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The period of War Communism

Introduction:

The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was the beginning rather than the end of the revolution. The Bolsheviks government had a tenuous grip on power and some observers thought that it would only survive a few weeks. For three years between 1918 and 1921, a bitter civil war was fought between the Bolsheviks and their enemies. Following on immediately from the First World War, which had already brought Russia to its knees economically, it was fought in conditions of extreme hardship and deprivation. The overall death toll, including civilian deaths from hunger and epidemics as well as those caused by military action, may have been as high as ten million. The Bolsheviks won the war largely due to the geographical advantages of the Red Army, the lack of unity among the opposition forces and the abilities of Leon Trotsky, who led and organised the Red forces throughout the conflict. Lenin took charge of the day-to-day business of the Sovnakom and the problems he faced were formidable. Chief amongst these was the rapid deterioration of the economy in the spring of 1918. He pursued a policy of War Communism to keep the Bolshevik state afloat.

Why did Lenin adopt War Communism?

To ensure their survival in the first months after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks had handed over control of the land to the peasants and control of the factories to the workers' committees. The pressure from peasants and workers had been irresistible. But it was not long before the shortcomings of both policies became apparent.

Industry fell apart as workers' committees proved incapable of running the factories (although the economic collapse was underway well before the workers took over, so they cannot be blamed entirely). This was compounded by acute shortages of raw materials created by the Civil War. Industrial output, particularly consumer goods, shrank in the Bolshevik-held central area. The shortage of goods led to soaring price inflation and the value of the rouble collapsed. Peasants would not supply food to the cities if there were no goods for which food could be exchanged and paper money was worthless. Moreover, the rich wheat areas of the Ukraine were outside Bolshevik control. So the food shortages got worse and as early as February 1918 the bread ration in Petrograd had reached an all-time low of only 50 grams per person per day. There were food riots in many cities in early 1918. Workers started to flee from the cities, leaving factories short of workers. The situation was desperate. Lenin was faced with two main problems:

1. Keeping the workers in the cities to produce munitions, essential war supplies and other desperately needed goods.

2. Feeding the workers

“By the end of 1920 the proletariat, the class the revolution was all about, had shrunk to only half its pre-revolutionary size. Petrograd lost 60 per cent of its workforce by April 1918 and one million people had left the city by that June. In Russia as a whole the urban proletariat decreased from 3.6 million in January 1917 to 1.4 million two years later. Starving and unemployed workers left the towns to return to the villages, to join the Red Army, or to enter the ever-growing ranks of the bureaucracy. Hardest hit were the large state-owned metallurgical factories employing the very section of the working class which had provided the Bolsheviks with the core of their support in 1917. The Vyborg district of Petrograd saw its population fall from 69,000 to 5,000 by the summer of 1918”.

B. Williams, The Russian Revolution 1917-21, 1987, pp. 62-63

It was not only economic problems that Lenin faced in the summer of 1918; he was also

confronted by the full onslaught of the Civil War. From this point onwards, the Bolsheviks were

fighting for their lives. As a result, the whole economy of the Red-held part of Russia was geared towards the needs of the army. The name given to the policies Lenin adopted from

1918 to 1921 is War Communism.

The main features of War Communism

Grain requisitioning The Bolsheviks had been sending units of Red guards and soldiers out into the countryside to find grain for the hard-pressed cities. In May 1918 a Food-Supplies Dictatorship was set up to establish the forcible requisitioning of grain as the standard policy. Unsurprisingly, the peasants resisted bitterly.

Banning of private trade All private trade and manufacture were banned. However, the state trading organisation was extremely chaotic and industry was simply not producing enough consumer goods. So an enormous black market developed, without which most people could not have survived.

Nationalisation of industry All industry was brought under state control and administered by the Supreme Council of National Economy (Vesenkha). Workers' committees were replaced by single managers reporting to central authorities. These were often the old bourgeois managers now called 'specialists'. This was the only way to stop the chaos caused by the factory workers' committees who had voted themselves huge pay rises, intimidated management and stolen materials for illegal goods. Not all workers were against nationalisation: many, faced with the closure of their factory, urged that it be nationalised and kept open. They were desperate to keep their jobs.

Labour discipline Discipline was brought back to the work place. There were fines for lateness and absenteeism. Internal passports were introduced to stop people fleeing to the countryside. Piece-work rates were brought back, along with bonuses and a work book that was needed to get rations.

Rationing

A class-based system of rationing was introduced. The labour force was given priority along

with Red Army soldiers. Smaller rations were given to civil servants and professional people such as doctors. The smallest rations, barely enough to live on, were given to the burzhui or middle classes - or as they were now called, 'the former people'.

The Red Terror

Another crucial element of War Communism was the systematic use of terror to back up the new measures and deal with opposition. An assassination attempt on Lenin'’ life in August

1918 prompted the Cheka to launch the Red Terror. Execution, previously the exception, now

became the rule. Official records put the figure for deaths at the hands of the Cheka for the years 1918-20 at nearly 13,000, but estimates place the real figure at nearer 300,000.

