Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

The Famine and the Czechoslovak Intervention


The months of April and May were marked by an extreme intensification of the food shortage. We may recall that the fall of the Tsar in February 1917 had been accompanied by cries of ‘Bread! Bread!’ shouted in the workers’ districts of Petrograd. Ever since 1916 supplies even for the army had been so poor that in 1917 the troops had received only fifty-three per cent of their meat ration. [1] The disorganization of transport had reached a climax as the result of the spontaneous demobilization of the army, followed by the German advance and the sporadic guerrilla warfare. The best elements of the proletariat streamed from the factories to fight or labour for the revolution; production was being sabotaged by the employers, abetted by the technical staff. The prices of manufactured goods, which were getting harder and harder to find, went up, while the value of the paper currency, depreciated by constant re-issues, simultaneously declined. The peasants became tempted to withold their corn from a State which forbade them to sell it and offered in exchange what was only a derisory price, whether in paper money or in goods: grain became the target of speculation and sold at four or five times its normal price. These tragic facts summed up the problem of supplying food to the large towns, the working class that was the revolution’s vital force, and the growing army.

A monopoly of the grain traffic had been secured by the Provisional Government immediately after the collapse of Tsarism; but its running had been entrusted to Committees of Supply made up of dealers, factory-owners, landlords and rich peasants. The Soviet government gave the institution a quite different character. The Mensheviks, S-Rs and peasantry urged the People’s Commissars to abolish the monopoly. But it was actually a vital necessity. Free trade in grain would have left the State armed with the means of issuing paper currency but actually powerless in the face of speculation, which would be master of the market. The rich or comfortable layers of the peasantry would have been the best fed, indeed the only ones to be fed. It would have been virtually impossible to organize the regular transport of foodstuffs. The better-off peasants, enriched at the expense of the towns, would have in a short while become a formidable force. The State monopoly had to be defended to the death, and that is what was done.

A decree of 2 April authorized the bartering of commodities with the countryside, a first step towards regularizing the difficult, chaotic relations between city and peasantry. The fall in the value of paper money had necessitated the direct barter of goods against grain; but it had turned out that the goods delivered by the State fell into the hands of the rich peasants or kulaks. [2] The new decree specified that the exchange was henceforth to be conducted via the associations of poor peasants. This was the first invitation to the struggle between rich peasants and poor, destined within a few months to become a bitter civil war. In the end, on 13 May, it became necessary to proclaim ‘the dictatorship of food supplies’. The decree establishing it instituted the compulsory delivery to the State of all excess grain held by individuals, deductions being made for the amounts necessary for their own subsistence, for sowing, etc. These deductions were fixed by regular norms. The poor and the workers were urged to unite against the kulaks in the struggle for grain. The Commissariat for Food Supplies was authorized to act with the utmost vigour. It was, in short, a formal declaration of war by the dictatorship of the proletariat against the kulaks. On 20 May the ‘Food Army’ was created. Its effective troops were to number between 40,000 and 45,000 even up to 1919. It was this force that carried out the requisitioning in the countryside.

The famine was so acute that at Tsarskoye Seloe (now Dietskoye Seloe), not far from Petrograd, the people’s bread ration was only 100 grams per day. Rioting resulted. Cries of ‘Long live the Constituent Assembly!’ and even ‘Long live Nicholas II!’ were heard (this on 6-7 April). On 19 April there were ‘hunger riots’ (an expression familiar from long ago) at Smolensk, ‘fomented’ (or so it was said) by anarchists. At the end of April all movement into the famished and overpopulated province of Samara was prohibited. The bitterness, despair and anger sown by the famine, even in working-class areas, turned the middle classes of the cities, now ruined and totally incapable of understanding the revolution, into a receptive stratum for all varieties of counter-revolutionary propaganda. Discontent among the rich and prospering sections of the peasantry threatened to gather into a formidable rural Vendée.

In this period [writes one worker-militant], hardly any horses were to be seen in Petrograd; they were either dead, or eaten, or requisitioned, or sent off into the countryside. Dogs and cats were no more visible either ... People lived on tea and potato-cakes made with linseed oil. As a member of the EC of the Vyborg Soviet [in Petrograd] I know that there were whole weeks in which no issues of bread or potatoes were made to the workers; all they got was sunflower seeds and some nuts. ... The balance of forces consisted of starving towns face to face with a hundred million hostile peasants. Soviet power seemed to be in a desperate position. [3]


These conditions formed the background for the disarmament of the anarchists, which took place on the night of 11-12 April.

The unimportance of the anarchists’ influence among the worker-masses is attested by the small number of seats they held in the Soviets and in the Congress of Soviets, where, as a rule, they never added up to more than half a dozen out of the several hundred deputies; a number of libertarian groups, in addition, boycotted the Soviets, as being organs of authority. However, their little groups had become conspicuous, ever since May and June of 1917, in the bloody events at Durnovo’s villa in Petrograd, [4] and then by their role in the July days which were the prelude to the October insurrection; these demonstrations were partly their work. At Kronstadt and other places they had battled bravely against Kerenskyism, side by side with the Bolsheviks. In spite of their ideological disarray [5], most of them had fought well in October. On the morrow of the proletarian victory, their movement had gathered an exceptional vigour. No power stood in their way; they proceeded with the requisitioning of houses at their own behest; the Bolshevik party negotiated with their organizations on equal terms; in Moscow they had a big daily newspaper, Anarkhiya. (Golos Truda, or Voice of Labour, the anarcho-syndicalist journal in Petrograd, which at various moments had rivalled Lenin’s Pravda in influence, folded up only through the fault of its editors, who were divided among themselves on the problem of revolutionary war; Voline [6] and his friends abandoned propaganda to form themselves into a partisan detachment, and went off to the front where they proved quite useless.)

Anarkhiya, edited by the Gordin brothers [7], devoted itself to a feverish propaganda, of an entirely idealistic and demagogic quality, which seemed to be in no contact with any reality. Let us go through a few issues of this sheet, from April 1918. It must be remembered that this is the time immediately before the collapse of anarchism in the Russian revolution: after 12 April, it no longer exists. ‘We are against the Soviets on principle,’ write the brothers Gordin on 7 April, ‘since we are against all forms of State.’ ‘They are saying that we intend to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Nonsense! We were opposed even to overthrowing the Mensheviks!’

The same source, 10 April: ’We considered and still consider the seizure of power to be a fatal error ... but in October we fought in the front ranks.’ Again: ‘We are threatened, but we are calm. It is impossible that we should perish: what is great cannot perish.’ There was one single practical slogan in big black letters across the journal’s two pages: a humanitarian slogan directed against the Cheka (which at this moment was fairly mild): ‘ Don’t shoot men arrested without arms.’ This sort of language, however violent it might be from time to time, appears to have been harm-less. But that was not the problem.

In Moscow alone, the anarchist forces, divided into a multitude of groups, sub-groups, tendencies and sub-tendencies, from individualism to syndicalism, via Communism and not a few other quite fantastic ‘isms’, amounted to several thousands of men, armed for the most part. In this environment of famine, the sincere demagogy of the libertarian propagandists was well received by the backward elements of the populace. A ‘Black General Staff’ directed these forces, who indeed constituted a sort of armed State – irresponsible, uncontrolled and uncontrollable – within the State. The anarchists themselves admitted that suspicious elements, adventurers, common criminals and counter-revolutionaries were thriving among them, but their libertarian principles did not permit them to refuse entrance to their organizations to any man, or to subject anyone to real control. They sensed acutely that their movement needed to be purged, but this was impossible without authority or a disciplined organization. Splits among them and this reverence for principle was slowly leading to the political suicide of the movement, which was becoming more compromised each day.

Anarkhiya often published ‘important notices’ like this one: ‘Council of Anarchist Federation. Regrettable abuses are going on. Unknown persons are conducting arrests and extorting funds in the name of the Federation. The Federation declares that it will not tolerate any confiscations for the purpose of personal enrichment.’ (This on 1 April.)

‘The Black General Staff announces that it will not assume responsibility for any operations unless effected on an order signed by at least three of its members and in the presence of at least one member.’ (The same date.) The General Staff suspected its own members so much that two signatures alone were not enough! These precautions against banditry were in vain.

Did some of the anarchists think of dealing the besieged Bolsheviks a death-stab in the back? Strength has a certain logic, and they were strong. On either 7 or 8 April, Jacques Sadoul met Alexander Gay [8], one of the anarchist leaders who had rallied to the Soviet cause. ‘He thundered against the Bolsheviks,’ Sadoul recalls (Gay, be it noted, was on the extreme Right of anarchism, among the ‘Soviet anarchists’ who were allies of the Communist party).

Several towns in the south were already under anarchist control. Gay believed that at that moment he had several thousand armed men at his disposal in Moscow. But the time for action was not yet ripe. The monarchists had joined the movement, trying to exploit it for their own ends. These impure and dangerous elements first had to be purged. In a month or two, the anarchists would dig the grave of the Bolsheviks – and the reign of the beast would be ended. [9]

I myself know that a little while previously a meeting of the leaders of the Anarchist Federation had been held at which the possibility of a rising against the Bolsheviks had been discussed. But what then? How could they escape the necessity of taking power? Two influential orators, B—— and N——, opposed the idea of an uprising on the grounds that it would be ‘senseless to take on the responsibility and the fatal discredit for an economic situation which was beyond repair’ and that ‘we could not hold on for long’.

Several incidents such as an attack on an American car, the murder of several Cheka agents followed by the summary execution of several bandits, and arrests of ‘expropriators’ who were promptly claimed by the Anarchist Federation, led Dzerzhinsky, the President of the Cheka, to insist on the liquidation of the Black Guard. 5,000 Soviet troops took part in this operation, on the night of 11-12 April. The houses occupied by the anarchists and defended by their machine-guns were surrounded. The occupants were given twenty minutes to surrender. In several places there was bloodshed; artillery was used against the Anarchy Club; the siege of one libertarian citadel lasted ten hours. In this way, twenty-seven houses were taken, twenty groups disarmed and 500 people arrested. The killed and wounded amounted to a few dozen. No anarchist known as such died in the course of this skirmish, which was followed neither by summary executions (as has been rumoured) nor by other rigorous measures. The daily newspaper Anarkhiya re-appeared on the 21st with the headline: ‘Down with absolutism!’ [10]

To what extent were counter-revolutionaries taking advantage of the privileged position of the Black Guard? On this point I shall quote only one piece of evidence, that of General Goppers [11], who took part in the officers’ conspiracies of the ‘Fatherland and Freedom Defence League’. The leaders of the League did not know of any place in Moscow where they could house their squads.

One can rely on the fighting capacity of an organization [writes Goppers] only if its members are subject to military discipline ... and under the command of a leader. The anarchist clubs gave us the opportunity of organizing ourselves properly. They were tolerated by the Bolsheviks ... At the beginning of April, sixty or seventy of our members were installed in these clubs. We no longer had to rack our brains to find somewhere to put up our members arriving from the provinces. All I had to do was provide them with a pass and direct them to the head of our ‘anarchist department’ who would place them in a large house occupied by the libertarians. At the head of our anarchists we had an artillery captain whose appearance and character exactly matched the literary picture of the anarchist ...

The counter-revolutionary officers who were arrested during the disarmament of the anarchists only had to play out their role patiently in order to be liberated at the end of several weeks. I know of several other similar reports from counter-revolutionary sources. They establish in particular that the clubs of the ‘Third Revolution’ were frequented by foreign officers. [12]


The disarmament of the anarchists was effected with little difficulty in Petrograd, Vologda and other places. On 15 May there was an anarchist rising at Tsaritsyn (now Stalingrad). On 17 May a rising of Maximalists and libertarians occurred also at Saratov. The Ukraine remained a lively focus for the anarchist movement; here guerrilla warfare was to go on for years.

Thus, a straight police operation terminated the role of anarchism in the Russian revolution. There was no need even to mount a political campaign against it. Neither press nor agitators waged a campaign to prepare the masses for the disarmament of the libertarians or to justify the action. Formidable as their Black Guardsmen were, their political influence was nil. Their whole power lay in a few machine-guns which had fallen into the grasp of a small number of determined men.

