The Red Army on a Peace Footing

Speeches, Articles, Reports

Concluding Remarks

At the 2nd Conference of Communist Party Cells in Higher Military Education Institutions, December 10, 1921 [1]

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

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Comrades, I have been asked a question, in notes handed to me, which the first of the comrades who spoke here also formulated orally – namely, what is the situation of our Navy, what destiny awaits it in the period immediately ahead, what must its structure be? Comrade Posunko, speaking here, said that during the years of Soviet power the Navy has been in a chronic state of collapse, and that the blame for this lies with the commanders, who are hostile to us. I think that, in the explanation he gives for a perfectly well-established fact, Comrade Posunko is absolutely wrong. What has happened, according to him, is that, where the army is concerned, we were able to find reliable commanders and a reliable Commander-in-chief, and so the army has been consolidated, but where the Navy is concerned we were unlucky, we were unable to find such a man, and so the Navy has collapsed.

Nothing of the sort. This explanation is radically wrong. Perhaps Comrade Posunko said more than he meant to say, or less. But I have heard something similar from many sailors: the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Naval Forces betrayed us, and so disintegration began on the ships. This is radically wrong. The entire setting for the development of our army and our navy respectively has been profoundly different in these years. Why were we not destroyed? We can ask ourselves this question: how was it that we succeeded in not being destroyed militarily? In February 1918 the working class in this country was, from the standpoint of defence, ‘as naked as a picked bone’. The old army had broken up, the new one did not exist, and there were any number of enemies to be withstood.

And yet we were not destroyed. Why was that? Because we possessed an immense place d’armes, because Russia is a country of boundless expanses. I was talking not long ago with a German naval officer who had once had a conversation with Nicholas II, and he told me that Nicholas II, a man who, as is well known, was not at all intelligent, expressed himself thus: ‘Russia is not a state but a continent.’ I told the German officer that Nicholas probably had not thought that up himself, he read it somewhere, but, all the same, what he said was true. Russia is not a state but a continent. Only because we were able, with impunity, to retreat over immense distances did each of the European armies that tried to crush us face the task of occupying a boundless country. And it was possible for us, thanks to these expanses, to set forth from Moscow, in the centre, to build an army. This army developed a strategy of manœuvre in the course of its battles. Some comrades connect this strategy with the character of the revolution. Not so! The strategy of manœuvre is the resultant of the two magnitudes – territory, and size of the army. Where the territory is huge and, in relation to this, the army is insignificant, there alone is a strategy of manœuvre possible. Precisely because Russia is not a state but a continent, the Soviet power was able to stand its ground here, whereas in Hungary it fell, suffered defeat. If, at the end of 1917, we had come to power in Belgium or Hungary, we should not have had a strategy of manœuvre, or even an army, for we should soon have ceased to be in power. And where the Navy was concerned we were precisely in the ‘Belgian’ position, that is, in a worse than tight spot. We had no continent of water on which we could build a navy and conduct operations. Against us stood all-powerful Britain. We may have had a bad commander of naval forces, he may even have been a traitor – anything could happen! – but that is not the main thing: whoever wants to understand the difference between the fate of the army and that of the navy should remember that, while we have more than enough territory – they tried to diminish it for us, and did take a little away – where the sea is concerned we have practically nothing. If you take our army, the role played in it by human material is, broadly speaking, three-quarters of the whole affair, with the role of technology only accounting for one-quarter. But in the navy it is the other way round: three quarters is machinery, metal transformed into the technology of war, and men count for only one quarter. And in which of these elements are we strong? We are strong in manpower: our people, though hungry, alas, are very numerous. But in technology we are weak. These reasons are more than sufficient, so that any others that may exist can be regarded as being of tenth-rate importance. For a navy to live, it must have coal and oil: without them there will be no navy. The army, of course, also needs fuel, for heating its barracks, for its motor-cars, armoured cars and so on. But the relative importance of fuel is not so great in the army. If there are no trucks, the army can manage with peasants’ carts. But if the navy lacks coal and oil, it cannot move anywhere. And so, comrades, for naval success we lacked three trifles: first, water, second, ships, and, third, fuel. And to these three trifles you can add, if you like, bad commanders. That’s the situation! Our sailor comrades are splendid people, they fight magnificently on land as well, they have proved it by their deeds, but they have been positively badgering us with their complaints and reproaches: they say they are not appreciated, the navy is badly looked after, insufficient attention is being paid to maritime defence, and so on.

