90 years after Kronstadt: a tragedy that's still being debated in the revolutionary movement

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The discussion on the ICC’s French internet forum has been particularly animated and passionate these last few weeks around a tragic event: the bloody crushing of the insurgents at Kronstadt.

Ninety years ago, in 1921, the workers stood up to the Bolshevik Party demanding, amongst other things, the restoration of real power to the soviets. The Bolshevik Party then took the terrible decision to repress them.

A participant in this forum debate called Youhou sent us a letter which we warmly welcome and which we publish here below. She makes both the effort to synthesize the different points of view coming out of the posts and to clearly take a position.

Here, it’s not at all our aim to close the discussion. On the contrary, it seems to us that in the spirit of the comrade, her text is just one stage in the debate. Finally, we agree with her in the last lines when she says: “Join in this passionate debate! Fraternal debate is our best weapon faced with the ideology of the bourgeoisie”.

That’s why we are not responding here to comrade Youhou. Not only do we share the essential points of her analysis but this debate needs to carry on. To read the position of the ICC on this tragic event, we refer our readers to two of our articles:

a) ‘The repression of Kronstadt in March 1921: A tragic error of the workers’ movement’ (https://en.internationalism.org/book/export/html/117)

b) ‘1921: Understanding Kronstadt’ International Review 104 (https://en.internationalism.org/ir/104_kronstadt.html)


On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the repression of Kronstadt, a very lively discussion has just taken place on the ICC’s French forum which merits some comments. The discussion is very interesting because it turns out to be very representative of the positions within the working class on this subject. The crushing of the working class revolt of the Kronstadt soviet by the revolutionary army on the orders of the Bolshevik Party in 1921 is approached without taboo and without any stilted language on the forum. The will to draw lessons from this massacre, so important for the future revolution, brings together all the comrades on this forum and confirms what Rosa Luxemburg wrote on the Russian revolution: “it is clear that only a deep critique, and not a superficial apology, can draw from these events the treasures of lessons that they carry”. For decades this debate has been marked by two diametrically opposed tendencies: the Trotskyists who think that the repression was a 'tragic necessity' and the anarchists who think that the Bolshevik Party, as a formally constituted party, contained within itself the germs of this degeneration, and that this calls into question the very necessity for the existence of a party of the working class.

Was it an 'error' or a tragic 'necessity'?

Here’s one of the ideas put forward by Jeannotrouge: “The proletariat cannot constitute itself into a class and then, after the revolution, into a dominant class without a tenacious political struggle within itself, against bourgeois influences borne by different so-called ‘workers’ institutions, organisations and parties, a struggle which can only involve episodes of confrontation and violence”.

Mouhamed, a little more nuanced, explains that the Bolsheviks could not have done otherwise.
But on this point, I fully agree with Tibo and Underthegun: the crushing of Kronstadt did not go in the direction of the revolution. This massacre was absolutely not necessary and precipitated the defeat of the Russian revolution. Why? These were workers that were killed and massacred and not some white-collar counter-revolutionaries as Trotsky himself conceded: “We waited as long as possible for our blind comrades, the sailors, to open their eyes and see where the mutiny was  leading them”. Communist society cannot be born from fratricidal struggles: such a massacre cannot be a weapon of revolutionaries. Tibo correctly says: “Yes, we have a ‘finally human’ world to build. And that cannot be based on the bodies of workers killed by other workers”. I would add: and above all in the manner of taking their families hostage and condemning the Red Army soldiers to death if they refused to fire on them. Class violence is certainly necessary, but for the working class it is determined by the final aim, which is the liberation of humanity from the yoke of exploitation. Comrades disagreeing with this point rightly recalled the support the Bolsheviks gave to the working class. The party, under the leadership of Lenin, had never betrayed the interests of the proletariat and by refusing all political alliances to form a mass party, it made the choice to remain a minority among the workers and tireless repeated the necessity not to have any confidence in the Social Democrats. The party defended internationalism to the hilt. The Bolsheviks supported the workers in their struggle and stayed at their side even when they knew that they were making mistakes.

How did the Bolsheviks commit such a crime?

Comrade Mouhamed writes: “For me, if there had been a world revolution, there would have been no Kronstadt, nor anything like it”. It is true that the isolation of Russia is a fundamental cause of the downfall of the revolution. Many workers were killed in the civil war; the soviets were partially depopulated and were to a large extent limited to military committees, with a few members deciding which strategies to adopt. When the President of the Bund (Jewish Communist Party) asked at the 7th Soviet Congress what the Central Committee was doing, Trotsky responded “The CC is at the front!”. Added to this was the draconian food rationing, a result of the starvation in the Ukraine, Russia’s bread basket. The involvement of the German proletariat, by infecting other European sections of the proletariat, then the world, would have given the Russian revolution a second breath. In its pamphlet on the period of transition, the ICC says: “But the worse danger of the counter-revolution didn’t come from the ‘Kulaks’ or from the workers lamentably massacred at Kronstadt, nor from the ‘White plots’ that the Bolsheviks saw behind this revolt. It was over the bodies of the German workers massacred in 1919 that the counter-revolution prevailed and it was through the bureaucratic apparatus of what was supposed to be the ‘semi-state’ of the proletariat that it was most powerfully expressed”. With the wearing out of the soviets, the foundation stone of the dictatorship of the proletariat; with the revolution hemmed in by the national frontiers of Russia, the Bolshevik Party found itself faced with choices that were very heavy with consequences and chose the worst: physically eliminating their class brothers.

