Leon Trotsky



WE began peace negotiations in the hope of arousing the workmen’s party of Germany and Austria-Hungary as well as of the Entente countries. For this reason we were obliged to delay the negotiations as long as possible to give the European workman time to understand the main fact of the Soviet revolution itself and particularly its peace policy. After the first break in the negotiations Lenin suggested that I go to Brest-Litovsk. In itself the prospect of treating with Baron Kühlmann and General Hoffmann was not attractive, but “in order to delay the proceedings there must be some one to do the delaying,” as Lenin expressed it. In Smolny there was a brief exchange of views on the general character of the negotiations. The question whether we should sign or not was postponed for a time; we could not tell how things would go, nor how they would react in Europe, nor what situation might arise. And naturally we had not given up hope of a rapid revolutionary development.

That we could no longer fight was perfectly clear to me. When I passed through the trenches on my way to Brest-Litovsk the first time, our comrades, in spite of all advances and encouragement, were quite unable to organize any significant demonstration of protest against the enormous demands of Germany; the trenches were almost empty – no one ventured to speak even conditionally of a continuation of the war. Peace, peace at any price! Later, on my return from Brest-Litovsk, I tried to persuade the president of the military section of the All Russian Central Executive Committee to support our delegation by a “patriotic” speech. “Impossible!” he exclaimed, “quite impossible; we cannot return to the trenches; we would not be understood; we would lose all influence.” As to the impossibility of a revolutionary war, there was not the slightest difference of opinion between Vladimir Ilyich and myself.

But there was the other question: Can the Germans still fight? Are they in a position to begin an attack on the revolution that will explain the cessation of the war? How can we find out the state of mind of the German soldiers, how fathom it? What effect has the February revolution and later the October revolution had upon them? The January strike in Germany showed that the break bad begun. But how deep was it? Must we not try to put this alternative before the German workmen and the German army: on the one hand, the workmen’s revolution declaring the war ended; on the other, the Hohenzollern government that orders an attack on this revolution?

“That is naturally very attractive,” Lenin answered. “And certainly such questioning would not be without effect. But it is risky, very risky. Suppose German militarism is strong enough, which is very probable, to begin the offensive against us – what then? We dare not risk it; for the moment our revolution is the most important thing in the world.”

The breaking up of the Constituent Assembly at first seriously harmed our international position. From the beginning the Germans had been afraid we might come to an agreement with the “patriotic” Constituent Assembly and that this might lead to an attempt to continue the war. A rash decision in this direction would have ruined finally the revolution and the country; but that would only have manifested itself later, and have required a new effort on the part of the Germans. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly meant for the Germans our avowed readiness to end the war at any price. Kühlmann’s tone became more brutal at once. What impression would the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly make upon the proletariat of the Entente countries? The answer was not difficult: the Entente press described the Soviet regime as nothing but an agent of the Hohenzollerns. And now the Bolsheviki break up the “democratic” Constituent Assembly in order to make a servile peace with the Hohenzollerns at a time when Belgium and the north of France are occupied by German troops. It was a matter of course that the Entente bourgeoisie would succeed in sowing much discord in the rank and file of workmen. And that would consequently facilitate the military intervention of the Entente against us. As is well known, even in Germany among the Social Democratic Opposition, there were stubborn rumors current that the Bolsheviki were bought by the German government and that what was going on in Brest-Litovsk was merely a comedy with the r6les allotted in advance. This version must be more credited in France and England. It was my opinion that, cost what it might, before the signing of peace we must give the workmen of Europe a clear proof of the deadly enmity between us and governmental Germany. It was these very considerations that on my arrival in Brest-Litovsk suggested the idea of that “pedagogical” demonstration, that was expressed in the form: We shall stop the war but without signing the peace treaty. I conferred with the other members of the delegation, found them in sympathy with the suggestion, and wrote about it to Vladimir Ilyich. His answer was: “If you come here we will talk it over.” Possibly this answer already showed that he did not agree with my proposition; at the moment I do not remember clearly and have not the letter at hand; indeed, I am not sure that I kept it. When I reached Smolny long discussions took place between us.

