Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

War Communism


1918 was the first year of the blockade. Russia’s imports in 1914 were 936 million poods [1] and her exports 1,472 million„ in 1917 they had fallen to 178 million and fifty-nine million respectively. In the Year One of the revolution imports were no more than 11.5 million poods and exports 1.8 million. For 1919 the figures would fall to zero. The effects of this total blockage of trade between Russia and the outside world were worsened by the dismembering of the country which, with two thirds of the population inside its boundaries, had only forty-five per cent of its grain, ten per cent of its oil production, eight per cent of its sugar output and twenty-three per cent of its cast-iron. Sixty per cent of the railway tracks were in the hands of the Whites. The destruction of transport was catastrophic. [2]

We have seen how the famine depopulated the large cities: Moscow and Petrograd had lost half of their population. Migration into the countryside, where food was easier to come by, was a general trend.

The decline of production was uninterrupted. It should be noted that this decline had already begun before the revolution. In 1916 the output of agricultural machinery, for example, was down by eighty per cent compared with that of 1913. The year 1917 had been a particularly general, rapid and serious down-turn. The production figures for the principal industries in 1913 and 1918 were, in millions of poods: coal, from 1,738 to 731 (forty-two per cent); iron ore from 57,887 to 1,686; cast-iron, from 256 to 31.5 (12.3 per cent); steel, from 259 to 24.5; rails, from 39.4 to 1.1. As a percentage of 1913 production, output of linen fell to seventy-five per cent, of sugar to twenty-four per cent, and of tobacco to nineteen per cent. [3]

The large enterprises failed more easily than the smaller ones, since they were much harder to keep supplied and were more closely dependent on the general level of production. The importance of small-scale concerns and of artisan craftsmen therefore grew visibly.

The railways, which were almost completely cut off from supplies of coal and oil, went over to burning wood, to the extent of seventy per cent of the whole system.

Wages doubled or trebled; the price of grain on the free market (which was illegal, but a necessary recourse for the proletariat for at least half of their foodstuffs) went up sevenfold. The part played by incomes other than wages in the workers’ budget assumed a growing importance: from 3.5 per cent in 1913 to thirty-eight per cent in 1918. What were the sources of these extras? Simply theft from factories and warehouses. The purchase of food absorbed seven tenths of the worker’s earnings, instead of a half. It was this state of affairs that impelled the workers to return to the countryside. In December 1918, the factories of Kolomensk had no more than 7,203 workers on their books, as compared with 18,000. Even this roll-call was largely one of absentees: on one morning in April 1919, only 1,978 showed up for work out of the 5,779 on the books. The State, the Red Army and the party continued to drain off the best forces from this exhausted proletariat. Strikes provoked by the famine would multiply till they reached the great outbreak of the following spring (1919).


The economy was, not surprisingly, in deficit. The extraordinary levies raised from the bourgeoisie played an appreciable role in the conduct of the civil war by sharpening class alignments, but yielded no substantial revenues to the State. The pace of events was too quick, and the resistance of individuals too entrenched, for that.

The war imposed extraordinary burdens upon the young republic. The army, the proletariat, officialdom, all had to be supported by the State, a total of thirty to forty million persons. Let us look at the national budget for 1918. The principal headings are as follows.

Income: 15,580 million roubles, of which 11,834 million are from taxes, in the proportions 68.9 per cent from direct taxes, 5.1 per cent from indirect and 1.9 per cent from customs dues. Expenditure: 46,706 million roubles, subdivided as follows: Central State institutions take eight million (less than 0.1 per cent); Supreme Council of the Economy, Commissariats of Food, Finance and Agriculture 15,770 million (33.8 per cent); transport 8,428 million (eighteen per cent); public education 2,994 million (6.4 per cent); War Commissariat, 15,133 million (32.4 per cent). It will be noticed that the war costs as much as Food, Industry and Agriculture put together. The deficit is colossal: 32,000 million, twice the total income.

These figures reveal the disproportion between the State’s needs and its resources. Its requisitions and issues of currency were ineffective in making up the deficit. Inflation reached fantastic proportions, unknown to previous history. [4] In November 1917 there were 18,917 million paper roubles in circulation; on 1 January 1918 there were 27,313 million and on 1 January 1919 61,265 million. In the meantime, the value of the rouble had gone down 230 times. The real value of all these thousands of millions was inescapably shrinking. The 27,313 million. in circulation on 1 January 1918 represented a purchasing-power of 1,117 million gold roubles; the 61,265 millions circulating on 1 January 1919 represented no more than 266 million gold roubles. [5] Never had monetary circulation been more feeble; and never, in consequence, were exchanges between the socialized productive sector and the peasant-based free market more difficult.

Issues of notes in the year 1918 amounted to 33,952 million roubles, with a real value calculated at 523 million. The real value of the requisitioning undertaken for 1918-19 has been estimated at 127 million gold roubles. [6]

The inflation and the requisitions bore down particularly heavily upon the countryside, from which basic foodstuffs and raw materials had to be extracted. Conditions of life there, however, were still relatively better than those in the towns. Agricultural production suffered from the ills of the time least of all. Russia’s total production was 12,000 million roubles before the war, fifty per cent from agriculture; it was now down to four to five thousand million, eighty per cent of this from agriculture.

The depreciation of the paper currency encouraged the general tendency towards exchanges in kind. Commerce became replaced by barter. Food and articles of prime necessity were distributed among the workers through the State, at nominal prices, as a kind of omen of the total abolition of money. Free public utilities were another first. step in this direction. [7]


Even before the revolution, the agricultural sector had suffered from the war. The main effect of the revolution was to ruin the large estates. Around 30,000 large proprietors were expropriated, but the peasants were in no position to resume the cultivation of the lands they had won. The disappearance of large areas of cultivation was a further cause which accentuated the decline of agrarian production. [8]

The results of the rural revolution are expressed in some eloquent statistics. The proportion of land in Russia cultivated by the peasants leaped from fifty-four to ninety-six per cent. The peasants became the real owners of virtually all the estates; but the war, the devastation of transport and the weak condition of industry prevented them from taking advantage of their gains.

A process of levelling among the peasantry was soon completed, with a rapid fall in the numbers both of rich and of poor. The number of farmers owning one horse rose from 43.8 to 79.3 per cent (as of 1920), with a corresponding decline in the proportions of those owning several horses or no horses.

Harvests fell dramatically. The cultivation of raw-material crops for industry was in serious peril, since no payment was being made for them. [9] Agriculture lost its commercial character, as the peasants tended increasingly to produce solely for their own consumption and no longer for the market, the State being in no position to supply any recompense for exchanges of corn. Anything they did sell went by preference on the illegal market, where they could get four times the price.


We will try and trace the dialectic of events in the economic field. As we have noted, the decree of 14 May had effectively supplanted exchange by a policy of requisitioning. The few manufactured goods that could be spared for the countryside were given to the poor peasants as an inducement to assist the proletariat in confiscating the grain of the rich. This formed one of the decisive measures for the class war in the villages. Through it, the proletarian revolution at once became established in the countryside. Up till now it had interested only the working-class population: twenty million people. From now on it would interest the whole rural population except the kulaks: 130 million people. The chaotic struggles undertaken by the peasants throughout this period cannot obscure the significance of the fact that at all times, in all places, in battle after battle, they secured the final victory of the Soviets. The economic levelling which proceeded among them parallels this fact of politics and helps to explain it. The victory of the proletariat over the kulaks deprived the counter-revolution of its last economic base.

However, the civil war now sweeping through the townships and hamlets was another new factor assisting in the decline of agricultural output; the economic levelling was accompanied by the atomization of cultivated tracts. The sharpening crisis of agriculture, which struck first at the industrial crops – the least necessary for the peasants themselves, and the most dependent on exchange with the towns – reacted back on the size of the industrial sector by blocking its intake of raw materials.

