The Battle of Warsaw and the Defeat of the Revolutionary Wave in Europe

August 2020 marks the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, a turning point in the Polish–Soviet War. The failure of the Red Army to spur on revolution among the Polish and European working class corresponded with the gradual closure of one chapter in the development of the revolutionary wave in Europe, and the opening of another: that of the reintegration of Soviet Russia into the imperialist world system.

Europe at a Crossroads

When in November 1917 the working class of Russia seized power, organised in its workers’ councils and guided by its class party, it inspired a revolutionary wave that spread over much of the world. Soon it was not only the Russian Tsar that found himself deposed, but a whole sleuth of monarchs under the pressure of working class revolt had to give way to either soviet or parliamentary democracy. The ruling classes did everything in their power to ensure it was the latter. The First World War came to an end, and a new imperialist order was enforced by the victors. New nations were born and reborn, among them the Second Polish Republic which regained independence from the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires after 123 years of partition.(1)

The Treaty of Versailles did not actually put an end to all military conflict in Europe. In Russia, a civil war broke out against the soviet experiment, with fourteen foreign armies assisting the reactionary Whites. Meanwhile, the Polish state, led by the ex-socialist Józef Piłsudski, found itself waging border disputes with Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Lithuania. Inevitably, the Polish Republic and Soviet Russia came head to head. The first clash took place in February 1919, near Bereza Kartuska (modern day Belarus), where Polish forces defeated a Bolshevik detachment. In April 1919, in their attempt to seize the city of Vilnius from the Lithuanian–Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Polish army clashed with the Red Army again. It was not until the Kiev offensive of April 1920 however, during which Piłsudski, in alliance with the Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura, attempted to “liberate” Ukraine from Soviet control, that the Polish–Soviet War truly began.

War or Revolution?

By April 1920 the capitalist system had survived the first international challenge to its rule. Revolutionary uprisings were violently crushed in Finland (April 1918), Germany (January 1919, April 1920) and Hungary (August 1919). In Poland, the workers’ councils movement had been defeated by July 1919. Only in Soviet Russia did the working class still hold onto power but isolation was starting to take its toll. The signing of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty with the Central Powers, a desperate measure to gain breathing space, forced a rupture between the Bolsheviks and their main allies, the Left SRs. The latter withdrew from the soviet government in March and launched an uprising in July 1918. Meanwhile, the workers’ councils were hollowing out as the masses of workers, haunted by famine and disease, fled to the countryside, perished in the civil war or entered the state organisations. To fight off the threat of Allied intervention and White counter-revolution the Cheka and the Red Army were formed, initially understood to be provisional bodies but increasingly becoming powers unto themselves. In short, the Bolsheviks were gradually becoming a one-party state with a repressive apparatus of their own. After two years of civil war however, there was hope that the year 1920 might finally bring respite. In those months Lenin kept on repeating that now was the time to turn efforts towards the “bloodless front”, to begin reconstruction and rebuild a working class base. By April 1920 the Kiev offensive had crushed these hopes:

The attack of capitalist and landlord Poland on Soviet Russia has interrupted the work of peaceful construction to which the Russian workers and peasants turned once they had defeated Kolchak, Denikin, and Yudenich … the Soviet Government was even ready to transfer for the time being to the Polish ruling classes territory which, by the composition of its population, should not belong to Poland ... Poland replied to the Soviet Government’s peace proposals by a treacherous attack on the Ukraine ... It depends on you, workers of all countries, whether the war will stop as early as possible with the defeat of the Polish capitalists and landlords.

Executive Committee of the Communist International, Manifesto on the Polish attack on Russia, 18 May 1920

Communist Attitudes Towards the Polish-Soviet War

The Second Congress of the Communist International took place from 19 July to 7 August 1920, coinciding with the Polish-Soviet war. At the Congress it was understood that Poland’s Kiev offensive was motivated by: 1) the interests of the Allies, particularly that of France which provided material and strategic support to Poland, which it saw as a bulwark against Russia and Germany, and 2) Poland’s own imperialist aspirations, as it sought to regain its frontiers from 1772. Naturally, the parties of the Communist International, including the Communist Workers’ Party of Poland (KPRP), rallied to the defence of Soviet Russia from Polish adventurism in the Ukraine. The Second Congress was filled with revolutionary enthusiasm, as by July the Red Army managed to rout Piłsudski’s legions, the Biennio Rosso in Italy saw armed workers take over factories, and the Kapp Putsch in Germany collapsed thanks to a general strike. It all made the prospect of world revolution seem closer than ever.

