Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 19
The Offensive

In the army as in the country there was a continual political regrouping of forces, the lower ranks moving to the left, the upper to the right. Just as the Executive Committee was becoming an instrument of the Entente for taming the revolution, the soldiers’ committees, having arisen to represent the soldiers against the commanding staff, were being converted into assistants of the commanding staff against the soldiers.

The membership of these committees was variegated. There were not a few patriots who sincerely identified the war with the revolution, courageously joined an offensive imposed from above, and laid down their heads in an alien cause. Beside them stood the heroes of the phrase, regimental and divisional Kerenskys. Finally, there were not a few petty cheats and chair-warmers who got into the committees to keep out of the trenches, always on a hunt for privileges. Every mass movement, especially in its first stages, inevitably raises up on its crest all these human varieties. But the compromise period was especially rich in such loud talkers and chameleons. People form programmes but programmes also form people. The school of “contact” politics becomes in a revolution a school of trickery and intrigue.

The two-power régime made it impossible to create a military force. The Kadets were hated by the mass of the people, and were compelled in the army to re-title themselves Social Revolutionaries. The democracy could not resurrect the army for the same reason that it could not take over the power. The one was inseparable from the other. As a curiosity, which nevertheless very clearly illumines the situation, Sukhanov remarks that the Provisional Government did not organise a single parade for the soldiers in Petrograd. The liberals and generals did not want the soviets to participate in their parade, but perfectly well understood that without the soviets a parade as impossible. The higher officers were clinging closer and closer to the Kadets, biding the time when more reactionary parties might lift their heads. The petty bourgeois intelligentsia could give the army a considerable number of lower officers, as they had done under czarism, but they could not create a commanding corps in their own image, for they had no image of their own. As the whole further course of the revolution showed, it was only possible either to take the commanding corps as it was from the nobility and the bourgeoisie, as the Whites did, or bring forward and train up a new one on the basis of proletarian recruiting, as did the Bolsheviks. The petty bourgeois democracy could do neither one thing nor the other. All they could do was to persuade, plead and deceive everybody and when nothing came of it, turn over the power in despair to the reactionary officers, and let them teach the people the correct revolutionary ideas.

One after the other the ulcers of the old society broke out and destroyed the organism of the army. The problem of nationality in all its forms – and Russia is rich in nationality – went deeper and deeper into the soldier mass, which was made up less than half of Great Russians. National antagonisms intercrossed and interwove in all directions with class antagonisms. The policy of the government in the sphere of nationalities, as in all others, was vacillating, confused, and therefore seemed doubly treacherous. Certain generals flirted with national formations such as the “Mussulman Corps with French discipline” on the Rumanian front. These new national units did as a rule prove the most sturdy of the old army, for they were formed under a new idea and a new banner. This national cement however did not last long. Class struggles soon broke it. But the very process of these national formations, threatening to affect half the army, reduced it to a fluid condition, decomposing the old units before it succeeded in welding the new. Thus misfortune came from all sides.

Miliukov writes in his history that the army was ruined by “conflict between ‘revolutionary’ ideas and normal military discipline, between ‘democratisation of the army’ and the ‘preservation of its fighting power’” – in which statement, by “normal” discipline is to be understood that which existed under czarism. A historian ought to know, it would seem, that every great revolution brings ruin to the old army, a result of the clash, not of abstract disciplinary principles, but of living classes. A revolution not only permits strict discipline in an army, but creates it. However, this discipline cannot be established by representatives of the class which the revolution has overthrown.

“Surely, the fact is evident,” wrote one wise German to another on September 26, 1851, “that a disorganised army and a complete breakdown of discipline has been the condition as well as the result of every victorious revolution.” The whole history of humanity proves this simple and indubitable law. But along with the liberals, the Russian socialists – with the experience of 1905 behind them – did not understand this, although they called the two Germans, one of whom was Frederick Engels and the other Karl Marx, their teachers. The Mensheviks seriously believed that the army after making a revolution would continue the war under the old command. And those people called the Bolsheviks Utopian!

