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John G. Wright

Trotsky and the Red Army

(October 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 8, October 1941, pp. 242–245.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On the old western battlefields of the Civil War of 1918–1920 the Red Army and the Soviet masses are now waging the second revolutionary war in modern times. The initial phases of this titanic struggle are taking place under the leadership of Stalin and his clique of usurpers who are doing everything in their power to lace the revolutionary war into the Kremlin’s bureaucratic straitjacket. But this does not and cannot alter the class nature of the Nazi-Soviet conflict. The Russian revolution is now inscribing into the pages of history the second great chapter of its military struggle against world imperialism and world counter-revolution.

Only those who cannot read the language of history will fail to understand the meaning of the heroism and unconquerable spirit of the Soviet fighters who are kindling a new hope in the hearts of the oppressed all over the world. The greatest conquests of October still live! And one of the crucial achievements of the revolution was the construction of the Red Army.

The Red Army always was and will always remain associated with the names of the great leaders of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky. Not only the leadership in organizing and building the army, but the initiative for its formation came from Leon Trotsky. He was the untiring inspirer of every decisive step taken in this direction. The decree instituting universal compulsory military training was adopted on April 22, 1918 by the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets on the basis of Trotsky’s report to this body. Within two weeks after the formation of the Supreme Military Council in March, 1918, Trotsky was appointed its Chairman. When this body was superseded in September by the Revolutionary Military Council, he remained Chairman.

Precisely because Trotsky’s name is inseparably bound up with the formation and life of the Red Army, its history has been suppressed or falsified. The great lessons of its construction have been trampled underfoot; its role in the life of the Soviet power completely obscured. Those who understand nothing of Marxism are free to reduce the problem of the Red Army to purely military terms. For us, the military achievements of the USSR are inextricably bound up with class forces and class politics. The Red Army represents one of the great political conquests of Bolshevism.

The Social Role of the Red Army

Like every army, the Red Army is not something separate and apart from the state but, on the contrary, constitutes the very quintessence of the Soviet state which, in its turn, represents a new and an unprecedented form of political power. Without the essential organ of the Red Army the workers’ state could not have endured for more than a few months. It could never have survived the years of Stalinist rule. Again, this should not be understood in a purely military sense. In the life of the workers’ state the army plays a role that is qualitatively different from the role played by military forces in a class society ruled by an exploiting minority. Bourgeois armies serve as naked instruments of coercion and oppression. The ideal soldier of the bourgeoisie is an unthinking, unquestioning, obedient automaton. It is otherwise with the Red Army and the Red soldier. Suffice it to point out that in Lenin’s lifetime and long after his death, the Red Army served as a political and cultural institution second only to the Bolshevik party. The flower of the youth and of the land received in its ranks not only military training but their political and cultural education. Furthermore, the Red Army has been practically from the beginning integrated with the productive plants of the country. Red soldiers received part of their training in industrial enterprises most closely connected with defense and, consequently, those most advanced technologically.

The colossal cultural shift thus produced through the instrumentality of the army tore vast strata of peasants from the barbarism of rural life. As a matter of fact, this prepared in large measure the ground for the future successes of industrialization. And these in turn acted to reinforce the military might of the army.

The Kremlin is of course trying to usurp credit for the heroic resistance of the Red Army, but Stalin will not succeed in this.

We Trotskyists link up the present heroic resistance of the Red soldiers directly with the Russian October and the Civil War. Whoever is astonished by the power of Soviet resistance is unaware that only the revolution unleashes forces capable of overcoming insuperable obstacles. This is being demonstrated on the battlefields today. This was most graphically illustrated in 1918 in the organization of the first victorious army of the proletarian revolution.

How Trotsky Built the Red Army

What did the task of building the Red Army actually involve? It involved the translation into military terms of the major political tasks of the Soviet power. As Trotsky has pointed out:

“Most of the questions of principle and the difficulties in connection with the constructive work of the Soviets during the years that followed were encountered first of all in the military sphere, and in most concentrated form at that.”

It was precisely for this reason that Lenin constantly referred to the experiences in the army at every crucial stage in the development of the Soviet Union in his lifetime. Lenin’s own estimate was that

“in the organization of the Red Army the consistency and firmness of proletarian leadership in an alliance between the workers and the toiling peasantry against all exploiters were brilliantly realized.” (Lenin’s Collected Works, volume XVII, pp. 412–414.)

