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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In the town of Sumy, that is, in the zone adjacent to the front, a newspaper called Krasnaya Zvezda is published, declaring itself to be the organ of the Kharkov Committee of the Bolshevik-Communists and of the political administration of the Kharkov Military District. There appeared in this paper’s issue of July 10 a criminally demagogic article entitled: Military specialists – or Red commanders?

’We must consider as one of the main causes of the break-up of the Southern front,’ says the article, ‘the treachery of the commanding personnel, who went over in whole “packs” from the Red Army to Denikin.’

This entire sentence is a monstrous lie, made up of two statements each of which is itself a lie.

The Southern front has not broken up. The Southern front has suffered big defeats as a result of the twofold and threefold superiority of numbers on the part of the enemy. Denikin possessed this superiority because the Soviet forces in North Caucasia, who numbered 150,000 broke up completely in a few weeks – and there were no ‘military specialists’ among them. Instead, there were numerous bawlers and guerrillas who engaged in demagogy. After our armies of the Southern front had proved to be incomparably weaker than the enemy, who had drawn large reinforcements from North Caucasia, Kuban, Odessa and the Crimea, some units on the Southern front began to break up. But where did this happen? On the extreme right flank, among Makhno’s bands and among the troops of the former Kursk-Ukrainian group – that is where guerrilla-ism, the amateur principle and distrust of our military organisation prevailed most strongly.

The statement that commanding personnel of the Southern front went over ‘in packs’ to the enemy is false through and through. If we exclude the Kharkov group, which will be considered on its own, we find that throughout the remainder of the gigantic Southern front the cases of betrayal by commanders did not exceed single figures, whereas the cases of heroic death in action by members of the commanding personnel amounted to hundreds.

The writer of this criminally demagogic article does not take the trouble to think out why victories are being won by the forces of our Eastern front, which are wholly constructed on the principle of close, friendly collaboration between political workers and experienced commanders, many thousands of whom are drawn from the officer corps of the old army. The writer does not ask himself why it was that this same Southern front of ours won brilliant victories over Krasnov and got to within 20 versts of Novocherkassk. The writer has no notion of the facts, of the events, of the actual course of operations, of the weakening of our armies of the Southern front through the temporary concentration of all forces against Kolchak. The writer evidently has no notion, either, how North-Caucasian guerrilla-ism helped Denikin transfer large forces to the Don – and, being in ignorance of all that, he slanders both the Southern front in general and its commanders in particular. He asserts that the Southern front has broken up. Whereas in reality the Southern front has only suffered a temporary defeat, owing to the enemy’s superiority in numbers. The writer alleges that commanders in all parts of the Southern front went over to Denikin in packs, whereas in fact, commanders went over to Denikin only on these very small sectors of the Southern front where the entire organisation was worthless, where there was no order among the political workers, but instead confusion and demagogy reigned.

Demagogy is a sort of politics, of agitation, which leads those masses whose level of consciousness is low into delusions, by showing them false reasons for calamities suffered, giving them false information, and directing their thought along a false path of salvation: in short, demagogy is exactly what Krasnaya Zvezda is busy with, in the zone adjacent to the front.

Towards the end of this article it is said: ‘We must understand the lesson given to us by the catastrophe (and how else can one describe the break-up of the Southern front?) which has befallen us in the struggle against Denikin! We must have the courage to recognise our previous mistakes. Our immediate slogan must be: “Long Live the Red Commander!”’

Here again we see a criminally demagogic distortion of the facts in the interests of a lying argument. From the grave experiences of the Southern front, one lesson emerges: under the blows of superior enemy forces those units broke up which lacked serious, capable commissars and experienced, responsible, serious commanders. Those armies held out best in which the military system established by the Soviet power had been introduced most fully. The worst-organised part of the Southern front, in all respects, was the Ukrainian corner. And the writer of the criminally-demagogic article ought, first and foremost, to study our Eastern front and the other sectors of the Southern front before he presumes to propound ‘lessons’ drawn from the experience, which has been wretched up to now, of Ukrainian amateurism.

Recently, that is after all the trials experienced on the South em front, the political workers of two neighbouring armies of the Southern front reaffirmed at their conferences almost unanimously (with a single abstention in one of these armies, and two in the other), the complete and absolute correctness of our military policy. [54] And those are serious, responsible workers who have done a great deal in the last eighteen months to develop the Red Army. They certainly stand in no need of lessons from the windbag of Krasnaya Zvezda.

It is true that in the Kharkov sector a considerable number of betrayals occurred. But we have often observed on other fronts as well, during their infancy, how the work of sham-revolutionary demagogues has been complemented by treachery on the part of commanders. The overwhelming majority of the officers of the old army lacked even elementary political education. They easily lost their bearings when the slightest change occurred in the political situation. The prejudices of the petty-bourgeois milieu were strong among them. But at the same time our Party programme, which is opposed by the demagogues of Krasnaya Zvezda, speaks clearly and precisely of the methods by which the working class can and must make use of the experience of the military specialists: (1) general leadership of the life of the army and supervision of loyal specialists to be concentrated in the hands of organised representatives of the working masses: (2) relations of comradely collaboration to be established with the military specialists, creating conditions for them in which they can develop their powers.

