1921: the proletariat and the transitional state

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In the previous article in this series, we examined the first major debates within the Communist Party of Russia about the direction being taken by the new proletarian power - in particular, the warnings about the rise of state capitalism and the danger of a bureaucratic degeneration. These debates were at their height in early 1918. But over the next two years Soviet Russia was engaged in a life or death struggle against imperialist intervention and internal counter-revolution. Faced with the immense demands of the civil war, the party closed ranks to fight the common enemy, just as the majority of workers and peasants, despite their growing hardships, rallied to the defence of the soviet power against the attempts by the old exploiting classes to restore their lost privileges.

As we have noted in a previous article (see International Review 95), the party programme drawn up at its 8th Congress in March 1919 expressed this mood of unity within the party, without abandoning the most radical hopes generated by the original impetus of the revolution. This was also a reflection of the fact that the left wing currents in the party - those who had been the main protagonists of the debates in 1918 - still had a considerable influence, and in any case were by no means radically separated from those who were more visibly at the helm of the party, such as Lenin and Trotsky. Indeed some former Left Communists, such as Radek and Bukharin, began to abandon their critical stance altogether, since they tended to identify the emergency "War Communism" measures adopted during the civil war with a real process of communist transformation (see the article on  Bukharin in International Review 96).

Other former Lefts were not so easily satisfied with the wide-scale nationalisations and the virtual disappearance of monetary forms which characterised War Communism. They did not lose sight of the fact that the bureaucratic abuses which they had warned about in 1918 had not only survived but had become increasingly entrenched during the civil war, while their antidote - the organs of mass proletarian democracy - had been losing their life-blood at an alarming rate, due both to the demands of military expediency and to the dispersal of many of the most advanced workers to the war fronts. In 1919, The Democratic Centralism group was formed around Osinski, Sapranov, V. Smirnov and others; its main focus was the fight against bureaucratism and in the soviets and the party. It had close links with the Military Opposition which waged a similar combat within the army. It was to prove to be one of the most persistent currents of principled opposition within the Bolshevik party.

Nevertheless, as long as the priority was the defence of the soviet regime against its most open enemies, these debates remained within certain bounds; and in any case, since the party itself remained a living crucible of revolutionary thought, there was no fundamental difficulty in pursuing the discussion through the normal channels of the organisation.

The ending of the civil war in 1920 brought about a crucial change in this situation. The economy was essentially in ruins. Famine and disease on a horrifying scale stalked the land, especially in the cities, reducing these former nerve-centres of the revolution to a level of social disintegration in which the daily, desperate struggle for survival could easily outweigh all other considerations. Tensions that had been held in check by the need to unite against a common foe began pressing towards the surface, and in these circumstances, the rigid methods of War Communism not only failed to contain these tensions, but aggravated them further. The peasants were increasingly exasperated with the policy of grain requisitions that had been introduced to feed the starving cities; workers were less and less willing to accept military discipline in the factories; and on another, more impersonal level, the commodity relations which had been forcibly suspended by the state, but whose material roots had remained untouched, were more and more insistently demanding their due: the black market which had flourished like noxious algae under War Communism had only partially eased the mounting pressure, and with deleterious effects on the social structure.


Above all, the developments within the international situation had brought little relief to the Russian workers' fortress. 1919 had been the pinnacle of the world-wide revolutionary wave upon whose outcome soviet power in Russia was totally dependent. But the same year also saw the defeat of the most decisive proletarian uprisings, in Germany and Hungary, and the failure of mass strikes in other countries (such as Britain and the US) to go onto the level of a political offensive. 1920 saw the effective derailment of the revolution in Italy through the isolation of the workers in factory occupations, while in Germany, the most key country of all, the dynamic of the class struggle was already being posed in defensive terms, as in the response to the Kapp putsch (see International Review 90). In the same year, the attempt to break Russia's isolation through the bayonets of the Red Army in Poland had ended in total fiasco. By 1921 - particularly after the "March Action" in Germany had ended in another defeat (see International Review 93), the most lucid revolutionaries had already begun to realise that the revolutionary tide was ebbing, although it was not yet possible or even accurate to say that it had entered into a definitive retreat.

Russia was therefore an overheated pressure-cooker, and a social explosion could not long be delayed. By the end of 1920, a series of peasant uprisings swept through Tambov province, the middle Volga, the Ukraine, western Siberia and other regions. The rapid demobilisation of the Red Army added fuel to the fire as armed peasants in uniform streamed back to their villages. The central demand of these rebellions was for an end to the system of grain requisitioning and the right of the peasants to dispose of their own products. And as we shall see, in early 1921, the mood of revolt had spread to the wokers of those cities which had been the epicentre of the October insurrection: Petrograd, Moscow … and Kronstadt.

