Erich Wollenberg’s

The Red Army


The Birth Of The Red Army

Chapter One

In the lives of nations and classes there are moments and even whole epochs in which—so Lenin informs map 1 us—“History causes the military problem to become the essence of the political problem.” Just such a period may be found in the transition stage from a capitalistic to a socialistic order of society and from an oppressed to a liberated nation.

Now the forms taken by imperialist armies are on the surface extremely manifold, and vary according to the more or less democratic or fascist forms of the various capitalistic states, but their essence remains the same. Every bourgeois army is the instrument of bourgeois dictatorship, or, to quote Lenin again, “the most ossified instrument for the maintenance of the old order of things, the strongest safeguard of bourgeois discipline, the prop of the rule of capitalism and the means of creating and inculcating a slavish obedience and keeping the masses of workers under the sway of capitalism.” The transition from an imperialist to a revolutionary army and the building up of this revolutionary army are therefore tasks which must be carried out on the basic principles laid down by the October Revolution of 1917, no matter how details may be varied according to the nature of that army’s military and political forms. Herein lies the great significance which a knowledge of the origin and development of the Red Army must possess for all socialists.

Every army reflects the political constitution and whole order of society prevailing in the land to which it belongs. A knowledge of the Red Army therefore, gives us the key to a knowledge of the economic, political and social system of the Soviet Union in every phase of its development.

Finally, international socialism must so shape its strategy as to allow for the Red Army becoming a decisive factor on the international battlefield. The army is one of the most important instruments in politics. The Red Army is the instrument of the October Revolution, which, as Lenin the internationalist continually emphasized, “was basically a dress rehearsal, or one of the dress rehearsals, for the proletarian world revolution.” The purpose of a dress rehearsal is to test the performances of the actors at every point, in order to ensure the best possible effects on the first night and eliminate as far as may be all mistakes and weak points. The international character of the Russian Revolution causes it to assign to the socialistic proletariat the simultaneous roles of critical observer, co-operator and future actor in this dress rehearsal, for, in Goethe’s words:

“Such tasks, how well we could complete them, If but permitted to repeat them.”

In the class war for liberty great historical tasks will be assigned not once only, but several times, and under varying conditions. It therefore depends to a certain extent on the workers of every land whether they can learn from the object-lessons history affords them, so that the task of their emancipation may be ‘well completed.’ Every honourable socialist, who is conscious of his responsibilities, must study thoroughly the creation, consolidation, extension, and, alas, the degeneration of the first Soviet State and the first Red Army as an essential condition of that completion.

Consequently all those questions which deal with the birth, development, military strength and political trend of the Red Army, must be considered first and foremost by the revolutionary proletariat of all nations and the oppressed colonial races.

The Break-Up of the Tsarist Army

In his pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Lenin, dealing with the basic conditions necessary for the creation of a proletarian defence force, wrote as follows:

“As Marx and Engels have frequently insisted, the first commandment for those who would carry out a successful revolution is to bring about the destruction and disintegration of the old army and its replacement by a new one. A new class of society, taking over the reins of government for the first time, can never obtain power and consolidate it without the disintegration (or, as reactionaries and cowardly philistines call it, the ‘disorganization’) of the old army, without enduring of necessity a difficult and painful transition stage without any army at all, and without gradually constructing, in the course of a bitter civil war, a new military organization as the defence force of the new class.”

The disintegration of the old army is the essential preliminary condition for the success of any proletarian revolution; it is likewise a sign that conditions are ripe for a revolutionary seizure of power. But the causes of an army’s disintegration are as manifold as the causes of a revolution, and, besides the general political, economic and social circumstances which incite to revolution, others arise from the special conditions of a military organization, such as maltreatment of soldiers, bad food and reverses in the field.

Even on the eve of the Revolution of February 1917 the Russian army was in process of complete disintegration. 19,000,000 men had by degrees been called to arms during the war years, but ‘arms’ was a word of only relative significance, since there were not half enough rifles for the men mobilized. For every company of 250 men in training barely a dozen rifles were available, and most of those were of an antiquated type which could not be used at the front. During instruction these rifles were passed from hand to hand; the majority of the soldiers had to practise their arms drill with dummies; frequently they were shown merely the appropriate movements. The soldier did not receive a rifle of his own until he reached a base depot, often not until he actually went into the trenches.

