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Dwight Macdonald

Once More: Kronstadt

(April 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.7, July 1938, pp.212-213.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Trotsky’s article on Kronstadt in your April issue was, to me, disappointing and embarrassing. Disappointing because I had hoped for a frank and reasonably objective explanation of the Kronstadt affair. Embarrassing because I admire Trotsky and accept many of his theories. An article like this – essentially a piece of special pleading, however brilliant – makes it harder to defend Trotsky from the often-made accusation that his thinking is sectarian and inflexible.

For those who believe, as I do, that the proletarian revolution is the only road to socialism, the question of the day is: how can we avoid the sort of degeneration that has taken place in the USSR? Specifically, to what extent must Bolshevist theory bear the responsibility for the rise of Stalinism? In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky demonstrates that Stalinism is primarily a reflection of the low level of productivity and economic development of Russia. But even if one accepts this analysis, as I do, an important contributory cause may still be found in certain weaknesses of Bolshevist political theory. Is it not the duty of Marxists today relentlessly to search out these weaknesses, to reconsider the entire Bolshevist line with scientific detachment? My impression is that Trotsky has shown little interest in any such basic reconsideration. He seems to be more interested in defending Leninism than in learning from its mistakes.

The article on Kronstadt is a good example of what I mean. It is impassioned, eloquent, and – unconvincing. Trotsky may be correct in all his contentions. But he approaches the subject in such a way as to make it impossible for the detached observer to form an intelligent opinion. I have neither the time nor the knowledge – and The New International certainly hasn’t the space – to argue the Kronstadt question here. But I would like to indicate a few misgivings about the tone of Trotsky’s article. In general, it seems to me that Trotsky takes a polemical approach to a question that should be considered dispassionately, with some respect for the other side. The very title is contemptuous: Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt. The opposition is characterized in police court terms – “this variegated fraternity”, “this truly charlatan campaign”. To justify such abuse, Trotsky must bring forward much stronger evidence to offset the statements of Serge, Thomas, Berkman, and Souvarine than he (or Wright) has up to now.

Trotsky begins his article with an amalgam worthy of Vyshinsky: “Participating in the campaign ... are anarchists, Russian Mensheviks, left social-democrats ... individual blunderers, Miliukov’s paper, and, on occasion, the big capitalist press. A ‘People’s Front’ of its own kind!” (The only category which seems to fit me is “individual blunderer”. Trotsky seems unable to imagine anyone criticising Kronstadt unless he has a political axe to grind or is a dupe, while the Stalinists catalogue all critics of the Moscow Trials as Trotskyists, fascists, assassins, and – my own label – Trotskyist stooges.) I can’t see as much difference as I would like to see between Trotsky’s insistence that, because the enemies of the revolution have used the Kronstadt affair to discredit Bolshevism, therefore all who express doubts about Kronstadt are (“objectively” considered) allies of counter-revolution; and Vyshinsky’s insistence that the Fourth International and the Gestapo are comrades-in-arms because both oppose the Stalinist regime. This exclusion of subjective motivation as irrelevant, this refusal to consider aims, programs, theories, anything except the objective fact of opposition – this cast of mind seems to me dangerous and unrealistic. I insist it is possible to have doubts about Kronstadt without being either a knave or a fool.

Having created his amalgam, Trotsky defines its lowest common denominator – and very low it is. “How can the Kronstadt uprising cause such heartburn to anarchists, Mensheviks, and ‘liberal’ counter-revolutionists, all at the same time?” he asks. “The answer is simple: all these groupings are interested in compromising the only genuinely revolutionary current which has never repudiated its banner ...” The answer is perhaps a bit too simple – another thing that bothers me, by the way, about Trotsky’s answers. So far as I am conscious, I am not interested in “compromising” Bolshevism; on the contrary, I wish I were able to accept it 100 per cent. But I unfortunately have certain doubts, objections, criticisms. Is it impossible to express them without being accused of counterrevolution and herded into an amalgam of anarchists, Mensheviks and capitalist journalists?