However, different perspectives towards the Polish-Soviet war emerged. For the KPRP and Polish communists in Soviet Russia the interests of world revolution took priority, but they agreed it would be best if the working class of Poland managed to overthrow their own ruling class by their own hand. The matter became more complicated however once the Red Army managed to repel the Polish attack and a counter-offensive was on the cards. Karl Radek and Julian Marchlewski warned Lenin that a march on Warsaw could have tragic consequences, and would actually undermine the chances of revolution in Poland. In fact, a number of ex-SDKPiL internationalists opposed it, in word if not in writing, with Henryk Stein-Domski, on the left of the KPRP, penning an article in Die Rote Fahne stating that “introducing socialism on the points of bayonets” would not work.(2) Ironically, it was those who came from the ex-PPS milieu, like Feliks Kon and Paweł Łapiński, who believed the Polish working class would welcome the Red Army with open arms. Józef Unszlicht, influential in Soviet military circles, stood somewhere in the middle: the Red Army should stop at the ethnographic border of Poland if a peace treaty is signed or if a revolutionary uprising breaks out in Poland, otherwise it should proceed, set up a Provisional Revolutionary Committee which would begin to nationalise industry and attempt to arm the Polish working class.

Among the Bolsheviks, similar differences of opinion emerged. Trotsky hoped for swift peace, as he recognised crossing the ethnographic border could rally the Polish masses around Piłsudski, and he knew first hand that the Red Army was in no state to successfully carry out a military drive to the West. Lenin, who initially favoured peace and was keen to defend the right of Poland to self-determination, now saw the chance to finally break Soviet Russia’s isolation and convinced the Politburo to go for it in the atmosphere of revolutionary enthusiasm. Trotsky had to toe the line. Bukharin, who in 1918 as one of the editors of the Kommunist journal advocated revolutionary war with Germany, hoped the military campaign could go beyond Warsaw “right up to London and Paris”.(3)

Behind the scenes, however, secret manoeuvres were contemplated. Victor Kopp, Soviet Russia’s diplomatic representative in Berlin, probed the German government whether there was any possibility of organising a “combination between the German and Red armies with a view to proceeding against Poland together”.(4) Lenin asked Kopp to cease these talks, but unable to secure a peace with Poland a faction around Trotsky (which likely included Radek, Ephraim Sklyansky and Alexei Rykov) wanted to explore the possibility further, as they knew chances of military victory were otherwise slim. Paul Levi also offered communist support to any German government that would “support Russia in this conflict”, for which he was scolded by other Berlin communists.(5)

“Miracle on the Vistula”

As the Red Army pushed on to Warsaw conquering Polish territories, the difficulty of “spreading the revolution” unfolded. As was mentioned previously, by July 1919 the workers’ councils in Poland were no more, so there was no chance of linking up with them. In the lead up to the war, since mid-1919, the KPRP was able to organise anti-war rallies and demonstrations in Warsaw, Kalisz, Łódź, Lublin, etc., and strikes in the Dąbrowa Basin under anti-war slogans. It also carried out clandestine activity within the rank and file of the Polish army. But with the official outbreak of war, the KPRP was now considered by the Polish government to be an agent of the Russian state and treated as such: between July and August 1920, about 2,000 of the 8,000 members of the KPRP had been arrested, including some of its leadership. In Warsaw alone about 600 communists were arrested. This effectively paralysed the party, and broke the link between communists in the west and east of Poland.(6)

As such, the Bolsheviks had to find some other way of fomenting revolution among the Polish working class. To this end, a Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee (Polrewkom) was founded by Polish communists in Moscow to accompany the advance of the Red Army. It set up base in Białystok (the largest city in north-eastern Poland), and received millions of roubles to help organise local administration and spread propaganda. A counterpart Galician Revolutionary Committee (Galrewkom) was set up in Kiev to administer the area around the Polish-Ukrainian border.

