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Chapter 4 – The civil war

Today, when Stalinism has collapsed and the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy are well-known, the capitalists and their propagandists are desperate to cover up the real truth about Trotsky and the early years of the Soviet Republic.

They want workers and youth to believe that it is not just Stalinism that has been defeated, but socialism and revolution itself.

Bourgeois writers, academics and journalists insist that Lenin and Trotsky paved the way for Stalin’s rule, and that the first years of the Soviet Republic saw all the essential ingredients of Stalinism already in place.

After all, hadn’t Trotsky defended the Red Terror, did not the Bolsheviks dissolve Russia’s “first democratically elected parliament”, the Constituent Assembly?

They banned all other parties, leaving themselves the sole political force in Russia. How does this really differ from the one-party state under Stalin and is successors?

The answer lies in the behaviour of the Russian capitalists and the landowners after they had been overthrown. Quite simply, they refused to accept the decisions of the majority.

Instead they organised a desperate and violent struggle to get “their” property and power back. The workers’ state would have to resist them – by any means necessary.

This was what Marx and Engels had meant when they explained that between capitalism and communism there would be a transitional period – the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

This dictatorship would be directed against the old ruling classes, to make sure that the new world of freedom and equality was not crushed before it had the chance to develop.

Liberals and pacifists react with horror to the fact that the Bolsheviks used violence and terror against the old ruling classes. “Surely this makes the Bolsheviks as bad as the Tsar!”, they cry. Marxists reply:

“No. Fighting does not make you as bad as your enemy. The real question is what you are fighting for.”

If a slave owner uses violence to put a person in chains, and if the slave later uses violence to break the chains and get free of the master, who but the worst of hypocrites can put their hand on their heart and declare both as wicked as each other?

So it is with the struggle between classes. Caught between the two main classes in society, some middle class people may well feel appalled by the violence used by both sides.

But the Russian working class made their revolution to break the chains of economic and political slavery for all mankind.

When the remnants of the old ruling classes tried to sabotage and overthrow the revolution, the workers knew they would have to wage a pitiless struggle for themselves and for their children – and they did.

Beating the enemy within

The Red Terror, as the struggle to defeat the counter-revolution became known, began spontaneously, on the initiative of revolutionary soldiers, sailors and workers.

In the army and the fleet, the Tsarist officers had shown the most single-minded cruelty in their dealings with the young workers and peasants under their command.

Drawn from the ranks of the nobility and the rich, they showed unconcealed hatred for the revolution.

When the Bolsheviks abolished the death penalty in the armed forces, which Tsarist officers had used unsparingly to stop soldiers deserting the front or fraternising with their German brothers and sisters, these officers loudly demanded its restoration.

Whenever officers succeeded in re-establishing their control from the Soviets of soldiers’ deputies, they carried out massacres of their own troops.

Without waiting for any orders from the government, the soldiers hit back. In the Don area, 329 officers were executed by their own troops in just two months in early 1918.

In the port of Sevastopol, the sailors took revenge for the savage repression that followed the defeat of their mutiny at the time of the 1905 revolution. Officers were questioned, and if they had served during the 1905 period, they were put to death by firing squad.

At first, however, the Bolshevik government itself was anything but severe in its treatment of counter-revolutionaries. In the first weeks of the revolution many generals and high ranking officers were released.

They repaid this leniency and trust by going on to play a major part in organising and leading the White Armies that waged civil war against the Soviet government.

But the Bolsheviks did not take long to learn their lesson and respond accordingly.

By the summer of 1918 the counter-revolution was showing its savage face. Czechoslovak troops marched into Russia with the forces of the old ruling classes rushing to re-establish control under their military protection. Brutal massacres followed wherever they went.

