Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions, V

  • The First Communist Dictatorship

    We'll ask the man, where do you stand on the question of the revolution? Are you for it or against it? If he's against it, we'll stand him up against a wall.
    V.I. Lenin

    Lenin had promised "Peace, Land, and Bread." After several false starts, the Bolsheviks successfully negotiated a separate peace with the Germans, the famous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Ratified in March, 1918, Lenin ceded the Baltic states, eastern Poland, and the Ukraine to the Germans. This amounted to surrendering over 25% of Russia's population. This removed the external threat to the Bolshevik regime; and since Lenin anticipated revolution in Europe and in any case planned to break the treaty after consolidating his regime, there was much sense in his claim that "To obtain an armistice now means to conquer the whole world." Lenin's Left SR allies objected so violently to Brest-Litovsk that they left the coalition government; but by this point, they had outlived their usefulness anyway. At the Seventh Party Congress the Bolsheviks also changed their official name to the Russian Communist Party, and it was as "Communists" that the world would henceforth know them and their adherents around the world.

    (During the negotiations, British, French, and American forces did occupy a few Russian ports, but it should be noted that to some extent the Allies were invited by the Bolsheviks in order to strengthen their bargaining position against the Germans. The Allies, blind to the long-term threat that Lenin posed, focused almost entirely on getting Lenin to get back into the war against the Germans. Click here to view the Special Exhibit on Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.)

    It was also quite easy for Lenin to deliver land to the peasants. They had been seizing and dividing up large estates for almost a year before Lenin legally recognized this accomplished fact. What the peasants did not realize was that just as Lenin planned to dispose of Brest-Litovsk at the first opportunity, so too did he plan to nationalize the peasants' land as soon as he could get away with it.

    Lenin's last promise of bread was the hardest to deliver. The Provisional Government, barely more literate in economics than Lenin, had imposed a price ceiling on food, resulting, as any "bourgeois" economist could have told them, in severe shortages of food in the cities. Arguably this hurt the Provisional Government as much as its failure to sign a separate peace with the Germans; for the price ceiling angered both peasants, forced to sell their grain for a pittance, and workers, unable to obtain food at any price. Lenin merely intensified the brutality of enforcement of the price controls on food; rather than starve in the cities, large percentages of the urban population returned to their family farms in the country. (In the end, even this desperate move would not save many of them from starvation).

    Draconian enforcement of price controls was merely one of a plethora of tasks entrusted to the backbone of Lenin's new regime: the secret police, or Cheka, headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. Its nucleus was Trotsky's goon squad from the Petrograd Soviet, which almost immediately became an official organ of the government after the coup. Its rate of growth was fantastic: "The Tsar's secret police, the Okhrana, had numbered 15,000, which made it by far the largest body of its kind in the old world. By contrast, the Cheka, within three years of its establishment, had a strength of 250,000 full-time agents." (Paul Johnson, Modern Times) Its powers were vast: now only was the Cheka judge, jury, and executioner, but it acknowledged no law to guide its actions, only "the dictates of revolutionary conscience." Its methods were savage: summary shooting, concentration camps, and forced labor were its three basic weapons. And its potential victims, the "enemies of the people" it was instructed to hunt down, were countless. As the high-ranking Chekist Latsis explained:

    The Extraordinary Commission is neither an investigating body nor a tribunal. It is an organ of struggle, acting on the home front of a civil war... We are not carrying out war against individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.

    Or as Zinoviev, another high-ranking Bolshevik put it, "We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia's inhabitants. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated." As Paul Johnson observes, "There is no essential moral difference between class-warfare and race-warfare, between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the modern practice of genocide was born." (Modern Times)

    The work of the Cheka, Russia soon learned, was never done. Censorship was quickly imposed, and it was up to the Cheka to confiscate the literature of dissident workers: "[O]n 17 November the Central Executive Committee passed a decree giving the bolsheviks control over all newsprint and wide powers of closing down newspapers critical of the regime..." (Leonard Shapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Workers were re-forming independent soviets; the Cheka broke them up. Independent newspapers criticized Lenin's government; the Cheka closed them down, until the Bolshevik-controlled Pravda and Izvestia had a monopoly on the supply of news. As Shapiro notes, "The refusal to come to terms with the socialists and the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly led to the logical result that revolutionary terror would now be directed not only against traditional enemies, such as the bourgeoisie or right-wing opponents, but against anyone, be he socialist, worker or peasant, who opposed bolshevik rule." (The Communist Party of the Soviet Union)

    The Cheka soon turned to "taking hostages"; i.e., arresting people who they guessed had anti-Bolshevik feelings, and shooting them if their demands were not met or their decrees disobeyed. For example, Lenin's government might decree that the peasants in a certain region must deliver food or timber to the government; if the government's demands were not met, they would shoot some hostages. Lenin himself gave the order to...

    [D]esignate in every district (designate, do not seize) hostages, by name, from among kulaks, rich men, and exploiters, whom you are to charge with responsibility for collection and delivery to assigned stations or grain-collection points and for turning over to the authorities of all the surplus grain without exception.

    The hostages are answerable with their lives for the accurate and prompt payment of the contribution. (quoted in Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution

    We know slave-labour; we know serf-labour. We know the compulsory, regimented labour of the medieval guilds, we have known the hired wage-labour which the bourgeoisie calls 'free.' We are now advancing towards a type of labour socially regulated on the basis of an economic plan which is obligatory for the whole country... This is the foundation of socialism.
    Leon Trotsky, 3rd Trade Union Conference

    While initially the Cheka was mainly concerned with crushing direct political threats to the regime, it soon began a desperate attempt to impose Lenin's half-baked economic policies on the country. Price maxima were combined with unrestrained printing-press inflationary finance. Businesses and banks were chaotically nationalized. Decrees imposed the "universal labor obligation," which required anyone not currently employed to report to the government to receive their work assignment. And like the Russian governments before it, Lenin's imposed conscription to raise armies - a measure particularly resented by the peasants who thought that Lenin's regime had ended their wartime suffering.

    Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin, took Communist tyranny to new heights. But Stalin was not the corrupter of the noble work of a great lover of human freedom. Communism meant tyranny from its inception, and Lenin and Trotsky were the vanguard of that tyranny. Whenever moral scruples stayed the hand of his followers, Lenin urged them to cast "bourgeois morality" aside. As the great democratic socialist historian Carl Landauer concluded, "This totalitarian form of government took a long time to develop and Lenin did not live to see its completion, but he was its author." (European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements)

    The Russian Coup d'Etat: November, 1917
    The Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War