Tony Cliff

Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution 1917-1923

7. Opposition to Trotsky in the Red Army

The fight against guerrillaism

THROUGHOUT the civil war Trotsky had to fight again and again against opposition to centralism, and against guerrillaist tendencies in the Red Army. Only towards the middle of 1919 were these tendencies effectively beaten back.

In retrospect Trotsky explained the rise of localist, guerrillaist tendencies thus:

Indignation against the bureaucratic centralism of Tsarist Russia formed a very important constituent feature of the revolution. Regions, provinces, uyezds and towns vied with one another in trying to show their independence. The idea of ‘power in the localities’ assumed an extremely chaotic character in the initial period ... among the broad masses it was an inevitable, and so far as its sources were concerned, a healthy reaction against the old regime which had stifled initiative.

From a certain moment onward, however, with the tighter unification of the counter-revolutionary fortes and the growth of external threats, these primitive tendencies towards autonomy became ever more dangerous, both from the political and, in particular, from the military standpoint. [1]

In his report to the Fifth Congress of soviets Trotsky said:

Speaking of the difficulties we encounter in creating the new army, I must mention that the biggest of these is constituted by this dreadful localism, local patriotism. Interception, seizure and concealment of military property ... of any and every kind is being carried on by the local organs of Soviet power.

Every uyezd, almost every volost, believes that the Soviet power can best be defended by concentrating on the territory of the given volost as much as possible of aircraft materiel, radio equipment, rifles and armoured tars, and they all try to conceal this materiel ...

We must put an end to this situation. We must wage a most severe struggle against the intercepting, appropriating and concealing of army property by local soviets. [2]

He returns to this theme again and again.

The social roots of guerrillaism were deep: they lay in the fragmented, atomised peasantry; and as peasants made up the overwhelming majority of Red Army soldiers, guerrillaism had massive influence throughout the army.

The peasantry, taken by itself, is incapable of creating a centralised army. It cannot get beyond local guerrilla units, the primitive ‘democracy’ of which is often a screen for the personal dictatorship of the atamans. These guerrilla tendencies ... took possession of a considerable section of the Communists, especially those who came from the peasantry, or had formerly been soldiers or NCOs. [3]

The immediate experience of the revolution and the beginning of the civil war created in the Bolshevik Party itself a tradition of guerrillaism that was difficult to overcome, especially as it was embodied in the personnel commanding guerrilla groups. Trotsky explains:

... our army was formed in haste, out of guerrilla units that were hurriedly put together under fire. It was formed from the Red Guard units of Petrograd and Moscow workers. In those units the commanders were distinguished from the rank and file only by the fatt that they were, perhaps, more enterprising, politically more developed, braver than the rest, but often they were lacking in even the most basic military knowledge. [4]

The leaders of the guerrilla groups, who came by and large from the cadres of the old Bolsheviks, developed a whole ‘theory’ justifying their practice as a feather in their caps:

A view developed according to which, in a revolutionary country in a revolutionary epoch, we do not need protracted training, drill, system, we do not need regulations - a view that all that is needed is revolutionary solidarity, willingness to fight and die, and with our small, closely-welded units we shall march all across the country and, if necessary, beyond its borders into other countries, everywhere conquering our foes. [5]

Recent immediate experience gave credence to the theory of the guerrilla leaders:

In the first period this theory seemed to be confirmed by experience. But why? Because our first adversaries were White Guard bands, because our enemy was also weak and unorganised, his troops consisting of small units ... we were victorious. This gave some comrades the impression that guerrilla units were the last word in the revolutionary art of war.

But as soon as our foes were able to form stronger units, and to consolidate these into regular formations, into brigades, divisions and corps, in the south and in the east, it once became apparent that loose, shaky, unstable and amorphous guerrilla units were incapable of coping with the task before us ...

The organisers of the Red Army drew the right conclusions:

... we waged a persistent struggle to establish a regular structure for the Red Army, to replace the scattered guerrillas by a regular, centralised system of administration and command ...

We had to pass through a long period in 1918 and 1919 before the ideas and slogans of guerrilla-ism were finally overcome in the minds of the revolutionary workers and peasants. [6]

Guerrillaism was rooted in the peasant milieu. The peasantry had a dual nature. On the one hand it was a revolutionary force in its opposition to the big landlords; on the other it had a reactionary tendency towards individualism, conservatism and petty-bourgeois attitudes.

Trotsky saw in the guerrillaism of the peasant soldier an important element of progressive social rebellion: the awakening of personality, of which he had many times spoken – of the grey, oppressed and ignorant peasant. In a speech at the opening of the Military Academy on 8 November 1918 he said:

It is natural that persons unaccustomed to revolution and its psychology ... may view with some sorrow, if not disgust, the anarchic wildness and violence which appeared on the surface of the revolutionary events. Yet in that riotous anarchy, even in its most negative manifestation, when the soldier, yesterday’s slave, all of a sudden found himself in a first-class railway carriage and tore out the velvet facings to make himself footcloths, even in such an act of vandalism, the awakening of a personality was expressed. That downtrodden, persecuted Russian peasant, who had been struck in the face and subjected to the vilest curses, found himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, in a first-class carriage and saw the velvet cushions, while on his feet he had stinking rags, and he tore up the velvet, saying that he too had the right to a piece of good silk or velvet. After two or three days, after a month, after a year – no, after a month – he understood how disgraceful it was to plunder the people’s property, but the awakened personality, the individuality – not just Number Such-and-such, but human personality, will remain alive in him forever. Our task is to adjust this personality to the community, to make it feel that it is not a number, not a slave, as it was before, and not just Ivanov or Petrov, but, one, Ivanov the personality, and, two, at the same time, a part of the community of the whole people, with neither slaves nor masters. [7]

Guerrillaism was not always reactionary. It had to be approached historically. At a certain stage of the development of the revolution and civil war it had historical justification, it was necessary and legitimate:

One cannot ask a class which does not have state power at its disposal, but is only, as yet, fighting for that, to create a regular army. Such a class will naturally direct its efforts towards disintegrating the regular army of the ruling class, and detaching isolated units from this enemy army, or else forming such units from scratch, in the underground, and later on, in the arena of open civil war. In other words, guerrillaism is the weapon of a class (or an oppressed nation) which is weaker organisationally and in the purely military sense, in its struggle against the class to which the centralised state apparatus belongs. In this period, guerrillaism is not only a progressive factor, it is, in general, the only possible form of open struggle by the oppressed class for its own emancipation.

