By early 1918 in Russia, the Bolsheviks controlled only the north-western area of the Russian Empire (Petrograd and Moscow) together with the areas between and around them. Various opposition groups were formed against the Bolsheviks, under the new Provisional Government. The provisional government had proposed elections for a new assembly in late 1917; Lenin had seen that the Bolsheviks must act before this democratically elected government convened, but once in power, he allowed the elections to proceed. In the November 1917 polls, Bolshevik candidates won just under 25 per cent of the vote, while the moderate socialists polled over 40 per cent. Lenin sent his loyal troops to close down the constituent assembly the day after it convened. Russia was about to enter a bloody civil war, which was a culmination of the efforts of varied opposition groups to defeat the Bolsheviks, from which it would emerge into Leninist and Stalinist tyranny.
The causes of the civil war are diverse. A confusion of governments and opponents existed, some based on minorities and nationalities. From these, the Lithuanians, Moldavians, and Ukrainians declared independence. There was a Polish dispute over rights of sovereignty which raised tensions between Poland and her communist neighbor that would lead to war. Moreover, leaders of anti-Bolsheviks known as the “Whites” went to rebellion with the aim of establishing a power base and advancing from it to the Bolshevik stronghold (Years of Change, 402). With the ideal of “Russia one and indivisible” (Alexeyev), the White forces consisted of three main groups: revolutionary groups hostile toward the Bolsheviks, former officers of the Imperial army resentful of “betrayal at Brest Litvosk” (T A Morris) and national groups seeking independence for their particular minority. Lastly, according to T A Morris, the revolt Czechoslovak Legion was “ the greatest catalyst of civil conflict in Russia”. Although the Legion had no specifically anti-Bolshevik aims, its resounding success against Soviet forces provided enormous encouragement for the White cause, and thus proved to be an external threat to the Bolshevik regime. All these factors were bound to culminate into a civil war, the legacies of which are painful, and yet necessary to some.
In analyzing effects of the civil war on unity and stability, long term and short term effects should be taken into consideration. In response to the short term effects, the civil war created disorder in both the unity and stability of Russia, but in the long term, some argue that unity and stability was somewhat achieved through consistency. In relation to the former, rival factions were still around causing speculation on the effectiveness of a crumbled government.
Moreover, Lenin and the Russian Communist party took control of the country. Workers’ strikes, peasant uprisings, and a rebellion by the Kronshtadt garrison in favour of an all-socialist government were quickly crushed. In 1921 Lenin established the New Economic Policy to strengthen the country, which had been drained by seven years of turmoil and economic decline. On December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formally established when the ethnic territories of the former Russian Empire were united with the Russian Federated Socialist Republic.
The civil war in Russia (1918-1920) decisively influenced the appearance of the first big political emigration of the 20th century on the social scene of Europe and the World. With the ideological and political conflicts intensified by the Bolsheviks to the point of exclusion, the Civil war has significantly influenced the quantity and the character of the Russian emigration. It is difficult (and almost impossible) to precisely determine the exact number of people that emigrated from Russia in the years of the Revolution, Civil war, and right after that (1917-1923/24). Most estimates point that in this period approximately 2 to 2.5 million people left Russia in this period,2 putting the Russian emigration among the most massive (political) migration of the modern era. In the early 1920s, the appearance of such a large number of emigrants, opened a number of demographic, practical, and political issues. One of the important side effects of the departure of large number of people from Russia was the fact that the international law regarding refugees (which is basically still used today) was built exactly on the experiences and problems of the Russian (as well as Armenian) refugees, following the WW I and the Russian Civil war. This emigration in Russia created a vacuum of workers in Russia which devastated the economy creating further instability, and in the end, both countries were affected.
Furthermore, according to Lowe, stability went downhill right after the Civil War, because the Constituent Assembly was attacked by Lenin and there was uncertainty of a lasting red regime because of such a power struggle.
In response to long term effects, there was a higher degree of stability and unity achieved through the creation of a homogenous group according to historian S. J. Lee. Moreover, there was a continual dictatorship which was unified through suppression of rival factions according to historian Norman Lowe. This dictatorship maintained itself as its creation bound it to be irrevocable, and so stasbility and unity were gradually reached, as social conditions were accepted rather than rejected through Lenin’s policy of terror and compromise. In power, the Bolsheviks followed their program. They centralized production, removing from it ‘the character of capital’, yet the existence of different classes did not die out. Bolshevik party officials got better rations, accommodation and privileges. In time they were able to transfer their privileges to their offspring, acting just as the ruling class in the West. Chaos in social production didn’t vanish, chaos in Stalin’s time led to famine. The political authority of the state did not die out and the soviet people were not free.
The ‘character of capital’ is not the only force underpinning the structure in society. Power relations also have a part to play, and contrary to Engel’s assumptions, power does not only come from ownership of capital. The members of the central committee may not have owned the deeds to the factories per se but they were in charge. According to Engel, the long term effects of the civil war were negative.
The argument by historian Aileen O’Carroll however is that no matter what the objective factors were or will be, the Bolshevik route always and inevitably leads to the death of the revolution. More than this, defeat by revolutionaries is much worse than defeat by the Whites, for it brings the entire revolutionary project into disrepute. For seventy years socialism could easily be equated with prison camps and dictatorship. The Soviet Union became the threat of a bad example. Socialists found themselves defending the indefensible. Countless revolutions were squandered and lost to Leninism and its heir, Stalinism. In short, the civil war is still controversial as to the evaluation of its effects on Russia, independent of the time period.
Freedom is not just a goal, a noble end to be achieved, but rather a necessary part of the process of creating socialism. Anarchists are often accused of being ‘utopian’. Beliefs are utopian if subjective ideas are not grounded in objective reality. Anarchists hold that part of the subjective conditions required before socialism can exist is the existence of free exchange of ideas and democracy. To believe that revolution is possible without freedom, to believe those in power can, through their best and genuine intentions, impose socialism from above, as the Bolsheviks did, is indeed utopian, and it can be held that such utopian beliefs are too idealistic, and therefore bad for Russia in the long run.
The received wisdom is that there was no alternative open to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks could have followed a more democratic route, but they chose not to. They were in the minority and their goal was to have absolute power. Their failure to understand that socialism and democracy are part of the same process destroyed the prospect for socialism in the Soviet Union. Next time there are revolutionary upheavals in society, it is to be hoped that the revolutionary potential of the working class will not be so squandered.