On the Polish territories liberated from the yoke of capital, the Polish Provisional Revolutionary Committee has been formed, made up of Julian Marchlewski, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Feliks Kon, Edward Próchniak and Józef Unszlicht. Until the creation of a permanent Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of Poland, the Provisional Revolutionary Committee is tasked with laying the foundation for the future Soviet Polish Socialist Republic of Councils. With this the aim of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee is:
a) to deprive the authority up until now existing in the szlachta-bourgeois government,
b) to re-establish and again to organise factory committees in the towns and farm labourers’ committees in the villages,
c) to organise local revolutionary committees,
d) to hand over ownership of the nation’s factories, property and forests to the management of the town and village workers’ committees,
e) to guarantee the inviolability of the peasants’ lands,
f) to call to life organs of public safety, the economy and food supply,
g) to guarantee to citizens, loyally acting on the orders and directions of the revolutionary authorities, complete security.

Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee, 30 July 1920

More than 100 of these “revolutionary committees” were formed in localities with the help of KPRP members but also sympathising elements in the Poale Zion, the Bund, the trade unions and, unfortunately, some opportunist elements. They set about reorganising local life, creating workers’ militias, reforming the education system and confiscating large property. Though they managed to attract support from the oppressed minorities and the very poor, they had little success precipitating working class self-activity. Rather than an organic expression of the class struggle, they were conceived by Polish communists in Moscow (e.g. Unszlicht) as a temporary solution until workers’ councils could be re-established. Such an attempt to spur on “revolution from above” could only go so far. Members of the Polrewkom were themselves disparaging of their limited ability to gather popular support, which they understood to be a consequence of coming across as representatives of a power which “came from the outside” rather than one actually “carried by a mass movement”.

The largely rural population of eastern Poland mainly observed the Polish-Soviet war passively, finding neither the cause of Lenin nor Piłsudski particularly convincing (in fact, Piłsudski’s adventurism was unpopular even in Polish parliamentary circles). At times however the Red Army found itself at odds not only with the local population, but also with Polish communists: instances of pillaging and plunder, of overriding the decisions of local revolutionary committees, of enforcing Russian and Yiddish as the official language, and even proposals to deport Polish populations from areas near the front, all did little to convince apprehensive Polish workers that this was not just a disguised attempt to rebuild the Russian Empire (as Polish propaganda had claimed). The Polrewkom tried to moderate Red Army excesses. But, as Victor Serge also noted, “the Russians had made a psychological error by including Dzerzhinsky, the man of the Terror, side by side with Marchlewski on the Revolutionary Committee that was to govern Poland … far from firing the popular enthusiasm, the name of Dzerzhinsky would freeze it altogether.”(7)

Ultimately the link between revolutionaries and the masses was never strong enough and the march on Warsaw did not trigger any Polish Revolution. The strikes that occurred in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Britain, against the loading of munitions for Poland, were not enough to destabilise the Polish military either. And repeated attempts at trying to strike peace deals, some offering Piłsudski more than what he eventually got, failed. So when the Red Army reached Warsaw, it could only count on its military might and strategy. Dzerzhinsky wrote at the time: “the fate of the world is being decided.”

The final result was a victory for Piłsudski, which up to this day serves as an asset in Polish nationalist propaganda, being celebrated as the “miracle on the Vistula”, the “war that saved the world from communism”. Stalin’s personal role in the defeat has been particularly criticised, but the Red Army commanders in general failed to coordinate, struggled to organise reinforcements, and the Polish army decoded their communications. The Battle of Warsaw lasted almost two weeks and ended on 25 August 1920 with the Red Army having to retreat, the short-lived Polrewkom and many communists and sympathisers going back with it. Those who stayed behind, or did not flee in time, faced repression for collaboration with the enemy. Jews in particular were targeted, fuelled by “Judeo–Bolshevik” conspiracies. On 18 October a cease-fire was agreed. The march on Warsaw had failed to revive the revolutionary movement in Europe.

