Much to our benefit, members of The Commoner were able to help organise, support, and watch a wonderful conference on the Kronstadt Rebellion of red sailors against the Soviet Government. Held on March 20-21, the conference featured film screenings, readings, and panel discussions with historians, activists and journalists. Although the rebellion does not come directly under the anarchist umbrella, it still stands as an important historical moment for anarchists and serves as a rallying point around which to criticise the violent intolerance of the Soviet Union. Some of the conference recordings are embedded in this article, but keep an eye on their YouTube channel for more releases.
On the first day of the conference, Dr Lara Green moderated a historian’s panel consisting of: Konstantin Tarasov, a research fellow at the St. Petersburg Institute of History; Simon Pirani, an honorary professor at the University of Durham; Dmitri Ivanov, a research assistant at the European University at St. Petersburg, and Alexei Gusev, an associate professor of history at the Moscow Lomonosov State University. On this panel we were first introduced to the history of Kronstadt and its forms of self-government, courtesy of Konstantin Tarasov, and on the anarchist involvement in the meeting on Anchor Square which drew 10-15,000 people.
Contributions by Ivanov focused on the anarchist involvement and reporting at Kronstadt, including such figures as Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, and of communist resistance to the Soviet government. The phrase, ‘all power to the Soviet, and not to parties,’ written in newspaper reports shown by Ivanov, especially resonated with the conference’s anarchist audience. Simon Pirani and Alexsey Gusev, meanwhile, whilst disagreeing on whether or not we can call Kronstadt part of a ‘third revolution’ in Russia, both explained the links between their struggles and that of working-class groups in Moscow, Petrograd and the countryside. Central to the discussion was the fact that the red sailors were by no means alone, and that in certain areas popular sentiment was turning against the Soviet bureaucracy — most powerfully from those same revolutionaries who helped them overthrow the old order.
Not wishing to consign its discussions to history, the conference also hosted panellists who spoke about Kronstadt resonances in the present. The second panel focused on disinformation, counter-revolution, and the uprisings in Syria. Hosted by Shon Meckfessel, the panel consisted of: Ramah Kudaimi, a Syrian American activist who has worked in the Palestine solidarity movement. Lara al-Kateb, a Syrian gender studies researchers and member of the Alliance of MENA Socialists; Omar Sabbour, a freelance Egyptian writer and analyst, and Javier Sethness, a primary care provider and member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance. Ramah Kudaimi painted a wonderful picture of spontaneous action arising out of the Syrian revolution and the Arab Spring, with anarchists and non anarchists alike promoting local coordination councils in Syria. Ramah also spoke about the disinformation spread by the Syrian regime to slander the rebels and cut transnational solidarity. Lara el Kateb gave an informative lecture on the spreading of conspiracy theories across social media, and the campist “US bad” form of anti-imperialism which helps Syria and Russia do away with human rights. She took western leftists to task for insinuating that dissenters to the Syrian regime were western puppets, thereby denying them full agency in their actions.
Omar Sabbour continued with these themes, polemically taking down the “anti-imperialist” who cannot see the imperialist ties between the US, Syria and Russia. Choosing, instead, to support the enemy of their enemies. The US, after all, have routinely supported the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad when it has been politically expedient for them to do so. Javier Sethness tied this all back into radical history, speaking about the badjacketing of anarchists by Karl Marx and others figures. It is easy to see the connection with the Kronstadt sailors, who were subject to Soviet disinformation that they were “white” non-revolutionaries, and to counter-revolutionary efforts during their massacre at the hands of the Red Army. Ramah Kudaimi made some especially strong points when calling for solidarity across borders, more focus on Syrian rebel groups, and for leftists to stop falling for state propaganda when they could be listening to the real activists on the ground. Lara al-Kateb and Omour Sabbour also make their opinions of media groups like RT and Greyzone clear, for pulling Western leftists into the grip of Syria and Russia.
The day finished off with a video presentation by the Russian historian and journalist Jaroslav Leontiev, translated for the audience by Elijah Baron, and a film screening of The Russian Revolution in Colour.
On March 21, the conference started with a panel titled ‘The After-Lives of Kronstadt’. Hosted by Laurence Davis, a professor at University College Cork, the panel included: Dr Danny Evans, a historian at Liverpool Hope University and co-host of the radical podcast ABC with Danny and Jim; Mike Harris, a founder of the Anarchist Communist Federation of North America (ACF) and the Workers Solidarity Alliance; George Katsiaficas, an activist, author and previous research affiliate at Harvard, and Dmitri Buchenkow, a Russian political migrant, author and academic, translated for the audience by Irina Sissekina. Laurence Davis opened the panel with a speech on the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, how we might, as Benjamin says, reignite the fragment of the past, the reconquering of socialised territory and product by the Soviet State, and where anarchists could improve their theory in respect to other oppressions such as race and gender. Mike Harris provided a spirited commentary on the socialisation of housing by spontaneous housing committees, with anarchists like Maksimov contributing to a belief in the possibilities of power from below.