General Brussilov at a conference at headquarters in the beginning of May succinctly characterised the condition of the commanding staff: 15 to 20 per cent had adapted themselves to the new order through conviction; a part of the officers were beginning to flirt with the soldiers and incite them against the commanding staff; but the majority, about 75 per cent, could not adapt themselves, were offended, were hiding in their shells, and did not know what to do. The overwhelming mass of the officers were, in addition, good-for-nothing from a purely military point of view.

At a conference with the generals, Kerensky and Skobelev zealously apologised for the revolution, which, alas, “was continuing” and must be taken into consideration. To this the Black Hundred general Gurko answered the ministers moralisingly: “You say the revolution is continuing. Listen to us. Stop the revolution, and let us, the military, do our duty to the end.” Kerensky went to meet the generals with all his heart – until one of them, the valorous Kornilov, almost strangled him in his embraces.

Compromisism in a time of revolution is a policy of feverish scurrying back and forth between classes. Kerensky was the incarnation of scurrying back and forth. Placed at the head of an army, an institution unthinkable without a clear and concise régime, Kerensky became the immediate instrument of its disintegration. Denikin publishes a curious list of changes of personnel in the high commanding staff – changes which missed the mark, although nobody really knew, and least of all Kerensky, where the mark was. Alexeiev dismissed the commander-in-chief at the front, Ruszky, and the army commander Radko-Dmitriev, for weakness and indulgence to the committees, Brussilov removed for the same reason the panic-stricken. Yudenaich. Kerensky dismissed Alexeiev himself and the commanders-in-chief at the front, Gurko and Dragomirov, for resisting democratisation of the army. On the same grounds Brussilov removed General Kaledin, and was himself subsequently relieved for excessive indulgence to the committees, Kornilov left the command of the Petrograd district through inability to get along with the democracy. This did not prevent his appointment to the front, and subsequently to the supreme, command. Denikin was removed from the post of chief of staff under Alexeiev for his obviously feudal administration, but was soon after named commander-in-chief of the western front. This game of leap-frog, showing that the people at the top did not know what they wanted, gradually extending downward to the companies, hastened the breakdown of the army.

While demanding that soldiers obey the officers, the commissars themselves did not trust them. At the very height of the offensive, at a meeting of the soviet at headquarters in Moghilev, one of the members of the soviet declared in the presence of Kerensky and Brussilov: “Eighty-eight per cent of the officers of the staff are giving rise by their activities to a danger of counter-revolutionary manifestations.” This was no secret to the soldiers. They had had plenty of time to get acquainted with their officers before the revolution.

Throughout May the reports of the commanding staff from top to bottom consist of variations on one single theme: “The attitude to the offensive is in general adverse, and especially in the infantry.” Sometimes they add: “A little better in the cavalry and hearty enough in the artillery.”

At the end of May when the troops were already marshaled for the offensive, the commissar with the 7th Army telegraphed to Kerensky: “In the 12th Division, the 48th regiment has gone out in full force. The 45th and 46th regiments, with only half of the front-line companies. The 47th refuses to go out. Of the regiments of the 13th Division, the 50th came out almost in full force. The 51st promises to come out tomorrow, the 49th did not come out as ordered, and the 52nd refused to come out and arrested all its officers.” The same picture was to be observed almost everywhere. To the report of the commissar, the government answered: “Disband the 45th, 46th, 47th and 52nd regiments, court-martial those who incited the officers and soldiers to disobedience.” That sounded terrible, but did not frighten anybody. The soldiers who did not want to fight were not afraid either of disbandment or of court-martial. In deploying the soldiers it was often necessary to send one detachment against another. The instrument of repression would most often be the Cossacks, as under the czar. But they were now led by socialists: it was a question, you see, of defending the revolution.

On June 4, less than two weeks before the beginning of the offensive, the chief of the headquarters staff reported: “The northern front is still in a ferment, fraternisation continues, the infantry is opposed to the offensive ... On the western front the situation is indefinite ... On the south-western a certain improvement of mood is noticeable ... On the Rumanian no special improvement is observable, the infantry does not want to advance.”

