Part II

The Years of the Great Dictators: 1919–45

In this part . . .

After the disaster of the Great War, the world looked round desperately for security. Some people thought the brave new League of Nations would save the world; others put their trust in the economic strength of America. But the League failed and America’s bubble burst. The world slid into the Great Depression.

Some turned to communism. The Russians had set up the world’s first communist state, but Lenin’s promises of land, bread, and freedom were soon forgotten as Stalin established his terrible dictatorship: A workers’ paradise run by the secret police. Fascism proved just as bad. Mussolini and Hitler promised a future of strength and joy, but they ruled through jack-booted racist thugs. Worse: Dictatorship spread – through Europe, Asia, and South America. Was democracy doomed?

It certainly seemed so when the Second World War broke out and the Germans and Japanese swept everything before them. Hitler’s power was only broken when he invaded Russia. When the war ended, the Western Allies liked to think that democracy had triumphed, in truth though they’d only won thanks to the Russians. And the Russians weren’t planning on going home again. A new stand-off between democracy and dictatorship was about to begin.

One thing, though. When this period started soldiers were still riding horses. When it ended, they had nuclear weapons. The century was getting very dangerous.

Chapter 4

The Red Flag – Communism

In This Chapter

bulletThinking about Karl Marx and his ideas

bulletEncountering the communist revolution in Russia

bulletLiving in Soviet Russia

bulletLooking at socialism in other parts of the world

Socialism was one of the most important and influential philosophies of the twentieth century, and transformed politics all over the world, from local councils to international organisations. Socialism produced revolution in Russia, drove America into panic, and encouraged nationalists to challenge the power of colonial empires. Yet this philosophy, based on equal rights and power for the people, produced some of the worst oppression and tyranny in history. This chapter explains how.

Workers of the World, Unite! Socialist Ideas

Many different movements have called themselves ‘socialist’. What they have in common is that their ideas stemmed originally from those put forward by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Karl Marx. To understand why socialism had such an effect in the twentieth century, you need to understand his ideas – and to understand Marx’s ideas, you need to understand how the Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives, and often not for the better.


A whistle-stop tour of the political left

People sometimes get confused between the different names used for socialist groups, so here’s a handy guide:

Marxist: Following the ideas of Karl Marx. Now tends only to be used for the most radical groups.

Communist: Comes from the Marxist idea that property should be held in common. It means someone who believes in Marx’s ideas, though that didn’t stop many communists from departing from them.

Socialist: Comes from Marx’s ideas about shaping society. Originally ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ were interchangeable, but when the movement split, ‘socialists’ were those who wanted to put Marx’s ideas into operation but not necessarily by way of violent revolution.

Left wing (also ‘on the left’, ‘leftist’, and so on): The term comes from the French Revolution, where the more radical members of the government sat on the left side of the chamber. Their more conservative opponents sat on the opposite side – hence ‘right wing’.

Social Democrat: Originally this term meant communist, but it got overtaken by ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’. Later it came to mean very moderate left-wingers who believe in working for peaceful change through a democratic parliamentary system.

Captives of industry

The story of socialism begins with the huge changes in agriculture and industry in eighteenth-century Europe. Industrial production seemed very exciting to people at first – no, really it did – but it didn’t take long before the downside became clear.

The problems started when, for reasons we still don’t really know, Europe’s population rocketed, leaving thousands more mouths to feed. The English worked out more efficient ways of farming, but these methods involved using fewer labourers, so people had to start moving from the country to the new and rapidly expanding industrial cities to find work.

Nineteenth-century industrial cities were dark, threatening places, with hundreds of tall factory chimneys pumping out thick black smoke. Because factories were driven by steam and steam engines don’t go to bed, workers trudged to and from work at all hours of the day and night. Most bosses thought safety rails were a waste of good money, especially when cheap labour was so easy to find, so the accident rate was appalling. The workers lived in filthy hovels with no light, space, or sanitation, while the bosses lived in very elegant houses, thank you very much. You didn’t have to be a socialist to see that this situation was deeply unjust. One who did was Karl Marx.

Put that pitchfork down, Pa!

Communists were mostly city folk; they never really understood the countryside. In theory, the peasants who worked the land were just as downtrodden as the workers in the factories, but in practice they took a very different line. When a group of young nineteenth-century Russian radicals went out to the countryside to preach revolution, the peasants shopped them to the police before you could say ‘Ooh arr’. Peasants wanted to take over their landlords’ lands, but they didn’t want to share it with everyone else, least of all with a bunch of stuck-up know-it-alls from the cities. So most communists thought of peasants as useful for overthrowing the ruling class, but deadly enemies thereafter.

