Little noticed at the time, few events in working class history have provoked so much emotional response, or have led to so many myths down the years, as the revolt at the Kronstadt naval base in Russia. At a distance of a century we can appreciate just how tragic and significant it was.
The revolt began on 2 March 1921 on board the battleship Petropavlovsk moored in the naval base of Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland. Kronstadt sailors, soldiers and workers had never supported just one party, and the Soviet there had remained a lively centre of debate, even as other Soviets were reduced to mere administrators. Kronstadters had always been in the vanguard of the class revolt (such as in the July Days of 1917). However, when they learned of strikes in Petersburg against food shortages and for new Soviet elections they decided to support them in the 15 point Petropavlovsk Resolution. This became the programme of the revolt when it was adopted by a mass meeting of 16,000 sailors and workers in Anchor Square. 900 of the 1,400 Communist Party (Bolshevik) members supported it. 300 who didn’t were imprisoned. The Kronstadters wanted no bloodshed but all attempts at negotiation failed, partly because the Kronstadters counted on support in the rest of Russia, and partly because the government faced the biggest crisis of its existence.
Kronstadt was not an isolated event. Cheka sources tell us that there were 118 separate risings already going on, including the Tambov rebellion of a force of 20,000 led by Antonov. The government was still recovering from a bloody civil war. It feared that when the ice of the Gulf of Finland melted and Kronstadt was out of its reach, the base could be used by a revived imperialist intervention.
There were sound material and political reasons for all the grassroots opposition. Famine was staring Russia in the face. In Petersburg in the winter of 1920-1921 those workers who still remained, already freezing due to terrible fuel shortages, faced a one third cut in the already inadequate bread ration. Victor Serge described it thus:
“Winter was a torture (there is no other word for it) for the townspeople: no heating, no lighting, and the ravages of famine. Children and feeble old folk died in their thousands. Typhus was carried everywhere by lice and took its frightful toll. People dined on a pittance of oatmeal or half-rotten horsemeat, a lump of sugar would be divided into tiny fragments among a family.” (Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary)
Average life expectancy had fallen to around 20 years. The American anarchist historian Paul Avrich adds:
“Driven by cold and hunger, men abandoned their machines for days on end to gather wood and forage for food in the surrounding countryside. Travelling on foot or in overcrowded railway cars, they brought their personal possessions, and materials which they had filched from the factories, to exchange for whatever food they could get.” (Avrich, Kronstadt 1921)
But even here they came up against the government attempt to monopolise trade.
“The government did all it could to stop this illegal trade. Armed roadblock detachments (zagraditel’nye otriady) were deployed to guard the approaches to the cities and to confiscate the precious sacks of food which the “speculators” were carrying back to their families. The brutality of the roadblock detachments was a byword throughout the country, and complaints about their arbitrary methods flooded the commissariats in Moscow.” (Avrich, Kronstadt 1921)
Demands for fresh elections to the Soviets were due to their decline in the civil war. Immediately after the October Revolution more Soviets had sprung up in Russia than ever before. In early 1918 they had been the scenes of lively debate – a testimony to the vitality of working class political life. Soviet Congresses met every three months in the “honeymoon” of the revolution before July 1918. Afterwards, however, they became annual. Furthermore, as more and more of their members were drafted into the Red Army and the bureaucracy, they often became arms of a growing Party-state. Maybe this was inevitable in a war economy but it was fatal for a revolution based on the working class. Soviet rule was gradually replaced by “a militarist proletarian dictatorship” (The ABC of Communism) under an increasingly dominant Party. By the middle of 1919 Lenin was confessing that:
“the Soviets, which by virtue of their programme are organs of government by the working people are in fact organs of government for the working people by an advanced section of the proletariat, but not by the working people as a whole.” (Lenin, Report On The Party Programme, 19 March 1919)
The Petropavlovsk Resolution did not call for “Soviets without communists” as Trotskyist apologists like Harman and Cliff maintain in Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism. What it did call for were immediate new elections to the Soviets, freedom of speech for the anarchists and for the Left Socialist Parties and equalisation of rations. It also proposed granting the peasants “freedom of action provided they do not employ hired labour”.
They did not demand, as Trotsky said later, “special privileges for themselves”. They did demand “free trade” in grain and an end to the roadblock detachments to meet the approaching famine. Trotsky himself had proposed something similar a year earlier. It is also not true, as various Trotskyists maintain, that the class composition of the Kronstadters had changed between 1917 and 1921. Most of the sailors had been of peasant origin in 1917, and were so in 1921. However, it was contact with their families in the village over the Christmas period that brought home to them the seriousness of the food crisis. This lay behind their demand for an end to requisitioning. What they did not know was that Lenin had been mulling over the issue since the previous November and was about to announce exactly that as part of his “New Economic Policy” (NEP) at the Tenth Party Congress, then opening in Petersburg.
The first assault on the base on 8 March, across the ice of the Gulf of Finland, was a failure. Many troops deserted to the Kronstadters. A new force was hurriedly assembled made up of Cheka units, Red Army officer cadets (kursanti) and even 300 or more delegates from the Tenth Party Congress. On 16 March Tukhachevsky launched the second attack, and by 18 March the entire town had been re-occupied. At least 700 of the attackers died under the Kronstadt guns (including 15 Bolshevik Congress delegates) whilst 1,500 of the defenders were killed and a further 2,500 were captured. Many were later shot by the Cheka.
Within a few days of the fall of Kronstadt, Lenin announced the NEP. Its central plank was the restoration of the free market in grain, as the Kronstadters had demanded. Peasants could now legally sell their produce without harassment and would now pay “a tax in kind”. It came too late for the 1921 harvest so famine killed millions that year. In time it did lead to a restoration of grain production and the stabilisation of the regime. “A step backwards”, as Lenin admitted, but what else could an isolated country, where 80% were peasants, do in the absence of the world revolution? The defeat of the March Action in Germany led Lenin to talk of a decade in which the Communist government would have to hold on. NEP had nothing to do with socialism. Lenin hoped that this “retreat to state capitalism” would be just a holding operation.
The Kronstadt Revolt represented a failed attempt to “renew the revolution” (Serge). It could not have done so. Even if the Kronstadters had won, some form of capitalism in isolated Russia would have had to be adopted.
No isolated working class outpost can complete the task of building socialism, especially in a country with a relatively small working class. The revolution has to be international. On the plus side, even the devastating experience of Kronstadt confirms that Soviets are the historically discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They alone are capable of drawing the mass of the class into shaping a different society. This cannot simply be done by a party. An international political organisation is essential to unite the class in overthrowing capitalism. Its members will be the most ardent at spreading world revolution. But the International itself is not a government in waiting. As the Internationalist Communist Party wrote in its 1952 Platform:
“At no time and for no reason does the proletariat … delegate to others its historical mission, and it does not give power away to anyone, not even to its political party.” (Political Platform of the PCInt, 1952)
A deeper analysis will be found in our forthcoming book on Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Russia 1917-23.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 54) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.