Kritsman on the Economic Policy of Soviet Russia in 1918

The contributors to Kommunist are often treated as more homogenous than they really were. The name “Left Communists” was affixed to them by Lenin (rather than their own title of “proletarian communists”) but they had different individual concerns and emphases. The later abandonment of the “left” of Bolshevism by the likes of Bukharin and Radek (something Lenin later boasted about in his Left Wing Communism), whilst Ossinsky and Smirnov evolved into leading spokesmen of other Left Communist tendencies in the Party, shows that there were different premises behind the various contributions to Kommunist. What is most interesting, and which their documents reveal, is the acute dilemmas facing Soviet Russia in the spring and summer of 1918. Kritsman’s document here gives a glimpse of the debate over what the economic policy of Soviet Russia should be. Kritsman was to become a leading defender of “war communism” in his famous book The Heroic Period of the Russian Revolution. He later became an economic expert on the agrarian question but declined in significance in the 1920s for his opposition to the New Economic Policy which he described as a “period of primitive capitalist accumulation”. Under Stalin he suffered the same fate as all the Old Bolsheviks. Arrested in 1938 he soon died in prison.

Of all the contributors to Kommunist his life story is perhaps the least documented. Born in 1890, Lev Natanovich Kritsman studied abroad and was out of Russia from 1905 after the Revolution in which he is said to have become a (very young) member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. He even missed all the events of 1917. Ronald I. Kowalski, the most diligent historian of the Russian Left Communists, tells us that “He returned to Russia in early 1918 where, despite his membership of the Left Communist movement he was drafted to work in the Vesenkha.” (see

Vesenkha, or the Supreme Council of the National Economy, was set up on 2 January 1918 (by the new calendar). A decree three days later set up a network of subordinate organs in each region called a Sovnarkhoz (Council of National Economy) and they in turn were to encourage the setting up of Sovnarkhozy in provinces and smaller localities. The whole Sovnarkhoz structure was supposed to be an economic parallel to the pyramidal structure of the soviet system itself. In practice it never really took off since many local soviets just took on both economic and political functions. Vesenkha just became “a central economic department with local offices” (E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 2, p.83). It had long been called for by trade unions (both Menshevik and Bolshevik-led), members of the Central Council of Factory Committees and various Bolshevik economists. Contrary to M. Brinton in his The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control the initiative for this centralisation came as much from below as from above, as S.A. Smith has shown in his Red Petrograd. It is thus odd that Kowalski should express surprise that a “Left Communist” should be involved (Brinton of course maintains that “the Bolsheviks” only gave “Left Communists” a majority in Vesenkha to disguise their true intentions of crushing workers’ initiative).

The fact is that even amongst the “Left Communists” there were differences about how to proceed. The Russian working class was, after all, going where no working class had gone before. Ossinsky (the President of Vesenkha) was far more enthusiastic about working class capacity (see his article than Kritsman. Ossinsky recognised that there were serious problems in the spontaneous take over of the factories and transport hubs by workers, but that these were an inevitable consequence of the learning process which the working class, and the revolution, would have to go through. In this article, however, Kritsman is scathing about workers’ control and does not just say that the spontaneous takeover of factories by workers posed a lot of economic problems, he categorically says they failed, and this was due to the lack of workers’ knowledge about what they were doing. It is no accident that Kritsman is writing at a later date, in the early summer of 1918 when the full impact of the economic crisis inherited from the Provisional Government and Tsarism was at its height. This played into the hands of those who still saw the economic question in the productionist terms of the Second International social democratic parties. However, there was also the fact that the Bolsheviks in October were not clear what the economic way forward should be.

This was the target of Kritsman’s first argument in the document. He goes on at some length about an “economic coup d’état” as the logical outcome of the seizure of power by the working class (“the political coup d’état”). This is a polemic against Bolshevik assumption that they would be left administering some form of capitalism until the international revolution came to their aid. They only thought that they had to nationalise the banks and then do deals with the existing capitalists for them to simply carry on cooperating with the new government. This was the “state capitalism” condemned by Ossinsky in the article we quoted above. But class war is class war and the battle in the workplaces carried on. Some employers simply walked away, others attempted to sabotage production and still others tried to avoid paying wages. Workers were often forced to take over the running of factories whilst others saw that this was the logical outcome of the revolution and enthusiastically threw out the management. These workers wanted the factories to be nationalised so that they would get some economic protection and help from the soviet system. In the end this war in the factories forced the Bolsheviks to decree the nationalisation of the leading heavy industries just a month after Kritsman’s article appeared. Kritsman saw this as the beginning of the drive for socialism. For him the collapse of the monetary system, the forced requisitioning of grain from the peasantry and the nationalisation of industry were all part of the same drive to socialism (only dubbed “war communism” by Lenin when it was on the point of being abandoned for the New Economic Policy in 1921). Hence the title of his article. Its translation and publication throws yet more light on the complexities of the issues facing an isolated proletarian outpost in an imperialist world and gives food for thought for the transition to socialism, when and if the proletariat arises to carry out the role marked out for it by history.

