The Retreat of the World-Revolution – The 1921 ‘Kronstadt Tragedy’

The Tragedy of Kronstadt (March 1921)

More than foreign policy, the events of Kronstadt brought to light the growing divorce between the Russian state and the proletariat. Indeed, strikes were escalating in February 1921 in the Petrograd factories, which were always the heart of the Russian Revolution. They were directed as much against food-rationing as against the economic and social policy of the state and the Bolshevik party.

Despite the allegations that the strikes were fomented by the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries or the anarchists – the majority of them were, in fact, in prison – the movement assumed a spontaneous character, without leaders or organisation. It extended to all the large factories, including the Putilov factories, the main bastion of the 1917 Revolution. Faced with this, Zinoviev and the Petrograd Bolsheviks responded with repressive measures: dispersal of demonstrations by the cadets (koursantis); lock-outs of factories on strike; loss of ration-cards for strikers; institution of martial law; widespread arrests; immediate executions in the case of political assemblies; and surveillance of workers in the factories by troops of armed Bolsheviks. (1) These measures had the effect of crystallising and politicising the workers’ latent discontent, which had been growing for several months. The political demands included abolition of martial law; liberation of all those imprisoned; freedom of assembly, press and speech for workers; free elections to strike-committees and soviets: all the demands directed against ‘the dictatorship of the party’ and the Cheka showed the antagonism between the proletariat and the state upon which the Bolsheviks were based. They were an appeal for workers’ democracy and the revitalisation of the soviets which had been absorbed by the state and the Bolshevik party.

In the midst of this situation, the sailors and workers of the Kronstadt repair-yards sent delegations to the Petrograd factories. The result was that the Kronstadt sailors and workers took up the demands of the Petrograd workers and broadened them: re-election of the soviets by secret ballot; organisation outside the Bolshevik party of a conference of workers, soldiers and sailors of the province; freedom of the press and organisation for anarchists and left-socialists. Sending Kalinin and Kuzmin – whose attitude was provocative – to Kronstadt could only serve to bring things to a head. The result was the formation of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee (PRC) representing the whole population of the island, at the same time as the workers of Petrograd went back to work under the effects of the terror.

Armed confrontation between the Bolsheviks and the Kronstadt sailors became inevitable. The latter were described as counter-revolutionary ‘White Guards’, in the pay ‘of the French capitalists’. (2) Their families in Petrograd were taken hostage; they themselves were threatened with being ‘shot down like partridges’. Finally Trotsky, whom the insurgents called ‘Junker Trotsky’, or ‘blood- thirsty Trotsky’, (3) gave the order to crush Kronstadt on 7 March, leaving the sailors and workers no hope of survival: ‘I am giving the immediate order to prepare to crush the revolt. The insurgents will be executed’. (4) With the slogan ‘victory or death’, the sailors and the workers, who had all been armed, fought with desperate energy. The government had mobilised tens of thousands of soldiers – of whom the majority came from Central Asia, and so were more easily swayed by official propaganda – joined by members of the Bolshevik party, including those of the Workers’ Opposition. (5) Behind them were the Chekists, who shot the numerous deserters and fired on troops who went over to the Kronstadt insurgents. Tukhatchevsky’s (6) troops finally defeated the insurgents; tens of thousands of sailors and workers were shot; the survivors were sent to prison or to the camps where they perished. (7)

The programme of the Kronstadt insurgents was not sufficiently clear to grasp the attention of left-communists. It certainly rejected any idea of the Constituent Assembly and any return to the past; it simply wanted, in a confused way, a dictatorship of the councils without parties of any sort, and not a dictatorship exercised by a single party. However, this idea of a ‘dictatorship of the class’, as opposed to the ‘dictatorship of the party’ was to be developed at the end of 1921 by the Dutch and German left-communists, above all by the KAPD. By contrast, the Kronstadters’ call for a ‘third revolution’ remained very vague and offered no perspective. The idea, besides, of ‘giving the peasants complete freedom of action on their land’ but ‘without using any wage-labour’ could only arouse the hostility of Gorter and the KAPD. (8) They were hostile to all concessions to the peasantry, which they identified with the kulaks.

In fact, at first the KAPD supported the official thesis of a plot against Soviet Russia. Claiming that the French boats were in Reval to support the insurrection in Russia – which was false – they declared: ‘The counter-revolutionary Russian emigrants are returning to Russia, and Count Wrangel is preparing in Hungary with the aim of providing military support’(9) The action of the insurgents was defined as anti-communist and counter-revolutionary: ‘The exact knowledge of Russian conditions permits the counter-revolutionaries to provoke an insurrection, which, in its first phase, was of the same kind as a third revolution. During this struggle, with the demand for the Constituent Assembly, the imprint of an uprising directed against communism becomes clearly apparent.’

