Megan Trudell


The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis

(Part 1)


Against all odds the Russian Revolution fought off counter-revolution and foreign intervention for three years in a bloody civil war. Eighty years after that war’s conclusion it is still a battleground for revolutionary socialists. The conflict remains a favourite target for right wing attacks on the Russian Revolution, and is a major focus of left wing critics who imprint their ideological confusion in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism onto the revolutionary period. The policies associated with War Communism – ending workers’ control of the factories, requisitioning grain from the peasants and the constriction of democracy – are seen as the seedbed of forced industrialisation, collectivisation, the show trials and the gulag. A collection of documents from the civil war is introduced with this argument: “The events of 1918-1922 ... foreshadow all the horrors of the Stalin period”. [1]

In assessing the trajectory of the revolution, however, it is important to separate similarities of form from social and political content. Clearly Stalin’s regime in the 1930s did draw on measures introduced under War Communism in its drive to industrialise the Russian economy in competition with the West. Lenin and Trotsky were driving in a different direction in the hope that certain developments – international revolution most crucially – could have made dispensing with those temporary measures a real possibility. That they did not was no more “inevitable” than the rise of fascism in Germany was an “inevitable” result of the First World War because war economies existed in both.

The tragedy of the civil war is precisely that the impact of the war and isolation on Russian society increasingly reduced the scope of political decisions and choices available. The Bolsheviks’ politics and organisation, and the conviction of the mass of workers and peasants in Russian society in the project they were embarked on, enabled them to continue to fight for the survival of the revolution for an astonishingly long time. But ultimately they could not break out of the cage of material circumstances, and neither could they remain unchanged by life as it really was.



The civil war begins

Marx wrote that men make history “under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”. [2] The establishment of workers’ power in October 1917 took place within the inherited circumstances of profound crisis at every level of Russian society.

In 1913, before the outbreak of the First World War, the average income in Russia was about a fifth lower than that of Britain at the end of the 17th century. The war made things worse. The decline in production that had begun in 1915 accelerated due to a lack of raw materials and the dislocation of transport. [3] In August 1917 the Putilov factory in Petrograd received only 4 percent of the fuel it needed to maintain production and by October had to close most of its workshops. [4] Shortages of supplies among the troops were commonplace as early as April 1917 and escalated sharply, so that by September “the fronts, especially the Northern Front, were down to 10-20 percent of normal supplies of food”, and disease and demoralisation spread.

Forced requisitioning in the areas nearest to the fronts was a common occurrence. This is a point most historians leave out of their accounts, but it is an important one. It indicates that requisitioning during the civil war by the Bolsheviks originated in a practical, rather than an ideological, response to hunger. As Marc Ferro explains, “The Russian economy was collapsing before the October Revolution took place ... The new regime had to rebuild from the ruins”. [5]

The consolidation of the revolution across the country, and the rebuilding of the economy to a sufficient level to generate a rise in living standards for the majority and guarantee soviet democracy was a herculean task. To attempt it in the heat of war, with fragile forces, was next to impossible.

The war was not initiated by the Bolsheviks. The October Revolution had begun the process of depriving the old ruling class of economic power through land decrees entitling peasants to seize the land, the nationalisation of the banks and the beginnings of workers’ control of the factories. The balance of class forces in Russian society had shifted decisively, but the class struggle had not ended – it had become sharper and more polarised. As Morgan Phillips Price, writing for The Manchester Guardian, described the situation, “The democracy has the vast majority on its side but the small body of industrialists and bankers is, with foreign assistance, fighting a stubborn battle for its existence as a class”. [6] Thus the civil war was a class war in which both sides were fighting for their survival – something that vast numbers of workers and peasants, not just Bolshevik Party members, recognised.