This situation was bad news for anyone wanting to stage a communist revolution in peasant countries like Russia, China, India, and just about all of Africa and Asia. Believe it or not, Marx actually approved of European colonial rule in these parts of the world; okay, he thought, imperialism was just another form of capitalism, but all those Western-built factories and railways were the raw material for communist revolution later. Marx just wasn’t expecting any of these countries to turn communist any time soon.

Mr Marx’s interesting ideas

Karl Marx was a German intellectual who’d picked up a useful idea at university, dialectic – the idea that events happen when opposing forces clash (see Chapter 1 for a few more details). Marx thought that these clashing forces were social classes, especially the middle-class bosses (known as the bourgeoisie) and the workers (known as the proletariat). The most obvious reason for the clash: The proletariat were sweating their guts out just to keep the bourgeoisie rich, so it was in their interests to kick against the system.

Marx spent most of his life in England studying how the capitalist system actually worked. His conclusion was that capitalism wouldn’t collapse just because it was unfair; it would collapse because it didn’t work. As he saw the situation, capitalism was driven by businesses expanding, ruthlessly swallowing up anyone who got in their way. In the end, Marx reckoned, so many people would be brought down by the system that the workers would rise up in revolution, take over, and share out the profits of their labour equally, thereby making life fairer, happier, and healthier. Marx called this stage of history the dictatorship of the proletariat, and everyone might as well get used to it, he said, because workers’ revolution was inevitable.


Marxism was an international movement. Marx held that social class transcended national boundaries: Your nationality was unimportant; what mattered was that you were a worker. He believed the class struggle was the same the world over, and the inscription on his grave in London reads ‘Workers of All Lands, Unite!’ (Aristocrats and business people were used to moving freely among their opposite numbers in different parts of the world, so Marx was merely applying the same sort of idea to the working class.)

Marx hated nationalism – the nineteenth-century idea that what defined people was their nationality. Instead, he promoted internationalism. He tried to set up an International Working Men’s Association in London, later known as the First International, but international brotherhood didn’t prevent it from falling apart in lots of unbrotherly arguments. Marxists had another go in 1889 with the Second International, which planned for revolution and sent out Have a Good Strike cards to workers around the world. The Second International ended when the Great War broke out in 1914.

This religion is good stuff, man

In Marx’s day the Christian churches in many parts of the world seemed to be in cahoots with the forces of capitalism. They believed that God had arranged society into separate classes and that anyone who tried to change things was defying God. Moreover, socialists attacked the rich, and most church leaders were very rich – and meant to stay that way. Marx said religion was a hypocritical way of fobbing the poor off with stories of how everything would be alright in heaven: ‘the opium of the people’, he called it, a sort of drug that people took each week to keep them docile and stop them agitating for change. Not surprisingly, communist regimes usually abolished religion and persecuted believers mercilessly.

What was so scary about Marxism?

To judge by much anti-socialist propaganda, Marxists didn’t just want to dismantle the capitalist system and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat: They were wild, scary figures who wanted to burn your house down, dynamite the local shop, and sell your daughter into slavery.


People got so hysterical about Marxism for three main reasons:

bulletMarxist revolutionaries became associated with assassinations and terrorist bomb attacks (though they were far from the only people planting bombs and shooting politicians in the late nineteenth century).

bulletMarx’s idea of putting working class people in charge meant overturning some of the most fundamental assumptions about class and the ‘natural’ order of society that underpinned Western society.

bulletAlthough Marx was Jewish, he and his followers explicitly rejected any belief in God.

Undermining the proper order of society and rejecting God seemed to many people to be a recipe for chaos, especially if they had any property to lose in a post-revolution free-for-all. So in many countries around the world, the middle and upper classes tended to present communists as dangerous characters, barely human, bent only on destruction, murder, and treason.

Nice tune, comrade, shame about the lyrics

Revolutionaries have always been fond of a good sing-song. The French Revolution produced the stirring Marseillaise, which was the international revolutionary anthem until the 1860s when the Internationale hit the music stores. TheMarseillaise had a good stirring tune, which was just as well because the lyrics weren’t exactly catchy:

Arise ye workers from your slumbers, Arise ye prisoners of want For reason in revolt now thunders, And at last ends the age of cant. Away with all your superstitions, Servile masses arise, arise! We’ll change henceforth the old tradition, And spurn the dust to win the prize.

