Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

2. The Peace of Brest-Litovsk

ON BECOMING commissar for foreign affairs Trotsky hastened to publish the secret treaties of the Tsarist government. He hoped this would not only embarrass the Allied governments, which were partners to these treaties, but would also encourage the German working class to fight against its own government, which had similarly made secret agreements.

On 27 October (9 November) 1917 Trotsky issued the following note on Secret Diplomacy and Secret Treaties:

In undertaking the publication of the secret diplomatic documents relating to the foreign diplomacy of the Tsarist and the bourgeois coalition governments ... we fulfil an obligation which our party assumed when it was the party of opposition.

Secret diplomacy is a necessary weapon in the hands of the propertied minority, which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to make the latter serve its interests. Imperialism, with its worldwide plans of annexation, its rapacious alliances and machinations, has developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest degree.

The struggle against imperialism, which had bled the peoples of Europe white and destroyed them, means also a struggle against capitalist diplomacy which has reasons enough to fear the light of day. The Russian people and, with it, the peoples of Europe and the whole world, ought to know the precise truth about the plans forged in secret by the financiers and diplomatic agents ... The abolition of secret diplomacy is the primary condition of an honourable, popular, really democratic foreign policy.

The note ends:

Our programme formulates the burning aspirations of millions of workers, soldiers and peasants. We desire the speediest peace on principles of honourable co-existence and co-operation of peoples. We wish the speediest overthrow of the rule of capital. Exposing to the whole world the work of the ruling classes as expressed in the secret documents of diplomacy, we turn to the toilers with the appeal which constitutes the firm foundation of our foreign policy: Proletarians of all countries unite!’ [1]

In a speech to the Petrograd Soviet on 4 (17) November Trotsky explained how he saw the work of Soviet representatives in the peace negotiations:

Sitting at one table with [the representatives of our adversaries] we shall ask them explicit questions which do not allow of any evasion, and the entire course of negotiations, every word that they or we utter, will be taken down and reported by radio telegraph to all peoples who will be the judges of our discussions. Under the influence of the masses, the German and Austrian governments have already agreed to put themselves in the dock. You may be sure, comrades, that the prosecutor, in the person of the Russian revolutionary delegation, will be in its place and will in due time make a thundering speech for the prosecution about the diplomacy of all imperialists. [2]

A couple of weeks later, on 23 November (6 December), Trotsky issued an appeal To the Toiling People of Europe, Oppressed and Bled White:

We conceal from nobody that we do not consider the present capitalist governments capable of a democratic peace. Only the revolutionary struggle of the working masses against present governments can bring Europe towards such a peace. Its full realisation will be guaranteed only by a victorious proletarian revolution in all capitalist countries.

... in entering negotiations with present governments ... the Council of People’s Commissars does not deviate from the path of social revolution.

... In the peace negotiations the Soviet power sets itself a dual task: first, to secure the quickest possible cessation of the shameful and cruel slaughter which destroys Europe, and secondly, to aid, with all means available to us, the working class of all countries to overthrow the rule of capital and to seize state power in the interests of democratic peace and socialist transformation of Europe and of all mankind. [3]

Thus Trotsky made it clear that he was going to act as a revolutionary agitator while commissar for foreign affairs.

The formal negotiations for peace with the Quadruple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey were started on 9 (22) December at Brest-Litovsk, a Polish town occupied by German troops. The real negotiations began on 14 (27) December) when Trotsky arrived.

The moment Trotsky set foot in Brest-Litovsk he acted as the prosecution attorney. From the beginning he subjected the representatives of the Quadruple Alliance to a withering barrage of revolutionary invective, attacking their peace proposals, their governments and their social system.

Trotsky’s Marxism gave him a great advantage in his arguments. As he wrote later: ‘We had over our opponents an infinite advantage. We understood them much better than they understand us.’ [4]

On arriving in Brest-Litovsk Trotsky was greeted by delegates from the local soviets and trade unions, which urged him to speed the negotiations and achieve a peace treaty. Count Ottokar Czernin, the Austrian foreign minister, writes in his diary on 7 January 1918:

The German officer who accompanied the Russian delegation from Dunaburg, Captain Baron Lamezan, gave us some interesting details ... In the first place, he declared that the trenches in front of Dunaburg are entirely deserted, and save for an outpost or so there were no Russians there at all; also, that at many stations delegates were waiting for the deputation to pass, in order to demand that peace should be made. Trotsky had throughout answered them with polite and careful speeches, but grew ever more and more depressed. [5]

Trotsky’s actions, however, were not those of a man suing for peace at all costs. One of his first steps was to make it clear that no more socialising would be allowed between the representatives of the Soviet government and those of the Quadruple Alliance:

I decided to put an immediate stop to the familiarity that had quite imperceptibly been established during the early stages. Through our military representatives I made it known that I had no desire to be presented to the Prince of Bavaria. This was noted. I next demanded separate dinners and suppers, under the pretext that we had to hold conferences during the intervals. [6]

Count Czernin noted in his diary: ‘The wind seems to be in a very different quarter now from what it was.’ [7]

Trotsky was accompanied by Karl Radek, who had recently arrived in Russia and was the editor of the German Communist paper, Die Fackel (The Torch) which was distributed in the German trenches. On his arrival Radek, under the eyes of the officers and diplomats assembled on the platform to greet the Soviet delegation, began to distribute revolutionary pamphlets among the German soldiers.

