Questions of Military Theory

Opening and Closing Speeches

In the Discusion on Military Doctrine at the Military Science Society, Attached to the Military Academy of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, November 1, 1921 [1]

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

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Comrades, we are now drawing conclusions, reviewing our ranks, and getting prepared. Our work in the army is now minute, mosaic and detailed in character. But it would be unworthy of a revolutionary army to fail to see the wood for the trees. Just because all our efforts in the military field are now concerned with details and concrete matters, and we are turning our attention to partial questions, which make up the whole, we must from time to time tear ourselves away from this active work and take a look at the structure of the Red Army as a whole. Here we come up against the question of military doctrine, or the question of unified military doctrine, which are sometimes treated as identical. The concept of military doctrine does not at present appear in a clearly delineated form, nor is it filled with any exact scientific content. The concept of unified military doctrine has been most often given a mystical and metaphysical content, and seen as some sort of emanation of the national spirit.

Owing to the sharp turn in history, an attempt is now, naturally, being made, on the plane of revolutionary class struggle, to give a class content to the concept of military doctrine. This attempt is something for the future. In this connection the greatest vigilance must be exercised to see that we do not get drawn into a kind of mystical or metaphysical trap, however this may be disguised with revolutionary terminology, because one can make – mysticism and Metaphysics out of class military doctrine, too, whereas what we want is a concept that is concrete, precise and filled with historical content. For this reason we ask ourselves, first of all: does military doctrine mean the sum-total of military methods, and is this a theory, or is military doctrine an art, the sum total of certain applied methods which, taken together, teach one how to fight?

It is imperative to distinguish between science, as objective cognition of what exists, and art, which teaches how to act.

Krasnaya Armiya, No.7-8, 1921


Before entering into the essence of the question, I should like to observe that Comrades Verkhovsky and Svechin, though seemingly at opposite poles, stand very close to each other. Comrade Verkhovsky says, with a kind of horror: what discord there is among us, we are not united on anything, how can one build anything in such a situation, let alone gain victory. Yet, after all, we have built something, and fought not too badly. lam less than anyone inclined to idealise the Red Army, but when we had to defend ourselves we managed to deal blows at our enemies notwithstanding the discord among us. In my opinion, Comrade Verkhovsky approaches the matter subjectively: he overlooks that foundation of the Red Army, incontestable and contested by no-one, which was laid down in practice by the working class. The army had its old upper stratum: there were conscientious and honest elements from among the old officers, but they have been and are being dissolved. The army has proclaimed a new principle and is creating a body of commanders of new social origin – a clumsy body, perhaps, and insufficiently literate, but with great historical will-power. All of us make mistakes in theory, but how is it possible not to see the essence, the foundation, which is indestructible but which no-one has pointed out? What is there for Comrade Verkhovsky to be afraid of? With his excellent military qualities he has nothing to fear.

Comrade Svechin says: if a doctrine is invented, I, Svechin, will be made to suffer, because there will be censorship. Comrade Svechin, an old military man who greatly reveres Suvorov and the Suvorov traditions, is afraid of censorship. He fears lest military doctrine prevent the development of thought – which is, in part, the same idea that Comrade Verkhovsky expressed. If unified military doctrine is understood to mean that there is a ruling class which has taken over the army, no-one has protested against that. Recall what was written in 2927 and 2928 in our theses, in our reports to the Congresses of Soviets: their basic idea was to apply to the country’s armed forces the consciousness and the will of the working class, which had established anew regime and a new state. This is an unshakable fact which is no longer challenged even by those who did dispute it, while those who tried to fight against it arms in hand suffered defeat and have stopped trying.

Take, for example, the book Smena Vekh. People who once supplied Kolchak with ministers have understood that the Red Army is not something invented by émigrés, not a robber band, but a national expression of the Russian people in their present phase of development. And they are absolutely right. No-one will try to deny that a new body of commanders has appeared, which is fulfilling the aspirations of the working people, even though in building the army it makes mistakes in Russian and military literacy. It is our misfortune that our country is illiterate and, of course, years and years will be needed before illiteracy disappears and the Russian working man becomes cultured.

