Victor Serge is often held up as a libertarian revolutionary critic of the Bolsheviks’ suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion (“Victor Serge and the question of Kronstadt”, Solidarity 3-229).
However, which Victor Serge? In the aftermath of the revolt, Serge was a pretty uncritical supporter of the Bolshevik policy. In ‘The Tragic Face of Revolution’, published in La Vie Ouvrière on 21 March 1922 he said the Kronstadt rebellion was a “revolt of the peasant, petty bourgeois mentality” around the programme “freedom of small trading” and “for the soviets against the party” — slogans that were not actually raised by the sailors. (David Cotterill, The Serge-Trotsky Papers)
Serge set out the bottom line justification for the suppression of Kronstadt: “Let us suppose briefly that the Kronstadt mutiny had turned out to be victorious. Its results would have been immediate chaos, the terrible kindling of a civil war in which this time the party of the revolutionary proletariat and the broad peasant masses would have been locked in combat. Within a short time a handful of liberal lawyers and Tsarist generals, fortified by the sympathies of the whole bourgeois world, would have drenched their hands in the blood of the Russian people in order to pick up the abandoned power. Thermidor would have come.”
Serge was much more critical towards the end of his life. Then he was politically in retreat — for example, over the POUM, whose revolutionary credentials he exaggerated. His later views on Kronstadt were formed in that context. But he did not abandon his basic defence of the Bolshevik government’s action.
In ‘Fiction or Fact: Kronstadt’, published in La Révolution Prolétarienne on 10 September 1937, Serge posed the issue starkly: “Once armed conflict between Red Kronstadt and the Bolshevik government had begun, the question became posed in these terms: which of the two contending forces better represented the higher interests of the toilers?”
His answer was unequivocal: “[The Kronstadt insurgents] wanted to release the elements of a purifying tempest, but all they could actually have done was to open the way to a counter-revolution, supported by peasants at the outset, which would have been promptly exploited by the Whites and the foreign intervention. (Pilsudski was getting his armies ready to launch on the Ukraine). Insurgent Kronstadt was not counter-revolutionary, but its victory would have led — without any shadow of a doubt — to the counter-revolution.” (Cotterill)
In another article, ‘Ideas and Facts: Kronstadt 1921’, published in La Révolution Prolétarienne on 25 October 1937, Serge posed the question: “Given the dictatorship of the proletariat, exercised by the Communist Party, was it right for it to use forcible repression against the protests, demands, propositions and demonstrations of workers stricken by famine?”
Although Serge regarded the suppression of Kronstadt as “an abuse of firmness”, in his article ‘Once More: Kronstadt’, published in the New International, July 1938, he answered in the affirmative: “Once Kronstadt rebelled, it had to be subdued, no doubt.” (Cotterill)
Serge returned to the subject of Kronstadt in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, written in 1942-43. These memoirs contain comments about his own personal involvement at the time of Kronstadt (he lived in nearby Petrograd) as well as making sharper criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ actions. However, he still justified the suppression of the revolt.
“If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through the sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian.”
In one of his last articles before his death, ‘Thirty Years After’ (July-August 1947), Serge repeated many of his criticisms of the Bolshevik handling of Kronstadt. Nevertheless he concluded: “If in this situation, the Bolsheviks had let go the reins of power, who would have taken their place? Wasn’t it their duty to hold on? In fact they were right to hold on.” (Serge, 1996, Russia Twenty Years After)
No doubt there were big differences between Serge and the Trotskyist view of Kronstadt at the end and we could have a useful discussion on this matter and on other mistakes of the Bolsheviks.
But it would be better to do so on the basis of the facts about the events concerned, rather than through “authorities”, however important in our movement.