Megan Trudell


The Russian civil war: a Marxist analysis

(Part 2)


The Red Army

The priorities of the Soviet state were bound up with those of its army for the duration of the civil war. The shape of the Red Army was dictated in large part by the contradiction in which the revolution was caught – the necessity of fighting against a modern, well-equipped enemy entailed the construction of a serious fighting force, yet socialist ideals had to be ingrained in the men and women who joined the army. The history of the army, its formation, growth and nature exemplify the continual battle to spread the revolution and fight for socialism in an embattled and crisis-ridden society.

Some historians have identified a continuity in the militarism of Soviet society that ran from the civil war through to the subsequent Stalinist regime. Mark von Hagen, for example, argues that the “discourse of the show trials of the 1930s is one example of the fundamental reorientation of political culture that had been occurring at least since the mid-1920s, and arguably since 1917” [my emphasis]. [59] It is true that the massive size and importance of the army distorted the ideals of the revolution and that many of the Red Army soldiers were to become key elements in the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, there is no seamless connection between the army built to defend the revolution and that which fought the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 or invaded Hungary in 1956. Leon Trotsky, who, as Commissar for War, was put in charge of creating an armed force that could defend the revolution, argued that “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature”, [60] and even a brief examination of the army shows the extent to which it reflects the priorities of the state. The army alone did not dictate the trajectory of the Soviet state; rather, the fate of the army was interlaced with the strangulation of the Russian Revolution.

The First World War had left an estimated 7 million Russians dead, wounded or imprisoned out of 16 million mobilised – 40 percent of the male population between the ages of 15 and 49. The Bolsheviks quickly realised that the old army could not be preserved and rebuilt in the interests of the new state, and encouraged soldiers to lay down their arms and go home. Even before the October Revolution the tsarist army had been disintegrating. After the revolution it melted away. As Trotsky described in his military writings, “The revolution grew directly out of the war, and one of its most important slogans was for the ending of the war ... yet the revolution itself gave rise to new dangers of war, which kept increasing”. [61] But the army did not want to fight: “It had carried out a social revolution within itself, casting aside the commanders from the landlord and bourgeois classes and establishing organs of revolutionary self-government ... [measures] necessary and correct from the standpoint of breaking up the old army. But a new army capable of fighting could certainly not grow out of them.” [62]

The earliest organised defence of the revolution was a volunteer army made up of the workers’ militia, the Red Guards, which numbered around 40,000 in October 1917 – 3,000-4,000 of them under arms – and about 100,000 volunteers. The only significant force was the 35,000 strong Latvian Rifle Brigade. This was not a regular army; the Red Guards served in rotation and elected their commanders. In the surviving army units the soldiers’ committees lived on. It is incredible, and testimony to the weight of revolutionary hopes among the soldiers, that they could be persuaded to fight at all after the murderous years on the Eastern Front. But these combined forces were inadequate in the face of the organised might of the Germans or Czechoslovaks. In February 1918 the Red Guards and remaining units of the old army were swept aside by the Germans at Narva, making it increasingly obvious that a more centralised and disciplined force would be necessary if the revolution was to survive. It was a contradictory task; to reinstitute discipline and build the army from above at a time when sections of the old army were still moving away from all those elements of its past life. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky’s strategy – the construction of a regular standing army, the recruitment of officers from the tsarist army as “military specialists”, the dispersal of the soldiers’ committees and the absorption of the Red Guards into the Red Army – provoked anger and distrust among many. The idea of a centralised army went against the grain of a revolutionary movement, and there was intense hostility from the rank and file towards the old officers. The use of “military specialists” was obviously problematic, but efforts were made to avoid unpopular appointments, as Ilyin-Zhenevsky, a Bolshevik in the Petrograd Military Commissariat at the time, describes: “We compiled a list of all the former officers who wished to serve in the Red Army and published this ... During a period of ten days every citizen ... had the right to object to the proposed appointment of any of these former officers”. [63]

The necessity for such an army was a step away from the socialist ideal of armed workers as a defence force, but the army did not revert to the nature of its tsarist predecessor. The army had to be not simply a military machine but a political force. Organised on a class basis, it provoked a “frenzied howl of indignation from the bourgeois press”, [64] which denounced the disorganisation and chaotic nature of the early army. Yet one former tsarist general contrasted the new army with the old army as it had disintegrated: “Outwardly, the two things may seem identical – untidy dress, lack of respect for rank, careless performance of military duties – but that was the disorderliness of an order that had broken down, whereas this is the disorderliness of a structure that has not yet been put together. There one smelt decay, one tasted death: here we have the chaos of a new, clumsy process of construction and of uncompleted, not yet finally established forms.” [65]

Careful to preserve the revolutionary character of the army and to keep a tight grip on the military apparatus, each army commander was matched by political commissars drawn from socialist and anarchist organisations. Every army – there were 16 at the height of the war – had a Revolutionary Military Council (political department) usually consisting of at least two commissars who worked alongside the military commander, countersigning every order. The political commissar was “the direct representative of the soviet power in the army”. [66]

The Red Army faced a powerful enemy. In the course of the summer of 1918, while the Czechoslovaks and KOMUCH were sweeping through Siberia, the White Volunteer Army was building its strength to 35,000-40,000 conscripted men, 86 field guns and 3 million roubles stolen from the Kuban peasants. By August the Whites had taken Siberia, the middle Volga and a large part of the Urals, and the workers’ state faced a force stronger, better trained and better equipped than itself. As Chamberlin writes, “The clash with the Czechoslovaks and the upsurge of Russian counter-revolution which accompanied it placed the Bolshevik leaders before a grim alternative: to create without too much delay an army that would fight and obey orders instead of debating them, or to go down in a welter of sanguinary defeat and fierce revenge on the part of the classes which they had driven from property and power”. [67]

With full scale civil war now upon them the Bolsheviks had no choice but to mobilise wider numbers. Conscription began in working class areas and the areas most at threat. Almost immediately it was clear that successful mobilisation went hand in hand with ensuring the cities had food supplies. Protests at the call-up were overwhelmingly linked to hunger – it was a military as well as a political imperative to ensure the army and the cities were fed.