19,000,000 mobilized men represented about 11 per cent of Russia’s entire population of 167,000,000-the country then included Finland, Poland and the Baltic States-or almost 23 per cent of the whole male population. These figures compare closely with those of the British mobilization, which put 5.7 millions of men under arms in the Great War, drawing them from a total population of 46 millions, including 22 million males, i.e. a mobilization of 12.4 per cent of the entire population or 26 per cent of the male population. Germany mobilized 13 millions out of the total population of 67.5 millions, which included 33 million males, i.e. 19 per cent of the whole population and 39 per cent of the male population.

But Tsarist Russia could not compete with the modern, highly organized industrial states. Her backwardness in industrial development, her semi-feudal agrarian classes and political constitution, her incompetent and thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy, and her insufficient and badly organized system of communications were not equal to the task of organizing, feeding and leading the millions of soldiers she mobilized. Shortage of war material began to affect the front line as early as the winter of 1914-15; in the following years the army supplies continually degenerated, while transport conditions grew steadily worse. These material factors combined with the defeats at the front (which were in part due to the defective equipment of the troops) to play an important part in the disintegration of the army. Only a small proportion of the 19 million men mobilized actually served at the front; the shortage of arms and equipment was one of the reasons why the rest had to be employed on the lines of communication and in the base area. On the eve of the October Revolution, i.e. in September 1917, a report made by General Dukhonin, the Russian Commander-in-Chief during the last days of the Kerensky régime, placed the number of deserters at about 2,000,000 while the casualty list included 1,800,000 killed, about 5,000,000 wounded and 2,000,000 prisoners. Dukhonin estimated the remaining effective strength at about 10,000,000.

The events of the revolutionary period between February and October 1917, served only to hasten the break-up of the army. Even the October Revolution could not arrest the disintegrating process; on the contrary, the fear of being overlooked in the distribution of land caused the soldiers drawn from the peasantry to desert in masses and make for their native villages. Meanwhile, their comrades from the industrial population streamed into the towns to take over the factories and help build up their class organizations.

This process of disintegration also infected the revolutionary regiments which made common cause with the proletariat in revolt against the Kerensky régime. According to a report on the morale of the 1st Brigade of Guards drawn up by K. Yeremeyev, commander of the Petrograd military district, to the Soviet Government on January 28, 1918, the pronouncedly counterrevolutionary regiments, such as the Semyonov Regiment of Guards, were those least infected by the general disintegration; in comparison with the others, and especially with the revolutionary regiments, this regiment of Guards was the most intact of all under his command.


The Soviet Government was obliged to live through its difficult and painful period of being without an army at the very time when the forces of German imperialism were preparing to march on Petrograd. This was in the days of Brest-Litovsk.

Serious differences of opinion had manifested themselves in the ranks of the Bolshevist Party. Some members of the Central Committee were of opinion that it was incumbent on the Soviet Government to begin an immediate revolutionary war against German imperialism in order to fulfil their obligations to the Russian Revolution and the international proletariat. This group included Bubnov, Uritsky, Lomov and Djerjinsky, later the creator and chief of the Cheka. Other well-known Bolshevists who championed the same point of view were Radek, Riasonov and Piatakov.

Lenin, on the other hand, supported the tactics of the ‘breathing-space,’ in which the preliminary conditions essential for a revolutionary war against German imperialism were to be brought about. “If the German revolution breaks out within the next three or four weeks,” he maintained, “then perhaps the tactics of an immediate revolutionary war would not destroy our socialist revolution. But supposing the German revolution does not break out within the next month?... The peasant troops, who are absolutely worn out by the war, would overthrow the socialist government of workers immediately after the first defeat, which would take place not after several months, but within a few weeks. Under such circumstances it would be mistaken tactics to risk the fate of the socialist revolution which has already begun in Russia. Such tactics would denote a policy of sheer adventure. But by concluding a separate peace, we shall keep our hands free for a while to continue and consolidate the socialist revolution, while at the same time we shall have leisure to create a firm economic basis for a strong Red Army of workers and peasants.” This standpoint was supported in the Bolshevist Central Committee by Zinoviev, Sverdlov, Stalin, Sokolnikov, Smilga and Stassova.