On the Path of Organisation Towards the Socialist Construction of Economic Life

In the economic life of Russia, heavy industry(1) played an important role despite the relatively low number of wage labourers.(2) This has allowed the Russian proletariat to have a leading position in the political life of the country and to become hegemonic in the Russian revolutionary movement. In other words, the political influence of the proletariat was based on the intensive development of capitalism in Russia; in Russia and in Europe in general, since it is the long history of capitalism, and thus of the workers’ movement, that determined the impossibility of the formation of a revolutionary bourgeois party in Russia on the eve of its bourgeois revolution.

The world war gave an enormous boost to the influence of heavy industry, and consequently the proletariat; thanks to the war, military industry developed to the point of predominance, while other branches of industry became secondary. This industry was particularly concentrated in Petrograd.

All the conditions for a political coup d’état came together; the proletariat suddenly seized the whole apparatus of central power. The triumph of the October Revolution was ensured by a balance of forces: the power of the proletariat, alongside the weakness of the bourgeoisie, whom Western history had prevented from creating its own revolutionary party during the revolution.

The conditions for an economic coup d’état were quite different. Workers unions were arising with difficulty and taking their first steps; they hardly knew anything of the technical, economic and still less financial organisation of enterprises. The grandiose political rise of the proletarian masses was accompanied by an intense economic decline, by a disorganisation caused by the world war and exacerbated by the revolution. The latter was pushed to its climax by the conciliatory policy of the authorities, who were by nature incapable of taking effective measures against this disorganisation in the face of active sabotage by the capitalist bourgeoisie.

The political coup d’état that led to the overthrow of the old apparatus of political domination in no way threatened the new economic power of the bourgeoisie, since it only got rid of the apparatus of oppression. This apparatus could be replaced quite quickly with a new apparatus (the councils of workers’ deputies), elaborated in the spirit of cooperation and which had already, in this embryonic form, flexed their powerful muscles.

The inevitable consequence of the economic coup d’état, as a result of the overthrow of the old economic apparatus, threatened to stop all economic life in the country dead; there was no new apparatus ready to replace the old one.

It is true that the political coup d’état created the conditions for an economic coup d’état; in putting an end to the war, it halted the monstrous, murderous and unproductive waste of resources; in transferring political power into the hands of the proletariat, it also gave it economic domination and the possibility of taking the aggressive measures necessary. But the influence of the political coup d’état could only manifest in the long term – at first, only the destructive forces could be expressed.

However, after taking political power, the proletariat and its political party could not refuse to carry out an economic coup d’état. Political power, as such, is the means of assuring economic domination over the class enemy. A party that had carried out a political coup d’état in the name of the proletariat only to refuse to carry out an economic coup d’état would reveal itself to be an anti-proletarian party.

The seizure of the central apparatus of political power was the last step of the political coup d’état prepared over months by the general organisation of the proletariat in the councils. Seizing the central apparatus of economic power (the banks) was the first step in the economic coup d’état. And thus it was particularly difficult to realise.


Shortly after the occupation of the banks, the question arose: what do we do next? What should be the organisational forms of transition that would serve as a bridge to the complete realisation of socialism?

The nationalisation of the banks marked a masterful step towards this development. In the epoch of imperialism, that is, the domination of finance capital, the banks are linked to industry as solidly as the soul to the body. The nationalisation of the banks would lead (as everyone understood) to that of industry or otherwise to the denationalisation of the banks.

But if the content of the economic coup d’état after the nationalisation of the banks was never in doubt, the concrete forms of the coup d’état remained quite vague to imagine, and seemed clouded by a morning mist. One thing is clear: the most important thing is to find the organisational forms of transition. This is not a question of the immediate nationalisation of all industry(3), and consequently of the immense mass of small enterprises; in other words, the abolition of private property by a simple decree. Having seized political power in Russia, a backward country from an economic perspective, the proletariat could not appropriate all economic life in the country in one fell swoop, whatever its desires – this appropriation could only be the result of the organisation of the masses through certain specific forms of transition. But on the other hand, the proletariat must start to seize economic life, since refusing to do so would mean to renounce the revolution that the proletariat both wishes for and is obliged to develop. Therefore, the iron logic of the revolution demands that the proletariat find organisational forms of transition to seize economic life.

