Provisional Council at the Petropavlovsk, Kronstadt, March 1921

Trotsky and the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921

The violently crushed Kronstadt uprising of March 1921, followed by the introduction of the NEP, marked a decisive turn in the consolidation of the state capitalist regime that had come to bearing through the October insurrection in Russia 1917. The struggle for “soviets without the communists” (i.e. without the Bolsheviks) led by the insurgent mariners would be the last attempt by the proletarian masses to reconquer political power over the state, whose grip had been strengthened under pressure of the ‘civil war’ in Russia, with its so-called ‘war-communism’, to the detriment of the councils (soviets). Having achieved a military victory over the “white armies” through an unprecedented militarization, the Bolshevik regime was confronted with a plain catastrophe at the economic level, resulting in mass famines and peasant insurrections, like the Makhnovchina in the South. The Kronstadt uprising was the top of the iceberg of a mass movement that had its counterpart among the industrial proletariat. With its defeat, and the subsequent repression of political life, the backbone of the proletarian mass strike in Russia since 1905 was crushed, sealing off the counter-revolutionary involution of the Bolshevik party in power.

The following chapter from his major work Trotsky – the failed Stalin presents the analysis elaborated by the council communist Willy Huhn at the beginning of the 1950s of the role of the Bolshevik party, its leadership and of Trotsky in particular in these key events, with regards to the later political current of “trotskyism”.

From: Willy Huhn, Trotsky – the failed Stalin (1952)

[Ch. 1: Trotsky and the proletarian revolution, par. VI.]

The Bolsheviks tried to defame the Kronstadt uprising as a counterrevolutionary, White Guard action, and ANTONOV-OVSEYENKO spoke of “mutineers” and “anarchist partisans”. And even CLARA ZETKIN is not only convinced of a connection with the South Russian peasant revolts, but also sees the rebellion in Kronstadt in the light of the trial of the social revolutionaries (summer 1922), in which she spoke on behalf of the Comintern before the Supreme Revolutionary Court and studied the trial records for this purpose. But she must admit, in contrast to the demands of the peasant movement (free trade, admission of private and foreign capital, democratic freedoms, Constituent Assembly), “a striking variation”.

Namely, it was said in Kronstadt: Long live the Constituent Assembly – and the free soviets without the communists!”

She considers this demand a formal concession of the counter-revolution to the proletarian revolution. (1) Councils without Bolsheviks! OSKAR ANWEILER claimed that this slogan was not raised by the Kronstadters, but invented by MILYUKOV in emigration (Rätebewegung in Rußland 1905-1921, Leiden 1958, E.J. Brill, page 317, footnote 229). However, therein lies the “secret” of this “Paris Commune” in Bolshevik Russia. For example, the Workers’ Opposition had demanded through the mouth of Alexandra Kollontai that “the number of leading functionaries holding offices in the Soviet and party organs at the same time [should] be limited to the greatest possible minimum”. Now, RUTH FISCHER, following EMMA GOLDMAN, quotes as the fifth point of the Kronstadt Program: (2)

Abolition of the practice of delegating party representatives to every Soviet institution; no party shall have prerogatives and state support in the propagation of its ideas.”

Finally, the radio message of March 6, 1921, which states, among other things:

We fight for the power of the councils, not of the parties. We advocate the free election of representatives of the working classes. The communist (one means: Bolshevik, Huhn) controlled councils were always deaf to our needs and demands; they answered only with bullets …”

The next day, on the orders of Lenin and Trotsky, the artillery bombardment of Kronstadt began. So this time the Bolsheviks answered even with shells!

We do not intend here to give even a sketchy account of the Kronstadt uprising; ALEXANDER BERKMAN did that already a year later, from the best of his own expertise, since he had interceded with Zinoviev on behalf of the Kronstadt workers and mariners. (3) We would like to highlight only a few features that belong in our context. At the end of February 1921 a strike movement of the Petersburg workers had broken out, which the Bolsheviks, using the “Kursanti” (students of the Cadet Institute), suppressed. They finally even locked out the workers of a factory, at the same time depriving them of their food rations. When the Kronstadt mariners heard about this, they sent a committee to Petersburg to examine the situation. This committee reported to a people’s assembly in Kronstadt on March 1, 1921, which had been officially convened by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the Baltic Fleet liners and attended by some 16,000 Red Fleet mariners, Red Army soldiers, and workers. The indignant assembly adopted that famous Kronstadt resolution, some of whose demands we already know and which are supplemented here:

  1. Immediate new elections of the Soviets with secret ballot;

  2. Freedom of speech and of the press for workers and peasants, for all left-wing socialist parties and the anarchists;

  3. Liberation of all political prisoners of the socialist parties, as well as of the workers, peasants, Red Guards and mariners arrested and imprisoned on the occasion of the workers’ and peasants’ movements then agitating Bolshevik Russia.