In industry, measures of nationalization continued. The graph they describe is itself significant. In April there was one such measure, in May seven; from July to October the average rate was 170 a month. In June, 357 enterprises had been nationalized; in September, 860 (including whole industries: mining, transport, electricity, oil, rubber, sugar, etc.). This expropriation of industry, verging ever closer to a total nationalization, placed an increasingly numerous population of workers within the responsibility of the Socialist State, and compelled it hastily to establish a body of functionaries, managers and administrators who could not be recruited straight away from among the working class. The bureaucracy was born, and was rapidly becoming a threat.

The zigzags of party policy may be reviewed at this point. In April, Lenin (aware of the dangers of a rash socialization of the entire productive sector) was saying: ‘If we go on expropriating capital at this pace, we shall infallibly be beaten.’ He fought against the Left Communists, who advocated the most radical economic measures. But in June, the expropriation of all the main industries was undertaken as a riposte to foreign intervention. A decree instituting the tax in kind was passed in March. As in 1921, it would have pacified the countryside: but it was never implemented. By May, the dictatorship of food supplies was installed through the sheer necessities of scarcity, and carried the social war into the villages. Owing to the destruction of transport, the famine, the economic responsibilities of the State, and the imperative necessity to feed the proletariat (the living force of the revolution) and keep the war industries going, a rigorous rationing system had to be introduced, with all its consequences of bureaucracy and paper-work; the State monopoly of grain could endure no further weakening. From now on, the suppression of the private market was a task of urgency. But it was never carried through successfully. Economic life took on a dual form: the organized, socialized sector comprising large-scale industry, and the anarchic, clandestine sector, much bigger than the former, embracing most of agriculture and the artisan crafts. Every day, in every city, the forbidden markets assembled dense crowds in the public squares. The statification of production and consumption provoked, in retaliation, the creation of a whole illegal economy.

Speculation was answered by repression. Force was invoked to subdue the clandestine economic network. The latter defended itself by corruption. Corruption was met by terror. Nevertheless, the cities’ sources of food, to the extent of two thirds, were found in the illegal market. Concessions had to be made to small-scale private initiatives: individuals were authorized to seek provisions for themselves in the countryside, to a limit of twenty-five kilos. This measure of relief for the general misery was costly: it added to the disorganization of work and of transport.

In February 1919, important measures in the progress towards a Socialist agriculture were set in hand (the organization of Soviet farms and of agrarian communes); a few days later, the Communist Party’s Seventh Congress concluded that small peasant production was bound to continue yet for a long time, and took several measures which tended to support and restore it. (Ever since the Sixth Congress of Soviets, it had been decided to wind up the Committees of Poor Peasants and return to the normal rural Soviet institutions.) All the same, the problem of the countryside would only be resolved much later, in 1921, and even then provisionally, by the establishment of the tax in kind and the re-turn to a free market.


It was in these conditions that the proletariat sought to organize Socialist production and distribution, in other words to take economic power into its own hands. In the factories, workers’ management committees ousted the capitalist and his technical-managerial staff. The expropriation of capital – industrial, commercial, real-estate [10] and rural – was so complete that the bourgeoisie became transformed, in the phrase used by one Russian economist, into a kind of ex-bourgeoisie in rags or ‘lumpen ex-bourgeoisie’. By contrast, it needed sustained efforts to flush out the petty-bourgeoisie from each one of their last economic strongholds in the cooperative system. The decree of 7 December nationalized the cooperative Moscow People’s Bank: the bourgeoisie was refused the right to vote and be elected in cooperative societies. A final blow to petty commerce was dealt by the decree of 21 November which instructed the Food Commissariat ‘to ensure provision for the population in all products and to replace the functions of private trade’. Many were the voices in the party which demanded the outright liquidation of cooperatives, ‘the servitors of capitalism’, and the total statification of distribution. This path would shortly be begun with the introduction of the compulsory cooperative system.

Industry was now managed by fifty-two centres of production (glavki), manned by worker committees in which the trade unions had a predominant influence: these succeeded in getting the war industries going non-stop and with increasing efficiency, despite appalling difficulties. At the end of the Year One, a change of heart took place among many of the intellectuals and technicians: an important minority of these joined the managerial councils of the Socialist State. The difficulties involved in the distribution of raw materials and fuel necessarily led to centralization, which was achieved only at the cost of a bitter struggle against separatist tendencies and local power centres. Centralization as a general line of policy, in the army, in transport, in provisioning, and even in the functioning of the party’s machinery, was the outcome of the war. The revolution had begun with the slogan: ‘Power, in all its fullness, to the Soviets.’ Now, however, the play of local egoisms, the lack of competent personnel and the activity of trouble-makers were setting in motion a reverse tendency, that leading towards a dictatorship of the centre, for the sake of the higher interests of the revolution.

Local Soviets could be seen demanding the abolition of the local branches of the centralized industrial administrations and trying to run everything for their own convenience within their own territories (e.g. Tambov). Separatist tendencies were so powerful at the periphery that the Soviet Republics of Estonia and Latvia proposed the opening of negotiations with the Council of People’s Commissars in Moscow on commercial exchanges, and the conclusion of formal commercial treaties. One of the leaders of the Latvian Soviet government, Stuchka, demanded that the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics hand back the industrial equipment which had been evacuated from Riga.

The State was still so weak that, given the incompetence of the normal institutions for their work, it often became necessary. to resort to the system of Extraordinary Commissions equipped with dictatorial powers. One Extraordinary Commission of this kind was set up to organize the provisioning of the army. Nothing but harm to the progress of centralization could come from the functioning of such Commissions.

In every administrative organ, the revolutionary proletariat found itself using a substantial corps of employees and functionaries belonging to the old petty-bourgeoisie of the cities. In one year, from the first six months of 1918 to the first six months of 1919, the membership of the only trade union for Soviet officials quadrupled, from 114,539 to 529,841. The general scarcity imposed both a census of consumers and a census of all available products. What techniques could be applied, what personnel could be employed? Everything had to be improvised from scratch, with personnel that were often corrupt and were in any case, by reason of their social origins, totally unfitted to grasp Socialist principles and the implacable necessities of the class struggle.

The mass of folk bent all their ingenuity into getting what they needed out of the stock of products; the party bent all its efforts to the task of allocation, as a first priority, to the army, the workers, the children and the mothers. But it entrusted the execution of its directives to bureaux who twisted them, while dubious elements in the population carried on massive fraud. Documents, minutes, government bonds, ration cards formed a phenomenal mass of paper, serving a variety of purposes: accounting, rationing, the classification of the populace into categories, the means of fraud and the livelihood of the corps of functionaries, who were hostile to the régime in their immense majority. Typical of the indignation against this bureaucracy was a slogan that we find in one journal: ‘Up against the wall with the bureaucrats!’ (Krasnaya Gazeta, 21 October). The article was a denunciation of the characteristically criminal attitude of the hospital staffs to working-class people.

At the beginning of 1918 the organized forces of the proletariat reached the total of 115,000 Communist party members and 1,946,000 trade-union members; a year later, it was 251,000 Communists and 3,707,000 trade-unionists. The functionaries were thus far more numerous than the party membership; and they infiltrated too into the ranks of the party.


The present work cannot include a description and analysis of the social system that was later, inaccurately, termed ‘War Communism’. This system attained its full development only in 1919-20, i.e. beginning with the Year Two. We must, however, pay some attention to it in the form it presents during the winter of 1918-19. We can at least form a general idea of what it meant. In the years since then, the Russian proletariat has had to retreat on a number of fronts before the peasant masses, with their attachment to private property and freedom of trade [11] the New Economic Policy or Nep, begun in 1921, has profoundly modified people’s conceptions of the system which preceded it. The erroneous description ‘War Communism’ has now stuck: some theoreticians have defined it as a form of Communism in the sphere of consumption. [12] In reality, it was also an ambitious attempt to organize Socialist production. The Russian Communists, with their intense theoretical clarity and their skill in political manoeuvre, never thought simply of using expedients necessitated by war, valid only for a time of war: they thought of building towards the future, of starting a sweeping fulfilment of their Socialist programme. If the civil war, freshly kindled by foreign intervention, compelled them to get on with the job faster than they had anticipated, it was not because it imposed on them measures that were contrary to or grossly different from their intentions: it simply made the total application of the proletarian programme a sine qua non of safety. Only the intransigence and the audacity of their policies could ensure the victory of the workers’ revolution.