The trouble does not he there, but with our poverty. I have just been haggling, comrades, about 100,000 poods of coal, in the Central Committee of the Party – yes, every pood of coal has to be discussed nowadays by the Central Committee. But do you know what were were talking about last year? We were discussing, in a serious Party way, which of two actions it would be more dangerous to take: to lay our ships up for a longtime, or to sink them, because sinking is also one way of preserving a ship – later on, when better days come, it can be raised. We did not do this, however. But it is instructive enough that we were discussing such a question. We gave the army everything we could. That was why we were not able to select commanders for the navy. Since we were engaged in saving ourselves on land, after we had had to fall back almost completely from the seashores, it was natural that the best workers from among the sailors were taken into the army, and eventually we quite denuded the Navy of its men. That is the root of it all!

What was this? Imprudence? A mistake? Nothing of the sort. There were very profound historical reasons. Moreover, I tell you that from the international standpoint, this passivity of ours where the navy was concerned had its favourable consequences, because it led to a certain split between France and Britain in their attitude to us. Britain could not in any circumstances tolerate any attempts on our part in the naval sphere. When we launched a single submarine, Curzon set up a great racket. Of course the British, like the French, regarded us as an enemy – but as an enemy who had been driven inland and was therefore not so dangerous, and they even entered into commercial relations with us. At our first attempt to revive the navy, the British would take a very much sterner line towards us. This also has to be reckoned with. Today the general international situation gives promise of some fresh prospects. Certain improvements have been observed also in the matter of the output of coal and oil. The attraction of foreign capital and the revival of metallurgy and the metal-working industry open up new possibilities both for ship-repairing and for shipbuilding. We are working out a modest programme, considering that our navy does have a future: this programme is, of course, strictly defensive in character, and consists mainly of submarines and means of defence by minelaying. Nobody, of course, will suppose that we can presume at present to draw up a programme for building mighty ships of the line, superdreadnoughts. But we need a navy for defence, and we shall gradually re-create such a navy, as soon as the necessary material prerequisites become available: at present they are only beginning to appear. But the sailor comrades are absolutely right when they point to the need to preserve a nucleus of manpower for the navy, because, although machinery counts for three-quarters at sea and men for only one-quarter, nevertheless, without that one-quarter the machinery is merely so much scrap-iron. If we do not preserve even a small nucleus of men for the navy, then in two or three years we shall be in no state to fight, even if we then possess the technological means of developing the navy. Consequently, it is necessary to preserve such a nucleus of elite elements. As we are preparing a technical plan for restoring the navy, we must also prepare a reliable body of commanders, consisting predominantly of Communists. That is obvious, and there can be no argument about it here.

The only problem is, what practical measures are we to take immediately, at what pace, and in what order? It would be impossible, fantastic, to leap from our present situation into one in which the commanders would be 100 per cent Communists. This is what I am talking about. In our army we have 5 per cent Communists since the purge, perhaps 6 per cent, and 95 per cent non-Communists. Whoever decides to address this army and say that we are going to allow only Communists to enter our military-education institutions, especially the higher ones, understands nothing and is no politician, no revolutionary. This is a very serious question. To tell an army in which 95 per cent are non-Communists that, after being in power in this country for four years, we have come to the conclusion that we must allow only Communists into our educational institutions, would be a very gross error. It is not a question of the specialists not in the least. Let us not go back to 1918, when we argued about whether or not we needed to allow specialists into the army. Those were childish arguments, those arguments we had in 1917-1918, and we are now living at the end of 1921. The question before us is a quite different one. We already possess a new body of commanders who have come up from below – reliable men, Soviet people, but not Communists: the Communists in our army now constitute only 8 per cent. We have expelled very many commanders from the Party, not because they are not trustworthy, but because they are not Party people. A certain man would die, if need be, for the revolution, but he lacks the Party education that could give him the right to influence Party policy. After a year or two, perhaps, he will be knocked into shape and come to understand that the Party is a serious matter: perhaps this grave fact that he has been expelled with stimulate him politically. But perhaps he is generally unadapted to Party life – the majority are like that. This merely shows that the commanders are a reflection of the army, and the army is a reflection of the country. The country is ‘non-party’, but the Party leads it. It is not possible to say: there, I push down a pedal, and at once we get the Communist commanders we need. From where? How? After all, grass does not grow ‘at once’. There is hardly any difference of opinion amongst us on the point that we must increase by all means the number of Communists in the army generally, and among the commanders in particular. Our difference concerns the question of how the Communists are to be situated in relation to military education. How should it be: a position of monopoly, of formal privilege – or actual superiority? I am in favour of the latter. When Comrade Ostrovsky spoke of the need for monopoly, he was being a little too clever ... I hope he will forgive me. What was the line of argument? In our country, it was said, we have dictatorship, we have a class army, and therefore the Communists ought to have a monopoly of positions of command. But where are we to get them from? Comrade Kruchinsky expounded a still thicker piece of philosophy, and called it Marxism. No, this has nothing in common with Marxism. This is our very own invention, and it is radically false. In the army, 95 per cent are non-Party men, and we say to every peasant Red Army man: you, Petrov, can attain any position of command, all doors are open to you. We say, like Napoleon: every Red Army man, every recruit, has a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. But you want us to decree that that baton is only attainable by Communists. Just think what sort of an impression that would make! No, there can be no question of any monopoly. Can formal privileges be created for Communists? Let’s say that we let Communists enter the academy even if they know only half of what they should, whereas higher requirements are imposed on non-Communists? That would mean creating a situation of formal privilege, even if an odious one. I reject such formal privilege, and until the Party removes me from my post I shall not allow it. But there is a third possibility, worthier and more realistic: to create, through the Communist Party, conditions that would furnish the army with an ever increasing percentage of Communist commanders. Through its organisation the Party will prepare and designate suitable elements for the Academy, establishing preparatory courses for them, or else making use of the Workers’ Faculties.