Faced with this burgeoning social crisis, it was inevitable that divergences within the Bolshevik party should also have reached a critical juncture. The disagreement was not about whether the proletarian regime in Russia was dependent of the world revolution: all the currents within the party, albeit with different nuances, still held to the fundamental conviction that without the extension of the revolution, the proletarian dictatorship in Russia could not survive. At the same time, since the Russian soviet power was seen as a crucial bastion conquered by the world proletarian army, there was also general agreement that a 'holding operation' must be attempted, and that this necessitated the reconstruction of Russia's ruined economic and social edifice. The differences emerged about the methods the soviet power could and should use if it was to stay on the right path and avoid succumbing to the weight of alien class forces inside and outside Russia. Reconstruction was a practical necessity: the question was how to carry this out in a way that would ensure the proletarian character of the regime. The focal point for these differences in 1920 and early 1921 was the "trade union debate".

Trotsky and the militarisation of labour

This debate had in fact arisen at the very end of 1919, with the unveiling by Trotsky of his proposals for restoring Russia's ravaged industrial and transportation system. Having achieved extraordinary success as the commander of the Red army during the civil war, Trotsky (despite one or two moments of hesitation when he considered a very different approach) came out in favour of applying the methods of War Communism to the problem of reconstruction: in other words, in order to re-gather a working class which was in danger of decomposing into a mass of isolated individuals living by petty trade, petty thieving, or melting back into the peasantry, Trotsky advocated the outright militarisation of labour. He first formulated his view in his 'theses on the transition from war to peace' (Pravda, 16 December 1919) and further defended them at the 9th party Congress in March-April 1920. "The working masses cannot be wandering all over Russia. They must be thrown her and there, appointed, commanded, just like soldiers." Those accuse of "deserting from labour" would be placed in punitive battalions or labour camps. In the factories, military discipline would prevail; like Lenin in 1918, Trotsky extolled the virtues of one-man management and the "progressive" aspects of the Taylor system. As for the trade unions, their task in this regime would be to subordinate themselves totally to the state: "The young socialist state requires trade unions not for a struggle for better conditions of labour - that is the task of the social and state organisations as a whole - but to organise the working class for the ends of production, to educate, discipline, distribute, group, retain certain categories and certain workers at their posts for fixed periods - in a word, hand in hand with the state to exercise their authority in order to lead the workers into the framework of a single economic plan." (Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 1920; New Park edition 1975, p.153).

Trotsky’s views – though initially, Lenin was largely in support of them – provoked vigorous criticism from many within the party, and not only those accustomed to being on its left. These criticisms only led Trotsky to harden and theorise his views. In Terrorism and Communism – which appears to be as much a response to Trotsky’s Bolshevik critics as to the likes of Kautsky, its main polemical target – Trotsky goes so far as to argue that because forced labour had played a progressive role in previous modes of production, such as Asiatic despotism and classical slavery, it was pure sentimentalism to argue that the workers’ state could not use such methods on a broad scale. Indeed, Trotsky did not even shrink from arguing that militarisation is the specific form of the organisation of labour in the transition to communism: “the foundations of the militarisation of labour are those forms of state compulsion without which the replacement of capitalist economy by the socialist will forever remain an empty sound” (ibid, p. 152). In the same work, Trotsky reveals the extent to which the notion that the dictatorship of the proletariat is only possible as the dictatorship of the party had become a matter of theory and almost of principle: “We have more than once been accused of having substituted for the dictatorship of the soviets the dictatorship of the party. Yet it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the clarity of its theoretical vision and its strong revolutionary organisation that the party has afforded to the soviets the possibility of being transformed from shapeless parliaments of labour into the apparatus of the supremacy of labour. In this ‘substitution’ of the power of the party for the power of the working class there is nothing accidental, and in reality there is no substitution at all. The communists express the fundamental interests of the working class. It is quite natural that, in the period in which history brings up those interests, in all their magnitude, on to the order of the day, the communist have become the recognised representatives of the working class as a whole.” (ibid p. 123). This is a far cry from Trotsky’s definition of the soviets in 1905 as organs of power which go beyond bourgeois parliamentary forms, as indeed it is from Lenin’s position in State and Revolution in 1917, and the Bolsheviks’ practical approach in October, when the idea of the party taking power had been more an unconscious concession to parliamentarism than a worked-out theory, and when in any case the Bolsheviks had shown themselves willing to form a partnership with other parties. Now, the party had “a historical birthright” to exercise the proletarian dictatorship, “even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy" (Trotsky at the 10th party Congress, quoted in Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pp 508-9).

The fact that this debate developed essentially around the question of the trade unions may seem strange given that the emergence of new forms of workers' self-organisation in Russia itself - the factory committees, the soviets etc - had effectively rendered these organisations obsolete, a conclusion that had already been drawn by many communists in the industrialised west, where the unions had already been through a long process of bureaucratic degeneration and integration into the capitalist order. The fact that the debate had this focus in Russia was thus partly a reflection of Russia' "backwardness", of a condition in which the bourgeoisie had not developed a sophisticated state apparatus capable of recognising the value of trade unions as instruments of class peace. For this reason it could not be said that all the unions which had been formed prior to and even during the 1917 revolution were organs of the enemy class. In particular there had been a strong tendency towards the formation of industrial unions which still expressed a certain proletarian content.

