“A fantastic discrepancy between promise and achievement”: Obstacles in Early Russian Communism

History Oct 30, 2019

By Juliana Schneider

Introduction: The Proletarian Myth

The events of October 25th, 1917 (O.S.), the October Revolution, forever changed the global political landscape. The Communists, a group that had only used dissident rhetoric for many years, quickly seized control of the largest country in Europe. Russia’s decimation by largely unsuccessful conflicts, such as the Russo-Japanese War, and notorious technological underdevelopment meant that the beginnings of communism in Russia were centered around the development of a robust social and economic base. The initial communist policies were ideologically in line with Marxism, however, they failed on two primary accounts. Firstly, the vast majority of the Russian population did not seek specifically communist change – their interests were instead tied to more basic necessities such as the procurement of food and land. Secondly, the economic and social conditions of Russia in 1917 could not support a communist transition; hence, an unrelenting focus was placed on the rapid transformation of social and economic conditions.

Backtracking on the Communist Economy

Arguably the most ambitious of the early communist policies was that of War Communism. The goal of War Communism was a fundamental transformation that emphasized the dissolution of private property, centralization of economic production and socialist and class-based principles of distribution. The difficulty of implementation and execution came from both the sheer severity of policy and the vast problems inherited from previous administrations. However, the momentum of the Revolution was short-lived and the longer the policies of War Communism were carried out, the more detrimental they proved to be.

Mindless confiscation of crops left vast amounts of the population on the brink of death during the Povolzhye famine. By 1921, approximately 20% of farmland experienced complete crop failure and the policies of forced expropriation meant that by 1922, over 30 million Russians were starving and in extreme poverty – more than 7 million of these were children. The famine was exacerbated by the inefficient policies imposed on a system weakened by years of turmoil, ultimately culminating in rebellions such as those of Kronstadt and Tambov. The anger that characterized these rebellions, in part, catalyzed the transition to the New Economic Policy (NEP).

After only a few years of Communist leadership, the economy lay in ruins. With widespread discontent and shortages, the Bolsheviks scrambled to introduce the NEP. Thus, the idea of primitive socialist accumulation was born. It sought to industrialize the country through means of state capital as it had become evident that Russia was insufficiently stable for an immediate transition to a communist society.

The first retreat from communist ideals came in 1921 in the form of a tax-in-kind (prodnalog – food tax) to replace the forced requisitioning program prodrazverstka which, in its first year, had only managed to fulfil 38.4% of its quota. Although initially unpopular in the government, the events of uprisings, such as Kronstadt, crushed any opposition to the tax. A mere three months later, the decree that nationalized small industry was revoked. Another decree issued in 1921 allowed and, in fact, called for nationalized enterprises to be leased to citizens and for the authorized citizens to undertake and organize small-scale industries.

What exactly the Bolsheviks were trying to achieve through War Communism and whether it was supposed to be restricted to the war effort are still contentious questions. Lenin himself wrote that, “[…] the confiscation of surpluses from the peasants was a measure with which we were saddled by the imperative conditions of war-time, but which no longer applies to anything like the peace time conditions of the peasant’s economy.” However, components of War Communism, such as the dissolution of private property and economic centralization, were certainly critical to the communist transition and the Bolsheviks had no intention of reneging on this.

The Problem of the Peasantry

After Alexander II’s 1861 Emancipation Edict fell significantly short of what had been anticipated, much hope for reform dissipated. Decades later, the Bolsheviks tempted the peasantry with land ownership under the slogan, ‘The land belongs to those who till it’. However, the peasants’ dream was short-lived. The Bolsheviks did not distribute any private property, instead doing the complete opposite by nationalizing any property that had been privately owned. Of course, to those versed in political theory, it seems obvious that private property is contrary to communism. The peasantry, however, was largely illiterate and unaware of the divergence between what Marxism prescribed and what the Bolsheviks promised.

Knowing that the peasantry was critical in winning the war, Lenin and the Communists relied on the peasants’ ignorance towards Marxism, instead dangling the freedom they had so desperately sought for centuries in front of them. As Vladimir Brovkin notes, “[…] the Bolsheviks drew their strength […] not from the workers but mostly from peasants, who had a vested interest in determining the results of the agrarian revolution and feared the return of the landlords and the tsar.” Once the war was over, the interests of the peasantry were discarded. This betrayal defined the relationship between the peasantry and the Communists as one of fundamental mistrust and dislike.

By the early 1920s, the Communists had already classified the peasantry into a necessarily antagonistic social class. As peasants were not wage-earners, they were deemed the ‘last bourgeois class,’ a sentiment echoed by Lenin. It should be noted that this was the same man who had stated in 1905 that “[…] the peasantry can be certain that the proletariat will support these demands [for land and freedom]. The peasants must know that the red banner […] is a banner of struggle for the immediate and vital demands, not only of the industrial and agricultural workers, but also of the millions and tens of millions of small tillers of the soil.” Such claims, however, seem to have been a type of political strategy rather than a genuine appeal. Since the Communists were disinclined to promote their interests, there was little reciprocal incentive for the peasantry to support the Communists.

