Workers Hammer No. 196
On the abolition of ranks in the Red Army
The letter below corrects an error in the article Revolutionaries and World War II, first published in Workers Hammer no 193, Winter 2005-2006. The article was an edited version of a presentation given by comrade Olly Laing at a Spartacus Youth Group forum in London on 22 October 2005.
10 March 06
The fine article in Workers Hammer No. 193 (Winter 2005-2006) — the first part of which was reprinted in the Young Spartacus pages of Workers Vanguard No. 865 (3 March 2006) contains a factual error that is politically significant, and that has repeatedly appeared in our press:
Stalin's regime had been consolidated by bloody purges in the 1930s in which many of the Red Army's best officers were murdered, including Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of the most brilliant generals in the civil war of 1918-21.
The problem here is that Tukhachevsky was never a general. Lenin and Trotskys Red Army was built on the principle of abolishing the rank of general, along with all other ranks of the tsarist officer caste. Tukha himself was on the editorial board of the Small Soviet Encyclopedia (1929) which explained, In the Red Army the rank of general, along with all other ranks of the tsarist army is abolished (Vol. 2, p. 418). In those days commanders of particular units were referred to as simply that. For instance, Tukhachevsky was Commander of the Western Army, or of the Seventh Army that was formed to put down the Kronstadt mutiny. Commanders in the collective sense were referred to as the commanding staff (komsostav). It is thus a grave offense to refer to Tukha, or any other commander, of Lenin and Trotsky's time, as a general. It was a curse word for that generation.
In 1936 Trotsky explained the significance of the eventual restoration of the officer corps by Stalin's Thermidorian caste (in which Tukhachevsky was briefly and precariously ensconced):
A still more deadly blow to the principles of the October revolution was struck by the decree restoring the officers corps in all its bourgeois magnificence. The commanding staff of the Red Army, with its inadequacies, but also with its inestimable merits, grew out of the revolution and the civil war. The youth, to whom independent political activity is closed, undoubtedly supply no small number of able representatives to the Red Army. On the other hand, the progressive degeneration of the state apparatus could not fail in its turn to reflect itself in the broad circles of the commanding staff
In September 1935, civilized humanity, friends and enemies alike, learned with surprise that the Red Army would now be crowned with an officers hierarchy, beginning with lieutenant and ending with marshal. According to Tukhachevsky, the actual head of the War Department, the introduction by the government of military titles will create a more stable basis for the development of commanding and technical cadres. The explanation is consciously equivocal. The commanding cadres are reinforced above all by the confidence of the soldiers. For that very reason, the Red Army began by liquidating the officers corps. The resurrection of hierarchical caste is not in the least demanded by the interests of military affairs. It is the commanding position, and not the rank, of the commander that is important
. The elevation of the five senior commanders of the Red Army to the title of marshal, gives them neither new talents nor supplementary powers. It is not the army that really thus receives a 'stable basis', but the officers corps, and that at the price of aloofness from the army. The reform pursues a purely political aim: to give a new social weight to the officers
It is worthy of note that the reformers did not consider it necessary to invent fresh titles for the resurrected ranks. On the contrary, they obviously wanted to keep step with the West. At the same time, they revealed their Achilles heel in not daring to resurrect the title of general, which among the Russian people has too ironical a sound
The restoration of officers castes eighteen years after their revolutionary abolition testifies equally to the gulf which already separates the rulers from the ruled, to the loss by the Soviet army of the chief qualities which gave it the name of 'Red', and to the cynicism with which the bureaucracy erects these consequences of degeneration into law.
—The Revolution Betrayed, pp. 221-225
The resurrection of the officer corps bound military lackeys to the ruling caste through political and material privileges. It was a prelude to the physical annihilation of those Red Army commanders who retained some degree of political independence and authority not beholden to Stalin. Tukhachevsky did not survive two years in Stalin's officer corps.
Comrade Olly and the others who worked on the article are not entirely to blame for the misformulation in Revolutionaries and World War II cited above. I am sure it was loyally taken from a citation of Trotsky in our article In Defense of Marshal Tukhachevsky:
Trotsky in Stalin (1941) wrote of the young Tukhachevsky
. He distinguished himself almost immediately at the front, and within a year had become a general of the Red Army. His brilliance as a strategist was acknowledged by admiring foes who were the victims of that very brilliance.
— Workers Vanguard No. 321 (14 January 1983); subsequently reprinted in Spartacist [English Edition] No. 41-42 (Winter 1987-88)
The problem here is that this erroneous citation is not from Trotsky, but from Charles Malamuth — the English translator who grotesquely deformed Trotskys unfinished manuscript. The citation from Trotsky on p. 327 of Stalin appears in Malamuths brackets, and does not appear in Trotskys Russian original text (Stalin, Vol. 2, p. 119, Terra, Moscow 1990). This error was discovered when we translated In Defense of Marshal Tukhachevsky for the first issue of our Russian-language Byulleten Spartakovtsev (Winter 1989-90). In our Russian bulletin, we noted that the article was slightly edited, and we removed the erroneous, falsified passage.
But apart from this editorial history of 16 years ago, it should be a part of comrades knowledge that the revolutionary Red Army had no need of, and in fact was forged in battle against the very idea of an officer corps and military ranks!