Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

3. Building the Red Army

A MONTH after the revolution the first White Guards, under the command of Kornilov, Kaledin, Alekseev and Denikin, moved into action on the River Don and the Cossacks of Orenburg rose under the ataman Dutov. In June 1918 30,000 Czechoslovak soldiers, who had been mobilised under the sponsorship of the Kerensky government, rose against the Bolsheviks. The Germans crushed the revolutionary regimes in Finland and the Ukraine and occupied Lithuania and Latvia. On 2 August 1918 British troops seized Archangel, overthrew the local soviet and set up a Provisional Government of the North. On the following day British and Japanese troops landed in Vladivostok, to be followed by US and French troops. The wars of intervention had begun and went on until November 1920.

Besides the Russian White Guard armies, many foreign armies fought the soviets: the German, Austrian, British, French, Japanese, American, Serbian, Polish, Ukrainian, Rumanian, Finnish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Czechoslovak ...

The Red Army fought on fronts with a circumference of more than 5,000 miles. The war consisted of a series of deep thrusts by White armies, now from one part of the outer finge into the interior, now from another, followed by Red counter-thrusts. Again and again Soviet power was restricted to the principality of Moscow – the cities of Moscow and Petrograd and a small area around them. 1919 was the decisive year of the civil war. Three major campaigns formed the climaxes of the war: Kolchak’s offensive undertaken from his Siberian base towards the Volga and Moscow in the spring; Denikin’s advance from the south, also aiming at Moscow in summer; and Iudenich’s attempt to capture Petrograd in the autumn. It was only in November 1920, after three long bloody years, that the civil war came to an end with the defeat of Wrangel’s army in the Crimea.

Trotsky’s knowledge of military doctrine

On 4 March 1918 Trotsky became commissar for war and president of the supreme war council. What knowledge had he of military methods? His experience as a reporter of the Balkan Wars [1] had developed his knowledge of military affairs considerably. One military historian, Colonel Harold Walter Nelson of the US Army College in Pennsylvania, wrote about Trotsky:

He never witnessed a battle and he was not even allowed to visit the front ... However, once he became a war correspondent he demonstrated remarkable ability in his analysis of the strategic situation. [2]

Trotsky went far beyond mere reporting of the war:

While he devoted most of his attention to describing the daily occurrences of the war, his approach to strategic questions made his occasional analyses of these questions extremely valuable and remarkably prescient. [3]

One of the first tasks of the strategist is the determination of the decisive points in the war. Having done this, he must next determine the course of action to be followed if the desired outcome is to be achieved. Again and again Colonel Nelson points out that Trotsky surpassed the Balkan generals in his grasp of strategy. After the initial great victory of the Bulgarians over the Turks on 3 November 1912 Trotsky wrote that the victory would lead to the ultimate defeat of the Bulgarian forces by the entrenched Turks defending the lines in Chataldja:

Working with limited resources, Trotsky had derived the strategic plan and pointed out the critical areas which required special attention if victory was to be achieved. In retrospect Trotsky appears to have been a better strategist than those found on the Bulgarian general staff. He had a more perfect understanding of the need for speed rather than tactical victories, and he sensed the importance of massing forces in the critical theatre rather than detaching troops to take political objectives. In his discussion of strategy he certainly displayed a grasp of the fundamental principles sufficient to allow valid analysis of complex military problems. [4]

In November 1914 Trotsky received an invitation to become a war correspondent for the liberal newspaper, Kievskaya Mysl. This led to a further improvement in his grasp of military affairs. Trotsky’s creative, realistic imagination enabled him to foresee the appearance of the tank. Realising that trench warfare made for military stalemate, and that this could be broken only when one side gained the technological advantage, Trotsky discussed the possibility of overcoming the vulnerability of the internal combustion engine to devise a ‘colossal war machine which can move forward through the barbed wire.’ [5]

He was also very perceptive in guessing that the conservatism of the generals would delay the widespread and effective use of the tank. He wrote that ‘the technological combinations achieved at the end of one war become the technical framework for the model used in laboratory work in preparation for the next war.’ As a result, he predicted, it would take ‘about ten years after the initial clash before the techniques of war are understood.’ [6]

Colonel Nelson’s comment on Trotsky’s prognosis was:

Historical hindsight gives us no real grounds to revise Trotsky’s assessments. Technological innovation did provide hope for strategic advantage before the war ended, with the tank and the aeroplane heading most lists of devices which had already displayed their potential for changing the nature of warfare before World War I ended. Some military theorists (Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Douhet, and Mitchell) understood the new techniques of warfare before Trotsky’s ten-year deadline had passed, but no military establishment had the necessary acumen to adopt wholeheartedly their theories within the decade. [7]

Trotsky went beyond foreseeing the arrival of the tank. Having grasped the basic elements of trench warfare combined with the nature of the tank, Trotsky visualised a future defensive warfare based on a new kind of fortress:

Around essential strategic points there will be several concentric lines of narrow trenches connecting them to a central web of barbed wire. The trench lines will be strengthened by using the most advanced construction techniques. They will contain easily shifted artillery batteries placed underground. Reliable shelters, storehouses, workshops, and large electrical generating plants will also be built underground. All of this will be dispersed over a wide area, so that heavy artillery will have no attractive targets. Such a fortress of the future, without medieval forts, will be able to fulfil the functions fortresses ought to fulfil. [8]

This analysis of the future of defensive warfare seems to herald the French strategy that led to the construction of the Maginot Line after the end of the First World War.

