Although the Bolsheviks ultimately won the civil war, their victory at the outset was by no means assured, nor did it seem so to weary contemporaries. Several times the survival of the revolutionary government hung in the balance. In the spring of 1918, for example, the regime was almost overcome by sheer anarchy; the next spring, Kolchak seemed unstoppable; and in the fall of 1919, the combined forces of Denikin and Iudenich presented such a military threat that many expected Lenin’s regime to soon collapse.
The Whites enjoyed many significant advantages. They had the support of the church. Their armies were almost always better led, and they did not have to fear treason among their officers. In the prevailing conditions, where the front line moved quickly, the Cossack cavalry was an extremely valuable force. The Whites occupied better agricultural lands, and had to feed the populations of fewer large cities. These factors, combined with allied aid, made living conditions better in White-held territories. When the Whites occupied a city, the price of bread almost always fell. Naturally, at a time of starvation, lower food prices had a great appeal and far-reaching political significance.
Still, the Bolsheviks won at least in part because of the weakness of their enemies. The Whites did not have an attractive ideology or the right frame of mind to accomplish their most important task: imposing order on an unwilling population. Since they saw their task as primarily a military one, they made no serious attempt to win over the population with an attractive vision of the future. Indeed, they themselves lacked such a vision. The generals had been comfortable in imperial Russia, and although the more enlightened among them realized that some reforms might be necessary, they all fervently wished that the revolutions of 1917 had never happened.
When they were forced to articulate their goals, the Whites had to fall back on a newly developed and exaggerated sense of nationalism. They proclaimed that they were fighting for “Russia.” The trouble with such an ideology was that it had little appeal to those who were politically the most important, the peasants. Perhaps even more significantly, it fatally alienated the national minorities, who might have become useful allies in an anti- Bolshevik crusade. Since the Whites of necessity were fighting in areas largely inhabited by non-Russians, hostility from the minorities had fateful consequences.
The disintegration of the once-powerful empire, and the obvious weakness of the central authorities, resulted in an extraordinarily rapid growth of national self-consciousness among the minorities. Politicians who had professed to be internationalists and socialists now came into power in newly independent states and came to embrace the nationalist cause with passion. The Bolsheviks and the anti-Bolsheviks adopted different policies toward the newly established states on the peripheries. The Bolshevik attitude was a great deal more expedient: as long as they had no power to prevent the establishment of these states, they did not openly oppose them. They seemed to have accepted the principle of national self-determination, although adding that it applied as long as it served the interest of the proletariat. The Whites would make no comparable concession.
The Russian peasants were not moved by a nationalist ideology; they were interested in getting the lands of the landlords. White politicians labored for many months to come up with a land reform plan. They were slow to produce one, for they did not fully appreciate the political significance of winning over the land-hungry peasants. By the time they published a land reform project, in the summer of 1920, it was far too late. Even this plan offered very little. After all, the Whites drew their social support from the right and could not alienate their supporters. The peasants saw that in the wake of the White armies, the landlords and ex-tsarist officials reappeared to reclaim their wealth and power. No matter what White politicians said in their manifestos, the peasants correctly understood that the Whites stood for restoration.
But the Bolsheviks won the civil war not only because of the weaknesses and errors of their opponents. Their understanding of the needs of the moment and the principles of revolutionary politics helped them as well. The political program with which they came to power could not be realized, and therefore the revolutionaries constantly had to improvise. But fortunately for them, their background and their ideology allowed them to improvise successfully.
The Bolsheviks, as Marxist-Leninists, instinctively understood the significance of organization and mass mobilization. They worked tirelessly and ceaselessly both to bring their program to the workers and peasants and to create organizational forms that could restore order. A major share of the credit for winning the civil war belonged to the party. Originally an organization of revolutionaries, it was quickly transformed into an instrument of rule. In the circumstances it would be wrong to think of it as a tightly knit, disciplined, and hierarchical organization. Top leaders frequently quarreled, and the center often had only nominal control over the distant cities. Nevertheless, as an organizational base it conferred on the Bolsheviks an inestimable advantage. The party was involved in every aspect of national life: it was responsible for developing a strategy for winning the struggle; it was a recruitment agency that brought forward able and ambitious cadres; it was the chief indoctrination agency; in enemy-controlled territories, it organized an underground; and perhaps most importantly, it attempted to supervise the work of other governmental and social institutions.
Bolshevik organizational skills and principles were best shown in the creation and building of the Red army, which was Trotsky’s great achievement. Both Trotsky and Lenin quickly realized that contrary to utopian notions they themselves had entertained, the services of experts were essential for running a modern state. In the case of the military, this meant that the young Soviet state needed the expertise of the officers of the ex- imperial army. These men had to be forced or cajoled into the service of an ideology that they in almost all instances found distasteful. Furthermore, the policy entailed risks: it created indignation among some old communists, and the officers were by no means fully reliable. Treason was a constant danger. Yet Trotsky was correct: only a disciplined force, led by professional men, could defeat the enemy.
By the end of the civil war the Bolsheviks, using extensive propaganda in addition to conscription, had built an army of five million – incomparably larger than the combined forces of their enemies. Only a small percentage of this army ever served in battles; the rest provided support and administrative services. At a time of anarchy, the new state needed all the support it could get.
The Cheka also made a contribution to the Bolshevik victory. Terror was equally bloody on both sides; Reds and Whites alike committed acts of extraordinary brutality. However, political repression by the two sides had a different character. The Whites, whose views were more appropriate to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century, had little appreciation of the role of ideas in politics and tolerated far greater diversity of political opinions. The Cheka, by contrast, allowed only one political organization, and one political point of view, that of the Leninists.
The Bolsheviks successfully tailored their social and economic policies to the needs of winning the war. Lenin presented his famous decree on land on the day following his victory. As a concession to the peasants, the decree legalized previous land seizures and allowed the peasants to cultivate previous landlord lands as their own private property. Lenin, the great realist, clearly saw the political benefits. Yet, despite the fact that the Reds gave them land and the Whites gave them nothing, the Bolsheviks could win only a few active supporters among the peasants. The great weakness of the Bolshevik position was that they needed to feed their cities but had nothing to give the peasants in exchange for grain. In such circumstances the principles of a free market obviously could not operate, and the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain by force. This policy was bound to alienate the peasants, but it is hard to see what else the revolutionaries could have done.
The economic policies introduced by the Bolsheviks in the middle of 1918, chief among them the suspension of a market mechanism for grain, were called war communism. This system mobilized the economy for the purpose of winning the war by means of coercion. The Bolsheviks nationalized trade and industry. Although such developments were clearly the result of improvisation, at the time theorists professed to see in the disappearance of private enterprise and even money a step toward the coming of communist society. The system caused great misery and hardship for the population and in the long run led to the devastation of the national economy. Nevertheless, in the short run it was effective: factories did produce enough arms to fight the enemy, and people in the cities were fed, however poorly.
The Bolshevik revolution, like all great revolutions, was fought for social equality. The revolutionaries did a great deal to recruit a new political elite. Young and ambitious peasants and workers, through a mixture of conviction and careerism, threw in their lot with the Bolsheviks. They were able to approach their fellow workers and peasants far more successfully than any White propagandist. By mobilizing this hitherto untapped source of talent, the Bolsheviks gained a great deal. Conscious Bolshevik policies, as well as the misery imposed by war and war communism, did in fact greatly reduce inequality.