Danny Evans gave an informative presentation on the Spanish Civil War and the May Days of 1937, laying out the parallels between the Kronstadt sailors’ feeling that communism had been betrayed, and the anarchists of Spain who felt betrayed by Stalinist betrayals and slander. George Katsiaficas spoke of the continuing trend of centralised parties co opting and then eliminating the spontaneity of popular movements, pointing to historical examples such as the Makhnovists or the Hungarian Revolution. Dmitry Buchenkow, meanwhile, gave a thought-provoking presentation of the differences between ‘political’ and ‘social’ power, with anarchists ignoring the latter to their own downfall. The anarchists of the CNT-FAI who stepped into government, and the many anarchist groups who have splintered into obscurity were two examples given by Buchenkow to illustrate this issue. Overall, the panel took the events at Kronstadt, which we might imagine as ‘fragments of the past’, and reignited them to critique modern movements and anarchist organisations. As argued by Mike Harris, these discussions should feed into a ‘struggle for freedom’ which we should pursue in the spirit of the sailors.
Following on from that was a film screening of Maggots and Men, and a Q&A with the director Cary Cronenwett, the director of photography Illona Berger, and artist, educator and cultural organiser Zeph Fishlyn. The next and final panel, hosted by Javier Sethness, focused on the ‘social crises of 2021’ and featured: Lynne Thorndycraft, the only surviving member of the anarchist bookstore Left Bank Books, founded in 1973; Tom Wetzel, a writer for Ideas & Action and ZNet, and Bill Weinberg, an award-winning 30-year journalist on, amongst other topics, human rights and indigenous peoples. The panel was opened by Lynne Thorndycraft, who spoke about the pamphlet she wrote in 1975 on Kronstadt, the sailor’s demands for the ideals of 1917 to be properly realised, and the dual existence of two Leninisms: one which spurred the Kronstadters on and another which justified their suppressions. She also raised concerns about new radicals learning their socialism from an authoritarian tradition, and coming to fetishise revolutionary activities for their own sake, defending negative movements for “actually doing something.”
Tom Wetzel followed on from Lynne by discusses the workers congresses which came to fruition in Soviet petrograd (and elsewhere), their focus on the decentralised socialisation of housing and business, and how modern movements may replicate their efforts to meet the needs of our desperate, covid ridden times. Finally, Bill Weinberg echoed the words of Ramah Kudaimi, Lara al-Kateb, and Omar Sabbour, giving a talk on Syria and the inability of some leftists to tell the difference between genuine revolution and the actions of imperialist powers. In response to questions Weinberg also criticised some anarchists for reading a great deal about Bookchin and Rojava, but not being aware of Syrian comrades.
The conference then came to a close with some words from its co-sponsors, including us.
Here are some words from some co-editors and writers at The Commoner:
Samuel — For a UK visitor these were two very packed evenings, and would have been tiring had it not been for the informative and entertaining panellists and visitors who brought new life to the history of Kronstadt. We at The Commoner are mostly interested in the promotion of new anarchist ideas, and so it was excellent to be involved in and witness a conference that, whilst grappling with a historical subject, dragged it into the context of the 21st century. Ultimately, the sailors at Kronstadt suffered from issues held in common with many revolutionaries: betrayal, disinformation, and counter-revolution being some of them. Comparisons with Syria were both welcoming and enlightening, and we will certainly be looking into legendary Omar Aziz, who helped build self-governing communes in Syria. Questions that criticized anarchist practise, such as those on ‘social power’ raised by Buchenkow, were also very welcome for the challenges they brought to the discussion.
Søren — I was compelled by a general sentiment expressed by a few of the speakers at this excellent conference: that Kronstadt was both a turning point and a clarifying moment that harkened the failure of a socialist revolution. This idea has been around for some time; many contemporaneous and modern anarchists have highlighted the disillusioning and radicalising effect of seeing the Kronstadt rebels crushed under the boots of the Bolsheviks. I was moved by one particular talk from Dr Evans where he laid out parallels between Kronstadt and the May Days of 1937 in Catalonia. His talk also called to my mind the Paris Commune, which itself was brought down by republicans (and royalists) working with the State in the national interest. Perhaps there is something to consider in these historical echoes. The death rattle of the State, a wounded snake flailing as it struggles to stay alive, is a recurring threat throughout history. Moments like Kronstadt draw a line in the sand around the new society. Drawn to encompass authoritarian rule, they invariably end in failure. Whatever future anarchists hope to build for ourselves, we must learn the signs of such Achilles heel moments and head them off well before the fall becomes inevitable.
davel – Laurence Davis’ point about Kronstadt sitting in contemporary imagination as fragments of the past which need reconstructing, activating and redeeming was very interesting. It framed the Russian Revolution in a similar manner to Alain Badiou’s writing on the event, where after an event, such as a revolution which ruptures and upturns the social order, a militant must show fidelity not to an organisation or state, but to the truths that the event has articulated. In this sense, we can move beyond a simple moralistic condemnation of the Bolsheviks and understand their actions as militants turning away from the truth(s) of the Russian Revolution that Kronstadt showed us, in part because their political situation remained solely within the State, both as an apparatus of control and what Badiou conceptualises it as, a metastructure which dominates the political situation and often the revolutionary imaginary. For Badiou, in order to effectively show fidelity to the emancipatory truths that the revolution spoke of, and which Kronstadt reaffirmed, we must move beyond not only the State but the party form. And even if, as Badiou cautions us, the State cannot be smashed, the ruptures that political events can foster, challenge and unsettle the limits it places on us and present us with new windows for redemption in a Benjaminian sense. And in doing so, just like the Sailors at Kronstadt, we can present ourselves within politics in forms of organisation which allows us the fullest dignity, even for a moment.
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