Marx and Engels had thought it most likely that capitalism would be defeated first in the developed countries, where the working class was most powerful, and the industrial basis existed for the transition to socialism.

Instead, in October 1917, the chain of world capitalism broke at its weakest link.

The Bolshevik government inherited a backward society in a state of disintegration, exhausted by three years of war and a series of crushing defeats by Germany.

The imperialists could not tolerate the challenge to their authority, and the threat to their interests in Russia, which the Bolsheviks presented. As a pro-capitalist historian openly admits: “They [the imperialist leaders such as Churchill and Foch] warned that Bolshevism was a dangerous threat to world society and should be crushed while it was still weak”.[1]

Within Russia the privileged and reactionary classes, as well as reformists in the labour movement, fought the revolution with every means at their disposal – boycotts, economic sabotage, even the threat of a general strike.

Workers’ control over production, through a system of factory, regional and national committees, was proclaimed to provide some check on the capitalists’ activities. But there was no way of peacefully regulating the eruption of class struggle unleashed by the revolution.

On the one hand, the capitalists refused to submit to workers’ control. On the other hand, where the workers asserted their power, they did not stop at “controlling” the capitalists. They took over factories lock, stock and barrel, even before their government was able to provide them with back-up and resources.

These struggles in industry clearly confirmed the perspective explained by Trotsky in his theory of “permanent revolution”: once the working class takes power, even in a backward country, it becomes impossible to confine their program to the limits of capitalism. The workers will inevitably be driven on to the expropriation of the capitalists and the program of socialist transformation.

A bourgeois historian describes the deepening paralysis of Russian society as the struggle between the classes intensified:

In the spring of 1918 the Russian economy was approaching the point of complete collapse. Money lost all value, manufactured goods disappeared from the shops, the shops themselves closed down as the normal channels of trade ceased to function; speculation and corruption were rife.

Why Lenin? Why Stalin?, Theodore H. von Laue

Hunger worsened in the cities as food supplies came almost to a standstill: when manufactured goods could not be obtained even by barter, why should the peasants raise food for the urban market?

Revolutionary counter-measures were taken. The banks, in the face of their persistent sabotage, were occupied and nationalised in December 1917. The workers spontaneously took over more and more factories until the decree of June 1918 bringing every important branch of industry into state ownership.

Committees of the poor peasants, and armed detachments of workers, were organised to seize the grain supplies hoarded by the rich peasants (kulaks).

The irreconcilable struggle between the classes escalated into a full-scale trial of strength. Armed counter-revolution began to emerge, based on an alliance of the imperialist powers with the kulaks, the capitalists, and the remnants of the forces of Tsarism. The Russian civil war raged, with peaks and intervals, from May 1918 until the spring of 1921.

Civil war, like revolution, forces everyone to take sides – for or against the government. Right-wing “socialists”, ex-revolutionaries and reformists, their hatred of Marxism (as always) stronger than their fear of reaction, in large numbers joined the onslaught against the workers’ state.

In March 1918, British forces occupied the northern port of Murmansk, and in August they seized Archangel, cutting off Russia’s outlets to the sea. In April, Japanese troops landed at Vladivostok in Eastern Siberia.

“Emboldened by the prospect of allied intervention,” writes the leading bourgeois historian, E.H. Carr, “the right SR’s [right-wing of the so-called Socialist Revolutionary Party, based on the richer peasants] at their party conference in Moscow in May 1918 openly advocated a policy designed ‘to overthrow the Bolshevik dictatorship and to establish a government based on universal suffrage and willing to accept Allied assistance in the war against Germany’” – i.e. a pro-imperialist government![2]

The Mensheviks, split in all directions, were “uncompromising only on one point – their hostility to the [Bolshevik] regime”.[3]

In Samara, the SR’s set up an anti-Bolshevik “government” and started to raise an army. In August they captured Kazan. The Left SR’s (based on the poor peasantry) were in coalition with the Bolsheviks until March 1918, when they left the government because they opposed the peace treaty signed with Germany, calling it a “betrayal”.

Now they plotted against the government and tried to provoke a German attack which, they believed, would be met with “revolutionary war”. Totally misreading the situation, they staged an insurrection in July, which rapidly collapsed.

The Western powers, as their war against Germany neared its end, concentrated their attention on Russia. More British, French and US troops were landed in Murmansk and Archangel. American, Japanese, British, French and Italian troops occupied Vladivostok and advanced westward as far as the Ural mountains. Sizeable French forces were deployed in the Black Sea.

At the same time, the imperialists financed and armed the counter-revolutionary (“White”) armies organised out of the most backward peasantry by ex-Tsarist officers.

Victor Serge, a Bolshevik at the time, vividly describes the desperate situation in October 1919:

The Whites under Admiral Kolchak are masters of Siberia; they constitute the ‘supreme government’ of Ukraine under General Denikin who is preparing for a march on Moscow. In the North, thanks to the British battalions, they dominate a vaguely socialist government presided over by old Tchaikovsky, a veteran of the first struggles against Tsarism; and General Yudenich is preparing to take Petrograd, where the people are dying of hunger in the streets and dead horses are piled up in front of the Grand Opera.

From Lenin to Stalin

Yet, a year later, Wrangel (Denikin’s successor) had been crushed in the Crimea, and the military threat was effectively ended.

The Bolsheviks’ victory over the combined forces of internal and external reaction, from a position of terrible weakness, most surely rank as one of the most brilliant military achievements of all time.

How was this victory won?

Continue to Chapter Three

[1] Russia 1917 to 1964, J.N. Westwood

[2] The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923

[3] Ibid.