Revolution is not a single event but a process. Deepening and extending the revolution became utterly meshed with fighting a war for survival against the remnants of the overthrown class and their supporters. As Christopher Read, author of From Tsar to Soviets, puts it, the civil war was a “complex process in which military and revolutionary development went hand in hand”. [7]

Initally the old ruling class was stunned and weakened by the revolution. It could rely on few forces, mainly tsarist officers and cadets whose morale was battered. It did nonetheless attempt to challenge the fragile forces of the new workers’ state. By the end of 1917 a Cossack revolt led by General Kaledin at Rostov-on-Don became a beacon for counter-revolutionaries and was backed up by the forces of the Volunteer (White) Army. Still forming under generals Alexseev, Kornilov and Denikin, the Volunteer Army had only 3,000-4,000 men, among them the most experienced officers. The Bolsheviks themselves could muster only 6,000-7,000 inexperienced troops with 12 machine guns. Yet, as on so many occasions in the civil war, politics proved decisive. The Cossack troops split because those who had fought in the First World War were reluctant to fight again, and the Red forces were able to take Rostov in February 1918. In despair Kaledin shot himself, and the White forces were forced to flee. In April they were dealt another blow when Kornilov was killed in a Red artillery attack on his headquarters. Denikin assumed command and led a retreat back to the Don region.

Ten days after Kornilov’s death Lenin was able to tell the Moscow Soviet, “It can be said with certainty that, in the main, the civil war has ended ... there is no doubt that on the internal front reaction has been irretrievably smashed”. [8] Yet a year later the Volunteer Army had grown to 100,000 well armed and highly trained troops, and came close to destroying the revolution. The Russian counter-revolution was able to rise from the ashes as a direct result of the intervention into the civil war of the major imperialist powers. As Lenin wrote later, “From the continuous triumphal march of October, November, December on our internal front, against our counter-revolution ... we had to pass to an encounter with real international imperialism ... an extraordinarily difficult and painful situation”. [9]



The “democratic” counter-revolution

The intercession of foreign powers into Russia was initially cloaked in support for a “democratic” alternative to both the Bolsheviks and the old regime. The revolutionary process had driven moderate socialists, the Mensheviks and the Right Socialist Revolutionaries (RSRs), [10] into opposition. They argued that the bourgeois stage of the revolution – the establishment of parliamentary democracy under capitalism – had to be consolidated before the working class could maintain power. They responded to the actuality of workers’ power by calling for the reconvention of the Constituent Assembly.

The Constituent Assembly, which revolutionaries had called for before October, had, in the swift moving political climate, become a focus for opposition to the soviets. After its dissolution in January 1918 the RSR leaders fled to Samara, west of the Urals on the Volga, and attempted to rally enough forces to reconvene the assembly and overthrow the Bolsheviks. Their chance came in May with the rebellion of 30,000 Czechoslovak troops who allied themselves with the RSR leaders, swept the fragile soviets aside, and established a base for a new Russian government calling itself the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly(KOMUCH).

KOMUCH wanted a non-Bolshevik democracy but had a tiny popular base and therefore relied on the Allies for support, in practice casting its lot in with the counter-revolution. It stated, “KOMUCH includes as one of its basic tasks the merciless struggle against Bolshevism by forming armed forces and arming the people themselves ... to carry out these aims KOMUCH will form a central organ of All-Russian government whose duty will be to carry out all executive functions and attract to its side all the classes and peoples of Russia [my emphasis]”. [11]

KOMUCH swiftly made clear that “all the classes” meant the propertied classes. During its four month rule in Samara 4,000 mainly Bolshevik political prisoners were taken; the local (democratically elected) soviets were barred from political life; Bolsheviks were barred from the government and industry and banks were returned to their previous owners.

The weaknesses in KOMUCH quickly became apparent when the Czechoslovak forces withdrew from fighting altogether in October 1918. KOMUCH formed the People’s Army, but only 8,000-10,000 volunteered, forcing them to conscript. The inaccurately named People’s Army had perhaps 30,000 undisciplined troops at its height – despite the fact that KOMUCH was ruling over an area with a population of 12 million. The army “headquarters became a stronghold of rightist and monarchist officers, a Trojan horse of White counter-revolution inside the democratic citadel”. [12]

Another anti-Bolshevik government was established at Omsk in Siberia. More right wing than KOMUCH and mutually hostile to it, it commanded an army of 40,000 which came quickly under the influence of White officers. Under pressure from the Allies, KOMUCH and the Omsk government formed an All-Russian government in September 1918. It established a five member Directory based at Omsk, which was empowered to appoint an All-Russian Provisional Government without democratic check. In just a few months the high ideals of a democratic alternative to the Bolsheviks had led to an undemocratic, unrepresentative rump, increasingly dependent on the White forces and the Allies.

