Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged

7. War Communism (1918–1921)

As we saw in the last chapter, in March and April 1918 Lenin developed an economic policy aimed at achieving a long process of reform on the basis of the proletarian revolution. However, the intensification of the class struggle, and the outbreak of civil war in May 1918, totally shattered this policy.

Nationalization of Industry Replacing Workers’ Control

The policy of the Bolsheviks after October – workers’ control of industry and selective nationalization – was sabotaged initially by the capitalists. Still hoping for restoration of their former power, and unwilling to work under workers’ control, they practised large-scale sabotage.

Thus the All-Russian Congress of Employers’ Associations declared at the beginning of December 1917 that those ‘factories in which the control is exercised by means of active interference in the administration will be closed’. [1]

The Société Internationale des Wagon-Lits and the Sergeev-Ugalenski mines were nationalized because of ‘the refusal of the management to continue work in the workshops’, and because of ‘the refusal of the management to submit to the Decree on Workers’ Control’; M. Helferich-Sade’s business was nationalized in January because management ‘had closed down its factory and abandoned its principal office at Kharkov’. Similarly, the aeroplane works of Andreev Lanski and Company were taken over because of the company’s declared intention to dismiss its workers; the Sestronetsk metallurgical works for refusing to continue production; Rostkino dye works for ‘the categorical refusal of its owner to continue production in spite of the reserves of material and fuel in stock’. [2]

The workers reacted spontaneously to capitalist sabotage. As Serge put it:

The liquidation of the political defences of their capitalist exploiters launched a spontaneous movement among the workers to take over the means of production. Since they were perfectly able to take control of the factories and workshops, why should they abstain? If they could, they ought. The employers’ sabotage of production entailed expropriation as an act of reprisal. [3]

Of individual firms that had been nationalized before July 1918, only about 100 were nationalized by decree from the centre, while over 400 were nationalized on the initiative of local organizations. [4]

With the outbreak of civil war, not only did the bourgeoisie’s attitude to the regime harden, and any previous willingness to cooperate evaporate completely, but for the Soviet government military necessity immediately took precedence over all other considerations. Such big capitalists as had not previously done so packed their bags and passed through the White Army’s lines. For the Soviet authorities direct control over production quickly became an urgent necessity, both to combat attempts at sabotage and to ensure priority for military supplies. Hence there was wholesale nationalization. Altogether it was estimated that 70 per cent of all nationalizations in this period took place because the employers refused to accept workers’ control or abandoned their enterprises. [5]

Not until 2 May 1918 was a whole industry nationalized – the sugar industry; then on 17 June the petroleum industry; on 28 June a decree was made for the nationalization of the largest undertakings in the mining, metallurgical, textile, electro-technical, pottery, tanning and cement industries. This set off a vast process of confiscation which continued until all the large factories in Soviet territory had been taken over by the state.

In many cases the nationalization of industry was carried out independently of the Soviet government. Thus between July and December 1918, of 1,208 enterprises nationalized, only 345 were expropriated by state decree, while the rest – 863 enterprises – were taken over by local soviets, or local national economic councils. [6]

The process continued, until it covered not only large-scale and medium-sized industry, but even small factories. In November 1920 a decree announced the nationalization of all enterprises employing more than five workers where mechanical power was used, and more than ten workers in purely handicraft workshops; by the end of the year as many as 37,000 enterprises were listed as belonging to the state. This figure included many thousands of quite small workshops: 18,000 of the 37,000 enterprises did not use mechanical power, and more than 5,000 of them were employing only one worker. [7]

The Bolsheviks were forced to go far beyond what they thought economically rational, and to expropriate capitalists in industry and trade, large and small. As the distinguished economic historian of the period, Kritzman, put it:

In the atmosphere of the kindling civil war every joint effort of capital and the proletarian dictatorship (workers’ control, mixed joint-stock companies etc.) is seen to be a quickly evaporating Utopia.

