1918: first year of the Russian Revolution, part four – backs against the wall

Whilst the broad mass of the working class continued to give their support to the Bolshevik Party, activists within the party were often split on crucial issues. The issue of whether or not to wage a revolutionary war against Germany and its forces of occupation proved one of the more divisive questions that very nearly led to a complete split in the party.

Part one | part two | part three | part five

The division started in February, when the Moscow Region Committee took a ‘left’ position and called for non-acceptance of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the heroic sacrifice of the Russian proletariat on the altar of internationalism. Lenin provided a powerful critique of this position, calling them “Communists of misfortune” and “talking despair”. By March this tendency had crystallised into an organised faction and were called Left Communists. They were led by Bukharin with the support of Radek and Uritsky, among others, and published a paper called the Kommunist. Several members of the faction were elected to the Central Committee but they refused to serve.

The two tendencies faced off at the 7th Party Congress in March 1918. Lenin’s position on peace was supported by Zinoviev, Smilga and Sverdlov. Trotsky also sided with Lenin but urged war in Ukraine against the German occupiers. Lenin, whilst not against such a move, argued for space and time to build up forces. It was at this Congress that the name Communist Party (Bolshevik) was adopted and it was agreed to review the Programme of the Party.

In April 1918 Lenin published The International Position of the Russian Soviet Republic and the Fundamental Tasks of the Socialist Revolution. In it, Lenin argued that at that time a brief respite existed when all efforts had to be made to tackle the issue of organising the new Soviet system in an administrative sense. This required honest accounting, no stealing and strict labour discipline. The most class-conscious workers must lead the drive to implement these slogans among the masses.

Bukharin Image public domainThe Left Communists, led by Bukharin with the support of Radek and Uritsky, among others, bitterly opposed Lenin and Trotsky on a number of questions / Image: public domain

The aim was to establish a productive and efficient system that began to address the accumulated chaos of the war years and restore some order and benefits for people weary and close to despair. In the conclusion Lenin stated the situation clearly:

“An extraordinarily difficult, complex and dangerous situation in international affairs; the necessity of manoeuvring and retreating; a period of waiting for new outbreaks of the revolution which is maturing in the west at a painfully slow pace; within the country a period of slow construction and ruthless ‘tightening-up’, of prolonged and persistent struggle waged by stern, proletarian discipline against the menacing element of petty-bourgeois laxity and anarchy: these in brief are the distinguishing features of the special stage of the socialist revolution in which we are now living”.  

Trotsky struck the same note in March when he gave a speech to a Party Conference. He emphasised the need for “labour, discipline and order” and urged that specialists be given a role in managing industry. In the same vein, he justified abandoning the principle of the election of officers in the Red Army, arguing that it was now a proletarian army and the need to challenge the Imperial officers through elections no longer applied. They needed the best, most-skilled and experienced to fill officer roles. The Left Communists published a critical response in their paper, Kommunist, which opposed the army reforms and at the same time called for the faster expropriation of capital and the cooperative organisation of production and distribution based on full workers’ control and management. Lenin replied in a series of articles in Pravda in May 1918, called Left Infantilism and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality.

Lenin Krupskaya and Ulyanova in car at Red Army parade Image public domainLenin replied to the Left Communists in a series of articles in Pravda in May 1918 called 'Left Infantilism and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality' / Image: public domain

The major debates that ensued through the Spring and Summer within the Party are important and instructive but require a more detailed analysis than can be offered here. Suffice it to say that, having lost the vote at the March Congress the Left Communists then lost their positions on the Supreme Council of National Economy and shortly afterward lost their control of the Moscow and Urals regional organisations. When the Soviet government, under different conditions, nationalised all large industrial enterprises in late June, many Left Communists considered this to be a correct economic policy and shifted their support back to Lenin. By the end of the summer, the Left Communists no longer existed as a distinct opposition group.

