The lessons of Kronstadt

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  1. Preface (1997)

  2. Preface (1975)

  3. Part 1: Understanding the Kronstadt Revolt

  4. Part 2: The Lessons of Kronstadt

Preface (1997)

The press of the ICC has recently carried a large number of articles to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Russian revolution. The central theme running through these articles has been to defend the October revolution against the bourgeoisie's monstrous campaigns about the 'death of communism' following the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989. We are reprinting this article on the Kronstadt uprising of 1921, first published in 1975, in International Review no. 3 , for the same fundamental reason. The ruling class has always tried to make maximum use out of the Kronstadt tragedy to support its 'argument' that the October insurrection was no more than a minority putsch by the Bolshevik party, and that Stalinism was its inevitable result. The Bolsheviks' suppression of the Kronstadt revolt is presented as definitive proof of this thesis.

In this argument, the bourgeoisie has always been echoed by the anarchists, who see the failure of the Russian revolution as confirmation of their 'principled' opposition to the idea both of the revolutionary party and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and who set themselves up as the true heirs of the Kronstadt rebels. .And just as the bourgeoisie as a whole is anxious to equate Stalinism with marxism, so the libertarians are equally concerned to make it seem that the only alternative to their view of Kronstadt is the Stalinist/Trotskyist one - ie, the fake marxist version - which openly justifies the repression of the revolt, which is portrayed as the result of a White Guard plot.

The pamphlet 'Beyond Kronstadt' by the milieu around Radical Chains and Aufheben is a recent example of this mystification. As the comrades of the Communist Workers Organisation pointed out in Revolutionary Perspectives 8, this milieu tries to convey the impression that prior to the original genius of Radical Chains, the only possible interpretations of the degeneration of the Russian revolution have been provided by Trotskyism or anarchism, and thus completely obscures the immense contribution to understanding this process made by the international communist left. Particularly important in the effort to draw the real lessons of Kronstadt was the work of Italian Left around the review Bilan in the 1930s. While never losing sight of the fact that the fundamental cause of the degeneration of the Russian revolution was its international isolation, Bilan also recognised that the mistakes of the organised workers' movement were an important contributory factor in this degeneration. In particular, they pointed to the dangerous consequences of identifying the proletarian party with the transitional state, and the necessity for the class as a whole to maintain a strict independence from the state organs that inevitably arise after the workers' conquest of political power. Lacking the historical basis to draw these lessons itself, the Bolshevik party became entangled in a state machine that was the focal point of the capitalist counter-revolution.

The article that follows is part of the ICC's effort to assimilate and deepen the analyses of the communist left. Certain formulations and approaches contained within it - particularly concerning Trotsky and the early Left Opposition - reflect the immaturity that then existed within the ICC on such questions. But in the main it carried out the essential task: drawing the lessons of the Kronstadt events from a standpoint of resolute solidarity with the October revolution and the Bolshevik party that was at its head. In republishing it, we are not only highlighting the lessons themselves, but also reaffirming that the communist left is the only political tradition that has been capable of drawing them.

ICC, December 1997


Preface (1975)

This article is an attempt to analyse the Kronstadt events and the lessons to be drawn from them by the workers' movement today and tomorrow, written by a comrade of the International Communist Current. The analysis is situated within the general orientation of our Current. The essential points for understanding what these events have bequeathed to us are contained in the article and can he briefly resumed here:

1. The proletarian revolution is, by its own historic nature, an international revolution. If it is limited to the context of one country or even several countries it comes up against absolutely insurmountable difficulties and is inevitably fated to perish after a more or less brief period.

2. Contrary to other revolutions in history, the proletarian revolution demands the direct, constant and active participation of the whole class. This means that at no time can the class, without immediately opening up a tendency towards degeneration, tolerate the 'delegation' of power to a party, nor the substitution of a specialised body or fraction of the class, no matter how revolutionary, for the class as a whole.

3. The working class is the only revolutionary class not only within capitalist society but also throughout the period of transition, as long as classes exist in society on a world scale. This is why the total autonomy of the proletariat in relation to other classes and social strata remains the fundamental precondition for the proletariat to exercise its hegemony and class dictatorship with the aim of creating a communist society.

4. The autonomy of the proletariat means that under no pretext can the unitary and political organs of the class be subordinated to statist institutions, since this can only lead to the dissolution of the proletariat's class organs and to the abdication of the communist programme, of which the proletariat is the unique subject.

5. The forward progression of the proletarian revolution is not guaranteed by this or that partial economic measure no matter how important it may be. Only the whole of its programme, the total political vision and action of the proletariat constitutes this guarantee, and included within this totality are the immediately possible economic measures which are part of the overall orientation of the communist programme.

6. Revolutionary violence is a weapon of the proletariat in the face of and against other classes. Under no circumstances can violence serve as a criterion or an instrument within the class because it is not a means for the development of consciousness. This development of consciousness can only he acquired by the proletariat through its own experience and through the constant critical examination of experience. This is why the use of violence within the class, whatever its motivation and immediate justification, can only obstruct the self-activity of the masses and end up as the most serious obstacle to the development of consciousness, which is an indispensable precondition for the triumph of communism.

The Kronstadt uprising of 1921 is an acid test that separates those whose class position enables them to grasp the processes and evolution of the proletarian revolution from those to whom the revolution remains a closed book. It crystallizes in a very dramatic way some of the most important lessons of the whole Russian Revolution, lessons that the proletariat cannot afford to ignore as it prepares for its next great revolutionary upsurge against capital.

The Editors,

International Communist Current


Part 1: Understanding the Kronsdtadt Revolt


A marxist approach to the problem of Kronstadt can only depart from the affirmation that the October 1917 revolution in Russia was a proletarian revolution, a moment in the unfolding world proletarian revolution which was the response of the international working class to the imperialist war of 1914-18. This war in turn marked the definitive entry of world capitalism into its era of irreversible historical decline, thus making the proletarian revolution a material necessity in all countries. It must also be affirmed that the Bolshevik Party, which put itself at the head of the October insurrection, was a proletarian, communist party, a vital force in the international left after the betrayal of the Second International in 1914, which continued the defence of the class positions of the proletariat during the World War and the subsequent period.