One writer who recorded the events of the first year of the revolution was Victor Serge. He wrote that in the town of Kazan:

“. . . while the Czechoslovaks pursued the retreating Reds, men with weapons and white armbands roved the streets searching houses and arresting suspects; armed with previously prepared lists and led on by informers, they cut every ‘Bolshevik’ throat on the spot. For several days the streets were littered with disfigured, undressed corpses. Any Reds found wounded were killed. Some of the bodies had their documents pinned to the chest: the title ‘commissar’ was displayed to explain why a man had his eyes poked out.”

Similar atrocities took place in Simbirsk, Samara and in every town “freed” by the Whites and their foreign backers.

In December the Soviets had set up the Cheka, or the Extraordinary Commission for Struggle against Sabotage and for Repression. Its aim was to uncover plots and fight the counter-revolution.

This was no ordinary secret police agency. By March 1918 it had only 150 staff, who were mainly workers and veterans of the revolutionary movement.

At first the Cheka was surprisingly mild, arresting armed groups of plotters and counter-revolutionaries, and jailing rather than shooting those who were taking up arms against the Soviet state.

Cheka members themselves were expected to act with restraint at all times, and could themselves be sentenced to death for acts of injustice or sadism if and when they occurred.

By the summer of 1918 the Cheka had to increase the scale of its activities and the severity of its measures against the counter-revolution.

The Council of Peoples’ Commissars announced that anyone assisting the Whites or foreign invaders would be executed, as would saboteurs, spies and anyone carrying out racist pogroms against Jews or other nationalities.

The Cheka had its work cut out since counter-revolutionaries had begun a campaign designed to cut off the revolution’s head. The right wing of the SR party, which had split in 1917, returned to its terrorist origins, but whereas once it had tried to shoot down the Tsars and their ministers, now they directed their fire against the leaders of the workers’ state.

Subsequent records and accounts reveal that British and French diplomats were closely involved in the plot.

The Bolshevik agitator Volodarsky had already been shot by assassins. Then the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, Moise Uritsky, was gunned down on 30 August.

On the same day Fanny Kaplan, a former anarchist turned SR, shot Lenin at a factory meeting – he survived after sustaining wounds to the neck and shoulder. An attempt to shoot Trotsky on the same day failed when he changed his travel plans at the last minute.

In September the Soviets responded in kind. Victor Serge quotes an article from one Petrograd workers’ paper which vividly summed up the mood of the masses at the time:

“Out of the way with the sentimentalists who are afraid to shed innocent blood! What bourgeois does not have on his conscience the ruined lives of working class women and children? There are no innocents among them . . . They have no pity: it is time for us to be pitiless.”

Across Russia, the Cheka now responded to the bourgeoisie’s terror in kind. Hundreds of financiers, factory owners, heads of large industrial companies, dukes and noblemen, members of right-wing parties and army officers were shot.

After September, the scale and speed of the Red Terror fell drastically. But while the capitalists continued to offer resistance the terror did not and could not stop.

Never has there been a revolution or a war in the whole of history that did not demand the utmost determination. The capitalists themselves, in their heroic years of the French Revolution, had been forced to settle accounts with the old feudal nobility through means of mass terror.

Why should the workers’ revolution be judged by different standards? In the pursuit of its goal – the freeing of humanity from wage-slavery and oppression – the greatest crime would be to disarm itself, to refuse to act ruthlessly against an enemy that knows no limits to its ruthlessness.

That was what Trotsky meant when he drew the main lesson of the Red Terror:

“In a revolution, greater energy is equivalent to greater humanity.”

The Constituent Assembly

One of the main demands of the February 1917 revolution had been for elections to a sovereign parliament.

After centuries of Tsarism, the Russian people wanted the right to manage their own affairs. Under capitalism, a democratically elected Assembly and government was the highest form of democracy. When the Provisional Government of Kerensky delayed fixing a date for elections, the Bolsheviks and the Soviets demanded that they take place as soon as possible.