On June 11, 1917, the commander of the 61st regiment writes: “The officers and I have nothing left to do but save ourselves, because there has arrived from Petrograd a soldier of the 5th Company, a Leninist ... Many of the best soldiers and officers have already fled.” The appearance in the regiment of one Leninist was enough to start the officers running away. It is clear that the arriving soldier played the part of the crystal in a saturate solution. However, we must not think that the talk here is necessarily of a Bolshevik. In those days the commanding staff called every soldier a Leninist who raised his voice more boldly than others against the offensive. Many of those “Leninists” still sincerely believed that Lenin had been sent by Wilhelm. The commander of the 61st regiment tried to frighten his soldiers with punishment at the hands of the government. One of the soldiers answered: “We overthrew the former government, we’ll kick out Kerensky.” That was new talk. They were nourished on Bolshevik agitation, but went far beyond it.

From the Black Sea fleet, which was under the leadership of Social Revolutionaries and was considered by contrast to the Kronstadt sailors a bulwark of patriotism, a special delegation of 800 men was sent out through the country at the end of April with a brisk student, Batkin, dressed up as a sailor, at the head. There was a good deal of the masquerade in that delegation but there was also a more sincere impulse. The delegation was selling to the country the idea of war to victory. But with every week the listeners became more hostile. And just as these Black Sea sailors were beginning to lower the tone of their pro-war sermons, a Baltic delegation arrived in Sebastopol to preach peace. The Northerners had more success in the south than the Southerners in the north. Under the influence of the Kronstadt sailors, the Sebastopol sailors undertook on June 8 to disarm the commanding staff and arrest their worst-hated officers.

At a meeting of the soviet Congress on June 9, Trotsky asked how it could happen that “in that model Black Sea fleet which had sent patriotic deputations throughout the country, in that nest of organised patriotism, an explosion of this nature could occur at such a critical moment? What does this prove?” He received no answer.

The headless and brainless condition of the army tortured everybody – soldiers, commanders and committee-men. To their all the need of some way out became unbearable. To the chiefs it seemed that the offensive would overcome this reign of bedlam and bring definiteness. And to a certain extent this was true. While Tseretelli and Chernov expressed themselves in Petrograd in favour of the offensive with all the careful modulations of the democratic rhetoric, the committee-men at the front had to wage a campaign hand-in-hand with the officers against the new régime in the army – a régime incompatible with War, but without which the revolution was unthinkable. The results of the change were soon visible. “With every day that passed, the members of the committee were noticeably moving to the right,” recounts one of the naval officers, “but at the same time there was an obvious decline in their authority among the soldiers and sailors.” It happens, however, that soldiers and sailors are just what is needed for a war.

Brussilov, with Kerensky’s approval, undertook the formation of shock battalions of volunteers, thus frankly acknowledging the incapacity of the army to fight. All sorts of elements immediately attached themselves to this enterprise – for the most part adventurers like Captain Muraviev, who subsequently, after the October revolution, swung round to the left Social Revolutionaries, and then after a stormy and in its way brilliant career, betrayed the Soviet power, and died of a bullet shot, either from a Bolshevik or from his own hand. It is needless to say that the counter-revolutionary officers greedily seized upon the shock battalion idea as a legal way of mustering their own forces. The idea got almost no response, however, in the soldier mass. Some women in search of adventure created a women’s battalion of “Black Death Hussars.” One of these battalions became Kerensky’s last armed force in the defence of the Winter Palace in October. But all this gave very little help to the cause of crushing German militarism – as the task was described.

