Soviet Russia: Anatomy of a Social History

Part II: War Communism

Chapter VII: The New State Apparatus

At the time of the split within the Russian Social Democratic Party (1903) there arose critics of Bolshevism denouncing its organisation and theory as a dangerous departure from Socialist principles. The most important of Lenin’s opponents were Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg maintained that, while Bolshevism might prove an effective instrument for the purpose of seizing power, it could never be a satisfactory foundation for the construction of Socialism. In Trotsky’s view, neither Mensheviks nor Bolsheviks were right in their opposed points of view, but he predicted that while the Mensheviks would turn reactionary even before the victory of the revolution, the Bolsheviks would not do so till afterwards.

These two important and astute criticisms contain a significant appreciation of the great positive qualities of the Bolshevik party. When all is said and done the Bolsheviks are distinguished from all other Socialist parties by the fundamental fact that they did actually win through to the famous ‘Day after the Revolution’, and this is in itself a strong argument in favour of the policy which helped them to reach this goal.

No criticism should overlook the fact that the conduct of the Bolsheviks between the February Revolution and their seizure of power in October was a model of well-conceived and admirably applied working-class democracy. Their struggle for the majority in the Soviets proves that the Bolsheviks were not a group of reckless conspirators who were out for power at any price, but a revolutionary party devoted to its ideals and to the interests of the workers. Under the circumstances it was both necessary and right that they should overthrow the Provisional Government by force of arms. The rule of an impotent and reactionary clique, founded exclusively on the failure of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, had to be destroyed by the only means available—that of force.

The conduct of the Bolsheviks after their seizure of power—beginning with Trotsky’s venomous speech against Martov on the very night of the Revolution—although it has been considerably misrepresented by their fallen opponents—is far more open to criticism. But the Bolsheviks could have repressed these dangerous tendencies by strictly adhering to their guiding principle of earlier months. Since the beginning of the revolution they had championed the principle of the sovereignty of the Soviets which could have proved the best antidote to any bonapartist or absolutist tendencies of their leaders. There is no indication that the Bolsheviks did not seriously intend to apply this principle in practice after their victory, and the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in the towns, in cooperation with the Peasant Soviets in the villages, might have formed the starting-point for the reorganisation of the state on a sounder basis, free from the fungus of bureaucracy, supported by the collaboration of the mass of the people.

The essential reason for the very different course of events was the growing intensity of class conflicts culminating in open civil war, and especially the extension of this civil war into a kind of international class warfare, owing to the intervention by the Great Powers. It is practically certain that the workers, backed by the agrarian revolution, would have been strong enough to crush quickly their internal opponents. But instead of being helped by the workers of more advanced countries in reconstructing their decaying economic system, the Bolsheviks were attacked by the capitalists of all nations counting in the world of 1918.

The fight against the interventionist armies, consisting of disciplined and well-equipped troops, was a very different matter from the dispersal of the White irregulars. However great the role of revolutionary propaganda might be, once it came to actual fighting in the field other weapons were necessary. In all branches of Soviet life attention was focussed on the war, and this brought about a complete change from top to bottom in the political outlook and the political development of the Soviet power.

The Soviet state had been designed as a method of gradual development of the people in the school of working-class democracy, until they should be able to undertake the great task of social reconstruction. Lenin proclaimed that every washerwoman should be able to govern the country. Instead of that, a bureaucratic machinery had to be created almost on the spur of the moment whose duty consisted in blindly carrying out the orders of the government. The free will of workers, soldiers and peasants did not count for much during those years; all aims, all interests, and the lives of millions of people had to be subordinated to one object, the preservation of the Soviet power. The Soviet government needed a war-machine of its own in order to resist the highly organised war-machine of the Entente Powers and the White armies. The lack of all kinds of material had to be counterbalanced by higher devotion and greater sacrifices. The longer this unequal struggle lasted, the more insistent became the demand for personal sacrifices which could not always remain voluntary. The Soviet state had to rely on compulsion to an ever-increasing extent.

By the autumn of 1917 the Russian army had practically disbanded; the demobilisation order after the peace of Brest-Litovsk was hardly more than a matter of form. But some months earlier there had already come into existence in workshops and factories the Red Guards, composed of young revolutionary workers, who formed a voluntary defence formation against the counter-revolutionary attempts of the officers of the old army. In concert with the nuclei of the revolutionary regiments and, above all, with the sailors, these Red Guards fought and won the first battles against the forces of Russian counter-revolution, more especially against the reactionary Cossack regiments. But the concentric attack on the Soviet power by the interventionist armies necessitated the levy of ever-growing numbers, and therefore the reintroduction of conscription, the formation of a new peasant army. This army was organised by Trotsky on the pattern of the old Tsarist army, and to a large extent commanded by Tsarist ex-officers who had come over to the revolution. It remained victorious thanks to the unconquerable determination of its leaders and the devotion of its working-class cadres—and thanks also to the fact that a feudal restoration had become impossible since the success of the agrarian revolution.

Public administration was not less radically transformed by the exigencies of war. The increased bitterness of class warfare at home, the often justified fear of treason from the remnants of the bourgeoisie, and the needs of the army compelled the Soviet power to adopt the methods of administration and oppression which had been characteristic of the Tsarist regime. However radical the change in personnel may have been—and it was probably not so complete in the lower as in the higher offices—similar tasks very soon reproduced similar methods. In many cases the Soviet power simply went back to the old technique of Tsarist repression; the best known and, perhaps, the most disturbing example of this tendency was the organisation of the ‘Extraordinary Commission for the Struggle against Counter-Revolution’ (Cheka ) on the lines of the Okhrana, the old Tsarist secret police.

The Bolsheviks, or, as they called themselves since 1918, the Communists, took over the management of the government without for the time being losing their character as a party. But within the party itself, which was to govern itself according to the famous principle of ‘democratic centralism’, the balance leant so much in favour of centralism that the democratic character of the party was decisively weakened. Thus it became very easy to prevent opposition within the party by administrative measures, and the longer this temptation lasted the less it could be resisted. Party and state were transformed into machines which attempted under most difficult circumstances to fulfil their appointed tasks, and in this they succeeded against overwhelming odds; but in the process these machines developed a life of their own and became a law unto themselves.

Thus the Soviet state developed into a bureaucratic state of the old pattern—minus the safeguards for individual liberty which had been adopted in most civilised countries. But this was not principally due to the wrong organisational principles of Bolshevism, and even less to Lenin’s or Trotsky’s consuming ambition; the root causes lay in the inconsistent social development of Russia since the introduction of modern capitalism. No unprejudiced observer can deny that Lenin and his followers honestly fought these fateful tendencies before they became their victims. And there is a good chance that they would have been ultimately successful, if their task had not been made well-nigh insoluble by military intervention which, in its turn, was due to the failure of the labour movement in the more advanced countries of Central and Western Europe.

Chapter VIII: Riding the Whirlwind

I: The Counter-Stroke of Capital

Immediately after the October Revolution capitalists, Mensheviks and Right Social Revolutionaries were unanimously of the opinion that the rule of the Bolshevik madmen, who took the ideals of their past so seriously, could not last longer than a few weeks. These prophets were to be bitterly disappointed. Many Bolsheviks, on the other hand, believed that their successful coup d’état had broken the power of the bourgeoisie which had proved completely incapable of leading Russia after the downfall of Tsarism, and was after all no political factor of importance. This sanguine idea, too, was completely mistaken.

After the quick overthrow of Kerensky’s regiments, after the suppression of the Moscow rebellion in some days of hard fighting and the first victories against Kaledin’s reactionary Cossacks, the military activities of the bourgeoisie seemed at an end. But Russia’s counter-revolutionary forces did not remain unaided for long. Never in history was the practical internationalism of capital proved to such an extent as during the years 1918-20 in Russia.

German militarism compelled the Soviets to sign the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk; nevertheless Russian patriots accepted or solicited the support of the German army not less than Ukrainian separatists. The labyrinth of South Russian intervention in 1918, when every White gangster leader negotiated with every military mission for help against the Soviets, illustrates the predominance of class interests over national feelings whenever the existing social order is actually threatened.