The attempt to resolve this problem by establishing workers’ control was doomed to fail, since it was internally incoherent: they only attempted to modify the functions of existing workers’ organisations without creating the new organisational forms imperatively required; owing to their hybrid nature, even workers’ control failed as a type of workers’ management.

Workers’ control was the manifestation of a healthy proletarian aspiration to limit the action of the capitalists, hitherto the unchecked masters of “their” enterprises. But the bastard nature of the form that the realisation of this aspiration took must be recognised; the principal idea of this form was incoherent and rotten on the inside! Incoherent too was the idea of learning how to operate all aspects (technical, administrative, commercial) of the enterprises of the class enemy by controlling their activities, which then meant all their operations. This utopia does not account for the very thing without which workers’ control could not take place – the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the bourgeoisie did not forget this, and by sabotaging the normal functioning of production, it forced the workers’ organs to take another step – control and observation towards intervention in management, in order to transform them, if they succeeded, into instruments towards their own aims. Rotten to the core were those who were afraid to cross the decisive line, that is, to master the productive, technical, commercial and organisational functions of the capitalist without having any experience. This fear advised “workers’ control, yes, workers’ management, no”. “But once the wine is uncorked, it has to be drunk,”(4) comes life’s response, without fear of the taboos concerning the management of enterprises.

Moreover, workers’ control did not achieve its aim. In the absence of any experience whatsoever and sufficient knowledge, there would only have been chances of success if all the forces of the proletariat were concentrated in the same place in each branch – that is, everything would have had to be centralised by branches rather than enterprises being left to themselves. Nevertheless, we tried to organise workers’ management in those places where the organs of workers’ control had retained some autonomy; they went too far with their control when they were forced to react to sabotage and to seize the domain of management; these local and thus powerless attempts were ultimately doomed to total failure and for the most part only led to the disorganisation of enterprises.


The central organ of workers’ control (whose basis forms the Supreme Council of the National Economy) became the centre of the economic organisation of the proletariat in power, the organ of proletarian economic transformation. Just like so many local organs of workers’ control, it could not and did not confine itself to control alone; moreover, it did not just stick to that but carried out and developed the economic transformation as much as it could.

However it floated in mid-air. And in this difficult situation, it feverishly tried to land. This led it to seek support in the Regional Councils of National Economy (Sovnarkhozy) in vain.(5) Thus a schema of political, professional, etc. organisation was simply transferred onto the domain of economic life.

However, it is precisely economic life that does not allow the national general economic organisation to be divided into regions. To cite just two examples, could we bring together two sugar factories from the city of Samara with those of the Volga region, and forty odd others from Kursk, Oriel, Voronezh etc. with those of the central region? Or the “Treugolnik”(6) factory in the northern region with the “Provodnik”(7) factory and two other rubber factories in the central region? And what is to be done with all of the chains of business linking one with another situated along the waterways, not to mention the shipping companies or the general means of transport? The administrative division inherited from Tsarism (which we are obliged to continue to use) hardly took economic life into account; and economic life did not at all take into account the administrative division of regions; nearly every branch of economic life demands another principle of division; and it is absolutely impossible to uniformly divide economic life without mutilating some of its branches (often very important ones).

The disorganisation provoked by the war led to a growing dislocation of economic relations, the dismemberment of the national economy into regional divisions. These manifestations of decay were grossly exacerbated by the civil war and the peace of Brest-Litovsk, which cut “independent” Ukraine off from the rest of Russia to which it had hitherto been connected; the catastrophic state of transport threatens to “maintain” the dislocation of economic relations. In such conditions, the principle of regional division applied to distant regions (Siberia, Turkestan) is a necessary evil. However, we must not forget that this is only a concession to the degeneration, whereas the proletariat must not go backwards, but rather advance forwards towards the strengthening of the economic relations created by capitalism and partially destroyed by the war; not towards decentralisation, but towards centralisation of economic life. And if the economic policy of the proletariat may sometimes allow for the existence of regional centres of economic life as hubs of economic relations and preserve them from further degeneration, it is with a view to unifying them towards the centre as quickly as possible.

But if economic life in general does not allow for regional division of some branches, the existence of regions is indisputable. If this or that branch of a given region plays a very important role in economic life (e.g. metallurgy, mining etc.), or if in another region several branches coexist harmoniously, forming the basis of a reasonably viable regional economic organisation. However, this does not mean that the transformation of a natural region into an economic region where one or two branches dominate does not harm other branches of the economy. Thus, the natural “bed” for one or two branches is a Procrustean(8) one for most of the others.

Indeed, the viable Regional Councils of National Economy (Sovnarkhozy) represent regions where some production is concentrated, e.g. one (in the Urals) or two (in the Donbass).