The Cheka was particularly active in the countryside, helping requisitioning brigades to collect grain from the peasants. Quotas were filled even if this left peasants starving. The peasants resisted in a wave of uprisings and attacked the peasants.

What was life like during War Communism?

Peasants in the countryside deeply

resented War Communism, which demanded that their surplus crops be taken by the government to feed factory workers and soldiers (food dictatorship). They had won the right to own their land under the Communists, but now they wanted to profit from this by selling their crops. They did not see why they should simply hand over their surplus produce. Many peasants simply decided there was no point in growing any more food than they needed for themselves. In 1919 they started to sow less grain and breed fewer animals. The result was a food shortage in 1920 and then a terrible famine in 1921. Starvation, cold weather and disease killed a total of seven million Russians. According to

killed a total of seven million Russians. According to Pravda , the Communists’ own newspaper, twenty

Pravda, the Communists’ own newspaper, twenty five million Russians were living below the subsistence level.

The workers in cities were also discontented. They were forced to work longer hours under strict new laws that included the death penalty for striking. Their rations were completely inadequate and often there were none. Some peasants brought food to barter or sell in the cities but the price of this black market food was too high for most workers. Those caught trading for profit were often shot. The big cities soon began to empty as workers returned to the countryside in the hope of finding food. Petrograd lost 70 per cent of its inhabitants and Moscow lost 50 per cent during the period of War Communism. This represented a considerable thinning of the Communists’ erstwhile supporters. The proletariat, which was meant to lead the revolution, was visibly wasting away. Many of those who remained moved to the extreme left of the party and became more and more opposed to the Government. They showed their feelings by joining in a number of illegal strikes in February 1921.

By early 1921, discontent with War Communism was at its height. In the countryside, the Red Army had to put down a number of full-scale rebellions by peasants that cost the army almost a quarter of a million lives in the space of a year. Both Trotsky and Lenin saw the dangers in War Communism. They tried to have the policy changed but were defeated by other leading Communists who believed that, whatever the problems caused, it was necessary.

The final straw came when discontent in at Petrograd spread to the sailors at the Kronstadt naval base. This came as a shock, for the Kronstadt sailors were believed to be among Lenin’s most loyal supporters. In 1917, Trotsky had described the sailors as, “the pride and joy of my revolution”. In 1921, Trotsky and other Red Army generals surrounded Kronstadt with 60,000 troops. They bombed the naval base and then attacked the sailors’ headquarters. In the fighting that followed thousands of the rebels were killed and many more arrested and later shot by the Cheka. The event had also cost the Red Army 10,000 lives.

“After carrying out the October Revolution, the working classes hoped for freedom. But the result has been greater slavery. The bayonets, bullets and harsh commands of the Cheka – these are what the working man of Soviet Russia has won. The glorious emblem of the workers’ state – the hammer and sickle – has been replaced by the Communist authorities with the bayonet and the barred window. Here in Kronstadt we are making a third revolution which will free the workers and the Soviets from the Communists”.

Official statement from the Kronstadt sailors.

The Kronstadt rising was crushed, but Lenin realised a change in policy was needed if there were to be no more risings like it.

The period of War Communism

Introduction

1. Why do you think the Bolsheviks were in such an unstable position in October 1917?

2. What promises would Lenin now have to deliver? (think back to your Russia in Revolution work)

3. When were the Bolsheviks forced to fight a civil war?

4. What was the human cost of the war?

5. Give three reasons for the Bolsheviks success in the civil war.

6. How did the responsibilities of Trotsky and Lenin differ during the civil war?

Why did Lenin adopt War Communism?

1. What concessions did the Bolsheviks make to the peasants and workers after the October Revolution?

2. Why were there already shortages in (a) industrial goods and (b) food by 1918?

3. How did urban workers respond to the shortages?

4. What were the two main problems Lenin faced?

5. Why are the economic policies Lenin adopted between 1918 and 1921 known as War Communism?

The main features of War Communism

1. Define the following:

Grain requisitioning Requisitioning brigades Private trading Black market Nationalisation Vesenkha Cheka Red Terror

2. Summarise the key features of War Communism. Think carefully about how you present the information.

3. How many people died at the hands of the Cheka between 1918 and 1920?

4. Why was the Cheka more active in the countryside than the cities?

What was life like during War Communism?

1. Why did the peasants resent War Communism?

2. How did they display their feelings about this policy?

3. What were the consequences of their actions?

4. Why were urban workers discontented?

5. What measures did workers in cities take during this period?

6. Why do you think there was disagreement among leading Communists about whether to continue with War Communism or not? (HINT: Think about the basic beliefs of Communists)

7. What happened at Kronstadt naval base in 1921 and why was it such as setback for the Communists?