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International Socialist Review, March-April 1970


Dick Roberts

Introduction to Leon Trotsky’s
Problems of Civil War


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.2, March-April 1970, pp.3-4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What are the political and what are the military aspects of civil war? What is the relationship between the revolutionary vanguard party and the military front during the struggle for state power? Under what conditions should the armed insurrection be launched? Can a definite timetable be fixed for the seizure of state power?

These questions – of the utmost significance for revolutionaries – are the subject of this speech, which Trotsky delivered to the Military Science Society, July 29, 1924. Again and again following the revolutionary victory in Russia, the organizer of the Red Army and Commissar of War (1918-25) attempted to focus the attention of the world communist movement on the specific military-revolutionary lessons of this victory. The importance Trotsky attached to this study can be gauged on one scale by the fact that he ultimately made it the subject of the monumental History of the Russian Revolution.

In Problems of Civil War, Trotsky’s immediate topic is the failure of the 1923 revolution in Germany. Ripe for proletarian revolution, the majority of the working class was behind the German Communist Party; the German bourgeoisie was encountering new difficulties daily. But the Communist Party leadership of Brandler and Thalheimer vacillated. In October, the desperate ruling class attacked in military formation and won a decisive victory without firing a shot At a crucial moment, the Communist leaders sounded the call for retreat; the disoriented party was thrown into confusion and the masses were thrown back into despair.

But Trotsky in 1924 had even more far-reaching concerns than simply to draw a balance sheet of the German catastrophe. Already by this time, the “triumvirate” of Russian Communist Party leaders, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, had opened their attack on “Trotskyism.” Lenin, seriously ill since 1922, died March 21, 1924. The co-leader of the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky, was the main obstacle in the march to power of the Stalin-led bureaucracy.

In 1924, Trotsky did not yet see the full consequences of this fateful march. He could not then have imagined that the slightest criticism of Stalin would one day be “treason” against the Soviet state; that Kamenev and Zinoviev themselves – presidents, respectively, of the Moscow and Leningrad Soviets – would be gunned down by Stalin’s firing squads; that the entire leadership of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party, save only Stalin, would be wiped out in the bureaucratic scourge.

At this time there was still something left of the real Bolshevik tradition that revolutionaries must learn from experience; that discussion, debate and criticism are not only valid but essential tools of revolutionary leadership. In this spirit Trotsky plunged into the discussion of military-revolutionary strategy because he saw in a bureaucratic attitude toward this question serious danger of a repetition of demoralizing defeats.

For Zinoviev, as chairman of the Communist International, in collusion with Stalin, had secretly backed the passive policies of Brandler. They attempted to silence debate on the German situation throughout 1923; and when the collapse came, in what was to become typically Stalinist pattern, they attempted to lay all the blame on Brandler, absolving themselves of responsibility for their disastrous roles.

More significant to Trotsky, however, were the roles of these same top leaders of the Bolshevik Party – in the Russian revolution itself. As Trotsky was to explain more fully in Lessons of October (October 1924), and most completely in the History, there had been vacillations in the Bolshevik leadership at critical points throughout 1917. When it came to the point of acting on what they had been saying, that is, launching the armed insurrection, Kamenev and Zinoviev had opposed it, against Lenin – even down to the final week before the October triumph. Like the leaders of the German CP, they too, argued that the “Russian workers are not ready to fight,” on the very eve of successful insurrection. No wonder that not only the history of the German events, but of October itself, was anathema to the Stalin faction. This history was not being studied in 1924; it is not open to study today – more than a half century after October – either to the young people of the Soviet Union or to students in any of the other Stalinized “socialist” countries.

Trotsky attempted to force study of October and of the general theoretical problems of civil war.

“In 1924,” he wrote in The Third International After Lenin (1928), “a collective work on the elaboration of the directives of civil war, that is, a Marxian guide to the questions of the open clashes of the classes and the armed struggle for the dictatorship, was begun by a large circle of individuals grouped around the Military Science Society. But this work soon encountered opposition on the part of the Comintern – this opposition was a part of the general system of the struggle against so-called Trotskyism; and the work was later liquidated altogether. A more lightminded and criminal step can hardly be imagined ... Had such regulations been incorporated in a number of books, the serious study of which is as much the duty of every communist as the knowledge of the basic ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, we might well have avoided such defeats as were suffered during recent years, and which were by no means inevitable ...”

* * *

This translation, by A.L. Preston, was first made from the French of Marcel Body, published in 1926. When it was checked against the Russian text in Vol.XII of Trotsky’s Collected Works, some omissions were discovered. These have now been restored and this version is in effect a translation from the Russian.

Trotsky and the Russian text refer to it as a speech to the Military Science Society, but it is clearly a series of remarks with intervals between them for group discussion. In the opening lines, Trotsky refers to his spring report to the Academy. This may well be the item in Pravda of May 9, 1924. When it was checked, the text was largely indecipherable because of bad printing. The few paragraphs that could be read touch on the same topics as in the present speech.

Problems of Civil War, by Leon Trotsky

Unfortunately, we are unable to publish this text as copyright is claimed by Pathfinder Press.

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