Those who held to the theory of immediate revolutionary war opposed Lenin’s view with the argument that the conclusion of peace would make the Soviet Government a direct agent of German imperialism. “But this argument is completely erroneous,” Lenin explained, “because at the present moment a revolutionary war would make us direct agents of AngloFrench imperialism and so assist its objectives. The English have made Krylenko, our Commander-in-Chief, a direct offer of a hundred roubles a month for every Russian soldier, if we will continue hostilities. But even if we did not accept a single kopek from the French and English, we should still be giving them direct help by diverting some portion of the German army from them. In neither case can we escape from some sort of association with one or other group of imperialists.”

Lenin’s opinion was that it was impossible to stake the fate of the first successful proletarian revolution on the doubtful possibility of a German revolution in the near future. Nevertheless he made a practical attempt to create the conditions for an immediate revolutionary war. Getting in touch with Captain Sadoul, the member of the French Military Delegation who later became a Communist, he opened negotiations for the purpose of holding up the menacing advance of the Germans by blowing up bridges and destroying railways and rolling-stock under leadership of French officers. His decision to accept a dictated peace immediately and under any circumstances became irrevocable only when he received “the painful and shameful news that the regiments are refusing to remain in their positions or even to occupy the line of the Narva and are not carrying out the order to destroy everything on their line of retreat, to say nothing of the precipitate flight, chaos, stupidity, cowardice and slovenliness at present existing in the army.”

A third group in the Central Committee of the Party, under Trotsky’s leadership, represented a ‘middle’ point of view, which has been explained by Yoffe, Trotsky’s former colleague on the Brest-Litovsk delegation and a firm supporter of his views, in his Memoirs. This fraction of the party cherished hopes of a German revolution and championed the continuation of the ‘neither war nor peace’ policy. They hoped that the German advance would in time meet with resistance; the workers and peasants, they assumed, would be moved by acts of pillage and violence on the part of the German soldiery to start guerilla warfare. The inevitable consequence of such a policy would be a revolutionization of the advancing German troops, which would then spread to the workers in Germany. These tactics, they maintained, were the only ones which could unchain the German revolution, even if their employment meant the temporary surrender of Petrograd and Moscow and a retreat to the Urals. “But if we capitulate to German imperialism and sign the peace treaty forthwith,” they argued, “we commit an act tantamount to a betrayal of the German, Polish and Finnish revolutions.”

During the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk in January 1918, Trotsky represented this standpoint which Yoffe has expounded, and did so in accordance with instructions from the Bolshevist Central Committee. But when the forces of German imperialism replied to his refusal to sign the dictated treaty by ordering an advance on Petrograd, Lenin’s point of view won the support of the Party. An account of the final discussions in the Communist Fraction and in the general meeting of the Petrograd Soviet has been given with dramatic emphasis by L. Stupochenko, one of the Bolshevist participators in these historic sessions:

“It was on February 22, 1918, that Sverdlov opened the joint session of the two Government fractions, the Bolshevists and the Left Social Revolutionaries. He drew our attention to the fact that we had to give the Germans an answer by the following morning, and as it was already 11 p.m., he requested the speakers to be brief. Krylenko was the first to speak, but his discourse emphasized only one point: ‘We have no army. The demoralized soldiers are flying panic-stricken as soon as they see a German helmet appear on the horizon, abandoning their artillery, convoys and all war material to the triumphantly advancing enemy. The Red Guards units are brushed aside like flies. We have no power to stay the enemy; only an immediate signing of the peace treaty will save us from destruction.’

“His speech was interrupted by angry interruptions from the Left Social Revolutionaries: ‘That is a demagogue’s trick, not the opinion of the Commander-inChief! Down with him!’ But the Bolshevists were on Krylenko’s side. “Sverdlov had difficulty in restoring order in the meeting. The atmosphere grew white-hot. ‘And where’s our fleet?’ came from some benches. ‘Here’s Comrade Raskolnikov, ask him!’ replied Krylenko. Thereupon Raskolnikov, with a gesture of despair, replied from his seat: ‘We have no fleet now; it is broken up. The sailors are running away to their homes and abandoning their ships to the enemy.’

“’I call upon Comrade Lenin to speak for the Bolshevist Fraction as a supporter of an immediate peace,’ announced Sverdlov.

“And Lenin said: ‘Yes, we are now powerless. German imperialism has gripped us by the throat, and in the west I see no proletarian fists that will deliver us from the claws of German imperialism. Give me an army of a hundred thousand men-but it must be a strong, steadfast army that will not tremble at the sight of the foe-and I will not sign the peace treaty .... If we retreat to the Urals, we can delay the pressure of the Germans for two or three weeks; but can you guarantee me that the world revolution will have come in a fortnight? You must sign this shameful peace in order to save the world revolution by preserving its most important and at present its only fulcrum, the Soviet Republic.’

