Written: January 15, 1938.
First Published: The New International, Vol. 4 No. 4, April 1938, pp. 103–106.
Source: MIA (Marxist Internet Archive)
During the last months of 1920 and January of 1921, the “wrap-up” episodes of the lasting civil war (almost three years) took place, in which a coalition of counter-revolutionary forces of the former Russian empire (the “whites”) and several imperialist powers’ armies (U.S., U.K, France, and Japan) tried to defeat the newborn Soviet regime.
The young Soviet republic had triumphed and defeated the harsh counter-revolutionary attempt, but the cost, in lives and destruction of goods and wealth, was high. The situation was aggravated by the drought of 1920 and 1921, which was reducing the harvests even more, and there was starvation in several points of the country.
In this frame, the sailors of the Kronstadt port-fortress (near Petrograd, back-then capital) upraised against the Soviet regime. Kronstadt was known due to the important role it played during the revolution, in 1917, but those revolutionary sailors were gone (most of the best elements now had other political and military tasks across the country).
Besides the garrison staff change, the uprising was encouraged by some Anarchist currents, which, since October 1917, declared a war to death to the revolution led by the Bolsheviks. It is good to recall that, in 1918, they carried out an attack (a shooting) against Lenin, whose consequences would affect his death, in 1924. Acting like allies of the counter-revolution, in 1919, in the middle of the civil war, they carried out an attempt against the Bolshevik headquarters in Moscow, killing 12 leaders and injuring 55 militants. This was opposed to the attitude of some Anarchist workers and soldiers, which supported and defended the revolution.
In this frame of weak condition of the Soviet regime, the Kronstadt uprising was one of the last episodes of the civil war, which aimed to take advantage of the situation in the country to attack the Soviet power (this was the real content, behind the “revolutionary legitimacy” of the fortress and the Anarchist phraseology.) Completely justified, the Bolsheviks repressed them. Trotsky (as chief of the Red Army and member of the Soviet power) supported the repression and took responsibility for it.
But, with major repercussion among the international press, all the enemies of the revolution aligned with these Anarchist groups: from imperialism and Russian bourgeois in exile to the alleged “left” that had been defeated in 1917, and whose real combat was no longer against capitalism but against the young Soviet republic.
The repression against the Kronstadt uprising continued to make noise among the international press (with the protagonists raising their voices). Such is the context of this article we reproduce, written by Trotsky in 1938.
Today, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, the debate and criticism regarding the episode continue. Of course, the enemies of the revolution continue to attack it. But also, there is a big group of “friends” that (with a “left” language) say this it was “a mistake”, and even that the methods that, later, Stalinism would consolidate were already present in this episode.
Like this, they look to soil and discredit a current (Trotskyism), its leader (Leon Trotsky), and the militants that fought against the Stalinist bureaucratization, its policies, and methods, many times at the expense of their own lives. Thus, despite the time it has been since the article was written, we recommend its reading.
A “People’s Front” of Denouncers
The campaign around Kronstadt is being carried on with undiminished vigor in certain circles. One would think that the Kronstadt revolt occurred not seventeen years ago, but only yesterday. Participating in the campaign with equal zeal and under one and the same slogan are Anarchists, Russian Mensheviks, left Social Democrats of the London Bureau, individual blunderers, Miliukov’s paper, and, on occasion, the big capitalist press. A “People’s Front” of its own kind!
Only yesterday I happened across the following lines in a Mexican weekly which is both reactionary Catholic and “democratic”: “Trotsky ordered the shooting of 1,500 (?) Kronstadt sailors, these purest of the pure. His policy when in power differed in no way from the present policy of Stalin.” As is known, the left Anarchists draw the same conclusion. When for the first time in the press I briefly answered the questions of Wendelin Thomas, member of the New York Commission of Inquiry, the Russian Mensheviks’ paper immediately came to the defense of the Kronstadt sailors and … of Wendelin Thomas. Miliukov’s paper came forward in the same spirit. The Anarchists attacked me with still greater vigor. All these authorities claim that my answer was completely worthless. This unanimity is all the more remarkable since the Anarchists defend, in the symbol of Kronstadt, genuine anti-state communism; the Mensheviks, at the time of the Kronstadt uprising, stood openly for the restoration of capitalism; and Miliukov stands for capitalism even now.
