Why did the Soviet military retain the traditional Officer/Enlisted class binary rather than instituting some other hierarchichal structure?
November 2, 2012 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Russian History: Why did the Soviet military retain the traditional (western) Officer/Enlisted class binary rather than instituting some other hierarchichal structure? How did they ideologically justify maintaining two distinct and separate classes, one subordinate to the other, in an army putatively fighting for a classless society?

[ Asked this yesterday over at /r/AskHistorians. A few interesting insights in that thread, but no real answers. Good discussion of early attempts — and early breakdowns — in "battlefield democracy" during the revolution, but little about the question as asked. ]

Not asking why the Soviet military had ranks or how they justified having a hierarchical structure — it's very clear to me why a military would need these things — I'm asking why they perpetuated the two-class Officer/Enlisted system, which seems like it would be abhorrent to Marxist thought inasmuch as it retains and so closely mirrors unequal class relationships in capitalist society.
  1. Did the Red or Soviet Armies discuss the need for and/or attempt to implement some single-class (non-Officer/Enlisted) command structure?
  2. Why was it not implemented? Or if implemented: why/how did it not work?
  3. How did the Soviet scholars / mouthpieces / academics / apparatchik justify (internally, and to outsiders) the perpetuation of this binary? According to them, why was this needed? When was this two-class binary supposed to go away? Just... "sometime during the process of achieving communism"?
Many thanks for your time and for your expertise.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like the top answer in the reddit thread answered your question.
posted by empath at 8:53 AM on November 2, 2012

Response by poster:
> It seems like the top answer in the reddit thread answered your question.
The top answer in the reddit thread is a brief summary of the rise and fall of soldiers' councils during the Russian revolution. While interesting and insightful it really only tangentially wanders in the neighborhood of one small part of the question. I'm confused as to how you think it "answers" anything that was asked.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 9:14 AM on November 2, 2012

Most of the military was made up of conscripts serving for relatively short periods. The officer corps were the military professionals (there were very few professional NCOs, most were also conscripts). Whether or not they used the nomenclature of the traditional class-based officer/enlisted system, a split between those serving an obligatory 2 or 3-year stint and those who spend all or most of their working lives in the military (perhaps after studying at a military academy) seems inevitable.
posted by Area Man at 9:23 AM on November 2, 2012

OP, your hostility towards empath is misplaced. He is largely correct. It answers your first two points completely:

1. Yes, "soldiers' councils".
2. It didn't work because it paralyzed the entire military machine and completely eliminated discipline.
3. This is the only part of your question not completely answered by the top answer. I could speculate but I have no real knowledge so I'll leave it at that.
posted by kavasa at 9:28 AM on November 2, 2012

The early Soviet Union did struggle to resolve Marxist ideology with the need for its institutions (civilian and political as much as military) to have a technocratic class, but they had less freedom when it came to the Red Army. An army lawful at international law consists at its essence of uniformed enlisted soldiers under the discipline of NCOs and command of commissioned officers. It's

The Red Army (and other Communist armies, for example China) did experiment with doing away with some of the trappings of officer (or general officer) status, including substituting ranks for functional titles, but ultimately reverted.

Israel is a very good case study of how a state has tried to avoid having the officer corps reproduce class hierarchies (or to have a different view of officer accession, at least). Excluding certain technical specialists, everyone enters as enlisted, and officer candidates are chosen from high-performing young enlisted men.
posted by MattD at 9:56 AM on November 2, 2012

Response by poster:
> OP, your hostility towards empath is misplaced.
If I projected any hostility I apologize for that; nothing even close to hostility was intended.

The reddit answer addresses those numbered questions in relation to one relatively small chapter in the early Red Army, and then only in an ephemeral "just-so story" manner. It does nothing to answer why the Soviet military retained Officer/Enlisted, or how they justified it -- unless your contention is that we can assume that they retained it because of some reaction to one small sorta-related detour taken by their antecedent and disconnected parent body.

It illustrates why Soldiers' Councils or democratic war-waging might've been deemed unsuitable, and does not speak at all to the Officer/Enlisted binary.

[All presented so as to clarify what might have been a muddled question on my part, and to promote harmony by stating my non-hostility towards empath's comment. I have no intention to thread-sit, nor will I.]
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 10:08 AM on November 2, 2012

IIRC post-Revolutionary Iran originally had an officerless military. The Iran/Iraq war scuppered that, when the lack of discipline nearly lost them the war in the early stages.

(Not sure how to google for it, but I'm sure that my few attempts have been logged by the CIA.)

Anyway, the reason why I mention the Iran thing is that, I think, the Red Army was established by Trotsky at a time when the Bolsheviks were very close to being defeated in the White Russian led post-revolution civil war. From what I've read about it, and I'm by no means a scholar, the Red Army was always seen as a necessary evil by the Soviet leadership, rather than an exemplar of Soviet progressiveness. Desperate times often call for desperate measures, and once such a lesson is learned, it's not easily forgotten.
posted by veedubya at 12:16 PM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Time waits for no man. Or army.