“Since the Social Revolutionaries refused to put forward any adherent of the peace policy to speak on their behalf, Sverdlov called out: ‘Bolshevists, off to the Fraction meeting!’ There he opened the proceed ings, and the opponents of peace overwhelmed Lenin with questions. Their onslaught was led by Steklov, who cried: ‘Tell me, Comrade Lenin, what’s your attitude to the clause in the treaty which forces us to withdraw all our troops from the Ukraine?’

“’We shall fulfil our obligations by withdrawing all our troops from the Ukraine,’ Lenin replied. ‘But down there the devil alone knows which are Russian and which are Ukrainian soldiers. It’s quite possible that there are no Russian troops at all there now-only the Ukrainian army.’

“’Are we to let our Finnish brethren go down in a fight against odds, for want of help?’

“’Yes, we shall bind ourselves to deny them help. But just think of that dreadful accident we had on the Finnish railways yesterday! Our railwaymen were so “careless” that they sent some trucks loaded with war material straight into Finland instead of pushing them off to the southern front. Such regrettable errors on the frontier are always possible. And as for the sailors, our Finnish comrades have asked us to recall them. They are so demoralized that they are selling their arms to the Whites, and so they are only making the fight harder for the Soviets.’

“’But we have to bind ourselves to stop all antiimperialist activities and give up our preparations for the world revolution!’

“’I thought I was dealing here not with political babies, but with old members of an illegal party who know quite well how we managed to keep our activities going under Tsarism. The Kaiser is no cleverer than Nicholas.’

“’But the party won’t be allowed to print any articles against imperialism and the Kaiser in its press! That would be a breach of the Brest Treaty.’

“’The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets and the Council of People’s Commissaries will sign the treaty, but the Central Committee of the Party won’t. The Soviet Government can take no responsibility for what the Party does.’

“The fraction decided by a majority to sign the treaty, making voting compulsory for all Bolshevists except the Latvian comrades, who were permitted to leave the room before it took place, since they could not be expected to take responsibility for the doom of Soviet Latvia.

“Despite the lateness of the hour-it was already 3 a.m.-a large number of people filled the benches in the assembly hall. At last the speeches were finished and the long-expected vote took place. 116 voted for peace, and 85 against, with 26 abstentions. Two anarchists refused to vote. Shouts were heard from the benches: ‘Traitors! You have betrayed our country! Judases! German spies!’ We filed out into the street to the accompaniment of yells, roars and cat-calls. It was six o’clock in the morning, but still dark, with only faint earns of light in the eastern sky.”

Those ‘faint gleams of light’ were the breathing-space we needed to build up a socialist economic system and an army for revolutionary warfare.

The Brest episode brought the Soviet Government to the edge of an abyss. It was compelled to retreat before the advance of German capitalism without striking a single blow, because it did not possess an army equipped with all the modern instruments of war and led by men versed in the art of modern war. The weapons of criticism were impotent against the ‘criticism of weapons.’

The Russian revolutionaries and friends of the Russian Socialist Revolution found themselves faced with the fearful question: Was Kautsky right in saying that “War is not the proletariat’s strong point”? If he spoke truth, then the isolated Soviet Republic must fall an easy prey to the imperialist powers, unless the Great War ended with a victorious revolution of the oppressed classes. The victory of either imperialist group, or a compromise between the two, would spell its doom.

Brest-Litovsk proved how correct was Marx’s prophetic assertion that “the revolution will have to fight modern instruments and arts of war with modern instruments and arts of war.” But another statement of the creator of scientific socialism opines that “the bourgeoisie teaches the proletariat how to use its arms”

Could the proletariat learn the art of war under bourgeois leadership? Or would its own strength enable it to create a modern army, equipped with modern war material which it could use to advantage? The proletarian victory of the October Revolution did not decide this question, for it was the result of a struggle between workers and soldiers trained by the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the remains of the old army-then thoroughly demoralized and in process of disintegration -on the other. Even after Brest-Litovsk the military problem remained the fateful problem of the Socialist Revolution. It hung like a sword of Damocles over the head of the youthful Soviet Government.

The Bolshevist Military Organization.

