Trotsky on the Role of Military Commissars

Leon Trotsky, On Military Commissars and Members of Military Councils. April 6, 1918


Central to the performance of the Red Army was the institution of military commissars. Their role in relation to the military commanders, who possessed technical knowledge but lacked ideological reliability, was a continuing problem for the Trotsky’s civilian command, and it would not be resolved finally until commissars were subordinated to military commanders in the Second World War. This decree is one of the clearest explanations of the position issued during the early days of the Civil War.

Original Source: Izvestiia, 6 April 1918.

The military commissar is the direct political agent of Soviet power within the army. His post is of the highest importance. Commissars are appointed from the ranks of exemplary revolutionaries, capable of remaining the embodiments of revolutionary duty at the most critical moments and under the most difficult circumstances.

The person of a commissar is inviolable. Interference with a commissar in the performance of his duties and, all the more, assault on a commissar, is deemed an extremely serious crime against the Soviet state. The military commissar ensures that the army does not become isolated from the Soviet system as a whole and that individual military institutions do not become breeding grounds for conspiracy or weapons that are turned against the workers and peasants. The commissar participates in all the activities of the military commanders and along with them receives reports and dispatches and countersigns orders. The orders of Military Councils are valid only if they are signed not only by the military members (commanders) of the Councils, but by at least one commissar.

All work must be carried out in the presence of the commissar, but the primary command responsibility for specialized military decisions belongs not to the commissar, but to the military specialist who works closely with him.

The commissar is not responsible for the success of purely military operational or battle orders. This is totally the responsibility of the military commander. The commissar’s signature on an operational order indicates that he vouches for the fact that it was dictated by operational and not some other (counterrevolutionary) considerations. If he is dissatisfied with a purely military instruction, the commissar does not countermand it, but merely reports his dissatisfaction to the superior Military Council. A commissar can countermand an operational order only if he has grounds for believing that it was dictated by counterrevolutionary motives.

If an order has been signed by a commissar it has the force of law and must be obeyed at any cost. It is the duty of the commissar to ensure that the order is obeyed to the letter and, in performing this duty, he has all the authority and all the resources of the Soviet State at his disposal. The military commissar who connives at noncompliance with orders is subject to immediate dismissal and prosecution.

The commissars provide a link between the institutions of the Red Army and central and local institutions of the Soviet state and facilitate the latter’s support of the Red Army.

The commissars ensure that all workers in the Red Army, from top to bottom, perform their work conscientiously and energetically, that monetary resourses are expended economically and under the strictest monitoring, and that the military property of the Soviet Republic is scrupulously maintained.

The commissars on the Supreme Military Council are appointed by the Council of People’s Commissars.

Commissars of the okrug [area] or raion [regional] Soviets are appointed through agreement between the Highest Military Councils and the leadership of the Council of Deputies of the given okrug or raion.

An All-Russian Bureau of Military Commissars has been established under the auspices of the Supreme Military Council.

This Bureau coordinates the activity of the Commissars, responds to their requests, develops instructions for them, and, if necessary, convenes congresses of the commissars.

Signed by the People’s Commissar of Military Affairs, Chairman of the Supreme Military Council
L. Trotsky

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