Political opposition outside Bolshevism

Efforts to overthrow the Bolshevik Government at home had not disappeared. In fact, in the harsh conditions of spring and summer 1918, when famine stalked the land, their efforts grew. Although the bourgeois parties, such as the Cadets and the Octobrists, had little support, there was lots of intrigue and rumour with foreign powers seeking to find suitable organisations to back. Several right-wing organisations and conspiracies were attempted. The Right or Moscow Centre (businessmen, landowners and conservative and liberal politicians) had a military department but was weak and disorganised. The National Centre, which split off from the Right Centre in June 1918, was a rallying point for the Cadet Party. Overall there was no real drive or unity between any of them and they were easily and, relatively leniently, dealt with by the Cheka.

The petty-bourgeois parties, which included the SRs of Left and Right, the Anarchists and the Mensheviks, did have a potential mass base given the weight of the peasantry in the country, and could have posed a serious problem for the Bolsheviks. But, as Lenin pointed out, the petty-bourgeois parties, like the class they represented, wavered and vacillated at every turn, becoming revolutionary one moment and, when things got difficult, siding with the bourgeoisie, or turning to terrorism. Not surprisingly the mass of peasants was largely uninterested.

The Right SR Party, lacking their base in the Constituent Assembly, had nowhere to go except an alliance with the White forces. This they did in a more and more overt fashion. In the spring of 1918 Savinkov, a veteran SR conspirator, helped to establish the Union for the Defence of the Motherland and Freedom. It claimed to have 5,500 members, but they were scattered all over the country. Its objective was to overthrow Soviet power and establish a military dictatorship. They had financial support from several imperial powers, notably France. Several leading members were arrested in May 1918 and its planned actions were foiled. Savinkov and others remained at large and tried to organise armed uprisings in several towns in July 1918, but these were easily overcome and the organisation faded away. Savinkov and other Right SRs re-emerged in the short-lived Samara Government on the Volga (described in more detail below).

The All-Russian Soviet Executive had representatives of all parties that participated in local and regional Soviets. Thus it had left Mensheviks, Left SRs and others. But in June, as the struggle for survival became paramount it was agreed to expel all those parties who were instigating civil war against the Soviets. This was both logical and necessary. This removed Right SRs and Mensheviks and left only Left SRs and Bolsheviks.

The terrorist wing of the Right SR Party, the so-called “Battle Organisation”, had one last throw of the dice at the end of August 1918 when they sought to assassinate a number of leaders, including Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin was shot by Fanny Kaplan and was lucky not to have been killed. Although struck in his shoulder and neck he survived and recovered after the operation and a short convalescence. The plot to kill Trotsky failed when he altered his planned route to Kazan at the last moment. Uritsky, the President of the Petrograd Cheka, was less lucky and was killed.

The Left SR Party ostensibly represented the poor peasantry but in practice tended to base themselves on the middle peasantry. They had a significant position in the Soviets. They left the government over the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in March 1918 but continued to offer critical support to the Bolsheviks for a period.

At the Fifth All-Russian Congress of Soviets in early July 1918, the Left SRs had 353 delegates out of 1,164. Nothing illustrates the vacillating and intemperate nature of petty-bourgeois revolutionaries better than the debates at this Congress, where the Left SRs hysterically attacked the Bolsheviks for their determination to maintain discipline in the Red Army on the border with Ukraine. The Left SRs had been agitating amongst these units, inciting them to join guerrilla bands inside the Ukraine and attack the German occupiers. Calling for discipline, Trotsky asked for approval of an order to shoot those responsible for fomenting such division and adventurism. The Left SRs erupted with fury but were soundly defeated in the vote.

dzerzhinsky kharkov Image public domainWhen Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka leader, confronted the Left SR Committee in Moscow they arrested him and proceeded to use Cheka forces they controlled to occupy key parts of Moscow. With this act, they effectively 'committed suicide' / Image: public domain

Later, one of their leaders, Maria Spiridonova, made wild accusations against the Bolsheviks and was calmly rebutted by Lenin. Then news arrived at the Congress that Left SR agents had infiltrated the German Ukraine headquarters and assassinated the German ambassador, Count Mirbach. When Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka leader, confronted the Left SR Committee in Moscow they arrested him and proceeded to use Cheka forces they controlled to occupy key parts of Moscow. In the event, they lacked any popular support and the rebellion was put down in a day. Arrests and some executions followed. As Victor Serge says in Year One of the Revolution, “The Left SR Party had committed suicide”.