“That is all very attractive, and could not be better if General Hoffmann were unable to march his troops against us. But there is little hope of that. He will send specially chosen regiments of Bavarian peasants, and what then? You have said yourself that the trenches are empty. And suppose he begins the war again in spite of everything?”

“Then we would be forced to sign the peace treaty, and it would be clear to every one that we had no other way out. By that alone we would strike a decisive blow at the legend that we are in league with the Hohenzollern behind the scenes.”

“Naturally there is much to be said for that but, after all, it is too bold. For the moment our revolution is more important than everything else; we must make it sure, cost what it may.”

To these main difficulties of the question were added exceptional ones within the party itself. In the party, at least in its leading elements, there was a strong disinclination to sign the Brest conditions. The news about the negotiations published in our papers fed and strengthened this feeling. It was most clearly expressed by that Left communistic grouping which advanced the solution of a revolutionary war. This situation naturally disturbed Lenin greatly.

If the Central Committee decides to sign the German terms only under the pressure of a verbal ultimatum,” I said, “we risk a split in the party. Our party needs a disclosure of the actual state of affairs no less than the workmen of Europe. If we break with the Left, the party will make a decided curve to the Right. It is an undeniable fact that all the comrades who were against the October revolution or were for a bloc with the socialist parties would be unconditionally for the Brest-Litovsk peace. And our tasks are not finished with the conclusion of peace. Among the Left Communists are many who played an active rôle in the October period,” etc.

“That is all indisputable,” Vladimir Ilyich answered. “But for the moment the question is the fate of the revolution. We can restore balance in the party. But before everything else we must save the revolution, and we can only save it by signing the peace terms. Better a split than the danger of a military overthrow of the revolution.

The Lefts will cease raging and then – even if it comes to a split, which is not inevitable – return to the party. On the other hand, if the Germans conquer us, not one of us returns. Very well. Let us admit your plan is accepted. We refuse to sign the peace treaty. And the Germans at once attack. What will you do then?”

“We will sign the peace terms under bayonets. Then the picture will be clear to the workmen of the whole world.”

“But you will not support the solution of a revolutionary war?”

“Under no circumstances.”

“With this understanding the experiment is probably not so dangerous. We risk the loss of Esthonia and Letvia. Some Esthonian comrades came to see me recently and told me how splendidly the peasants had begun the socialist structure. It is a great pity if we must sacrifice socialist Esthonia,” Lenin said jokingly, “but for the sake of a good peace it is worth while agreeing to a compromise.”

“But in case of immediate signing of peace would the possibility of a German military intervention in Esthonia and Letvia be out of the question?”

“Let us admit it is possible, but in any case it is only a possibility, while this is almost a certainty.

“In any case, I stand for the immediate signing of peace; it is safer.”

Lenin’s chief fear concerning my plan was that in case of a renewal of the German attack we might have no time to sign the treaty; that is, that German militarism would leave us no time. “This beast springs suddenly,” Vladimir Ilyich often remarked. In the conferences about the peace question Lenin opposed the Left with great decision, and my proposal discreetly and calmly. He concealed his ill humor and seemed reconciled, especially as the party was openly against signing and the intermediate solution would be a bridge to the signing. A conference of the best known Bolsheviki – delegates to the third Congress of Soviets – proved without a doubt that our party, that bad just gone through the fiery furnace of October, needed control of the international situation through action. If we had not had an intermediate formula the majority would have voted for the revolutionary war.

It is perhaps not without interest to remark here that the Left Social Revolutionaries did not at once come out against the Brest-Litovsk peace. At least Spiridonova was at first a decided advocate of the ratification. “The peasant does not want war,” she declared, “and will accept any peace whatever.” “Sign the peace at once,” she said to me at my first return from Brest, “and annul the grain monopoly.” Thereupon the Left Social Revolutionaries supported the intermediate formula of the cessation of war without signing the treaty, but as a stage to revolutionary war – “in any event.”

