From 1918 to 1921, Russia was embroiled in a Civil War, fought between the Bolsheviks’ Red Army and their various enemies, known collectively as the White Army. To sustain the Bolshevik war effort, Vladimir Lenin introduced the economic policy of ‘war communism’, which involved nationalising industrial output, banning private enterprise and requisitioning surplus grain.
Ultimately, the Bolsheviks won the war. But by the time war communism came to an end 2 years after its conception, the policy had caused Russia’s industrial output to plummet, the collapse of the ruble and millions of famine-related deaths. It was replaced with the New Economic Policy in 1921.
But how exactly did war communism work, and what were its aims? Here’s the history of war communism during the Russian Civil War.
The aims of war communism are debated
War communism included the following policies:
- Nationalization of all industries and the introduction of strict centralised management
- State control of foreign trade
- Strict discipline for workers, with strikes forbidden
- Obligatory labour duty by non-working classes (“militarisation of labour”, including an early version of the Gulag)
- Prodrazvyorstka – requisition of agricultural surplus (in excess of an absolute minimum) from peasants for centralised distribution among the remaining population
- Rationing of food and most commodities, with centralised distribution in urban centres
- Private enterprise banned
- Military-style control of the railways
Though these measures may appear coherent, the government implemented them during a time of civil war, with the result being that the policies were often poorly-coordinated, if at all. Large areas of Russia were outside of Bolshevik control, while poor communications from Moscow meant that even those loyal to the government often had to act individually.
Many have argued that war communism didn’t represent an actual economic policy, and instead was a set of measures intended to win the civil war.
Indeed, though war communism proved successful in achieving its primary purpose – aiding the Red Army in halting the advance of the White Army, and reclaiming most of the territory of the former Russian Empire – the economic strength of Russia in all areas fell below the 1914 level. War communism turned into a disaster.
Famine was widespread
Peasant farmers knew that any excess crops would be seized by the state, so grew only for themselves. People in the countryside refused to co-operate in giving food for the war effort, while bad harvests compounded the hardships that the war caused. Malnutrition and disease were common.
The result was that industrial cities were starved of food, and workers started moving to the countryside to grow their own food, which further decreased the possibility of barter of industrial goods for food and worsened the plight of the remaining urban population.
Between 1918 and 1920, Petrograd lost 70% of its population, while Moscow lost over 50% and the number working in factories and mines dropped by 50%. In total, in those 2 years, Russia lost 33% of its urban population to the countryside.
Moreover, most countryside lands were used for the growth of food at the time, meaning crops such as cotton and flax weren’t favoured. Without the necessary supply, factories in urban centres were deprived of basic manufacturing commodities.
In all, food requisitioning combined with the effects of seven years of war and a severe drought contributed to a devastating famine that caused a staggering 3-10 million deaths.
Strikes and rebellions broke out
Worker and peasant strikes and rebellions broke out across the country. The Kronstadt Rebellion of March 1921 particularly startled Lenin, who regarded the sailors there as the ‘reddest of the reds’. These uprisings were of further concern since they were led by opportunist leftists, which created competition with the Bolsheviks.
In February 1921, the Communist Party’s secret police, the Cheka, reported 118 peasant uprisings. In spite of these protests, the Russian government actually suffered relatively few effective or potentially disruptive uprisings while implementing its policy of war communism.
A black market emerged
The ruble collapsed, meaning that barter increasingly replaced money as a medium of exchange, and 90% of wages were paid with goods rather than money. A black market emerged, in spite of the threat of martial law against profiteering.
Though also illegal, private trade became commonplace, and more people were engaged in it than during any other time in Russia’s history. Above board, by 1920 the average worker had a productivity rate that was around 44% less than the 1913 figure.
The strangulation on goods and money was exacerbated by a disastrous rail system, which, by the end of 1918, meant that it was difficult to transport anything of value across Russia.
Attitudes towards the government differed
Within urban areas, many were convinced that their leaders were right and the collective failure of the system was the fault of the White Army. It was also easy to blame international capitalists, since no foreign country was prepared to trade with a Bolshevik-run Russia, and between 1918 and November 1920, the Allies formally blockaded Russia.
Many in Bolshevik territories were genuinely keen to see a Bolshevik civil war victory, so were prepared to do whatever was necessary to avoid a White Army victory.
The Bolsheviks were also able to blame a lot of Russia’s troubles on the Whites as they controlled the areas which would have supplied the factories with produce. The Urals, which normally provided Petrograd and Tula with coal and iron, were cut off from Bolshevik Russia from spring 1918 to November 1919.
Similarly, oil fields were in the hands of the Whites, while the Bolsheviks’ Red Army took the majority of supplies in their fight against them.
Lenin put a stop to war communism
While the civil war raged, the harshness of war communism was, in the eyes of Russia’s rulers, justifiable. When it had finished, there was no such justification, and a government claiming to represent the people now found itself on the verge of being overthrown by the workers it purported to serve.
The crisis undermined widespread loyalty to the government: Lenin needed to take decisive action. In February 1921, Lenin replaced war communism with his New Economic Policy, which he characterised as comprising of “a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control”.
The incentive to produce for money was re-introduced, and the horrors of years of war communism were consigned to history.