War Communism

This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,

who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.


Following the October Revolution the Bolsheviks faced the awesome task of administering and directing a national economy. As professional revolutionists they had little opportunity or reason to concern themselves with problems of practical economic administration. As Marxists they had definite ideas on current economic questions and issues of the day but they disagreed heatedly among themselves as to how Marxist doctrine should be applied to the problem of running and administering Russia,s national economy.

Lenin then advocated state capitalism on the model of the German war economy, but state capitalism controlled and directed by workers' and party organs that had emerged during the revolution. Influenced by German Social Democratic writers, Lenin believed that banks occupied a key position in the modern capitalistic economy and that they offered successful revolutionists a simple and convenient means to regulate an economy without resorting to extreme and drastic measures to reshape its general structure and organization.

In December 1917 banks were nationalized and foreign and internal loans contracted by the tsarist and Provisional governments were annulled. Lenin knew that many capitalists and plant managers were hostile to the Bolshevik regime and wished to create for it economic difficulties; but he saw in workers' factory committees, which observed management and actively participated in the determining of basic factory policies, a means of controlling management. From the time he wrote "State and Revolution" in the summer of 1917 and until the spring of 1918, Lenin had great faith in what could be accomplished through workers' control and the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses.

But the economic crisis and chaos produced by the uncontrolled and indiscriminate nationalization of factories soon alarmed Lenin and caused him to return to the instinctive distrust of all spontaneous mass movements he had displayed earlier in "What Is To Be Done" and other works. His growing concern about the unsatisfactory performance of Russia's economic became particularly evident in March 1918, when he insisted on worker discipline in the factory and called for increased productivity with the help of bourgeois specialists and even of capitalists willing to cooperate with the Communist government.

Left Communists were dissatisfied with Lenin's economic program throughout the fall, winter, and spring of 1917-1918. Demanding the immediate nationalization of basic industry and the radical transformation of old Russia into a new socialistic society, they sharply criticized Lenin's ideas on state capitalism. They also argued for central direction of the economy and economic planning before Lenin did, and it was largely upon their initiative that a Supreme Council of the National Economy was founded in December 1917.

When Lenin emphasized the importance of worker discipline, they accused him--and with some justification--of having betraying the ideals he had formulated in his "State and Revolution". They denied the necessity of discipline imposed on the workers from outside the factory; such discipline was only required in dealing with such class enemies as bourgeois technicians and specialists. Worker discipline, in their opinion, was something that the workers should agree upon among themselves. The program of War Communism adopted in the second part of 1916 was essentially a compromise between the position of Lenin and that of the Left Communists.

In accord with the view of the Left Communists, the Soviet state pushed ahead on the road to rapid nationalization and revolutionary transformation of society and made every effort to subordinate the entire economy to central guidance and direction. Under War Communism, however, the influence workers' factory committees had attained in 1917 over internal administration and management of factories was no longer viewed with favor. By mid-1918 it had become clear to Lenin and others that that workers, if left to their own devices, could not be depended on to practice labor discipline and to maintain a level of production required to provide the army with the arms and supplies it needed to conduct military operations.

Communist leaders therefore began to look more and more to unions, which by this time had been thoroughly Bolshevized, as a means of subjecting workers to the strict control of the state. The Left Communists continued to question the need for such control; but the prevalent view among Communist leaders during the Civil War was that unions should serve primarily as instruments for the supervision and mobilization of labor. This attitude was also reflected in the decision of the fall of 1918 to introduce compulsory labor for all citizens between the ages of 16 and 50.

The Supreme Council of the People's Economy soon ceased to be a council and rapidly evolved into a bureaucratic organ of the state. New organs subordinate to the Supreme Council appeared in the second part of 1918 as the needs of the war economy and the problems of nationalized industry increasingly complicated the task of controlling and coordinating the national economy. These subordinate bodies were established fall all the principal branches of Russian industry-- chief oil committee, chief tobacco committee, textile center, etc. -- and to a considerable extent Staffed by former plant owners, mangers, and specialists.

The Left Communists naturally criticized the employment of bourgeois specialists and experts in the industrial committees and centers as dangerous bureaucratization of the administration of the national economy; but such criticisms were necessarily ignored because the services of these specialists were urgently needed to check the growing confusion and chaos in the management and operation of Russian industry.

The control of the peasantry and delivery of food to the army and towns proved to be equally vexing problems. Early in 1918 food shortages became critical in Petrograd and Moscow. The Bolsheviks tried to meet this crisis by going to the people in their own fashion. In mid-1918 Poor Peasants. Committees were formed, and Bolshevik workers were sent out into the countryside to lead the poor peasants in revolt against kulaks and to assist in requisitioning food supplies for Petrograd, Moscow, and other towns and the army.