Thus, by means of its whole organisational apparatus and of the state apparatus which is in its hands, the Party will facilitate the supply of Communists to the Academy. This is the only proper arrangement. We say frankly to the non-Party commanders that the gates are open to them, and if a non-Party commander has shown his devotion to the revolution, we will help him to get to the Academy. If Communists succeed in preparing themselves better, that is because they have the Party. The Party gives a great deal, but it also demands a great deal. You are a non-Party man: the doors of the Academy are open to you too. Does this mean that we shall allow non-Party people into the Academy in the same percentage as before? No. We shall pay very great attention to the recommendations of the credentials commission, but we shall correct them in those cases where the credentials commission of a particular educational institution is not able to take account of circumstances external to this institution, in the army itself. It would be easy, of course, from the standpoint of the Communist group in an educational institution, to say: ‘Nobody but Communists!’ But what about when I am face to face with a company commander who asks me: ‘Is it true, Comrade Trotsky, that a decision has been taken not to admit non-Party men?’ He has the Order of the Red Banner, he is no creeper but an honourable fighter. And now he asks me: ‘Is it true that this has been decided?’ And you would like precisely that decision to be taken. The comrade from the Electro-Technical Academy said just that. This gives sufficient occasion for misinterpreters in the army to talk about the doors of the Academy being closed. It would be easy to close those doors; but where are we to find Communists who have sufficient military preparation? Comrade Ostrovsky, speaking here, started to discuss and weigh the question as to which is better: reliability or competence? That reminds me of another Ostrovsky, the dramatist, whose merchant-class heroine asks: ‘Which is better – to expect and not to get, or to have and to lose?’ [2] It is very hard to say which is better. A commander who knows his job but is not reliable will betray and cause disaster. A commander who is reliable but who can’t make head or tail of anything, will also cause disaster. Which of them is better? Let’s put them both in the scales. In one scale of the balance I put reliability and, in the other, competence. I think the scales will waver, waver – and end up level. Can it be denied, indeed, that both of these qualities are equally necessary? An unreliable commander causes disaster, and so also does a commander who does not know his job. Therefore, we need a commander who is both reliable and competent. Already in 1917 we said: since we have hardly any commanders who are both competent and reliable, we shall have to combine competence and reliability through combining two or three persons. We took a military specialist and we put on his right hand and on his left a commissar – who was in those days something different from what he is today. I remember how, in Petrograd, already at the time of Krasnov’s first attack, when Muravyov was appointed commander, Comrade Lenin and I invited into another room the four sailors and one soldier who had been appointed commissars, and asked them if they possessed revolvers? Yes, they did. Right, then, we said: keep them in your bosoms and don’t take your eyes off the commander. That was how we combined reliability with competence. Muravyov had the competence, and reliability was there in the sailor’s bosom. And since then? We have made every effort to form commanders who are both competent and reliable. To speak very plainly, this has been a very difficult task. We have been betrayed both by traitor commanders and by ignoramus commanders. How many examples there have been of an excellent, devoted Communist who, when he was in command of a small guerrilla troop, showed courage, led his men into battle, and so on, but who, when he became commander of a division, did the most frightful things, which cost us very dear. And the entire initial phase of the war consisted of very grave mistakes – some due to treason, others to ignorance. And what is the point here? The point is that senior commanders are not formed artificially, in a laboratory, but only grow on the soil of the army itself, as a whole. We can, of course, accelerate this process a little, with the help of the Party, but it is hopeless to try and create military and naval academicians artificially, in a short time. That is why, when I pulled certain comrades up, I was not, of course, implying in the least that we do not need Communist commanders. No, we need them urgently. On this question we and you are following the same line, but at different tempos. You want to effect too rapid a jump in the Naval Academy, from 1 per cent to 100 per cent. If you want to retain in the Navy those vestiges which we still have, you can’t sweep away with a mop, in this fashion, something without which we cannot cope. And when Comrade Kruchinsky said here that they put traitor sailors in prison, but Comrade Trotsky wants to bring them back into the Academy, this is not at all such a simple matter. We discussed this question in the Party’s Central Committee. A special commission was set up, under the chairmanship of Comrade Kursky – who is, as you know, not a sailor, but our People’s Commissar of Justice and an old Party worker – a commission in which there were sailor members, in order to review those summary arrests, due to exceptional circumstances, in which mistakes might have been made. The overwhelming majority of those arrested have already been released. A certain number (this work has not yet been concluded) are being sent back to Petrograd and, apparently, some will be sent back to the Academy. Chekists are, of course, working with the commission, and they are not at all interested, any more than you and I are, in letting enemies into the Navy Department. That is how the matter stands. I have already spoken about concern for precedence. In reply, some comrades tried to justify this: whereas the old-time concern for precedence [3] was an expression of the dictatorship of the Boyars, that of today, they said, is an expression of the dictatorship of the working class. A worthless comparison. But I might, conditionally, accept it if what we had was a dictatorship of a working class the majority of which was Communist, in a country where the working class was indisputably master of the situation. But the essence of the matter is that the rule of the Communist Party is challenged from time to time. We can even imagine the varying ways in which the Communist Party, if it were to lose its common sense, might bring disaster upon itself. First, if it were to allow a large number of alien elements into its ranks. In Kronstadt there was a non-Party body of commanders, who betrayed us. But have you forgotten that there were several hundred Communists there, who took part in the fighting against us? [4] On the one hand you had non-Party senior commanders, whether naval or military, and, on the other, danger had penetrated into the Party in the form of alien elements. That was a serious lesson for us. If the Party were to take the path of establishing a Communist monopoly of military education, it would thereby impel many people to assume false colours in order to get into our ranks, while, on the other hand, it would alienate honest non-Party people and isolate itself politically. Non-Party people might not hide themselves inside the Party, but, instead, form themselves into groups hostile to the Party. That is where the danger lies. Our political strategy cannot, in these conditions, be a straight-line one such as has been suggested – get the higher educational institutions consolidated in Communist positions, and the job’s done. On this question our political strategy has to be a strategy of manœuvre. We shall open the doors of the higher educational institutions to non-Party people, because, in the Army – don’t forget this, comrades! – 95 per cent are non-Party people. We shall say to the ordinary Red Army man: advance yourself! And at the same time, through the Party, we shall create de facto advantages for Communists: selection, promotion, preparation, and so cm. If we find, as was the case at the end of last year, when, owing to requisitioning and so on, morale in the Army was bad, that an element hostile to the revolution is pressing through the gates, we shall post a Communist guard at the gates, and they will not let through anyone who should not be let through. Today we see that morale is improving in the Army. We say: open the door two inches wider. That does not mean, throw the door wide open to non-Party people! If morale should worsen again – which we think will not happen – we should say: pull the door to, by one inch. Political manoeuvring consists in doing that. Certain terribly Left-wing comrades look with scorn on such policies – Comrade Kruchinsky, for instance. They would like to get hewing with an axe. But that is not our Communist policy. One needs to know when the door has to be held ajar and when it has to be slammed shut, or to be opened again. In that consists the political skill which has to be applied by the vanguard which constitutes a minority of the working class in a peasant country. In this lies the essence of our present strategy, and it is fully applicable to the higher military educational institutions. All that we can argue about is whether to open the door by half an inch or by seven inches – that is, the purely practical question of who to let in and who not to let in. But to shift this question on to the plane of a discussion about the dictatorship of the Party is nonsense. No such question arises, for who is it that decides whether to open the door by one inch or more than that? The Party decides. That’s where the dictatorship exists. The Party, after considering the circumstances, decides to what extent, when and how to admit non-Party people. Thereby it keeps the leadership fully in its own hands, and the dictatorship consists in doing that.

