3. Kronstadt

Submitted by libcom on January 2, 2006

At the end of February, 1921, the workers of Petrograd, who had been making an enormous productive effort despite the short rations they were allowed, went on strike against their intolerable conditions. The Party and Zinoviev, who was responsible for the defence of Petrograd, could think of only one answer: to send a detachment of the Koursanty (cadet officers) against the strikers, and to proclaim a state of siege in Petrograd. In The Kronstadt Commune, Ida Mett tells what happened next.

On 26 February the Kronstadt sailors, naturally interested in all that was going on in Petrograd, sent delegates to find out about the strikes. The delegation visited a number of factories. It returned to Kronstadt on the 28th. That same day, the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk, having discussed the situation, voted the following resolution:

Having heard the reports of the representatives sent by the General Assembly of the Fleet to find out about the situation in Petrograd, the sailors demand:

(1) Immediate new elections to the Soviets. The present Soviets no longer express the wishes of the workers and peasants. The new elections should be by secret ballot, and should be preceded by free electoral propaganda.

(2) Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for the anarchists, and for the Left Socialist parties.

(3) The right of assembly, and freedom for trade union and peasant organisations.

(4) The organisation, at the latest on 10 March 1921, of a Conference of non-Party workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd District.

(5) The liberation of all political prisoners of the Socialist parties, and of all imprisoned workers and peasants, soldiers and sailors belonging to working class and peasant organisations.

(6) The election of a commission to look into the dossiers of all those detained in prisons and concentration camps.

(7) The abolition of all political sections in the armed forces. No political party should have privileges for the propagation of its ideas, or receive State subsidies to this end. In the place of the political sections, various cultural groups should be set up, deriving resources from the State.

(8) The immediate abolition of the militia detachments set up between towns and countryside.

(9) The equalisation of rations for all workers, except those engaged in dangerous or unhealthy jobs.

(10) The abolition of Party combat detachments in all military groups. The abolition of Party guards in factories and enterpris­es. If guards are required, they should be nominated, taking into account the views of the workers.

(11) The granting to the peasants of freedom of action on their own soil, and of the right to own cattle, provided they look after them themselves and do not employ hired labour.

(12) We request that all military units and officer trainee groups associate themselves with this resolution.

(13) We demand that the Press give proper publicity to this resolution.

(14) We demand the institution of mobile workers control groups.

(15) We demand that handicraft production be authorised provided it does not utilise wage labour.

The workers and sailors of Kronstadt were, in fact, defending the power of the soviets against the power of the Party.

The Kronstadt resolution had the merit of stating things openly and clearly. But it was breaking no new ground. Its main ideas were being discussed everywhere. For having, in one way or another, put forward precisely such ideas, workers and peasants were already filling the prisons and the recently set up concentration camps.

And while all this was going on, Radio Moscow kept spreading lies and calumnies against the workers. Thus when Stalin accused Trotsky a few years later of conspiring with a White Guard officer of the Wrangel Army, he was merely using the same smear campaign Trotsky had used against the Kronstadt sailors.

On 3 March, for instance, Radio Moscow launched the following appeal:

'Struggle against the White Guard Plot ... Just like other White Guard insurrections, the mutiny of ex-General Kozlovsky and the crew of the battleship Petropavlovsk has been organised by Entente spies. This is clear from the fact that the French paper Le Monde published the following message from Helsingfors two weeks before the revolt of General Kozlovsky: "We are informed from Petrograd that as the result of the recent Kronstadt revolt, the Bolshevik military authorities have taken a whole series of measures to isolate the town and to prevent the soldiers and sailors of Kronstadt from entering Petrograd."

'It is therefore dear that the Kronstadt revolt is being led from Paris. The French counter espionage is mixed up in the whole affair. History is repeating itself. The Socialist Revolutionaries, who have their headquarters in Paris, are preparing the ground for an insurrection against the Soviet power. The ground pre­pared, their real master the Tsarist general appeared. The history of Koltchak, installing his power in the wake of that of the Socialist Revolutionaries, is being repeated.'

Faced with all these lies and also with an imminent attack by the Central Government, local Bolsheviks deserted their party en masse. To appreciate just how strongly they felt, we need only read some of the let­ters they sent to the Kronstadt Izvestia. The teacher Denissov wrote: 'I openly declare to the Provisional Revolutionary Committee 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, not to the Party!'

A military group assigned to the special company dealing with disci­pline also issued a declaration:

'We the undersigned joined the Party believing it to express the wishes of the working masses. In fact the Party has proved itself an executioner of workers and peasants. This is revealed quite clearly by recent events in Petrograd. These events show up the face of the Party leaders. The recent broadcasts from Moscow show clearly that the Party leaders are prepared to resort to any means in order to retain power.

