Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions, VII

  • "War Communism", the Red Terror, and Lenin's Famine

    Almost immediately after they seized power, Lenin's Bolsheviks inaugurated an endless stream of economic decrees and policies. These proved to be disastrous, resulting in a horrific famine, depopulation of the cities, and an enormous decline in living standards. So unpopular were these policies that after they were finally altered in mid 1921, Lenin tried to re-write their history. It was at this point that the Bolsheviks economic policies from 1918-1921 were dubbed "War Communism," and declared to have been a temporary expedient forced upon Lenin's government by wartime conditions. In fact, so-called "War Communism" began before serious fighting erupted, and continued after the Whites had been decisively defeated. It was not a wartime expedient; it was the policy that Lenin wanted to pursue in war or peace. As Pipes explains, "War Communism as a whole was not a 'temporary measure' but an ambitious and as it turned out premature attempt to introduce full-blown communism." (The Russian Revolution) As noted earlier, Lenin's ideas on desirable economic policy were vague at best. So upon taking power, he looked around the world for inspiration; what caught his eye was the "War Socialism" of the German Kaiser. As Paul Johnson notes:

    So one might say that the man who really inspired Soviet economic planning was Ludendorff. His "war socialism" certainly did not shrink from barbarism. It employed slave-labourers. In January 1918 Ludendorff broke a strike of 400,000 Berlin workers by drafting tens of thousands of them to the front in "labor battalions." Many of his methods were later to be revived and intensified by the Nazis. It would be difficult to think of a more evil model for a workers' state. Yet these were precisely the features of German "war socialism" Lenin most valued. (Modern Times)

    The primary features of War Communism were:

    The package fit together quite logically. The tax system had broken down, so the Bolsheviks just turned on the Czar's printing pressing to fund their activities. At the same time, the prices of most goods were fixed, so as the money supply increased without limit, the legal prices became less and less realistic. Rationing cards replaced rubles as the means of acquiring goods. But if money no longer bought goods, then what was the point of working? Hence, the imposition of compulsory labor.

    The Bolsheviks' forced labor policies gave new life to the concept of irony. The men who had proclaimed themselves liberators of the workers and denounced the exploitation of labor suddenly discovered the joys of serfdom. Trotsky stood at the theoretical vanguard of the literal proponents of slavery: "It is said that compulsory labor is unproductive. This means that the whole socialist economy is doomed to be scrapped, because there is no other way of attaining socialism except through the command allocation of the entire labor force by the economic center, the allocation of that force in accord with the needs of a nationwide economic plan." Initially the forced labor laws were applied to the (ex-)middle classes, but their application rapidly broadened to include not only workers and peasants but even minors. As Pipes explains:

    By late 1918, it became common practice for the Bolshevik authorities to call up workers and specialists for state service exactly as they drafted recruits into the Red Army. The practice was for the government to announce that workers and technical specialists in a specified branch of the economy were "mobilized for military service" and subject to court- martial: those leaving jobs to which they had been assigned were treated as deserters... Efforts to organize industrial labor on the military model could not have worked well in view of the plethora of decrees on this subject, setting up ever new punishments for "labor deserters," ranging from publication of their names to confinement in concentration camps. (The Russian Revolution)

    One would expect that the mere suggestion of compulsory labor, let alone its actual imposition, would have branded Lenin and Trotsky as demonic traitors to anyone who purported to care about the plight of workers. Ominously, it did not; Party intellectuals proclaimed the wonders of the new system. "Compulsory labour under capitalism, wrote Bukharin, was quite the reverse of compulsory labour under the dictatorship of the proletariat: the first was 'the enslavement of the working class,' the second the 'self- organization of the working class'." (Paul Johnson, Modern Times) At this point, the reluctance of Communists from Marx to Lenin to precisely explain their proposed policies takes on a new meaning. As the Russian emigre Ayn Rand put it: "Intellectuals? You might have to worry about any other breed of men, but not about the modern intellectuals: they'll swallow anything." (Atlas Shrugged)