Hunger notwithstanding, the majority of workers in Moscow and Petrograd responded. “At the tables where the conscripts were registered long queues soon formed. But there was no uproar, no commotion. We felt that the workers were conscious of the importance of the duty they were performing,” records Ilyin-Zhenevsky. [68] The army grew from 331,000 in August 1918 to between 600,000 and 800,000. The actual numbers of those fighting in the major battles of the civil war were small by the standards of the First World War. Either side fought with at the most 100,000-150,000 in any one battle, the Whites numbering just 600,000 distributed over four fronts at their height in the summer of 1919. But with better equipment and trained leadership they could defeat the Reds if the latter had only equal numbers. And from virtually nothing, Ilyin-Zhenevsky testifies, “We built, imperceptibly, stone upon stone, a new armed force for our republic. Just as a weakened and wounded animal puts on fresh fur as it recovers, so we covered ourselves with bayonets and came to look increasingly formidable to our opponents. The blood began to flow faster through our veins”. [69]

The military situation was seriously exacerbated by the LSR uprising in Moscow and Muraviev’s mutiny. Significant numbers of LSRs were in high positions in the army, so the July events led to a wide call-up of members of the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks were called from March 1919) to strengthen the political composition of the army. The CP built itself organically into the army. By October 1919 there were 180,000 CP members in the army, rising to 278,000 in August 1920. Large numbers of workers who joined the party in the course of the war joined the army: “According to official figures for Moscow workers some 70 percent of 20-24 year olds, 55 percent in the 25-29 age group and 35 percent of 30-35 year olds joined the Red Army.” [70] They were the political backbone of the army: their role as organisers of the army and of local revolts in White held areas was absolutely crucial – the revolutionaries made up the nervous system of the army.

The political departments were central in raising the political and cultural consciousness of the army. Half a million soldiers joined the party during the war, and the army was fighting a battle to make revolutionaries out of as many as possible. To this end, despite strained resources, the political departments poured out pamphlets, newspapers, posters and leaflets, and set up reading courses and mobile libraries to combat illiteracy so the soldiers could read reports from the other fronts and take active part in the debates arising in the new state. By the spring of 1919 reading and writing were taught daily. By the end of 1920 there were 3,000 Red Army schools, 60 amateur theatres, and libraries with reading rooms in every soldiers’ club. The commitment to political education in the army is summed up in the first emblem of the army: the hammer and sickle with a rifle and a book. As Trotsky wrote in his autobiography, “For us, the tasks of education in socialism were closely integrated with those of fighting. Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever.” [71]

John Reed attested to the atmosphere in the schools:

One of these old professors gave an address on “The Art of War” in which he glorified militarism ... Podvoisky, representative of the Communist Party and of the Commissariat of War, immediately sprang to his feet. “Comrade students!” he cried. “I object to the spirit of the last speech. True, it is necessary to learn the art of war, but only in order that war may disappear forever. The Red Army is an army of peace. Our badge, our red star with the plough and hammer, shows what is our purpose – construction, not destruction. We do not make professional soldiers – we do not want them in our Red Army. So soon as we have crushed the counter-revolution – so soon as international revolution has put an end forever to imperialism, then shall we throw away our guns and swords, then shall frontiers be abolished, and we shall forget the art of war”. [72]

Building an army in a country already devastated by war was not an easy task. Desertion was a chronic problem for all the forces in the civil war. In the Red Army it is a factor that many historians cite to illustrate the tenuous nature of loyalty to the Soviet government. Many did desert – 1,761,105 in 1919, the year with the highest figures – but numbers tell us nothing about motivations for desertion. Desertion figures include those who did not respond to the call-up. The Red Army specialist on desertion, Olikov, cites this figure at 75 percent for 1919, with 18-20 percent deserting on the way to the front, and only 5-7 percent deserting from combat units. These figures can be compared to the sign-up rate for KOMUCH in 1918 (30,000 from a population of 12 million) and the fact that the White armies were also dogged by lack of reinforcements.

Physical conditions, which were awful, were the main cause of desertion, although in some cases soldiers deserted to the front, where the food and supplies were better! Von Hagen points to a 1918 study showing that large numbers were deserting “not because they were implacable enemies of the revolution, but simply because they were not receiving their rations. Many of these soldiers would return, after a few days absence, with a supply of bread.” [73]

And by 1919 when the majority in the army were peasants, there were seasonal desertions – soldiers would fight in the winter and harvest in the summer, especially if the front was close to home. This is a feature which is used to point to opposition among the peasantry to the Bolsheviks, but which could equally demonstrate a high level of commitment among soldiers. The predicament of the peasantry was addressed by the Bolsheviks through subsidies and tax exemptions for those who were unable to make the harvest. Such measures helped to break the mass desertions and the figure never again reached the same heights.

