Make your own free website on
The Russian Civil War and the Leninist Compound
Bolshevik Aims

In 1918, despite both their political philosophy and common perception, the Bolshevik’s had a loose organisation and were divided on many key issues. (McAuley, 26)

McAuley lists three key unifying objectives which kept the Bolsheviks together: (26)

1. Fighting the Civil War subsumed policy differences to the demands of survival

2. Over a longer period, war moulded them into a more disciplined form.

3. "Certain basic ideas." These were: that the party was the vanguard of the working class; and that workers’ organisations had a duty to provide for society’s needs.

Many features of Communism which persisted throughout the history of the USSR (and indeed in other countries) were born in this period. Some were resultant from the pressures of Civil War. Others were inevitable by-products of Marxist ideology.

However, many Bolshevik aims revolted fellow socialists both within and without Russia. According to Service, the most controversial were Dictatorship, class-based discrimination and ideological imposition. (Service, 63)

"The public agenda of Bolshevism had not been characterised by frankness; and sympathisers with the Bolshevik party, including most rank and file members, had little idea of the basic assumptions and principles of the central committee." (Service, 82)

Bolshevik Political Practise

The Bolsheviks needed first to satisfy some of the demands which brought them to power in the first place. To the peasants, they gave land. To the workers, they gave formal power to factory committees. They negotiated a peace deal with Germany. (Sakwa, 28)

The theory held by Bolsheviks was that, initially, power would have to wielded fairly ruthlessly by the proletariat in order to smash their enemies, after which the state could wither away. (Sakwa, 25) Of course, things are never quite that simple in the real world.

Firstly, it is dangerous to assume that the unity in policy of the later Communist Party applied during the early years of the USSR. It didn’t. Sakwa (26) notes that the Bolshevik Party, having just emerged from a period of very rapid expansion, was very divided immediately after the revolution. The creation of Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) took power away from the Soviets. Those who were later to become the Left Opposition (two of whom , Kamenëv and Zinoviev, had opposed the power seizure in the first place) insisted on forming a coalition with other anti-war socialist parties. And the decision to implement state capitalism (27) was contested heavily by the left. So also was the Brest-Litovsk treaty (27), which gave away much of Russia’s industrial heartland and enraged both many on the left, and many more nationalistic Bolsheviks. This caused bitter splits even among the Central Committee. (Service, 77) The causes of the mushrooming of bureaucracy were also disputed. The dominant belief was that this was either a temporary legacy of Tsarism or a consequence of small imperfections in the system. More perceptive observers noted that this was a natural consequence of trying to run the whole country from Moscow. (Sakwa, 31) Also important were those who opposed the inevitable militarisation of Bolshevik political culture. (31) Conflict was inevitable as political theory now clashed with the political realities of administering a decimated country.

However, central government had only weak reins on the instruments of coercion at first. Land appropriations and workers’ take-overs at factories proceeded at a faster pace than legislation permitted. Local soviets ignored Sovnarkom decrees if it suited them. (Service, 91) Quasi-anarchy reigned.

In this period the tradition of sham elections was born. Bolshevik leaders needed the legitimacy of elections - Kerensky’s downfall had proven that. Nonetheless, they did not feel that elections were in any way important. Therefore they took the opportunity to manipulate them and harass their opponents wherever possible. Soviets became a means whereby the leadership’s desires were given legitimacy and transferred to the masses, rather than real fora for debate. (McAuley, 27) The Bolshevik leadership could not afford to trust the soviets, partially due to their inclusion of a few non-Bolshevik deputies, and also because they represented the untrustworthy peasants as well as the working class. As Sakwa puts it "Only the Bolshevik party represented the proletariat alone and hence were entitled to primacy. They were the repository of the higher revolutionary consciousness." (Sakwa, 30)

Democratic centralism was being born. It was encouraged by Bolshevik frustration with the mess of bureaucracy. The party "strove to establish for itself a position over and above the state organisations, a position from which it, unrestricted, could take decisions which would cut through the bureaucratic tangles." (McAuley, 29) Democratic centralism first emerged as a defined strand of socialist thought in 1918. Democratic centralism was based on a division of labour - "the party would provide the ideological leadership; but the soviets would be respected as institutions representing the working class." (Sakwa, 30) Earlier federal forms of government within the party faded away, and by March 1921 the principle of subordination of lower bodies to higher ones was firmly established. (Sakwa, 30)

