The Structure of Soviet History: Essays and Documents

By Ronald Grigor Suny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
CIVIL WAR, SOCIALISM,
AND NATIONALISM

The period of the Russian Civil War was without doubt foundational for what became the Soviet system. By seizing power, the Bolsheviks helped precipitate war between the supporters of Soviet power and those who opposed either the February or October revolutions. Once the war broke out, those in power in Moscow no longer could contemplate building a social order along the decentralized, democratic lines that many socialists had envisioned in 1917. The exigencies of war, social disintegration, nationalist conflict, and foreign threat pushed the Bolsheviks relentlessly toward greater concentration of power in the center, greater authoritarian direction from above, and a general militarization of the polity and economy. The tendencies in Marxist thought and Leninist practice toward organizing, disciplining, and molding society, even creating a new human nature, reinforced and justified the reliance on state power and the willful intervention of the party into autonomous spheres of peasants' and workers' lives. Socialists in power became more dismissive of the spontaneous, self-generated preferences of their erstwhile constituents and employed the power of the state to lay the groundwork for a modern, industrial, urban society that they believed would lead to human emancipation.

The story of the civil war has often been told from the point of view of warring armies, military victories and defeats, as if superior tactics or supplies won the war. But the years 1918–1921 were a time of social dislocation, famine, and mass death, in which rival political forces competed for the loyalties of the great peasant majority. In some ways the Bolsheviks proved to be more flexible ideologically than their opponents. To survive as rulers of Russia the Bolsheviks rapidly adapted to the needs of the moment. For example, though they were traditionally suspicious of professional, standing armies and preferred popular militias, key leaders quickly adjusted to the necessities of war and agreed to form a professional army.

Along with the new army, the Communist party also underwent significant changes. In his study of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army, Francesco Benvenuti argues that one kind of party was transformed into another. A fissiparous party of freethinking, cantankerous individuals was molded into a disciplined machine. “The communist,” a party document declared late in 1918, “must be a model of discipline, submission, and the ability to execute orders. If your commander gives an order, validated by the commissar, your duty is to submit to it without question, however sense

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