Facing Trotsky at the negotiating table were the German foreign minister, von Kühlmann, the Austrian foreign minister, Count Czernin, and the German Major-General Max Hoffmann, who represented the German supreme command – and more than once intervened brusquely in the discussion when he felt that the civilian negotiators were not showing sufficient firmness. Count Czernin was the most conciliatory member of this triumvirate; Austria’s need for peace and bread was urgent, and Czernin was seriously afraid that a breakdown of the negotiations might lead to a collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. However his influence on the course of affairs was slight, for Austria was completely dependent on Germany for everything from military support to food.

On 14-15 (27-28) December the German representative read out the draft of a harsh peace treaty that demanded the annexation of large areas of the former Russian empire to Germany. Trotsky broke off negotiations and left for Petrograd.

Differences in the Bolshevik leadership

The Bolshevik leadership was not united on the policy to be pursued in the peace negotiations. Lenin was convinced that there was no alternative but to accept the German peace terms. On 7 (20) January 1918 he wrote Theses on the Question of the Immediate Conclusion of a Separate and Annexationist Peace:

That the socialist revolution in Europe must come, and will come, is beyond doubt. All our hopes for the final victory of socialism are founded on this certainty and on this scientific prognosis. Our propaganda activities in general, and the organisation of fraternisation in particular, must be intensified and extended. It would be a mistake, however, to base the tactics of the Russian socialist government on attempts to determine whether or not the European, and especially the German, socialist revolution will take place in the next six months (or some such brief period). Inasmuch as it is quite impossible to determine this, all such attempts, objectively speaking, would be nothing but a blind gamble.

One cannot make war without an army, and Russia had no army to speak of. ‘There can be no doubt that our army is absolutely in no condition at the present moment to beat back a German offensive successfully,’ wrote Lenin.

The socialist government of Russia is faced with the question – a question whose solution brooks no delay – of whether to accept-this peace with annexations now, or to immediately wage a revolutionary war– In fact, no middle course is possible.

One should not derive the necessary tactics directly from a general principle, he wrote. Some people would argue that

such a peace would mean a complete break with the fundamental principles of proletarian internationalism. This argument, however, is obviously incorrect. Workers who lose a strike and sign terms for the resumption of work which are unfavourable to them, and favourable to the capitalist, do not betray socialism.

Would a peace policy harm the German revolution? asks Lenin, and answers:

The German revolution will by no means be made more difficult of accomplishment as far as its objective premises are concerned, if we conclude a separate peace ...

A socialist Soviet Republic in Russia will stand as a living example to the peoples of all countries and the propaganda and the revolutionising effect of this example will be immense. [8]

Lenin’s arguments met tough resistance in the party ranks. Those who had supported him in the days leading up to the October insurrection were by and large surprised and shocked by his stand now. On the whole the right within the party, who had opposed him in the days of October, now came to his support. The most extreme enthusiast for an immediate peace was Zinoviev. The left, which had supported Lenin during the revolution, was practically unanimous in opposing this policy.

Trotsky did not believe that Russia could carry on a revolutionary war, but he was against signing the peace treaty. He argued that prolonged negotiations could help to arouse the workers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as those of the Entente, the alliance headed by Britain and France.

A revolutionary war was impossible. About this there was not the slightest shade of disagreement between Vladimir Ilyich and myself ...

I maintained that before we proceeded to sign the peace it was absolutely imperative that we should prove to the workers of Europe, in a most striking manner, how great, how deadly, was our hatred for the rulers of Germany ...

To arouse the masses of Germany, of Austro-Hungary, as well as of the Entente – this was what we hoped to achieve by entering into peace negotiations. Having this aim in mind, we reasoned that the negotiations should drag on as long as possible, in this way giving the European workers enough time to acquire a proper understanding of the actuality of the revolution, and more especially, of the revolution’s policy of peace. [9]

Trotsky persevered in arguing for neither war nor peace, hoping to continue the armistice without signing a peace agreement.

Events in Germany in the middle of January began to support Trotsky’s reasoning. As Wheeler-Bennett, historian of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, writes:

... a wave of strikes and outbreaks spread through Germany and Austria. Soviets were formed in Berlin and Vienna. Hamburg, Bremen, Leipzig, Essen and Munich took up the cry. ‘All power to the soviets’ was heard in the streets of Greater Berlin, where half a million workers downed tools. In the forefront of the demands were the speedy conclusion of peace without annexations or indemnities, on the basis of the self-determination of peoples in accordance with the principles formulated by the Russian people’s commissars at Brest-Litovsk, and the participation of workers’ delegates from all countries in the peace negotiations. [10]

On 18 (31) January 1918 Pravda appeared with the headline: ‘It has happened! The head of German imperialism is on the chopping block! The mailed fist of the proletarian revolution is raised!’ Although by 3 February the whole strike movement had collapsed, it was not clear at the time how long this lull would continue.

The first formal discussion at the central committee of Lenin’s Theses on Peace took place on 11 (24) January at a time when the wave of strikes in Germany and Austria was in full flood. At this meeting a number of others who were not central committee members were also present.