Be that as it may, the real issue in the debate provoked by Trotsky went much deeper. In essence it was a debate about the relationship between the proletariat and the state of the transition period. The question it raised was this: could the proletariat, having overthrown the old bourgeois state, identify itself totally with the new "proletarian" state, or were there compelling reasons why the working class should protect the autonomy of its own class organs - even, if necessary, against the demands of the state?

Trotsky's position had the merit of supplying a clear answer: yes, the proletariat should identify itself with and even subordinate itself to the "proletarian state" (and so, in fact, should the proletarian party which was to function as the executive arm of the state). Unfortunately, as can be seen in his theorisation of forced labour as the method for building communism, Trotsky has largely lost sight of what is specific to the proletarian revolution and to communism - the fact that this new society can only be brought about by the self-organised, conscious activity of the proletarian masses themselves. His response to the problem of economic reconstruction could only have further accelerated the bureaucratic degeneration which was already threatening to engulf all the concrete forms of proletarian self-activity, including the party itself. And so it passed to other currents within the party to give voice to a class reaction against this dangerous tendency in Trotsky's thinking, and against the principal dangers facing the revolution itself.

The Workers' Opposition

The fact that deep issues were at stake in this debate was reflected in the number of positions and groupings that arose around it. Lenin himself, who wrote of these differences "the Party is sick. The Party is down with a fever" ( 'The Party Crisis', Pravda, January 21, 1921) was only part of one grouping - the so-called 'Group of Ten'; The Democratic Centralists and Ignatov's group had their own positions; Bukharin, Preobrazhinsky and others tried to form a "buffer group", and so on. But alongside Trotsky's group, the most distinctive approaches were adopted by Lenin on the one hand, and by the Workers' Opposition, led by Kollantai and Shliapnikov, on the other.

The Workers' Opposition undoubtedly expressed a proletarian reaction against Trotsky's bureaucratic theorisations, and against the real bureaucratic distortions that were eating away at the proletarian power. Faced with Trotsky's apology for forced labour, it was by no means demagogy or phrasemongering for Kollontai to insist in her pamphlet The Workers' Opposition, written for the 10th party Congress in March 1921, that "this consideration, which should be very simple and clear to every practical man, is lost sight of by our party leaders: it is impossible to decree communism. It can be created only by the process of practical research, through mistakes, perhaps, but only by the creative powers of the working class itself" (London Solidarity pamphlet no 7, p33). In particular, the Opposition rejected the tendency of the regime to impose a managerial dictatorship in the factories, to the point where the immediate situation of the industrial worker was becoming more and more indistinguishable from what it had been before the revolution. It thus defended the principle of collective workers' management against the over-use of specialists and the practice of one-man management.

On a more global level, the Workers' Opposition offered a keen insight into the relationship between the working class and the soviet state. For Kollontai, this was in fact the key issue: "Who shall develop the creative powers in the sphere of economic reconstruction? Shall it be purely class organs, directly connected by vital ties with the industries - that is, shall industrial unions undertake the work of reconstruction - or shall it be left to the soviet machine which is separated from direct industrial activity and is mixed in its composition? This is the root of the break. The Workers' Opposition defends the first principle, while the leaders of the party, whatever their differences on secondary matters, are in complete accord on this cardinal point, and defend the second principle" (ibid p4).

In another passage of the text, Kollontai explains further this notion of the heterogeneous nature of the soviet state: "any party standing at the head of a heterogeneous soviet state is compelled to consider the aspirations of peasants with their petty bourgeois inclinations and resentments towards communism, as well as lend an ear to the numerous petty bourgeois elements, remnants of the former capitalists in Russia and to all kinds of traders, middlemen, petty officials etc. These have rapidly adapted themselves to the soviet institutions and occupy responsible positions in the centres, appearing in the capacity of agents of different commissariats, etc ... These are the elements - the petty bourgeois elements widely scattered through the soviet institutions, the elements of the middle class, with their hostility towards communism, and with their predilections towards the immutable customs of the past, with resentment and fears towards revolutionary acts. These are the elements that bring decay into our soviet institutions, breeding there an atmosphere altogether repugnant to the working class" (ibid pp6-7).