Parliamentary democracy was dismissed as a bourgeois irrelevance. "Lenin claimed that a far higher form of democracy had been instated in Russia." The dictatorship of the proletariat shot proletarians who demonstrated against the dismissal of the Constitutional Assembly in January 1918. (Sakwa, 26) Workers’ authority in the workplace was also increasingly eroded under the pressure of Civil War conditions. (Sakwa, 29) The Assembly elections proved to be a huge embarrassment to the Bolsheviks, polling only 25% to the SRs 37% - the SRs won a huge majority of seats. (Service, 75). As Service commented regarding the breaking up of the Petrograd Assembly of Plenipotentiaries in 1918 - "The message could not have been blunter that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would be defended by any means against the demands of the proletariat itself." (Service, 98)

It must be remembered that the Bolshevik party continued to have minority support in this period. Ponton argues that Lenin merely continued pre-Revolutionary tactics in the continuing hostile situation. (Ponton, 26)

As membership of the party increased, a major division between established members of the party and newer recruits became evident. The newer recruits were often uneducated and ideologically uncertain. As a result, more experienced and politically educated party members, who dominated the upper strata of the party, tended to treat them as pawns. Thus, the democratic centralist tendency was further strengthened.

Also this period saw the roots of the nomenklatura system. With the mushrooming of bureaucracy, Bolsheviks saw the need to put trusted members in charge of key institutions, both new and existing. (McAuley, 29) This was a consequence also of the ideological belief that the performance of an institution depended of the social background of its personnel rather than any other factors. (McAuley, 29)

The cycle of purges and mass recruitment began in this period. In a debate which was, in Mary McAuley’s view, never settled during 70 years of Communism, the party swung between being a mass party and a cadre party. Post February 1917, and particularly during the Civil War, the party recruited almost as fast as it could. This reached its apogee in 1921 when it was estimated that only one in four party members had ever read Marx. The second purge occurred in that year; the first had been against ‘idlers, hooligans, adventurers, drunkards and thieves’ in 1918; although on both these occasions it was a peaceful one. (McAuley, 32/Service, 122)

Government did not see the need for checks and balances. As the old order had passed away there could be no conflict between different classes. Therefore the government could not act against the will of the people as it embodied the will of the people. One of the consequent, and defining, features of the period was the mushrooming of bureaucracy and the building of institutional empires. Far from being a period in which the state withered away, this was a period in which the state snowballed. (Sakwa, 31)

Control of the means of communications was a policy of which the Bolsheviks learned the importance during this time. Opposing parties’ printing presses were shut down (Service, 93) while artists and writers were enlisted to produce revolutionary propaganda. (Service, 95)

After the attempted assassination of Lenin, a new word was added to the Russian political vocabulary - terror. During the Red terror, murder was to be used indiscriminately against the better off and other random ‘enemies of the people’ in order to keep those same people in check. (Service, 108)

Civil War

"The Civil War…was not an elemental disaster visited upon the Communists, but a logical consequence of Bolshevik policies, as the coalitionists had warned." (Sakwa, 27) Nonetheless its survival was probably the most remarkable feat of 7d4 years of Communist rule. At one point trapped in an area no larger than medieval Muscovy, with insurrection from other socialists, outgunned by the Whites and with troops of at least six foreign powers stationed on various parts of Russian territory, the Red Army somehow managed to fight their way to victory. That some of this, notably the Komuch and Left Socialist-Revolutionary attacks were purely self inflicted does not detract from the scale of military victory.

The Reds ace in the hole was undoubtedly Trotski, who’s brilliant mind took to military affairs like a duck to water. (Service, 104)

The Whites, while supported by foreign men and money, were never in command of much domestic Russian support. The peasants and the proletariat both stood to lose if the Whites took control, while the nationalities too failed to see their interests promoted by a return to imperialism.

The Reds also cleverly wowed groups such as non-Russians, for example, the Commisariat for Nationalities was set up to ensure native language schools and

Service, however, notes the strategic advantages enjoyed by the Reds. The area they controlled may have been small but it was the industrial and agricultural heartland, as well as the transport and communications hub, of the old Russian Empire. (Service, 117) The Whites, were cut off from one another, and communications were very difficult - remember this was in the days before modern telecommunications - "The Civil War consisted of a series of haphazard engagements on various fronts with little co-ordination among the various White commanders." (McCauley, 28)

The rôle of the peasantry in the Civil War was crucial. (Sakwa, 24) The Greens emerged only sporadically in response to other groups and never played a major part in the war. However, Lenin’s decree on redistribution of land on the day after the October revolution was crucial in ensuring that, no matter what excesses were carried out by the Red Army, that on the whole the peasantry had a vested interest in making sure that the Whites were not victorious.