So-called ‘War Communism’ was a project for the organization of the Socialist society, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. On this point we accept the conclusions of the economist L. Kritsman, who proposed to define it as ‘the organization of the natural economy of the proletariat ’. [13]

The whole of the social structure was founded on production, at whose base was the industrial enterprise. Relations of work became the essential, primary relationships between men (instead of property relations or the relations between owners and non-owners). The trade unions, whose base cells were now the Factory Committees, were increasingly assuming managerial functions in production: in this process the direct management of production by the producers was beginning to be realized, and the organization of production began to be merged with the organization of the working class. From top to bottom of society’s rungs, an exclusive and imperious class sense reigned. ‘The bourgeois, outcast and despised, deprived of property and honour, has become a pariah’ (Kritsman). On every wall the rule, borrowed from St Paul’s epistle, ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat’, was blazoned abroad. It was the suppression of parasitism, suppression of individualism in labour, the reign of collective methods in work and management.

This régime did spring out of the war, but out of the war between the classes: it proved that a proletarian revolution must realize itself in order to win. The more complete is its realization the more durable is its victory; nothing will kill it more quickly than moderation. But this social system was exhausted by the war: the project of an uncompromisingly Socialist organization of production was revealed as premature, through the isolation of the revolution within national boundaries, through the losses inflicted on the proletariat and through the immense numerical preponderance of petty producers for the market – the peasantry – over the industrial population. It would be just as irrational to blame the general decline of production upon ‘War Communism’ as it would be to hold War Capitalism, which enabled Germany to survive for several years, responsible for the famine and economic collapse which caused the final ruin of the Central Powers. The conquest of production by the proletariat was in itself a stupendous victory, one which saved the revolution’s life. Undoubtedly, so thorough a re-casting of all the organs of production is impossible without a substantial decline in output; undoubtedly, too, a proletariat cannot labour and fight at the same time; but the very rapidity with which Socialist industry recovered in the USS-R once the civil war was over shows that the methods of Socialism were not at fault here. The role of errors and exaggerations has to be assessed: but however important this may turn out to be, our general conclusions should need no modification.

The Russian proletariat managed a number of achievements: the formation of a powerful army, the development of war industries, the building of its own State. These substantial results en-courage us to believe that, if international circumstances had proved somewhat more favourable, it would have not missed the opportunity to achieve successes of at least an equal order, in the sphere of Socialist production.


The lessons of a year of struggle now brought results. Among the urban middle classes, whose antipathy to the proletariat had been long and ingrained, a new evolution could be seen. Many intellectuals at last declared themselves neutral; the bravest and most advanced rallied to the régime. The Central Committee of the Menshevik Social-Democratic party acknowledged, in an explicit resolution during October, that ‘the revolution of October 1917 had been historically necessary’ and constituted ‘a factor in the international proletarian revolution’. In December, a conference of the Menshevik party officially reversed its old policy and condemned as counter-revolutionary the demand for the Constituent Assembly. It was a total retreat from the positions of democracy. The Menshevik Central Committee proclaimed that the forces of the party would mobilize for the defence of the Republic, and offered to come to an agreement with the Communist party. The sole Bolshevik response was a demand, unsuccessful as it turned out, that the Menshevik party should formally condemn those of its groups and members who had gone over to the counter-revolution. Restored to the All-Russian Soviet Executive, the Mensheviks would attempt to work for some time now as a loyal opposition. They were able to get a journal published in Moscow. ‘We will legalize you,’ Lenin told them, ‘but we will keep State power for ourselves alone.’ [14]

A similar movement was in evidence among the Social-Revolutionaries. Several members of the Samara government broke with their party, to move towards the Bolsheviks. A professor of the University of Petrograd, Pitirim Sorokin, a former S-R deputy to the Constituent Assembly, announced in a brief but sensational letter to the press that he was giving up politics, where too many errors had a habit of getting committed. Lenin saw this declaration as ‘a symptom of the evolution of a whole class, the petty-bourgeois democrats. One section will come over to our side, one section will remain neutral, while a third will deliberately join forces with the monarchist Kadets.’ This evolution should be encouraged: ‘A revolutionary proletariat must know whom to repress and with whom – and when and how – to come to an understanding. It would be silly and ridiculous to insist only on tactics of repression and terror against the petty-bourgeois democracy when the course of events is compelling them to turn to us.’ [15] Anxious to give every support to this development, Lenin urged that the party should chase out of its ranks those false Communists from bourgeois intellectual circles who had entered it in the hope of sharing the spoils of power, and replace them by men of a different quality who only yesterday had been the conscious foes of the proletariat. This courageous distinction between the nonentity who had jumped in at the first chance and the convinced adversary who lays down his arms is worth remembering. Lenin added a warning that a few reverses against the Bolsheviks would be enough to provoke the petty-bourgeoisie, a class doomed to perpetual hesitations, to start vacillating back again in its old directions. [16]

The same topic occasioned a long exposition from Lenin on the relationships between the proletarian revolution and the petty-bourgeoisie.

We had to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat in its harshest form. It took us several months to break through a whole epoch of illusions. But.if you look at the history of the west European countries, you will see that they did not get through these illusions even in decades. We had to dispel the petty-bourgeois illusion that the people are an integral unity and that the will of the people can be expressed in some way other than through class-struggle. If we had made any concessions to petty-bourgeois illusions, to illusions about the Constituent Assembly, we would have destroyed the proletarian revolution in Russia. We would have sacrificed the interests of the world revolution to narrow national interests.

The terror had been born from the conflict between proletarian internationalism and the patriotism of the middle classes. Now it was necessary to seize the opportunity to pass on to other methods. Otherwise, ‘inflexibility will become sheer stupidity’.

The intellectuals lived a bourgeois life ... When they swung towards the Czechs, our slogan was: terror. Now that there is this change of heart, our slogan must be one of reconciliation, the establishment of good neighbourly relations ... We cannot build our state if we do not utilize such an important heritage of capitalist culture as the intelligentsia. We can now treat the petty-bourgeoisie as a good neighbour under the strict control of the State ... We tell the petty-bourgeois democracy: we are standing firm. We have always known that you were a weak lot. But we don’t deny that we need you, because you are the only educated group in the country.

In regard to the middle peasantry, another petty-bourgeoisie and the most numerous of all, Lenin’s doctrine is that these will never become Socialists out of conviction, only when they see that there is no other way. ‘No amount of decrees can transform small-scale production into large-scale: we must do it bit by bit, winning credibility, through the actual course of events, for the inevitability of Socialism.’ [17]


The change of heart among the advanced petty-bourgeoisie found striking parallels in literary circles. It may be said that Russia’s writers had been unanimously hostile to Bolshevism. We have already seen the attitude of Maxim Gorky, despite his long years of friendship with Lenin. We have seen him attacking the ‘cruel Socialist experiment of Lenin and Trotsky’ which, it appeared, could lead only ‘to anarchy, to the unleashing of the base instincts ...’. Gorky was now one of the first to rally to the Soviet régime, acknowledging the greatness of the revolution and the necessity to defend and serve it. He issued an appeal to all:

The experiment now undertaken by the Russian working class and by those intellectuals who have fused spiritually with it, this tragic experiment which will perhaps drain Russia to the last drop of her blood, is one of greatness, from which the whole world can learn. Almost every people in its time feels a Messianic mission, feels itself called to save the world, to breathe new life into its best forces. Come with us in our journey towards the new life for which we labour: come, without sparing us, without sparing anything or anyone, among all the sufferings and all the errors ...

