My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 37

Disagreements Over War Strategy

In these pages I am not recounting the history of the Red army or of its battles. Both these themes, so inseparably bound up with the history of the revolution, and going far beyond the scope of an autobiography, will probably make the subject-matter for another book. But I cannot pass by the political-strategic disagreements that sprang up in the progress of the civil war. The fate of the revolution depended on the course of military operations. As time went on, the Central Committee of the party was more and more absorbed in the problems of war, among them, the questions of strategy. The chief commanding posts were occupied by military experts of the old school who lacked an understanding of social and political conditions. The experienced revolutionary politicians who comprised the Central Committee of the party lacked military knowledge. The strategic conceptions on a large scale were usually the result of collective work, and, as always in such cases, gave rise to dissension and conflict.

There were four instances when the Central Committee was divided by strategic disagreements; in other words, there were as many disagreements as there were main fronts. Here I can deal with these only very briefly, merely introducing the reader to the essence of the problems that presented themselves to the military leadership, and at the same time disposing, in passing, of the later inventions about me.

The first acute argument in the Central Committee took place in the summer of 1919, apropos of the situation on the eastern front. The commander-in-chief at the time was Vatzetis, of whom I spoke in the chapter on Sviyazhsk. I directed my efforts toward making Vatzetis sure of himself, of his rights and his authority. Without this, command is impossible. Vatzetis’s point of view was that, after our great successes against Kolchak, we abstain from rushing too far into the East, to the other side of the Urals. He wanted the eastern front to stay at the mountains for the winter. This would have enabled us to withdraw a few divisions from the East and switch them to the South, where Denikin was getting more dangerous. I supported this plan. But it met with rigorous opposition from Kamenev, the commander of the eastern front and a colonel of the general staff in the Czar’s army, as well as from two members of the Military Council, both old Bolsheviks — Smilga and Lashevich. They insisted that Kolchak was so far defeated that only a few men were necessary to follow him, and that the most important thing was that he be prevented from getting a breathing-spell, because in that case he would recover during the winter and we would have to start the eastern campaign all over again in the spring. The entire question hinged, therefore, on a true estimate of the condition of Kolchak’s army and rear. Even then I considered the southern front far more important and dangerous than the eastern. Later on this was fully confirmed.

But it proved to be the command of the eastern front that was right in appraising Kolchak’s army. The Central Committee adopted a decision against the high command, and therefore against me, because I supported Vatzetis, on the ground that this strategic equation had several unknowns in it, but that one of the important and known quantities was the need of maintaining the still new authority of the commander-in-chief. The decision of the Central Committee proved right. The eastern armies released some troops for the southern front and continued, at the same time, their advance on the heels of Kolchak into the heart of Siberia. This brought about a change in the high command. Vatzetis was dismissed and Kamenev put in his place.

The disagreement, in itself, was of a practical nature, and of course had not the slightest bearing on my relations with Lenin. But out of these small episodic disagreements the intrigue was weaving its nets. On June 4, 1919, Stalin, writing from the South, was trying to scare Lenin with the dangers of the military direction. “The whole question now is,” he wrote, “whether the Central Committee can find enough courage to draw the proper conclusions. Has the Central Committee sufficient character and firmness?” The meaning of the above lines is quite obvious. Their tone proves that Stalin had raised the question more than once, and just as many times had met with Lenin’s opposition. I was ignorant of all this at the time. But I sensed some intrigue afoot. Being without time or desire to go into the matter, I offered my resignation to the Central Committee, so as to make an end of it. On July 5, the Central Committee replied as follows:

“The Organizational and Political Bureau of the Central Committee, after considering the statement of Comrade Trotsky and discussing it in full, has unanimously come to the conclusion that it is quite unable to accept Comrade Trotsky’s resignation and comply with his request. The Organizational and Political Bureau of the Central Committee will do everything in its power to make the work on the southern front, now the most difficult, dangerous, and significant, and which Comrade Trotsky himself has chosen, most convenient for him and profitable for the Republic. In his capacity as War Commissar and as Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council, Comrade Trotsky is fully able to act as a member of the Revolutionary Military Council of the southern front in co-peration with the Commander of the front, whom he himself proposed and whom the Central Committee accordingly appointed. The Organizational and Political Bureau of the Central Committee give Comrade Trotsky full power to use all means for securing whatever he thinks will correct the line from the military point of view, and if he wishes, to expedite the party congress.
LENIN, KAMENEV, KXESTINSKY, KALININ, SEREBRYAKOV, STALIN, STASOVA.”