If you couldn’t sing that with a straight face, you could always sing The Red Flag, which went to the tune of the Christmas song O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree):

The people’s flag is deepest red, It shrouded oft our martyred dead, And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold, Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high. Within its shade we’ll live and die, Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

Back to the drawing board: Marxists and the Great War

To any dedicated Marxist, the Great War was the long-expected opportunity for worldwide communist revolution. Unfortunately events didn’t happen that way. Here’s why:

bulletWhat Marx said would happen: Rulers call on the downtrodden masses to join the army and slaughter each other for the benefit of the idle rich, but the downtrodden masses tell rulers where they can put their war and refuse to kill their comrades on the other side.

What actually happened: Working people eagerly joined up in their thousands and marched off to war.

bulletWhat Marx said would happen: Wearied by the brotherly slaughter, the workers of the industrial countries rise in revolution and establish workers’ republics.

What actually happened: Successful revolution occurred only in Russia, a huge, backward, agricultural country with only two industrial cities of any size. (See ‘Early revolutions that sputtered out’ later in the chapter for countries where attempts at revolution didn’t go as well.)

bulletWhat Marx said would happen: Exhausted by the demands of war, Europe’s colonial empires collapse and the capitalist system implodes.

What actually happened: Britain and France emerged from the war with even bigger empires than they had had at the start and the United States emerged as the strongest economic power in the world.

Some moments of international solidarity did happen in the war. The most famous was on Christmas Day 1914, when British and German soldiers threw down their weapons and had a game of football instead. Socialists and some progressive liberals from around the world also maintained an international peace movement which campaigned for a general ceasefire, although the leaders of the countries in the war didn’t take much notice.

But by the time the war finally ended in 1918, the communists had made one very important advance: They’d seized control in Russia.

The Russian Revolutions

The Russian Revolution put communism on the map and made it a world force to be reckoned with. It was lucky that this revolution happened in a big country like Russia – a communist revolution in Liechtenstein wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact. Ironically, though, Russia wasn’t supposed to have a communist revolution, at least not yet. Marx said you had to go through the capitalist stage, with a full industrial economy, before you could stage a workers’ revolution. That meant revolution would break out first in countries like Britain, Germany, or the United States; Russia, which apart from Moscow and St Petersburg was almost entirely made up of peasants, was way down the list. But the Russian communists short-circuited the system, and had their revolution early. The next section explains how they did it.

Setting the stage for revolution

The tsar of Russia in 1900 was Nicholas II, a nice man, very fond of his children, but hopeless at taking firm decisions. He’d come to depend heavily on a mysterious monk called Grigori Rasputin, who was able somehow to keep the tsar’s son’s haemophilia in check. Rasputin was a disreputable character, always throwing wild drunken orgies and then praying to God for forgiveness before sending out the invites to the next one. When Nicholas started appointing Rasputin’s friends to high political office, it looked as if Russia was in the hands of a bunch of real weirdos.

Losing to Japan

Russia in 1900 was virtually a medieval country. It had very little modern industry, its system of government hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages, and neither had its method of farming. Other countries were racing ahead of Russia, but most Russians closed their eyes to the problems until 1904, when Russia went to war with Japan.

The war was about who was going to control Manchuria and Korea. The Russians thought they’d crush the Japanese easily and be back by teatime, but instead the Japanese defeated the Russian army and sank the Russian fleet. Russia was humiliated. (See Chapter 2 to see why Japan won so easily.)

A dress rehearsal for revolution

The defeat to the Japanese was a massive wake-up call to get the country in order. 1904: Lose war with Japan; 1905: revolution at home. The outcome’s hardly surprising, is it?

bulletBloody Sunday: In January 1905, a large crowd marched to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to ask the tsar (or ‘little father’, as they called him. Aah.) for a proper parliament, a limit to their working day, and an amnesty for political prisoners. The tsar wasn’t in, but his soldiers were. They fired straight into the crowd, killing a hundred people and leaving many more badly injured. No one called Nicholas ‘little father’ after that.

bulletMutiny on the Potemkin: The crew of the Black Sea battleship Potemkin killed their officers and declared a sort of naval republic. In 1925, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein turned it into a famous film and just about every other major director since has copied it.

bulletThe soviets: Russia’s workers and peasants elected their own councils (soviets in Russian). The most important was the St Petersburg Soviet, which set itself up as a sort of alternative government. Its leader was an up-and-coming revolutionary leader called Leon Trotsky.

bulletThe Duma: In October 1905, Tsar Nicholas finally agreed to summon a Russian parliament or duma. Most of the revolutionaries reckoned this gave them what they wanted, but some wanted to hold out for more. The year ended with pro-duma revolutionaries crushing their anti-duma former comrades.