Leonid Andreyev, Ivan Bunin, D. Merezhkovsky, A. Kuprin, the most influential prose-authors of Russia, who had all cut a revolutionary figure under Tsardom, remained incurably hostile. But the poets (and this is a remarkable fact) reacted to the profound meaning of the revolution, in a rich display of brilliant intuitions.

The greatest Russian poets rallied in the space of a few months, and gave the revolution a body of literature unique in its power. Valeri Bryusov, a man steeped in classical culture, hailed the advent of the righteous barbarians who were destined to renew civilization. Alexander Blok, a disciple of the mystic Soloviev, wrote the most popular and the purest masterpiece of the heroic years, The Twelve: twelve Red Guards are journeying through night and snow, weapons in their hands, and ahead of them – unknown to them – there goes the invisible Christ, crowned with roses. [18] This Christian conception of the revolution is found again in the Symbolist Andrei Byely’s Christ Lives Again, and in the poems, pervaded by Orthodox mysticism, of Nikolai Klyuev and Sergei Essenin. In 1919, with the exception of Gorky, all the great writers of Russian prose are either counter-revolutionary or very hostile; almost all the great poets have rallied to the revolution.

These great exceptions apart, literary production was interrupted, and ceased. Any writers who wrote at all devoted their energies to politics. [19]

Among the working class and in the party, the movement of the Proletkults (proletarian-culture circles) was becoming extended. The ambition of these circles was to renovate the whole of human culture in conformity with the aspirations of the proletariat. They discussed serious problems and in the larger cities formed lively groups who met to concern themselves with poetry, the theatre and literary criticism. The only outcome of the movement would lie in its encouragement of a certain number of poets, who were often to wind up in the usual grooves of the factory, victorious labour and proletarian heroism.

The theoreticians of Communism were themselves so absorbed by action that in the course of 1918, apart from articles for the press and speeches delivered to large meetings, they produced only a few thin booklets. The most outstanding of these were: N. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky; L. Trotsky, The Revolution of October, a historical sketch commissioned by the Central Committee; and the pamphlets of K. Radek on The German Revolution.


The civil war raged its way through the intellectual order as well. After Alexander Blok had written The Twelve, literary men refused to shake his hand. Compromise with the Bolsheviks still spelt infamy to most intellectuals. The Academy of Sciences, almost in its entirety, immured itself in a state of wilful hostility towards the Soviet government. It would take years of obstinate struggle before the passive resistance of the teaching profession in the universities could be overcome. The overwhelming majority of the school-teachers were hostile; their trade union had to be purged and reorganized inch by inch; influence in the schools was fought for, and won, step by step.

Under the direction of Lunacharsky [20], the Commissariat of Public Education set going a radical transformation of the educational system. The old structure with its inferior schools reserved for the people and its high schools reserved in practice for the bourgeoisie, was replaced by the common labour-school; the old syllabuses, which trained subjects for the Tsar and believers for the Orthodox Church, were replaced by a necessarily improvised scheme which was anti-religious, Socialist and based upon the educational role of work – the aim was to train producers who would be conscious of their role in society. Projects were drawn up to unify the school and the workshop. In order to implement sex equality from childhood onwards, co-education was frequently introduced in the schools. But everything had to be organized from scratch. The old textbooks were good only for burning. A large proportion of the old teaching staff resisted, sabotaged, refused to understand, and waited for the downfall of Bolshevism. The schools were appallingly barren of equipment: paper, exercise books, pencils, pens were all scarce. Hungry children in rags would gather in wintertime around a small stove planted in the middle of the classroom, whose furniture often went for fuel to give some tiny relief from the freezing cold; they had one pencil between four of them; and their schoolmistress was hungry.

In spite of this grotesque misery, a prodigious impulse was given to public education. Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere. [21] Innumerable fresh initiatives laid open the teaching of unheard-of, totally unexplored domains of learning. Institutes for retarded children were founded; a network of institutions for pre-school infants was created; the Workers’ Faculties and the special short courses placed secondary education within the grasp of the workers. Soon afterwards the conquest of the universities was to begin. In this period too, the museums were enriched by the confiscation of private collections: extraordinary honesty and care characterized this expropriation of artistic riches. Not one work of any significance was lost. In those troubled days a number of precious collections (notably, some of those at the Hermitage) had to be evacuated: they all reached their destination safely. The life of the scientific laboratories struggled on heroically. Sharing in the privations of the community, severely rationed, without lighting or (in winter) fuel and water, scholars of all political loyalties nearly always carried on as usual with their work.

Every evening the theatres, now nationalized, presented their customary repertoire, but to a new sort of audience. The ballet companies, organized for the delight of an aristocracy long since shot, gave their performances in the midst of the terror; the gold-vaulted theatres were thronged with working men and women, with young Communists, their skulls shaved as a precaution against typhus-carrying fleas, and with Red soldiers on leave from the front. And with the same memorable voice that had thundered God Save The Tsar in times gone by, Chaliapin sang The Song of the Bludgeon to assembled trade-unionists.

During festivals, the public squares were decorated by Expressionist painters. Monuments to the heroes of the French Revolution and to the Socialist pioneers were erected in wood or plaster. Most of these works have since disappeared: they were in any case mediocre.

The press had now lost the richness and variety of democratic times. Little by little, it became reduced to three sorts of organ obeying a solitary inspiration: the organs of the Soviets (Izvestia, or Monitor, in the capitals), the organs of the Communist party (the two Pravdas, or Truth), and those of the trade unions.


The winter of 1918-19 was frightful in the large cities that were ravaged by famine and typhus and deprived of fuel, water and illumination. The water and sewage pipes froze up inside the buildings. Families would crowd together around the little stoves that were nicknamed boorzuiki, a term ironically derived from ‘bourgeois’. Old books, furniture, doors and floorboards were used in lieu of firewood. In Petrograd and Moscow, most of the mansions constructed in wood went for fuel. Through the interminable nights of the Russian winter all lights were kept down to a flicker. Water-closets no longer worked: piles of excrement accumulated in the courtyards, shielded by constant snow-falls but storing up epidemics for the spring. Queues hung about aimlessly in front of the cooperatives; huge illegal markets, interrupted by police-raids, assembled in the squares. Here the survivors of the ex-bourgeoisie came to sell off the relics of their fortunes. The inevitable speculation was combated by regular house-searches and seizures of property.

The weakest were slowly being killed off by the blockade. The dictatorship managed the impossible in its efforts to succour its first priorities, the workers, the army, the fleet and the children. The sections most cruelly affected by the famine were the former wealthy and well-off classes. It was not a rare spectacle to see old people collapse in the streets for want of food. Mortality-rates rose sharply, especially among children and the old: the number of suicides, on the other hand, sensibly diminished.

The workers had chased the dispossessed bourgeoisie out from their mansions, and now installed themselves in the modern residences of the once-wealthy quarters. Each building, Bukharin wrote, must be populated by proletarians in arms and become a citadel of the revolution. Unfortunately, even the most comfortable appointments of the bourgeois living-quarters often proved impossible to adapt to the needs of their new occupants. In the cities, depopulated as they were, there was thus a shortage of suitable buildings for children’s homes, schools and communal dwellings: the architects of the old social order had had quite different needs in mind.

The Soviets instituted compulsory labour for the bourgeoisie in the form of public-service brigades. This service was, as it turned out, most successfully evaded. In late September no more than 400 fit ex-bourgeois could be found in Petrograd for ‘rearguard labour’. Requisitions of warm clothing were made, with each bourgeois compelled to hand in one warm suit.

The legal recognition of free union between the sexes, the easing of divorce, the legalization of abortion, the complete emancipation of women, the ending of the authority of heads of families and of religious sanctions: these did not produce any real weakening of family ties. This destruction of old impediments made private life simpler and healthier, and rarely provoked any crises. In Petrograd and Moscow, criminality (as strictly defined) was down to a peace-time level. Prostitution never disappeared completely, but the disappearance of the rich classes who were its clients reduced it to relative insignificance.