The Army, like the Soviets, drew its strength from the complete confidence and support of the masses. In a letter to Lenin written in 1918 during his first trip to the front, Trotsky said,

“I am building an organization calculated for a long war. It is necessary to make this war popular. The workers must be made to feel that this is their war.”

Recalling the experience of those days, Trotsky wrote in his autobiography:

“The front ranks of the masses had to realize the mortal danger of the situation. The first requisite for success was to hide nothing, our weakness least of all; not to trifle with the masses but to call everything by its right name.”

The Red command never hesitated to bare the grim truth before the army and the country. Typical of this attitude was the order issued on October 18, 1919 during the defense of Petrograd against Yudenich, when Trotsky issued instructions: “not to send in false reports of hard fights when the actual truth was bitter panic. Lies will be punished as treason. Military work admits errors, but not lies, deception and self-deception.” In contrast to this, the Stalinist regime, which has no confidence in the masses and stands in great fear of them, always resorts to lies which the revolution invariably sought to punish as treason.

The revolution abominated the lie because the primary task was to educate and prepare the masses for socialism.

“For us,” wrote Trotsky, “the tasks of education in socialism were closely integrated with those of fighting. Ideals that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever.”

In the crucible of the Civil War, millions upon millions became indoctrinated with internationalism and devotion to the workers’ state. This tradition was so strong that it was of necessity continued in the training of other millions in subsequent years, even after the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union set in. For instance, when M.M. Landa, the then editor of Red Star, official organ of the Red Army, wrote a pamphlet (which was translated into many languages) in 1934 on the Red Army, he cited Stalin himself as the authority for the fact that:

“The strength of the Red Army lies in this, that from the first days of its birth it has been brought up in the spirit of internationalism.”

At the first session of the First World Congress of the Comintern on March 2, 1919, Trotsky delivered a report on the Red Army in which he said to the assembled delegates:

“I can assure you that the worker-communists who comprise the core of this army feel that they are not only the guard of the Russian Socialist Republic but also the Red Army of the Third International.”

Fifteen years later Stalin, who had meanwhile betrayed internationalism, still found himself compelled to render it lip service because this tradition was so deeply ingrained, above all in the army.

Nor was the influence of the army limited to its own ranks. One of the chief functions of the Komsomols – the Russian Young Communist League – was work in connection with building up the army and the fleet. This close connection between the youth and the armed forces was undoubtedly one of the reasons for the political expropriation of the youth by the Kremlin in 1936, when the Komsomols was transformed into a non-political organization.

Furthermore, the regular army was supplemented by territorial militias and by such civilian bodies as Ossoaviakhim (Society for Assistance in Defense and in Aviation-Chemical Construction) which spread similar education among additional millions.

This cement of the class struggle which originally constituted the cement of the Red Army is what holds its ranks together today, despite the havoc wrought by Stalinism.

The Problem of the Red Army Command

The army was the first complex social mechanism that was completely reconstituted by the revolution. The problem which arose immediately and acutely was that of an administrative staff, i. e., the command, without which this complex mechanism could not be attained. The masses themselves could not possibly supply this staff inasmuch as they lacked training, experience, and the very habits of exercising authority. Qualified commanders could come in the beginning primarily from the ranks of the former ruling classes, first and foremost, from the old Czarist officerdom. This problem of putting the bourgeoisie and its technical and administrative staff to work for the revolution was especially acute in a country so backward as Russia. But even in the most advanced countries, after the downfall of the bourgeoisie, it will be solved much in the same way that the Bolsheviks did, namely, by first smashing ruthlessly all attempts at sabotage and then offering employment to the members of the deposed classes.

In his recollections of Lenin, written shortly after his death in 1924, Trotsky relates how the question of military specialists arose almost immediately after the seizure of power. The General Staff occupied at the time one of the rooms in the Smolny.

“It was the most chaotic of all institutions,” wrote Trotsky. “One could never find out just who issued orders, just who was in command and just what was commanded. Here for the first time the question arose, in its general form, of military specialists. We had already had certain experience on this score in the struggle against Krasnov, when we appointed (the former Czarist) colonel Muraviev as commander-in-chief. To Muraviev were attached four sailors and one soldier with instruction to keep both eyes open and their revolvers cocked. This was the embryo of the commissar system. And this experience to a certain degree served as the basis in creating the Supreme Military Council.

“‘Without serious and experienced military men we shall never get out of this chaos,’ I would say to Vladimir Ilyich after each visit to the Staff.

