Published by Black Rose Books, Montréal, Canada.
On March 1, 1921, the Kronstadt naval base on Kotlin Island, some twenty-five miles offshore from Petrograd adopted a fifteen-point program of political and economic demands – a program in open defiance of the Bolshevik Partyʼs control of the Soviet state.
Almost immediately the Bolsheviks denounced the uprising as a “White Guard plot,” ostensibly another the series of counterrevolutionary conspiracies that had beleaguered the Soviet regime during the three preceding years of civil war. Less than three weeks later, on March 17, Kronstadt was subdued in a bloody assault by select Red Army units. The Kronstadt uprising, to all appearances, had been little more than a passing episode in the bitter history of the civil war.
We can now say, however, that the Kronstadt uprising marked the definitive end of the Russian Revolution itself. Indeed, the character and importance of the uprising were destined to become issues of acrimonious dispute within the international Left for years to come. Today, although an entirely new generation of revolutionaries has emerged – a generation almost totally uninformed of the events “the problem of Kronstadt” has lost none of its relevance and poignancy. For the Kronstadt uprising posed very far-reaching issues: the relationship between the so-called “masses” and the parties which profess to speak in their name, and the nature of the social system in the modern Soviet Union. The Kronstadt uprising, in effect, remains as a lasting challenge to the Bolshevik concept of a partyʼs historical function and the notion of the Soviet Union as a “workers” or “socialist” state.
The Kronstadt sailors were no ordinary military body. They were the famous “Red Sailors” of 1905, 1917, and the civil war. By common consent (until the Bolsheviks began to revise history after the uprising) the Kronstadt sailors were regarded as the most reliable and politicised military elements of the newly established Soviet regime. Trotskyʼs feeble attempt in later years to debase their reputation by alluding to “new” social strata (presumably “peasants”) that had replaced the “original” Red Sailors (presumably “workers”) in Kronstadt during the civil war is beneath contempt. Whether “peasants” or “workers” – and both existed in varying numbers in the naval base – Kronstadt had long been the furnace of the revolution. Its living traditions and its close contact with “Red Petrograd” served to anneal men of nearly all strata into revolutionaries.
In fact, Kronstadt had risen as a result of a strike movement in Petrograd, a near uprising by the Petrograd proletariat. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the demands of the Kronstadt sailors were not formulated in the fastness of an isolated island in the Gulf of Finland: they were developed as a result of the close contact between the naval base and the restless Petrograd workers, whose demands the fifteen-point program essentially articulated. As Isaac Deutscher was obliged to acknowledge, the Bolshevik denunciations of the Kronstadt uprising as a “White Guard plot” were simply groundless.
What were these demands? Ida Mett discusses them in detail in her book. A glance shows that the political demands centered around soviet democracy: new elections to the soviets, freedom of speech for Anarchists and Left Socialist parties, free trade unions and peasant organizations, the liberation of Anarchist and Socialist political prisoners. Economic and institutional demands focused on a loosening of the stringent trade restrictions imposed by the period of “War Communism.” The demands of the Kronstadt sailors were the very minimum needed to rescue the revolution from bureaucratic decay and economic strangulation.
Ordinarily, there are two histories of revolutions. The first comprises the official history, a history which turns around the conflicts of parties, factions, and “leaders.” The other, in the words of the Russian Anarchist, Volíne, may be called the “unknown revolution” – the rarely written accounts of independent, creative action by the revolutionary people. Marxian accounts, to a surprising extent, fall into the official form of historiography: popular aspects of the revolution are often distorted to accord with a predetermined social framework. The workers invariably have their assigned historical “role”; the peasants a “role” of their own; the intellectuals and Party, still other “roles.” The vital, often decisive activity of so-called “transitional classes,” such as workers of peasant origin or déclassé elements, are usually ignored. Owing to its simplistic mauling of social reality, this type of historiography leaves many crucial aspects of past and present-day revolutions completely unexplained. Events acquire an academic form that is pieced together by programs, ideological clashes, and, of course, the ubiquitous “leaders.”
In the Kronstadt uprising, the “masses” had the effrontery to enter the historic stage again, as they did in February and October, four years earlier. In fact, the uprising marked the culmination and the end of the popular movement in the Russian Revolution – a movement the Bolshevik party basically mistrusted and shamelessly manipulated. The overthrow of Czarism in February, 1917 – a spontaneous revolution in which none of the Socialist parties and factions played a significant role – opened the way to a sweeping popular movement. Having shattered centuries-old institutions in a matter of days, the workers and peasants began on their own initiative to create new, entirely revolutionary social forms. Historical accounts of the revolution rarely tell us that in the cities, the most significant of these were not the soviets but rather the factory committees: bodies of workers established and controlled by workers” assemblies in the shops. In the villages, what has usually been designated as “soviets” more closely corresponded to local committees of peasants, based on popular assemblies. In both cases, the committees were truly organic social bodies, wedded to direct, face-to-face democratic forms. By contrast, the regional soviets were essentially parliamentary bodies, structured as indirect or so-called “representative” political hierarchies. These culminated in remote national congresses of soviets, controlled by a select executive committee.