Against those who describe the October insurrection as a mere 'coup d'état', a putsch carried out by a conspiratorial elite, we insist that the insurrection was the culmination of a long process of class struggle and of maturation in working class consciousness; that it represented a conscious seizure of political power by the working class organized in its soviets, factory committees, and Red Guards. The insurrection was part of a process of the liquidation of the bourgeois state and of the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship: and as the Bolsheviks passionately insisted, its main significance was that it was to mark the first decisive moment in the world proletarian revolution, the international civil war against the bourgeoisie. The idea that the insurrection was undertaken to build 'socialism' in Russia alone was far from the minds of the Bolsheviks at that time, despite a number of confusions and errors concerning the immediate economic programme of the revolution, errors which they held in conjunction with the entire workers' movement of the era.


It is only against this background that we can hope to understand the subsequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Since this problem is being dealt with in another text of our Current in this review ('The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution'), we shall restrict selves to a few general remarks here. The revolution initiated in October 1917 failed to extend itself internationally despite the many attempted uprisings of the class throughout Europe. Russia herself was torn by a long and bloody civil war that devastated the economy and fragmented the industrial working class, the backbone of the Soviet power. In this context of isolation and internal chaos, the ideological errors of the Bolsheviks, almost as soon as they had taken power, began to assume a material weight against the political hegemony of the working class. (This was however an uneven process. The Bolsheviks who were resorting to more and more bureaucratic measures inside Russia during 1918-20 could still help found the Communist International in 1919, with the sole and express purpose of accelerating the world proletarian revolution.)

The delegation of power to a party, the elimination of the factory committees, the gradual subordination of the soviets to the state apparatus, the disbanding of the workers' militias, the growth of a militaristic approach to difficulties as a result of the tensions of the civil war period, the creation of bureaucratic commissions, were all extremely significant manifestations of the process of the degeneration of the revolution in Russia.

These developments were not the only signs of a weakening of the political power of the working class in Russia prior to 1921, but they are certainly the most significant. Although some of them date back even before the period of War Communism began, it is the civil war period which sees the most unhindered evolution of this process. Since the Kronstadt rebellion was in many ways a reaction to the rigours of War Communism, it is necessary to be quite clear about what this period actually signified for the Russian proletariat.


As pointed out in the text 'The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution', we can no longer harbour the illusions of the Left Communists of the period, for many of whom War Communism represented a 'trite' socialist policy as against the 'capitalist restoration' instituted by the NEP. The near-disappearance of money and wages and the requisitioning of grain from the peasants did not represent an abolition of capitalist social relations but were simply unavoidable emergency measures imposed by the capitalist blockade against the Soviet Republic and by the demands of the civil war. As far as the real political power of the working class was concerned, we have seen that this period was marked by a progressive weakening of the organs of proletarian dictatorship and by a steady growth in bureaucratic tendencies and institutions. Over and over again the leadership of the Party-State argued that working class self-organisation was fine in principle but that right now everything had to he subordinated to the military struggle. A doctrine of 'efficiency' began to undermine essential principles of proletarian democracy. Under the cover of this doctrine the state began to institute a militarisation of labour, which subjected the workers to extremely harsh methods of supervision and exploitation. "In January 1920 the Council of Peoples' Commissars, largely at Trotsky's instigation, decreed a general labour obligation for all able bodied adults and, at the same time, authorized the assignment of idle military personnel to civilian work." (Paul Averich, Kronstadt 1921, Princeton 1970, p.26-7). At the same time labour discipline in the factories was enforced by the presence of Red Army troops. Having emasculated the factory committees, the way was now clear for the state to introduce one-man management and the 'Taylor' system of exploitation at the point of production, the same system which Lenin himself had denounced as "the enslavement of man to the machine". For Trotsky "the militarisation of labour ... is the indispensable basic method for the organization of our labour forces", (Report to the Third All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, Moscow, 1920). The fact that the state was now a 'Workers' State' meant for him that the workers could have no objection to subordinating themselves to it completely.

The harsh conditions of work in the factories were not compensated for by high wages or easy access to 'use values'. On the contrary, the devastation of the economy by war and the blockade, brought the entire country to the verge of starvation, and the workers had to make do with the most meagre rations, often extremely irregularly given out. Vast sectors of industry ceased to function altogether and thousands of workers were forced to forage and fend for themselves in order to survive at all. The natural response of many was simply to leave the towns and eke out some kind of existence in the countryside; thousands attempted to survive by trading privately with the peasants, often swapping items stolen from the factories for food. Since the regime of War Communism forbade private trade, charging the state with requisitioning and distribution of essential goods, many people only survived through the black market which sprang up everywhere. To counter the black market, the government set up armed roadblocks to check all travellers to and from the towns, while the activities of the Cheka in enforcing the decrees of the government became more and more vigorous. This 'Extraordinary Commission' set up in 1918 to fight counter-revolution was behaving in a more or less unrestrained manner, using ruthless methods that won it widespread hatred among all sectors of the population.

Neither did the summary treatment handed out to the peasants gain the universal approval of the workers. The close familial and personal relations between many sectors of the Russian working class and the peasantry tended to make the workers sympathetic to the complaints of the peasants about the high-handed methods which were often used by the armed detachments sent to requisition grain, especially when the detachments took more than the surplus product of the peasant and left him without the means for his own subsistence. In response to these methods the peasants frequently hid or destroyed their crops, thus aggravating the poverty and scarcity of the whole country. The general unpopularity of these measures of economic coercion was to be clearly expressed in the programme of the Kronstadt rebels, as we shall see.

If revolutionaries like Trotsky tended to make a virtue out of the necessities imposed by this period and to glory in the militarisation of social and economic life, others, and Lenin himself was one, were more prudent. Lenin did not hide the fact that the Soviets were no longer functioning as organs of direct proletarian rule, and during the 1921 debate with Trotsky on the trade union question he supported the idea that the workers must defend themselves even against 'their' state, particularly since the Soviet Republic was for Lenin not simply a 'proletarian state' but a "workers' and peasants' state" with profound "bureaucratic deformations". The Workers' Opposition and other left groups, of course, went further in their denunciation of these bureaucratic deformations that the state had undergone in the 1918-21 period. But the majority of the Bolsheviks firmly and sincerely believed that as long as they, the party of the proletariat, controlled the state machine, the dictatorship of the proletariat still existed, even if the working masses themselves seemed to be temporarily absent from the political stage. From this fundamentally false position, disastrous consequences inevitably followed.