How can the Kronstadt uprising cause such heartburn to Anarchists, Mensheviks, and “liberal” counter-revolutionists, all at the same time? The answer is simple: all these groupings are interested in compromising the only genuinely revolutionary current, which has never repudiated its banner, has not compromised with its enemies, and alone represents the future. It is because of this that among the belated denouncers of my Kronstadt “crime” there are so many former revolutionists or semi-revolutionists, people who have lost their program and their principles and who find it necessary to divert attention from the degradation of the Second International or the perfidy of the Spanish Anarchists. As yet, the Stalinists cannot openly join this campaign around Kronstadt but even they, of course, rub their hands with pleasure; for the blows are directed against “Trotskyism,” against revolutionary Marxism, against the Fourth International!
Why in particular has this variegated fraternity seized precisely upon Kronstadt? During the years of the revolution we clashed not a few times with the Cossacks, the peasants, even with certain layers of workers (certain groups of workers from the Urals organized a volunteer regiment in the army of Kolchak!). The antagonism between the workers as consumers and the peasants as producers and sellers of bread lay, in the main, at the root of these conflicts. Under the pressure of need and deprivation, the workers themselves were episodically divided into hostile camps, depending upon stronger or weaker ties with the village. The Red Army also found itself under the influence of the countryside. During the years of the civil war it was necessary more than once to disarm discontented regiments. The introduction of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) attenuated the friction but far from eliminated it. On the contrary, it paved the way for the rebirth of kulaks [wealthy peasants] and led, at the beginning of this decade, to the renewal of civil war in the village. The Kronstadt uprising was only an episode in the history of the relations between the proletarian city and the petty-bourgeois village. It is possible to understand this episode only in connection with the general course of the development of the class struggle during the revolution.
Kronstadt differed from a long series of other petty-bourgeois movements and uprisings only by its greater external effect. The problem here involved a maritime fortress under Petrograd itself. During the uprising proclamations were issued and radio broadcasts were made. The Social Revolutionaries and the Anarchists, hurrying from Petrograd, adorned the uprising with “noble” phrases and gestures. All this left traces in print. With the aid of these “documentary” materials (i.e., false labels), it is not hard to construct a legend about Kronstadt, all the more exalted since in 1917 the name Kronstadt was surrounded by a revolutionary halo. Not idly does the Mexican magazine quoted above ironically call the Kronstadt sailors the “purest of the pure.”
The play upon the revolutionary authority of Kronstadt is one of the distinguishing features of this truly charlatan campaign. Anarchists, Mensheviks, liberals, reactionaries try to present the matter as if at the beginning of 1921 the Bolsheviks turned their, weapons on those very Kronstadt sailors who guaranteed the victory of the October insurrection. Here is the point of departure for all the subsequent falsehoods. Whoever wishes to unravel these lies should first of all read the article by Comrade J.G. Wright in the New International (February 1938). My problem is another one: I wish to describe the character of the Kronstadt uprising from a more general point of view.
Social and Political Groupings in Kronstadt
A revolution is “made” directly by a minority. The success of a revolution is possible, however, only where this minority finds more or less support, or at least friendly neutrality, on the part of the majority. The shift in different stages of the revolution, like the transition from revolution to counterrevolution, is directly determined by changing political relations between the minority and the majority, between the vanguard and the class.
Among the Kronstadt sailors there were three political layers: the proletarian revolutionists, some with a serious past and training; the intermediate majority, mainly peasant in origin; and finally, the reactionaries, sons of kulaks, shopkeepers, and priests. In czarist times, order on battleships and in the fortress could be maintained only so long as the officers, acting through the reactionary sections of the petty officers and sailors, subjected the broad intermediate layer to their influence or terror, thus isolating the revolutionists, mainly the machinists, the gunners, and the electricians, i.e., predominantly the city workers.