The social history of the Revolution turned around the fate of the factory committees and village assemblies, not simply around conflicting armies and duels between the Bolsheviks and their political opponents. The factory committees demanded and, for a brief period, acquired full control over industrial operations. Lenin distrusted them completely after October. As early as January, 1919, only two months after “decreeing” workersʼ control of the factories, the Bolshevik leader moved into open opposition to the committees. In Leninʼs view, the revolution demanded “precisely in the interests of socialism that the masses unquestionably obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.” The committees were thereupon increasingly divested of any function in industrial operations their powers were transferred to the trade union and finally the powers of the unions delivered almost entirely to state appointed managers. Workers control was sharply denounced not only as “inefficient”, “chaotic”, and “impractical” but as “petit-bourgeois” and as “anarcho-syndicalist deviation.”
In the countryside, Bolshevik policy was marked by a distrust of cooperatives and communes – and by expanding the use of forced requisitions of food. As I have indicated elsewhere, to Lenin the preferred, more “socialist” form of agricultural enterprise was represented by the State Farm literally, an agricultural factory in which the state owned the land and farming equipment, appointing managers who hire peasants on a wage basis. By 1920, the Bolsheviks had isolated themselves completely from the working class an peasantry, a fact which Lenin openly acknowledged. Eve: the soviets had been hollowed into a political shell, divested of all content. Political life, public expression, and popular activity had come to a standstill; the Cheka, a secret police established under Dzerzhinsky, herded revolutionary oppositionists into jails and concentration camps. In increa8i” numbers, the more articulate spokesmen of independent soviet parties and groups were shot merely for the expression of dissident views. The policies formulated under the rubric of “War Communism” created near famine conditions in the cities by blocking virtually all exchange between town and country and by imposing more demanding requisitions upon the peasantry. The workers and peasants may have won the civil war, but this much is certain: they had lost the revolution.
Only in this political and economic context can we understand the strikes that swept Petrograd in February, 1921, and the uprising of the Kronstadt sailors. From Kronstadt the cry went up for a “Third Revolution of the toilers,” not a counterrevolution to restore the past. By crushing the uprising, the Bolsheviks succeeded not only in blocking a third revolution, but in paving the way for the Stalinist regime. Later, history was to take its own savage revenge: many of the Bolsheviks who had played a role in putting down Kronstadt were to pay with their lives In the bloody purges of the thirties.
The main value of Ida Mettʼs work is the glimpse it gives us into the popular movement, a movement on which depends the outcome of all revolutionary upheavals. We are drawn away from the Party and soviet congresses, from the “leaders” and the political factions, into the very soul of the revolutionary process. We gain a sense of the political insights evolved in the streets and barracks; we are brought into the molecular processes of the movement below; we establish contact with the remarkable spirit of popular improvisation, the enthusiasm and energy, that marks the revolutionary people in motion. For these reasons alone Mettʼs short work deserves the closest reading, for what is at stake in her account of Kronstadt is not the Russian Revolution alone, but the very concept of revolution itself.
The Bolshevik party did not “make” the Russian Revolution; it dominated the revolution and thereby strangled it. It played no role whatever in February, 1917, when Czarism was overthrown; in October, eight months later, the party took power for itself, not on behalf of the Soviets or the factory committees. Doubtless, conscious revolutionary organizations were necessary in 1917, or, at least, active groups of revolutionaries. The real issue, however, was whether these revolutionary groups were capable of dissolving into the social forms created by the revolutionary people (be they factory committees or Soviets) or whether they turned into a separate power over these social forms, manipulation and finally destroying them. The Bolshevik party was constitutionally incapable of taking the first direction; its hierarchical, centralized structure, not to speak of the mentality of its leaders, had simply converted the party into a mirror image of the bourgeois state apparatus it claimed to overthrow.
During the debates that were to determine the fate of the factory committees, the Left Communist, Ossinsky warned his party: “Socialism and socialist organization mum he set up by the proletariat itself, or they will not be set up at all; something else will be set up – state capitalism.”