The “democrats” saw to it that Allied troops were looked after: “The Omsk War Industry Committee has taken upon itself the task of equipping all those Allied troops which have already arrived in Siberia”. [13] In August 1918 accommodation was provided for British forces landing at Archangel, and in October the British General Knox arrived in Omsk from Vladivostok where he had been training White Admiral Kolchak’s troops. Kolchak was appointed as the minister of war and on 17 November, almost certainly with Knox’s help, led a coup to depose the Directory.

Thus the members of the “democratic counter-revolution” opened the door for the genuine article and paid with their lives. When a Bolshevik uprising was suppressed a month after Kolchak had taken power 400 were killed. Fifteen political prisoners, all RSRs and members of the Constituent Assembly who had been freed by the revolt, gave themselves up to Kolchak’s men and were taken out and shot without trial. The slogan of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks in the revolution’s first months had been “neither Lenin nor Denikin (or Kolchak)”, but as the trajectory of the Samara and Omsk governments shows, in the class war that raged in Russia there was no middle ground to stand on. The alliance of socialists with the Allies and bourgeoisie aided the right, and gave the Allies and Germany an excuse to intervene in Russia.



Foreign intervention

The standard historians’ view of intervention is that it was a useful piece of propaganda for the Bolsheviks, not a central factor in determining the course of the war. Christopher Read, for example, argues that the support of foreign governments for the Whites “was more helpful to the Bolsheviks, who portrayed the Soviet leadership as leaders of a national liberation struggle against foreign imperialists, than to the Whites, who failed to secure any lasting military advantage from it”. [14] “Foreign intervention was halfhearted and ineffective”, [15] according to the editors of Documents from the Soviet Archives, a view supported by Richard Pipes, who claims, “There was never anything resembling ‘imperialist intervention’ in the sense of a concerted, purposeful drive of the Western powers to crush the Communist regime”. [16]

The facts, however, utterly disprove these protestations. The men, munitions, supplies and money that flowed to the White side prolonged the civil war immeasurably. Without such aid the counter-revolution would have been decisively crushed by early in 1918. Foreign intervention led directly to the loss of millions of lives through fighting, disease and starvation, all exacerbated by economic sanctions, and contributed significantly to the failure of revolutionary governments in Finland, Hungary and the Baltic states.

One historian of the civil war, Evan Mawdsley, argues that the “military operations of the Central Powers from February to May 1918 were the most important foreign intervention in the civil war. Hundreds of thousands of German, Austrian and Turkish troops were involved; 17 Russian provinces (as well as Poland) were occupied”. [17] In the Ukraine the Red Army had captured Kiev from the nationalist, RSR-dominated Rada (council) in February 1918, only to be driven out by the German army which established a puppet government led by the vicious General Skoropadsky: “Once in full occupation of the Ukraine the Germans hastened to turn the wheel of social revolution backwards”. [18]

The regime’s policy of returning land to its previous owners provoked mass peasant resistance, as did widespread requisitioning by German forces. On official figures the Central Powers took 113,421 tons of grain, eggs, butter and sugar from the Ukraine before November 1918 – illustrating that all sides in the civil war requisitioned. As well as occupying the Ukraine, Germany also aided the White Finns, taking Helsinki in April, and unleashed a brutal White terror. [19] Over 70,000 were interned in concentration camps and between 10,000 and 20,000 were murdered: “Membership of a workers’ organisation meant arrest, and any office in one meant death by shooting.” [20] In comparison, the Soviet revolution in Finland had cost under 1,000 lives. [21] Germany also assisted in the formation of Baltic White units, most notably the Northern Army based in Pskov, which would come close to invading Petrograd in 1919. As late as the summer of 1919, counter-revolutionaries were recruited in Germany and sent to the Baltic provinces with full uniform and promises of “all they can get from the Jewish population when they get to Russia”. [22]

Accepting German culpability is more palatable to Mawdsley than admitting the Allied role in Russian affairs: “The ‘14 power’ anti-Bolshevik Allied alliance that was featured in Soviet propaganda was a myth.” [23] This is a quite astonishing statement. Allied intervention at the level of funds, intelligence, arms, training and bodies of armed men on Russian soil was a feature of the civil war from the very beginning. As early as November 1917 General Labvergne, the head of the French Military Mission, and a senior US officer had given official encouragement to General Dukhonin at the army headquarters outside Petrograd. France recognised the independence of the Ukraine under the anti-Bolshevik Rada in December 1917 and loaned the Rada 180 million francs.

