Marxism No. 1, 2003
Since the successful workers’ revolution in Russia in October of 1917, every period of rising struggle brings back this moment of history as a reference point.1 Today a growing number of activists are once again engaging in hours of discussion about the history and nature of socialist revolution.
The Russian revolution of 1917 was a magnificent example of the creative power of the mass of ordinary workers and their allies to challenge a degenerate capitalist society committed to the drive for profit. But it was not only about challenging capitalism; it was also about the realistic alternative of socialism. Socialism is a form of society where the driving dynamic of the system is production for the satisfaction of human need, and not corporate greed.
The lessons of the Russian revolution for activists today are rich indeed. The success of a mass, workers’ revolution in a major country, consciously in the tradition of the revolutionary socialist ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, put the lie to claim that the poor, the oppressed, the toiling masses were incapable of running society for themselves.
More than any single event before or since, the Russian revolution gave life to the principles of socialism from below. In practice and in theory, the tradition of Marxism was advanced more profoundly by the mass action of the Russian working class and its allies among the most oppressed sections of Russian and eastern European society than at any other moment in history.
But this is not the whole story. By the late 1920s, the Russian revolution was no longer the inspiring model of liberation it had once been. Under the deadly grip of Stalinism, the gains of the Russian workers were crushed by a counter-revolutionary movement that claimed the mantle of socialism, but none of its earlier liberating features.
What happened to the Russian Revolution, and what was the role of the Bolshevik Party that led the Russian workers to power, is an item of intense debate among those committed to continuing the legacy of revolution today. And it is in this context that we hear about “Kronstadt”. There are few issues in the history of the revolutionary tradition as controversial as the issue of the Kronstadt events.
The Kronstadt uprising of March 1921, and its repression on the order of the ruling Bolsheviks in workers’ Russia, is commonly cited as the definitive proof that socialist revolution along the lines argued and fought for by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky was really only bureaucratic repression in disguise. Those who draw this conclusion are an unusual and varied crew. Some academic Marxists, most anarchists, and generally all right-wing historians share the argument.2
The argument goes more or less like this. “Workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917 was doomed from the start. Leninism leads to Stalinism. If we want to see a revolution based on liberation and freedom, it would be better to look elsewhere. Perhaps a better model would be liberal democracy, or some radical version of democracy. Or alternatively, perhaps we should think of simply changing our individual lifestyles, rather than trying to change the whole system. Regardless of the alternative, the early tradition of the workers’ revolution in Russia in 1917 and the tradition of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party is a non-starter.”
In the following discussion, the case is made that this interpretation is fundamentally wrong. The Kronstadt events took place not at the high point of the Russian revolutionary tradition, but at its low point, at a moment of isolation and weakness. But these events are part of a tradition that was as yet on the side of socialism from below nonetheless. The events, though tragic and disturbing, can be explained and understood without the abandonment of the principles of socialism from below.
The period of the 1920s in Russia are wrought with events which socialists find disturbing, and Kronstadt in 1921 is only one of them. Stalinism, a system based on state capital accumulation and in no way a continuation of socialism or the revolutionary Marxist tradition, was delayed and opposed due to the struggles of revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky in the early 1920s. Stalinism was a counter-revolution against the workers’ state that was fought for and defended by the Bolsheviks. Stalinism was a counter-revolution against socialism, not the legitimate heir of socialism as it claimed to be.
The 21st century is one where the spirit of revolution is in the air. The prospects of a revolutionary wave of resistance of the same or even greater magnitude than that experienced in Russia in the early years of the last century is very much part of the terrain of the left today. It is from this vantage point that we need to consider the lessons of this part of Bolshevik history.
A Tragic Necessity
The repression of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921 by the Bolsheviks, was, as Trotsky described it, a “tragic necessity”.3 Both the tragedy of the circumstances, circumstances not of the choosing of the Bolshevik party, and the necessity of the actions taken, are crucial elements in understanding the Kronstadt events.
Tragic, beyond a doubt. According to findings of the most definitive history of the events, detailed by the American academic Paul Avrich,4 a writer sympathetic to anarchism and to the Kronstadt rebels, about 600 of the Kronstadt sailors who organized against Bolshevik rule were killed in the events, and some 2,500 were taken prisoner. Among the dead were undoubtedly some who were unilaterally killed in the very final stages of the military conflict.
This number, however, pales against the list of casualties among the loyal Bolshevik defenders of the young workers’ state who were killed at the hands of the Kronstadt rebel forces. Avrich puts the number of dead, wounded and missing conservatively at 10,000. This figure includes among the dead some fifteen delegates to the Bolsheviks’ Tenth Party Congress. These numbers, on both sides, are based on observers’ reports and existing official hospital records.
It was undoubtedly a bloody battle. It was, however, one among many, and not the worst of the battles of the civil war in Russia and the immediate aftermath.5 The Kronstadt struggle was in a sense a last echo, or an aftershock, of that war.
But the tragedy of the circumstances of the Kronstadt battle go beyond simply the casualties of the conflict itself. The greater difficulties were in the general international conditions of the fledgling Russian workers’ state in the early 1920s.
Revolutionary Russia in the 1920s
The Bolsheviks had successfully defended the revolution against immense odds. Some fourteen imperialist armies invaded the young workers’ state, backing up a counter-revolutionary war inside Russia led by the White army.
By the spring of 1921, the civil war was over, at least in terms of the major military dimensions of the conflict. The Whites were defeated, but it was not clear if this was a permanent or temporary defeat. The counter-revolutionary armies had not fully demobilized their forces.
In Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea near Georgia, and in Siberia, the White army continued to be mobilized in preparation for renewed war against the young Soviet workers’ state. General Wrangel, in charge of the White army, still had units totaling between 70 and 80,000 in Turkey. They were like a mass army of Russian contras, in close alliance with, and aided by, the French government in particular.
The Bolsheviks’ anticipation that the socialist revolution would spread to Germany and other advanced states had not been realized by the early 1920s. This was not because it was not possible — the failure of the revolution in countries other than Russia cannot be explained by differences in objective conditions. Alternatively, it was the subjective factor that was different. The late break from the Second International meant that the revolutionary left was not sufficiently organized in mass parties rooted in the working class that were capable of accomplishing the tasks that had been initiated by the workers in Russia.6
Conditions in Russia at the time were like a Third World nation in a state of starvation. In the peace treaty with Germany negotiated at Brest-Litovsk, the workers’ state ended the eastern front of World War I. The bloodiest war in human history was ended with the workers’ revolution in Russia. With socialist revolution came peace, but at a terribly high price.
Russia suffered a loss of 32 percent of its arable land; 85 percent of its beet crop critical for the production of beet sugar; 89 percent of the country’s coal fields; and 54 percent of industrial capacity. All this was ceded in the final treaty of March 3, 1918. Faced further with economic blockade, between 1918 and 1920, 7 1/2 million Russians died from famine, exposure and epidemics alone, not counting war casualties. In 1921 alone, Pravda, the Bolshevik press, reported that 25 million were suffering from famine.
One Russian economist wrote: “Such a decline in the productive forces. . . of an enormous society of a hundred million is unprecedented in human history.”7
The Working Class and the Peasantry
The price of isolation of the impoverished workers’ state was not only economic, but social. Revolutionary Russia was a war torn country, and facing international sanctions from global capitalism. By the last phase of the civil war, Russia’s average national income had been reduced to one-third of its already impoverished level of 1913. Industrial production was reduced to one-fifth of its pre-war level. Coal mining was at one-tenth and iron production at one-fortieth of pre-war averages. The railway system was nearly destroyed. The average national income in Russia in 1913 was nearly 20 percent less than that in Britain in 1688; by 1921 it was much lower than this level.8
With the collapse of industry, the towns, the backbone of the revolutionary overthrow of the old state and the workers’ councils that formed the new government, were in crisis. The minority urban working class was numerically decimated by war. A massive shrinkage in the urban populations followed as unemployed workers returned to their peasant families in the countryside. A minority class even before the years of war, by 1929 the working class was reduced by more than half of its earlier number. Labour productivity declined to one-third of its pre-war level. The soviets, or workers’ councils, the core of the revolution, were hardly functional in such conditions.
Marxists view society and politics as a totality, in the context of class struggle and historical conditions. Kronstadt in 1921 was part of Russia, and Russia was part of a world system in profound crisis. Capitalists in every country in the world were desperate to isolate and strangle the young workers’ state that threatened to spread into the heart of capitalist Europe and beyond.
In these conditions, even the mainstay of socialist Russia, the working class, went on strike for bread. Strikes spread throughout Petrograd, and the survival of a socialist bridgehead to world revolution came under severe threat.
Lenin described repeatedly the conditions which were necessary for the victory of socialism in backward Russia, following the same principles as Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”. Where industrial workers were in a minority, socialist revolution would depend ultimately upon the spread of working class revolution to one or more of the economically advanced states.9
Russia in 1921 had not seen this condition fulfilled. But it was still possible. The sense of necessity was to minimize the tragic circumstances of isolation of the workers’ state in a sea of hostile capitalist powers. Ensuring that the Russian working class held on to state power was key to that. The aim was to promote the conditions where the real historical possibility of world socialist revolution, for the first time in human history, would be realized.
The immediate hope was for a successful revolution in Germany, then the strongest and most advanced power in Europe. Despite the workers’ councils of 1918-19 suffering brutal suppression at the hands of the counter-revolutionary Social Democrats including the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg, in 1921 the German working class was still not decisively defeated.
Negotiations were in progress for a commercial treaty between the Bolshevik workers’ state and England, and a peace treaty was under negotiation with Poland. The aim of the Bolsheviks was to hold on to power and fight to inspire the success of workers’ struggles against capitalism in one or more advanced countries.
This is the context in which the Kronstadt uprising occurred. It was in this context that the basic class content of the Russian crisis, the struggle between the majority peasant class, a class which labours in private family holdings, and the proletarian minority working class, a class which by its very nature labours collectively, were now in a strained alliance. The proletariat — or working class — whose confidence, political organization and strategic strength was expressed in the Bolshevik party, was victorious but desperately weakened in the process. The peasantry was hungry and tired, waiting for the gains promised them with Bolshevik victory. This is the background of a wave of internal conflict that came to eat away at the young revolutionary society.
These were the tragic circumstances in which peasant rebellions against the Bolsheviks took place. The Kronstadt uprising expressed in microcosm the historic moment of a victorious revolutionary Russian working class in its effort to retain class power in conditions of domestic crisis and international isolation.
At the centre of the conflict was the struggle for bread. The peasant producers, and the working class consumers, faced a bitter struggle for bread. Workers’ democracy could only advance if the material basis for their survival was assured. The peasants, on the other hand, had won their land from the centuries old and bitterly hated landed aristocracy in a revolutionary alliance with the urban based Bolsheviks. During the civil war, peasants joined the Red Army, and the Bolshevik Party, in large numbers in common cause against the hated army of the old landlord class. The peasantry was part of a very real united struggle with the workers of Russia in their common opposition to the brutality of the old Tsarist regime. But now the peasants fought to retain their produce for sale on the private market. With the Whites defeated, if not eliminated, by early 1921 fully 2.5 million peasants, nearly half the total strength of the Red Army at the time, were demobilized and had returned to the land.
In January of 1921, the Bolsheviks announced that the already minimal bread ration for the urban areas of Moscow and Petrograd would be reduced by one third. The reduction was reached reluctantly by the Bolsheviks, but they had no choice. Heavy snows and fuel shortages had held up grain trains, in addition to the crisis of peasant non-cooperation with the government.
In the first week and a half of February, not a single carload of grain arrived to reach the warehouses, already empty, of Moscow. Sixty-four of the largest factories in the industrial city of Petrograd, including the massive Putilov works, a stronghold of Bolshevik workers’ leadership, were forced to shut down for lack of fuel.
As Lenin put it to the Tenth Party Congress of 1921, the Bolsheviks were now:
involved in a new kind of war, a new form of war, which is summed up in the word ‘banditism’ —— when tens and hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers, who are accustomed to the toils of war and regard it almost as their only trade, return, impoverished and ruined, and are unable to find work.10
Further concessions to the peasant majority meant increased hardship, and decreasing confidence and power, for the working class. But it was in the hands of the working class that the future of Russian and international socialism continued to rest. The Bolsheviks responded with “war communism”. This was a temporary policy to retain economic order while the prospects for international revolution continued but were not secured. At the centre of war communism was a policy of forced requisitioning of peasant grain for distribution to the working class through the workers’ state.
Throughout the policy of war communism, groups of armed peasants confronted the grain collection detachments, and were quickly crushed by the Bolsheviks. Waves of peasant uprisings swept across the Russian countryside. In February of 1921 alone, the month before the Kronstadt uprising, over 118 separate peasant revolts were reported in various regions of Russia.
Character of the Kronstadt Revolt
With tragic circumstances, came difficult but necessary choices. Revolutions are not sentimental events. As Trotsky put it,
civil war is no school of humanism. Idealists and pacifists always accused the revolution of ‘excesses’. But ‘excesses’ flow from the very nature of revolution, which in itself is but an ‘excess’ of history.11
The Kronstadt revolt had the character of a mutiny against the Bolshevik leadership of the military and of the state. This arose at a time when that state was in a desperately vulnerable position with its survival at stake. Throughout the course of the Russian revolution and the civil war, it was widely accepted that mutinous acts against the Red Army, against the armed defense of the first successful workers’ state in a major country, was punishable by immediate execution. Military struggle is politics in a hothouse. And this is why Kronstadt symbolized not only tragedy, but also necessity. The repression of the Kronstadt revolt was a necessity because there is no question that if this rebellion had been successful, it would have been, as Lenin said, “a step, a ladder, a bridge” to the hastened victory of counter-revolution.12
The leadership and the participants of the Kronstadt rebellion were not necessarily looking to this outcome, but it was the only possible outcome on the historical agenda. Its success, in objective terms, would have opened the way for the restoration of the counter-revolutionary Whites, the reactionary forces uniting monarchists, social democratic Mensheviks and foreign armies in a massive assault on the fledgling and isolated workers’ state.
What then, was the rebellion really all about? Kronstadt was a fortified city and naval base on an island, Kotlin, in the Gulf of Finland, about 20 miles from Petrograd. It was constructed by Peter the Great in the early 18th century as a protection of the new capital from the open sea, and therefore earned the title of “window on the West.” The island of Kotlin is a strategically located strip of land about eight miles long and one and-a-half miles at its widest point. Rows of forts defended it, projecting out into the north and south of the sea in the Gulf of Finland. At the eastern end of the island, facing Petrograd, stands the city of Kronstadt. It was literally a fortress, a town surrounded by a thick ancient wall, the main entry point being the Petrograd gate on the east. On the southern side stood the harbours and dry docks of the Baltic Fleet vessels.
In 1921 Kronstadt was a town of about 50,000. Fully one-half were military personnel; the other half were civilians, most of whom were employed as workers on the dockyards or warehouses, fishers and small traders, or military dependants.
The class character of the Kronstadt population had changed dramatically between 1917 and 1921. During the 1917 revolution, the Kronstadt sailors were among the most advanced politically in the entire working class movement. Kronstadt sailors were at the political centre of an army composed largely of peasant recruits who had shifted very rapidly from reactionary political backgrounds and conservative social experiences, to Bolshevism.
Trotsky, who led the Red Army, had relied on the sailors of Kronstadt during the revolution to lead forces all across the country during the years of invasion and civil war. The Red army was organized in concentric circles of authority, with the minority of most advanced working class cadre in the centre. They were responsible for the political and military direction of wider and wider circles of less reliable and less politically committed forces.13
But as the Kronstadt sailors fought and led, acting as Trotsky called them “the pride and glory” of the Russian Revolution, so were they killed and wounded, and replaced in the Baltic Fleet by conscripts from the rural districts. The Bolsheviks called them rather unaffectionately, “peasant lads in sailor suits.” As in all of Russia, when the civil war came to an end, the most advanced workers, the ones who had fought in the centre of the Red Army, at the front against the Whites and the imperialist forces, largely been sacrificed to the ravages of war.
The number of industrial workers in Russia, always a minority, fell from 3 million in 1917 to 1,240,000, a decline of 58.7 percent, in 1921-22. So was there a decline in the agricultural proletariat, from 2,100,000 in 1917, to 34,000 only two years later (a decline of 98.5 percent). But the number of peasant households (not individuals which is many times greater) had risen with the parcelization of land from 16.5 million in early 1918 to over 25 million households by 1920, an increase of some 50 percent.14
By 1921, more than three-quarters of the sailors in the Baltic Fleet stationed at Kronstadt were recent recruits of peasant origin.15 But even if the issue of the changing composition of the Kronstadt forces is put aside, the Kronstadt sailors who survived were also influenced by the crisis in the countryside. Petrichenko, the leader of the Kronstadt uprising of March 1921, was himself a Ukrainian peasant. He later acknowledged that many of his fellow mutineers were peasants from the south who were in sympathy with the peasant opposition movement against the Bolsheviks. In the words of Petrichenko: “When we returned home our parents asked us why we fought for the oppressors. That set us thinking.”16
This change in class orientation was not unique to the Baltic Fleet, but was characteristic throughout Russia. Failing to understand that the hardship of the conditions of the revolution were the product of international invasion and blockade and economic backwardness, the peasants turned against the Bolsheviks. They did not understand that the Bolsheviks, like the peasants, were also the victims of capitalist conditions.
True to the desires of global capitalism and counter-revolution, anti-communism spread, and the Kronstadt rebellion was riddled with it. The Kronstadt rebellion was a counter-revolutionary uprising. In January of 1921 alone, some 5,000 Baltic sailors left the Bolshevik Party in protest. In the Kronstadt party organization particularly, between August of 1920 and March of 1921, half of its 4,000 members resigned. War Communism was seen as the product of Communism, rather than the product of the attacks against Communism by world capitalism and its allies.
In one statement not uncharacteristic of the Kronstadt rebels, they implored their supporters to attack the Bolsheviks as follows:
Communist rule has reduced Russia to unprecedented poverty, hunger, cold, and other privations. The factories and mills are closed, the railways on the verge of breakdown. The countryside has been fleeced to the bone.17
The demands of the Kronstadt sailors reflected the conservative sentiments of the most backward section of the peasantry in Russia of 1921. The practical demands were not, however, supported in such terms, as is characteristic of conservative political agendas. Instead, abstract verbal calls for greater freedoms were put forward. This gap between the deeds and the words of the Kronstadt rebels has generated tremendous confusion on the left today regarding these events.
The main economic target of the protests was the program of forced requisitioning of peasant produce and the roadblock detachments that halted the black market in grain. The Bolsheviks were already discussing the abandonment of war communism in favour of a program more concessionary to the peasants. This would later be dubbed the New Economic Policy.
But the demands of the revolt went further. The sailors called for the abolition of Bolshevik authority in the army, factories and mills. The Kronstadt rebels opposed the soviet, or council, form of government that was the foundation of revolutionary power. The sailors’ opening declaration, was that “the present soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants.”18
The Kronstadt sailors, as peasants temporarily removed from the land, expressed the class interests of the most conservative wing of the peasantry. They were dependent upon the actions of the two major classes in capitalist society to shape the course of history: the working class, or proletariat, and the ruling class or bourgeoisie. When the working class was strong, large sections of the peasantry, and recently proletarianized workers who retained strong ties to the peasantry, were drawn to actively support socialist revolution. Now that the working class was weakened through imperialist invasion and civil war, it was the pull of the bourgeoisie, the international ruling class, that was more influential. This was a pull towards counter-revolution. But the immediate expression of these class interests, like all class politics, was not a mirror image of the material forces of class struggle. Instead, the political ideas were mediated through debates and argument among individuals making history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.19
The events of the uprising indicate the expression of conflicting class interests. A meeting took place on February 28, 1921, on the battleship Petropavlosk, frozen in the ice in the port. The majority views in the meeting were influenced by the strike wave taking place against the bread ration in Petrograd. The assumption was that the strike was anti-Bolshevik, and the workers would support the sailors’ rebellion. In fact, the industrial struggle was coming to an end, and the Petrograd workers supported the Bolshevik repression of the Kronstadt uprising.20
The following day, March 1, at a mass meeting of sailors and soldiers in Anchor Square in the town of Kronstadt, 15,000 people in attendance met to hear two high-ranking Bolshevik officials, Kalinin and Kuzmin, sent from Petrograd to attempt to appease the revolt. Zinoviev, in charge of the negotiations, went only as far as Oranienbaum, and did not proceed further. On hearing of the temperament of the crowd, his physical safety was threatened. The worst venom of the Kronstadt rebels was leveled against Zinoviev and Trotsky, Jewish leaders among the Bolsheviks.
Anti-Semitism, an old mainstay of the Tsarist regime, was rampant among the rebels. Racism against the Jews was common among peasants from the Ukraine and the western borderlands, where many of the Kronstadt rebels were recently recruited, and where the majority of the leadership of the revolt, the Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee, were from. As one of this committee, Vershinin said:
Enough of your ‘hoorahs’, and join with us to beat the Jews. It’s their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have to endure.21
Further evidence of anti-Semitism has appeared in memoirs of a seaman involved in the Kronstadt rising. In a passage referring to the Bolshevik regime as the “first Jewish republic”, he called the Soviet government’s ultimatum to retreat “the ultimatum of the Jew Trotsky.”22
On the basis of observers’ reports, the atmosphere was such that there was in fact little basis for constructive discussion or negotiation. The meeting of March 1 degenerated, with the speakers literally unable to finish even a sentence without interruption and heckling. The Petropavlosk resolution was put to a vote, and only the two Bolshevik delegates and Vasiliev, the leader of the Kronstadt branch of the Bolsheviks, voted against it. All others voted for it.23
Kalinin left the island, but Avrich’s evidence suggests he was threatened with detention before being able to cross the ice back to Petrograd. Kuzmin stayed to address a meeting the next day, already scheduled as the occasion for the re-election of delegates to the Kronstadt Soviet. At that meeting, approximately 300 delegates were in attendance. The meeting was full of irregularities, including a sailors’ guard at the doors and the denial of party members’ usual responsibility for chairing the proceedings. Kuzmin and Vasiliev addressed the meeting, and tried once again to explain the conditions which threatened the revolution within Russia and internationally. They implored the rebels to retreat. If they did not, they were warned that the Bolsheviks would have no choice but to oppose them militarily.
Amidst heckling and jeering, the two Bolshevik spokesmen and a Communist official named Korshonov, whose jurisdiction included directorship of the two battleships which acted as headquarters for the rebel sailors, were immediately arrested and removed from the hall. Then there was a sudden rumour of impending attack from Bolshevik battalions, a rumour which had no basis in fact. A non-elected Provisional Revolutionary Committee charged with administrating the city took over.
All military leaves were cancelled, a curfew was imposed, and exit of any persons from the island without special permission was banned. The Baltic Fleet was under the direction of anti-Bolshevik forces. It was a declaration of war against the Russian workers’ state.
Repression of the Kronstadt Revolt
The rebellion was suppressed militarily by the Bolsheviks after the appeal for the lowering of arms was rejected by the sailors. The first attacks saw a defeat for the Bolsheviks. After a regroupment, including the enlistment of delegates from the Bolshevik Tenth Party Congress into the ranks, on March 16 the offensive broke through successfully. About 8000 Kronstadt rebels fled to Finland, where some, including Petrichenko, openly identified their links with the White, counter-revolutionary army.
Two factors dictated the urgency of the situation for the Bolsheviks: the first primarily a political one; the second a strategic military issue.
First, while this was not the largest or the most serious of the peasant rebellions, its location and timing made it a coveted bridgehead for a regroupment of the White army. Regardless of words or even the confused ideas in the heads of a majority of the rebels, international capitalist forces were watching the Kronstadt events closely, and plans for a counter-revolutionary attack that exploited the divisions within the young workers’ state were actively in process.
Paul Avrich discovered in his research, a handwritten memorandum, preserved in the Columbia University Russian Archive collection, dated 1921 and marked “Top Secret”.23 The memorandum provides conclusive evidence of the international plan to foment counter-revolution through the bridgehead of the Krontsadt rebels. The document includes remarkably detailed information about the resources, personnel, arms, and plans of the Kronstadt sailors. It also details plans regarding White army and French government support for the Kronstadt sailors’ March revolt.
Titled, “Memorandum on the Question of Organizing an Uprising in Kronstadt”, the memorandum was one of a series of documents written by an organization called the National Centre, which originated at the beginning in 1918. The National Centre was a self-identified “underground organization formed in Russia for the struggle against the Bolsheviks.” After suffering military defeat and the arrest of many of its central members, the group reconstituted itself in exile by late 1920. General Wrangel, the leader of the White army, with a trained army of tens of thousands ready and at the wait, was the principle military ally of the National Centre.
This memorandum was written between January and early February of 1921 by an agent of the National Centre, in Viborg or Helsingfors, near Kronstadt. The author was particularly concerned to ensure food for the rebels immediately after the uprising, because “Russian anti-Bolshevik organizations are not strong enough to solve this food problem and are compelled to turn to for aide to the French government.”
The links with the White army are explicit:
A breakdown in morale would be inevitable if the insurgent sailors were not to receive assurances of sympathy and support from the outside, in particular from the Russian Army commanded by General Wrangel . . . In this regard, it would be extremely desirable that in the shortest possible time after the rising is carried out some French vessels should arrive in Kronstadt, symbolizing the presence of French assistance.
Further, the rising was seen as
a very rare opportunity, an opportunity that probably will not be repeated to seize Kronstadt and inflict upon Bolshevism the heaviest of blows, from which it may not recover.24
The Bolsheviks of course did not know of this memorandum. But Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership were able to assess the balance of class forces with complete accuracy, and therefore made a similarly accurate assessment of the risks. Kronstadt was perceived as a step to counter-revolution not only by the Bolsheviks, but by the White army and the world’s ruling classes who aided them.
There was a second consideration regarding the timing of the repression. The Gulf of Finland is frozen for more than four months of the year, beginning in late November until the end of March or early April. Before World War I, non-military steamers would regularly ferry between Petersburg and Kronstadt in the warm months. In winter a train would go to the port city of Oranienbaum, five miles due south of Kotlin island, and a sleigh would be used to cross the hardened ice.
In two weeks after the Kronstadt rebellion, the ice was due to melt, at which time the sailors’ control of the ships would give them the strategic and military basis to overthrow the Bolshevik government. The importance of holding out until the ice melted was identified in the memorandum of the National Centre as being critical, after which point counter-revolution would be secured.
Lessons of the Tragic Necessity
The repression of the Kronstadt uprising was a tragic necessity, to preserve the gains of the Bolshevik workers’ state. It is because of that successful suppression that the revolutionary socialist tradition held on to its finest achievement, the winning of working class power in a major country, for several more years in efforts to tip the balance internationally for workers around the world.
Far greater would have been the tragedy if the Kronstadt rebellion had succeeded, and the already weakened Bolshevik state crushed. Revolutionaries today in countries such as Canada, advanced western economies closer to the level of development of Germany in 1921 than economically backward Russia of the time, need to learn the lessons of history. The Kronstadt events could have been prevented, but the key to this lay not in Russia but in Germany. Had workers’ power been successful in Germany in 1919, had there been an effective, mass revolutionary workers’ party that had broken years earlier from the grip of Social Democracy, the isolation and misery of the Russian working class and peasantry could have been offset by the strength of international solidarity. The soil on which counter-revolution gained a foothold could have been eroded. Today, conditions in global capitalism are very different that they were in the years of the early 20th century. But there is also a thread of continuity. Then as now, we live in an age of wars and revolutions. The next time there is an opportunity for mass workers’ revolution in a major country, we need to be prepared and organized. If we do our work effectively today, we can minimize the threat of tragedies in the future, and maximize the tremendous potential to create a world based on human freedom.
1 An earlier version of this argument was published in Socialist Worker Review, November 1990, no. 136, pp. 18-21
2 See for example, Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York: 1990); and Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising, intro. Murray Bookchin (Montreal: 1971).
3 Leon Trotsky, “A Tragic Necessity” (August 1940) in V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt (New York: Monad Press,19790, p. 98
4 Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton, N.J.: 1970)
5 See Mike Haynes, Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000 (London: Bookmarks, 2002); Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (London: 3 vols., 1967); Tony Cliff, Lenin (London: 4 vols, 1975-79); E.H. Carr, A History of Soviet Russia (London: 14 vols., 1950-78).
6 See Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: 19710; Chris Harman, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923 (London: 1982); Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets: Workers’ Councils versus Parliament 1915-1920 (London: 1985).
7 Cited in John Rees, “In Defence of October”, International Socialism, series 2, Autumn 1991, no. 52, p.56
8 John Rees, “In Defence of October”, p. 56
9 See for example, V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow: 45 vols., 1963-70), vol. 26, p. 465ff; vol. 28, p. 24; vol. 29, p. 58.
10 Cited in Tony Cliff, Lenin, vol. 4, p. 130.
11 “More on the Suppression of Kronstadt”, July, 1936 in Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p.97
12 Cited in Avrich, Kronstadt, p.134
13 See Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution.
14 Cliff, Lenin, vol. 3, p. 143
15 Avrich, Kronstadt, p.89
16 W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory, New York, 1989, p. 495, cited in Rees, p.62
17 Avrich, Krontstadt, p.163
18 Avrich, Kronstadt, pp. 73-4
19 This is a paraphrase of Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Karl Marx, Selected Works (Moscow: 3 vols., 1976), vol. 1, p. 398
20 Petrograd workers on strike in 1921 supported suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. This section taken from Avrich, Kronstadt, pp. 157-93
21 This statement was announced when Vershinan came out on the ice on March 8 to state demands to a Soviet detachment.
22 Avrich, Kronstadt, pp. 179-80
23 Those with voting rights included recently recruited peasant members of the party who had joined the army units during the civil war when virtually any one wishing to join was encouraged by the party leadership to do so.
24 Avrich, Kronstadt, pp. 235-240