From New International, >Vol.5 No.10, October 1939, pp.315-316.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
To the Editors:
KRONSTADT is with us once more – this time as The Truth About Kronstadt, a mimeographed pamphlet written by John G. Wright and published by the National Educational Department of the SWP. I have no great wish to rehash the Kronstadt affair. It seems to me there are many more basic questions than Kronstadt involved in the problem of the degeneration of the Soviet state. Furthermore, at this time, the problems of the present are so pressing and threatening that one begrudges time and energy spent on even the most important historical questions. Let sleeping dogs lie, for the moment at least, I would say. But the very fact that Wright’s pamphlet has just been published seems to show that this dog – wretched cur! – is not sleeping.
I feel a special obligation not to pass Wright’s pamphlet by in silence because of the fact that my first appearance in the pages of The New International was as a critic of Trotsky’s article on Kronstadt. I was not convinced by that article, and I am not convinced by Wright’s pamphlet. Wright scores some sharp points, particularly as to the haste with which the insurgents precipitated the uprising, and the evidence that bourgeois counter-revolutionary forces abroad made use of the uprising for their own purposes. But he does not meet either of the two strongest charges levelled at the Bolsheviks in this affair – does not meet them, I suspect, because they cannot be met.
The first charge is that the uprising was primarily an explosion of mass discontent with the Bolshevik rule because
If I may be allowed the metaphor without being accused of perpetrating an amalgam, Wright presents the Kronstadt uprising in much the same terms as the American press usually presents a strike – as the work of a handful of “agitators”, in this case, bourgeois-Menshevik-White Guard agitators. But, as we know from strike experience, agitators can set masses in motion only when there is a basis for their agitation in widespread popular discontent. The fact that within a few weeks after Kronstadt, Lenin retreated from War Communism to the NEP – and, incidentally, later admitted it was a serious political error not to have done so earlier – and the fact that the published demands of the rebels were for free elections to the Soviets, a relaxation of the restriction on internal trade, etc. – all this seems to indicate that Kronstadt was primarily an expression of deepseated popular protest against the policies of the Communist party. Party, irrespective of what use party. (And it does not settle anything to talk about “the grey mass” or “petty-bourgeois elements”.)
Wright’s pamphlet, however, does not even mention the specific demands of the Kronstadters.
The other main charge is that the Bolsheviks suppressed the uprising with extreme brutality. Wright does take notice of this in a footnote, but only to distort it.
“A fortress had finally been taken by storm,” he writes, “after a resistance that was most stubborn and determined. Previous assaults had been repulsed with heavy losses, Now the fighting shifted to the streets, block to block, house to house. A hand-to-hand struggle ensued, the most savage form of modern warfare. ‘A massacre!’ wails Serge ...”
But Serge, as I recall it, makes no such infantile accusation as this. He charges that, after the rebels had been disarmed, there was a general massacre of prisoners. And that such as were not shot down on the spot were executed in batches by the Cheka, after secret trials, for some weeks after the uprising had been completely crushed. Granted it was necessary to suppress the uprising once it had reached the stage of armed rebellion, I can see no moral or political justification for such bloody reprisals. They appear rather to be the automatic, mindless, brutal product of those same bureaucratic tendencies which Lenin spent the last years of his life in fighting and which finally drove Trotsky into exile.
To see the Kronstadt uprising as flowing from the mistakes of War Communism, and to criticize the severity with which the rebels were punished – this is by no means to agree with the anarchists and the social democrats that Kronstadt “exposes the fundamentally anti-democratic and totalitarian nature of Bolshevism”. I think Kronstadt was a bad mistake, but a mistake explained and, to some extent, justified by the terrible social and economic difficulties of those early years of the revolution. (Incidentally, the book which more than any other I have read convinced me of the necessity for many of the stern and undemocratic measures taken by the Bolsheviks in these years was, oddly enough Victor Serge’s L’an Une de la Révolution Russe, a really excellent history which deserves to be issued in an English edition.) It seems to me a serious error to defend Kronstadt – and many other actions taken by the Bolsheviks in those early years – as a normal mode of behavior for a revolutionary party. I am in favor of less defense, less polemicizing against all critics on this subject, and more willingness to examine the whole affair dispassionately and objectively with a view to extracting whatever historical lessons it may hold as to what seems to me to be a key problem for all revolutionaries today: how to maintain the maximum degree of working-class democracy after the revolution has been made.
Last updated: 8.8.2006