Only the Bolshevik President of the Executive Committee of the Kronstadt Soviet, VASSILYEV, and the President of the RSFS, (4) KALININ, who was present, objected to this resolution. The Assembly sent a commission to the striking workers in Petrograd to consult with them on a common course of action. It consisted of thirty members and was immediately arrested by the Bolsheviks on entering the city. They were never heard from again. Immediately after the meeting, on the morning of March 2, 1921, an order signed by Lenin and Trotsky was issued declaring the Kronstadt movement to be an armed insurrection (myatosh) against the soviet [council] government! While in Kronstadt no Bolshevik was arrested, except for Kuzmin, the chief commissar of the Baltic Fleet, and Vasilyev, let alone shot, Trotsky declared to the Kronstadt rebels after a nasty journalistic smear campaign on March 6, 1921: “I will shoot you down like pheasants!” Berkman’s attempt to mediate with Zinoviev failed; Zinoviev himself delivered a diatribe against Kronstadt at the Petrograd Soviet session on March 4, 1921, and it was his closest associate, YEVDOMIKOV, who introduced the resolution accusing Kronstadt of counterrevolutionary sedition and demanding its immediate subjugation. Trotsky was not present at the meeting, but still arrived on the night of March 5. He and Stalin received the order to liquidate Kronstadt. TUCHACHEVSKY took over the general staff duties, Trotsky the official military hero role, and Stalin the liquidation of the uprising when, after ten days of fighting, Kronstadt had fallen. Trotsky also hastened to liquidate the workers’ movement there in Petersburg. The result of the victory of Trotsky, Stalin and Tuchachevsky in Kronstadt was about 14,000 corpses. So the effort had been made to destroy pretty much that entire rebellious popular assembly of March 1, 1921.

In principle, the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising against the Bolsheviks meant the final, indisputable, political-practical decision of Lenin and Trotsky in favor of party power and against the power of the soviets. There can be as little doubt about this as there can be about Ebert’s and Noske’s unequivocal, indisputable political-practical decision in favor of party power and against the German soviets since the evening of November 9, 1918. When Alexander Berkman compares Kronstadt with the Paris Commune, Lenin with THIERS and Trotsky with GALLIFET, another comparison thus suggests itself for Trotsky, and it is Noske himself who suggests it to us: When he once spoke of his intention of reorganizing the German army under Social Democratic guadianship, he boasted that he could have become “the Trotsky of Germany!” (5)

Since Kronstadt, the whole of “Trotskyism” has been only an apologia of Trotsky’s decisions and acts from 1917 to 1921, and thus at the same time an apotheosis of the Bolshevism of that period. Since the spring of 1921, therefore, also under the compulsion of this apologetics, Trotsky’s dialectical method sinks to the level of that “Eristic Dialectic” of SCHOPENHAUER, which already served the young Trotsky as a justification for his favorite method in the discussion. (6) Likewise, his historiography is impaired in some decisive points by his apologetic needs. Take, for example, his perspective of the “Permanent Revolution”, which was diametrically opposed to Lenin’s conception of the Russian Revolution. We have already heard Martynov’s opinion that the first period of the October Revolution (1917 to 1920) did not correspond to Lenin’s original conception, but to that of Trotsky in 1905. He developed it in the final chapter of his 1905-06 work on the history of the revolution, and it was precisely with regard to his “Perspectives on the Russian Revolution” that LUNATSHARSKY once described him as “more orthodox than Lenin”. More than a decade earlier, Trotsky correctly predicted the character of the Russian revolution – at least in its first phase: [a] peasant and thus bourgeois revolution, but not under the leadership of the urban bourgeoisie, but of the urban factory proletariat, which is to maintain it in permanence. Thus it is said at the same time that Lenin’s original conception has simply been dropped from the agenda of history. And it is Trotsky himself who cites ADOLF JOFFES’ last letter to him before his suicide (November 16, 1927), which states, among other things:

“You have always been politically right from 1905 onward, and even Lenin admitted – after all, I often told you that I heard it from him with my own ears – that in 1905 you and not he were in the right. One does not lie in the face of death, and I repeat it to you today.”

In the same volume, however, which contains this letter in the “Appendix”, we also find the section on “Real and Alleged Differences of Opinion”, in which it says in item 18: (7)

“We have said before the whole Communist International: ‘It is not true that we defend Trotskyism.’ Trotsky told the International that on all the fundamental questions over which he had quarreled with Lenin, Lenin was in the right – especially on the question of permanent revolution and the peasantry. This statement, intended for the whole Communist International, the Stalin group refuses to print. It goes on to accuse us of Trotskyism. Of course, this statement refers to past disagreements with Lenin and not to the alleged discords unscrupulously invented by Stalin and Bukharin.”

