Lessons of Kronstadt

Submitted by Matthew on 8 February, 2012 - 1:32

Part two of an article by the Bolshevik revolutionary Karl Radek about the 1921 Kronstadt sailors’ uprising. First published in Bulletin Communiste, 1 April 1921. Translated by Ed Maltby. Part one is here.


Once the Russian counter-revolutionaries received news of the uprising, they forgot about the [political] abyss separating them from Kronstadt.

Savinkov, aide to Kerensky, who had had 10,000 peasants shot on the Galician front when they refused to take part in the murderous June offensive of 1917, Savinkov, who in his Warsaw newspaper Svoboda, printed on Polish government money, boasts (24 February) “I fight against the Bolsheviks, I fight alongside those who have already struggled with Kolchak, Denikin, Wrangel and even Petlioura, strange as that may seem”, Savinkov, friend of Balakhovitch, the hero of the anti-Jewish pogroms of White Russia, wrote in his paper that the sailors of Kronstadt had absolved their sins thanks to their latest rising.

“When the cruiser Aurora fired on Petrograd [an imaginary event] it was an expression of repentance for the sin committed on 25 October 1917 with the bombardment of the Winter Palace, the seat of Kerensky's ministry.”

The organ of the right wing of the Cadet Party, wrote “The uprising of Kronstadt is sacred, because it is an uprising against the idea of the November revolution”.

The Society of Russian Industrialists and Financiers of Paris, when they heard the news from Kronstadt, decided to not worry about the extremist demands or the primitive cause of the mutiny [“les revendications extremistes... cause primitive de la mutinerie”] because its essential point was that “the sailors were for the overthrow of the Communist government” [Dernières Nouvelles de Paris, 8 March].

The Russian banks, with the former Tsarist minister of finance Kokovtsev at their head, began to collect money for Kronstadt. Goutchkov, the head of the Russian imperialist party, got in contact with the English and American governments to obtain food supplies.

The American and French governments immediately asked their agents in Helsingfors and Estonia to do all they could to provision the rioters of Kronstadt.

The counter-revolutionaries understood with an extraordinary clarity and breadth of mind the deeper significance of the events of Kronstadt.

Milyukov’s paper Dernières Nouvelles as well as Bourtzev's Cause Commune did not stop at offering immediate and categorical support for the sailors at Kronstadt, they also elaborated a tactical plan regarding the adoption of the demands of Kronstadt.

This tactic was based on the recognition that every counter-revolutionary attack was doomed to failure as soon as it began to operate openly with the forces of the Entente and the old regime and had representatives of large landowners and capitalism at its head.

The popular masses would not believe in the pure and disinterested intentions of the allies; they know very well that when these allies march against Soviet Russia it is with the intention of making her into a colony.

The reason for the defeat of Denikin, Kolchak, etc., consisted, according to Milyukov, above all in that as representatives of the nobility they disgusted the peasants. The first conclusion that Milyukov draws from this fact is that the counter-revolutionary movement in Russia would only be able to win if it came from within and if it was purged (in appearance at least) of any feudal tendency.

But, based on the events at Kronstadt, Milyukov has made a second theoretical step: he recognises that for neither the peasants, nor the workers, nor the soldiers of the Red Army, is the demand for a Constituent Assembly attractive. The sailors had risen up in the name of real Soviet power, but at the same time they cried: Down with the Communists! This “Down the with Communists!” was the reason Milyukov accepted “real Soviet power”.

When the Communist government falls, so will the only force which supports Soviet Russia in the fight against global capitalism, the only force capable, at present above all because it has won peace, of reconstructing normal life, the only force capable, as the most mature party of the revolutionary peasants and workers, of steering a course between all the rocks and guaranteeing the achievements of the revolution.

Soviets without Communists would represent nothing more than masses of hesitant workers, tired and dispersed; and they would be obliged to allow freedom of operations to all those bourgeois forces and organisations which were severely controlled under the government of Communist Soviets.

The counter-revolutionary diaspora would begin to flow back into Russia, it would flood the organisations of the partyless Soviets with its own people, and would effectively take power. And so the moment would have arrived when real power was handed over to the juridical forms of the counter-revolution, when it judged this necessary.

Milyukov's organ is even engaged in polemic with a doctrinaire SR, defending the Soviets not merely as administrative organs, but as governmental power: “The Soviets are not just consultative or legislative organs, they are the organs of state power in its entirety. And it is not the case that they could replace the Bolshevik state and form the base of a more normal organisation of provinces without breaking with the population. It goes without saying that they will be unable to fulfil this role reliably until after their re-election” (8 March 1921).

Milyukov, founder and ideological leader of the liberal Cadet Party, who appeared to be a blind and doctrinaire supporter of European parliamentarism, has understood that the destruction of the Communist Party would have been the destruction of the only force which allows Russia to persist as a major world-revolutionary force. Soviet Russia without the dictatorship of the Communists would be prey to the counter-revolution. He thus shows the annihilation of the Communist Party to be a decisive goal of the counter-revolution, while saying “Do not repel the masses of peasants and workers by raising demands for a return to bourgeois state forms. The form doesn't matter — only the content does.”