While the civil war lasted, the Soviet state retained the support of the majority of the population since it was identified with the struggle against the old land-owning and capitalist classes. The extreme hardships of the civil war were shouldered with relative willingness by the workers and small peasants. But after the defeat of the imperialist armies, many began to hope that living conditions would be less harsh, that the regime would relax its tight grip on social and economic life.

The Bolshevik leadership, however, faced with the wholesale devastation left over by the war was reluctant to allow any let-up in centralized state control. Some left Bolsheviks, such as Ossinsky, insisted on the retention, indeed the reinforcement, of War Communism, especially in the countryside. He put forward a plan for "compulsory mass organisation of production", (N. Ossinsky. Goshdarstvennoe Regulirovanie Krestianskogo Khoziastva, Moscow 1920, p.8-9), under government direction, the formation of local 'sowing committees' to extend collectivised production, and of common seed banks into which the peasants would be required to pool their seed-grain, the government itself determining the overall distribution of this grain. All these measures, he foresaw, would lead to a genuinely 'socialist' economy in Russia.

Other Bolsheviks, such as Lenin, began to see the need for some relaxation, especially towards the peasants, but on the whole 'the party stood firm in defence of the methods of War Communism. As a result, the patience of the peasants at last began to wear out. During the winter of 1920-21, a whole series of peasant uprisings swept the country. In Tambov province, the middle Volga area, the Ukraine, western Siberia and many other regions, peasants formed themselves into crudely armed bands to fight against the food detachments and the Cheka. Often their ranks were swelled by recently demobilized Red Army men who brought a certain military know-how to their actions. In some regions, huge insurgent armies were formed, half guerrilla forces and half bandit-gangs. In Tambov, for example, the guerrilla army of A.S. Antonov numbered up to 50,000 men. These forces had little ideological motive save for the traditional peasant resentment against the city, against centralised government, in favour of the traditional dreams of the rural petit-bourgeoisie for independence and self-sufficiency. Having already confronted the peasant army of Makhno in the Ukraine, the Bolsheviks were haunted by the possibility of a generalized peasant Jacquerie against the Soviet power. It is not therefore altogether surprising that they should have assimilated the Kronstadt revolt with this threat from the peasantry. This is surely one of the reasons for the ruthlessness with which the Kronstadt uprising was suppressed.

But in between the wave of peasant rebellions and the uprising in Kronstadt, a series of events occurred which gives the action of the Kronstadt rebels a very different character from that ascribed to it by the Bolshevik leadership. In the middle of February 1921, spontaneous factory meetings, strikes and demonstrations took place in Moscow, demanding higher rations, an end to the methods of 'forced labour' instituted by War Communism, and a return to 'free trade' with the countryside. Troops and officer cadets had to be called in to restore order.

Almost immediately afterwards, a far bigger series of wildcat strikes swept through Petrograd. Beginning at the Trubochny metal factory, the strike rapidly spread out to include many of the largest industrial enterprises in the city. At factory meetings and demonstrations, resolutions were passed demanding increases in food and clothing rations, since most of the workers were both hungry and freezing. Alongside these economic demands, more political demands appeared also: the workers wanted an end to travel restrictions in and out of the city, release of working class prisoners, freedom of speech, etc. The Soviet authorities in the town, with Zinoviev at their head, responded by denouncing the strikes as playing into the hands of the counter-revolution, and they put the city under direct military rule, forbidding street meetings and imposing an 11pm. curfew. Undoubtedly some counter-revolutionary elements like the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries did intervene in these events with their own fraudulent schemes for 'salvation', but the Petrograd strike movement was essentially a spontaneous proletarian response to intolerable living conditions. The Bolshevik authorities, however, could not bear to admit that the workers could be striking against the 'Workers' State', and characterized the strikers as idlers, self-seekers, and provocateurs. They also sought to break the strike by means of lockouts, deprivation of rations, and the arrest of prominent speakers and 'ringleaders' by the local Cheka. These repressive measures were combined with concessions: Zinoviev announced the dismantling of the roadblocks around the city, the purchase of coal from abroad to ease the fuel shortage and plans to end grain-requisitions. This combination of repression and conciliation led most of the already weak and exhausted workers to abandon their struggle in the hope of better things to come.

But the most important outcome of the Petrograd strike movement was the effect it was to have on the nearby fortress-town of Kronstadt. The Kronstadt garrison, one of the main bastions of the October Revolution, had already been engaged in a fight against bureaucratisation before the Petrograd strikes. During 1920 and 1921 the rank and file of the Red Fleet in the Baltic had been fighting against the disciplinarian tendencies of the officers and the bureaucratic actions of the POUBALT (the Political Section of the Baltic Fleet, the party organ which dominated the soviet structure of the navy). Motions were passed at sailors' meetings in February 1921, declaring "P0UBALT has not only separated itself from the masses but also from the active functionaries. It has become transformed into a bureaucratic organ, enjoying no authority among the sailors". (Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Commune, Solidarity pamphlet, no.27, p.3)

Thus when news came of the Petrograd strikes and of the declaration of martial law by the Petrograd authorities, the sailors were already in a state of ferment. On 28 February they sent a delegation to the factories of Petrograd to discover what was going on. On the same day the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk met to discuss the situation and passed the following resolution:

"Having heard the report of the representatives sent by the general meeting of ships crews to Petrograd to investigate the situation there, we resolve:

1. 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;

2. To give freedom of speech and press to workers and peasants, to anarchists and left socialist parties;

3. To secure freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations;

4. To call a non-party conference of the workers, Red Army soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt, and Petrograd province, no later than 10 March 1921;

5. To liberate all political prisoners of socialist parties, as well as all workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors imprisoned in connection with the labour and peasant movements;

6. To elect a commission to review the cases of those being held in prisons and concentration camps;

7. To abolish all political departments because no party should be given special privileges in the propagation of its ideas or receive the financial support of the state for such purposes. Instead, there should be established cultural and educational commissions, locally elected and financed by the state;

