Kronstadt sailors holding up a flag with the words “Death to the bourgeoisie.”
On March 18, 1921, as the young Soviet Government sponsored public celebrations in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune, its Red Army moved to suppress a similar revolutionary commune in Kronstadt on Kotlin Island across Petrograd in the Baltic Sea. The sailors in the city were renowned revolutionaries: they helped the Bolsheviks come to power in 1917, and now they were leading their own “third revolution” against the Communist Party who, they argued, imposed repressive, monopolistic policies. The ensuing uprising and its consequences have since become a point of contention between Marxists and anarchists, leaving gaps and unanswered questions in the historiography along the way.
Reacting to strikes in Petrograd regarding food and fuel shortages, Kronstadt sailors sent delegates to the former capital on February 26. Returning to the base without having received an audience and with news of heavy Bolshevik repression, the crews of the Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol drafted a 15-point list of demands for the Bolshevik government, the so-called Peropavlovsk Resolution, calling for free elections, freedom of speech and the abolition of all political sections within the armed forces. When local pro-Bolshevik officers demanded the agitators back down, the workers, sailors and soldiers had them detained under the authority of their new “Provisional Revolutionary Committee.”
The Bolsheviks responded with an ultimatum soon after, threatening the sailors and publicly denouncing the movement as a product of French intelligence efforts. Refusing to give in, the Kronstadt garrison began organizing its defenses on March 7, as Red Army commander Mikhail Tukhachevski led his troops across the frozen bay. On March 18, the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune, the Red Army entered the city and seized control of Kronstadt.
The historiographical debates surrounding the Kronstadt Rebellion show how Marxist and anarchists have perpetuated competing interpretations of the movement. Initial analyses of the Kronstadt Rebellion came from either anarchist witnesses and sympathizers, or the Soviet Communist Party. In addition, over the following years and decades, liberal — primarily Western academic — analyses have adopted the anarchist interpretation without acknowledging its anarchist origin.
In moving beyond the bifurcated worldview of “revolutionaries” versus everyone else and begin to center the messy political reality of 1917 and beyond, we need to save anarchism as a political ideology from the periphery of mainstream histories of this revolutionary decade, and to explore other aspects of the rebellion besides its origins and relation to Stalinism.
Justifying a “tragic necessity”
Before and after the Red Army’s victory over the Kronstadt sailors in March of 1921, Lenin and Trotsky’s interpretation of events dominated the Soviet and foreign press. As the Red Army closed in on Kotlin Island, Lenin explained to the tenth party congress: “We must bear in mind that the bourgeoisie is trying to pit the peasants against the workers; that behind a façade of workers’ slogans it is trying to incite the petty-bourgeois anarchist elements against the workers.” Lenin argued that White Army exiles in France manipulated peasant soldiers in Kronstadt; it was a last ditch-effort of bourgeois agitators to overthrow the dreaded “proletariat” regime.
Lenin and Trotsky claimed that the White Army’s hand in the revolt was clear as day, and they blamed the conflagration on ex-general Kozlovsky and his associates, eliciting the memory of ambitious generals that led their own White detachments throughout the Civil War. The Bolshevik leaders promoted the rebellion as a White conspiracy and argued that even if the sailors had good intentions, they were opening the door for a resurgent counter-revolutionary offensive.
In order to understand Lenin and Trotsky’s position, one has to consider both the context of the rebellion and what was at stake for Bolshevik leaders. On the one hand, the Kronstadt sailors expressed solidarity with Petrograd workers who went on strike in February and were violently suppressed by the Red Army and Cheka. Hence, their 10th demand reads: “To abolish the Communist fighting detachments in all branches of the army, as well as the Communist guards kept on duty in the factories and mills. Should such guards or detachments be found necessary, they are to be appointed in the army from the ranks and in the factories and mills at the discretion of the workers.”
They castigated the Bolsheviks for using Red Army guards to suppress workers’ strikes in Petrograd earlier that February, and advocated for loyal guards chosen by the workers themselves. Moreover, War Communism had wrought havoc on peasant communities, as forced requisitioning and poor crop harvests starved rural populations.