But when Trotsky, in the enforced leisure of his exile in Alma Ata in 1928, re-examines his old writings on the permanent revolution “with a pencil in his hand”, he again concludes that it was “precisely on the basis of his conception, i.e., the theory of the permanent revolution, … that he predicted the inevitability of the October Revolution thirteen years before its realization.” And so he undertakes an attempt to restore the theory of permanent revolution as it was first formulated by him in 1905. But with a remarkable addition: (8)

“I show in what my position actually differed from Lenin’s and how and why it coincided with Lenin’s position in all decisive situations.”

His apologetic method thus now mitigates the sharpness, indeed [the] incompatibility, of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s earlier positions in relation to each other, and consists essentially in attempts to prove the following assertions, which are at once headings and titles of his works:

“With Lenin in the International” – “With Lenin on the Peasant Question” – “Lenin’s Blank Power” (for Trotsky in July 1919) – “My Agreement with Lenin in Industrial Construction” – “With Lenin Against Stalin” – “With Lenin Against Stalin, Rykov, Kalinin and Bukharin”.

In order to mark the whole sharpness of Trotsky’s opposition to Lenin before 1917 and at the same time to prove that Trotsky foresaw even as early as 1909 that “degeneration” of the Bolshevik dictatorship, which, however, he himself did not notice in its beginnings until 1923 at the earliest, when his power necessarily melted away after the liquidation of “war communism” and in the first years of the NEP period, we will content ourselves with a few sentences from an article by Trotsky which appeared in the Polish Periodical Przeglad Social-demokratyczny”“probably in 1909”. Trotsky, whose “permanent revolution” requires the dictatorship of the proletariat only, here opposes Lenin’s thesis of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry and accuses Lenin not only of demanding from the victorious proletariat the restriction to merely a bourgeois-peasant revolution, but even advocating, “to supplement the political self-restraint of the proletariat with an anti-socialist ‘guarantee’ in the form of the peasants as collaborators.”

Trotsky foresees an imminent “conflict of the proletariat with the revolutionary government” in the event of the realization of Lenin’s conception, and sees only the following alternative for its solution:

“This conflict can end either with a taming of the workers by the peasant party or with the elimination of the latter from power.”

The whole misfortune lies in the fact that with this the Bolsheviks lead the class struggle of the proletariat only up to the moment of the victory of the revolution, then they would have to prevent the proletariat from carrying out its class tasks, since the peasants do not want socialism. Trotsky determined the difference between the Menshevik and Bolshevik perspectives on revolution at that time as follows:

“While the anti-revolutionary sides of Menshevism are showing themselves with all their force even now, a great danger threatens from the anti-revolutionary features of Bolshevism only in the event of a revolutionary victory.”

In his book on the 1905 revolution, in which he quoted this 1909 article, he now added to it in early 1922 a remark which a few years later served his opponents as evidence of “Trotskyism”:

“This (i.e., the anti-revolutionary danger from Bolshevism), as is well known, did not occur, since Bolshevism, under the leadership of comrade Lenin, had accomplished – not without internal struggle – its ideological transformation on this extremely important question in the spring of 1917, i.e., before the conquest of power.”

The Stalinists thus proved that Trotsky had considered that it was not he who had gone over to Bolshevism, but Bolshevism that had gone over to him. (9)

So let us hold to this example once and for all the principle of Trotsky’s apologetics:

1922: (Trotsky is still in an unshaken position of power)
He unmistakably expresses the view that Lenin in the spring of 1917 had moved to the position of “permanent revolution” and had reoriented his party in the Trotskyist sense, overcoming the considerable resistance of the old Bolsheviks (KAMENEV, Zinoviev, STALIN, etc.).

1923: (Trotsky’s position of power is threatened and shaken)
The former Menshevik Martynov notes that the October Revolution, carrying out Trotsky’s perspective, reached a dead end in 1921 “by tearing the proletariat away from the peasantry” and forced a far-reaching retreat of the Bolshevik Party (NEP). After the same he joined the Bolshevik Party.

1925-1927: (Trotsky completely lost his position of power)
Trotsky declares before the whole KOMINTERN that Lenin had been right on the question of “permanent revolution”.

1928: (Trotsky is in exile in Alma Ata)
Trotsky again asserts that the course of the revolution corresponds to his 1905 forecast, i.e., the perspective of “permanent revolution”.

1930: (Trotsky is in asylum in Turkey on Prinkipo)
Trotsky endeavors to soften his differences with Lenin before 1917 and to prove that he agrees with Lenin on all fundamental and decisive questions.

