Victor Serge and the question of Kronstadt

Submitted by Matthew on 11 January, 2012 - 12:09

The question of Kronstadt defines much of the debate between anarchism and Marxism in the 20th century. On the one hand apologists for the Bolsheviks cheerlead the destruction of the naval garrison at Kronstadt retrospectively, whilst those in an anarchist tradition see it as the final nail in the coffin of soviet democracy and the consolidation of the dictatorial rule of the central committee of the Bolshevik party.

Certainly anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman abandoned the October revolution and argued for the destruction of the newly instituted workers’ state. For nearly a century their followers have led a campaign against those who situate themselves in a pro-October Bolshevik tradition. As recently as the 1990s anarchists produced a journal called We Remember Kronstadt specifically aimed at “outing” those who follow Trotsky — remembered by the anarchists as the architect of Kronstadt’s destruction.

This isn’t the place to uncover the real history of the Kronstadt rebellion and its suppression. There is much good work on this by Israel Getzler, Ida Mett, Paul Avrich, Abbie Bakan, and others.

Certainly the left of both traditions need to do some serious historical work on the risings in the early soviet period. Frustratingly the anarchist harangues do not take on board the complexity of economic catastrophe and civil war and neither do they understand the agony of a Bolshevik party at war with its own conscience about what to do with the rebellion. Pro-Bolshevik apologists at the same time repeat the same tired old clichés about Kronstadt: the sailors of Kronstadt 1921 did not have the same social composition as those of Kronstadt 1917 (illiterate, uneducated peasants rather than the heroic workers’ battalions of October).

For those who would retrospectively smash the rebellion today the case is clear that even if the rebellion was not in secret negotiation with the White counter-revolution, they were “objectively” opposed to the revolution because they were standing full against the Bolshevik central committee, who, of course, were the physical incarnation of the spirit of October and in possession of a monopoly on revolutionary truth (ruling in the name of a working class that had already, largely been eliminated in the course of the civil war).

Victor Serge himself during this period had defected from the camp of anarchism to Bolshevism whilst at the same time retaining the respect and friendship of his erstwhile anarchist comrades.

He had sympathies with the Workers’ Opposition of Kollontai and Shlyapnikov which already perceived the corruption and a nascent dictatorship in the closing down of soviet democracy and trade union power — blaming Trotsky himself for this.

Certainly Serge was under no illusions about the problems of the revolution — but he was no restorationist. He was fully committed to extending the best gains of October. But he was also clearly aware of the profound problems that the Bolsheviks faced. When Kronstadt issued its demands he sympathised with them and was horrified by the lies and slanders that the official party press issued against the workers and sailors in the garrison. Rumours of White counter-revolution were everywhere in Petrograd and the party itself pointed to Kronstadt as the origin of this, including wholesale inventions about White generals leading the Kronstadt mutineers.

The Bolshevik delegation to Kronstadt was treated dismissively and returned; the Kronstadt delegation to the Bolsheviks found themselves in the prisons of the Cheka and were subsequently executed.

Offers of mediation by hitherto pro-October anarchists such as Goldman and Berkman were not taken up. Debates within the party, however, finally led Serge to side with the party against Kronstadt: sympathising with their aims, he simply saw them as unrealistic in a country exhausted by civil war, even when those problems were exacerbated by an arrogant and often ineffectual leadership within the party. Without the Bolsheviks the revolution was doomed.

The idea of further negotiation was rejected and the scene was set for the termination of the rebellion and the potential mass arrests by the Cheka of pro-Menshevik leaders and workers who were seen as egging the rebellion on. At the same time as they were being condemned by the party, Workers’ Oppositionists, left communists, and others such as Serge “went to join battle on the ice against rebels who they knew in their hearts were right.” (Memoirs, p131) The Kronstadt rebellion was smashed, its personnel destroyed — executed in the cellars of the Cheka or dispersed in Finland as they fled. It was the darkest day of the revolution.

For the first time in those terrible times the spectre of Thermidor was raised: the month in the French revolutionary calendar when the great revolutionary period ended and dictatorship was instituted ending in the rise of Napoleon.

The Bolshevik most versed in this history was Trotsky and he viewed the October revolution constantly through the lens of the French and would do so until the end of his life.

Unfortunately, as the later Stalinist bureaucracy arose, and because of Kronstadt and his role as military supremo of the revolution, the surviving anarchists, left communists, workers’ oppositionists, Mensheviks and, most crucially, the old Bolsheviks viewed Trotsky as the most likely candidate.

As Lenin and Trotsky saw Kronstadt as the beginnings of counter-revolution and Thermidor, so many others saw Lenin and Trotsky as incipient dictators. Serge himself recounts Lenin having said exactly this: “This is Thermidor. But we shan’t let ourselves be guillotined. We shall make a Thermidor ourselves,” (Memoirs, p131). And it was certainly an anticipation of an emergent totalitarianism, as Serge notes: “The truth was that emergent totalitarianism had already gone half-way to crushing us. ‘Totalitarianism’ did not yet exist as a word; as an actuality it began to press hard on us, even without us being aware of it. I belonged to that pitifully small minority that realised what was going on.” (Memoirs, p133)

More chilling was that the coming totalitarianism was not a counter-revolution from without but from within, born of the workers’ movement. If Bolshevik thinking was grounded in the possession of the truth and the party is its repository “then any form of thinking which differs from it is a dangerous and reactionary error. Here lies the spiritual source of its intolerance. The absolute conviction of its lofty mission assures it of a moral energy quite astonishing in its intensity — and, at the same time, a clerical mentality which is quick to become Inquisitorial.” (Memoirs, p134). Lenin and ”Leninization” then takes on a darker hue — particularly when viewed retrospectively by what happened next.