There was very little direct engagement with Red forces by foreign troops, mainly due to the continuation of the First World War. The context of world war also conditioned the attitude of the foreign powers to intervention in Russia. They were united against the Bolsheviks but divided amongst themselves. Not only did each power have its own economic and territorial interests, but the potential for internal unrest in most of the countries involved meant national ruling classes were divided.

Britain, the country that made the most serious contribution to the Whites, wanted to protect the Middle East from Russia and feared a united Russia and Germany, especially after the German Revolution in November 1918. Churchill and Lord Curzon were the most vitriolically anti-Bolshevik politicians and wanted a major intervention against the Soviet government, while others, including Lloyd George, vacillated, not least as the temperature of the class struggle rose in Britain in 1919. The latter was a decisive factor – together with unrest in Ireland, India and Egypt – in British withdrawal from Russia in 1919.

British aid included providing the Whites with arms and material, training White officers, providing spies and communications aid, and sending naval contingents to the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland to “defend” Estonia and Latvia and enforce the blockade against the Bolsheviks. In July 1918 the British landed in Archangel in the north and used their strategic positions in the seas to support the anti-Bolshevik forces. The British “decision to intervene, and to exploit the Black Sea route, was taken before Kolchak’s coup; but having taken a decision in the name of democracy and humanity, the government seemed at first happy enough to allow its forces to be used by the proponents of dictatorship and reaction”. [24] At the end of 1918 the British recognised the independence of Azerbaijan and Georgia, both hostile to the Bolsheviks, and sent troops to Baku to protect oil supplies and to prevent oil reaching the Reds.

Intervention by France was guided by a desire to recoup lost investments in Russia as well as to create buffer states against attacks from Germany. In March 1919 the 65,000-70,000 French troops were heavily defeated by the Red Army and Ukrainian guerrillas at Kherson and at Odessa. French soldiers at Sevastopol on the Crimea mutinied. “Not one French soldier who saved his head at Verdun and the fields of the Marne will consent to losing it on the fields of Russia,” said one of their officers. [25] France evacuated its troops from Odessa in April, but intervention did not stop there: Polish leader Pilsudski’s attack on the Ukraine in the spring of 1920 was aided by the French government, who gave him credits and munitions in return for the hoped-for goal of an enlarged Poland to threaten Germany from the east.

The US sent 7,000 troops to Siberia under the pretext of rebuilding the anti-German front, but also in response to the intervention of 70,000 Japanese troops. The Japanese were helped by Semenov and Kalmykov, two Cossack warlords, who “under the protection of Japanese troops were roaming the country like wild animals, killing and robbing the people ... If questions were asked about these brutal murders, the answer was that the people murdered were Bolsheviks”. [26]

Intervention was no myth: “By the close of 1918 the interventionist forces in Russia had reached a total of nearly 300,000 men #8211; French, British, Americans, Italians, Japanese, German Balts, Poles, Greeks, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Estonians and Latvians #8211; in Archangel, Murmansk, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Poland, as well as on the Black Sea, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and at Vladivostok”. [27] Even those who insist it was a myth are clear that foreign aid made a crucial difference to the fortunes of the Whites. Richard Pipes states, “The Whites ... had to rely on weapons captured from the enemy and on deliveries from abroad. Without the latter, the White armies ... would not have been able to carry on.” [28] Read concurs: “It was only towards the end of 1918 and in 1919, when significant foreign intervention, in the form of supplies and troops, began to arrive that the attrition of the White forces came to a halt and they were able to go on the offensive in a major way.” [29]

After the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty in spring 1918, Russia was blockaded – a move justified by the need to prevent supplies reaching Germany. According to conservative historians the continuation of the blockade after the Germans signed the armistice had “only symbolic importance”, [30] and had “little effect” since Russia had little to trade. [31]