The course of the uprising on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 was based entirely on the relations among these three layers, i.e., on the struggle between proletarian and petty-bourgeois reactionary extremes for influence upon the more numerous middle peasant layer. Whoever has not understood this problem, which runs through the whole revolutionary movement in the fleet, had best be silent about the problems of the Russian revolution in general. For it was entirely, and to a great degree still is, a struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie for influence upon the peasantry. During the Soviet period the bourgeoisie has appeared principally in the guise of kulaks (i.e., the top stratum of the petty bourgeoisie), the “socialist” intelligentsia, and now in the form of the “Communist” bureaucracy. Such is the basic mechanism of the revolution in all its stages. In the fleet it assumed a more centralized, and therefore more dramatic expression.
The political composition of the Kronstadt Soviet reflected the composition of the garrison and the crews. The leadership of the soviets as early as the summer of 1917 belonged to the Bolshevik Party, which rested on the better sections of the sailors and included in its ranks many revolutionists from the underground movement who had been liberated from the hard-labor prisons. But I seem to recall that even in the days of the October insurrection the Bolsheviks constituted less than one-half of the Kronstadt Soviet. The majority consisted of SRs and Anarchists. There were no Mensheviks at all in Kronstadt. The Menshevik Party hated Kronstadt. The official SRs, incidentally, had no better attitude toward it. The Kronstadt SRs quickly went over into opposition to Kerensky and formed one of the shock brigades of the so-called “left” SRs. They based themselves on the peasant part of the fleet and of the shore garrison. As for the Anarchists, they were the most motley group. Among them were real revolutionists, like Zhuk and Zhelezniakov, but these were the elements most closely linked to the Bolsheviks. Most of the Kronstadt “Anarchists” represented the city petty bourgeoisie and stood upon a lower revolutionary level than the SRs. The president of the soviet was a non-party man, “sympathetic to the Anarchists,” and in essence a peaceful petty clerk who had been formerly subservient to the czarist authorities and was now subservient … to the revolution. The complete absence of Mensheviks, the “left” character of the SRs, and the Anarchist hue of the petty bourgeois were due to the sharpness of the revolutionary struggle in the fleet and the dominating influence of the proletarian sections of the sailors.
Changes During the Years of Civil War
This social and political characterization of Kronstadt which, if desired, could be substantiated and illustrated by many facts and documents, is already sufficient to illuminate the upheavals which occurred in Kronstadt during the years of the civil war and as a result of which its physiognomy changed beyond recognition. Precisely about this important aspect of the question, the belated accusers say not one word, partly out of ignorance, partly out of malevolence.
Yes, Kronstadt wrote a heroic page in the history of the revolution. But the civil war began a systematic depopulation of Kronstadt and of the whole Baltic fleet. As early as the days of the October uprising, detachments of Kronstadt sailors were being sent to help Moscow. Other detachments were then sent to the Don, to the Ukraine, to requisition bread and organize the local power. It seemed at first as if Kronstadt were inexhaustible. From different fronts I sent dozens of telegrams about the mobilization of new “reliable” detachments from among the Petersburg workers and the Baltic sailors. But beginning as early as 1918, and in any case not later than 1919, the fronts began to complain that the new contingents of “Kronstadters” were unsatisfactory, exacting, undisciplined, unreliable in battle, and doing more harm than good. After the liquidation of Yudenich (in the winter of 1919), the Baltic fleet and the Kronstadt garrison were denuded of all revolutionary forces. All the elements among them that were of any use at all were thrown against Denikin in the south. If in 1917–18 the Kronstadt sailor stood considerably higher than the average level of the Red Army and formed the framework of its first detachments as well as the framework of the Soviet regime in many districts, those sailors who remained in “peaceful” Kronstadt until the beginning of 1921, not fitting in on any of the fronts of the civil war, stood by this time on a level considerably lower, in general, than the average level of the Red Army, and included a great percentage of completely demoralized elements, wearing showy bell-bottom pants and sporty haircuts.