The offensive promised by the staff to the Allies for early spring had been postponed from week to week. But now the Entente firmly refused to accept any further postponements. In pressing for an immediate offensive the Allies did not mince methods. Along with the pathetic adjurations of Vandervelde, they employed the threat to stop sending military supplies. The Italian consul-general in Moscow announced to the press – not the Italian, but the Russian press – that in case of a separate peace on the part of Russia, the Allies would give Japan a free hand in Siberia. The liberal papers – not the Rome, but the Moscow papers – printed these insolent threats with patriotic rapture, making them apply not to a separate peace, but to a delayed offensive. In other respects the Allies did not stand upon ceremony: for instance, they sent artillery that was known to be damaged. Thirty-five per cent of the weapons received from abroad did not survive two weeks of moderate shooting. England was shutting down on credits; but then America, the new benefactor, without the knowledge of England, offered the Provisional Government on the security of the new offensive a credit of $75,000,000. Although supporting the demands of the Allies by waging a frantic agitation for the offensive, the Russian bourgeoisie withheld its own confidence from the offensive by refusing to subscribe to the Liberty loan. The overthrown monarchy utilised this incident to remind the public of its existence. In a declaration in the name of the Provisional Government, Romanov expressed a desire to subscribe to the loan, but added: “The extent of the subscription will depend on the question whether the treasury supplies money to support the members of the czar’s family.” All this was read by the army, which knew very well that the majority of the Provisional Government, as also a majority of the upper officers, were still hoping for a restoration. Justice demands the observation that in the Allied camp not all agreed with Vandervelde, Thomas and Cachin in pushing the Russian army over the precipice. There were warning voices. “The Russian army is nothing but fa├žade,” said General Pétain, “it will fall to pieces if it makes a move.” The American mission, for another example, expressed the view. But other considerations prevailed. It was necessary to take the heart out of the revolution. “The German fraternisation,” explained Painlevé later, “had caused such ravages that to leave the Russian army inactive would risk its rapid disintegration.” The political preparation for the offensive was at first carried on by Kerensky and Tseretelli, in secrecy even from their closest colleagues. In the days when these half-consecrated leaders were still continuing to spout about the defence of the revolution, Tseretelli was more and more firmly insisting on the necessity that the army make ready for active service. The longest to resist – that is, the coyest – was Chernov. At a meeting of the Provisional Government on May 17, the “rural minister,” as he called himself, was asked with heat whether it was true that he had expressed himself at a certain meeting on the subject of the offensive without the necessary sympathy. It transpired that Chernov answered as follows: “The offensive does not concern me, a man of politics; that is a question for the strategists at the front.” Those people were playing hide-and-seek with the war, as with the revolution. But only for the time being.

The preparation for the offensive was accompanied, of course, by a redoubled struggle against the Bolsheviks. They were being accused now oftener and oftener of working for a separate peace. The possibility that a separate peace would be the only way out, was evident in the whole situation – the weakness and exhaustion of Russia in comparison with the other warring countries. But nobody had yet measured the strength of the new factor, revolution. The Bolsheviks believed that the prospect of a separate peace could be avoided only in case the force and authority of revolution were boldly and conclusively set against the war. For this was needed first of all a break with our own bourgeoisie. On June 9, Lenin announced at the congress of the soviets: “When they say that we are striving for a separate peace, that is not true. We say: No separate peace, not with any capitalists, and least of all with the Russian capitalists. But the Provisional Government has made a separate peace with the Russian capitalists. Down with that separate peace!” “Applause,” remarks the report. That was the applause of a small minority at the congress, and for that reason especially fervent.

In the Executive Committee some still lacked decision, others wanted to hide behind the more authoritative institutions. At the last moment it was resolved to bring to Kerensky’s attention the undesirability of giving the order for the offensive before the question had been decided upon by the soviet congress. A declaration introduced at the very first session of the congress by the Bolshevik faction had stated: “An offensive can only utterly disorganise the army, bringing one part into antagonism with the other, and the Congress should either immediately oppose this counter-revolutionary onslaught, or else frankly assume the whole responsibility for this policy.”

The decision of the soviet congress in favour of the offensive was merely a democratic formality. Everything was already prepared. The artillery had for a long time been aimed at the enemy’s positions. On June 16, in an order to the army and the fleet, Kerensky, referring to the commander-in-chief as “our leader fanned by the wings of victory,” demonstrated the necessity of “an immediate and decisive blow,” and concluded with the words “I command you – forward!” In an article written on the eve of the offensive, commenting on the declaration of the Bolshevik faction at the soviet congress, Trotsky wrote: “The policy of the government completely undermines the possibility of successful military action ... The material premises for an offensive are extremely unfavorable. The organisation of supplies for the army reflects the general economic collapse, against which a government constituted like the present one cannot undertake a single radical measure. The spiritual premises of the offensive are still more unfavorable. The government ... has exposed before the army ... its incapacity to determine Russia’s policy independently of the will of the imperialist Allies. No result is possible but the progressive breakdown of the army ... The mass desertions ... are ceasing in the present conditions to be the result of depraved individual wills, and are becoming an expression of the complete incapacity of the government to weld the revolutionary army with inward unity of purpose ...” Pointing out further that the government could not make up its mind “to an immediate annulment of landlordship – that is, to the sole measure which would convince the most backward peasant that this revolution is his revolution,” the article concluded: “In such material and spiritual conditions an offensive must inevitably have the character of an adventure.”

