Historical lessons of the Kronstadt revolt, Part II

Printer-friendly versionSend by email


This is the second installment in our two-part series on the historical lessons of the Kronstadt revolt, presented in response to a pamphlet published by the Chicago Revolutionary Network (CHIREVNET) that takes an anarchist perspective on Kronstadt and at the same time seriously misrepresents the ICC's analysis of the events. As we wrote in the introduction to the first part of this article, we have never claimed-contrary to the assertions of CHIREVNET's pamphlet-that the Bolshevik repression at Kronstadt was in any way a "tragic necessity." In sharp contrast, the ICC has always maintained that the repression was a "tragic mistake" that hastened the worldwide counter-revolution against the global revolutionary wave of 1917-1927, and was a major step into the abyss for the Bolshevik Party, a process which led to its eventual betrayal of the working-class and its integration into the state apparatus as the manager of the Russian national capital.

Nevertheless, as we explained in our last issue, even if we recognize the Bolsheviks' grievous error in their conception of revolution, a conception that was used to sanction violence within the working-class as a means of solving the inevitable differences that may arise in the period of transition from capitalism to communism, we do not join CHIREVNET in their anarchist contentions - that if the Bolsheviks committed this terrible repression, this fact-by itself-is evidence that Bolshevik party never stood in the vanguard of the revolution, that it was always a murderous state-capitalist clique destined to usurp the revolution to its own alleged purposes of grabbing state power. CHIREVNET's historical methodology is not a Marxist, not a materialist, one. Instead, it reflects the essentialist moralizing attitude of anarchism that cannot situate historical events in their context, and evaluates historical actors based on how well they live up to, or stray from, preconceived moral precepts divorced from history.

If CHIREVNET is serious about this methodology, we can only ask that it be consistent. As we will see in Part II of our article below, the Bolsheviks were not the only ones holding a flawed conception of the relationship between party and class, and a mistaken position on violence as a means to solve disputes within the class during the period of transition. If CHIREVNET thinks the Kronstadt repression is evidence of Lenin and the Bolsheviks' inherently counter-revolutionary nature, then it should equally denounce the Left Communists of the day, and certain anarchists as well, many of whom mistakenly supported the repression at Kronstadt. Moreover, if substitutionism alone is evidence of a counter-revolutionary nature, as CHIREVNET asserts, it would then also be obliged to denounce Marx and Engels themselves, for they were known to take certain "substitutionist" positions at times - a mistake we in the ICC have never been shy in criticizing.

Thus, we can see how the methodology CHIREVNET-and anarchism and councilism in general-tends to employ only leads to obfuscation of the central historical lessons of Kronstadt, as well as the proverbial, "throwing away of the baby along with the bath water." The ICC agrees with CHIREVNET that Lenin and the Bolsheviks demonstrated, in certain of the their theoretical and political conceptions, a number of profound non-proletarian confusions, distortions and weaknesses. These flaws were a definite factor leading to an, at times, even more flawed political practice in the course of the Russian Revolution. Chief among these errors was the idea that the party should act in the name of the class and should assume control of the state in the period of transition. But as we will show below, this was an error shared by almost the entirety of the workers' movement at the time. In fact, this is one of the real lessons of Kronstadt and the Russian Revolution itself, the lesson that such a conception can lead to an identification of the party with the state, and eventually to the idea that if revolts against the state take place, then these revolts must be counter-revolutionary and thus must be suppressed. This conception was a key factor in the mistaken repression of the Kronstadt revolt: a revolt that, despite its anarchist confusions, and manipulation by counter-revolutionary elements, expressed a real attempt by the working class to reinstitute the workers councils as the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In another example of CHIREVNET's oversimplified moralism, it glorifies the Kronstadt revolt unconditionally (employing all types of simplistic leftist phraseology and rhetoric, replete with copious use of the exclamation points even!) refusing to acknowledge or address its confusions and its manipulation by the counter-revolution.