“‘From the look of things, that’s so. But suppose they betray ...’

“‘We shall attach a commissar to each one of them.’

“‘And better still, let us make it two,’ exclaimed Lenin.

“And strong-armed ones at that. There cannot possibly be a dearth of strong-armed communists.’

“This was the origin of the formation of the Supreme Military Council.”

In a speech delivered on March 19, 1918 before the Moscow Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Trotsky explained:

“Yes, we are utilizing military specialists. For, after all, the tasks of Soviet democracy do not at all consist of rejecting all technical forces which can be profitably used for the success of our historic work, once they have been politically subordinated to the existing regime. After all, in relation to the army, too, the whole power will remain entirely in the hands of the Soviets, who shall appoint in all military organs and military sections reliable political commissars to exercise general control. The importance of these commissars must be raised to enormous heights; their powers will be unlimited. Military specialists will direct the technical side of the work, purely military questions, operative activities, military actions, whereas the political side of forming, training and educating the sections must be wholly subordinated to the plenipotentiary representatives of the Soviet regime in the person of its commissars. There is not and there cannot be any other way out at the present time. We must remember that the struggle requires technical knowledge in addition to the enthusiasm latent in the people.”

Stalin’s Opposition to Trotsky’s Solution

The central issue of the “Military Opposition” was their opposition to the utilization of these military specialists. The records of this struggle have been suppressed because they hopelessly compromise Stalin and completely reveal his role as the behind-the-scenes director of the struggle of the “Military Opposition.”

Was this opposition due to mere stupidity and ignorance? On the part of individuals, inexperience and stupidity can account for a great deal. But whenever political questions are involved it is always necessary to probe down to the class roots from which most psychological reactions draw their sustenance. The opponents feared betrayal. This fear of the “specialists” in reality expressed an exaggerated estimate of the powers of the bourgeoisie and distrust in the power of the masses and of the new regime. What did this fear express, if not a typical petty-bourgeois reaction?

Commenting upon this question in a letter, Natalia Sedov Trotsky makes the following analysis:

“I remember the feverish discussion which lasted for weeks. I recall the passionate struggle conducted by L.D. jointly with V.I. (Lenin) in order to draw in specialists into the construction of the regular army. L.D.’s very first experience in this sphere convinced him that without this basic condition we could not conquer. The question of building the Red Army to replace guerrillaism was for him the life-and-death question of the revolution. The arguments of the opponents were groundless. They were based on fear of betrayal. They dragged us back to the pre-revolutionary period when at the basis of all arguments likewise lay fear – inability to take into account our own forces and possibilities. And this impelled the dissident Bolsheviks to retreat in the face of the existing and extremely favorable political situation for the seizure of power by the proletariat.”

Life itself refuted the opponents. The problem of providing the Red Army with the commanding staff was brilliantly solved through the combination of “specialists” with political commissars. Summing up the experience Lenin said in the midst of the Civil War:

“When Comrade Trotsky recently informed me that in our military department the officers are numbered in tens of thousands, I gained a concrete conception of what constitutes the secret of making proper use of our enemy ... of how to build communism out of the bricks that the capitalists had gathered to use against us.”

With the termination of the Civil War, the problem of the commanding staff assumed a different form. The revolution was now in a position to train and educate its own “specialists.” The institution of political commissars altered its character completely, becoming transformed into the Political Department of the Red Army, responsible for the political education of the troops. Trotsky remained personally in charge of this work as Commissar of War until he was removed in 1925.

Stalin and the Red Army Today

The bureaucratization of the Soviet Government and of the Bolshevik Party, which dates back in its beginnings to the middle of 1922, did not have its direct effect upon the army until much later. In a certain sense it is correct to say that the Red Army for years remained in a special and privileged position in relation to the rest of the apparatus. This is reflected even in the sphere of Stalinist falsifications. Only in 1929 did Stalin dare to begin “rewriting” the history of the Red Army, and even then very cautiously. So far as the commanding staff is concerned, Stalin gained its subservience but it was not peopled by his own unscrupulous and incapable flunkeys until after the blood purges of 1937–1938.

Terrible as were the blows dealt by Stalin to the Red Army, it remains the one institution least affected by his degenerated regime. This extraordinary development, which no one could have foreseen, may well play a vital role in determining the future not only of the Soviet Union but of mankind.