The intervention of world capital, which fanned the expiring counter-revolutionary resistance within Russia into a new blaze, forced its consequence onto the proletariat - the inexorable expropriation of large-scale capital and capital generally, the confiscation of the property of the ruling classes, the suppression of the market and the construction of an all-embracing proletarian organization of the political economy, which depended on overcoming the market, and its exploitation. [8]

The Collapse of Industrial Production

The wholesale nationalization of industry was accompanied by a catastrophic decline of industrial production. The civil war tore apart the Russian economy. The main industrial regions of northern and central Russia remained under Soviet rule throughout the civil war. But the factories in these regions and the railway system, were dependent on sources of raw materials and fuel which were often cut off for long periods. The engineering industry of Petrograd, Briansk, Tula and other Soviet industrial towns needed coal from the Donets Basin and iron from the Urals and from the Ukraine. The Urals region was lost from the summer of 1918 until the summer of 1919, when Kolchak was driven back into Siberia. The Donets Basin was completely cut off from Russia from the time of the German occupation of the Ukraine in spring 1918 until the retreat of Denikin’s army in the latter months of 1919 (with the exception of a brief period early in 1918, when part of it was held by the Soviets). Baku oil was lost from the time the Turks occupied Baku in summer 1918 until the Red Army entered it in spring 1920. The secondary oil source in Grozny in the North Caucasus was cut off by Denikin. The textile mills of Moscow and the ring of factory towns around it depended on cotton from Turkestan, but Turkestan was cut off from Soviet Russia, first as a result of the Czechoslovak troops’ onslaught on the Volga in the summer of 1918, and later, until the latter part of 1919, by Kolchak’s advance. By that time the peasants of Turkestan had largely given up planting cotton (and substituted crops which would yield something to eat).

Foreign blockade dealt another serious blow to Soviet Russia’s industry:






(in million pud)*
















        0.7 [9]

* pud = 16.38 kg = 36.11 lb.

A shortage of raw materials, fuel and food combined to bring about a disastrous fall in industrial productivity. Starvation, or semi-starvation, gravely affected workers’ efficiency. According to approximate calculations, the gross product per head of the Russian worker changed as follows:

Productivity per worker
(in stable rubles)















   30 [10]

Absenteeism reached unprecedented levels. It was sometimes as high as 60 per cent, and quite commonly exceeded 30 per cent. [11] The average rate of absenteeism before the war had been about 10 per cent. In 192o absenteeism in the best ‘shock’ plants increased threefold. In the Sormovsky plant it reached 36 per cent in July; in August it dropped to 32 per cent. At the Briansk plant it was 40 per cent during the winter months and rose to 48.5 per cent in June and to so per cent in August. At the Tver plant it was 44 per cent during July and August. [12]

It is impossible, of course, to evaluate the precise weight of the various factors leading to the decline in labour productivity. However, an attempt at an estimate, which should be taken only as a rough guide, was made by a Soviet economist, S.G. Strumilin. His assessment was that the decline of productivity in industry was caused by the following factors:




Physical exhaustion of workers


Slackening of work discipline


Move to time-wages


Defects in work organization


Shortage of raw materials


Wear and tear of machines


Even if Strumilin’s calculation is taken only as an approximation, it still unmistakably underlines the fact that the physical exhaustion of workers, brought about by undernourishment, was the major cause of the decline in labour productivity. [13] Workers were so wretchedly fed that it was not uncommon for them to faint at the bench. It was an act of heroism to work at all. The labour front demanded no less fortitude than the military front.