Demoralization based on hunger and speculation had in general greatly increased by the end of the civil war. The so-called “sack-carriers” (petty speculators) had become a social blight, threatening to stifle the revolution. Precisely in Kronstadt where the garrison did nothing and had everything it needed, the demoralization assumed particularly great dimensions. When conditions became very critical in hungry Petrograd the Political Bureau more than once discussed the possibility of securing an “internal loan” from Kronstadt, where a quantity of old provisions still remained. But delegates of the Petrograd workers answered: “You will get nothing from them by kindness. They speculate in cloth, coal, and bread. At present in Kronstadt every kind of riffraff has raised its head.” That was the real situation. It was not like the sugar-sweet idealizations after the event.
It must further be added that former sailors from Latvia and Estonia who feared they would be sent to the front and were preparing to cross into their new bourgeois fatherlands, Latvia and Estonia, had joined the Baltic fleet as “volunteers.” These elements were in essence hostile to the Soviet authority and displayed this hostility fully in the days of the Kronstadt uprising … Besides these there were many thousands of Latvian workers, mainly former farm laborers, who showed unexampled heroism on all fronts of the civil war. We must not, therefore, tar the Latvian workers and the “Kronstadters” with the same brush. We must recognize social and political differences.
The Social Roots of the Uprising
The problem of a serious student consists in defining, on the basis of the objective circumstances, the social and political character of the Kronstadt mutiny and its place in the development of the revolution. Without this, “criticism” is reduced to sentimental lamentation of the pacifist kind in the spirit of Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and their latest imitators. These gentlefolk do not have the slightest understanding of the criteria and methods of scientific research. They quote the proclamations of the insurgents like pious preachers quoting Holy Scriptures. They complain, moreover, that I do not take into consideration the “documents,” i.e., the gospel of Makhno and the other apostles. To take documents “into consideration” does not mean to take them at their face value. Marx has said that it is impossible to judge either parties or peoples by what they say about themselves. The characteristics of a party are determined considerably more by its social composition, its past, its relation to different classes and strata, than by its oral and written declarations, especially during a critical moment of civil war. If, for example, we began to take as pure gold the innumerable proclamations of Negrin, Companys, Garcia Oliver, and Company, we would have to recognize these gentlemen as fervent friends of socialism. But in reality they are its perfidious enemies.
In 1917–18 the revolutionary workers led the peasant masses, not only of the fleet but of the entire country. The peasants seized and divided the land most often under the leadership of the soldiers and sailors arriving in their home districts. Requisitions of bread had only begun and were mainly from the landlords and kulaks at that. The peasants reconciled themselves to requisitions as a temporary evil. But the civil war dragged on for three years. The city gave practically nothing to the village and took almost everything from it, chiefly for the needs of war. The peasants approved of the “Bolsheviks” but became increasingly hostile to the “Communists.” If in the preceding period the workers had led the peasants forward, the peasants now dragged the workers back. Only because of this change in mood could the Whites partially attract the peasants, and even the half-peasants-half-workers, of the Urals to their side. This mood, i.e., hostility to the city, nourished the movement of Makhno, who seized and looted trains marked for the factories, the plants, and the Red Army, tore up railroad tracks, shot Communists, etc. Of course, Makhno called this the Anarchist struggle with the “state.” In reality, this was a struggle of the infuriated petty property owner against the proletarian dictatorship. A similar movement arose in a number of other districts, especially in Tambovsky, under the banner of “Social Revolutionaries.” Finally, in different parts of the country so-called “Green” peasant detachments were active. They did not want to recognize either the Reds or the Whites and shunned the city parties. The “Greens” sometimes met the Whites and received severe blows from them, but they did not, of course, get any mercy from the Reds. Just as the petty bourgeoisie is ground economically between the millstones of big capital and the proletariat, so the peasant partisan detachments were pulverized between the Red Army and the White.
Only an entirely superficial person can see in Makhno’s bands or in the Kronstadt revolt a struggle between the abstract principles of Anarchism and “state socialism.” Actually these movements were convulsions of the peasant petty bourgeoisie which desired, of course, to liberate itself from capital but which at the same time did not consent to subordinate itself to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The petty bourgeoisie does not know concretely what it wants, and by virtue of its position cannot know. That is why it so readily covered the confusion of its demands and hopes, now with the Anarchist banner, now with the populist, now simply with the “Green.” Counterposing itself to the proletariat, it tried, flying all these banners, to turn the wheel of the revolution backwards.