Although desertion was treated as a very serious crime, the “draconian” discipline of the Bolsheviks was not as ruthless as we are led to believe. In the second half of 1919 – when the Soviet government faced its most serious threat – 612 deserters were executed out of 1,426,729. That represents one execution for every 2,331 deserters. Compare this to the figures for the British army during the First World War, where 278 executions took place out of 2,094 soldiers charged with desertion, quitting their posts or absence. Although the overall figure is lower, the proportion is higher – one in seven deserters were executed. The British army also confined its executions almost exclusively to the infantry – only three officers were executed for anything – while in the Red Army commissars and commanders were held responsible if their soldiers deserted or retreated. In the main desertion was punished with fines, the confiscation of property and work in the rear units. The vast majority of Russian deserters also returned to the army voluntarily when promised immunity from punishment. [74]

As a mass phenomenon, desertion was met with material aid to soldiers and their families, an expansion of political education and the promotion of workers and peasants to redress the balance within the army – so that by the end of the civil war only 34 percent of commanders were military specialists, and over 65,000 workers, peasants and Communists had taken their places. The regiments and brigades with the highest number of party members were almost uniformly those in which morale was highest. One report from the 2nd Brigade on the Southern Front in summer 1919 states that “conscripts are extremely unreliable and their morale is bad. There are deserters.” The proposed solution was not repression:’It is essential that a large number of political workers shall be sent to be appointed as political commissars to carry out party work”. [75]

The attitude of the Bolsheviks towards desertion was, like every aspect of the army, integrated into an understanding of its social roots. Trotsky argued that every regiment and unit of the army was made up of a minority of committed and self sacrificing men, a minority of demoralised and hostile soldiers, and “between these two minorities is a large middle group, the undecided, the vacillating. And when the better elements have been lost in fighting or shoved aside, and the skulkers and enemies get the upper hand, the unit goes to pieces. In such cases the large middle group do not know whom to follow and, in the moment of danger, succumb to panic”. [76] Repression against this vast majority would only drive a wedge between the revolution and its soldiers. The Red Army response – to provide new leaders and revolutionary education – served the dual purpose of raising morale and developing revolutionary consciousness among greater numbers.

This approach was not matched in either the People’s Army or among the White armies. Under KOMUCH, wholesale desertions were met with repression: “Peasant leaders were publicly flogged and hanged, hostages were taken to force the deserters out of hiding, and whole villages were burned to the ground when soldiers failed to give themselves up”. [77] Denikin’s authorities in Rostov were “continually publishing lists of deserting Cossacks, along with the number of lashes which were to be inflicted on them”. [78] Deserters often formed partisan bands to fight the White regime: “So bitter was the antagonism aroused by many features of Denikin’s policy and by many acts of his local administrators that efforts to carry out mobilisations in the Ukraine were more apt to produce rebellions and new ‘internal fronts’ than reliable recruits.” [79]

Although much is made of mass peasant desertions and the relative weakness of Communist roots in the peasantry, it is clear, as Read admits, that the peasantry:

In the final analysis, preferred the arbitrary and oppressive Soviet institutions to the return of the Whites ... Despite difficulties they did supply recruits. Seventy seven percent of the 4 million strong Red Army was made up of peasant conscripts in 1920. They did give large quantities of grain to supply the needs of the army and a proportion of what the city needed, although they received next to nothing in exchange. Even more significantly, there was nowhere in the entire empire where significant numbers of peasants supported the Whites. [80]



1919 – the greatest danger

The first point at which the new army decisively checked the White forces was at Sviazhsk, a small town near Kazan on the Eastern Front, which was held by Czechoslovak troops in August 1918. When Trotsky arrived the scene that greeted him was one of despair and disorder among the troops. As he wrote later, “The earth itself was seized by panic ... Everything was breaking in pieces; there was no longer any firm point. The situation seemed hopeless.” [81] Within a few weeks Trotsky had transformed an incoherent collection of frightened and demoralised men into a serious fighting force – the backbone of the Fifth Army. Historians often view this achievement as resting purely on repression, but repression was not the deciding factor. As Trotsky wrote, “Armies are not built on fear. The tsar’s army fell apart not because of any lack of reprisals ... The strongest cement in the new army was the ideas of the October Revolution.” [82] And the cement was provided on Trotsky’s train – two engines carrying a printing press, telegraph and radio stations, its own generator, library and garage – in which he lived virtually constantly for two and a half years, travelling from front to front providing ceaseless propaganda, argument and pressure on the troops.

Trotsky’s efforts bore fruit when the Fifth Army recaptured Kazan in September 1918. By now the Red Army had a 70,000 strong force on the Eastern Front, strengthened by an influx of party members, and it retook Simbirsk and Samara from the KOMUCH forces by October. White forces deserted in large numbers, as demoralised as the Reds had been two months earlier.

In November 1918 the German Revolution broke out, sweeping aside the monarchy and offering to fulfil the hopes of internationalism. Ilyin-Zhenevsky heard the news in a theatre: “The announcement was met with a kind of roar, and frenzied applause shook the theatre for several minutes. There was noise and movement everywhere. One wanted to talk and talk endlessly. Here it was, it had come, support from the proletariat of Western Europe.” [83] But the prospect of German withdrawal from Russia also signalled the peril of Allied invasion. Lenin argued, “First, we were never so near to international proletarian revolution as we are now. Second, we were never in a more dangerous position than at the present time.” [84]

The Whites saw in the German collapse the potential of substantial Allied aid for their cause and, in possession of the West Kuban at the end of 1918, Denikin pushed south and east towards the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea, where his forces took Stavropol from the Taman Red Army. The Whites broke through the Red lines held by the 11th Army in January 1919. By February the North Caucasus Red Army no longer existed. The Whites took 50,000 prisoners, along with weapons and stores, and the Red troops who had avoided capture fled across the desert to Astrakhan, the 11th army alone losing 25,000 to typhus on the way. On the Eastern Front, Kolchak had taken the city of Perm in December 1918 and moved further west to take Ufa in the early months of 1919 before being driven back across the Urals in April and out of Siberia by the end of the year, his 400,000 strong force decimated by desertions and partisan fighting at his rear.