No special cadres had undergone training in prerevolutionary days for the task of building up an army. The Bolshevist Party had its own illegal military organizations within the Tsarist Army, but the mission of these military cells was the spread of revolutionary propaganda among the troops and the preparation of bases for armed insurrection.

After the victory of the proletarian revolution the functions of these cells underwent a change. Again and again Lenin insisted: “Since October 25 we have become the defenders of our country and our socialist fatherland.” But the Bolshevist military workers, who had hitherto been “full of fiery negative and destructive tendencies” in all army affairs, as Gussev, one of the leaders of the Bolshevist military organization, truly said, were now forced to execute a complete change of front. From disorganizers of the old army they had to become organizers of the new one.

The February Revolution had already brought about a certain change in the nature of the Bolshevist military work, previously concentrated solely on negation and destruction. Its former slogan: “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war” gave way to a call to action for the preparation of armed insurrection and the seizure of the reins of government. The Bolshevist military organization created special cadres of soldiers who were heart and soul with the revolution.

The task of these cadres was no longer to undermine the authority of the officers, but rather to exercise a control over their superiors in order to prevent the creation within the ‘democratic’ army of ‘special volunteer formations’ that could fight against the revolution; they also organized revolutionary military units to prepare the armed insurrection. Since these Bolshevist military workers had another field of activity among the Red Guards formed within the factories, their work in training and leading these factory hands had given them, even before October 1917, some sort of preparation for the great task which lay before them after Brest-Litovsk.

After the February Revolution, Petrograd became the centre of Bolshevist military work. The local Bolshevist Party Committee established a special ‘Military Commission’ to carry on work among the troops of the Petrograd garrison. Similar commissions were formed in the Baltic Fleet and at the front.

As far back as April 1917, the Petrograd Military Commission published a journal known as Soldatskaya Pravda (Soldiers’ Truth), which became the central organ of the Bolshevist military workers. Other military newspapers also came into existence at the front, as, for instance, the Okopnaya Pravda (Truth of the Trenches) of the 12th Army, which occupied the northern sector of the Russo-German front.

As the revolutionary crisis ripened, the work of the military organization gradually changed from the disintegration of the old army to the organization of the new armed forces of the revolution. On June 16 an All-Russian Conference of Bolshevist Military organizations met at the instance of the Petrograd organization. Delegates were sent from 500 military formations, which included about 30,000 Bolshevists in their ranks.

The Bolshevists were most strongly represented in the troops which went over to the revolution, i.e. those on the northern and western fronts, in the Baltic Fleet, in Finland, in the garrisons of Petrograd and its environs and in Moscow. They were weakest on the Rumanian and south-western fronts.

The conference decided that the main task of the military organizations must be the creation of revolutionary bases within and outside the army. It established in Petrograd short courses of instruction to give Bolshevist agitators a military training before despatching them to the troops at the front.

The military organization played a prominent part in preparing for and directing the armed insurrection, but after the victories of October 1917, the military cells tried to arrest the disintegration of the old army and build up formations of the new army within the shell of its predecessor. But it soon became manifest that the Russian workers serving in the old army were “incapable of taking it over and making active use of it for their own purposes.” The old Tsarist Army, which Kerensky tried to turn into a democratic citizen army with as little success as Ebert and Noske obtained under similar circumstances not long afterwards in Germany, or Azana and Girals obtained in Spain in 1936, simply could not be evolved into a class army of the proletariat. The system of electing officers did nothing to stop the process of disintegration. As Trotsky remarked, it had to be first reduced to atoms and dissolved into its component parts. Every soldier, workman and peasant had first to return to the place of his civilian occupation and re-enter his old workers’ cell in order to emerge, newborn, to join a new army.

By means of a speedy and complete demobilization the Soviet Government imposed some sort of order upon the spontaneous homeward movement of masses of soldiers. When this demobilization was accomplished, the regular army of Tsarist days ceased to exist. Only in a few isolated instances, as for example the Latvian regiments and the 4th Cavalry Division, did the Bolshevist military workers succeed in transforming units of the old army into efficient formations of the new one.

Nevertheless, the Bolshevist cells played a great part in the organization of the new army, for, as Trotsky insists, “they were the first to make it possible for us to discover the resolute though not too numerous elements, whose value was so great in the critical moments of the revolution.” During the period of the October rising they did their work as commanders and commissars of military units, while many of them were destined to become organizers of the Red Guards and the Red Army.