The catastrophic decline of large-scale industry can be seen from the following (production in 1913 = 100):

for 1917



for 1918


for 1919


for 1920

 18 [14]

What happened in different branches of industry can be seen from the following table:

Production in 1920 (1913 = 100)





Electric bulbs









Electrical engineering
machinery and power
current apparatus


Linen yarn




Wool Yarn


Cotton yarn goods




Railway carriage


Paper and pulp


Hemp spun yarn


Vegetable oils






Pig iron








Iron ore





    0.0 [15]

Railway transport, central to all economic (as well as military) activities, was in a critical state. The picture here was:



% of damaged








         57 [16]

The Compulsory Requisition of Grain

The civil war, as well as breaking up the national economy of Russia, also imposed on industry massive demands from the Red Army. In summer 1920 the army was taking the following proportions of the country’s centralized supplies:
























Cotton material


Dried fruit


Other textiles





  90 [17]




After the army took its share of the shrinking industrial output, very little remained for the peasantry, so that the economic connection between industry and agriculture, between town and country, was broken. The peasant got very few industrial goods in exchange for the grain he delivered, as can be seen from the following table:


Supply of grain
from peasantry
(million pud)

Supply of textiles
to peasantry
(million arshin)

Ratio between the two
(arshins of textile
per pud of grain)




       1 : 3.00       




        1 : 0.85 [18]

* pud = 16.38 kg = 36.11 lb.
** arshin = 28 inches

The only way the army and the town population could be guaranteed food was by the compulsory requisitioning of grain from the peasant. The all-powerful Food Commissariat took from industry whatever it produced for distribution among the population, and took from agriculture whatever could be extracted from the peasants for distribution to the army and the town population, through rationing.

The collapse of industry and the violent suppression of commercial relations between town and country meant that the exchange of grain and industrial goods which took place was not a real exchange. While the better-off peasantry supplied the majority of the grain, the poor peasantry got the industrial goods. As Kritzman said: ‘The state exchange of products was ... not so much an exchange between industry and agriculture, as an exchange of industrial products against the services that the poor peasants gave in the extraction of products from the farms of the well-to-do layers of the village.’ [19]

The attempt at centralized state control of grain supplies was repeatedly undermined by the activity of millions of peasants [A], as well as that of hungry townspeople foraging for food. Thus in 1919 out of the 136.6 million pud of cereal which reached the consumers, 40 per cent (i.e. 54.4 million pud) were delivered by the state distribution bodies (the People’s Commissariat for food distribution) and 60 per cent (82.2 million pud) by illegal ‘free’ trade. [20]

Food Rationing

A central characteristic of the economic system at the time of the civil war was distribution of grain by the state according to rigid class criteria.

In September 1918 the Moscow Soviet divided the population into four categories. The first consisted of manual workers engaged in harmful trades; the second, of workers who were obliged to perform heavy physical labour; the third, of workers in light tasks, employees, housewives; the fourth, of professional men and women and people living on unearned income or without employment. Such food supplies as were available were doled out to these four categories in the ratio 4 : 3 : 2 : 1. However, even the most favoured category got very meagre rations indeed. People in the first category in Petrograd during May 1919 received the following allotments: 15½ pounds of bread, one pound of sugar, half a pound of margarine, four pounds of herrings, two pounds of other fish, one pound of salt and a quarter of a pound of mustard. [21]

At the worst period the meagre bread ration of 2 oz. for workers was issued on alternate days. [22]

A Soviet author calculates that the food-card system in Moscow gave the population about one-seventh of the calories which the Germans received on ration cards during the war and about one-tenth of the calories which the British obtained. Even if one makes allowance for the fact that the Russians may have been able to purchase extra food on the private market, it is evident that malnutrition and in some cases downright starvation were far more prevalent in Russia than in wartime Germany or Britain. [23]

Hunger, Epidemics and Cold

Hunger stalked the towns. One result was a massive flight of the population to the countryside. The urban population, and particularly the number of industrial workers, declined very sharply between 1917 and 1920. In the autumn of 1920 the population of 40 capitals of provinces had declined since 1917 by 33 per cent, from 6,400,000 to 4,300,000, and the population of so other large towns by 16 per cent, from 1,517,000 to 1,271,000. The larger the city, the greater the decline. The population of Petrograd fell from 2,400,000 in 1917 to 574,000 in August 1920.

