The Red Army on a Peace Footing

Speeches, Articles, Reports


At a Meeting of Military Workers in Yekaterinburg, on the Question of the Militia System, February 17, 1921 [1]

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

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Comrades, many questions have been touched upon here, both in the report and in the debate on the militia system: questions of importance from the standpoint of general principle, practical questions, and even departmental, organisational ones. I shall not say anything about the questions of principle. I shall refer only to one factor which I should like to mention.

I consider that this question of the militia system is today hardly open to general reconsideration. Decisions about it have been adopted both by the Congress of Soviets and by the Party. I must merely say that the comrade rapporteur, when describing the positive aspects of the militia, alluded not quite correctly to Switzerland, where an ideal type of militia was alleged to exist. There is as yet no ideal type of militia. By its very nature, a militia can attain full development only in a socialist state which still has enemies.

There is the book by Jaurés. [2] The political part of it contains much that is wrong, but as regards military matters it is prophetic. What Jaures advocates is, precisely, the militia-type army. But his idea met with no success, because a militia-type army does not square with the suppression of the majority by a minority. A militia-type army presupposes universal military training and the arming of the whole people – so that it is the military organisation of a revolt by the masses of the people against the bourgeoisie. That is what a militia is, essentially. Consequently there can be no question of creating a militia-type army in a bourgeois state, especially not in a big one, with strong class antagonisms. In Switzerland, which has long been a petty-bourgeois country with well-to-do middle peasants and townsfolk, the militia was more feasible because big capital, on the one hand, and the proletariat, on the other, played no great role. Besides which, in Switzerland a considerable proportion of the proletarians are foreigners – there are many Italians, Germans, Slays among them – who are exploited and without rights, and they have no part in the militia. The core of the militia is constituted by the petty-bourgeois class. In recent years the same development has been taking place in Switzerland as in other countries – that is, the two opposed classes have been getting continually stronger, while the intermediate element has been losing its importance. As a result, in Switzerland too the basis for a militia is disappearing, and there is a tendency to draw closer to the concept of a regular army.

The rapporteur was right when he said that the Swiss militia is well-trained, thanks to the high cultural level of the population and the country’s wealth. The Swiss are good sportsmen, good marksmen. All this, taken together, provides good soldiers for a war of defence. But what we have to do with here is not so much the militia system as the entire nature of the state in question. Switzerland is a neutral country, and by its very situation it is incapable of engaging in any conquering adventures. Thus, the Swiss militia is a petty-bourgeois militia, adapted to the defence of a small, neutral country. Big countries have not ventured to copy it, because to do so would mean suicide for the bourgeoisie. Consequently, a full-blown militia is feasible only in a socialist country in which there are no contradictions, where they are no grounds for fearing conflict between one part of the population and another. The Soviet republic is not yet a socialist country, it is in a state of transition from bourgeois to socialist conditions. For that reason there can be no question of our going over forthwith to the militia system. In general, what does going over to a militia mean? That is not entirely clear. The militia system is a particular form of military organisation of millions of people. It is not possible to go over to that all at once, any more than to go over all at once to socialism. One can only move gradually towards the goal. Consequently, the quickness or slowness of the transition has to correspond to the internal or external situation.

Here the comrade rapporteur examined some considerations affecting the militia system. Let us take the territorial principle.

This has both positive and negative aspects, but they have to be examined in relation to the given conditions. If, in our economic construction, we had attained a state of affairs in which the workers and peasants were well fed, the peasants had a sufficient quantity of nails, calico, and so on, the territorial principle would possess, for us, only its positive aspect. Thus, we know that, in the Urals, the Sysertsk factory fought heroically – what you had there was a group of people who had been welded together by all their previous experiences. The workers knew one another, they were bound together in unity by their work together, and this gave them a degree of cohesion not to be replaced by anything attained through the barracks. But if, in a given locality, there is antagonism, enmity, this cohesion may be turned against the Government. In the country districts, where revolts are taking place in which a considerable section of the peasants are involved, peasants who are suffering from want and deprivation, such cohesion may be turned against the military system – and not just against a militia system but against any other. We have to take all this into account. Consequently, the whole problem is, how are we to make the transition, what guarantees are needed to ensure that the economic aspects of our transition period do not ruin our work.

