Eighty years ago in March 1921, four years after the successful seizure of power by the working class in the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the Bolshevik Party forcibly suppressed an insurrection at the Kronstadt garrison of the Baltic Fleet on the small island of Kotlin in the Gulf of Finland 30 kilometres from Petrograd.
The Bolshevik Party had had several years’ experience in fighting a bloody civil war against the counter revolutionary armies of the Russian and foreign bourgeoisies. But the revolt of the Kronstadt garrison was new and different: it was a revolt from within by the working class supporters of the soviet regime, who had been in the vanguard of the October Revolution, and were now raising class demands to correct various intolerable deformations and abuses of the new power.
The violent crushing of this struggle has ever since provided a reference point for understanding the meaning of the revolutionary project. Never more so than today when the bourgeoisie is doing all it can to prove to the working class that there is an unbreakable thread linking Marx and Lenin to Stalin and the Gulag.
Our intention is not to go over all the historical details. Previous articles in the International Review have already encompassed the event in detail (International Review n°3 “The lessons of Kronstadt” and International Review n°100 “1921: The proletariat and the transitional state”).
By contrast, we will take the opportunity of this anniversary to concentrate polemically on two kinds of argument about the Kronstadt revolt:firstly the anarchist use of the events to prove the authoritarian counter-revolutionary nature of Marxism and the parties that act in its name; secondly the idea, that still exists in the proletarian camp today, that the crushing of the rebellion was a “tragic necessity” to defend the gains of October.
The anarchist view
According to the anarchist historian Voline:
"Lenin understood nothing - or rather, did not want to
understand anything - about the Kronstadt movement. The essential
thing for him and his party was to maintain themselves in power at
all costs. (...)
As Marxists, authoritarians and statists, the Bolsheviks could not permit any freedom or independent action of the masses. They had no confidence in the free masses. They were convinced that the fall of their dictatorship would mean the destruction of all the work that had been done, and the endangering of the Revolution, which they confused with themselves. (...)
Kronstadt was the first entirely independent attempt of the people to liberate itself from all yokes and achieve the Social Revolution, an attempt made directly, resolutely, and boldly by the working masses themselves without political shepherds, without leaders or tutors. It was the first step towards the third and social revolution.
Kronstadt fell. But it had accomplished a task and that was the important thing. In the complex and shadowy labyrinth which opens out to the masses in revolt, Kronstadt is a bright beacon that lights up the right road. It matters little that in the circumstances in which they found themselves the rebels still spoke of power (the power of the Soviets) instead of he Soviets) instead of getting rid of the word and the idea altogether and speaking instead of co-ordination, organisation, administration. It was a last tribute paid to the past. Once full freedom of discussion, organisation and action have been completely won by the working masses themselves, once the true road of in independent popular activity is found the rest will come automatically and inevitably” (p534-538 The Unknown Revolution, Black Rose Books, 1975).
For the anarchists then, whose views Voline expresses succinctly, the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt was the natural, logical consequence of the Marxist conceptions of the Bolsheviks. The substitutionism of the Party, its identification of the dictatorship of the proletariat with the dictatorship of the party and the creation of a transitional state was the expression of a overriding lust for power, authority, over the masses in whom they had no confidence. Bolshevism, according to Voline, meant the replacement of one form of oppression by another.
But for him, Kronstadt was not merely a revolt but a model for the future. If the Kronstadt soviet had restricted itself to economic and social tasks (co-ordination, organisation, administration) and forgot about political tasks (its talk of the powets talk of the power of the soviets) it would have completed a picture of what the true social revolution should be: a society without leaders, without parties, without a state, without power of any kind, a society of immediate and complete freedom.
Unfortunately, for the anarchists, the first of the lessons coincides very closely with the prevailing ideology of the world bourgeoisie, that a communist revolution can only lead to a new form of tyranny.
This coincidence of views between the anarchists and the bourgeoisie isn't accidental. Both measure history according to the abstractions of equality, solidarity and fraternity against hierarchy, tyranny and dictatorship. The bourgeoisie used these moral principles cynically and hypocritically against the October Revolution to justify the brutality of the counter-revolutionary forces between 1918 and 1920 when it led armed interventions against Russia and blockaded it economically. The anarchists' practical alternative to Bolshevism on the other hand is a naive utopia where the historical difficulties that the proletarian revolution had to confront have mysteriously melted away.
But as the events of Spain in 1936 confirm, anarchist naivety, after rejecting the Marxist historical conception of revolution, is obliged to capitulate before the bourgeoisie's practical counter-revolution.
