Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918

Date: 1935

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World History


"War Communism," 1918–1921


The economic system which prevailed in Soviet Russia from 1918 until 1921 has gone into history under the name: war communism. And the name accurately reflects the double nature of the system, which was a compound of war emergency and socialist dogmatism.

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The sugar industry was nationalized on May 2 [1918] and the petroleum industry on June 17. Soon after this, on June 28, a very important decree indicated that Soviet economic policy was set definitely in the direction of the complete expropriation of the private capitalists. This decree called for the nationalization of the largest undertakings in the mining, metallurgical, metal-working, textile, electro-technical, pottery, tanning and cement industries. It set in motion a huge process of confiscation which continued until all the large factories in Soviet territory had been taken over by the state and reached its culminating point when a decree of November 29, 1920, declared nationalized all plants which employed more than ten workers, or more than five workers if motor power were employed. The Soviet census of 1920 showed that 37,000 undertakings were in the hands of the state; many of these were the smallest kind of workshops or enterprises where sometimes only a single worker was employed.

. . . A decree of November 21, 1918, abolished legal internal trade, making the Food Commissariat the sole institution authorized to supply the population with articles of consumption and giving it the right to confiscate all stocks of goods which might still be in private hands. A decree of March 20, 1919, abolished the autonomy which the coöperatives had formerly enjoyed and fused them with the huge apparatus of the Food Commissariat, bringing them under the strictest state control.

War communism as a system was characterized by six main principles, which were more and more rigorously and intensively applied as the system early in 1921 approached its final crisis, which led to the substitution of the entirely different New Economic Policy. The first of these was that the state through its central or local organs took over all means of production and reduced the sphere of private ownership to the narrowest possible limits. Not only factories, railroads and banks, but private houses of any size, large libraries, privately owned objects of value, such as gold and jewels, were confiscated and taken from their owners.

The second principle of war communism was state control over the labor of every citizen. Especially in the later phase of the system, which began early in 1920, . . . compulsory labor was applied on a very wide scale. Armies which had no further military occupation were kept as "labor armies" and set to such mass tasks as felling trees, building roads, loading and unloading freightcars. Different categories of workers were mobilized under threat of punishment and assigned to the places where they were most needed. The peasants were subjected to a number of compulsory labor duties, such as supplying teams for carting wood and clearing snow from the railroad tracks. A decree of February 5, 1920, established in more concrete and definite form the obligation, already written into the Soviet Constitution, of every Soviet citizen to work. Typical of the numerous labor mobilizations of 1920 was an order to all women between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to sew underwear for the Red Army.

A third feature of the system was the effort of the state to produce everything in its own undertakings. With the nationalization even of the smaller workshops and the legal prohibition of private trade (which, incidentally, was continually disregarded and evaded) all production in the towns, on paper at least, was brought under state control. A logical extension of this system, decreed just on the eve of its final collapse, was the effort to control and direct from above the agricultural activities of millions of peasant households. . . .

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. . . sowing committees were set up in every province, county and township, for the purpose of supervising the work of the peasants and inducing or compelling them to plant as much as was required.

A fourth characteristic of the system was extreme centralization. There was an effort . . . to place the entire regulation of the economic life of a vast country, with a population of well over a hundred millions, in the hands of a few hastily improvised state bureaucratic organizations. Prominent among these was the Supreme Economic Council, created by a decree of December 15, 1917, which described as the function of the new body "the organization of national economic life and of state finances." Originally it was supposed to possess wide powers in various branches of economic life, another clause in the decree granting it the right of "confiscation, requisition, sequestration and compulsory trustification of different branches of industry and trade and of taking other measures in the field of production, distribution and state finances."

In actual functioning, however, the Supreme Economic Council became a specialized department for the management of industry. As constituted in 1918 it consisted of sixty-eight members, of whom ten were nominated by the Soviet Central Executive Committee, thirty by the industrial trade-unions, twenty by the local Supreme Economic Councils and the remainder by various Commissariats and by the Workers Coöperative Organization. Actual executive power rested in the hands of its presidium, which was made up of ten or twelve members. Typical of the activity of the presidium in taking away the property of individual owners is a partial record of its decisions in the month of November, 1918, which includes the following items:

"To nationalize thirteen paper factories. (November 14.)