'We ask that henceforth, we no longer be considered Party members. We rally to the call issued by the Kronstadt garrison in its resolution of 2 March. We invite other comrades who have become aware of the error of their ways, publicly to recognise the fact.

(Izvestia of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee, 7 March 1921.)

Every attempt to settle matters peacefully was rejected out of hand by the government; Trotsky ordered his troops 'to shoot the Kronstadt "rebels" down like partridges', and entrusted the task to Toukhatchevsky, a military expert taken over from the Old Regime. On 6 March, Trotsky addressed the following radio appeal to the Kronstadt garrison over the radio:

'The Workers' and Peasants' Government has decided to reassert its authority without delay, both over Kronstadt and over the mutinous battleships, and to put them at the disposal of the Soviet Republic. I therefore order all those who have raised a hand against the Socialist Fatherland, immediately to lay down their weapons. Those who resist will be disarmed and put at the disposal of the Soviet Command. The arrested commissars and other representatives of the Government must be freed immedi­ately. Only those who surrender unconditionally will be able to count on the clemency of the Soviet Republic. I am meanwhile giving orders that everything be prepared to smash the revolt and the rebels by force of arms. The responsibility for the disasters which will affect the civilian population must fall squarely on the heads of the White Guard insurgents.

'Signed: TROTSKY, President of the Military Revolutionary Council of the Soviet Republic.

'KAMENEV Glavkom (Commanding Officer).'

No matter how often the workers of Kronstadt affirmed their loyal­ty to Soviet Socialism, Kronstadt, like Carthage, was destroyed; its appeal to the truth went unheard:

'Comrades, workers, red soldiers and sailors! Here in Kronstadt we know full well how much you and your wives and your children are suffering under the iron rule of the Party. We have overthrown the Party-dominated Soviet. The Provisional Revolutionary Committee is today starting elections to a new Soviet. It will be freely elected, and it will reflect the wishes of the whole working population, and of the garrison - and not just those of a handful of Party members.

'Our cause is just. We stand for the power of the soviets, not for that of the Party. We stand for freely elected representatives of the toiling masses. Deformed soviets, dominated by the Party, have remained deaf to our pleas. Our appeals have been answered with bullets.

'The workers' patience is becoming exhausted. So now they are seeking to pacify you with crumbs. On Zinoviev's orders the militia barrages have been withdrawn. Moscow has allocated ten million gold roubles for the purchase of foodstuffs and other arti­cles of first necessity. But we know that the Petrograd proletariat will not be bought over in this way. Over the heads of the Party, we hold out to you the fraternal hand of revolutionary Kronstadt.

'Comrades, you are being deceived. And truth is being dis­torted by the basest of calumnies.

'Comrades, don't allow yourselves to be misled.

'In Kronstadt, power is in the hands of the sailors, of the red soldiers and of the revolutionary workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards commanded by General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio lyingly asserts.

'Signed: The Provisional Revolutionary Committee.'

Kronstadt, as Voline has rightly pointed out, was a genuine attempt by the workers to run their own lives, without the help of political lead­ers, tutors, or shepherds. And Alexander Berkman added: 'Kronstadt destroyed the myth of the workers' state; it provided the proof of an incompatibility between the dictatorship of the Communist Party and the Revolution.'

The Kronstadt Izvestia had this to say: 'Be careful, Trotsky! You may escape the judgement of the people, you may shoot down innocent men and women by the score, but even you cannot kill the truth.'

And on 8 March, the rebels wrote: 'At Kronstadt the foundation stone has been laid of the Third Revolution. This will break the final chains which still bind the working masses and will open up new paths of socialist creation.'

It is in the light of the events of February 1917, and March 1921, that we must read the following text by Trotsky: 'It has been said more than once that we have substituted the dictatorship of the Party for the dictatorship of the soviets. However, we can claim without fear of con­tradiction that the dictatorship of the soviets was only made possible by the dictatorship of the Party ... In fact there has been no substitution at all, since the Communists express the fundamental interests of the working class ... (In a revolutionary period) the Communists become the true representatives of the working class as a whole.'

