Socialist Worker

The ABC of Communism: can socialism work?

The attempt to create a different kind of society in Russia after the 1917 Revolution has many lessons for movements today, writes Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Issue No. 2060

The ABC of Communism

The ABC of Communism

The recently republished ABC of Communism is a remarkable historical document of the attempt to create a socialist society in Russia after the 1917 October Revolution.

Written in 1920 by Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, two leading theoreticians of the Bolshevik party, it ran through 18 Russian editions and 20 foreign translations by the early 1930s.

It became the standard textbook on the transition from capitalism to socialism for a whole generation of revolutionaries.

The ABC of Communism offers movements today a unique glimpse of the struggles and aspirations of the communist movement before it came to be associated with Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical rule and bureaucratic dictatorship.

The seizure of power by the working class in backward and devastated Russia in 1917 signified more than a protest against the barbarism of the First World War.

The founding proposition of the October Revolution was that conditions had ripened for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism across the world. Revolutionary socialism proposed the existence of a social force capable of creating an alternative system based on solidarity and planning rather than inequality and conflict.

Workers, soldiers and peasants organised themselves in soviets, or councils, to run their enterprises democratically and redistribute the land. Delegates to soviets were elected from the rank and file and could be recalled at any time.

The Bolsheviks won a countrywide majority in the soviets on a programme of revolution. They proceeded to lay the foundations of a new order while faced with a prolonged civil war against a counter-revolution led by the “Whites”.

This included major social and economic destruction and the military intervention of 14 powerful capitalist countries on the side of the counter-revolution.

It ended only with the victory of the Bolsheviks in 1921. The civil war had devastating consequences, reducing industrial development to less than a third of 1913 levels and severing the links between town and country.

It halved the number of workers employed in industry and led to widespread famine, disease and chaos.


The ABC of Communism was written during the civil war. It should be seen not as a dispassionate study of the wartime achievements of the Bolsheviks but as a passionate rallying call, a plea for the possibilities.

Its optimistic tone was aimed at the millions of sympathisers fighting simultaneously to defend and to build soviet power in the most adverse conditions.

But Bukharin and Preobrazhensky saw the Russian Revolution as inseparable from the international revolution. They said, “The workers’ communist movement can conquer only as an international communist movement.”

The Bolsheviks’ boldness and internationalism did not exist in words only. They looked to provide inspiration to the revolutionary movement gripping Germany and Hungary after the First World War.

In desperation, they even attempted to stimulate revolution in Germany by military invasion of Poland in 1920.

While the Bolsheviks proclaimed supreme confidence, they recognised that there were dramatic limitations to what they could achieve without an wider international revolution.

The ABC of Communism noted Russia’s isolation and backwardness when discussing the socialist organisation of industry.

It discusses Russia’s need to coordinate with a revolutionary Germany, which was much more economically advanced, by exchanging Russian raw materials for German technology and skilled labour. Unfortunately, the German revolution failed, leaving Russia isolated.

Without access to the resources of the highly developed West, the revolution faced internal bureaucratisation as a result of economic and cultural backwardness.

Bukharin and Preobrazhensky write, “All these circumstances tend to a certain degree to promote the reintroduction of bureaucracy into the soviet system. This is a grave danger for the proletariat [working class].

“The workers did not destroy the old official-ridden state with the intention of allowing it to grow up again from new roots.” They admitted that “the militarisation of the whole of public life has suppressed the soviets as really functioning bodies”.

They implored their comrades to “follow in the footsteps of the Paris Commune”, the first attempt to create a democratic workers’ state in 1871.

There were real dangers for the socialist state if this was not done. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky write, “The more extensive this participation of the masses is [in administration], the sooner will the dictatorship of the proletariat die out.”

There was then a clear urgency to improve economic conditions and bring government as close as possible to the working people. The Bolsheviks moved quickly to create an improvised system that would preserve the gains of the revolution and allow it to break out of its isolation. This was called War Communism.

The Bolsheviks wanted to develop a state sector that could direct most industrial production in a central plan. This involved developing a state-owned large-scale industry, and using state policy to create an environment that would encourage small-scale producers to cooperate with soviet planners.


There was a similar policy towards the countryside. Collectivised land, which many saw as a socialist goal, represented a minor sector in agriculture. But the vast majority of peasants did not want to lose their individually owned land.

The Bolsheviks refused to contemplate forced collectivisation and sought to appropriate the peasants’ surplus produce by other methods, such as a progressive tax.

In conditions of war and scarcity, however, they often resorted to force to get food. They also tried to entice peasants into cooperatives and communes by improving the terms of trade and state provision of badly needed industrial equipment for those who joined the state sector.

The Bolsheviks also needed to increase productivity. New economic rights were introduced, such as an eight-hour day, an annual paid holiday and maternity leave. They also brought in various sets of social welfare programmes, such as cheap and clean housing, educational reforms, including free education, creches and kindergartens.

These were combined with institutional pressures, such as trade union discipline, to raise the cultural level of the working population. Wage differentials were retained but only to ensure the loyalty of the remaining professionals to the system.

The ABC of Communism details the attempts at incorporating grassroots institutions of participatory democratic organisation in the productive, administrative and judicial spheres.

Production was to be socialised: “The trade unions should take an ever-increasing share in the administration of industry, until the day when the whole of economic life, from the bottom to the top, shall constitute a unity which is effectively controlled by industrial [productive] unions.”


This programme established a new transmission belt for revolutionary decision making: “Having annulled the laws of the overthrown administration, the soviet power left to the elected soviet courts the realisation of the will of the proletariat and the practical enforcement of its decrees.”

The judicial system was simplified and democratised. Social censure and community service replaced prison as the major modes of punishment.

Wide-ranging practical measures were instituted to make the process of the withering away of the state easier.

In a useful, though flawed, afterword to the new English edition of the ABC of Communism, AW Zurbrugg makes clear that War Communism helped the Bolsheviks win the civil war. But it failed to resolve the major problems that crippled Russia.

It led in practice to the further bureaucratisation of the state apparatus. The Bolsheviks resorted to a market-based retreat in the form of the New Economic Programme.

For all its faults, War Communism had been a temporary policy that kept the soviet system afloat in the hope of an international revolution. Leading Bolsheviks, including Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, were aware of the unprecedented problems they faced.

Tragically, these problems would eventually overwhelm the revolution. The civil war had been won at a great cost – it had all but wiped out the Russian working class.

Increasingly the Bolshevik party began to substitute itself for the class, with power being concentrated in the hands of a layer of state bureaucrats.

Stalin was able to appeal to the self-preservation instincts of this group. He argued that the stalling of international revolution justified a process of state-based industrialisation based on terror over the working population.

Trotsky mounted a heroic opposition to this policy that Stalin responded to with a systematic purge of the party-state that ended with Trotsky’s assassination in exile in 1940.

Nevertheless, the years 1917-23 in Russia showed the possibility of a different way of running society. The ABC of Communism is a fascinating account of an inspirational attempt to change the world.

The ABC of Communism by Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Merlin Press (£15.99) is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

There are a number of other books to read about the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the struggle for socialism.

They include In Defence of October by John Rees, Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed, A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin by Ian Birchall and A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky by Esme Choonara. They are all available from Bookmarks.

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin

Yevgeny Preobrazhensky

Yevgeny Preobrazhensky

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Tue 17 Jul 2007, 19:46 BST
Issue No. 2060
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