet power. Then the Rada came back, with the help of German bayonets. The German occupation regime was masked by petty-bourgeois pseudo-democracy.

Then the Germans got rid of the democratic rubbish and installed their noble steward, Hetman Skoropadsky. Then the German revolution, which had immediate repercussions in the Ukraine, brought down the Skoropadsky regime. For a time the Petlyurists were in power. As was to be expected, the Petlyura regime was backed up by an Anglo-French, Greco-Romanian and Arab-Negro invasion. Then the Soviet power overthrew the Petlyurists. The Ukrainian peasant lived through all that. Passively or actively, he resisted, during these two years, seven successive regimes. It is not surprising if it began to seem to the peasant that he had no need of any regime at all: he was living there in his uyezd of Zolotonosha or Mariupol [Zolotonosha is in the middle of the Ukraine, Mariupol (Zhdanov) in the south-east corner.], and there he would go on living. The state power, whatever form it took, demanded that the peasant provide grain for the towns, and it conscripted his sons. Hence the peasant’s opposition to any and every state power, which provided the soil for Anarchist tendencies. It Was these sentiments that engendered Grigoriyev and Grigoriyevism, Makhno and Makhnovisni, and a collection of Zelyonys, Struks, Shkilyas and other bandits of Anarcho-Left-SR or purely pogromist colouring. Of course, as soon as the ‘anti-statists’ of the Anarcho-bandit type had spread their wings somewhat, they at once proceeded to do as much damage to the peasant as had probably been done in its time by Tsardom, which plundered and oppressed him in a more systematic way. In the meantime, though, it seemed that the Makhnovite bands provided some local defence against the landlords’ attacks. Actually, this was not the case. AII.powerful when it was a question of plundering, the Makhnovites proved helpless against regular units. When Shkuro’s cavalry occupied the uyezds of Taganrog and Mariupol, the Ukrainian muzhik began to understand that this matter of state power was not so simple. Of course, the Soviet power requires the peasant to show a certain self-restraint and to make considerable sacrifices. But under any other authority things will be ten times worse for the peasantry than under Soviet power. This is the simple truth that is now being beaten lnto the consciousness of the Ukrainian villages by the hammer of defeat.

A parallel process is going on in the heads of the Ukrainian workers.

For a number of historical reasons, opportunist, petty-bourgeois socialism enjoyed in the South of our country much greater influence on the upper circles of the working class than was the case in the North. This circumstance restricted from the very outset the scale of the proletarian revolution in the Ukraine. After the Germans crushed the Ukrainian Soviets, the most revolutionary elements of the working class left the Ukraine, and subsequently fought in the Kuban, in the Terek region, in the steppes of Astrakhan, on the Don, and before Tsaritsyn, Novokhopersk and Voronezh. Under the regimes of the Rada, of Skoropadsky and of Petlyura the Mensheviks and Right SRs emerged as the legal ‘opposition’ in the name of the working class, and did all they could to infect the workers’ consciousness with the poison of pettiness and time-serving. They made use of every difficulty experienced by the Soviet power, every military setback – the invasion by the Germans and also the invasion by the Entente – to deprive the working masses of the Ukraine of their hopes and expectations. Given the great backwardness of the Ukrainian proletariat, this work of theirs could not remain without effect. Until lately the Men sheviks and SRs played, in their own way, a considerable role in the labour movement in the Ukraine, especially in the trade unions. In Kharkov trade-union circles it was the Mensheviks and their associates who set the tone. Naturally, the flag of Menshevism often served as a cover for mere ignorance and self-seeking instincts, or obdurate narrow-mindedness, such as that of the Ukrainian peasant described above: ‘They’ve given us all sorts of regimes. Let’s get by without any regime at all.’

Or, still more simply: ‘There’s always somebody giving us orders.’ During our defeats in the Donets Basin the Kharkov Mensheviks carried on a pernicious agitation with the aim of breaking the workers’ will-power. In words they recognised the need for mobilisation, but made such stipulations that anyone who believed what they said must have said to himself: ‘Well, if that’s the way things are, I’m not going to shed my blood.’ The leaders of the Kharkov trade-union movement engaged, to the accompaniment of Menshevik speeches, in shameful bargaining about when and under what conditions they would agree to contemplate the necessity of undertaking preparation for some sort of mobilisation ...

Denikin’s blow served as a harsh lesson in this case too. Denikin is now teaching the backward, semi-petty-bourgeois section of the Ukrainian proletariat that one cannot live without a ‘regime’: if the Soviet regime disappears, its place will automatically be taken by the White-Guard regime.

The loss of Kharkov is a grave loss. But if it leads to complete liquidation among the Ukrainian proletariat of petty-bourgeois, compromising illusions and self-seeking sentiments, we shall have to say that it has been bought at not too high a price.

A turn has already, to a considerable extent, taken place. The mobiisation of the Ukrainian workers is going ahead with substantial success. In many parts of the Ukraine the peasants themselves have demanded that they be mobilised on the same basis as the workers, to resist the landlords’ yoke which is advancing from the East. There can be no doubt that the mobilisation of 19-year-olds which has been proclaimed by the Ukrainian Soviet power will produce the expected results.

Of no less importance is the mental turn that has been made, which must have its effect, and is already having this effect, on the entire Soviet apparatus in the Ukraine. There has been too much chaos in that apparatus, continuously since the initial period of the revolution. A turn towards Soviet order, assiduity, accounting and discipline,which has been slowly prepared, is now, under the impact of our severe trials, coming about all at once. The Ukrainian peasants and workers now understand that it is often harder to hold what you have won than to win it in the first place, and they are demanding that their representa tives in all Soviet institutions show strict assiduity within the framework of Soviet centralism.

The disintegration of the Ukrainian guerrilla movement opened a very dangerous gap in the Southern front. There can be no doubt that, by concentrating its forces, the Ukraine, in the coming weeks, will not only block this gap but, shoulder to shoulder with Soviet Great Russia, will crush the Denikinite White Guards and force them back to the Caucasus range.

June 28, 1919
En Route, No.56

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Last updated on: 23.12.2006