The bolsheviks in power: economy and society

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The adoption of War Communism
Whilst Trotsky managed the Civil War, Lenin concentrated on running the economy and building and consolidating the Bolshevik state. He had great problems with the deterioration of the economy by the spring of 1918. Land had been handed to the peasants and control of the factories to workers' committees. The shortcomings of these policies soon became evident. Workers were incapable of running the factories and their problems were made worse by the shortage of raw materials. Peasants would not supply the cities unless they could exchange their grain for either manufactured goods or money that had some value. The currency - the Rouble - had collapsed. Soon the cities were starving and workers began to flee. In order to safeguard the revolution Lenin had to keep the workers in the cities to produce munitions and essential war supplies and feed the industrial workers and soldiers. The Bolsheviks were fighting for their survival and Lenin adopted a policy called ‘War Communism’. It was geared towards the needs of the army. The main features were as follows:

  • Grain Requisitioning: The Bolsheviks began sending units of Red Guards into the countryside to find grain for the hard-pressed cities; forcible requisitioning was the standard policy. Getting food into the cities had been a problem as the peasants had sub-divided the land into smaller and smaller parcels in the case of larger households. There was no incentive for the peasants to produce a surplus as the currency was worthless and there was little to buy - they therefore had resorted to subsistence farming. This was called 'the crusade for bread'.

  • Banning of private trade: All private trade and manufacture was banned. The state-trading organisation was chaotic and a black market developed without which people could not have survived.

  • Nationalisation of industry: All industry was brought under state control as a way out of the anarchy. Workers' committees were replaced by single managers to restore proper commercial management - they were now called 'specialists'. The workers' committees had caused chaos as they voted themselves huge pay increases and had stolen materials and intimidated managers.

  • Labour discipline: This was brought back into the workplace. There were fines for lateness and absenteeism and internal passports were needed to stop workers from fleeing into the countryside. Piecework rates and incentives were given.

  • Rationing: A class-based ration system was introduced with workers and Red Army soldiers being favoured.

  • The Red Terror: An important part of the system was the systematic use of force. The Bolsheviks faced more opposition in the cities because of hunger and state violence. The regime was under real pressure from socialist opponents who managed to shoot Lenin in August 1918. The most prominent victims of this period were the Romanov family as the Tsar and his family were murdered at Ekaterinburg. As the red Terror intensified execution became commonplace; about 300,000 were executed. The real purpose was to terrify all groups - peasants, princes, priests, workers, judges, merchants and even children.

Conclusion on war communism
It is clear that the Bolsheviks adopted this system because of the demands of the Civil War but they also used it to squeeze 'internal enemies'; they had always wanted nationalisation and state control. Life was tough under War Communism especially for the state enemies - the middle classes and the nobility. Many 'former people' emigrated and Russia lost a lot of mercantile and managerial talent as well as scholars, scientists and other skilled groups.

The decision to move to a ‘New Economic Policy’

By 1921 Russia was in a state of total collapse:

  • Industrial and agricultural production had fallen alarmingly and peasants were resentful of War Communism and the government's grain requisitioning policy.

  • During 1921 and 1922 there were constant famines and epidemics and it is estimated 5-7 million died.

  • In some places open revolt broke out and the most disturbing one took place in march 1921 when there was a mutiny of 15,000 soldiers and sailors at the garrison at Kronstadt; they were joined by workers from Petrograd. These people had been the strongest supporters in 1917 (Trotsky had described them as “the heroes of the Revolution”).

  • Lenin realised that the discontent could no longer be suppressed; he said that the Kronstadt revolt was “the flash that lit up reality more than anything else”. It was clear that the government could not continue with the policy despite the desire of many Bolsheviks to do so, including Trotsky who wanted to use force to build socialism.

  • Lenin made a radical turnaround in policy called the ‘New Economic Policy’.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) (March 1921-28)


R = requisitioning stopped.

O = ownership of small businesses encouraged.

T = trade ban lifted.

COM = commanding heights of industry with the state.
The NEP measures did help with the recovery of pre-war production levels. By 1923, cereal production had increased by 25% on 1920 levels. There was a rapid increase in agricultural output. From 1920-23 factory output rose by 200%. It saw the emergence of 'Nepmen' - private traders who made money as private trade flourished. But there were problems such as the 'scissors crises' (Trotsky's name) when agricultural prices fell whilst industrial prices rose placing them beyond the resources of the peasants. Foreign investment was a problem – none was forthcoming, as Tsarist debts had been cancelled. However, in conclusion, the peasants did well; they did not starve and there was relatively little protest. Industrial workers had jobs with real wages and social benefits such as an eight-hour day. Many people thought this was the end of the communist experiment - they were to be proved wrong. The Bolsheviks were being pragmatic in the short term

The argument over NEP

Lenin died in 1924 and NEP became central to debate within the Bolshevik party. All agreed on the need to industrialise to catapult Russia into the modern world. The question was how to achieve this; NEP created a situation in which peasants controlled the new workers' society and rich traders flourished - hardly communism! There were two main views on the future economic and social development of Russia; they were Trotsky's view of 'permanent revolution' and Stalin's view of 'socialism in one country' and a power struggle developed in which Stalin emerged victorious.
Permanent revolution

Trotsky believed the Russian working class was too small and the economy undeveloped and believed that an international working class revolution should be actively encouraged and that socialism should be forced upon the Russian society and economy.

Socialism in one country

Stalin said that world revolution was unlikely to happen and that the Russians should build socialism without outside help - it was a flexible idea.

A power struggle developed which Stalin won. He dominated Lenin's funeral (which Trotsky did not attend) and appeared to inherit Lenin's mantle. He suppressed Lenin's 'testament' which contained damning remarks about him. He joined with Zinoviev and Kamenev to defeat Trotsky at the Party Congress of 1924. Stalin had built up huge support with the party. In 1925 he allied with Bukharin, against Zinoviev and Kamenev, to advocate the continuation of the NEP and the party agreed with the idea of 'socialism in one country'. In 1928, he turned against the NEP and now advocated rapid industrialisation and the use of force to make the peasants co-operate. Bukharin was defeated and Stalin became the undisputed leader of the USSR in 1929.

The 'Great Turn': Stalin's transformation of the Soviet economy in the 1930s

Stalin wanted to industrialise and modernise the USSR for the following reasons:

  • He was convinced that the USSR would be attacked and he wanted to increase military strength.

  • To achieve autarky in order not to be dependent on the west.

  • To increase grain supplies so that the new socialist state was not dependent on the peasants.

  • To move towards socialism - only possible in an industrialised state.

  • To promote himself as a great leader.

  • To improve standards of living to prove the benefits of socialism.

The change from NEP to the Five-Year Plans (FYP) is called the 'Great Turn' because it marked a decisive shift to a command economy in which centralised control was wielded by the state. He took these policies to extremes and he is synonymous with inhumanity, tyranny and totalitarianism (although it can be argued all this was there under Lenin - it is merely a question of degree).

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