The Russian civil war, 1917-22

Submitted by AWL on 20 February, 2019 - 11:59 Author: Martin Thomas
civil war

A discussion of Jean-Jacques Marie's book La guerre civile russe, 1917-22

Notice the dates: 1917-22. Jean-Jacques Marie, in his history, establishes that the conventional account, according to which the civil war was over by the start of 1921, and all the “emergency” measures by the Bolsheviks after that stemmed only from the Bolsheviks’ supposed lack of democratic understanding, is false.

In spring and summer 1921, the Bolsheviks faced huge peasant uprisings in Tambov and other areas, as well as the Kronstadt revolt. And that in a country exhausted by years of war, with a total of maybe 14 million deaths since the start of World War 1, over four million in the civil war alone, seven million abandoned children, and raging drought, famine, and disease.

The Bolsheviks used ruthless force. Marie glosses over none of the horrors. He also shows that, for the Bolsheviks, force was the second resort, in cases where they had failed to convince, and always accompanied by attempts to convince. As the Red Army advanced towards towns, it would send forward teams with the risky mission of winning a majority by agitation, and rely on military force alone only those teams failed. To try to “turn” the Tambov peasant rising in spring 1921, for example, the Bolsheviks printed 326,000 leaflets, 11 pamphlets, and 28 issues of a special magazine. In that way they continued as they had started and conducted the civil war.

The Soviet government at first rested almost exclusively on the power of political agitation. The Russian army was officially demobilised by the Soviet government on 12 February 1918, but in any case could not possibly have been used by the Soviets as their instrument. Police, civil service, courts – all had disintegrated or were hostile. As a military power, the Soviet government did not exist – not until such time as it managed to build up a Red Army, and a minimal apparatus of administration and supply, by convincing workers and peasants to join the Bolsheviks in that effort.

The early months of the Civil War went badly for the Bolsheviks mostly because of successive triumphs won by the Czech Legion – some 35,000 to 40,000 troops from the Austro-Hungarian Imperial army, taken prisoner under the Tsar, who, freed after the Revolution, decided to back the Whites. Even such a small “regular” force could at first overwhelm the improvised Red Guards.

The civil war was won only by heroic efforts of agitation – as when, a bit later, Trotsky single-handedly convinced 15,000 deserters in Riazan to adhere to the Red Army – but, as the war went on, it was coupled with increased ruthlessness. The end result was a ruined, exhausted country, and a Bolshevik Party with its nerves wrecked and its culture warped. As Trotsky commented: “The three years of Civil War laid an indelible impress on the Soviet government itself by virtue of the fact that very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders…

“Stalin, like many others, was moulded by the environment and circumstances of the Civil War, along with the entire group that later helped him to establish his personal dictatorship…”

But the Bolsheviks had no choice about some constraining background facts: about the war, about the invasions by no fewer than 14 countries, or about the defeats and delays of the revolutions in Western Europe to which they looked for a way out, and which could have forestalled the Stalinist degeneration. This is a book worth reading, even though the style is curiously distant, and you will have to draw “the lessons” yourself from facts presented in the manner of a “flat” narrative

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