The Bolshevik Party seized power in Russia in October 1917. Historians use the term war communism for the economic system of Soviet Russia during the civil war that followed this revolution. This term, not used at the time, was first applied when the civil war had already drawn to a close. In the spring of 1921, advocating a shift toward a more liberalized internal market, Lenin described the system as "that peculiar war communism, forced on us by extreme want, ruin and war." He went on to define its core as the centralized system of confiscating all of the peasants' food surpluses, and more, in order to feed the urban workers and the soldiers of the Red Army. He meant that war communism was a temporary phenomenon—not real communism—just a necessary evil required by wartime circumstances. He intended thereby to distance himself from it and inaugurate a more relaxed regime later known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).
A few years later, however, Stalin adopted policies that resembled war communism in several features, including specifically the confiscation of peasant food surpluses. Consequently many historians now reject Lenin's claim that war communism was an unintended consequence of special circumstances, and argue that the Bolsheviks always intended to build a society based on centralization and force.
It took more than six months for a full-scale civil war to break out after the October 1917 revolution. The Bolsheviks did not try immediately to centralize the economy. They negotiated for a separate peace with Germany to take Russia out of World War I. They brought representatives of the non-Bolshevik left into a coalition government. While they legislated to nationalize the landed estates of the aristocracy, they sought a coexistence of capitalist and commercial private property with state regulation and workers' rights of inspection.
The results, however, threatened the Bolsheviks with a loss of control on each front. The peace treaty signed with Germany in March 1918 provoked military intervention by Russia's former allies. Its humiliating terms drove the Bolsheviks' coalition partners toward the monarchist counter-revolution. Under the treaty, Russia lost the Ukraine; this cut the food available to Russia's nonfarm population. The wartime system of food distribution that the Bolsheviks had inherited from the imperial government was ineffective: While the urban population was entitled to receive a food ration at low fixed prices, at the same prices the peasants would not sell food to the government for distribution. As the situation worsened, many groups of workers blamed the factory owners, expelled them, and declared the factories to be state property. In the countryside, instead of government takeover of the great estates, the peasants divided the land among themselves.
As of 1918 the Bolsheviks began to travel a path of extreme political and economic centralization. They nationalized the banks in January. In April they enacted state monopolies in foreign trade as well as internal trade in foodstuffs. In June they brought the commanding heights of industry into the public sector. This path ended in a one-party state underpinned by a secret police and a demonetized command economy with virtually all industry nationalized and farm food surpluses liable to violent seizure. The Bolsheviks traveled willingly, justifying their actions in the name of socialism. They blamed their difficulties on a minority of speculators and counterrevolutionaries with whom there could be no compromise. This intensified the polarization between Reds and Whites that ended in civil war.
Food shortages drove this process along. Shortages were felt first by the towns and the army, because peasants fed themselves before selling food to others. Shortages arose primarily from the wartime disruption of trade, the loss of the Ukraine, and the government's attempts to hold down food prices. The Bolsheviks overestimated peasant food stocks; this meant that when they failed to raise food they blamed the peasants for withholding it. They specifically blamed a minority of richer peasants, the so-called kulaks, for speculating in food by withholding it intentionally so as to raise its price. Between April and June of 1918 they slid from banning private trade in foodstuffs to a campaign to seize kulak food stocks and then to confiscate their land as well. Since rural food stocks were smaller and more scattered than the government believed, such measures tended to victimize many ordinary peasants without improving supplies.
Under war communism between the summer of 1918 and the spring of 1921, goods were distributed by administrative rationing or barter; with more than 20 percent monthly inflation, prices rose in total by many thousand times, and the money stock lost most of its real value. The government seized food from the peasantry, but, as there was not enough to meet workers' needs, black markets developed where urban residents bartered their products and property with peasants for additional food. Industry was nationalized far more widely than the commanding heights listed in the June 1918 decree. By November 1920 public ownership extended to many artisan establishments with one or two workers. Public-sector management was centralized under a command system of administrative quotas and allocations.