If the Bolsheviks were fundamentally motivated by a mania for complete power, as Voline claims, anarchism by contrast is incapable of answering a whole series questions that emerge from the historical reality. If the Bolsheviks’ ultimate objective was power why - unlike the majority of Social Democracy - did it condemn itself to a period of ostracism between 1914 and 1917 by denouncing the imperialist war and demanding that it be turned into a civil war? Why did it refuse to join, unlike the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, the provisional government with the Russian liberal bourgeoisie after the February 1917 revolution, and call for all power to the soviets instead?
Why did it trust in the capacities of the Russian working class to begin a world proletarian revolution in October, unlike most of the rest of international Social Democracy who deemed it too backward and small in numbers to overthrow the bourgeoisie ?
Why did it trust in, win, and retain the support of, the working class to make all the sacrifices necessary to survive the allied blockade and resist arms in hand the counter-revolutionary armies?
Why did it inspire the world working class to follow the Russian lead in revolutionary attempts throughout Europe and the rest of the world? How could the Bolshevik Party take the initiative in the creation of a new Communist International on a world scale?
Finally why did the process of the integration of the party into the state machine, and its usurpation of the mass organs of workers’ power - the soviets and the factory committees - and finally the use of force against the class struggle, not occur overnight, but only after a protracted period?
The theory of the Bolsheviks’ inherent nastiness does not explain the degeneration of the Russian Revolution in general nor the Kronstadt episode in particular.
By 1921 the revolution in Russia, and the Bolshevik Party which led it, was confronted by a very difficult situation. The spread of the revolution to Germany and other countries looked much less likely than it had in 1919. The world economic situation had stabilised relatively and the pivotal Spartacist uprising in Germany had failed. Inside Russia, despite victory in the civil war, the situation was dramatic, due to the repeated assaults by counter-revolutionary armies, and the economic strangulation consciously organised by the international bourgeoisie. The industrial infrastructure was in ruins and the working class was decimated by its sacrifices on the battlefields first of the world and then of the civil war, or because it had been forced to leave the cities in droves for the countryside, in order to survive. The Bolsheviks were also faced with the growing unpopularity of the regime not only amongst the peasantry who launched a series of insurrections in the provinces, but above all within the working class that unleashed a strike wave in Petrograd in mid-February 1921. And then came Kronstadt.
How could Russia remain a bastion of the world revolution, survive the working class disaffection and economic disintegration, while waiting for the delayed help from working class revolution in other countries, and especially in Europe? The anarchists have no explanation for the degeneration of the revolution, except to close their eyes to the problem of the political supremacy of the proletariat, the centralisation of its power, the international extension of the revolution, and of the transitional period to a communist society. This does not alter the fact that the Bolsheviks made a catastrophic error by giving a military answer to the Kronstadt revolt, and treating working class resistance to them as an act of treachery and counter-revolution. But the Bolshevik Party did not have the benefit of hindsight as revolutionaries need to have today. It could only make use of the acquisitions of the workers' movement of the time: a movement that had never before had to confront the immensely difficult task of holding onto power in a hostile capitalist world. The relationship of the soviets to the party of the working class after the successful seizure of power was not understood, nor was the relationship of both these class organs to the transitional state that would inevitably succeed the smashing of the bourgeois state.
In taking the helm of the state, and gradually incorporating into it the workers’ councils and factory committees, the Bolshevik Party was stumbling in the dark. And, according to prevailing opinion within the workers’ movement at the time, the main danger to the revolution came from outside the new state apparatus: from the international bourgeoisie and from the peasantry and the Russian bourgeoisie in exile. None of the tendencies in the communist movement at the time, not even the left wing, had an alternative perspective, although there were those, including inside the Bolshevik Party who warned against the bureaucratisation of the regime. But their prescriptions were limited and contained other dangers. The Workers' Opposition of Kollontai and Shliapnikov called for the trade unions to defend the workers against the excesses of the state, forgetting that the workers’ councils had transcended them as mass organs of the revolutionary proletariat.
There were some inside the Bolshevik Party who opposed the crushing of the revolt: the Party members in Kronstadt who joined the movement and elements like Gavriil Miasnikov who would later form the Workers’ Group and opposed the military solution. But the existing left tendencies in the party, and in the Communist International, despite their critiques of the Bolshevik regime, nevertheless supported the use of violence. The Workers’ Opposition even volunteered for the assault force. The German Communist Workers Party, the KAPD, which opposed the dictatorship of the party, nevertheless agreed with the military action against the Kronstadt rebellion (this does not prevent some anarchists today, like the Anarchist Federation in Britain, from trying to claim the KAPD for their ancestry!).
Finally the demands of the Kronstadt Soviet, contrary to Voline's opinion, did not provide a coherent alternative perspective either, since they are framed mainly within an immediate and local context and don't take up the wider implications of the proletarian bastion and the world situation. In particular they don't give an answer to what the role of the vanguard party should be (1)
It was only later, much later, that revolutionaries, trying to draw all the lessons from the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave that it initiated, could point to the real lessons of this tragic episode.