The warning, delivered in the early days of the revolution, was prophetic. It would he an utter absurdity to claim that a state apparatus which divests the workers or any control over society can be regarded as a “workersʼ state.” Actually, until 1917, all the major factions of the Russian Marxist movement believed that Russia was face with a bourgeois revolution. Aside from organizations considerations, the disagreements between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks centred primarily around the political role of the workers and peasants in the coming upheaval. By demanding a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” the Bolsheviks were essentially calling for a politically dominant role by the oppressed. The Mensheviks, in turn, adhered essentially to the view that Russia required a democratic, parliamentary republic, governed by bourgeois parties. Neither of the two social-democratic factions were so naive as to believe that backward, agrarian Russia was prepared for a “proletarian dictatorship,” much less for socialism.
The success of the February Revolution, however, caused Lenin to veer toward a “proletarian dictatorship, a position spelled out in the famous slogan: “All power to the soviets!” Significant as this shift may have been, it was not rooted in any conviction on Leninʼs part that Russia was suddenly prepared for a “workersʼ state.” Quite to the contrary: Lenin viewed a “proletarian revolution” in Russia primarily as a stimulus to socialist revolutions in the industrialised, war-torn countries of the West, notably Germany. To Lenin, the war had opened the prospect of revolutions abroad – revolutions that could be ignited by a “proletarian revolution” in Russia. At no point did he deceive himself that a “workersʼ state” or “socialism” could be established within the confines of a predominantly peasant country.
The defeat of the Spartakus uprising in Berlin in January, 1919, left the Russian Revolution completely isolated. Despite the Marxian jargon of the new Soviet regime, despite its red flags and the obvious hostility of the traditional ruling classes at home and abroad, the fact remains that the revolution increasingly fell back to a bourgeois level, for it was inconceivable that an isolated, economically backward country, besieged by political enemies on every side, could advance beyond capitalist social relations.
But what type of capitalist social relations were created by the October Revolution? This was to remain a very knotty question. The revolution had eliminated the traditional Russian bourgeoisie and many of its political institutions. It had nationalized the land and all of industry, an unprecedented act in the modern history of Europe. Later, the Soviet regime was to institute “planned production.” All of these changes in the early decades of the twentieth century were regarded as incompatible with capitalism, although Engels in Anti-Dühring had toyed with the theoretical possibility that they could occur within a bourgeois framework.
The problems created by the October Revolution were further complicated by the terminology of the Bolsheviks themselves. Lenin had variously described the Soviet state as “state capitalist”, “a workersʼ state,” and “peasantsʼ state with bureaucratic deformations,” to he followed by Trotskyʼs nonsensical description of the Stalinist dictatorship as “degenerated workersʼ state.” Lenin also complicated the problem by crudely describing socialism as “nothing but a state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people.” Thus, in the early years of the Soviet regime, it was difficult not only to find parallels for state capitalism in any existing capitalist country, but to distinguish it from “socialism.”
Today, after a half century of capitalist development we occupy a better vantage point. We can see that, excel for the few months when the factory committees controlled Industry, the Russian Revolution had by no means transcended a bourgeois social and economic framework. Commodity production and economic exploitation were destined to he as prevalent after the October Revolution as before. The workers and peasants were to be denied control over Soviet society as surely as they had been denied over Czarist society. We also know that nationalization of industry and planned production are perfectly compatible with bourgeois social relations. The historic trend of industrial capitalism has always been in the direction of the centralization capital, the development of monopoly, the merging Industry with the state, economic planning, and finally the increasing power of a bureaucratic apparatus over economic and political life.
Ironically, Trotsky might have understood how this trend developed in Russia had he simply followed through his own concept of “combined development” to its logic conclusion. He saw (quite correctly) that Czarist Russia, latecomer in the European bourgeois development, necessarily acquired the most advanced industrial and class forms, instead of recapitulating the entire bourgeois development from its beginnings. He neglected to consider that Russia torn by a tremendous internal upheaval which dispossessed the traditional bourgeois and land-owning classes, might have thereby run ahead of the capitalist development elsewhere in the world – certainly, after the workers and peasants were dispossessed of their control over the factories and land by the new bureaucracy. Hypnotized by the preposterous formula, “nationalized property is antithetical to capitalism,” Trotsky failed to recognize that monopoly capitalism itself tends to amalgamate with the state by its own inner dialectic, that involves the concentration of capital into fewer and fewer enterprises. Leninʼs analogy between “socialism” and state capitalism thus became a terrifying reality under Stalin – a form of state capitalism that does not “benefit the whole people.”