If the Russians thought they’d won a fully-functioning democracy, they were in for disappointment. The duma’s powers were very limited, and Nicholas could veto anything it did in any case. He also altered the election law to keep out any awkward people who spoke their mind. His new prime minister, Peter Stolypin, had so many of the tsar’s opponents hanged that people joked about the noose as ‘Stolypin’s necktie’ (okay, it wasn’t a great joke) until a revolutionary shot him in 1911.

The February Revolution

Nicholas hoped that the Great War would help the Russians forget their quarrels, but the war was going very badly for Russia and in February 1917 angry workers in Petrograd (also known as St Petersburg, but they changed the name to make it sound less German) took to the streets demanding bread and an end to the war. Nicholas’s troops refused to restore order. When a ruler can’t rely on his own men, their supremacy’s over. Very reluctantly, Nicholas abdicated.


Although we talk about the ‘Russian Revolution’ of 1917, in fact two occurred (or three, if you count the 1905 Revolution – see the earlier section ‘A dress rehearsal for revolution’). The first revolution occurred following the abdication of the tsar in February 1917 (see preceding section), but when things didn’t improve under the new government the communists staged a second revolution in October and took control.


Russia used the old Julian calendar, which was behind the rest of the world by eleven days, so the February and October Revolutions of 1917 actually took place in March and November. Do try to keep up.

Following Nicholas’s abdication, the new government was a committee drawn from the duma (see the section ‘A dress rehearsal for revolution’). This committee was only a provisional government, holding things together until a proper parliament could be elected. Meanwhile, the Russians elected the soviets again, just as they had in 1905. The Petrograd Soviet sat in the same building as the Provisional Government and claimed much the same right to govern the country. But neither the Provisional Government nor the Petrograd Soviet could solve Russia’s chronic problems of poverty and hunger.

The Provisional Government decided to keep Russia in the war; the soviet agreed, but said it should control the army. Each of them was hoping that, inspired with revolutionary fervour, the Russians would suddenly overcome the Germans. Dream on, friends: Russia lost. By October 1917 many Russians were deeply disillusioned with the Provisional Government and the Russian Marxists decided this might be their chance.

The October Revolution

When the tsar abdicated in 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was the leading figure in the Russian Social Democratic Party (that’s the Marxists – see the earlier section, ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’). Lenin was a determined, ruthless leader who knew exactly where he wanted to take Russia and would stop at nothing to do it. He’d made his name in 1903 when he brought about a split in the Communist Party between those who wanted to follow Marx’s teaching, help Russia to build a capitalist system, and prepare for a communist revolution some time in the future, and those who wanted Revolution Now! Lenin wanted a very quick capitalist stage – say a weekend – before cutting straight to the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. He called this new improved version of Marxist theory Marxism-Leninism; his opponents said it showed he wasn’t a true Marxist.


In 1903 Lenin managed to swing a key vote in the Party – just – and immediately named his followers Bolsheviks, which means ‘majority’ in Russian. His opponents were known as Mensheviks, which means ‘minority’, though ‘Losers!’ would be a better translation – even though the Mensheviks actually outnumbered the Bolsheviks!

Following the February revolution (see the preceding section), Lenin and his pals were holed up in Zurich and had to do a secret deal with the Germans to let them cross German territory to get back to Russia. As soon as Lenin got back, he called on the Russians to overthrow the Provisional Government, but they weren’t interested. Not until a crusty old tsarist general called Kornilov decided that what Russia needed was a dose of good old-fashioned discipline and got ready to march on the capital and administer it were the Bolsheviks able to show their worth. While the Provisional Government were hiding under the beds, the Bolshevik Red Guards set up defences and sent so much propaganda to Kornilov’s men that they all went home. Crisis over: The Bolsheviks were the heroes of the hour. Now, thought Lenin, is the time to seize power.

Even after the Kornilov crisis, not all Bolsheviks wanted to seize power immediately, but Lenin was in one of his I’m-right-and-don’t-you-forget-it moods (his usual mood, in fact). However, Trotsky was the man who actually planned the coup. He had been a Menshevik, but changed sides just in time. The Bolsheviks gathered their troops while the Bolshevik sailors of the warship Aurora trained its guns on the Provisional Government’s headquarters in the riverside Winter Palace. The fighting didn’t last long. The ministers of the Provisional Government were still sitting around wondering whether or not they might consider the situation under Any Other Business when the Red Guards burst into the room and placed them all under arrest.

The Great Experiment – Lenin’s Russia

The first thing that happened to Russia under Lenin was that it got smaller. Finland declared itself independent in 1917, and the Poles, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians soon followed suit. In 1918 Lenin and Trotsky agreed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans, which signed over to them huge swathes of Ukraine, Poland, and the Caucasus. Following the Great War, the Allies made the Germans give the lands back.