8. To remove immediately all roadblock detachments;

9. To equalise the rations of all working people, with the exception of those employed in trades detrimental to health;

10. To abolish Communist fighting detachments in all branches of the Army, as well as the Communist guards kept on duty in factories and mills. Should the guards be found necessary they are to be appointed in the Army from the ranks and in the factories and mills at the discretion of the workers;

11. To give the peasants full freedom of action in regard to the land, and also the right to keep cattle, on condition that the peasants manage with their own means, that is without employing hired labour;

12. To request all branches of the Army, as well as our comrades the military cadets (kursanty), to endorse our resolution;

13. To demand that the press give all our resolutions wide publicity;

14. To appoint an itinerant bureau of control;

15. To permit free handicrafts production by one's own labour.

Petrichenko, Chairman of the Squadron Meeting
Pererelkin, Secretary"

(Averich, op cit, p.73-4)

This resolution quickly became the programme of the Kronstadt revolt. On 1 March a mass assembly of 16,000 took place in the garrison, officially convened as a meeting of the First and Second Battleship Sections, and attended by Kalinin, President of the All-Russian Executive of Soviets, and Kouzmin, political commissar to the Baltic Fleet. Although Kalinin was welcomed to the assembly with music and flags, he and Kouzmin soon found themselves completely isolated at the meeting. The whole assembly adopted the Petropavlovsk resolution, with the exception of Kalinin and Kouzmin, who spoke against the initiatives of the Kronstadters in a most provocative tone and were met with jeers and catcalls.

The next day, 2 March, was the day the Kronstadt Soviet was due to he re-elected. The mass assembly of 1 March therefore called a meeting of delegates from ships, Red Army units, factories and elsewhere to discuss the reconstitution of the Soviet. 300 delegates therefore met on 2 March at the House of Culture. The Petropavlovsk resolution was again endorsed and plans for new Soviet elections set in motion, with a view towards "the peaceful reconstruction of the Soviet regime", (Mett, op cit, p.13). In the meantime the delegates set up a Provisional Revolutionary Committee (PRC) charged with the administration of the town and organising defence against any government intervention. This latter task was seen to be especially pressing because of rumours of immediate attack by Bolshevik detachments and because of the violent threats of Kalinin and Kouzmin. These two proved so intractable that they were arrested along with two other officials. This act marked a decisive step towards open mutiny, and was interpreted as such by the government.

The PRC quickly assumed its functions. It began to publish its own Izvestia, and the first issue declared:

"The Communist Party, master of the State, has detached itself from the masses. It has shown itself incapable of getting the country out of its mess. Countless incidents have recently occurred in Petrograd and Moscow that clearly show that the party has lost the confidence of the working masses. The party is ignoring working class demands, because it believes that these demands are the result of counter-revolutionary activity. In this the party is making a profound mistake." (Izvestia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee, 3 March, 1921)


The immediate response of the Bolshevik government to the rebellion was to denounce it as part of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy against the Soviet power. Moscow radio called it a "White Guard plot" and claimed to have evidence that the whole thing had been organized by émigré circles in Paris and by spies for the Entente. Although these fabrications are still repeated today, this interpretation of events has been discredited even by semi-Trotskyist historians like Deutscher, who admit that these accusations have no foundation in realty. Certainly, all the jackals of the counter-revolution from the White Guards to the Social Revolutionaries attempted to capitalise on the rebellion and offered it their support. But apart from accepting the offer of 'humanitarian' aid via the émigré-controlled Russian Red Cross, the PRC rejected the advances made to them by the forces of reaction. They affirmed that they were not fighting for the return of autocracy or of the Constituent Assembly, but for a regeneration of Soviet power free from bureaucratic domination. "The Soviets and not the Constituent Assembly are the bulwark of the toilers," declared the Izvestia of Kronstadt (Pravda o Kronshtadte, Prague 192l, p.32) "In Kronstadt power is in the hands of the sailors, the red soldiers, and the revolutionary workers. It is not in the hands a White Guards commanded by General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio lyingly asserts." (Appeal of the PRC, Mett op cit, p.22-3)

Since the idea of a pure White guard plot, has been revealed to be a fiction more sophisticated apologetics for the subsequent repression of Kronstadt have been put forward by those who uncritically identify with the degeneration of Bolshevism. Most of the arguments follow the justification given by Trotsky in later years. In 'Hue and Cry over Kronstadt', (New international, April 1938), Trotsky presented the following argument. True, Kronstadt in 1917 was one of the bastions of the proletarian revolution; but during the civil war the revolutionary proletarian elements of the garrison were dispersed and replaced by peasant elements dominated by reactionary petit-bourgeois ideology. These elements simply could not put up with the rigours of the proletarian dictatorship and the civil war, so they staged a revolt to undermine the dictatorship and secure for themselves privileged rations. "...the Kronstadt uprising was nothing but armed reaction of the petite-bourgeoisie against the hardships of social revolution and the severity of proletarian dictatorship." He goes on to say that the Petrograd workers, who in contrast to the dandies of Kronstadt bore these hardships without complaint, were "repelled" by the rebel lion, feeling that "the Kronstadt mutineers stood on the opposite side of the barricades" and do they 'supported the Soviet power."

We do not want to spend too much time examining these arguments; we have already cited enough facts to discredit them. The claim that the Kronstadt rebels demanded privileged rations for themselves can be dismissed simply by recalling point nine of the Petropavlovsk resolution, demanding equal rationing for all. Similarly the picture painted of the Petrograd workers tamely supporting the repression is rudely shattered by the reality of the wave of strikes which preceded the revolt. Although this is movement had largely subsided by the time the Kronstadt revolt broke out, important sections of the Petrograd proletariat continued to actively support the rebels. On 7 March, the day the government bombardment of Kronstadt began, workers at the arsenal factory held a mass meeting that elected a commission charged with agitating for a general strike in support of the rebellion. Strikes continued Pouhlov, Battisky, Oboukhov, and other major enterprises.