When the Germans violated the peace of Brest-Litovsk and began occupying the Ukraine, the Soviet government asked the Allied and associated powers for help. But the Entente powers did not regard the Soviets as the successors of their Tsarist ally, but as their implacable class enemies, and supported the consecutive White shadow governments with money, munitions and even with soldiers. A period of terrific sufferings for the Russian people set in, overshadowing even the experiences of war and revolution: the tragedy of Civil War and intervention (1918-22).

Even before the beginning of hostilities the leaders of finance and industry were, of course, by no means ready for loyal cooperation with the Soviets. Economic sabotage, not unknown even before the October Revolution, now became the rule instead of the exception. Besides, many managing officials and technicians were foreigners, and since 1914 these were generally subjects of the Entente powers, directly dependent on their military missions, which in many cases were responsible for acts of economic sabotage for military reasons.

However strange this may appear, these developments took the Communists completely by surprise. In spite of their interminable discussions of the problems of revolutionary government during the period of their practical impotence, their thoughts had never concentrated on these simple but fundamental questions. The maintenance of law and order by the revolutionary government and the control of counter-revolutionary tendencies was ostensibly regarded as a minor problem by Lenin:

The guillotine only frightened, only crushed active resistance. For us this is not enough.

We must not only ‘frighten’ the capitalists so that they feel the all-pervading strength of the proletarian state and forget to think of active resistance to it.

We must crush also their passive resistance which is undoubtedly still more dangerous and harmful. We must not only crush every kind of resistance. We must make people work within the framework of the new state organisation. [1]

Lenin, being the hard-boiled realist that he was, certainly did not exclude the use of force against the bourgeoisie, but generally he believed that drastic measures would be unnecessary. The mere existence of the proletarian power and, in extreme cases, fines and imprisonment would be sufficient to maintain the revolutionary regime. He relied especially on the efficiency of the following administrative measures of a strictly economic character:

The grain monopoly, the bread cards, universal labour service become, in the hands of the proletarian state, in the hands of the all-powerful Soviets the most powerful means for accounting of control, a means which, extended to the capitalists and the rich in general, will give a power unheard-of in history for ‘setting in motion’ the state apparatus, for overcoming the resistance of the capitalists, for subjecting them to the revolutionary state. [2]

These words are fresh proof of the incurable good nature of revolutionary movements; they are the more remarkable because they were written after Kornilov’s abortive rebellion. Only a few months later the best Bolsheviks fought and died on all fronts against Russian counter-revolution and its international henchmen. The leaders of the Soviet government were concerned not with the reconstruction of the economic system, but with the reorganisation of the army and the maintenance of a munitions industry, not with the ‘setting to work’ of the capitalists in the interests of the people, but with their physical extermination. War Communism, which had to be adopted by the Soviets as a weapon indispensable for survival, became a deadly instrument in the hand of merciless revolutionaries. Russian society was shaken at its foundations, the revolution was forced into a new and dangerous direction—but aristocrats and capitalists were ‘liquidated as classes’, and in many cases physically suppressed.

II: After the Peasant Revolution

During the struggle for power in the towns the Russian village did not remain quiet. The peasant war which raged from the autumn of 1917 until far into the year 1918, ended with the complete victory of the peasants. They redistributed the land of the landlords and of those peasant-farmers who had left the Mir after Stolypin’s agrarian reforms and inaugurated a new period in Russian agriculture. The Soviet government, in a decree drafted by Lenin himself immediately after the seizure of the Winter Palace, confirmed all independent actions of the peasants.

The unconditional recognition of the destruction of large-scale farming was logically inconsistent from the Bolshevik point of view. Nevertheless it was inevitable. Six months earlier it would perhaps have been possible to direct the process of agrarian reorganisation from above, and to avoid the splitting up of large estates and the destruction of valuable property and cultures; but by November 1917 the peasant movement was irresistible. The Bolsheviks had the choice of swimming against the current and being drowned or of following it. This was not an independent policy but the recognition of—temporary—impotence; yet it was correct, for it was the sole chance for the Soviet government of entrenching itself in the towns and preparing the extension of its power into the villages, where at the time it wielded only nominal authority.

Thus the ‘bourgeois’ character of the Russian revolution, stubbornly invisible in the political sphere, exerted itself with irresistible impetus in the social and economic sphere. For the revolutionary village was not Socialist but utterly individualistic. From the political point of view the Bolsheviks could be well satisfied with this course of events which secured them the support of the peasantry against all counter-revolutionary tendencies. Economically, however, the situation was unsatisfactory and fraught with dangers for the future. The very existence of the Soviet power and the urgently needed improvement in the living conditions of the working class depended on a quick increase in the productivity of agriculture, whereas the terrific damage caused by the peasant war and the destruction of large-scale farming on the contrary reduced the productivity of agricultural labour even further.

In the months immediately following the October Revolution the points of disagreement between the government and the peasants were, however, still a matter of the future. The Soviets needed the friendly neutrality or even the support of the village; the peasants, on the other hand, needed a champion of their cause against the landlords and their white gangs. They found it in the Red Army, which was led by the Soviets and the urban workers in general. This alliance between the Soviet power and the agrarian revolution had to be maintained at least as long as not only the Soviet regime, but also the results of the peasant revolution were directly threatened by the White armies.

This fundamental fact enabled the Communists to survive in their terrible struggle against a world of incomparably better armed enemies, and it was for this reason that the peasants consented to bear their share in the sacrifices of this struggle. The daring policy of the Communists was completely justified by the result: although repeatedly strained almost to breaking point, the alliance between the Soviets and the peasants did not actually break down on a large scale while the military danger lasted. The sound theoretical conceptions and the excellent practice of the Communists combined for the creation of a common front of the workers and the peasants against the restoration of the capitalists and landlords.

Yet in that respect alone; the fundamental differences in the interests and in the outlook still prevailing between peasants and workers were felt with surprising strength as soon as the war period was over. Temporarily submerged by the common struggle against the common enemy, these differences never disappeared. On the contrary, they had been secretly intensified to such a degree that the end of the Civil War seemed to be marked by a complete rupture between the peasants, the Soviet government and the workers.

After they had succeeded in throwing off the yoke of the landowners and the Tsarist state, the peasants recognised only one legitimate link to the outer world: the market, where they exchanged their agricultural produce against manufactured goods. And it was in this respect that their expectations in the salutary consequences of the revolution were most cruelly disappointed.

Already during 1916 the food supply of the towns was seriously hampered by the insufficiency of industrial output. In the year of the revolution the food shortage became general and assumed threatening proportions. The period of Civil War and War Communism was marked by widespread malnutrition, and finally by famine. This dangerous development was certainly not exclusively caused by the economic tension between the Soviets and the peasants; it was largely due to the war itself, and particularly to the consequences of intervention by Germany and the Entente powers: Southern Russia, the Ukraine and Western Siberia, the most renowned grain centres of the country, which in former years had been the granaries of Western Europe, were for a long time in the power of White generals who carefully prevented grain exports to Soviet Russia.

But the towns and the army had to be fed under all circumstances. The food shortage therefore compelled the government to inflict increasing hardships on the peasants and thereby to intensify the existing tension between town and village. It deprived the peasants of foodstuffs without giving them any material equivalent. At the outset of the war, the peasants had been very eager for ready cash which had been so tragically rare before in the Russian village. But their enthusiasm quickly wore off, and rising prices coupled with dwindling supplies of industrial goods roused their suspicions against paper money which was of no earthly use to them. And the Communists were utterly unable to improve this state of things during the first three years of Soviet rule; they were, indeed, compelled to make it even worse.

At first the Soviet government tried to overcome the passive resistance of the peasants to its economic demands by political propaganda:

We know that we are here pursuing a policy which lies in the workers persuading the peasants to give their grain in the form of a loan. The peasant lets us have his grain at fixed prices and receives not goods, for we have no goods, but slips of coloured paper. In return we say to him: ‘If you are a man of toil, can you deny that this is just? How can you fail to agree that those who have surpluses of grain must loan them at fixed prices and not dispose of them by profiteering.’ [3]

But the value of this propaganda was exactly nil. As commodity producers the peasants were inaccessible to moral appeals because even the dullest muzhik was firmly convinced that it would be a hopelessly bad bargain to sell voluntarily at the officially prescribed prices against paper roubles.