"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." (Octobre, 1938, published by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left).
The Communist Left had put its finger on the essential problem: the Bolshevik Party, in using the violence of the state against the working class was putting itself at the head of the counter-revolution. The victory at Kronstadt accelerated the tendency for the Bolshevik Party to become an instrument of the Russian state against the working class. From this insight, the communist left was able to draw another daring conclusion. The communist party, in order to remain a vanguard of the proletariat, must protect its autonomy from the post-revolutionary state that reflects an inevitable tendency to preserve the status quo and prevent the advance of the revolutionary process.
The Bordigist view
However, in today's communist left, this conclusion is far from universally held. In fact, some parts of it, especially the Bordigist current, have returned to the justifications of Lenin and Trotsky for the repression of Kronstadt, in complete contradiction to the position of the Italian fraction in 1938:
"It would be pointless to discuss the terrible circumstances that obliged the Bolsheviks to crush Kronstadt with someone who refused on principle that a proletarian power in the process of birth or consolidation can fire on the workers. The examination of the terrible problem the proletarian state must confront reinforces the critique of a vision of the revolution through rose tinted glasses and the understanding that the crushing of this rebellion was, according to Trotsky, 'a tragic necessity', but a necessity and even a duty" (“Kronstadt: a tragic necessity”, Programme Communiste n°88, theoretical organ of the International Communist Party, May 1982).
Bypassing the tradition that they claim to belong to, the Bordigist current may defend the intransigent internationalism of the Bolshevik Party, but it also defends, just as vehemently, its mistakes, and so is left unable to learn from all the reasons for the degeneration of the party and the revolution (2).
According to them the relationship of the party to the class and to the post-revolutionary state in the revolutionary process doesn't pose a problem of principles but only of expediency, of how best in each situation the revolutionary vanguard carries out its function:
“This titanic struggle can only provoke within the proletariat itself terrible tensions. In effect, it is obvious that the party cannot make the revolution nor direct the dictatorship against nor even without the masses, the revolutionary will of the proletariat is not manifested by electoral consultations or opinion polls to find a 'numerical majority' or, even more absurd, a unanimity. It expresses itself by a rise and ever more precise orientation of the struggles where the most determined fractions draw along the hesitant and undecided, and sweep aside its opponents if necessary. In the course of the vicissitudes of the civil war and the dictatorship, the positions and relationships of the different layers may change. And far from recognising by virtue of some 'soviet democracy' the same weight and the same importance to all the layers of workers, semi-workers or petit-bourgeoisie, explains Trotsky in Terrorism or Communism, their right even to participate in the soviets, that is the organs of the proletarian state, depends on their attitude in the struggle.
No 'constitutional rule' no 'democratic principle' can harmonise relations within the proletariat. No recipe can resolve the contradictions between the local needs and the demands of the international revolution, between the immediate needs and the demands of the historic struggle of the class, contradictions which find their expression in the opposition of various fractions of the proletariat. No formalism can codify the relations between the party, the most advanced fraction of the class and organ of its revolutionary struggle, and the masses who are affected to different degrees by the pressure of local and immediate conditions. Even the best party, that which can 'observe the spirit of the mass and influence it' as Lenin said, must sometimes demand the impossible from the masses. More exactly, it only finds the ‘limit’ to what is possible by trying to go forward.” (ibid.).
In 1921 the Bolshevik Party chose the wrong path without any previous experience or parameters to guide them. Today, the Bordigists, absurdly, make a virtue out of Bolsheviks' mistakes and declare: “there are no principles”. The Bordigists conjure away the problem of the exercising of proletarian power by deriding formalistic and abstract methods for arriving at a common position of the whole class. While it is very true there can never be a perfect means for establishing a consensus in an extremely fluid situation the workers’ councils or soviets have been shown to be the most adequate means of reflecting and carrying out the evolving revolutionary will of the proletariat as a whole, even though the experience of Germany in 1918 and elsewhere shows that they can be vulnerable to recuperation by the bourgeoisie. Although the Bordigists are generous enough to admit that the party cannot make the revolution without the masses, the masses then have no means of expressing their revolutionary will as an entire class, except through the party and with the permission of the party. And the party can, if necessary, correct the proletariat with machine guns, as at Kronstadt. According to this logic the proletarian revolution has two contradictory slogans: before the revolution “All power to the soviets”; after the revolution: “All power to the party”.
The Bordigists, unlike Octobre, have forgotten that, contrary to the bourgeois revolution, the tasks of the proletarian revolution cannot be delegated to a minority, but must be carried out by the self-conscious majority. The emancipation of the workers is the task of the working class itself.