This recognition that the soviet state - both because of its need to reconcile the interests of the working class with those of other strata , and because of its vulnerability to the virus of bureaucracy - could not itself play a dynamic and creative role in the creation of the new society was an important sight, albeit undeveloped. But these passages also expose the principal weaknesses of the Workers' Opposition. Lenin in his polemics with the group, dismissed it as an essentially petty bourgeois, anarchist and syndicalist current. This was false: for all its confusions, it represented a genuine proletarian response to the dangers besetting the soviet power. But the accusation of syndicalism is not altogether wrong either. This is apparent in its identification of the industrial unions as the main organs for the communist transformation of society, and its proposal that the management of the economy should be placed in the hands of an "All-Russian Congress of Producers". As we have said already, the Russian revolution had already shown that the working class had gone beyond the union form of organisation, and that in the new epoch of capitalist decadence unions could only become organs of social conservation. The industrial unions in Russia were certainly no guarantee against bureaucratism and the organisational dispossession of the workers; the emasculation of the factory committees which had emerged in 1917 largely took the form of incorporating them into the unions, and consequently, the state. It is also worth pointing out that when the Russian workers did enter into action on their own terrain in the very year of the trade union debate - in the strikes in Moscow and Petrograd - they again confirmed the obsolescence of the trade unions, since to defend their most material interests they resorted to the classic methods of the proletarian struggle in the new epoch: spontaneous strikes, general assemblies, elected strike committees subject to immediate revocation, massive delegations to other factories, etc. Even more importantly, the Workers' Opposition's emphasis on the unions expressed a total disillusionment with the most important mass proletarian organs - the workers' soviets, which were capable of uniting all workers across sectional boundaries and of combining the economic with the political tasks of the revolution1. This blindness to the importance of the workers' councils logically extended to a total underestimation of the primacy of politics over economics in the proletarian revolution. The one great obsession of the Kollontai group was the management of the economy, to the point where it was almost proposing a divorce between the political state and the "producers congress". But in a proletarian dictatorship, the workers' management of the economic apparatus is not an end in itself, but only an aspect of its overall political domination over society. Lenin also made the criticism that this idea of a "congress of producers" was more applicable to the communist society of the future, where there are no more classes and all are producers. In other words, the Opposition's text contains a strong suggestion that communism could be achieved in Russia provided the problems of economic management were solved correctly. This suspicion is reinforced by the scant references in Kollontai's texts to the problem of the extension of the world revolution. Indeed, the group seems to have had little to say about the international policies of the Bolshevik party at the time. All these weaknesses are indeed expressions of the influence of syndicalist ideology, even if the Opposition cannot be reduced to nothing more than an anarchist deviation.

Lenin's views on the trade union debate

As we have seen, Lenin considered that the trade union debate expressed a profound malaise in the party; given the critical situation facing the country, he even felt that the party had been mistaken in authorising the debate at all. He was especially angry with Trotsky for the manner in which he had provoked the debate, and accused him of acting in an irresponsible and factional manner over a number of organisational issues linked to the debate. Lenin also seemed to be dissatisfied with the very focus of the debate, feeling that "a question came to the forefront which, because of the objective conditions, should not have been in the forefront" (report to the 10th party Congress, March 8, 1921). Perhaps his main fear was that the apparent disorder in the party would only exacerbate the growing social disorder within Russia; but perhaps he also felt that the real nub of the question was elsewhere.

Be that as it may, the most important insight Lenin offered in this debate was certainly on the problem of the class nature of the state. This is how he framed the question in a speech given to a meeting of communist delegates at the end of 1920: "While betraying this lack of thoughtfulness, Comrade Trotsky falls into error himself. He seems to say that in a workers' state it is not the business of the trade unions to stand up for the material and spiritual interests of the working class. That is a mistake. Comrade Trotsky speaks of a 'workers' state'. May I say that this is an abstraction. It was natural for us to write about a workers' state in 1917; but it is now a patent error to say: 'Since this is a workers' state without any bourgeoisie, against whom then is the working class to be protected, and for what purpose?' The whole point is that it is not quite a workers' state. That is where Comrade Trotsky makes one of his main mistakes ... For one thing, ours is not actually a workers' state but a workers' and peasants' state. And a lot depends on that (interjection from Bukharin: 'What kind of state? A workers' and peasants' state?'). Comrade Bukharin back there may well shout, 'What kind of state? A workers' and peasants' state?' I shall not stop to answer him. Anyone who has a mind to should recall the recent Congress of Soviets and that will be answer enough.

But that is not all. Our Party Programme - a document which the author of The ABC of Communism knows very well - shows that ours is a workers' state with a bureaucratic twist. We have had to mark it with this dismal, shall I say, tag. There you have the reality of the transition. Well, is it right to say that in a state that has taken this shape in practice the trade unions have nothing to protect, or that we can do without them in protecting the material and spiritual interests of the proletariat? No, this reasoning is theoretically quite wrong... We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers' organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state" ('The Trade Unions, the Present Situation, and Trotsky's Mistakes', Collected Works vol 32, pp22-3).

In a later article Lenin retreated a bit on this formulation, admitting that Bukharin had been right to question his terms: "What I should have said is: 'A workers state is an abstraction. What we actually have is a workers' state with this peculiarity, firstly that it is not the working class but the peasant population that predominates in the country, and secondly, that it is a workers' state with a bureaucratic distortion'. Anyone who reads the whole of my speech will see that this correction makes no difference to my meaning or conclusions" ('The Party Crisis', Pravda, January 21 1921, CW vol 32 p48).

In fact Lenin showed a great deal of political wisdom in questioning the notion of the "workers state". Even in countries which don't have a large peasant majority, the transitional state will still have the task of encompassing and representing the needs of all the non-exploiting strata in society, and can thus not be seen as a purely proletarian organ; in addition to this, and partly as a result of it, its conservative weight will tend to express itself in the formation of a bureaucracy towards which the working class will have to be especially vigilant. Lenin had intuited all this even through the distorting mirror of the trade union debate.