An attempt was made here, particularly in Comrade Vatsetis’s speech, which was very rich and valuable, to present a broad concept of doctrine. Military doctrine, he said, embraces everything needed for war. War requires that the soldier be healthy; to keep the soldier healthy, in addition to his rations and uniform, a certain hygiene is required, medicine is needed. Here we see the essence of the aberration in this line of thought. While Clausewitz said that war is a continuation of politics by other means, some military men turn this idea round and say that politics is an auxiliary means for war, that all branches of human knowledge are subsidiary sources of military knowledge, and they equate military knowledge with all human knowledge in general. This is absolutely wrong.

We are next told that it is necessary to have the desire to fight, that one must possess the will to victory. But have we not seen that the Russian people do possess this will to victory, did we not see it spring to life among the peasants of the Don and the Kuban, who produced their Budyonny [Budyonny came from a family of ‘outlanders’ (non-Cossack peasants) in the Don country.], their cavalry – something different from what existed previously, when the will of the old nobility was imposed upon the people? This will to victory sprang to life even among the Russian muzhiks, oppressed for centuries, not to mention the workers. But one must have the will to victory, the desire to fight, not just for the sake of fighting – a great historical goal is needed. Tsardom had its own goal, and under the former conditions this was adopted by a section of the people which developed in itself a certain will to victory. Well, is there an historical goal inspiring war today? Is there or is there not such a goal? How can anyone doubt that there is such a goal, that the government which exists today commands advanced detachments of workers who draw the peasantry behind them? That we gained the victory was no accident. So there was the will to victory. It did not issue from military doctrine, but from a definite historical task, which constitutes the meaning of an entire epoch of history.

We are also told that it is necessary to know when and why to fight. It is necessary to find one’s orientation in the international situation. Well, didn’t we find it? Comrade Svechin said here that a revolutionary epoch is an epoch of empiricism. What can one say? Never before, in no other country, has there been a regime so theoretical as ours. When we were still a group of underground émigrés we said that capitalist war would inevitably culminate in revolution. Before the revolution happened we had predicted it in theory. What was this, if not theoretical prognosis? The application of science cannot, of course, in this sphere be so exact as in astronomy: we make mistakes, our calculations are out, perhaps, by five or ten years. We hoped that the revolution would continue in the West. That did not happen, but, nevertheless, we did forecast the nature of developments. What was the ill-starred peace of Brest-Litovsk? That, too, was an orientation, a theoretical calculation. Our foes calculated that their existence was an unshakable fact, whereas ours was some sort of absurdity, but we held to the standpoint of theoretical prognosis and calculated that their days were numbered, whereas our existence was an unshakable fact. I cannot be a military doctrinaire, if only for lack of the necessary military qualification, but I did take part with other comrades in working out this prognosis: it is impossible to fight the Germans, and so we must make concessions and defeat them later. What was that, if not an orientation? The knowledge of when to fight was given us by the basic tenets of Marxism, as applied to the actual situation. But the desire to fight and the knowledge of when to fight still does not provide everything needed for the ability to fight. And this is where military art, or military science, comes into its own.

But why does one have to drag absolutely everything into military science? There are a few other things in the world besides military science: there is Communism and there are the world-wide tasks that the working class sets itself, and there is war, as one of the methods used by the working class.

At this point I must say that the comrade who spoke in favour of the new military doctrine quite failed to convince me. I see in it a most dangerous thing: we’ll crush them beneath a barrage of red caps – that old Russian doctrine. Actually, what did some comrades say? They said that our doctrine consists in not commanding but persuading, convincing and impressing through the exercise of moral authority. A wonderful idea, what could be better? Let us give Comrade Lyamin three thousand deserters from Tambov province and allow him to form them into a regiment by his method. I should like to see the result. But is it possible to accomplish anything at all by a mere stroke of the pen, in face of difference in cultural level, and of ignorance? Our regime is called a regime of dictatorship, we do not conceal this, but some have said here that what we need are not commanders-in-chief but persuaders-in-chief, as in Kerensky’s time. Moral authority is a good thing, but it is intangible. If it is possible to impress by moral authority alone, why do we have the Cheka and the Special Section? Finally, if we can impress a Tambov muzhik by moral authority alone, why can’t we do the same with the muzhik of Germany or France?