On the other hand we would not deny that there were petit-bourgeois elements in the ideology and programme of the rebels (free exchange, "freedom of action" for the peasants etc.) as well as in the personnel of the fleet army. But all proletarian uprisings are accompanied by a whole number of petit bourgeois and reactionary elements that do not change the fundamentally working class character of the movement. This was certainly the case with the October insurrectionary itself which had the support and active participation of peasant elements in the armed forces and in the countryside. The fact that the Kronstadt rebels still had a largely working class kernel can be gauged from the make-up of the delegate assembly of 2 March, which was strongly composed of proletarians from the factories and naval units of the garrison, and from the personnel of' the PRC elected by this assembly, which was made up of workers and long service sailors who had beer engaged in the revolutionary movement since at least l9l7. (See Mett, op cit, p.15 for a breakdown of the members of this committee.) But these facts are less important than the general context of the revolt: it occurred within a movement of working class struggle against the bureaucratisation of the regime, identified with that struggle, and saw itself as a moment in its generalisation. "Let the toilers of the whole world know that we the defenders of Soviet power are guarding the conquests of the Social Revolution. We shall win or perish beneath the ruins of Kronstadt, fighting for the just cause of the proletarian masses." (Pravda o Kronshtadte, p.82)

Despite the fact that those ideologists of the petit bourgeoisie, the anarchists, claim Kronstadt as their revolt, and despite the fact that anarchist influences were undoubtedly present in the rebels' programme and phraseology, the demands of the rebels were not simply anarchist. They did not call for an abstract abolition of the state, but for the regeneration of Soviet power. Neither did they want to abolish 'parties' as such. Though many of the rebels left the Bolshevik party at that time, and although the rebels issued many confusing statements about 'Communist tyranny', they did not call for 'Soviets without Communists' as has often been asserted. Their slogans were freedom of agitation for different working class groups and "power to the Soviets, not the parties". Despite all the ambiguities inherent in these slogans, they express an instinctive rejection of the idea of the party substituting itself for the class, which was one of the main contributing factors in the degeneration of Bolshevism.

This is one of the main features of the rebellion. It did not present a clear, coherent political analysis of the degeneration of the revolution. Such coherent analyses should find expression in the communist minorities of the class, even though at specific junctures these minorities might lag behind the spontaneous consciousness of the class as a whole. In the case of the Russian Revolution, it was to take decades of painful reflection in the international left communist movement before a coherent understanding of the degeneration could be achieved. What the Kronstadt uprising did represent was an elemental proletarian response to the degeneration, one of the last mass expressions of the Russian working class in that period. In Moscow, Petrograd and Kronstadt the workers were sending out a desperate S.O.S. in defence of the declining Russian Revolution.


A great deal of fruitless debate has taken place about the relationship between the demands of the rebels and the New Economic Policy (NEP). For the unrepentant Stalinists of the British and Irish Communist Organization (B & ICO) the rebellion had to he crushed because their economic programme of barter and free exchange was a petit-bourgeois reaction against the process of 'building Socialism' in the USSR - 'Socialism' of course meaning the fullest possible state capitalist centralisation. But at the same time, the B & ICO defends the NEP as a step on the road to socialism! (See Problems of Communism, no 3, the theoretical journal of the B & ICO.) At the opposite end of the spectrum of confusion, the anarchist Murray Bookchin in his introduction to the Canadian edition of The Kronstadt Commune (Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1971) paints a picture of the libertarian paradise that would have come to pass in Russia if only the economic programme of the rebels had been put into effect: "A victory by the Kronstadt sailors might have opened a new perspective for Russia - a hybrid social development comprising workers' control of the factories with an open market in agricultural goods, based on a small scale peasant economy arid voluntary agrarian communes."

Bookchin then adds, mysteriously, that such an extremely revolutionary society could only have survived together with a successful revolutionary movement in the West, though why such a shopkeepers' dream of self-management should have constituted a threat to world capital is anyone's guess.

In any case, all this debate is of little interest 'for communists.' Given the failure of the 19l7-23 revolutionary wave, no economic policy, whether War Communism, attempts at autarky, the NEP or the Kronstadt programme, could have saved the revolution. As it happened many of the purely economic demands put forward by the rebels were more or less included in the NEP. As economic programmes both are inadequate and it would he absurd for revolutionaries today to advocate free trade or barter as economic measures suitable for a proletarian bastion. even though at critical junctures it may be impossible to eliminate them. The essential difference between the Kronstadt programme and the NEP was this: that while the latter was to he introduced from above by the burgeoning state bureaucracy in cooperation with the remaining private managers and capitalists, and without any re-establishment of proletarian democracy, the Kronstadt insurgents put as a precondition for any further advance in the revolution the restoration of genuine Soviet power and an end to the Bolshevik party-dictatorship.

This is the nub of the problem. It is useless to discuss today which economic policies were 'more socialist' at that time. Socialism could not have been built in Russia alone. The Kronstadt rebels perhaps understood this less than the more clear-headed Bolsheviks. The insurgents, for example talked about the establishment of 'free socialism' in Russia, without emphasizing the necessity for a world extension of the revolution before socialism could be inaugurated. "Revolutionary Kronstadt is fighting for a different kind of socialism, for a Soviet Republic of the toilers, in which the producer himself will be the sole master and can dispose of his products as he sees fit." (Pravda o Kronshtadte, pp.92, 173-4)

Lenin's sober assessment of the possibilities for 'socialist' progress in Russia at that time, though leading him to reactionary conclusions, was in fact a closer approximation to reality than the Kronstadters' hopes for a self-managed commune in Russia.

But Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership, imprisoned by the state apparatus, failed to see what the Kronstadt insurgents were saying despite all their confusions and badly formulated ideas: the revolution can go nowhere at all if the workers are not in command. The fundamental precondition for the defence and extension of the revolution in Russia was all power to the Soviets - in other words, the reconquest of political hegemony by the working masses themselves. As pointed out in the text 'The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution', this question of political power is by far the most important one. The proletariat in power may make economic advances and suffer economic retreats without the revolution being lost. But once the political power of the class is undermined, no number of economic measures can salvage the revolution. It is because the Kronstadt rebels were fighting for the reconquest of this indipensab1e proletarian political power that revolutionaries today must recognise in the Kronstadt struggle a defence of fundamental class positions.