It is also worth noting that on this point about the class nature of the transitional state there is a real convergence between Lenin and the Workers' Opposition. But Lenin's criticism of Trotsky did not lead him to sympathise with the latter. On the contrary, he saw the Workers' Opposition as the main danger; the Kronstadt events in particular convinced him that it expressed the same threat of petty bourgeois counter-revolution. Under Lenin's instigation. the 10th party Congress passed a resolution on "The syndicalist and anarchist deviation in our party" which explicitly stigmatises the Workers' Opposition: "Hence, the views of the Workers' Opposition and of like-minded elements are not only wrong in theory, but are an expression of petty bourgeois and anarchist wavering, and actually weaken the consistency of the leading line of the Communist party and help the class enemies of the proletarian revolution" (CW vol 32 p248).

As we have already said, these accusations of syndicalism are not entirely without foundation. But Lenin's principal argument on this point is deeply flawed: for him, the syndicalism of the Workers' Opposition resides not in the fact that it emphasised economic management by the trade unions rather than the political authority of the soviets, but in its alleged challenge to the rule of the Communist Party. "The Theses of the Workers' Opposition fly in the face of the decision of the Second Congress of the Comintern on the Communist Party's role in operating the dictatorship of the proletariat" (Summing up speech on the report of the CC of the RCP, March 9 1921, CW vol 32, p199). Like Trotsky, Lenin had definitely come to the view that "the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of that class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts (by imperialism in some countries) that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard that has absorbed the revolutionary energy of the class" ('The Trade Unions, the Present Situation, and Trotsky's Mistakes', op cit). Faced with Trotsky, this was an argument for the unions to act as "transmission belts" between the party and the class as a whole. But faced with the Workers' Opposition, it was an argument for declaring their views to be outside of marxism altogether - along with anyone else who questioned the notion of the party exercising the dictatorship.

In fact the Workers' Opposition did not fundamentally challenge the notion of the party exercising the dictatorship: Kollontai's text proposes that "the Central Committee of our party must become the supreme directing centre of our class policy, the organ of class thought and control over the practical policy of the soviets, and the spiritual personification of our basic programme" (op cit pp41-2). It was for this very reason that the Workers' Opposition supported the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion; and it was the latter which posed the most explicit challenge to the Bolsheviks' monopoly of power.

The Kronstadt tragedy

1. The official view and its reluctant supporters

In the wake of widespread strikes in Moscow and Petrograd, the Kronstadt rebellion broke out at the very time the Bolshevik party was holding its 10th Congress2. The strikes had arisen around largely economic issues, and had been met with a mixture of concessions and repression by the regional state authorities. But the workers and sailors of Kronstadt, initially acting in solidarity with the strikes, had gone on to raise, alongside demands for relaxing the harsh economic regime of War Communism, a series of key political demands: new elections to the soviets, freedom of the press and of agitation for all working class tendencies, the abolition of political departments in the armed forces and elsewhere, "because no party should be given privileges in the propagation of its ideas or receive the financial support of the state for such purposes" (from the resolution adopted on the battleship Petropavlovsk and at the mass assembly of 1st March). It amounted to a call to replace the power of the party-state with the power of the soviets. Lenin - rapidly echoed by the official mouthpieces of the state – denounced it as the result of a White Guard conspiracy, although he did say that the reactionaries were manipulating the real discontent of the petty bourgeoisie and even a section of the working class that was susceptible to its ideological influence. In any case, “This petty bourgeois counter-revolution is undoubtedly more dangerous than Denikin, Yudenich and Kolchak put together, because ours is a country where peasant property has gone to ruin and where, in addition, the demobilisation has set loose vast numbers of potentially mutinous elements" (speech to the 10th Congress, op cit, p184).

The initial argument, that the mutiny was from the outset led by White Guard generals on the spot, was soon proved to be without foundation. Isaac Deutscher, in his biography of Trotsky, notes the unease that set in among the Bolsheviks after the rebellion had been crushed: “Foreign communists who visited Moscow some months later and believed that Kronstadt had been one of the ordinary incidents of the civil war, were ‘astounded and troubled’ to find that the Bolsheviks spoke of the rebels without any of the anger and hatred which they felt for the White Guards and the interventionists. Their talk was full of ‘sympathetic reticences’ and sad, enigmatic allusions, which to the outside betrayed the party’s troubled conscience” (The Prophet Armed, p514, OUP edition, 1954). Certainly Lenin had seen very quickly that the rebellion proved the impossibility of maintaining the rigours of war communism, the NEP was in one sense a concession to the Kronstadters’ call for an end to the grain requisitions, although the central demands of the rebellion – the political ones, centring around the reanimation of the soviets – were totally rejected. They were seen as the vehicle through which the counter-revolution could unseat the Bolsheviks and destroy all remnants of the proletarian dictatorship. “The way the enemies of the proletariat take advantage of every deviation from a thoroughly consistent, communist line was perhaps most strikingly illustrated in the case of the Kronstadt mutiny, when the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries and White Guards in all countries of the world immediately expressed their willingness to accept the slogans of the soviet system, if only they might thereby secure the overthrow of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, and when the Social-Revolutionaries and the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries in general resorted in Kronstadt to slogans calling for an insurrection against the soviet government of Russia ostensibly in the interests of the soviet power. These facts fully prove that the White Guards strive, and are able, to disguise themselves as communists, solely for the purpose of weakening or destroying the bulwark of the proletarian revolution in Russia” (draft resolution of the 10th Congress of the RCP on party unity, written by Lenin, CW, vol. 32, pp241-2).