The Counter-revolutionary Character of the Kronstadt Mutiny
There were, of course, no impassable bulkheads dividing the different social and political layers of Kronstadt. There were still at Kronstadt a certain number of qualified workers and technicians to take care of the machinery. But even they were identified by a method of negative selection as politically unreliable and of little use for the civil war. Some “leaders” of the uprising came from among these elements. However, this completely natural and inevitable circumstance, to which some accusers triumphantly point, does not change by one iota the anti-proletarian character of the revolt. Unless we are to deceive ourselves with pretentious slogans, false labels, etc., we shall see that the Kronstadt uprising was nothing but an armed reaction of the petty bourgeoisie against the hardships of social revolution and the severity of the proletarian dictatorship.
That was exactly the significance of the Kronstadt slogan, “Soviets without Communists,” which was immediately seized upon, not only by the SRs but by the bourgeois liberals as well. As a rather far-sighted representative of capital, Professor Miliukov understood that to free the soviets from the leadership of the Bolsheviks would have meant within a short time to demolish the soviets themselves. The experience of the Russian soviets during the period of Menshevik and SR domination and, even more clearly, the experience of the German and Austrian soviets under the domination of the Social Democrats, proved this. Social Revolutionary-Anarchist soviets could serve only as a bridge from the proletarian dictatorship to capitalist restoration. They could play no other role, regardless of the “ideas” of their participants. The Kronstadt uprising thus had a counter-revolutionary character.
From the class point of view, which – without offense to the honorable eclectics – remains the basic criterion not only for politics but for history, it is extremely important to contrast the behavior of Kronstadt to that of Petrograd in those critical days. The whole leading stratum of the workers had also been drawn out of Petrograd. Hunger and cold reigned in the deserted capital, perhaps even more fiercely than in Moscow. A heroic and tragic period! All were hungry and irritable. All were dissatisfied. In the factories there was dull discontent. Underground organizers sent by the SRs and the White officers tried to link the military uprising with the movement of the discontented workers.
The Kronstadt paper wrote about barricades in Petrograd, about thousands being killed. The press of the whole world proclaimed the same thing. Actually the precise opposite occurred. The Kronstadt uprising did not attract the Petrograd workers. It repelled them. The stratification proceeded along class lines. The workers immediately felt that the Kronstadt mutineers stood on the opposite side of the barricades – and they supported the Soviet power. The political isolation of Kronstadt was the cause of its internal uncertainty and its military defeat.
The NEP and the Kronstadt Uprising
Victor Serge, who, it would seem, is trying to manufacture a sort of synthesis of anarchism, POUMism, and Marxism, has intervened very unfortunately in the polemic about Kronstadt. In his opinion, the introduction of the NEP one year earlier could have averted the Kronstadt uprising. Let us admit that. But advice like this is very easy to give after the event. It is true, as Victor Serge remembers, that I had proposed the transition to the NEP as early as 1920. But I was not at all sure in advance of its success. It was no secret to me that the remedy could prove to be more dangerous than the malady itself. 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. The experience of the ensuing twelve months was required to convince the party of the need for the new course. But the remarkable thing is that it was precisely the Anarchists all over the world who looked upon the NEP as … a betrayal of communism. But now the advocates of the Anarchists denounce us for not having introduced the NEP a year earlier.
In 1921 Lenin more than once openly acknowledged that the party’s obstinate defense of the methods of Military Communism had become a great mistake. But does this change matters? Whatever the immediate or remote causes of the Kronstadt rebellion, it was in its very essence a mortal danger to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Simply because it had been guilty of a political error, should the proletarian revolution really have committed suicide to punish itself?
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 had one because of the very nature of the petty bourgeoisie. They themselves did not clearly understand that what their fathers and brothers needed first of all was free trade. They were discontented and confused but they saw no way out. The more conscious, i.e., the rightist elements, acting behind the scenes, wanted the restoration of the bourgeois regime. But they did not say so out loud. The “left” wing wanted the liquidation of discipline, “free soviets,” and better rations. The regime of the NEP could only gradually pacify the peasant, and, after him, the discontented sections of the army and the fleet. But for this time and experience were needed.