In June 1919 Denikin pushed north from the Don taking Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav and Tsaritsyn with the aid of British tanks and volunteers. From his new base at Tsaritsyn (subsequently Stalingrad), Denikin issued the Moscow Directive, intended to be a three pronged attack on the heart of Soviet power. The Whites eventually reached Orel, barely 250 miles from Moscow. The six months of fighting which ensued were bitter, and the privations borne by the population were devastating. John Reed wrote:

The winter was horrible beyond imagination. No one will ever know what Russia went through. Transport at times almost ceased ... There was, and is, grain enough in the provincial storehouses to feed the whole country well for two years, but it cannot be transported. For weeks together Petrograd was without bread. So with fuel – so with raw materials. Denikin’s army held the Don coal mines and the oil wells of Grozny and Baku ... In the great cities like Moscow and Petrograd the result was appalling. In some houses there was no heat at all the whole winter. People froze to death in their rooms ... Ghastly things happened. Trains full of people travelling in remote provinces broke down between stations and the passengers starved and froze to death. [85]

The Whites had problems of their own. Stretched out over 1,000 miles of front with few reserves, with the same problems of partisan revolt in the rear and a lack of popular support that had tormented Kolchak, they steadily lost ground at Orel. The capture of Voronezh by the Red cavalry marked the turning point on the Southern Front. By the end of November Denikin’s army was collapsing, carrying out horrendous pogroms against Jews in the Ukraine as it retreated.

At the height of the fighting on the Southern Front, the White general Yudenitch, a man described by Victor Serge as “the perfect hangman”, launched an attack on Petrograd from his base in Estonia. Unable to divert troops from the fight against Denikin, the defence of Petrograd was undertaken by the population of the revolution’s birthplace. Trotsky rushed to Petrograd to take charge. He strengthened the 7th Army defending the city and prepared the workers for house to house fighting if necessary. Serge witnessed the events:

In four days assistance has come from all parts of Russia. Zinoviev’s radio telegram, which simply said ’Petrograd is in danger!” has evoked responses from all over. Supply trains from all over the country have come – without waiting for special instructions – to unload their stocks of food at the Nicholas Station ... The whole of Petrograd gives an impression of intense labour ... barricades are springing out of the earth ... the trenches are ready ... a few metres in front, working women are stretching out barbed wire. [86]

The city was ready, but did not need to fight. The Red lines held, and Yudenitch was driven back to the outskirts at the end of October and finally dispatched in November. The last remaining White forces escaped to the Crimea, now commanded by General Wrangel.

In the belief that the war was over, the Bolsheviks moved to demobilise large parts of the Red Army at the end of 1919. The domestic situation was one of deep crisis. The civilian population suffered appalling deprivation – chronic malnutrition, epidemics and cold killed thousands. Sanitation was minimal. Patients froze to death in hospital beds. Red Army units were used as labour armies to rebuild the rail network and attempt to repair Russia’s shattered infrastructure.

However, after only three months of respite, in April and May 1920 Polish troops under Pilsudski invaded Lithuania and east Galicia, which was part of independent Ukraine under the nationalist leader Petliura. Together with Petliura’s partisans, and backed by the French, the 738,000 strong Polish army struck the Red Army’s South Western Front. Exhausted, with 30 percent of the army suffering from typhus, the Soviet government launched another recruitment drive to counter the threat.

Initially successful at driving back the Polish army, the Red Army went further and launched an attack on Warsaw driven by the belief that Polish workers would rise up against Pilsudski. Whatever the merits of the strategy militarily, it was disastrous politically. Marching on Warsaw with the aim of bringing the revolution to Poland, the army was repulsed, with no sign of a workers’ uprising to welcome them. Trotsky relates that the extent of revolutionary feeling among workers in Poland was not clear to the Soviet leadership. In the event, he argued, the opportunities to turn the war from one of defence to an offensive revolutionary war failed because the movement in Poland had not matured by the time the Red Army entered Warsaw: “Where the action of armies is measured in days and weeks, the movement of the masses is usually reckoned in months and years. If this difference in tempo is not taken fully into account, the gears of war will only break the teeth of the revolutionary gears instead of setting them in motion.” [87] The invasion of Poland is seen as proof that the Bolsheviks always planned to export “socialism” by force. Clearly, the attempt to spread the revolution forcibly was a mistaken attempt at a short cut to workers’ power in Poland – but it was not a premonition of Stalin’s imposed “socialism”.

There is a world of difference between invading a country in the hope of stimulating revolution, and doing so in order to crush it, as Stalinist Russia did in Hungary 1956, for example. The overwhelming desire of the Bolsheviks at this point, and since 1917, was the internationalisation of the revolution and the establishment of genuine workers’ democratic socialism.

In addition the leadership of the Bolsheviks were not united on the question of Poland. Trotsky had argued against Lenin, unhappy with the plan of taking revolution to the Polish working class “at the point of a bayonet”. But rather than expressing Lenin’s desire for dictatorship, the invasion of Poland illustrates what is the central thesis of this article – the extent to which the Bolsheviks were affected by imperatives imposed by three years of war in which the entire society had been geared to the war effort, and were desperate to end their own isolation. In the absence of revolution elsewhere the leadership knew very well that the Russian Revolution could not survive. The attempt to stimulate revolution by sheer will was a failure, but flowed from the predicament in which they were caught.