Anarchist groups were also present in most towns, but many were self-styled and close to banditry. They had gained some support, generally fighting with the Reds in November. They had their own Black General Staff, and were armed. In the period after March, they assumed a more anti-Bolshevik position and moved to violence. However, disarming them proved easy as they had little broad support. Hundreds were arrested but most of those who were genuine anarchists by conviction were released and allowed to operate more or less freely with their organisations, press and clubs. The anarchist movement in the Ukraine led by Makhno is a different story and is dealt with in a later installment.

After the October Revolution, the Menshevik Party became a shadow of its former self and had split into left and right factions. The weakness of the Mensheviks is revealed in the elections for the Constituent Assembly, when they only managed 3 percent of the vote. However, they were relatively strong in the Caucusus region, where they had taken a strongly pro-nationalist line. They had a majority position in Georgia and from May 1918 led an independent government, under the general permission of the Germans, known as the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Nationally, most Mensheviks who had not joined the Bolsheviks increasingly sided with counter-revolutionaries. Martov and the left faction continued to operate in a more principled fashion but became increasingly hostile to the Bolsheviks.

The end of the Romanovs

A brief mention should be made of the denouement of the Tsar and his family, the Romanovs, which occurred in the summer of 1918.

Romanovs1914 Image public domainIn July 1918, Ekaterinburg (where the Romanovs were being held) was virtually encircled by White forces and the Urals Soviet decided to execute the Tsar and his family / Image: public domain

After February 1917, the Romanovs had been held in comparative ease at the imperial palace at Tsarskoe Syelo. But after the July 1917 days of upheaval, the Provisional Government decided to place the family deeper into Russia in the remote Siberian town of Tobolsk. After the October Revolution, the question of what to do with the Tsar and his family became a more burning topic, as they clearly provided a rallying call for the counter-revolutionary forces. After a White Army approached the Tobolsk in April 1918, the Bolsheviks moved the imperial family west to Ekaterinburg in the Urals. In July, Ekaterinburg was virtually encircled by White forces and the Urals Soviet decided to execute the family.

The economic crisis and feeding the urban population

Prior to Brest-Litovsk and the German occupation of Ukraine, the Russian economy was already in a poor state. The effects of years of war and then the upheaval of revolution meant that production and distribution were massively disrupted. Moreover, as in all belligerent countries, the economy had become heavily oriented to the needs of war and the millions of troops that were required. The loss of the valuable economic areas of Ukraine, Caucasus and later the Don region provoked a major crisis after March 1918.

The primary and immediate problem was the need to obtain sufficient grain to feed the people, especially in the urban areas. The harvest was still to come. People were hungry and desperate. Riots and uprisings over lack of bread were not uncommon. Lenin said at this time, “To get bread, that is the basis of socialism today.” This called for desperate measures. The first of these was the creation of the Food Commissariat with sweeping powers (decree of 27 May) to supply the population with objects of primary necessity. The Food Commissar was Tsurupa, and among his powers was the ability to remove local commissars, override local soviets and in certain circumstances institute court proceedings against disobedient representatives of local soviets.