Events have now brought their verification to the fact that it was beyond the power of Stalinism – which proved itself capable of perverting and destroying so many of the political conquests of October – to undermine completely the creative work of the Red Army. Lenin and Trotsky had forged it as the sword of the world revolution. They forged so firmly and so well that while the edge of this sword has been dulled and chipped by Stalinism, its blade still remains unbroken.

We have indicated the extent to which the Red Army has survived the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. This degeneration, however, has not failed to make frightful inroads into the army. It could not have been otherwise. Every stage in the degeneration of the workers’ state found its corresponding deflection in the ranks of the army. Thus the expulsion of the proletarian vanguard from the party was preceded by the hounding of Trotskyist and other oppositional elements in the armed forces. From 1925to 1927,outstanding Civil War fightersand commanders like I.N. Smirnov (he was known as the “Lenin of Siberia”), N.I. Muralov, S.V. Mrachkovsky and countless others suffered the same fate as Trotsky and his secretariat, they were removed from their army posts and then sent either into exile or concentration camps and jail. They were later murdered by Stalin.

After 1929 when Stalin broke his bloc with Bukharin-Rykov a similar fate befell the supporters of the Right Wing. Very few of those who capitulated, former Left Oppositionists and former Right Wingers alike, were permitted to resume high military posts.

In September 1935 sweeping changes were introduced in the Red Army. The militias were greatly restricted. This weakened the direct ties between the army and the populace. The arsenals formerly in each factory were taken over by the GPU. Another terrible blow was dealt to the principles of October by the restoration of a privileged officers’ caste. All these measures were political steps taken by Stalin to tie the army more firmly to his regime.

But while he thus weakened the defensive power of the USSR, Stalin did not attain his goal. His hold on the army could not be guaranteed by “reforms.” He therefore resorted to the blood purge which struck deeply and savagely at the entire Red Command.

In the space of a single year – May 1937 to May 1938 – the Red Army was stripped almost to a man of all those commanders who had been recruited in the period of the Civil War. Purged too were those Civil War fighters who had risen from the ranks in the course of the next 15 years. The flower of the Red Army command was either shot or imprisoned as “enemies of the people” in the period of the infamous Moscow Frameups.

No other army in history ever suffered such a blow, and on the very eve of the involvement of the USSR in a major war.

The work of the Red Army in all spheres from 1925 to 1937 had been under the direction of those generals who were members of Trotsky’s original commanding staff. Tukhachevsky, Gamarnik, Yakir, Uborevich, Bluecher, Primakov (the outstanding Red Cavalry commander), Eidemann (head of the Ossoaviakhim) and others had continued, even under Stalin, to build the Red Army on the foundations laid down by Lenin and Trotsky. These men had modernized and mechanized the Red Army. They planned and constructed the fortifications in the West (the so-called Stalin line) and similar fortifications in Siberia. They drafted the mobilization plans. They prepared the strategic plans for meeting future attacks.

The Revolutionary Task of the Red Army

In place of these men Stalin has appointed people without revolutionary experience, without military knowledge, without prestige among the troops, and without any moral capital. These creatures owe everything to Stalin. They have no choice or desire other than to follow him. Stalin crowned his purges by abolishing the “Socialist Oath” of the Red Army, instituting new disciplinary statutes in the spirit of bourgeois armies, and elevating still another officers’ caste from corporals to Marshals, with himself as Commander-in-chief.

The war brings to its greatest intensity the contradiction between Stalin’s regime and the needs of the army which is being suffocated by his stranglehold. Every hour of struggle reveals more and more clearly the criminal inadequacy and inefficiency of Stalin and his henchmen. Thousands of Red soldiers and officers, together with other thousands of workers and peasants – specially those who have arms again – are growing ever more aware of the terrible price in terms of territory, industrial and natural resources, military equipment and manpower which the Soviet Union is now paying for the continuation of the Stalinist “leadership.”

The traditions of the Civil War are reviving. The struggle against the enemy, the entire war-time experience, imbues the Red Army with the assurance that with a qualified and revolutionary leadership, corresponding to the class nature of the war, the struggle against the Nazis could be transformed literally overnight from the defensive to an offensive. The very logic of the struggle now poses in the sharpest form to the Red Army the need of ridding the country of the bureaucratic incubus. Stalinism can lead the Red Army in the end only into the same blind alley in which it has itself arrived. The Red Army must solve this life-and-death question in order to wage a victorious revolutionary war.

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