Historical lessons of the Kronstadt revolt
Recently Internationalism received a pamphlet from the Chicago Revolutionary Network (CHIREVNET), entitled "The Revolutionary Uprising of Sailors and Workers of Kronstadt, Russia, March 1921." First, we want to acknowledge the effort of the pamphlet's author to consider important events in the history of the workers' movement that have important lessons to be learned on how revolutionaries conceive of the essential problems of proletarian revolution today. The pamphlet cites our book-recently translated into English-The Dutch and German Communist Left: A Contribution to the History of the Revolutionary Movement as the source of its account of the events of the Kronstadt uprising, but it also criticizes the ICC for supposedly regarding the Bolsheviks' repression of the revolt as a "tragic necessity." In this regard, the pamphlet fundamentally misunderstands, miseads or misrepresents our analysis of the Kronstadt events. Over the years, the ICC has consistently and sharply criticized political groups that defend the incorrect view that the suppression by force of the Kronstadt rebellion was a "tragic necessity," as can been seen in the two part series we begin publishing below, or in International Review No.3, or No. 104
The CHIVREVNET pamphlet also reflects a number of essentially anarchist or councilist myths regarding Kronstadt and the lessons to be drawn therefrom. This is particularly, but not solely, true in its understanding of the role of the Bolshevik party in the crushing of the revolt, and the anti-party lessons it draws from the supposed "statist authoritarianism" of the Bolsheviks. To cite only one example, the author argues that:"(….) there is no revolutionary need for political parties since this implies: participating in the capitalist electoral charade-which we all know means more or less the same old capitalist, authoritarian dictatorship by the big capitalist ruling class-and, a desire for state power." This oversimplified anti-party political conclusion completely misunderstands the role of the revolutionary party and the relationship between party and class in the process of coming to consciousness, which has nothing to do with participation in the electoral mystification peddled by the bourgeoisie.
Furthermore, the pamphlet's methodological frame of reference-despite CHIVRENET'S frequent invocation of the Marxist dialectic elsewhere1-fails to grasp the true historical meaning of these events. For example, it does not seek to set the Kronstadt revolt in its historical context - and the author acknowledges this from the outset. Despite its supposed aim of developing a proletarian understanding of the meaning and significance of the Kronstadt revolt, the pamphlet fails to grasp these events through the lens of historical perspective, which is the sine qua non for developing a scientific, Marxist-in short, proletarian-understanding of social, political and historical events. Lacking this grounding, it is not surprising that CHIREVNET falls prey to anarchist moralizing regarding Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. Weakened by anarchism's ageless moralistic essentialism, the pamphlet fails to draw any real historical balance sheet of the Kronstadt revolt and its overall relation to the Russian Revolution itself, the most important event to date in the history of the proletariat's struggle against capitalism. Without this critical frame of reference, the pamphlet fails to understand how the repression of the Kronstadt revolt flowed not simply from certain theoretical errors of the Bolshevik Party or from Lenin's "substitutionism," though these were clearly important factors, but ultimately from the contextual realities imposed on the actors by the failure of the revolution to effectively spread to other countries and the international isolation of the proletarian bastion in Russia from the massive working class concentrations of Western Europe and North America. Without this understanding, the old anarchist moralist explanations for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution prove too tempting for CHIREVNET to pass up. According to this view, the origins of this latter process are to be found in the authoritarian predispositions of the Bolshevik leadership, essentially reducing the question to a matter of good vs. bad historical personalities-to the possession, or lack thereof, of the correct moral outlook …a theory that, in the end, reflects iidealist and petty-bourgeois rejection of historical materialism.
In responding to this pamphlet, we are publishing translations of two articles previously appearing in French in Revolution Internationale #310, March 2001, the territorial press of the ICC's section in France. These articles explain the ICC's position on the repression of the Kronstadt revolt particularly well, demonstrating the origins of these positions in the Marxist balance-sheet of the Russian Revolution drawn by our predecessors in the left fractions that detached themselves from a degenerating Third International, during the height of the Stalinist counter-revolution.
It is our hope that CHIVRENET will accept our response in a fraternal manner and will continue the process of debate and discussion, which is the fundamental and necessary precondition for political clarification within the workers movement. We encourage our readers to intervene in this debate with written contributions and by raising these issues in their discussions among themselves, with us and other groups of the milieu.