Most puerile of all is the argument that there was no uprising, that the sailors had made no threats, that they “only” seized the fortress and the battleships. It would seem that the Bolsheviks marched with bared chests across the ice against the fortress only because of their evil characters, their inclination to provoke conflicts artificially, their hatred of the Kronstadt sailors, or their hatred of the Anarchist doctrine (about which absolutely no one, we may say in passing, bothered in those days). Is this not childish prattle? Bound neither to time nor place, the dilettante critics try (seventeen years later!) to suggest that everything would have ended in general satisfaction if only the revolution had left the insurgent sailors alone. Unfortunately, the world counterrevolution would in no case have left them alone. The logic of the struggle would have given predominance in the fortress to the extremists, that is, to the most counterrevolutionary elements. The need for supplies would have made the fortress directly dependent upon the foreign bourgeoisie and their agents, the White emigres. All the necessary preparations toward this end were already being made. Under similar circumstances only people like the Spanish Anarchists or POUMists would have waited passively, hoping for a happy outcome. The Bolsheviks, fortunately, belonged to a different school. They considered it their duty to extinguish the fire as soon as it started, thereby reducing to a minimum the number of victims.
The “Kronstadters” without a Fortress
In essence, the venerable critics are opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat and by that token are opponents of the revolution. In this lies the whole secret. It is true that some of them recognize the revolution and the dictatorship – in words. But this does not help matters. They wish for a revolution which will not lead to dictatorship or for a dictatorship which will get along without the use of force. Of course, this would be a very “pleasant” dictatorship. It requires, however, a few trifles: an equal and, moreover, an extremely high, development of the toiling masses. But in such conditions the dictatorship would in general be unnecessary. Some Anarchists, who are really liberal pedagogues, hope that in a hundred or a thousand years the toilers will have attained so high a level of development that coercion will prove unnecessary. Naturally, if capitalism could lead to such a development, there would be no reason for overthrowing capitalism. There would be no need either for violent revolution or for the dictatorship which is an inevitable consequence of revolutionary victory. However, the decaying capitalism of our day leaves little room for humanitarian-pacifist illusions.
The working class, not to speak of the semiproletarian masses, is not homogeneous, either socially or politically. The class struggle produces a vanguard that absorbs the best elements of the class. A revolution is possible when the vanguard is able to lead the majority of the proletariat. But this does not at all mean that the internal contradictions among the toilers disappear. At the moment of the highest peak of the revolution they are of course attenuated, but only to appear later at a new stage in all their sharpness. Such is the course of the revolution as a whole. Such was the course of Kronstadt. When parlor pinks try to mark out a different route for the October Revolution, after the event, we can only respectfully ask them to show us exactly where and when their great principles were confirmed in practice, at least partially, at least in tendency? Where are the signs that lead us to expect the triumph of these principles in the future? We shall of course never get an answer.
A revolution has its own laws. Long ago we formulated those “lessons of October” which have not only a Russian but an international significance. No one else has even tried to suggest any other “lessons.” The Spanish revolution is negative confirmation of the “lessons of October.” And the severe critics are silent or equivocal. The Spanish government of the “People’s Front” stifles the socialist revolution and shoots revolutionists. The Anarchists participate in this government, or, when they are driven out, continue to support the executioners. And their foreign allies and lawyers occupy themselves meanwhile with a defense … of the Kronstadt mutiny against the harsh Bolsheviks. A shameful travesty!
The present disputes around Kronstadt revolve around the same class axis as the Kronstadt uprising itself, in which the reactionary sections of the sailors tried to overthrow the proletarian dictatorship. Conscious of their impotence on the arena of present-day revolutionary politics, the petty-bourgeois blunderers and eclectics try to use the old Kronstadt episode for the struggle against the Fourth International, that is, against the party of the proletarian revolution. These latter-day “Kronstadters” will also be crushed – true, without the use of arms since, fortunately, they do not have a fortress.
January 15, 1938