The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed


IV. Desertion and Tribunals

Concerning Military Tribunals

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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The activity of our military tribunals, like that of all revolutionary tribunals in general, should have very great educational importance. A tribunal passes judgement on actions that run contrary to the new revolutionary order which is taking shape.

A tribunal is one of the instruments of compulsion at the disposal of the workers’ state, which demands of all citizens the observance of definite relationships, a definite co-ordination of conduct, a definite discipline.

Our tribunals do not act in accordance with any written code. The new order is only in process of formation. It is taking shape in conditions of fierce struggle, amid difficulties hitherto unprecedented in world history. A revolutionary sense of justice will be forged in the fire of this struggle. This cannot be set out in advance in the paragraphs of any code. The struggle is passing through periods of upsurge and decline, of advance and retreat. The same actions possess different significance at different moments: the tribunal always remains an instrument defending the conquests and interests of the revolution under all the changing conditions. Its sentences are conceived in conformity with the changes in circumstances and the needs of the revolutionary struggle, and with the class origin of the offender. Revolutionary justice, including revolutionary military justice, does not dress up in the mask of equal rights for all (which do not and cannot exist in class society): revolutionary justice openly proclaims itself a fighting organ of the working class in its struggle against bourgeois enemies, on the one hand, and, on the other, against violators of discipline and solidarity in the ranks of the working class itself. Just because our revolutionary justice has cast aside all the hypocrisy of the old justice it has acquired immense educational importance.

It is necessary, however, that the tribunal shall itself clearly appreciate its own importance, and that it shall see its decision not just from the standpoint of punishing a particular action but also from that of revolutionary class education. Of immense importance in this connection is the actual formulation of the sentence. Yet, as often as not, there appear in the pages of our army newspapers sentences which, though probably quite appropriate to the circumstances of the given case, are quite incomprehensible to anyone who was not present at the hearing of the case and is unaware of all its circumstances.

Let us take two or three examples. The revolutionary military court of the N-th Army sentenced Citizen S, for taking part in a White-Guard revolt, his guilt having been proved, to six months’ imprisonment, the time he spent in preliminary custody to be deducted from this period. The same revolutionary military court sentenced Red Army man K, for repeated desertion, to be kept in prison until the complete liquidation of the Czechoslovak and White Guard revolt in the Urals. No more information is given in the statement issued by the revolutionary military tribunal. There can be no doubt that publication of sentences in this form can play a demoralising rather than a deterrent or educational role. Proven participation in a White-Guard revolt is punished by six months’ imprisonment!

Either this sentence was criminally lenient, or else there were in the given case circumstances that justified the leniency of the sentence. One may suppose that the latter possibility is the more likely. If so, then these exceptional circumstances ought to have been set forth, with all definiteness and precision, in the formulation of the sentence, so as to avoid conveying the impression that someone who takes part in a White-Guard revolt runs no greater risk than six months’ imprisonment.

Even more astonishing is the second sentence. For proved desertion on two occasions the guilty man was sentenced to imprisonment until the end of the White-Guard revolt. Since a deserter’s purpose is to avoid danger, and since danger will continue to threaten so long as the war lasts, putting a deserter m prison until the end of the danger period fully coincides with his purpose in deserting, and constitutes a direct incentive to desertion for all cowards and self-seekers.

Again, we must presume that in the given case there were some quite exceptional circumstances, for, let us repeat, a sentence of unheard-of mildness was imposed for proved and repeated desertion. But if that was so, the actual text of the sentence should have stated, with all precision, the reasons that led the tribunal to impose so lenient a sentence.

It is especially important that the tribunal should introduce into its sentences the idea that the punishment for one and the same offence will be heavier the higher the post, and therefore the responsibility, of the guilty person. In cases of desertion, of voluntary abandonment of a position, of non-fulfilment of a military order, and soon, a commander or a commissar must be punished with incomparably greater severity then a Red Army man, a company commander more severely than a platoon commander, and so on. All these differences and distinctions must be made clear, being precisely and comprehensibly emphasised in the actual text of the sentence.

The same principle applies to Communists. Membership of the Communist Party does not, of course, constitute an official appointment: but it does mean a definite political and moral situation which lays high obligations upon the one who assumes It. The citizen who joins the Communist Party thereby declares himself to be a conscious and active fighter for the cause of the working class. Entry into the Communist Party is a purely voluntary act, and, consequently, every Communist consciously and freely takes upon himself double and treble responsibility for his conduct before the working class. It is clear that a communist who is a deserter or a violator of discipline cannot justify himself by any reference to his ignorance, political blindness and so on. All other circumstances being equal, a Communist who commits a crime must suffer a heavier penalty than a non-Communist; and this fact must always be made quite clear in the court’s sentence.

True, our tribunals, including the military ones, consist of workers and peasants, who, although, as a general rule, they do their work very well and pass sentences which are fully in accordance with the interests of the revolution, are lacking in formal education and therefore embody their sentences in writing in an extremely imperfect, sometimes absolutely unfortunate way. Yet this aspect of the matter, as we have tried to show, is of great importance. It is therefore necessary that, when a sentence is formulated, those who are composing it should have before their eyes not only the accused but also the broad masses of soldiers, workers and peasants. A sentence must possess an agitational character: it must deter some while enhancing confidence and courage in the hearts of others. Only thus will the work of the military tribunal contribute to the interests of the Red Army and of the workers’ revolution generally.

April23, 1919
(Glazovo is on the line between Vyatka (Kirov) and Perm, about half-way.]
En Route, No.35

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Last updated on: 19.12.2006