However, it is also important here to mention that the Los Angeles Workers' Voice (now calling itself USWV) has also published a lengthy article on the Kronstadt revolt. It is not necessary to recount here the rather circuitous political evolution of this group from supporters of Albanian Stalinism to their current parasitic attack on the groups of the proletarian milieu (see articles in this issue and Internationalism #122 ). It is enough to recognize that despite the apparent similarities of the analysis of Kronstadt offered by LAWV and CHIREVNET, the two groups currently evidence completely different political trajectories. Although the articles of both publications share similar serious libertarian and anarchist confusions, CHIREVNET's is clearly searching for political clarity in understanding the issues confronting the workers' struggle. By contrast the LAWV's current position on the Russian Revolution, in which it sees the Bolsheviks as counter-revolutionary from about 1918, and the Russian Revolution as degenerating almost as soon as the insurrection was completed in October 1917, is a clear and abrupt step backward from the historical positions of the Communist Left that they defended during their affiliation with the IBRP for over five years.
We suspect that the LAWV's jumping on the libertarian bandwagon on Kronstadt reflects a seductive attempt to gain credibility with the libertarian and anarchist-influenced groups as part of its current parasitic campaign of denigration of the organizations of the Communist Left (the ICC and the IBRP). The LAWV goes so far as to reproduce, without citing the source, the cover of CHIREVNET'S pamphlet on the cover of the latest issue of The New Internationalist. Further, in its article attacking the ICC in the same issue, the LAWV charges that the alleged ICC defense of the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt as a "tragic necessity" is supposed proof of our desire to "empower ourselves" and for a "party-state dictatorship over the proletariat." What may have been an honest misreading of our position by the CHIREVNET becomes a blatant lie and slander in the pages of the LAWV.
We look forward to the positive spirit of debate with groups that are honestly trying to come to grips with serious issues facing the working class and in drawing the lessons of past struggles, which can serve as an effective counter-weight to the divisive and destructive parasitism of elements like the LAWV.
CHIVRENET can be contacted at: Perry Sanders PO BOX 578042 Chicago, IL 60657-8042 [email protected]
The Repression of Kronstadt in March 1921: A Tragic Mistake for the Workers' Movement
Over 80 years ago, in March 1921, less than four years after the seizure of power by the working class in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, the Bolshevik Party put an end, by force, to the insurrection of the Kronstadt garrison on the small island of Kotlin in Gulf of Finland, about 30 kilometers from Petrograd.
Over the course of several years, Soviet Russia had been forced to lead a bloody fight in the civil war against the counter-revolutionary intrigues of the white armies who were supported by a number of foreign powers. Nevertheless, the revolt of the Kronstadt garrison was not a part of these counter-revolutionary endeavors: it was a revolt emanating from the same working-class partisans of the Soviet regime who had been at the forefront of the October Revolution. These workers advanced grievances with the aim of correcting the numerous abuses and intolerable deviations of the new power. The bloody repression of Kronstadt constituted a great tragedy for the worker's movement in its entirety.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a proletarian revolution, the first victorious episode in the development of the world proletarian revolution that was the international working class' response to the imperialist war of 1914-1918. The October insurrection was part of a process of the destruction of the bourgeois state and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and, as passionately defended by the Bolsheviks, its profound meaning was that it marked the first decisive moment in the world proletarian revolution, of the class war of the world proletariat against the bourgeoisie.
Isolation Was The Real Cause of the Degeneration of the Russian Revolution The revolution initiated in Russia in 1917 did not succeed at the international level despite the many attempts of the working class to spread the struggle across the whole of Europe and elsewhere.
Russia itself had been torn apart by a long and bloody civil war that devastated the economy and fragmented much of the industrial proletariat, the real supporters of Soviet power.
The elimination of the factory committees, the progressive subordination of the soviets to the apparatus of the state, the demolition of the workers' militias, the growing militarization of social life-results of the tense period during the civil war- and the creation of various bureaucratic commissions, were all extremely significant demonstrations of the developing degeneration of the revolution in Russia. Even if certain of these factors date to the period preceding the civil war, it was the latter period that witnessed the full blossoming of the process of degeneration. More and more, the leadership of the "Party-State" developed arguments that claimed that the self-organization of the working class might be fine in principle, but that-in the present instant-all efforts must be subordinated to the military struggle against the counter-revolutionary forces. A doctrine of "efficiency" began to undermine the essential principles of proletarian democracy. Under the cover of this doctrine, the state began to institute a militarization of labor, which submitted the workers to the methods of surveillance and extreme exploitation. Having emasculated the factory committees, the path was opened for the state to introduce the "management of one" and the Taylorist system of exploitation at the point of production, the same system Lenin had denounced as the enslavement of man to machine. The havoc of the war economy, coupled with the international blockade, rendered the entire country on the brink of famine; and the workers were forced to satisfy themselves with rations that grew more and more meager each day, and were often distributed in a very irregular manner. Many sectors of industry ceased to function entirely, and thousands of workers were forced to resort to their own resources in order to survive. The natural reaction of many workers was to leave the city altogether in order to find some means of subsistence in the countryside.