The Communists could not shake this conviction, but neither could they accept as final the peasants’ ‘no’. It is true that they could give them nothing in exchange for their foodstuffs except valueless slips of printed paper, but they were prepared to take by force what the peasants refused to surrender voluntarily. Lenin, in pursuance of a pet idea of his which had not proved very successful before the October Revolution, tried to mobilise the village poor as allies of the Soviet government in its struggle against the profiteering ‘kulaks ’. But for the second time the solidarity of all the peasants as producers was stronger than the solidarity of the poor peasants with the workers in the towns.

The Communists were therefore compelled to adopt a policy of regular requisitioning, and the ‘quota’ demanded by their troops increased from year to year because a growing number of soldiers, workers and officials had to be fed and private trade was either forbidden or at a standstill. The procuring of food supplies was the task of a special ‘food army’, consisting of picked workers, and collaborating with the committees of the village poor. Already in 1918 it was said to have consisted of 45 000 men. [4] The trade unions had their special food detachments, and in the immediate vicinity of the front the Red Army organised its own supply system. As a matter of principle only the surplus stocks of the peasants ought to have been subject to requisitioning, but this principle was more and more disregarded the longer the war lasted and the more critical the economic situation became. The peasants tried, of course, to hide their stocks, and the soldiers retaliated by taking everything they could find. The momentary needs were much too pressing to allow considerations for next year’s harvest to interfere with their satisfaction.

The peasants did not, however, confine themselves to the primitive and ineffective method of sabotaging requisitioning by simply hiding their stocks. Sometimes they were desperate enough to put up violent resistance, which was promptly and savagely overcome. Thus the peasants had to resort to other measures in their struggle against the economic policy of the Soviets. At first they had preferred the accumulation of stocks to their sale against depreciated paper money. When they were compelled to part with their surplus without effective payment, they preferred not to accumulate any surplus at all. This simple programme was adhered to by millions of peasants with stubborn consistency. Their most valuable movable property was undoubtedly their cattle, which was liable to requisitioning in large numbers, and could not easily be hidden away. The consequence was a terrific slaughter of livestock by the peasants, who preferred eating meat themselves to letting other people have it. Russia’s slumped precipitately from year to year: [5]

1916 (million)1920-21 (million)Reduction in per cent

The available quantities of animal energies, manure, etc, fell, of course, quite as much, and this exerted a strong depressive influence on soil cultivation. At the same time the sown areas were greatly reduced by the peasants who did not want to produce any surplus grains which could be requisitioned by the Soviets. Owing to these circumstances and to the economic consequences of the agrarian revolution harvest yields fell even more sharply.

In view of the general disorganisation of the country, crop figures for the worst years of War Communism were probably underestimated. Nevertheless it can be safely assumed that the harvest of 1920 did not suffice for the most primitive nutritive demands of the population. In 1913, the home consumption of the Russian countryside has been estimated at about 3700 million poods, while grain sales to the towns amounted to another 1300 millions. In 1920, gross production had itself fallen to only 1738 million poods. [6] Though the harvest of 1913 had been exceptionally plentiful, though the number of people was much smaller in 1920 than in the last year before the war, there remained a gulf between demand and supplies which could be bridged only by reduced consumption—and very often not at all.

But the requisitioning system of the government could not take the precarious agrarian situation into consideration—and being a bureaucratic machine it was, indeed, incapable of doing so. During the year 1920, perhaps the bleakest of this dark period, the Communists may have even flattered themselves to have solved the grain problem by their energy and efficiency. Although the agricultural position as a whole deteriorated rapidly, grain collection plans were increasingly better fulfilled. [7]

Food Collections by the State


Million tons

Percentage of plan
















But this great organisational success carried in itself the seeds of its own destruction. The real surplus of Russian agriculture had completely disappeared a long time ago: the quantities of foodstuffs collected by the Soviets increased at the expense of the nutrition of the peasants and the seed grain for the coming year. This vicious circle inflicted untold misery on the peasants, who suffered one defeat after another at the hands of the organised power of the Soviets—but the government did not profit by these inglorious victories. The time was swiftly approaching when the towns could be fed only at the expense of next year’s crops. The existing stores had been consumed without being replaced by new reserves, peasants and requisitioning troops made big inroads into the seed grain for the coming sowing campaign—and famine impended in towns and villages alike.

This was the state of things during the winter of 1920-21. After having broken the armed resistance of the landlords, capitalists and their international supporters, the Soviet power was confronted by the passive resistance of the peasants which it could not overcome either by agrarian laws or by brutal force. The Communists certainly saved the peasants from counter-revolution, but after the final disappearance of this danger the peasants did not want any more to tolerate the demands of the revolutionary state. A first-rate crisis in the relations between the Soviets and the peasants was inevitable.

III: Working-Class Democracy Versus Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Without the passive support by the peasantry, the Soviets could not have survived the Civil War and the intervention by the Allied powers. But for victory something more was needed than this passive help. It was the working class which enabled the Soviet power to maintain its existence through years of a terrible and often seemingly hopeless struggle.

Since the October Revolution the workers of the towns defended the Soviet regime against the White Guards, wherever they might appear. The voluntary Red Guards were mainly composed of workers, and even after the reintroduction of conscription workers formed the backbone of the Red Army and helped it to victory. On the other hand, the government regarded the industrial workers as its social and political basis. Manual workers, now entering the Communist Party in growing numbers, were put into administrative and political key positions—which, during the Civil War, invariably were also the most exhaustive, dangerous and responsible ones. But apart from their service in the army and in the new administration, the workers had to maintain industrial production, as far as it was possible under the existing circumstances.

While more and more workers occupied leading positions in the Soviet state, in the army and in the numerous economic organisations, the Soviet state with all its institutions was less and less of a workers’ state. Before the October Revolution the Bolsheviks explained with irrefutable logic that there was only one genuine alternative to the bureaucratic oppressive state of old Tsarist Russia, viz, a system of sovereign Soviets representing the working masses. During the period of Civil War and Intervention this system was, however, abandoned and a new bureaucratic apparatus assumed complete control of the country. It is true the Soviets were not formally dissolved and maintained their ‘sovereignty’, but by certain organisational devices and, above all, by the mere change in the relations of power between the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets and the ruling groups of the Communist Party, they simply became executive organs of the real rulers who were in the last resort the Central Committee of the Communist Party and, in particular, its ‘Orgbureau ’ and its ‘Polbureau ’.

After some years of Soviet rule Lenin himself sadly confessed that the Soviet state was nothing but the old Tsarist state anointed only with a little Soviet oil. This may have been partly exaggerated, but there is no reason to doubt the fundamental truth of this criticism. Even the figures, inexact though they may be, show the terrific dimensions of the bureaucratised Soviet state: [8]

Distribution of Wage Earners According to Occupations
Sector1913Per centPer cent1920
Large-scale industry2 770 000551 820 00033
Railways815 000161 229 00022
Bureaucracy1 500 000292 444 00045

Even this is probably an understatement; in 1920 a large part of the wage-earners in industry, and especially in transport, were actually part and parcel of the bureaucracy. Although the number of workers within the state administration increased very considerably, they were still a small minority among state officials and, of course, among army officers; the bulk of the new leaders of the working class belonged to the dispossessed middle classes:

Without any transition the state had suddenly taken the place of private concerns. Officials and employees, thrown into the street in consequence of the nationalisation of banks, of commerce and industry, pushed themselves with elemental force into all the government offices, into state and communal institutions, into trusts, syndicates, combines and all other economic organisations newly created by the state. [9]

Was the Soviet state during these years, as the official description would have it, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, or was it already then a ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’, as its enemies asserted? The majority of the workers certainly welcomed the October Revolution and completely identified themselves with the struggle of the Soviets against Russian and international capitalism. On the whole, the workers regarded the policy of the government as a policy in their own interests, and they were generally justified in this belief. But in spite of this harmony between the aims of the government and the interests of the working class it must not be overlooked that the workers had no means of influencing and controlling official policy, of safeguarding their interests by institutional devices against any breach of the existing harmony by highhanded actions of the bureaucracy. This could have been achieved only by free democratic representation of the workers in the government, and some reform of this kind became increasingly necessary in order to counterbalance the growing power of the bureaucracy.