Lessons for Today

The error in the strategic calculations in the Polish war had great historical consequences. The Poland of Piłsudski came out of the war unexpectedly strengthened. On the contrary, the development of the Polish revolution received a crushing blow. The frontier established by the Riga treaty cut off the Soviet Republic from Germany, a fact that later was of great importance in the lives of both countries.

Trotsky, My Life

1921 was a highly significant year in the degeneration of both the Russian and international revolution.(8) The infamous 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, which adopted the NEP and introduced the ban on factions, finished on 16 March. On 18 March, the Kronstadt revolt was bloodily suppressed. The Peace of Riga, which officially ended the Polish-Soviet War, was signed on that same day. Reflecting on the failure of the counter-offensive, Lenin would later admit that “in the Red Army the Poles saw enemies, not brothers and liberators.”(9) But with the conclusion of a preliminary peace with Poland, he tried to put a positive spin on it:

Without having gained an international victory, which we consider the only sure victory, we are in a position of having won conditions enabling us to exist side by side with capitalist powers, who are now compelled to enter into trade relations with us. In the course of this struggle we have won the right to an independent existence.

Lenin, Our Foreign and Domestic Position and Party Tasks, November 1920

Over the next few months, Lenin essentially came around to Trotsky’s and Radek’s views on German-Russian cooperation as the best bet for ensuring Soviet Russia’s future survival. After the defeat of the March Action in Germany in 1921, the Bolshevik leadership settled on the principle “if you can’t beat them, join them”. A German-Soviet treaty was signed in May 1921, recognising the Bolshevik government as the legitimate government of Russia, and then the Treaty of Rapallo was signed in April 1922. Soon secret military provisions followed, which allowed Germany to train their troops on Russian soil and circumvent the military restrictions forced on it by the Treaty of Versailles. The same troops it used to crush the communist movement. This political and military reintegration of what now became the Soviet Union into the international imperialist system was more of a curse than a blessing. It put the revolutionary bastion on a course which under Stalin came to its logical conclusion: admittance into the League of Nations. The invasion of Xinjiang in 1934, the intervention in Spain in 1936, and finally the invasion of Poland in 1939, established the Soviet Union as an imperialist bloc of its own.(10) Stalin’s regime perfected the politics of “revolution from above” introduced “on the points of bayonets”: first with the implementation of the five-year plan in 1928, and then with the creation of numerous people’s republics on the same model in the aftermath of the Second World War. This legacy – by which communism became synonymous with state repression, forced collectivisation, industrialisation, and a planned economy, in other words, state capitalist development – haunts us to this day.

The only thing that could have turned things around in 1920 was the self-activity of the working class. No amount of tactical manoeuvres on the military front could replace it. World revolution and working class self-activity were the principles guiding the Bolsheviks, but ones which they increasingly abandoned, both on the domestic as well as international front, as circumstances became more and more desperate. The march on Warsaw was a shot in the dark, with only two potential outcomes: it would either be the spark that lit the fire of revolution in Europe, or a miscalculation that would only reinforce Soviet Russia’s isolation. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that those internationalists who warned against the march on Warsaw were right. And indeed, Lenin himself came to acknowledge it as an error not be repeated.(11)

It would be unpardonable opportunism if ... we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism.

Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”, December 1922



(1) For more on Polish independence, see:

(2) An opinion for which he would be later reprimanded by the degenerating Communist International, see: English translation of Domski's article is now available here:

(3) Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, p.101. For our translations of Kommunist, see:

(4) John Erickson, The Soviet High Command: A Military-political History 1918-1941, p.148

(5) Ruth Fischer, Stalin and German Communism: A Study in the Origins of the State Party, p.197

(6) The KPRP came about as the result of a merger in December 1918 between the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), a sister party of the RSDRP, and the PPS-Left, a split from the social-patriotic Polish Socialist Party (PPS), see:

(7) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p.109

(8) For more on the counter-revolution, see:

(9) Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin

(10) The border agreed upon between Poland and Ukraine at the Peace of Riga in 1921 remained in place until 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland hand in hand with Hitler’s Germany. See:

(11) After the defeat in Poland, Lenin saw that he could not let temporary military success blind him from political reality again. To this end, he tried to prevent a repeat of history in the East, where Stalin and Ordzhonikidze tried to carve out their own fiefdom, see:

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

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