But at a later stage guerrillaism turns reactionary.

The historically progressive role of guerrilla struggle ceases when the oppressed class has taken state power into its own hands ...

One can only ask: what, in general, is the point of the working class taking state power into its own hands if it is not then supposed to make use of this power to introduce state centralism into that sphere, which, by its very nature, calls for the highest degree of centralisation, namely, the military sphere? [8]

Yet even after the establishment of a centralised revolutionary army, the guerrilla method of struggle could not be opposed dogmatically. Even then guerrilla bands played a useful role, but on condition that they were subordinated to the centralised army. In August 1919, Mamontov and his cavalry separated themselves by hundreds of versts from Denikin’s forces to roam the rear of the Red Armies, destroying railway lines and other vital supply links. The guerrilla raids of Mamontov forced the Red Army to use guerrilla methods in response. On 6 September 1919 Trotsky wrote an article entitled, Do We Need Guerrillas? To this question he answered, emphatically, ‘Yes’:

Mamontov’s raid forces us ... to supplement and strengthen [our] centralised army with splendid guerrilla detachments, moulded from steel, which will thrust themselves like sharp thorns into the enemy’s body.

This kind of guerrilla movement we must now create. [9]

The beginning of military opposition to Trotsky in the Communist Party

The strong influence of guerrillaism among the party cadres led to the formation of a Military Opposition, which continued throughout the civil war and which later became the core of the Stalinist faction. Trotsky wrote this about the rise of the Military Opposition:

Since the army is the most necessary of all the organisations of the state, and since during the first years of the Soviet regime the centre of attention was the defence of the revolution, it is no wonder that all the discussions, conflicts and groupings inside the party revolved around the question of building the army. An opposition appeared almost from the moment we made our first efforts to pass from disjointed armed detachments to a centralised army. [10]

The Military Opposition

consisted of two groups. There were the numerous underground workers who were utterly worn out by prison and exile, and who now could not find a place for themselves in the building of the army and the state. They looked with great disfavour on all sorts of upstarts – and there was no lack of them in responsible posts. But in this opposition there were also very many advanced workers, fighting elements with a fresh reserve of energy, who trembled with political apprehension when they saw yesterday’s engineers, officers, teachers, professors, once again in commanding positions. [11]

The first theoretical justification for this opposition to the employment of military specialists was provided by the ‘Left Communists’ in the Manifesto of 20 April 1918, in Kommunist:

the old officer corps and command structure of the Tsarist generals is being reconstituted ...

The political line set forth ... may strengthen in Russia the influence of external and internal counter-revolutionary forces, destroy the revolutionary capacity of the working class and, by cutting the Russian revolution off from the international one, have pernicious effects on the interests of both. [12]

In the Red Army, the Communist military leadership at Tsaritsin played a special role in opposing Trotsky’s efforts to create a centralised army. After the victory of the Red Army at Sviiazhsk and Kazan it was in the south that the White Guards had their main stronghold. The strongest Bolshevik force facing them was Klem Voroshilov’s Tenth Army. But Voroshilov was refusing to abide by orders coming from Trotsky and the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic. Voroshilov had been a Bolshevik in 1905 and a volunteer to the Tsarist army in 1914. He was conceited and semi-educated. He opposed the centralised army authorities, and more especially the employment of military specialists. Trotsky writes: ‘Tsaritsin, where the military workers were grouped around Voroshilov, held a special place in the Red army and in the military opposition.’ [13] ‘The atmosphere of Tsaritsin [was one of] administrative anarchy, guerrilla spirit, disrespect for the Centre, absence of administrative order, and provocative boorishness towards military specialists,’ he wrote. [14]

Why the special role of Tsaritsin?

Their revolutionary detachments were headed chiefly by former non-commissioned officers from among the peasants of the Northern Caucasus. The deep antagonism between the Cossacks and the peasants of the southern steppes imparted a vicious ferocity to the civil war in that region. It penetrated far into the villages, and led to the wholesale extermination of entire families. This was a peasant war with its roots deep in local soil, and, in its muzhik ferocity, it far surpassed the revolutionary struggle in all other parts of the country. This war brought forward a good many stalwart irregulars who excelled in local skirmishing but usually failed when they had to undertake military tasks of larger scope.

