The Kronstadt commune 1921 - The Red Menace

Kronstadt's rebel battleship The Petropavlovsk
Kronstadt's rebel battleship The Petropavlovsk

The Red Menace's analysis of the Kronstadt rebellion.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 13, 2009

‘The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government has decreed that Kronstadt and the rebelling ships must immediately submit to the authority of the Soviet Republic. I therefore order all who have raised their hands against the socialist fatherland to lay down their arms at once. Recalcitrants are to be disarmed and turned over to the Soviet authorities. The commissars and other members of the government who have been arrested are to be liberated at once. Only those who surrender unconditionally can expect mercy from the Soviet Republic.

"I am simultaneously giving orders to prepare for the suppression of the rebellion and the subjugation of the sailors by armed force. All responsibility for the harm that may be suffered by the peaceful population will rest entirely on the heads of the White Guard mutineers. This warning is final."

L.Trotsky, L.Kamenev, Ultimatum to Kronstadt.

"We have one answer to all that: All power to the Soviets! Take your hands off them - the hands that are red with the blood of the martyrs of freedom who fought the White Guards, the landowners and the bourgeoisie!"

Kronstadt Izvestiya, No.6.

The truth about Red Kronstadt
In the epoch of glasnost the Soviet press has yet to tell the truth about Kronstadt. Eventually they will probably stop referring to the 1921 revolt as a White Guardist conspiracy, but only in order to present it as a genuine popular revolt in favour of what became known as the New Economic Project. In other words, the workers and sailors at the fortress were very naive: if only they had waited, they would have got what they wanted. This insulting bullshit is in fact not too far from the story told by most Western analysts, for whom the revolt was essentially about parliamentary democracy and civil rights.

The truth, however, is different. The revolt was the greatest act of violent working class resistance to capitalist austerity to be organised in Russia until the Vorkuta revolt of 1947. The timing of the uprising, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune, was coincidental, but the location was not, since the fortress had an unrivalled reputation for uncompromising extremism. The Kronstadt sailors attempted serious revolts in 1905-6 and 1910, entered Petrograd to give armed support to the revolution in February 1917, shot 200 officers later in the same month, landed in Petrograd again in July to launch an unsuccessful attempt to impose soviet power, sent agitators all around the country in subsequent months, terrified Kerensky into dropping his plan to remove artillery from the fortress in the face of a threatened German naval attack, and distinguished themselves in the destruction of Kornilov’s putsch.

All of this took place before they found time to storm the Winter Palace in October. In the same month there were ominous murmurings among the Kronstadt sailors to the effect that "if the new Sovnarkom dared betray the revolution, the cannon that took the Winter Palace would take Smolny as well." By the time of the rebellion in 1921, the social composition of Kronstadt had hardly changed at all; indeed, contrary to Stalinist and Trotskyist lies, most of the rebels of 1921 were "veterans" of 1917. What happened in 1921 was that Red Kronstadt grew even redder, as the revolutionary movement in Russia fought its last stand.

Capitalism and the revolutionary movement
A revolutionary movement exists whenever a large number of working class people impose their needs and desires in such a way as to put capitalist functioning in danger of collapse. Capitalism itself is not hard to define: it is a society based on wage-labour and the circulation of exchange-value. Exchange-value exists alternately in a concrete form (goods) and an abstract form (money). In order to gain an overall understanding of capitalism, we need to be clear that money has no autonomy - if it did, the bosses could simply print as much as they wanted. In fact, money is no more than that with which goods can be acquired in exchange. It exists both in the form of cash (with varying degrees of convertibility), and as various forms of bureaucratic permission, position or "blat". So-called "war communism", for example, was not a negation of money (or wage-labour): it was simply a capitalist response to crisis. Money had to become bureaucratised for the sake of wage-labour and the exchange-value cycle as a whole.

After February 1917, working class people in Russia obstructed capitalist imperatives by struggling against the interests of whoever was in charge of the economy, the government and the armed forces, whether that meant the autocracy, the Provisional Government, or the Bolshevik elite. It is elementary that whenever capitalism is faced with a revolutionary movement, it always fights back with all the means at its disposal. Thus, to understand the Kronstadt uprising, the last flicker of the revolutionary movement, we need to look at the three years of counterrevolution which led up to it.