This decision carries Stalin’s name among the others. Although he was carrying on an intrigue behind the scenes, and accusing Lenin of lack of courage and firmness, Stalin did not have spirit enough to go into open opposition to the Central Committee. The southern front, as already mentioned, assumed the principal place in the civil war. The enemy’s forces were composed of two independent parts: the Cossacks — particularly in the province of Kuban — and the volunteer White army, recruited from all over the country. The Cossacks were anxious to defend their borders from the onslaught of the workers and peasants. The volunteer army was anxious to capture Moscow. These two interests merged only so long as the volunteers formed a common front with the Kuban Cossacks in the northern Caucasus. But Denikin found it very difficult, and in fact impossible, to bring the Cossacks out of their province of Kuban. Our high command approached the problem of the southern front as one of abstract strategy, ignoring its social basis. The Kuban province was the chief base of the volunteers. The high command, therefore, decided to deliver the decisive blow at that base from the Volga. It reasoned: Let Denikin rush on and try to reach Moscow at the head of his armies; in the meantime, we will sweep away his Kuban base behind his back; then Denikin will be suspended in the air and we will catch him barehanded. That was the general strategic scheme. Had this not been a civil war, the plan would have been correct. But in its application to the real southern front, the plan proved to be merely a theoretical one, and greatly helped the enemy. Whereas Denikin had failed to persuade the Cossacks to a long marching campaign against the north, he now was helped by our striking at the Cossack nests from the south. After this, the Cossacks could no longer defend themselves on their own land; we had ourselves bound up their fate with that of the volunteer army.

In spite of the careful preparation for our operations and the concentration of forces and technical means, we had no success. The Cossacks formed a formidable bulwark in Denikin’s rear. They seemed to be rooted to their land, and held on with their claws and teeth. Our offensive put the whole Cossack population on their feet. We were expending our time and energy and managing only to drive all those capable of bearing arms directly into the White army. In the meantime, Denikin swept the Ukraine, filled his ranks, advanced toward the north, took Kursk and Oryol, and was threatening Tula. The surrender of Tula would have been a catastrophe, because it would have involved the loss of the rifle and cartridge manufacturing plants.

The plan that I advocated from the outset was exactly the opposite. I demanded that with our first blow we cut the volunteers off from the Cossacks, and, leaving the Cossacks to themselves, concentrate all our strength against the volunteers. The main direction of the blow, according to this plan, would be not from the Volga toward Kuban, but from Voronezh toward Kharkoff and the Donyetsk region. In this section of the country which divides the northern Caucasus from the Ukraine, the peasants and workers were wholly on the side of the Red army. Advancing in this direction, the Red army would have been moving like a knife through butter. The Cossacks would have remained in their places to guard their borders from strangers, but we would not have touched them. The question of the Cossacks would have been an independent one, more political than military in nature. But it was necessary in the first place to separate this as strategy from the routing of the volunteer army of Denikin. In the end, it was this plan that was eventually adopted, but not before Denikin had begun to threaten Tula, whose loss would have been more dangerous than that of Moscow. We wasted several months, suffered many needless losses and lived through some very menacing weeks.

In passing, I should like to point out that the strategic disagreements about the southern front were most closely related to the question of the appreciation or “under-appreciation” of the peasantry. I built my plan on the relations of the peasants and workers on the one side and the Cossacks on the other, and on this line of argument I opposed my own plan to the academic scheme of the high command, which met with support from the majority of the Central Committee. If I had spent a thousandth part of the effort used to prove my “under-appreciation” of the peasantry, I could have built up just as absurd an accusation, not only against Zinoviev, Stalin and the rest, but against Lenin as well, on the basis of our disagreement over the southern front.

The third conflict of a strategic nature arose in connection with Yudenich’s offensive against Petrograd. This incident was described in an earlier chapter, and need not be gone over again. I will add only that, influenced by the very serious situation in the South, from which the chief menace was directed, and influenced also by the reports from Petrograd of the extraordinary technical equipment of Yudenich’s army, Lenin began to believe that it was necessary to shorten the front line by surrendering Petrograd. This was probably the only occasion when Zinoviev and Stalin supported me against Lenin; and he himself abandoned his obviously mistaken plan a few days later.

