Extracts from Israel Getzler’s Kronsdadt 1917-21 The Fate of Soviet Democracy
O what a bright morn is dawning:
Trotsky's fetters we're now throwing off!
And Lenin the Tsar we'll be toppling,
As dictatorship cronies crashing down!
The toiler shall find a new freedom:
Land and works will be labour's own.
Free labour's the road to equality,
To brotherhood now and for ever,
So let's do it now, or we'll never!
Kronstadt is best known for its March 1921 uprising, when, with the battle-cry 'All Power to Soviets and Not to Parties'. The revolt was all the more confounding to the Communist leaders since it came from the hard core of their social base, from the men who had been the shock-troops of the October revolution, the standard bearers of Soviet power during the civil war.
The Kronstadters themselves genuinely saw in their Petropavlovsk resolution a practical programme of reform of the Soviet system from within. In fact it was nothing less than a blueprint for a peaceful revolution: the removal of the Bolsheviks from power by way of free elections to Soviets.
The Petropavlovsk resolution, together with its sequel, the more explicit 'Appeal of the Revolutionary Committee to the Railwaymen of 5 March, demanded immediate new elections of all Soviets and governments' by secret ballot based on 'equal franchise for all - worker and peasant... so that the Russian people - worker and peasant - could have their state power'. The assumption was that free, secret and direct elections would prove a peaceful and sure way to end the Bolsheviks' domination of the Soviets and of the government, while the demand for equal franchise for all - worker and peasant' was intended to abolish the Bolshevik differential voting system which discriminated against the peasants in favour of the workers: 25,000 urban working votes equalling 125,000 peasant votes.
These elections were to be preceded by free propaganda, the granting of freedom of speech and press to all workers and peasants, the legalization of all left-wing socialist parties (presumably Left SRs, SR-Maximalists, and Menshevik-Internationalists) and anarchists, the restoration of freedom to trade unions and peasant organizations and the abolition of all Bolshevik 'political departments' which were to be replaced by neutral, non-party 'cultural and educational commissions'. Likewise all special Communist army detachments and factory guards were to be abolished and 'all the privileges of Communists' ended; this meant the destruction of the entire network of Communist control within the armed forces, cultural and educational life, factories and plants. In the same spirit 'all Chekas' were to be closed down, and the death penalty abolished, while the criminal militia and the courts alone would be retained; all political prisoners belonging to socialist parties, and workers, peasants or soldiers imprisoned in connection with labour and peasant protests, were to be released, while the cases of all those held in prisons and concentration camps would be reviewed; thus was the Communist police state and its terror apparatus to be dismantled.
The economic sphere the resolution and the 'Appeal' were mainly concerned with the 'disenserfment' of worker and peasant and the breaking of the Bolshevik state monopoly over food supply. As for the worker: freedom of movement from one job to the other should be secured, Trotsky's notorious labour armies should be disbanded, workers should have the right to 'direct exchange of products with peasants', while peasants should be able 'to do as they please with all the land', provided that they did not employ hired labour; craftsmen should be able to practise their crafts freely but also use no hired labour. Measures designed to break the state's stranglehold over food supply and reorganize it on an equitable basis included: the removal of roadblocks preventing the free transportation of foodstuffs and their exchange, the equalization of rations, and, most important of all, free consumers' cooperatives 'so that the state could no longer play on the hunger of the worker. The cooperatives were to have the right 'to purchase goods abroad' and thus eliminate the middle-man role of 'governmental speculators who amass millions from the workers' sweat' and 'for that purpose workers' wages should be paid 'in gold and not in paper trash'.
Kronstadt, vanguard of the February and October revolutions, and now the first to overthrow the 'commissarocracy', had thus started The 'Third Revolution', transferring all power to 'freely elected Soviets', free from party pressure, and transforming the bureaucratic trade unions into 'free associations of workers, peasants and labouring intelligentsia'...