Does this mean ‘concessions’, ‘compromises’? Of course; intelligent concessions and necessary compromises! Where other questions are concerned, too, we have had to speak more than once recently regarding the sense and significance of our concessions. All the international Mensheviks are now howling about our New Economic Policy: ‘Look what you are doing, you are granting concessions to foreign capital, you are allowing free trade; but this is an extremely Right-wing, compromising, reformist policy! So why did you take power? When we, in Germany (say the Scheidemannites), conclude compromise agreements with the bourgeoisie, you brand us, yet you yourselves are doing the same thing in your own country. Was it worth your taking power?’ Consider, comrades, was it worth it, or wasn’t it? To that we reply: ‘Unrespected Messrs Scheidemannites. In your country the bourgeoisie decides how far it will go in making concessions to the working class: up to this point, agreed, but try to advance further, and the machine-guns will open up. In our country, however, we, the Party of the proletariat, decide how far to go in compromises with the bourgeoisie: up to this point, to this line, agreed, but try to advance further and – don’t be angry! – the machine-guns will open up. That’s the difference. The machine-guns are in our hands, the army is in our hands. We enter into various agreements: we have one agreement with the non-Party workers, another with the peasants, a third with the small-scale trade, and with large-scale trade, with the concession-holders, we have yet another special agreement – all different agreements, different deals, carefully calculated. But who holds the key? We do. Who decides on the limits of agreement? The Party. That’s the point. Without these agreements we should long ago have fallen, but we are standing firm and shall continue to do so, we shall win – there, you see how far the question about whether to allow non-Party people into the Academy has led us. This is not my fault but the fault of those comrades who posed the question on the plane of ‘principles’..