As for the point that, having regard to the international situation, a militia army cannot be mobilised with the necessary speed, this is again a purely practical question. Wherever we are threatened by maximum danger we must have some military safeguard available. It is perfectly true that we cannot be guaranteed against all our enemies everywhere, on every front. Therefore, we must have a sort of mobile reserve, which will have to be transferred from one place to another. For that to be possible we need railway and transport apparatuses. If these are poor, that will have its effect equally on militia troops and regulars. What the Chief of Staff said is all absolutely correct, but it is quite obvious that, in the transition period, we shall need to proceed with the greatest caution. We are surrounded by enemies on every side. Although there are many facts to show that our enemies are getting weaker, they may, nevertheless, in their hour of death, launch a fierce attack against us.

The last blow of an expiring creature could be mortal for us. How the German bourgeoisie will end its career, whether it will try to fall upon us with French support, is something we do not know. What will happen with Poland? Peace is soon to be signed with her. But that does not rule out the possibility of war in the spring, especially if the revolutionary movement grows stronger, as this may impel Poland to go to war so as to find in national intoxication the means to combat the revolutionary movement inside the country. To anticipate these possibilities we need to have substantial forces in the West. The whole problem lies in the proportion in which we are to go over to the militia system. Shall we say that we will now disband 40 or 50 divisions, leaving 10 or 20; or, on the contrary, shall we keep 40 or SO divisions while at the same time setting about the creation of five or three militia divisions? That is how the practical problem presents itself. I think that we should begin with the minimum – above all, so as to obtain some serious experience. The comrade rapporteur said, rightly, that our system of universal military training cannot provide such experience. It has been badly neglected. That was inevitable. So, then, shall we begin by creating three or five divisions? I think it would be more correct to start with three: in Petrograd, in Moscow, and in the Urals. To achieve this result, we need to form them out of good material. They must be based on well-tried field cadres. They must be brought up to strength through drafts from the other divisions, which are being disbanded. Good Communist cells must be organised in them. They must be provided with good commanders, the junior ranks being drawn from the local advanced workers.

Then, about their armament. This is a very complex question. In the transition period, when the civil war is not over, when revolt against us is being methodically prepared with the aid of France, which acts through the agency of Savinkov [3] (we possess all these facts, provided by our intelligence service), can we put weapons in the hands of the whole population? Obviously not. Consequently, this question will have to be studied. What correlation should there be between the cadres, the Communist advanced elements, and the peasants? How are the latter to be drawn in, and how is their education to be effected? We ought to take as our basis three areas, the most favourable ones, with the biggest percentage of workers. If the Urals were to starve, and the workers were to starve, then the militia experiment would break down. If our plenipotentiary commission can improve the food situation among the workers, that will be a tremendous help to the militia system. Consequently, one cannot say in the abstract which system is better, or settle this question as though it were a problem in mathematics. It is necessary to work it out as a political, social task, in accordance with prevailing circumstances. If it should turn out that, for economic reasons, we cannot, in 1921, give our attention to the Urals, the creation of a Urals division will have to be put off till next year. That is how, it seems to me, this question has to be approached.

When can the militia system be finally established? That depends on a very large number of factors. On the pace of revolutionary development in Western Europe and on economic development here in Russia. I think that if revolutionary development proceeds more rapidly in 1921, 1922 and 1923 than it has proceeded hitherto (it is indeed going ahead, though more slowly than we had counted on: the masses in Europe are more cultured, and they take every step with great prudence and sureness) – we shall make a great leap forward economically. Peasant revolts here will cease, and the food situation will improve. In those conditions, a transition to the militia system will be natural and inevitable, and instead of three divisions we shall be able to form twenty. If the socialist order is established everywhere, we shall have no need of a militia. But it is not possible to assume that Europe, Asia and America will go over to a stable Soviet regime in the course of three to five years. There is Japan, there is China, and how they will develop, whether capital will migrate to those countries from the ones that go over to the Soviet regime, whether capitalist development will begin there, whether they will serve as places of refuge for imperialism – all that remains still unknown. Therefore, the danger to us may continue for a decade, or even for two or three decades. If we attain the level of economic development at which Russia stood before the war, then, with the new socialist regime, this will ensure a high degree of prosperity for the masses. Even if improvement only proceeds with the same intensity (very slight) as before 1914, then, with the new order of things, that will provide a very good basis for a militia. This we can attain in the course of three, four or five years. In the meantime there may still be wars in Europe, powerful bourgeois states may continue to exist, and we shall need to possess armed forces.

That is why the question of the militia needs to be appreciated in this historical perspective and not simply decided like some mathematical problem. I insist that we must carry out such an experiment. Three divisions is also a big experiment. But at the same time we must completely retain the previous form of organisation and its strong organism. For example, suppose we decide to keep 40 or 50 divisions. We discharge from them all the age-groups subject to demobilisation. We keep account of all the Communists who have to remain in the army, the commanders and so on. We must not lower the fighting quality of these divisions but raise it. The worst thing would be for the units of the standing army to feel not quite certain whether they are needed.