The Bordigists reject both bourgeois democracy and workers democracy as though they were the same fraud. But the soviets or workers' councils - the means by which the proletariat mobilises itself for the overthrow of capitalism - must be the organs of the proletarian dictatorship that reflect and regulate the tensions and differences within the proletariat and retains its armed power over the transitional state. The party, the indispensable vanguard, however clear and in advance of the rest of the proletariat at a particular time, cannot substitute itself for this power
However, having demonstrated the right of the party - in practice, if not “in principle” - to shoot down workers, the Bordigists, as if shrinking from the horror of this conclusion, then proceed to deny that the Kronstadt revolt had a proletarian character anyway. Following one of Lenin's definitions of the time, the Kronstadt was a ”petty-bourgeois counter-revolution” that opened the door to white guard reaction.
It was certainly true that all sorts of confused and even reactionary ideas were expressed by the rebels of Kronstadt, and some were reflected in its platform. It is also true that the organised forces of the counter-revolution were trying to use the rebellion for their own ends. But the workers of Kronstadt continued to consider themselves in continuity with the revolution of 1917 and as an integral part of the proletarian movement on a world scale:
“Let the workers of the entire world know that we, the defenders of the power of the soviets, protect the conquests of the social revolution. We will win or perish on the ruins of Kronstadt, fighting for the just cause of the proletarian masses” (the Kronstadt Pravda , p82).
Whatever confusions were expressed by the Kronstadt rebels, it is absolutely undeniable that their demands also reflected the interests of the proletariat faced with terrible living conditions, the growing oppression of a state bureaucracy and the loss of its political power in the atrophied soviets. The attempt at the time by the Bolsheviks to brand them as petty-bourgeois and potential agents of the counter revolution was of course a pretext to solve a situation of terrible danger and complexity within the proletariat by force.
With the advantage of historical hindsight and the theoretical work of the communist left, we can see the basic error of their reasoning: the Bolsheviks crushed the Kronstadt revolt and nevertheless an anti-proletarian dictatorship still massacred the communists - Stalinism, the absolute power of the capitalist bureaucracy. In fact, in crushing the efforts of the workers of Kronstadt to regenerate the soviets, in identifying themselves with the state, the Bolsheviks were paving the way for Stalinism without knowing it. They helped the acceleration of a counter-revolutionary process which was to have far more terrible and tragic consequences for the working class than the restoration of the Whites. In Russia the counter-revolution won, proclaiming itself communist. The idea that Stalinist Russia was the living embodiment of socialism, and in direct continuity with the October revolution sowed a terrible confusion and an incalculable demoralisation in the ranks of the working class all over the world. We are still living with the consequences of this distortion of reality as the bourgeoisie since 1989 continues to equate the death of Stalinism with the death of communism.
But the Bordigists, despite this experience, are still identifying with the tragic mistake of 1921. It is hardly a “tragic” necessity for them but a communist duty that will have to be repeated !
Like the anarchists, the Bordigists don't see any contradiction between the Bolshevik Party in 1917, that led but also deferred to and depended on, the armed will of the revolutionary proletariat organised in the soviets, and the Bolshevik Party of 1921, that had reduced the soviets to a shadow of their former power and turned the violence of the state against the working class. But while the anarchists help the bourgeoisie in their present campaigns by portraying the Bolsheviks as machiavellian tyrants, the Bordigists celebrate this fraudulent image as the very acme of revolutionary intransigence.
But a Communist Left, worthy of the name, while identifying with the Bolshevik heritage must be also able to criticise its mistakes. The crushing of the Kronstadt revolt was one of the most harmful and terrible of these.
1) See International Review n°3, p51, for the platform of the Kronstadt revolt.
2) The International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party , another branch of the Communist Left has an ambiguous position on Kronstadt. An article published in Revolutionary Perspectives No 23 (1986) reaffirms the proletarian character of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party that led it, and rejects the anarchist idealisations of the Kronstadt revolt, underlining that the revolt reflected profoundly unfavourable conditions for the proletarian revolution and that it contained many confused and reactionary elements. At the same time the article criticises the Bordigist idea that the assault on Kronstadt was a necessity to preserve the dictatorship of the party. It affirms that one of the basic lessons of Kronstadt is that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be exercised by the class itself, through its workers' councils, and not by the party. It also shows that the errors of the Bolsheviks concerning the relation between the party and the class, in the overall context of the isolation of the proletarian bastion, accelerated the internal degeneration of the both the party and the soviet state. Nevertheless the article doesn't characterise the revolt as proletarian and doesn't answer the fundamental question: is it possible that a proletarian dictatorship uses violence against the discontent of the working class? They even say that as a result of the manipulation of the counter-revolution - even if it opened up a chapter of slow agony in the workers movement - the repression of the revolt was more than justified.