The last disagreement, and undoubtedly the most violent of all, had to do with the fate of the Polish front in the summer of 1920. Bonar Law, then the British Premier, in the House of Commons quoted my letter to the French communists as proof of our intention of crushing Poland in the fall of 1920. A similar assertion is to be found in a book by the late Polish war minister, Sikorsky, but this time it is supported by a reference to my speech at the International congress in January, 1920. All this is sheer drivel from beginning to end. Of course, I never had an occasion to express my sympathy with the Poland of Pilsudski; that is, a Poland of oppression and repression under a cloak of patriotic phraseology and heroic braggadocio. It would be easy to pick out a number of my statements to the effect that, in the event that war was forced on us by Pilsudski, we would try not to stop half-way. Such statements were the result of the entire setting. But to draw the conclusion from this that we wanted a war with Poland, or were even preparing it, is to lie in the face of facts and common sense. We strained every effort to avoid that war. We spared no measure to achieve this end. Sikorsky admits that we conducted peace propaganda with extraordinary “cleverness.” He does not understand, or pretends that he does not, that the secret of that cleverness was very simple: it was merely that we were trying with all our might to secure peace, even at the price of the greatest concessions. Even more perhaps than any one else, I did not want this war, because I realized only too clearly how difficult it would be to prosecute it after three years of continuous civil war. The Polish government, as Sikorsky’s book makes clear, consciously and determinedly began the war in spite of our indefatigable efforts to preserve peace, efforts that made of our foreign policy a combination of patience and pedagogical persistence. We sincerely wanted peace. Pilsudski imposed war on us. We could wage it only because the great mass of the people had been watching our diplomatic duel continuously, and were thoroughly convinced that the war had been forced on us; in this they were absolutely right.

The country made one more truly heroic effort. The capture of Kiev by the Poles, in itself devoid of any military significance, did us a great service; it awakened the country. Again I had to make the rounds of armies and cities, mobilizing men and re sources. We recaptured Kiev. Then our successes began. The Poles were rolled back with a celerity I never anticipated, since I could hardly believe the foolhardiness that actually lay at the bottom of Pilsudski’s campaign. But on our side, too, after our first major successes, the idea of the possibilities that were opened to us became greatly exaggerated. A point of view that the war which began as one of defense should be turned into an offensive and revolutionary war began to grow and acquire strength.

In principle, of course, I could not possibly have any objection to such a course. The question was simply one of the correlation of forces. The unknown quantity was the attitude of the Polish workers and peasants. Some of our Polish comrades, such as the late J. Markhlevsky [?], a co-worker of Rosa Luxemburg’s, weighed the situation very soberly. The former’s estimation was an important factor in my desire to get out of the war as quickly as possible. But there were other voices, too. There were high hopes of an uprising of the Polish workers. At any rate, Lenin fixed his mind on carrying the war to an end, up to the entry into Warsaw to help the Polish workers overthrow Pilsudski’s government and seize the power. The apparent decision by the government easily captured the imagination of the high command and of the command of the western front. By the time I paid my regular visit to Moscow, I found opinion strongly in favor of carrying on the war “until the end.” To this I was resolutely opposed. The Poles were already asking for peace. I thought that we had reached the peak of our successes, and if we went farther, misjudging our strength, we would run the risk of passing beyond the victory already won to a defeat. After the terrific effort that enabled the Fourth army to cover 600 kilometres in five weeks, it could move forward only through inertia. Everything hung on the nerves, and these were but thin threads. One strong blow would have been enough to shake our front and turn our unprecedented and unexampled offensive thrust — even Foch was obliged to admit this — into a defeat that would be a catastrophe. I demanded an immediate conclusion of peace, before the army should grow too exhausted. I was supported, as far as I can remember now, only by Rykov. All the rest were won over by Lenin during my absence. Thus it was decided to continue the offensive.

