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Trotsky was the first leader of October Revolution and Red Army

Friday 8 December 2017, by Robert Paris

Trotsky was the first leader of October Revolution and Red Army

Red Army, by Erich Wollenberg

The armed conflict against internal counter-revolution began even before the seizure of power by the Bolshevists. When, in August 1917, General Kornilov marched on Petrograd, his main blow was aimed at the rising socialist proletariat rather than the vacillating bourgeois democracy. But the hard struggle for self-preservation and the consolidation and amplification of the October Revolution, which lasted nearly four years, did not begin until after the easily won victory of that October of 1917.

The Civil War, which tortured the land to its very marrow and claimed untold victims, was not a phenomenon peculiar to the Russian Revolution. “History shows no instance of a revolution which may successful, or which will allow the rebels to rest on their laurels when it is over.” In these words Lenin did no more than utter a historical truth which is as old as classes and class wars.

There is always something fascinating about historical analogies between revolutions. Comparisons between the October Revolution and the French Revolution are frequently drawn; the revolutionary wars each country was forced to wage after overthrowing the old regime, and their onset and ending, are reduced all too readily to a common denominator. But we must “use such analogies with the greatest caution”, as Trotsky rightly pointed out in his “Military Doctrine” (1921), “for otherwise”, he continues, “the superficial resemblances may induce us to forget the material differences.” (…)

In the work already quoted, Trotsky writes :

“When discussing revolutionary wars, we are most frequently influenced by memories of the wars of the French Revolution. Therein we forget that at the end of the eighteenth century France was the richest and most civilized country of the European land. The revolutionary task of the French Army was far more superficial in character than the revolutionary tasks before us now. In those days the main objective was the overthrow of the “tyrants” and the abolition or modification of feudal serfdom. Our mission, on the other hand, is the complete destruction of exploitation and class oppression.”

The absolute and relative poverty and backwardness of Russia combined with the material and social-political substance of the proletarian revolution to stamp their own particular impress on the Russian Civil War. The great majority of the Russian population belonged to the lower middle classes, while according to the last pre-War statistics 86,5 of this population lived on the land, against only 13,5 in the towns.

“Russia is so large and so variegated,” wrote Lenin in a polemic against the ‘left’ communists in May 1918, “that the most varying types of social and economic conditions are intertwined one with another. We have 1- the patriarchal peasant economic system, which to a very large extent is natural economy; 2- the economic system of the petty trader (which includes the majority of the peasants who sell bread); 3- the private economic system of capitalism ; 4- State capitalism; 5- socialism (since the victory of the October Revolution). The main social-economic war will develop into a struggle of the lower middle classes plus private capitalism, against State capitalism and socialism.”


After the victories of the Revolution in Petrograd and Moscow the authority of the Soviet Government overflowed the whole vast realm like a mighty stream that carries everything with it. The Soviet in the towns and on the land came under Bolshevist leadership, the old officials were hunted out of office, the workers took possession of the factories, and the peasants seized the estates of the Crown, the Church, and the landed proprietors. When manifestations of resistance appeared locally, they were dealt with by small shock troops of Red Guards or detachments of pro-revolution soldiers sent from the capital or acting on their own initiative. This elemental force of the first revolutionary wave caused a panic in the camp of counter-revolutionists, and a temporary paralysis of all forces hostile to the Revolution.


Official history as written in the Soviet Union to-day refuses to admit the part Trotsky played as organizer of the Red Army’s victories, and depicts Stalin as the greatest military leader of the Civil War. In Pepov’s historical work we find : “The high honour of having organized the victories of the Red Army falls first and foremost to the Party and its leader, Lenin. Lenin’s best and most loyal helper in the military sphere was Comrade Stalin. It was Comrade Stalin who in the autumn of 1918, played a leading part in the brilliant defence of Tsaritsyn against General Krasnov, who was then the Soviet Government’s most opponent. In those days Tsaritsyn served as a wedge between the two main groups of White Guards forces in the south and east.

“In the first months of 1919 it was the forceful work of Comrade Stalin which brought Koltchak’s advance in the northern sector of the eastern front to a standstill. Comrade Stalin also displayed great activity on the western and north-western fronts in the first half of 1919. Finally, he was the originator of the plan for the annihilation of Denikin on the southern front in the autumn of 1919.”