Lenin hoped that pulling out of the Great War would leave him free to start introducing socialism into Russia. Not so fast, comrade. A host of enemies – tsarists, Social Revolutionaries, peasants, and even an army of Czech ex-prisoners of war – were gathering arms to overthrow the new Bolshevik government and the Allied powers sent troops into Russia to help them. Russia was plunged into a terrible civil war. The Bolsheviks finally emerged victorious, but then Lenin was faced with the problem of setting up a socialist system in a country already exhausted and shattered by years of war.

Chekamate: Red beats White

Lenin put Trotsky in charge of the Red Army and he proved a surprisingly good choice. He had no military experience at all but he soon learnt the secret of success in war: Make your men more afraid of you than they are of the enemy. Every unit in the Red Army had a political officer called a commissar attached to it, who had the authority to shoot anyone he suspected of treason or even of just being a bit dubious about the Bolsheviks – and that included the unit’s commanding officer. Knowing you’d be shot if you didn’t win had a remarkable effect on the Red Army’s performance on the battlefield. The Reds’ victory over the Whites was largely down to the ruthlessness of Trotsky and the commissars.

The Bolsheviks were equally ruthless behind the lines. Lenin set up a secret police force called the Cheka after its initials in Russian. Lenin decreed that peasants should send all their food to feed the cities and Cheka units were sent out to make sure they did. Anyone who hid food was to be shot. So much food was taken from the countryside during the Civil War that the peasants didn’t have enough for themselves and Russia was hit by devastating famine, in which millions of them starved. The Bolsheviks covered this situation up; in any case, they didn’t trust the peasants an inch, so they weren’t particularly bothered that millions of them starved to death.

Reds v Whites: A Russian civil war

By the end of the Great War, Russia was sliding rapidly into civil war between the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks and the ‘Whites’ – a diverse bunch of anti-revolutionaries and non-Russians who couldn’t agree on much except that whatever type of government Russia needed, it wasn’t the Bolsheviks.

Each side was ruthless, especially on the peasants, who retaliated by trying to withhold food supplies to stop them being confiscated (see the sidebar ‘Chekamate: Red beats White’ for an explanation of this situation). For a long time it looked as if the Whites would win: They controlled most of the country and had military help from Russia’s wartime allies, Britain, France, the United States, and Japan. What saved the revolution, however, was the Whites’ complete inability to work together, coupled with the surprisingly effective discipline of the Red Army for which, once again, Trotsky was largely responsible. One by one the White armies collapsed until by 1921 the last of them was evacuated. The Reds had won.

Life under Lenin

The civil war and Russia’s chronic economic problems forced Lenin to take some very controversial decisions:

bulletWar Communism: During the civil war the Bolsheviks took over all the land and industry in the areas they controlled and forced the workers – at gunpoint, if need be – to produce exactly what the Bolshevik government told them to. This hard-line policy was known as War Communism, though Trotsky said it was actually just pure Marxism in action.

bulletThe Kronstadt Mutiny: So many people were being killed under War Communism that the sailors at the large naval base at Kronstadt outside Petrograd called for it to stop. ‘Aha!’ said Trotsky, ‘so you want to overturn the revolution and return the people to tsarist slavery do you?’ ‘Er, no,’ said the sailors, ‘we just think you should stop killing people.’ But Trotsky launched the Red Army against Kronstadt, crushed the revolt, and killed all the leaders. Which, the sailors thought, proved their point.

bulletThe New Economic Policy: In 1921, with food supplies at rock-bottom and major food riots breaking out, Lenin announced a brand New Economic Policy (NEP) for Russia. He was going to let people set up shops and small businesses and sell things for profit, which in any other country would be called ‘capitalism’. Many Bolsheviks, led by Trotsky, were appalled at this betrayal of Marxist principles; Lenin just said it was a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. Meanwhile, groups of dodgy entrepreneurs called nepmen travelled round Russia offering bargains just for you, comrade, no, really, I’m robbing myself . . .


The arguments about War Communism and the NEP mattered because communists all round the world were looking to Russia for an example of how to implement Marx’s ideas in their own countries. They were pleased to see a communist country up and running, but if it had to turn to capitalism or severe repression to survive, it would make persuading other people of the merits of communism a lot harder.


In 1922 Russia formally changed its name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, or Soviet Union for short.