Moreover, the leaders of insurgent Kronstadt were appealing above all to a left-wing audience throughout Russia, including disillusioned Communists, in a vain bid to counter Communist propaganda which affixed a counter-revolutionary image to the Kronstadt uprising. They therefore also had very good practical reasons to advertise their staunch commitment to the Soviet system, and they did so by a deliberate retention of all the outward symbols of Soviet state power: the ubiquitous red flags, the Red Army star on the cockade of the chief-of-staff, and the use of the term 'comrade’ in addressing one another. A Russian Red Cross representative who attended a meeting of the Revolutionary Committee on 12 March noticed a huge plaster bust of Lenin and a portrait of Trotsky in the Assembly Chamber and the use of a Communist seal on official documents. When he expressed his surprise and asked why Kronstadt had not replaced the seal, he was told they had not yet come round to dealing with it, and that 'it would serve the Bolshevik aim of raising a hue and cry regarding the White-Guardist intentions of the insurgents'. How sensitive the Kronstadt leaders were to that Communist hue and cry can be gauged from the report of another Red Cross visitor: 'Kronstadt will admit no White political party, no politician, with the exception of the Red Cross. Only the Red Cross, and nothing but the Red Cross. Assistance must therefore be rendered most prudently, so as not to compromise Kronstadt in the eyes of the people.'
Indeed, the Kronstadters were extremely resentful of all gestures of sympathy and promises of help coming from the White-Guardist emigres. Their ire was roused when emigre newspapers such as Obshchee delo and RuV rushed to acclaim the Kronstadt uprising as an anti-Bolshevik movement led by General Kozlovsky, thus playing straight into the hands of Bolshevik propaganda. An early editorial in Kronstadt's Izvestiia, 'Gentlemen or Comrades', warned comrades against gentlemen, would-be 'fellow-travellers', who had applauded their 'great victory over the Communist dictatorship'
There can be little doubt that the Kronstadters' devotion to Soviet democracy was genuine. They believed they had learned from their own experience to distrust elections which could not be controlled by the constituents at the lowest local level, such as the ship's crew, the army unit, the factory floor and the village, and they thought that once the stranglehold of the Communist party had been removed, direct Soviet elections would be far more immune to manipulation than nation-wide parliamentary elections where the names of candidates unknown to the local voters appeared on party lists.
Moreover, even for party members, disillusionment with the Communist party bred disillusionment with parties in general... Not surprisingly, contempt for political parties led to respect for trade unions. Indeed, linked to the belief that free elections would restore political power to the Soviets, which would again become (as in Kronstadt in 1917) the representative organization and government of the toilers, was the conviction that freely elected trade unions would restore economic power to the workers....Now, with the fall of the Communist dictatorship, the trade unions must play a decisive role in the 'economic cooperative construction' of the country and the cultural advancement of workers. For the Soviet Socialist Republic would be strong only when its government and administration passed into the hands of the toiling classes by way of'regenerated trade unions'
There was then a great deal of truth in Ivan Oreshin's claim that 'in the two weeks' that Kronstadt was governed by its Revolutionary Committee 'they tried to put Soviet ideals into practice'. Both elective and egalitarian principles were scrupulously observed. The Revolutionary Committee (the equivalent of the Executive Committee of the Kronstadt Soviet in 1917) had been elected by the Conference of Delegates (the equivalent of the Kronstadt Soviet of 1917) and reported back to it regularly, seeking approval of its activities and policies, even though, on 2 March, it had been given 'all plenary powers to administer the town and the fortress'.
The Conference of Delegates had been elected by Kronstadt's body politic at their places of work, in army units, factories, workshops and Soviet institutions. Even the revolutionary troikas (the equivalent of the commissions of the Executive Committee of 1917) were elected by the base organizations, whereas the commissions of 1917 had been elected by the Soviet. Likewise, the secretariats of the trade unions and the newly founded Council of Trade Unions were both elected by the entire membership of trade unions. Thus Kronstadt's watchword 'All Power to Soviets and not to Parties' was realized.
With privileges abolished and all food rations, except those for children and the sick, equalized, with all civil and economic affairs placed on a war footing and administered by the Revolutionary Committee, there was perfect equality in Kronstadt. The serenity, high morale and unjustified optimism which seem to have marked the mood in Kronstadt derived as much from an overpowering sense of sudden unexpected liberation from a tight and unjust system of domination, as from the experience of participating as equals in the maintenance and defence of that new freedom.