Most of Trotsky’s article attempts to show that the social base of the Kronstadt uprising was petty bourgeois. He makes one major point: that the Kronstadt sailors of 1921 were quite a different group from the revolutionary heroes of 1917. But the rest of his lengthy argument boils down to an identification of all the elements which opposed the Bolsheviks as “petty bourgeois”. He advances little evidence to support this labelling, beyond the indisputable fact that they were all anti-Bolshevik. His reasoning seems to be: only the Bolshevist policy could save the revolution; the Makhno bands, the Greens, the Social Revolutionaries, the Kronstadters, etc., were against the Bolsheviks; therefore, objectively, they were counter-revolutionary; therefore, they were, objectively, working for the bourgeoisie. This reasoning begs the whole question. But even if the initial assumption be accepted, it is still a dangerous intellectual process. It rationalizes an unpleasant administrative necessity – the suppression of political opponents who also are acting for what they conceive to be the best interests of the masses – into a struggle between Good and Evil. A police measure becomes a political crusade, by simply refusing to distinguish between the subjective and the objective categories – as if a bank robber should be indicted for trying to overthrow capitalism! Stalin has learned the trick all too well.

Trotsky has very little to say about the way the Bolsheviks handled the Kronstadt affair itself. He presents no defense for the mass executions which, according to Victor Serge, took place for months after the rebels had been crushed. In fact, he doesn’t mention this aspect at all. Nor does he pay much attention to the crucial question: how seriously did the Bolshevists try to reach a peaceful settlement before they brought up the field guns? He dismisses this:

“Or perhaps it would have been sufficient to inform the Kronstadt sailors of the NEP decrees to pacify them? Illusion! The insurgents did not have a conscious program and they could not have one because of the very nature of the petty bourgeoisie.”

Here Trotsky admits, by implication, that Souvarine states: that Lenin was putting the finishing touches on the NEP during the Tenth Party Congress, which broke up to allow the delegates to take part in the attack on Kronstadt. It was a serious decision Lenin and Trotsky took: to withhold public announcement of NEP until after the rebellion, which asked for some of the very concessions which the NEP granted, had been drowned in blood. How could they be so sure it would have been impossible to compromise with the Kronstadters on the basis of the NEP? A few sentences earlier, Trotsky admits that “the introduction of the NEP one year earlier would have averted the Kronstadt uprising”. But the Kronstadters, writes Trotsky, being petty bourgeois, didn’t have any “conscious program” and so couldn’t have been appealed to by programmatic concessions. Petty bourgeois or not, the Kronstadters did have a program. Souvarine, for one, gives it in his life of Stalin as, “Free elections to the Soviets; free speech and a free press for workers and peasants, left-wing socialists, anarchists and syndicalists; the release of workers and peasants held as political prisoners; the abolition of the privileges of the Communist party; equal rations for all workers; the right of peasants and self-employing artisans to dispose of the product of their work.” Perhaps Trotsky uses the term “conscious program” in a special sense.

To me the most interesting statement in the article is:

“It is true ... that I had already proposed the transition to NEP in 1920 ... When I met opposition from the leaders of the party, I did not appeal to the ranks, in order to avoid mobilizing the petty bourgeoisie against the workers.”

As Trotsky points out, Lenin admitted that the policy of “War Communism” was adhered to longer than it should have been. Was this simply a mistake in judgment, as Trotsky implies, or was it a mistake which springs from the very nature of Bolshevist political organization, which concentrates power in the hands of a small group of politicians so well insulated (by a hierarchic, bureaucratic party apparatus) against pressure from the masses that they don’t respond to the needs of the masses – until too late? Even when one of the leaders is able correctly to judge the needs of the masses, he can only try to persuade his colleagues of the correctness of his views. If they can’t be persuaded, he is inhibited by his political philosophy from appealing to the rank and file for support. It is true, as Trotsky writes, that the bourgeoisie would have sought to profit by any division in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. But are not the dangers of an air-tight dictatorship, insulated against mass pressure, even greater? Are not episodes like Kronstadt inevitable under such conditions? And would a Stalinist clique be able so easily to usurp control of a party which allowed greater participation to the masses and greater freedom to left-wing opposition, both inside and outside the dominant party?

These are the questions which Kronstadt raises. Trotsky does not answer them when he summarizes:

“In essence, the gentlemen critics are opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat and by that token are opponents of the revolution. In this lies the whole secret.”

The secret is more complicated than this formulation. Rosa Luxemburg all her life opposed Lenin’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the Guard officers who assassinated her in 1919 knew very well what her attitude was towards the 1917 revolution.

NEW YORK CITY, April 26, 1938


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