The anarchist ‘party’ was rendered incapable of any practical initiative through its divisions, its Utopian spirit, its contempt for reality, its thunderous phrasemongering and its lack of organization and discipline. Whatever it enjoyed in the way of real capacities and energies were wasted in small and chaotic struggles. It was, for all that, a distinctive and armed party which, as we have seen, tried to organize itself along with its own General Staff. But it was an amorphous party without definite contours or directing organs – that is to say, without a brain or nervous system – a strange sort of party which was at the mercy of the most contradictory aims and was unable to exert any control over itself. It was an irresponsible party in which individual intelligences dominated by cliques, by alien pressures of a highly suspect kind and by group instincts, dissipated themselves to no effect. It was an unworkable party for a time of social war: for any war in modern conditions demands of its combatant units the centralization of information, thinking and will. It demands levers which are smoothly obedient to the decisions of leadership, and a clear view of facts and possibilities, which can come only through a clear-cut theory.

In disarming the anarchists, the Bolsheviks – and the Left S-Rs who at least gave tacit consent to the operation – obeyed the imperative necessity of securing the rear of the revolution. Could the revolution tolerate the anarchist strongholds behind its back, outside its control? With the formation of the Red Army, a long phase of struggle was now opening between the guerrilla forces and the organizers of regular troops. (We shall return to this theme later.) The defence of the Ukraine had cruelly shown up the weaknesses of guerrilla bands. These detachments, often composed of adventurers, often of excellent revolutionaries, most usually of a mixture of the two, refused to carry out orders ‘from above’ and tried to make war according to their own fancy. In order to create an army the resistance of these tendencies had to be broken. And in order to break them, it was necessary to do away with the guerrilla régime in the capital itself.

For the first time the Bolsheviks were obliged by the anarchists to suppress by force a dissident minority within the revolution. Sentimental revolutionaries would have hesitated. But what would have been the consequence? Either the Black Guard would have eventually organized a rising, and Moscow would have undergone some days of infinitely perilous disturbance (it is enough to think of the famine and the waiting counter-revolution already powerfully organized): or else the Guard would have gradually been dissolved, after a whole series of incidents with uncertain outcome. Any revolution which could not subdue its dissidents when these were armed to form an embryonic State within the state would be offering itself, divided, to the blows of its enemies.

The party of the proletariat must know, at hours of decision, how to break the resistance of the backward elements among the masses; it must know how to stand firm sometimes against the masses, among whom hunger (for example) may plant a spirit of defeatism; it must know how to go against the current, and cause proletarian consciousness to prevail against lack of consciousness and against alien class influences. Even more must it know how to bring dissent to obey. Such dissidence proceeds from minorities; it would, however, be quite stupid to bully these. One has at this point to make the distinction between counter-revolutionaries and the revolution’s own dissenters. The latter are not enemies; they belong to our class; they belong to the revolution. They want to, can and should serve it in one way or another. They are neither fatally nor necessarily nor absolutely in the wrong. To use against them methods of repression which are indispensable against the counter-revolution would quite clearly be criminal and disastrous; all it would achieve would be to replace disagreement by bitter and bloody splits.

The Bolsheviks did not fall into this error. Their press was at pains to declare that’ no obstacles would be placed in the way of the anarchists’ continued existence or their propaganda. Once disarmed, these maintained their press, organizations and clubs. The small groups that represented the three or four libertarian tendencies, whose membership was constantly being pulled in opposite directions – some being attracted towards Bolshevism and eventual assimilation into the Communist party, others gravitating towards the most intransigent anti-Sovietism – were from this point to vegetate on without exercising any noticeable influence. [13]


We have already seen the confrontation of the different platforms at the Seventh Congress of the Communist party, where a split was avoided only through the over-riding concern of all for unity and – even more – through Lenin’s patience. The Left Communists were declaring that a split was becoming hard to avoid: they had their own leading bodies (Moscow Regional Committee, Ural Committees, etc.), their own journal (Kommunist), and their supporters were practically everywhere. They refused to stand for the Central Committee of the party and were elected on to it under protest. Lenin emphasized on that occasion that the Central Committee’s obligation to pursue a firm policy ‘ did not mean that all its members had to have the same opinions’; any other ruling would be ‘a step towards a split’; ‘every member of the Central Committee has the chance to make his responsibility clear without resigning or making a scene’. As Lenin put it again, ‘the comrades are quite capable of defending their point of view without leaving the Central Committee. We must try and get rid of this fashion of resigning from the Committee.’ Once elected, the Left Communists declared once again that they refused to sit on the Central Committee. The president of the session answered them quite simply: ‘The comrades who have been elected will be asked to come: they have a perfect right not to come.’ [14]

Discord again flared up over the precarious truce that had been won at Brest-Litovsk. What was to be made of it? Which way were we to go? Lenin answered these questions with a power and a sharpness characteristic of his genius, in his report to the All-Russian Soviet Executive on 29 April, published as a pamphlet under the title Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Power[15] Trotsky, in full agreement with Lenin, had (as we have seen) provided the motto for a victorious revolution: work, order, discipline. But such resolutions could not give any complete satisfaction to a revolutionary party in a revolutionized country. The Left Communists (Bukharin, Preobrazhensky, Pyatakov, Yaroslavsky and Radek) saw all this as symptomatic of a dangerous Right deviation. They argued their position in a set of fifteen theses published on 4 April, which we shall summarize. The first part of the theses explained away the fact that the majority of workers had approved of the peace of Brest-Litovsk: it was the weary de-classed elements that had carried the day. Analysing the situation created by the peace, the authors concluded that the imperialist system would collapse ‘during the forthcoming spring or summer’, a prospect that could be only slightly retarded in the event of a German victory.

The theses blamed the Central Committee for its long-standing failure to decree the total nationalization of industry and the socialization of production. They also denounced the danger being risked by the party in ‘the reconciliation between the proletariat and the poorest peasants’, with all the pitfalls of a petty-bourgeois politics:

If this tendency prevails, the working class will lose its leading role and the hegemony it possesses in the socialist revolution, which has won the poorest peasants to throw off the yoke of finance-capital and the landed gentry; the working class will be no more than a force surrounded by the petty-bourgeois mass which views its task not as the proletarian struggle, in alliance with the working class of western Europe, to overthrow the imperialist system, but as the defence of a fatherland of small farmers against imperialist incursions, a defence whose objectives can be attained through a compromise with imperialism. If an active proletarian policy is abandoned, the conquests of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution will begin to degenerate into a system of state capitalism, marked by economic relations typical of the petty-bourgeoisie.

The party could be led on this path by the temptation to preserve Soviet power at any cost whatsoever to the international revolution. In foreign policy, agreements with capitalist states and diplomatic manoeuvre would take the place of revolutionary agitation; in the economic field, there would be covert agreements with the capitalists, cooperative managers and rich peasants; in place of a socialized industry there would be set up, in concert with the captains of industry, trusts which would have the outward appearance of State enterprises. The Soviets would lose their independence, and from a State of the commune type Russia would pass to a government of centralized bureaucracy. There would be labour discipline through piece-work, etc. The Soviet State, now separated from the world labour movement, would turn into a national petty-bourgeois state.

‘The proletarian Communists want a quite different kind of politics. We must not try to preserve a Soviet oasis in the north of Russia, at the price of concessions which will transform it into a petty-bourgeois State ...’ What were the demands of the Left Communists? An active international policy, rejection of all agreements that could turn the Republic into an instrument of the imperialists (an allusion to the Brest-Litovsk treaty and to Trotsky’s negotiations with the Allies); no capitulation before the bourgeoisie. Suppression of the counter-revolutionary press. Obligation to work for all intellectuals and technicians. Confiscation of property. Establishment of consumer communes. An offensive waged by poor peasants against the rich. A large scale of autonomy to the local Soviets.

Lenin and his policies, moreover, became the object of attacks that were sometimes extremely violent. The organizations of the Ural area demanded a new party congress. The ‘State capitalism created by Lenin’ was not spared by these critics. From a criticism of one-man authority in industry and the transport system they went on to open references to personal dictatorship inside the party. ‘The ruling minority, led by Comrade Lenin,’ it was said on one occasion, ‘has nothing in its head except words.’ This ‘minority’ was dubbed ‘opportunist’, ‘capitalist’ and ‘myopic’. The passions of this opposition were so heated that the Left S-Rs became emboldened to sound them out on the possibilities of arresting Lenin ... This episode was revealed by Bukharin in 1923; he was well qualified to know the truth about it. All the elements of a split were present. [16]


Lenin’s reply is called Left Infantalism and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality. The Lefts, he said, admit that ‘the conclusion of peace has already caused the conflict between the imperialist powers to become more acute’, without remarking that this is a perfectly good justification for the peace being signed. They announce the collapse of imperialism during the coming spring and summer. This ‘childishly helpless formulation’ evades an indisputable truth. No serious political person can commit himself to saying when the collapse of a system has to begin. The Lefts deplore the fact that ‘the masses have become firmly imbued with an inactive peace mentality’. This statement is seen by Lenin as something monstrous. What could be more natural than the need to take breath after three years of frightful butchery? Anyone who deplores this fact shows that he himself is imbued with the mentality of the de-classed petty-bourgeois intellectual.

The revolution, we are told, cannot save itself at the cost of making concessions. But it is a matter now of not walking straight into a trap. At the present time we are avoiding battle. If you don’t want to retreat, say so, and don’t use equivocating phrases about ‘an energetic international policy’. At this moment we have either to fight or not to fight. Since 25 October we have been supporters of national defence: but of serious defence! ‘It is in the interest of capitalism to destroy its enemy (the revolutionary proletariat) bit by bit. It is in our interest to do all that is possible ... to postpone the decisive battle until the moment (or until after the moment) when the national revolutionary contingents have fused in a single great international army.’ When there are not enough forces available for a standing fight, it is necessary to be able to retreat.

In the economic field, the Lefts are advocating a most deter-mined policy of socialization. ‘But even the greatest possible “determination” in the world is not enough to pass from confiscation to socialization ... Today, only a blind man could fail to see that we have nationalized, confiscated, beaten down and put down more than we have had time to count ...’ We are in peril, are we, of an evolution towards State capitalism? But that would be a great step forward! It would be a stage towards Socialism.

Lenin enumerates the elements that constitute the Russian economy: (1) patriarchal peasant farming; (2) small commodity production (this includes the majority of those peasants who sell their grain); (3) private capitalism; (4) State capitalism; (5) Socialism. Russia is so vast and varied that all these different types of socio-economic organization are intermingled. That is what constitutes the specific feature of the situation. What elements predominate? ‘Clearly, in a petty-bourgeois, peasant country the petty-bourgeois element is dominant, for the great majority of those working the land are small commodity producers.’ The proof is in the fact that the grain monopoly is being undermined by profiteering. In this struggle, State capitalism is the ally of Socialism. Let us take a lesson from Germany, where State capitalism has been established for the benefit of the Junkers and the militaristic capitalists. It is precisely for that reason that the proletarian revolution will be able to conquer easily in Germany. In these matters we must copy Germany even more energetically than Peter the Great copied from Europe, and not shrink even from dictatorial methods.

Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science, and without a rational organization which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observation of a unified standard in production and distribution.’ [17]

Lenin recalled that even in September 1917 he had written: ‘Socialism is merely the next step forward from State-capitalist monopoly ...’

Marx, in the 1870s, admitted the possibility, for Britain, of a peaceful victory of Socialism on condition that the capitalists allowed themselves to be ‘bought out’. And why not, if the trouble of a civil war could be avoided at this price? Lenin dealt with this case in reply to those who condemned the payment of high salaries to specialists. We must be able, he said, to combine two methods: merciless repression against uncultured capitalists, and methods of compromise towards the others – it is reasonable for the proletariat to give good pay to experienced managers. In their defence of the worker, the Left Communists succeed only in repeating word for word the demagogic pronouncements of certain Mensheviks.