If the ‘dictatorship of the Communist Party’ was to remain a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, it had to become a ‘proletarian democracy’. This is, indeed, what Lenin and his followers advocated before the October Revolution, and it was primarily a consequence of the failure of the labour movement in Europe and the interventionist wars which produced the momentous change in Communist theory and practice from a ‘proletarian democracy’ to the despotic rule of the proletarian ‘vanguard’ consisting, of course, of the Communist Party. Instead of destroying the Tsarist state, the Communists adapted it to their temporary needs. This was primarily no fault of theirs, but it was nevertheless a disaster of the gravest consequences for the further destinies of the Soviet state. Although not completely independent of workers and peasants, the bureaucratic dictatorship became a determining factor of Russia’s development, a social organism of its own with particular interests and tremendous power.

It has become a commonplace statement that private ownership of finance and industry is incompatible with the ‘new order’ of modern economy. The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was designed by its Socialist authors as a method for overcoming this conflict by the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution, and the planning of economic life in the interests of the people. This is necessarily a political process, for a Socialist society cannot be established by the workers of a single factory or even of a whole trade. Only political action can accomplish this aim, and only the people themselves can determine what their real interests are. These fundamental facts clearly imply the democratic character of the transition from capitalism to Socialism, although they do not exclude the use of force under certain circumstances; but working-class organisation can fulfil its aim only if it is democratic.

Working-class democracy is, therefore, vital not only to the workers themselves, but to the very victory of Socialist principles. Yet the hopeful seeds of working-class democracy in Soviet Russia, which were embodied in the Soviets, did not develop but wasted away, or were even ruthlessly suppressed by the bureaucratic state apparatus which soon stigmatised as ‘counter-revolutionary’ every attempt of the workers to determine their own problems by themselves. But in spite of Civil War and Intervention, in spite of economic catastrophe and famine, democracy remained an indispensable element of working-class life and action. Being prevented from political expression it sought other outlets. Its most important field during the next few years was a kind of semi-anarchist or syndicalist industrial democracy arising from the Bolshevik slogan of ‘workers’ control’ in industry. In spite of strenuous attempts the Soviet government only gradually and slowly succeeded in replacing it by centralised control until it was at last strong enough to reduce its scope and suppress it completely.

This long episode of ‘workers’ management’ was a political symptom of the highest significance. It was theoretically wrong and practically inefficient, but its very existence and the extraordinary importance which the workers themselves attached to it is an expression of the otherwise mute protest of the working class against the abandonment of their political principles by the Communists. The Soviet government made not the slightest attempt to understand this underlying trend, and hardly wanted to explain to the workers the—real or supposed—necessity of its policy, nor did it think it fit to make practical concessions to the elemental democratic needs of the workers. This subterranean conflict must be regarded as the first important case in which the Soviet system for reasons of its own disregarded the interests of the working class, as the first bureaucratic degeneration of Communist policy.

The struggle for ‘workers’ control’ in Russian industry lasted from March till October 1917. After the Communist seizure of power the capitalist owners openly sabotaged production, and this gave an irresistible impetus to the movement for ‘workers’ management’ of industry. This second stage of the struggle closed with the Decree of Nationalisation of large-scale industry, issued by the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom ) on 28 June 1918. The workers were in fact left in full possession of ‘their’ factories, and now the question arose what should be done with this precious property. The ensuing position was paradoxical and untenable. Instead of political democracy, a revolutionary but despotic dictatorship of a tiny minority established its rule; instead of industrial management by a well-organised central planning authority an amateurish democracy developed which tried to decide by majority vote technical and commercial problems of the greatest intricacy.

This state of affairs may have been an interesting political symptom, but it could not endure for any length of time. Conflict between the political autocracy and the economic ‘democracy’ was inevitable, and serious troubles soon arose. The political structure of the Soviet government certainly burdened the future of the revolution with grave problems—but it was at least a strong and not inefficient power which proved its right to live by its successful resistance to superior enemies. The ‘workers’ management’, on the other hand, was a technical absurdity and had to be replaced by a different system, whatever the political situation.

For the fulfilment of this task the Soviet government made use of the trade unions. These had won mass support only since the February Revolution, but in the following months and years their membership grew extraordinarily quickly—partly owing to the abolition of membership dues which were paid by the factory administration. At first the Communists had to secure their ascendancy over the trade unions themselves, and this task was quickly solved by the appointment of reliable Communists to all key positions. The resistance offered by the Mensheviks was generally slight, and already the first Trade Union Congress after the October Revolution (January 1918) defined the relations between the unions and the Soviet power in a manner very satisfactory for the latter.

The subordination of the trade unions to the policy of the Soviet government, never really disputed in practice, was finally confirmed by the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party (1920), where the workers’ opposition under Shliapnikov and Kollontai remained in a hopeless minority. The subordination of the workers to the control of the centralised bureaucracy was, on the other hand, a task which concerned the trade unions themselves not less than the government.

Workers’ management in industry was attacked from above and from below, from the Supreme National Economic Council and from the factory committees. The Supreme Economic Council had been elected in the summer of 1918 according to the essentially democratic Soviet principle. Later on, the election of its governing praesidium was gradually replaced by appointment from above, the local organs were made strictly dependent on the central authorities, and the praesidium simply became a committee of government appointees and trade union representatives, a government department which, together with the Council for Labour and Defence (STO), maintained a despotic rule over the economic life of the towns.

Workers’ management was in the hands of factory committees which were democratically elected by the workers of each individual enterprise. The growing influence of the Supreme Economic Council reduced elections to one-third of the managing body; later on the elected workers’ representatives were forbidden to interfere directly in the actual management of the factory, and formed special boards of control which were finally abolished as useless. Afterwards the Supreme Economic Council monopolised the right of nominations to the board of management which had been shared with the trade unions, who at first still retained a certain influence on the selection of the candidates.

A more promising development than workers’ management was the attempt of the elected factory committees to extend their radius of action by forming a central organisation of shop stewards. But these central councils of factory committees were regarded by the trade unions as dangerous rivals and quickly suppressed. Their conferences were strictly forbidden, and the unions even tried to destroy the independence of the factory committees themselves by transforming them into their local organisations. This demand, however, remained at first only on paper. But the obligatory membership in the trade unions extended their influence to such an extent that at last in 1920 its realisation could be attempted: the factory committees simply became the lowest units or ‘cells’ of the trade unions, and were completely subordinated to their central bureaucracy. Thereby the last vestige of independent working-class influence over the official working-class organisations vanished for ever.

This fact became notorious in the course of the long and bitter struggle concerning the role of the trade unions which divided the leaders of the Communists during the years 1920 and 1921. On the factory management boards, trade union representatives worked side by side with commercial and technical specialists; they protected the interests of the trade unions and, to a certain extent, those of the workers, and functioned as liaison officers between the economic authorities and the trade union organisation. When the influence of the workers themselves on factory management had been completely superseded by that of the trade union representatives, their real purpose had been fulfilled, and they in their turn became superfluous. Thus it was that Lenin himself, the recognised leader of the Communist Party, early in 1920 initiated an energetic propaganda campaign against the ‘collegiate’ management of industry and in favour of its replacement by ‘bureaucratic’ individual managers appointed by and responsible to the Supreme Economic Council.

The trade union leaders resented this propaganda as a serious blow to their industrial power; for several months a bitter conflict developed around this proposal until the Ninth Congress of the Communist Party decided for Lenin (March 1920). The factory management boards usually consisted of five to seven persons, and reflected to a certain extent the historical evolution of Soviet industrial administration; the workers themselves retained, if any, a very modest position, the trade unions still had a considerable share in the shaping of industrial policy, and the nominees of the Supreme Economic Council were more or less in control of the daily work of administration. The system was certainly inefficient, and its work slow and unsatisfactory, but it can hardly be ascertained whether this was due to material difficulties, bureaucratic handling of business, or to the constitution of the boards themselves. In any case, Lenin stigmatised the management by boards as the root of the evil, and demanded its supersession by individual managers strictly responsible to their superiors and strictly in control of their subordinates.