As a defender of Kronstadt’s suppression Serge was very aware of its ironies. As Suzi Weissman notes, the 18 March 1921 saw Kronstadt sailors meeting their deaths as counter-revolutionaries declaring in their last breath the oncoming victory of world revolution. It was 50 years since the end of the Paris Commune (Victor Serge: The Course is set on hope, p47).

After Kronstadt, Serge became an agent in Germany and then went into the ranks of the Left Opposition and into prison in the camps.

On his release he made his way to France and into the ranks of the Trotskyists in exile. Amid great hopes for revolution in the west Serge opened a correspondence with Trotsky — part of which was on the subject of Kronstadt (The Serge-Trotsky papers, edited by David Cotterill, 1994).

Certainly Serge was aware that raising the issue of the uprising and its suppression was going to be uncomfortable for Trotsky, assailed as he was on all sides by enemies and the slanders of Stalinism. But if the Trotskyists were truly to take on board speaking truth to the masses and facing reality squarely, then the true history of Kronstadt had to be uncovered.

Unfortunately, it led to the unravelling and destruction of their relationship and to the expulsion of Serge from the ranks of the Trotskyist camp.

Suzi Weissman has pointed to the hand of the NKVD in their parting, but it is also clear that Trotsky was unable to face the reality of Kronstadt with basic political honesty. As Suzi says, “In ‘dredging up’ this ignominious chapter in Bolshevik history, Serge had not changed his position of siding with the party, but he wanted the party to understand how it came to be executing workers. The libertarians and anarchists in Europe were quick to point to the similarities between the Moscow trials and the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. The Kronstadt debate served as a foil for the larger argument that Stalinism was the natural outgrowth of Leninism. Serge did not share this view nor was its construction his purpose in intervening in the debate about Kronstadt.” (The Serge-Trotsky papers, pp152-153)

Serge did, however, see that Stalinism and totalitarianism were prefigured by Kronstadt and made it easier for the victory of the despotic bureaucracy.

He directed fire against those on the right who saw a clear mandate for dictatorship in Kronstadt and argued that a fully nuanced and historically accurate account would actually support Trotsky and his current position. Trotsky disagreed and continued to present a vision of Kronstadt as a virtue and a high point of a revolution fighting for its life, rather than a tragedy and its lowest ebb.

Trotsky replied to Serge’s critique of Kronstadt by condemning him for talking about a Marxism in crisis whilst he should be talking about a “Victor Serge in crisis”, irredeemably condemning him as a centrist and a moralist. As Trotsky says: “What do people of the Victor Serge type represent? Our conclusion is simple: these verbose, coquettish moralists, capable of bringing only trouble and decay, must be kept out of the revolutionary organisation, even by cannon fire if necessary.” (The Serge-Trotsky papers, p154)

The issue raised by the “petty bourgeois” Serge about Kronstadt and the issue of revolutionary morality and Trotsky’s response hurt Serge profoundly — but it hurt the libertarian core of Bolshevism even more.

An inability to account for the darkest moments of the Bolshevik past and an unwillingness to address mistakes of the most tragic grandeur led undoubtedly into the worst aspects of 20th-century orthodox Trotskyism, including those who were about to dispute Trotsky’s incorrect analysis of the nature of the Soviet dictatorship and develop a new analysis of the USSR which considered it more akin to fascism.

The central issues of the debate rested on the following. For Serge no limit was set to the truth-telling about the early history of the revolution — and anybody who wanted to limit debate and truth was, like Trotsky, capitulating to unreason. Serge also reminded Trotsky that even in those dark days of 1921 the Bolshevik party did not see the destruction as a virtue but as a necessity to destroy “armed Kulaks”. The Trotsky of 1938 saw it both as a virtue and a necessity.

Serge also castigated the Trotsky who refused power in 1924-45 because he would not be the representative of decree, dictatorship and Thermidor against Stalin but who now in 1938 ruled his own clique by decree and arrogant disdain. Perhaps this is the great finding of the Serge-Trotsky debate on Kronstadt: that the Trotskyists in exile had already consolidated themselves into what Orwell would describe as a “smelly little orthodoxy”, a small, bureaucratic clique that felt it, and no other group or human, possessed the truth — and in the case of Kronstadt a monopoly of a truth that Serge was only too happy to dispute.

Certainly the debate about Kronstadt was almost entirely destructive. Trotsky’s ire against Serge was totally unwarranted, and although they remained as part of the same broad movement it was only after Trotsky’s death that Serge again worked with the old man’s widow Natalya Sedova — ironically, on the dictatorial nature of the Soviet Union and the hopes for a new libertarian revolutionary politics. But the lessons for Marxists are still there to be learned.

As Serge says in his letters to Trotsky: “To keep calling one another ‘petty bourgeois’, instead of coolly studying the events of 1921 will get us nowhere. Rather let us bring our sanest faculties to bear upon reality. The precious lessons which the Russian Revolution could bring are obscured, muddied and compromised by the bureaucratic counter-revolution which has got hold of the old banners; we shall only retrieve those banners by liberating our minds from exhausted formulas, discredited clichés, the resentments of sects or individuals, and above all from the insupportable claim to have a monopoly of the truth.”

Whatever the truths of the uprising and its elimination, Kronstadt remains a symbol of a broken revolutionary tradition — a libertarian and a Bolshevik rift that Serge hoped to heal. The lessons he had to teach us are still there to be learned.

• This article is part of a debate begun in Solidarity 218, “Victor Serge: a life in revolution” by Martyn Hudson, and continued in letters in subsequent issues.

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