As long as the civil war raged, the Soviet state maintained the support of the majority of the population, as it was identified with the struggle against the old possessing classes. The sufferings of the civil war had been endured with a relative willingness on the part of the workers, laborers, and small peasants. However, following the defeat of the white armies, many began to expect that their living conditions would become less severe and that the regime would loosen a bit its grip on economic and social life. Nevertheless, the Bolshevik leadership, at all times confronted with the devastation of production caused by the war, was rather reluctant to permit any loosening of the state's control over social life.
The Kronstadt Uprising At the end of 1920, peasant uprisings spread across Tambov province, the middle Volga, Ukraine, Western Siberia and several other regions. The rapid demobilization of the Red Army fanned the flames of the revolt as the "peasants in uniform" returned to their villages. The main grievances of these revolts were the ending of grain requisitions and the right of the peasants to determine the use of their own products. At the beginning of 1921, the spirit of revolt spread to the workers in the cities that had been at the forefront of the October insurrection: Petrograd, Moscow and Kronstadt.
Petrograd witnessed a series of important spontaneous strikes. In factory assemblies and street demonstrations, resolutions were adopted that demanded an increase in food and clothing rations, as the majority of workers were suffering from cold and hunger. In conjunction with these economic grievances, other more political demands appeared as well: the workers wanted an end to the restrictions on moving outside the city, the liberation of imprisoned workers, freedom of expression, etc. Without any doubt, some counter-revolutionary elements such as the Mensheviks and the Social revolutionaries (SRs) played a role in these events. Nevertheless, the strike movement in Petrograd was essentially a spontaneous proletarian response to intolerable conditions of life. The Bolshevik authorities, however, could not admit that the workers might strike against the post-insurrectional state, which was regarded by them as a "Workers' State", and charged the strikers as provocateurs, idlers and individualists.
These were among the social troubles in Russia, and above all in Petrograd, which would serve to detonate the sailors revolt at Kronstadt. Even before the strikes in Petrograd broke out, the Kronstadt sailors (which Trotsky described as being the "glory and honor of the revolution") had already opened up a struggle of resistance against bureaucratic tendencies and the reinforcement of military discipline within the Red Fleet. However, when news of the revolts of Petrograd arrived and with the declaration of martial law, the sailors immediately mobilized. On the 28th of February they sent a delegation to the Petrograd factories. The same day the crew of the cruiser "Petropavlovsk" held a meeting and voted a resolution that was to become the program of the Kronstadt insurgents. This resolution advanced both economic and political grievances, and demanded notably the ending of the draconian measures of "war communism" and the regeneration of the power of the soviets along with the freedom of speech, a free press and the right of expression to all political parties.
On the 1st of March, two delegates from the Bolshevik party met with the crew of the Petropavlovsk, denounced their resolution and immediately threatened repression if the sailors did not back down. This arrogant and provocative attitude of the Bolshevik authorities poured oil on the fire and galvanized the anger of the sailors. On the 2nd of March, the day of the reelection of the Kronstadt Soviet, 300 delegates voted for the Petropavlovsk resolution and adopted a motion for the "peaceful reconstitution of the soviet regime". The delegates formed a "Provisional Revolutionary Committee" (PRC) charged with the administration of the city and the organization of its defense against any armed intervention of the government. This was the birth of the Kronstadt commune, which began to published its own Izvestia, the first issue of which declared: "The Communist Party, master of this state, has proven itself incapable of bringing the country out of the chaos. The innumerable incidents which have recently transpired in Moscow and in Petrograd clearly show that the party has lost the trust of the working masses. The party neglects the needs of the working class because it believes that its grievances are the fruit of counter-revolutionary activities. In this belief, the party commits a profound mistake."
However, the revolt of the Kronstadt Commune remained totally isolated. The call of the insurgents for the extension of what they called the "Third Revolution" failed to gain an echo. In Petrograd, despite sending a delegation to the factories, despite the distribution of tracts and the Petropavlovsk resolution, the Red Fleet's call did not succeed in mobilizing the working class of the whole of Russia who could recognize their own situation in the program of the insurgents and who alone could fully sustain the revolt. The Petrograd workers ceased their strike movements and returned to work under conditions of martial law. The Russian working class had been broken, demoralized and scattered by the dislocations of the civil war.