Nevertheless, this picture of the Bolsheviks only gives part of the story. What about their unconditional defense of internationalism in 1914? Or Lenin's work in setting up the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915, the Bolshevik's call to "turn the imperialist war into a civil war," and Lenin's leadership in 1917 in calling for the insurrection against any compromise of the revolution with the bourgeois Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries? Were Lenin and the Bolsheviks counter-revolutionary in these events as well? Were all these exemplary examples of proletarian internationalism just a vicious ploy to seize state power years later? We await CHIREVNET's answer to these questions. The key to examining any period in history from the Marxist perspective is to situate the events in their totality and to draw the lessons this methodology allows. In this regard, it becomes clear that substitutionism and a failure to resist the use of violence within the working class, were failings of this entire historical period in the workers' movement, not the "original sin" of Lenin and the Bolsheviks alone. The task of revolutionaries today is to learn from these mistakes so as not to repeat them in the future, not to engage in a masochistic-moralist attack against the most visible figures, flawed as they were, of this period.

Our intent in publishing this article is to contribute to the process of debate and political clarification within the North American political milieu on what is a very important historical issue for the working-class and its revolutionary minorities. We were thus pleased to receive a response from CHIREVNET to the first part of our article in the form of a flyer. Nevertheless, the content of this flyer is basically a rehashing of the same moral condemnation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks that their original pamphlet espoused, and as such does little to advance the debate. It also criticizes our position as "centrist" and "erroneous," as a blatant exercise in excusing the Bolsheviks'-a part of the ruling class in CHIREVNET's opinion-hijacking of the authentic proletarian revolution of 1917. We certainly welcome the opportunity to continue this debate as part of the process of the working class coming to grips with its own history. However, we must also insist that the debate be carried out in accordance with certain proletarian principles of sincerity and an honest representation of one's opponent's views. In this regard, CHIREVNET's flyer is unfortunately notable for what it doesn't say. Despite our reproach to them for misrepresenting our views on Kronstadt,-an honest mistake we assumed-in writing that the ICC views the repression of Kronstadt as a "tragic necessity," when in fact we have repeatedly criticized groups that defend that position, CHIREVNET fails to clearly retract its previous misrepresentations and set the matter straight with its readers and contacts. Furthermore, CHIREVNET continues to distribute its original pamphlet-uncorrected we assume since we haven't been informed otherwise-where this mistake is printed.

We understand that sometimes in the heat of debate mistakes and errors may be made in representing an opponents' view. But when this happens, the responsible thing for any group or organization to do is to openly admit its error, retract its misrepresentation in a conspicuous way, i.e., in print, and adjust its polemic to account for what the other side really said. CHIREVNET has failed to issue a conspicuous retraction so far, despite the clear and voluminous evidence we gave it that it misrepresented our views. Thus, we must conclude this introduction by calling on CHIREVNET to conspicuously retract its original misstatement of our views in print, and to circulate this retraction to all its regular subscribers and contacts. This would be in continuity with the principles of debate that proletarian organizations have followed in the past.

Moreover, we must also take notice that in responding to Part I of this article, CHIREVNET, in addition to its flyer, also sent us a copy of the Los Angeles Workers Voice's (LAWV) (now calling themselves "United States Workers' Voice" (USWV) article on Kronstadt that cites CHIREVNET's original pamphlet on this question in order to denounce the ICC as "counter-revolutionary" for what is a completely mistaken representation of our views. This is not the place to recount LAWV's current parasitic attack on the groups of the Communist Left (readers can see the article in this issue, as well as Internationalism # 122 and 123). Nevertheless, we also call on CHIREVNET to stop distributing the LAWV article containing a blatant misstatement of our views, a misstatement that CHIREVNET itself is responsible for propagating, and which is now being used by LAWV/USWV, not in a spirit of debate and the open exchange of ideas between revolutionaries, but in a parasitic denunciation of the groups of the Communist Left.

CHIREVNET can be contacted at Perry Sanders, POB 578042, Chicago, IL 60657-8042 ([email protected]). - Internationalism Against the Anarchist Theses: The Lessons Drawn From Kronstadt By the Communist Left.

The only current, while defending the October Revolution, at the same time rejected and condemned the repression of the Kronstadt revolt was the anarchist current. Nevertheless, it is necessary to distinguish among the various tendencies that comprised this current at the time. Certain anarchists, notably the immigrant anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were very close to the Bolshevik Party (and they gave it their full support in October 1917 contrary to other anarchists emanating from the intelligentsia or declassed elements whose anti-Bolshevism clearly expressed the reactionary conceptions of the petty-bourgeoisie).

