The Russian workers’ state survived the civil war, but at a terrible cost.
By 1920, the output of large-scale industry was down to 14% of the 1913 level, and manufacturing output to less than 13%. Agricultural production fell by a further 16% between 1917 and 1921. Steel production stood at 5% of the 1913 level.
Famine raged in east and south-east Russia during 1921 and 1922, killing five million people, reducing isolated communities to barbarism, even to cannibalism. The élan of 1917 was turned into despair, the drive to transform society into a grim struggle for survival.
Political democracy could not survive under these conditions. Every war demands a tight centralisation of command over resources and manpower. A revolutionary civil war, moreover, is fought not only on the military front, but also against those sections of society who support the counter-revolution in the rear.
The October revolution had depended on an alliance between the working class and the peasantry. The peasants had supported the workers’ state because it offered them peace and land.
But the deprivations of the war eroded the peasants’ support for the revolution. Manufactured goods became almost unobtainable, while food supplies were requisitioned from the peasantry to feed the Red Army and the cities.
Only the savagery of the White armies, and their intention of giving back to the landlords, prevented large sections of peasants from going over to the counter-revolution.
Freedom of speech and organisation could not be maintained with society split into two and workers’ rule hanging by a thread. Hostile elements, agitating around the grievances of the masses, could have set the country on fire with rebellion and opened the door to counter-revolution. Trotsky explained:
We are fighting a life-and-death struggle. The press is a weapon not of an abstract society, but of two irreconcilable armed and contending sides. We are destroying the press of the counter-revolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions, its stores, its communications, and its intelligence system.Terrorism and Communism
This was the period known as “war communism”. In the economy, the consumption of the country’s desperately scarce resources had to be strictly controlled. At the same time, anticipating the victory of the German working class, the Soviet government hoped to pass from control over distribution to control over production, using the methods of war communism as the starting point for a planned socialist economy.
Reformists and ex-Marxists raised a great outcry at the ruthless measures the Bolsheviks were forced to take in crushing the counter-revolution. What is the difference, they asked, between the methods of Bolshevism and the old dictatorship of the Tsar [emperor]? Trotsky replied:
You do not understand this, holy men? We shall explain to you. The terror of Tsarism throttled the workers who were fighting for the socialist order. Our Extraordinary Commissions shoot landlords, capitalists and generals who are striving to restore the capitalist order. Do you grasp this… distinction? Yes? For us communists it is quite sufficient.Terrorism and Communism
Repression, however, was seen by the Bolsheviks as an exceptional and temporary method, forced on them by the imminent danger of reaction. Even under these critical conditions they remained conciliatory towards their political opponents, on condition that they supported the workers’ state in practice, and campaigned for their policies on that basis.
At no stage did the Bolsheviks put forward the idea of a “one-party state”, for which there is no foundation in Marxism.
In practice, however, those who supported the revolution overwhelmingly joined the Bolsheviks. The opposition parties were increasingly abandoned to out-and-out enemies of the workers’ state. They struggled, and they lost.
In June 1918 the soviets excluded the Right SRs and Mensheviks from their ranks as a result of their involvement with the counter-revolution.
As late as August 1920 the Mensheviks held their party conference in Moscow, and received press coverage. But by 1921 most of the Menshevik leaders had left Russia, to conduct their campaign against the Soviet state from abroad.
The Communist Party congress of 1921 recognised that workers’ democracy needed to be rebuilt. But the basis for workers’ democracy – the unity, organisation and revolutionary energy of the working class – had been shattered by the superhuman effort of winning the war.
The collapse of industry meant the decimation of the workers’ ranks:
By 1919 the number of industrial workers declined to 76 percent of the 1917 level… By 1920, the figure for industrial workers generally fell from three million in 1917 to 1,240,000, i.e., to less than half. In two years the working class population of Petrograd was halved.A. Woods and E. Grant, Lenin and Trotsky: What They Really Stood For
The workers’ political cadre – the class-conscious activists who had mobilised their workmates, led the strikes, taken up arms, created and led the soviets – was almost eradicated. As Ilyin-Zhenevsky recorded in Petrograd even in the opening days of the war:
…the front was calling for reinforcements – both rank-and-file Red Army and leading executives… the Petrograd Committee sent to the front about 300 such persons, members of our Party. We were having to sacrifice our best forces to the demands of the front.The Bolsheviks in Power
Thousands of these revolutionary cadres perished in the war. Most of the survivors were absorbed into the ministries of the workers’ state.
The workforce remaining in the factories was transformed into the opposite of the revolutionary vanguard of 1917. As early as 1919 a delegate to the congress of trade unions warned:
We observe in a large number of industrial centres that the workers … are being absorbed in the peasant mass, and instead of a population of workers we are getting a half-peasant or sometimes purely peasant population.Quoted by Woods and Grant
With the class-conscious workers decimated and dispersed, with the raw, semi-peasant workforce in the factories struggling night and day to continue production with the dilapidated equipment and constant shortages, the soviets ceased to function.
The All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which had been supposed to meet every three months, was meeting only once a year by 1918; and even those meetings were insufficiently prepared.
Through utter exhaustion the masses were no longer able to exercise power directly. This factor was decisive in the degeneration of the Russian workers’ state.
But, it might be asked, couldn’t the Bolsheviks have ensured that the state remained an instrument of working class policy? They were in power – why could they not stamp out bureaucratism and carry out socialist policies?
This question is also important in clarifying why, today, genuine socialist policies are impossible without mass working class participation in the running of every state organ.
The next three sections will examine in more detail the objective barriers the Bolsheviks were faced with, the limitations of their control over the state apparatus in the absence of functioning soviets, and the effects of the changing situation on the Communist Party itself.