After Antonov-Ovseenko, the chairman of the "Military Revolutionary Committee" of the Petrograd Soviet, had managed to prevent the "mob" from killing the members of the Provisional Government during the seizure of the Winter Palace, the new government’s main problem was the eradication of workers’ power, particularly as manifested in the autonomous tendency of the factory committee movement, which within weeks was endeavouring to set up its own independent centralised coordinating body. At the Second Congress of Soviets, one day after the proclamation of Sovnarkom, the Bolsheviks issued a straightforward statement that the "revolution" had won, that no-one should go on strike, and that the best way to support the revolution was to go back to work (under the old owners). In the following few months many of their old owners were unceremoniously thrown out by their employees (although many managers stayed), and whereas this was an example of workers’ action being successful in its own terms, the October coup (a change of governmental personnel) had little effect on the daily lives of the workers.

Management’s right to manage was reimposed on the workforce in the early months of 1918. The tightening of labour discipline and the use of piece-rates (which Marx had called "the most fruitful source of reductions of wages and of frauds committed by the capitalists") were officially proclaimed by the unions in April 1918, having already been praised in Izvestiya. This was before the outbreak of civil war (May 1918), the major nationalisation decree (June), the official introduction of "war communism", and Trotsky’s avowed plans for labour militarisation (December 1919). In April 1918 Lenin, as Prime Minister of a "bourgeois State minus the bourgeoisie" (to use his own words), openly called for the imposition of one-man management throughout the economy. This was at a time when the glavki and tsentry of Vesenkha were already in existence, formed from the bodies set up in 1915 and 1916 under the Tsarist equivalent of "war communism".

The working class revolutionary movement had largely been destroyed by the time of the peace treaty with German imperialism (March 1918). But working class struggle continued in less organised form. Strikes were less frequent, but workers increasingly resorted to theft, absenteeism and insubordination, even after piece-rates spread across the country. Hungry workers had to get hold of industrial products, consumer goods, materials and tools to barter for food or fuel, and they managed to do so even despite searches by the Cheka at the factory gates. Many workers continually arrived late, preferred drinking to working once they had arrived, or simply stayed away altogether. Half the urban workforce returned to the countryside. Factory administrators were often abused. Productivity fell, and only began to rise in 1920 under the terroristic weight of Trotskyist labour legislation.

The nascent Bolshevik ruling class justified austerity as a "wartime necessity" in the struggle against the Whites and the Western bourgeoisie. Sadly the Civil War, a war between States, was not turned into a war against all the enemies of the proletariat, namely a war between classes. The heroic Makhnovshchina was an attempt in this direction, but it failed.

Specific grievances and the fight to realise communism
As is made clear by the list of points adopted by the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk on 28 February 1921, the grievances motivating the Kronstadt rebels were many. They demanded free soviet elections, the release of imprisoned "workers, sailors, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations", freedom of operation for "trade union and peasant organisations", an inquiry into the dossiers of all prisoners and inmates of camps, free speech for "anarchists" and "left-socialist" parties, an end to the Bolshevik-run political sections and "combat detachments" in the armed forces, the abolition of political police in the enterprises, the equalisation of rations, and end to the State coercion of peasants and artisans.

Their reference to anarchists, left-socialists and the Bolshevik political police demonstrates their view as to who was on their side and who was not. Their demand for free soviet elections shows what institutional means they were counting on. Quite explicitly they were against the Bolsheviks’ political monopoly and in favour of working class power expressed through directly-elected soviets. It is true that they placed too much faith in soviet "democracy", especially given that the Bolsheviks had taken over the soviets democratically. (One could draw a parallel with Germany, where Scheidemann and Noske were elected onto the body analogous to Sovnarkom.) The Kronstadt rebels did not say that revolutionary social transformation depends on proletarians creating organisations to fulfil certain tasks, rather than on the principles of democracy: competition, obedience to the majority, and division between discussion and action. New soviets were a necessity, but they would not have guaranteed victory - that would have depended on the generalisation of new social relations. Nevertheless, we must recognise the rebels’ courageous struggle against the capitalist dictatorship of the Bolshevik party, and their insistence on the self-organisation of the revolutionary proletariat.