Now this is the very essence of Bolshevism: the working class is inca­pable of socialist consciousness, of making a revolution, of running socialist society - hence the Party must step in on its behalf and, if nec­essary, ignore the 'temporary aberrations'' of the proletariat. What then is the meaning of the phrase 'the emancipation of the workers can only be achieved by the workers themselves'? Lenin's answer was that the 'domina­tion by the working class rests on the Constitution, in the new proper­ty system'. De Gaulle ought to take a leaf out of his book: enshrine workers' control in the French Constitution but leave the real power with the bourgeoisie as heretofore, since running society, according to Lenin, requires a kind of skill the working class does not have. Fancy a cook running a ministry!

And so, when the party robbed the workers and the soviets of their powers, they were obviously acting in the best interests of what was no more than an ignorant and illiterate mass.

And if only the Party can wield power for them, only the Party must be allowed to wield power. Let us listen to Trotsky again: 'But who will guarantee, some evil tongues have asked, that your party alone represents the cause of historical development? In suppressing or overshadowing the other parties, they say, you have rid yourself of political rivals, and hence prevented any chance of evaluating the correctness of your own line of conduct.' Before looking at Trotsky's reply to his own rhetorical question, we must repeat that not only had the Bolshevik leaders squashed all opposition outside the Party, but that they had also outlawed all opposition within the Party - as Trotsky himself was to discover when his turn came to challenge the authority of Stalin. But let us hear what he said at the time: 'This question reflects purely liberal ideas on the progress of the revolution. At a period when all antagonists came out into the open and when the political struggle becomes trans­formed into Civil War, the party in power has other statistics for evalu­ating the correctness of its line of conduct than the circulation figures of Menshevik journals ... Noske tried to squash the Communists but their numbers kept growing, whereas we succeeded in demolishing the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries until nothing remained of them. This criterion suffices us.'

It suffices us as well. The German Social Democrat Noske did smash the German Revolution while the number of Communists kept increas­ing, but all this proves is that Trotsky was good at figures and not nec­essarily at political analysis. In fact, the German Communist Party enjoyed full parliamentary immunity in the Weimar Republic. However, as soon as Hitler took power in 1933, not only the number of Jews but also that of German Communists diminished by leaps and bounds. Is this a justification of Hitlerism? Again, the number of Trotskyists in Russia dwindled to almost nothing from 1923 to 1940. Is this a Trotskyist justification of Stalinism? All it proves is the power of the repressive system.

In 1921, the fate of the Russian Revolution was finally sealed and the bureaucracy triumphed. Henceforth it would grow daily in strength. It is not surprising that the working class, having been weakened by years of civil war and famine and then by the destruction of the soviets, should have stood by passively while Trotsky himself was 'liquidated'. Stalin could even permit himself the indulgence of calling Trotsky 'the patriarch of all bureaucrats'.

As far as we are concerned there is no break between the ideology of the old Bolshevik Party and that of the new bureaucracy.

'The direction of the proletariat, acting through a clandestine and disciplined party, and run by intellectuals turned pro­fessional revolutionaries, had no need to come to terms with other managerial classes, and so became the absolute dictator of society' (Guy Debord: La Société du Spectacle.)

Now, while it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution took place in a backward country - one in which the peasantry was predominant, that it was isolated, largely due to the failure of the German revolution, and that it was severely weakened by the Civil War, these general factors can in no way explain the specific turn it took. For instance, like the Commune of 1871 or like the German revolution, it might have been smashed from without and replaced by the old capitalist system. Even the introduction of state capitalism might have taken quite different forms than it did, in fact, take in the Soviet Union. Moreover, back­wardness and isolation have long been overcome: today the Soviet Union is a powerful industrial giant with an empire that covers more than half of Europe. No, the specific failure of the Russian Revolution must be laid squarely at the door of the Bolshevik party. That failure was far more significant even than the defeat of the French Commune at the hands of reaction, of the Spanish Revolution at the hands of Franco, or the Hungarian uprising by Krushchev's tanks - simply because the Russian Revolution had triumphed over the forces of external reaction only to succumb to the bureaucracy the Revolution itself had engen­dered. It forces us to reflect on the nature of workers' powers and on what we mean by socialism. What is specific in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution is that, while the revolutionary party retained power, the working class itself lost it; that it was their own Party that defeated the workers, and not the classical forces of the counter-revolution. What Rosa Luxemburg had to say about the German revolution, just before her death, applies in full to the Russian Revolution as well: 'In all previous revolutions, the contenders were ranged on two clear sides, class against class, programme against programme. In the present revolution, the defenders of the old order do not fight under the banner of the ruling class, but under the social democratic banner.'