Streetkids RussianCivilWar Image public domainRiots over lack of bread were not uncommon. Lenin said at this time: “To get bread, that is the basis of socialism today” / Image: public domain

What ensued was a battle between the consuming, needy provinces and the producing provinces that held surpluses of food, often hoarded. Special armed detachments, recruited predominantly from Bolshevik-supporting factories, were attached to local food committees in the producing districts. Wealthy peasants, known as kulaks, were those mainly responsible for hoarding grain and other food resources. On 11 June, the Soviet regime set up Committees of the Poor all over the country. These committees were empowered to distribute grain, products of prime necessity and agricultural machines and to cooperate with local food brigades in taking surplus grain away from kulaks and other richer peasants. Incentives were offered to the poorer peasants to participate in this process. There was provision to exclude from any expropriation the slightly better-off peasants who possessed just a few livestock and hired one or two labourers, as long as they were basically self-sufficient. This was reinforced in August 1918 when a letter was circulated to try to prevent the alienation of middle peasants.

Certainly, there were many excesses and ferocious battles. 26 peasant uprisings were recorded in July, 47 in August, and 26 in September. In some cases, old scores were settled. In some instances, bandits and thieves joined the committees; and in some, genuine local communists were driven out of important and potentially lucrative posts such as the collection of local taxes. But, the tactic of splitting the villages on class lines was broadly successful. In regions where there was much poverty among the peasants the actions against kulaks and others were more severe. In areas closer to the big cities, there was greater control and order.

At their height, the Committees of the Poor numbered tens of thousands and as a policy they prevented a complete breakdown of society. There was famine and great hunger but it would have been much worse without such drastic, organised intervention. By November 1918, the crisis was passing and the Committees of the Poor were dissolved and there were new elections for local soviets, which included the best representatives of the old Committees. The two bodies were in effect fused. On 8 November 1918 Lenin declared Soviet policy in the village would be:

“To reach an agreement with the middle-class peasantry, not relaxing for a moment the struggle against the kulak and relying firmly only on the poor.”

The impact of the continuing food shortages can be seen in the major loss of population suffered by the towns and cities where people moved to the countryside to find food. Petrograd’s population, for example, declined from 2.3m in November 1915 to 1.4m in July 1918.

Meeting the military threat: Trotsky’s role as head of the army

The first soldiers of the revolution were the Red Guards, largely recruited from the working-class and Bolshevik soldiers and sailors. But in order to bring order and unity, a stronger and larger force was necessary. In the first stages of the revolution, no conscription was possible. The Bolsheviks had pledged peace and the old army was disintegrating and going home.

A decree on 28 January 1918 laid down the basis for recruiting a voluntary Red Army. There was an Initial sign-up for three months, and a salary of 150 rubles a month, along with some privileges and exemptions for the family. More than 100,000 recruits signed up in the next two and half months but efficiency and quality were often very low. The troops were liable to be ill-disciplined, to endlessly debate orders and make impossible demands. In addition, some criminal elements joined. This early Red Army was capable of defeating poorly organised, internal dissidents but no match for the German Army in Ukraine, nor the emerging White armies.

The Supreme War Council was set up on 1 March 1918 and took over the organisation of the Red Army. On 5 March, Trotsky was appointed chair. In early April, Trotsky was also appointed Commissar of War. He got to work immediately, determined to create a disciplined armed forces, in sufficient numbers and led by competent officers, with good planning and organisation. In these aims, he met plenty of opposition both from within and outside the Bolshevik Party.

Trotsky con la guardia roja Image public domainIn April, Trotsky was appointed Commissar of War. He was determined to create a disciplined armed forces, in sufficient numbers and led by competent officers / Image: public domain

Trotsky’s immediate task as the new Commissar of War was to conjure a new army out of practically nothing. Of the Imperial Russian Army, only the division of Latvian Riflemen was useful and reliable, and thus retained. The remnants of Red forces opposing the Whites on the various fronts often acted as scattered bands of partisans with little control and discipline. Red forces generally were poorly trained, equipped and led. But Trotsky rapidly transformed the Red Army into a disciplined, effective fighting force comprising several Red armies fighting on multiple fronts.

