The debate in Solidarity about Kronstadt has been between those who utterly condemn the suppression and see it as the beginning of the Stalinist Thermidor and the end of workers’ self rule in Russia; those who absolutely defend the suppression and see it as guaranteeing the survival of the workers’ revolution for a little longer; and those who see it as a tragic mistake and in retrospect the first signs of an “emergent totalitarianism” whilst still defending the good intentions of the Bolsheviks and asserting their fallibility. Victor Serge was in the latter camp.
Paul Hampton (Solidarity 230) is correct to point out that Serge’s emphasis changed. He originally supported the suppression. Later he said Kronstadt was the beginning of the victory of the party bureaucracy over working class self rule. As Hannah Thompson has noted (Solidarity 229) the Kronstadt sailors’ opposition to one party rule was an anti-Bolshevik but not an anti-October demand — after the suppression of the uprising, on what democratic basis does the Bolshevik party then rule? The Bolsheviks created the context for their own elimination.
According to the orthodoxy, the party had already substituted itself for an atomised working class. If only we could hold out for revolution in the west it mattered little that the working class of Russia was being smashed. The party would survive and become subsequently rejuvenated by the German revolution.
This is true as far as it goes but only half-true. Simon Pirani’s work has pointed to working class self-assertion during this period both politically and economically.
Martin Thomas (Solidarity 229) castigates me for backcasting a fetish for democracy into the dark days of 1921. Martin says the Bolsheviks “had become convinced in the course of 1917 that the only realisable form of radical democracy...was soviet rule, workers democracy”. Absolutely. The radical libertarianism of the Bolsheviks forged in the prisons of the Tsarist autocracy was the lifeblood of revolution. Yet how easy it was to suspend these principles in the context of a period when workers’ rule threatened to overcome the one-party state.
I imagine the majority of AWL comrades view this suspension of soviet legality, basic principles of workers’ democracy, freedom of expression and so on and the development of the apparatus of the unlawful and unaccountable state terror of the Cheka as justified for the following reasons.
Only the Bolsheviks truly represented the incarnation of the spirit of October even over and against working-class power and self-emancipation (or crucially if somehow the working class was absent).
Only the Bolshevik party stood as the bastion against the nascent bureaucracy.
The mitigation or suspension of Bolshevik party rule would lead eventually to White counter-revolution.
There is no other possible lineage and revolutionary tradition other than the Bolsheviks and to “existentially” abandon the Bolsheviks is to abandon October root and branch.
The Bolsheviks were the highest form of “human material” yet seen on the stage of history and we the AWL stand in that tradition, accept their pre-eminence, and fundamentally repudiate any critique that diminishes them to any significant extent before the beginnings of the bureaucratic counter-revolution in 1923-1924. Hence how important it is to never surrender our subjection to the myth that the Bolsheviks were October (against Tsarism), that they were utterly infallible (destroying Kronstadt in order to defend October against white restorationism), and that “rivers of blood” separate the Bolshevik and Stalinist traditions.
Moralising about Kronstadt doesn’t really achieve much now, and of course that was not Serge’s intention. But, and it’s a big but, working-class liberation is best served by honesty and a commitment to admit that what happened was not just unfortunate but incorrect and murderous, in 1921, in 1937, and now and we should say that.
All contributors have accepted that the negotiations with the Whites was a fabrication and that what happened was a tragedy. They should now say that the very suppression of Kronstadt was emblematic of a libertarian Bolshevik tradition eradicated for the best part of a century and was the true beginning of the Thermidor that would wipe the old Bolsheviks off the face of the earth. This is very far from the idea that the best gains of October were sustained by the suppression.
The bureaucracy was born of the one-party state. Its origins lie with the Tsaritsyn circle and the opposition to Trotsky and his use of ex-Tsarist military specialists.
Cronyist Stalinism begins with the horror of the idea of Trotsky as Thermidorian and Bonaparte, and it recruited cell by cell on the basis of opposition to Trotsky and his clique, including many who objected to his disdain for workers’ democracy and perceived him as a Menshevik parvenu. It was only after 1924 that many of the old Bolsheviks flocked to the beginnings of the Opposition and the standard that Trotsky would henceforth, with some reservations, fly for democracy and liberty against the embryonic dictatorship.
But the new Stalinist clique didn’t have to learn anything anew — the party had been delivered to them already by Lenin and Trotsky and their suspension of anything looking like working class self-emancipation. The furious forced collectivization of the USSR was the implementation of a Trotskyist programme by the bureaucrats, leading whole ranks of Left Oppositionists to desert Trotsky because Stalin seemed to be about to take on and destroy what they considered to be the true Thermidorian faction around Bukharin and Rykov.
But how could emancipation operate where the working class has been atomized or eliminated? Well we can see its agency on the streets of the Kronstadt garrison, in the factories of Moscow, in the Red Army, in the variety of oppositions, in the meanderings of the Mensheviks, in the talk and debate within the Bolshevik party itself while free expression lasted for a few months longer.
Paul Hampton’s contention in Solidarity 228 that the very suppression of Kronstadt did “prevent even the tenuous forms of workers’ self-rule from unravelling” is just the self-deception that comes with the orthodoxy, that questioning Bolshevik infallibility means surrendering the whole legacy of October.
We don’t have to make that choice. Luxemburg was absolutely correct when she wrote that freedom is always freedom for the one who thinks differently — “the historical task is to replace bourgeois democracy by proletarian democracy, not to abolish all democracy” — the victory of the bureaucracy is secured in the abolition of liberty and the substitution of the central committee for the working class and its manifold emancipation.