….On 22 April 1918 Trotsky laid his scheme before the Central Executive of the Soviets. 7 When he came to his point about the employment of officers, the Mensheviks raised an outcry. 'Thus the Napoleons make their appearance!' Dan exclaimed. Martov accused Trotsky of paving the way for a new Kornilov. These charges carried little conviction when they came from a party which had all but delivered the revolution to Kornilov. 8 More serious were the objections of the Left Social Revolutionaries, to whom t his was no mere debating point. But the most persistent and influential opposition arose within the Bolshevik party itself. This opposition was actuated by the most diverse motives. Most of the Left Communists, who had opposed the peace of Brest, repudiated Trotsky's policy in the name of the revolution's libertarian spirit. They refused to countenance a centralized standing army, let alone one officered by Tsarist generals and colonels. Led by I. N. Smirnov, Bukharin, Pyatakov, and Bubnov, the Left Communists came out against Trotsky as frankly and bitterly as they had come out against Lenin in the controversy over Brest; they saw in their present opposition a continuation of their previous struggle: they refused to accept any compromise with forces of the old régime, whether in foreign or in domestic policy.
The other element in the opposition was formed by men who belonged to the inner Bolshevik hierarchy. As a rule these men stood for centralized authority and strict discipline and they viewed the Left Communists as irresponsible trouble-makers. They were not fundamentally opposed to Trotsky's idea of the new army; but they viewed with suspicion his solicitations of the former officers' corps. They suspected, not quite without reason, that the officers would enlist in order to betray the Red Army from within; and some were jealous for newly-acquired positions of power which they were now being asked to share in the army with erstwhile enemies. The jealousy and the suspicion were blended into a strong sentiment, which found expression in the Central Committee of the party. Even those Bolsheviks who agreed that the officers should be employed did so with strong mental reservations; and every now and then they gave vent to suppressed feeling. They opposed Trotsky's policy deviously, attacking it not in principle but in detail and execution.
These two trends of opposition overlapped and formed an ambiguous alliance. They enlisted the support of the commissars and commanders of the Red Guards and partisan groups, ordinary workers and non-commissioned officers, who had distinguished themselves in the first weeks of the upheaval, were surrounded by a halo of heroism, and bitterly resented subordination to Tsarist generals or any other military authority.
Implied in the immediate issue was a wider question concerning the attitude of the new state towards the positive values of the pre-revolutionary civilization and towards the intelligentsia which represented the sum total of the ideas, knowledge, and higher skills bequeathed by the old order. In the military field this question was most acute; but it was of vital significance to every aspect of Soviet life. Among Bolsheviks and ordinary workers there was an intense dislike of the professional men who had enjoyed freedom and privileges while the revolutionaries had spent their best years in banishment and prison. They were stunned when they were told that the revolution should restore the Tsar's 'flunkeys' and the 'bourgeois philistines' to respectability and influence. Yet this was what the revolution was beginning to do, because it could not wreak vengeance upon the intelligentsia without shattering the basis of its own future. Without its doctors, scientists, research workers, and technicians, of which it had none too many, and without its writers and artists, the nation would have sunk finally to the level of primitive barbarism, to which it was anyhow dangerously close. The disputes over the 'specialists' were therefore implicitly a struggle over the level of civilization from which the 'building of socialism' was to begin. Trotsky repeatedly posed the issue in this wider context, and not merely as a matter of military expediency. He argued that the 'cultural heritage' of which the revolution had taken possession must be saved, cultivated, and developed; and as long as the revolution had to defend itself, military skill and knowledge must be considered as part of that heritage. His exhortations to this effect make up many pages in the volumes of his military writings and they belong to the cultural as well as to the military history of the Soviet régime.
The combination of the groups opposed to Trotsky's policy was all the more formidable as Lenin for a long time reserved judgement on the employment of the officers, although he himself most emphatically insisted on a considerate and tactful treatment of the civilian 'specialists'. The military branch of the party, on whose co-operation so much depended, was firmly against Trotsky's policy. The conflict came into the open when Lashevich, the leader of that branch, a member of the Central Committee and Zinoviev's close friend, publicly boasted that the party would use the old generals only to 'squeeze them like lemons and then throw them away'. Zinoviev spoke in the same manner, as if setting out to wound the officers' self-respect and to obstruct Trotsky's attempts to enlist them. 9 A General Novitsky who had of his own accord declared his readiness to serve under the Bolsheviks wrote an open letter to Trotsky, in which he refused co-operation, saying that he had no desire to be 'squeezed and thrown away like a lemon'. Trotsky countered this with an emphatic repudiation of the attacks on the officers: 'Those former generals', he wrote, 'who work conscientiously in the present difficult conditions, deserve, even if they are of a conservative outlook, infinitely more respect from the working class than pseudo-socialists who engage in intrigue. … '
Trotsky was not merely anxious to reassure the officers. He was sincerely indignant about Zinoviev's and Lashevich's crude and offensive language. Even after the civil war, when the need to employ the old officers was less pressing, he continued to demand that they should be treated with consideration. He held that they should be employed even after a new officers' corps had been raised up, because no civilized and rationally governed society can waste men of skill, knowledge, and merit. He also spoke from his own faith in the moral greatness of the revolution by which even men of conservative upbringing must be impressed; and he bitterly reproached with pusillanimity those Bolsheviks who thought that once a man had been a Tsarist officer he must for ever remain insensitive to the appeal of socialism.
He himself strove to impress upon the officers the moral grandeur of the revolution, obscured by its miseries. Some of his pleadings with the officers therefore belong among the most stirring apologias for the revolution. This, for instance, is a passage from an inaugural address he gave at the Military Academy in 1918. The address was devoted largely to the Academy's curriculum, but it also contained words the like of which had hardly ever resounded within the walls of a Military Academy:
People unaccustomed to the revolution and its psychology … may, of course, view with some horror … that riotous, self-willed, and violent anarchy which appeared on the surface of revolutionary events. Yet in that riotous anarchy, even in its most negative manifestations, when the soldier, the slave of yesterday, all of a sudden found himself in a first-class railway carriage and tore off the velvet upholstery to make puttees for himself, even in such a destructive act there manifested itself the awakening of the personality. The ill-treated, down-trodden Russian peasant, accustomed to be slapped in the face and abused with the worst curses, all of a sudden found himself, perhaps for the first time in his life, in a first-class carriage; he saw the velvet upholstery; in his own boots he had stinking rags; he tore off the velvet, saying that he, too, had the right to something good. After two or three days, after a month, after a year—no, after a month, he has understood the ugliness of his behaviour. But his awakened personality … the human personality will remain alive in him for ever. Our task is to adjust this personality to the community, to induce it to feel itself not a number, not a slave, as it had felt before, and not merely an Ivanov or a Petrov, but Ivanov the Personality. 11
Deutscher, The Prophet Armed. Chapter 12.