There was very little for Russia to export, but that was true before the revolution. Although in 1914 Russia’s exports had outweighed imports, “Russia’s much reduced production ... was absorbed in its entirety by the war effort, leaving nothing available for export. In these conditions, Russian foreign trade by 1916 had dwindled to limited proportions, and was largely made up of supplies sent to Russia by her allies”. [32] The blockade was preventing the influx of aid not to Russia as a whole, but to the Bolshevik side in the class war. The Whites had nothing to trade either, yet supplies poured in to Kolchak and Denikin. Reports from Siberia while it was still under the control of the Directory detail the foreign supplies, including 100,000 train wagons from the US. Trade between the Whites and foreign powers continued despite the blockade. Between October 1918 and October 1919 Britain sent Omsk 97,000 tons of supplies, including 600,000 rifles, 6,871 machine guns and over 200,000 uniforms. [33] According to Pipes, “every round of rifle ammunition fired by [Kolchak’s] troops was of British manufacture”. [34]

Total Allied aid to Kolchak in the first months of 1919 amounted to 1 million rifles, 15,000 machine guns, 800 million rounds of ammunition, and clothing and equipment for half a million men, “roughly equivalent to the Soviet production of munitions for the whole of 1919”. [35] By August 1919 Britain had already spent 47.9 million helping the Whites0 – rising to 100 million by the end of the year, a figure equivalent to approximately 2.5 billion today. The French contribution was only slightly less, while the US allowed “considerable sums” it had granted Kerensky’s government to be diverted to the White cause by the ambassador of the Provisional Government. [36] The imperialist powers may have left the frontline fighting to the Russian Whites, but Czechoslovak, Japanese, British, French, American, Polish, Romanian and Italian troops guarded the Trans-Siberian Railway to ensure supplies from Vladivostok reached Kolchak. A Siberian song at the time of Kolchak’s rule expressed the situation perfectly: “Uniform, British; boot, French; bayonet, Japanese; ruler, Omsk”. [37]

In a country where the productive forces were already devastated, the blockade, far from being symbolic, was a mortal blow. The journalist John Reed wrote, “The conscious Allied policy of blockading Russia against medicines killed untold thousands”. [38] The historian E.H. Carr argues that the blockade was also a central factor in necessitating the continuation of War Communism: “Soviet Russia’s complete economic isolation at this time was a powerful contributory factor to economic experiments which could scarcely have been attempted or persisted in except in a closed system.” [39]

Even once the blockade was lifted in January 1920, following the defeat of foreign intervention in Russia, the Allied countries refused to accept Soviet gold as payment. The “gold blockade” meant vital imports were denied to Russia. Under the tsarist regime 58 percent of industrial plant and 45 of percent of agricultural machinery had been imported. The collapse of industrial production and the production of agricultural machinery – for example, plough production in 1920 was 13 percent of its 1913 figure – desperately needed to be addressed, and the blockade compounded the situation.

In 1921 drought added to the catastrophe and the ensuing famine affected an estimated 33 million people and killed 5 million, principally in the Volga provinces of Kazan, Ufa, Samara and Orenburg, parts of the Southern Ukraine and the Don basin. Production in these areas declined by 85 percent of its pre-revolution figure, which was itself pitiful. In July 1921 Lenin reported to the Third Congress of the Comintern that “the sufferings of the peasants became unbearable”. The situation was so desperate that an official Soviet government journal article in September 1920 argued, “It will be necessary to export what we need ourselves simply in order to buy in exchange what we need even more. For every locomotive, every plough, we shall be obliged literally to use pieces torn out of the body of our national economy”. [40]

The only foreign aid to reach Russia was from the unofficial American Relief Administration but was withdrawn in 1922 by the future president Herbert Hoover, who was “outraged” at “the inhumanity of a government policy of exporting food from starving people in order that through such exports it may secure machinery and raw materials for the economic improvement of the survivors”. [41] Pipes hides away in his notes US historian Arthur Schlesinger’s criticism of Hoover for holding the “fantastic belief” that the US “federal government should not ... feed starving people”. [42] No other country’s ruling class contributed to famine relief.