In the Russian socialist republic, a higher form of democracy prevailed – the Soviets. Here the masses could take decisions affecting their everyday lives, and their representatives could be replaced immediately. This was the democracy of the working class, not just the democracy of the money-bags.

The Bolsheviks, true to their word, went ahead with elections to the Constituent Assembly on 12 November 1917. The SR Party was about to split into two wings, a left that supported Soviet power, and a right that opposed it. Yet the elections took place with the two SR factions presenting a joint list of candidates. The workers backed the Bolsheviks, but the majority in the countryside and in Russia were peasants, many of them illiterate.

At first sight the results were bad for the Bolsheviks. They won 175 seats; the Mensheviks only 16. But the SRs came out of the elections with a massive 410 seats – a clear majority.

The Bolsheviks did not simply ban the Assembly and declare the elections null and void, as bourgeois historians like to make out. But they did make it clear that working class democracy was not going to be overthrown and replaced by the fraudulent type of democracy common to capitalist states.

The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets put forward a motion to the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, which declared that all political power and government in Russia was in the power of the workers’ and peasants’ councils.

When this was rejected by the Assembly, the Bolsheviks walked out, followed by all the Left SR delegates.

The Constituent Assembly, now a rump of right wing SRs and Mensheviks and clearly not representative of the Russian working class or poor peasantry, went on to discuss the questions of land and peace, finding nothing to add to the society’ laws and decrees, which had already been passed.

It did not elect an alternative government, for it knew it had no solid support among the people for such an action.

A Constituent Assembly convened in opposition to Tsarism was a great democratic gain, which was why the Bolsheviks fought for one. But a Constituent Assembly convened when Soviet power – direct and democratic power of the workers and poor peasants – was at best an anachronism, at worst a further rallying point for counter revolution and opposition to Soviet power. In reality, it had become the latter.

Late into the night, a sailor approached the platform and told the deputies to go home “because the guards are tired.” The next morning the Soviets declared that the Assembly was dissolved.

Whilst this drew predictable hoots of rage from the imperialist powers, it caused barely a murmur of opposition in Russia, which already had a more democratic government than any other state in the world.

One-Party State?

Unlike the later policies of Stalinist parties in Eastern Europe, China and Cuba, the Bolsheviks had no intention of banning all other parties. They wanted to ensure that the widest possible Soviet democracy existed.

For that reason, the new government did not suppress all its rivals. It encouraged the Left SRs to join the government, which they did, taking up important positions. The Mensheviks and SRs retained their rights to operate as parties within the Soviets.

At particular points during the civil war, however, the Bolsheviks did limit the rights of other parties, temporarily excluding them from the Soviets. The key question was always whether the party in question was actually taking sides – in practice – with the forces of counter-revolution and the Whites.

Soviets are not talking shops. They are working bodies, in which peasants, soldiers and workers themselves discuss their plans and work out the best way forward. In times of war, this meant planning the struggle against the counter-revolutionary armies. To have allowed forces that supported the Whites to sit in on these discussions would have been like inviting spies and saboteurs into the very midst of your army.

It was not until the summer of 1918, when the civil war was beginning in earnest, that the Mensheviks and the Right SRs were excluded from the Soviets. We do not have to take the Bolsheviks’ word for this.

At the Menshevik Party conference in 1918, the party passed a resolution admitting that their branches had been forming local alliances with the former capitalists and landlords in order to overthrow the Soviets, and had even fought side-by-side in many areas with the Whites.

This was not intended to be a permanent ban or the setting up of a one-party state. Under the influence of Lenin and Trotsky’s former comrade Martov, a section of the Mensheviks voted to give direct support to the struggle of the Red Army.

When they did, they were allowed to take their place as a legitimate strand of opinion within the Soviets once again. Trotsky even made a point of thanking them for their support at the end of the civil war.

At one point, even the Left SRs were excluded from the Soviets. They had opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and resigned from the Soviet government in protest. But then they went a step further.