Comrade Vatsetis mentioned that right is mightier than force. That is not so. What is correct is only this: that oppressors who were ashamed of the brute force they applied always covered it up with hypocrisy. Right is not superior to force, it cannot withstand gunfire. Against guns only guns are effective. If you are saying that we must raise the cultural level of the peasant and the muzhik [sic], that is an old truth for us, we are all trying to do that, and our state apparatus and, in particular, our military work must follow this line. But it would be naive to suppose that this task can be accomplished tomorrow.

We are told that the doctrine of the Red Army consists of guerrilla operations in the enemy’s rear, and deep raids. But the first big raid was made by Mamontov, and Petlyura was a leader of guerrillas. What does this mean? Flow does it happen that the Red Army’s doctrine coincides with the doctrines of Mamontov and Petlyura? Some comrades have also tried to include in the Red Army’s doctrine the use of tachanki for transporting troops. If we lack surfaced roads and armoured cars, then of course we shall use tachanki to move around in; that’s better than lugging a machinegun on one’s back. But what has this to do with military doctrine? It is an absolutely incredible way of posing the question. Our backwardness and lack of technical preparation cannot furnish material for military doctrine.

As regards manoeuvring, let me say that we did not invent this. Our enemies also made considerable use of it, and it was due to the fact that relatively small numbers of troops were deployed over enormous expanses of territory, and due also to the wretched means of communication. There was talk here about the capture of towns, of points, and so on. Mamontov captured them from us, and we from him. That is what happens in a civil war. On one and the same territory we had allies behind Mamontov’s back and Mamontov had allies in our midst. Mamontov executed our agents and we his. An attempt is being made to construct a doctrine out of this. That’s absurd.

Comrade Tukhachevsky sins in making hasty generalisations. It emerges from what he said that positional warfare is finished. That is absolutely wrong. If we continue to live in peace for another five or ten years, which is not out of the question, a new generation will have grown up, and the soreness caused by the war will have passed. Delay in the revolution in the West would mean a respite for the bourgeoisie. Technique is recovering both there and here. We shall become able to throw in larger and better-armed masses of troops, and with an army of larger mass and better armament a more solid front will be formed. The explanation of our excessive manoeuvring, when, time and again, we advanced 200 versts only to retreat 250 versts, is to be found in the fact that the army was thin and weak in relation to the expanse of territory, it was inadequately armed, and the outcome of the battles was decided by factors of a secondary nature. Why should we try to hold on to this? What we need is to overcome this phase of manoeuvring. It is only the reverse side of guerrilla-ism. I often recall that, in the first period of the building of our army, certain comrades said that large formations were no longer needed. What would be best would be a regiment of two or three battalions, with artillery and cavalry, and this would constitute an independent unit. This embodied the idea of primitive manoeuvring. We have got beyond that now, and to idealise manoeuvring would be dangerous in the extreme.

It was pointed out here that we need to decide the question of the role to be played by the artillery in relation to the infantry. In Kiev military district I was present during a heated dispute about the mutual relations between artillery and infantry. There are hundreds of such problems in every army. This means that, on the basis of our civil war experience we must carefully reread our regulations and adapt the most important points to comply with conditions in the field. The regulations must be subjected to review. They must be thought over in relation to our practical experience.

The question of whether there should be offensive or defensive warfare is decided: we are told that our army must take the offensive. There is a great deal of confusion on this subject, and I am afraid that Comrade Tukhachevsky supports in this connection those who are muddled and who say that our army must be an offensive army. Why? Since war is a continuation of politics by other means, must our policy be offensive? What about Brest-Litovsk? And what about our recent declaration that we are ready to recognise the prewar debts? It is a manoeuvre. Only a dashing cavalryman thinks one must always attack. Only a simpleton thinks that retreat means death. Attack and retreat can be integral parts of a manoeuvre and can equally lead to victory. At the Third Congress of the Third International there was a whole tendency which affirmed that in a revolutionary epoch one must only attack. This was a very great and criminal heresy, which cost the German proletariat needless bloodshed and which did not bring victory, and were this tactic to be followed in the future it would bring about the ruin of the revolutionary movement in Germany. In a civil war one has to manoeuvre, and since war is a continuation of politics by other means, how can we say that military doctrine always calls for attack? The newspaper Journal des Débats carries an article by a French general who writes the following:

‘Here, in Lorraine, we French attacked. As a result of our attack, the Germans retreated. But their retreat was calculated. They drew back their forward elements, leaving behind, concealed, machine-gun and artillery positions which later destroyed an enormous amount of our manpower. It was a catastrophe. How did our victory in June 1918 begin? The German offensive might have been decisive. But we had learnt from them in 1914, and adopted an elastic defence, from which we went over to the counter-offensive when the Germans had exhausted their strength, and we smashed the German army.’ [The article quoted from the Journal des Débats of October 5, 1921 was by General de Cugnac.]

You cite the Gteat French Revolution and its army. But don’t forget that the French were then the most cultured people in Europe – not only the most revolutionary but also the most cultured and, in point of technique, the most powerful, if we discount Britain, which was powerless to act on land. France could allow herself the luxury of an offensive policy. She crashed none the less, and although she did, actually, over a long period, march victoriously across Europe, it all ended in Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbons. [2] But we are the most uncultured and one of the most backward peoples in Europe. Historical fate compelled us to carry out the proletarian revolution amid an encirclement of peoples not yet gripped by this revolution. Wars lie ahead of us, and we must teach our general staff to appraise the situation. Should we attack or should we retreat? Precisely here science of the most flexible and elastic kind is needed, and it would be a colossal blunder for us to impose upon our general staff officers the doctrine: ‘Attack!’ This would be a strategy of adventurism and not a revolutionary strategy.

I am likewise in disagreement with the second proposition advanced by Comrade Tukhachevsky. He considers that it is wrong for us to go over to a militia-type army. There are difficulties in effecting this transition, but we are nevertheless going over to militia forms. In our country, with a population of more than one hundred millions we are maintaining an army of one million: that is an approach to a militia. France has 700,000 soldiers, while we have about a million. One more step in that same direction, and we shall arrive at a pure militia. We shall proceed cautiously, because there are difficulties in the mutual relations between the workers and the peasants. But our new policy brings the peasant closer to us instead of alienating him. Go into any village, talk with a muzhik, and he’ll tell you that his attitude to the Soviet power is better today than it was yesterday. If we grow richer in the course of the year, and we shall, of course, grow a little richer, and in two years’ time we shall be richer still, this spiral will start to expand: but even then we shall not act upon the muzhik by means of persuasion alone, as some young general staff officers presume. In any case, there will be not only persuasions and embraces, but also compulsion, though to a lesser extent than before. At the same time, conditions will be created, between the peasants and the working class, which will be more favourable for organising a militia. For this reason, doctrine calls only for a reduction in the element of compulsion to lesser proportions than in an army of the barracked type. But if doctrine is to proceed from the principle that a militia is unnecessary and what we need is a barracked army, we shall arrive at all manner of erroneous metaphysical propositions.

And so, comrades, I will sum up briefly. He speaks truth who says, regarding the will to victory, that we do not always observe among our commanders the ability to develop partial victory and partial success into complete victory. This is due to the worker-peasant composition of our new commanding personnel, who are easily satisfied with the first success achieved. But we were arguing about the will to victory in general. I must cite the following example. As all Communists know, Turkestan was cut off from the rest of the world, surrounded by Dutovites and other White Guards, and yet nevertheless held out for one-and-a-half years [3] without any aid from outside. What was that, if not a manifestation of colossal will to victory?

