A hundred years after the Kronstadt uprising

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After the Russian revolution in 1917, the revolution in Germany in 1918, the creation of the Communist International in 1919, we mark the hundredth anniversary of the tragic crushing of the revolt by the workers, soldiers and sailors of Kronstadt in March 1921 with a document “The lessons of Kronstadt” from International Review 3[1], in order to indeed draw the key lessons of this event for the struggles of the future.

In March 1921, the Soviet state, led by the Bolshevik party, used its military forces to put an end to the workers’ and sailors’ revolt in the Kronstadt garrison on the island of Kotlin in the gulf of Finland, 30 kilometers from Petrograd (today St Petersburg). The 15,000 insurgents were attacked by 50,000 Red Army troops on the evening of 7 march. After ten days of bitter combats, the Kronstadt uprising was suppressed. It’s not possible to get reliable figures for the number of victims, but it has been estimated that there were 3,000 killed in the fighting or executed on the side of the insurgents, and 10,000 dead on the Red Army side. According to a communique of the Cheka dating from 1 May 1921, 6,528 rebels were arrested, 2,168 executed, 1,955 sentenced to forced labour (1,486 for five years), and 1,272 freed. The families of the rebels were deported to Siberia, and 8,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians managed to escape to Finland.

Less than four years after the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, these events were a tragic expression of the degeneration of an isolated revolution coming to the end of its tether. This was a workers’ revolt by partisans of the Soviet regime, by those who in 1905 and 1917 had been in the vanguard of the movement, and who during the October revolution had been seen as “the pride and glory of the revolution”. In 1921, the Kronstadt insurgents demanded the satisfaction of the same demands as the Petrograd workers who had been on strike since February: liberation of all imprisoned socialists, end of military rule, freedom of expression, of the press and of assembly for all those who work, equal rations for all workers… But what underlined the importance of this movement and expresses its profoundly proletarian character was not only the reaction against the restrictive measures, but above all the rection to the loss of political power by the workers’ councils to the benefit of the party and the state, which had substituted themselves for the councils and claimed to represent the aims and interests of the proletariat. This was expressed in the first point of the resolution passed by the insurgents: “In view of the fact that the present Soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants, immediately to hold new elections by secret ballot, with freedom to carry on agitation beforehand for all workers and peasants”.

The bourgeoisie, when it talks about the suppression of the revolt by the Red Army, always tries to prove to proletarians that there is an uninterrupted chain linking Marx and Lenin to Stalin and the Gulag. The aim of the bourgeoisie is to make sure that workers turn away from the history of their class and don’t reappropriate their own experiences. The theories of the anarchists arrive at the same conclusions by starting off from the allegedly authoritarian and counter-revolutionary nature of marxism and the parties acting in its name. The anarchists have an abstractly “moral” view of these events. Beginning with the idea of the authoritarianism inherent in the Bolshevik party, they are incapable of explaining the degeneration of the revolution in general, and the Kronstadt episode in particular. This was a revolution that was becoming exhausted after seven years of world war and civil war, with an industrial infrastructure in ruins, a working class that had been decimated, starved, confronted with peasant uprisings in the provinces. A revolution that had been dramatically isolated and where an international extension had become less and less likely after the failure of the revolution in Germany. Faced with all the problems posed to the working class and the Bolshevik party, the anarchists simply close their eyes.  

Considered from the perspective of the world proletarian revolution, the fundamental historical lesson of the repression of the Kronstadt revolt concerns the question of class violence. While revolutionary violence is a weapon of the proletariat to overthrow capitalism and its class enemies, under no pretext can it be used within the working class, against other proletarians. Communism can’t be imposed on the proletariat by force and violence because these means are categorically opposed to the conscious nature its revolution, which can only advance through its own experience and the constant critical evaluation of this experience. The decision by the Bolshevik party to crush the Kronstadt uprising can only be understood in the context of the international isolation of the revolution and the terrible civil war which had swept the country. Nevertheless, such a decision remains a tragic mistake, since it was exerted against workers who had risen up to defend the main weapon in the conscious political transformation of society, the vital organ of the proletarian dictatorship: the power of the Soviets.

The article can be found here: The lessons of Kronstadt | International Communist Current (internationalism.org)

ICC, March 2021


History of the workers' movement