Friday, February 28, 2014

“The Reddest of the Red”

The military base at Kronstadt was located just outside Petrograd and the soldiers and sailors garrisoned there were thought to be loyal supporters of the Bolshevik revolution. The sailors at the Kronstadt naval base had long been a source of radical dissent. Mutinies had taken place during the 1905 Revolution and played an important role in persuading Nicholas II to issue his October Manifesto. The Kronstadt sailors were also active in the overthrow of Tsar in the February Revolution. It took part in the July Days. During the October Revolution the cruiser, Aurora, sailed it up the River Neva and opened fire on the Winter Palace. By 1921 the Kronstadt sailors had become disillusioned with the Bolsheviks.  The sailors saw themselves as loyal to the Soviet cause, if not to the Communist rulers. That bitter winter saw Kronstadt, like most other cities in Russia, hungry and discontented. Anger at material deprivations was compounded by the authoritarian regime the Bolsheviks were building, which seemed to violate the spirit of the revolution that the sailors had helped win. Popular unrest finally grew into strikes, which led to riots, lockouts, arrests.  On 22 January, the Bolsheviks reduced the bread ration by one-third, and even key workers were given a ration of only 1000 calories a day.  Anyone who was not a fervent Bolshevik was being pushed to the end of their patience.   In Moscow on 23 February, 10,000 went on strike; the metal factories and shipyards joined the strike.   On 27 February a poster appeared saying: ‘the workers and peasants need freedom.  They do not want to live by the decrees of the Bolsheviks’.

In 1921, on February 26, delegates from the Kronstadt sailors visited Petrograd to investigate the situation. On February 28, in response to the delegates' report of heavy-handed Bolshevik repression of strikes in Petrograd the crews of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol held an emergency meeting, which approved a resolution raising 15 demands. On March 1, a general meeting of the garrison was held. The general meeting passed a resolution including the fifteen demands.  On 4th March they issued the following statement:
"Comrade workers, red soldiers and sailors. We stand for the power of the Soviets and not that of the parties. We are for free representation of all who toil. Comrades, you are being misled. At Kronstadt all power is in the hands of the revolutionary sailors, of red soldiers and of workers. It is not in the hands of White Guards, allegedly headed by a General Kozlovsky, as Moscow Radio tells you."

During the revolt, Kronstadt started to re-organise itself from the bottom up. The trade union committees were re-elected and a Council of Trade Unions formed. The Conference of Delegates met regularly to discuss issues relating to the interests of Kronstadt and the struggle against the Bolshevik government (specifically on March 2nd, 4th and 11th). Rank and file Communists left the party in droves, expressing support for the revolt and its aim of "all power to the soviets and not to parties."

The Bolsheviks began its attack on Kronstadt on March 7 with some 60,000 troops.  By March 19, the Bolshevik forces had taken full control of Kronstadt. The day after the surrender of Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune.

It was a rude shock to the Bolsheviks when the red sailors of Kronstadt went into open rebellion. Defenders of the Bolshevik policy have claimed that the Kronstadt rebels were not the same sailors as those who had been revolutionary heroes in 1917. In response, Israel Getzler presents detailed evidence that the vast majority of the sailors had been in the Navy since 1917.

Leninist/Trotskyist sympathisers argue that the suppression of the rebellion was essential to defend the "gains of the revolution." What exactly were these gains? Not soviet democracy, freedom of speech, assembly and press, trade union freedom and so on as the Kronstadters were crushed for demanding these. No, apparently the "gains" of the revolution was a Bolshevik government pure and simple. The fact that Lenin and Trotsky were in power is enough for their followers to justify the repression of Kronstadt and subscribe to the notion of a "workers' state" which excludes workers from power. The Bolsheviks supporters argue that the Kronstadt demand for free soviet elections was "counter-revolutionary", "backward", "petty-bourgeois" and so on. How soviet power could mean anything without free elections is never explained. (Trotsky was arguing in the 1930s that the Russian working class was still the ruling class under Stalin -- "So long as the forms of property that have been created by the October Revolution are not overthrown, the proletariat remains the ruling class.") How can the Bolshevik repression be justified in terms of defending workers power when the workers were powerless? How can it be defended in terms of soviet power when the soviets were rubber stamps of the government?

The apologists for the Bolsheviks claim that the country was too exhausted and the working class was decimated. In such circumstances, it is argued, objective conditions meant that soviet democracy was impossible and so the Bolsheviks had to maintain their dictatorship at all costs to defend what was left of the revolution. However,  the Kronstadt rebels fully knew that construction would take time and were arguing that the only means of rebuilding the country was via the participation of what of left of the working class and peasantry in free class organisations like freely elected soviets and unions.  Surely the first step to re-build the economy would have to be the re-introduction of workers' democracy and power for only this would give allow expression to the creative powers of the masses and interest them in the reconstruction of the country. Continuing party dictatorship would never do it. The pro-Bolsheviks fail to mention the power and privileges of the bureaucracy at the time. Officials got the best food, housing and so on. The lack of effective control or influence from below ensured that corruption was widespread.