The rebels were undoubtedly part of the movement towards real communism. One can mention their efforts to socialise housing, supported by the anarchists, left Socialist-Revolutionaries and Maximalists. This was the beginning of the abolition of one form of private property. Also notable was their internationalism. In the face of armed repression, some stood and were shot crying "Long live the world revolution!" and "Long live the Communist International!" This second slogan shows a desire for a very different International from the one run by the Bolshevik allies and their allies abroad. The Bolsheviks’ phony internationalism only meant forestalling revolution abroad (Germany, China, Spain, Britain, etc.) and building mass-based parties active in unions and parliaments to pressurise foreign governments to reach terms with the Soviet authorities. Counterrevolution at home comcided with counterrevolution abroad.

This was unacceptable to the international communist left, which rejected trade-unionism and parliamentarism, and not surprisingly the Bolsheviks shut down the West European Bureau of the Third International in May 1920. It is significant that the only "Bolshevik" faction to side with the Kronstadt rebels, namely Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group, which split from the bureaucratic "Workers’ Opposition" on this very issue and soon entered clandestinity, made contact with the German anti-Bolshevik communists, with whom it found common cause.

We know that things did not go as far as worldwide revolutionary war in 1921. But the Kronstadt rebels’ aims were far in advance of the calls in 1917 for bread, peace and workers’ "control". They were still angry about the food situation, but what angered them too was the atmosphere of despotism in the armed forces, and the no-nonsense autocratic tyranny in the enterprises. They were also quite clear that the official representation of the working class was an enemy of the working class itself.

The fight for food
As war broke out the central authorities set up so-called "committees of the poor" and, later, "workers’ detachments" to seize food surpluses, supposedly only from the richer peasants, in order to feed the towns and armed forces. Family farms were supposed to consume only enough for their own subsistence, while surpluses were expropriated by the State. This was in some ways similar to what Marx had called "primitive accumulation", but the necessity for the authorities was not industrial accumulation, but industrial and military survival. This was not simply a matter of the towns exploiting the countryside, because the food intake of the greatly reduced urban working class was kept as low as possible. Those in charge ate more than the workers under them. In 1918-19, for many workers obedience to the law would have meant starvation: 60% of city bread had to be obtained through illegal channels.

Until the summer of 1920, the authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal markets, but then Zinoviev issued a blanket ban on privately-organised commerce. This was the erosion of market capitalism by bureaucratic capitalism in line with the perceived interests of the State bureaucrats. The history of the twentieth century knows of many examples where national governments have alternated between nationalisation and privatisation according to what suits them the best. Zinoviev’s policy was in fact a more extreme version of the Tsarist policy of 1916. Famine intensified, and often it was difficult to obtain even the official rations.

As peasants concealed grain in order to trade it with workers, the militia detachments which blocked the illegal delivery of food to the cities were seen by workers as the ruthless enforcers of starvation. Strikes and mass street demonstrations erupted in Petrograd, immediately politicising the simmering conflict between workers and the capitalist authorities.

The rebellion at Kronstadt was a response to the hope provided by the Petrograd workers’ action against the restriction of food supplies. Regarding food, the rebels made two very simple demands: "the immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between town and countryside" (Point 8 of their programme), and freedom of action for peasants "on their own soil" (Point 11). They made one proviso: peasants were not to be allowed to employ wage-labour.

As Anton Ciliga has written, the rebels were absolutely opposed to the measures later introduced under New Economic Policy (NEP). "The Kronstadt resolution declared for the opposite [of NEP] since it declared itself against the employment of wage-labour in agriculture and small industry. This resolution, and the movement underlying it, sought for a revolutionary alliance of the proletarian and peasant workers with the poorest sections of the country labourers, in order that the revolution might develop towards socialism. The NEP, on the other hand, was a union of bureaucrats with the upper layers of the village against the proletariat it was the alliance of State capitalism and private capitalism against socialism."

Resistance in the armed forces
After Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) the government reorganised the army. Until then, military discipline was recognised only in active combat, and each unit was run by an elected committee with responsibility for choosing officers. Most Red Guard units, organisational bearers of an autonomous tendency towards proletarian combativity quite foreign to the Bolsheviks, were disbanded as "unreliable". Trotsky recruited ex-Tsarist officers with the necessary degree of training and experience to lead a modern army; they functioned alongside the "political commissars", who replaced the soldiers’ committees.