Trotsky’s first pronouncements on military policy in March 1918 were directed primarily at the party and the Soviets and called for “Work, discipline and order”. He noted that, in its first assault on power, the Bolsheviks had necessarily been anti-militaristic and had pressed for democracy in the army, electing commanders and challenging orders etc. But the new situation required a new approach that would enable the workers to defeat the enemy. This meant accepting former Tsarist officers who pledged to assist the Soviet government. Not only were they skilled in leadership but also often possessed technical and military knowledge lacking in the largely working-class layers that formed the Red Guards.

However, many within the Bolshevik Party, especially the Left Communists, fiercely resisted Trotsky’s proposals. Stalin, and some of the established Red military leaders, also opposed these ideas. Lenin and a majority of party leaders understood the necessity of adopting Trotsky’s position. Indeed Lenin took Trotsky’s theme of discipline, order and utilising skills from the within the old classes and adopted it in a much wider social and economic context, supporting the use of managers, professional and technical experts in running factories and other vital parts of economic life. For Lenin, as with Trotsky, the politics of the moment dictated the course of action.

Lenin laid his plans before the All-Russian Soviet Executive in April and they agreed on proposals for military training, new disciplinary codes and utilising the skills and expertise of former Tsarist officers. On 22 April, the government set out the policies in a Decree. Under this policy, all workers and peasants who did not hire labour would receive 12 hours of training over an 8-week period every year. The practice of electing officers was abolished and refusing to obey orders became a punishable offence and capital punishment was reintroduced for the most serious breaches of discipline. In seeking to improve army organisation, Trotsky created provincial, county and township war commissariats responsible, among other things, for the general military training of the adult population.

Trotsky’s scheme for a new Red Army did not pass without serious opposition. In April 1918, when he laid his plans before the All-Russian Soviet Executive, he met with opposition from many quarters. His decision to recruit former army officers provoked much outrage from Mensheviks and Left SRs. Martov accused Trotsky of paving the way for a dictator. More seriously, there was opposition from within the Bolshevik Party. The Left Communists rejected the idea of a centralised standing army and saw the recruitment of former officers as a compromise with the old regime.

Although the party’s Central Committee backed Trotsky’s plan it was not without misgivings and much behind-the-scenes complaining. Trotsky’s position on the issue of hiring former “officers and specialists” touched on a wider issue of relations with the old order. Trotsky and Lenin recognised the reality that the new state lacked skilled professionals, technicians and managers from among the working class. The choice was to ignore the resources available and build from scratch, or to employ such resources on behalf of the revolution and use such people to help train new generations.

However, utilising these elements, who were inevitably conservative in outlook and sceptical of the revolution, carried dangers. Some officers were White sympathisers and later defected. But, in the crisis situation of the summer of 1918, the young new state had little practical alternative. To help offset the bias or deviation of the officer corps, political commissars were attached to all the levels of command in a form of dual power. To prevent officers from sabotage or deserting to the Whites, a register was kept of the officers’ families to be held as possible hostages.

The first to volunteer from the old Imperial Army was General Bonch-Bruevich, who was made head of General Staff. Trotsky discussed with other officers and they came over later in April. At the same time, Trotsky always sought to appoint communists and revolutionaries as officers if they had proven to be effective and disciplined leaders in military combat. Nevertheless, eventually the majority of officers were from the old army, and by the end of 1918, 30,000 former officers of the Tsarist Army were serving in the Red Army. Some proved to be traitors or unreliable and Trotsky used serious disciplinary measures if they stepped out of line, including the death penalty and using the officers’ family as hostages.

As well as creating a strong and centralised army, Trotsky set about establishing improved administration, equipment and supplies. In the conditions of 1918, this was difficult but gradually began to have an impact. This was greatly aided by the fact that Trotsky’s Deputy at the Supreme War Council, directing its day to day activities, was the brilliant organiser Sklyansky, whom Trotsky described as the Carnot of the Russian Revolution (Lazare Carnot was dubbed “the Organiser of the Victory in the French Revolutionary Wars” following the French Revolution of 1793).