The Kronstadt raised economic and political demands in 1921 just as they had four years earlier when they overthrew the Tsar. Kronstadt became the symbol of the bankruptcy of the Revolution. Many socialists all over the world lost faith in the Bolshevik revolution, which they now saw as a repressive regime. Lenin  introduced the New Economic Policy.  How should the New Economic Policy be evaluated except in the same fashion if one uses the the Bolshevik logic but to denounce the NEP as “counterrevolutionary” as well.

Kronstadt was a popular uprising from below by the same sailors, soldiers and workers that made the 1917 October revolution. The Bolshevik repression of the revolt can be justified in terms of defending the state power of the Bolsheviks but it cannot be defended in terms of socialist theory. Indeed, it indicates that Bolshevism is a flawed political theory which cannot create a socialist society but only a state capitalist regime based on party dictatorship. The Bolsheviks insist it was necessary to crush Kronstadt to "save” the revolution and preserve the “revolutionary” regime but we feel entitled to ask what was there left to save and preserve?

The Kronstadt called for the revolution to be placed back into the hands of the workers who it had originally claimed to represent. The Kronstadt Rebellion destroyed the myth that in the Bolshevik state, power lay in the hands of the workers. The rebellion threatened Bolshevik rule - a threat that was even stronger than any that of armies of Denikin or Wrangel. For this reason the Bolshevik leaders were forced to destroy the Kronstadt Rebellion without hesitation.

 Despite the existence of the Putilov Works, the oil facilities in the Caucasus, the coal mines in the Donetz region, and the textile factories in Moscow, agriculture was the essential economic base of Russian society. The remnants of serfdom had by no means disappeared. The relations of production were feudal and the political superstructure corresponded: nobles and clergy were the ruling classes that - with the help of the army, the police, and the bureaucracy - exercised their power in the gigantic empire of large landholdings. The Russian Revolution of the twentieth century confronted the economic task of abolishing feudalism. In Western Europe the capitalist class was the bearer of social progress but in Russia they were weak and allied with tsarism so the bourgeois revolution had to be accomplished without the bourgeoisie. Lenin recognized  this peculiarity of the Russian Revolution.  He wrote:
“The Marxists are thoroughly convinced about the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution. What does that mean? That means that those democratic transformations of the political order and those socio-economic transformations, that are necessary for Russia alone, do not amount to the burial of capitalism, nor the burial of the rule of the bourgeoisie; rather they for the first time prepare the ground for a broad and rapid development of capitalism ..."
In another passage he wrote:
 “The victory of the bourgeois revolution in Russia is impossible as a bourgeois victory. That seems paradoxical. But so it is. The majority peasant population, the strength and consciousness of the proletariat that is already organized in the Socialist Party - all these circumstances lend a unique character to our bourgeois revolution. This uniqueness however does not eliminate the bourgeois character of the revolution”.

What happened was the following: capitalism (which had hardly developed) was not toppled. Wage labour remained, which Marx, as it is well known, insisted is predicated on capital, as conversely capital is predicated on wage labour. The Russian workers did not obtain control over the means of production; that control fell rather to the Party (or the state). The Russian workers accordingly remained producers of surplus value  that was expropriated not by a class of private capitalists, but by the state, or by the Party elements in control of the state. Nothing changed  the position of the Russian worker who remained an object of exploitation, a wage slave. The workers councils ((soviets)  that were formed by Russian workers were stripped of their power as quickly as possible by the Bolshevik government and already in the early summer of 1918 were a complete insignificance. The factory committees had been liquidated in January 1918. The workers expropriated the means of production on their own initiative, until, that is, the decree of workers' control that was issued on the 14th of November 1917, only one week after the Bolshevik seizure of power, put the brakes on these activities. After May 1918, “nationalizations” could only be undertaken by the central economic council. Shortly before, in April 1918, the individual responsibility of company managers had been reintroduced; they no longer had to justify their decisions to the workers. Bolshevik political rule developed not into an instrument of emancipation, but into an instrument of suppression. Marx commented on the French 1848 revolution as follows:
 “In France the petit bourgeois does what normally would have to be done by the industrial bourgeoisie, the worker does, what normally would be the duty of the petit bourgeois. And the task of the worker, who resolves that? This obligation is not discharged in France; it is merely proclaimed in France”.
In Russia, this obligation continued to be proclaimed. However, with the Kronstadt uprising, the revolutionary process had come to an end. Kronstadt was the revolutionary moment where the pendulum swings of the revolution swung the furthest to the left.  Kronstadt forced the Bolshevik Party to show its true colours as an institution that was openly hostile to workers and whose single purpose was the establishment of state capitalism. With the defeat of the rebellion, the path to that purpose had been cleared.