They assassinated the German Ambassador in an attempt to provoke Germany into war, and when this failed, they launched an armed uprising against the government.

This was easily suppressed. When the Left SRs voted never again to take up arms against the Soviet government, they too were allowed to operate in the Soviets once more.

The desperate character of the civil war made measures such as these unavoidable. For a time, the Bolsheviks were indeed the only party operating legally in the Soviets. To have done otherwise would have aided the Whites and the enemies of the revolution.

But it was never the aim of the Bolsheviks to establish a one-party state. To say that it was is nothing more than a slander spread by capitalists and Stalinists alike.

Fighting the enemy without

In 1918 and 1919, 14 capitalist states sent their armies to war against Soviet Russia. Their aim: to break the first workers’ state, restore the capitalists to power, and prevent the spread of revolution abroad, to their “own” countries.

“White” Armies, under generals loyal to the old Tsarist regime, seized their chance to launch a joint offensive against the revolution.

The Soviet government had little doubt that the best and most dedicated organisers were needed to turn the situation around. With the very survival of the revolution in the balance, Trotsky was appointed as Commissar for War in March 1918.

His first task was the creation of an army capable of defending the republic. This was no easy task. In 1917 the armed forces of the revolution were weak in the extreme. Barely a few thousand armed workers made up the detachments of Red Guards in Petrograd and Moscow. The army itself, demoralised and exhausted after years of war, scarcely existed in any real sense.

As Trotsky later wrote:

“The October revolution dissolved the Tsar’s army wholly and without leaving a trace. The Red Army was built anew from the first brick.”

At first, Trotsky astonished military experts by calling for an army of volunteers. This ran completely against established military thinking – there was no way that such methods could create an army large enough to defeat the Whites.

But Trotsky understood that the workers’ state needed an army of a new type, one that would understand what it was fighting for, that was full of enthusiasm for the revolution it was defending, and that would act in such a way that the people would see it as an army, not of conquerors, but of liberators.

The first step was to make sure that the core of the army consisted of revolutionary workers who were fighting of their own free will. Trotsky called for the most disciplined csommunists to join up.

He did not hide the fact that they should be ready to fight and die if necessary, adding that in this desperate struggle “light-weight agitators are not needed.”

Once this had been achieved, it was necessary to call people up and compel them to fight in the army. With less authoritarian methods the government would doubtless have looked more liberal and democratic, but it would also have lost the war.

That was unthinkable. By the end of the summer of 1918 over 10,000 workers had been called up into the Red Army. Steadily, the size of the army increased, with the trade unions providing half of their members for it.

After the army had organised a firm foundation from among the industrial workers, the poor and middle-ranking peasants were called up.

By 1920 the Red Army had five million fighters under arms. Every one of them was aware that they were part of an army unlike any other that had ever existed.

The old army of the Tsar demanded blind loyalty from its soldiers, and sent them into battle for the profits of the capitalists and the territorial ambition of the monarchy.

Such soldiers would typically treat the population under their control with savagery and contempt, stealing their crops and property, and subjecting women and children to rape and terror.

The Red Army was the opposite of this. The oath sworn by soldiers in the Red Army was a call to revolutionary struggle against exploitation and poverty, and a solemn pledge to do nothing that belonged to the old world of oppression and barbarism, rather than the new world of human dignity and emancipation.

Massacres of prisoners and sadism were strictly forbidden. Trotsky ordered the strictest of punishments against “any Red Army man who lifts his knife on a prisoner of war, on the disarmed, the sick and the wounded.”

Although the Red Army often found itself fighting bitter battles against foreign troops sent by hostile capitalist powers, the Bolsheviks never whipped up nationalist prejudices against them.

They constantly reminded the Russian people that the workers of other countries were their allies and comrades, and that they were fighting not a national war, but a class war.

This was sign of the political strength of the Red Army. Revolutionary leaflets issued to French troops eventually caused so much discontent and mutiny in their ranks that the French government withdrew them from Russia altogether.