Finding a successor

In 1924 Lenin died after a series of strokes, and the Bolshevik top brass started manoeuvring to succeed him. The bookies’ favourite was Lenin’s right-hand man, Trotsky, but he had precious few friends among the comrades. He was too clever for their taste and they didn’t like the way he attacked Lenin’s New Economic Policy (see previous section). They also suspected he was planning to use the Red Army to seize power by force. Trotsky, who never really accepted that people who disagreed with him had more than one brain cell, didn’t realise how his enemies were gathering until it was too late. At the 1927 General Congress of the Soviet Communist Party his enemies had him expelled from the Party and two years later he was exiled from Russia. Eventually he settled on Mexico, where he spent his time sulking and denouncing the man who had beaten him to the top: Joseph Stalin.

The Bolsheviks never took much notice of Stalin. He had been useful in the early days, dodging the tsar’s secret agents, but every time he tried to talk about economics or Marxist theory it was painfully clear that he didn’t really understand them. So they gave Stalin a nice, safe (okay, boring) admin job that none of the party high fliers wanted to do: General Secretary of the Party, making sure people paid their subs and deciding who would be local Party Chairman. ‘Comrade Card Index’, they called him. Well, never underestimate a card index, because Stalin used his position to gather huge amounts of information. Soon, thousands of Party officers owed their appointments to him, and he made sure they didn’t forget it. Without anyone noticing, Stalin had built up a huge power base in the Party.


Lenin thought Stalin was too ambitious and brutal and actually wrote a testament to be read out after his death warning the Party against him, but Lenin also slated all the other Bolsheviks, so no one took much notice.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin led the moves to get Trotsky thrown out of the Party, saying Trotsky had been disloyal to Lenin for attacking the NEP. But once Trotsky was out of the way, Stalin suddenly changed his tune, said it was time to sweep the NEP away and make Russia an industrial communist state. The Party delegates all clapped (he’d appointed them all, remember), the other Bolshevik leaders were left saying ‘Eh? But you said . . .’ Stalin wrong-footed them and by 1927 he was able to take charge of the whole country.

Stalin’s Soviet Union

Turning Russia into a fully industrial society wasn’t going to be easy, but Marx had always said it had to be done for any country that wanted to follow the Marxist way. Stalin managed it by a combination of central planning and ruthless enforcement.


Once in power, Stalin was paranoid that Trotsky was organising plots to murder or overthrow him from exile (see the section ‘Finding a successor’ to find out why Trotsky might have wanted to). For many communists, Trotsky represented the pure path of Marxism, and Stalin represented the corrupting influence of power.

Your land is our land

All agricultural land in Russia was collectivised, which meant that instead of belonging to individuals it belonged to the State. Villages were turned into collective farms, where the villages elected a leader who received orders from Moscow on what they should grow that year and how. Many villages tried to resist collectivisation, but Stalin said his opponents were Kulaks – rich, greedy peasants only interested in themselves. And he sent the secret police to hunt them down.


The Soviet secret police went through many names. First they were the Cheka, then OGPU, and under Stalin they became the NKVD. Later generations came to know them as the KGB.

And now let’s have one of you smiling with the mechanical drill

The star Soviet worker was a miner called Alexei Stakhanov, who took the country by storm in 1935 by cutting 14 times his quota of coal. He became the Soviet Union’s number one pin-up, showered with flowers and medals wherever he went. ‘If I can do it, comrades,’ he declared, ‘so can you!’ His words inspired the Stakhanovite movement of ultra-keenies, all risking rupture to show they could work even harder and still look good for the centrespread. When the Soviet archives were finally opened in the 1980s, however, it turned out the whole stunt was a fix: Stakhanov had had the latest equipment and an army of helpers all cutting coal and putting it in his trolley.

Five-year plans

Stalin set up a central planning body called Gosplan to turn the Soviet Union into a top-class industrial state. That meant building everything from scratch – factories, dams, canals, power stations, steelworks – before they could even think about actually producing goods. The whole population was mobilised to work on the programme, and the hardest workers became national superstars. The process was planned in a series of five-year schedules, with every factory given huge, often impossible, quotas to fulfil – usually on pain of death. By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Soviet Union had a strong industrial base. Without this base, it would never have survived.

The time of terror

Stalin encouraged people to work hard by warning them that communism’s enemies were just waiting for them to fail. He didn’t just mean foreign enemies, though: He warned against spies and traitors in Russia itself. The NKVD had the job of hunting down traitors, and they did it by encouraging people to grass on their neighbours. No one could feel safe: Everyone feared the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Thousands of Russians, most of them entirely innocent, were sent to the GULAG, Stalin’s network of slave labour concentration camps. The ambitious and ruthless leader of the NKVD was Nikolai Yezhov, so Russians referred to these terrible years in the 1930s as the Yezhovshchina – the time of Yezhov.


