The suppression of Kronstadt: Bolsheviks had no choice

Submitted by Matthew on 14 December, 2011 - 10:16

By Paul Hampton

Martyn Hudson’s latest letter (Solidarity 227) only confirms my fear that he does not have a coherent assessment of the revolutionary workers’ regime in Russia in the early 1920s.

Martyn says “we should not in 2011 still be firing our own metaphorical cannons into the garrison of Kronstadt. The Bolsheviks were wrong, understandably wrong, but wrong”. I disagree. I think the Bolsheviks had no choice but to suppress the rebels.

The traditional Lenin-Trotsky defence of the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny highlights the sailors’ mistaken programme, their social and political composition and their links to White Guards. I would concede that much in these arguments is not particularly solid in the light of recent historical research.

The sailors tried to distinguish their revolt from the White Guards and subsequent investigations have found few substantial links with right wing forces or imperialist governments at the time, though they were made after the rebel leaders had fled. Far from being denuded of revolutionary workers and composed mainly of fractious peasants, the evidence presented by Israel Getzler suggests that around 90% of the sailors had joined the navy before the civil war and half before the 1917 revolution. He also estimates that three-quarters of the mutineers’ Revolutionary Committee had served through the revolution and the civil war on the Bolshevik side.

The sailors said they wanted equal rations instead of privileges for soviet bureaucrats and concessions to the peasantry similar to those the Bolsheviks would introduce shortly after with the New Economic Policy. If we take the words of the Petropavlovsk resolution at face value, the Kronstadt sailors wanted free elections to the soviets. They opposed the demand for a constituent assembly.

However the SR-Maximalists slogan “Power to the Soviets and not to Parties” was used on the masthead of the Kronstadt Izvestia newspaper and in the first radio broadcast. Beneath the slogans, it was clear their rebellion was militarily opposing Bolshevik party rule.

Perhaps if agrarian reform had been implemented earlier, or the Bolsheviks taken a more diplomatic approach at the beginning of the revolt, the bloodshed might have been spared. Perhaps the Bolsheviks were overzealous in slandering the sailors during and after the revolt and too harsh in their repression of the mutineers. These were important matters, but essentially secondary in retrospect.

Even if all the surrounding arguments in the Lenin-Trotsky position are assailed, the fundamental reason to suppress the revolt still seems to me entirely valid. Faced with an armed revolt so soon after the civil war in a strategically important naval base close to Petrograd, with other cities simmering and armed rebellions in the South, the Bolshevik government ultimately had no option than to use repression.

As Trotsky put it just before he was murdered, “what the Soviet government did reluctantly at Kronstadt was a tragic necessity”. He had earlier written that the revolt “could bring nothing but a victory of counter-revolution, entirely independent of the ideas the sailors had in their heads... when the insurgents took possession of the arms in the forts they could only be crushed with the aid of arms”. Had the uprising triumphed, it would have been what Lenin called a “stepping stone” — perhaps with a short interregnum — the precursor for the Whites and the capitalist powers to restart the civil war.

Paul Avrich wrote one of the most thorough accounts of Kronstadt, criticising many of the arguments traditionally used by Trotskyists against the sailors. However even he concluded that “the historian can sympathise with the rebels and still concede that the Bolsheviks were justified in subduing them”.

The logic is clear — if you believe Russia in 1921 was some kind of workers’ state (albeit with bureaucratic deformations), then the Bolshevik government was justified in using force to suppress the mutiny and prevent even the tenuous forms of workers’ self-rule from unravelling.

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