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Civil War laid the basis for the end of the Russian Revolution

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Issue 2582
Red Guards unit of the Vulcan factory, 1919
Red Guards unit of the Vulcan factory, 1919

The Civil War in Russia showed the lengths the ruling class is prepared to go to to crush a revolution.

By the end of the war in 1920, 14 foreign armies had invaded Russia to fight alongside the White army led by Kornilov and other Tsarist generals.

Trotsky was a talented leader of the Red Army, and the way the troops fought and won was remarkable.

In his biography of Trotsky, Tony Cliff described the way Trotsky understood the war. “He saw the civil war as an integral part of the revolution, as an extension of the class struggle culminating in the consolidation of political power,” Cliff wrote.

The challenge Trotsky faced when he took control of the army in 1918 was immense.

The Tsarist army of nine million had melted away throughout the revolution.

There were perhaps some 30,000 Red Guards in Moscow and Petrograd combined. But these were irregular and badly armed troops that wouldn’t be much use in a pitched battle.

So the Red Army needed to be built from scratch. More than this, it would have to be built in a country already under attack.

In August 1918 British troops landed in Archangel. They were followed by the Japanese at Vladivostok.

The invaders and the White armies would not wait for the Red Army to organise itself. Conscription to the army would have been impossible immediately after the revolution—the Bolsheviks had promised peace. So volunteers committed to the revolution were necessary to form the core around which the army could be built.

Alongside this, democracy within the army was essential to inspire revolutionary soldiers to fight. Hundreds of thousands of workers and members of the Communist Party flocked to the army.

Workers led peasants, and communists led workers. They ultimately defeated a counter-revolutionary opposition that was divided and unable to win any mass support from ordinary people

Trotsky travelled from front to front in an armoured train, covering over 100,000 kilometres.

The most effective units were generally those with the highest concentration of working class soldiers. The people who had made the revolution were most willing to fight and die for it.

The same dynamics that had shaped the revolution shaped the war. Workers led peasants, and communists led workers. They ultimately defeated a counter-revolutionary opposition that was divided and unable to win any mass support from ordinary people.

But the war was a drain on the class and the party which had made the revolution.

Communists were the first to respond to a new crisis on the front. “Local party organisations have met their obligations twice and thrice over,” wrote Trotsky.

That meant that some 200,000 Communists died in the war.

The entire economy was also geared to the war—and drained by the end of it. In many industries the majority of produce was sucked up by the army.

Despite attempts to maintain democratic control of the army, Cliff wrote, “It was in the Red Army, more than in any other arm of the state, that party democracy gave way to the completely bureaucratic, non-elective principle.”

Centralising decision-making was necessary for the war.

But this led to the erosion of soviet democracy and the rise of the bureaucracy that would later form the spine of Joseph Stalin’s counter-revolution.

Despite the enormous heroism of the people who fought to defend their revolution, the processes unlocked by the war would place that revolution in danger.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

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