Lenin’s reply to the Left is serious, honest and devoid of polemical exaggerations and personal attacks; on the contrary, it juxtaposes, next to its sternest arguments, a number of expressions of esteem addressed to Bukharin. With all its formality, it possess-es vehemence, but of a serious sort which keeps to fundamentals. As such it is a model for a pamphlet intended for discussion within the party.

The pamphlet Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Power had been written shortly before. It is the most complete and concise exposition of Lenin’s politics in this period. In bourgeois revolutions the role of the proletariat is a destructive one; it is the bourgeois minority that takes on the labour of construction, and it is sup-ported in this by the spontaneous growth of the market, the ‘chief organizing force of anarchically built capitalist society’. Every Socialist revolution, on the other hand, impels the proletariat into a creative role in planned production and distribution. And it can succeed only if the majority of the toilers exercise their initiative within it. ‘Only if the proletariat and the poor peasants display sufficient class consciousness, devotion to principle, self-sacrifice and obstinacy, will the victory of the Socialist revolution be assured.’ We have convinced and won Russia, we have gained a majority among the workers and seized power. The principal task now is to organize and administer the country. When that problem is solved – and not before – the Soviet society will have become a Socialist society.

Keep regular and honest accounts of money, manage economically, do not steal, observe labour discipline – these are now the conditions of the country’s salvation and, with the application of Soviet power, form ‘the necessary and sufficient condition for the final victory of Socialism’. The bourgeoisie has been conquered, but not uprooted; it is now a matter of preventing any possibility that a new bourgeoisie can arise, a task which is much more difficult. ‘Although we have certainly not finished off capital, and although it is necessary to continue the offensive of the workers against it, the fact is that, in order to go on advancing successfully in the future, we must “suspend” our offensive now. If we decide to continue to expropriate capital at the same rate at which we have been doing it up till now, we shall certainly suffer defeat, because our work of organizing proletarian accounting and control has obviously fallen behind the work of directly “expropriating the expropriators”.’ It is not that we have made errors in our tactics; every social struggle has its own logic, but a violent attack is not always appropriate. ‘We achieved victory by methods of suppression; we shall be able to achieve victory also through methods of administration.’

The high salaries to be paid to experts are indeed ‘a step backward’ in relation to Socialism, but a necessary step back. We must improve the functioning of the banks, shoot bribe-takers, consolidate the State monopolies (in grain, leather, etc.) and begin introducing compulsory labour service – but this only gradually and carefully, and applying it only to the rich. The meaning of Socialism is accounting and control: anarchism and anarchosyndicalism, which oppose State control and accounting, only reveal their bourgeois outlook. ‘The Socialist State can arise only as a network of producers’ and consumers’ communes, which conscientiously keep account of their production and consumption, economize on labour, and steadily raise the productivity of labour, thus making it possible to reduce the working day to seven, six and even fewer hours.’ The decree passed on cooperation is a compromise with the bourgeois cooperatives, the Soviet government having abandoned the principle of compulsory enrolment in the societies without entrance fees.

The raising of the productivity of labour and the improved organization of labour demands, firstly, the development of heavy industry and, secondly, discipline among the work force. In this respect the situation is bad. ‘Without the victory of conscious discipline over petty-bourgeois anarchy, there is no Socialism.’ We must apply piece-work and make use of what is progressive in the Taylor system. [18] ‘Like all other progress under capitalism, this system is a combination of the refined brutality of capitalist exploitation and a number of remarkable scientific discoveries.’ Socialism does not deny the role of competition, whatever its detractors say. On the contrary it opens to the masses limitless possibilities of competition, through social forms of advertising, competition between communes, etc.

Several pages of the article are devoted to justifying the dictator-ship of the proletariat. ‘An iron hand is necessary.“Dictatorship” is iron rule, government that is revolutionarily bold and ruthless in repressing both exploiters and hooligans. But our government is still excessively soft ...’ Compulsion is necessary both against the counter-revolution and against petty-bourgeois individualism. We have had to provide certain individual executives, on the rail-ways, with dictatorial powers. The Left S-Rs launched extraordinary agitation against this proposal. However, it is irrefutable that ‘in history the dictatorship of certain, individuals was often the expression, the vehicle, the channel of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes. Undoubtedly, it was compatible with bourgeois democracy ... There is no contradiction in principle between Soviet [i.e. Socialist] democracy and the possession of dictatorial power by certain individuals.’ The Socialist dictatorship is distinguished from any other in the fact that it arouses and stimulates the organization of the masses. But the management of large-scale industry demands unity of will, ‘the subordination of the will of thousands to the will of one’. We are moving from the phase of public meetings to the phase of ‘iron discipline’. Guarantees of democracy and the means of struggle against bureaucracy are to be found in the Soviet system itself (with its absence of formalism, working people as the electors, right of recall freely exercised by the voters, participation of all in the life of the State, control of the government by the masses).

The more resolutely we now have to stand for the dictatorship of individuals in certain definite executive functions, the more varied and numerous must be the forms and methods of control by the masses in order to counteract every shadow of a possibility of deformation in the power of the Soviets, ceaselessly to drag out the weeds of bureaucracy. [19]

The pamphlet concludes, as one might have expected, with a ringing indictment against the petty-bourgeois revolutionary romantic who is suspicious of organization, practical necessities and new manoeuvres. ‘Hysterical impulses are of no use to us. What we need is the steady advance of the iron battalions of the proletariat. [20]


Politics become verified through the facts. Lenin was right against the Left Communists on two essential points. The country was at its last gasp: it was indeed necessary to ‘suspend the offensive against capital’, in order to consolidate the positions already won, assemble new forces and prepare an offensive for later on. And the revolutionary crisis now maturing in Europe guaranteed the Russian revolution its chance of shortly being able to resume its onward march. The Left Communists were following their emotions, their zeal as an enthusiastic minority, rather than any clear-headed dialectic proceeding from social facts. Thus, as with the issue of ‘revolutionary war’, they became trapped in the revolutionary subjectivism to which intellectuals of middle-class origin are prone, and abandoned the outlook of proletarian realism.

The source of their error is clear. All their fears of the impending degeneration of the proletarian State would have been justified given the stabilization of European capitalism. But they themselves (and rightly) proclaimed the imminency of imperialism’s collapse, that is to say of a new source of energy, this time international in scope, for the revolution. On such a perspective, a calm period could hardly any more be seen as a real threat; rather it would have to be viewed as a period for the necessary accumulation of forces.

Another misunderstanding they displayed was their failure to see the contrast between revolutionary duty before and after the seizure of power. Before the takeover, it is necessary to destroy: after it, it is necessary to build. It is not easy for destroyers to turn into builders; that is why goodwill and a Marxist sense of the tasks involved in the revolution’s aftermath are all the more essential.

All the same, Lenin displayed great moderation in his handling of the Left Communists, both in his polemic and even more so in practical politics. The moderate tone of the majority on his side contrasted strikingly with the turbulence,. violence and intransigence of the Left minority. That no split occurred is due to Lenin, who did not want that sort of outcome. He was all too conscious that the Lefts were genuine Communists of real worth, and that there were healthy features even in their errors. Suppose the party had signed the ‘infamous peace’ of Brest-Litovsk without reacting painfully, had accepted the suspension of the revolutionary offensive in total unanimity, without any repercussions in its membership, and in a crisis as grave as this, had been quite devoid of ideological struggles, with all that these imply in the way of restless critical thinking, passion and the search for new solutions – would such a party have been alive and healthy, truly capable of confronting its huge responsibilities? As for the majority which accepted the truce and suspended the offensive, did it not include Right-wing elements in whose eyes the pace of revolution had already gone too fast and too far? As we have remarked concerning the debates of Brest-Litovsk: until the Year One of the Russian revolution of workers and peasants, working-class history contained no examples at all of a revolutionary movement which was not in the end swallowed, corrupted and betrayed by opportunism. The notion that the workers’ revolution needed to manoeuvre was quite acceptable in principle; but any man-oeuvre that was undertaken provoked fears of Right-wing deviation, and these fears were legitimate and proper. The Left Communists who reacted so forcefully had a case to make. They stood out against a danger from the Right which undoubtedly existed, though in the event the civil war stopped it getting any further.

The truce turned out to be much shorter and flimsier than Lenin seems to have anticipated. In Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Power he had outlined the plan for a great operation of reconstruction which was to have been started at once, but was immediately frustrated by the civil war. Yes, it was necessary to call off the offensive against capital and proceed by skilful administration instead of compulsion: necessary, but impossible. The civil war, resumed by the Allies through the Czechoslovak intervention, was on the contrary to necessitate an even greater reliance upon methods of compulsion. From June on, the government had to fall back on the measures advocated by the Left Communists, whose practical programme thus became realized – under Lenin’s guidance. However, what was in their eyes the normal method of continuing a social revolution actually amounted to a fresh escalation of civil war, and a civil war whose consequences were far more of a hindrance than a help to the progress of Socialism. If the Allied armed intervention had not taken place, the Soviet Republic would have been able by the spring of 1918 to enter on the Socialist organization of production and administration, which in the end it only managed by 1921, after the introduction of the New Economic Policy, with more concessions to the rural petty-bourgeoisie than would have been necessary three years earlier. Here we may consider the remarkable continuity in Lenin’s ideas: in 1921, once the war was over, he had only to take up his plan of April 1918 once again, adapting it to new circumstances.

However this may be, from June onwards the imperative measures were rationing, the establishment of consumer communes, confiscations, nationalizations, the introduction of Committees of Poor Peasants and compulsory labour, just as the Left Communists had demanded in April. From June the revolution had to unleash all its energies, as each day demanded more. Nevertheless, it will be in order, discipline and work, along the paths pointed by Lenin and Trotsky, the paths of methodical organization in production, administration and revolutionary defence, that Russia’s safety is found. Hesitations dissipate; the Left finds itself with no further justification for existing; the profound unity of the party is forged once more.


It was in the Ukraine that the classic cycle of counter-revolution, which was to unroll many times in the course of the civil war, was first displayed completely. Its normal phases are as follows: the middle classes, having at first supported the proletariat, take up arms against it and form an alliance with the very reactionary forces they have just fought against. Just as the middle strata had only joined with the proletariat to exploit it, so reaction only allies itself with them for the sake of exploiting them. The alliance wins. A régime of anti-worker ‘democracy’ is instituted, and the petty-bourgeoisie seems to have triumphed – until the moment, not long delayed, when they are knocked down from behind by a coup from the reactionaries.

The People’s Republic of the Ukraine, which had ‘summoned’ the Germans, soon found itself at the mercy of its ’protectors’. These found themselves displeased by a Rada too radical for their taste, and summarily dissolved it (Kiev, 26 April), locked up its ministers and established prior censorship of all publications. Meanwhile, a ‘Congress of Farming Folk’ awarded the title of sovereign Hetman to the Russian General Skoropadsky, who was in the good graces of the Kommandatur. Skoropadsky assumed personal rule to give ‘peace, law and fruitful labour’ to the country, and announced the convocation of a Sejm, the re-establishment of private property (‘the basis of culture and civilization’), agrarian reform and legislation for the working class. In the interim, the Hetman was given the powers of an autocrat by a ‘provisional constitution’; it was decreed that all land should be restored to the big owners and the State should requisition the grain; the workers were deprived of any right to strike or assemble. The petty-bourgeois nationalists hid themselves away in the countryside.

The real master of the country was Field-Marshal Eichhorn. His orders were law. Soon Skoropadsky was to ask for the whole country to be occupied by German troops so that order could be guaranteed. These troops, whose sole interest was in the requisitioning of grain, Germany’s last hope now, went to the extreme of using poison gas against peasants. All for Order! At the end of May Skoropadsky had to proclaim a state of siege. He lasted while the Germans lasted.