Adapted from here and from here

Some Trotskyists online have been countering criticism by citing an anthology of archive sources introduced by Yuri Shchetinov called the Kronstadt Tragedy. They claim this supports the argument that the Kronstadt was indeed a counter-revolutionary plot. This extremely hard to find book has had a very limited print run  and is available only in Russian but the anarchist history researcher Alexander Skirda has had access and finds nothing of merit to call for an re-evaluation of the events. Some of of the archive "revelations" are simply Cheka confessions (most likely extracted through torture). Lets apply some commonsense. If there existed a smoking-gun implicating the Kronstadt with the Whites and the Bolsheviks possessed this evidence,  isn't it a strange that it wasn't until the fall of the Soviet Union such information became known and they withheld the details in all their earlier denunciations.

It's also important to understand the context in which the two collections of documents relating to the Kronstadt Revolt have been published. The debate about Kronstadt in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990's was not between Lenininists and anarchists. It was between Leninists and liberals. This plays into the hands of the Leninists because both sides agree that the revolt had to do with restoration of capitalism.

During the late Soviet period, the official expert on the Kronstadt Revolt was the historian Sergei Semanov, who published several books on the subject. Typically, the title of his 1973 book was The liquidation of the anti-Soviet Kronstadt mutiny of 1921. But in his last book on the subject, published in 2003, Semanov apologized for calling the revolt a "mutiny". He wrote that now "the time has arrived to be objective" and he advised the reader that his "judgments on the events of Kronstadt are very different from those of the 1970s" because "times have changed and the author as well". The villain in this book is no longer White generals, but Lenin. That there may have been contact between White emigre groups and people involved in the Kronstadt revolt would hardly be surprising nor necessarily damning. The strikes and unrest in Petrograd at the time - which inspired Kronstadt to rise - had the same roots and surely needed no White influence. It's unsurprising that Leninists should think that if they can discredit one or two leaders then they have discredited a whole social movement.
From here


Anonymous said...

Before discounting the Cheka archives on the basis that they were some equivalent to the later show trials, keep in mind that Cheka's own conclusion based on the interrogations was that they could not definitively link the Kronstadt uprising to White intervention. That in itself provided a major point for sympathizers of the Kronstadt uprising that was raised for years and years. Cheka's conclusions and the archival material they are based on should be evaluated based on their merits, not used when they are convenient for a particular argument but discounted when they are not.

The most significant material linking the Kronstadt uprising with White forces is not from any contemporary Soviet source, but from White sources based in Finland. Accounts of rebels who fled to Finland are in accordance with the accounts of rebels who were interrogated by Cheka. Pro-anarchist historian Paul Avrich unearthed a White Guard “Memorandum on the Question of Organizing an Uprising in Kronstadt” that detailed the military and political situation inside the fortress and spoke of having recruited a group of Kronstadt sailors who were preparing to take an active role in a forthcoming uprising there. That shock to the anarchist narrative was disseminated in Avrich's 1970 work, Kronstadt, 1921. As reported in Kronstadt Tragedy, the monarchist Petrograd Combat Organization reported directly to the Helsinki Department of National Center, which definitely served the counterrevolutionary intentions of Finland's leader Karl Von Mannerheim. According to Finnish sources referenced in Kronstadt Tragedy, four White Guard officers, including Baron P. V. Vilken (a known agent of General Wrangel), one Finnish Special Services Agent, one courier for the SR Administrative Center, and two PCO representatives were accepted into Kronstadt by the Provisional Revolutionary Committee on March 8.

Events from the period beginning with the Petrograd strikes of February 20 to the Red Army's assault on Kronstadt speak of a welter of wrong information reaching Kronstadt that heightened the confrontation between Kronstadt and the Soviet government. How much of that that wrong information was innocent miscommunication and how much was something more sinister is open to interpretation. But it is definite that Stepan Petrichenko acted in bad faith when he arrested all Communists at a March 2 mass meeting under the false pretext that armed Communists were preparing an armed takeover of the meeting. But news of the arrests was disseminated the night before. It was a planned coup. At that point the "Kronstadt Soviet" transformed into the "Provisional Revolutionary Committee" with the aim of toppling the Soviet Government. Petrichenko's subsequent actions, including his subsequent alliance in Finland with Wrangel under a program advocating "temporary" military dictatorship (Kronstadt, 1921) put him in a very bad light.

The Kronstadt story fits the pattern so often repeated during the Russian civil war - authentic grievances crystallizing opposition, which then forms bad alliances that cause protest to escalate to bloody confrontation with the Red Army while the White forces smell opportunity. The Soviet Government was internally divided on its response to strikes and protests over agricultural policy in 1920-21, and in fact was to shortly make significant concessions because of them, but on Kronstadt it was united.

ajohnstone said...

Many thanks for your additional information.

I think we are now well aware of how shades of grey and not black and white things are when it comes to intelligence and propaganda during wars and civil wars. If i erred in a bias to one interpretation, it was simply a reaction to counter-balance the predominant narrative that is offered by the other side.

You are right that the Bolsheviks showed a united determination against Kronstadt. The Workers Opposition who could have been expected to express some sympathy rallied to suppress it. But i always personally had an inkling that we gIve the WO too much credence rather than show they were simply one part of the bureaucracy - the lip-service trade unions (having already been dislodged of their earlier Menshevik influence and any independence) against the civil service specialists that Trotsky favoured . But that is another story!