Christopher Read describes Allied policy in Russia in terms that are all too recognisable today: “Russia was the first test bed for what has become standard Western (that is, initially British and French, later in the century, American) counter-revolutionary tactics based on direct armed intervention where feasible, ample funding of contras if not, and ‘low intensity’ (providing one is not on the receiving end) economic warfare in any case.” [43]

Foreign intervention also played a devastating role in the containment of the revolution within Russia’s borders. Kolchak’s push to the Volga in the spring of 1919 put an end to Red Army support for the new Baltic Soviet states, and Denikin’s push through the Red lines in the summer prevented the Red Army from moving west to link up with Soviet Hungary. Without support from the Red Army “local security forces and foreign intervention crushed the Soviet elements in the Central European revolutions”. [44]

The Bolsheviks understood that the only chance for the Russian Revolution to succeed in its goal of building a socialist society was as one stage in an international revolution. This would protect the workers’ state from foreign intervention and reconcile the peasantry to the rule of the working class, bringing with it the impact of greater productive forces and gains in machinery, techniques and raw materials that could bind them to a workers’ state. Lenin was convinced that “the absolute truth is that without a revolution in Germany we shall perish.”

The possibility for the spread of revolution was very real. The years 1918-1919 were marked by social upheavals across Europe. However, social democratic leaders stepped into the vacuum on each occasion. The subjective weight and strength of revolutionary organisations across Europe in relation to that of social democratic parties was a central factor in the failure of Europe’s revolutions to break through, but had the new workers’ state in Russia not been contained for three years by the impact of intervention it could have aided revolutionary movements elsewhere which lacked its experienced leadership. William Chamberlin suggests that “had there been no intervention, had Allied aid to the Whites stopped after the end of the [First World] war, the Russian civil war would almost certainly have ended much more quickly in a decisive victory of the Soviets. There a triumphant revolutionary Russia would have faced a Europe that was fairly quivering with social unrest and upheaval”. [45]

The combined impact of intervention in all its forms had a far greater bearing on the continuation of the civil war and on the choices the Bolsheviks were forced to take economically, politically and militarily than most historians ascribe to it. Psychologically, backing from the Allies gave the Whites a respectability and national standing that was far removed from their actual support in the country and increased the sense of Red isolation and, as historians are agreed, the Whites were not capable of sustaining themselves without outside aid. The world’s ruling classes flung themselves behind the assorted monarchists, rightists and officers who had been overthrown, and enabled them to launch a counter-revolutionary onslaught. This ultimately ensured that Soviet Russia was unable to receive aid, sealed from revolutionary upheaval elsewhere. The strangulation and isolation of the revolution was the aim, and the eventual outcome, of foreign intervention.

Some histories of the civil war not only underplay the extent of intervention from foreign ruling classes but also tend to treat intervention as entirely separate from the choices and decisions made by the Bolshevik leadership during the war. This contributes to the analysis that the Bolsheviks’ decisions were made primarily as a result of ideological commitment to them, rather than as responses to desperate circumstances. So Richard Pipes can write, “The civil war was not forced on the Communist leaders by the foreign and domestic ‘bourgeoisie’; it lay at the heart of their political programme”. [46] However useful a tactic for giving weight to an argument, such compartmentalisation of factors during the war does not help us to gain any real insight. The point, surely, is to understand the way in which ideological and material factors connected.

Hopefully the preceding section has illustrated the extent of foreign responsibility for the civil war and gone some way to answering Pipes. The impact of intervention on the subsequent measures undertaken by the Bolsheviks cannot, in my view, be underestimated. Without wishing to undertake a “what if?” argument, it is clear that the presence of hostile forces on Russian soil had a decisive part to play in the economic and military policies of the Bolsheviks. To understand how, it is necessary to examine the details of the civil war more closely.




