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War communism or military communism (Russian: Военный коммунизм) was the economic and political system that existed in Soviet Russia during the Russian Civil War, from 1918 to 1921. According to Soviet historiography, this policy was adopted by the Bolsheviks with the goal of keeping towns and the Red Army stocked with weapons and with food. The system had to be used because the ongoing war disrupted normal economic mechanisms and relations. "War communism", which began in June 1918, was enforced by the Supreme Economic Council, known as the Vesenkha. It ended on March 21, 1921, with the beginning of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which lasted until 1928.


War communism included the following policies:

  1. All industry was nationalized and strict centralized management was introduced.
  2. State control of foreign trade was introduced.
  3. Discipline for workers was strict, and strikes were disallowed.
  4. Obligatory labour duty was imposed onto non-working classes.
  5. Prodrazvyorstka – requisition of agricultural surpluses from peasants in excess of absolute minimum for centralized distribution among the remaining population.
  6. Food and most commodities were rationed and distributed in urban centers in a centralized way.
  7. Private enterprise became illegal.
  8. The state introduced military-style control of railways.

Because all of these measures were implemented in a time of civil war, they were far less coherent and coordinated in practice than they might appear on paper. Large areas of Russia were outside the Bolsheviks' control, and poor communications meant that even those regions loyal to the Bolshevik government often had to act on their own, lacking any orders or central coordination from Moscow. It has long been debated whether "war communism" represented an actual economic policy in the proper sense of the word or merely a set of measures intended to win the civil war.[1]


The goals of the Bolsheviks in implementing war communism are a matter of controversy. Some commentators, including a number of Bolsheviks, have argued that its sole purpose was to win the war. Vladimir Lenin, for instance, said that "the confiscation of surpluses from the peasants was a measure with which we were saddled by the imperative conditions of war-time." [2] Other Bolsheviks, such as Yurii Larin, Lev Kritzman, Leonid Krasin and Nikolai Bukharin argued that it was a transitional step towards socialism.[3] Commentators, such as the historian Richard Pipes, the philosopher Michael Polanyi,[4] and the economists such as Paul Craig Roberts [5] or Sheldon L. Richman,[6] have argued that War communism was actually an attempt immediately to eliminate private property, commodity production and market exchange, and in that way to implement communist economics, and that the Bolshevik leaders expected an immediate and large-scale increase in economic output. This view was also held by Nikolai Bukharin, who said that "We conceived War Communism as the universal, so to say 'normal' form of the economic policy of the victorious proletariat and not as being related to the war, that is, conforming to a definite state of the civil war".[7]



War communism was largely successful at its primary purpose of aiding the Red Army in halting the advance of the White Army and reclaiming most of the territory of the former Russian Empire thereafter.


In the cities and surrounding countryside, the population experienced hardships as a result of the war. Peasants refused to co-operate in producing food. Workers began migrating from the cities to the countryside, where the chances to feed oneself were higher, thus further decreasing the possibility of in natura[Clarification needed] exchange of industrial goods for food and worsening the plight of the remaining urban population. Between 1918 and 1920, Petrograd lost 72% of its population, whilst Moscow lost 53%.[citation needed]

There were also a series of workers' strikes and peasants' rebellions, such as the Tambov rebellion, all over the country. The turning point was the Kronstadt rebellion at the naval base in early March 1921. The rebellion had a startling effect on Lenin, because the Kronstadt sailors were considered by the Bolsheviks as the "reddest of the reds"[citation needed]. According to David Christian, the Cheka (the rogue secret police created by Communist Party officials at the time) reported 118 separate peasant uprisings alone in February 1921. The noted historian David Christian's comments about War Communism in his book "Power and Privilege", "A government claiming to represent the people now found itself on the verge of being overthrown by that same working class...the crisis had undermined the loyalty of the villages, the towns and finally sections of the army. It was fully as serious as the crises faced by the tsarist government in 1905 and February 1917..." evidence the animosity of the general public towards War Communism.


A black market emerged in Russia, despite the threat of the martial law against profiteering. The ruble collapsed and barter increasingly replaced money as a medium of exchange[8] and, by 1921, heavy industry had fallen to output levels of 20% of those in 1913. 90% of all wages were paid with goods rather than money. 70% of locomotives were in need of repair and the food requisitioning, combined with the effects of seven years of war and a severe drought, contributed to a famine that caused between 3 and 10 million deaths.[9] Coal production decreased from 27.5 million tons (1913) to 7 million tons (1920), while overall factory production also declined from 10,000 million roubles to 1,000 million roubles. According to the noted historian David Christian, the grain harvest was also slashed from 75 million tons (1913) to 45 million tons (1920)[citation needed].


  1. See Nicolas Werth, Histoire de l'Union Soviétique de Lénine à Staline, 1995 (French)
  2. Lenin, V.I., Collected Works, volume 32, 1965. Moscow: Progress Publishers. pp. 187
  3. Szamuely, Laszlo (1974). "First models of the socialist economic system". pp. 45–61. 
  4. Polanyi, Michael. 1960. "Towards a Theory of Conspicuous Production." Soviet Survey (34, October–December):90-99.
  5. Roberts, Paul Craig. 1990 (1971). Alienation and the Soviet Economy: The Collapse of the Socialist Era, Independent Studies in Political Economy. Oakland, Ca.: The Independent Institute.
  6. Sheldon L. Richman, "War Communism to NEP: The Road From Serfdom" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Winter 1981, 5(1), pp. 89-97.
  7. Nikolai Bukharin, The path to socialism in Russia, 1967. New York: Omicron Books, pp. 178
  8. R. W. Davies; Mark Harrison; S. G. Wheatcroft (9 December 1993). The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. Cambridge University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-521-45770-5. 

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