Towards the end of 1920, there arose a "Military Opposition" among the party’s top men in the army (but not, of course, among the political commissars). This cannot be identified with resistance at the base, but was almost certainly a sign of its existence. The growing anger against army officers during the civil war must have been one factor in the mutiny of whole battalions during the attack on Kronstadt

Army-style reorganisation had not been possible in the Navy, where revolutionary traditions had strong roots and most of the Tsarist officers had gone over to the Whites. The personnel had probably not changed much since the early years of the previous war, thus friendship circles amongst sailors must have been more resilient. Attempts to discipline the fleet by introducing "army customs" were met with strong resistance from 1920 on, from both Party and non-Party sailors. Large numbers of sailors walked out of an electoral meeting at the Petrograd naval base prior to the Eighth Soviet Congress in December 1920, openly protesting against the dispatch there as official delegates of people from Politotdiel and from Comflot, the very organisations monopolising political control of the Navy.

On 15 February 1921, only a few weeks before the uprising, the Second Conference of Communist Sailors of the Baltic Fleet was held. The 300 delegates voted for a resolution condemning the Political Section of the Baltic Fleet as having "become transformed into a bureaucratic organ, enjoying no authority among the sailors." Those among the sailors of the Baltic Fleet who remained in the Party supported the Workers’ Opposition’s position on the union question, against the Chief of Fleet, Raskolnikov, who agreed with Trotsky and Bukharin that the unions should be totally subordinate to the State. Even more importantly, 5000 sailors left the Party in January 1921 alone. Proletarian power grew in Kronstadt as Party power declined.

Industrial strife and the Petrograd workers
We have mentioned the assault on workers’ power in industry in the aftermath of October 1917, and of the worsening food situation met by pilfering and semi-tolerated barter. As rations were cut and militia units clamped down on barter, the Petrograd workers’ reaction was to come out on strike. Many came out on to the street to demonstrate. The Putilov works renewed its reputation. Several factories demanded the reestablishment of local markets, the withdrawal of militia detachments from the road around Petrograd, and freedom to travel within a radius of 30 miles. Just as in 1905 and 1917, some factories issued political demands alongside economic ones. These included free speech and the liberation of working class prisoners. In several big factories, Party spokesmen were denied a hearing.

The strikes spread. A state of siege was declared in Petrograd on 24 February. All meetings not explicitly sanctioned were banned. Any infringement was to be dealt with according to military law. Zinoviev used carrot and stick. He withdrew the militia roadblocks but had the strike leaders arrested. Part of the Petrograd proletariat stayed on strike; one of their major demands was the liberation of prisoners.

As the Kronstadt events developed into open insurrection, a delegation of sailors from the naval base toured the factories of Petrograd. A lorry drove through the city scattering leaflets from Kronstadt. Kronstadt Izvestiya was plastered on the walls. On 7 March, the day the bombardment began, the "Arsenal" factory sent flying pickets around the city to agitate for a general strike. Strikes started in Moscow, Nizhni-Novgorod and elsewhere.

Factories were transferred to the authority of three-man committees (troiki), who used sackings and selective rehiring as weapons against the strikes. The dead revolution had to be kept that way!

Bolshevik imperatives
Having ridden to power during an upsurge of working class combativity, the Bolshevik party elite hardly wanted to be overthrown by another one. Industry had to be rebuilt. Agriculture had to grow. Jobs in the bureaucracy had to be found for those who had risen to positions of power during wartime.

To remain the ruling party it was not sufficient to stay in rule. They also had to remain a single party. But the overriding consideration of the party elite was order, order not jeopardised by a movement obstructing the growth of the national product of wage-labour. They could not permit this order to be subverted by an organised movement of those at the bottom. When such a movement gave rise to strikes, demonstrations, even uprisings, and began openly to accuse the Bolshevik party of being usurpers, liars who spoke in the name of those who were proving in practice to be their enemies, blood had to be spilt. The delegates to the Tenth Congress were quite categorical. On this the Party was absolutely united.

An uprising in Kronstadt. Strikes in Petrograd. Rumblings in Moscow. At all costs the movement had to be kept disunited. Foodstuffs were rushed to Moscow. Roadblocks were removed from around Petrograd, despite the state of siege. Kronstadt remained in revolt, in open defiance of the State. The policy of the elite can be summarised in six words which capture the cynicism of Lenin and Trotsky: bribe Moscow, pacify Petrograd, crush Kronstadt.

