War Communism

Key facts

  • War Communism took place during the Russian Civil War.
  • It took place between 1918 and 1921.
  • It involved management of resources in the country through some policies that were to be implemented.
  • It was also used by Vladimir Lenin to control the country with an aim to improve its economy.
  • War Communism experienced some serious shortcomings.

War Communism is the name given to the economic system that existed in Russia from 1918 to 1921 and was introduced by Lenin to combat the economic problems brought on by the civil war in Russia. It mainly consisted of emergency measures.

The first measure of War Communism involved the nationalisation of land. Banking and shipping were also nationalised and foreign trade was declared a state monopoly in that only the state would carry out trade on behalf of its citizens and it was illegal for private organisations to carry out these trades. This was Lenin’s response when he realised that the Bolsheviks were simply not ready to take over the whole economic system of Russia. Lenin stressed the importance of the workers showing discipline and a will to work hard if the revolution was to survive. A majority in the Bolshevik hierarchy thought that it would be a good idea to remove factory managers and let the workers take it upon themselves to run the factories on behalf of the people. It was seen that it would be a source of motivation, that the workers would work better if they believed they were working for a cause and feel less exploited in a system that made some rich but many poor. The civil war had made many in the Bolsheviks even more class antagonistic – that is against social stratification – as there were many of the old guards who were fighting to destroy the Bolsheviks.


On June 28th, 1918, a decree was passed that ended all forms of private capitalism. Many large factories were taken over by the state and on November 29, 1920, any factory that employed over 10 workers was nationalised. War Communism also dictated how food was to be distributed. This was to be carried out by the Food Commissariat and all. food-related cooperatives were fused together under this Commissariat.


War communism had some major principles that are listed below:

  • Any form of production would be run by the state. Private ownership of property was to be kept to the minimum. Private houses were taken away by the state.
  • State control would be granted through labour by the citizens and once a unit of the military had served its purpose it would become a labour army. The state should produce everything in its own undertakings. The state tried to control the activities of millions of peasants.
  • Extreme centralisation was widely practised. The economic life of the area controlled by the Bolsheviks was put into the hands of just a few organisations with the Supreme Economic Council being the most significant one. This organisation had the right to confiscate and requisition property and they specialised in the management of industries.

Over 40 heads of departments, known as glavki, were set up to accomplish this. A single department could be responsible for thousands of factories. More often than not, this led to a very large level of inefficiency. The railways were supervised and controlled by the Transport Commissariat. The Commissariat of Agriculture controlled what the peasants did on their farms and with their produce.

The state tried to become the sole distributor as well as the sole producer. The Commissariats took what they needed to meet the demands of the government. The people were divided into four categories: workers who performed hard, demanding labour, manual workers in harmful trades, workers in light tasks, which included housewives and professional people. Food was distributed in a ratio that would favour those who did the most work. Though the manual class was the favoured class, it still received little food. Much of the food consumed came from illegal sources and many in the professional class simply starved.

On July 20th, 1918, the Bolsheviks decided that any excess food had to be surrendered to the state. This led to an increase in the supply of grain to the state. From 1917 to 1928, about three-quarters of a million tons was collected. In 1920 to 1921, this increased to about 6 million tons. The policy of having to hand over surplus food caused huge resentment in the countryside. Peasants who worked the hardest and believed in Vladimir Lenin’s promise that “all land to the people” (during the revolution, pre-November 1917) had not realised that they would have to hand over extra food they produced from their land. Even the extra could not meet demand.

The main objective of War Communism was to eliminate money as a form of exchange. The Bolsheviks wanted to go over to a system of a natural economy in which all transactions were carried out in kind. Bartering was swiftly introduced. The value of money dropped massively and in 1921 inflation had significantly increased. Most taxes were abolished and, as a result, the government was not able to raise revenue. The only tax allowed was the ‘Extraordinary Revolutionary Tax’, which was an effort to ensure there was equality between the rich and poor.

In short, War Communism turned out to be a disaster. In all areas, the economic strength of Russia fell below the level of 1914. Peasant farmers only grew crops for themselves, as they knew that any extra would be taken by the state. Therefore, the industrial cities were starved of food despite the introduction of rations. A bad harvest could be disastrous for the countryside and even worse for cities. Malnutrition was common, as was disease. Those in the cities believed that their only hope was to move out to the countryside and grow food for themselves. Between 1916 and 1920, the cities of northern and central Russia lost 33% of their population to the countryside. The number of people working in Russia during War Communism dropped by 50%.

Although private trade was illegal, in the cities more people were engaged in this than at any other time in Russia’s history. Large factories were rendered useless because of lack of fuel and skilled labour. In addition, in 1920, small factories were producing just 43% of their 1913 total and large factories were producing 18% of their 1913 figure. Coal production was at 27% of its 1913 figure in 1920 and there was no way that the workers would be effective unless they were given more food. By 1920, the average worker had a productivity rate that was 44% less than the 1913 figure.

In the rare case when something of value could be produced, the ability to move it around Russia was limited because, by the end of 1918, Russia’s rail system was in chaos. In the countryside, most land was used for growing food. Crops such as flax and cotton were simply not grown for fear that the government would take them. Between 1913 and 1920, there was an 87% drop in the number of acres given to cotton production, causing factories producing cotton-related products to shut down as they were starved of the most basic commodity they needed.

Within the cities, many were convinced that their leaders were right and the failings being experienced were the fault of Westerners and international capitalists. There were few strikes during War Communism as Lenin was quick to have anyone arrested who seemed to be a potential troublemaker. Those in the Bolshevik-held territory were also keen to see a Bolshevik victory in the civil war, so they were prepared to do what was necessary.

In addition, the Bolshevik hierarchy could blame a lot of Russia’s troubles on the Whites, as they controlled the areas which would have supplied the factories with produce. The Urals provided Petrograd and Tula with coal and iron for their factories. The Urals was completely separate from Bolshevik Russia from the spring of 1918 to November 1919. Oil fields were in the hands of the Whites. The Bolshevik’s Red Army also took the majority of whatever supplies there were in their fight against the Whites.

Due to the Westerners fear, they were not prepared to trade with the Russians under the Bolsheviks, so foreign trade stopped. Between 1918 and November 1920, the Allies formally blockaded Russia.

After War Communism

The severity of War Communism could be justified when the civil war was still going on. When it had finished, however, there could be no such justification. There were violent rebellions in Siberia and in Tambov. Lenin faced the threat of an uprising of workers and peasants and he needed to handle it in a way that the tsarist regime was incapable of doing. Vladimir Lenin, therefore, replaced War Communism with a new policy known as the New Economic Policy in 1921. This was put forward in the 10th annual party conference in March and accepted. During War Communism, the people had no reason to produce as money had been abolished.

In conclusion War Communism simply did not work. It centred on all industries being nationalised and saw the introduction of strict centralised management, state control of foreign trade, forbidding strikes of any nature by workers, labour duty by non-working classes, prodrazvyorstka – which is claiming agricultural surplus from peasants for centralised distribution among the remaining population – rationing of food and most commodities, with centralised distribution in urban centres, private enterprise being banned and military-style control of the railways.