The Bolshevik leadership reacted with extreme hostility to the Kronstadt rebellion. We have already mentioned the provocative behaviour of Kouzmin and Kalinin in the garrison itself, the lies spread by Moscow Radio that this was an attempted White Guard counter-revolution. The intransigent attitude taken up by the Bolshevik government quickly eliminated any possibility of compromise or discussion. The peremptory warning to the garrison issued by Trotsky demanded only unconditional surrender and made no offer of concessions to the rebels' demands. The call to Kronstadt issued by Zinoviev and the Petrograd Defence Committee (the organ which bad put the city under martial law after the strike wave) is well known for its crudity, threatening to "shoot you like partridges" if the rebels persisted. Zinoviev also organized the seizure of rebels' families as hostages, using as an excuse the arrest of Bolshevik officials by the PRC (none of whom were harmed). These actions were denounced as shameful by the rebels, who refused to descend to the same level.

During the actual military assault on the fortress, the Red Army units sent in to crush the rebellion were constantly on the verge of total demoralization. Some even began fraternizing with the rebels. To ensure the 'loyalty' of the army prominent Bolshevik leaders were dispatched from the Tenth Party Congress then in session to lead the assault, among them members of the Workers' Opposition, who were anxious to avoid being identified with the uprising; at the same time the guns of the Cheka were trained on the soldiers' backs to make doubly sure that disaffection did not spread.

When the fortress finally fell, hundreds of insurgents were massacred on the spot or quickly condemned to death by the Cheka. Others were sent to concentration camps. The repression was pitilessly systematic. In order to wipe out all trace of the uprising, the garrison was put under military control, the Soviet was dissolved, and a purge of all dissident elements began. Even the soldiers who had taken part in the suppression of the revolt were rapidly dispersed to various units to prevent the 'germs' of Kronstadt spreading. Similar measures were taken with 'unreliable' units in the navy.

The development of events in Russia after the revolt makes nonsense of the claims that the suppression of the rebellion was a 'tragic necessity' to defend the revolution. The Bolsheviks believed they were defending the revolution from the threat of White Guard reaction in this crucial frontier seaport. But whatever the Bolsheviks thought they were doing, in fact, by attacking the rebels they were attacking the only real defence the revolution can have: working class autonomy and direct proletarian power. In doing so they made themselves the very agents of the counter-revolution from within, and these acts served to pave the way for the final triumph of the bourgeois counter-revolution in the form of Stalinism.

The extreme ruthlessness with which the government suppressed the uprising has led some revolutionaries to conclude that the Bolshevik Party was clearly and openly capitalist in 1921, just like the Stalinists and Trotskyists today. We do not want to get involved in a long discussion about when the Party finally and irredeemably passed over to the bourgeoisie and in any case we reject the methodology which attempts to limit an understanding of historical processes into a rigid formula of fixed dates.

But to say that the Bolshevik Party was 'nothing but' capitalist in 1921 is to say, in effect, that we have nothing to learn about the Kronstadt events, except the date of the revolution's demise. Capitalists, after all, always crush workers' uprisings and we don't have to 'learn' this over and over again. Kronstadt can only teach us anything new if we recognise it as a chapter within proletarian history, as a tragedy within the proletarian camp. The real problem revolutionaries must face today is how did a proletarian party come to act as the Bolsheviks did at Kronstadt in 1921, and how can we ensure that such an event never occurs again? In sum, what are the lessons of Kronstadt?


Part 2: The Lessons of Kronstadt

The Kronstadt revolt highlights in a particularly dramatic way many of the fundamental lessons of the whole Russian Revolution, which for the working class are the only 'gains' that survive the October Revolution today.


The proletarian revolution can only be successful on a world scale. It is impossible to 'abolish capitalism' or 'to build socialism' in one country. The revolution cannot be saved be save by programmes of economic reorganisation, but only by the extension of proletarian political power across the globe. Without this extension, the degeneration of the revolution is inevitable, not matter how many changes in the economy are brought about. If the revolution remains isolated, proletarian political power will be crushed either by external invasion or by internal violence, as at Kronstadt.


The tragedy of the Russian Revolution, and in particular of the Kronstadt massacre, was that the party of the proletariat, the Bolsheviks, saw its role as the taking of state power, and the defence of that power even against the working class as a whole. Thus while the state became independent from the class and stood against it at Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks saw their place as being in the state fighting against the class, and not in the class fighting against the bureaucratisation of the state.

Today revolutionaries must assert as a fundamental principle that the role of the party is not to take power in the name of the class. Only the working class as a whole, organised in its factory committees, militias and workers' councils, can take political power and undertake the communist transformation of society. The party is to be an active factor in the development of proletarian consciousness, but it cannot create communism 'on behalf' of the class. Such pretensions can only lead, as they did in Russia, to the dictatorship of the party over the class, to the suppression of proletarian self-activity under the excuse that 'the party knows best'.

At the same time, the identification of the party with the state, while a natural state of affairs for bourgeois parties, can only lead to the corruption and perversion of proletarian parties. A party of the proletariat has to constitute the most radical and forward-looking fraction of the class which is itself the most dynamic class in history; to burden the party with the administration of the affairs of state, which by definition can only have a conservative function, is to negate the whole function of the party and to hamstring its revolutionary creativity. The steady bureaucratisation of the Bolshevik Party, its growing inability to separate the interests of the revolutionary class from the interests of the Soviet state, its degeneration into a ruthless administrative machine - all this is the price paid by the party itself for its mistaken notions about the party exercising state power


Synonymous with the principle that no minority, however enlightened, can hold power over the working class, is the principle that there can be no relations of force or violence within the working class itself. Proletarian democracy is not a luxury that can be dispensed with in the name of 'efficiency' but is the only guarantee of the health of the revolution and of the possibility of the class learning through its own experience. Even if sections of the class are manifestly wrong, the 'correct line' cannot be forced onto them by another section, whether a majority or a minority. Only a total freedom of discussion in the autonomous organs of the class (assemblies, councils, party, etc) can resolve conflicts and problems in the class. This also implies that the whole class must have access to the means of communication (press, radio, T.V. etc) and that the whole class must retain the right to strike and to challenge directives issued by central organs.

