Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
On 18 February 1918 the German army declared itself at war with revolutionary Russia. In under two weeks German troops marched 125 miles into Russia, arming White troops, and sweeping aside the Red Guards and the remnants of the old army units at Narva, within 100 miles of Petrograd. They landed in Finland and backed the White terror that smashed the revolutionary government there, costing 20,000 lives. The new revolutionary government, barely three months old, faced enormous danger.
Germany demanded huge swathes of Russia in return for halting its advance. The Bolsheviks had no choice. Lenin argued, 'We are now powerless. German imperialism has gripped us by the throat...give me an army of 100,000 men, but it must be a strong, steadfast army that will not tremble at the sight of the foe, and I will not sign the peace treaty.' That was exactly what the revolution did not have, and the Bolsheviks agreed to sign the peace on 19 February. The next day the decree was issued for the formation of the Red Army.
The initial defence of the revolution had been a volunteer army based on the armed workers, the Red Guard. The Russian army that had fought the First World War was in tatters. The units that were left were organised on a democratic basis, electing their officers and voting on orders. The revolution in the army had been central to victory in October but, faced with the might of an imperialist army, such slender and disorganised forces were hopelessly inadequate. The desperate circumstances of occupation, and a reinvigorated White army aided and trained by the Allies, demanded a centralised and disciplined mass army.
Leon Trotsky was charged with the task of building such an army. Trotsky's strategy was to construct a regular standing army, to disperse the soldiers' committees, and to recruit officers from the tsarist army as 'military specialists'. The measures provoked anger from many soldiers, who had swept such structures aside. However, the Red Army was not a return to the tsarist army. The Bolsheviks were clear that it would be a political as well as a military force. The army was formed to defend the revolution, and no member of the wealthy classes could bear arms.
By 1918 there were 165,000 military specialists in the Red Army. In each of its 16 armies political commissars were appointed to match the military commanders, countersigning every order and taking responsibility for political morale. As the civil war wore on, the numbers of Communist Party members in the army rose from 180,000 in October 1919 to 278,000 in August 1920, replacing many of the military specialists. Large numbers of workers who joined the party went straight to the fronts. The revolutionaries were crucial in organising both within the army and in White areas among the local populations. The civil war was fought on the principle of spreading the revolution.
Political education for soldiers was a priority, summed up in the first emblem of the army, a hammer and sickle with a rifle and a book. Each army had a political department which, despite desperate shortages, poured out pamphlets, newspapers, posters and leaflets. They set up mobile libraries and reading courses to fight illiteracy and to enable soldiers to take an active part in the new society. By the end of the civil war there were 3,000 Red Army schools, and every soldiers' club had a reading room. As Trotsky argued, 'Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever.'
In the summer of 1918 conscription was introduced in working class areas and the parts of Russia under immediate threat. Hundreds of thousands responded to the first call ups, despite being exhausted from years of fighting. The army grew from 331,000 in August 1918 to over 600,000 by the end of the year. This was the beginning of the force, eventually 5 million strong, which would triumph against the odds after nearly three years of fighting.
Victory for the revolution came at a terrible cost. The strain of bending a backward economy to the needs of war shattered industrial production. The blockade res ulted in widespread hunger, cold and disease, killing 9 million between 1918 and 1920. The working class was reduced to 43 percent of its former numbers.
As the revolution was isolated and ultimately destroyed, the role of the army changed also. The rising Stalinist bureaucracy incorporated many of the army's top officers. The privileges for soldiers set them increasingly apart from workers and peasants, and the priorities of the army became those of the state. Ranks were reintroduced, and the army came to mirror those of other imperialist nations. Those in the army who made any attempt to oppose Stalin were executed.
Competition with the West led to a huge growth in the Russian military, not as a defence of revolution, but as its suppressor. The Red Army that marched into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 bore no relation to that of the civil war. Yet the aims and principles of the army in the early years remain an inspiration. It was a creature of necessity that existed to preserve the revolution, in the hope that a socialist future for humankind could rid the world of the need for armies. The Bolshevik Nikolai Podvoisky articulated its ideals, saying, 'The Red Army is an army of peace. So soon as we have crushed the counter--revolution, so soon as internal revolution has put an end forever to imperialism, then shall we throw away our guns and swords, then shall frontiers be abolished, and we shall forget the art of war.'