In peasant Russia, after the annihilation of the Communist Party, the workers in the countryside would consolidate their power under the Soviet form as a conservative and bourgeois force, and the rest would follow on its own.

The tactic of the Russian counter-revolution which aims to break the power of Soviet Russia and overthrow the Communist Party, which seeks to lead the petty-bourgeois, semi-proletarian and peasant masses into struggle against the Communist Party, this plan of the Russian counter-revolution which is rushing to triumph in the name of a truly Soviet government and a “third revolution” will not succeed.

The Communist Party is sufficiently supple and prudent, it is sufficiently in contact with the masses that it can thwart this tactic. In profiting from respite from war, to diminish the size of the Red Army and reduce the demands upon the peasant, in contenting him at the same time with the produce of industry and foreign trade, the Party will re-forge links with the peasant.

It will excite the initiative of the proletarian masses, to improve their material situation and to bring up to the front, into the Party, the most backward layers.

From the present moment, several weeks after the Congress of the Communist Party, before all the consequences of its new policy can be seen, we can already feel a new wind blowing which is animating the popular masses, we can really feel that the Soviet government has ruined the counter-revolutionary plan to return on the back of the petty-bourgeoisie.

But the fact that the Russian counter-revolution, in its struggle for power, has managed to use the demand for soviets, soviets under which it was earlier crushed, against the Communist Party, that is a fact of universal historic significance.

It is an expression of the revolutionary instinct of the western proletariat that, in solidarity with Soviet Russia, which is seen to be the centre of the world revolution, it cried, “My country, right or wrong!”, without allowing itself to be influenced by any idle gossip about the Communist Party's “terrorism”, or its “opportunism”.

It has understood that the question was not to what degree communism could be realised in Russia — because communism cannot be established either promptly or in isolation in an agrarian country — but that the only important thing is that Russia was taken out of the hands of the counter-revolution, and that 100 million peasants and the economic forces of the largest country in Europe can no longer be used to economically or militarily support capitalism as it fights for its life. On the contrary, they are being put to use in supporting the world proletariat fighting for a new social order.

The global proletariat has thus understood that insofar as this is the case, the Communist Party will always be in the right so long as it retains power.

All of its acts must be judged from this point of view, including when, in order to win out against the counter-revolution’s military assaults, the Party implacably rallies all of the resources of the country, including making certain concessions to petty-bourgeois elements, in order to break them from landlords and capitalists, agents of counter-revolution.

The advanced sections of the proletariat, with their revolutionary instinct, have understood all this and they can now see how right those were who said “it is impossible to simultaneously support the Russian Revolution and fight the Communist Party”. What Hilferding, Dittmann, Longuet, Bauer, have tried to do, i.e. to adopt one attitude towards the Communist Party and a different one towards the Russian Revolution — this in the context of the tactic adopted by the Russian counter-revolution during the Kronstadt events — appears like a deception, or, seen in the most favourable light, a self-deception.

“Long live the Russian Revolution! Long live Soviet Russia! Down with the Russian Communists! Down with the dictators of Moscow!”, cried Hilferding and Bauer, Longuet and Grimm. “Down with the dictators of Moscow!”, replied the Tsarist finance minister Kokovsev, Milyukov the hero of the Dardanelles, the Paris stock exchange and General Wrangel.

And they add: “Once the Russian Communist Party is beaten, the counter-revolution will, for a while at least, be able to dress itself up in the clothing of the Soviets”. It’s not the clothing that counts, but the person who wears it, and “Paris is worth a mass” [i.e. one should be prepared to cynically take part in a ritual in order to benefit politically].

The Hilferdings and Dittmanns, the Adlers, the Bauers, the Longuets and all these heroes of the two-and-a-half international appear here not as the right wing of the workers’ revolution, but as the left wing of the global capitalist counter-revolution.

The future historian of this great struggle to free the global proletariat will not omit to underline this fact, that when the Russian Communists filled with their bodies the breach made in the walls of Petrograd by the Kronstadt sailors, Freiheit wrote “Zinoviev, the corrupter of the Russian proletariat”; that Longuet and Bauer expressed their sympathies not with the Communists who were making a new rampart around Petrograd with their bodies on the ice of the Gulf of Finland — but with the unthinking tools of the world counter-revolution at Kronstadt.

The events of Kronstadt obliged the western proletariat to draw other conclusions as well. They drew to a conclusion our discussions with that section of Communists who wished to oppose the Russian dictatorship, the dictatorship of the Communist Party, and the idea of the proletarian dictatorship altogether.

The Laufenbergs and the Wolfheims who thought in 1919 that they could counterpose the dictatorship of the masses to the dictatorship of the Communist Party have explicitly passed over into the camp of counter-revolution. In their last brochure, Moscow and the German Revolution, they openly declare themselves to be enemies not only of the Communist Party but of Soviet Russia, denouncing the Soviet government before the German working masses, as a bad new version of Tsarism.