It is well known how the German delegation reacted to this declaration, that Germany would not answer by renewing military action. With this decision we returned to Moscow.

“Won’t they deceive us?” Lenin asked.

We made an uncertain gesture. It does not seem so.

“Very well,” said Lenin, “if it is so, so much the better. We have kept our face and we are out of the war.”

Two days before the expiration of the truce we received a telegram from General Samoilo, who had remained in Brest, that, according to the declaration of General Hoffmann, the Germans considered themselves at war with us from February 18th at 12 o’clock and had therefore requested him to leave Brest-Litovsk. Vladimir Ilyich received the telegram first. I was with him in his office. We were talking with Karelin and another Left Social Revolutionary. Lenin handed me the telegram in silence. I remember his look which made me feel at once that the telegram contained important and unfavorable news. Lenin hastily finished the conversation with the Social Revolutionary in order to consider the new situation.

“That means they have deceived us and gained five days ... This beast lets nothing escape it. There is nothing for us to do but sign the old conditions if the Germans still agree to them.”

I replied that we must let Hoffmann make an actual attack.

“But that means giving up Dünaburg, losing a lot of artillery, etc.?”

“Naturally, it means new sacrifices. But they are necessary so that the German soldier enters Soviet territory in actual fighting. They are necessary so that the German workman on one hand and the French and English workman on the other may understand.”

“No,” Lenin answered. “Naturally it is not a question of Dünaburg. But there is not an hour to lose. The trial is a failure. Hoffmann will and can fight. To delay is impossible; they have already taken five days from us that I counted on. And this beast springs quickly.”

The Central Committee decided to send a telegram at once that expressed our willingness to sign the Brest-Litovsk treaty. So the necessary telegram was dispatched.

“I believe,” I said in a private conversation with Vladimir Ilyich, “it would be politically opportune if I resign as People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs.”

“Why? We don’t want to introduce these parliamentary methods.”

“But my resignation would give the Germans the impression of a radical change in our policy and strengthen their trust in our actual readiness to sign and keep the treaty.”

“Perhaps,” said Lenin thoughtfully; “that is a weighty political argument.”

I no longer remember at what moment the news of the landing of German troops in Finland and the immediate victory over the Finnish workmen arrived. I only know that I met Vladimir Ilyich in the corridor not far from his office. He was greatly excited. I have never seen him like that either before or since.

“Yes,” he said, “we must fight openly, even if it is to no purpose. For there is no other way out this time.”

That was Lenin’s first reaction to the telegram about the overthrow of the Finnish revolution. But ten or fifteen minutes later when I entered his office he said: “No, we dare not change our policy. Our entering would not save revolutionary Finland, but would certainly ruin us. We shall support the Finnish workmen as best we can, with out, however, departing froni the basis of peace. I do not know if this will save us. But in any case it is the only way in which deliverance is possible.”

And deliverance actually came this way.

The decision not to sign the peace treaty did not arise, as is so often said, from the abstract consideration that an agreement between us and the Imperialists was unthinkable. One has only to look up in Comrade Ovsiannikof’s little book the voting arranged by Lenin on this question, which proved helpful to the highest degree, in order to be convinced that the advocates of the trial formula “neither war nor peace” answered “yes” to the question whether we, as the revolutionary party, were justified, under certain conditions, in making a “disgraceful peace.” We actually said: If there were only twenty-five chances in a hundred that the Hohenzollern would not decide to fight us, or was in no position to do so, we must make the attempt, even with a certain risk, to sign the treaty.

Three years later we ventured – at Lenin’s initiative this time – to test Poland of the bourgeoisie and nobles with the bayonet. We were repulsed. Where is the difference between this and Brest-Litovsk? There is no difference in principle, but there is in the degree of risk.

