What does Kronstadt mean?

Martyn Hudson

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.


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The real origins of the bureaucracy

I think Martyn Hudson is fundamentally mistaken when he argues that “the bureaucracy was born of the one-party state” and that the party had been delivered to the Stalinist clique by Lenin and Trotsky. And his statement that “The Bolsheviks created the context for their own elimination” is utterly ahistorical (Solidarity 232, 1 February 2012).

Martyn commits the same methodological error as the totalitarian school and their mirror image Stalinist apologists, who both equate the rise of bureaucracy with the role of the party. It simply won’t do to condense the rise of bureaucratic rule in the USSR with the biography of one man and his coterie – this is history made by good and bad people, rather than a materialist approach. Martyn makes a further methodological error by largely ignoring the production relations and real social processes that developed well before Kronstadt.

A decent Marxist account of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy would begin with the contradictions from the very outset of the new workers’ state, with the conditions after the successful workers’ revolution in 1917. The Bolshevik-led Soviets smashed the old state in October 1917 and established elementary organs of democratic workers’ self-rule. However in the context of an already backward economy, world war, civil war and invasion, the material with which the ruling workers' party reconstructed the new state still had huge vestiges from the old society.

I think our approach should start from the contest over the surplus product from 1917, between the party and the workers’ vanguard on the one side and the ‘new’ state (of industrial managers, civil servants and military specialists) on the other. The state’s personnel were often hostile to the Bolsheviks and sometimes contiguous with the old regime.

The Bolsheviks were absolutely right to try to utilise these managers. But these people were instrumental in strangling workers’ involvement in the new state through soviets, factory committees and unions. It was these agents who simultaneously sucked in and consumed elements of the party itself. This reconstituted bureaucratic social force, fusing and interpenetrating the new state with Stalin’s wing of the party, evolved in the twenties to become the ruling class - the sole master of the surplus product - by 1928.

I think Lenin saw the dangers more clearly than anyone else at the time, defining Russia as “a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations”. He warned persistently about the dangers of the state bureaucracy, with its hands on the levers on what little surplus could be extracted from the workers (and more significantly, from the peasants). Before he was completed debilitated by ill-health, these warnings became more and more shrill.

He told the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in December 1922: “Our machinery of state is to blame. We took over the old machinery of state, and that was our misfortune. Very often this machinery operates against us”. Whilst the Bolshevik party and its militant workers still exercised political power at the top, “down below government employees have arbitrary control and they often exercise it in such a way as to counteract our measures”. At best tens of thousands of class conscious workers battled with “hundreds of thousands of old officials” left over from the tsar and from bourgeois society.

It is not self-deception to seek to understand these contradictions and to map how the first workers’ state unravelled. Nor is it wishful thinking to look to the party as the means of reforming the degenerating workers’ state in the 1920s. After the civil war, there were only a few residual elements left of the workers’ democracy that had made the revolution and constituted the new workers’ state. These forces were concentrated principally in the Bolshevik party. These vanguard elements who led that revolution had also been decimated during the civil war. Many of the best, most class conscious militants had been killed, worn out or simply displaced into the machinery of the bureaucracy. That was the tragedy the Bolsheviks faced and why it needed to break out of its international isolation.

Martyn offers no explanation for the degeneration of the Russian revolution. On thin ground, he takes refuge in abstract platitudes. That is no basis to understand the history of the workers’ movement, nor the way to draw lessons for our own epoch.