Every effort was made to induce poor peasants to cooperate with the government in the organization of collective farms and to participate in the '.transition from small, individual farms to the socialized working of the land." Bolshevik efforts during 1918 to promote class warfare and socialism in the Russian village were not, however, very successful; for even so-called poor peasants were then disinclined to accept Bolshevik plans for collectivization. The peasantry as a whole had benefited from the division of former private estates, and church and state lands; and that sending of workers and party officials from towns into the village to requisition food alienated almost the entire peasantry.

As long as the government could not provide the countryside with the industrial goods it needed, there was no compelling economic reason for the peasants to deliver foodstuffs for the towns and army. As Lenin admitted later, the government for the most part took the peasants' surplus grain and even food needed by their families "on credit, for paper money." Since this paper money was practically worthless, the peasants naturally felt cheated and therefore united in opposition to their enemies from the outside, the principal one being of course the Communist government in Moscow.

In sum, War Communism failed to organize a productive, well-regulated economy, but it succeeded in meeting the immediate and minimal needs of the Communist state during the Civil War period. In regard to the countryside, the requisitioning of grain and other products of the land was a defensible and, temporarily, even a successful policy; however, it soon led to peasant resistance in the form of a producers' strike and a reduction in the acreage under cultivation. In regard to towns and industrial centers, official policies under War Communism probably slowed the rate of decline in labor productivity and helped to introduce an element of system and order into the general picture of unmanageable economic chaos caused by local control in the hands of workers, factory committees.

Now Russian industry was subordinated to the coordinating direction of the Supreme Council, and millions of people were mobilized for compulsory labor service. Supreme Council control over industry and the labor force was, however, often more apparent than real, for many industries functioned rather independently of Supreme Council directives by limiting their production to items that could be bartered locally. Moreover, the Supreme Council was powerless to counteract the effects of central Russia's having been cut off from supplies of food, raw materials, and fuel from the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Total industrial production continued to fall until 1920, when Russian industry produced approximately l4% of what it had in 1913.

Nevertheless, the nationalization of industry and the efforts of the Supreme Council to control and coordinate the economy and labor force gave the Bolsheviks and overall view of available human and material resources, which enabled them to organize munitions production and army supply much better than could their White opponents. This in itself was a considerable achievement and an essential ingredient of the Bolshevik's ultimate victory.

The year 1921 was a crucial turning point, for during this year Communist leaders adopted a line of action that combined firm control from above with a relatively non-doctrinaire economic and cultural policy calculated to lessen tensions between the ruling party and the majority of the population.

At the end of February and early in March 1921 Kronstadt sailors revolted against the Communist government in Moscow that ruled in the name of "the dictatorship of the proletariat." The Kronstadt sailors had been the Bolsheviks most loyal supporters in 1917; however, since then their enthusiasm for Russia's new rulers had cooled as the Communists proceeded to eliminate all competing socialist parties from politics and to rule Russia no less harshly and authoritarianly than did the officials of the tsar prior to the Revolution.

The Kronstadt insurgents, therefore, demanded, among other things, reelections for the Soviets "by secret ballot," "freedom of speech and press for workers, peasants, and left socialist parties," freedom of assembly, liberation of political prisoners, abolition of the privileged position of the Communist Party in Russian society, abolition of food requisitioning squads, and the right of the peasants to utilize their own land as they saw fit as long as they did not use hired labor. After March 2, a Provisional Revolutionary Committee led the struggle of the Kronstadt garrison against the Soviet government. Beginning on March 7 War commissar Trotsky had the island shelled and ordered Red Army assaults .cross the ice of the Gulf of Finland until the fortress finally fell on March 18.

The survivors of the garrison of some 14,000 men--except those who escaped across the ice to Finland--were either imprisoned or shot. No public trial was held because a proletarian revolt was an extremely delicate issue in a self-styled workers' society. General unrest among Russian workers and peasants helped to spark the Kronstadt revolt. In February 1921 a wave of strikes had challenged Communist authority in Petrograd. These strikes registered worker protest against the regimentation of labor and against the use of force to prevent hungry urbanites from foraging for food in the country.

The peasants resented above all the Communists grain requisitioning, and during 1920 and 1921 a number of violent peasant uprisings occurred in the Central Agricultural Region of the Ukraine, the Urals, and western siberia. suppression of peasant revolts in the Ukraine and in the Tambov region southeast of Moscow required large concentrations of Red Army troops. Makhno, now an enemy of the communist regime, held out in the Ukraine until August 1921, when he was finally forced to flee into Rumania.