    As the economy deteriorated, the Cheka waxed ever fatter. After an July 1918 revolt by SRs, the Cheka turned its guns on fellow socialists, executing 350 captured SR rebels. One month later, the SR Fanya Kaplan nearly succeeded in assassinating Lenin. Her noble effort unfortunately gave the Cheka the excuse to initiate the Red Terror, i.e., mass executions of people based not upon their actions but their class origins and beliefs. As Landauer explains, "The first conspicuous act of government-ordered reprisals on a large scale without regard for individual guilt came after the assassination of Michael Uritzky and the attempt on Lenin's life on August 30. These events were not in themselves apt to justify measures against the bourgeoisie, for the two assassins, Kenigiesser and Fania Kaplan, were both members of the Social Revolutionary party and therefore not "bourgeois." But the minds of the Soviet leaders were dominated by the theory that Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were tools of the "class enemy," and it appeared logical to the Bolsheviks to strike at the group which allegedly had inspired the assassination. Five hundred hostages were shot in reprisal in Petrograd alone by order of Zinoviev, the head of the local soviet. On September 5, the people's commissars officially legalized the red terror..." (European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements)

    From then on the Cheka's executions never ceased. The exact number murdered is usually estimated at between 100,000 and 500,000, but the chaotic wartime conditions make the accounting especially difficult. But execution was not the Cheka's only tool; it also pioneered the development of the modern slave labor (or "concentration") camp. Inmates were generally frankly treated as government-owned slaves, and used for the most demanding sorts of work - such as digging arctic canals - while receiving pitifully small rations. As Pipes explains, "Soviet concentration camps, as instituted in 1919, were meant to be a place of confinement for all kinds of undesirables, whether sentenced by courts or by administrative organs. Liable to confinement in them were not only individuals but also 'categories of individuals' - that is, entire classes: Dzerzhinskii at one point proposed that special concentration camps be erected for the 'bourgeoisie.' Living in forced isolation, the inmates formed a pool of slave labor on which Soviet administrative and economic institutions could draw at no cost." (The Russian Revolution) The number of people in these camps according to Pipes was about 50,000 prisoners in 1920 and 70,000 in 1923; many of these did not survive the inhuman conditions.

    The mildest manifestation of the Red Terror was the official policy excluding "class enemies" entirely from the wartime rationing system; i.e., legally, it was often impossible for disfavored groups to even purchase food. As Landauer simply puts it: "As a consequence, the average "bourgeois" had only the choice between death and illegal activities." (European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements) Bourgeoisie with valued technical training could usually get around these rules, but otherwise their plight - and the plight of their families - was bleak indeed, though naturally far better than the inmates of the slave labor camps.

    It is now and only now, when in the regions afflicted by the famine there is cannibalism and the roads are littered with hundreds if not thousands of corpses, that we can (and therefore must) pursue the acquisition of [church] valuables with the most ferocious and merciless energy, stopping at nothing in suppressing all resistance.
    V.I. Lenin

    But the greatest crime committed by Lenin's regime was the civil war the Soviet government waged against the peasantry, and the famine this war precipitated. The alliance of "the workers and peasants" was an ingenious slogan given the fact that almost everyone in Russia was a peasant. But it was a slogan that Lenin and his followers never had the slightest intention of following. They despised the peasants as ignorant "petty bourgeoisie" who stood in the way of collectivized agriculture. With one hand Lenin's regime legally recognized the peasants' land seizures, but with the other hand it demanded food at ever more unreasonable terms (in the end, unrestrained printing press finance plus price controls effectively required peasants to give their food away for free). "The law provided that all the grain that the producer had left over after satisfying his personal needs and providing for seed belonged to the state and had to be sold to its agencies at fixed prices." (Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution) The consequences were a perfect illustration of the principles of "bourgeois" economics: with ever stricter price controls, peasants opted not to sell their grain to the cities. This made life ever harder for urban workers, who fled back to the country in huge numbers - often city populations declined by over 50%. Rather than repeal its price controls, the Bolshevik regime scapegoated black marketeers and speculators, unleashing the Cheka upon them with orders to administer summary executions. This merely drove up black market prices.