Skoropadsky’s coup d’état re-stocked the counter-revolution with a vast, rich and fertile territory. Now the feeble neighbour of a Germanized Ukraine, Russia seemed to be doomed. As we have seen, famine was sowing a crop of riots. It seemed that the hour for casting off the Bolshevik usurpation had arrived. As an immediate consequence of the events in the Ukraine, counter-revolutionary activity flared up over the whole of Russia. Until the end of April the petty-bourgeois parties, the Mensheviks and S-Rs had declared themselves as opposed to civil war. Precisely then, they came out as partisans of the use of armed force against Bolshevism.

White Finland was demanding back Fort Ino, on the Russo-Finnish border (the Bolsheviks, rather than hand it over, blew it up on 14 May); Mannerheim seemed ready for war. The Germans had just occupied the Crimea and were expected to capture Voronezh, in the south-east of Russia. At this moment famine held sway over the whole of Europe; the populace was rigorously rationed in London and Paris, and in Vienna and Berlin lacked every necessity. All the same, inside Russia it was easy to put all the blame on the Soviets. The bourgeois press spread panic. On 9 May it published reports that the Germans were insisting on the right to send their troops into Moscow and Petrograd and that the Bolsheviks were thinking of forming a coalition cabinet. ‘Stop playing with fire,’ cried the popular orator Volodarsky in the columns of Petrograd’s Krasnaya Gazeta (Red Gazette): ‘If we have to, we will crush you forever!’ Proceedings were instituted against the press, involving a dozen or so bourgeois dailies (Vechernya Viesti, Zhizn, Rodina, Narodnoye Slovo, Drug Naroda, Zemlya and Volya[21] and some S-R journals. Several of these were closed down. It was the end of freedom of the press, through sheer force of circumstances. ‘You asked for it, gentlemen!’ wrote Volodarsky. But on 15 May he is more specific: ‘Freedom to criticize the action of the Soviet government and to agitate in favour of another government are granted by us to all our opponents. We will guarantee freedom of the press for you if you under-stand it in this sense. But you must give up false newsmongering ... lies and slander.’ In the midst of its immense danger, that is how strong the party of the proletariat felt itself to be.

Hunger riots began to multiply, and anti-semitism reared its head again. Even at the Putilov Works an S-R speaker shouted out on 8 May, ‘Let’s throw the Yids into the Neva, get a strike committee going and stop work.’

Agitation conducted by the S-Rs and Mensheviks called demonstrations in the streets and prepared for a general strike. The demands were: free trade, wage increases, payment of wages one, two or three months in advance and ‘democracy’. The intention was to incite the working class itself against the revolution. To cap it all, the electricians at Putilov were out on strike. The best elements among the workers were away fighting; those in the factories were precisely the less energetic, less revolutionary sections, along with the petty folk, yesterday’s small shopkeepers and artisans, who had come there to find refuge. This proletariat of the reserve often allowed itself to fall under the sway of Menshevik propaganda. In April the Communist party had to mobilize its strength in Moscow to defend its positions in the Soviet, now under threat, against the Mensheviks. Big factories in the Ural region were also under Menshevik influence. At the beginning of May there were scattered risings of workers here and there against the Bolsheviks. The S-Rs launched a bloody attempt at insurrection at Saratov.

This critical moment was the occasion for publicizing the slogan: He who does not work, neither shall he eat. If there is not enough bread for everyone, then, in these days of social war, the toilers will be served first. Perhaps they will be the only ones to be served! Their share will be 100 or 200 grams of bread per day, with herrings, other fish and other rations, if there are any, two or three times a week. [22] Zinoviev, President of the Petrograd Soviet, organizes the first workers’ food brigades, whose purpose is to go out to the countryside and requisition the grain of the rich peasants.

The Germans have robbed the revolution of the corn of the Ukraine. The Allies send the Czechoslovak forces, now encamped over the regions of the east, the signal for rebellion. And so the two capitals are cut off from the grain supplies both of the Volga and of Siberia.


The Allies were still hostile, but disorientated. [23] By a declaration of 19 March, drafted in moderate terms, they had committed themselves not to recognize the Brest-Litovsk peace. Negotiations went on between Trotsky and the Americans (Colonel Robins) and the French (Captain Sadoul) on the possible collaboration of the Allied missions in organizing the Red Army and assisting the transport system. Japan, with talk of the presence in Siberia of ‘German war-prisoners armed by the Bolsheviks’ and of ‘the danger of the Germans controlling the Trans-Siberian Line’, was making ready to occupy the railways across Siberia. The British reactionaries encouraged these designs, which were constantly thwarted by President Wilson since any extension of Japanese Tower in the Far East was utterly unacceptable to the Americans. On 4 April, Admiral Kato organized a landing at Vladivostok, following the murder of a Japanese businessman. The displeasure of the United States nipped these events in the bud, but the incident was a warning to the Soviets. Its sequel will be seen later.

The Soviet authorities in Murmansk were cooperating with Admiral Kemp of Britain in an effort to forestall the occupation of the port by the Finns and Germans. [24] The Allied legations, who felt insecure in the capitals, had withdrawn now to Vologda. M. Noulens, the French ambassador, a diehard bourgeois reactionary, showed a resolute hostility against any agreement with the Bolsheviks, whose fall from power he anticipated (and plotted for). An advocate of military intervention by the Allies in Russia (on the formal pretext of re-establishing an eastern front against the Central Powers), he intended to get his way. In diplomatic circles he was fond of making such smart and terse remarks as: ‘We shall not be allowing any further Socialist experiments in Russia ...’; ‘We pay, so we call the tune ...’; ‘You have to know how to talk to these Russians’; and ‘Their opinions have not the slightest importance ...’. [25] French politics at this point was in the hands of the big imperialist bourgeoisie. On 14 April, M. Clemenceau disclosed that France recognized neither the Soviets nor the Brest-Litovsk peace. A fortnight later, Francis, the US ambassador in Russia, took his turn to argue sharply for intervention against the Bolsheviks. The secret memorandum he addressed to his government in. Washington explained that Count Mirbach, the German representative in Moscow, had become ‘the real dictator of Russia’ and that, in any case, the Allies could not remain indifferent before the presence of Bolshevism. [26] The false argument was a cover for the real one.

These facts must not be lost sight of. From this moment onward, the pressure from outside, from German bayonets, is linked in its campaign against the revolution with the pressure from within, in the form of extensive conspiracies fomented by the diplomatic and military representatives of the Allied powers.

The leaders of the counter-revolutionary parties (S-Rs, Mensheviks and Kadets) had recently, in March, setup a common organization, the ‘League for Renewal’ (Soyuz Vozrozhdeniya). ‘The League,’ one of the S-R leaders has written, ‘entered into regular relations with the representatives of the Allied missions at Moscow and Vologda, mainly through the agency of M. Noulens.’ [27] With the reservations of hypocrisy, no direct cooperation between the Central Committee and the Allies was envisaged, only a co-operation from the activists which would not officially commit the parties. The League for Renewal was the main clandestine organization of the ‘Socialist’ petty-bourgeoisie and of the liberals who were determined to overthrow the Soviet government by force. [28] In Moscow the Octobrists, representing the big bourgeoisie, joined the organization and linked it with the ‘Right Centre’, a united front of reactionary tendencies inspired by the generals Alexeyev and Kornilov. The Octobrist party was to the Right of the Constitutional Democrats (Kadets): it based itself on the Imperial edict of 17 October 1905, which granted Russia a sham constitution. There was thus a chain of counter-revolutionary organizations running uninterruptedly from the most ‘advanced’ Socialists to the blackest reactionaries. The Military Commission of the S-R party organized the League’s ‘combat groups’, whose command was entrusted to a general. The League’s political platform rested on three points: (1) the impossibility of a purely Socialist government; (2) the Constituent Assembly; (3) (as a provisional measure) a Directory invested with dictatorial authority. The local committee of the League in Petrograd was composed of two Popular-Socialists, one S-R (A.R. Gotz, the leader of the party), one Kadet, Pepeliaev (who was to be one of Kolchak’s ministers) and two Mensheviks, Potresov and Rozanov. In June, M. Noulens sent the League a semi-official Note from the Allies approving of its political programme and promising it military assistance against the German-Bolshevik enemy.

The former. S-R terrorist Boris Savinkov [29] had formed another organization, the ‘Fatherland and Freedom Defence League’, which aimed to group the most advanced and pugnacious elements of the counter-revolution on a platform sufficiently vague to satisfy both monarchist or radical-minded officers and the S-R intellectuals. Savinkov’s League was organized in clandestine groups of four or five persons at the most, the nuclei of a small secret army that had enough hierarchy and centralization to offer minimum scope for repression, while permitting determined action at the appropriate moment. The League proceeded to install its men in the Soviet institutions concerned with food supply, the militia and the army that was now in formation. With intelligence passed on by a delegation and a good deal of luck, the ’Extraordinary Commission for Struggle Against Sabotage and for Repression’ (Vee-Cheka), still consisting of a small staff of about 150 persons, inexperienced and mostly drawn from the working class, managed to uncover this conspiracy. Mass arrests took place in Moscow, and the capital was declared to be in a state of siege (this at the end of May). But the arrested plotters were treated mildly. The Vee-Cheka undertook executions only rarely, in quite exceptional cases. The Left S-Rs opposed the application of martial law to Savinkov’s accomplices, as Dzerzhinsky and his Bolshevik colleagues would have liked. With Savinkov still at large, the League, which had been decimated at Moscow and Kazan, continued its preparations for an uprising. We shall be meeting it again. These organizations were not the only ones. The soil of the young Republic was being thoroughly mined, in more senses than one. All these clandestine associations received indiscriminate encouragement from the Allies.


The Allied representatives had conceived a large-scale plan of operations, whose success would have ended Soviet rule. [30] A rising by the Czechoslovak forces in the Ural and Volga regions and in Siberia was to coincide with a series of counter-revolutionary coups in the towns near Moscow and with the landings of the Japanese at Vladivostok and the British at Archangel. Starved, encircled and demoralized by a swift succession of defeats, the two workers’ capitals would fall; ‘order’ would have been restored.

A former officer from the French Military Mission in Russia, Pierre Pascal, who subsequently became a devoted and serious revolutionary, has explained the plan in these terms:

The insurrection at Yaroslavl and the Czechoslovak rising were organised with the direct collusion of the agents of the French Mission and of M. NouIens. The Mission was in constant relations with the Czechs, to whom it sent officers and funds.... The counter-revolutionaries were to seize Yaroslavl, Nizhni-Novgorod, Tambov, Murom and Voronezh in order to isolate and starve out Moscow. This plan began to be implemented with the insurrections in Yaroslavl, Murom, Tambov, etc. I can still see General Lavergne sketching a large circle with his finger on the map around Moscow and saying, ‘That’s what Noulens wants. But I shall feel guilty because, if our plan succeeds, the famine in Russia will be terrible ...’. [31]

We have various testimonies of a similar description. The final plan of action for the Czechoslovak troops was settled on 14 April in Moscow, at a meeting of counter-revolutionary organizations attended notably by General Lavergne, head of the French Military Mission, Colonel Corbeil, one of his colleagues, and the head of the British Mission, Lockhart. [32]

The Czechoslovak Legion in Russia had been built up gradually during the war. Czech and Slovak prisoners from the Austrian front were organized under the auspices of a National Council whose leaders took their instructions from Masaryk and the heads of the national movement that had been set up in Paris. These troops had witnessed the vicissitudes of the Russian revolution without taking part in them. They were earmarked for the front in France, where they were to travel via Murmansk or Vladivostok. However, once the American intervention in the war had made up the shortage of troops from the Somme to Alsace, it occurred to the statesmen of the Entente that the Czechoslovaks might be used in the service of the Russian counter-revolution. Under the leadership of Allied officers, the Czechoslovak units refused to recognize the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, though they retreated before the Germans out of the Ukraine into the east. The Council of People’s Commissars, in an effort to avoid conflict, authorized their evacuation – retaining their arms – via Siberia. The landing of the Japanese at Vladivostok, while the Czechs, to the number of about 30,000, were spread out along the Trans-Siberian Rail-way, faced the revolution sharply with the danger that the whole of Siberia might be occupied. Trotsky, as People’s Commissar of War, forthwith demanded the disarmament of the Czechoslovaks and their movement, for purposes of evacuation, towards Archangel rather than the east of Siberia. The plan for the Czechoslovak offensive had been studied in all its details at a conference in Chelyabinsk attended by British, French and Russian officers as well as by S-R members of the Constituent Assembly. On 25 and 26 May, the Czechoslovaks suddenly occupied Chelyabinsk (Ural region), Penza, Syzran (on the Volga) and Novo-Nikolayevsk (in Siberia). In these three regions they disposed of some 20,000 men, in well-equipped units commanded by Gajda, Voitsekhovsky and Cecek. An order by Trotsky dated 25 May decreed that any Czechoslovaks captured bearing arms would be shot on the spot. All facilities were offered, on the other hand, for those who would surrender arms and accept either evacuation via the north or Russian citizenship. The majority preferred to resist.