Wide sections of the party, including the great majority of the Petersburg committee and of the Moscow regional bureau, were in favour of a revolutionary war. The views of many of the rank and file could be summed up in the phrase used by Osinsky, a member of the Moscow regional bureau: stand for Lenin’s old position.’ Bukharin argued for ‘revolutionary war’ against the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs; to accept the Kaiser’s diktat would be to stab the German and Austrian proletariat in the back. Dzerzhinsky reproached Lenin with timidity, with surrendering the whole programme of the revolution: ‘Lenin is doing in a disguised form what Zinoviev and Kamenev did in October.’ In Uritsky’s view Lenin approached the problem ‘from Russia’s angle and not from an international point of view’. Lomov argued that ‘by concluding peace we capitulate to German imperialism’. On behalf of the Petrograd organisation Kosior harshly condemned Lenin’s position.

Trotsky argued:

... the question of a revolutionary war is an unreal one. The army has to be disbanded, but disbanding the army does not mean signing a peace ... By refusing to sign a peace and demobilising the army, we force the facts into the open, because when we demobilise the Germans will attack. This will be a clear demonstration to the German Social-Democrats that this is no game with previously determined roles. [11]

The most determined advocates of peace were Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov, Stalin and Sokolnikov. Stalin said: ‘There is no revolutionary movement in the West, nothing existing, only a potential, and we cannot count on a potential.’ As in October, Zinoviev saw no grounds for expecting revolution in the West. No matter, he said, that the peace treaty would weaken the revolutionary movement in the West: ‘... of course ... peace will strengthen chauvinism in Germany and for a time weaken the movement everywhere in the West.’

Lenin hastened to repudiate these two clumsy supporters: ‘Can’t take [the revolution in the West] into account?’ Lenin exclaimed on Stalin’s position. It was true the revolution in the West had not yet begun, but ‘if we were to change our tactics on the strength of that ... then we would be betraying international socialism’. Against Zinoviev he declared that it was wrong to say

that concluding a peace will weaken the movement in the West for a time. If we believe that the German movement can immediately develop if the peace negotiations are broken off then we must sacrifice ourselves, for the power of the German revolution will be much greater than ours. [12]

Lenin did not for a moment forget the revolutionary potential in the West:

Those who advocate a revolutionary war point out that this will involve us in a civil war with German imperialism and in this way we will awaken revolution in Germany. But Germany is only just pregnant with revolution and we have already given birth to a completely healthy child, a socialist republic which we may kill if we start a war. [13]

When the three positions were put to the vote Lenin received 15 votes, Trotsky 16 and Bukharin’s call for ‘revolutionary war’ 32. However, since non-members of the central committee had taken part in the vote, it was not binding on the central committee itself.

Lenin himself was ready to let Trotsky play for time. Against Zinoviev’s solitary vote the central committee decided to ‘do everything to drag out the signing of a peace.’ [14]

Trotsky suggested putting the following formula to the vote halt the war, do not conclude peace, and demobilise the army. The vote on this was: nine for, seven against. Thus the central committee formally authorised Trotsky to pursue his policy at Brest-Litovsk.

After this session of the central committee, Trotsky and Lenin came to a private agreement. Trotsky promised that in certain circumstances he would abandon his own policy in favour of Lenin’s. As long as the Germans allowed them to avoid the choice between war and peace Trotsky would go on with the policy of procrastination. But if the die had to be cast, Trotsky would join Lenin in supporting the signing of a peace. However, as events were to show, they each interpreted this agreement slightly differently. Lenin was under the impression that Trotsky would sign the peace agreement as soon as he was faced with a threat that the German offensive would be renewed. Trotsky thought he had committed himself to accept the peace terms of the Germans only after they had actually launched an offensive.

Throughout, Trotsky used the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk as a platform for mass propaganda. Hence he opposed all evasions. On 29 December 1917 (11 January 1918) von Kühlmann, leader of the German delegation, stated:

Every peace treaty has to be preceded by some kind of preamble saying that the state of war is at an end and that the two parties henceforth desire to live in peace and concord ...

Trotsky intervened: I will take myself the liberty to propose the deletion of sentence two of the draft, which by reason of its profoundly conventional and ornamental character is out of keeping, I think, with the severely businesslike purpose of this document ... Such declarations, copied from one diplomatic document into another, have never yet characterised the real relations between states. [15]

At another opportunity Trotsky tore the veil hiding real political power. On 1 (14) January General Hoffmann denounced the Bolsheviks because their government was supported by force. Trotsky replied:

The general was quite right when he said that our government rests on force. Up to the present moment there has been no government dispensing with force. It will always be so as long as society is composed of hostile classes ... What in our conduct strikes and antagonises other governments is the fact that instead of arresting strikers we arrest capitalists who organise lockouts; instead of shooting the peasants who demand land, we arrest and we shoot the landlords and the officers who try to fire upon the peasants ... [16]

At this point Trotsky remembers Hoffmann’s face grew purple. [17] Czernin comments in his diary: ‘Hoffmann made his unfortunate speech. He had been working on it for several days, and is very proud of [it].’ [18]

On 28 January (10 February) Trotsky broke off negotiations with the Quadruple Alliance, declaring that while Russia refused to sign the annexationist peace it also simultaneously declared the war to be at an end. After a bitter indictment of imperialism, he went on to say:

We are removing our armies and our people from the war. Our peasant soldiers must return to the land to cultivate in peace the field which the revolution has taken from the landlord and given to the peasants. Our workmen must return to the workshops and produce, not for destruction, but for creation. They must, together with the peasants, create a socialist state.