You will not find a better example on which to found your doctrine. What doctrine but Marxism can enable you to orient yourself in a situation? Take and read Chicherin’s notes, read the articles in Pravda and Izvestiya – they provide a correct orientation in the international situation. Take the British Times or the French Le Temps: their language is much more refined than ours, but we orient ourselves a hundred times better in the international situation, and that has helped us to hold out for four years under conditions of encirclement, and we shall continue to hold out. Our doctrine is called Marxism. Why invent it a second time? But in order to invent something more than the tachanka it is necessary to learn from the bourgeoisie, once we have the ability to orient ourselves, and the will to victory. It is necessary to instil it into the minds of our commanders, at company, battalion and regimental level, that they must not only possess the will to victory but must also know how to make reports, and understand the importance of communications, of security and of reconnaissance. And for this reason the experience of old-established practice must be utilised. The ABC has to be learnt, and if military doctrine is going to say: ‘We shall crush them under a barrage of Red caps,’ we shall have no use for it whatsoever. We must cast out such arrogance and revolutionary superficiality. When strategy is developed from the standpoint of the revolutionary youth, the result is chaos. Why? Because the regulations have not been mastered. We looked with disdain upon the Tsarist statutes and consequently did not study them: yet the old regulations prepare the new. Marxists have always been through the old knowledge, they went through Feuerbach and Engels [sic] [‘Engels’ is presumably a mistake for ‘Hegel’.], through the French encyclopaedists and materialists, through political economy. Even in his old age Marx studied higher mathematics. Engels studied military matters and the natural sciences, and if we were to inculcate in the military youth the idea that the old doctrine is worthless and we have now entered a new epoch in which everything can be looked on ‘from a bird’s eye view’, as Gleb Uspensky has it, that would do very great harm.

Among the young generation there is, of course, a revulsion against routine. That is inevitable. But our General Staff Academy and the Revolutionary War Council will do everything in their power to curb this, and they will be right to do so. I do not look upon this discussion of ours as final. Something has been taken down in shorthand, it will be looked over, some of it will be printed, and perhaps there will be other gatherings like this. Meanwhile, let us not tear ourselves away from vital needs, from rations and boots. I think that a good ration is better than a bad doctrine, and where boots are concerned, I maintain that our military doctrine begins with this, that we have to tell the Red Army man: learn to grease your boots and clean your rifle. If, in addition to our will to victory and our readiness for self-sacrifice we learn to grease boots, we shall have the very best of military doctrines, and so we must pay attention to these practical details.

Now a word about technique. Our technique is, of course, poor, but Europe cannot attack us today, her working class won’t allow that. Hence the conclusion: Europe tolerates us. She enters into econcomic relations with us. Concessions are coming along – with difficulty, but they are coming. Through its concessions and trade relations, European imperialism will be compelled to develop our industry and with its own hands to arm us technically against itself. There is no escaping this. Imperialism is doomed to do it, it must do it, and if I were to say this aloud before an audience composed of Lloyd George, Briand and Millerand, they would shy in alarm, but they would be constrained to do it, all the same, for there is no other road for them to follow. The European and world crisis and the pressure of the working class impels them to have relations with us. Finally, this is done not by states but by capitalists, who think above all of their own profits: from which the conclusion to be drawn is – don’t rush ahead. Comrade Svechin was right when he said here that time works in our favour. Time is a very important factor in history. Sometimes a word uttered five minutes too soon means the loss of a campaign. Five minutes too late is no good, either: the timing must be right. We now need to put on some technical and economic weight. Our economy is in a state of disruption and is recovering very slowly. We shall have further occasion to debate military doctrine, clarify our concept and render it more precise, and the debate will serve only to benefit the cause of the building of the Red Army. I propose that we join in a ‘Hurrah!’ in honour of the Red Army.

From the archives


1. The discussion on military doctrine was held at the Military Science Society on the first anniversary of the foundation of this society, November 2, 1921. After Comrade Trotsky’s introductory remarks, Professor Neznamov was the first of the rapporteurs to speak, being followed by Comrades Petrovsky, Verkhovsky and many other active members of the Military Science Society. After all their contributions had been made, Comrade Trotsky delivered his concluding remarks.

2. The reference is to the battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Napoleon was defeated by the combined forces of the British and the Prussians, after which he was exiled to the island of St Helena, and the Bourbon dynasty restored to the throne of France, in the person of Louis XVIII.

3. For more details on this see notes 70 and 75 to Volume Two. The article Military Doctrine or Pseudo-Military Doctrinairism [In neither the notes nor the article mentioned is there any reference to Turkestan. – Brian Pearce, Translator]

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Last updated on: 30.12.2006