... After the October revolution [Voroshilov] became the natural centre of the opposition of non-commissioned officers and irregulars against a centralised military organisation demanding military knowledge and a wider outlook. [15]

In the summer of 1918 Stalin was dispatched to the Lower Volga to ensure the transit of food supplies northwards to central Russia. At Tsaritsin, using his authority as a member of the central committee, he took charge of the defence of the city against the encircling White armies. Trotsky writes in his autobiography:

Stalin stayed in Tsaritsin for a few months, shaping his intrigue against me, with the aid of the home-bred opposition of Voroshilov and his closest associates. Even then it was assuming a very prominent place in his activities ... Every day I would receive from the high command or the front commands such complaints against Tsaritsin as: it is impossible to get executions of an order, it is impossible to find out what is going on there, it is even impossible to get an answer to an enquiry. Lenin watched the conflict develop with alarm. He knew Stalin better than I did, and obviously suspected that the stubbornness of Tsaritsin was being secretly staged by Stalin. [16]

Again and again we find Stalin intriguing against Trotsky – and not only through his protégés of the Tsaritsin group. To give a few examples: in a message to Lenin sent on 7 July 1918 Stalin accused the military specialists of ‘being asleep’ and ‘loafing about’, of being ‘bunglers’. [17] Three days later he wrote again to Lenin:

I shall myself, without any formalities, dismiss army commanders and commissars who are ruining the work. The interests of the work dictate this, and, of course, not having a paper from Trotsky is not going to deter me. [18]

On 4 August Stalin wrote to Lenin about the ‘inertia of the former commander’ of Tsaritsin, the ‘conspiracy on the part of persons appointed by him’, and about his ‘criminal orders’ that Stalin himself ‘rescinded’. Stalin also carried out a ‘timely removal of the so-called experts (staunch supporters either of the Cossacks or of the British and the French).’ [19]

As against the ‘military experts’, as he referred to them, Stalin praised highly the new commanders rising from the ranks. In an interview in Izvestia on 21 September 1918, Stalin spoke about one gratifying phenomenon:

... the appearance of a new corps of commanders consisting of officers promoted from the ranks who have had practical experience in the imperialist war, and who enjoy the full confidence of the Red Army men. [20]

After a number of clashes between the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic and Tsaritsin, Trotsky obtained Stalin’s recall. On 4 October 1918 Trotsky spoke to Lenin and Sverdlov on the direct wire from Tambov:

I categorically insist on Stalin’s recall. Things are going badly on the Tsaritsin front, despite a super-abundance of military forces. Voroshilov is able to command a regiment, but not an army of 50,000 men. Nonetheless, I will retain him as commander of the Tenth Tsaritsin Army on condition that he places himself under the order of the commander of the southern front, Sytin. Right up to this day the Tsaritsin people have failed to send even operational reports to Kozlov. I had required them to submit operational and intelligence reports twice daily. If this is not carried out tomorrow, I shall commit Voroshilov and Minin for trial and announce this in an army order ...

Operations in strength are impossible without co-ordination of operations with Tsaritsin. There is no time for diplomatic negotiations. Tsaritsin must either obey orders or get out of the way. We have a colossal superiority of forces, but total anarchy at the top. This can be put to rights within 24 hours given firm and resolute support your end. In any event this is the only course of action that I can envisage. [21]

Stalin’s sympathy with the Military Opposition was contradictory. In the government and in the central committee he strove for central authority and discipline, yet here in Tsaritsin he defied central authority. The distrust of the half-educated towards the military specialists, together with the hatred and jealousy of the embodiment of the central authority in the army – Trotsky – pulled against his normal inclination to centralism.

Let us return to the story of Tsaritsin.

Trotsky appointed Sytin, a former general in the Tsarist army, as commander of the southern front, and Shliapnikov, an old Bolshevik, replaced Stalin as chief commissar. Trotsky accompanied these appointments with a threat: ‘Commanders and commissars who dare to infringe the rules of discipline shall, regardless of past merit, be immediately committed for trial before the revolutionary military tribunal of the southern front.’ [22]

Trotsky also placed a man he trusted, A.I. Okulov, in command of the Tenth Army in order to keep Voroshilov in check. [23] Okulov, a Bolshevik since 1903, became after the February Revolution a member of the gubernia executive committee of Krasnoiarsk, and was later made a member of the presidium of the all-Russian central executive committee. In 1918 he was transferred to military work, first in Siberia, and later on several other fronts, being at one time a member of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic.

Trotsky gave wide publicity to the conflict with the Tsaritsin group when he reported on the military situation to the congress of soviets, and pulled no punches in depicting the conditions of the Tenth Army. His conclusion:

Not all Soviet executives have realised that a centralised administration exists, and all orders that come from above have to be obeyed, that deviation from them is impermissible, and that we shall be pitiless towards those Soviet executives who have not yet understood them. We shall dismiss them, cast them out of our ranks, subject them to repression. [24]

Commenting on this speech many years later Trotsky wrote:

This was aimed at Stalin to a much greater extent than Voroshilov, against whom these words were ostensibly directed at the time. Stalin was present at the congress and kept silent. He was silent at the session of the politburo. He could not openly defend his behaviour. All the more did he store up his anger. [25]

In reaction to this humiliation the Tsaritsin group started a whispering campaign against Trotsky, accusing him of being a friend of Tsarist generals and a persecutor of Bolsheviks in the army. The accusation found its way into the columns of Pravda, at that time edited by Bukharin.

On 29 November 1918 Pravda carried an article by V. Sorin, a Left Communist and member of the Moscow party committee, with the seemingly inoffensive title Commanders and Commissars in the Field Army. Sorin attacked the set-up in the Red Army, in which, he wrote, commanders had too much power. Commanders could use discretionary measures ‘in exceptional circumstances’, the only limitation being that the front command had to be informed. This raised the question: Won’t people who have nothing in common with communism possess their own personal opinion as to what is exceptional, an opinion formed even prior to the revolution?’

Moreover, wrote Sorin, since orders required the counter-signature of a commissar, this commissar would necessarily be turned into ‘a figurehead obliged to sign against his own will all the commanders’ directives’. Had not the powers invested in army commanders to inflict punishment been directly copied from some ‘set of regulations from Tsar Nikolai’s academy’? The range of his criticism broadened still further: ‘To the same order of ideas belong those methods, practised in the army, which, while designed to create ”iron discipline”, in fact undermine and weaken the revolutionary activity of communist soldiers.’