War communism was not an economic success. Food procurements rose at first, but industrial production and employment, harvests, and living standards fell continuously. The fact that the Bolsheviks emerged victorious from the civil war owed more to their enemies' moral and material weaknesses than to their own strengths. Despite this, they did not abandon war communism immediately when the war came to an end. By the spring of 1920, fighting continued only in Poland and the Caucasus. Still, war communism was upheld. While Lenin defended the system of food procurement against its critics, other Bolsheviks advocated extending control over peasant farming through sowing plans and over industrial workers through militarization of labor.
Such dreaming was rudely interrupted in early 1921 by an anti-Bolshevik mutiny in the Kronstadt naval base and a wave of peasant discontent concentrated in the Tambov province. It was not the end of the civil war, but the threat of another, that brought war communism to an end. This does not prove that the Bolsheviks had always intended to introduce something like war communism; however, it shows that Lenin was disingenuous to suggest that war communism was only a product of circumstances. In the case of war communism, the Bolsheviks willingly made virtues out of apparently necessary evils, then took them much further than necessary. Moreover, one product of civil war circumstances was never abandoned: the one-party state underpinned by a secret police.
See also: civil war of 1917–1922; lenin, vladimir ilich; new economic policy; october revolution; stalin, josef vissarionovich
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The term Leninism refers to the political and economic ideas associated with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924), leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party and of the Soviet Union following the revolution of October 1917. Lenin saw himself as a follower of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and sought to give Marx’s ideas practical expression.
In What Is to be Done? (1902), Lenin advocated the formation of a disciplined and centralized organization of professional revolutionaries in Russia to agitate for socialism, rather than the looser grouping favored by other Russian Marxists. Initially, he viewed this as necessary only because of the need to organize clandestinely in czarist Russia, where revolutionary groups were illegal, but later he generalized this model. Lenin argued that it was necessary in all advanced countries to build parties consisting of the most militant and class-conscious members of the working class in order to combat ruling-class ideology and overcome divisions between workers. This revolutionary vanguard would have the clarity of purpose and independence of action necessary to win a majority to its program during a period of major political and economic crisis, and to lead a successful socialist revolution.
Lenin’s Bolsheviks put his theory into practice in Russia during the course of 1917, but within a few years the revolution that they led had degenerated into a one-party regime that bore little resemblance to the ideal of workers’ democracy defended in his State and Revolution (1918). Lenin’s critics see this as proof of an undemocratic impulse in his basic outlook, while his defenders argue that the revolution’s degeneration was a consequence of adverse circumstances, including a brutal civil war, economic collapse, external threats, and the failure of revolution to spread successfully to more economically advanced countries, such as Germany. Certainly before the early 1920s there was always much disagreement, discussion, and debate in Lenin’s party, in sharp contrast to the monolithic dictatorship that developed under his successor, Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), and to the practice of most Communist parties around the world that claimed, following Stalin, to be committed to the tenets of Marxism-Leninism.
Among Lenin’s most influential theoretical contributions is his analysis of imperialism and war. Drawing on the work of the British economist J. A. Hobson (1858–1940), Lenin argued in Imperialism: The Latest Stage of Capitalism (1917) that the imperialist expansion by the world’s major powers in the late nineteenth century was an outgrowth of the development of monopoly capitalism, in which economic power in the advanced countries is increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of large firms, industrial capital merges with big banks, and there is growing integration of private companies and the state. Competition between capitals for markets thus gives rise, on Lenin’s account, to military and territorial competition between nation states, which he viewed as the underlying explanation of the world war that broke out in 1914. On this analysis, rivalries and wars between major powers are rooted in the dynamic of capitalist development itself, and can only be eliminated by radically restructuring the economic system and replacing capitalism with socialism.
Harding, Neil. 1983. Lenin’s Political Thought: Theory and Practice in the Democratic and Socialist Revolutions. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Le Blanc, Paul. 1990. Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.
Lenin, V. I. 1970. Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Liebman, Marcel. 1975. Leninism under Lenin. Trans. Brian Pearce. London: Merlin Press.
Le·nin·ism / ˈlenəˌnizəm/ • n. Marxism as interpreted and applied by Lenin. DERIVATIVES: Le·nin·ist n. & adj. Le·nin·ite / -ˌnīt/ n. & adj.