If he believed that this change would remove the deficiencies of the bureaucratic Soviet apparatus, he was wrong, as has been exhaustively demonstrated by the subsequent history of Soviet industry. The individual Red Director was certainly obliged to render account to his superiors, and was fully responsible for his actions and omissions. But in the great majority of all cases this responsibility remained an empty formality because effective control was ruled out by the chaotic state of the country. On the other hand, the power of the Red Director over his subordinates was very real and formidable for good and evil. As long as he succeeded in maintaining his position he could count on full support by the local exponents of the state, and, particularly, by the police authorities, and the abolition of the management boards, which had offered some measure of protection to the workers, rendered defence against the possible abuse of his power by the manager extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Thus it would seem that the advocates of ‘collegiate’ management were on firm ground in their opposition to Lenin’s proposals. But they refrained from using these obvious and convincing arguments, and this for very good reasons. The trade unions deemed it necessary to base their sound opposition to Lenin’s policy on the lame principle of industrial democracy which had been abolished by the Soviet government exactly with their own help. Their arguments were, therefore, more pathetic than convincing, and Lenin easily disposed of Tomsky’s opposition. He simply asked how the ‘participation of the broad masses in industrial management’ would be guaranteed by boards of five or seven persons, and the advocates of collegiate management were at a loss for a convincing answer. The only correct attitude would have been the clear recognition of the fact that the interests of the workers and those of the Soviet power and its representatives in the management of industry were by no means always identical or even reconcilable. But the bureaucratised trade unions, depending as they were on the ruling dictatorship, and holding aloof from the masses whose participation in the management of industry they championed, were unable to look this disagreeable fact squarely in the face.

It is a significant symptom of the progressing bureaucratisation of the Soviet power that both factions in this quarrel, though perfectly sincere in their subjective opinions, did not mean what they said and did not say what they meant. Individual management turned out to be quite as inefficient as collegiate management which, in its turn, did not offer any particular opportunities for the ‘broad, unaffiliated working-class masses’ to participate in the management of industry.

Thus trade union influence on the administration of industry was completely lost; on the other hand, the unions could not fulfil the tasks of trade unions in capitalist countries and protect the workers against the management. Instead of pressing the demands of dissatisfied workers on the authorities, they had, on the contrary, to secure the smoothest possible working of the industrial machine and urge the workers to higher and higher efforts. Why then preserve them as independent organisations? An influential group of high Communist officials under the leadership of Trotsky put this question and answered it with the demand for the ‘nationalisation’ of the trade unions.

However, as is often the case in politics, the logical perfection of a principle was at the same time its practical destruction. In this new and violent quarrel, which caused a serious party crisis and raged during the winter months 1920-21, Lenin again asserted his supreme leader qualities and his incomparable sensibility of the moods and tensions of the masses. He was unable to prevent the ‘luxury’ of this debate, but from the very beginning he concentrated his attack on Trotsky and denounced his principles as ‘tactless’ in the highest degree. As there were no fundamental differences on points of principle between him and Trotsky this expression was particularly well chosen. [10]

But the great politician Lenin was at that time already convinced that any further extension of bureaucratic rule would provoke strong and dangerous resistance from the masses. This was, indeed, foreshadowed by the bitter attacks of the workers’ opposition within the Communist Party against the official leadership, and Lenin and Trotsky quickly joined forces to suppress this ‘semi-anarchist’ tendency. The great political move known as the NEP was already near at hand, and the nationalisation of the trade unions was soon completely forgotten.

Chapter IX: The Economic Chaos and the Planned Economy of War Communism

I: Political Nationalisation

The reaction of the business classes to the October Revolution, though primarily a political fact, had important economic consequences.

The social power of the controllers of industry and finance is based on their economic position, and this is by no means automatically destroyed by the fact that an anti-capitalist government has succeeded in establishing itself. The immediate consequence of such an event is, however, the loss of the strong protection enjoyed by all property rights under the rule of ‘normal’ capitalist governments and a great outburst of political and economic activity on the part of the workers who think that now, at last, their time has come.

Even the most liberal and progressive businessmen will find such a state of things extremely unpromising from the economic point of view, and will slow down production and close their factories. Stock exchange quotations will fall without finding lower levels of apparent stability, and the money and capital market will completely disappear because nobody will be ready to lend his money either to the state or to private individuals.

There is always a good chance that this economic reaction of Big Business may lead to the overthrow of the offending government. But if the situation is sufficiently favourable for the revolutionaries this counterstroke may fail. The smaller the chances of speedy restoration of law and order, the lower are the prices at which speculators will buy up the remnants of great fortunes. A growing number of wealthy people will accept the necessity of liquidating their possessions and leave their inhospitable homes, not without breaking the new capital flight prohibitions of the revolutionary government.

National economy, organised on capitalist lines, does not automatically become Socialist by a simple change of governments. When the capitalists and most of the managers leave their places, withdraw their capital and sabotage the running of their plants, the organism of national economy must be completely disturbed and may be seriously damaged; it must be technically and socially reconstructed almost on the spur of the moment. The longer the struggle between the rulers of yesterday and the revolutionary government lasts, the quicker grows its pace. The workers want to prevent the owners from disposing of their enterprises to their private advantage. A violent struggle ensues in every undertaking which is split from top to bottom according to the class composition of its staff and employees. This process has theoretically and practically no narrower limits than the expulsion and expropriation of all employers who do not unconditionally accept the workers’ point of view. This process is exclusively determined by social and political factors, and has nothing to do with economic efficiency. Factories are not nationalised because they are ‘ripe for nationalisation’ from a technical and economic point of view, but simply because they represent powerful positions in the social and political struggle; the extent of nationalisation is therefore directly proportionate to the intensity of class struggles in this revolutionary conflict and to the measure of resistance put up by Big Business.

These events are, of course, bound to reduce the working efficiency of industry for the time being. An even worse disturbance is caused in the sphere of currency and credit. Financial crisis is, therefore, inseparable from political revolution. Even before the actual revolutionary outbreak, many rich people in possession of liquid funds will try to transfer them abroad, be it only in order to weather a time of political or economic uncertainty. Afterwards an even larger exodus of capital will start unless the government is strong and ruthless enough to prevent it. Banknotes, foreign exchange and international securities, gold and jewellery will find their way out of the country with unerring instinct.

At the same time the government will be bound to adopt inflationary measures in its struggle against its domestic enemies. In view of the fall in industrial output, prices will go up and the state of public finance must deteriorate. After having tried to cover part of the deficit by loans and confiscations, the government will be forced to make use of the printing press.

This may be inevitable, but it will nevertheless increase the difficulties of the new regime in a very undesirable manner. For the maintenance of the market mechanism even after the removal of the capitalist owners of industry is of considerable importance. Nationalisation may proceed at a breath-taking speed, but nationalisation of this kind must not be taken for the establishment of a planned economy. Political expediency may compel the government to accelerate nationalisation of many undertakings which may have to be run under tremendous difficulties, and probably at a loss. This may be definitely undesirable from an economic point of view, and it will certainly have nothing to do with planning, but it may be necessary nevertheless.

The only sound solution of these complicated problems is the creation of a state capitalist system replacing the management of industry by private capitalists. This switchover may be completed within a few weeks or months in the most important branches of industry, whereas the transition to a planned economy may need as many years. It will simply consist in a replacement of the private managers by commissaries, in many cases perhaps only their strict supervision by representatives of the state and the employees. At the same time there will be no fundamental change either in the wage system or in the market mechanism. The maintenance of market relations is particularly necessary for the continuation of normal relations between the state and the middle classes, and it is therefore especially important in countries with a large farmer population (Germany, France, United States, etc). Apart from that it is the most efficient state control and state direction of industry in the absence of a well-developed planning system. There can be little doubt that this is only possible if the government is able to maintain complete control of the credit system and of the currency.

Communist economic policy during the first few years of the revolutionary regime followed in the wake of the class struggle, and later on it was determined by the requirements of the war. The responsible leaders of the Bolsheviks in their struggle for power and in their attacks on the Provisional Government never dreamt of suddenly establishing a Socialist system; on the contrary, Lenin and his intimate friends stressed the fact that in Russia state capitalism would be a necessary and progressive phase of economic development. But the harder the Bolsheviks were pressed by the advance of the Germans after the so-called Peace of Brest-Litovsk and by the growing intimacy between the Russian bourgeoisie and German GHQ, the louder grew the voices of the ‘Left Communist’ opposition, led by Bukharin, Kollontai and Uritsky, against the cautious and hesitating policy of the Soviet government in economic affairs. During more than six months of Soviet rule only three hundred and thirty-seven factories had been nationalised and another one hundred and forty-nine sequestrated [11] because their owners had either fled the country or actively participated in the armed struggle against the Soviets; the Communists left no doubt about their desire, or indeed their eagerness, to collaborate with loyal businessmen.