In contrast with the Brest-Litovsk period, the roles had been completely reversed. Then it was I who demanded that the signing of the peace be delayed; that even at the price of losing some territory, we give the German proletariat time to understand the situation and get in its word. Now it was Lenin who demanded that our army continue its advance and give the Polish proletariat time to appraise the situation and rise up in arms. The Polish war confirmed from the opposite side what was demonstrated by the Brest-Litovsk war: that the events of war and those of the revolutionary mass movement are measured by different yardsticks. Where the action of armies is measured by days and weeks, the movement of the masses of people is usually reckoned in months and years. If this difference in tempo is not taken fully into account, the gears of war will only break the teeth of the revolutionary gears, instead of setting them in motion. At any rate, that is what happened in the short Brest-Litovsk war, and in the great Polish war. We passed over and beyond our own victory to a heavy defeat.

One must note that one of the reasons for the extraordinary proportions which the catastrophe before Warsaw assumed was the conduct of the command of the southern group of the Soviet armies, operating in the direction of Lvov (Lemberg). The chief political figure in the Revolutionary Military Council of this group was Stalin. Stalin wanted, at whatever cost, to enter Lvov at the same time that Smilga and Tukhachevsky entered Warsaw. Some people are capable of having even such ambitions. When the danger to the armies under Tukhachevsky was fully revealed, and the high command ordered the southwestern armies to change the direction of their advance so as to strike at the flank of the Polish armies before Warsaw, the southwestern command, encouraged by Stalin, continued advancing due west; for was it not more important that they should themselves capture Lvov than that they should help “others” to take Warsaw? Only after repeated orders and threats did the southwestern command change the direction of its advance. But the few days of delay had already had their fatal effect.

Our armies were rolled back four hundred or more kilmetres. After the brilliant victories of the day before, no one would be reconciled to the situation. On my return from the Wrangel front, I found Moscow favoring a second Polish war. Now, even Rykov went over to the other camp. “Once started,” he was saying, “we must carry it through to the end.” The command of the western front was encouraging hopes; sufficient reserves had come up, the artillery had been replenished, and so on and so forth. The wish was father to the thought. “What have we on the western front?” I rejoined. “Only morally defeated units into which we have now poured raw human dough. One can’t fight with such an army. Or to be more exact, with an army like this one might be able to engage in defensive operations while retreating and preparing a new army in the rear; but it would be senseless to think that such an army is capable of raising itself to a victorious advance along a road strewn with its own fragments.” I declared that a repetition of the error already committed would cost us ten times as much, and that I would not submit to the decision that was being proposed, but would carry an appeal to the party. Though Lenin formally defended the continuation of the war, this time he did it without his former conviction and insistence. My firm belief in the necessity of concluding peace, even if it were a harsh one, made its impression on Lenin. He proposed that we put off deciding the question until I could visit the western front and get a direct impression of the condition of our armies after the retreat. To me, this meant that Lenin was already with me.

I found the headquarters at the front in favor of another war. But there was no conviction there; it was simply a reflection of the attitude in Moscow. The lower I went on the military ladder — from an army to a division, a regiment, a company — the more I realized the impossibility of an offensive war. I sent Lenin a letter about it, writing it in longhand, without even keeping a copy of it, while I went on with my round of inspection. The two or three days that I spent at the front were enough to confirm the conclusion I had brought with me from Moscow. I returned there, and the Politbureau almost unanimously resolved in favor of an immediate peace.

The error in the strategic calculations in the Polish war had great historical consequences. The Poland of Pilsudski came out of the war unexpectedly strengthened. On the contrary, the development of the Polish revolution received a crushing blow. The frontier established by the Riga treaty cut off the Soviet Republic from Germany, a fact that later was of great importance in the lives of both countries. Lenin, of course, understood better than any one else the significance of the “Warsaw” mistake, and returned to it more than once in thought and word.

In the literature of the epigones, Lenin is now pictured in somewhat the same light that the ikon painters of Suzdal represent Christ and the saints: instead of an ideal image, you get a caricature Much as the ikon painters try to rise above them selves, in the end they reflect only their own tastes, and as a result they must paint their own idealized portraits. As the authority of the epigone leadership is maintained by forbidding people to doubt its infallibility, so Lenin is represented in the epigone literature not as a revolutionary strategist who showed genius in his appreciation of the situation, but as a mechanical automaton of faultless decisions. The word genius in relation to Lenin was first applied by me, at a time when others did not have the courage to pronounce it. Yes, Lenin was as much of a genius as a man can be. But he was not an automatic reckoning machine that makes no mistakes. He made them less often than any one else in his position would; but he made them all the same, and grave ones, at that, in accord with the titanic scope of all of his work.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05