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John G. Wright

How Leon Trotsky Organized the Red Army

He Forged an Invincible Military Force in the Face of Tremendous Odds

(August 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 33, 16 August 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The name of Leon Trotsky is inseparably bound up with the formation, life and victories of the Red Army. In addition to all his other gifts and achievements, Leon Trotsky established himself as one of the outstanding military leaders and strategists in history. No one will succeed in obscuring the connection between his role in organizing and building the Red Army and its successes, including the present heroic resistance of the Red soldiers against the Nazi onslaught.

No army was ever organized under such obstacles as confronted Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the organization of the first victorious army of the proletarian revolution.

When the workers seized power in Russia, in October 1917, the country’s economy verged on complete chaos as a result of the three years of imperialist world slaughter. Industry and trade were disrupted. The transportation system had collapsed; the system of communications existed in name only. There were no supplies for troops. The deposed landlords and capitalists did everything in their power to sabotage and undermine all constructive work. At the same time, the forces of the counter-revolution, supported by the imperialist world, threw army after army against the encircled revolution.

The Difficulties of Creating the Red Army

But even this did not exhaust the difficulties. In his report on the First Anniversary of the foundation of the Red Army, in February 1919, Trotsky analyzed the conditions at the time as follows:

“Disintegration of industry is of course an unfavorable condition for the creation of an army. But this was not all. The collapse of the old army left in its wake a bitter hatred of everything connected with militarism. The old army had exacted unbelievably heavy sacrifices; it had known only defeats, degradations, retreats, millions of corpses, millions of cripples, and billions in expenditures. It is hardly surprising that this war left in the minds of the popular masses a terrible revulsion to military life and everything connected with the old military clique. And it was under such conditions, Comrades, that we began building the army. Had we been compelled to begin on virgin soil, then we would have had from the outset, greater hopes and greater prospects. But no, the army had to be built on a soil of impoverishment and exhaustion, under circumstances when hatred of war and things military seized millions upon millions of workers and peasants. That is why a great many people, not only our enemies but also our friends, stated at the time that in the next few years nothing would come of our attempts to build an army in Russia.”

Still more: every other new regime in history immediately drew upon the old army organization for its own military work, For example, the armies of the Great French Revolution came into being as a result of the fusion of feudal regiments with the newly-formed national militia. No similar fusion was possible in the case of the Red Army: The corroded Czarist army not only fell apart but remained a source of infection and demoralization. This terrible obstacle had to be destroyed root and branch. The army of the revolution had to be built up brick by brick. Everything – discipline, fighting tradition, military authority, centralized organization, unified command, and so on – had to be built on new foundations, under fire, and against insuperable odds.

How the Army Was Built

An attempt was first made to form a volunteer army. The decree issued on February 23, 1918, supplied a few volunteer regiments of irregulars. On May 28, 1918, conscription was instituted. But no real army was in the field when Trotsky was placed in charge. There was only its human raw material comprising of: 1) bands of irregulars; 2) refugees escaping from the White Guards; 3) peasants mobilized on the neighboring districts; 4) detachments of workers sent by industrial centers; 5) groups of trade unionists and communists. These had to be forged into a new army, with a correct military organization, on the basis of new ideas, new discipline and new methods, under the direction of qualified commanders. Under whose leadership was this accomplished? Here is how Lenin depicted the situation in relation to the Red Army on March 15, 1920:

“After all, what did we begin with? Before Trotsky we had Krylenko, Dybenko, Podvoisky and we were left with this collegium, Kolchak and Denikin pasted the daylights out of us. Why? Because there were seven of us sitting together, and we had first to learn things for a space of two years and only then did we accept (the principle of) unified authority.” (Lenin’s Collected Works, Third Russian Edition, vol. XXV, pp. 84–85)

In Lenin’s opinion, before Trotsky took charge of the Red Army, there was no leadership, only “a collegium.” But Lenin affirmed a great deal more. In 1920, i.e., the critical year of the Civil War, he recognized that Trotsky had had to fight for two years for his basic political-strategical ideas in building the Red Army. This struggle had to be conducted not only against rank-and-file party opposition, but also against opponents in the Central Committee, and the Politbureau, who on several important occasions obtained a majority. This struggle, sometimes extremely sharp and bitter, concluded with the rout of the opposition and with the unreserved acceptance of those ideas, methods and principles which were first elaborated and applied by the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, and which were later adhered to by the Soviet General Staff.