In the footsteps of hunger came epidemics, above all typhus. The following is the number of typhus victims in European Russia (in thousands):

















So in two years over five million people fell ill with typhus. [24]

Without exaggeration Lenin could declare to the Seventh Congress of Soviets on 5 December 1919:

A scourge is assailing us, lice, and the typhus that is mowing down our troops. Comrades, it is impossible to imagine the dreadful situation in the typhus regions, where the population is broken, weakened, without material resources, where all life, all public life ceases. To this we say, ‘Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice! [25]

Deaths from typhus alone in the years 1918-20 numbered 1.6 million, and typhoid, dysentery and cholera caused another 700,000. [26] All told, the number of premature deaths is estimated for the period from 1 January 1918 to 1 July 1920 at seven million, i.e. at 7 per cent of the total population. [27]

This estimate does not cover the peripheral areas of Russia such as Siberia and the South East. If these were included the number of premature deaths must have been more than nine million. This far surpasses the number of deaths in combat – estimated at about 350,000.

Cold added to the suffering of the population. As the most essential industries and the transport system were chronically short of fuel, practically nothing was allocated for domestic heating. So abandoned houses were torn down by the people who had strength for such activity, and the wood used for heating.

Suffering was indescribable. Numerous cases of cannibalism occurred. A quarter of Russia’s population – 35 million – suffered from continuous acute hunger. Several million orphan waifs roamed roads, railway tracks and city streets, living on charity and crime. The weak suffered most. And nobody was weaker than the children. On 2 April 1920 Gorky wrote to Lenin: ‘In Petrograd there are over 6,000 juvenile delinquents aged 9 to 15, all of them recidivists and with no few murderers amongst them. There are 12-year-olds who have as many as three murders to their name.’ [28]

Victor Serge described the terrible affliction of children at the time:

Do you know what Tata is doing? She can’t sleep with the commissars, not with a broken nose and a voice like an old worn-out shoe. But she found herself a racket. She undresses little kids. ‘Here, little boy, come here. I’ve got something interesting to show you ...’

She takes the kid by the hand, all sweet and nice, and leads him into a hallway. Two slaps across his little face and Tata collects his coat, his hat, his gloves, a good day’s work.

‘That turns my stomach,’ said Katka. ‘Poor little kids.’

‘They’re gonna croak one way or another,’ said Manya softly. ‘These days.’

‘And anyway,’ ventures Dunya-the-Snake, ‘if they’re the kids of the bourgeois, too bad for them.’

‘Shut up, you stupid little Agit-Prop. You know that big building they’re putting up over on the canal? Well, a whole gang of kids is holed up in there, with Olenka-the-Runaway as their chief. What do you say to that? Ah, now there’s a somebody for all her thirteen years. Looks like a little lamb; sweet, well-mannered and all that, but cunning. I’m sure she’s the one who killed that little boy by the Oats Market. You know what they thought up? They catch cats, they eat them, and sell the skins to the Chinese ... They also work poorboxes in the churches and ration cards in the food lines.’ [29]


Strict egalitarianism was preached and practised by the Bolshevik party. ‘Our salaries were linked to the “Communist Maximum”,’ Serge recalled, ‘equal to the average wage of a skilled worker.’ He went on to relate how the eldest son of Ionov, Zinoviev’s brother-in-law, an executive member of the Soviet and director of the state Library, died of hunger before their very eyes. [30]

In the Kremlin, he [Lenin] still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the second winter, he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. [31]

Lenin was very angry when he found out that he had been paid too much, and on 23 May 1918 he rebuked V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, office manager of the Council of People’s Commissars:

In view of your failure to fulfil my insistent request to point out to me the justification for raising my salary as from 1 March 1918, from 500 to 800 rubles a month, and in view of the obvious illegality of this increase, I give you a severe reprimand. [32]

Krupskaya used to go to the Kremlin restaurant to fetch the family dinner. She was often seen walking along the icy Kremlin pavement with a big chunk of black bread under her arm, and carrying in front of her a pot of soup. But though her trip to the restaurant was timed for Lenin’s return home, she rarely found him there. Maria, Lenin’s sister, would phone his office. He promised to come right away. After ten or fifteen minutes she would phone again, pleading with him to come home as the food was getting cold. When at last he did come home, as punishment he would have to wait till the food was warmed again.