We are going out of the war. We inform all peoples and their governments of this fact. We are giving the order for a general demobilisation of all our armies opposed at present to the troops of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. We are waiting in the strong belief that other peoples will soon follow our example.

At the same time we declare that the conditions as submitted to us by the governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary are opposed in principle to the interests of all peoples. These conditions are refused by the working masses of all countries, amongst them by those of Germany and Austria-Hungary ... We cannot place the signature of the Russian Revolution under these conditions which bring with them oppression, misery and hate to millions of human beings. The governments of Germany and Austria-Hungary are determined to possess lands and peoples by might. Let them do so openly. We cannot approve violence. We are going out of the war, but we feel ourselves compelled to refuse to sign the peace treaty. [19]

Trotsky stayed on at Brest-Litovsk for another day and learned of the quarrel between General Hoffmann, who insisted on the resumption of hostilities, and the civilian diplomats Kühlmann and Czernin, who preferred to accept the state of neither war nor peace. It seemed as if the civilians carried the day. Trotsky therefore returned to Petrograd confident that his policy had worked. Wheeler-Bennett described Trotsky’s achievements at Brest-Litovsk:

Single-handed, with nothing behind him save a country in chaos and a regime scarce established, this amazing individual, who a year before had been an inconspicuous journalist exiled in New York, was combatting successfully the united diplomatic talent of half Europe. [20]

Pravda excitedly proclaimed:

The Central Powers are placed in a quandary. They cannot continue their aggression without revealing their cannibal teeth dripping with human blood. For the sake of the interests of socialism, and of their own interests, the Austro-German working masses will not permit the violation of the revolution. [21]

On 1 (14) February Trotsky gave a lengthy report on the peace negotiations to the central executive committee of the soviets, in the conclusion of which he said:

Comrades, I do not want to say that a further advance of the Germans against us is out of the question. Such a statement would be too risky, considering the power of the German Imperialist Party. But I think that by the position we have taken up on the question we have made any advance a very embarrassing affair for the German militarists. [22]

But on 3 (16) February, less than 24 hours after the central executive committee had unanimously endorsed Trotsky’s policy, the Germans informed the Soviet government that ‘on 18 February, at 12 o’clock, the armistice concluded with the Russian Republic will end, and a state of war will again be resumed.’

Lenin wanted to ask the Germans if it was still possible to sign the peace treaty, but Trotsky continued to oppose this.

The German offensive encountered no resistance. On 18 February a force of fewer than sixty German soldiers captured Dvinsk. German troops advanced without firing a shot, using the railways. In a few days (from 18 to 24 February) they occupied Reval, Rezhitsa, Dvinsk and Minsk, and invaded the Ukraine. General Hoffmann wrote:

It is the most comical war I have ever known. We put a handful of infantrymen with machine guns and one gun onto a train and push them off to the next station; they take it, make prisoners of the Bolsheviks, pick up a few more troops, and go on. This proceeding has, at any rate, the charm of novelty. [23]

On the morning of 18 February the central committee met. Trotsky reported on the military offensive of the Germans. Lenin moved that a telegram offering peace should be sent to Germany. Trotsky opposed this. In his autobiography Trotsky later recalled:

When the German high command gave notice of the expiration of the truce Lenin reminded me of our agreement. I answered that by an ultimatum I had not meant simply a verbal statement, but an actual German offensive that would leave no doubt as to the real relations between the countries ...

As before, I insisted that Hoffmann be allowed actually to start an offensive so that the workers of Germany, as well as of the countries of the Allies, would learn of the offensive as a fact rather than as a threat.

‘No’, rejoined Lenin. ‘We can’t afford to lose a single hour now. The test has been made. Hoffmann wants to and can fight. Delay is impossible. This beast jumps fast.’

In March, at the party congress, Lenin said: ‘It was agreed between us [that is, Lenin and me] that we hold out until a German ultimatum, but that after the ultimatum we were to surrender.’ I described the agreement above. Lenin consented not to attack my point of view before the party only because I promised him not to support the advocates of a revolutionary war. [24]

Let us return to the central committee meeting of the morning of 18 February. The minutes of this meeting report:

Comrade Trotsky (against sending a telegram offering peace) emphasises that the masses are only just beginning now to digest what is happening; to sign peace now will only produce confusion in our ranks; the same applies to the Germans, who believe that we are only waiting for an ultimatum ... we have to wait to see what impression all this makes on the German people. The end to the war was greeted with joy in Germany and it is not out of the question that the German offensive will produce a serious outburst in Germany. We have to wait to see the effect and then – we can still offer peace if it doesn’t happen.

Comrade Lenin (in favour of offering peace). There is the suspicion that the Germans want an offensive to oust the Soviet government. We face a situation where we have to act. [25]

Lenin’s motion was put. Six voted for, seven against.