Even if Kronstadt sailors had been in the wrong, the ruthless measures taken by the Bolshevik government would have been totally unjustifiable. Such actions can only destroy the solidarity and cohesion in the class and lead to demoralisation and despair. Revolutionary violence is a weapon that the proletariat is forced to use in its struggle against the capitalist class. Its use against other non-exploiting classes must be kept to a minimum as far as possible; but within the proletariat, it can have NO place


At the time of the Russian Revolution there was a basic confusion in the workers' movement which identified the dictatorship of the proletariat with the actual state which emerged after the overthrow of the Tsarist regime, the Russian Federal Soviet Republic, whose most important body was the All-Russian Congress of Soviets and Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Deputies. The dictatorship of the proletariat, while functioning through specific working class organs such as the factory assemblies and workers' councils, is not an institution but a state of affairs, a real movement of the class as a whole. The goal of the proletarian dictatorship is not that of a state as understood in Marxist terms. The state is that superstructural organisation arising out of class society whose function is to preserve the dominant social relations, the status quo between classes. The proletarian dictatorship, on the other hand, has the sole aim of transforming social relations and abolishing classes.

At the same time, Marxists have always affirmed the inevitability of the state in the period of transition to communism, after the destruction of bourgeois political power. Thus the Russian Soviet state, like the Paris Commune, was an inevitable product of class society that existed in Russia after 1917.

Some revolutionaries hold the view that the only state that can exist after the destruction of bourgeois power is the workers' councils themselves. It is true that the workers' councils have to assume a function that has always been one of the main characteristics of the state: the exercising of a monopoly of violence. But to call the workers' councils the state because of this is to reduce the role of the state to that of a simple organ of violence and nothing else. Thus the bourgeois state today would, according to such a conception, consist only of the police and army, and not of parliament, municipalities, trade unions, and innumerable other institutions that maintain capitalist order without immediate use of repressive force. These bodies are organs of state because they serve to hold together the existing social order, to maintain class antagonisms within an acceptable framework. The workers' councils, in contrast, are the active negation of this statist function, in that they are above all organs of radical social transformation, not organs of the status quo.

But more than this, it is wishful thinking to expect that the only social institutions that will exist in the transition period will be the workers' councils alone. A revolution does not follow the clockwork conceptions of many revolutionaries. The immense social upheaval of the revolution gives rise to all kinds of institutions, not only from the working class at the point of production, but from the entire population which has been oppressed by the capitalist class. In Russia, soviets and other popular organs sprang up not only from the factories but everywhere - in the army, the navy, in the villages, in the residential areas of towns. It was not simply that "the Bolsheviks began to construct a state that had a separate existence from the mass organisations of the class" (Workers' Voice no 14). It is true that the Bolsheviks did actively contribute to the bureaucratisation of the of this state, through departing form the elective principle and setting up innumerable commissions outside the soviets; but the Bolsheviks themselves did not create the 'Soviet State'. It was something that emerged out of the very soil of Russian society after the October; it arose because that society had to give birth to an institution capable of holding its profound class antagonisms in check. To say that only the workers' councils can exist after the revolution is to advocate a permanent civil war not only between the working class and the bourgeoisie (which is indeed inevitable), but also between the working class and all other classes and categories. In Russia this would have meant a war between the workers' Soviets and the popular organs of the soldiers and peasants. This would clearly have been a terrible waste of energy and a diversion from the primordial task of the revolution: the extension of the world revolution against the capitalist class (Note 1). But if this Soviet state was to some degree an inevitable product of the post-insurrectional society, we can point out a number of grave defects in its structure and functioning after the October insurrection, quite apart from the fact that it was controlled by a party.

a) In the actual functioning of the state, there was a continual departure from the basic principles established through the experience of the Commune in 1871 and reaffirmed by Lenin in his State and Revolution in 1917: all functionaries elected and revocable at any time, remuneration of state functionaries the same as that of a worker, permanent armament of the proletariat. More and more commissions and offices emerged, completely unaccountable to the working class as a whole (Economic Councils, Cheka etc). Elections were constantly being postponed, set aside, or rigged. Privileges for state officials gradually became commonplace. The workers' militias were dissolved into the Red Army, which was itself neither under the control of the workers' Soviets, nor of the rank and file soldiers.

b) The workers' councils, factory committees and other proletarian organs were made into one part of the state apparatus among other parts (although the workers were given preferential voting rights). Instead of being granted an autonomy from and hegemony over all other social institutions, these organs tended more and more to be not only incorporated into the general state apparatus, but subordinated to it. Proletarian power, instead of being expressed through the specific organs of the class, was identified with the state apparatus. Moreover, the glib assumption that this was a 'proletarian', a 'socialist' state led the Bolsheviks to assure that the workers could have no rights or interests separate from those of the state. Consequently, any resistance to the state on the part of workers could only be counter-revolutionary. This profoundly erroneous conception was the heart of the Bolsheviks' reaction to the Petrograd strikes ad the Kronstadt uprising.

In the future, the principles of the Commune, of working class autonomy, must not be asserted on paper only, but must be fought for and defended as a fundamental precondition for proletarian power over the state. At no time can the proletariat's vigilance over the state apparatus be relaxed, because the Russian experience and the Kronstadt events in particular have shown that the counter-revolution can indeed expresses itself through the post-insurrectional state, and not simply through 'external' bourgeois aggression.

As a consequence, in order to ensure that the Commune-state remains an instrument of proletarian rule, the working class cannot identify its dictatorship with this ambiguous and untrustworthy apparatus, but only in its own autonomous class organs. These organs must tirelessly supervise the working of the state at all levels, demanding a maximum representation of delegates from workers' councils in the general Soviet congresses; the permanent and independent unification of the working class through its councils, and the workers' councils power of decision over all recommendations of the state. Above all the workers must prevent the state from interfering politically or militarily in its own class organs; but on the other hand the working class must maintain the capacity to exert its dictatorship over and against the state, by violence if need be. This means that the working class must guarantee its class autonomy by the general arming of the proletariat. If, during the civil war period, its becomes necessary to create a 'red army' out of the general population this force must be completely subordinated politically to the workers' councils, and dissolved as soon as the bourgeoisie has been militarily defeated. And at no time can the proletarian militias in the factories be dissolved.