This official history keeps silence concerning the part played by Stalin in the Polish Campaign of 1920, but makes the following remarks about Trotsky:

“The Party won its victories in the Civil War oyer the principal enemies of the Soviet under Lenin’s leadership and against the advice contained in Trotsky’s plans. We cannot deny Trotsky’s part in the Civil War as a propagandist and as an executants of the Central Committee’s decisions, when he choose to execute them, but his strategy and his whole policy were vitiated by many organic defects. Trotsky’s deep-rooted disbelief in the fitness of the proletariat to lead the peasantry and the fitness of the Party to lead the Red Army is characteristic of his strategy and policy. It explains his introduction of exclusively formal discipline and of the methods of compulsion customary in bourgeois armies; in it we may also see the reason of his endeavours to keep the Party as far removed from the army as possible, his boundless confidence in the bourgeois specialists, and his low opinion of the Red Army in comparison with the White Guard Armies. All this reflects the psychology of the former Tsarist officers who obtained staff posts.”

Karl Radek wrote in similar fashion on February 23, 1935, the seventeenth anniversary of the Red Army. He called Stalin “the leader of the proletarian army and the military genius of the Civil War.” But said of Trotsky that he was “the prototype of the petty bourgeois vacillating general who overloaded the front with former Tsarist staff officers, without regard either attitude to the Revolution or their military capabilities, and tried to impress it with his impossible general staff uniforms. But Stalin never cared a brass farthing for officers’ epaulettes.”

Not only do the official histories written to-day deny Trotsky all his deserts as leader of the Red Army; they also refuse to admit his role as leader of the October Revolution in Petrograd. No less a personage than Joseph Stalin himself has written the following words in his pamphlet entitled, “On Trotskyism”.

“I must say that Trotsky did not and could not play any leading part in the October Revolution. As chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, he merely gave effect to the will of the Party as expressed in its decrees, which guided his every step. He played no particular part either in the Party or in the October Revolution, and indeed could not do so, for he was still a comparatively junior member of our Party in those October days.”

A leading article which appeared in Pravda on November 6, 1918, in commemoration of the first anniversary of the October Revolution, throws a somewhat different light on Trotsky’s activities during those days, for it states:

“All the work and paractical organization of the rising was carried out under the immediate leadership of Trotsky, the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. We can state with all certainty that we owe the garrison’s prompt adherence to the Soviet cause and the skilful organizations of the work of the Party’s Revolutionary War Committee first and foremost to the Comrade Trotsky.”

The writer of this article was Joseph Stalin, who appended to his full signature.

Larissa Reissner, the Bolshevist girl who fought in the ranks of the Red Guard in the October Revolution and then entered the Red Army as a private, took part in 1919 in the Civil War as a commissar attached to the staff of the Baltic Fleet, and won a world-wide reputation in later days by her descriptions of the Civil War, depicts Trotsky at the front in her book “October”.

The passage I quote deals with the critical days of the Czechoslovak Insurrection, when the Red Army, then only in process of formation, had yet to meet its baptism of fire. Its regiments were retreating in panic before the onslaught of the Czechoslovaks. Kazan was lost, and the remains of the routed Red Army mustered in Sviyazhsk.

“Trotsky arrived at Sviyazhsk on the third or fourth day after the fall of Kazan. His armoured train drew up at the little station, with the evident intention of making a long stay. All Trotsky’s organizational genius was promptly manifested. He contrived to make effective rationing arrangements and brought further batteries and several regiments to Sviyazhsk, despite the obvious breakdown of the railways – in short, he did everything to cope with the work which had to be done in 1918, when the general demobilization was still exercising its destructive effects, and the appearance of a well-equipped Red Army detachment in the Moscow streets caused so great sensation. Trotsky, in those days, was swimming against the stream, against the weariness of four years of war and against the flood-tide of revolution that overflowed the whole land, carrying away with it the wreckage of the old Tsarist discipline and engendering a fierce hatred of everything that recalled memories of officers’ orders, barracks and military life.

“In spite of everything the rations became obviously better; newspapers, overcoats and boots arrived. And there, in the place where the boots were being served out, we found a genuine, permanent army staff. The army took firm root there and thought no more of flight.

“Trotsky contrived to endow his new-born army with an iron backbone. He took up his abode in Sviyazhsk with the firm determination not to yield an inch of territory. He contrived to be a wise, adamantine, unruffled leader to his little handful of defenders.”

While the Red Army was preparing to attack Kazan, a large formation of White Guard troops gained the rear of the Soviet lines by night and attacked the railway-station of Sviyazhsk.

“Then L. D. Trotsky mobilized the whole personnel of the train – the clerks, telegraphists, ambulance men and his own bodyguard – in short, every man who could hold a rifle. The staff offices were emptied in the twinkling of an eye; there was no more ‘base’ for anyone.”