"As the Civil War continued, any action which ran counter to government policy became identified as counter-revolutionary." (McAuley, 30) The Cheka gained more and more power and increasingly resembled the Okhrana. "Attempts to establish effective party control over the Cheka failed." (Sakwa, 31)

State Capitalism and War Communism

It is an axiom that the Russian economy was not really capable of sustaining Communism. A number of factors in the years after the Revolution made it even more difficult.

Aware of this, Lenin’s first economic strategy was that of state capitalism. (Sakwa, 27) Lenin saw the success of German industrial cartelism, and tries to introduce the same principles into Russia - without the industrial magnates. This is not to be taken as a sign of political liberalism - Lenin had no intention of releasing the reins of political coercion - oh dear, this is another ‘Chinese option’ analogy. War Communism ended with the outbreak of Civil War in May 1918.

"War communism represented the massive consolidation of state power and the extension of the revolution to all spheres of the economy and society in the belief that a rapid transition to socialism could be achieved." (Sakwa, 28) While some of this was attempted for ideological reasons, some of it was also done under the pressure of civil war. The programme of nationalisation and centralisation was seen as necessary by both central and local levels of the Bolshevik party (Service, 111), every local party faced shortfalls in one essential good or another, and all therefore had to seek Moscow’s help. Within the Central Committee it solved tensions between Lenin and the far Left - their programme of total state control was now being implemented anyway. (Service, 110)

"Peasant society withdrew, stepped back to an earlier stage of self-sufficiency, breaking the terms of trade with the urban centres." (M McAuley, 25) As a result, food became scarce, and hunger returned. Hungry industrial workers returned to live with family in the villages of their birth, crippling industry. This had begun even before the October revolution, and as peasant council controlled redistribution, workers returned to their home villages to make sure that they would receive a fair share of the land.

Moreover, there remained little incentive for farmers to sell surpluses. With industrial production running at a very low level, and hyper-inflation, there was little incentive for them to sell. (Service, 79)

As the urban economy worsened, the party was faced with declining popularity. The party regarded itself as the vanguard of the working class; now it faced the spectre of its spokespeople being shouted down at factory meetings. (McAuley, 26)

The economic dislocation was compounded by Brest-Litovsk. Half of the grain, coal and iron resources of the former Empire had been signed away, along with half of the population. (Service, 78)

The dismal failure of War Communism as an economic policy was highlighted by McCauley’s comment - "During this period…the illegal black market made its appearance and saved many urban dwellers from starvation." (McCauley, 33) In provincial cities, only 29% of food in April 1920 came through official channels. (McCauley, 35) War communism was welcomed by many on the left especially Bukharin and Peobrazhenski (McCauley, 33) - that it failed so dismally should have warned perceptive observers of the inherent flaws of the command economy. However, its flaws were put down the exigencies of war.

Only figures can do justice to the failure of the command economy. According to Sakwa (29) industrial output in 1920 was only a 20% of what it had been in 1913, agricultural output only 43%. The cultivated area in 1921 was 40% less than in 1917, while the number of workers, of whom the Bolsheviks were supposedly the guardians, dropped from 2.6M to 1.2M between 1917 and 1920. (McCauley, 34)

Marxist theory predicted a withering away of the state come the advent of socialist government. However as resources became scarcer and scarcer during the war, so the numbers of bureaucrats grew and grew. By 1921, Lenin was referring to "the anthill of bureaucracy." (McAuley, 28-9)

War communism gradually eliminated private industrial property. Money was also abolished for a while to be replaced by a coupon system. Authority in industry became ever more centralised. (Sakwa, 29)

Civil war had effected defining changes upon the Communists. It forced them to abandon collective decision making and concentrate power in the hands of single commanders. For example the Central Committee proved too large and unwieldy during wartime conditions with many members out as commanders in the field or commissars in the provinces. It was replaced by the internally focused Orgburo, and more importantly the Politburo. Sverdlov was the master behind the organisational changes. (Service, 111) It too was a key factor in the transition from Sovietism to democratic centralism.

