War communism

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War communism describes the economic policy of Soviet Russia in the period of civil war from 1918 to 1921. The term itself was first used by the Bolsheviks after the introduction of the NEP in 1921 to justify their economic policy measures, which according to the Encyclopedia of the Soviet Union (first edition 1926) "their causes in the Had civil war and economic devastation ”.


In order to establish a socialist planned economy , the Bolsheviks passed numerous laws and decrees from October 1917 to abolish private ownership of the means of production. In addition to private property, inheritance law was abolished and urban property was expropriated. The Bolsheviks had also taken on serious problems through the October Revolution . They took action against hunger and food shortages caused by the World War and then solidified by the Russian Civil War . With special powers, the People's Commissariat for Nutrition , founded in November 1917, initiated a “supply dictatorship” that formed a cornerstone of war communism.

By a decision of the Council of People's Commissars on January 15th jul. / January 28, 1918 greg. the Red Army was founded to defend the power of the Bolsheviks against resistance. It emerged from the pre-existing " Red Guard ". Leon Trotsky , People's Commissar for Military Affairs from 1918 to 1924, is considered the founder of the Red Army. On the former Eastern Front of the First World War , the army was initially supposed to prevent any further advance of the Germans and the other Central Powers into Russia. Shortly afterwards it was used in the civil war against the insurgent whites and the foreign intervention troops. From May 1918, parts of the army also helped with the forced evacuation of grain , which was carried out as part of the supply dictatorship.

The main aim was to bring the entire economy under one central administration . This was done primarily through nationalization of the means of production and companies. Private trade should be completely stopped and replaced by a state distribution system. Likewise, money should be abolished as a medium of exchange. In the constitution of the Russian Federative Socialist Soviet Republic (RSFSR) of July 1918, the obligation to work was introduced with the motto: "Those who do not work have no right to exist." War communism reached its full extent in 1920/21.

The “ Supreme Economic Council ” (WSNCh) under the leadership of Juri Larin was set up in December 1917 as the main instrument for the implementation of economic policy measures, i.e. the centralization of the national economy . From the summer of 1918, the Economic Council issued decrees according to which private company owners and stock corporations were expropriated without compensation and the assets were made subject to the state. In the companies themselves, corporate management was changed from individuals to "factory committees".

In the monetary area, according to the party program of the CP, money and finance should be completely abolished, and the Russian economy should be converted into a distribution economy in the medium term. Hyperinflation set in from May 1919 when the Russian central bank began printing bills on demand. After the collapse of the tax system and the loss of any state revenue and the simultaneous inflation of state administration (including the Economic Council), the Bolsheviks had to cope with enormous expenses. This should be done through the new issues.

During the ongoing civil war there were attempts to collectivize agriculture, which met resistance from the peasants. As a result, agricultural production fell significantly. This contributed to an exacerbation of the food shortage in the cities, which the Bolsheviks tried to remedy by forcibly acquiring grain. Both parties to the civil war exercised repression against the farmers and plundered the grain stocks.

Under the motto “All power to the Soviets - no power of the party”, sailors carried out an uprising in Kronstadt on February 23, 1921 . This was put down under Trotsky's command. At the same time the Bolsheviks developed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which brought about a partial decentralization of the economy.

The destructive First World War and the subsequent Russian Civil War , which continued this destruction, had already badly damaged the economic organism of the country, which was largely still an agricultural country. “War communism” now led to further devastating economic consequences due to a faulty theoretical basis and practical implementation through coercive measures. According to statistics, the gross national product in 1920 was only 33% of the pre-war level, and the standard of living, especially that of the workers, had fallen to a third by 1913. In most sectors of the economy, production had plummeted.

Economic principles of war communism

  • Abolition of private ownership of the essential means of production (industry, large estates, banks, transport);
  • Centralism in the economy, central management of scarce resources, central control of production, distribution and consumption;
  • Concentration of all economic forces on one goal, at that time supplying the Red Army;
  • Bureaucratization and militarization of the economy;
  • Violence, terror as a means of achieving economic goals:

At the end of the period of war communism, Lenin had achieved his goal, the party had remained in power, and thus the chance was preserved to pursue the goals of the revolution or to survive the time until the hoped-for world revolution.

Interpretation models

There are various models of interpretation among historians about the Russian civil war and the meaning and purpose of war communism. Such a model is based on the totalitarianism theory. War communism is a consequent realization of the Bolsheviks' socialism project, based on Lenin's pre-revolutionary ideas. According to this interpretation, Stalinism consistently continued war communism.