In particular, Sorin stated, the order making commissars ‘answerable with their lives’ for the performance by their men of superior orders had a demoralising effect on those responsible for political matters within the Red Army: ‘An order of this kind, alongside guidelines such as: ”inquiries must not take too much time and disciplinary offences must be punished immediately” can at times literally strike terror into party comrades’.

At this juncture Sorin delivered a decisive blow. He cited the case of Panteleev, the commissar who had been court-martialled with others from his regiment for desertion during the battle of Sviiazhsk, then shot. Sorin presented this case as evidence that ‘the fear of being shot merely for formal reasons means that the commissars are reduced to mere tools in the hand of the commander, instruments which he uses for addressing his subordinates.’ Responsibility for the execution of Panteleev was laid squarely at Trotsky’s door. The article concluded with a call to battle, an exhortation to ‘struggle with determination against the attempt to enfeeble the dictatorship of the Communist Party in the army, to depersonalise communist soldiers, to tire out the revolutionary endeavour.’ [26]

The argument over the Panteleev case ran on for months and months. The military revolutionary council of the Fifth Army raised the matter a few days earlier than Sorin; so did the Western regional executive committee. [27] Trotsky protested about this in a telegram to Lenin and Sverdlov on 23 November 1918:

The account given by these hair-splitters makes it appear that Panteleev was shot on the basis of my order solely for the fact of his regiment having deserted and regardless of the conduct of Panteleev himself. Yet Panteleev not only did not himself remain at his post ... but turned up accompanied by all the deserters on board a steamship that had been seized by the deserters for the purpose of effecting their escape from the environment of Kazan to Nizhnii ... It should also be added that ... the commander of the regiment, also a Communist, accepted the sentence of death as his due, while Panteleev wept and promised to behave differently in future. The agitation conducted by the Western regional executive committee, of which Panteleev had been a member, is blatantly demoralising in tenor. I insist that the most resolute party measures be taken to suppress it. I am bound to add that the conduct of the Western regional executive committee in relation to the War Department has in the past amounted to systematic malicious subversion. [28]

The affair rumbled on for months. On 11 January 1919 Trotsky had to return to the issue in a letter to both Pravda and Izvestia and refute the accusation that he had had Panteleev shot without justification. [29] Furthermore the case of Panteleev had apparently been invoked against Trotsky by the military section of the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, though the published protocol contains no reference to it.

On 18 April 1919 the minutes of the politburo of the party recorded that Trotsky asked the central committee for a second time to appoint an investigation into the case of Panteleev in view of the fact that this question had been raised anew at the party congress. The politburo asked the party’s Organisational Bureau – known as the orgburo – to set up an investigation commission, which it did two days later. [30] In its report this commission upheld Trotsky’s action. [31]

On 25 December 1918 Pravda published a further polemical article attacking Trotsky’s military policy. Entitled It is High Time, it was written by A. Kamensky, a member of the all-Russian central executive committee of the soviets and a Bolshevik since 1905. It denounced the employment of former Tsarist officers on the ground that military science and military art were of no value. Kamensky used his experience in Ukraine to support his contention, where the commander had been Voroshilov and Kamensky the commissar. Kamensky attacked the section of the regulations relating to the power of army commanders as introduced by Trotsky in March 1918. According to Kamensky:

In our language this means that the commander is an autocrat and that the members of the military council, in this case, will be attending a purely decorative signature [to the commander’s orders].

They have often pointed out to us that the conduct of a war is so very complicated that without military specialists we would not be able to cope. Military specialisation certainly is complicated, but it is also an integral part of something more general and delicate, the running of the whole state machine; and we have already displayed the courage to run the state by carrying out the October revolution.

There are a great many deformities, but from the start we have refrained from appealing to ‘princes from across the sea’; on the contrary, we have chased them away because they were carrying out sabotage ...

But even if we admit that the military specialists are the air without which the existence of a socialist army would be unthinkable, what good have they done? None whatever. And what harm? A vast amount! They were on the point of giving up Tsaritsin, and they would have succeeded in doing so had we not removed them in the nick of time.

Kamensky then goes on to accuse General Sytin, commander of the southern front, of readiness to shoot Communists:

Without our agreement, and against our protests, they ‘set up’ in our area a group of gentlemen whom they had removed from another front and who carried on their damaging work here ... Comrade Okulov, a member of the southern front military revolutionary council, has declared that during the fighting near Orenburg twenty officers fled from his staff. Another seven fled from the eastern front, and, because of this, two of our best comrades, Zalutski and Bekoi, were nearly sent before the firing squad, as happened to Panteleev, and only the fairness of Comrade Smilga saved their lives ... About commissars. Having burnt our hands on more than one occasion with undeserved accusations and even with the shooting of our best comrades, we must be prudent, Commissars are our political representatives, and it is intolerabie that they be shot without trial.

In passing, Kamensky is lavish in praising Voroshilov:

Glorious, undaunted, dedicated to the revolution, old party militant, rich in merit. [32]

Trotsky protested vehemently against Kamensky’s article in a letter to the central committee, demanding that the central committee issue a public statement on the matter:

I ask the central committee:

1) To declare publicly as to whether the policy of the War Department is my personal policy, the policy of some group or other, or the policy of our party as a whole.

2) To establish for the benefit of the public opinion of the entire party the grounds which Comrade Kamensky had for his assertion about the shooting of the best comrades without trial.