The officer/enlisted structure is done because it takes a long time to go from private to general if you have to go through all of the ranks between them (and with a military large enough for the Soviet Union, that is a lot of ranks). If you don't split people off onto the "management track" at some point, even your company commanders will be too old to hang with the young kids -- in the U.S. system, that company commander is typically someone between 26 and 32, but it's at least six functional ranks above a junior-enlisted soldier (18-22), no matter how much you pare out the senior NCO roles that you could theoretically do without. If you give a soldier enough time to get good at each rank, you're talking about 40-year-old company commanders, and there is an inevitable loss of sheer physical ability.

Now think of all your technical experts and staff officers too. They get split out as well for just the same reasons (viz. warrant officers in the U.S. Army). So you end up with 30-year-old professional NCOs who can spend their time getting really good at leading a platoon of 30 -- and, not incidentally, good at teaching a 22-year-old lieutenant how to do it as well, which lets that 22-year-old lieutenant learn how to be a 26-year-old company commander.

It's all about balancing how you'd like to do it against what really works, and so far, no one has come up with a viable large-scale organization that can do military things without at least some form of that officer-enlisted, manager-worker, leader-soldier divide.
posted by Etrigan at 12:36 PM on November 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

just a reflection. In a similar period of Irish history the rebels had to make do with the organs of state established by the British. In fact our legal system, courts, police service, prisons and many many laws are relatively unchanged from the pre-Independance period with a few name-changes that is!

. (I do understand we're talking about radically different politics but just observing practicalities.)

Most movements which fight against a state structure have theoretical ideas about what they'd like to see happen afterwards. When/If these don't work perfectly then the default is nearly always to go back to what worked. As they faced into war I'm not surprised that initially they operated the strucures that gave results. It's a very interesting question, you've made me wonder about the medical structures now..... off I go down the google rabbithole
posted by Wilder at 12:39 PM on November 2, 2012

Best answer: Being a physician I make no claims to historical expertise but I am a fan of military history. I think your question is really interesting, although you perhaps conflate 2 disparate questions and overlook a vital third category, the non-commissioned officers (NCOs - sergeants/petty officers) without whom no army can function. Their vital role has been recognised since Roman times (viz. Legionary/Enlisted Man, Optio/Corporal, Centurion/Sergeant-Field Officer and Legate/General). But, as you say, there must be a firm hierarchical structure in every military organisation - the question is whether this has to be the Western pattern of enlisted men/NCOs/officers or could take some other form. The fact that Eastern nations (e.g. Indian/Vietnamese/Chinese) have ended up with essentially comparable structures suggests to me that it has proven historical worth. And then your question is why (or whether) the Soviet military in particular decided to stick with the traditional Western pattern in selecting/recruiting and promoting its officer class at one (or perhaps several) defined moments in time.

No army arises de novo - there is always a predecessor organisation, and therefore the question is always whether to trust the professed loyalty of its survivors and incorporate them into the new model army, or not (or possibly to set the trigger for elimination rather low for legacy soldiers). Only after that can you give thought to the best way of filling the remainder of the complement, and to future means of raising sufficient numbers, and sufficiently talented recruits. Therefore the Soviets had to decide whether to accept Tsarist soldiers into the Red Army, and into what ranks. I think this generally worked out so that Tsarist survivors were forced into foot solider ranks and used as cannon fodder. After the end of the Civil War (1922), the Red Army was scaled down massively and did not see re-expansion for a decade. During the mid-1930s Stalin became increasingly concerned about the potential political influence of the Armed Forces commanders and decided institute a massive purge of the officer class. The purge removed 3 of 5 marshals, 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. Many of these were executed, although 30% were allowed back later diminished in rank. This clearly created a vacuum that could be filled with "politically reliable" junior officers. These in turn had to be replaced in the lower levels, creating a "promotional elevator" - but also embedding caution, and a reluctance to act independently or promote new ideas, in the officer class.