For many years, left-wing historians said the extent of the Yezhovshchina had been grossly exaggerated by right-wing writers, while the right-wingers accused the left-wingers of covering up the horrifying truth. When the Soviet archives finally opened in the 1980s, the NKVD’s records seemed to suggest that the right-wingers had been right all along, but then historians suggested that the NKVD had inflated its own figures to meet its quotas. The arguments go on, but no one now denies that Stalin killed millions of his own people.

Communists outside Russia were very concerned by reports of the Yezhovshchina, but they were even more alarmed by the news that some of the senior Bolsheviks and members of the Soviet government were on trial for treason. In a series of show trials held in front of cameras, some of the best-known Bolshevik leaders, many of them old comrades of Lenin and heroes of the Revolution and civil war, confessed to plotting against Stalin and the Revolution and acting as spies for foreign powers. Communists all over the world were shocked. Some of them denounced the show trials as a travesty of justice (they were right – the confessions had all been extracted under torture and were entirely fabricated); others spoke up in defence of Stalin. Stalin’s dictatorship split the worldwide socialist movement in bitter disagreement.

Worldwide Reds

At first, the Bolsheviks confidently expected that revolution would soon break out all over the world. In 1919 Lenin summoned a Third Communist International to Moscow, though he shortened its name to ‘Comintern’. In 1920 the Comintern divided the international communist movement into ‘Communists’ who were working for worldwide revolution and ‘Socialists’ who weren’t, though what they really meant was those who accepted Russian dominance and those who didn’t. Stalin, however, said he wanted to build ‘socialism in one country’ and wasn’t interested in spreading worldwide revolution, which he reckoned was bound to fail and would only strengthen communism’s enemies.

Early revolutions that sputtered out

Although communist movements existed in most parts of the world, the Russians remained the only example of a successful communist revolution:

bulletGermany: The German socialist party dominated the Reichstag (the German parliament) before the Great War and the first president of the new post-war republic was a socialist, Friedrich Ebert. German communists tried to seize power in Berlin and Munich but were put down by right-wing paramilitary groups called Freikorps. Germany’s communist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Kurt Eisner, were all murdered.

bulletHungary: In 1919 the Hungarian communist leader, Bela Kun, succeeded in setting up a Soviet republic, but the Allied powers refused to recognise it, and the peasants turned against Kun when he nationalised their land. His regime collapsed when the Czechs and Romanians invaded to grab large chunks of land, and ultra-right-winger Admiral Horthy took charge.

bulletAustria: Austrians in 1919 were still adjusting to losing their empire. The Austrian socialist party took control of the capital, Vienna, but the rest of Austria was staunchly Catholic and conservative and hated socialists. Each side raised private armies and by the 1930s civil war had broken out, until order was restored and Austria became a virtual fascist dictatorship. (You can find the gory details in Chapter 5.)


Attempts at communist revolution occurred in the years after the Great War in Germany, Austria, Italy, Cuba, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Bulgaria, Indonesia, and China. The attempts all failed, but communist parties didn’t give up. Many of them expected to be in power within a very short time. Because Marx had said it was inevitable, remember?

Changes in China

Since China had overturned its ancient monarchy back in 1911 (refer to Chapter 3), it had been in the hands of the dictator Yuan Shih-k’ai, who wanted to be emperor himself. The Chinese weren’t having that, and in 1916 the country fell into bitter civil war. Much of China was controlled by local thugs known as warlords until, in 1926, they were finally defeated by China’s nationalist troops, known as the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who wanted power for himself, but didn’t have everything his own way.

During this time, in 1921, Mao Tse-tung and a Kuomintang officer called Chou En-lai founded the Chinese Communist Party. The communists helped Chiang to fight the warlords, but the two groups didn’t really trust each other, and in 1927, when the warlords had been defeated, Chiang suddenly attacked his communist allies mercilessly. Kuomintang troops rounded up and shot thousands of Chinese communists without any sort of trial.

Mission accomplished? Not quite:

bulletMao Tse-tung’s communists still controlled the southern province of Kiangsi, which they declared a Soviet republic, along the same lines as Russia.


In strict Marxist terms, Mao shouldn’t have been founding a Soviet republic in a peasant country like China (see the earlier section ‘Mr Marx’s interesting ideas’ to find out why not), but he believed that Marx was, er, wrong. Mao thought that, if you explained things to them properly, peasants could be just as revolutionary a force as the industrial workers.

bulletWestern powers still controlled some of China’s ports, including Hong Kong and Shanghai. Chinese students demonstrated against European colonialism on 4 May 1919, which started the May 4 Movement to modernise China and kick the foreigners out.

bulletThe Japanese took advantage of China’s weakness and invaded the province of Manchuria in 1931.

