Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Harold Walter Nelson, Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection 1905-1917, Frank Cass, London 1988, pp158

This is a fascinating and most disturbing book, disturbing because it is written by an American army colonel who appears to be a good deal more aware of the problems of Socialist insurrection – a key aspect of Leon Trotsky’s thought – than the vast majority of those who call themselves Trotskyists. The author has used the Russian edition of Trotsky’s Collected Works, published in 12 volumes in Moscow between 1925 and 1927 and cites these references, which makes crosschecking with the far more limited English and French language material available to this reviewer difficult. Essentially the work divides into three: firstly and most novel to me, Trotsky’s rôle in the debates among revolutionaries after 1905 about the tactics necessary to overcome the Tsarist army, involving the complex and subtle interaction of politics and military technique; secondly, the comments and analyses on the Balkan wars and the First World War of Trotsky the brilliant journalist; and finally an account of the way in which Trotsky mobilised and commanded the Bolshevik seizure of power – all clearly and well written in less than 200 pages.

The second of these three themes, that of Trotsky the war correspondent, is the least politically controversial, and can be dealt with first of all. Whether it was his Marxist training or his own natural genius, Trotsky was able to perceive as closely as any civilian could both the way in which total war involved total society and – though forbidden proximity to the front – the nature of the stresses on humans in twentieth century battle. In this sense he foreshadows the work of academic authors like John Keegan or Michael Howard who, with the advantage of hindsight over two tremendous military convulsions this century, systematise much of what Trotsky brilliantly foresaw in a small war in a god-forsaken corner of Europe. What was incredibly original then is now part of conventional wisdom, and indeed Michael Howard once said to me that “We are all Marxists now”, by which I understand him to mean that many of Marx’s insights about society have passed into the general consciousness of good historians. So Marxists seeking to understand war might all start by reading the Face of Battle by Keegan and the Franco-Prussian War by Howard.

Trotsky’s feat was the more amazing when one glances at what passed for military science in those days, such as the work of Bernhardi or, on a more specialised level, the documents submitted to the Cabinet by the Committee of Imperial Defence, let alone the attempts of Hilaire Belloc to explain war to a civilian readership in early 1915. On a simple strategic plane Trotsky was more than competent, though I have some doubt myself as to whether Nelson is correct in believing that the former’s strategy would have enabled the Bulgarian army to take Constantinople and avoid the costly battle of Lule Burgas. Indeed a Marxist – and not only a Marxist – analysis would tend to see costly savage battles as inevitable between enemies who were more or less equally well-equipped. Some clever little manoeuvre could not avoid this, and it would be all the more true when, as Trotsky pointed out, the technical conditions of the day favoured the defence. However reactionary he may be, an historian like John Terraine is surely right about the need for fighting in order to win, and Nelson’s surprising admiration for his subject has carried his judgement away. Chauvinists amongst us might assert that the American military expects to win without fighting – simply by technologically brilliant massacre.

One interesting aperçu that Nelson does not develop is that after his Balkan War experience, Trotsky became convinced that partisan warfare was not suited to a Socialist revolution, though he thought that guerrillas could be useful to a nationalist movement. [1] Perhaps it is a pity that many Trotskyists in the late ’sixties and ’seventies did not appear to be familiar with this judgement. It also raises an interesting question about Nelson’s view of the Vietnam war in which he served. Perhaps he does not think Vietnam is Socialist, in which case he may judge it to be capitalist or state capitalist! But the author’s Vietnam experience seems to have marked him in other ways, since he chooses not to mention Trotsky’s furious denunciation of the atrocities of the Bulgarian army and their habit of killing enemy wounded which, since Turkish army units contained up to 25 per cent Christian soldiers – either Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian and so on, resulted in the murder of many men who would have been delighted to join the victorious allies. Such behaviour was therefore militarily counter-productive, as well as barbarous. But perhaps for a serving American officer in an army which had, as a matter of policy, bombed Vietcong hospitals to break their opponents’ morale, it would be too delicate ’ not to say handicapping for promotion prospects ’ to praise Trotsky for this. (Their legal experts said that the Vietcong wounded were not covered by the Geneva convention, since they were not members of a state’s armed forces.)

Trotsky’s writings on the First World War continue with his search to understand the psychological and social stresses on the front line soldier in greater depth, and there is even a remarkable sentence that foresees the invention of the tank. Yet the psychological aspect on which he insisted is one, if not the main, reason why generals today wish to put their troops in armoured vehicles. If that is done, their soldiers can be carried forward into danger against their will like the crew of a warship. Unlike the Prussian soldier of Frederick the Great, imprisoned by ferocious brutal discipline in the regiment, modern servicemen can be imprisoned in the steel walls of their weapons and so are both forced to fight and not to fraternise. The most extreme example of this is in naval operations – the bureaucratic mechanised mode of warfare par excellence. So the technical solution, armour, arises in part from the psychological needs of the death-avoiding soldier in opposition to the desire of the general to control this impulse. Here Trotsky’s sharp intellect seems to be on the right lines.