3) To point out to the editorial board of the central organ the total inadmissibility of printing articles which consist not of a criticism of the general policy of the department or even of the party, but of direct, damning charges of actions of the most damning character (the shooting of the best comrades without trial) without making preliminary inquiries of party establishments as to the grounds for these charges, since it is clear that were there any sort of grounds for these charges, the matter could not rest at party polemics, but must become a subject for judicial investigation by the party. [33]

On the same day, 25 December 1918, the central committee passed a resolution condemning Kamensky and the Pravda editors, clearly following the points made by Trotsky. [34]

But this did not stop the sniping against Trotsky. His opponents in the party repeated the stories published in leaflets that the political departments of the White armies tried to circulate among Red soldiers, accusing the Red command – and Trotsky in particular – of bloodthirstiness. [35]

Trotsky’s intransigence did not put balm on the wounds of the many slighted old Bolsheviks active in the Red Army. In his autobiography Trotsky explains:

It is no wonder that my military work created so many enemies for me. I did not look to the side, I elbowed away those who interfered with military success, or in the haste of the work trod on the toes of the unheeding and was too busy even to apologise. Some people remember such things. The dissatisfied and those whose feelings had been hurt found their way to Stalin or Zinoviev, for these two also nourished hurts. [36]

The opposition to Trotsky’s military policy was thus carried out by a combination of Left Communists such as Bukharin and the semi-literate and conceited clique of NCOs manipulated by Stalin. Another important person joined them, although surreptitiously, Zinoviev, who could not forgive Trotsky for his glorious role in October, when he, the old Bolshevik, had funked it. Zinoviev, as president of the Petrograd soviet, used this position as a base to oppose Trotsky.

In a series of issues of Petrogradskaia Pravda there appeared a long article by S.I. Gusev [1*] under the title How to Build the Soviet Army. [38] Gusev argued against Trotsky’s imposed iron discipline in the Red Army and against the employment of the former Tsarist officers:

Free, comradely discipline renders unnecessary and superfluous all ‘strict’ orders directed against ‘insubordinate persons’. Every ‘insubordinate person’, if such persons exist and are found, will meet with severe condemnation from his own comrades.

Further on in the article, Gusev expressed himself in favour of a still wider extension of freedom, and ‘self-activity’ on the part of the Red Army men, such as would put them in the position of ‘semi-officers’:

The leading initiative of the officer loses its decisive importance in a troop of qualified soldiers in which each individual soldier is capable of finding his own bearings in a military situation and right there, on the battlefield, under fire, of creating, in accordance with the changing situation, a new tactical plan for carrying out the overall operational task.

What flexibility, what mobility, what inventiveness, compared with the immobile, obtuse troops, stuck fast in the fulfilment of ‘orders’, of the bourgeois army. Here we see free creativity on the field of battle, within the broad limits of the operational task. There we see spiritual stagnation ... [39]

Then Lashevich, a leader of the military organisation of the party, member of the central committee and a close friend of Zinoviev, wrote in Petrogradskaia Pravda:

If people tell us that we have become infatuated with generals, I must say, and repeat, that we want to use only whatever they have that is useful – to squeeze that out of these generals, and then to throw them away like squeezed lemons for which we have no more use. (Emphasis added). [40]

Zinoviev spoke in the same vein:

We know very well that the commanders whom we have invited to serve us do not have a friendly and sympathetic attitude towards us, and it would be stupid, therefore, to employ them in posts of command during a civil war, but the state of affairs at present is such that our interests – annihilating and repelling the Germans – and the interests of these generals who are patriots for their fatherland coincide and we can boldly utilise their services in the leadership of our army. And they, knowing perfectly well how strong we are, come to us actually in the role of our batmen. (Emphasis added). [41]

In January 1919 Stalin shot a poisoned arrow at Trotsky. On 1 January Stalin and Dzerzhinsky were sent by the central committee and the Council of Defence to investigate the reasons for the fall of Perm and the reverses on the eastern front, where the First and Second Armies were. The report they wrote was full of grave charges against the highest military leaders, including the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic, in other words against Trotsky:

the general staff and the area military commissariats, which [were] formed and sent to the front units, were patently unreliable;

... the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic [with its] so-called instructions and orders disorganised the control of the front and the armies. Unless the necessary changes are made at central headquarters, there can be no guarantee of success at the fronts. [42]

The ‘counter-revolutionary spirit’ allegedly displayed by Soviet troops dispatched as reinforcements to the beleaguered city of Perm was due, they said, to ‘the old pre-revolutionary methods of training contingents.’ The Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic had demonstrated an ‘intolerably criminal way of managing the front’; it had ‘paralysed’ the front with its ‘contradictory instructions’, and had deprived the Second Army ‘of any chance of coming swiftly to the aid of the Third Army’.

The report spoke of ‘the absolutely indiscriminate appointment of unverified officers as commanders, many of whom lured their units over to the enemy’. [43] It denounced ‘the isolation of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic from the front and the ill-considered instructions of the commander-in-chief.’ [44] Its conclusion was the need to change ‘the composition of the general staff itself ‘. [45]

Insults were poured on the heads of the former Tsarist officers. These obstructed Trotsky’s efforts to recruit these officers to the Red Army. General V.F. Novitsky, who had of his own accord declared his readiness to serve in the Red Army, now wrote an open letter to Trotsky in which he refused cooperation, saying that he had no desire to be, quoting Lashevich, ‘squeezed and thrown away like a lemon’. Trotsky countered with an emphatic repudiation of the attacks on the officers. ‘Those former generals who work conscientiously in the difficult and unfavourable conditions of today, even if they are of a conservative turn of mind, deserve incomparably more respect from the working class than pseudo-socialists who engage in intrigue.’ [46]

Trotsky was disgusted with the boorish attitude towards the military specialists. He took up the subject in A Letter to a Friend, written on 10 January 1919. He wrote with scorn:

Our own bureaucrat ... is real historical ballast – already conservative, sluggish, complacent, unwilling to learn and even expressing enmity to anybody who reminds him of the need to learn.