The commanding staff was almost unanimous in thinking that the offensive, hopeless from a military point of view, was dictated by political considerations. Denikin after making the rounds of his front reported to Brussilov: “I haven’t the slightest belief in the success of the offensive.” A supplementary element of hopelessness was introduced by the good-for-nothingness of the commanding staff itself. Stankevich, an officer and a patriot, testifies that the technical dispositions of things made victory impossible regardless of the morale of the troops: “The offensive was organised in a manner beneath criticism.” A delegation of officers came to the leaders of the Kadet Party with the president of the officers’ union, the Kadet Novosiltsev, at its head, and warned them that the offensive was doomed to failure, and would mean only the extermination of the best units. The higher powers waved away these warnings with general phrases: “A last spark of hope remains,” said the chief of the headquarters staff, the reactionary general Lukomsky, “that perhaps a beginning of successful battles will change the psychology of the masses, and the officers will be able to seize the reins that have been torn from their hands.” That was their main purpose, to get hold of those reins.

The chief blow was to be delivered, according to a plan worked out long before, by the forces of the south-western front in the direction of Lvov; the work of the northern and western fronts was to help this operation. The advance was to have begun simultaneously on all fronts. It was soon evident that this plan was far beyond the powers of the command. They decided to start off one front after the other, beginning with those of secondary importance. But that too proved impossible. “Then the supreme command,” says Denikin, “decided to give up all idea of planned strategy, and had to allow the fronts to begin operations whenever they were ready.” All was left to the will of Providence. Only the icons of the czarina were lacking. They tried to replace them with the icons of democracy. Kerensky travelled everywhere, appealing and pronouncing benedictions. The offensive began: June 16 on the south western front, July 7 on the western, 9th on the Rumanian. The advance of the last three fronts was in reality fictitious, coinciding with the beginning of the collapse of the principal one, the south-western.

Kerensky reported to the Provisional Government: “Today is the great triumph of the revolution. On June 18th the Russian revolutionary army with colossal enthusiasm assumed the offensive.” “The long expected advance has arrived,” wrote the Kadet organ Rech, “which has at one stroke restored the Russian revolution to its best days.” On the 19th the old man Plekhanov acclaimed to a patriotic manifestation: “Citizens, if I ask you what day this is, you will say ‘Monday.’ But that is a mistake. Today is the resurrection day.[1] Resurrection of our country and of the whole world. Russia, having thrown off the yoke of czarism, has decided to throw off the yokes of the enemy.” Tseretelli said on the same day at the soviet congress: “A new page is opening in the history of the great Russian revolution. The success of our revolutionary army ought to be welcomed not only by the Russian democracy, but ... by all those who are really striving to fight against imperialism.” The patriotic democracy had opened all its taps. The newspapers meanwhile carried joyful news: “The Paris Bourse greets the Russian offensive with a rise in all Russian securities.” Those socialists were trying to estimate the stability of the revolution by the stock-ticker. But history teaches that bourses feel better the worse it goes with revolutions.

The workers and the garrison of the capital were not for one minute infected by this wave of artificially warmed-over patriotism. Its sole arena was the Nevsky Prospect. “We went out on the Nevsky,” relates the soldier Chinenov in his memoirs, “and tried to agitate against the offensive. Some of the bourgeois took after us with their umbrellas ... We grabbed them and dragged them into the barracks ... and told them that tomorrow they would be sent to the front.” That was a preliminary symptom of the advancing explosion of civil war. The July days were drawing near.

On the 21st of June a machine gun regiment in Petrograd resolved in general meeting: “In the future we will send forces to the front only when the war shall have a revolutionary character.” In answer to the threat of disbandment, the regiment answered that it would not hesitate to disband “the Provisional Government and the other organisations which support it.” Here again a threatening note far in advance of the Bolshevik agitation. The Chronicle of the Revolution remarks under date of June 23: “Detachments of the 2nd Army have occupied the first and second line trenches of the enemy ...” And right beside this: “At the Baranovsky factory (6,000 men) there were re-elections to the Petrograd Soviet. In place of three Social Revolutionaries, three Bolsheviks were elected.”