Religious life went on much as usual even though many counter-revolutionary priests had fallen foul of the Cheka. The clergy still divided itself into no more than two factions: the partisans of active resistance, whose leader was the Patriarch Tikhon, and the partisans of passive resistance. The Communist Party and the Council of People’s Commissars affirmed repeatedly that the liberty of religious believers would not be interfered with.

Conditions of life varied noticeably from one region to another. All the cities were plunged into darkness once evening drew in. Life was austere and tranquil in Petrograd, the most famished and most imperilled of the towns. The same privations seemed to be experienced more neurotically in Moscow, a capital already bureaucratic and lacking the tonic atmosphere of the front line. The cities were hives of the starving. The towns of the Ukraine lived under a cloud of terror, the prey of warring bands, ceaselessly plundered, fleeced and devastated by new occupying forces: night over Kiev was filled with cries of panic. There were times when the real masters of Odessa appeared to be the bandits.

The famine was, however, less acute in the Ukraine. The rural areas were less troubled by hunger, but had to become quite self-sufficient since they were now thrown back entirely on their own resources.


An observer who travelled through Russia at this moment would have gathered the impression, at once striking and misleading, of a general hostility manifested by the populations towards the Soviet power. This antagonism was a very real one among the expropriated classes and in most of the middle class. The change of heart we have described, important as it was, still showed itself only among the most advanced and articulate elements in the petty-bourgeoisie. The petty-bourgeois masses in the countryside were too close to the kulak in their general outlook not to feel threatened when he was attacked; in the towns, the same masses had been living off trade and other functions close to the bourgeoisie proper, and faced an apparently hopeless situation. In many areas they were more numerous than the proletariat, which had been eaten away by the civil war. And we have already seen how the social composition of the working-class population was being changed.

This class was still the only element of the population on whose loyalty the revolution could reckon. But it was suffering excessively. The individual worker saw only the narrow horizons of his own life; he was often lacking in the education and information that would have enabled him to see the necessary connections between facts, to entertain broader perspectives and larger consequences; and his instinct for self-preservation resisted the higher demands of the collective when sacrifices were demanded. The workers’ sufferings were too great for them to desist from complaining, from recriminating, sometimes from despairing altogether. The agitation of the anti-Soviet parties was skilful in exploiting these feelings. If the Russian working class still held fast, if it knew how to triumph, the honour of this achievement belongs to the Communist party above all.

This party still numbered no more than 250,000 members: but those who came to it in these times were selected by history itself. Adventurers too, it is true, flocked in under its banner, hoping to fasten on the benefits that usually go with power. This minority of false Communists, though. statistically negligible, did much harm since they helped to discredit local Soviet administrations by their abuses: in-an appreciable measure they facilitated the conquest of the Ukraine by Denikin (for, naturally, they made sure to go where the grain was). Nevertheless, it remains true that the overwhelming majority of workers who joined the party voluntarily mobilized for the fronts of the civil war. And this meant that they accepted every conceivable risk.

The. working class often fretted and cursed; sometimes it lent an ear to the Menshevik agitators, as in the great strikes at Petrograd in the spring of 1919. But once the choice was that between the dictatorship of the White generals and the dictatorship of its own party – and there was not and could not be any other choice – every fit man that remained took his rifle and came to stand in the silent line before the windows of the local party offices.

At this moment, the party fulfilled within the working class the functions of a brain and of a nervous system. It saw, it felt, it knew, it thought, it willed for and through the masses; its consciousness, its organization were a makeweight for the weakness of the individual members of the mass. Without it, the mass would have been no more than a heap of human dust, experiencing con-fused aspirations shot through by flashes of intelligence – these, in the absence of a mechanism capable of leading to large-scale action, doomed to waste themselves – and experiencing more insistently the pangs of suffering. Through its incessant agitation and propaganda, always telling the unvarnished truth, the party raised the workers above their own narrow, individual horizon, and revealed to them the vast perspectives of history. After the winter of 1918-19, the revolution becomes the work of the Communist party. We do not wish to imply that the role of the masses in the revolution was slighter simply because it was very different from what it had been at the year’s beginning; but all that the masses now accomplished was accomplished only through the medium of the party, just as a highly differentiated living organism senses the external world and acts upon it only through its nervous system.

The consequence is that the party undergoes, in a certain sense, a transformation: a rigorous adaptation to its new functions and to the necessities of the hour. Discipline in it becomes, increasingly, stricter: a strictness made imperative through action, through the inner purge to neutralize alien influences which would other-wise exert a dominating power. The party is truly the ‘cohort of steel’ of a later description. All the same, its thinking is still very lively and free. It welcomes the anarchists and Left S-Rs of yesterday. The prestige of Lenin has grown even further, since the attack that shed his blood and following the confirmation of his predictions in the German revolution; but his simplicity is such that no one is afraid to contradict or criticize him. His personal authority is solely that of an intellectual and moral pre-eminence, universally acknowledged.

Nobody is afraid to contradict Lenin or to criticize him. His authority was so little imposed, the democratic manners of the revolution were still so natural, that it was a matter of course for any revolutionary, no matter how recent a recruit, to express him-self frankly in the presence of the man who headed the party and the State. Lenin was more than once criticized unsparingly, in factories or conferences, by totally unknown people. He listened to his contestants coolly and replied to them in a common-sense manner. When sharply attacked in 1920, at a meeting of Executive Committees of the Moscow Gubernia on 15 October, with a large attendance of peasants, he began his reply by saying:

I have noticed from the beginning that you have come along with a very strong urge to pull the central government ‘down the banks’. That would be a useful thing to do, certainly, and I feel it is my duty to listen to everything that anyone has said against the government and its policies. And I think it would be wrong for anyone to close the debate ... [22]

The party’s old democratic customs now give way to a more authoritarian centralization. This is necessitated by the demands of the struggle and by the influx of new members who have neither a Marxist training nor the personal quality of the pre-1917 militants; the ‘old guard’ of Bolshevism is justly determined to preserve its own political hegemony.

A new moral law is generated within the party and, through the extension of its activity, becomes the law of the society now in travail. A law for workers and fighters, it is based on the concept of the revolutionary mission of the proletariat. Necessity, utility, conformity with the aim pursued, solidarity are its first principles; it knows no better justification than success, than victory; it demands the continual subordination of individual interests to the general interest. Every Communist, every participant in the revolution feels himself to be the humblest servant of an infinite cause. The highest praise that can be bestowed on him is to say that he ‘has no private life’, that his life has fused totally with history. At the command of the party, he was yesterday an army commissar, an educator of men in the front line; today he is a Chekist, merciless as the directives he receives from his Committee; tomorrow, he can be seen out talking to the peasants in the country districts (at the risk of being murdered by nightfall), or running a factory, or conducting some dangerous secret mission behind the enemy’s lines. There is not one militant who does not fulfil two, three, five or six different duties at once, who does not incessantly change them from one day to the next, upon the party’s orders.It is the party that does everything. Its orders are not to be discussed. ‘Conformity with the aim pursued’ governs all actions.

The moral health of the party is proven in its absolute honesty. It does not acknowledge the conventions of deceit, the double-talk, the old confidence trick of the two ideologies (one for ‘the elite’, the other for ‘the masses’), the divergence between what is thought and what is said, or between what is said and what is done. We were living off plain, clear ideas, ideas of a transfixing simplicity. Ideas, slogans and actions are one: a formidable unity which is both the cause and the consequence of an unswervingly proletarian line of politics. For the source of the social lie is simply the desire to satisfy, or at any rate to appear to satisfy, social interests which are actually incompatible.