A high government official in the Kremlin could tell the Manchester Guardian correspondent Arthur Ransome:

Today is the first day for two months that we have been able to warm this building. We have been working here in overcoats and fur hats in a temperature below freezing point ... Many of my assistants have fallen ill. Two only yesterday had to be taken home in a condition something like that of a fit, the result of prolonged sedentary work in unheated rooms. I have lost the use of my right hand for the same reason. [33]

Super-Centralization of Management

War communism meant extreme centralization of economic management. But this did not mean rational planning of the economy. Disintegration of production, the substitution of compulsion for exchange between town and country, and compulsion in the labour field, did not aid rational calculation and planning. Orders from the centre were also often confused and contradictory, because of the sheer pressure of the civil war conditions and the inexperience of the administration. As Lenin put it: ‘such is the sad fate of our decrees: they are signed, and then we ourselves forget about them and fail to carry them out’. [34]

Kritzman called the resultant confusion ‘the most complete form of proletarian natural-anarchistic economy’. ‘Anarchistic’ because of conflicts between administrative departments and because of the lack of any coherent plan. Anarchistic too because of the ‘shock’ (udarnii) campaigning methods, by which the authorities rushed from bottleneck to bottleneck, creating new shortages while seeking feverishly to deal with others.

There was no unified economic plan. The war was given priority and improvisation was substituted for rational planning. As Maurice Dobb, an economic historian of the period, put it:

The administrative chaos and delays which resulted from the passing of so many decisions about matters of detail through a few central bottlenecks had their reaction in what came to be known as the ‘shock’ system ... To by-pass the administrative congestion when its economic results became alarming, certain enterprises of special importance, usually from the immediate military point of view, were singled out as ‘shock’ enterprises. These were given top priority in the supply of fuel and materials and food rations for their workers, and the best organizers available were assigned to their administration. When applied only to a limited range of industry, it was, of course, a reasonable method of applying priorities and its effect was beneficial (for example, in improving the situation in transport). In the situation of civil war it is difficult to see what other method could have been quickly applied. But in the course of time, as soon as it had come to be applied to all widely, it tended in many cases to increase rather than to lessen the economic confusion. [35]

Has the Communist Millennium Arrived?

The desperate measures taken by the Bolsheviks seemed to many at the time to be an unexpectedly rapid realization of the Party programme for achieving Communism. Socialization of industry, the requisitions of food, the payment of wages in kind, the liquidation of money, the state’s growing role in the distribution of resources throughout the national economy, the abolition of the market economy which was the breeding ground of capitalism - all looked like the achievement of full communism. After all, according to Marx, the future Communist economy was to be a natural economy in which socialist planned production and distribution would take the place of production for the market. The Bolshevik leaders were therefore naturally inclined to see the essential features of communism embodied in the war economy of the civil war period. The stern egalitarianism which the Party preached and practised strengthened this belief.

In March 1919 Lenin wrote: ‘In the sphere of distribution, the present task of Soviet power is to continue steadily replacing trade by the planned, organized and nation-wide distribution of goods ... The Russian Communist Party will strive as speedily as Possible to introduce the most radical measures to pave the way for the abolition of money.’ [36]

On the second anniversary of the October revolution Lenin could define the economic system prevailing as communist.