Even when the thesis that the mutiny was actually led by the White Guard generals had to all intents and purposes been abandoned, the basic argument remained: this was a petty bourgeois revolt which would clear the way to the forces of open counter-revolution. Literally so, because Kronstadt was a vital naval port at the gates of Petrograd, and in a more general sense, because it was feared that ‘success’ for the rebellion would have inspired a nation-wide peasant jacquerie. The only possible alternative was for the Bolsheviks to act as the guardians of the proletarian power, even if the proletariat as a whole was no longer participating in this power and sections of it were sympathetic to the rebels. This viewpoint, it must be said, was by no means restricted to the Bolshevik leadership. We have already said that the Workers Opposition put themselves in the front line of the forces sent to recapture the fortress. In fact, as Serge points out, “the Congress mobilised all present, including many oppositionists, for the battle against Kronstadt. Dybenko, a former Kronstadt sailor himself and an extreme Left Communist, and Bubnov, the writer, soldier and leader of the ‘Democratic Centralism’ group, went out to join battle on the ice against rebels who they knew in their hearts were right” (op cit.).

Internationally, the communist left was caught in a quandary. At the third congress of the Communist International, the KAPD delegate Hempel supported Kollontai’s call for greater initiative and self-activity by the Russian workers, but at the same time argued, on the basis of the KAPD’s theory of ‘Russian exceptionalism’, that “we say this because we have for Germany and Western Europe a different conception of the dictatorship of the proletarian party. In our view, this dictatorship was justified in Russia, because of the Russian situation – the lack of sufficiently developed forces among the proletariat means that the dictatorship has had to exercise more from above” (La Gauche Allemande, Invariance, 1973, p72-3). Another delegate, Sachs, protested against Bukharin’s charge that Gorter or the KAPD had taken the side of the Kronstadt insurgents, even though they seemed to recognise the proletarian character of the movement: “After the proletariat at Kronstadt rose up against you, the Communist Party, and after you had declared a state of siege against the proletariat in Petrograd…! This internal logic in the succession of events, not only here in the Russian tactic, but also in the resistances that have been expressed against it, this necessity has always been recognised and underlined by comrade Gorter. This phrase has to be read to see that Gorter did not take the side of the Kronstadt insurgents and it’s the same for the KAPD” (ibid.).

Perhaps the best description of the anguished state of mind of those elements who, though critical of the direction the revolution was taking in Russia, decided to support the crushing of Kronstadt is provided by Victor Serge in Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Serge shows very well how, during the period of War Communism, the regime of the Cheka, the Red Terror, had become more and more unrestrained, engulfing the supporters of the revolution as well as its enemies. He chronicles the disastrous and treacherous treatment of the anarchists, particularly the Makhnovist movement, at the hands of the Cheka. And he records his shame at the official lies that were spread about the strikes in Petrograd and the mutiny in Kronstadt – for this was the first time that the soviet state had resorted to the systematic lying that became the hallmark of the Stalinist regime later on. Nevertheless, as Serge recounts, “after many hesitations, and with unutterable anguish, my communist friends and I finally declared ourselves on the side of the party. This is why. Kronstadt had right on its side. Kronstadt was the beginning of a fresh, liberating revolution for popular democracy: ‘The Third Revolution!’ it was called by certain anarchists whose heads were stuffed with infantile illusions. However, the country was absolutely exhausted, and production particularly was at a standstill: there were no reserves of any kind, not even reserves of stamina in the hearts of the masses. The working class elite that had been moulded in the struggle against the old regime was literally decimated. The party, swollen by the influx of power-seekers, inspired little confidence…Soviet democracy lack leadership, institutions and inspiration: at its back there were only masses of starving and desperate men.

The popular counter-revolution translated the demand for freely-elected soviets into one for ‘soviets without communists’. If the Bolshevik party fell, it was only one short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian…” (op cit., pp128-9). And he pointed out the pressing danger of the White Guards using the Kronstadt garrison as a spring-board for a new intervention, and of the spreading peasant revolt in the countryside.

2. Voices of Dissent

There can be no doubt that the active forces of the counter-revolution were slavering at the mouth at the thought of using Kronstadt ideologically, politically and even militarily as a hammer with which to beat the Bolsheviks. And in fact they continue to do so to this day: for the main political ideologues of capital, the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion is one more proof that Bolshevism and Stalinism are two peas in a pod. At the time of the events, it was this overwhelming fear that the White Guards would take advantage of the revolt to settle scores with the Bolsheviks, which tipped many of the most critical voices of communism towards supporting the repression. Many, but not all.