"To nationalize all metals and metal products in wholesale warehouses in Russia. (November 19.)

"To nationalize all the cloth goods in Moscow. (November 5.)

"To nationalize the automobile factories, ’Russian Renaud,’ ’Amo’ and the factory of Lebedev. (November 26.)

"To nationalize all the property of the chemical-bacteriological laboratory of Professor M. N. Ostromislensky in Moscow. (November 16.)"

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The management of the individual factories, after the original owners or directors had been driven away, passed through several stages of organization. In the first process of nationalization, in 1918, authority was usually vested in a collegium, or committee, of workers. The activity of such a collegium was usually characterized by much talk and little concrete action; and with the passing of time there was a tendency first to limit the numbers of the collegia and finally to pass over to a system of one-man management. A. I. Rykov, President of the Supreme Economic Council, declared in the autumn of 1920 that in the great majority of cases there was definite improvement as soon as full authority and responsibility were vested in a single manager. . . .

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The fifth principle of war communism was that the state attempted to assume the functions not only of the sole producer, but of the sole distributor. The all-powerful Food Commissariat took from industry whatever it produced for distribution among the population and took from agriculture, mainly on the basis of forced levies, whatever could be extracted from the peasants and distributed it among the town population, which was placed on ration cards. The "class principle" was rigidly applied in the allotment of rations. The Moscow Soviet in September, 1918, divided the population into four categories. The first consisted of manual workers engaged in harmful trades; the second, of workers who were obliged to perform heavy physical labor; the third, of workers at light tasks, employees, housewives; the fourth, of professional men and women and persons living on income or without employment. Such food supplies as were available were doled out to these four categories in the ratio: 4;3;2;1. Inasmuch as even the favored class, the manual workers, received so little food in those years that great masses of them fled from the cities to the villages, the persons in the fourth category received practically nothing, and were likely to die of malnutrition or starvation unless they were able to barter some of their former possessions for extra supplies of food on the illegal free market, which existed all through these years, although it was subjected to periodic raids and confiscations.

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The sixth outstanding feature of war communism was the attempt to abolish money altogether as a means of exchange, to go over to a system of natural economy, in which all transactions were carried out in kind. As in the case of the other features of the system, this attempt was not made all at once. The whole trend of Soviet policy, the complete concentration of production and distribution in the hands of the state, the substitution of requisitions for free purchases from the peasants, the tendency to pay a larger part of wages and salaries in allotments of food and clothing was in the direction of making money superfluous. Communist economists of that period, far from deploring the visible shrinkage in the value of Soviet currency, welcomed it as a step toward a new and higher economic stage. . . .

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So the economic system which had grown up in Russia until the roar of cannon during the Kronstadt uprising and the ominous rumble of peasant insurrections in many parts of the country brought about a sharp change in the spring of 1921 was one in which the state aspired to the rôle of sole producer and sole distributor, in which labor under state direction and regimentation was compulsory, in which payments were in kind, in which both the need for and the use of money had largely disappeared. What were the practical results of this system?

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The Communist economist and historian of war communism, L. Kritzman, after analyzing the economic collapse of the country, makes the frank and indisputable assertion: "Such a decline in the productive forces not of a little community, but of an enormous society of a hundred million people . . . is unprecedented in the history of humanity."

14 From W. H. Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921, 2 vols., New York, 1935, vol. II, pp. 96–102, 105, 110. By permission of The Macmillan Company, publishers.


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Chicago: W. H. Chamberlin, ed., "War Communism, 1918– 1921," Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918 in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, ed. Walter Consuelo Langsam and James Michael Egan (Chicage: Lippincott, 1951), 777–781. Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: . ""War Communism," 1918– 1921." Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, edited by W. H. Chamberlin, Vol. II, in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, edited by Walter Consuelo Langsam and James Michael Egan, Chicage, Lippincott, 1951, pp. 777–781. Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: (ed.), '"War Communism," 1918– 1921' in Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918. cited in 1951, Documents and Readings in the History of Europe Since 1918, ed. , Lippincott, Chicage, pp.777–781. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from