The war with Poland also provided the remnants of the White armies a final gasp. With all eyes to the West, Wrangel seized his chance to push out of the Crimea – now the last refuge of hundreds of thousands of White supporters – to the Northern Tauride and into the Kuban. It was a last ditch attempt to rally support which foundered on the same rock of repressive land legislation and Greater Russian nationalism that had contributed to the failures of Kolchak and Denikin before him. On the third anniversary of the revolution the Red Army, having driven Wrangel back to the Crimea, routed his army and he was forced to evacuate 145,000 White supporters in French and British warships.



Why the Whites lost

Despite the enormous privations of the war years the Bolsheviks succeeded in defeating the vast array of forces against them. For Richard Pipes, who is ready to ascribe the start of the war to Bolshevik ideology, the “decisive factors” in the outcome of the war “were of an objective nature”. [88] By objective, he is referring to the geographic size of Russia, Bolshevik control of an area with a larger population, and the greater supply of weaponry on the Red side.

It is unquestionably true that the Bolsheviks were at their strongest in the urban heartlands, relatively protected from direct Allied intervention into the north, Siberia and the Crimea. The sheer size of the country and the location of the revolution’s enemies on its peripheries, where they had been driven in the first months of the war, initially allowed the Soviet government time to build an army. However, the enormous distances also posed huge problems in the movement and supply of troops – with constantly moving fronts the Red Army had to spread itself over a vast area in order to protect the centre. The dislocation of transport, including Allied control of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the continual fighting in the Volga region, negated many of the potential advantages of being at the centre of a rail network, making it difficult to move supplies and necessitating the requisitioning of food by frontline soldiers.

According to Pipes’s figures, the Bolsheviks controlled the areas with the highest concentration of war industries, with 46.3 percent in Moscow and Petrograd, 38.6 percent in the White-occupied Urals and the Ukraine,and 25.1 percent in Poland and areas under occupation by the Germans in the west. By Pipes’s own admission, however, this dubious “advantage” was academic, as “in 1918 Russian defence industries had virtually stopped functioning” and did not start again until the end of that year. [89] Even when production resumed there were huge problems in supplying the army. The massive decline in industrial production, coupled with disrupted transport and separation from areas containing raw materials, meant the Bolsheviks were relying on stocks from the tsarist army. Although there were large stocks (2.5 million rifles, 12,000 field guns, 2.8 million artillery shells), Trotsky described the tsarist legacy as chaotic: “Of some things there was too much, of others too little, and, besides, we did not know just what we possessed.”

The Allied blockade further aggravated the situation, preventing any military supplies reaching the Bolsheviks from abroad – a problem the Whites did not suffer from. As a result, one report from the Fifth Army on the Eastern Front states that “50 percent of the Red Army men have no footwear, greatcoats or underclothes. As the cold nights set in, illnesses caused by the cold are increasing every day.” [90] Even when supplies were sent they did not always reach the fronts: “By the summer of 1919 there was an acute shortage of bullets; the armies on the Southern Front, where the fighting at this time was especially severe, were obliged to lead a hand to mouth existence, with stocks of bullets which would not have been regarded as sufficient for a regiment in a single day of heavy fighting during the First World War.” [91]

In 1920, after war production had been revived, Trotsky could write, “We had no reserves. Every rifle, every cartridge, every pair of boots was despatched, straight from the machine or the lathe that produced it, to the front.” The progress of the Red Army was often badly affected: “The supply of munitions was always as taut as a string. Sometimes the string would break and then we lost men and territory.” [92]

Objective circumstances alone, therefore, did not mean that the victory of the Red Army was a foregone conclusion. Had the Bolsheviks not enjoyed greater political support than their enemies the advantages provided by their objective circumstances would have been much less decisive. Equally, factors which are deemed to be “objective” on the White side – difficulties with recruitment, a dependence on unreliable allies like the Cossacks, the vacillations of the Allied powers and the lack of co-operation between armies – are all coloured by the political choices that they and other groups in society made.

The White regimes returned the land to the landowners and the factories to the owners, denied trade union rights to workers, and were characterised by corruption, decadence, speculation and bitter repression of the population. The class in whose name the Whites fought was weak and crumbling, and was savagely lashing out in its decay. Within industrial centres controlled by Whites a reign of terror against workers was routine. In the Donbass, one in ten workers were shot if coal production fell, and “some workers were shot for simply being workers under the slogan, “Death to callused hands”. [93]

Both Kolchak and Denikin saw their mission as the restoration of a “great and undivided Russia”, a policy which alienated their potential allies among the Cossacks – many of whom refused to fight in the last battles of the civil war. Much of the population under Denikin’s rule consisted of non-Russians who had no interest in returning to the oppression of the tsarist “prison house of nations”.

Kolchak’s refusal to countenance independence for Finland resulted in a denial of Finnish support to Yudenitch in his march on Petrograd in winter 1919.

The White regimes failed to mobilise large numbers of people in their support. The classes that identified with them – the officers, landowners, factory owners, middle class and intelligentsia – were certainly sufficient for the task of building a strong army and attracting outside aid, but the wider uprisings against the Bolsheviks that they hoped for did not materialise. However much Denikin tried to base the Whites’ “ideology on simple, incontestable national symbols”, by his own admission, “This proved extraordinarily difficult. ‘Politics’ burst into our work. It burst spontaneously also into the life of the army”. [94]

Characterised by one of Kolchak’s generals as, “In the army, decay; in the staff, ignorance and incompetence; in the government, moral rot, disagreement and intrigues of ambitious egotists; in the country, uprising and anarchy; in public life, panic, selfishness, bribes and all sorts of scoundrelism”, [95] the White regime at Omsk was a brutal and arbitrary dictatorship. It liquidated the trade unions and meted out savage reprisals against peasants who sheltered partisans – reprisals which inflamed the population and pushed many towards Bolshevism. When Omsk was taken by the Red Army in November 1919, it was with the willing participation of large numbers of peasant recruits. In many Siberian towns workers overthrew the Kolchak government before the Red troops arrived. In Irkutsk a Political Centre was established to govern in place of the Whites, which in turn was replaced by a mainly Bolshevik revolutionary committee installed by the workers in January 1920, to whom Kolchak was delivered after his capture.