Learning from history

In building the Red Army and leading it, Trotsky could use little experience from previous revolutions. The first time the working class had taken state power was in 1871 during the Paris Commune. The defeat of the Commune owed much to its failure on the military front. Lissagaray, who fought for the Commune, described the state of the troops:

most of the battalions had been without leaders ... the National Guards without cadres. And the generals who assumed the responsibility of leading 40,000 men had never conducted a single battalion into the field. They neglected even the most elementary precautions, knew not how to collect artillery, ammunition wagons or ambulances, forgot to make an order of the day, and left the men for several hours without food in a penetrating fog. Every Federal [soldier] chose the leader he liked best. [9]

The men were also abandoned to themselves, being neither cared for nor controlled. Scarcely any, if any, relieving of the troops under fire ever took place. The whole strain fell upon the same men. Certain battalions remained twenty, thirty days in the trenches, while others were continually kept in reserve. [10]

There was no central direction at all. The Communards,

without directions, without military knowledge, saw no further than just their own quarter, or even their own streets; so that instead of 200 strategical, solid barricades, easy to defend with 7,000 or 8,000 men, hundreds were scattered about which it was impossible to arm sufficiently. [11]

So Trotsky could learn from the experience of the Paris Commune only what not to do, but little of a positive nature.

When discussing revolutionary wars, Marxists were most frequently influenced by the wars of the French Revolution. However, as Trotsky himself clearly explained, the lessons from France could be only of limited value:

Historical analogies are very tempting. But one has to be cautious when resorting to them ... France was, at the end of the 18th century, the richest and most civilised country on the continent of Europe. In the 20th century, Russia is the poorest and most backward country in Europe. Compared with the revolutionary tasks that confront us today, the revolutionary task of the French army was much more superficial in character. At that time it was a matter of overthrowing ‘tyrants’, of abolishing or mitigating feudal serfdom. Today it is a matter of completely destroying exploitation and class oppression. [12]

A most crucial difference between the French bourgeois revolution and the Russian proletarian revolution was that the bourgeoisie, for generations before its revolution, had already been able to break the monopoly of the nobility over education, including military education, while the proletariat remained an oppressed, intellectually deprived class. Long before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie could turn to the nobility and say to them: ‘You have the land; we have money – we are richer than you. Intellectually we are also richer than you. You have the church; we have the universities. You have priests, we have professors. You have the Bible, we have the Encyclopaedia.’

When it came to knowledge of military affairs, again the bourgeoisie had already broken the nobility’s monopoly. Hence when it came to the decisive moment, half of the 15,000 French royalist officers joined the revolution. The French Revolution created its army by amalgamating its revolutionary formations with the royalist battalions. As against this, the Russian Revolution had dissolved the Tsarist army completely, leaving not a trace of it, and the Red Army had to be built from the first brick.

However there was one important lesson that Trotsky could and did learn from the French revolutionary wars: that troops who understood and believed in what they were fighting for were vastly superior to ordinary mercenaries or conscripted men.

The dominance of politics

The authority most frequently cited in Trotsky’s writings on war is Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s central precept was that war is a continuation of politics by other means. This applies to civil war even more than to ordinary war. Politics dominates strategy, tactics and organisation. This is precisely the principle that governed Trotsky’s approach to the civil war. He saw the civil war as an integral part of the revolution, as an extension of the class struggle culminating in the consolidation of political power. Politics dictates military policy, though not in an automatic way. Trotsky had to enlist the enthusiasm of revolutionaries first, as a key to the imposition of discipline upon others. It was Trotsky’s political genius that dominated his role as head of the Red Army.

In an article entitled Leon Trotsky, the Organiser of Victory, Karl Radek wrote:

The history of the proletarian revolution has shown how one can change the pen for the sword. Trotsky is one of the best writers on world socialism, and his literary qualities did not prevent him from being the first head, the first organiser of the first army of the proletariat. The revolution changed to a sword the pen of its best publicist ...

The need of the hour was for a man who would incarnate the call to struggle, a man who, subordinating himself completely to the need of the struggle, would become the ringing summons to arms, the will which exacts from all unconditional submission to a great, sacrificial necessity. Only a man with Trotsky’s capacity for work, only a man so unsparing of himself as Trotsky, only a man who knew how to speak to the soldiers as Trotsky did – only such a man could have become the standard-bearer of the armed toilers. He was all things rolled into one. [13]


1. See Cliff, Trotsky, volume 1, pages 168–72.

2. H.W. Nelson, Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905–1917 (London 1988), pages 53 and 58.

3. Nelson, pages 58–9.

4. Nelson, pages 63–4. Nelson refers to a number of examples from Trotsky’s writings, especially his Sochineniia, volume 6, pages 145–7, 151–2 and 172.

5. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 9, page 190.

6. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 9, page 190.

7. Nelson, pages 86–7.

8. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 9, page 195; Nelson, pages 91–2.

9. Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune of 1871 (London 1976), page 135.

10. Lissagaray, page 173.

11. Lissagaray, page 258.

12. Trotsky, HRA, volume 5, page 337.

13. Pravda, 14 March 1923, quoted in The Case of Leon Trotsky (London 1937) pages 102–3.

Last updated on 21 July 2018