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International Socialist Review, January-February 1970


Joe Miles

Trotsky’s Military Writings


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.58-59.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Military Writings
by Leon Trotsky
Merit. 158 pp. $1.95 paper.

The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky is not a manual on warfare. Nor is it a guide for political organizing within the army. Rather, it deals with specific theoretical disputes that arose within the Bolshevik Party after the Russian civil war.

Nevertheless, Trotsky’s method of dealing with these controversies and then proceeding to general theoretical conclusions make the book relevant for present-day revolutionaries. The reader will find the material of more than just historical interest as over and over again he discovers that the analysis made by Trotsky in the 1920s sheds light on problems facing the movement today.

I will give a few specific examples of how Trotsky’s conclusions relate to our present situation. But perhaps the greatest worth of the book lies in the way Trotsky marshals his arguments. In other words, it can be read as a good example of how the method of dialectical materialism is applied to illuminate the whole range of military strategy and tactics. “Our superiority over our enemies,” said Trotsky, “lies in possessing the irreplaceable scientific method of orientation – Marxism. It is the most powerful and at the same time subtle instrument – to use it is not as easy as shelling peas.”

In these writings Trotsky confronted a group of military doctrinaires in the Red Army and the party. Looking back at the civil war, the doctrinaires attempted to deduce eternal truths and universal principles from strategies and tactics associated with certain times, places and conditions. Trotsky challenged each of their military premises: idealization of the offensive under all circumstances, rejection of positional warfare, characterization of maneuverability as the revolutionary strategy. He pointed out that in the military sphere there is actually no such thing as “proletarian tactics” or “capitalist tactics.” It is only when we look at the goals involved that the class content is added.

An underlying theme is the lesson that young revolutionaries should not scorn history or idealize whatever is new and current, that they must be anxious to benefit from the experiences and accumulated knowledge of the past.

“Our doctrine is called Marxism. Why invent it a second time? Besides, in order to be able to invent anything except a hand-cart, it is necessary to go to school to the bourgeoisie, once the ability to orient ourselves and the will to victory are given ... Marxists have always assimilated the old knowledge; they studied Feuerbach, Hegel, the French encyclopedists and materialists, and political economy ... It will do incalculable harm if we were to inoculate the military youth with the idea that the old doctrine is utterly worthless and that we have entered a new epoch when everything can be viewed superciliously and with the equipment of an ignoramus.”

This polemic could well be directed against many of the American left. Many young radicals seem to believe that the history of the world began sometime after September 1960, when their own political consciousness began to stir. It is foolhardy to enter into a contest as difficult and important as the coming American revolution “with the equipment of an ignoramus.” Even worse, it could be disastrous, since we can be sure that the capitalist enemy will not come to battle so ill-equipped; he will use every shred of knowledge gained attempting to crush revolutions in the past.

Part of this general rejection of the past is a healthy rebellion against the false and useless substitute for history which has been doled out to American youth. Even the summary rejection of Marxism, which until recently has crippled most of the American left, is part a healthy rejection of the vile record of Stalinism. But understanding the shortcomings of bourgeois history is entirely different from refusing to learn its lessons, and a revulsion against the abberations of “communism” in the Soviet Union should not lead to a renunciation of genuine communism. The prevalence of anti-historical attitudes is at least partly to blame for the theoretical impoverishment of the American left.

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