However, when the central committee met again on the evening of the same day, 18 February, Trotsky this time voted with Lenin. The result was that when the question ‘should we send the German government an offer straight away to conclude peace immediately?’ was tabled, seven voted for, five against and one abstained. [26]

On 19 February the Soviet government sued for peace. The German reply was harsh. Russia was to carry out complete demobilisation; to cede Latvia and Estonia, to evacuate the Ukraine and Finland. When on 23 February the central committee met, it was again on Trotsky’s single vote that the outcome depended. Lenin made it clear that he would resign from the government if the German terms were not accepted. The minutes of the central committee report:

Comrade Lenin considers that this is where the policy of revolutionary phrase-making ends. If this policy continues now he is leaving both the government and the CC. You need an army for a revolutionary war, and there isn’t one. That means that the terms must be accepted.

Trotsky did not agree with Lenin’s suggestion:

The arguments of V.I. [Lenin] are far from convincing; if we had all been of the same mind, we could have tackled the task of organising defence and we could have managed it. Our role would not have been a bad one even if we had been forced to surrender Peter [Petrograd] and Moscow. We would have held the whole world in tension. If we sign the German ultimatum today, we may have a new ultimatum tomorrow. Everything formulated in such a way as to leave an opportunity for further ultimatums. We may sign a peace; and lose support among the advanced elements of the proletariat, in any case demoralise them. [27]

But he was not ready to split the party in this dangerous situation for the revolution. Trotsky

does not think we are threatened by destruction ... There is a lot of subjectivity in Lenin’s position. I am not convinced that this position is right but I do not want to do anything to interfere with party unity ... [28]

Lenin then moved that ‘the German proposals should be accepted immediately’. The vote was: seven for, four against and four abstentions. The abstentions were Trotsky, Krestinsky, Dzerzhinsky and Ioffe. [29]

The three leaders of the war faction who abstained – Krestinsky, Dzerzhinsky and Ioffe – explained in a statement that their abstention was a reaction to the danger of splitting the party. [30]

On 24 February Trotsky tendered his resignation from the commissariat of foreign affairs:

Comrade Trotsky points out that it is just when the peace is being signed that he finds it unacceptable to stay because he is forced to defend a position he does not agree with. [31]

The central committee appealed to Trotsky to stay in office until the peace was signed. He only agreed not to make public his resignation until then, and declared that he would not appear any more in any governmental institution. Prompted by Lenin, the committee obliged Trotsky to attend at least those sessions of the government at which foreign affairs were not debated. [32]

At the Seventh Congress of the party, which eventually confirmed the peace agreement in March 1918, Trotsky explained again the reasons for his abstention on the vote for peace:

With a weak country behind us, with a passive peasantry, with a sombre mood in the proletariat, we were further threatened by a split in our ranks ... Very much was at stake on my vote ... I could not assume responsibility for the split. I had thought that we ought to retreat [before the German army] rather than sign peace for the sake of an illusory respite. But I could not take upon myself the responsibility for the leadership of the party ... [33]

When it came to the election at the congress for a new central committee, Trotsky and Lenin obtained the highest number of votes. Rejecting Trotsky’s policy, the party still gave him its complete confidence.

The harsh terms of the peace treaty

It was estimated that by the Brest-Litovsk Treaty Russia lost territories and resources approximately as follows: 1,267,000 square miles, with over 62 million population, or a quarter of its territory and 44 per cent of its population; one-third of its crops and 27 per cent of state income; 80 per cent of its sugar factories; 73 per cent of its iron and 75 per cent of its coal. Of the total of 16,000 industrial undertakings, 9000 were situated in the lost territories. [34]

Opposition to Lenin’s peace policy now spread widely among the masses. In February a referendum of the views of 200 soviets was held. Of these a majority – 105 – voted for war against Germany. In the industrial city soviets the majority in favour of war was overwhelming. Only two large soviets – Petrograd and Sebastopol – went on record as being in favour of peace. On the other hand several of the big centres – such as Moscow, Kronstadt, Ekaterinburg, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav and Ivanovo-Voznesensk – voted against Lenin’s policy with overwhelming majorities. Of the soviets of 42 provincial cities that were consulted six opted for peace, 20 for war; 88 county towns and villages opted for peace, 85 for war. [35]

However, the debate in the party came to an end with the specially convened Seventh Congress on 6-8 March. The day before it opened, a new daily paper appeared that opposed Lenin’s policy. Kommunist, ‘Organ of the St Petersburg committee and the St Petersburg area committee of the RSDLP’, was edited by Bukharin, Radek and Uritsky, with the collaboration of a number of prominent party leaders: Bubnov, Lomov, Pokrovsky, Preobrazhensky, Piatakov, Kollontai, Inessa Armand and others. The list of names gives some idea of the strength and quality of Kommunist.

After a bitter debate the Seventh Congress resolved to support Lenin’s policy by 30 votes to 12, with four abstentions. Local party organisations followed this line either immediately or after a time.

The resolution of the congress ratifying the peace treaty was thoroughly internationalist and revolutionary:

The congress considers it necessary to confirm the highly distressing, degrading peace treaty with Germany which the Soviet government signed because of our lack of an army, the extremely unhealthy condition of the demoralised front-line units, the necessity of utilising any, however small, opportunity for a breathing space before the onslaught of imperialism on the Soviet socialist republic ...

The congress finds the most reliable guarantee of the strengthening of the socialist revolution, which was victorious in Russia, only in its transformation into an international workers’ revolution ...