This is the genuine menace to the cause of communist revolution. These are the genuine accomplices of counter-revolution, even though they are not guilty of any conspiracy ...

Only a wretched Soviet bureaucrat, jealous for his new job, and cherishing this job because of the personal privileges it confers and not because of the interests of the workers’ revolution, can have an attitude of baseless distrust towards any expert, outstanding organiser, technician, specialist or scientist – having already decided on his own account that ‘me and my mates will get by somehow.’ [47]

Trotsky did not spare his opponents. He argued that the crude and conceited attitude of the upstart bureaucrat was especially harmful to the working class, which suffered from ignorance because of its oppressed position in society.

The revolutionary development of the proletariat consists ... in the fact that it arrives at an understanding of its oppressed position, its poverty, and rises against the ruling classes. This gives it the possibility of seizing political power. But the taking of political power essentially reveals to the proletariat for the first time the full picture of its poverty in respect of general and specialised education and government experience. The understanding by the revolutionary class of its own inadequacies is the guarantee that these will be overcome.

The revolution would be meaningless if it only made

it possible for thousands, or even tens of thousands of advanced workers to settle into jobs in the soviets and commissariats. Our revolution will fully justify itself only when every toiling man and woman feels that his or her life has become easier, freer, cleaner and more dignified. This has not yet been achieved. A hard road still lies between us and this, our essential and only goal. [48]

Trotsky never spared his opponents. In this conflict between the boorish Military Opposition, which rejected the opportunity of learning from bourgeois specialists, and Trotsky, whose vision was of a new world in which the workers absorbed the cultural treasures of the centuries, we find in embryo the core of the future struggle of Trotsky against Stalinism. And this occurred just a year after the October revolution!

Lenin and the military front

The opposition to Trotsky’s policy was all the more formidable because Lenin for a long time reserved judgment on the employment of former Tsarist officers. Trotsky had to appeal to Lenin repeatedly to support him. In August 1918 Lenin asked Trotsky’s opinion about a proposal introduced by Larin to replace all officers with communists. Trotsky replied sharply in the negative:

Many of them [former Tsarist officers] commit acts of treachery. But on the railways too instances of sabotage are in evidence in the routing of troop trains. Yet nobody suggests replacing railway engineers by communists. I consider Larin’s proposal as being utterly worthless ... Those who clamour the loudest against making use of officers are either people infected with panic or those who are remote from the entire work of the military apparatus, or such party military figures as are themselves worse than any saboteur – such as are incapable of keeping an eye on anything, behave like satraps, spend their time doing nothing, and, when they meet with failure, shuffle off the blame on to the general staff officers. [49]

On 24 November 1918 Lenin was still unconvinced, saying in a speech to Red Army officers: ‘in building our new army now, we must draw our officers solely from among the people. Only Red officers will have any respect among the soldiers and be able to strengthen socialism in our army. Such an army will be invincible.’ [50]

Not until the eve of the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919 did Lenin have a clear idea of the extent to which military specialists were being used. At the beginning of March 1919, Trotsky narrates:

Lenin wrote me a note: What if we fire all the specialists and appoint Lashevich as commander-in-chief? Lashevich was an old Bolshevik who had earned his promotion to the rank of sergeant in the ‘German’ war. I replied on the same note: ‘Child’s play!’ Lenin looked slyly at me from under his heavy brows, with a very expressive grimace that seemed to say: ‘You are very harsh with me’. But, deep down, he really liked abrupt answers that left no room for doubt. We came together after the meeting. Lenin asked me various things about the front. ‘You asked me,’ I said, ‘if it would not be better to kick out all the old officers. But do you know how many of them we have in the army now?’


‘Not even approximately?’

‘I don’t know’.

‘Not less than thirty thousand.’


‘Not less than thirty thousand. For every traitor there are a hundred who are dependable; for every one who deserts there are two or three who get killed. How are we to replace them all?’ [51]

A few days later Lenin was making a speech on the problems of constructing the socialist commonwealth. He said:

When Comrade Trotsky informed me recently that the number of officers of the old army employed by our War Department runs into several tens of thousands, I perceived concretely where the secret of using our enemy lay, how to compel those who had opposed communism to build it, how to build communism with the bricks which the capitalists had chosen to hurl against us! [52]

This episode shows clearly how out of touch Lenin was with the real issues facing the Red Army: not knowing until March 1919 what a massive number of former Tsarist officers was in the Red Army. [2*]

In 1940 Trotsky described the relations between himself and Lenin on military affairs during the civil war thus:

It must be said ... that Lenin’s support was not unconditional. Lenin wavered more than once, and in several instances was gravely mistaken. My advantage over him was in the fact that I uninterruptedly travelled along the various fronts, came in contact with a tremendous number of people, from local peasants, prisoners of war, and deserters, to the highest army and party leaders at the front. This mass of varied impressions was of inestimable value. Lenin never left Moscow ... He had to pass judgment on military questions, which were new to all of us, on the basis of information which for the most part came from the higher-ups of the party. No one was able to understand individual voices coming from below better than Lenin, but these reached him only on exceptional occasions. [54]

Whatever their differences on military affairs, Lenin’s admiration for Trotsky’s leadership of the Red Army was undiminished. In his recollections of Lenin, Gorky says:

Striking his fist on the table, he [Lenin] exclaimed: ‘Show me another man who would be able in a year to organise almost a model army; yes, and win the esteem of the military specialists. We have such a man. We have everything, and you’ll see miracles!’ [55]

The fact that Stalin, Voroshilov and company invoked their party seniority when they came into conflict with Trotsky tended to transform the conflict into one between the party and army organisations. Lenin played a crucial role in Trotsky’s victory in this conflict. As Jan M. Meijer observes in his postscript to The Trotsky Papers:

As soon as there was opposition, Lenin had to repeat Trotsky’s arguments before they carried conviction.