The isolation of Russia in the process of the world revolution partly explains the attitude of the Bolsheviks but doesn’t explain why the soviets turned against the party: if they hadn’t rebelled, then the question wouldn’t even be posed. As I maintain, along with Underthegun, we very clearly see in the demands of the Kronstadt soviet (“all power to the soviets”), but also in the waves of strikes that hit Moscow and Petrograd (all three regions that had been at the avant-garde of the October insurrection), that a gulf was opening up between the party and the working class. This is a radio broadcast aimed at the “workers of the entire world” recorded on March 6, 1921: “We are partisans of soviet power, not of parties. We are for the free elections of representatives of the worker masses. The soviet puppets manipulated by the Communist Party have always been deaf to our needs and demands; we have only received one response: bullets (...) Comrades! Not only do they mislead you, but they deliberately misrepresent the truth and defame us in the most despicable fashion (...) In Kronstadt, all power is exclusively in the hands of revolutionary sailors, soldiers and workers (...) Long live the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry! Long live the power of the freely elected soviets!”. Whether one agrees with the demands or not, it is incontestable that the soviets directly put themselves against a party that they henceforth saw as an enemy. For my part, I think that the assimilation of the party into the state, a reactionary and conservative organ by nature, led the Bolsheviks to distance themselves from the class. In the end, it was isolation within isolation. The Party was both judge and jury and thus couldn’t understand the revolt of their comrades in the soviets. Underthegun rightly says: “the ‘Bolshevik government’ is really the problem of this isolated revolution which was besieged from all sides. The urgency of the situation, the multiple dangers, led the Bolsheviks, from 1918 and Brest-Litovsk, to secure the exercise of power. But (...) the dictatorship of the proletariat is not the dictatorship of the party”. The party does not just represent the interests of a particular soviet or of a part of the working class: it must defend the interests of the world proletariat, and it is precisely because the party became confounded with the state that it lacked the clearsightedness to give orientations based on the interests of the world proletariat. Caught in the trap of the immediate perspective linked to the organisation of the revolution, it lost sight of the final aim: the liberation of humanity. That’s why it wasn’t a passing error but one of failing to understand that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be exercised by the soviets and this within a world revolution.  Here are the material and objective causes  of the crime of fratricide, but it is clear that contrary to what Prodigy, Jeannotrouge and Mouhamed think, the material conditions they talk about are incomplete if they don’t integrate the ethical dimension.

The question 'has one the right to draw up a moral balance-sheet of this drama?' has been debated for a long time.

Underthegun insists a lot on the fact that there is no determinism and that among revolutionaries within the party, some, in identically urgent conditions, made the choice of defending their brothers at Kronstadt. Lenin and Trotsky had the choice and made theirs the massacre of the workers at Kronstadt. In my opinion, the question merits being posed but comrades Mouhamed and Prodigy object in their posts that: “a marxist analysis does not consist of making a moral balance-sheet, but of making one that’s objective and materialist. It’s not a question of condemning, of saying that it’s immoral or not. It’s a matter of drawing lessons without humanist sentiments”. A moral balance-sheet and contextual analysis are not opposed but complement each other. Morality is not the Manichean morality of the bourgeoisie, it is the fruit of a long evolution coming from the fact that man has chosen civilisation and expressed itself in the preservation of the species through solidarity: it is thus inherent in the material conditions. The Bolshevik Party had degenerated and found itself in unprecedented situations for which there was no recipe. Then, yes, it chose the path which led to its ruin and, no, the crushing of Kronstadt did not go in the direction of the revolution. Could it have done otherwise? Perhaps. Should it have done so? Certainly! Why did some order this massacre and others oppose it? Simply because faced with the same situation consciousness is not homogenous, the link between consciousness and material conditions is not mechanical. That’s why we cannot look on the repression of Kronstadt with the eye of an unfailing morality forged during nine decades of proletarian struggles. Revolutionaries will be faced with equally essential choices in future struggles and Kronstadt is a sombre 'treasury of lessons' because its unfortunate outcome underlines one essential lesson: no violence within the working class! The end doesn’t justify the means, but it does determine them.

We have not been able to debate this question without clarifying our positions on marxism and also Trotskyism and anarchism. Join in this passionate debate! Fraternal debate is our best weapon faced with bourgeois ideology.

Fraternally, Youhou

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