The rising of the Czechoslovak Legion completed the encirclement of the Soviet Republic, which was now cut off from the industry of the Ural, the fertile lands of the Volga and the granaries of Siberia. The Orenburg Cossacks took up arms again.

These Czechoslovaks, now called upon to deal the death-blow to the Bolsheviks, were in their overwhelming majority radical Republicans, followers of Masaryk, and Social-Democrats. Their devotion to democracy was for them, in the presence of the harsh conditions of the proletarian dictatorship, a factor making for incomprehension, indignation and revulsion. The Russian Socialist parties influenced them with the rumour that the Bolsheviks, as the paid agents of the Germans, were preparing to hand them over to their masters. With the support of the counter-revolutionary Socialists, the Cossack peasants and the officers’ leagues, the Czechoslovaks launched a series of successful operations which gave them Samara (8 June), which became their base, Syzran (19 June) and Ufa (13-23 June), thus offering a whole territory to the counter-revolution. This formed, as we shall see, the signal for a general attack upon the Soviets. Counter-revolutionary movements broke out in various parts of the countryside. The Right S-Rs assassinated the orator Volodarsky at Petrograd (20 June); the Left S-Rs, the allies of the Bolsheviks and still in the government, prepared a coup d’état to govern alone and tear up the Brest-Litovsk agreement; the Anglo-French expedition landed at Murmansk (2 July).


It was under the weight of these circumstances that the expropriation of the capitalist class was now undertaken. There is no better statement on this than some lines by the economist Kritsman:

After the proletarian revolution had undergone a preparatory period of eight months, distinguished in the economic sphere by hesitation and indecision, it took the pressure of an increasingly savage civil war and of the pro-capitalist intervention by the Kaiser’s Germany, which used the Peace of Brest-Litovsk for its own ends, for the proletarian government to proclaim the expropriation of the expropriators by nationalizing large-scale industry with the decree of 26 June 1918. [33]

The main stages in the expropriation of the possessing classes were as follows:

The expropriation of the capital of the State [34] through the formation of the Council of People’s Commissars on 8 November (26 October) 1917; the expropriation of agriculture (decree on the nationalization of land, passed on the same day); the expropriation of finance capital (decree on the nationalization of the banks, 1 December (14) 1917); expropriation of transport capital (decree on the nationalization of water transport, 12 January (25) 1918); expropriation of credit and principally of foreign credit (decree on the cancelling of loans, 14 January (27) 1918); the expropriation of commercial capital (decree instituting the monopoly of foreign commerce, 23 April 1918); the expropriation of the capital of rich peasants (decree establishing the Kombedy, or Commit-tees of Poor Peasants, 11 June 1918); and the expropriation of big industrial capital (decree on the nationalization of large-scale industry, promulgated on 28 June 1918) [35] (Kritsman).

These measures were completed by the decree abolishing the right of inheritance that was promulgated on 1 May. Any inheritance over 10,000 roubles was to revert to the State, and the relatives of the deceased who were incapable of working were entitled to no more than a pension, to be determined by the local authorities.

At this juncture it will be appropriate to stress the reverse which had befallen workers’ control in production. From November to May, control was organized through the local initiatives of the workers, with assistance from the Supreme Council of the Economy. But it was more and more obvious that matters could not rest there. The managers, deprived of their political power and under proletarian control, felt themselves to be at the mercy of their employees and threatened in the exercise of their property rights: they struggled, resisted, sabotaged. Control now appeared as a transitional measure, reflecting the hesitations of the revolution; it had either to become meaningless or else to pass on to the stage of expropriation. Sometimes astute managers who had obtained the confidence of their factory committees would profit from the workers’ inexperience in the direction of enterprises, in order to get themselves a living at the expense of the Supreme Economic Council. They did good business in this new variety of plunder from the State. [36]

Other capitalists, more numerous, liquidated their enterprises in one way or another, spirited away their stocks, stole or sold their equipment, and vanished with the cash they had realized. From now on the factory committees had to organize these firms as they became abandoned and promptly expropriated. There was also sabotage by the technical staff, which necessitated a régime of straight working-class dictatorship in the factories. ’Nationalization was a reprisal rather than an economic policy.’ [37] This con-quest of the enterprises by the factory and works committees had its risks. Each committee thought in the first place of the interests of its own enterprise (i.e. of the workers it represented); from this it was an easy step to defending this interest by every means in its power, without any concern for the general economic interests of the country. Every enterprise, even though it might be backward, ill-equipped or dealing with a relatively inessential industry, demanded its own right to life, that is to re-stocking, to credit, to work. The consequence was an extraordinary mess, with the factories operating anarchically, each for its own benefit. As one comrade writes,

We were building, not a Soviet Republic, but a republic of working-class communities based on the capitalist factories and mills. Instead of a strict ordering of production and social distribution, instead of measures towards the Socialist organization of society, the existing state of affairs reminded one of the autonomous communes of producers that the anarchists had dreamed of. [38]

By 15 May 1918, 234 enterprises had been officially nationalized and a further seventy sequestrated. Heavy industry, i.e. manufacturing and engineering; was chiefly affected. It was imperative to make these measures general and systematic: the country was devastated and split into fragments, with the defeated employers striving to lay down impossible terms. Milyutin, who announced the forthcoming nationalization of large industry to the Congress of Economic Councils, told them of the battle between the government and the oil-well proprietors. The big oil men were demanding, as a condition of continuing production, that the same profits should be given them as before the revolution, while at the same time they wanted to restore the conditions of work operating in 1916. Convinced as they were that the workers would be incapable of managing oil-production, they threatened to stop all output in their failing enterprises if any attempt was made to force them to comply with Soviet law.

The decree of 28 June 1918 nationalized all industries engaged in mining, engineering, textiles, electrical goods, wood, tobacco, glass, ceramics, leather, cement, rubber, transport, etc., with a capital of half a million roubles and over. A few details of the implementation. of this scheme will show how premature it appeared even in the eyes of its authors. The Supreme Council of the Economy was entrusted with the administration of the nationalized industries, but these were declared to be ‘leased gratis to their former owners’, who were obliged to carry on managing their affairs, and authorized ‘to receive profits’ (whose existence was now somewhat problematic). The technical staff and the directors remained in office, appointed by the State and responsible to it. Any case of desertion of duty was to be punished by the revolutionary tribunals.

The Congress of Economic Councils shortly decided on the creation of plant managements in the form of collective bodies, two thirds of whose members were to be nominated either by the Regional Councils or by the Supreme Council: half of these nominees could be selected by the trade unions on behalf of the appointing authority. The other third of the collective was elected on the spot by the workers of the enterprise.


Speaking in Moscow before a popular meeting, Trotsky displayed a sheaf of telegrams: ’Viksi, Nizhni-Novgorod province: the shops are empty, work is going badly, shortage of 30 per cent of the workers through starvation. Men collapsing with hunger at their benches.’ From Sergiev-Posada the telegram says: ‘Bread, or we are finished!’ From Bryansk, 30 May: ‘Terrible mortality, especially of children, around the factories of Maltsov and Bryansk; typhus is raging.’ From Klin, near Moscow: ‘The town has had no bread for two weeks.’ From Paslov-Posada: ‘The population is hungry, no possibility of finding corn.’ From Dorogobuzh: ‘Famine, epidemics ...’ All the same, as Trotsky established, the country did have grain. The reserves of the northern Caucasus alone were to be valued at 140 million poods (a pood being thirty-six pounds in weight), while no more than fifteen million poods a month were needed to keep the big towns supplied. The famine was the result of class war. The rich peasants were refusing their corn to cities that could offer no more than worthless paper money in exchange. In White Russia, they were burying their stocks and planting crosses on top of the mounds to deceive the searchers.

The discontented sections of the community demanded the abolition of the grain monopoly and of the maximum-price system. Thus, against all the evidence, they declared their faith in capitalist methods and the self-interest of the wealthy rural petty-bourgeoisie. We have already explained how, with the exhaustion of industrial stocks, the inflation and the run-down of the transport system, a return to free trade in grain would have meant an era of frenzied speculation and of hopeless famine for the poor. Three great revolutionary measures were set in hand, which were to carry the class struggle resolutely into the rural areas: the formation of Committees of Poor. Peasants, the requisitioning of excess grain, the dispatch of workers’ food brigades. Lenin analysed these in a ‘Letter to the Workers of Petrograd’ and in a speech on the struggle for grain made before the All-Russian Soviet Executive. The famine was caused by the revolt of the bourgeoisie against the new laws: so he who does not work will not eat! The famine proves ‘the abysmal stupidity of the contemptible anarchist windbags who deny the necessity of a State power (and, what is more, a power ruthless against the bourgeoisie and the disorganizers of government) for the transition from capitalism to communism’. Bread would be sufficient for all only if there was rigorous accounting and equal distribution. Either working-class consciousness would triumph by breaking the kulak resistance or reaction would take over. Half-measures were quite useless. ‘Attempts to secure bread or fuel “in retail fashion”, each man for “his factory”, would only increase the disorganization and encourage profiteering.’ It was the task of the revolutionary minority to involve the masses ‘in a crusade against the profiteers, the kulaks, the parasites, the disorganizers’. Salvation must lie in this activity of the masses.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the October Revolution is that the advanced worker, as the leader of the poor, as the leader of the toilers of the countryside, as the builder of the State of labour, has gone among the people ... But when he became the leader of the poor peasants he did not become a saint. He led the people forward, but he also became infected with the diseases of a disintegrating petty-bourgeoisie ... Having begun the Communist revolution, the working class cannot instantly discard the weaknesses and vices inherited from the society of capitalists and landlords, of exploiters and parasites, of the filthy gain and self-enrichment of the few based on the poverty of the many. But the working class can vanquish the old world – and in the end certainly and surely will vanquish it – with all its weaknesses and vices, if it hurls ceaselessly against the enemy its fresh forces, ever greater, ever more experienced and tempered in the struggle ... [39]

At the All-Russian Executive Committee of Soviets, on 4 June, and at the Congress of Factory Committees on 27 June, Lenin recalled that Germany was the country of ‘brilliantly organized starvation’; that the war was the prime cause of the famine; and that the Russian proletariat owed its role as vanguard of the world revolution not to its own merits, but to the will of history. He used a striking phrase: ‘We are now facing the most elementary task of any human society: to defeat famine ...’ Here he rebuts the Menshevik case for a compromise with the capitalists. The difficulties in the struggle against famine come from the fact that it faces us with questions of organization. ‘Success in an uprising is infinitely more easy.’ In the struggle against reaction, the proletariat could count on support from a section of the middle classes: but against the famine it must stand alone to confront a task of organization that will be authentically Communist. Three master-ideas inform the new decrees: centralization (avoiding the dispersal of scattered efforts, and the pitfalls of ‘every man for himself’), union of the toilers (crusade against the kulaks), union of the poor peasants with the workers (class struggle in the countryside). Some phrases are worth noting:

They say that our food brigades are degenerating into gangs of bandits. It is quite possible.

When the old society perishes, its body cannot be nailed up in a coffin and lowered into the grave. The corpse decomposes in our midst: it rots and infects us.