An obvious prototype can be found in the French Revolutionary Armies where the vast majority of the officer class deserted after the fall of the monarchy and the height of the Terror (1793-94), and had to be replaced. Also, Director Carnot pioneered the "levee en masse" (i.e. General Conscription) which had not previously been a feature of conventional warfare in Europe. The revolutionary government realised that there was a mortal military threat to the survival of the revolution - both from inside (royalists and anti-revolutionaries, especially in the Vendee) and outside (the other European monarchies), and thus the existing armed forces had to be reorganised as a matter of extreme urgency, and expanded by new recruits on a massive scale. Initially this was done by allowing the units to elect their own officers and NCOs (about 90% of the officers and perhaps half of the NCOs having fled). Afterwards, promotion occurred by a mixture of obvious competence and political cronyism. This worked surprisingly well and accounted for the extremely rapid rise of some famous individuals (such as many of Napoleon's 18 Marshals). During the ensuing early war years, the Committee of General Defence and its successor, the Committee of Public Safety, had commissars attached to every major military unit, and unsuccessful or underperforming unit commanders tended to have a date with "Madame Guillotine" rather quickly (the attrition rate was of the order of 75% at general/flag ranks). Again, this indirectly led to the accelerated rise of talented juniors at a time when military technology and doctrine was rapidly developing. Napoleon, as First Consul/Emperor, played his Marshals off against each other in order to keep them in check, rather than having them killed (that would have lost him vital public support and endangered his regime).

There are many parallels between the revolutionary French and Soviet military experiences - both saw the wholesale flight of officer and NCO classes, both were endangered by internal (the White Armies) and external (e.g. the Anglo-French interventions) threats, and yet survived. But there are also important differences: The proportion of citizens educated beyond being able to read and write was probably higher in late-18th century France than in early 20th-century Russia; the experience of 2 decades of national war against Britain, Austria and Russia melted the disparate French regions together into a coherent whole that tolerated even Napoleon's extortionate taxes and conscriptions while Russia had two decades of peace which first Lenin and then Stalin used to cement their political omnipotence, exiling and/or killing all opposition. Thus the stifling effect of Stalin's peacetime purges was very detrimental to army competence, whereas the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars made the French armies the most efficient in Europe.

To come back to your original question - I think modern (that is, post-Napoleonic) warfare is sufficiently complicated to require the binary distinction between enlisted (i.e. conscripted, lightly trained and disposable) men and specialists (more highly trained and in it for the duration). The real question is how to select/recruit to the latter class. Again, while access was often privileged (i.e. restricted to aristocrats) even after Napoleonic times, members nonetheless were expected to attain and retain high professional competence - although given the distractions of court appointments and wealth this did not always happen. But you could say that considerations of political survival and career aspirations diverted attentions in a comparable manner during Bolshevik times.

So in the end, your question is answered thus: During the Revolution and Civil War times, the Red Army officer class evolved through a form of natural selection (i.e. survival of the fittest), much as happened during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars almost 2 centuries earlier. Afterwards, unlike in France, peace supervened and politics trumped mere military competence: the NKVD was all-powerful in the armed forces. Selection to officer rank, and for promotion, was primarily by political reliability and mavericks were not tolerated (Zhukov actually expected to be executed when called to Moscow in 1938, rather than receive an army command on the Manchurian border). This was very different from Germany, where the brilliance of von Manstein, Guderian and Rommel was recognised even despite limited political reliability.

This may be a partial answer, but I hope it helps.
posted by kairab at 1:03 PM on November 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: > "3. How did the Soviet scholars / mouthpieces / academics / apparatchik justify (internally, and to outsiders) the perpetuation of this binary? According to them, why was this needed?"

Your question interested me, and I found this 1941 article by a Trotskyist that gives some insight. In the early years of the Red Army, officers were mostly carryovers from the Czar's army. So, not only did the early Communists have an officer/enlisted system, they actually drew from the old regime for their officers. Suspected of disloyalty, these "military specialists" were surrounded by Party hacks, who could exercise direct control over them.

By way of justification, the article quotes Lenin saying:
When Comrade Trotsky recently informed me that in our military department the officers are numbered in tens of thousands, I gained a concrete conception of what constitutes the secret of making proper use of our enemy ... of how to build communism out of the bricks that the capitalists had gathered to use against us.
And Trotsky saying:
“Yes, we are utilizing military specialists. For, after all, the tasks of Soviet democracy do not at all consist of rejecting all technical forces which can be profitably used for the success of our historic work, once they have been politically subordinated to the existing regime. After all, in relation to the army, too, the whole power will remain entirely in the hands of the Soviets, who shall appoint in all military organs and military sections reliable political commissars to exercise general control. The importance of these commissars must be raised to enormous heights; their powers will be unlimited. Military specialists will direct the technical side of the work, purely military questions, operative activities, military actions, whereas the political side of forming, training and educating the sections must be wholly subordinated to the plenipotentiary representatives of the Soviet regime in the person of its commissars. There is not and there cannot be any other way out at the present time. We must remember that the struggle requires technical knowledge in addition to the enthusiasm latent in the people.”
Note that the Trotskyist author of that article criticizes Stalin for "restoration of a privileged officers’ caste." Which, from a Trotskyist worldview, Trotsky did not do. Except, he kind of did. Debates among Marxists can be hard for non-Marxists to follow.
posted by hyperbovine at 2:19 PM on November 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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