The Whites lost because they were less popular among the majority classes in Russia, a factor which hindered their military abilities once it became necessary to build a large conscript army. As Lenin pointed out in July 1919, “A general mobilisation will finish Denikin off, just as it finished off Kolchak. So long as his army was a class one, consisting only of volunteers of an anti-socialist character, it was strong and reliable ... but the greater the size of his army, the less class conscious it was, and the weaker it became.” [96] This was precisely what happened – revolts at the rear of Denikin’s army forced him to send troops back from the front, and having to conscript a hostile population increased the difficulties, weakening his ability to push forward to Moscow.

Another “objective” factor cited by Pipes is the “weakly developed sense of patriotism among the Russian population”, [97] a position which dovetails with the Menshevik view of the time of the Russian people as immature, unruly masses with no sense of what the revolution and war were about. But patriotism had not been weakly developed at the outbreak of the First World War – although 1 million deserters had been expected, all but a few thousand out of 15 million accepted the call-up. What took place subsequently was the breakdown of nationalism and allegiance to the old ruling class, and a huge step forward in the collective consciousness. The lack of support for the Whites would be more accurately attributed to the generalised shift in attitudes beyond Russian nationalism towards self rule and national freedom, a goal that the Bolshevik Party embodied and the Whites threatened to extinguish.

Pipes argues that the Bolshevik claim to enjoy mass support is “entirely inapplicable” where “it is secured and maintained by force”. [98] Clearly, repression was a feature of the civil war. To overthrow the old ruling class and to wage war against it could not be other than authoritarian and repressive. Frederick Engels wrote, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon – authoritarian means, if such there be at all.” [99] He was pointing to the cold reality that in order to be successful the revolution must be prepared to be ruthless to its enemies, internal and external.

However, repression was not the deciding factor in the Bolsheviks’ hold on power. The Russian working class and peasantry had made a revolution to end one war and had walked away from the trenches despite threats of repression. It defies logic that the Bolsheviks could have built and maintained an army of 3 million and mobilised people to fight again through force alone. The best form of recruitment was inspiration. Whereas the Whites could only offer the old world or worse, the Bolsheviks had – despite the hardships – taken power from the exploiters, given land to the peasants and established workers’ control. Political choices cannot simply be reduced to responses to “objective” circumstances. Those who supported the Bolsheviks were defending the gains of the revolution in order to extend them, and were therefore motivated by much more positive emotions than fear.

This is a fact that may elude today’s historians, but it did not escape the notice of the Whites. One of their spies in Petrograd in 1919 reported that “the worker elements, at least a large section of them, are still Bolshevik inclined ... Psychologically, they identify the present with equality and Soviet power and the Whites with the old regime and its scorn for the masses.” [100] At the height of Kolchak’s drive to the west in spring 1919 the workers of Orenburg organised the defence of their town and prevented its capture by the Whites, and when Denikin threatened Tula, the key armaments base for the Reds, a quarter of a million deserters flooded back to the Red Army from Orel and Moscow alone. The price of White victory would have been the crushing of the gains of October, and the majority of the population did not want tsarism or dictatorship.

In fact, had the Whites won, the alternative would have been far worse than the restoration of the old regime. As the war swept away the middle ground, the alternative was increasingly clear. As one of Kolchak’s generals, Sakharov, boasted from exile in Germany after Mussolini’s rise to power, “The White movement was in essence the first manifestation of fascism”. [101]

The imperialist powers were also aware of the depth of Bolshevik support. A memo to the British war cabinet in July 1919 illustrates the point: “It is impossible to account for the stability of the Bolshevik government by terrorism alone ... When the Bolshevik fortunes seemed to be at the lowest ebb, a most vigorous offensive was launched before which the Kolchak forces are still in retreat. No terrorism, not even long suffering acquiescence, but something approaching enthusiasm is necessary for this. We must admit then that the present Russian government is accepted by the bulk of the Russian people”. [102]



The recent debate

In the last few years the debate on the Russian Revolution has moved on. The collapse of Stalinism has led to a strengthening of the position of conservative historians like Richard Pipes that the October Revolution was a coup, that totalitarianism was a feature of the Bolshevik Party from the beginning, and that the civil war enabled the fulfilment of Bolshevik aims of dictatorship.

Though written in the mid-1970s, social historian Roger Pethybridge’s statement, “The violence of the civil war was a result of Lenin’s seizure of power without a general mandate”, [103] finds its echo in Evan Mawdsley’s more recent offering: “Both the civil war and Stalinism were likely consequences of the seizure of power.” [104] Another approach to the revolution and its aftermath can be observed in accounts based on social history, on the perspective of the working class and the peasantry, but which come to conclusions which mirror the conservative approach. Orlando Figes’ book, A People’s Tragedy, concludes that the outcome of the revolution was inevitable, as the population was too backward and immature to prevent the Bolsheviks from using the revolution for their own ends.