The principal work of N. Lenin from this period (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky) is devoted, as its title would indicate, to a polemic against the old theoretician of Social-Democracy who had just published a short book in Vienna on The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

Lenin pays close attention to the new twists which Kautsky gives to the Marxist teachings on the State and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Operating within the field of an obscurely pure theory which opposes the ideal dictatorship of the majority to the dictatorship of parties and persons, Kautsky tried to eliminate any notion of revolutionary violence by recalling that Marx entertained the hypothesis of a peaceful revolution for England. Lenin follows him step by step in the argument, tirelessly recalling the most elementary truths of the class struggle: the role of the State as the instrument of domination by one class, the necessity to break the expropriated capitalists’ resistance, the falsity of bourgeois democracy which is only a mask for capital’s dictatorship, and the authentically democratic character of the proletarian dictatorship. We have seen these ideas live in a year of revolution. Let us merely note here what judgements Lenin delivers on the revolution now in progress.

Is it a bourgeois revolution, as Kautsky declares, destined ultimately to open the way to a capitalist development in Russia?

Beginning with April 1917 ... [23] we publicly declared to the people that the revolution could no longer stop at this stage [at the objectives of the bourgeois revolution] for the country had marched forward, capitalism had progressed, devastation had reached fantastic proportions which demanded (whether one like it or not) progress towards Socialism. For there was no other way of advancing, of saving the war-weary country or of relieving the sufferings of the working and exploited people. [24]

For the first time, a revolutionary Marxist was showing how the misery that was born from the imperialist war impelled the transition to Socialism. Speaking in December before the First Congress of Committees of Poor Peasants, Lenin returned to this topic in order to demonstrate the impossibility of a return to an agriculture run on the old individualist work-techniques: ‘The war has left us only want and ruin. It is impossible to live in the old way, and the waste of human. strength and labour that goes with small-scale peasant cultivation cannot continue ... Collective farming will treble the productivity of human labour.’ [25] These ideas, inspired by a straightforward proletarian realism, were quite contrary to the traditions of the Second International, which envisaged the Socialist revolution as something to be achieved at the peak of capitalist development, in a society that had reached a high degree of affluence. The traditional viewpoint of scientific Socialism was revealed now as Utopian, but it took Lenin’s audacious sense of reality to think of justifying Socialism in terms of the heritage of misery left by a bankrupt capitalism. [26]

He replied to Kautsky:

Our revolution is Socialist. First we fought with the whole of the peasantry against the monarchy, the landlords and medievalism (and that revolution was bourgeois-democratic). Then we fought with the poor peasants, the semi-proletarians and all the exploited against capitalism – including the rich peasants, the kulaks and the speculators – and to that extent the revolution became a Socialist one. [27]

Lenin’s assessment of the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the German revolution may be quoted here:

If we had not concluded peace at Brest-Litovsk we would have handed power over to the Russian bourgeoisie and done the greatest possible damage to the world Socialist revolution. At the cost of national sacrifices, we have preserved an international influence of such scope ... that the two imperialisms have become weakened and we have become stronger and begun the creation of a real proletarian army.

... The German workers would have won even greater successes if they had made their revolution without considering national sacrifices (it is solely in this that internationalism consists), if they had stated (and proved by deeds) that the interests of the world revolution take precedence for them over the integrity, security and tranquillity of their own national State.

The biggest misfortune and the biggest danger for Europe is that it has no revolutionary party. It has parties of traitors like the Scheidemanns, the Renaudels, the Hendersons and the Webbs, and servile characters like the Kautskys. But it has no revolutionary party. [28]


Let us summarize the main ideas of the time.

The era of imperialist’ wars and of international proletarian revolution was opened by the Great War of 1914-18; a return to capitalist stability had become impossible in the countries which had been led into the abyss through the development of finance capital; the task of rescuing, in a devastated Europe, the heritage of a threatened civilization now fell to the revolutionary proletariat. The struggle between the workers’ revolution and the dying capitalist order will be lengthy, and marked by setbacks; the proletariat’s victories may well be followed by defeats and by restorations of capitalism; but its reverses will prepare the ground for final victory. Already, in the countries defeated in the war, there are rumblings of revolution. The victorious countries have won some time: but they will be unable either to re-establish their production, now gravely affected, or to guarantee their labouring masses that minimum of prosperity which is necessary to social stability. The old world is doomed. Under the well-aimed blows of the proletariat, the capitalist-imperialist system, has snapped at its weakest point, in a backward country only recently industrialized. And this was possible because the system here was weakest; because the proletarian party, had been moulded here through Marxist intransigence, the struggle against despotism and the experience of 1905; because the Socialist revolution benefited from a bourgeois revolution which, though necessary, was feeble and tardy, unable to complete itself; because on the ruins of the Tsarist régime the Russian proletariat found itself faced only with an inexperienced, disarmed bourgeoisie which had not had the time to constitute its own class-State; because the war did not allow the capitalist states of the West to intervene on the side of the Russian bourgeoisie effectively and in time. To this concurrence of circumstances the victory of the proletariat in Russia is due.

From now on the Republic of Soviets is the principal centre of the proletarian revolution: if it succumbs, the chances for the Western proletariat’s victory will worsen, the defeat of capitalism will be delayed; but if, on the other hand, the proletarian revolution is suppressed and beaten in the West, the Soviet Republic will be in. danger of perishing. Its fate is inseparable from that of the international proletariat. ’We shall perish,’ Lenin told the Moscow Soviet on 23 April 1918, ‘unless we can hold out until we receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries.’ [29] And again:

You know that it is much harder for them to start the revolution in the Western countries than it was for us because the workers there are in the presence not of a rotten autocracy but of the most unified and most cultured capitalist class; but you know that the revolution there has begun, that it has gone beyond the frontiers of Russia and that our chief assistance, our chief hope, is the proletariat of western Europe, and that the world revolution, our essential support, has begun to move. [30]

‘I must tell you,’ he added a few days later, ‘that given a proper distribution of grain and other goods, the Soviet Republic can hold out for a very, very long time.’ [31]

It was a matter of holding out, and at the same time converting Socialism into a reality. All the main measures of the régime, which a few years later, after the retreat of the proletariat before the rural petty-bourgeoisie (Nep, in 1921), would improperly be called ‘War Communism’, were considered to form the beginnings of the Socialist order whose completion the international revolution would render possible. Two years later, in 1920, Bukharin would publish a bulky text on the organization of Socialist production through the paths and methods followed hitherto (Economics of the Transition Period); Nep was not envisaged in it. Lenin, in a speech for May Day (in 1920) said, ’We shall work for decades, without respite, to make collective voluntary labour [the unpaid labour of ‘Communist Saturdays’] a matter of custom and habit ... We shall make the rule “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” enter the consciousness of the masses.’ [32]

These ideas, which in the spring of 1919, at the foundation of the Third International, constituted the prevailing opinions, formed an accurate and powerful whole: as, indeed, they still are. For there are no predestined victories in the class struggle. The triumph of the proletariat in the aftermath of the war was just as possible as the victory of the bourgeoisie, and perhaps even more probable. The fact that neither the bourgeoisie nor the inter-national proletariat brought off a decisive victory does not allow us to conclude the inevitability of the outcome. The working class had the worst of the battle in central and south Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria), but nothing supports the conclusion that their defeat in these countries was always a certainty. The non-existence or inexperience of the Communist parties and the fatal role of reformist Socialism (which, at the most crucial moment, came to the aid of, the capitalist régime) show on the contrary that the poor development of the class consciousness of the proletariat was one of the principal causes of this defeat. In this epoch of social war, hope for the rapid development of proletarian class consciousness was more than legitimate, it was absolutely right and necessary. The world bourgeoisie got the worst of the battle within the boundaries of the old Russian Empire. But the victory of the Russian proletariat, due in the last resort to the resistance of the workers in the West against the anti-Soviet intervention, was also far from inevitable. In order to put it seriously in jeopardy, all that would have sufficed would have been a few political errors, a few hesitations, the disappearance of a few men. The struggle of the classes throws into combat masses of human beings: all other factors being equal, victory rests with the firmest, the most conscious, the most decisive.