Of course there were the anarchists. In Russia at this time anarchism was a true swamp of diverse currents: some, like the Makhnovists, expressed the best aspects of the peasant revolt; some were products of deeply individualist intelligentsia; some were out and out bandits and lunatics; some, like the ‘soviet anarchists’, the anarcho-syndicalists and others, were proletarian in essence despite the weight of that petty-bourgeois outlook which is the real core of anarchism. There is no doubt, however, that many of the anarchists were correct in their criticisms of the rule of the Cheka and of the crushing of Kronstadt. The problem is that anarchism offers no framework for understanding the historical significance of such events. For them, the Bolsheviks ended up crushing the workers and sailors because they were, in Voline’s words, “marxists, authoritarians, and statists. Because marxism advocates the formation of a proletarian political party, calls for the centralisation of the proletariat’s forces, and recognises the inevitability of the state in the period of transition, it is doomed to end up as the executioner of the masses. Such timeless ‘truths’ are of no use to understanding the real, evolving historical processes and drawing the lessons from them.

But there were also Bolsheviks who refused to support the suppression of the rebellion. In Kronstadt itself, in fact, the majority of the party members went over to the rebels (as did a number of the troops sent to recapture the fortress). Some of the Kronstadt Bolsheviks simply resigned from the party in protest against the slanders being spread about the nature of events. But a number of them formed a Provisional Party Bureau which issued an appeal denying the rumours that the Kronstadt rebels were shooting communists. It expressed its confidence in the Provisional Revolutionary Committee formed by the newly-elected Kronstadt Soviet and ended with the words “Long live the power of the Soviets! Long live international working class unity!” (quoted in The Kronstadt Commune by Ida Mett, first published in 1938 and reprinted by Solidarity in 1967).

It is also important to mention the position adopted by Gavriil Miasnikov, who went on to form the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party in 1923. At that time Miasnikov had already started to speak out against the increasingly bureaucratic regime dominated by the party and the state, although it seems that he was not yet part of any oppositional grouping within the party. According to an essay entitled “Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: G.T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group” (The Russian Review, vol. 43, 1984), Miasnikov was deeply affected by the Petrograd strikes and the Kronstadt mutiny (he was in Petrograd at the time). “Unlike the Democratic Centralists and the Workers’ Opposition, he refused to denounce the insurgents. Nor would he have participated in their suppression had he been called to do so”. Avrich then quotes Miasnikov directly: “if someone dares to have the courage of his convictions, he is either a self-seeker or, worse, a counter-revolutionary, a Menshevik or an SR. Such was the case with Kronstadt Everything was nice and quiet. Then suddenly, without a word, it hits you in the face: ‘what is Kronstadt? A few hundred communists are fighting against us’. What does this mean? Who is to blame if the ruling circles have no common language not only with the non-party masses but with rank-and-file communists? So much do they misunderstand one another that they reach for their weapons. What then is this? It is the brink, the abyss” (Avrich cites Socialtischeskii vestnik, February 23, 1922, as his source for this quote).

Despite these insights, it took a long time for the political lessons of the Kronstadt events to be drawn in any real depth. In our view, the most important conclusions were drawn in the 1930s by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left. In the context of a study called ‘The question of the state’ (Octobre, 1938), it wrote of Kronstadt: “It may be that in certain circumstances the proletariat – and we will even concede that they may be the unconscious victims of manoeuvres by the enemy – enters into struggle against the proletarian state. What is to be done in such a situation? We must start from the principle that socialism cannot be imposed on the proletariat by violence and force. It would have been better to have lost Kronstadt than to have kept it from the geographical point of view, since substantially this victory could only have one result: that of altering the very bases, the substance of the action carried out by the proletariat”.

A number of important issues are raised by this passage. To begin with it affirms clearly that the Kronstadt movement was proletarian in character. Certainly there were petty-bourgeois, especially anarchist, influences in a number of views expressed by the rebels. But to argue, as Trotsky did in his retrospective justification, ‘Hue and Cry over Kronstadt’ (New International, April 1938), that the proletarian sailors of Red Kronstadt in 1917 had been replaced by a petty-bourgeois mass who could not put up with the rigours of War Communism, who demanded special privileges for themselves, and so ‘repelled’ the workers of Petrograd, is in total opposition to reality. The mutiny began as an expression of class solidarity with the workers of Petrograd, and delegates from Kronstadt were sent to the Petrograd factories to explain their case and canvas support. ‘Sociologically’ its nucleus was also proletarian. Whatever changes had taken place within the fleet since 1917, a cursory glance at the delegates elected to the Provisional Revolutionary Committee shows that the majority were sailors with a long record of service and that they had clearly proletarian functions (electricians, telephonists, boilermen, engineers etc.). Other delegates were from local factories and in general the factory workers, particularly those from the Kronstadt arsenal, played a key role in the movement. It is equally untrue that they demanded privileges for themselves: point 9 of the Kronstadt ‘platform’ demands “equal rations for all working people, with the exception of those in trades detrimental to health”. Above all, their demands had a clear proletarian character, and intuitively corresponded to a desperate need for the revolution: the need to revive the soviets and to end the party’s entanglement with the state, which was not only crippling the soviets, but destroying the party from within.