Of the five major political-strategical conflicts which arose in connection with the creation of the Red Army, we shall deal briefly only with the crucial struggle against the so-called “Military Opposition.”

In essence this was a struggle against alien class tendencies which manifested themselves in the military sphere by the advocacy of the ideas and methods of guerrilla warfare. Had the champions of guerrillaism prevailed, the doom of the first workers’ state would have been sealed on the battlefields of the Civil War.

The Basis of the “Military Opposition”

The chaos of guerrilla warfare, as Trotsky pointed out, expressed the peasant element that lay beneath the revolution, whereas the struggle against it was likewise a struggle in favor of the proletarian state organization as opposed to the elemental, petty bourgeois anarchy that was undermining it.

The majority of the army recruits were peasants. The country itself was a sea of insurgent peasantry to whom this type of warfare is not only traditional but instinctive. The Bolsheviks were likened by Lenin to a drop in these vast waters.

Against this background the methods and ways of guerrilla (or “irregular”) fighting found a response in the ranks of the party, a response reflecting the pressure – intensified by the crisis – of the peasantry. This tendency was so strong as to exert a temporary influence upon Lenin. Zinoviev, who together with Kamenev was the least military-minded of the Bolsheviks, flirted for a time with the “Military Opposition.” But its real inspirer and behind-the-scenes organizer was none other than Stalin.

Political struggles over new ideas and new problems almost invariably assume at the beginning the form of a struggle around organizational issues. This was the case with the struggle for the correct political-strategical foundations for the Red Army. The Stalin-led “Military Opposition” stood for ideas which made impossible a correct military organization. Their ideas were in reality the ideas of vulgar petty bourgeois “democrats” translated into military terms. They favored the electoral method of choosing commanders; they opposed the enlistment of military experts, the introduction of military discipline on a proletarian basis; the centralisation of the army; unified command, and so on. The dispute centered round the utilization of former Czarist officers. The champions of guerrillaism seized on it because it provided them with the best cover for their false line ...

Polemicising against Stalin-Voroshilov and Co., at the time, Trotsky wrote:

“We should indeed have a low opinion of ourselves and our party, of the moral force of our idea, of the attractive power of our revolutionary morale, if we thought ourselves incapable of winning over thousands upon thousands of ‘specialists’ including military ones.”

The opposition to military specialists in reality reflected an. exaggerated estimate of the powers the bourgeoisie and a contempt for the power of the masses which is so typical of petty-bourgeois outlook; Stalin-Voroshilov and Co. feared the “specialists” because they themselves lacked the necessary knowledge, ability and confidence.

In 1920, Lenin summed up the experience as follows:

“Thousands of former officers, generals and colonels of the Czarist army betrayed us ... you know this, but tens of thousands continue to serve us, while still remaining partisans of the bourgeoisie, and WITHOUT THEM WE WOULD NOT HAVE HAD A RED ARMY. And all of you know that when we tried to create a Red Army without them two years ago, what we got was GUERRILLAISM, CONFUSION. This is what we got: we had 10 to 12 million bayonets, but not a single division; we did not have a single division good enough for the front, and we were unable to fight with millions of bayonets against the insignificant regular army of the White Guards.”

Trotsky’s Achievements Remained After Him

Out of this “guerrillaism” and “confusion” a mighty army was forged which proved victorious on 22 fronts. Were such an army organized in Russia in the space of less than three years in peace-time and under normal conditions it would have constituted an extraordinary military achievement. When and where and by whom was another army built under such adverse conditions The revolution was saved because Trotsky’s line on the military arena carried with Lenin’s aid against Stalin and all his Voroshilovs. Trotsky’s success also secured the subsequent development of the Red Army. At the end of the Civil War, the Red Army numbered five million men, most of whom are still alive and many of whom are now fighting on the old battlefields of 1918–1921.