Leon Trotskys Armored Train Image public domainBy mid-1918, efforts to re-organise and invigorate the Red Army were still on-going and meeting resistance / Image: public domain

Finally, Trotsky laid great store in developing intensive educational and propaganda programmes to instil into the new army conscripts a spirit of commitment and devotion to the cause of the revolution.  Agitprop techniques in drama, poster art and other methods were an integral element in creating a determined mood in a fighting, disciplined Red Army.

Forging an effective army was one matter but Trotsky also succeeded in reorganising the whole supply and administrative apparatus; again, not without struggle. Once the scale and urgency of the situation was realised, he was able to convince the government of the need to ensure the army was properly equipped and armed. This took time, but the process was started as soon as he took over as amy supremo. It was also quickly realised that a volunteer army was going to be insufficient to build the army rapidly to the level needed. This became apparent by the summer of 1918 and measures of conscription were introduced for working class and peasants only. Before conscription, Trotsky made appeals, especially to the Petrograd and Moscow workers, to volunteer, and many did so. These layers formed the heart of the new army, as they were committed and had self-discipline.

In May 1918, the Soviet government resorted to partial mobilisation as a response to the crisis caused by the Czech Legion turning against the Bolsheviks. The country was still war-weary and most of the peasants could not be relied upon, so the order applied only to conscript workers in Moscow and Petrograd, plus some in the regions most affected, such as the Don and Kuban areas; 51 counties in Siberia; the Urals and in the Volga Provinces. In July, orders were made to force those from bourgeois backgrounds aged 18-45 to undertake hard and dirty, non-combative tasks on the home front. This was sometimes carried out harshly. The formerly well-to-do classes in towns and countryside were forbidden to bear arms. Eventually, the principle of mobilisation was extended to young workers and peasants throughout the country. In August 1918, the Red Army numbered 331,000. This increased to 550,000 by September and 800,000 by end of the year. In October Lenin, foreseeing the end of the First World War, called for an Army of 1 million.

By mid-1918, efforts to re-organise and invigorate the Red Army were still on-going and meeting resistance. Luckily, the White forces were also ill-organised and fractious, whilst the imperial powers were still locked into the First World War. The initial foreign interventions were all peripheral at Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok. In central Russia, the Bolsheviks were able to consolidate their power in comparative safety.

The Czech Legion and the deepening civil war

By the end of March, Germany and her allies had occupied all the areas ceded under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. There was no certainty they would stop at the agreed treaty line. Feeling that Petrograd was threatened, the Soviet government was moved to Moscow. One fall-out of the peace agreement was the position of a Czech nationalist force, augmented by 30,000 Czech prisoners of war, that had fought with the Russian army. They were now trapped in Russia.

Masaryk, the Czech nationalist leader, wanted to deploy them in France, so as to gain allied support for an independent Czechoslovakia after the war. To that end, he ordered them to make their way across Russia by the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok for embarkation. Until this point, the relationship between Bolsheviks and the Czechs was reasonably good and there had been some collaboration against the advance of Germans into the Ukraine. But, despite an agreement on partial disarming and passage through Russia to the East, relations deteriorated. The more reactionary elements of the Czech leaders, urged on by Russian army officers who also served in the Czech army, led to resistance and a revolt by the Legion in May 1918. The British and French were only too eager to exploit Czech discontent to spark opposition to the Bolsheviks and thus establish new White fronts in the central and eastern areas of Russia. In this they succeeded. A plan by the Soviet Government to split the Czech forces as they made their way to the east led to tension, which boiled over in late May, and the Czech forces revolted, easily taking over several key towns along the Trans-Siberian railway. In many areas the Soviet power was weak and the Red forces lacked discipline and strong leadership.

