Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

Communist International

Work in the Army


WHILE work within the military was a condition of entry for parties seeking affiliation to the Comintern, this provision was not systematically enforced until the 1930s, when this new interest in military work was expressed in a resolution passed at the Comintern’s Sixth Congress. [1] Prepared by the ‘Anti-Militarist Sub-Committee’ of the War Commission, the resolution, Instruction on Work Within the Armed Forces stated bluntly:

[The] … struggle against the imperialist war is impossible without permanently organised and systematic work inside the armed forces of the capitalist countries, with the aim of winning the soldiers and sailors to our slogans and disorganizing and disintegrating the military system of the capitalist countries. Such work is particularly an indispensable premise for the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war.

The substance of the resolution, however, concerned not mere revolutionary slogans, but practical guidelines on how to build an illegal apparatus within the armed forces capable of withstanding savage repression with the minimum of loss, and how to build a similar civilian support apparatus outside. ‘All too often this work is looked upon as something mystical and criminal, something that is outside of regular party work, and even called military espionage or conspiracy’, it stated. The key to military activity was the construction of a special party apparatus, inside the military, and separate from the party.

The organisation within the armed forces was sometimes to be simply revolved around a single person, but generally was to comprise a ‘nucleus’ of three to five soldiers or sailors at most. The coordination of the work in the army was to be carried out by an auxiliary apparatus outside the army. As well as the nucleus, the directive also called for a periphery of ‘special groups of sympathisers’ which were to be built around the various nuclei.

This ‘civilian apparatus’ had to be, from the beginning, ‘strictly conspirative’. Conspiratorial rules meant that all written correspondence had to be at an absolute minimum, and code used for transmitting addresses: ‘In every case where mutually unacquainted comrades are put in touch with each other … there absolutely must be an inconspicuous Password arranged.’ [2] As with parties operating under strict rules of conspiracy, there was to be no question of internal democracy in the military apparatus.

The key to winning support in the military forces was to understand and articulate the needs of the rank-and-file soldiers and sailors. A programme of demands had to be formulated which ‘should contain the real demands of the soldiers … not a single point should be adopted in the programme without an exact investigation of its tenability from the point of view of the actual needs of the soldiers under the given conditions’. [3]

From the early 1930s, the anti-militarist work of the Comintern began to develop an element of industrial and political espionage. Specifically, this meant discovering the military-industrial capabilities of capitalist countries, but also to obtain defence documents kept under lock and key. Surprisingly, the latter was openly and carefully stated in publications of the Comintern. In 1931, Lozovsky, writing on the rôle of the trade unions in the war, stated that it was necessary ‘to operate in the holy of holies of capitalist society, in the armed forces and diplomatic service’ (my emphasis). The Comintern’s anti-militarist expert, Boris A. Vasiliev argued publicly that wars are prepared in enormous secrecy and that it was the job of all Communist parties to expose this secrecy. He then asked how this could be done:

It is obvious that any secret treaties, Government proposals and military orders which by one means or another fall into the hands of Communist Party organisations must be published without delay, but the centre of gravity of the work of the exposure of the secrets of the preparation of new imperialist wars and simultaneously the centre of gravity of real anti-militarist work does not lie here: it lies in industries – and in the railway centres, and especially the automobile industry, import and export transport centres – which have military importance. [4]

The reference to secret treaties being published recalled the actions of the new Soviet government in 1918. But the notion of Communists obtaining secret documents in their own country was quite a different matter. In such directives lay the origins of political espionage, for example, by American Communists, which became the focus of Cold War trials and witch-hunts.

The Twelfth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI) in August-September 1932 found that the expectations of the Comintern were not being fulfilled at a satisfactory rate. One of its main resolutions, The War in the Far East and the Tasks of the Communists in the Struggle Against Imperialist War and Military Intervention Against the USSR, drew attention to ‘the impermissible weakness of the contacts of the CPs with the principal munition factories, with the chief ports, and with the key points on the railroads, and also to the fact that the anti-war work of the Communist Parties and the YCL in the army, the navy and the special fascist semi-military organisation is in an intolerably neglected condition …’ [5]

A similar theme was echoed in the decisions of the Thirteenth (and final) ECCI plenum in November-December 1933. In attempting to turn the imperialist war into a civil war, Communists must ‘concentrate their forces in each country at the vital parts of the war machine of imperialism’; they must prevent the shipping of arms and troops, organise demonstrations against military manoeuvres, and ‘intensify political educational work in the army and navy’. [6]

The document below represents the thinking of the Comintern during the 1930s. It was written in 1935 by Boris Vasiliev, who was an expert in organisational method and theory in the Comintern. [7] Born in 1889, he joined the Bolshevik party in 1904 and was killed in 1939, presumably in the purges. From 1925, he worked in the Communist International, where he was a political secretary of the Eastern Section. He was an ECCI delegate from the Sixth to the Thirteenth Plenums. He also participated in the Fourth and Fifth Congresses of the Profintern. In 1933, he became head of the Organisation Department of the Comintern. It is thought that when he wrote the following manuscript he had fallen out of favour and had lost his power in the Organisation Department of the Comintern.

David McKnight

10 October 1935, Work in the Army

WORK in the army has two forms. First, work among the army masses which is work from the outside. Second, work within the army with the help of a special illegal apparatus.

Work From the Outside

This boils down to work among young conscripts … this work is carried out through organisations, often government and sometimes independent, dealing with conscription.