In Russia, labour is united communistically insofar as, first, private ownership of the means of production has been abolished, and, secondly, the proletarian state power is organizing large-scale production on state-owned land and in state-owned enterprises on a national scale, is distributing labour-power among the various branches of production and the various enterprises, and is distributing among the working people large quantities of articles of consumption belonging to the state. [37]

However, Lenin sometimes contradicted himself, saying that the prevailing system was very primitive, and far from real communism.

We give the name of communism to the system under which people form the habit of performing their social duties without any special apparatus for coercion, and when unpaid work for the public good becomes a general phenomenon ... The expropriation of the landowners and capitalists enabled us to organize only the most primitive forms of socialism, and there is not yet anything communist in it. If we take our present-day economy we see that the germs of socialism in it are still very weak and that the old economic forms dominate overwhelmingly; these are expressed either as the domination of petty proprietorship or as wild, uncontrolled profiteering. [38]

The Bolshevik leader who was most enthusiastic about War Communism as real communism was Bukharin. He saw the distribution of rations in kind instead of wages in money as the disappearance of wage labour. He thought that the monetary systems and with it the commodity system in general, would collapse during the period of transition, this being made manifest through the devaluation of the currency. [39]

Marx’s concept of communist society, however, was based on highly developed productive forces with a superabundance of goods and services, and rational organization of the economy. Economic inequality was to be abolished by levelling up living standards. War Communism was, on the contrary, the result of the destruction and disintegration of production, of the unparalleled scarcity of goods and services.

As Marx stated repeatedly: ‘Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural level conditioned by it.’ The Bolsheviks had no doubt that the material heritage they had acquired on taking power was very meagre, not only in comparison with contemporary developed capitalist countries, but even with these same countries at an early stage of their capitalist development.

The most complete and accurate calculation of the national income in different countries at different periods was undertaken by Colin Clark in his book The Conditions of Economic Progress (London 1940). He estimates the real income per occupied person in Russia in 1913 to be 306 International Units (IUs). [B] As against this the real income per occupied person in some developed countries was:

Great Britain













































* Annual average

Thus the average income per occupied person in Russia in 1913 was only 80.9 per cent of the corresponding figure for Britain in 1688. [40] The level of literacy in Russia at the time of the revolution was below that of France at the time of its revolution, in 1789!

The Utopian hopes of the Bolsheviks in the period of War Communism appear completely inexplicable at first glance. However, they were based on the hope of an early victory of the revolution in the West, which would have made possible a direct progression from War Communism to the systematic construction of socialism. In addition, the illusions prevailing were an integral part of the moral courage of the masses and were imposed by the harsh exigencies of the civil war.

In Retrospect

After the civil war and the ending of War Communism, Lenin summed up the balance of experience of the period, admitting both the errors of the time, and their inevitability. Thus, in a speech on 17 October 1921, he said:

Partly owing to the war problems that overwhelmed us and partly owing to the desperate position in which the Republic found itself owing to these circumstances, and a number of others, we made the mistake of deciding to go over directly to communist production and distribution. We thought that under the surplus-food appropriation system the peasants would provide us with the required quantity of grain, which we could distribute among the factories and thus achieve communist production and distribution.

I cannot say that we pictured this plan as definitely and as clearly as that; but we acted approximately on those lines ... that line was wrong ... it ran counter to what we had previously written about the transition from capitalism to socialism ... Ever since 1917, when the problem of taking power arose ... our theoretical literature has been definitely stressing the necessity for a prolonged, complex transition, through socialist accounting and control, from capitalist society (and the less developed it is the longer the transition will take) to even one of the approach to communist society. [41]

The mistakes of the party were the result of overenthusiasm and euphoria, according to Lenin.