All these improved forces were fighting a new, well-organized body of troops; they did not guess that all the opposition they had to encounter was a hastily assembled handful of fighters, behind whom there was nobody but Trotsky himself and Slavin, the commander of the 5th Red Army. That night Trotsky’s train remained there without its engine, as usual, while not a single unit of the 5th Army, which was about to take the offensive and had advanced some considerable distance from Sviyazhsk, had its rest disturbed by a recall from the front to aid in the defence of the almost unprotected towm. The army and flotilla knew nothing about the night attack until it was all over, and the White Guards had retreated in the firm conviction that they had encountered practically a whole division.

“The next day twenty-seven deserters who had taken refuge on the steamers were court-martialled and shot. They included several Communists.

“Anyone who has lived with the Red Army, who has been born with it and grown up with it in the fighting at Kazan, can confirm the fact that the iron spirit of this army would never have solidified, and that the close contact between the Party and the mass of soldiers and the equally close contact between the ranker and the officer in supreme command would never have come into existence, if on the eve of the storming of Kazan, which was to cost the lives of so many hundreds of soldiers, the Party had not made this demonstration before the eyes of the whole army of men ready to make the supreme sacrifice for the Revolution, if it had not shown them that the rough laws of fraternal discipline were binding on its own members too, and that it had the courage to apply the laws of the Soviet Republic as ruthlessly to them as to others offenders.

“The twenty-seven were shot, and their corpses filled the breach that the Whites had made in the self-reliance and resolution of the 5th Army.

“An army of workers and peasants had to express itself in some way or other; il had to create its own outward aspect and take its own shape, but no one could prophesy in what manner it would accomplish this task. At that time there was naturally no dogmatic programme and no recipe for the growth and development of this mighty organism.

“There was only a premonition in the Party and the masses – a kind of creative conjecture concerning the organization which obtained new and genuine characteristics from every day’s fighting. Trotsky’s special merit may be found in the fact that he needed only an instant to sense the slightest reaction in the masses of men who already bore the stamp of this unique organizational formula on their persons.

“Trotsky collected and systematized every little working method that could help besieged Sviyazhsk to simplify, arrange and speed up the war work.

“A man who is an excellent orator, and who has evolved the rational, flawless, plastic form of a new army may nevertheless freeze its spirit or let it dissipate. Such risks can only be eliminated if the man is also a great revolutionary with the creative intuition and hundred-kilowatt-strong inward wireless set, without which no one can approach the masses.”

This initiative faculty Trotsky possessed.

“The soldier, commander and war commissar within him were never able to oust the revolutionary. And when in his superhuman metallic voice he denounced a deserter, he really feared in him the mutineer whose treachery or mean cowardice was so harmful and destructive, not merely to military operations but to the whole proletarian revolutionary cause.”

These are the words of Larissa Reissner. We may add that Trotsky’s great revolutionary ethics enabled him to visualize in the Red Army warriors not only his soldiers of the Civil War but also the builders of the future socialist order of society. (…)

One of Trotsky’s merits as a Red Army organizer was the way in which he applied his theoretical knowledge to the petty practical daily work of building up the army. Shortly after the beginning of the four years of civil war a group of Bolshevist military workers propounded a ‘Special Military Doctrine of the Revolutionary Proletariat’, which culminated in a ‘Theory of Total Offensive’, wereupon Trotsky gave them the following reply :

“We must now devote our whole attention to improving our material and making it more efficient rather than to fantastic schemes of re-organization. Every army unit must receive its rations regularly, foodstuffs must not be allowed to rot, and meals must be cooked properly. We must teach our soldiers personal cleanliness and see that they exterminate vermin. They must learn their drill properly and perform it in the open air as much as possible. They must be taught to make their political speeches short and sensible, to clean their political speeches short and sensible, to clean their rifles and grease their boots. They must learn to shoot, and must help their officers to ensure strict observance of regulations for keeping in touch with other units in the field, reconnaissance work, reports and sentry duty. They must learn and teach the art of adaptation to local conditions, they must learn to wind their puttees properly so as to prevent sores on their legs, and once again they must learn to grease their boots. That is our programme for next year in general and next spring in particular, and if anyone wants to take advantage of any solemn occasion to describe this practical programme as ‘military doctrine’, he’s welcome to do so.”

Leon Trotsky, the main leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution

The October Insurrection, Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky, leader of the Red Army

How the Revolution Armed, 1918, Leon Trotsky

How the Revolution Armed, 1919, Leon Trotsky

How the Revolution Armed, 1920, Leon Trotsky

Trotsky and the Red Army

The Red Army, Erich Wollenberg

Who is Leon Trotsky

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