British soldiers occupying ports in the North of Russia were amazed to receive leaflets from the Bolsheviks reminding them of the revolutionary traditions of the Chartists and calling on them to turn their guns against their officers.

And when the Red Army fought off a Polish invasion in 1920, Trotsky ordered that one military newspaper should be closed down for “insulting the national dignity of the Polish people”. What a contrast between the working class internationalism of the Red Army and the disgusting national hatreds that are deliberately spread by capitalist armies at times of war!

How did the Red Army overcome the inexperience of its fighters, pitted as they were against seasoned and well-organised enemies? Here again revolutionary realism came to the rescue.

Despite the deep reservations of many communists, Trotsky employed former officers of the Tsar’s army to bring their experience to work for the revolution. Many “Left-wing” communists, among them people who had vigorously opposed the peace of Brest-Litovsk and who rejected all compromises out of hand, demanded an end to the use of these officers altogether. “How can such people be trusted?”, they asked.

Trotsky did not trust them an inch. But he knew the revolution could not do without them until it had trained commanders of its own. To prevent them betraying the army to the Whites, and to make sure they did nothing to harm the revolution, he appointed a trusted commissar – each one a Communist – to work alongside each former Tsarist officer.

Orders would have to be signed by the officer and the commissar. Young communists were posted to every single unit of the Red Army, and were charged with the crucial responsibility of raising morale and opposing any sign of indiscipline, anti-semitism, brutality and despair.

The system worked – the Red Army became acknowledged even by the White generals as an extraordinarily effective fighting machine. But success exacted a huge cost. Over 50,000 of the most dedicated Communists fell in the civil war.

Trotsky himself was no back-room commander. He scorned the idea of keeping himself safe behind the lines while workers and peasants did all the fighting.

Unlike the pampered officers of the capitalist armies, he took a full part in the fighting himself. In the battle of Sviazhsk early in the civil war, Trotsky ignored the advice of his officers to withdraw from the fighting.

Instead he risked his life by boarding a tiny Red torpedo boat in a daring mission along the river Volga. The night raid was successful; a White artillery battery on the banks of the river was destroyed.

Trotsky’s direct involvement in the fighting won the admiration and respect of his troops. But that was not all. It allowed Trotsky to see his own troops and commanders in action, to judge their strengths and weaknesses for himself, and to understand the real practical problems they faced.

The civil war reached its height in 1919. The Whites launched major offensives on three fronts, aiming to take both Moscow and Petrograd.

The Reds were ill-equipped and over-stretched. Famine and chaos was reigning in the countryside – the cities were starving. The Whites, by contrast, could call on the vast support on offer from the imperialist powers.

But the White Armies were disconnected from each other. Their leaders vied with one another for the position of “Supreme Ruler” in the capitalist Russia they hoped to restore.

By bringing back the landlords everywhere they went, they earned the bitter enmity of the peasants who had at first supported them. Robbery and rape in the villages, and murderous round-ups of Jews, left chaos, hatred and death wherever they went.

The Reds were defending a single, connected territory. Communists in the army made sure everyone knew what they were fighting for. In his armoured train,

Trotsky sped from front to front, assessing the situation and redirecting the Red forces to where they were needed most at any one time. Each White thrust was met with a better prepared and deeper counter-thrust by the Red troops.

By October 1919, the second anniversary of the revolution, the crucial battle took place on the outskirts of Petrograd itself. When Trotsky arrived in the city, he found it on the verge of surrender. Despair had spread from the top leadership down to the ranks.

Even the Central Committee of the party was thinking seriously of abandoning the city.

Trotsky turned the situation around almost immediately. He issued a defiant proclamation that the city would be defended, even if every street and every house became a battlefield.

The whole population was mobilised to dig trenches and prepare for battle. In one of his greatest speeches, Trotsky told the assembled Petrograd Soviet, which he had led in 1905 and 1917, that they would fight to the end.

