War Communism

A predetermined policy or a pragmatic response?   


The following is taken from a very long and difficult article by the historian Paul Flewers, War Communism in Retrospect, formerly posted at http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk    It looks at the different reasons suggested by historians of why the Bolsheviks introduced War Communism.




War Communism in Retrospect


Paul Flewers


WAR COMMUNISM IS generally considered to be the overall policy of the Soviet government from the late spring of 1918 until early 1921. It is associated with the state control and nationalisation of industry, the attempts to eradicate private trade and to replace it by non-market methods of exchange, the coalescence of non-party and party organisations and state institutions, and the rise of compulsion and coercion in social relations.


A predetermined policy or a pragmatic response?
Authorities differ as to the rationale behind War Communism. Some view it as the result of the Bolsheviks’ preconceived desire to drive immediately forward to the suppression of capitalism. Robert Conquest considers that War Communism was entirely in line with Bolshevik precepts, and that "far from being a ‘war’ measure the ‘War Communism’ policy was a conscious attempt to create a new social order".1 Evan Mawdsley says that War Communism "was essentially the economic policy of victorious Bolshevism". The nationalisation of industry, the establishment of food detachments, and the restrictions upon private trade "had been developing at the centre and in the grass roots since the early winter of 1917-18". Furthermore: "The fact that the policies did not all come into force immediately after October was not due to any early moderation ... but simply to the fact that it took the new government a certain amount of time to gain a measure of control over the country."2 Paul Craig Roberts says that the policies of War Communism "were implicit in the doctrine of revolutionary Marxian socialism", and "constituted a Marxian economic programme".3


Others view War Communism as originating in a series of emergency measures introduced to deal with the increasingly difficult economic and military situation, but which was then justified in ideological terms. Isaac Deutscher says that the "desperate shifts and expedients" of food requisitioning, nationalisation and trade restrictions "looked to the party like an unexpectedly rapid realisation of its own programme": "The Bolshevik was therefore inclined to see the essential features of fully-fledged communism embodied in the war economy of 1918-19."4 Moshe Lewin says that when the Bolshevik leaders found themselves in a position "in which all the allegedly ‘capitalist’ mechanisms began to disintegrate under the strains of war", they "fell prey to the illusion that the dream [of socialism] was becoming real".5


Alec Nove stands in between these two interpretations, and considers that the drift into War Communism was due to the chronic decline and chaos in the industrial sector, and to the collapse of food supplies to the cities, and he warns against interpreting the regime’s "ideological garb" for their actions as a preconceived plan. Nonetheless, the ideological side cannot be ignored: "Indeed, it is quite clear that Lenin and his friends approached practical issues with a whole number of idées fixes, and that these influenced their behaviour. The consequences of actions inspired by ideas could influence events by further worsening the objective situation and therefore rendering further action necessary on empirical grounds. And so on. There was a process of interaction between circumstances and ideas."6


Lenin veered between the ideological and pragmatic explanations. Looking back in October 1921, he said that by the previous spring "it became evident that we had suffered defeat in our attempt to introduce the socialist principles of production and distribution by 'direct assault', that is, in the shortest, quickest and most direct way".7 Only a few months previously he said that the Bolsheviks had been living "in the conditions of a savage war that imposed an unprecedented burden on us and left us no choice but to take wartime measures in the economic sphere as well".8


Trotsky considered that War Communism was "the systematic regimentation of consumption in a besieged fortress", as the Soviet government put all the "scanty resources" of the country into supporting the war industries and keeping the city populations alive, but that the Soviet government also intended to develop such "methods of regimentation" directly into a planned economy. He adds, however, that this "theoretical mistake", these "utopian hopes", were due to the Bolsheviks banking on the early victory of proletarian revolutions in Western Europe, and that the Soviet republic would soon receive aid from the socialist regimes in those more advanced countries.9





1. R. Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror Famine, 1986, p.48.

2. E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, 1989, p.74, original emphasis.

3. P.C. Roberts, "War Communism: A Re-Examination", Slavic Review, Vol.29, No.2, June 1970, p.245.

4. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, 1979, p.489.

5. M. Lewin, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates: From Bukharin to the Modern Reformers, 1975, p.81.

6. A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, 1982, pp.47-8, original emphasis.

7. Lenin, "Report on the New Economic Policy", Collected Works, Vol.33, 1976, p.93.

8. Lenin, "Report on the Substitution of a Tax in Kind for the Surplus Grain Appropriation System", Collected Works, Vol.32, 1975, pp.219-20.

9. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1973, pp.21-3. Victor Serge later said: "The social system in these years was later called ‘War Communism’. At the time it was called simply ‘communism’, and anyone who, like myself, went so far as to consider it purely temporary was looked upon with disdain." (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1978, p.115)