Fundamentally, the source of the confusion concerning the “nature” of the social system in Russia – the famous “Russian question” – lay in the incompleteness of the Marxian economic analysis. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx was familiar only with two phases of the capitalist development: mercantilism and “laissez-faire” industrial capitalism. Although Capital brilliantly delineates the emergence of industrial from mercantile capitalism, the discussion ends precisely where it must begin for us a century later. We can see that the concentration of capital advances into still another phase: the statification of capital. The “free market” passes into a monopolistic and finally a state-manipulated market. The “anarchy of production” (to use Engelsʼ phrase) passes into the managed, “planned” economy, a system of planning designed not only to avert economic crises but to promote capital accumulation. Capitalism follows through its dialectic in almost classical Hegelian terms: from the state-controlled economy initiated by mercantilism into the “free market” established by industrial capitalism and back again to neo-mercantilist forms, but on the new level created by technological and industrial growth. Marx could not be expected to follow this dialectic to its conclusion a century ago; for us to ignore it, a century later, would he theoretical myopia of the worst possible kind.
The development toward state capitalism appears as a tendency in the West primarily because early economic and political forms still exercise a powerful influence upon social institutions. Although waning rapidly, the notions of the “free market” and the “sovereign individual” continue to pervade economic relations in Europe and America. In Russia and many areas of the “Third World,” however, state capitalism assumes a complete form because revolution rupture the present from the past, leading to the destruction of the older ruling classes and institutions. “Socialism)” in its accepted Marxian form tends to become ideology in the narrowest sense of the term precisely because, as Lenin observed, so much of Marxian socialism can be identified with state capitalism. Marxʼs acceptance of the state – the “proletarian dictatorship,” the “socialist state” – becomes the vehicle for transmuting the great socialist vision into a totally reactionary spectacle: the red flags which drape the coffin of the popular revolution.
What might have happened had Kronstadt succeeded? We certainly would have been spared a Stalinist development, a development which turned the entire world Communist movement into an instrument of international counter-revolution. In the end, it was not only Russia that suffered brutally, but humanity as a whole. The legacy left to us by Bolshevism in the forms of Stalinism, Trotskyism, and Maoism, has burdened revolutionary thought and praxis as much as the betrayals of the reformist wings of the socialist movement.
A victory by the Kronstadt sailors might have also opened a new perspective for Russia – a hybrid social development combining workersʼ control of factories with an open market in agricultural goods, based on a small-scale peasant economy and voluntary agrarian communes. Certainly, such a society in backward agrarian Russia could not have stabilized itself for very long without outside aid; but aid might have been forthcoming had the revolutionary movement of Europe and Asia developed freely, without interference from the Third International. Stalinism foreclosed this possibility completely. By the late twenties, virtually all sections of the Communist International had become instruments of Stalinist policy, to be marketed in exchange for diplomatic and military alliances with the capitalist powers.
The suppression of Kronstadt in March 1921, was an act of outright counterrevolution, the throttling of the popular movement at a time when Lenin, Trotsky, and other outstanding Bolsheviks stood at the helm of the Soviet regime. To speak as Trotsky does, of the “continuity” of the Russian Revolution into the thirties, to describe the bureaucracy as the guardian of the victories of October, to call Stalinism merely a “Thermidorean” reaction – all of this is sheer nonsense. There is neither continuity nor Thermidor; merely the window dressing for a vision that was throttled in 1921 and even earlier. Stalinʼs accession to power merely underscored a counterrevolution that had begun earlier. Long before 1927, when the Trotskyist opposition was expelled, all the social gains had been erased so far as the Russian people were concerned. Hence the indifference of the workers and peasants to the anti-Stalinist opposition movements within the Communist Party.
All the conditions for Stalinism were prepared by the defeat of the Kronstadt sailors and Petrograd strikers. We may choose to lament these popular movements, to honour the heroism of the victims, to inscribe their efforts in the annals of the revolution. But above all the Kronstadt revolt and the strike movement in Petrograd must be understood – as we would understand the lessons of all the great revolutions – if we are to grasp the content of the revolutionary process itself.
 In Spain (1936), the Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune, the June uprising of the Parisian Workers in 1848, no less than in revolutionary upsurges today, the most dynamic elements were precisely members of these “transitional classes.” In the past, they were mainly craftsmen, workers of peasant origin, and déclassés, all of Marx’s jibes to the contrary. Today, they consist of students, youth from nearly all classes, intellectuals, declasses, and in the “Third World,” landless labourers and peasants.
 Cf. “Listen, Marxist”, Anarchos pamphlet, p. 20.
Last updated on: 1.1.2021