    So Lenin's government advanced to the next stage: sending the Cheka and the Red Army to seize grain directly from the peasant. This was ideologically justified by dubbing peasants who resisted grain as wealthy "kulaks," though rich and poor alike found themselves staring down the muzzles of the Cheka's guns. Once again, the resort to ever greater brutality did not bring the desired results. Minimal food was collected, and the peasants went into open revolt. Lenin, who in every other matter seemed to be the master of the temporary compromise, could not control his hatred of the resisting peasants. He ordered kulaks to be deprived of not only surplus grain, but even seed grain, while in his speeches he exhorted: "Merciless war against the kulaks! Death to them." Even as the Red Army battled Kolchak and Denikin, they waged a less visible civil war with the peasants. By most estimates several hundred thousand peasants were killed as a result of this so-called "Bread War" - as usual, the Red Army and the Cheka executed not only captured rebels, but often families, friends, or entire villages associated, however vaguely, with counter-revolution.

    The peasants had numbers on their side, and many soldiers were reluctant to fight them, but the government's superior organization ultimately gave them victory over the peasants. But the victory was hollow, for after the fruit of their labor had been seized, farmers generally decided there was no point in growing a surplus. Moreover, since seed grain was often taken, many peasants were unable to grow surplus crops even if they wished. When the perverse incentives of price controls and expropriation were mixed with a drought, the result was one of the great disasters of the century: the Russian famine of 1921. Official Soviet reports admitted that fully 30 million Soviet citizens were in danger of death by starvation. The White forces shared little of the blame: as Pipes notes, the Civil War was essentially over by the beginning of 1920, but Lenin continued his harsh exploitation of the peasantry for yet another year. Moreover, the areas under White control had actually built up a food surplus. The horrific famine of 1921 was thus much less severe in 1920, because after the reconquest of the Ukraine and other White territories, the Reds shipped the Whites' grain captured grain north to Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities with less hunger but more political clout. Low estimates on the deaths from this famine are about 3 million; high estimates go up to 10 million - which would probably have been much higher if not for foreign relief efforts which Lenin had the good sense to permit. For perspective, the last severe famine in Russia hit in 1891-92, and cost about 400,000 lives.

    Needless to say, Lenin had no plans to respect the freedom of religion. But until the famine, most of the persecution of religion appears to have been taken on local initiative. Most religious property was ordered expropriated, although in fact clergymen usually continued to occupy and use their church buildings. Parents lost the right to give their children religious education - although again, during the Civil War years, this does not seem to have been enforced. (Interestingly, while the state subsidies to the church greatly declined, the Orthodox Church under Lenin essentially remained a bureau of the state). Serious government persecution of the Orthodox Church began with the famine, which gave Lenin the chance to bring the Orthodox Church into line. He demanded that the Church hand over valuable relics to help famine victims (or so he said). The Church resisted, resulting in around 8000 executions of persons resisting the confiscation of relics. Similar but milder persecution began against Jews, Catholics, and to a lesser extent, Muslims. (These religions, however, had less to lose than the Orthodox Church, because they had no subsidies for the Bolsheviks to cut off).

    Can Lenin and his associates be held morally culpable for the deaths of these millions of famine victims? If the famine were a natural catastrophe, this would be unreasonable. But the famine was largely man-made, the result of draconian price controls and requisitioning. Most of the evidence is that Lenin and his associates knew the probable results of their agricultural policies, but were willing to take the risk: according to Pipes, Lenin repeatedly said that he would sooner the whole nation die of hunger than allow free trade in grain. In short, Lenin and his comrades knew with substantial certainty that their policies would cause widespread death from starvation. Under any sensible definition of murder, this makes Lenin the murderer of millions.

    The Russian Civil War and the Russo-Polish War
    Worldwide Communist Revolutions: Hungary, Germany, Mongolia...