... Perhaps neither Trotsky nor Lenin realised how much the former owed to Lenin in maintaining contact with the second echelon of the party. In that respect Lenin became almost part of Trotsky’s personality and after his death Trotsky was at a loss in his relations with the people that made up this second echelon. [56]

The Eighth Congress

Shortly before the Eighth Party Congress assembled in March 1919, Kolchak’s White troops broke through on the eastern front, creating a grave threat to Soviet power. The central committee decided that Trotsky should straight away leave for the front, and the military delegates to the congress should return to their units. This raised vehement protest that Trotsky was evading criticism of his policy. The central committee therefore reversed its previous decision, allowing the military delegates to stay – but not Trotsky.

The debate at the congress on military policy was introduced by Sokolnikov, who moved the theses written by Trotsky, Our Policy in Creating the Army. [57] His report was followed by a co-report by V.M. Smirnov, representing the Military Opposition. Smirnov argued for a new-style army based on democratic control and partisan warfare. During the public debate at the congress there were no other speeches specifically devoted to military policy besides Sokolnikov’s and Smirnov’s, only scattered references in a number of speeches.

The bulk of the discussion took place in a separate military section. This was composed of 85 delegates, 57 of whom had a ‘deciding vote’ (the rest merely ‘consultative votes’.) The discussion was stormy. Most vociferous were Voroshilov and Minin of the Tsaritsin group, who led the attack on military specialists, asserting that the Red Army had in fact been built without their help. [58] Cases of treason by military specialists were quoted in support of the demand that their function should be cut down, and that of party workers extended. After stormy discussion, Smirnov’s theses were accepted by 37 votes to 20. [59] The minority supporting Trotsky’s theses walked out.

When the debate moved to the congress itself things were radically different. Lenin came out strongly in defence of Trotsky’s theses. This is what he said on the Red Army:

If the ruling class, the proletariat, wants to hold power, it must ... prove its ability to do so by its military organisation. How was a class which had hitherto served as cannon fodder for the military commanders of the ruling imperialist class to create its own commanders?

Here we were faced with a problem which a year’s experience has now summed up for us. When we included the question of bourgeois specialists in the revolutionary programme of our party, we summed up the party’s practical experience in one of the most important questions. As far as I remember the earlier teachers of socialism, who foresaw a great deal of what would take place in the future socialist revolution and discussed many of its features, never expressed an opinion on this question. It did not exist for them, for it arose only when we proceeded to create a Red Army. That meant creating an army filled with enthusiasm out of an oppressed class which had been used as mere cannon fodder, and it meant compelling that army to utilise all that was most coercive and abhorrent in what we had inherited from capitalism. [60]

Lenin attacked the guerrilla methods used by Voroshilov in Tsaritsin. In response to an angry interruption from Voroshilov himself, Lenin stated that the losses suffered by the Tenth Army might have been much less had more orthodox military methods been employed, and had properly trained commanders been used. [61]

Notwithstanding Lenin’s strong support for Trotsky’s theses [3*], the opposition to these was still large. Trotsky’s theses received the support of 174 delegates in the full congress, while 95 voted against and 32 abstained.

On 25 March the central committee met. Trotsky was not present. Zinoviev introduced the discussion with a summary of congress resolutions on the military question. He declared that the unpublished resolutions constituted ‘the expression of the genuine wishes of the congress’, and were at the same time ‘a concession of a kind to the opposition’. Zinoviev said: ‘Congress had, by token of its entire line of conduct on the military question, administered a serious caution’, and made it clear at whom this caution was directed: ‘It is essential for Comrade Lenin to talk things over with Comrade Trotsky.’ [63]

Trotsky replied to the central committee, after he had read the congress and central committee resolutions, that he found the resolutions of the congress to contain ‘many things that contradict the policy of the War Department’; they ‘are formulated in supremely general and vague terms, and part of them are based on a misunderstanding.’ Trotsky made it clear that he was irritated by Zinoviev’s speech, which tried to fudge differences with the Military Opposition. Zinoviev had sought to play down the existence of the Military Opposition by neatly dividing its members into two categories: the first group, in Trotsky’s words, ‘the pretentious party intelligentsia, largely consisting of offended Soviet officials and cases of nervous exhaustion’; the second group – for which Zinoviev showed support – had declared themselves ‘extremely dissatisfied with my attitude’.

Trotsky was not inclined to show indulgence towards the second category, in which Zinoviev had included Voroshilov. Zinoviev was, he maintained,

obviously mistaken in regarding the voice of the second group as the voice of truth itself and in urging that we, in fact, take our cue from it. The opposition of the workers-oversimplifiers ... is equally mistaken and, in point of practice, even more dangerous than the hysterical opposition of offended Soviet officials. Zinoviev named Voroshilov. I am not going to start examining psychological case-histories to see in which group Voroshilov should be put, but I will remark that the sole thing for which I can hold myself to blame with regard to him is the overlengthy, indeed two or three months long attempts to get things going by way of negotiation, exhortation and personal rearrangements, where the interests of the case required a resolute, organisational decision.

The issue was more than purely military:

The opposition as a whole, in both its better half and in its worse half, reflects the fearful difficulties of the dictatorship of a hungry, internally rent working class, alongside an ill-informed, discontented and mutinous peasantry. We see these difficulties on all sides. In the military sphere they assume their most concentrated form. All the shortages, discordances and shortcomings of Soviet work, all the slovenliness of Soviet officials express themselves in their most intensified form within the organism of the army.