By the end of the month the physiognomy of the Petrograd Soviet had already considerably changed. It is true that on June 20 the Soviet adopted a resolution of greeting to the advancing army. But with what majority? – 472 votes against 271, with 39 abstaining. That is a totally new correlation of forces, something we have not seen before. The Bolsheviks, together with the left groups of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, constitute already two-fifths of the Soviet. This means that in the factories and barracks the opponents of the offensive are already an indubitable majority.

The Vyborg district soviet adopted a resolution on June 24 every word of which strikes like a heavy hammer: “We ... protest against the adventure of the Provisional Government, which is conducting an offensive for the old robber treaties ... and we lay the whole responsibility for this policy on the Provisional Government and the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties supporting it.” Having been pushed out after the February insurrection into the backyard, the Vyborg district was now confidently advancing to the leading position. The Bolsheviks already completely dominated the Vyborg Soviet.

Everything now on the fate of the offensive – that is that is upon the trench soldiers. What changes had the offensive made in the consciousness of those who were supposed to carry it through? They had been irrepressibly longing for peace. But the rulers had succeeded to a certain degree – at least among a part of the soldiers and for a short time – in converting this very longing into a readiness to advance.

After the revolution the soldiers had expected from the new power a swift conclusion of peace, and had been ready until then to defend the front. The peace did not come. The soldiers resorted to attempts at fraternisation with the Germans and Austrians, partly under the influence of Bolshevik agitation, but chiefly seeking their own road to peace. But a drive had been opened against fraternisation from all sides. And moreover it was discovered that the German soldiers were still far from casting off obedience to their officers. Fraternisation, not having led to peace, dwindled rapidly.

There was on the front at that time a de facto armistice. The Germans availed themselves of it for a wholesale transfer of troops to the western front. The Russian soldiers noticed how the enemy trenches were emptied, machine guns removed, cannon carted away. Upon this rested the plan of the “moral preparation for the offensive.” It was systematically suggested to the soldiers that the enemy was completely weakened, that he had no force left, that America was pressing upon him from the west, and that we had only to give a small push on our side, and the enemy front would crumple and we would have peace. The authorities did not believe this for a single minute, but they calculated that once having put its hand to the war machine, the army would not be able to let go.

Having failed of their goal, both through the diplomacy of the Provisional Government and through fraternisation, a part of the soldiers undoubtedly inclined to this third scheme: to give that push which would make the war crumble into dust. One of the front delegates to the congress reported exactly in this way the mood of the soldiers: “At present we have before us a thinned out German front; there are at present no cannon; and if we advance and overthrow the enemy then we will be close to the wished-for peace.”

The enemy at first actually did seem extremely weak, and retired without accepting the battle, which incidentally the attackers were not able to give. But instead of crumbling, the enemy regrouped and concentrated his forces. Penetrating a few score kilometers inland, the Russian soldiers discovered a picture sufficiently familiar to them in the experience of the preceding years: the enemy was waiting for them in new and reinforced positions. Here it became evident that although the soldiers had agreed to give a push in the direction of peace, they were not in the least desirous of war. Having been dragged into it by a combination of force, moral pressure, and most of all deceit, they so much the more indignantly turned back.

“After an artillery fire unprecedented on the Russian side in its intensity and power,” says the Russian historian of the World War, General Zayonchkovsky, “the troops occupied the enemy positions almost without loss and did not wish to go any farther. There began a steady desertion and withdrawal of whole units from their positions.” A Ukrainian leader, Doroshenko, former commissar of the Provisional Government in Galicia, tells how after the seizure of the cities Calich and Kalush: “In Kalush there immediately occurred a frightful pogrom of the local population – but only of Ukrainians and Jews, they did not touch Poles. Some experienced hand guided the pogrom, pointing out with special care the local Ukrainian cultural and educational institutions.” The pogrom was participated in by “the better class of troops, the least depraved by the revolution” – those carefully picked for the offensive. But what still more clearly shows its face in this affair is the leadership of the offensive – the old czarist commanders, experienced organisers of pogroms.