The 'enormous spiritual exaltation' which representatives of the Russian Red Cross visiting Kronstadt on 11 and 12 March noted there lingered on in the accounts of Piotr Perepelkin and of a young Kronstadt worker who, after the fall of Kronstadt, shared their experiences with Fiodor Dan in the Petrograd Prison of Preliminary Detention (Predvarilka) before they were taken out by the Cheka and shot. 'Perepelkin recalled the inspired, spring-like atmosphere of Kronstadt; the children dancing in the streets, full of joy that they had been delivered from the Bolsheviks, and then carrying food to the positions; the brotherly relations between sailors, Red Army soldiers and workers.' In the same vein, the young worker remembered 'how everyone shared what he had to the last, and would willingly do any work assigned to him' and that all could speak freely, 'even the Communists.' For the benefits of Kronstadt's freshly restored egalitarian and free debating society were extended even to the leading Communists, commissars and party loyalists who had been arrested and kept in jail...They even managed to issue three numbers of a prison newspaper Tiuremnyi luch kommunara (Prison Light of the Communard), and to hold meetings... The worst that befell the imprisoned Communists was the confiscation, on 10 and 12 March, of their boots, sheepskins and great coats for the use of soldiers manning the outer defences.
'There can be no Soviet power without the Communist party' was the message the Communist delegates preached before they went into battle. This was the party's final answer to Kronstadt's war-cry 'All Power to Soviets and not to Parties'.
A galaxy of Communist leaders and publicists, ranging from Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Karl Radek, L. Sosnovsky, Emelyan Yaroslavsky in Pravda to Iurii Steklov in Izvestiiaf not to mention a host of smaller fry, rallied to a man in a vast and ugly propaganda campaign, aimed at the immediate ideological isolation and lasting delegitimation of Kronstadt's 'Third Revolution'. It was denounced as an ingenious White-Guardist plot, or at best as a petty bourgeois bridge to counter-revolution and restoration...While Radek and Bukharin cynically searched the foreign and White-Guardist press for 'exposures' that would provide 'a clear understanding of the social nature of the Kronstadt uprising'', Trotsky took recourse to facile sociology. He pointed to the alleged replacement of 'vast numbers of the revolutionary sailors' by such'accidental elements' as 'Latvian, Estonian and Finnish sailors', thus robbing Kronstadters of their glorious past and revolutionary credentials...
Lenin's immediate comments stand out as sober and honest. The Kronstadters, he conceded frankly, 'do not want the White Guards, and they do not want our state power either'. But their 'new power', regardless of whether it stood 'to the left of the Bolsheviks or slightly to the right', was doomed to a 'Crash' and bound to serve as a 'step-ladder', a 'bridge' to 'bourgeois counterrevolution'. In his private jottings, Lenin reached further, diagnosing the Kronstadt uprising as symptomatic of 'the political side, the political expression' of the economic crisis that beset Russian War Communism 'during the spring of 1921'. Lenin's 'lesson from Kronstadt' was double-pronged, and fateful in its historical consequences. 'In polities', Lenin noted, what was needed was 'a closing of the ranks', a tightening up of discipline 'inside the party', an insistence on 'the greatest firmness of the apparatus', the strengthening of a 'good bureaucracy in the service of polities', the stepping up of the 'implacable struggle against the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries and Anarchists'. 'In economies', the Kronstadt episode, he thought, pointed to the need for 'the widest possible concessions to the middling peasantry', notably 'local free trade', in short, the New Economic Policy (NEP).
The Kronstadters' immediate and indignant protest of 14 March 1921 'Kronstadt does not demand "free trade", but the genuine power of the Soviets', was certainly lost on Lenin, single-mindedly bent as he was (as were all Bolsheviks, including Alexandra Kollontai!) on the maintenance and strengthening of the monopoly of power held by the Communist party. His decision to counter the Kronstadters' protest against the Bolshevik perversion of Soviet power with what Martov denounced as a new Zubatovshchina of 'purely economic concessions without a change in the political order’ marked a turning point, if not the terminal point, in the history of the Russian revolution. Lenin's response blocked what was still left of the revolution's political openendedness, completed the formation of the highly centralized and bureaucratized single-party dictatorship, and put Russia firmly on the road to Stalinism.
Boldly, brothers, together,
With spirits high for the fray,
Now to the kingdom of freedom
Our bodies shall blaze out the way!
Mighty our aim now together:
To throw off the slave's cursed yoke,
The red flag of toil our proud banner -
We'll fly high all over the globe!