We have no police, we shall not have a special military caste, we have no apparatus: only the conscious unity of the workers.

All over the world the workers are organized. But virtually nowhere has any systematic, painstaking effort been made to unite those who live out in the countryside, in small-scale agricultural production, in forgotten corners, in darkness, stunted by their whole condition of living ...

We have always said: the emancipation of the workers must be performed by the workers themselves. We have always said: they cannot be liberated from outside; they themselves must learn how to solve historical problems ... and the more difficult these problems are, the more we see that millions of men must take a part in solving them.

You must thoroughly understand, delegates from the factory committees, that nobody is going to come and help you, that from other classes you can expect not assistants but enemies, that the Soviet government has no loyal intelligentsia at its service.

Remember that if you in your factory and works committees concern yourselves with the workers’ purely technical or financial interests, the revolution will not be able to keep a single one of its gains ... Your factory committees must become the basic state nuclei of the ruling class.  [40]

As an example, Lenin cited the case of the workers in the small town of Yelets, who took the initiative in making house-to-house searches and requisitions against their bourgeoisie.


The famine was not caused simply through the inevitable effects of the war. It also marked the beginning of the long war of the peasants against the workers’ cities, which was to end only in 1921 with the coming of the New Economic Policy (the Nep), whose cardinal point was the re-introduction of the free trade in grain. At the moment of the October Revolution the peasant movement, now reaching its peak, fused with the workers’ movement: it had given the latter the backing of its limitless elemental force, and assured it of support from the army, which was composed in its immense majority of country people. In exchange the proletariat gave it an organization, objectives, slogans and apolitical direction. However, once the land was seized, the peasants were satisfied: their victory was total and final, while the struggles of the proletariat had scarcely begun. From the high point of the common victory in October and November, the cross-purposes between peasants and workers were to make themselves increasingly felt. There was first the question of the large agricultural estates: the peasants, profoundly attached to individual property and anxious principally for their own enrichment, wanted to divide them up, while the Soviet government sought to turn them into agrarian communes. There was the problem, already discussed in these pages, of the shortage of goods, the inflation and the feeding of the towns. During the war the peasants had accumulated paper roubles by the billion; the Soviet State, quite unavoidably, insisted on a maximum price for grain, which they were forbidden to sell on the market as they pleased. With the banknotes offered to them in exchange for their grain, they could buy practically nothing. And why should they sell on credit to the proletarian revolution? When an agitator explained to them that, if the maximum price was abolished and free trade permitted, all that could result would be a roaring inflation followed by a fantastic increase in the prices of manufactured goods, the cold reply was: ‘Well, you won’t get grain from us at any price.’ (These were the typical words used.) Over the whole country a mass mobilization of kulaks against the Soviets was gathering with terrible force.

We must note Lenin’s attitude to this threat. Party comrades came to see him from all corners of the country. One worker from Petrograd, who had managed to extricate himself with some difficulty from the Volga peasants among whom he had been trying to conduct propaganda, came at the beginning of July to confide his anxieties on the subject to ‘old Ilyich’.

Lenin listened to him with the mischievous smile that lit up his eyes when the facts were proving him right.

When I assured him that the peasants would give us a thrashing, Vladimir Ilyich burst out laughing: ‘But of course, comrade, they’ll thrash us, and not for the first time, if you don’t knock down the kulaks before they knock you.’

And, taking a piece of paper, Lenin addressed to the workers of Petrograd a few urgent words which he asked his visitor to pass on. Here are the main parts of this brief message:

Comrade K—— has been in Simbirsk gubernia and has himself observed the attitude of the kulaks to the poor peasants and to our government. He has perfectly realized what no Marxist and no class-conscious worker can doubt, namely, that the kulaks hate the Soviet government, the government of the workers, and will inevitably overthrow it if the workers do not immediately make every effort to forestall the attack of the kulak on the Soviets and to smash the kulaks before they have the chance to unite.

The class-conscious workers can do this at present; they can rally around them the poor peasants, defeat the kulaks completely and smash them, provided that the vanguard of the workers understand their duty, exert their whole strength and organize a mass campaign in the country districts[41]

The task was, in short, to take the civil war into the countryside, appeal to the poor peasants against the rich, and engage in this battle with relentless energy. And for this purpose to call, once more, on the initiative of the workers.

Organize [said Lenin to K——], and go off. We will give you whatever the country’s stores possess. Already the Soviet government has enormous stockpiles of confiscated goods. We tried to keep by some re-serves but everything is getting stolen and pilfered. You will be using it in the interests of the revolution to rally the poor peasants to your side.

The following two telegrams, addressed around the beginning of August to Evgenia Bosch, the comrade who had been sent to the Penza region to fight the rural counter-revolution, give an idea of the strictness with which Lenin meant this struggle to be waged:

(1) 9 August 1918. Urgent. Penza. Executive, copy to Evgenia Bogdanovna Bosch. Message received, you must organize fi picked guard. Exercise pitiless mass terror against the kulaks, the priests and the Whites, imprison suspects in concentration camps outside the towns. Telegraph back implementation. Chairman of Council of People’s Corn. Lenin [42]

(2) 11 August 1918. In repressing rebellion five districts, take all measures to requisition all excess grain. For this, designate (not seize, designate) hostages from the kulaks, rich, parasites, bound to deliver and transport the grain ... The hostages to answer with their lives for the speedy and punctual delivery of the demanded quantities  [43]

The workers’ ‘crusade’ now turned to the countryside. All industrial centres now saw the formation of food brigades which went off to seek grain in the remotest corners of the land. The venture entailed bloody struggles. The participants were often massacred, and more than one Bolshevik commissar was found by his comrades in an abandoned barn, his belly slit open and stuffed with grain ... Still, tens of thousands of proletarians carried the revolution into the country districts: the amount of grain they procured for the cities may have been insufficient, but was by no means negligible. [44]


Let us consider briefly the state of the country and the régime at this moment. The working class was showing numerous symptoms of exhaustion and demoralization. Its best sons had left its ranks for the front line or for work in Soviet institutions. Its position as the victorious class meant that it attracted a host of doubtful elements: pseudo-workers, ruined shopkeepers, speculators. The famine was forcing it close to the peasants: usually the Russian worker came from peasant parentage. Production was very low, and the factories lived as best they could, idle more than half the time, and riddled with theft. Raw materials and fuel were lacking and discipline practically non-existent. A report by Shlyapnikov, presented at the end of March to the All-Russian Soviet Executive, is full of telling details. The trains are often running without lighting or signals. Practically none of the signals on the line are working! ‘People keep saying there is no paraffin nor any candles, but the fact is that it all gets stolen.’ On occasions the trains cannot start because of the absence of staff. Everyone is absent sick, orders from the management are not carried out, plunderers are sheltering behind the committees. At Klin, not far from Moscow, on the line to Petrograd, the shed for the rolling stock has been made into a club – and the wagons left lying to clutter the tracks. Everybody is going in for speculation, offering and receiving bribes, supporting the profiteers and thieving from the system. Shlyapnikov can see only one cure for these evils: to interest the railwaymen in efficiency on the job and introduce piece-work in the depots just as in the factories. A report by Nevsky in June tells us that productivity in transport has gone down by fifty or seventy per cent while running costs have increased by 150 per cent. The dilapidation of the stock is frightful, especially in the country areas and the regions close to the front: windows smashed, doors battered in, disgusting filth.

Some of the big factories had become centres of demoralization and formed a favourable soil for counter-revolutionary agitation. At Petrograd the Soviet censured the workers of the Obukhovo factory who spent all their time in meetings and recriminations. The Putilov Works were scarcely any better, with incident after incident. The Mensheviks fomented strikes in the big workshops of Sormovo (which now produced two locomotives a month in place of eighteen) and at Kolomensk, and the arrest of their agitators instantly provoked a strike. At Yaroslavl and Zlatust the S-R and Menshevik parties were masters of the streets.

The local Soviets, unprovided with food supplies or money, were at a desperate turn. They imposed extraordinary levies on their wealthier citizens, confiscated goods and seized firms’ current accounts, thus drying up the sources of the State’s regular revenue. They also taxed commodities in transit over their territories. The Soviets of Tsaritsyn, Samara and Kazan taxed the oil sent from Baku to Moscow (and sometimes even seized it), so that if and when it got to its destination its price had increased fivefold. The Soviets at Yalta, in the Crimea, taxed all exported tobacco with a prohibitive duty, thereby depriving the cigarette factories at Rostov, Moscow and Petrograd of their basic raw material. Without proper control, and for ill-defined purposes, the Nizhni-Novgorod Soviet levied an extraordinary contribution of twenty-seven million roubles from the rich in its area. The Military Revolutionary Committees, which were often headed by partisan fighters, also exacted levies and undertook requisitioning on their own account. [45]

These details will give a fair indication of the financial state of the country. The budget as forecast for the year was between eighty and a hundred thousand million roubles; the most opimistic estimates of the actual revenue put it at fifteen thousand million. [46]

There was the same chaos in food supply. Each Soviet, each factory and each family bent every effort to feed its own without caring for anybody else. All the measures undertaken by the Food Commissariat were cancelled out by a host of highly varied and egocentric local initiatives. Trains carrying grain were requisitioned en route, turned from their destination, and seized strictly according to the rule book, with edicts duly drawn up and signed by the ‘responsible’ local authorities – or else straightforwardly pillaged. The whole Petrograd-Moscow line thus kept itself alive by buccaneering, at starving Petrograd’s expense. All the railways were infested with the ‘bag-men’, small-scale profiteers or other enterprising citizens, who set off at their own risk and peril to look for foodstuffs in the countryside. They travelled in bands, formed crowds, captured trains by assault, corrupted railway workers, and went off each with his fifty or a hundred pounds of corn. In the Kursk gubernia there were estimated to be 20,000 bag-men devoting themselves to speculation; in the Saratov gubernia there were 50,000. [47]

This quickening social decomposition demanded urgent and energetic counter-measures. Moral influence had already done all that it could. In the face of this mounting anarchy, the centralization of authority appeared ever more necessary. The Food Commissariat sought, and obtained, from the Vee-Tsik the right to quash the decisions of local Soviets and to dismiss their officials.

To replace local anarchy by State intervention; to replace committees by responsible leaders; to involve the workers in production; to repress the counter-revolution which had long been vigorous in the countryside, and was now penetrating the proletarian centres; these are the pressing urgencies of the hour.

The debate on these measures takes place in the All-Russian Soviet Executive (Vee-Tsik), for the Republic, despite its lack of a written constitution, has a constitutional structure already crystallized, and a whole system of inner democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not the dictatorship of a party, or of a Central Committee, or of certain individuals. Its mechanism is complex. Each Soviet, each Revolutionary Committee, each committee of the Bolshevik party or the Left S-R party holds a portion of it and operates it after its own fashion. Lenin himself is obliged to follow strict rules. He has to convince a majority in the Central Committee of his party, then discuss with the Communist fraction in the Vee-Tsik and then, in the Vee-Tsik itself, brave the fire of the Left S-Rs, anarchists and Internationalist Social-Democrats, all doubtful allies, and of the Right S-Rs and Mensheviks, irreducibleenemies. [48] All the decrees are debated during sessions which are often of tremendous interest. Here the enemies of the régime enjoy free speech with a more than parliamentary latitude. With monotonous enthusiasm they celebrate the praises of the Constituent Assembly. Impotent but courageous – in fairness they must be granted that they tirelessly develop the prosecution’s indictment of the dictators. ‘The autocracy of the commissars has within six months produced the total ruin of Russia, laid waste by German imperialism,’ cries a Right S-R, who demands the Constituent Assembly, the cancellation of the Brest-Litovsk treaty and re-entry into the war on the side of the Allies. The lawyer Kogan-Bernstein (a Right S-R) shouts at the Bolsheviks: ‘Get out before you are chased out! You are only in power thanks to bayonets!’ He denounces ‘the October counter-revolution’ and ‘Lenin the insensible’. Along with Martov he cries: ‘Down with the dictatorship, long live the Republic, long live the Constituent Assembly!’ ‘You are savages, madmen, bandits!’ screamed another, at the end of the session of 14 May, at Sverdlov’s imperturbable face.