The Great Debate

As we have stated earlier, even in the Civil War period, the Bolshevik party was riddled with divisions. In 1920-21, with the country in crisis, this crystallised around two issues - the party debate and the trade union debate. The background against which these debates took place was mixed. While the war was over and the Union’s frontiers were largely secure, the economy was still in chaos - "Hunger was a constant companion in the cities and was especially severe during the winter 1920-21" (McCauley, 40) The party debate focused on the rôle of the élite and the masses within the party, and the level of free speech and democratic control. Sakwa (32) sees a parallel with the nizi versus verkhi tensions of 1917 - except that now the party élite replaced the verkhi against the broad mass of party membership. The trade union debate focused, shockingly enough, on the rôle of trade unions. The primary protagonists were the Workers’ Opposition and Lev Trotski, with Lenin taking a middle path - "the unions should remain independent and act as educators of the working class rather than organisers of production." (Sakwa, 32)

The situation which faced the Communist leaders at the end of the Civil War was far from being the one which they had hoped for. The industrial working class was decimated as many had returned to the countryside. The destruction and dislocation of the Civil War had left much industrial plant either damaged or lying idle. The baby republic faced economic ruin. (McAuley, 30)

Worse, unrest among the populace broke out in the spring of 1921. The Kronstadt soldiers mutinied - McAuley (30) see this as the last serious challenge to Soviet power. Riots afflicted both town and country. (Sakwa, 32)

In order to snap the country out of economic stagnation, a limited degree of market mechanisms were introduced. Already during the civil war, bourgeois specialists had earned higher wages and piece work was introduced. (McAuley, 31) This was now to be expanded to allow renting of land and hiring of labour by the peasantry; ending forced requisitioning; returning small-scale industry to private ownership; and most importantly, free trade was authorised. (McAuley, 31) The ideological implications from this were fairly serious - the state was to take a leap back towards capitalism and economic inequalities were to be permitted.

Although it over-simplifies a little, it could be said that Lenin went for what would now be called the ‘Chinese option’ At the same party Congress (Xth) at which the NEP was announced, Lenin also announced the ban on factions within the party. (McAuley, 33) If society was too weak to survive without the free market, it was up to the party to transform society into a position where it could. (McAuley, 31) As in 1990’s China, economic freedoms went hand in hand with increased political control. As Brzezinski notes (17), this should not have surprised anyone who had read his work. "He made it amply clear that in his view Russia was not ripe for a socialist democracy and that socialism would be constructed in Russia ‘from above’, so to speak, by the dictatorship of the proletariat". (Brzezinski, 17) Indeed, McCauley feels that the ban on factions was necessary to allow Lenin to impose NEP on an unwilling party. (McCauley, 44)

The Leninist Compound

Mary McAuley lists a number of key elements in the ‘mature’ Leninist political framework (33)

Sakwa states that "The eight brief months of the Provisional Government proved to be a mere interregnum between two dirigiste systems." (Sakwa, 32) None the less he highlights the dangers of seeing the brutalities of Stalinism as a natural development of Stalinism. The Bolsheviks had definite social aims, very different from Tsarism, when they came to power. It was in his view the failure of the leadership to realise the difference between opposition within the revolution, and opposition to the revolution, which led to the suppression of freedoms, and ultimately to the brutalities of Stalinism.

There were a number of theories within contemporary Soviet Russia as to why the revolution did not work as planned (Sakwa, 33-34). One belief was that the conditions presupposed by Marx did not exist in Russia, a situation exacerbated by economic collapse and civil war. A second, favoured by Trotski, saw the failure of a general world revolution as to blame. A third saw Bolshevik ideology itself as to blame for the situation.

Ponton (30-33) attempts to assess Lenin. Lenin’s writings are so extensive that they can be used to support just about any assertion one cares to make [more quasi-religious symbolism - Communists used Marx and Lenin like Christians use the bible]. Undoubtedly he was a brutal and harsh man, who implemented wide ranging social control. Many commentators believe that his decisions in essence allowed Stalinism to emerge. His ban on factions fossilised the top-down nature of Soviet decision making. At the same time he was prepared to support the NEP, and was very progressive on the nationality issue. He also wished to see more ordinary people represented in the higher echelons of power.

Back to revision notes | Back to essays | Back to Gerry Lynch's homepage