The understanding that this was indeed a proletarian movement is the key to the conclusion drawn by the Italian Left: for the latter, any attempt to suppress a proletarian reaction to the difficulties facing the revolution could only distort the very existence of the proletarian power. Thus the Italian Fraction drew the conclusion that within the proletarian camp, all reactions of violence are to be outlawed, whether to spontaneous movements of self-defence or towards political minorities. Referring explicitly to the trade union debate and the Kronstadt events, it also recognised the necessity for the proletariat to maintain the autonomy of its own class organs (councils, militias etc.), to prevent them from being absorbed into the general apparatus of the state, and even to pit them against the state if need be. And although it had not ditched the formula of the “dictatorship of the party”, the Fraction was most of all insistent on the need for the party to remain quite distinct from the state. We will return to this process of clarification undertaken by the Fraction in a subsequent article.

The bold conclusion drawn by the passage from Octobre - that it would have been better to have lost Kronstadt from the geographical point of view than carry out an act that would distort the very meaning of the revolution – is also the best answer to Serge’s concerns. For him it seemed that the crushing of the revolt was the only alternative to the rise of a new “anti-proletarian dictatorship” that would “massacre” the communists. But from the advantage of hindsight we can see that despite the crushing of the revolt an anti-proletarian dictatorship did arise and did massacre the communists: the Stalinist dictatorship. Indeed, it must be said that the crushing of the revolt only accelerated the decline of the revolution and thus unknowingly helped to clear the way for Stalinism. And the triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution was to have much more tragic consequences than the restoration of the White Guard could ever have done. If the White generals had come back to power then at least the issue would have been clear, as was the case with the Paris Commune, where all the world could see that the capitalists had won and the workers had lost. But the most horrible thing about the way the revolution died in Russia is that the counter-revolution won and called itself socialism. We are still living with the awful consequences.

The party ties a noose around its neck

The conflict between the proletariat and the ‘proletarian state’, which appeared openly in the events of 1921, placed the Bolshevik party at a historical crossroads. Given the isolation of the revolution and the terrible conditions this had imposed on the Russian bastion, it was inevitable that this state machine would increasingly be transformed into an organ of capitalism against the working class. The Bolsheviks could either try to remain at the head of this machine – which actually meant being more and more subsumed within it – or ‘go into opposition’, take their place amongst the workers, defending their immediate interests and aiding them to regroup their forces in preparation for a possible revival of the international revolution But although the KAPD did seriously raise this question in the autumn of 19213, it was far harder for the Bolsheviks to see the issue at the time. In practice the party had become so profoundly entangled with the state machine, and so pervaded with substitutionist ideology and methods, that there was no real possibility if the party as a whole taking this audacious step. But what was realistically posed in the period was the struggle of the left fractions against the degeneration of the party, for the maintenance of its proletarian character. Unfortunately, the party compounded the error it had made over Kronstadt by concluding, in Lenin’s words, that “now is not the time for oppositions”, by declaring a state of siege within the party and banning fractions, as it did at the conclusion of the 10th Congress. The Congress “Resolution on party unity” demanded the dissolution of all opposition groups at a time when the party was “surrounded by a ring of enemies”. It was not intended to be permanent, nor to end all criticism within the party: the resolution also called for more regular publication of the party’s internal discussion bulletin. But in seeing only ‘the enemy without’, it failed to give sufficient weight to the ‘enemy within’: the growth of opportunism and bureacratism inside the party, which was making it more and more necessary for opposition to take an organised form. Indeed, by banning factions, the party was tying a noose around its own neck: in the years that lay ahead, when the course of degeneration was becoming more and more evident, the resolution of the 10th Congress was to be used again and again to stifle all criticism and opposition to this course. We will return to this question in the next article in this series.


1 In his article ‘Bolshevik Opposition to Lenin: G.T. Miasnikov and the Workers’ Group’, Avrich shows that Miasnikov, though not part of any organised grouping in this debate, had already reached very similar conclusions: “For Miasnikov, on the contrary, the trade unions had outlived their usefulness, owing to the existence of the soviets. The soviets, he argued…were revolutionary rather than reformist bodies. Unlike the unions, they embraced not merely one or another segment of the proletariat, this or that trade or occupation, but ‘all of the workers’, and along the ‘lines of production ‘ rather than of craft. The unions should therefore be dismantled, Miasnikov urged, together with the Councils of National Economy, which were riddled with ‘bureaucratism and red tape’ ; the management of industry, he said, should be vested in the workers’ soviets” Avrich’s source is Zinoviev, ed., Partiia y Soynzy, 1921.

2 For a more detailed account of the events at Kronstadt, see our article in International Review 3. This has recently been republished in English with a new introduction.

3 See the article “The communist left and the growing conflict between the Russian state and the interests of the world revolution” in International Review 97, p18).


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