So, then, the militia will be a big and serious experiment. A definite number of divisions will remain, in the coming months, to defend the country. These divisions must be strengthened and improved. Every Red Army man must be put through roughly the same course of training that our Red commanders underwent at the beginning: his interest in military matters must be increased, he must be attracted into the sphere of military interests. We have brought him into political conferences, but not into military ones. And yet those conferences, too, are useful. The experience which the Red Army men and their commanders have where matters of suitable armament, supply, organisation, and so on, are concerned must be brought into conferences, summarised, its conclusions deduced, so that it may be applied in practice. We must bring about a situation in which every conscious Red Army man becomes a conscious builder of the Red Army. Only thus shall we be able to survive through this period of transition. Therefore, we must say clearly that we are going to carry out our experiment. Our positions of principle remain wholly unchanged. During the next six months and the next year we shall confine our task to the creation of three or five divisions, but we shall perform this experiment in an exemplary fashion as regards cadres, armaments and other factors.

And since we mean by a militia a regular army (a militia is a regular army constructed on certain territorial principles, and closely linked with labour), it is obvious that we cannot have two apparatuses, one of which is to maintain the regular army while the other is adapted to the creation of a new army. Building in that way, with two stories, is beyond our means. It is also obvious that our universal military training system cannot serve as the apparatus for creating this army. It must remain the apparatus for pre-call-up preparation, in still closer connection than before with the local organisations. The militia divisions must unquestionably be built by the same apparatus which will deal with them subsequently, when they go over to a war footing. This will be a unified staff, in which we shall merge the All-Russia General Staff and the Field Staff – which in the event of a big war can easily be separated. [4] This, it seems to me, is, in broad outline, the schema of organisation for the period immediately ahead. And so, in the Urals we must form at least one militia division. I think it would be good if comrades from the Urals were to look into this matter, forming a commission drawn, perhaps, from those present at this meeting. By tackling the question in a practical way we shall the sooner arrive at a practical solution.

From the archives


1. The decision to go over to the militia system was taken by the Ninth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (see note 40 to Volume III of this edition), but was not put into effect because in spring 1920 the war with Poland began, and liquidation of the Southern Front was not completed until the end of 1920. The question of the militia system was raised afresh at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party. A discussion began on this question in which a number of prominent Party workers – Comrades Smilga, Frunze, Tukhachevsky and others – took part, presenting theses on the militia system. The Tenth Party Congress, which was held during the Kmnstadt events, recognised that going over to the militia system depended entirely on the international and internal situation – on the length of the breathingspace, the relations between town and country, and soon. It noted, also, that the agitation carried on by certain comrades in favour of actual dissolution of the existing Red Army and immediate going over to the militia system was incorrect, and dangerous at that time. The Congress considered that particular militia formations might be formed only in those areas which had the most firmly-united proletarian populations (Petrograd, Moscow, the Urals). The speech at the meeting in Yekaterinburg published here belongs to the period of the pre-Congress discussion.

2. Jean Jaurès, L’Armée Nouvelle

3. B.V. Savinkov headed the ‘Russian Political Committee’ in Warsaw which collaborated with Pilsudski during the Russo-Polish war in 1920. In 1921 he worked with Bulak-Balakhovich, sending bands of saboteurs into Soviet Byelorussia. His novel The Black Horse (English translation, 1924) is based on his experiences in this period. For his last years, see the epilogue by Joseph Shaplen to his translation of Savinkov’s Memoirs of a Terrorist (New York, 1931). Churchill included Savinkov in the set of 21 short biographies which he published in 1937 under the title Great Contemporaries; the only other Russian included being Leon Trotsky, alias Bronstein.

4. The final shaping of the supreme organs of military command in the Republic took place at the end of 1918, when, after the establishment of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic, there existed the Field Staff, serving as the operational organ which provided direct guidance for military operations, and the All-Russia Main Staff, which served the entire rear of the Red Army and united under its control all the military districts in the Republic. This system of organising the supreme apparatus for administering the army was retained until the end of the civil war, and only in December 1920 did the time come to consider unifying, reducing and simplifying the army’s administrative apparatus. By Order No.33641, dated February 10, 1921, of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic, the two staffs were merged, being reorganised into a single ‘General Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army’.

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Last updated on: 28.12.2006