Nevertheless Lenin and the Soviet government were soon forced to adopt a completely different economic policy. The German armies advanced far into Russia, and the Entente powers openly prepared and soon afterwards actually began intervention in Northern Russia. Internal conflicts grew necessarily fiercer and fiercer, and instead of state capitalism it was War Communism which began its desperate rule.

Its visible starting-point was the Decree of 28 June 1918, nationalising the whole of large-scale industry. Its most extravagant culmination point was reached in the Decree of 29 November 1920, ordering the nationalisation of small-scale enterprises employing more than five to ten workmen. Although this decree remained on paper, private enterprise was non-existent in Russian industry at the end of the period of War Communism. Although the Soviet government consciously stimulated this process from the summer of 1918, it was not completely of its own doing. The influence of the government hardly sufficed to reduce the elemental destructions of the clash between workers and employers. From an economic point of view, the nationalisation of large-scale industry came far too early, but it was made inevitable by the internal and, especially, by the foreign political situation. The expulsion, or the voluntary retirement, of the capitalists from Russian industry was, of course, not enough to transform their plants into parts of a running system of planned Soviet economy. The Soviet power remained, indeed, incapable of solving this problem during the years of War Communism; this was due largely to the general situation, but partly to the peculiarities of Communist policy.

The political situation of the Soviet state was always critical and very often nearly desperate, its economic position was hopeless from the very beginning. Every kind of government, whatever its social basis and political philosophy, would have been confronted in its economic activities by terrific problems, had it even been permitted to concentrate on the reorganisation and reconstruction of the thoroughly disorganised economic system. But the best leaders of the Communist Party were absorbed by civil war and intervention, and the facts of the military situation determined the economic policy and the economic life of the country.

The Soviet power could not put its best men in charge of industry, and these men could not use their best energies for the reorganisation of production because they were predominantly concerned with the decisive social question of defeating workers’ management. Thus the political cul-de-sac of the dictatorship played its part in complicating the difficult problems of economic reconstruction. The government was by no means strong enough to cut the Gordian knot with the sword and to impose its will once for all on the workers; it had to temporise and to wait until the failure of workers’ management was unmistakable, before it succeeded in abolishing it. Thus valuable months were spent during which the industrial situation became more and more desperate.

After the breakdown of the market mechanism, the supply of raw materials, fuel, labour and foodstuffs could be secured only by the state economic system. Production was no longer stimulated by the automatic forces of the market and the profit motive of the capitalist owners of industry and the peasants, it had to be kept going by administrative measures; and whereas the record of the food army in feeding the towns and the army was under the circumstances very satisfactory, the same cannot be said of the work of the Supreme Economic Council and its numerous local organs.

The economic machine built up by the government was a tolerable instrument for the struggle for power between the state and the workers, but it was hardly better fitted for the task of managing industry than the anarchic factory committees which it superseded. The central economic administration was a gigantic aggregate of Central Departments (Glavki ), and worked slowly and badly; a cumbrous bureaucratic apparatus connected the factories with the central authorities, and in practice the result was hardly better than the previous chaos.

Since the establishment of this system, complaints about the intolerable bureaucratisation of economic life were uttered with increasing frequency. The towns suffered from the intense cold, while large quantities of fuel waited for transport, even when the railways were technically capable of moving them; hunger and disease killed thousands, while many truckloads of potatoes were spoilt by the cold on the railways or in the storehouses. Already in December 1918 Lenin stated:

When we receive reports that raw materials are available, but people could not know, could not determine how much, when we hear outcries that warehouses filled with goods are under lock and key while the peasants are demanding, and justly demanding, exchange of commodities, we must know what member of what corporate board is engaged in red tape. [12]

The economic situation deteriorated not only owing to unfavourable external conditions but also owing to the new bureaucracy. Only 12 per cent of the textiles and 40 per cent of the matches assigned by the government for distribution among the people reached their ultimate destination. [13] Every congress adopted resolutions condemning the growth of bureaucracy which generally was debited, strangely enough, to the economic disorganisation. Lenin officially defined the Soviet regime as a proletarian state with bureaucratic deformations in a country largely inhabited by peasants. Bureaucracy was, however, the inevitable result of the political impotence of the workers, and could not be abolished by the bureaucratic state. Institutions, as well as men, are incapable of jumping over their own shadow.

The Supreme Economic Council was finally undisputed master of the industrial system, but Russian industry fell into the abyss. [14]

Industrial Gross Production
Large-scale industryAll industry
In millions of roublesIn per cent of 1913In millions of roublesIn per cent of 1913

In spite of its privileged position in the supply of raw materials and workers, large-scale industry suffered incomparably more than small-scale industry and handicraft production.

In large-scale industry itself, heavy industry was the worst sufferer. The production of iron and steel, which was mostly located in Southern Russia, fell practically to nil. Coal production went down from 2190 million pood (about 35.3 million tons) in 1916 to 515 million pood (about 8.3 million tons) in 1920, oil production fell during the same time from 602 to 243 million pood (9.7 to 3.9 million tons), although the number of workers engaged in the production of fuel remained practically stationary. [15]

The Communists could not prevent the breakdown of industry, and their industrial bureaucracy appears to have even increased the existing chaos. A financial collapse was therefore inevitable, and for the time being money and credit lost their economic role.

This course of events was, of course, strictly contrary to the wishes and endeavours of Lenin and the other responsible Bolsheviks. As a matter of fact Lenin had been inclined to overestimate the importance of the banking system under the political circumstances of the revolution, although it was perfectly sound to regard the banks as economic key positions of paramount importance. The nationalisation of the banks was decreed as early as 14 (27) December 1917 as one of the first economic measures of the Soviet government. It was regarded by the Communists first and foremost as a measure of control over the rich, and this policy was certainly sound on principle. But it had no fair trial, and, in the chaotic conditions of beginning civil war, it stood no chance of success.

The same can be said of Communist financial policy which at first followed orthodox financial lines; the Communists made great exertions to balance the budget—much greater, indeed, than had been made either by the Tsarist regime or by Kerensky.

The outbreak of civil war and intervention on a large scale rendered financial War Communism inevitable; public revenue fell to nil, while expenditure surpassed everything known before—at least in paper roubles. The inflationary process could not be reversed, and prices rose to fantastic heights. On 1 November 1917, the wholesale price index stood at 12.85 (1913 = 1); it reached 100 on 1 July 1918, 2420 on 1 January 1920, and one year later it stood at 16 080. [16]

It was, perhaps, only natural that the Communists made a Socialist virtue of their revolutionary necessity and proudly proclaimed the abolition of money:

The development of Socialist reconstruction of economic life requires the abandonment of capitalist relations in industry and the elimination in the last instance of any and every influence of money in the relations between the various economic elements. [17]

This quotation, taken from a resolution of the Second Congress of National Economic Councils, overturns with surprising completeness the theoretical and practical requirements of the ‘period of transformation’. The Communists seem to have believed that they had shown enough realism by refraining from the instantaneous abolition of money, which was, however, stated to be one of the urgent tasks of the party. Actually, money cannot be abolished before the disappearance of market relations. The economic disorganisation of War Communism completely disorganised the one and the other, but it did not prepare the ‘abolition of money’ because no other principle of economic organisation was adopted.

Whatever the causes of the vicious economic circle of War Communism, its economic consequences were devastating. However unsatisfactory the mechanism of capitalist reproduction may be from the point of view of the non-capitalists, it can be abolished only by substituting a new principle, like that of economic planning, not by merely forbidding or destroying it. The disorganisation of the currency system, itself a consequence of terrible economic and political shocks, further disturbed the economic organisation of the country. Only by its maintenance or, alternatively, by its supersession in favour of a system of planned economy would it have been possible to prevent the decline in output and the consequent depression of the standard of living which was bound to follow on the mere destruction of the existing economic system.

II: The Breakdown of Industry and the Working Class

For the time from June 1918 till October 1920 the official description of War Communism as merely the—more or less—planned consumption of existing stocks, comparable to the situation within a beleaguered town, holds good. During this period the Communists justly subordinated all other considerations to the paramount need of winning the war, and the remnants of industry were almost exclusively used for the satisfaction of the most urgent military demands.