And it has remained so ever since!

In that writing in which he denounces Stalin’s falsifications of the history of the October Revolution, he declares already in 1929: (10)

“that my disagreements with Lenin were of a very incidental nature, and that as a resolute revolutionary I have developed more and more – and not only in words but also in deeds – towards Bolshevism”.

This statement refers to his activity during World War 1. Yes, when Trotsky demitted, resigned his position as chairman of the Revolutionary War Council (January 15, 1925), he even went so far as to declare his own teaching liquidated long ago:

“I never once in the course of the last eight years thought of approaching any problem from the standpoint of so-called ‘Trotskyism’. Trotskyism was and is for me long since liquidated.”

And Trotsky claims that this expression only appeared at all in the course of the discussion of his book “1917. The Lessons of October”. (11) But we already know that Trotsky could not yet have liquidated his theory, at least in 1922.

Trotsky’s political and principled attitude after 1925 can thus be understood only through his opposition to and struggle against the old Leninists. Again and again he tried to prove in vain that it was not the “Old Guard” of the Bolsheviks – of whom only Stalin remained – but he who represented and defended Lenin’s true thoughts and intentions against his Stalinist epigones. By the winter of 1920/21 at the latest, however, Trotsky had had to realize that the Bolshevik Party had not become Trotskyist. And after even Lenin had to revise the Trotskyist course in 1921 under pressure from the peasant movements and his old party comrades and return to his own original conception, the fall of Trotsky was only a matter of time. Even Lenin could no longer have supported Trotsky on this question against the party majority, and Trotsky knew this when he allowed the transition to the NEP, which after all put an end to his conception, to happen without resistance. (12) Yes, Lenin would not have been able to hold Trotsky even if he had still been alive in 1925. Trotsky was the man of “war communism”, he stood with it and he fell with it.

Willy Huhn, Berlin-Wannsee, 21/27 January 1952.

 

Source: Wily Huhn, Trotzki – der gescheiterte Stalin. Karin Kramer Verlag, West-Berlin 1973. (A scan in pdf is available at Left-dis.nl)

Translation: Jacob Johanson, March 26, 2021

The original source references by the author have been retained.

 

Notes:

1 Clara Zetkin, „Wir klagen an! Ein Beitrag zum Prozeß der Sozialrevolutionäre“. Verlag der Komintern, Hamburg 1923, S. 57.

2 Ruth Fischer, „Stalin und der deutsche Kommunismus“, US-American edition, Cambridge 1948. German translation with the publishing house of the „Frankfurter Hefte“, Frankfurt/Main (w.y.), S. 203.

3 Alexander Berkman, „Kronstadt – die Pariser Kommune Rußlands!“, (März 1922), in: „Der Syndikalist“, Organ of the FAUD, IV. Volume (1922), Nr. 11. – This is the original version of the extended essay „Der Aufstand von Kronstadt“ by the same author that appeared in „Monat“ (Nr. 30) in 1951.

4 [Official designations: Russian Socialist Federation of Soviets (RSFS), or Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (RSFSR) in 1918; extended and reorganized in the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) since 1922. Editor’s note]

5 Ruth Fischer, op. cit., S. 99.

6 Elias Hurwicz, “Staatsmänner und Abenteurer. Russische Porträts von Witte bis Trotzki 1891- 1925”. Leipzig 1925, S. 319.

7 Leo D. Trotzki, „Die wirkliche Lage in Rußland“, authorized edition. [German] Translation by Wilhelm Cremer, Avalun-Verlag, Hellerau bei Dresden (w.y.), 8–12 thousand, S. 264-265, 149. (According to a notice by the „Neuen Bücherschau“, VII/6, June 1929, this book is compiled “from coincidental newspaper articles and is not recognized as a book publication by Trotsky”, S. 299. In view of the difficulty of procuring Trotsky-Literature here in West Berlin, we will probably have to pass over Trotsky’s differences with the Avalun-Verlag, if only the newspaper articles combined in this anthology have been coincidentally” written by Trotsky himself. Moreover, we are very specially interested in his “coincidental newspaper articles”…)

8 Leo D. Trotzki, „Die Permanente Revolution“, Berlin-Wilmersdorf 1930, S. 31.

9 Grigori Dimitroff (Herausgeber), „Die Tragödie Trotzki“, Berlin 1925, S. 55-56.

10 Leo D. Trotzki, „Die wirkliche Lage in Rußland“, op. cit., S. 165-166.

11 Grigori Dimitrioff, op. cit, S. 54.

12 Arthur Rosenberg, Geschichte des Bolschewismus von Marx bis zur Gegenwart”, Berlin 1932, S. 153.

 

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