The Civil Wars

In England in 1642 a protracted constitutional dispute between King Charles I and parliament deteriorated into armed conflict. The issues concerned taxation, parliamentary approval ofthe king’s advisers, events in Ireland, religion, and the relationship with Catholic France and other foreign powers. The king had earlier and ineffectively resorted to arms against the Scots over religious convictions. The Scots in 1638 and 1640 had illustrated the military vulnerability of Charles I. In 1642 his rash attempt to arrest parliamentary leaders failed. Both sides organized for war. Member of Parliament, Oliver Cromwell, recruited cavalrymen for the parliamentary army. London, urban and Eastern England, the wealthier parts of the country, supported Parliament. The North and West were for the king. The conflict stretched over nine years. The first war ended in 1646 with the king’s forces defeated and the king in custody. The second war saw the Scots intervening unsuccessfully on the side of the king, and lasted some months in 1648. The conflict ended in 1651 with the defeat of the Scottish-supported heir to the throne at Worcester. Oliver Cromwell’s military reputation was established in the first war, with his notable contributions at the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby. In 1648 he took to the field to defeat Royalist uprisings and a Scottish army at Preston. In 1649 he defeated the Royalist threat in Ireland. It was in that theater of conflict that

Cromwell and his forces committed atrocity and came closest to providing support for the claim Lenin made in his letter.

The Russian Civil War was shorter but involved far greater loss of life. In 1917, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks took the opportunity created by the World War I, food shortages, the czar’s abdication, and the political uncertainties of provisional government to seize power. In contrast to Parliament, the Bolsheviks did not give the captive czar the freedom to exchange ideas and to negotiate and then to commit to further conflict. The Bolsheviks formed the Red Army and the Cheka or Vecheka, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage, and Speculation, to carry through their revolutionary program. The Cheka was the special agency set up in December 1917 by the new government to deal with the enemies of revolution. Internally, these enemies included other political parties such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, Czarists, and other social and politically defined groups who they considered obstacles to realizing their vision of the Greater Good. From abroad, the Bolsheviks faced German, Polish, and other hostile powers. In the countryside, peasants organized to resist both White and Red Armies. Finally, the Bolsheviks (Communists from March 1918) faced resistance from within their own forces with the mutiny of the naval garrison at Kronstadt.

Both civil wars started as political struggles that displaced authoritarian monarchies. Neither was primarily a separatist or ethnic struggle. It is sometimes claimed that ethnic and separatist civil wars are notably violent (Walter, 2009). Both civil wars saw foreign interventions. Both were fought in the context of major and very destructive international wars. And many of the combatants in the civil wars had seen service in these major international wars. The English Civil War—a war that was fought across England and in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland—began in the final stages of the Thirty Years’ War. And the Russian Civil War began in the final stages of World War I. In both wars, the stakes for the participants and political leaders were very high, but the levels of violence and deceit employed by the leaders were very different. This difference is illustrated in the way they addressed their common problems.

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