The Communists had clearly failed during the first four years of their rule to bridge the gap that had always separated the state from society in Russia. In 1921 the state was still viewed by the overwhelming majority of its citizens as an essentially hostile force that tyrannized over them with bureaucratic red tape and police controls.

Lenin realized that the climate of opinion in Russia was hostile to the government and that the populace, particularly the peasants, had to be placated. Thus in the spring of 1921 he proposed the New Economic Policy (NEP) , which replaced grain requisitioning with a tax in kind more acceptable to the peasants and permitted privately owned small-scale industry and peasants to market their products freely.

The partial revival of capitalism implied by NEP as well as increasing concentration of power and decision making in the hands of a small number of party leaders gave rise to widespread criticism in Communist and workers. circles. From the very beginning Lenin and a few close associated decided basic party policy' and they continued to do so after the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917.

Indeed, the conquest and consolidation of Bolshevik power and the Civil War emergency called for more, not less, centralized direction; and the influence of workers over Russia's economy and political life could only decline as Bolshevik leaders began to make wider and wider use of trade unions as a means of mobilizing and regimenting labor. In March 1919 the Eighth Party congress institutionalized control from above by approving the creation of three new central party organs: The Politburo, the Orgburo, and the Secretariat. The death of Sverdlov (on whose shoulders tasks of routine party administration had primarily rested) on the eve of the congress and the Civil War crisis seemed to justify such action at the time' but after the Civil War had ended the bureaucratic apparatus of the central party continued to grow.

The two chief Communist opposition groups in the early 1920's were known as the Democratic Centralists and the Workers' Opposition. The democratic centralists chose one of Lenin.s favorite slogans to describe their ideal of party organization. Lenin had always, in principle at least, been concerned with the furthering of inner-party democracy, but in practice he quickly came to distrust the political maturity of Russian workers and therefore almost invariably relied on central direction from above. The democratic Centralists, on the other hand, emphasized the necessity of decentralizing and minimizing bureaucracy within the party.

The second group, the Workers. Opposition, not only advocated more party democracy but also objected to the subordination of workers and trade unions to excessive control by the party. In addition, the Workers' Opposition condemned NEP for its sacrifice of workers' interests for the sake of the peasants. Within the frame of reference of Marxism, it was of course the proletariat, not the backward peasantry, that was supposed to play a leading role in the building of a future socialist society.

Lenin feared that such criticism would weaken party discipline and create difficulties for party leaders in carrying out policies that seemed essential for the further consolidation of Communist power in Russia. Criticism of NEP was especially unwelcome because of this policy's assigned role of lessening peasant hostility to Communist rule and of setting into operation economic forces that were to restore agricultural and industrial production to the level of pre-1914 tsarist Russia. Consequently, Lenin considered it necessary to limit freedom of discussion within the party and workers' groups; he particularly concentrated on the party because here was the main center of power in Soviet Russia. Up to this time a certain degree of democratic discussion had been encouraged. Until the Tenth Party Congress of March 1921, party members had been permitted, "within the limits of Communism," to form groups and canvas for votes; but the Kronstadt revolt and the economic and political crisis of 1921, peasant dissatisfaction, and opposition within the party persuaded Lenin that the organization of party opposition groups could no longer be tolerated.

The key word at the Tenth Party Congress was "factionalism," which was defined as "the rise of groups with special platforms with the aim to shut themselves off to a certain extent and to create their own group discipline." To meet the danger of factionalism, all party organizations were ordered to keep a constant watch for factional activities, and the Central Committee was, in a secret resolution, given "plenary powers" to deal with cases of factionalism, namely, to expel rank- and-file members from the party and to transfer members of the Central Committee to the status of candidates.

As an "extreme measure," even members of the Central Committee could be expelled. These measures, however, did not necessarily end all discussion and criticism within the party. On the contrary, discussion of various points of view continued to be encouraged up to the point that a definite policy had been established in regard to a given issue. But after such a policy had been formally accepted by the party, the organization of groups in opposition to this policy was strictly forbidden.

These rules helped Lenin to surmount a serious political and social crisis, to minimize opposition to NEP, and to proceed with the reconstruction of Russian society after seven years of war, revolution, and internal discord. The factionalism rules can therefore be easily justified and defended; yet, they had a negative side, too, for these rules could be used for illegitimate as well as legitimate purposes.

Once the crises of 1921 was overcome there was little to prevent one small clique or another within the party leadership from using these rules as a convenient means to seize power for itself and to silence honest opposition. This, indeed, was exactly what happened as Stalin emerged as Lenin's successor in the course of the 1920's.