The Crushing of the Kronstadt Commune The immediate response of the Bolshevik government to the rebellion was to denounce it as a part of the counter-revolutionary conspiracy against the power of the soviets. Certainly, all the vultures of the counter-revolution, from the white guards to the SR's, attempted to recuperate the rebellion to their own purposes and offered it their "support." Nevertheless, except for the humanitarian aid offered through the channel of the Russian Red Cross controlled by the émigrés, the PRC rejected all the advances made by the forces of reaction. It proclaimed that it was struggling not for the return of autocracy, or the Constituent Assembly, (wherein were assembled, beginning in 1918, the enemies of the revolution) but for a regeneration of the soviets liberated from bureaucratic domination: "It is the soviets and not the Constituent Assembly that are the ramparts of the workers" declared the Izvestias of Kronstadt. " In Kronstadt, power is in the hands of the sailors, the red soldiers and the revolutionary workers. It is not in the hands of the white guards commanded by General Kozlovsky, as deceptively affirmed by Radio Moscow."
One cannot deny that there were petty-bourgeois elements in the program and ideology of the insurgents, as well as among the personnel of the navy and the army. In fact, this was an opportunity for these elements, hostile to the Bolshevik Party because it had been at the forefront of the revolution of 1917, to demonstrate their contempt. However, the presence of these elements did not alter the fundamental nature of the movement itself.
The Bolshevik leadership reacted to the Kronstadt rebellion with an extreme firmness. Its intransigent attitude very rapidly eliminated any possibility of discussion or compromise. During the military assault on the fortress itself, the Red Army units sent to crush the rebellion were constantly on the verge of demoralization. Some of these units fraternized with the insurgents. In order to ensure the loyalty of the army, eminent Bolshevik leaders were dispatched to the scene from the 10th Party Congress, then in session in Moscow. At the same time, the rifles of the Cheka were pointed at the backs of the soldiers in order to doubly ensure that any demoralization would not be able to spread. When the fortress finally fell, some of the insurgents were massacred, summarily executed or quickly condemned to death by the Cheka. The others were sent to concentration camps. The repression was systematic and without mercy.
At the time of these events, an overwhelming fear of the danger that the White Guards would only exploit the Kronstadt revolt in order to level their account with the Bolsheviks obliged some of the voices most critical of Bolshevik power to support the crushing of the rebellion.
A Mistake for the Whole Workers' Movement If there is one aspect of the crushing of the Kronstadt revolt that anti-Leninists of all stripes continually do their best to mask, it is that the Bolshevik Party's mistake was shared, at the time, by the entirety of the workers' movement, including the fractions and currents of left communists who had been excluded from the International.
Thus, the Workers' Opposition, a fraction in opposition to the Bolshevik leadership, expressed its full support for the repression; and Alexandra Kollantai (who was at the forefront of this fraction) went so far as to indicate that the members of her fraction would be the first to volunteer to serve in the crushing of the rebellion.
The fractions of the German-Dutch left, even if its position was clearly differentiated from Kollantai's enthusiastic support of the repression, did not condemn nor critique the Bolshevik policy. Thus, the KAPD2, at the time, defended a thesis according to which the Kronstadt Revolt was a counter-revolutionary plot against Soviet Russia, and thus did not condemn the repression. Herman Gorter, a militant of the Dutch left, affirmed that the measures taken by the Bolsheviks were "necessary" in the face of the Kronstadt Revolt, as he believed the latter was a counter-revolutionary insurrection emanating from the peasantry.
From within the Bolshevik Party itself, Victor Serge, even if he affirmed his refusal to take-up arms against the sailors at Kronstadt, did not protest against the repression out of loyalty to the party.
Thus, it is clear that this tragic mistake was not committed by the Bolshevik Party, and even less by its leadership, alone. In reality, the Bolsheviks only carried out a tragically mistaken policy that was the natural consequence of the incomprehensions of the entirety of the workers movement at the time, a movement that did not see that the counter-revolution could emanate from within the post-insurrectional state itself. This is not because, as the anarchists argue, "the maggots were already present in the fruits" of 1917 (i.e. the existence of a class party always already contains within it the seeds of counter-revolution); but because, due to the international isolation of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party was absorbed by the state and the latter identified itself with this state against the working class. This mistake of the whole workers' movement of the day was expressed in the general confusion surrounding the idea that the institutional apparatus that emerged following the revolution of October 1917 was a "proletarian state."
1 See their pamphlet, Some Important Lessons of the International Working-Class In the Revolutionary Class Struggle for Socialism/Communism: The Emancipation of the Working-Class Is the Act of the Working Class Itself!
2 Kommunistiche Arbeiter Partei Deutschlands or Communist Worker's Party of Germany, excluded from the Communist International in 1920 due to its critical stance towards many of the International's positions, particularly against its policy of the "United Front."