At the end of Year One, the class war is engulfing the whole of Europe; on the Russian sector of the front the workers are winning; the struggle is still indecisive in central Europe and the Balkans; the proletarian offensive is maturing in Italy; on the quiet sectors of France and Britain the bourgeoisie is preparing intervention in Russia and, if necessary, in Germany. The proletarian revolution is international. Starting out from Petrograd and Moscow, it is shaking all Europe, is unsettling America and is about to awaken Asia.

The Allied governments, without daring to announce it publicly for fear of their own peoples, are engaged in hole-and-corner preparations for the great offensives of the spring against the Soviet Republic. Two counter-revolutionary states are being organized under their protection in Siberia and south Russia. Kolchak is to march on the Urals, on the Volga, possibly on Moscow; Denikin is to invade the Ukraine and advance on Moscow; Rodzhyanko [33] and Yudenich [34], based on Estonia and supported by a British naval squadron, will attack Petrograd, while Finland, if the overtures go through successfully, will give the city its coup de grace. The British will come down the Dvina from Archangel, the French, the Rumanians and the Greeks will occupy the Black Sea ports ... Such are the vast designs now being hatched in the ministries of Paris and London [35], where the defeat of Bolshevism is taken as assured. And it is there that the statesmen make their biggest mistake, for it has still not dawned on them that a new era has begun.

Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe, 1925-8

[1] 1 pood = 36 pounds avoirdupois.

[2] During the civil war (1918-21), the following were destroyed, according to official figures: 3,672 railway bridges, 3,597 ordinary bridges, 1,750 kilometres of railway-line, 381 railway depots and workshops and almost 180,000 kilometres of telegraph and telephone lines.

[3] Production will continue to fall until the end of the civil war and the institution of the New Economic Policy. For 1920, the following indices are given as a percentage of output in 1913: coal, twenty-seven per cent; cast-iron, 2.4 per cent; linen textiles, thirty-eight per cent. The production of the Donetz basin fell to zero in 1921.

[4] Though they were conspicuously outstripped in the Germany of 1923.

[5] The corresponding figures of 1921 were: currency in circulation, 1,638,600,000,000 roubles; decline in the value of the rouble, by a factor of 26,533; real value of the money in circulation, 44 million roubles.

[6] And, for 1919-20, at 253 million roubles. See E. Preobrazhensky, Finance and Monetary Circulation, in Five Years (Za Pyat Let) (Moscow, 1922).

[7] 1920 was the year which brought Russia closest to the total abolition of money. All public services were free; rent was abolished; theatre tickets were distributed free among the workers by the unions and factory committees; the post and (in some towns) the tram service were also free. Free meals for children were introduced in 1919.

[8] State agricultural production was not begun until the beginning of 1919. The large farming estates had vanished by two thirds; they had lost nine tenths of their horses and were very short of implements. By 1927, large-scale working had been restored only to a slight degree through the operations of State farming and the agricultural communes.

[9] At the end of 1920 they had fallen by forty per cent.

[10] In European Russia, sixty-four per cent of all urban premises were expropriated. In Moscow the proportion was ninety-five per cent, in Petrograd 98.3 per cent.

[11] This followed from the fact that they grew corn for sale on the market: consequently they formed part of the system of commodity production.

[12] See the debates of the Fifth Congress of the Communist International (1924) on the question of the programme: contributions of Bukharin, Thalheimer and others.

[13] L. Kritsman, The Heroic Period of the Great Russian Revolution (Geroicheskii Period Velikoi Russkoi Revoliutsii) (Moscow, 1926). This remarkable work is the only book which undertakes a serious analysis of War Communism.

[14] N. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.28, pp.212-13.

[15] ibid., pp.190, 191.

[16] ‘It is a truth long known to every Marxist that in any capitalist society the only decisive forces are the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and that all the social elements which occupy a position between these classes, within the economic category of “the petty-bourgeoisie” inevitably oscillate between these two forces’ (Valuable Admissions of Pitirim Sorokin, ibid., p.186). But, beginning with the spring of 1919, the Republic found itself faced with difficulties, which grew in September and October; the loss of its power appeared imminent. Once again the middle classes suffered a change of heart, resting their hopes on the return of the bourgeoisie (except, that is, in the regions where the peasants had had first-hand experience of bourgeois rule).

[17] ibid., pp.207, 211, 215, 214, 212 (Speech to the Moscow party workers’ meeting of 27 November, section 1: Report on the Attitude of the Proletariat to the Petty-Bourgeois Democrats).

[18] Alexander Blok was also responsible for the idea of the regeneration of the world by the barbarians of Asia – the ‘Scythians’ – who would bear with them a new culture, more profound and truly human than that founded in the West on the basis of technological progress. Like Byely, he belonged to the literary circles that were close to the Left S-R party.

[19] The work of Russia’s great writers, yesterday’s ‘revolutionaries’ now turned counter-revolutionary after the seizure of power by the proletariat, are filled with such execration, such horror at ‘Sovdepia’ [a nickname abbreviation meaning ‘land of the Soviet deputies’] that they belong to the realm of social pathology. Andreyev, from exile in Finland, issues his pamphlet S.O.S., an appeal to all the interventions against ‘the assassins of the fatherland’. Zinaida Hippius, a talented poet whose literary salon has been the most influential in Petrograd, with a ‘mystical anarchism’ as its chief trend, looks forward in her verses to the day when ‘we shall hang them in silence’.

[20] [A.V. Lunacharsky, a Bolshevik from 1903 who had broken with Lenin to join Gorky’s ‘God-followers’, rejoined the party in 1917 and held the Commissariat of Education until 1929. He died in 1933 shortly after being appointed Ambassador to Spain.]

[21] We cannot give any figures, since the available statistics begin only in 1919. With the arrival of the New Economic Policy over 1921-3, a number of these hastily founded educational establishments disappeared.

[22] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, p.336.

[23] Lenin makes a special point of saying ‘April’, doubtless in order to recall, with the hint of an illusion, the fact that before his memorable April theses the Bolshevik party was still taking its position of 1905, which considered the Russian revolution to be a bourgeois one.

[24] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.28, p.299.

[25] ibid., p.343:

[26] ‘Misery cannot be socialized!’ wrote Charles Rappoport at the end of 1917, in the Journal du Peuple, putting the view of the whole Socialist petty-bourgeoisie of the West in the French labour press. Since the Socialism of misery was impossible, all that could be done was to allow the bourgeoisie to organize the workers’ misery for its own profit, upon the pile of ruins left by the war. Such was the feeble logic of reformism. Rappoport, dreaming of a parliamentary democracy for Russia, appealed to the Bolsheviks to ‘save the revolution by convoking the Constituent Assembly’. [Another deliberately unkind reference by Serge, since Rappoport had subsequently joined the French Communist party as an orthodox supporter of the Moscow line.]

[27] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.28,p.300.

[28] ibid., pp.112, 113.

[29] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.27, p.232.

[30] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.28, p.348 (Speech of 11 December to the First Congress of the Committees of the Poor Peasants).

[31] ibid., p.381 (Speech of 19 December to the Second Congress of Economic Councils).

[32] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.31, pp.124, 125.

[33] [General Alexander P. Rodzyanko headed the field command of the White army which advanced upon Petrograd in May 1919, backed by Estonia, Britain, the United States and the counter-revolutionary emigration in Finland. (See, for Rodzyanko and Yudenich, John Silverlight, The Victors’ Dilemma: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War, London, 1970, pp.305-8.) He was the nephew of M.V. Rodzyanko, the 1917 Duma leader and anti-Bolshevik politician.]

[34] [N.N. Yudenich, who had been the Tsar’s Chief of Staff from 1913, commanded the White army in the Baltic region after the October revolution. In October 1919 he led a final abortive offensive against Petrograd. He died an exile in France in 1933.]