I remember that Comrade Radek once wrote that the strength of Lenin’s tactical mind was most clearly evident in the time between the Brest-Litovsk peace and the march on Warsaw. Now we all know that this Polish advance was a mistake that has cost us very dear. It not only led to the peace of Riga that cut us off from Germany, but with numerous other events of the same period, it gave a powerful impulse to the consolidation of the bourgeoisie of Europe. The counter-revolutionary significance of the Riga treaty for the fate of Europe can be best understood if you picture the situation in 1923, under the supposition that we had had a common frontier with Germany; everything seems to show that the development of events in Germany would have followed quite a different course. It is undoubtedly true that the revolutionary movement in Poland itself would have turned out more favorably without our military intervention and its failure. As far as I know Lenin himself lays great stress upon the Warsaw mistake. Nevertheless Radek was quite right in his estimate of Lenin’s tactical span. Naturally after we had tested the working masses of Poland without the desired results, after we were repulsed and had to be repulsed, for in the event of Poland remaining quiet, our march on Warsaw was only a partisan affair; after we were obliged to sign the Riga peace treaty – it was not hard to conclude that those who opposed the advance were right, that it would have been better to stand aside and make sure the common boundary with Germany. All this only became clear later. The boldness of Lenin’s thought in the idea of the Warsaw advance is remarkable. The risk was great, but the goal was greater. The chance of the plan’s failing involved no danger for the existence of the Soviet Republic itself, but only a weakening. We can leave it to the future historian to judge whether it was worth while risking the degradation of the terms of the Brest-Litovsk treaty for the sake of a demonstration for the workmen of Europe. But it is quite clear that after this demonstration the peace terms forced upon us had to be signed under compulsion. And here the exactness of Lenin’s position and his powerful urging saved the situation.

“Suppose the Germans attack anyway: Suppose they march on Moscow?” some one asked.

“Then we will withdraw to the east, to the Urals, and declare anew that we are ready to sign the treaty. The Kusnetsky basin is rich in coal. We will form a Ural-Kusnetsky Republic based on the industry of the Ural and the coal of the Kusnetsky basin, on the proletariat of the Ural and the Moscow and Petersburg workmen we can take with us. If need be we can go further east, beyond the Ural mountains. We will go to Kamtchatka but we will stand together. The international situation will change a dozen times, and we will enlarge the borders of the Ural-Kusnetsky Republic again and return to Moscow and Petersburg. But if we now thoughtlessly involve ourselves in a revolutionary war and lose the flower of the workmen and our party, naturally we can never return.”

The Ural-Kusnetsky Republic took up a good deal of space in Lenin’s arguments at this time. Repeatedly he disarmed opponents with the question: “Do you know that we have immense coal fields in the Kusnetsky basin? By combining the Ural metals and the Siberian wheat we have a new basis.” The opponent who did not always know just where the Kusnetsky basin was, and what connection the coal there had with the future of Bolshevism and the revolutionary war, looked astonished or laughed in surprise and took it as half a joke, half a trick on Lenin’s part. In reality Lenin was by no means joking, but – true to himself – had considered the situation in all its issues and the worst practical results. The conception of the Ural-Kusnetsky Republic was organically necessary for him to strengthen his own conviction and that of others that nothing was yet lost and that a strategy of doubt was not in place nor ever could be.

As is well known it never did come to the UralKusnetsky Republic, and it is good that it did not. But nevertheless it can be said that the undeveloped Ural-Kusnetsky Republic saved the RSFSR.

At all events the Brest-Litovsk tactics can only be understood and appraised when you connect them with Lenin’s October tactics. To be opposed to the October revolution and for Brest was really in both cases the expression of one and the same mood of capitulation. The characteristic thing is that after the capitulation of Brest-Litovsk Lenin displayed the same inexhaustible revolutionary energy that had assured victory for the party in October. Just this natural organic connection of the October revolution with Brest, the combination of gigantic energy with bold foresight, of urging without losing the sense of proportion, provides the measure for Lenin’s method and Lenin’s strength.

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Last updated on: 20.1.2007