Comrade Kruchinsky tried to attack me along another line of ‘principle’, namely, that of offensive revolutionary war. I say at once, and straight out, that these are the false prejudices, the superficialities of Leftism, here being played to a military tune, and frighteningly similar to the views of those German Left semi-Marxists, semi-syndicalists, who were at the International Congress that was held here. [5] Such views can cause much confusion. They are clean contrary to the line of our Party. Let us get closer to the question. Comrade Kruchinsky says that I am ‘frightened’ by Red imperialism, that I only halfacknowledge offensive revolutionary war, but am afraid to say so out loud. Whereas he, Kruchinsky, will say it all without holding back: offensive revolutionary war, that’s it, he says, so out with it and don’t beat about the bush! Let’s consider the matter. To this question, which is of the highest importance, I am devoting a long article which will appear in the next issue of The Communist International and in our military journal. [6] Here, I want to say, in connection with Comrade Kruchinsky’s remarks, first of all, that there are two aspects to this question: the political-principle aspect and the political-agitation aspect. The aspect of principle consists in this: do we regard offensive revolutionary war as admissible in principle, and, also, is it probable, or inevitable, historically? Unconditionally, we regard it as both admissible and probable, and, in certain circumstances, inevitable. We spoke about that twenty years ago, even before the first revolution: it is an elementary truth. Already Marx taught us that when the revolutionary class holds power in its hands, and has the army, it uses this to consolidate the revolution and, where possible, also to extend its territory. The bourgeoisie must be overthrown throughout the world, and one of the instruments for overthrowing it will be in certain circumstances, revolutionary war. Thus, there is not and cannot be any question of principle for us as to whether the army needs to be capable, in certain cases, of waging revolutionary war. But when, how and in what circumstances?