Rallying retreating soldiers from his horse, always in the thick of the fighting, Trotsky restored confidence and vigour to the Red troops. Yudenich’s advance was stopped.

On the same day Denikin’s army was smashed south of Moscow and scurried southwards in headlong retreat. Kolchak’s forces were pursued deep into Siberia. The “supreme commander of the White Armies” was seized by the Reds, tried and shot.

The main battles of the Civil War were over. Under Trotsky’s military leadership, Soviet Russia had won – but at a terrible price.

Kronstadt 1921

One episode has been used time and again to try to prove that Trotsky was the direct forerunner of Stalin who cared nothing for workers’ democracy. This was the Kronstadt Revolt of 1921.

The aftermath of the civil war left Russia in a desperate state. In February 1921 a wave of strikes by the hungry workers of Petrograd broke out. Extra supplies of food had to be confiscated from the peasantry and rushed to the city.

However, it was becoming clear that continuing the war policy of the Bolsheviks, “War Communism”, based on requisitioning the peasants’ grain, was threatening to turn the entire peasantry against the workers’ state.

Peasants were rebelling all over Russia. Now the civil war was over, and the danger of return of the landlords was removed, the richer peasants turned against the Reds.

A large peasant army was being assembled to the south of Moscow under the leadership of a Right SR who called for the destruction of the whole Soviet system.

The naval port of Kronstadt, on an island in the Gulf of Finland, guarded the approaches to Petrograd. It had been one of the main centres of the revolution in 1917. Sailors from there played a key role in the October insurrection.

But great numbers of them had gone to fight at the front in the civil war. Those who remained were less militant, often from peasant backgrounds and increasingly hostile to the Bolsheviks.

Now these sailors rebelled against the workers’ state. Yet they did so not with demands couched in the language of counter-revolution, but with the phrases of the revolution itself.

Many of their demands today seem justified. They called for the Soviet system to be upheld and extended. But at the same time – spurred on by anarchists opposed to any kind of state, even of the Soviet type – the sailors called for the overthrow of the government elected by Soviets across Russia.

“Let the whole world know,” they proclaimed, “the power of the Soviets frees the toiling peasantry from the yoke of the Communists.”

Given the situation in the south and in the countryside across Russia, this amounted – whatever the intentions of the sailors – to a call on the peasants to rise up against the power of the working class. The sailors even included in their demands a call for the peasants to be able to do what they liked with their land – despite the fact that the cities were starving for lack of grain!

The Bolsheviks did not hesitate. A plan drawn up by Trotsky was approved, and the Red Army was sent to suppress the revolt.

This was without doubt a tragic outcome. Yet the state power of the working class as a whole could not allow itself to be held to ransom by one Soviet, whatever its heroic role in 1917. In a strike a minority of workers may try to return to work, to break the strike.

Then the majority are justified—when persuasion fails—in using force to forestall the collapse of the strike.

It was the duty of the Bolshevik government to prevent a revival of the civil war which had cost millions of lives. The French and Whites were planning to land at Kronstadt and use it as a base for a further invasion. The ice around the island fortress was about to thaw, cutting off the garrison from the mainland.

Trotsky’s stern response was a necessary one. The rebellion was crushed with great loss of life, especially on the government side. But if the Bolsheviks had not acted quickly, the outcome would not have been the freedom demanded by the sailors, but chaos and peasant counter-revolution, backed by the approaching imperialists.

The suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was, as Trotsky later put it, “a tragic necessity”.

Without it the revolution, the Soviet government and the world’s first workers’ state would have been in mortal danger. And the “excesses” of the Red Army in Kronstadt, that the bosses are forever using as “proof” of the Bolsheviks’ cruelty and inhumanity, would have paled into insignificance against the barbarous excesses of a counter revolution that would have drowned the Russian working class in blood.


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