By the summer of 1918 “the obstacles facing the Soviet government seemed insurmountable”. [47] In May, miners defending the fledgling Soviet government at Rostov were defeated as the German army marched in alongside Whites under Colonel Drovodsky and the Don Cossacks. The anti-Bolshevik governments at Omsk and Samara were established, and British troops landed at Archangel, overthrew the soviet and set up a north Russian government. Baku in Azerbaijan was also occupied by the British. In the same month Denikin captured the Kuban territory in the south and the Japanese army landed in Vladivostok. The Bolshevik government, now based in Moscow for safety, was encircled by enemies. Trotsky later wrote that “it seemed as if everything were slipping and crumbling, as if there were nothing to hold to, nothing to lean upon. One wondered if a country so despairing, so economically exhausted, so devastated, had enough sap left in it to support a new regime and preserve its independence”. [48]

In the face of sweeping German advances in early 1918 the pressure on the Soviet government heightened, and the fragile coalition government established with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (LSRs) began to fracture. Desperate to create a breathing space in which to build up an army and consolidate the revolution, Lenin argued for peace with the Central Powers to end Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war: “We are now powerless. German imperialism has gripped us by the throat, and in the West I see no proletarian fists that will deliver us from the claws of German imperialism. Give me an army of a 100,000 men – but it must be a strong, steadfast army that will not tremble at the sight of the foe – and I will not sign the peace treaty”. [49] Ending the war had been a key platform for the Bolsheviks’ support and the army was disintegrating, but signing the treaty isolated the Bolsheviks in government. The LSRs refused to countenance the treaty and, calling instead for a revolutionary war against Germany, left the coalition and embarked on terrorist activity to undermine Bolshevik rule. An uprising in Moscow and a military revolt led by Left SR officer Muraviev were put down, but were serious blows to the Bolsheviks who still had only a skeletal army. Simbirsk and Kazan were captured by KOMUCH forces by August and half the store of the country’s gold reserves were seized.

The Brest-Litovsk treaty stopped the German advance, but German occupation of the Ukraine and swathes of western Russia, as well as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, deprived Soviet Russia of nearly a third of its population, 80 percent of its iron production, 90 percent of coal production and about 50 percent of all industrial plant and equipment. The German army occupied one of the country’s most grain-rich areas, cutting off supplies. In addition, the railway system was in tatters; in January 1918, 48 percent of rolling stock was out of action, seriously affecting the transportation of what food there was from Siberia and the Volga. William Chamberlin writes that the “fight for bread was the fight for the very existence of the Soviet regime”. [50]

The lack of fuel and raw materials produced factory closures and mass unemployment, as high as 80 percent in Petrograd. Rocketing inflation and rationing led to the growth of the black market. Malnutrition and disease were widespread: “The most dreaded epidemic scourges, typhus and cholera, stalked hand in hand with cold and hunger through the dreary and forlorn cities of Soviet Russia.” [51] Many workers fled to the countryside in search of food – between 1914 and 1920 the population of Petrograd fell by 66 percent, that of Moscow by 42 percent and of Kiev by 30 percent. [52] Lenin wrote at the time, “Unavoidable catastrophe is threatening Russia ... The railways will come to a standstill ... unemployment has assumed a mass scale ... We are nearing ruin with increasing speed. The war will not wait and is causing increasing dislocation in every sphere of national life”. [53]

These circumstances forced the Bolsheviks to take decisions far removed from the socialist ideal. The nationalisation of industry and the introduction of one man management replaced the factory committees’ autonomy – a backward but crucial step as competition between factories made a coordinated response to the needs of the army impossible. In addition, capitalists and managers resisted the threats to their property and put up widespread resistance to the new government: “The failure of such relations to evolve led to the withdrawal of managers and owners and exacerbated the collapse of factories, industries and whole economic sectors that, in turn, necessitated complete worker takeover and increasing state involvement as a last resort”. [54] The dislocation of industry had a direct bearing on agrarian policy. The requisitioning of surplus grain from the peasants to feed the troops and the working class was necessary given the collapse of trade and the twin barriers of occupation and blockade. It was also a policy every army on Russian soil was driven to, as frontlines were often miles from supply bases, and transport was severely damaged.

Mawdsley argues the belief that “the economic mistakes of early 1918 led to the civil war ... is certainly more true than saying that this fighting led to the economic mistakes”, [55] but in the context of the threat to the revolution the options were severely limited, conditioned not only by the class priorities of the Bolsheviks but by the resistance of the old order. As Lenin argued in 1921, “War and destruction forced ‘War Communism’ upon us. This policy was not and never could be in accordance with the economic mission of the proletariat. It was merely a provisional measure.” [56] There is no doubt that the policies of War Communism did not promote coherent economic reconstruction in Russia, but as the revolution’s choices were reduced to surviving the war at all costs or being beheaded by reaction those policies ensured the army could continue to fight – the absolute priority was met.