Borne along on the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, rousing first the political enthusiasm and then the military enthusiasm of the people, we expected to accomplish economic tasks just as great as the political and military tasks we had accomplished by relying directly on this enthusiasm. We expected – or perhaps it would be truer to say that we presumed without having given it adequate consideration – to be able to organize the state production and the state distribution of products on communist lines in a small-peasant country directly as ordered by the proletarian state. Experience has proved that we were wrong. It appears that a number of transitional stages were necessary – state capitalism and socialism – in order to prepare – to prepare by many years of effort – for the transition to communism. Not directly relying on enthusiasm, but aided by the enthusiasm engendered by the great revolution, and on the basis of personal interest, personal incentive and business principles, we must first set to work in this small-peasant country to build solid gangways to socialism by way of state capitalism. [42]

Nothing can be an excuse for hiding one’s own mistakes. ‘We are not afraid to admit our mistakes and shall examine them dispassionately in order to learn how to correct them.’ [43]

The Soviet government had to probe the strength of the enemy, to gauge its own forces, to determine by experience the path actually open for systematic development of economic life; and these tasks could not have been achieved without resort to the methods of War Communism. As Lenin, looking back at the period, put it:

To explain my views and to indicate in what sense we can, and in my opinion should, say that our previous economic policy was mistaken, I would like to take for the purpose of analogy an episode from the Russo-Japanese War ... the capture of Port Arthur by the Japanese General Nogi. The main thing that interests me in this episode is that the capture of Port Arthur was accomplished in two entirely different stages. The first stage was that of furious assaults, which ended in failure and cost the celebrated Japanese commander extraordinarily heavy losses. The second stage was the extremely arduous, extremely difficult and slow method of siege, according to all the rules of the art. Eventually, it was by this method that the problem of capturing the fortress was solved. When we examine these facts we naturally ask in what way was the Japanese general’s first mode of operation against the fortress a mistake? ...

At first sight, of course, the answer to this question would seem to be a simple one. If a series of assaults on Port Arthur proved to be ineffective – and that was the case – if the losses sustained by the assailants were extremely heavy – and that, too, was undeniably the case – it is evident that the tactics of immediate and direct assault upon the fortress of Port Arthur were mistaken ... On the other hand, however, it is easy to understand that in solving a problem in which there are very many unknown factors, it is difficult without the necessary practical experience to determine with absolute certainty the mode of operation to be adopted against the enemy fortress, or even to make a fair approximation of it. It was impossible to determine this without ascertaining in practice the strength of the fortress, the strength of its fortifications, the state of its garrison, etc. Without this it was impossible for even the best of commanders, such as General Nogi undoubtedly was, to decide what tactics to adopt to capture the fortress ... without ... the practical attempt to carry the fortress by assault ... there would have been no grounds for adopting the more prolonged and arduous method of struggle ... Taking the operations as a whole, we cannot but regard the first stage, consisting of direct assaults and attacks, as having been a necessary and useful stage, because ... without this experience the Japanese army could not have learnt sufficiently the concrete conditions of the struggle. [44]

The direct, furious assault on capitalism represented by War Communism was similarly a necessary stage in the development of the dictatorship of the proletariat, an inevitable product of the raging civil war.

The capitalist apparatus – the management of the factories, the banks, etc. – was destroyed. There was no possibility of coming to terms economically with the bourgeoisie, even in terms of concessions or restricted workers’ control. With the bourgeois apparatus of economic management destroyed, there was no alternative but to create a substitute, however crude. The policy of compulsory grain requisition and centralized direction of labour followed from the collapse of the market and the conditions of siege economy. As Trotsky put it in retrospect:

This ‘communism’ was rightly called War Communism not only because it replaced economic methods by military ones but also because it served military purposes above all others. It was not a question of assuring a systematic development of economic life under the prevailing conditions, but of securing the indispensable food supply for the army at the fronts and of preventing the working class from dying out altogether. War Communism was the regime of a beleaguered fortress. [45]

In his Report to the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, introducing the New Economic Policy (NEP) Lenin reiterated that War Communism had been unavoidable.