The Ruhles and company have taken their hatred of the idea of a revolutionary party so far as to ally with Dittmann and Co to fight against the so-called “despotism” of the Russian Communist Party. They have even been denounced by the German Communist elements who had previously been morally in agreement with them, as counter-revolutionaries. But this evolution could only be led to a full conclusion if the Communist International, in all of its sections, could grasp the universally valid lessons of Kronstadt and of the new tactic of the Russian counter-revolution.

That which is specifically Russian in these events is that, firstly, the proletarian layer is much thinner in Russia than in the west; secondly, the petty-bourgeois layers are much more powerful in Russia than in England or Germany, and consequently their influence on the working class is stronger than it would be elsewhere, and for this reason, the petty-bourgeois oscillations of the working class are much greater in Russia than in Europe.

In the west, the struggle will be more difficult because the bourgeoisie is better organised than in Russia. Logistical difficulties will be ten times greater than in Russia, and there will arise situations where large masses of workers hesitate, and even consider capitulating before the bourgeoisie, or where the dictatorship of the proletariat will only be able to be sustained as the steel-hard dictatorship of its Communist vanguard.

For, as with the declaration of the centrists that they are for the proletarian dictatorship but against terrorism, which simply shows that these elements are not prepared to use all possible methods of struggle for the victory of the working masses and that they are ready to flee or betray; so in all difficult situations the cry of “For the dictatorship of the entire working class, against the dictatorship of the Communist Party!” is an indication that these elements are not ready to fight until even the most backward layers of the working class are already joining battle, i.e. when the struggle is already easy, when it is not necessary to spill blood or suffer hunger and cold. In our pamphlet, Dictatorship of the Working Class and the Dictatorship of the Communist Party, published in the summer of 1919, in response to Laufenberg and Wolfheim, we wrote,

“The Communist Party wil not renounce, after the conquest of power, its combat organs. It will strictly concentrate its members, the best representatives of the dictatorship; it will always consult them on the question of which measures the organs of power must take.

“The Communist Party will always march at the head of the masses and their organisations in order to guarantee the dictatorship. For the dictatorship of the proletariat will not be conquered once and for all: until the definitive victory, it will have to be conquered and reconquered every day.

“The working mass, today divided into layers of unequal ability to struggle, must be animated with the firm intention of fighting, in the course of the progress of the revolution, to make the dictatorship possible. But this combative spirit is very relative in its generality.

“Certain parts of the proletariat will always have, during the organisation of the proletarian dictatorship, a hostile or indifferent attitude. And the mass, which will celebrate on the day of victory, may well hesitate in the days of great difficulties, defeats, and it may even despair of victory and long to capitulate.

“The proletarian revolution does not bring with it an immediate relief of poverty, and in certain circumstances, it may even temporarily worsen the situation of the proletariat. The adversaries of the proletarian will take advantage of this opportunity to demand the government of the workers themselves; it is for this reason that it will be necessary to have a centralised Communist Party, powerful, armed with the means of the proletarian government and determined to conserve power for a certain time, even only as the Party of the revolutionary minority, while waiting for the conditions of the struggle to improve and for the morale of the masses to rise.

“Naturally, if the majority of the working class is taken in by illusions that it would be better off even in the chains of capitalist slavery than in fighting for its freedom, and if this majority becomes active in a difficult situation, in fighting against the dictatorship of the proletariat which the Communist Party is upholding, then the latter will be incapable of retaining its position.

“But for as long as an improvement in the situation can be hoped for, the Party must steadfastly defend its position.

“When conditions improve, the working class will once again back the Communist Party and it will be able to fight on and achieve its decisive victory. The liberation of the working class can only be won by the workers themselves, by the fighting majority of the working class; but, in its struggle for liberation, there can arise situations where the revolutionary minority of the working class must shoulder the full weight of the struggle and where the dictatorship of the proletariat can only be maintained, provisionally at least, as the dictatorship of the Communist Party. And this situation has arisen more than once in Russia.”

We are convinced that in the light of the events at Kronstadt, the Communist elements which have so far not understood the role of the Party during the revolution, will at last learn the true value of these explanations, as well as the resolution of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International on the subject of the role of the party. We will not draw the full benefit of this lesson – that the Party of the proletariat has been able to preserve power in its hands in the face of a petty-bourgeois counter-revolutionary uprising, even when that uprising bases itself on working-class discontent — if it is only understood in Russia. It must be realised that, if the Communist Party can only triumph when it has the support of the mass of workers, there will nevertheless arise situations in the West where it will have to, for a certain period, keep power using solely the forces of the vanguard.

It must be understood at all times that the Communist Party is the soul of the revolution and the keystone of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The struggle which the Communist Party of Russia is currently fighting to strengthen its influence over the working masses who are not yet communists, for the awakening of initiative in these masses, is the complement of its firm decision to retain power by all possible means. And this decision must serve as an example to Communists in all other countries.

That is the greatest lesson of the Kronstadt events, the international lesson.

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