In the belief that the workers’ revolution is maturing in all belligerent countries, preparing the inevitable and complete defeat of imperialism, the congress declares that the socialist proletariat of Russia, with all its strength and all the means at its disposal, will support the fraternal revolutionary movement of the proletarians of all countries. [36]

The final ratification of the treaty took place at the Fourth Congress of Soviets on 15 March, by a vote of 748 to 261, with 115 abstentions. Among the latter were 64 ‘Left Communists’.

From then on the Left Communists lapsed into silence regarding the war question. But the Left Social Revolutionaries voiced their basically nationalist opposition to the peace policy all the more loudly and impatiently. Immediately after the ratification of the peace they withdrew from the Council of People’s Commissars.

Negotiations with France and Britain

To add to the disarray in the Bolshevik leadership’s ranks a new factor intervened. On 22 February Trotsky reported to the central committee an offer by France and Britain to give military aid to Russia in a war against Germany. The majority of the Left Communists were opposed in principle to accepting aid from such imperialist quarters. Trotsky came out clearly in favour of accepting aid from whatever source. ‘The Left Communists’ arguments do not stand up to criticism,’ he said.

As the party of the socialist proletariat which is in power and conducting a war against Germany, we mobilise every means through state institutions to arm and supply our revolutionary army in the best way possible with all necessary resources and, for that purpose, we obtain them where we can, including therefore from capitalist governments. In doing this, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party retains full independence in its external policy, gives no political undertakings to capitalist governments and examines their proposals in each separate case according to what is expedient.

Lenin, who had not been present at this meeting of the central committee, added the following statement to the minutes of the session: ‘Please add my vote in favour of taking potatoes and weapons from the Anglo-French imperialist robbers.’ [37]

To explain his readiness to use the conflicts between the imperialist powers in the interests of the proletariat in power, Lenin wrote on 22 February an article entitled ‘The Itch’.

Let us suppose Kaliaev [1*], in order to kill a tyrant and monster, acquires a revolver from an absolute villain, a scoundrel and robber, by promising bread, money and vodka for the service rendered.

Can one condemn Kaliaev for ‘dealing with a robber’ for the sake of obtaining a deadly weapon? Every sensible person will answer ‘no’. If there is nowhere else for Kaliaev to get a revolver, and if his intention is really an honourable one (the killing of a tyrant, not killing for plunder), then he should not be reproached but commended for acquiring a revolver in this way. But if a robber, in order to commit murder for the sake of plunder, acquires a revolver from another robber in return for money, vodka or bread, can one compare (not to speak of identifying) such a ‘deal with the robber’ with the deal made with Kaliaev? [38]

In a postscript to the article Lenin added:

The North Americans in their war of liberation against England at the end of the eighteenth century got help from Spain and France, who were her competitors and just as much colonial robbers as England. It is said that there were ‘Left Bolsheviks’ to be found who contemplated writing a learned work’ on the ‘dirty deal’ of these Americans. [39]

In the end, however, nothing came of the offer of aid.

Could Trotsky’s tactic of ‘Neither war nor peace’ have succeeded?

In retrospect it is clear that Lenin’s suggested tactics for the peace negotiations in Brest-Litovsk were correct. At the time, however, Trotsky had good grounds for believing that his policy could succeed.

Trotsky drew out the negotiations as long as he could in order to give the European masses the possibility of realising the meaning of the Soviet government and its policy. The January 1918 strikes in Germany and Austria showed that this effort had not been in vain. One has only to read Czernin’s diary to see how panicky the authorities were in Vienna, fearing starvation and revolt among the subject nations. With the Austro-Hungarian empire on the point of collapse, Czernin threatened his German colleagues with separate negotiations with Russia (although in fact the threat was an empty one because of the increasing dependence of Austria-Hungary on German help).

Wheeler-Bennett describes Czernin’s position in these words: ‘Peace at any price became his motto ... Austria reached the end of her military power, her political structure was doomed.’ [40] On 17 November 1917 Czernin wrote to one of his friends:

To settle with Russia as speedily as possible, then break through the determination of the Entente to exterminate us, and then to make peace – even at a loss – that is my plan and the hope for which I live. [41]

An entry in Czernin’s diary of 23 December 1917 states:

Kühlmann is personally an advocate of general peace, but fears the influence of the military party, who do not wish to make peace until definitely victorious. [42]

An entry for 27 December 1917 reads:

Matters still getting worse ...

I told Kühlmann and Hoffmann I would go as far as possible with them; but should their endeavours fail then I would enter into separate negotiations with the Russians ... Austria-Hungary ... desires nothing but final peace. Kühlmann understands my position, and says he himself would rather go than let it fail. Asked me to give him my point of view in writing, as it ‘would strengthen his position’. Have done so. He has telegraphed it to the Kaiser. [43]

7 January 1918:

A wire has just come in reporting demonstrations in Budapest against Germany. The windows of the German Consulate were broken, a clear indication of the state of feeling which would arise if the peace were to be lost ... [44]

15 January 1918:

I had a letter today from one of our mayors at home, calling my attention to the fact that disaster due to lack of foodstuffs is now imminent.

