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Jack Weber

Why Stalin Has Again Instituted
Army Commissars

(July 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 30, 26 July 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The capitalist press sees in the restoration of political commissars in the Red Army an ominous sign. We also see in this an ominous sign, but our interpretation is not that of the bourgeoisie.

They interpret Stalin’s move as an indication that there are symptoms of weakening and demoralization which Stalin wishes to check. Stalin does not fully trust some of his officers and wishes to forestall any attempts at betrayal. Hence the dual command, officers plus political commissars.

This interpretation evades the entire history of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. The power usurped by the bureaucracy could be maintained by the Stalinists only through the use of that instrument of terror, the GPU. The political commissars of Stalin form merely one arm of this secret state police.

The origin of political commissars goes back to the period of civil war from 1919 to 1922, after the October Revolution. Faced with the truly Herculean task of building the Red Army from the ground up, the great founder of that Army, Leon Trotsky, saw that it was necessary for the Soviet State to make use of specialists from the old Czarist army. The idea of utilizing these enemies of the working class met with considerable opposition, but was finally adopted. But the Bolsheviks recognized the danger of entrusting their armed forces to generals and colonels of the old regime who might at any moment attempt through treachery to bring about defeat of the Red Army in the interests of capitalist restoration. Hence, side by side with these officers, there were placed the most highly trusted communists who had received some training in leadership in the course of the Revolution.

These commissars had to approve the plan of campaign of the officers, but did not interfere during actual operations in the field. It was recognized that this system was cumbersome, but nothing else was possible at that time. Furthermore the entire system was looked upon as temporary. As soon as officers could be trained from the ranks of the working class, they would take over command of the Red Army, the remnants of the old regime would be replaced, whereupon more or less automatically the cumbersome system of dual command would disappear. And dual command did disappear, from 1922–1935.

Stalins’ Removal of the Commissars

The system of political commissar’s was revived just before the Moscow Trials, no longer for the purpose of keeping an eye on enemies of the Soviet, but in order to keep an eye on the enemies of Stalin or those who could not be sufficiently corrupted to become fitting henchmen of Stalin. In short the political commissars became nothing but Stalin’s spies in the army so that Stalin could maintain complete control there as elsewhere. In pursuit of this one aim of establishing his complete dictatorship, Stalin beheaded the army in the great purges of 1936–1938.

The Finnish campaign showed the effects not only of the purges, but of the pernicious spy network which robbed the officers of all initiative. So obvious was this that during the Finnish campaign Stalin was obliged to abolish the political commissars (except for the topmost rung of officers). This was done, as was announced at the time, in the interest of Red Army efficiency. The officers were to be allowed to exercise their real initiative and to take real responsibility on their shoulders.

Why has Stalin restored at this time a vicious institution which can only reintroduce inefficiency at the most critical period in the history if the Soviet Union? The Red Army has surprised the entire world by the strength of its resistance to the seasoned German armies. It has given an excellent account of itself, all things considered. Is it true that certain disloyalties have developed and that Stalin wishes to strengthen the army by restoring the commissars? The capitalist press accepts or pretends to accept this version of the matter. We do not accept it for one moment as the real reason.

The sudden descent on the Soviet Union by Hitler came as a surprise to Stalin. Stalin was prepared to make all the concessions possible to make Hitler’s attack unnecessary – so Stalin thought. Thus, for the time being, the Red Army had to act without any interference from the paralyzed Stalin. But after the first confusion, the Stalinist clique has recovered a little of its composure. It is once more engaged in the attempt (quite vain this time) to assure its future, in victory or defeat.

Stalin feared nothing so much as war. This war has completely negated every “theory” and and every policy of the Soviet dictator. Stalin stands completely responsible for the present situation and its outcome. In the past, Stalin stood in the background and laid all blame for failures or shortcomings on scapegoats. No doubt Stalin would like to employ this method in the present war. The commissars may help him find victims in case things go badly. If this be one reason for the new move, Stalin errs badly. The war will not leave in Stalin’s hands the concentrated power that he once had.

In fact, the feeling that he cannot maneuver with the war and its effects as with previous happenings, is already evident. The army needs immediate life-and-death direction and commands. It cannot now be subjected to the devious rule of Stalin. The ruler feels this and is making another attempt to subordinate the army to his complete control. Once again we see Stalin working, not in the interest of the Soviet Union, but in his own interests. His move will not strengthen the army, but will weaken it. But it is most unlikely that the bureaucratic system can be really restored in a period of warfare when vast armies are locked in battle.

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