Czechoslovaks victims of Bolshveki near Vladivostok Image public domainIn May, the Czech forces revolted, taking towns along the Trans-Siberian railway / Image: public domain

By June 1918, the French had moved from apparent neutrality to actively encouraging the Czech forces to stay and assist anti-Bolshevik elements. They saw the role of the Czechs to secure the Trans-Siberian railway in advance of a Japanese intervention from the East. By July, the Czech force had declared itself to be a new eastern front against Bolshevism. Resistance by Red forces in far eastern Siberia was stronger and the Czechs only managed to secure the areas around the railway near Vladivostok.

Two quasi-governments emerged following the success of the Czechs. The Western Siberian Commissariat announced its existence on 1 June. It derived its claim to authority from SRs who had been members of the Constituent Assembly. They declared for democracy, goods exchange and the re-establishment of the Constituent Assembly; and the autonomy of Siberia with its own flag. The general assessment of Siberia is that the peasants and workers were largely passive, not having the main concerns of war, hunger and so on of their western counterparts. They were not especially hostile to the Bolsheviks, but Bolshevism was weak in these territories. The initial Western Siberian Government, which had a radical tinge, was soon replaced by more conservative and reactionary elements and by July a purge and oppression of soviets and left elements began in the areas under its control.

The second quasi-government to emerge in the central/eastern region became known as the Samara Government, after a town in the Middle Volga where it was set up. Initially comprising SR Party activists it joined up with parts of the Czech Legion and rapidly spread its power over a wide area: including Lenin’s birthplace, Simbirsk. From this base, they advanced into the Urals, eventually taking the key city of Kazan by August. This was a bad blow to the Soviet government, as a large part of the state gold reserves had been placed there. This massive resource became available to the counter-revolution and helped to extend the civil war.

The military picture in this cockpit of Russia was very confusing and the fronts were partial and jagged, constantly changing, with Red and White forces occupying adjacent areas. Whilst there was some anti-Bolshevik sentiment amongst some privileged workers there was no general enthusiasm for reaction. The number of forces in operation this summer were generally small, some 65,000 red troops and 50,000 Czech and allies on the other side.

Imperial intervention

The capitalist powers were clearly horrified by the October Revolution and refused any official recognition, withdrawing ambassadors and so on. But they were desperate to try and keep Russia in the war, fearing that Germany and other central power forces, currently entrenched in various eastern fronts, might suddenly be able to move troops to the western front. The various agents and envoys of the imperialist powers who were in Petrograd and later Moscow sought to lessen their hostility to the Bolsheviks and provide vague promises of help in the hope of at least delaying the withdrawal of Russia from the war. The USA had entered the war on the side of the UK and France in April 1917 but was, on the face of it, less reactionary than the older imperialist powers. Trotsky and others thought that they might be able to drive a wedge between the USA and the other allies but in the end, this proved fruitless.

From the outset, the allies used their agents and contacts inside Russia to try and encourage opposition to the Bolsheviks. This became clearer after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. They began plotting and scheming and gave active encouragement to armed resistance and to the emerging White forces, which they armed and supported. In addition, they established a trade embargo on Russia, blocking all the ports.

American troops in Vladivostok 1918 Image public domainThe USA entered the war on the side of the UK and France in April 1917. Trotsky thought that he might be able to drive a wedge between the USA and the other allies but in the end, this proved fruitless / Image: public domain

The summer of 1918 saw the real commencement of international capitalism organising to crush revolutionary Russia. On 3 August, Japanese and British troops landed in Vladivostok, quickly followed by an American regiment from the Philippines and a French force from Indo-China. Whilst the western allies were content to simply secure a bulkhead in the east, the Japanese had greater territorial designs and sent 70,000 troops. Allied intervention began to materialise more clearly in late June. The British had a base in Murmansk on the White Sea in the far north of Russia, which the Bolsheviks had tolerated. It was established during the war with Germany as a supply base with a small detachment of troops. In late June, the British started a more aggressive role by concluding a separate agreement with the Murmansk Soviet, which was not loyal to Moscow, and extended their sphere of operations south to Kem.