I immediately telegraphed the Emperor as follows:

‘I have just received a letter from Statthalter N.N. which justified all the fears I have constantly repeated to Your Majesty, and shows that in the question of food supply we are on the very verge of a catastrophe. The situation arising out of the carelessness and incapacity of the Ministers is terrible, and I fear it is already too late to check the total collapse which is to be expected in the next few weeks ... On learning the state of affairs, I went to the Prime Minister to speak with him about it. I told him, as is the case, that in a few weeks our war industries, our railway traffic, would be at a standstill, the provisioning of the army would be impossible, it must break down, and that would mean the collapse of Austria and therewith also of Hungary. To each of these points he answered yes, that is so ... We can only hope that some deus ex machina may intervene to save us from the worst. [45]

17 January 1918:

Bad news from Vienna and environs. Serious strike movement due to the reduction of flour rations and the tardy progress of the Brest negotiations. [46]

On the same day Czernin got a message from the Austrian emperor which stated:

I must once more earnestly impress upon you that the whole fate of the monarchy and of the dynasty depends on peace being concluded at Brest-Litovsk as soon as possible ... If peace be not made at Brest, there will be revolution. [47]

On 20 January Czernin writes in his diary:

The position now is this: without help from outside, we shall ... have thousands perishing in a few weeks ... if we do not make peace soon then the troubles at home will be repeated, and each demonstration in Vienna will render peace here most costly to obtain ... [48]

The Austrians were supported in their attempts to achieve unconditional peace by the Bulgarians and Turks, and, much more important, by the German foreign minister von Kühlmann and prime minister von Hertling.

Czernin describes the reaction to Trotsky’s statement of 10 February withdrawing from the negotiations:

At a meeting on 10 February of the diplomatic and military delegates of Germany and Austria-Hungary to discuss the question of what was now to be done it was agreed unanimously, save for a single dissentient, that the situation arising out of Trotsky’s declarations must be accepted. The one dissentient vote – that of General Hoffmann – was to the effect that Trotsky’s statement should be answered by declaring the armistice at an end, marching on Petersburg and supporting the Ukraine openly against Russia. In the ceremonial final sitting, on 11 February, Herr von Uhlmann adopted the attitude expressed by the majority of the peace delegations and set forth the same in a most impressive speech. [49]

The Austrian delegation

wired to Vienna that peace had been concluded, with the result that the imperial capital was even now dressing itself en fête.

With the sincere hope of peace in his heart, Uhlmann brought the conference proceedings to a format conclusion on 11 February and departed for Berlin.

However at this point the tide started to turn against von Uhlmann:

On his arrival [in Berlin] he was summoned, with the chancellor and the vice-chancellor ... to the little watering place of Homburg, where the Kaiser was taking a February cure. There, throughout the 13th, raged a battle royal on the issues of peace and war, with the Emperor flitting in and out like an unhappy ghost. [50]

The civilians remained opposed to the high command. They feared the effect on the internal conditions of Germany if hostilities were resumed ... Uhlmann, in addition to his general principles, warned them that a new war in the east would strain the alliance with Austria-Hungary almost to the breaking point ... [51]

The memoirs of Ludendorff [52] and Uhlmann make it clear that for days there was a balance between the war party headed by the German general staff (Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann), and the peace party, headed by von Kühlmann and von Hertling. The latter argued repeatedly that the situation on the home front did not permit a military offensive against the Russians. But the German supreme command remained adamant. In the end, with the Kaiser’s backing, it won the day in the discussions at Homburg; a few days later General Hoffman declared the armistice at an end and ordered German troops to march on Petrograd.

The German revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht, from his prison cell, wrote that the policy of prolonged negotiations carried by Trotsky in Brest was of great benefit to the revolution in Germany:

The result of Brest-Litovsk is not nil, even if it comes to a peace of forced capitulation. Thanks to the Russian delegates, Brest-Litovsk has become a revolutionary tribunal whose decrees are heard far and wide. It has brought about the exposure of the Central Powers; it has exposed German avidity, its cunning lies and hypocrisy. It has passed an annihilating verdict upon the peace policy of the German [Social Democratic] majority – a policy which is not so much a pious hypocrisy as it is cynicism. It has proved powerful enough to bring forth numerous mass movements in various countries. [53]

An early signing of peace by the Soviets would have damaged the German revolution, argued Liebknecht:

In no sense can it be said that the present solution of the problem is not as favourable for the future development as a surrender at Brest-Litovsk would have been at the beginning of February. Quite the contrary. A surrender like that would have thrown the worst light on all preceding resistance and would have made the subsequent submission to force appear as ‘vis haud ingrata’. The cynicism that cries to heaven and the brutal character of the ultimate German action have driven all suspicions into the background. [54]

Contrary to the later Stalinist mythology, Lenin was not absolutely sure that Trotsky’s tactic of ‘neither peace nor war’ was wrong. Thus Krupskaya discloses Lenin’s hesitation on the issue. In her memoirs she shows that notwithstanding Lenin’s steadfast support for the call for immediate peace, he was not absolutely convinced that Trotsky might not be right after all. Thus she describes strolling with Lenin along the Neva embankment one day towards the end of February. As they walked, Lenin

kept repeating over and over again the reasons why the standpoint of ‘no war, no peace’ was fundamentally wrong. On our way back Ilyich suddenly stops and his tired face lights up and he lets forth: ‘You never know!’ – meaning a revolution may have started in Germany for all we know. [55]

When events proved that Lenin was right, Trotsky was generous in acknowledging this. On 3 October 1918, at a session of the central executive committee of the soviet, he declared:

I regard it as my duty to declare, in this authoritative assembly, that at the time when many of us, myself included, doubted whether it was necessary or permissible for us to sign the peace of Brest-Litovsk, whether perhaps doing this would not have a hampering effect on the development of the world proletarian movement, it was Comrade Lenin alone, in opposition to many of us, who with persistence and incomparable perspicacity maintained that we must undergo this experience in order to be able to carry on, to hold out, until the coming of the world proletarian revolution. And now, against the background of recent events, we who opposed him are obliged to recognise that it was not we who were right. (Prolonged applause) [56]

Trotsky well knew that had he signed the peace treaty sooner the Soviet republic might have obtained less harsh terms. In that case, however, German imperialism would not have been completely unmasked, nor would the myth of Bolshevik connivance with it have been so effectively discredited. To the end of his life, Trotsky was convinced that the Brest-Litovsk negotiations had played a crucial role in the inner collapse of the Central Powers. The German and Austro-Hungarian empire hung on for nine months after the Brest-Litovsk peace, until November 1918, but the propaganda carried on by Trotsky in the peace negotiations played a significant role in their exposure to their own people.

Above all it must be stressed that, despite their tactical differences, both Lenin and Trotsky saw the foreign policy of the Soviet republic as subordinate to the needs of the international workers’ revolution. This point needs special emphasis because in later years Stalin was to depict Lenin’s policy as one of peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world.

One consequence of the Brest-Litovsk controversy was its effect on the standing of the various Bolshevik leaders. Lenin emerged with enormous moral authority. Zinoviev, who, in Lenin’s words, had acted as ‘a strikebreaker’ in October, to some extent rehabilitated himself by rallying strongly to Lenin’s side. Trotsky, on the other hand, suffered a certain eclipse. But this was only temporary. His standing was second to Lenin and shortly he was to reach new heights as organiser and leader of the Red Army.


1*. Kaliaev was a member of the combat group of the Social Revolutionary Party who took part in a number of terrorist acts. On 4 (17) February 1905 he assassinated the governor-general of Moscow, the Grand Duke S.A. Romanov, uncle of Tsar Nikolai II. He was executed at Schlusselburg on 10 (23) May that year.


1. Izvestiia, 10 November 1917; Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 164-5.

2. Izvestiia, 19 November 1917; Trotsky, Sochineniia, page 178.

3. Izvestiia, 6 December 1917; Trotsky, Sochineniia, pages 206-7.

4. Trotsky’s preface to A.A. Ioffe (editor), Mirnye peregovorii v Brest-Litovsk (Moscow 1920).

5. Ottokar Czernin, In the World War (London 1919), pages 232-3

6. Trotsky, My Life, page 365.

7. Czernin, page 232.

8. Lenin, Works, volume 26, pages 444 and 447-8.

9. Trotsky, On Lenin, pages 93-5.

10. J.W. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (London 1938), page 196.

11. CC Minutes, pages 176-7.

12. CC Minutes, pages 177-8.

13. CC Minutes, page 174.

14. CC Minutes, page 179.

15. Ioffe, page 66.

16. Ioffe, page 102.

17. Trotsky, My Life, page 373.

18. Czernin, page 372.

19. Ioffe, pages 207-8; Wheeler-Bennett, pages 226-7.

20. Wheeler-Bennett, page 166.

21. Pravda, 12 February 1918, in Wheeler-Bennett, page 237.

22. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk (London 1919), page 142.

23. General Max von Hoffmann, War Diaries and other papers (London 1929), volume 1, pages 206-7.

24. Trotsky, My Life, page 387.

25. CC Minutes, pages 204-5.

26. CC Minutes, pages 210-11.

27. CC Minutes, pages 218-9.

28. CC Minutes, pages 221-2.

29. CC Minutes, page 223.

30. CC Minutes, pages 223-4.

31. CC Minutes, page 233.

32. CC Minutes, page 235.

33. Sedmoi sezd RKP(b) (Moscow 1923), page 83.

34. Bunyan and Fisher, pages 523-4.

35. Leninskii sbornik, volume 11, pages 59-61

36. Kommunisticheskaia partiia sovetskogo soiuza v rezoliutsiakh i resheniiakh sezdov, konferentsii i plenumov TsK, seventh edition (Moscow 1953) (hereafter given as KPSS v Rezoliutsiakh), volume 1, pages 404-5.

37. CC Minutes, pages 212-5.

38. Lenin, Works, volume 27, page 37.

39. Lenin, Works, volume 27, page 39.

40. Wheeler-Bennett, page 81.

41. Czernin, page 215.

42. Czernin, page 223.

43. Czernin, page 228.

44. Czernin, page 233.

45. Czernin, pages 237-8.

46. Czernin, page 239.

47. Wheeler-Bennett, page 170.

48. Czernin, page 240.

49. Czernin, page 318.

50. Wheeler-Bennett, pages 229-30.

51. Wheeler-Bennett, page 231

52. See General Ludendorff, My War Memoirs, 1914-1918 (London 1919), volume 2, pages 547-60.

53. K. Liebknecht, Politische Aufzeichnungen aus seinem Nachiass (Verlag Die Aktion 1921), quoted in Trotsky, My-Life, page 378.

54. Quoted in Trotsky, My Life, pages 390-1.

55. N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (Moscow 1959), page 449.

56. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed (five volumes, London 1979-1981) (hereafter referred to as HRA), volume 1, page 507.

Last updated on 28 July 2009