Capitalism transforms the economy of every country in which it has long established itself into a unified body. And as we know, every unit is indivisible. Hence every division of economic life is forced to neglect certain relations. And if there are several methods of dividing the economic organisation of the country, they do not all have the same value. The division of economic organisations by region does not allow for places where different branches of production are concentrated but don’t overlap or cohere, and contradicts the principal tendency of all economic life towards centralisation.

In the domain of economic life, the construction of socialism is based not only on the tendencies of a pre-capitalist localism, but on those of the most recent phases of developed capitalism. As we know, the capitalist economy has developed from competition towards monopoly, or, more precisely, the competition between isolated entrepreneurs to those of the entrepreneurs' organisations, like trusts, and then on to even more powerful associations of finance capital. The entrepreneur, whether an individual or a collective, sees progressive forms of economic organisation, as well as technical and economic progress, as nothing but a tug of war for profit. Hence these economic and organisational forms do not entirely express themselves in the trusts; nevertheless the principal outlines of the new mode of economic organisation realised in the trusts are quite visible: the trusts are branch associations.

The practice of proletarian transformation of the economy orders us imperiously to follow the same path and punishes every attempt to avoid it. Despite the backward state of Russia (and in part because of the relative domination of the large enterprises that we have discussed above), there are several trusts, in particular in heavy industry. It was these trusts and the associations created by the State in the interest of mobilising industry for military needs (e.g. the leather committee)(9) that became the centre of proletarian organisation in economic branches after their complete or partial transformation, i.e. after the old enterprises were driven out or outvoted by their management. It is interesting to note that the initiative of appropriation by the trusts was carried out, not just by the central authorities of proletarian dictatorship, but also by local organisations (e.g. in Moscow, they organised a soviet managing the trust of starch factories and molasses factories, “Vokpaz”(10), in which the old chief administrators represented a quarter of the members).

But where capitalism and militarism did not have the time to create associations of production, centres of production were created everywhere where proletarian power had the task of organising the branches of economic life on a national scale. To realise this task, they had to reunite the representatives of all organisations and other forces that would have been able or willing to do it; after debating what was needed, such a meeting proved to be the only competent body to accomplish this task. This is how several centres for managing branches of economic life were formed.

They now serve as support for the central economic organ of the proletariat – the Supreme Council of the National Economy. There they establish direct relations with experimental economic organisations of the proletariat and the unions which represent (and not by accident) the associations of the proletariat according to their branch of economic life. Furthermore, the Supreme Council of the National Economy could concentrate all technical and organisational forces at its disposition there, and consequently save them, which is particularly important given the dramatic lack of forces for the dictatorship of the proletariat in a country as backwards as Russia.

Division into regions would inevitably have to lead to the dispersal of forces. Just like the professional organisations of the proletariat, the economic organisation of the country and the regions can only exist as branches of economic life or as general organisations of service to or control of the economy.

In summary, it is not top-down division into artificial regions, but the union of isolated centres governing the economic branches of production, which serves as a path to the effective realisation of the proletarian economic transformation. Ultimately, the central economic organ of the dictatorship of the proletariat created thanks to the political seizure of power is linked to the proletariat represented by the unions; the proletariat that possesses political power thus develops and reaffirms its social revolution.

L. Kritsman

(1) As we know, the role of very large enterprises in Russian industry is particularly important. (Editor’s note)

(2) Although Russia was fundamentally a backwards, agrarian country, the strength of concentrated industrial labour in factories of over 1,000 workers was around 40%.

(3) "It goes without saying that the nationalisation of heavy industry is the inevitable consequence of that of the banks; halting it would mean halting the revolution, but during the revolution “to delay action is fatal”." [Taken from Letter to the Central Committee Members, 24 October 1917, pp. 235 in:

(4) Original said: “If you’re going to call yourself a mushroom, get in the basket.” Apparently a Russian proverb which means once you have started you cannot turn back.

(5) Regional Councils of National Economy (Sovnarkhozy) were set up at the Sixth Conference of Factory Committees on 22 January 1918. This was “a plan for the democratic socialisation of production which had the support of perhaps a majority of Bolsheviks at this stage, including for a short time, Lenin himself.” S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd p.212-3.

(6) Very large rubber factory in Petrograd, which employed up to 15,000 workers during the First World War.

(7) Another rubber factory, originally situated in Riga and transported to Moscow during the First World War.

(8) Procrustes in Greek mythology tortured his victims to death by cutting off their limbs so they would fit the iron frame of a bed he created. He suffered the same fate himself at the hands of Theseus.

(9) During the First World War, the Tsarist government had set up committees in numerous branches of industry in order to regulate the supply and distribution of products. They were known as War Industries’ Committees.

(10) Industrial association of several factories.

Monday, May 11, 2020