But Trotsky’s work in the army did not stop with the termination of the civil war. It was continued for five more years. History knows of many military leaders who succeeded in creating extraordinary commanding staffs; but few of them created staffs that did not fall apart after their departure. The commanding staff of the Red Army – likewise forged on the anvil of the revolution – was one of the great conquests of the October revolution. The Red Army as it exists today is primarily the handiwork of Trotsky and his General Staff. These men, the legendary heroes of the Civil War, advanced to leading positions under Trotsky and met with unbridled opposition at the bands of the “Military Opposition” above all, Stalin.

We cite only the case of Tukhachevsky, universally recognized as one of the ablest Soviet military leaders and strategists. Toward the end of 1919, Tukhachevsky found himself unceremoniously shoved aside. He appealed to Trotsky, whom he telegraphed from Kursk on January 19, 1920, as follows:

“I turn to you with an urgent request to free me from unemployment. I have been aimlessly sitting on the Staff of the South-West Front for almost three weeks, and have been completely without work for about three months. I have been unable to obtain any explanations either for the delay or for failure to get another assignment. If I have rendered any service after almost two years of command of various armies, then I ask to be given the opportunity to use my abilities in some active work ...”

Tukhachevsky’s term of “unemployment” coincided with Stalin’s brief sojourn during that period at the Southern front. Stalin utilized this occasion to deal an underhand blow to the Red Army command. If Stalin had the final say, Tukhachevsky – whom he dubbed Marshal in 1935 and murdered in 1937 – would have languished in oblivion and inactivity. But Stalin had very little to say or to do with the constructive work of the Red Army in 1918–1921. Most of that period he spent in civilian pursuits. The few months he did pass at the front were devoted more to political intrigue in favor of the “Military Opposition” than to the military struggle. Suffice it to point out that although formally a member of the Revolutionary Military Council, he never took part in any of its sessions. That is one of the reasons why the minutes of this body remain unpublished to this day.

Stalin’s Crimes Against the Red Army

Stalin’s direct intervention in military affairs from 1921 to the end of 1937 comes down to the following three political maneuvers: 1) the removal of Trotsky in 1925 from the post of Commissar of War (achieved by Stalin with the aid of Zinoviev and Kamenev); 2) the appointment of Frunze to this post, and Frunze’s mysterious death in November 1925; 3) the appointment of Voroshilov – then a follower of Bukharin-Rykov – in Frunze’s place.

Long after Stalin concentrated political power in his own hands, he had to leave the command of the Army in the hands of those who commanded it under Trotsky.

Throughout his term as Commissar of War, Voroshilov remained a mere figurehead. The work of the Red Army in all its fields was from 1925 to 1937 under the direction of the eight generals and other members of Trotsky’s General Staff, whom Stalin murdered in 1937–1938 as “enemies of the people.” It was they who continued to build the Red Army on the foundations laid down by Trotsky. They modernized and mechanized it. They planned and constructed the fortifications in the West (the so-called Stalin line) as well as in Siberia. They drafted the mobilization plans. They prepared the strategic plans for meeting future attacks.

The internal logic of Stalin’s Moscow frameups drove him in 1937–1938 to extend his purge to the Red Army. The Red Generals, who had submitted to Stalin politically, resisted the weakening of the armed forces. They paid with their lives. To extend his personal sway to the armed forces, Stalin had first to destroy the flower of the command of the Red Army, Navy and Airforce.

The heroic resistance of the Red Army to the Nazi onslaught now presents the whole world with additional factual evidence of Stalin’s infamous frame-ups of Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Uborevich, Alksnis and others. If, as the Stalinists lie, they were Hitler’s agents, the German High Command would have been adequately informed concerning the defenses of the USSR, its fortifications, mobilization plans, and other military secrets. Why then have the Nazi armies been caught by surprise?

The quality of the Red Army’s resistance is proof of how ably and loyally these men had fulfilled their tasks prior to Stalin’s savage blows to the fighting power of the Soviet army. All of Stalin’s crimes against the Red Army since 1937–1938 have not been able to undo the work initiated by Trotsky in August 1918, and carried on for the next 20 years by the men who served under him. It is the Army of the October Revolution and the Civil War – Trotsky’s Red Army – that is now fighting so heroically.

Last updated: 28 May 2016