There was no other way out in the conditions of the unexampled ruin in which we found ourselves, when after a big war we were obliged to endure a number of civil wars. We must state quite definitely that, in pursuing our policy, we may have made mistakes and gone to extremes in a number of cases. But in the wartime conditions then prevailing, the policy was in the main a correct one. We had no alternative but to resort to wholesale and instant monopoly, including the confiscation of all surplus stocks, even without compensation. That was the only way we could tackle the task. [46]

And in a pamphlet, The Tax in Kind explaining NEP, written on 21 April 1921, Lenin repeats:

It was the war and the ruin that forced us into War Communism. It was not, and could not be, a policy that corresponded to the economic tasks of the proletariat. It was a makeshift. [47]

Despite all the criticism of the policy of War Communism, there is no doubt that it was this policy that enabled Soviet Russia to emerge victorious, despite the breakdown of the economy and the excruciating suffering of the workers and peasants. It enabled the Soviet government to mobilize sufficient strength and concentrate the energy and heroism of the revolutionary masses on the most vital immediate task.


A. See Chapter 10 for the peasants’ massive resistance to requisitions.

B. Clark defines the ‘International Unit’ as ‘the amount of goods and services which one dollar would purchase in USA over the average of the period 1925–34’.


1. V. Brügmann, Die russischen Gewerkschaften in Revolution und Bürgerkrieg 1917–1919, Frankfurt a/M 1972, p. 140.

2. M. Dobb, Soviet Economic Development Since 1917, London 1948, pp. 84–5.

3. Serge, op. cit., p. 137.

4. Dobb, op. cit., p. 90.

5. V.P. Miliutin, Istoriia ekonomicheskogo razvitiia SSSR, Moscow-Leningrad 1929, p. 115.

6. Brügmann, op. cit., p. 247.

7. L.N. Kritzman, Die heroische Periode der grossen russischen Revolution, Frankfurt a/M 1971, pp. 101–2, 208.

8. ibid., pp. 97–8.

9. ibid., p. 80.

10. ibid., p. 293.

11. K. Leites, Recent Economic Development in Russia, Oxford 1922, pp. 152, 199.

12. J. Bunyan, The Origin of Forced Labor in the Soviet State: 1917–1921, Baltimore 1967, pp. 173–4.

13. Brügmann, op. cit., p. 151.

14. Kritzman, op. cit., p. 252.

15. ibid., p. 254.

16. ibid., p. 283.

17. ibid., p. 265.

18. ibid., p. 273.

19. ibid., p. 276 .

20. ibid., p. 216.

21. Chamberlin, op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 100–1.

22. Dobb, op. cit., p. 100.

23. Chamberlin, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 105.

24. Kritzman, op. cit., p. 287.

25. Lenin, Works, Vol. 30, p. 228.

26. F. Lorimer, The Population of the Soviet Union, History and Prospects, Geneva, 1948, p. 41.

27. Kritzman, op. cit., p. 288.

28. Lenin and Gorky: Letters, Reminiscences, Articles, Moscow 1973, p. 163.

29. V. Serge, Conquered City, London 1976, pp. 89–90.

30. V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1901–1941, London 1963, p. 79.

31. ibid., p. 101.

32. Lenin, Works, Vol. 35, p. 333.

33. A. Ransome, Six Weeks in Russia in 1919, London 1919, pp. 68–9.

34. Lenin, Works, Vol. 32, p. 22.

35. Dobb, op. cit., p. 114.

36. Lenin, Works, Vol. 29, pp. 137–8.

37. ibid., Vol. 30, pp. 108–9.

38. ibid., pp. 284–5.

39. N.I. Bukharin, Economics of the Transformation Period, New York 1971, p. 146.

40. C. Clark, The Conditions of Economic Progress, London 1940, pp. 79, 83, 91, 98.

41. Lenin, Works, Vol. 33, pp. 62–3.

42. ibid., p. 58.

43. ibid., p. 57.

44. ibid., pp. 84–6.

45. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, London 1953, Vol. 2, p. 266.

46. Lenin, Works, Vol. 32, pp. 233–4.

47. ibid., p. 343.

Last updated on 19.9.2012