These two strands of history writing on Russia are in part driven by a disillusionment in the revolutionary project in the wake of Stalinism’s collapse. However, both the resurgence of the Cold War conservative attitudes and the emergence of pessimistic, though more liberal, accounts are linked to weaknesses in the approach of genuine social historians in the last two decades. [105] Those historians, including Diane Koenker, William Rosenberg, Daniel Kaiser and Steve Smith, wrote good accounts which were generally sympathetic to the revolutionary project. However, a lack of clarity about the nature of the Soviet Union following Stalin’s rise to power has led to generalised confusion since the collapse of Stalinism. Sheila Fitzpatrick has summed this up: “All serious scholars of the former Soviet Union are undergoing a process of conceptual readjustment, just as physicists and biologists would be when confronted by a sudden influx of new experimental data, not to mention a new regime of experimentation.” [106]

The history from below approach taken by some of these historians also suffered from its focus on the popular movement to the exclusion of other class forces in Russian society – a weakness which contributes to a belief that the Bolsheviks’ options in the civil war period were solely determined by the demands and aspirations of the workers and peasants, and not also shaped by the role of other classes both in Russia and abroad.

The question of ideology and class consciousness is also important here. While the history from below approach accepts there was support from the popular movement for the Bolsheviks, it tends to see the connection as coincidental, that workers’ political ideas were a direct result of the social changes taking place, so they moved away from the Bolsheviks as social circumstances changed. A rounded analysis of the politics of the civil war, however, must take into account not only the impact of social circumstances on political ideas and party allegiance but also the way in which the process of revolution transformed politics on a huge scale, and how resilient those ideas were in the civil war period. Without understanding the extent to which conceptions about society shifted it is impossible to fully understand how the civil war was fought, let alone won. As Mike Haynes has written, not integrating the role of politics into social history results in historians taking a position which:

... both sees divergence [between the Bolsheviks and the popular movement] as inevitable and which comes close to endorsing the position argued by many Mensheviks after October 1917 ... to the effect that the Bolsheviks were riding the crest of a temporary wave and should have had the good sense to realise that it could not last and therefore refused power. This also, of course, absolves the other parties of any responsibility for the subsequent development of the revolution and diminishes an analysis of the choices that they made. [107]

The weaknesses of social history can be seen in Christopher Read’s book From Tsar to Soviets. Seeking to relocate the popular movement at the heart of the revolution and the civil war, Read nonetheless falls into an acceptance of the Lenin-Stalin link, claiming that it was the “Bolsheviks, not the counter-revolution, who suppressed the popular movement – during the civil war, at the time of Tambov and Kronstadt and, eventually, through collectivisation and the Great Terror which seemed to have extirpated it for good”. [108]

The civil war period highlights the interrelation of politics and material circumstances: the revolutionary process transformed political ideas, and political imperatives shaped economic and military policy. However, an analysis which understands the relative independence of consciousness loses its power if ideology is then seen as the motor for historical change. So Read, in his insistence that “ironically a, possibly the, key reason for the failure of the ‘dream scenario’ did not lie with the revolution’s enemies on the right ... but from its Bolshevik ‘friends’,” [109] reaches a conclusion akin to the conservative view that Bolshevik ideology, not material circumstances, lay at the root of the revolution’s degeneration.



The legacy

The revolution was victorious in the civil war, but at an enormous cost.

The civil war shattered industrial production: total industrial output fell to 18 percent of its already extremely low pre-war levels. In 1920 production of pig iron was a mere 2.4 percent of its pre-war figure, the corresponding figure for coal was 27 percent, for sugar 6.7 percent, for electrical engineering machinery 5.4 percent and for cotton goods 5.1 percent. [110]

The foreign blockade reduced imports and exports to a tiny fraction of their 1917 figures, resulting in widespread hunger and disease. At the end of the war 350,000 were dead in battle and 450,000 had died of disease. Between the end of 1918 and the end of 1920 hunger, cold and disease had killed 9 million people – typhus killed one million in 1920 alone. The war effort had “plundered all of Russia” and destroyed much of its industry. Fan belts were torn out of machinery in the factories to make boots for the army; 64 of the largest factories in Petrograd were forced to close for lack of fuel. For economic historian Kritsman, “Such a fall of the productive forces ... of a huge society of 100 million people ... is unexampled in the history of mankind.” [111] It is difficult to express the full magnitude of such horror on Russian society. Read sums this up well: “Terms like crisis and collapse are used frequently today, even to describe situations where economic growth falls below 2 percent. There is no word of strong enough force to use when one comes to the situation of Russia in these years.” [112]

The impact of the war was not solely economic. All the major classes underwent enormous upheaval:

Russia’s social structure had been not merely overturned; it was smashed and destroyed. The social classes which had so implacably and furiously wrestled with one another in the civil war were all, with the partial exception of the peasantry, either exhausted and prostrate or pulverised. The landed gentry had perished in their burning mansions and on the battlefields of the civil war; survivors escaped abroad with remnants of the White armies which scattered to the winds. Of the bourgeoisie, never very numerous or politically confident, many had also perished or emigrated. Those who saved their skins ... were merely the wreckage of their class. [113]

Though victorious against its class enemies, the working class was also devastated. In Russia as a whole it was reduced to 43 percent of its former number. The population of Petrograd fell from 2.4 million in 1917 to 574,000 in 1920 – cut by 76 percent from its October 1917 figure. Those who worked in the factories were often not the same workers who had made the revolution. The army had drained the urban centres dry of the most militant workers, who were replaced in the factories by peasants often lacking the same revolutionary commitment. By the end of the war, the Bolsheviks were ruling in the name of a class which was at best a shadow of its former self: “The world’s first proletarian government had to watch the class on which it claimed to be based diminish from its already weak minority position.” [114]