The Oxford professor Orlando Figes is a representative of this interpretation model . He rejects the thesis that war communism arose as a necessity for civil war. Rather, he is of the opinion that the measures of war communism brought about civil war and were a means of fighting against internal enemies. The introduction of war communism in 1918 was a reaction to the hunger crisis in the cities.

Richard Pipes points out that Lenin claimed in April 1921 that the Bolshevik measures of war communism were enforced "through war and ruin", thus placing responsibility for the catastrophic events of the time on general circumstances and not on their own measures. Pipes describes this as an implausible attempt at justification by Lenin and quotes Trotsky , who openly admitted that the policy of war communism was by no means just a reaction to events of the time, but that the Bolsheviks wanted to achieve "more" with it, namely "from war communism gradually ... to to pass over real communism ". Pipes also cites L. Kritsman and LN Yurovsky, who said: "War communism was not only the product of war conditions and other spontaneous forces. It was also the result of a particular ideology, the realization of a particular sociopolitical scheme, economic life to build the land on entirely new principles. "

Another interpretation model sees war communism as a temporary departure from the principles of building socialism as originally conceived by Lenin. War communism was a temporary and forced pragmatic political course that responded to the extraordinary circumstances of the revolution and civil war.

The historian Wolfgang Leonhard advocates a widespread explanation for war communism: The civil war between 1918 and 1921 led to the centralization of economic, military and political power, some revolutionary achievements of 1917 - including workers' control - to be eliminated and the dictatorial element of the Bolshevism intensified.

Regardless of these two interpretations, it is historically clear that Lenin survived the civil war with war communism. The Bolshevik party had achieved its goal and remained in power. After the end of the civil war won by the Bolsheviks, economic liberalization was initiated.

According to the historian Igor Narski , there was a tendency in international historiography to regard both models of interpretation as insufficiently productive. The politics of war communism are mostly described as a strange combination of the principles of Bolshevik doctrine and the need to respond to bitter reality, which is why there are conflicting interpretations, unexpected twists and turns, conflicts in political leadership, and concerns in determining potential supporters and opponents have given.

Web links


  • Helmut Altrichter : State and Revolution in Soviet Russia. 1917–1922 / 23. Series of earnings from research, vol. 148, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1981.
  • Michail Heller , Alexander Nekrich : History of the Soviet Union. 2 volumes. Athenaeum, Königstein 1981/82. (Presentation of the history of the Soviet Union from the point of view of two historians who emigrated from the USSR, abundant source material available)
  • Edgar Hösch , Hans-Jürgen Grabmüller : Dates of Soviet history. From 1917 to the present. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 1981. (extensive chronological data collection with explanations)
  • Manfred Hildermeier : The Russian Revolution 1905–1921. Edition Suhrkamp 1534, Frankfurt am Main 1981.
  • LN Jurowskij: Deneschnaja politika sovjetskoj vlasti (1917–1927). (Monetary Policy of the Soviet Power - 1917 to 1927), Moscow 1928.
  • Leo Kritsman : The Heroic Period and the Great Russian Revolution: Attempting to Analyze So-called War Communism , Vienna 1971. (Reprint from 1929)
  • Richard Lorenz : Social History of the Soviet Union I. 1917–1945. Edition suhrkamp 654, Frankfurt am Main 1976.
  • Silvana Malle : The Economic Organization of War Communism, 1918–1921. Revised new edition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-521-52703-1 .
  • Evan Mawdsley : The Russian Civil War. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2005, ISBN 1-84341-024-9 .
  • Günther Stökl : Russian history. From the beginnings to the present (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 244). 5th enlarged edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3-520-24405-5 (chronological presentation of the history of Russia and the Soviet Union; standard work in German with an extensive directory of scientific literature).

Individual evidence

  1. Information on political education 182, 1979 The Soviet Union , Federal Center for Political Education
  2. Orlando Figes The Tragedy of a People - The Epoch of the Russian Revolution 1891 to 1924 , Berlin Verlag, Berlin 1998, ISBN 3827002435 .
  3. ^ Richard Pipes The Russian Revolution , Volume 2, Rowohlt 1992, p. 557, ISBN 3871340251 .
  4. Wolfgang Leonhard What is communism? , Bertelsmann Verlag GmbH 1976, p. 37.
  5. The historian Igor Narskij on the interpretation models.