It is without a doubt that numerous anarchists are correct in their criticisms of the Cheka (the party's political police) and the crushing of the Kronstadt Revolt. The anarchists' problem though, is that their conceptions offer no method for understanding the historical meaning of these events: as witnessed by the analysis of Voline: "Kronstadt is a luminous beacon that lights the way (?) At once the full liberty of discussion, of organization and action was definitively achieved by the laboring masses themselves, along the true route of independent popular production, the rest flows automatically from these acquisitions." (Voline, The Unknown Revolution).

Thus, according to Voline, it is sufficient for the Kronstadt Revolt to be victorious for the rest to "follow automatically." In reality, though, even if the revolt had spread to the rest of Russia, even if the Kronstadt insurgents had won their battle, this would have done nothing to solve the essential problem of this epoch: the international isolation of the soviet bastion to one country. (However, it is true that in the logic of the anarchists, as one can see demonstrated in their analysis of the "proletarian revolution" in Spain of 1936, the Marxist analysis according to which communism cannot be established except at the international level is always a secondary concern.) Such an underestimation of the difficulties and of the necessity of a rapid international extension of the revolutionary process is a real poison for the consciousness of the proletariat, which masks the first and most important lesson of the Kronstadt revolt, a comprehension of the fact that any revolution that remains isolated in one country is irredeemably doomed to failure. 1. The Proletarian Revolution Must be International Or It Is Nothing

The proletarian revolution can only succeed at a global level. It is impossible to abolish capitalism or "build socialism" in one country, but only by the extension of proletarian political power across the entire planet. Without this extension, the degeneration of the revolution is inevitable, regardless of whatever changes are effected in the economy. This was exactly Lenin's point when he declared in 1918 that the Russian proletariat waited with impatience for the extension of the revolution in Europe, because if the proletariat of Western Europe did not quickly come to the aid of Soviet Russia (which had begun to be asphyxiated by the economic blockade of the world bourgeoisie) the latter would be condemned.

For the anarchists, the Bolsheviks were determined to crush the workers and sailors of Kronstadt because they were, according to the terminology of Voline, "statist, authoritarian Marxists." In reality, what Voline and the whole anarchist current have never understood, is that the disappearance of workers' democracy, which bled the soviets of any real proletarian life, was the direct consequence of the tragic impasse in which the Russian revolution found itself trapped. It is from this incomprehension of the real movement and the general historical dynamic of the world proletariat that the anarchists rewrite and interpret history in their own fashion through their old anti-Marxist, anti-party and "anti-authoritarian" theoretical frame. In this manner, the anarchist ideology provides more ammunition for the anti-communist campaigns of the bourgeoisie, which have as their objective to perpetuate, before the proletariat, the lie that there exists a pretend "continuity-theoretical, practical and historical" between Lenin and Stalin, between the Revolution of October 1917 and the Stalinist counter-revolution. Because Marxism defends the formation of a proletarian political party, calls for the centralization of the proletariat's forces and recognizes the inevitability of a state in the period of transition to communism, it is condemned, according to the anarchists, to conclude in the execution of the masses. Such "eternal truths" have no utility for the understanding of the real historic process and for drawing out the lessons that must be stressed to the future revolutionary movement.

In this context, we must now ask; what were the real lessons of the tragedy of Kronstadt drawn by the Communist left? 2. Violence Can Never Be a Means to Solve Disputes Within the Working Class Itself.

Revolutionary violence is a weapon that the proletariat is forced to use in its fight against the capitalist class. However, in regards to disputes within the proletariat, violence can have no place, as it cannot but destroy the class' unity, its solidarity, its cohesion and engender demoralization and a loss of hope.