Addressing the peasant issue head on, the sailors’ next demand reads: “To give the peasants full freedom of action in regard to the land, and also the right to keep cattle, on condition that the peasants manage with their own means, that is, without employing hired labor.” Evidently, the Kronstadt sailors were directly reacting to injustices that they perceived were a result of Bolshevik policies. The sailors, many of whom were from peasant backgrounds, collectively published these demands expecting Lenin and the party leaders to work with them to resolve the issues.
At the 10th Party Congress, held from 8-16 March 1921, Lenin outlined what would become the Party’s official opinion. In Resolution no. 12 “On Party Unity” he explicitly used the case of the Kronstadt sailors to emphasize the dangers of factionalism. Lenin argued that the history of preceding revolutions confirmed that “petty-bourgeois” elements would do anything, even mislead innocent workers by touting pro-Soviet slogans, to disrupt party unity and bypass the appropriate modes of raising and addressing grievances within the Party.
The idea that the Kronstadt Rebellion was a counter-revolutionary conspiracy and its suppression a “tragic necessity” became the dominant interpretation in official Soviet discourse, buoyed by its appearance in the official History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course, published in 1938 under the direction of Stalin.
Outlining the inevitability of Leninism in practice
According to anarchist historians and theorists, the suppression of the rebellion is the ultimate example of a contradiction between Bolshevik promises and achievements, or theory and practice. Seeing that contradiction play out amongst the Petrograd workers, the Kronstadt sailors spontaneously resisted Bolshevik monopoly and called for free and popular elections.
The anarchist Alexander Berkman, an initial supporter of the Bolshevik revolution who traveled throughout Russia in the 1920s commenting on the appalling conditions of the country and the behavior of the Party, argued that the suppression of the rebellion was not a “tragic necessity,” as Bolshevik leaders argued, but a blatant power grab and divisive deviation from working class interests. For Berkman and his anarchist comrade Emma Goldman, the Bolshevik actions against the Kronstadt garrison foreshadowed the authoritarian leanings of the Party by demonstrating the Central Committee’s willingness to use violence against any non-Bolshevik ideologues, even fellow revolutionaries, such as anarchists.
Anarchism had a major influence on the Baltic fleet, but as Paul Avrich has argued in his classic study Kronstadt 1921, it was by no means the homogenic ideology of the rebels, but rather “the creative spirit of the masses” reinforced by the libertarian ideas emanating from the co-author of the Peropavlovsk Resolution and head of agitation and propaganda, G.P. Perepelkin. Nevertheless, immediately after the event, anarchists claimed its legacy and used it to identify a contradiction between Bolshevik theory and practice. They looked on with disillusionment as it became clear that the new revolutionary state would not tolerate dissent or “spontaneous” action.
Berkman, who was in Moscow during the events, penned one of the first interpretations of the Kronstadt uprising outside of the USSR. He notes that the sailors merely wanted elected councils (known as Soviets) free from party interference, and that they strove to find points of agreement with the Bolsheviks. Challenging the Party’s claim that the rebellion was led by foreign agitators and white generals, Berkman points out “There was indeed a former general, Kozlovsky, in Kronstadt. It was Trotsky who had placed him there as an artillery specialist.” Hence, the individuals blamed for being counter-revolutionary were actually Bolsheviks themselves.
In that way, Berkman’s brief history seeks to undermine the narrative of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy, claiming instead that it was a “spontaneous, unprepared and peaceful” revolution. In the end, Berkman likens the rebellion to the Paris Commune of 1871, where the rebels were supposedly leaderless and unprepared for the full repressive force of a newly consolidated and militarized state. According to Berkman, the triumph of the Bolsheviks over Kronstadt “held within itself the defeat of Bolshevism” as a working-class movement.
Another Russian anarchist and émigré, Ida Mett, sought to discover the roots of the rebellion within the Communist Party itself. In her pamphlet, The Kronstadt Uprising, Mett focuses on the Constitution of the Soviet Republic from 1918 to argue that sailors were reacting to perceived contradictions between the promises and rights outlined in that document and Bolshevik repressive practices. For instance, she points out that articles 13, 14, 15 and 16 assured the workers certain “democratic rights,” including the freedom of worship, assembly, union and press. They also sought to prevent the allocation of special privileges. In that case, the Bolsheviks were guilty of contradicting their own constitution, and the sailors — as the historical vanguard and protectors of the revolution — reacted as this betrayal became evident through the Petrograd strikes in February.