The only difference is that in Germany, the Social Democrats served as a front for the bourgeoisie, while in Russia, the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party took the place of the bourgeoisie. From 1918 to 1921, the Bolsheviks were concerned to give Russia a well-organised economy based on the then capitalist model, i.e. State capitalism is a term that kept recurring in Lenin's writings. And what he and Trotsky said time and again was that Russia must learn from the advanced capitalist countries, that there is only one way of developing production: the application of capitalist ideas on management and industrial ratio­nalisation. Trotsky, for example, believed that the actual organisation of the army did not matter so long as it fought on the right side. Thus an army is not bourgeois because of its structure (e.g. hierarchy and disci­pline) but only if it serves the bourgeoisie. Similarly an industrial system is not considered bourgeois because its discipline, hierarchy, and incen­tives (bonuses, piece work, etc.) are those used by the bourgeois system. All that matters, apparently, is whose power is enshrined in what Lenin so proudly referred to as his 'constitution'. The idea that the same means cannot serve different ends, that neither the army nor a factory are sim­ple 'instruments' but socialist structures embodying productive rela­tionships and hence the real power - this idea, so obvious to Marxists, was completely 'forgotten'. True, the Bolsheviks abolished private prop­erty, and 'the anarchy of the market', but the practical reorganisation of capitalist production when it came, took none of the forms the Russian Social Democrats had envisaged during twenty years of debate. 'The revolutionary bureaucracy which directed the proletariat and seized the State machine imposed a new form of class domination on society' (Guy Debord: La Société du Spectacle.)

The most unshakeable belief of the Communist Party, indeed of every Party of the Bolshevik type, is precisely that it must direct the Revolution as well as the economy. The only Communists to challenge this view at the time were a handful of clear-sighted comrades, includ­ing Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and the far-left German KAPD who, before and after the Revolution, stressed the fact that centralisa­tion was bound to dampen the spontaneity and self-confidence of the masses. The reason why the Bolshevik Party was able to usher in a counter-revolution, is because it has crushed, rather than led, the prole­tariat; because no organisation can represent the proletariat; whenever a minority acts in the name of the proletariat it acts only to betray them in the end. The defeat of all the opposition groups inside the Party - the Left-wing Communists in 1918, the Centralist Democrats in 1919 and finally the Workers' Opposition in 1921 - are so many nails in the coffin of the Russian proletariat. The Workers' Opposition, despite its theoretical confusion and weakness, was nevertheless right to assert that the workers must rebuild the social edifice from top to bottom. The Workers' Opposition was the last voice inside the official Marxist move­ment to call for direct control, to express confidence in the creative capacity of the proletariat, to proclaim that the socialist revolution must usher in a new period in human history. This was the voice of the Kronstadt workers and so clear and loud was their message that it could only be silenced with cannon.
No matter what Trotskyist historiographers may tell us today, it was not in 1927 nor in 1923 nor even in 1920, but in 1918 and under the personal leadership of Trotsky and Lenin that the social revolution became perverted - a fact Trotsky could never understand - simply because he himself was one of its prime architects. Thus twenty years later, when Trotsky founded the Fourth International in opposition to Stalinism, he conveniently forgot that he himself had fired on those who grasped its horrors as early as 1920. At that stage he still saw fit to assert:

'There is good reason for believing that the KAPD under its present adventurist and anarchist leadership, will not submit to the decisions of the International, and finding itself out in the cold, will probably try to form a Fourth International. In the course of this Congress, Comrade Kollontai has sounded this very note, although rather muted. It is no secret to anyone that our Party alone is the true mainspring of the Communist International. However, Comrade Kollontai has depicted conditions in our party in such a way that, if she were right, the workers, with Comrade Kollontai at the head, must sooner of later start a 'third revolution' and establish a true soviet system. But why the third revolution and not the fourth, since the third revolution in the name of the 'true' soviet system has already been made in Kronstadt, during February? There are quite a few left-wing extremists left in Holland, and perhaps in other countries as well. I cannot tell if all of them have been taken into consideration; what I do know is that their num­ber is not very great, and they are unlikely to swell into a torrent inside a Fourth International, if perchance it should ever be established.'

(Trotsky, quoted in Nouvelle Étape. )

If we have tried to show how stuck the Bolshevik Party was in the old rut, and how mired down, it was only to stress that, for this reason alone, it was incapable of emancipating the workers. 'Forty years of consistent counter-revolution go to make up the history of modern Bolshevism. The Bolsheviks are wrong because it is no longer 1920, and even in 1920 they were wrong.' (From the Situationist International leaflet De la misère en milieu étudiant.)

We have digressed at such length on the Russian Revolution because it highlights all the problems and conflicts besetting the working-class movement even in our day. It is highly important not only because it shows how a revolution was made, but also what a revolution should not be.