These conditions affected the Soviet power, the peasants and the workers in a different manner. The Soviet state grew continually in terms of officials and power, and was transformed into a huge bureaucratic system. The peasants suffered severely from the encroachments by the government on their economic activities; yet these encroachments, however strongly they may have been felt and resented by the peasants, were wholly of an external character and did not diminish the economic independence of the peasantry towards the government. The working class, on the other hand, was directly subjected to the state. The primitive Russian peasantry was able, for a time, completely to ignore the fate of the nation as a whole and to concentrate completely on its village life. The workers, however, cannot live except as part of the complicated mechanism of a modern industrialised society. Apart from that, they can make their power felt only by acting as an organised group or class; individual workers are powerless; the workers of one enterprise or of a single branch of trade may win concessions from their individual employers; but only the working class as an organised political force can hope to force its will on society as a whole or on the government.

The workers’ attempt to withdraw into their factories, as the peasants withdrew into their villages, failed quickly and completely. Industrial production is essentially a social process, and the disorganisation of Russian society threatened first of all social connections of every description and, particularly, the system of the division of labour between different parts of the country and different spheres of economy. The workers as a class, organised in Soviets, had been incapable of gaining control of society; for this reason they were subjected to the one organised force surviving in the ensuing chaos, the new state.

Although the Soviet power succeeded in getting a minimum of foodstuffs from the resisting peasants, this was hardly more than enough to feed the Red Army and the bureaucracy as well as the most important groups of the workers. It was certainly not enough to guarantee the adequate nutrition of the town population. City life gradually became intolerable. City dwellers had either to starve or again to become peasants producing as best they could for their own consumption. Many industrial workers had not yet completely dropped their connection with the village and went back to their native places; the towns were depopulated. Between 1917 and 1920 the population of forty departmental capitals fell from 6 392 000 to 4 295 000, a decrease of 32.8 per cent. [18] The steepest decline was registered in both capitals and in the large industrial centres.

The living conditions of the remaining workers were almost desperate. Their income, which even before the war had been barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, was reduced to a mere pittance. Their income from other occupations was much more important during this period than the amount of their wages and their official rations. Sale or exchange of goods, which he acquired by fair means or foul, against food played a considerable part in the ordinary worker’s economic life. In spite of the legal prohibition of private trade, a primitive exchange of goods was maintained between towns and villages, and somewhat supplemented the scanty rations issued by the state cooperative societies. In the autumn of 1920, Lenin proclaimed as the next goal of Communist policy such an improvement in working-class living conditions that the workers ‘need not go in quest of bread with bags on their shoulders’.

The industrial working man lost his characteristic class character; he was transformed into a handicraftsman, hawker or smuggler, applied only a fraction of his time to factory work, and received only a fraction of his income in the form of wages. In spite of these manifold occupations, his nutritive standard was very bad, and for years he was in a state of constant malnutrition. Insufficient food, bad and cold living quarters and defective clothes undermined his health. In the shock factories of Moscow, the best supplied enterprises in the best supplied town of all Soviet Russia, the loss of working time through illness was appallingly high. During the year 1920, workers in automobile factories lost 23.9 working days, machine builders even 32.3 working days owing to this reason. [19]

The Soviet government was nevertheless compelled to increase its demands on these ill-fed and weak workers, if it did not want to lose the war. The workers were the only factor in the industrial system which could be effectively influenced by the government—by propaganda or promises, by threats or force.

Many of the methods used by the Soviet power during the period of War Communism with the aim of increasing the average efforts of the workers have become famous by their renaissance during the period of reconstruction. A mixture of general propaganda and social pressure was the force behind the so-called ‘subbotniki ’, a kind of semi-voluntary labour on all holidays, on Saturdays, and on May Day. The workers employed in the few large-scale enterprises which were kept open had to work longer hours. During these years the average daily hours worked were in excess of the newly-won eight-hour day. At the same time an elaborate system of disciplinary measures was introduced in order to increase the punctuality and reliability of the workers. Disciplinary courts under the direction of the trade unions were established which controlled the application of these measures, etc.

The workers were, on the other hand, promised special material rewards for good work. From the beginning of the Soviet system the use of piecework was officially encouraged, but the importance of higher money earnings was impaired or even completely wiped out by the disappearance of the market and the decline in the value of money. Workers in important factories were induced to higher exertions by better rations than could be got elsewhere. Higher wages in kind were, as a rule, given not to individual workers but to whole branches of industry, or, at least, to whole enterprises (‘armoured’ or ‘shock’ factories) whose importance for the supply of war material was particularly great. The reason for this inevitable differentiation in wages was the sound conviction of the government that only better-fed—or less ill-fed—workers could increase their efforts in accordance with the needs of the army.

The economic success of these measures was very small indeed. Their political effect cannot be measured at all; it is possible that a further decline of industrial output may have intensified the pressure on the Red Army, which was well nigh unbearable in any case, beyond breaking-point, thereby converting victory into defeat. However this may have been, War Communism fulfilled its military and therefore also its political aims, and that was all that could be hoped for. But in the meantime the working class fell into the abyss of economic misery and lost almost as much of its productive capacity as it lost of its political power.

This fall in the productivity of labour may be measured by extensive and by intensive measurements. Although the working day was comparatively long, the number of working days during the year was unsatisfactory; in spite of the abolition of many religious holidays by the Revolution, it fell from 257.4 in 1913 to 183.0 in 1919. [20] The reasons for this unfavourable development are to be found in bad health and bad discipline. A further grave sign of industrial decline was the constant fall in the intensity of labour per unit of time: [21]

Annual and Hourly Productivity of Industrial Labour
In per cent of 1913In per cent of previous year

Raw materials were of extremely low quality, fuel was often completely lacking, tools and machinery were in a ruinous state and, last but not least, the workers were exhausted by lack of food, by living in overcrowded and cold dwellings, and by continuous worry and excitement. The factories of War Communism were crammed with workers who were unable to do their jobs properly. The inflated currency, in spite of its existence in astronomical quantities, left an acute shortage of money behind; similarly the exhausted human labour power was unable to fulfil its very small tasks which, in normal times, would have left hundreds of thousands out of work.

However complete the power of the Communists over the workers was in all other respects—politically, morally and even physically—they could not induce or compel them to do their daily jobs with a reasonable degree of efficiency. This fact explains the most glaring paradox of this time, the acute labour shortage. Before the October Revolution mass unemployment was already very general in all industrial centres, and this tendency was further intensified by the Revolution. Conditions grew worse practically until the middle of 1918, when a retrogressive movement set in, and in the following year an acute labour shortage developed in spite of the shrinkage in output. Military service for the struggle against the White armies made big inroads on the best elements of the working class, some of the remainder left the towns and went back to the land, others were prevented from working by illness or death. The supply of labour was in this manner considerably reduced, whereas the low productivity of labour raised the demand of industry far above the level which would have been warranted under normal conditions by the volume of production.

In view of the serious failure of all other methods to raise the productivity of labour, the leaders of the Soviet power who still regarded themselves as the ‘vanguard’ of the working class were compelled to apply physical compulsion in their relations to the workers. Lenin’s minimum programme before the October Revolution contained the idea of compulsory labour service as a measure of coercing the rich. When this method was finally resorted to during the year 1920 it was, however, the purest expression of the subordination of the workers to the Soviet government, for its economic usefulness was exactly nil. This experiment expressed in a curious way the divergent tendencies within the revolutionary but bureaucratised dictatorship. With the gradual weakening of intervention, large parts of the victorious Red Army became militarily superfluous. During the winter of 1919-20 the government therefore decided to make use of these forces for urgent economic tasks. This very idea is in itself a memorable symptom of the quick transformation of revolutionary Communists into Soviet bureaucrats. The same workers and peasants who had been holding their own against a world of superior enemies failed completely and miserably when used as labour armies for the reorganisation of transport. In spite of this failure, the government soon afterwards tried to overcome the acute labour shortage by a further attempt of the same kind. During the summer and autumn of 1920 new labour armies, comprising not only labourers but also skilled workmen, were formed by ‘mobilisation decrees’, but their achievements were no better than those of the Red Army detachments used for similar purposes.

This measure alone justifies the statement that the Soviet government had completely lost its supposed character as an instrument of the working class. It certainly maintained its revolutionary energy and its general solidarity with the interests of the workers, as far as the struggle against the forces of counter-revolution was concerned. Nevertheless it had been transformed into an independent power which could try to compel the masses by military methods for non-military purposes—though, of course, to the supposed ultimate advantage of the masses themselves.