On July 9 the committees and commissars of the 11th Army telegraphed the government: “A German attack begun on July 6 against the 11th Army front is developing into an overwhelming catastrophe ... In the morale of the troops, only recently induced to move by the heroic efforts of a minority, a sharp and ruinous break has occurred. The aggressive flare-up is rapidly exhausting itself. The majority of the troops are now in a state of increasing disintegration. There is nothing left of authority or obedience. Persuasions and arguments have lost their force. They are answered with threats and sometimes with death.”

The commander-in-chief of the south-western front, with the agreement of the commissars and committees, gave an order to shoot those running away. On June 12 the commander-in-chief of the western front, Denikin, returned to his headquarters, as he says, “with despair in my heart, and with a clear consciousness of the complete collapse of the last flickering hope for ... a miracle.”

The soldiers did not want to fight. The rear troops, to whom the weakened units turned for replacements after occupying the enemy trenches, answered: “What did you advance for anyway? Who told you to? It’s time to end the war, not attack.” The commander of the 1st Siberian Corps, considered one of the best commanders, reported how at nightfall the soldiers began to abandon the unattacked first line in crowds and whole companies. “I understood that we, the officers, were powerless to alter the elemental psychology of the soldier masses, and I sobbed bitterly and long.” One of the companies refused even to toss a leaflet to the enemy announcing the capture of Galich, until a soldier could be found who could translate the German text into Russian. In that it expressed the utter lack of confidence of the soldier mass in its ruling staff, both the old one and the new February one. A century of taunts and violence had burst to the surface like a volcano. The soldiers felt themselves again deceived. The offensive had not led to peace but war. The soldiers did not want war. And they were right. Patriots hiding in the rear were branding the soldiers as slackers and baiting them. But the soldiers were right. They were guided by a true national instinct, refracted through the consciousness of men oppressed, deceived, tortured, raised up by a revolutionary hope and again thrown back into the bloody mash. The soldiers were right. A prolongation of the war could give the Russian people nothing but new victims, humiliation, disasters – nothing but an increase of domestic and foreign slavery.

The patriotic press of 1917 – not only the Kadet but also the socialist press – was tireless in contrasting the Russian soldiers, cowards and deserters, with the heroic battalions of the great French revolution. This testifies not only to a failure to understand the dialectic of a revolutionary process, but also to a crude ignorance of history.

The remarkable warriors of the French revolution and empire frequently began their careers as breakers of discipline, disorganisers – Miliukov would say, as Bolsheviks. The future Marshal Davout spent many months of 1789-90 as Lieutenant d’Avout destroying the “normal” discipline in the garrison of Hesdin, driving out the commanding staff. Throughout France up to the middle of 1790 a complete disintegration of the whole army was taking place. The soldiers of the Vincennes regiment compelled their officers to eat with them. The fleet drove out their officers. Twenty regiments did various deeds of violence upon their officers. At Nancy three regiments locked their highest officers in prison. Beginning with 1790 the leaders of the French revolution never tire of repeating on the subject of soldier excesses: “The executive power is guilty, because it has not removed officers hostile to the revolution.” It is remarkable that both Mirabeau and Robespierre spoke in favour of dismissing the entire old corps of officers. The former was trying the more quickly to establish a firm discipline, the latter wanted to disarm the counter-revolution. But both understood that the old army could not survive.

To be sure, the Russian revolution, in contrast with the French, took place in a time of war. But you cannot infer from this an exception to the historic law noted by Engels. On the contrary, conditions of prolonged and unsuccessful war could only hasten and sharpen the process of revolutionary disintegration of the army. That miserable and criminal offensive of the democrats did the rest. The soldiers were now saying, to the last man “Enough of bloodshed! What good are land and freedom if we are not here?” When enlightened pacifists try to abolish war by rationalistic arguments they are merely ridiculous, but when the armed masses themselves bring weapons of reason into action against a war, that means that the war is about over.


1. The Russian word for Sunday is “Resurrection.”

Previous Chapter    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Next Chapter

Last updated on: 1 February 2018