American historian and anarchist Paul Avrich’s commanding 1970 study of the Kronstadt Rebellion has come closest to a balanced evaluation. Avrich’s thesis is that the rebellion was a spontaneous reflection of disillusionment with Bolshevik policies, especially the grain requisitioning of War Communism. He admits the spontaneous element is key because, as he points out, “an essential feature of Bolshevism was its distrust of mass spontaneity.” The Kronstadt sailors never believed that they could win a defensive battle against the Red Army, which explains why they strove to find common ground with the Soviet government throughout the early days of the rebellion.
Avrich agrees with Marxist historians that the rebellion must be placed in a broader context of social and political events but maintains that force was avoidable, and that the uprising made Bolshevik leaders like Lenin extremely worried about a possible renewed revolution. Unlike many of his colleagues in American universities, Avrich acknowledged the anarchist affinity of the sailors but also highlighted the anti-Semitism within the movement, presenting a less politically charged historical analysis.
In sum, the anarchist position can be seen as entirely sympathetic to the sailors, and highly critical of the Bolsheviks. Unlike Marxist historians, anarchists argue that the rebellion offered the chance for the new Soviet government to perfect the repressive practices that came to define the regime. This explains partially why self-ascribed anarchist witnesses like Victor Serge, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were so shocked by the disinformation campaign perpetuated by their fellow leftists and the Red Army.
According to anarchist witnesses, the suppression of the rebellion was the final sign that the Bolsheviks concentrated the full power of a propagandistic, militaristic and ideologically repressive state — the ultimate inevitability of Leninism in practice. This argument became the unacknowledged intellectual line of thinking that many Western historians adopted from anarchist thinkers.
Saving anarchism from the periphery of Soviet history
Throughout the Cold War, scholarship on the Kronstadt Rebellion either went the way of the Marxist-Leninist party line or used the anarchist interpretation to explain Stalinism, albeit without acknowledging anarchism as an ideology. One of the earliest examples of this appeared in American historian Emanuel Pollack’s The Kronstadt Rebellion (The First Armed Revolt Against the Soviets), which simply pitted the “totalitarian” and Marxist-Leninist interpretations against each other. Pollack saw the rebellion as the first instance of working-class hostility toward the Bolsheviks, but failed to recognize or discuss the ideological and class affiliations of the rebels, let alone the event’s international resonance.
Pollack was not alone: in their chronology of the revolution, many influential Cold War era scholars in the US used anarchist argumentation and sources, but confirm the Leninist and Stalinist chronology of events in order to identify a narrative turning point that neatly aligns with the 10th Party Congress in 1921. However, because they fail to recognize the anarchist ideology of the participants, anarchism as a political movement disappears from their historical purviews and narratives, and the rebellion itself remains relegated to a vague movement against Bolshevik power with little to no collective identity or legacy beyond the Civil War.
In other words, they view the mutiny’s suppression as the event that symbolically ended factionalism and debate within the Party, thereby uncritically accepting the rebellion’s position as the book-end of the Civil War and the end of counter-revolution, as propagated by Stalin in Short Course.
By resuscitating and centering the sailor’s anarchist leanings, which was erased both in the Soviet Union and the West, Kronstadt becomes less of a symbolic end to inter-party factionalism, and more of a demonstration of the wide variety of sympathetic, but not entirely identical, ideologies on the periphery of Petrograd and Moscow. Indeed, we lack a comprehensive understanding of the anarchist movement more broadly, and the political beliefs of the Kronstadt rebels in particular — their collective identity, resource mobilization and emotionality — because we have been so focused on the interpretation of the event and its implications.
Thus, saving anarchism from the periphery of Soviet history is the first step toward re-assessing the variety and complexity of leftism in Russia, which further upends the debate over Bolshevik majority, ideological homogeneity and popular support, and adds more branches to our currently bifurcated histories of the revolution. The truth is that every social revolution in history has been a composite of forces and actors, rather than an ideologically homogeneous force. Let the outcome of the Kronstadt Rebellion be a lesson in what happens when one faction tries to impose hegemony, and let it foreground the importance of hearing each other out and understanding the other’s intentions before condemning and retreating into factionalism.
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