Resolution of the conflict
At the decisive moment, when the Bolsheviks had to crush Kronstadt or face the danger of snowballing and increasingly lucid unrest, the two sides were clearly laid out. The showdown was to be between the insurgents on one side, and those who supported Bolshevik party dictatorship on the other. Rank-and-file members at Kronstadt deserted the party in droves. A number of them formed a Provisional Party Bureau, which issued an appeal for new soviet elections and for supporters "to create no obstacles to the measures taken by the Provisional Revolutionary Committee [PRC]". Altogether, 780 members in Kronstadt left the party. One teacher wrote to Kronstadt Izvestiya as follows: "I openly declare to the PRC that as from gunfire directed at Kronstadt, I no longer consider myself a member of the Party. I support the call issued by the workers of Kronstadt All power to the Soviets and not to the Party." Some soldiers collectively announced their resignation in the same journal.

Out of those who chose to remain in the Party, not a single one was shot. In Petrograd, however, the government’s Defence Committee took sailors’ families hostage, supposedly in order to safeguard the lives of Party members at Kronstadt.

The Petrograd Defence Committee issued a threat on 5 March. "You are surrounded on all sides… Kronstadt has neither bread nor fuel. If you insist, we will shoot you like partridges." The PRC issued a final appeal to "comrades, workers, red soldiers and sailors," asserting that "the Petrograd proletariat will not be bought over" with increased food supplies.

Bloody confrontation loomed. The rebels set up a Military Defence Committee, but the PRC, hoping for a "Third Revolution" across the country, refused to accept the proposal that an assault should be made towards Oranienbaum, on the mainland, west of Petrograd, where there were food stocks. In defence too, mistakes were made. The ice was not broken - if it had been, within a few weeks weather conditions would have ensured that it did not re-form. Nor were fortified barrages set up along the probable line of attack.

Force was not the Bolsheviks’ only weapon. They also used lies. The rebels were supposed to be under the command of White Guards. Moscow Radio broadcast that the Petropavlovsk mutiny had been organised by Entente spies. Trotsky said the insurrection was "inspired by the desire to obtain a privileged ration." Similar lies had been used against the Makhnovists. In the future such lies would be used both as a weapon of the State, and as a weapon of terror within the class which ran the State. But the Kronstadt sailors were used to being calumnied. The first Provisional Government had accused them of being about to conclude a separate peace with Germany, and in July 1917 the liberal press accused them of using "German money" to organise a rebellion.

The Bolshevik army attacked. Hundreds mutinied and joined the uprising, including an entire battalion. Two whole regiments had to be disarmed by force. The regiments to be used in the final assault had to be thoroughly reorganised. Party militants were sent in to propagandise about the "counterrevolutionary conspiracy", and to spy on unsure elements. "Revolutionary" Tribunals worked overtime, as people had to be discouraged from following the groups of soldiers who had surrendered to the rebels and were now fighting on their side. One regiment refused to march, even after the reorganisation. Some units lost half their men before even entering the insurgents’ line of fire - they were machine-gunned from the rear.

Officer cadets boosted the attacking forces, as did non-Russian detachments of Chinese and Bashkir troops, who were not in a position to communicate very easily with the rebels. Non-Russians were later used against the Novocherkassk uprising of 1962, and Russians were used against Georgian rioters in 1989. State strategists usually know that national divisions always benefit the State as a whole.

Militarily, the Bolshevik victory was inevitable, at least after the "Oranienbaum incident", during which a regiment was on the point of wheeling round in solidarity with Kronstadt and summoning the army to revolt. Official sources speak of 527 killed, although this does not include those who drowned trying to escape, or who were left, wounded, to freeze or bleed to death, or those who were shot by Cheka tribunals. Other sources speak of 18,000 killed in the fighting and the subsequent repression.

With the party unified, the last flicker of revolution extinguished by armed force, and the temporarily resurgent movements of organised resistance in industry and the armed forces defeated, the way was clear for the relatively peaceful unfolding of the next period of capitalist growth: NEP. Red Kronstadt had been the last main barrier to burn down.

This analysis of Red Kronstadt was published by The Red Menace in English, French and Russian in 1989 and was distributed in Soviet territories and elsewhere. Taken from the Practical History website.