Zinoviev argued for ‘comradely discipline’. Trotsky, not ready to make any concessions, sharply rebuked him:

The army is an artificial organism, and the unity of thought and planning which sustains this artificial organism must be maintained with a firmness all the more relentless the more savage be the objective conditions that tend to undermine the army ...

... because I have all too closely observed grave, even tragic episodes affecting armies in the field, I know very well how great is the temptation to substitute so-called ‘comradely’ ... household discipline for formal discipline, but, at the same time, I became all too well persuaded that a substitution of this sort would mean the complete disintegration of the army. I think that the party relationship of Communists with one another is, in the military sphere, in fact translated into unconditional and comprehensive formal discipline.

Trotsky’s letter ended with a sharp condemnation of Zinoviev and an appeal to the central committee to make its position clear:

Comrade Zinoviev’s report inspires the most serious apprehension that he is seeking a solution to the question precisely along the line of an easing-off in the system and adjusting it to conform with the weariness of certain elements in our party. Insofar as the buro of the central committee has approved Comrade Zinoviev’s report, I wish to believe that it is not this aspect of the report that it has approved, for, if the contrary should be the case, I personally would not myself see any possibility of counting on the party being successful in the severe struggle ahead of it. [64]


1*. Trotsky wrote of Gusev in My Life: ‘He was called an “old Bolshevik” because of his share in the revolution of 1905. He had retired to bourgeois life for the next ten years, but, like many others, returned to revolution in 1917. Later Lenin and I removed him from military work because of some petty intrigues, and he was immediately picked up by Stalin. His special vocation today is chiefly that of falsifying the history of the civil war, for which his main qualification is his apathetic cynicism.’ [37]

In 1923 Gusev joined the control commission that played an important role in consolidating Stalin’s hold over the party. In 1925-6, during the struggle to crush the Left Opposition, Gusev headed the central committee’s press department. In 1929-33, at the time of the ‘Third Period’, he was a member of the praesidium of the executive committee of the Communist International.

2*. It is quite funny to read at the time of glasnost what the reformer Roy Medvedev writes: undoubtedly, was the chief of its [the Red Army’s] organisation, and the chief strategist of the civil war.’ [53]

3*. One sign of the strong support Lenin gave to Trotsky was his instruction after the congress that Smirnov be relieved of his military posts. [62]


1. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 9.

2. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 427-8.

3. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 8.

4. Trotsky, HRA, volume 4, pages 85-6.

5. Trotsky, HRA, volume 4, page 86.

6. Trotsky, HRA, volume 4, pages 86-7.

7. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 215-6.

8. Trotsky, HRA, volume 2, pages 259-60.

9. Trotsky, HRA, volume 2, pages 407-8.

10. Trotsky, Stalin (London 1947), page 277.

11. Trotsky, Stalin pages 297-8.

12. Theses of the Left Communists, 1918 (Glasgow 1977), pages 16-17.

13. Trotsky, My Life, pages 439-40.

14. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 280-1.

15. Trotsky, My Life, page 440.

16. Trotsky, My Life, page 441.

17. J.V. Stalin, Works (Moscow 1953), volume 4, page 120.

18. Stalin, Works, volume 4, page 123.

19. Stalin, Works, volume 4, pages 124 and 126.

20. Stalin, Works, volume 4, page 133.

21. J. Meijer (editor), The Trotsky Papers (The Hague 1971) (hereafter referred to as Trotsky Papers), volume 1, pages 135 and 137.

22. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 474.

23. See Trotsky’s message to Lenin of 14 December 1918, in Trotsky Papers, volume 1, page 197.

24. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 465.

25. Trotsky, Stalin, page 291.

26. Pravda, 29 November 1918, quoted in Benvenuti, pages 79-80

27. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, page 155.

28. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, page 155.

29. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, page 253.

30. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 361-3 and 367.

31. Trotsky, Stalin, page 328.

32. Pravda, 25 December 1918; Benvenuti, pages 82-3.

33. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 207-9.

34. Pravda, 26 December 1918; Benvenuti, page 85.

35. Trotsky, Stalin School, page 45.

36. Trotsky, My Life, page 446.

37. Trotsky, My Life, page 398.

38. Petrogradskaia Pravda, 3, 11 and 13 April 1918.

39. Quoted in A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, The Bolsheviks in Power (London 1984), pages 63-4.

40. Quoted in Ilyin-Zhenevsky, page 71.

41. Quoted in Ilyin-Zhenevsky, pages 71-2.

42. Stalin, Works, volume 4, page 194.

43. Stalin, Works, volume 4, page 213.

44. Stalin, Works, volume 4, pages 216-7.

45. Stalin, Works, volume 4, page 214.

46. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 172.

47. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 223.

48. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, page 221.

49. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 107-9.

50. Lenin, Works, volume 28, page 195.

51. Trotsky, My Life, page 447.

52. Lenin, Works, volume 29, page 7.

53. R. Medvedev, Hell Black Night, in Inostranaia literatura, March 1989, page 170.

54. Trotsky, Stalin, page 277.

55. Trotsky, Stalin School, page 98.

56. Trotsky Papers, volume 2, page 841.

57. Trotsky, HRA, volume 1, pages 243-56.

58. A.V. Danilevsky, V I Lenin i voprosy voennogo stroitelstva na viii sezde RKP(b) (Moscow 1964), pages 71 and 76.

59. Danilevsky, pages 75-6.

60. Lenin, Works, volume 29, pages 153-4.

61. Leninskii sbornik, volume 37, page 137.

62. Leninskii sbornik, volume 38, pages 135-40.

63. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 319 and 322.

64. Trotsky Papers, volume 1, pages 325-35.

Last updated on 28 July 2009