Yet if the Bolsheviks had faced widespread protest and revolt from the working class as a result of their policies they could not have continued. Repression alone could not have provided a social base from which to fight the civil war. The response of workers to severe hardship is instructive – there were protests, but where they occurred in towns workers were more likely to be rioting out of hunger than out of disagreement with Bolshevik ideas, [57] for two interconnected reasons: the vast majority did not want to see the Whites win and restore a system that was nearly universally despised, and the impact of the revolutionary experience had altered workers’ political consciousness fundamentally. As Chamberlin writes, “Revolution is not an automatic reaction to a given amount of suffering. The spirit and character of the government in power, and of the forces in opposition to it, may be of decisive importance.” [58] Ideas are not transformed simply in relation to economic and material factors – the aims and motives of the revolution continued to burn strongly under the conditions of fighting and sacrifice. The Bolsheviks maintained support throughout the civil war period because those millions who had fought on the streets for the revolution, whose consciousness now held the possibility of the construction of a socialist society, would defend that vision and continue to fight for it at least for as long as the choice between revolution and reaction was so starkly drawn.





1. V.P. Butt, A.B. Murphy, N.A. Myshov and G.R. Swain (eds.), The Russian Civil War: Documents from the Soviet Archives (Macmillan, 1996), p.viii.

2. Quoted in A. Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks, 1987), p.99.

3. M. Ferro, October 1917 (Routledge, 1980), p.161.

4. Ibid., p.162.

5. Ibid., p.164.

6. M. Phillips Price, Dispatches from the Russian Revolution (Pluto, 1997), p.83

7. C. Read, From Tsar to Soviets (UCL, 1996), p.191.

8. E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (Allen & Unwin, 1987), p.22.

9. Ibid., p.44.

10. The Socialist Revolutionary Party, with a mainly peasant base, had split into Left and Right in November 1917, with the Left joining a coalition government with the Bolsheviks.

11. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.8.

12. O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy (Pimlico, 1996), p.582.

13. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.33.

14. M. von Hagen, The Soldier in the Proletarian Dictatorship (Cornell University, 1990), p.125.

15. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.vii.

16. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.63.

17. E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.43.

18. W. Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, vol.1 (Princeton, 1987), pp.409-410.

19. Ibid., p.411.

20. Quoted in V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (Bookmarks, 1992), p.187.

21. Ibid., p.189.

22. M. Phillips Price, Dispatches from the Weimar Republic (Pluto, 1999), p.47.

23. E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.283.

24. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.43.

25. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.74.

26. Quoted ibid., p.46.

27. J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World (Paladin, 1970), p.403.

28. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.12.

29. C. Read, op. cit., p.184.

30. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.74.

31. E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.283.

32. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, vol.2 (Pelican, 1971), p.130.

33. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.79.

34. Ibid., p.79.

35. O. Figes, op. cit., p.652.

36. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.170.

37. Ibid., p.162.

38. J. Reed, Shaking the World: Revolutionary Journalism (Bookmarks, 1998), p.246.

39. E.H. Carr, op. cit., p.245.

40. E.H. Carr, op. cit., p.246.

41. Quoted in Pipes, op. cit., p.419.

42. Noted ibid., p.419.

43. C. Read, p.292.

44. J. Jacobson, When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics (University of California, 1994), p.13.

45. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.171.

46. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.6.

47. C. Read, op. cit., p.193.

48. L. Trotsky, My Life (Penguin, 1986), p.411.

49. Quoted in E. Wollenberg, The Red Army (New Park, 1978), p.12.

50. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.1, p.425.

51. Ibid., p.106.

52. M. Haynes, Social History and the Russian Revolution, in Essays on Historical Materialism (Bookmarks, 1998), p.69.

53. M. Desai (ed.), Lenin’s Economic Writings (Lawrence & Wishart, 1989), p.177-178.

54. C. Read, op. cit., p.239.

55. E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.75.

56. Quoted in E. Wollenberg, op. cit., p.12.

57. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.1, p.420.

58. Ibid.



Last updated on 17.4.2001