Rumours spread that Archangel would soon also be occupied by the British. Trotsky issued an order forbidding travel to Archangel, Murmansk or the region of Czech revolt without written permission. On 24 July, the missions of Allied powers, which had taken residence in Vologda when the Germans threatened Petrograd, now moved to Archangel. A British expeditionary force occupied Archangel on 2 August. This was timed to coincide with an uprising of anti-Bolshevik elements in the port. At the same time, the USA and other allied powers announced their intention to further intervene in Russia’s Far East. Russia became beleaguered and isolated.

Social unrest and the demise of the Left SRs

As part of the growing tension of famine and other shortages there was a declaration of martial law from 29 May 1918. This was occasioned by the Cheka discovering the plot by the Defence of the Motherland and Freedom Front that involved former officers of the army. Over 100 were arrested, but the plot leaders, including Savinkov, escaped. In June, there was an armed uprising in Tambov and a brief overthrow of the soviet. But the city was re-taken 2 weeks later and the insurgents shot. In July, there was another serious uprising led by Savinkov in the Volga town of Yaroslavl, which was eventually retaken. Savinkov later said he was supported and encouraged by the French, who at this stage were the leading capitalist power in favour of more direct intervention against the Bolsheviks. The action in the Upper Volga was intended to coincide with the Allied invasion of Archangel (which took place in August).

Two centres of disaffection developed in Petrograd: the Obukhov factory, where the SRs held continual meetings denouncing food shortages, and at the torpedo-boat squadron of the Baltic Fleet, where officers and men were enraged by rumours that the government intended to disband the fleet. The disarming of both took place without bloodshed. Admiral Stchastny was denounced by Trotsky and later shot. Some isolated groups of workers were persuaded to revolt by Menshevik and SR agitators. But these proved fleeting episodes. The most serious difficulties occurred with the railway workers. States of emergency had to be declared on some lines. In some cases shots were fired and stoppages took place. The Mensheviks and SRs attempted to exploit the situation and even tried to organise a conference of non-party workers, but to no success. Workers might grumble or even strike against intolerable food shortages but they had no desire for an overthrow of the regime and had no confidence in either the SRs or the Mensheviks.

Red army civil war Image public domainThe Left SR, Muraviev, defected and tried to incite an anti-Bolshevik insurrection. He failed, and the Left SRs were finished / Image: public domain

The heightened tension and the various plots led to a growth in Cheka activities and increasing repression of opposition. Arrests were made, not just of officers and other classes deemed counter-revolutionary, but also some Mensheviks and SRs. In June, the All-Russian Soviet Executive Committee decided to expel all Right SRs and Mensheviks from its membership and instructed all local soviets to do likewise. This was a response to the fact that the SRs and Mensheviks were now collaborating with the counter-revolution.

At the 5th All-Russian Soviet Congress in early July, the Left SRs were in disagreement on three points. They wanted to tear up the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and resume war with Germany. They opposed the Committees of the Poor and finally were against courts having the right to impose the death penalty (even though they included individual terrorism in their programme and participated in the work of the Cheka, where the death penalty was meted out). Their resort to terrorist activities, such as the shooting of Volodarsky, a prominent trade union and Communist leader, led them up a blind alley. The best elements in their membership joined the Communist (Bolshevik) Party and others ended up alongside counter-revolutionaries. One of the last acts was by the Left SR Muraviev, who was a Soviet Commander on the Volga Front. Taking some troops with him, he defected to the counter-revolutionary side at Kazan and then went to Simbirsk where he tried to urge troops there to join against the Bolsheviks. But the majority held and he was either killed or committed suicide. Left SRs were henceforth not tolerated on any Soviet.