The purpose of their work is to raise young people in the spirit of the need to defend the capitalist state. The purpose of illegal work is to persuade the young people about the uselessness of this purpose … When these people join the army, they become organisers of the work within the army. Another aspect is work among reservists, war veterans of 1914–18 war because is easier to approach a reservist than an army man …

Special literature should be produced and delivered specially for soldiers, this is mainly illegal literature because it can be destroyed eventually. This literature can be carried in wrapped in alluring paper covers, such as adventurous novels, cooks books [sic], books on cosmetics, the first three or four pages can deal with this subject as well as the three or four at the end …

The German Communist Party was particularly good at producing such literature. The German police are aware of such books, but they cannot look through every possible booklet. Illegal work can be carried out by letters from relatives, and in this Japan provides a good example. For example, relatives write to soldiers about difficulties at home and this tends to revolutionise soldiers, because they think of home rather than the fight. Such letters arouse defeatist sentiments. For example, in 1933 and 1934 the demoralising effect on troops in Manchuria was so strong that these troops were changed three times. This tactic forced Mussolini in Italy to introduce special censorship and later a standard letter.

The Work Within the Army

This is chiefly conspiratorial work carried out by military sections under party committees in areas where garrisons are stationed. These military sections mainly consisted of three people … These troikas consisted of a representative of the corresponding party committee, one from the Komsomol committee and an organiser of the work in the army. This troika has a small conspiratorial apparatus at its disposal, isolated from the general party apparatus. The party must have no information on the work of troikas. Its members do not go to party meetings, and some should declare their resignation from party ranks to put the police on the wrong track.

How to Make Contacts with the Barracks

The Bolsheviks often used young women since police paid less attention to them. In Manchuria, however, this is impossible since women are banned from barracks. So old people are used under the guise of fathers and relatives. Every particular country should study this question.

One of the methods [used in the Russian revolution] was to take laundry from soldiers or to use special laundries to convey information. Weapons and bullets can be sent along with the dirty clothing, especially weapons and bullets needed for an armed uprising. They can be hidden in the dirty clothes. Illegal literature can be sent back with clean clothing.

There is a need for places where soldiers can freely talk to contact men such as flats of relatives or acquaintances, which soldiers visit on leave. Shops, billiard rooms may also be used.

Work in the Infantry

The infantry consists of two kinds of units. Some are special task units formed from people who are carefully checked. It is no use to approach them. Other units such as coloured troops … are the ones which should be reached first. They are particularly vulnerable. As well, these people are poorly versed in politics, and this makes them a good subject for approaching with propaganda.

French Communists carried out successful work among coloured troops in 1928–30. Officials used to surround major cities with lines of coloured troops in order to have reliable armed forces around the cities. First, the PCF tried to work with them in barracks, but then shifted its work to the colonies. In 1933, the chief of the colonial army told the French General Command that they could no longer rely on colonial troops, because they had been revolutionised by Communist propaganda. Since 1933, colonial troops have not be used for encircling cities, and the French experience is particularly valuable for countries with colonies, Britain among others.

Work Within Punitive Troops

These are police units such as national guards and so on. These units are composed on the class principle, and include the sons of the ruling class among them. So to work with them is useless. The party should instead raise the hatred of the people against them and describe them as major class enemies.

Work with the fleet is a weak point with the work of almost every Communist party. The British CP failed to organise serious work in the army [during the Invergordon mutiny of 1931], and there was [sic] no communist cells on these ships – in the army in general and the navy in particular, So the movement in the navy was spontaneous from beginning to end. The situation could be compared to the Potemkin uprising in 1905. Lenin sent a man with a special directive from Geneva to Odessa to carry out a plan of attacking Odessa. The ship’s commander, the directive said, should deliver an ultimatum to the Odessa Governor that the Odessa garrison and the police should disarm and that power should be transferred to the elected workers’ committees. If the Governor refuses to obey with three hours, his building should be bombarded and Odessa should be attacked. But the directive came late, and the Potemkin failed to establish contact with the revolutionary workers in the coast. In 1932, the crew of the Dutch ship The Seven Provinces made the same mistake. This mistake was analysed by one British admiral who later wrote: ‘The Dutch government should be thankful to the heads of the uprising for their failure to quickly find [sic] contacts in the coast.’ A similar mistake was made in 1932 in Chile. There its authorities took the fleet out to sea, where it was destroyed from the air.

Much attention should be given to the tank and aviation forces since these are specially formed from much-tested people and are surrounded by spies. Those revolutionaries working with them should be extremely cautious in establishing contacts. These contacts should be established on a small basis with units of three or four people, and with individuals. In the armies of some countries the secret police set up ‘Communist groups’ of provocateurs to find out dissatisfied revolutionary elements within these units.


1. Instruction on Work Within the Armed Forces, RTsKhIDNI, 493-1-531. The final English version, dated 20 August 1928, is taken from pages 169–89. A later German version in the same file is slightly different, even though both versions are stamped ‘final’. No version was ever publicly released along with the bulk of the Sixth Congress material. (An almost identical version is found at RTsKhIDNI, 495-20-797.)

2. Instruction on Work Within the Armed Forces, op. cit., pp. 176–7.

3. Op. cit., p. 182.

4. A. Vasiliev, The Communist Parties on the Anti-Militarist Front, The Communist International, Volume 8, no. 14, 15 August 1931, pp. 386–7.

5. At least one part of this resolution, dealing with Manchuria and Japan, had ‘Ne pas Publier’ [‘Not for Publication’] in the French version and a similar statement in German (Twelfth Plenum of the ECCI, RTsKhIDNI, 495-170-363, 93-99).

6. Fascism, the Danger of War and the Tasks of the Communist Parties, Inprecorr (Special Supplement), 5 January 1934.

7. Details of Vasiliev’s career are drawn from informal file notes used by archivists at RTsKhIDNI. His work on the military underground is at RTsKhIDNI, 495-25-1351. A covering note within the file describes the material as ‘Comrade Vasiliev’s manuscripts on work in the army’.

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011