The arguments of the adversaries of Bolshevism amounted to the following: everything that was wrong came from the usurpation of power by Lenin’s party and its intention to burden the country with a premature transition to Socialism by dictatorial and bureaucratic methods. The cure lay in a return to democracy (bourgeois democracy), which would be endowed with wise laws by the Constituent Assembly and escorted into Socialism by the proletariat.

The end of these tempestuous debates came at the session of 14 June, when the Bolsheviks put on the agenda: ‘Anti-Soviet activity by parties represented in the Soviets.’ L. Sosnovsky, who gave the report, concluded in favour of the expulsion from the All-Russian Executive of the representatives of those parties which were instigating civil war against the Soviets and allying themselves with the enemy. A resolution was passed to this effect, and the local Soviets were asked to follow this example. The Left S-Rs voted against. It was an important step towards a monopoly of politics in the proletarian dictatorship. Up till now this dictatorship had not seemed incompatible with the legal existence of parties, groups and journals which were hostile, oppositional, neutral, doubtful or conditionally friendly. The Vee-Tsik had been acquiring a sort of parliamentary flavour. We have already seen the circumstances in which the suppression of the bourgeois press had been begun. Now the open alliance of the Right S-Rs with the Czechoslovaks and the strike propaganda of the Mensheviks [49], chiming in with the intervention, determined the outlawing of the two parties. It is true that this was still not an irrevocable step: Lenin would later ask his old opponents Martov, Dan and Abramovich on the Vee-Tsik: he was not afraid of them and he thought their opposition might be useful.

At the end of June, simultaneously with the victories of the Czechoslovaks and the troubles in the countryside, the agitation of the Mensheviks in the cities reached its peak. At Petrograd a committee of workers’ delegates proclaimed a general strike for 2 July; this was a failure, but a number of factories came out. On 20 June, the revolvers of unknown assailants murdered the party tribune Volodarsky, an orator and journalist of immense fire, as he was returning from a meeting in a factory. It was the first successful political assassination committed by the counter-revolution.


There was as much need of arms as of grain. Bread and an army – or the Republic was doomed. ‘ Voluntary enlistment,’ Trotsky was soon to write, ‘has reached only a third of our expectations.’ The early Red Army attracted too many unstable elements who came into it only to get fed for a while – and to acquire arms for themselves. The land of Socialism could after all be properly defended only by the collective of able-bodied citizens: mass mobilization is demanded by the conditions of modern war, as the revolution’s leaders perfectly well knew. In their view, voluntary enrolment was no more than ‘a provisional compromise arising from tragically difficult circumstances’. The All-Russian Soviet Executive had, on 22 April, decreed universal and compulsory military training for all men aged between sixteen and forty (for youngsters from sixteen to eighteen it was called preparatory training). This instruction had to be given them for twelve hours a week, at a minimum, over eight weeks. At the same time as this measure, the Executive also approved the text of the Red soldier’s oath [50]: ‘I, a son of the toiling people, assume the title of soldier in the workers’ and peasants’ army; I swear’ to learn the bearing of arms, to look after my weapons, ammunition and equipment with care, to accept discipline, to safeguard my dignity and that of my comrades, ‘to direct my every thought and action towards the great aim of the emancipation of the workers’, and ‘to spare neither my strength nor my life in battle for the Soviet Republic, for Socialism and for the fraternity of all peoples ... may I earn contempt and punishment if I violate this oath’.

The victorious offensive of the Czechoslovaks, achieved without striking a blow, revealed the military feebleness of the Republic. Dispersed as they were over vast tracts of territory between the Volga and Vladivostok, the Czechoslovaks nowhere amounted to a substantial force; they became formidable only through the contrast of their cohesion, discipline and resolve against the disarray and disorganization on the other side. On the Trans-Siberian line and in the Chelyabinsk region no effective resistance was put up to the intervention by the local Soviets. Some Soviets tried to avoid the necessary battle, to the cost of neighbouring areas. They refused to acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened, believing it was a matter of misunderstandings, fragmentary mutinies or incidents which would eventually be sorted out; they did not see that it was war, and war to the death. When the Czechoslovaks occupied Chelyabinsk the Soviet, which had tolerated the enemy’s preparations for nine days without doing anything, now spent two days in useless deliberations, refused to arm the Hungarian prisoners who offered to fight, and disregarded the workers’ forces that came together spontaneously. Other Soviets, notably in Siberia, negotiated with the Czechs and concluded truces with them, thus facilitating the enemy’s work through their own political stupidity. Trotsky’s merciless order, to shoot those who refused to surrender their arms, was nowhere carried out. It was a costly clemency.

There were still units of the former army, in a disorganized condition, all over the country, if only anyone had been able to use them. (The best of the Red Guards were fighting in Siberia, on the Manchurian border, against the Ataman Semyonov, and in other parts against the White bands.) The initiative of the revolutionary masses, which had caused the October Revolution to continue its triumphal march through November and December, was now faltering, for a variety of reasons: the best revolutionary cadres had been wrenched from the local Soviets by the first selection; the country was living off the feeling of a victory gained, so that the tension had slackened; privation and danger had instilled a certain weariness among the workers remaining in the rear – and their very presence in the rear was an indication of their backwardness; the peasantry was vacillating. From now on the failing initiative of the masses had to be made up by compulsion and organization, and a regular army substituted for the permanent insurrection of the guerrilla units.

It was Trotsky’s unflinching, tireless energy that took on all the organizational tasks of the army that had to be dragged out of chaos. Numerous points of resistance had to be broken within the revolution itself. Left S-Rs and Left Communists, symbolizing a very common state of mind, stood up for the guerrillas, combated the theory of the revolutionary army, and opposed the employment of former officers. The Left Communists’ theses denounced ‘the de facto re-establishment in the army of the old officers-corps and the command of the reactionary generals’. They defended the principle of election of leaders. Within a few months the cruel disappointments dealt to their cause by reality would totally dissolve these objections.

The proletariat has no military leaders of its own: ‘then let it take to its service those who have served other classes,’ said Trotsky. But these officers, these generals are surely counter-revolutionaries? Yes, they are: a dual command is instituted. By the side of each offices will be placed a commissar, as adviser and political guarantor. The commissar receives reports jointly with the commander, whose orders he countersigns, ‘thus attesting before the workers and peasants that the orders are not counter-revolutionary machinations’. The responsibility for all operations rests upon the commander alone. It is not the job of the commissar to assess the military merits of any orders given; all he can do if he disapproves of them from this viewpoint is refer them to the Military Revolutionary Committee (Order of the Commissar of War, 6 April 1918).

Measures were set afoot to compel officers to serve in the Red Army. ‘We must finish with military parasitism’, and so deprive the counter-revolution of its reserves. The officers have had their training at the expense of the people: let them serve the people. (An appeal addressed to those who have enlisted with the Ataman Krasnov and are burning down the Don valley promises them not only the pardon of the proletariat but also fresh appointments if they will surrender forthwith; those who fail to do so will be shot.) Furthermore, proper respect must be accorded to the officers and generals, ‘even conservative ones, who accept work in the difficult circumstances that we face; they are worth more than the false, intriguing Socialists’. ‘We shall discover among them many more first-rate men than we expect ...’ [51] The Mensheviks cannot resist raising the ghost of Bonapartism before the All-Russian Soviet Executive. ‘An army? Generals? Watch out for the Kornilovs, remember Napoleon!’ The army’s organizer gives them their answer in his imperious, mocking, metallic tones: Kornilov? But it was you people who nourished and made him. Our army will be a class army, just as our State is a class State. ‘We affirm and proclaim the proletarian monopoly of the army.’ If our generals intended to imitate their predecessors in revolutionary history we shall know how to remind them of our laws. And we must observe that Dan and Martov are ill-advised in their quotations from French history: they might have remembered that in the era of large-scale mechanized industry, of finance-capital and the proletariat, Bonapartism can no longer assume such crude forms as it did at the end of the eighteenth century.

Still, the desire to repeat the role of Pichegru [52] is not wanting among the military leaders. Admiral Shchastny opens the sequence of betrayal. He had distinguished himself in the last days of April by leading the Baltic fleet to safety when, blocked by ice at Helsinki, it was in danger of falling into the Germans’ hands. Shchastny then steered it into Kronstadt. The orders he gave stated: Defend the fleet and prepare to blow it up in case it falls into enemy hands. The admiral instigated suspicion among the crews against the government, which was being cunningly accused of planning the destruction of the fleet. Some officers of the mine-laying division gave out the slogan: dictatorship of the fleet. Trotsky had the admiral arrested. ‘When gentlemen admirals and generals, in a time of revolution, start playing their own politics, they must expect to take the consequences. Admiral Shchastny has lost the game,’ said Trotsky to the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal on 20 June. The admiral was executed. [53]


[1] The meat requirements of the army’s quartermastering department rose in 1917 to 50,281,000 poods; only 26,700,000 poods were available, a deficit of forty-seven per cent.

[2] The Russian word kulak forms an expressive image, for its literal meaning is ‘fist’.

[3] V. Kayurov, My Encounters and Work with V.I. Lenin in the Year of the Revolution, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.3 (36), 1924.

[4] The anarchists were in occupation of the villa of the ex-minister Durnovo [which they converted into a workers’ rest centre]: the Provisional Government tried in vain to dislodge them.

[5] Just before the October Revolution, Golos Truda, the anarcho-syndicalist weekly edited by Voline, A. Shapiro, Y. Grossman-Roshchin and others, had expressed its disapproval of an uprising which could terminate only in establishing a new authority: adding, however, that it would ... follow the masses. [Declaration printed in V. Voline, La Revolution Inconnué (Paris, 1947), p.193.] In the same period Kropotkin’s disciple Atabekian, stationed in Moscow, was deploring ‘the horrors of the civil war’. Old Kropotkin himself, loyal to the Allies and his own illusions of 1914, viewed the Bolsheviks as ‘agents of Germany’, a position he firmly maintained right down to his death.

[6] Vsevolod Volin (Voline) or Eichenbaum, the anarcho-syndicalist militant, had lived for some years in America: he was later to, become one of the leaders of the libertarian movement in the Ukraine known as Nabat (Tocsin) which supported Makhno and tried to provide him with an ideology (1919-20). He was banished from the Soviet Republic in 1921. [Voline engaged in relief-work abroad for the persecuted Russian anarchists and published important work on anarchist history; he died in Paris in 1945.]

[7] Of the Gordin brothers, one has since become the proponent of an international language of monosyllables, written in signs, the Ao language: the other, having in 1920-21 founded the original doctrines of Anarcho-Universalism (which seemed to be about to lead him rapidly towards Communism), has now, I think, retired from political life. [Actually both of the Gordin brothers were arrested for brief periods in the early 1920s: both then emigrated to the United States, one becoming a Protestant missionary and the other a settler in Israel.]

[8] Alexander Gay, an Anarchist-Communist, had lived in Switzerland for many years as a revolutionary exile. He was a member of the All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee. During an illness, he had to go for his health to the Caucasus, where he participated very vigorously in the civil war. He defended Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk and was one of the organizers of the Red terror in the Terek region. The Whites caught him in January 1919 at Kislovodsk, where he was confined by typhus, and sabred him to death in his bed. A few days later, they hanged his wife, Xenia Gay.

[9] Jacques Sadoul, Notes sur la Révolution Bolchevique (Paris, 1919), letter to Albert Thomas dated 8 April 1918.

[10] [Victor Serge’s treatment of this whole incident is somewhat evasive. Despite his insistence that no ‘well-known’ or ‘known’ anarchist (aucun anarchiste connu) was killed in the actual fighting, a leading anarchist worker named Khodunov, who had been elected to a Moscow Soviet from his factory and had fought in the October Revolution, was shot by the Cheka while in their custody following the raid (G.P. Maximov, The Guillotine at Work (Chicago, 1940), pp.388-9); of the other anarchists killed (on the number of which our sources are vague), it is an arbitrary judgement to declare that none was ‘known’. And while Anarkhiya did reappear on or about 21 April, its appearance was subject to harassment from the government drive against anarchist publications. See Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton, 1967), pp. 184-5, and Maximov, op. cit., p.410. Anarchist groupings were in fact broken up severely in this period.]

