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Red Guard Attack on Capital


The Bolsheviks’ uncompromising and ruthless treatment of every shade of opposition to their policies had made a civil war in Russia almost inevitable. The slide toward the war was precipitated by radical steps taken by the Communist authorities, including the dishonorable Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany (March 1918) that hurt the patriotic feelings of many Russians. 

In the economic sphere the Bolsheviks’ initial experiments had involved the setting up of “workers’ control” at private companies. Guided by the Bolshevik slogan “Factories to the Workers!” the workers proceeded to seize factories, mines, and other enterprises and to administer them through spontaneously elected factory committees. The problem, however, was that the revolutionary zeal of the workers could not substitute for the expert knowledge of the former managers and engineers. Not unnaturally, many company owners and industrialists were categorically against workers’ control.

To break the owners’ resistance, the Bolsheviks launched a “Red Guard attack on capital” (October 1917–spring 1918). The strategy was designed to impose a comprehensive state control over the national economy by speeding up nationalization in industry and introducing the monopoly of foreign trade. As a result, the banks, railways, foreign trade, mercantile fleet, and all large enterprises in all branches of industry—coal, metal, oil, chemicals, machine building, textiles, sugar, and so on—were nationalized. In December 1917 a Supreme Council of Economy was set up with the responsibility to run the newly nationalized state sector. Conceived as the “chief headquarters of socialist industry,” it marked the beginnings of an administrative system that would develop into a bureaucratic leviathan controlling all aspects of the Soviet economy.

In the countryside the Bolshevik Land Decree abolished the private ownership of land. Millions of peasants received free of charge over 450 million acres of land that had previously belonged to the gentry, bourgeoisie, monasteries, and the crown. Although it met the centuries-long expectations of the peasantry, the decree aggravated social tensions in the village, leading to conflicts between well-to-do peasants and their poorer brethren. As each group of peasants sought to divide the land to its own advantage, the Soviet government took the side of poor peasants. In June 1918 it issued a decree providing for the creation of Committees of the Poor Peasants. The committees distributed confiscated land, collected food surpluses from richer peasants (kulaks), and recruited for the Red Army. They played a significant role in helping to consolidate Soviet power in the countryside and acted, to use Stalin’s phrase, as “strongholds of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the villages.”

The Bolshevik support of poor peasants alienated the wealthy kulaks, the main producers of marketable grain. In order to collect the grain for the cities and the army, the Bolsheviks had to resort to repression against them. In May 1918, the Bolshevik government declared a “food dictatorship.” Special food detachments of armed workers and soldiers were dispatched to the countryside to confiscate grain surpluses from well-to-do peasants. The kulaks’ economic position was severely undermined, but so too was agricultural production as a whole. The Bolshevik policies aroused the deep hostility of grain producers, including the middle peasant.

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The Socialist Experiment


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
Russian Political Culture
Soviet Ideology
The Soviet System
Soviet Nationalities
The Economic Structure
The Socialist Experiment
"Great Leap" to Socialism
The USSR in World War II
Stalin's Legacy
Brezhnev's Stagnation
The Economy in Crisis
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The USSR's Collapse

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