At the Third Congress of the Comintern the German, Italian and other ‘Lefts’ said that they stood for the revolutionary ‘offensive’. They were referring not to the strategy of the Red Army but to the strategy of our Party in Germany and other countries. They said: we stand for the revolutionary offensive, because the bourgeoisie can be overthrown only by an uprising. About that there can be no dispute, it is elementary. But it does not follow therefrom when and where the uprising is to take place. And that is a question of no small importance. The Third Congress said that the present period is not one of offensive by the working class against the bourgeoisie on the world scale, it is a period of political preparation for this offensive. The argument consequently concerned these alternatives – international revolutionary offensive, or international preparation for an offensive. The ‘Lefts’ tried to wave their arms about and accuse us: you, they said, are against the revolutionary offensive, but that is rubbish. We ridiculed them, saying, you, lads, have only just learnt about the revolutionary offensive, and you are poking it around everywhere, in every corner, like blind kittens. But you need to know what it’s all about. That was how we answered them, and we were right to do so. And the ‘Lefts’ drew a very good lesson for themselves from that. In Germany our Party has, in the last six months, effected the necessary retreat and has carried out extensive work in preparation for the offensive: this work alone will enable it, sooner or later, to go over to the offensive and smash the German bourgeoisie. But if we have gone over to preparation, as against offensive, on the world scale, what conclusion follows from that for the Red Army? Does it perhaps have its own special policy? An offensive now would mean that we want the Red Army to shoulder a task beyond its strength. Such a policy would be fatal. We say to the working class: the international congress acknowledged that, in the period immediately ahead (how long it will last, I don’t know), we must concentrate on preparatory work. We are not going to undertake the fantastical task of marching on Warsaw, Berlin and Paris at a time when the International is saying to the workers of Poland, Germany and France – pull back closer to the masses, don’t go too far, you still have big tasks of preparation to accomplish. This is why I consider that in Comrade Tukhachevsky’s interesting book there is an error when he writes that the time has come for the Comintern to set up an international general staff. [7] Neither more nor less! An international general staff! What’s that? The Communist International is the political organisation which unites the national Communist Parties. When did the International become a possibility? When, alongside the Russian Communist Party, there appeared the German and other Communist Parties. Well, and when would a common general staff become possible? When, alongside the government of the Russian proletariat, other proletarian governments have arisen. Then and only then will it be possible to speak seriously of a common general staff, in the military sense of the word. But, you know, this necessary pre-condition is not present! And we are now at the stage of retreat and preparation. What about our concessions to foreign capitalists? What about our recognition of the Tsarist debts? Are these, perhaps, elements in an offensive? No, they are elements of compromise and preparation. Strategy, after all, is bound up with policy. If we were now in a position to take the offensive, we should not have recognised the Tsarist debts. Concessions, the New Economic Policy, recognition of the Tsarist debts, and, along with all that, offensive war: why, it would make a cat laugh! I tell you in confidence that one can’t talk seriously about this matter, out loud – people would roar with laughter! War is the continuation of policy by other means, said old Clausewitz, and old Clausewitz was a sensible man. With you, though, policy goes in one direction and strategy in another. Of course, the offensive method would be more agreeable, but at the opportune moment. We tried to make a revolutionary offensive sortie into Europe with our march on Warsaw, but it did not come off. Why? Because the revolution had not matured. Not because such a sortie was wrong in principle, no, but because the revolution in Poland had not matured. In Italy the revolution had miscarried, and in Germany and Poland the preparatory period had not been completed. Our military movement turned out to be politically isolated – and we recoiled. From that moment began a general political retreat by the proletariat. A retreat can also be a manœuvre, just like an offensive. That is well said in Comrade Tukhachevsky’s book. He shows that, in a war of manœuvre, defence also acquires a manoeuvring character. Retreat is a purposeful change of location so as to avoid a disadvantageous battle. The result of our military retreat from Warsaw – after sounding out our enemies and our friends – was a political retreat, not only by Soviet Russia but also by the entire revolutionary movement. What was the Treaty of Riga, for which we are now paying? It was part of our retreat. We are pulling back, cautiously and firmly, not yielding to the enemy any more positions than we have to. We are retreating ... and, what’s this? we are shouting: ‘Since we are Marxists, we are in principle for offensive, not defensive action.’ I repeat, it would make a cat laugh. That’s what is meant by thinking a question through to the end! Naturally, when the situation has changed in the relevant way, we shall take the offensive, after first halting our retreat and strengthening ourselves. One must retreat at the right time and advance at the right time. That is the meaning of the strategy of manœuvre about which so many people are making such a stir. If I press on regardless of circumstances, where’s the manœuvre?! The strategy of manœuvre, comrades, consists in retreating, when need be, advancing, when need be, and, when need be, combining retreat and offensive so as to be in the best position to prepare and deliver a blow. That is how it is with strategy, just as with our revolutionary policy.