[11] Karlis Goppers, Four Defeats (Cetri Sabrakumi) (Riga, 1920).

[12] See A. Vetliugin, Adventurers of the Civil War (Avantiuristy Grazhdanskoi Voiny) (Paris, 1921).

[13] [For a full description of the various trends of Russian anarchism, several of which were neither pro-Bolshevik nor ‘anti-Soviet’, and which found, contrary to Serge, great difficulty in keeping open ‘their press, their organization and their clubs’, see Avrich, op. cit., Chapters 7, 8 and Epilogue.]

[14] V. Sorin, The Party and the Opposition (Partiya i Oppozitsiya) (Moscow, 1925).

[15] Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.27, pp.235-77.

[16] Sorin, op. cit.

[17] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, pp.333, 334, 336, 339. [It should be noted that ‘State capitalism’ here, in both Lenin’s and the Left Communists’ usage, refers to the State-controlled private sector (‘grain monopoly, state-controlled entrepreneurs and traders, bourgeois co-operators’ in the listing given by Lenin on ibid., p.336); it does not reflect the more common usage of later years, when ‘State capitalism’ was applied to a Russia now devoid of a private sector (i.e. in Stalin’s day and subsequently), with the State itself being conceptualized as the capitalist.]

[18] [F.W. Taylor, the American industrial expert (author of Principles of Scientific Management, 1911), pioneered the use of the stop-watch in industry, both as a tool for managerial efficiency and as a means of extracting intensified labour from workers.]

[19] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, pp.238, 241, 244, 245, 246, 247, 259, 265, 267-8, 268-9, 275.

[20] Lenin had to defend his theses at the All-Russian Soviet Executive both against Bukharin and against the anarchist Alexander Gay, who even declared that the proletariat of the West was too deeply corrupted for the revolution ... Lenin also spent time justifying the slogan ‘Steal back the stolen’, which had been attributed to him and was still occupying the mind of the whole press. ‘But it’s a very good slogan’, he remarked.

[21] Evening News, Life, The Fatherland; ... People’s Word, People’s Friend, Land and Liberty.

[22] The bread-ration laid down by the Petrograd Soviet was, as of 29 May:

  1. For workers performing heavy physical labour, 200 grams;
  2. For workers engaged in persistent physical labour, 100 grams;
  3. For clerical workers, 50 grams;
  4. For capitalists and rentiers, 25 grams.

The unemployed are classified according to their previous employment, within the above categories.

[23] See Chapter 5, pp.160-63, on The Allies and the Cancellation of Debts.

[24] [The cooperation between the local Soviet authorities at Murmansk and the British forces under Kemp and Poole was encouraged or permitted by Moscow from 1 March to the end of June. Trotsky notified the Murmansk Soviet that they must ‘accept any and all assistance from the Allied missions’ – an order which, in the light of the Murmansk Soviet’s subsequent break with Moscow and crossing over to the Allied forces (in early July), provided ample scope for Stalinist historians who wished to accuse Trotsky of folly or treason. Serge may here be discreetly repudiating the early stages of this anti-Trotsky campaign on the Murmansk epidsode. See R.H. Ullman, Intervention and the War (Princeton, 1961), pp.116-17, 181-5.]

[25] From the testimony of Rene Marchand, in Pourquoi Je Me Suis Rallie à la Formule de la Révolution Sociale (Paris, 1919). On the attitude of the Allies in this period, Sadoul’s Notes sur la Révolution Bolchevique form a document of the first importance.

[26] David R. Francis, Russia from the American Embassy, April 1916–November 1918 (New York, 1921).

[27] A. Argunov, Between Two Bolshevisms (Mezhdu Dvumia Bolshevizmami) (Paris, 1919).

[28] The duplicity of the S-R party is blatantly evident in the motion concerning Allied intervention adopted by a National Council meeting of 7-14 May 1918. ‘Democracy can in no case rely, for the restoration of the power of the people, upon a foreign armed force, even one in alliance ...’; however, the independence of Russia can be retrieved only through ‘the immediate liquidation of Bolshevik power and the installation of a government legitimized by universal suffrage ... This government could permit the entry of Allied troops on to Russian territory, for purely strategic purposes and on condition of the non-intervention of these governments in the internal affairs of Russia’ (!!).

[29] Boris Savinkov was one of the most forceful characters of the S-R party. Born in 1879, a militant since his youth, he became a member of St Petersburg’s first Marxist groups, along with Lenin and Martov. He went into exile, and became a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary party, whose terrorist organization he directed from 1903 onwards along with the agent-provocateur Azef. Savinkov organized or took part in almost all the S-R terrorist acts between 1904 and 1906 (notably the execution of the minister von Plehve and the Grand Duke Sergei), was condemned to death, and managed to escape. A talented novelist and occasional poet, the author of a set of remarkable memoirs, Boris Savinkov was a dilettante, complex spirit: audacious and practical, but tormented by mystical doubts, and with no belief in anything but personal strength and individual heroism. A patriot during the war, he became during the Kerensky period one of the most passionate advocates of a strong, dictatorial authority, which indeed he felt a vocation to exercise. He took part in Kornilov’s abortive coup, and subsequently became one of the most active adventurers of the counter-revolution. In 1924 he was arrested on Soviet soil, where he had returned illegally, and confessed, before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Moscow, his error and crime in having misunderstood and opposed the revolution. After being sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, he committed suicide in 1925.

[30] [See Editorial Postscript: The Allied Part in the Czechoslovak Intervention.]

[31] Evidence of ex-Lieutenant P. Pascal at the trial of the Right S-Rs in Moscow in 1922. His testimony is in complete accord with what is admitted by S-R writers like Lebedev and Savinkov.

[32] P.S. Parfenov, Lessons of the Past: The Civil War in Siberia, 1918, 1919, 1920 (Uroky Proshlogo: Grazhadanskaya Voina v Sibiri, 1918, 1919, 1920 (Harbin, 1921). [W.H. Chamberlin points out (The Russian Revolution, 1917-1921 (London, 1935), Vol.2, p.23) that Parfenov cites no source for his statement incriminating the British and French Missions in planning the Czechoslovak rising together with Moscow counter-revolutionaries; he also argues that Lavergne in particular could not have been involved in such a move, in view of the general’s undeniable efforts, at this time, to work out methods of cooperation with the Soviet government. 14 April does seem, on the evidence of Lockhart’s dispatches, a date several weeks too early for any definite anti-Soviet moves, involving the Czechs, to be concerted. On the other hand, it is precisely in this period that Lockhart’s contacts with the White organizations in Moscow become intensified (Ullman, op. cit., pp.163-4); some meeting of the kind mentioned by Parfenov may well have taken place, even if the Czechoslovak action (especially in the form it actually took, later in May) can hardly have been on the agenda in any detail.]

[33] L. Kritsman, The Heroic Period of the Great Russian Revolution (Geroicheskii Period Velikoi Russkoi Revoliutsii), 2nd edn (Moscow, 1926). It is a matter for regret that this remarkable economic analysis of the Russian revolution has not been translated in the West.

[34] The Russian State had been the owner of the railways, etc.

[35] On 21 November 1918 came the expropriation of commercial capital (with the decree on the nationalization of domestic commerce); then the expropriation of small-scale industry (nationalized on 29 November 1918); then of the cooperatives (nationalized in November-December).

[36] [’Workers’ control’ in the Russian context thus has an entirely different significance from the slogan of workers’ control in Western labour and Socialist movements. In the latter, the concept of the control of an industry by its workers is not applicable to a temporary phase before the actual expropriation of the employers: it relates to forms of industrial democracy which are to be practised within nationalized or socialized economic structure. The weakness of the Bolshevik category of ‘workers’ control’ has its roots in the relative absence of a syndicalist tradition in the Russian labour movement: Golos Truda, the anarcho-syndicalist organ, was only set up in Russia during 1917 itself, when most of its editorial team arrived from exile in the United States. (See Avrich, op. cit., pp.137-9, 142, 148.)]

[37] A. Rykov’s speech to the First Congress of Economic Councils (26 May-4 June 1918).

[38] Quoted by A. Pankratova in The Factory Committees of Russia in the Struggle for the Socialist Factory (Fabzavkomy Rossii v Borbe Za Sotsialisticheskuiu Fabriku) (Moscow, 1923).

[39] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, pp.392-3, 395, 396, 397-8.

[40] ibid., pp.425, 430, 434, 435, 436, 469, 475, 476-7.

[41] ibid., p.536.

[42] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.36, p.489.

[43] Lenin’s style, as the guide of the revolution, may be seen here in these few details. He warned the recipients of his telegram: ‘You are personally responsible for the prompt and rigorous application of these measures ... Make an appeal to the population explaining them ... Keep me informed on the progress of the operations, by telegrams sent to me at least, I repeat at least, every two days.’ See Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.3 (26), 1924.

[44] A few figures may be useful. The textile centre of Ivanovo-Voznesensk assembled twenty-three detachments (2,243 men in all) who, from September to 1 December 1918, secured almost 2,500,000 poods of grain. In the same period, Moscow received from its own detachments 322 wagon-loads of foodstuffs; previously, only a small number of wagons had got through to the city in some weeks. In three months, 30,000 workers moved from the non-agrarian to the grain-producing provinces. (From the Food Commissariat’s report on its activity during 1918-19.)

[45] Gukovsky’s report to the All-Russian Soviet Executive, 11 April 1918.

[46] ibid.

[47] Tsuriupa’s report to the All-Russian Soviet Executive, 9 May 1918.

[48] The chair at Vee-Tsik’s debates was usually taken by Sverdlov, and the Communist fraction there was headed by Sosnovsky, its usual spokesman. The most frequent speakers, apart from Lenin and Trotsky, who tended to present official reports, were Bukharin (for the Left Communists), Karelin, Trutovsky and Kamkov (Left S-Rs), Alexander Gay and Apollon Karelin (anarchists), Lozovsky (Internationalist Social-Democrat), Kogan-Bernstein (Right S-R) and Martov and Dan (Mensheviks).

[49] In these circumstances, the position of the Menshevik Social-Democrats was utterly false. The right S-Rs took up arms for the same practical programme (Constituent Assembly, restoration of democracy) that the Mensheviks wanted: but the latter refrained from resorting to arms, limiting themselves (as they said) to agitation and action among the working class, in the hope of becoming the party of the labour opposition within the democracy still to come. They were accused – and with reason – of being the accomplices of the Whites and the Czechoslovaks. These ‘slanderous accusations’ they denied, and ‘insisted on the truth’ – which was, for instance, that the Menshevik workers were declaring themselves neutral as the Red Guards were battling against the Czechoslovaks or Savinkov’s squads.

[50] The texts of these different decrees were written by Trotsky and voted on his proposal. The decree on military training begins with these words: ‘To liberate mankind from militarism and from the barbarism of bloody struggles between the peoples: such is one of the cardinal aims of Socialism.’

[51] L. D. Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed Itself (Kak Vooruzhalas Revoliutsiya) (Moscow, 1923), Vol.1, Documents of April-June 1918.

[52] [Pichegru was a general in the French revolution who joined a plot against the Consulate and was executed in 1804.]

[53] [Trotsky’s judgement on Shchastny was not shared by the Soviet government’s naval commissar, Dybenko, who went so far as to publish a protest against the verdict, and the circumstantiality of the evidence, in Moscow’s anarchist newspaper (Maximov, op. cit., pp.73-4). The sentence and trial actually evoked widespread protests in Russia, more so than the hundreds of summary executions conducted by the Cheka; it even moved Martov to write his pamphlet, Down with the Death Penalty, See E.H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923 (London, 1950), Vol.1, pp.163-4.]

Last updated on: 7.2.2009