For Socialists the main interest of this book will surely lie in the debates in which Trotsky participated after 1905 concerning the tactics to be used to overthrow the Tsar’s army – the concentrated essence of the autocratic state. This argument boiled down as to how far the army could be overthrown militarily or subverted internally, and Nelson deals with this clearly, concisely and subtly. The weakness of the book here is that the author concentrates overmuch on Trotsky, the military hero, though this whole dispute should be seen in rather broader context, and the documents of the SRs and both the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party might have been looked at. Indeed the question could be broadened further and the whole debate on ‘People’s Armies’, in which. western Socialists such as Jaures took part, could be examined in order to understand the context of the Russian quarrel. On Nelson’s evidence the Bolsheviks, at one time, do seem to have had a very ultra-left and triumphalist attitude, believing that they could smash the Tsarist army by means of a workers’ insurrection, and justifying individual acts of terrorism. Nelson fails to point out that after the excesses of some Bolshevik bank robbers Lenin changed his mind. A matter that many sectarians today do not understand is that a working class party develops its programme, not in one thunderous stroke of genius by the revolutionary leadership, but by a process of class struggle, trial and error. The working class and its leaders learn from experience and each other in a dialectical way, and though it is equally true that some understanding of the past may save them from dreadful mistakes, historical knowledge alone may not provide any clear answers to present day problems. So the Bolsheviks and Lenin learnt and looked at events and the consequences of their own actions, and they did not merely tell people what to do.

For the Bolsheviks the military question was complicated by the fact that the army was overwhelmingly recruited from the peasant masses rather than from the working class, where the RSDLP was influential. Things were even more complicated as the different arms were raised from different social groups, the engineers and gunners being more likely to be workers than the infantry. But it was the peasant infantry who were used for repression. In the First World War the socially backward infantry were misused by their commanders and so slaughtered in ill-considered offensives that they became temporarily very advanced politically, and the problem was resolved. It was the military defeat of the army by the Germans, rather than the revolutionaries, that opened the way to its subversion and the seizure of power. When the revolutionaries went on the military offensive the subverted army collapsed with scarcely any resistance. Earlier, when the Russian Socialists debated the military question in the prewar period, it had been noted that attacks on the army had often resulted in a hardening of attitudes against the revolutionaries among the soldiers.

It may be relevant here to note that attempts to do agitational work in the army in Britain at the beginning of the 1970s met with very limited success, and that the few soldiers and NCOs contacted – however advanced in other ways – were always very hostile to the rather pro-IRA line put forward by the agitators from a Trotskyist group. The soldiers perceived the Irish problem as a fight between two reactionary groups of Irish people, not a struggle for national liberation, and it is at least arguable that they, not the revolutionaries, were the more correct. The British army today, like that of the United States and unlike the Russian, is composed of long service volunteers and, in Britain at least, it contains a strong janissary element. [2] Agitation here will take place on unpromising terrain, though if the units have been thinned out in an unsuccessful war the situation would change, as it did in Russia among the peasant levies of Tsar Nicholas. And if such a war arises it will do so because of a political crisis facing the regime, as did the little Falklands affair, which surely owed its outbreak to the internal problems of the British and Argentine governments of the day. Such crises, and the consequent opportunities, will doubtless continue to arrive.

Much of the final section of Nelson’s book dealing with the seizure of power will be broadly familiar to readers who know Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. It is nevertheless very well done and worth reading. I return to the point with which I began by asking myself how it comes about that an American Colonel can deal with this field so very competently. What ‘being’ has determined his ‘consciousness’? I can only assume that his experience in Vietnam, and those of his fellow officers at the War College, when they saw their own army disintegrate before their eyes, despite a casualty rate that was tiny by the standards of World War One, has made them exceedingly sensitive to the problem of the social cohesion of the armed services. Events in Iran, too, where there were many US military advisers, may have had an impact. These instances underline the fact that those very few American Trotskyists who during the Vietnam war maintained that, rather than running away to Canada, revolutionaries should allow themselves to be drafted to work into the army, were correct. Alas, they had but tiny resources while the Woodstock generation, which was their milieu, proved an unpromising layer from which to recruit a Bolshevik party willing to undertake that hardest task of all for Marxists – agitation in the regiments. Nevertheless the modern army, despite the vastly enhanced technical ability of military power in the modern capitalist state, is far from invulnerable to its own working class. And, as this excellent book indirectly bears witness – they know it.

Ted Crawford



1. I am greatly indebted to Judith Shapiro who went to considerable trouble to check the Russian language references for this review. However she was quite unable to find the quote which Nelson puts in inverted commas on p.66 citing Sochineniia, Volume 6, p225. I had thought that it was from a passage from Kievskaya Mysl no.293, of October 1912, which seems thematically related to this topic and which can be found on p.234 of The Balkan Wars, Pathfinder Press, 1980. Even if the citation has been muddled it seems to be either a not unjustified paraphrase of Trotsky’s thought on this issue or may indeed appear somewhere else.

2. By ‘janissary’ I mean individuals who have been torn out of society and lack even family links with it, let alone trade union ones. In Britain this is the case with almost all the many boy recruits, about a third of the infantry, who join at sixteen, the vast majority being from broken homes who do not get on with their step-fathers. Like the janissaries their only home is the regiment. The statistics concerning the background of these lads are, of course, an ‘official secret’ – perhaps with good reason.

Updated by ETOL: 12.7.2003