So, then, we are now faced with a period of preparation – here, in Germany and in Poland. What does preparation mean here? That we get the army into order, that we assemble some reserve stores, that we try to raise the level of the educational institutions, that we expand the schools for commanders. All that, on the basis of serious concessions to the peasantry and, in part, to the bourgeoisie. In Germany the preparatory period means waging a successful struggle to win the masses. In Poland it means the growth of the Communist Party: at the elections for the hospital-fund clubs the Communist Party won more votes than the Polish Socialist Party – that is a symptom of extraordinary importance. We must always be ready at short notice, and a crisis is undoubtedly maturing in the events that are taking place: but what international expression will this assume? Most likely, that Poland won’t be able to stand it, and will start to attack us.

Here we approach the question from the standpoint of political agitation, that is, from that of preparing the consciousness of the masses. What are we doing now in the military field? We are carrying out a general demobilisation. It is astonishing how inconsistent some comrades are in their thinking. We recently demobilised the 13th age-group and we are about to discharge the 14th on indefinite leave. I ask you: how can we, at one and the same time, demobilise and talk about offensive revolutionary war? Either all revolutionary terms have been devalued here, or else we and our ‘Lefts’ talk different languages! How is it possible not to accuse the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic and the Central Committee of the Party of treason if we are demobilising the army when what is on the agenda is offensive war? Be consistent! We are demobilising because we are not at present going to fight, and, consequently, we are not going to launch an offensive. This is what we say to the workers and peasants: we have no war at present, there are no fronts, we are not going to attack anyone, and so we are demobilising. But why keep the classes of 1900 and 1901 in the Army? Because the danger of an attack upon us has not passed, and the army must keep a skeleton, so that it may be expanded in the event of danger. Do we have one doctrine for ourselves and another for the people? From the standpoint of political agitation we must explain to the Red Army men that the danger has not passed, because we are, as before, living in a capitalist encirclement. We are not going to attack anyone on our own initiative. Our stance is a defensive one. But we must squeeze out from our defensive stance all the possibilities, all the political advantages we can, so that the whole army, which is made up mostly of peasants, may feel, in the event of danger, that what is at stake is the fate of the peasants’ and workers’ power, that there can be no further retreat, that no additional concessions will be of any use, that we have to fight. Only then, with our peasant rearguard which is slow to get going, can we pass from retreat to offensive – provided that there is a revolutionary offensive by the working class of Europe. That is the real view of our Party, and what some comrades spoke about here as revolutionary doctrine is profoundly mistaken. If we were to approach the masses with this doctrinairism they would not follow us, they would forsake us, and we should not obtain the circumstances which we need to prepare. That is the heart of the matter. Now, about preparation. Let us remember that tomorrow’s enemy will be more serious than any we have faced hitherto. Some comrades take the attitude: that’s all right, we’ll bring all our weight to bear on them and win through somehow, that is, we will once more mobilise thousands and thousands of Communists, if necessary we’ll put three men behind one rifle, and we’ll win. That, after all, was what often happened here in the past. Of course we’ll win, because we’ll stop at nothing in order to win. But, all the same, we need to have a very much more attentive and serious attitude now towards political, organisational and technical preparation. Where Denikin and Kolchak were concerned, our old methods proved adequate but where Poland was concerned they did not prove adequate. As you probably know, there were differences among us at the time, on whether to make peace with Poland or to march on Warsaw. I was in favour of making peace, since it was very doubtful if we had the power to reach Warsaw, let alone to take it. The answer to that question depended, however, on a general political appreciation, in particular on our estimate of the attitude the working class of Poland would adopt towards the war. It was hard to forecast that with any precision: eventually, the view that we should go forward won the day. The offensive miscarried. But even after that, as we were being thrown back, voices were raised to demand that we resume the offensive, at all costs! It soon became clear, though, that this was unrealisable: with an army thoroughly shaken by retreat and hastily replenished with fresh, almost untrained, replacements, we were unable to fight, and an attempt to fill up all the gaps with Communists would merely have meant destroying Communists to no purpose – we should not have got to Warsaw anyway. The Polish army was more highly skilled than the armies of Kolchak and Denikin had been. To face the future we must ensure that we prepare with maximum thoroughness.

Some comrades think that the army has to be prepared either for offensive action or for defence, and with this aim in mind they construct a revolutionary doctrine of the offensive. This is not true! An army is prepared for conflict, for battle, for war, and, consequently for both offensive and defensive action. The same fundamental methods are applicable both to the defensive and to the offensive, just as a rifle can be used both in retreat and in attack, and just as trained hands can be used both to strike a blow and to ward one off. An army has to be given elementary practical training so that it may make good use of its weapons both when retreating and when on the offensive. And we need no doctrinairism!

