Paul Hampton is wrong in his analysis of the events which took place at Kronstadt early in 1921 (Solidarity 228).
Bloodied, exhausted, half-starved, facing a ruined economy and the defeat of the Revolution in Europe, the Bolsheviks had retained state power. They could have negotiated and compromised with Kronstadt. But an offer of mediation by the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman was rejected.
The revolt had been sparked off by the brutal suppression of strike by freezing and hungry Petrograd workers, itself a grave error. The Bolsheviks continued to be guilty not only of arrogance and ineptitude, particularly on the part of Kalinin, chair of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and later Stalinist apparatchik and Kuzmin, the Commissar in charge of the fleet and the army, but also of deliberate fabrication. The stories about the White general Kozlovsky commanding Kronstadt were deliberate lies!
On 1 March, 1921 a mass meeting of 16,000 Kronstadt sailors, soldiers and workers passed a motion which called for new elections by secret ballot to the Soviets, freedom of speech and the press for workers and peasants, freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organisations, liberation of Socialist political prisoners, equalisation of rations and abolition of the militia which prevented workers from foraging in the countryside for food. These demands could have been granted by the Bolsheviks. If they had retained the support of the majority of workers they would have won the new elections.
Instead on 4 March, misled by disinformation, the Petrograd Soviet proposed a motion proposed by Zinoviev that Kronstadt surrender or be crushed.
On 7 March the assault on Kronstadt led by Trotsky began. Among those who marched across the ice were delegates to the 10th Bolshevik Congress. Among them were Dybenko, a former Left Communist, Bubnov, a leader of the Democratic Centralist opposition, and supporters of Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, all of whom had made criticisms and demands for change similar to those made by Kronstadt.
Kronstadt fell on 17 March. As the sailors, soldiers and workers died with the words “long live the world revolution” on their lips. Many of those who slaughtered them realised they had been duped. Few would survive the purges of the thirties.
On 18 March the Bolsheviks celebrated the anniversary of the Paris Commune as the Cheka shot prisoners.
The bloody suppression of Kronstadt, something which could have been avoided, was the first step on the road of counter-revolution which led in less than a decade to the triumph of the totalitarian Stalinist Thermidor.
Bolsheviks and democracy
What puzzles me most about Martyn Hudson’s polemics on the Bolshevik regime is his apparent assumption that the Bolsheviks’ problem was a lack of concern for democracy which we, retrospectively, could easily set them right on. If only they had valued democracy more, everything would have been fine.
That makes no historical sense. The Bolshevik cadres of the civil war years had spent decades battling the Tsarist regime under the banners of “social democracy” and “consistent democracy”.
Until 1917, most of them believed that radical democracy was the most their efforts could win in Russia, in the foreseeable term. Socialism could follow only after a democratic revolution and a span of bourgeois-democratic rule.
Bolshevik activists had to give up family, job prospects, and any sort of security. They had to operate underground, and would almost certainly get arrested and exiled.
Why did they do that? The prizes for which those Bolshevik activists fought, and most of the political demands for which they fought, were democratic. They had a passion and commitment for democracy much outstripping that of anyone brought up in the conditions of stable, stodgy bourgeois democracy in Britain.
The Bolsheviks were democrats, but revolutionaries, not advisers or constitutional lawyers. They had become convinced in the course of 1917 that the only realisable form of radical democracy in Russia in 1917 was soviet rule, workers’ democracy, rather than the nebulous “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which they had previously advocated.
And they knew that soviet rule could be won and consolidated only by combat. With much misgiving, the civil war convinced them that the workers’ rule could be defended, and the chances kept alive of a Europe-wide workers’ revolution which would enable workers’ democracy to flower and stabilise, only by vigour and ruthlessness.
The civil war started with a mini-Kronstadt. A general with troops on the outskirts of St Petersburg planned to overthrow the new Bolshevik-led government, which as of then lacked any regular state machine or armed defence.
He was forestalled by two Bolsheviks infiltrating his barracks in the middle of the night, waking up the troops, haranguing them, and winning them over to the workers’ cause. If their harangues had been less effective, those two Bolsheviks would have been killed.
Dozens such episodes happened during the civil war. The Red forces would approach a railway junction, a village, a group of deserters. They would send emissaries to try to win the people over. If they failed, the emissaries could be killed, and the Reds would have to fight.
By the end of the civil war, 14 million people had been killed in that and in the previous world war; many more millions had been maimed or displaced, or lost their families. The stresses pushed Bolsheviks towards impatience, brusqueness, use of the language of military command where patient persuasion was needed.
By all accounts, that is what happened with the Bolsheviks’ emissaries to Kronstadt. It was a serious mishap. It makes no sense to condemn the Bolsheviks’ subsequent measures to stop that mishap from spiralling into full collapse by complacently declaring: “Oh, if only they had understand democracy properly, as we comfortable citizens do today, then they would have dealt with it better”.
In the broad historic overview, the workers’ regime succumbed because its defence required more in the way of energy, ruthlessness, indomitability than even the amazing human material of the Bolsheviks could provide — not because the workers’ party had too much grip, but because it eventually lost its political grip, being smothered by the bureaucracy.
Kronstadt demands were revolutionary
Paul Hampton concedes (Solidarity 228) that the Kronstadt sailors had no links to the White Guards and that they supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War.
He also concedes that the sailors “wanted equal rations instead of privileges for soviet bureaucrats and concessions to the peasantry”; demands any left-winger could sympathise with, and demands which Paul states were introduced “shortly after with the New Economic Policy”. If the Bolsheviks agreed with these demands then what is the justification for militarily oppressing them? The demand for fair rations at the expense of bureaucratic privilege is a demand the Bolsheviks should not only have supported, but they should not have allowed a situation to develop in which the demand would be necessary.
Paul describes the harshness of the sailors’ repression as “essentially secondary in retrospect”. Why? The harshness of the repression reflects the Bolshevik desperation in finding left-wing opposition to their rule in a time immediately after war; repression of demands that they agreed with, and later granted! This newspaper would not look upon any other form of harsh political repression as “accident”; the violence of the repression demonstrates the violence of the Bolshevik desire to retain power.
The Bolsheviks abolished the Constituent Assembly in favour of soviet democracy, which is consistent with the demand for workers’ democracy. The Kronstadt rebels opposed Bolshevik party rule within the soviets; that is an anti-Bolshevik, not anti-revolutionary, demand. The Kronstadt rebels weren’t counter revolutionaries, even if their dissent would have lead counter revolutionaries to act against the workers’ government. The sailors fought on the side of the Bolsheviks, so why could they not have their demands granted?
Political and tactical arguments among comrades fighting on the same side in the same interests must and be won by reasoning and democratic decision making. The Kronstadt sailors’ demands were consistent with the working-class politics that brought the 1917 revolution about. This “blunder” is just a demonstration of Bolshevik hypocrisy.
The rebels used a “strategically important base…with other armed rebellions simmering to the south”, indicating that they had a lot of bargaining power with which to have their demands met: arms, and the possibility of triggering other discontented workers to rebellion. The political justification for crushing the sailors then also becomes the justification for Bolsheviks preventing further dissent; they smash the power of these politically “un-strategic” workers in order to secure…the rule of the people? On what democratic basis does the Bolshevik party then rule?
Russia in 1921 was a workers’ state, but the political licence that Leninists often offer the Bolsheviks is out of sync with the criticisms we levy at any other government. If armed force is what it takes to suppress demands for workers’ equality, then the “unravelling” of “tenuous forms of workers’ self-rule” has already happened.