III: The System of War Communism

War Communism was caused by a political conflict and had a political purpose. Its effects embraced the economic life and the social structure of Soviet society which was ruthlessly changed but not fundamentally reorganised. The political aim of War Communism was the maintenance of the Soviet regime. The disciplining of the two classes composing Soviet society, the peasants and the workers, would have been essential under all circumstances, and it was particularly necessary as condition for the victory of the revolution against internal and international counter-revolution.

In this respect the Communists acted only on the spur of historical necessities, not of their own doing, which had to be considered if they wanted to survive. But the powerful instrument created for this purpose became a social power of its own. Its immediate justification as an absolutist dictatorship disappeared with the victory of the Soviet regime against its military enemies—but here it was, more powerful and more ready to rule the country than ever before. In the consciousness of its leaders the Soviet state continued to be merely the instrument of the workers; but it had already ceased to be this in real life.

The two revolutionary classes of Russian society, the workers and the peasants, represented two different epochs of social history, and their interests were identical only in their struggle against counter-revolution. The Russian peasantry did not want anything better than to live a life of its own without being exploited by other classes. But this backward peasantry had to learn by the experiences of war and civil war that there was no alternative to active struggle in the capitalist world in which it was living. The results of the revolution had to be defended against powerful enemies, and the peasants were unable to take the lead. This leading part was played by the workers who defended the interests of the peasants not less than their own; nevertheless they were in the hinterland stubbornly opposed by the peasants when they asked for food and raw materials in order to continue the war. This conflict of interests, serious though it was, does not, however, explain the renaissance of a bureaucratic state apparatus. In practice, it was usually solved in a non-bureaucratic manner: the food detachments securing the feeding of the towns were groups of workers, chosen and directed by the trade unions. Imperfect though it may have been, their agrarian policy shows the Communists immeasurably superior to all their predecessors in power who had failed in face of much smaller difficulties. The economic interests of the peasants had to be violated to some extent in order to safeguard the new social and political order which was of the highest importance for the peasants themselves. During the time of military conflict, the agrarian policy of the Soviet power was generally impeccable.

The relations between the government and the workers were much more complicated. The asset side of War Communism for the workers is represented by the maintenance of the Soviet regime. The heaviest liability of this period is their loss of political power and the transformation of the Communist state into a largely independent and extraordinarily powerful social organism of its own. For the peasants, the state was a nuisance, the nuisance value of which was certainly very great, but which could be finally kept at bay by a production strike; for the workers it was the centre of energy issuing strength, movement and action, the power which guaranteed them their piece of black bread—and which could refuse it in case of disobedience.

The newly-established bureaucratic state had two great tasks to fulfil—the maintenance of the revolution and the social reconstruction of the country. The first aim was realised by the creation of the Red Army, but the whole civil and economic administration of War Communism was an unqualified failure and proved incompatible with the interests of Russian society as a whole. The most important cause of the pernicious effects of War Communist policy on the productive forces of the country was the bureaucratisation of the Soviet power which used its enormous strength in order to establish itself as an independent social power, and which satisfied the interests of workers and peasants only when they coincided with the interests of the bureaucracy, or when irresistible pressure compelled it to give in. The bureaucracy combined unlimited claims with practical inefficiency and gross incompetence, and had its due share in the economic breakdown of the country, which was, however, to some extent inevitable.

But in spite of its defects, the bureaucratised Soviet power was an indispensable instrument for the military struggle against internal and external enemies. Since the middle of 1920, however, the growing independence of the bureaucratic Soviet state caused political and economic measures to be taken which were definitely against the interests of the workers and the peasants. In the field of international policy it may be considered as very doubtful whether the conquest of Georgia by the Soviets may be included in this category; it was certainly more than the fulfilment of the revolutionary duty to support a friendly revolutionary movement abroad. On the other hand, the Mensheviks—whose regime was not only unstable but completely dependent on the Allied powers—have no reason whatever to complain of Bolshevik violence. In any case, the Bolshevik advance on Warsaw in 1920 cannot be defended by any argument of this kind. It was not only an expensive failure, but on principle it was the action not of revolutionary Socialists but of would-be conquerors. The Soviet government could embark on this venture only by completely disregarding the Russian workers’ desire for peace which could not be voiced through constitutional channels.

The ‘mobilisation of labour’ in the summer and autumn of 1920 and the attempted destruction of the last remnants of trade union independence (discussion about the ‘nationalisation’ of the unions) were measures of no intrinsic value whatever and detrimental to the interests of the workers.

The extension of industrial nationalisation to small-scale industry in November 1920, after the defeat of the last important White general, was justified neither by the class warfare between workers and capitalists, nor by the actual state of economic organisation. This senseless measure can be explained only by the bureaucratic ‘racing’ of the state machine.

The same tendency, coupled with fundamental mistakes in the evaluation of the real situation in the villages and of the relations between the peasants and the state, was revealed by the resolutions of the Third Soviet Congress in December 1920 to increase the sown area by decree (rapporteur Ossinski). Another consequence of this extremely bureaucratic attitude was the particularly rigorous suppression of private trade during the fatal winter of 1920-21. The continuous growth of this ‘illegal’ trade did not induce the government to overhaul the existing legislation, but was simply met by police measures, although it was the most obvious sign of the impending crisis.

Thus the practical policy of the Soviets after the end of the Civil War openly refutes the official thesis, repeated with great emphasis by Lenin himself, that War Communism was nothing but an emergency system of war measures. This may be true of its genesis and for the greater part of its existence; but in the course of time it grew continuously, and finally it became the despotic ruler of politics and economy and of practically all social activities of the population, particularly in the towns.

This unlimited power of the state, it is true, existed only in the imagination of the rulers themselves. The fundamental conflict between the organisation and politics of the regime of War Communism and the interests of the workers and peasants was bound to produce serious clashes, and it was by no means probable that the bureaucracy would emerge victorious from the conflict. The Kronstadt rebellion destroyed the genuine illusion of the bureaucratic rulers who believed that the maintenance of their power was identical with the victory of Socialism; but the guns, which maintained their historical position as ultima ratio even of the first state without capitalists, destroyed quite as effectively the illusions of the workers who believed that, after three years of Civil War and Intervention, and after the miserable failure of the labour movement in Central Europe, the rule of the Soviets without the Communist Party was a practical alternative to the bureaucratised but still revolutionary dictatorship.


1. N Lenin, Complete Works , Volume 21, Book 2 (London, 1929), p 32.

2. Ibid.

3. N Lenin, Selected Works ed A Fineberg., Volume 8 (Moscow), pp 69ff.

4. M Farbman, Bolshevism in Retreat (London, 1923), p 163.

5. League of Nations, Report on Economic Conditions in Russia (Geneva, 1920), p 21.

6. Ibid, p 3.

7. P Malevsky-Malevitch (ed), Russia USSR: A Complete Handbook (New York, 1933), p 411.

8. F Pollock, Die planwirtschaftlichen Versuche in der Sowjet Union, 1917-27 (Leipzig, 1929), p 105.

9. MJ Larsons, An Expert in the Service of the Soviet (London, 1929), pp 36ff.

10. His only important theoretical argument against the nationalisation of the trade unions was a casual remark about the elements of bureaucracy in the ‘first proletarian state’. At first he classed Russia as a ‘workers’ and peasants’ state’ but by a searching question by Bukharin he was compelled to modify this assertion in a very significant manner.

11. K Leites, Recent Economic Developments in Russia (Oxford, 1922), pp 93ff.

12. Lenin, Selected Works , Volume 8, pp 214ff.

13. Ibid, p 420, note.

14. The Soviet Union Looks Ahead: The Five-Year Plan of Economic Reconstruction (London, 1930), p 10.

15. League of Nations, Report, pp 15, 114; International Labour Office, Organization of Industry and Labour Conditions in Soviet Russia (Geneva, 1922), p 66.

16. SS Katzenellenbaum, Russian Currency and Banking, 1914-24 (London, 1925), pp 74ff.

17. LN Yurovsky, Currency Problems and Policy of the Soviet Union (London, 1925), p 30.

18. Economic Life , 270/1920, quoted by Leites, Recent Economic Developments in Russia , p 194.

19. ILO, Organization, p 72.

20. L Marcus, ‘The Stakhanov Movement and the Increased Productivity of Labour in USSR’, International Labour Review, July 1936, p 7.

21. Ibid.