What does our army lack? Skill, know-how, precision, meticulousness in execution. It lacks accuracy. It lacks military culture, like every other sort of culture. To ensure that some previously-decided operations shall coincide in time is very, very difficult for us: more difficult than to perform some heroic exploit. For a man to go to the telephone and make a call at a prearranged time, and for another man to be waiting at the other end for that call to come through at that time, in order that he may receive instructions – I give this as an example – to achieve that result, with our way of doing things, is a very difficult task indeed. And yet war consists not of mere plans, but of their fulfilment, which, in turn, breaks down into a multitude of details. Each operation, and the war as a whole, is made up of such details. Of course we need élan, enthusiasm. Of course we need a proper plan. But what we lack most of all is proper organisation, skill, know-how, well-considered assiduity, accuracy. Most of you know from experience that it is precisely for this reason that we most often miscarry. No one person is to blame for a failure, because they are all linked one with another, this little bit of slovenliness to that little bit of vagueness, and all together they bring about the downfall, the destruction, of thousands of men. Comrade Kruchinsky said, with condescending pity, that he had read my messages about the need to sew on buttons and grease boots. What ‘trifles’! How can that sort of thing matter to us when what we have to do is to prepare for offensive war ... But the trouble is that, without boots it is very hard to carry out an offensive, or even to retreat.

The absence of this precision among us is not accidental, it is a heritage from our past slavery, a result of our backwardness, ignorance, lack of culture. We need to wage a fierce, stubborn, systematic struggle against all that, in every direction and especially in that of military education. The commander who looks down contemptuously upon trifles is not a serious person. Your work in the academies is more often than not hindered by such ‘trifles’ as shortage of wood, lamp-bulbs or text-books. You, comrades, have quoted striking examples enough on that score. If attention is not paid to these ‘trifles’ you will not learn, you will not be prepared, and the army will suffer for that. Therefore, without being able, alas, to guarantee 100 per cent success, I do promise you to try 100 per cent to meet all these deficiencies to the limit of what is possible.

From the archives


1. The Second Conference of Communist Party cells in Higher Military Education Institutions was held on December 10-12, 1921. Besides the concluding remarks printed here, Comrade Trotsky gave a report at this conference the shorthand transcript of which has not, unfortunately, been preserved. Here is an excerpt from the account of it given in the journal Krasnaya Armiya, No.9 of 1920. ‘The Chairman of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic summed up the reports received from the localities and said that the command would immediately take real steps to improve the material situation of the Higher Military-Education Institutions. As one measure for improving living conditions in them, he proposed that they be attached to the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Recognising the need to reorganise the Higher Military School, Comrade Trotsky commented on certain tendencies, which had been shown in connection with the question of admission to higher military-education institutions. He stressed that the doors of the military school are open to all commanders who are devoted to the revolution, including non-Party commanders who have proved in action their devotion to the Soviet power.’ On the question of the admission of non-Party men to higher military-education institutions see on page 254): The Military Academies and Non-Party People.

2. This is said in A.N. Ostrovsky’s play Whatyou dream on the eve of a feast-day will come true before dinner-time (1857), by Ustinka, a merchant’s daughter.

3. In Russia between the 15th and 17th centuries closeness to the Tsar and priority in appointment to certain posts was governed, among the nobles, by a formal ‘order of precedence’.

4. Paul Avrich (Kronstadt, 1970, p.183) quotes Trotsky as telling the Tenth Party Congress that 30 per cent of the Kronstadt Communists took an active part in the revolt, while 40 per cent remained neutral.

5. For Trotsky’s critique of the German Lefts’ ‘theory of the offensive’, see his speech of July 2 1921, at the 3rd Congress of the Communist International (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume I, London, 1973, pp.321-333).

6. The article: Military Doctrine or Pseudo-Military Doctrinairism appeared in No.19 of the journal Kommunistichesky Internatsional and in No.2 of Voyennaya Nauka i Revolyutsiya for 1921. This article is given in Volume V of this edition, in the section Questions of Military Theory.

7. On the establishment of an International General Staff, see Tukhachevsky’s book Voina Klassov (The Class War), Gosizdat, Moscow 1921, p.59.

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Last updated on: 29.12.2006