Red Terror: The Initial Period of Repression

The Red Terror sought to crush enemies of the Revolution and mobilize supporters as a means by which to maintain power: a symbol of necessary continued struggle against the imperialists and an “ideological performance,” according to James Ryan. It sought to remove those who were deemed “useless” and irreconcilably opposed to the Revolution, notably remnants of the Tsarist past, not by any “defined criminality” but purely by association to a particular class. As Ryan notes, “The ‘wheel of history’ had turned […] The sword […] would not be laid down until the sun of socialism would shine.” This eschatological descent into chaos and tribalism by the Communists spiraled into increased violence and repression.

Though Lenin had previously called for terror, prior to the decree of September 1918, the Cheka (the Bolshevik secret police) had only irregularly carried out violence. The decree, however, officially condemned so-called “enemies of the revolution” (a severely arbitrary term) to concentration camps, and members of the White Guard (a faction opposing the Communists/ ‘Reds’ in the Civil War), conspirators, or participants in mutinies to execution on the spot. Food supply agents often used force against noncompliant peasants, and peasants would often retaliate by killing the officers. This rejection of Communist enforcement, however, was minor in comparison to the violence of uprisings and the intensified repression in efforts to suppress them. Upon hearing of “kulak revolts” in the town of Livny, the town was captured and more than 300 people were shot dead. One NKVD statistic noted 15,000 killings in the process of repressing the July and August rebellions alone.

On a local level, marginal individuals, including criminals, were able to acquire positions in the soviets and consequently were able to appropriate Marxist rhetoric to benefit themselves. They were more likely to respond with violence; consequently, life at the local level saw unprecedented arbitrariness in defining enemies, and anarchic behaviour in the execution of violence. As Nikolai Bukharin noted, “Proletarian coercion […] starting with executions and ending with the labor conscription […] is […] a method of creating Communist mankind out of the human raw material of the capitalist epoch.” Although estimates of the death toll caused by the initial period of the Red Terror vary, for the period of August to December 1918, they usually range from 8,000 to 15,000.

Workers of the World Unite: Political Indifference and Alienation

Given that the most fundamental unit for a communist transition was the proletariat, the communist project was strained by the fact that the vast majority of the country was anything but the working class. In 1917, the peasantry comprised 85% of the Russian population and was dispersed throughout the vast Russian lands. Even worse for the Bolsheviks, their primary unit, the proletariat, had plenty of their own discontents with the new government. Brovkin writes, “The workers […] displayed political indifference and in some cases animosity toward the Bolsheviks […] Contrary to the expectation implicit in Communist doctrine, the working class of Russia displayed alienation from its historic mission of liberation. In the overwhelming number of cases, workers’ political dispositions were linked to the economic situation, particularly the food supply.”[1] Growing dissatisfaction from workers manifested itself in the creation of ‘Workers’ Opposition’ groups, particularly about grievances concerning government bureaucratization.[2] Many workers also despised their proletarian identity and, as Brovkin notes, had misunderstood the message of the liberation of labour as “liberation from labour”.[3] The result was chaos and conflict over unemployment and free-riding. From the Communists’ point of view, this was extremely troubling as the revolutionary fervor that had secured political power rapidly withered away.

Though geographically removed from the terrain of the peasantry, the workers shared with them priorities that the government did not satisfy. Neither group was convinced that a communist revolution would be the ‘great victory’ that it was purported to be, and many who were initially convinced soon became disillusioned with its realities. Both the peasantry and the workers held in common a focus on their basic sustenance and with the advent of famine and forced expropriation, the drive to resist Communist policies became even more imperative.


What can be said to assess the early Communist retreats? In essence, the Communists attempted what they had set out to do – a rapid and severe implementation of communism. A key problem, however, lay in the contemporary social and economic fabric of Russia. Russia had suffered, at the time of the Revolution and in previous years, several devastating conflicts. These conflicts had put an immense strain on the country’s already vulnerable domestic capacities, weakened by previous administrations. So, when the communists implemented War Communism, the economy almost completely collapsed. Along with the pragmatic issues of War Communism came the demographic makeup of Russia. The key figure for the implementation of communism comprised but a minority of the Russian population and the major demographic player, the peasantry, had developed a fundamental dislike toward the Communists. Much to the chagrin of the Communists, many workers grew increasingly disappointed with Russia’s economic failures. In turn, even in the eyes of the revolutionary leaders, their proletariat fell short of producing the exemplary communists they had anticipated. In the end, the tumultuous nature of the beginnings of communism in Russia set up an unstable domestic arena for the remainder of the Soviet project.

[1] Vladimir N. Brovkin, The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars.

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997, p. 144-145.

[2]Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993, p. 448.

[3] Vladimir N. Brovkin, The Bolsheviks in Russian Society: The Revolution and the Civil Wars.

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997, p.10.


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