The identification of the party with the state, and the state with the class, found their logical outcome at Kronstadt, when the party took the side of the state against the class. By 1921 the isolation of the Russian Revolution had made the state, by definition the guardian of the status quo, the 'guardian' of the stabilisation of capital and the taming of the workers. Despite all the good intentions of the Bolshevik leadership, who continued to hope for the saving dawn of the world revolution for several years more, their entanglement with this state machine was forcing them to act as obstacles to the world revolution and dragging them towards the final triumph of the Stalinist counter-revolution. Some of them actually began to see that it was not the party that controlled the state, but the state which controlled the party. As Lenin himself said:

"The machine is getting out of the hands of those who are wielding it: one could say that there is someone in the saddle guiding this machine, but that the latter is following a direction other than that which was wanted, is being guided by a hidden hand... God alone knows to whom it belongs, perhaps to a speculator or a private capitalist, or both together. The fact is that the machine is not going in the direction desired by those who are supposed to be running it, and sometimes it foes in the opposite direction altogether" (Political Report of the Central Committee to the Party, 1922)

The last years of Lenin's life saw him struggling hopelessly against the emergent bureaucracy with pathetic schemes like the one for a 'Workers' and Peasants' Inspection', through which the bureaucracy would be 'supervised' through a new bureaucratic commission! What he could not admit, what he could not see, was that this so-called proletarian state had become a bourgeois machine pure and simple, an apparatus for the regulation of capitalist social relations, and could therefore only be fundamentally impervious to working class needs or reforms. The triumph of Stalinism was simply the cynical recognition of this fact, the final and definitive adaptation of the party to its role as overseer of the capitalist state. This was the real meaning of the declaration of 'Socialism in One Country' in 1926.

The Kronstadt uprising had posed the party with a monumental historic choice: either continue to manage this bourgeois machine, and thus end up as a party of capital -or separate itself from the state and stand by the whole working class in its struggle against this machine, this personification of capital. By taking the former path, the Bolsheviks probably signed their death warrant as a party of the proletariat, and added impetus to the counter-revolutionary process that openly declared itself in 1926. After 1921, only those Bolsheviks fractions that began to understand the need to identify directly with the workers' struggle against the state could remain revolutionary, and were able to participate in the international struggle of the Left Communists against he degenerating Third International. Thus for example, the Workers' Group of Miasnikov played an active role in the wave of wildcat strikes that swept Russia in August and September of 1923. This was in profound contrast to the Left Opposition led by Trotsky, whose struggle against the Stalinist faction was always fought from within the bureaucracy, and did not attempt to relate to the workers' struggle against what the Trotskyists defined as a 'workers' state' and a workers' economy. Their initial inability to disengage themselves from the party-state machine prefigured the subsequent evolution of Trotskyism as a 'critical' appendage of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

But historical choices' are rarely clear-cut at the time they have to be made. Men make their history within the definite objective conditions and "the traditions of the past generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living" (Marx). This nightmarish weight of the past was shouldered by the Bolsheviks, and only the revolutionary triumph of the western proletariat could have made it possible for the weight to have been removed, for the Bolsheviks or at least substantial elements of the party to have realised their mistakes and to have been regenerated by the inexhaustible creativity of the international proletarian movement. The traditions of Social Democracy, the backwardness of Russia, and above all the burdens of state power in the context of a declining revolutionary wave - all these factors were to push the Bolsheviks towards taking up a position on the wrong side of the class line at Kronstadt.

But it was not only the Bolshevik leadership that was unable to understand what was happening at Kronstadt. As we have seen, the Workers' Opposition in the party rushed to disassociate themselves from the rising and lead the assault on the garrison. Even when the Russian ultra-left had gone beyond the timid protests of the Workers' Opposition and entered into clandestine activity, it failed to draw the lessons of the rising and made little reference to it in its criticisms of the regime. The KAPD (Communist Workers' Party of Germany) at the Third Congress of the Comintern did recognise the proletarian character of the uprising, though denied that it had declared itself on the side of the rebels; and before long even this partial understanding was lost as the German Left began to repudiate the proletarian character of the Russian Revolution. By 1924, Gorter was characterising the Kronstadt rising as a revolt of the peasantry that forced the Bolsheviks to scrap the communist programme and 'restore capitalism' via the NEP. (Gorter, in 'The World Revolution'. Workers' Dreadnought. 9 February to 10 May, 1924).

In sum, few communists then understood the profound significance of the rising or drew the essential lessons from it. All this is testimony to the fact that the proletariat does not learn the basic lessons of the class struggle in one fell swoop but only through a painful accumulation of experience, of bloody struggle and of intense theoretical reflection.

It is not the task of revolutionaries today to make abstract moral judgements on the past workers' movement, but to see themselves as a product of that movement - a product, to be sure, capable of making a ruthless critique of all the errors of the movement, but a product nonetheless. Otherwise the criticisms of the past by revolutionaries today can have no grounding in the real struggles of the working class. Only by seeing the protagonists who faced each other at Kronstadt as tragic actors in our own history can communists today claim the right to denounce the action of the Bolsheviks and declare our solidarity with the rebel's defence of class positions. Only by understanding the Kronstadt events as part of the historical movement of the class can we hope to appropriate the lessons of this experience and apply them to the present and future practice of the proletariat. Only thus can we hope to ensure that there will be no more Kronstadts

August. 1975


  1. This does not mean that we endorse the idea, held both by the Bolsheviks and the Kronstadt rebels, of a 'workers' and peasants' power. The working class in the next revolutionary wave must affirm that it is the only revolutionary class. It must therefore ensure that it is the only class to organise as a class in the transition period, dissolving any institution that claims to defend the specific interests of any other class. The rest of the non-exploiting population will be permitted to organise itself within the limits of the proletarian dictatorship, and will be represented in the state only as 'citizens' through territorially elected soviets. The granting of civil rights and a franchise to these strata no more endows them with political power as a class than the bourgeoisie gives power to the working class by allowing it to vote in municipal and parliamentary elections. Back


History of the workers' movement: