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Tell Me Where You Stand On Kronstadt

Kronstadt 1921

by Paul Avrich
Princeton University Press, 271 pp., $8.50

Twenty miles to the west of Leningrad there is an island in the Gulf of Finland on which stands the naval base and city of Kronstadt. But Kronstadt is not only the name of a place; it is also a symbol of that moment when, in February and March, 1921, the Bolshevik regime faced for the first time the enmity of its own working class in the rebellion of the sailors and other workers of Kronstadt against Lenin’s government. They were suppressed by the Red Army. Everybody who takes an attitude toward communism and Marxism has been forced to try to settle accounts with what happened at Kronstadt when the sailors revolted: Russian émigrés, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, anarchists, later historians of the revolution, each has given his account.

Paul Avrich’s excellent and magisterial book is a work of nonpartisan scholarship that illustrates how partisan in the best possible way nonpartisan scholarship can be. He gives us the closest examination of all the available evidence that we are likely to have for some time and he uses his evidence to construct a narrative that, in its most brilliant passages, matches the power of Deutscher’s The Prophet Armed and Moshe Lewin’s Lenin’s Last Struggle. But by so doing he strengthens rather than weakens the case for the maxim: Tell me where you stand on Kronstadt and I will tell you who and what you are.

There are three main positions that have been taken on the Kronstadt rising of 1921 and they are all untenable. The first was that of the émigré groups associated with the National Center in Paris, a group founded by former leaders of the Kadet party. Avrich prints for the first time (in English) a memorandum of the National Center written in expectation of a rising at Kronstadt, and containing plans for it, only a few weeks before the actual rising took place. But in fact all those who aspired to aid the Kronstadt rebels in order to bring about the overthrow of the October revolution failed even to make contact with the rebels. There is no evidence to show that the Kronstadt rising was not entirely independent of outside assistance.

Moreover the Kronstadt rebels would not have been likely to make common cause with the emissaries of the Kadets. Their revolutionary tradition placed them far closer to the Bolsheviks. In 1905, the sailors of Kronstadt had revolted and rioted. In 1906, they mutinied again. In May, 1917, the Kronstadt Soviet declared itself the sole power in Kronstadt. In October, 1917, it was sailors from Kronstadt that stormed the Winter Palace and, three years later, were among the crowds who cheered the re-enactment of that storming on the third anniversary of the revolution, only six months before they rebelled against the Soviet government. Why did they rebel?

Avrich places the Kronstadt rising where it belongs, in the crisis of so-called “War Communism.” At the very moment when the sailors rose, Lenin was carrying out at the Tenth Communist Party Congress policies designed to moderate the rigors of earlier ones which had called for confiscation of the peasants’ produce on the one hand and regimentation of industrial labor on the other. These policies, combined with the shortages and the destruction caused by war and civil war, had finally brought many workers and peasants to the point of despair.

For both peasants and workers there was a bitter contrast between the initial stages of the revolution, in which the old owners and managers had been removed from the factories and the land was distributed among the peasants, and the following stages, in which one-man management was finally re-established in the factories, and state farms were organized in the countryside; the peasants regarded the new state farms with suspicion and hated the continuous requisitioning. The grass-roots political reaction to this change was not, as is sometimes said, a demand for “the Soviets without the Communist Party,” but the belief that the Communists should and must share their power with other groups within the Soviets.

Within the Communist Party itself the same tensions were expressed in the program of the faction of Shliapnikov and Kollontai, called the Workers’ Opposition. The Workers’ Opposition wished to hand over the conduct of the economy to the Soviets, the trade unions, and a national congress of producers. In his speech at the Tenth Congress Shliapnikov cited Engels’s thesis that a communist society would organize industry “on the basis of a free and equal association of all producers.”

But although most delegates to the Tenth Congress rejected Trotsky’s call for even stricter control of the labor force in favor of Lenin’s mixed policy, which included the relaxation of economic life in the NEP, they would have endorsed Trotsky’s characterization of the Workers’ Opposition: “The Workers’ Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans. They have made a fetish of democratic principles. They have placed the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party, as it were, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers’ democracy.”

The sailors of Kronstadt were right therefore in supposing that the cry “All power to the Soviets,” which the Bolsheviks themselves had formerly used, was now an anti-Bolshevik cry. The rebels saw the Bolsheviks as asserting the dictatorship of the party over the proletariat, and in fact the Bolsheviks themselves agreed that they were doing just this. Of the Workers’ Opposition proposal for a national congress of producers, Zinoviev complained that “the majority of them at this grave moment will be non-party people, a good many of them SRs [Social Revolutionaries] and Mensheviks.” But the National Center in Paris could scarcely have relished the cry “All power to the Soviets.” Had the so-called moderates who ran it come to power, they would have had to crush the power of the sailors of Kronstadt and they would have crushed that power as fiercely as the Bolsheviks did.

Even the Left SRs, who claimed to support the October revolution and in 1921 tried to organize support for the rising, ought to have remembered that, in the July days in 1917, it was sailors from Kronstadt that would have lynched the Left SR leader Victor Chernov had Trotsky not intervened, and that sailors from Kronstadt at Lenin’s bidding dispersed the Constituent Assembly in which the SRs had a majority.

So in one central aspect the Kronstadters represent October, 1917, against March, 1921, the October revolution against the Tenth Congress, and to identify them with their self-appointed émigré friends is absurd. Just such an identification, of course, constituted the official Soviet government view of the rising. When Lenin reported on the Kronstadt affair he treated the activities of the Kadets, of the SRs, and of the Kronstadt sailors as parts of a single tendency of antagonism to Bolshevism. He never actually said that White guards and generals participated in the rising itself, but an incautious reader would certainly have supposed him to be asserting this. Later Trotsky was to make the same assertion but dropped it.

What the Bolshevik case amounted to at its most cogent was twofold. First, the Kronstadt sailors of 1921 were not the sailors of 1917; the social composition of the fleet had changed. The sailors of 1921 were unwilling, so the Bolsheviks asserted, to endure the hardships of the revolutionary regime. Secondly, a successful rising at Kronstadt and its extension to the mainland would at once have led to further White intervention. The latter claim is obviously convincing: it was clearly urgent that revolt had to be put down.

But the true character of the revolt the Bolsheviks were unwilling or unable to admit. The Revolutionary Committee that led the uprising was composed of a clerk, a telephone operator, two machinists, two electricians, a medical assistant, an ordinary seaman, two factory workers, a watchman, the principal of the Third Workers’ School, a sawmill worker, the head of transport in the fortress construction department, and a navigator: a large majority of proletarians. After two thousand rebels were captured by the Soviet government, thirteen alleged ringleaders were singled out and tried behind closed doors before being executed: five were ex-naval officers of aristocratic origin, seven were peasants, and one had been a priest. None had in fact played any leading part in the revolt, but the emphasis of the Soviet press on their social origins makes it clear that the Soviet government wished to lie from the first about the social composition of the revolt’s leadership, and was not merely mistaken.

There had of course been some changes in the composition of the fleet since 1917. There was a somewhat higher proportion of former peasants, but most of the sailors had always been former peasants. In fact, there is no good reason for accepting any of the Bolshevik theses about the sailors, as for example the claim that unlike the workers of Petrograd they were not prepared to tolerate hardship. The workers of Petrograd launched a wave of strikes before the Kronstadt rising and they, too, had had to be suppressed by force.

The question thus arises: since the Bolsheviks had an excellent military case for putting down the Kronstadt rising at once (not only was outside aid a danger, but in a few weeks the ice would have melted, making an assault on the rebels much more difficult), why did they invent an additional bad case? The excellence of the military case was universally recognized. When news of the rising reached the Tenth Congress, the delegates who volunteered to join the assault included Workers’ Opposition delegates, whose own leaders condemned the rising as violently as any others. Victor Serge, the most perceptive of the anarchist supporters of the regime, understood the strength of this case, too.

But the Bolsheviks could not remain content with it, for had they done so, they would have had to allow the truth of the separation between their party, on the one hand, and the workers and peasants, on the other, to be demonstrated much more convincingly than even Trotsky’s speech allowed. A year later at the Eleventh Congress Shliapnikov was able to retort to a speech of Lenin, “Vladimir Ilyich said yesterday that the proletariat as a class, in the Marxian sense, did not exist [in Russia]. Permit me to congratulate you on being the vanguard of a nonexistent class.”

For the Bolshevik party to have admitted that it was separate from the proletariat would have been to destroy its own basis. Hence it fed on myths and sophistries from then on. Marxism had for many years so successfully isolated itself from moral self-questioning that the question that the Bolshevik position ought to have raised about the political value, indeed the indispensability, of truthfulness was not in fact raised until fifteen years later, by Trotsky in Their Morals and Ours.

It is tempting at this point in the argument to accept a third view of Kronstadt which may appear to gain its support from what has gone before. This is the anarchist view, held at the time by, for example, Alexander Berkman and presented in Ida Mett’s La Commune de Cronstadt: Crépuscule sanglant des Soviets* in 1949.

In this view the Kronstadt rising represented genuine grass-roots democracy, “the second Paris Commune,” and it was simply wrong to put it down. Right was on the side of the sailors in every way. Now the virtues of the sailors were clearly great: they carefully refrained from ill-treating the Communists whom they had taken prisoner; they fought assaults on Kronstadt with immense courage; and they fought solely for ideals, in no way for their own sectional interest. A large number of those who were captured were shot at once or later, and others were condemned to the slow death of the labor camp (not a Stalinist invention). They were genuine martyrs. But in at least two ways they are an inadequate symbol of non-Bolshevik socialist democracy.

Avrich characterizes the attitude of the sailors as anarcho-populist; and there is some evidence of the worst as well as the best of populism in their attitudes. While the Kronstadt Revolutionary Committee disclaimed anti-Semitism, they attacked Trotsky for causing in the civil war the deaths of thousands of innocent people “of a nationality different from his own,” a clear attempt to appeal to anti-Semitism. A Soviet military cadet in the detachment which captured Vershinin, a member of the Revolutionary Committee, when he came out to parley with them early in the rising, reported that he shouted: “Enough of your ‘hoorahs’ and join with us to beat the Jews. It’s their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have had to endure.”

Moreover, as both Avrich and Ida Mett note, the Kronstadt revolutionaries themselves wished to restrict freedom to workers and peasants. They opposed any generally elected assembly, arguing that the form of such an assembly would always allow it to be controlled by a minority. Their attitude was thus in sharp contrast to Rosa Luxemburg’s when she argued in 1918 against any restriction of freedom and in favor of such an assembly. The libertarian socialist cannot follow both the Kronstadt sailors and Luxemburg, any more than he can follow both Lenin and Luxemburg.

Trotsky in his very last reference to the Kronstadt rising in Stalin speaks of the putting down of the rising as a “tragic necessity” and his reference to tragedy is to the point. The collision of the Bolsheviks with the workers and peasants whom they ostensibly represented was the first staging of the internal tragedy of socialism. The central question about socialism is whether that tragedy sprang merely from local circumstances—the backwardness of Russia, the destruction of resources in war and civil war—or from deeper and more permanent factors in the life of the working class and of socialist parties and groups. As such parties and groups lurch on between heroic tragedy and unheroic farce, they should remember that Kronstadt poses a permanent question for them, even if it does not answer it.

  1. *

    Translated in a shortened version as The Kronstadt Commune, Solidarity Pamphlet No. 27, 1967.

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