The fanatically anti-communist Chiang spent the years 1931–34 launching a series of military attacks on Mao’s Soviet Republic of Kiangsi. In 1934, by burning everything in his path, Chiang finally forced the communists out of Kiangsi. But the communists didn’t surrender. Instead, Mao led them on the famous Long March to start again in the north. (You can find out more about the Long March and the long shadow it cast in Chapter 16.)

I’m a Yankee doodle comrade

Marx had always expected that America would be one of the world’s first communist states, and plenty of Americans were keen to prove him right. America had been welcoming the world’s poor and downtrodden, and many immigrants packed their socialist ideas along with their toothbrush and clean socks. As America industrialised, American workers had tried to establish an effective network of labour unions. American bosses, however, were strongly opposed to the unions and often hired armed guards to break up their meetings. Americans had been horrified by pitched battles between strikers and police in Chicago in 1886 and by the violence sparked off by a Pullman railroad strike eight years later. Getting a socialist movement going in the world’s most industrial country was going to be very difficult.

The main groups were:

bulletAmerican Federation of Labor (AFL): The AFL dated back to the years after the Civil War and it represented skilled workers. Unskilled workers found the AFL a bit stuffy.

bulletIndustrial Workers of the World (IWW): Known to its enemies (and, boy, did it have enemies) as the Wobblies. The IWW was much more radical than the AFL: It represented unskilled workers, immigrants, women, blacks, and anyone else who didn’t fit into the American system.

bulletSocialist Party of America (SPA): Led by Eugene Debs, who had helped set up the IWW and was imprisoned for his part in the great Pullman railroad strike. In 1912 he stood for president and won 6 per cent of the popular vote. In 1918 he was back in jail, this time for opposing America’s involvement in the First World War. The SPA and IWW despised the AFL as a bunch of spineless traitors to the workers’ cause, but after the war the socialist movement split between socialists and hard-line communists.

bulletCommunist Party of America (CPA): Founded in 1919 by radicals who thought that the SPA wasn’t revolutionary enough. It never achieved the same level of support Debs and the SPA enjoyed.

While the workers were arguing amongst themselves, the rest of America was deeply suspicious of the whole socialism thing. In 1919 US Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched a series of police raids to arrest socialists, communists, and anarchists and if possible – and it often was – to deport them back where they came from. It wasn’t the last time America was to be gripped by a ‘red scare’. (See Chapter 10 to read about the next one.)

Marxism in Mexico

Mexico had gone through a four-way civil war during the First World War (Chapter 3 has the details) and Venustiano Carranza, the US-backed Mexican general, came out on top. He brought in a new constitution for the country in 1917, which redistributed the land, laid down rules for education for the people, and severely limited the powers of the Church. Mexico probably had the most radical left-wing government outside Russia. The trouble was that, just like Russia, Mexico’s attempts to build a secure and stable socialist state were hampered by internal conflicts and struggles for power:

bullet1920: General Obregon leads a revolt against his old colleague Carranza – and kills him.

bullet1924: Veteran radical Plutarco Calles is elected president, and he brings in more laws against the Catholic Church.

bullet1926–28: A Catholic rebellion against Calles’s government fails.

bullet1928: In a presidential election, General Obregon wins. And is then assassinated by a Catholic.

bullet1929: Calles’s Mexican Revolutionary Party takes power.

All this unrest made Mexican politics very dangerous and suggested to the rest of the world that socialist states always ended up embroiled in civil war and power struggles. But despite the internal wrangling, Mexico remained a radical – and independently minded – socialist state.


Leon Trotsky thought revolutionary Mexico would be a good place to spend his years in exile from Russia. From Mexico he worked to rally socialists and communists all over the world to defend the true path of Marxism and denounce Stalin’s dictatorship. But even Mexico was not beyond Stalin’s reach. In 1940 one of his agents wormed his way into Trotsky’s entourage, caught him working alone in his study – and drove an ice pick through his skull.

Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two of the most tragic victims of America’s ‘red scare’ in the 1920s. The two Italian-born Americans were accused in 1920 of the murder of two men in a bungled armed raid on a shoe factory in Massachusetts. The evidence was very flimsy but that didn’t stop the trial judge from slanting the whole trial against them, mainly because of the defendants’ anarchist political ideas. They were found guilty but immediately lodged appeals which took six years to hear and attracted controversy all over the world. A special commission was set up to look into the case under the President of Harvard University, which found that the judge had been heavily biased but upheld the guilty verdict. The two men went to the electric chair in 1927. To many people the event seemed a case of judicial and political murder.

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