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by Mary Tuck Welch

by Aaron Reber,


by Mary Tuck Welch

In the November coup of 1917 the Bolshevik party came into power ruling over a war torn and impoverished country. Little did anyone know that things were about to get much worse. The Soviet Union endured one of it’s harshest winters ever in 1917, leaving many crops wiped out. Coupled with poor economic policies, the country faced massive starvation.

The goal of the Bolshevik party was to bring all industry under the strict management of the government. The dream was to create a utopian socialist economy based on Marxist ideals. There would be no market places, as the government would control supply of goods and services directly and the demand indirectly. There would also be no need for currency. All private trade was to be abolished, and the government would issue goods and services. However, what became known as "war communism" proved a far cry from this utopian society. There was little information from Marx on exactly how to run such a society. In actuality, millions of people starved to death and the economy was left in a state of disaster. At the beginning of their rule the Bolsheviks shut down only the small scale industries operating inefficiently. However, by the middle of the civil war the rate of nationalization grew rapidly. By the end of the civil war 60% of industry was under state control (Kort, p.119). So far under war communism, the nationalizing of industry succeeded in increasing bureaucracy and decreasing production. In fact, production went down drastically. In part this was due to undernourished workers and extremely poor and unorganized management. Many workers were subjected to the poor conditions of the "labour camps". These were compulsory camps set up to provide "socially useful" work. This includes work on the railroads and other public sector jobs. The civil war ended up leaving 7 million children homeless due to family members being taken off to labour camps and others dying from starvation. In a desperate attempt to supply food to everyone, the government took food and grains from the country peasants to distribute to the urban population. This lead to migration of city folks to the country so they could grow their own food. A black market for food developed from enormously high demand with little supply. The inflation on this market was incredibly high.

By 1921 the Bolsheviks had left the economy and people in a state of disaster. The Soviet Union only widened the gap between themselves and the West due to war communism. Poor fiscal planning resulted in inflation that grew so rapidly the ruble was left virtually worthless. "During war communism state expenditures were essentially financed by money issue." (Malle, p.195) Fearing external economic control the Bolshevik party did very little international trading. In 1921, "agricultural production was less than half of what it had been in 1913, the last full year of peace before World War One."(Kort, p.124) On top of the 7 million already, another 5 million people died after the civil war due to starvation. The failures of war communism were many in number. After the civil war, the economy changed back into an open market economy and the era of the New Economic Policy began.


  1. Kort, Michael. The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath; Armonk, New York 1996

  2. Malle, Silvana. The economic organization of war comunism 1918-1921; Cambridge 1985

  3. Remington, TF. Building Socialism in Bolshevik Russia; Pittsburgh, Pa. 1984


War Communism

Aaron Reber, May 2000

The moral nature
of the Bolshevik Revolution
was inherited form the war
in which it was born.                                                                                                                   Victor Chernov      

Socialism = Soviet Power + Electrification

 Carried away by a wave of enthusiasm . . . we thought that by direct orders of the proletarian state, we could organize state production and distribution of products communistically in a land of petty peasants. Life showed us our mistake
 We have failed to convince the masses

V I  Lenin

 The economic policy of War Communism, what was it, what where it’s goals, what did it accomplish if anything, what where it’s ramifications on Soviet society, and why was such a brutal economic policy implemented. 

            During the last weeks of 1917, a civil war seemed imminent, Lenin had set up an exclusively Bolshevik government, and in the Ukraine anti-Bolshevik units where forming.  By February 1918, fighting had started the whites, that were anti-Bolshevik versus the reds or the communists. Both sides spread terror throughout the countryside and the whole country was in disarray.  With the countryside ravaged, and supply lines cut from the Ukraine (the breadbasket of Russia), the Reds were threatened with food shortages that would leave them defenseless, a great economic undertaking was needed.  In response, they mobilized the entire economy for the war effort.  The state took control of the economy and used all means necessary (namely force) to make this new system function.  These were desperate measures for desperate times, many decisions where spur of the moment.  Though not named at the time, in retrospect they where know as War Communism (Kort pp. 118-119).             

 In this time of war, the party, police and army were used as tools to remodel the economy in order to achieve socialism.  Although lasting a mere three years, it enabled the full state control of the economy “and the building of what its leaders would simply call Communism (Malia p. 123).”  War Communism was initiated because of the War but there were other driving forces behind it. 

 In Russia, what would soon become the Soviet Union, the proper economic conditions for a true socialist revolution were not present.  It was primarily a peasant-based economy that had few proletariats, a necessary condition for a Marxist revolution. Lenin however had adapted the theory taking into account developments that Marx had no knowledge of, the age of imperialism and finance capital.  War Communism Lenin believed was a necessary stage between capitalism and communism.  They imposed state control over the economy, while waiting for the rest of the European countries to have revolutions of their own.  This was futile, no mass revolutions occurred and they were left alone, history’s hand would have to be further forced and under War Communism, “socialism would have to be “built”(Malia pp. 111-112).”

This policy was initiated to destroy all things capitalist in the USSR while applying Marxist ideas in doing so.  In the countryside, collectivization was in essence a process of turning farms into factories (Malia pp. 131-132).  The Party would abolish private property everywhere and take control of all aspects of the economy. 

The policy of War Communism did emerge out of necessity of the civil war, but it was a calculated decision.  It was a “crucial episode that first revealed to the Bolsheviks who they in fact were . . .. (it) was seminal to the whole Soviet experience (Malia p. 112).”  It is this reason that Stalin was the true heir to Lenin.  If Lenin wanted to establish communism through these means, then surely Stalin’s idea for the five-year-plans was rooted in this.


 Kort, Michael. (1996). The Soviet Colossus, History and Aftermath. (4th ed.). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

 MacKenzie, David. (1994). From Messianism to Collapse, Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1991.  Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace and Company

 Malia, Martin. (1994). The Soviet Tragedy, A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. New York, NY: The Free Press


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