[35] [British government files for 1918 provide many examples of the ‘vast designs’ for intervention on whose precise nature Victor Serge could only speculate. Even before the world war ended, a new anti-Bolshevist geopolitics becomes visible in the official memoranda. Thus, a submission of 22 September 1918 from the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Thwaites, endorsed the analysis of the Military Attache in Stockholm, Brigadier-General H. Yarde Buller: ‘I am informed – I do not know if correctly – that Bolshevism was originated by a small nucleus of men in the United States, consisting of not more than six, of whom some were of the Jewish persuasion. Be this as it may, there can be no doubt that it is a fever that is spreading, the germs of which are latent among many people of all nations, and it is of the utmost importance for the future tranquillity of the world that every endeavour be made to stem it.’ A prompt anti-Soviet intervention was advocated, with the agreement of Britain’s enemies in the war: ‘an agreement might be come to with the Central Powers (who are strongly opposed to the Bolshevist movement) by which we could have free use of the Baltic’ (Public Record Office, File FO 371/3344).

In the same file R.A. Leeper, head of the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, submitted a report on The Growing Danger of Bolshevism in Russia, dated 14 October 1918: ‘As the military power of Germany is being gradually crushed, Germany ceases to be the greatest danger to European civilization, while a new danger – no less deadly – looms up in the near future. That danger is Bolshevism. In the event of the continuation of the war and the intensification of the unrest in Germany, Bolshevism may spread, first to the Russian border provinces and then to the Central Powers, thus becoming a force that would seriously threaten Europe.’ Leeper wanted the menace ‘dealt with now’: a comparatively small army coming from the Urals might advance on Moscow and put it down by force. Meanwhile Leeper’s opposite number at the Home Office, Sir Basil Thomson of the Directorate of Intelligence, was already circulating, in 1918 as in 1919, a ‘Monthly Review of Revolutionary Movements Abroad’ (in Public Record Office; PID File 371/4382) which indicates the official anxiety, if little else. (Thus, Report No.10, for August 1919, contained a summary of developments in some thirty-five countries in its few pages: ‘The unrest in Portugal continues’, etc.)

With the ending of the war, the various ad hoc justifications for intervention (in the cause of the military front against Germany or of this or that pro-Allied Russian element) had to be dropped, and the ideological note becomes more sustained. Lockhart’s Memorandum on the Internal Situation in Russia, delivered to the Foreign Office on the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (Public Record Office, File FO 371/3337) notes that ‘Our victories over Germany have removed our original pretext for intervention.’ He advanced various justifications to replace the ‘pretext’: the risk of revolution in other countries, loyalty to the committed counter-revolutionary forces, ‘humanitarian grounds’ and others more material. ‘A successful intervention will give the Allies a predominant economic position in Russia. It will be more than paid for by economic concessions ... By restoring order in Russia at once, not only are we preventing the spread of Bolshevism as a political danger but we are also saving for the rest of Europe the rich and fertile grain districts of the Ukraine.’ Massive intervention, requiring at least 100,000 Allied soldiers, mostly from the United States but with British and French participation, was to be mounted on a ‘proper scale’, strengthening the existing Allied fronts in Siberia and north Russia, and joining Denikin’s forces in the south, in a concerted movement to take Moscow. (R.H. Ullman, Intervention and the War (Princeton, 1961),pp.296-300, provides a summary of the report.) A similar memorandum was tabled, in less lurid strategic detail, by J.D. Gregory, the head of the Foreign Office Russian Department (in Public Record Office, File FO 371/3344).

By 1919, the most ardent Bolshevik-eater in British government circles would be a member of the Cabinet: Winston Churchill, the incoming War Secretary, who would advocate massive intervention in Russia to ‘break up’ Bolshevik power. In Churchill’s early statement of his position, the Allies must engage themselves in Russia ‘thoroughly, with large forces abundantly supplied with mechanical appliances’. (These proposals, and the opposition they encountered from Lloyd George, are recorded in R.H. Ullman, Britain and the Russian Civil War (Princeton, 1968), pp.90-98; the pre-Churchillian Cabinet debate on intervention is ibid., pp.10-14.) In February 1919 Churchill would enter into his close relationship with Sidney Reilly, now working in a freelance capacity for MI10, the espionage department of Churchill’s new ministry. Meanwhile, at the end of the ‘Year One’, following his return to England in November 1918, Reilly had set up a confidential social circle of anti-Bolshevists in the Intelligence and political departments, some of whom were Secret Service agents in the field, others senior Whitehall officials. Piquant details of this social round are given in the biography of Reilly by Robin Bruce Lockhart (himself a former Intelligence officer with access to much information in this area): Ace of Spies (London, 1967), pp.84, 90-91, 98. Almost without exception, all of the authors of the memoranda for anti-Soviet action quoted earlier were intimates of Reilly in these months and subsequently. On 12 November, Reilly gave a party at the Savoy for Lockhart, Leeper and their wives; on the following day Lockhart organized a theatre and supper outing for Reilly, Gregory and Captain Hill, Reilly’s Secret Service aide in Russia. Among the callers at Reilly’s expensively furnished flat in the Albany was Sir Basil Thomson of the Home Office Intelligence department. And Reilly was also active in a select club uniting leading members of Britain’s espionage and diplomatic services in an annual ‘Bolo Liquidation Dinner’ where those attending would drink a toast each year to ‘the liquidation of the Bolos’ – the latter being a nickname for the Bolsheviks. (A menu for one of these functions is given as an illustration in Lockhart’s biography of Reilly; it is signed by Leeper, Gregory, Reilly, Hill, Paul Dukes and other agents who had been working in Russia.)

These were only the most articulate and explicit supporters of an anti-Bolshevik crusade (and it may be noted that Dukes, Leeper and Lockhart were to be knighted in the course of their careers, with Leeper going on to be British Ambassador to Greece during the civil war of 1944 and Lockhart returning to the Foreign Office as an Intelligence and psychological warfare director). Less militantly, Sir George Buchanan (the former Ambassador to the Tsar), presented a memorandum on 20 October 1918 arguing for a very drastic intervention but insisting that ‘I do not for a moment advocate a crusade against Bolshevism.’ The comment on this paper by Lord Robert Cecil (on 31 October) is revealing of the nature both of the proposal and of the standard British attitude on intervention: ‘I am afraid that Sir George Buchanan’s policy of occupying Moscow and taking in hand the reconstruction of Russia is impracticable’ (Public Record Office, File FO 371/3344).

Another interesting exchange occurs in the same file between the young E.H. Carr, then a fairly junior official in the Foreign Office, and Cecil. Carr advocates ‘some sort of understanding with the Bolsheviks’, on the basis of recognizing Soviet power in the vastly truncated area of European Russia controlled by the Reds: ‘we should remain at Archangel and Murmansk where the inhabitants have renounced Bolshevism and in Siberia where the majority also appear to be opposed to it’. The Soviet government would also have to give up any hopes of recovering the Ukraine, Poland, Estonia and possibly White Russia. This mild proposal for controlled co-existence on the basis of the territorial spoils of intervention was turned down by Carr’s chief; Cecil insisted that there must be no recognition of the Soviet government on the ground that ‘Now that our enemies are defeated the chief danger to the country is Bolshevism.’

Thus, even before the arrival of Winston Churchill in his role of intervener-in-chief, the terms of anti-Soviet military activity by Britain were set. Despite the heated argument at Cabinet level over the extent and purpose of the interventionist action there was an ideologically motivated commitment to war against the Bolsheviks (even though a ‘crusade’ might be abjured), limited by sundry considerations of what was ‘impracticable’. The vast geopolitical designs were curbed by inter-Allied rivalry, tactical subtlety, the post-war demobilization, plain incompetence and often the sheer difficulties of geographical access. For, as Peter Fleming points out (The Fate of Admiral Kolchak (London, 1963), p.30), the common characteristic of all the theatres of Allied intervention against Bolshevism is ‘accessibility; the Allies intervened in Russia wherever it was physically possible for them to do so’.]

Last updated on: 7.2.2009