There are Communists of a poor sort who treat military specialists as though they were accused persons, or simply persons under arrest, imagining that this is how to safeguard the interests of the revolution. Actually, in this way they impel unstable, wavering members of the commanding personnel to seek safety in Denikin’s camp.

Posts of command in parts of the Kharkov sector and other administrative positions were given to military specialists whose families were resident in Kharkov. When Kharkov was captured, these ‘specialists’ preferred to remain with their families. Many of them probably thought, in their political naiveté that the surrender of Kharkov meant the downfall of Soviet power, for among the former officers there are many politically ignorant simpletons who suppose that Denikin can halt the course of the revolution, just as previously they believed in the power of Hetman Skoropadsky. Of course, these commanders who fling themselves from one camp into the other, or who simply fear being cut off from their families, do not constitute the best of human material. How prudent was it to put them in a situation where the place of residence of their own families would incline them towards going over to the enemy’s camp? Whose fault was that? The fault of the local Soviet military organisation.

There is no doubt that among those who remained in Kharkov there were a certain number of direct agents of Denikin, men who were already on his payroll earlier. World counter revolution is fighting its last fight against us, and for the disintegration of our units, in particular, bribery of commanders is one of the important methods it uses. We must and will keep a sharp look-out for the activity of counter-revolutionary scoundrels who have penetrated our ranks. But at the same time we shall not allow unbalanced windbags and demagogues to hinder serious Party workers in their task of building a properly organised army, especially by employing qualified commanders on a wide scale.

On July 9, the Central Committee of our Party addressed an open letter to all organisations, in which the question of the military situation is examined.

The Central Committee notes that now, in this period of extremely acute struggle on the Western and Southern fronts, attempts at bribery and cases of treachery are becoming more frequent, and calls for attention and vigilance on the part of all the army’s responsible workers.

‘But’, the Central Committee goes on, ‘it would be an irreparable mistake and unforgivable weakness of will if this were to result in bringing up the question of altering the foundations of our military policy.’ Hundreds of military specialists have betrayed us and will betray us, and we shall catch them and shoot them; but thousands and tens of thousands of military specialists are working with us, systematically and conscientiously, and without them we could not have created that Red Army which has grown out of the guerrilla-ism of accursed memory and has shown itself able to win brilliant victories in the East. Experienced persons who are at the head of our War Department point out, rightly, that where the Party’s policy concerning military specialists and concerning the eradication of guerrilla-ism has been implemented most strictly, where discipline is firmest, where the political work of commissars is carried out most carefully – there, by and large, we find the fewest cases of military specialists wanting to betray us, and the least possibility for such of them that there may be to realise their intentions: in those places there is no slackness in the army, its bearing and spirit are at the highest level, and most victories are won. Guerrilla-ism, with its traces, vestiges and survivals, has caused both our republic and the Ukrainian republic incomparably more disasters, collapses, catastrophes and losses of war material than all the betrayals by military specialists. [55]

Our Party programme defined the policy of the Communist Party with complete precision both regarding the general question of bourgeois specialists and regarding the particular question of one variety thereof, the military specialists. Our Party combats and will ‘carry on a merciless struggle against the seemingly radical, but actually ignorant and conceited opinion that the working people can overcome capitalism and the bourgeois order without learning from bourgeois specialists, without utilising them, without undergoing a long schooling through work alongside them.’ At the same time the Soviet power will, as before, and more effectively than before, deal with traitors and acts of betrayal.

This voice is clear. What to the demagogue of Krasnaya Zvezda seems the last word in wisdom, the conclusion to be drawn from all experience, is called by our Central Committee ‘pseudo-radical, ignorant conceit’. The Central Committee calls for ‘merciless struggle’ against this ignorant conceit. It is perfectly clear that the work of educating the Red Army masses cannot be entrusted to ignorant conceit.

The army needs serious, responsible political workers. There is no place among them for demagogues.

July 17, 1919
Vorozhba Station


54. The correctness of the military policy of the Central Committee of the RCP(B) and the People’s Commissar for Military Affairs was confirmed at the conference of political workers of the Eighth Army held at Vorenezh on July 11, 1919 and at the conference of responsible Party workers on the Thirteenth Army and the Livny organization of the RCP(B) on July 13, 1919

55. The process of transforming guerrilla armies into regular armies took place with particular slowness in the Ukraine. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine noted in its resolution of August 4: ‘There is still an almost complete lack of a proper network of political commissars, of discipline, of trained commanders, of organised supply, and of a properly organised administration ... The principal reason for this is that the creation of a regular army in the Ukraine is having to proceed amid the most intense civil war, in the confusion of still-surviving guerrilla-ism.’

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Last updated on: 22.12.2006