The Russian Civil War: An International Struggle | History of the Russian Revolution

The October Revolution was an earthquake that sent shock waves around the world. The idea that workers could take power into their own hands and rule society without the need for kings, queens and capitalists had a great impact among the working masses around the world. For this reason, the ruling classes of all countries united in an effort to crush the new workers state in its infancy.

In Russia, after the revolution, the former Minister-Chairman of the Provisional Committee, Alexander Kerensky, and his generals tried to overthrow the new Soviet regime. But faced with the mobilization of the Petrograd workers, their offensive was a total failure.

Alexander Kerensky/Image: Alternate History

Initially, Lenin seemed to be right when he declared that the civil war phase of the revolution was over and that the Bolsheviks could now concentrate on building the new regime peacefully. But this idea was soon to be shattered by events.

The imperialists intervene

While the anti-communist counter-revolution – also known as the white movement, as opposed to the reds – was defeated militarily and politically, its leaders who lived on the country’s borders received enormous military aid from the great imperialist powers of the era. It started in the early days of 1918. White units were equipped with high-tech weapons, such as tanks and planes: everything the young Soviet republic lacked.

Each imperialist power found itself a flunkey fighting in the civil war: Ataman Skoropadsky in the Ukraine and General Krasnov on the Don were supported by the Germans; General Denikin in the south was aided by the French; Admiral Kolchak in Siberia received full support from the Japanese and the British, who also helped General Yudenich on the Baltic front. In addition to this material aid, imperialist troops landed directly in Russia in 1918. While the Germans invaded Ukraine and the Baltic countries, British forces occupied Baku in the Caucasus, Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the North. After a while, French soldiers took over from the Germans in Ukraine and Crimea, while Japanese and American troops attacked Vladivostok and the Russian Far East.

Members of the White Volunteer Army Image Lodewijk Herman GrondijsMembers of the White Volunteer Army / Image: Lodewijk Herman Grondijs

This intervention had a huge impact on the revolution. Faced with such a threat, the Soviet regime was forced to devote all its forces to its simple survival. Encouraged by the allies, the white generals take their revenge on the people who dared to overthrow them. Throughout the territories controlled by the Whites, a bloody orgy of pogroms and terror was unleashed, under the very eyes of the distinguished representatives of the Western “democracies”.

The intervention of the capitalist powers was justified by the desire to crush the global threat posed by the Russian Revolution. In Russia, the workers had taken power into their own hands and set an unbearable example for the world bourgeoisie. The Russian Revolution had to be “strangled at birth”, as Winston Churchill said. The Russian Civil War acquired an international character very early on, embodied by the French warships anchored in the ports of the Black Sea.

Internationalist propaganda

This characteristic of the civil war was not limited to the side of the counter-revolution, but also found expression on the Bolshevik side. Many foreign militants were then present in Russia and were used for the internationalist propaganda of the new regime. Particular attention was devoted to foreign troops stationed in Russia. Many agitators and propagandists were sent to explain to these men why their governments had sent them to fight in Russia when the world war had been over for months. Many of these activists have paid with their lives for their internationalism. For example, the French teacher Jeanne Labourbe, won over to socialism in 1905, was assassinated by officers of the French army in Odessa in 1919.

White Army propaganda poster Image Вооружённых Сил Юга РоссииWhite propaganda / Image: Вооружённых Сил Юга России

This propaganda had a great impact: almost all foreign bodies stationed in Russia were subject to mutinies, during which the soldiers refused to fight and sometimes even tried to switch to the Red Army. The French Navy is particularly affected by this movement. In the spring of 1919, two successive waves of mutinies shook the warships sent to the Black Sea. The first, organized by socialist militants enlisted in the navy, tried to cross over to the red side with a few warships after a mutiny. It failed, but triggered a second wave, aimed at freeing the imprisoned mutineers, improving living conditions and ending French military intervention. The mutiny forced the French government to repatriate the fleet to France, without putting an end to the revolt, which broke out shortly after in French military ports such as Lorient, Brest or Toulon. This episode is not isolated since the British army was also forced to repatriate its forces after a wave of mutinies.

International solidarity

Many mutineers and deserters managed to join the Red Army. French Army Captain Jacques Sadoul, stationed in Moscow during the war, deserted from the Red Army in 1918 and joined the Bolshevik Party. He also served in the propaganda services of the Red Army. There he met tens of thousands of foreign volunteers. Some of them were foreign (especially Chinese) workers who had been treated as second-rate labor under the Tsarist regime. They rallied massively to the revolution: they exposed themselves to being massacred if they were captured by racist white troops.

Many Central Powers prisoners of war were also in Russia at the time of the October Revolution and thousands of them joined the revolutionary forces. Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, etc. fought in the ranks of the Red Army.

This situation is not a peculiarity of the Russian Civil War. Long before the 1917 revolution, during the Paris Commune of 1871, when Bismarck was aiding the counter-revolutionary armies of Versailles – his recent enemy – Italian volunteers were fighting in the army of the Commune, led by a Pole 34-year-old Jaroslaw Dombrowski.

Polish soviet war propaganda poster Public domain imageSoviet-Polish war propaganda / Image: public domain

At the end of the Russian Civil War, the bourgeoisie was forced to renounce its direct aggression against the Russian revolution, fearing that it would trigger revolutions in the West. When the British government tried to support white Poland in its war against Russia, it was the threat of a general strike that made it back down. British Prime Minister Lloyd George said at the time that a new war against the Russian Soviets would bring the Soviets into Britain. This fear was justified. From 1918 to 1923, capitalist Europe was the scene of many revolutionary uprisings. In Germany, Italy, Austria and elsewhere, the power of the bourgeoisie, which had just shown its true colors with the bloody slaughter of the world war, was assaulted by the working class. The workers were defeated only by the inexperience of their revolutionary parties and the betrayal of the reformist leaders. In Hungary, the bourgeoisie even needed an armed intervention from France and Romania to crush the Workers’ Republic and impose a military dictatorship on the Hungarian people.

A global revolution

All these events show that the revolution of 1917 was not a purely Russian affair, but a world event, in fact the first stage of the world socialist revolution. For millions of workers and peasants around the world, the Bolshevik program was tied to their own problems: war, poverty and exploitation. This unity of interests is a perfect demonstration of what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The workers have no fatherland”, because their interests are not defended by the existing nation-states: they are tools between the hands of their exploiters. Proletarian liberation will require a common struggle beyond national borders.

If international solidarity is often a spontaneous reaction in revolutionary times, it must be organized if it wants to be victorious. The Bolsheviks understood this very well. This is why, since the aftermath of the revolution, they have devoted themselves to building a new revolutionary workers’ international. This task is still as relevant as it was then. If you want future revolutions to be successful and the dawn of a new and better world, you must build an international revolutionary communist movement in preparation. Join us in building the International Marxist Tendency!