Naturally, the party itself changed as the working class disintegrated. The distortions within the Bolsheviks were not ideologically motivated. A revolutionary party rests on its links and roots in the working class, learning from the class as well as leading. Without that class, the party becomes isolated – the blood supply necessary to maintain its health greatly reduced. In addition, as the crack troops of the Red Army, an estimated 50 percent of Communist Party members who fought in the civil war were killed, wounded or ill after major battles. The party branches outside the army were also hit hard by the war. The working class membership of the party eroded. In 1917 workers had made up 60 percent of the party; by 1920-1921 that had fallen to 41 percent, the bulk of whom worked for the state or the army rather than in the factories. Careerists joined in large numbers, further diluting the composition of the party. At the same time, the Soviet government was presiding over an increasingly hostile peasant majority. There were strikes in Petrograd, revolts in the countryside, and the garrison at Kronstadt mutinied in March 1921. Once the immediate enemies were defeated, the hardships the population had endured for three years became the cause of dramatic conflict with the goverment.

To understand the changes in the party it is essential to understand the impact of social degeneration and economic disaster on political principles and ideology. The gap between dreams and reality had widened dramatically in the course of the war, at times leading the Bolsheviks to extol the virtues of policies enacted from dire necessity. There were deep political shifts in the circumstances – it would have been incredible if there were not. But this does not mean that the rise of Stalinism was inevitably the result of Bolshevik politics, or that revolutionary Leninism contained the seeds of its own destruction. As Victor Serge put it, “It is often said that the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs – a mass of other germs – and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in a corpse – and which he may have carried with him since his birth – is this very sensible?” [115]

Political will and the revolutionary impulse achieved miracles in the course of the civil war, in the context of appalling social conditions. But the Bolsheviks could not build a socialist society from sheer willpower. It is an incredible achievement on the Bolsheviks’ part that they held out as long as they did, and it is testimony to the party’s organisation and discipline, and the powerful impetus the revolution had given to creativity and commitment, that even as late as 1928, with Stalin’s consolidation of power, he was forced to physically wipe out the last vestiges of it by murdering or exiling the old Bolsheviks.

It is to be regretted that so many historians, lacking clarity about the nature of the regime which finally beheaded the revolution, have given ground to the theory of an inevitable connection between revolutionary and Stalinist Russia. By locating the civil war period in its historical context, by attempting to draw out the relative weight of objective circumstances and ideology in the most dramatic period of the revolution’s history, it is possible to counter those arguments with a more thorough understanding.

Fortunately, Stalinism is now dead, and in the context of the resulting ideological ferment, there is huge potential for a genuine reading of the Russian Revolution to gain wider currency, not as a history lesson but as a guide for revolutionaries today.




59. M. von Hagen, op. cit., p.334.

60. Quoted Ibid., p.5.

61. L. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed: Military Writings (New Park, 1979), vol.1, p.4.

62. Ibid., p.7.

63. A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, The Bolsheviks in Power (New Park, 1984), p.70.

64. Ibid., p.14.

65. Quoted Ibid., p.34.

66. L. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, op. cit., p.7.

67. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.23.

68. A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, op. cit., p.118.

69. Ibid.

70. Quoted in C. Read, op. cit., p.254.

71. L. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.449.

72. J. Reed, op. cit., p.247.

73. Ibid., p.46.

74. E. Wollenberg, op. cit., p.43.

75. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.98.

76. L. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.429.

77. O. Figes, op. cit., p.583.

78. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.265.

79. Ibid.

80. C. Read, op. cit., p.237.

81. Quoted in W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.118.

82. L. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.427.

83. A.F. Ilyin-Zhenevsky, op. cit., p.128.

84. Quoted in W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.121.

85. J. Reed, op. cit., p.243.

86. V. Serge, Revolution in Danger (Redwords, 1997), p.p58-59.

87. L. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.476.

88. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.9.

89. Ibid., p.12.

90. V.P. Butt et al., op. cit., p.99.

91. W. Chamberlin, op. cit., vol.2, p.35.

92. L. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p.433.

93. O. Figes, op. cit., p.665.

94. Quoted in R. Pipes, op. cit., p.14.

95. Ibid., p.195.

96. E. Wollenberg, op. cit., p.98.

97. R. Pipes, op. cit., p.135.

98. Ibid., p.136.

99. F. Engels, On Authority, quoted in M. von Hagen, op. cit., p.13.

100. Quoted in O. Figes, p.674.

101. C. Read, op. cit., p.198.

102. Quoted in R. Pipes, op. cit., p.97.

103. R. Pethybridge, The Social Prelude to Stalinism (Macmillan, 1977), p.79.

104. E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.289.

105. I am indebted to Mike Haynes for my understanding of the current debates on the revolution. For a fuller and more knowledgable discussion see his Social History and the Russian Revolution, in Essays on Historical Materialism, op. cit.; The Debate on Popular Violence and the Popular Movement in the Russian Revolution, in Historical Materialism 2 (Summer 1998); and The Return of the Mob, in Journal of Area Studies 13, 1998.

106. S. Fitzpatrick, Better To Bend the Stick too Far, London Review of Books, 4 February 1999.

107. M. Haynes, The Return of the Mob, op. cit..

108. C. Read, op. cit., p.293.

109. Ibid., pp.292-293.

110. See T. Cliff, Lenin, vol.3, (Bookmarks, 1987), p.p86-87.

111. Quoted in E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p.288.

112. C. Read, op. cit., p.192.

113. I. Deutscher, Trotsky, vol.2 (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.5.

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

115. Quoted in V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Writers and Readers, 1984), p.xv.


Last updated on 5.2.2002