Under no pretext, can violence serve as an instrument within the working class because it is not a method for the acquisition of consciousness. The proletariat cannot acquire the latter except through its own experience of the class struggle and the constantly self-critical examination of this experience. This is why violence within the working class, whatever its immediate motivation, cannot but serve to interfere with the masses own self-activity; and, in the end, constitute the most profound hindrance to its acquisition of class consciousness, which is the indispensable condition for the triumph of communism. In this sense, even if certain fractions of the working class demonstrate errors or confusions, the "just line" cannot be imposed upon them by the force of arms by another fraction, even if it is the majority. The uprising at Kronstadt did, in fact, constitute a weakening of the proletarian bastion, at the level of its cohesion and unity. However, the repression of Kronstadt constituted a weakening even more profound and dangerous and hastened the degeneration of the revolution altogether. 3. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat Is Not That of A Party:

The tragedy of the Russian Revolution, and in particular the massacre of Kronstadt, was that the entirety of the workers' movement of the day lacked clarity regarding the role of the party in the exercise of proletarian power. In fact, within the workers' movement the idea that, as in the bourgeois revolution, it was the party that must exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat in the name of the working class, still held currency. However, contrary to other revolutions in human history, the proletarian revolution requires the constant active participation of the whole of the working class. This means that under no circumstances can it tolerate, under the threat of immediately opening up a course of degeneration, neither the "delegation" of power to a party, nor the substitution of a body of specialists or any fraction of the working class-as revolutionary as they may be-for the whole of the working class itself. It is equally due to this reason that when the state raises itself up against the working class, as it did in the case of Kronstadt, the role of the party-as an emanation from, and the vanguard of, the proletariat-is not to defend the state against the working class, but to lead the struggle on the side of the latter against the state. 4. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat Cannot Be Identified With the State:

At the time of the Russian Revolution, there existed a general confusion in the workers' movement, which identified the dictatorship of the proletariat with the state that appeared following the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. This state came to be represented by the All-Russian Congress of Delegates of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants' Soviets. Proletarian power, instead of being manifested through the specific organs of the working class (factory assemblies and workers' councils) was identified with the apparatus of the state (territorial soviets, emanating from all the non-exploiting social strata).

Yet, as clearly brought to the forefront by the Italian Communist Left at the end of the 1930's and the Gauche Communsite de France following that, in drawing the lessons of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the autonomy of the proletariat means that, under no circumstances, can the unitary and political organs of the working class subordinate themselves to state institutions, as that can only have the effect of diluting these proletarian organs and cause them to abdicate their communist program, which is their proper subject and their real concern. Holding these conceptions that plagued the workers' movement of the day (the idea of a "proletarian state") any resistance on the part of the workers against the state apparatus could only be considered as "counter-revolutionary." At no moment, can the proletariat relax its vigilance vis a vis the state apparatus, as the events of Kronstadt and the Russian experience as a whole have shown that the counter-revolution can very well manifest itself through the channel of the post-insurrectional state and not merely in the form of a bourgeois aggression from the "exterior".

As tragic and as devastating as the Bolshevik mistakes were, it is not the latter, but really the isolation of the Russian Revolution, that was the basis for its degeneration. If the revolution had been able to spread, in particular in the form of a victorious insurrection in Germany, it is highly probable that these errors could have been corrected in the course of the revolutionary process itself. This possibility is witnessed by the positions defended by Lenin in the debate of 1920-1921 in which he was opposed to Trotsky on the question of the unions (a debate that transpired at the 10th Party Congress at the same time as the Kronstadt events unfolded). Thus, just as Trotsky defended the idea that the unions must become an apparatus for the instruction of the working class by the "proletarian" state, Lenin-in disagreement with this analysis-argued that the workers must defend themselves against their "own state", particularly in his estimation that the soviet regime had become no longer a proletarian state but a "workers' and peasants' state" with "profound bureaucratic deformations."

Elsewhere, in 1922, in a report presented to the central committee of the party, it was in these terms that Lenin began to perceive that the counter-revolution had raised its head within Russia itself and that the party apparatus, bureaucratized as it had become, was headed in the wrong direction in regards to the real interests of the proletariat: "The machine is in the process of evading the hands of the conductor: in fact, one could say that there is someone at the controls, who manages this machine, but this manager follows another path from that which is required, it is driven by some invisible hand (…) Only god knows to whom this hand belongs, perhaps a speculator, perhaps a private capitalist, or perhaps both at the same time. The fact is that the machine does not go in the direction of the requirements of those whom are supposed to be in control and, sometimes, it goes-in fact-in the opposite direction." B and C From Revolution Internationale # 310, March 2001.

Internationalism, February 2003.