Nevertheless, the KAPD’s organ clearly shows the context: hunger and ‘discontent with the dictatorship of the party and the Soviet bureaucracy’(10)

It took the detailed account of the KAPD delegates in Moscow, and in particular that of Arthur Goldstein (11) – assisted by Adolf Dethmann – who represented the party on the Executive of the Comintern, to change the attitude of the left-communists. Goldstein gave a more exact appreciation of the proletarian meaning of Kronstadt:

The antagonism between the proletariat and the Soviet government has been sharpened since the outbreak of food-riots in Moscow and Petrograd: the Soviet government took very severe measures, which were no different from those adopted by a capitalist state. I should add that the Kronstadt uprising ought to be interpreted as a symptom of the antagonism between the proletariat and the Soviet government. The history of the Kronstadt insurrection is not only that of foreign capital which played a role against the Soviet government, but also the fact that the great majority of the Russian proletariat were, from the bottom of their hearts, on the side of the Kronstadt insurgents.” (12)

This attitude of the KAPD organs was much clearer and better-founded than that adopted by Gorter. At the Third Congress of the Comintern Radek and Zinoviev accused him of ‘supporting Kronstadt’(13) While noting that the Russian proletariat had risen against the Communist Party and that he would much prefer to have ‘a dictatorship of the class, instead of a dictatorship of the party’, Gorter considered the measures taken by the Bolsheviks with regard to Kronstadt to be ‘necessary’. They had crushed the ‘counter-revolution’, and Gorter implicitly envisaged that left-communists would be led to take such measures in the West if the counter-revolution were as strong among part of the proletariat: ‘You can still repress the counter-revolution when part of the proletariat rises against you as at Kronstadt and Petrograd, because there it is weak enough. But here it would triumph, if part of the proletariat rose against us. For here, the counter-revolution is very powerful.’ (14)

This conception, strange coming from a militant appealing for a ‘dictatorship of the class’ in the form of the councils (a demand which had been, in part, formulated at Kronstadt), is explained, above all, by the enactment of the NEP on 15 March, at the same time as the assault against Kronstadt. This constituted, as Riazanov rightly emphasised, a veritable ‘peasant Brest-Litovsk’. The freedom for the peasants to dispose of their surplus and the freedom to trade were all retreats before the forces of the petty-bourgeoisie. If this concession was, for Lenin, a temporary retreat, it nevertheless heralded the famous ‘enrich yourselves’ addressed by Bukharin to the kulaks. It is symptomatic that these measures, more than the repression, disarmed all attempt at a soldiers’ insurrection in support of the Kronstadt mutiny.

Gorter – unlike the KAPD, which had begun to build close relations with the Russian left-communists and was better informed – saw in Kronstadt and the NEP the triumph of a peasant counter-revolution. (15) According to him, ‘a little action by a group of peasants – it is said that the crews of the warships were, for the most part, made up of the sons of peasants – would be sufficient’ for ‘communism to fall at the slightest blow’. The Bolshevik party thus appeared as the party of the peasantry and ‘the proletariat made to serve the peasantry’(16)

However, all the left-communists, Gorter, Pannekoek and the KAPD included, were agreed in denouncing the counter-revolutionary direction of the measures taken in the economic and political fields. From April 1921 the KAPD, via its delegates in Moscow, denounced ‘the present forms which seem to come close to a sort of state-capitalism’. Moreover, after the Tenth Congress of the Russian party banned the Workers’ Opposition as an organised fraction, and all fractions in general, workers’ democracy in the Bolshevik party was dead: ‘After the last congress of the Russian Soviet Republic, there can be no doubt that in Russia there is no dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of the party’(17) This position, which Gorter shared with the KAPD, was the harbinger of a break with the Comintern.

The Russian question, and so the fate of the Comintern, became major preoccupations within the Dutch and German communist left. From now on, the fate of the Russian Revolution and the Comintern was played out in Germany.

Source: Philippe Bourrinet, The Dutch and German Communist Left (1900–68), Brill (Leiden, Boston), 2017. Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume 125. ISSN 1570-1522.

Extract of Part 2: The Dutch Communist Left and the World-Revolution (1919–27); Chapter 5: Gorter, the KAPD and the Foundation of the Communist Workers’ International (1921–7) (p. 226 – 234)

Extensive annotations in footnotes have been truncated, indicated by square brackets [… ]; the Oxford-English spelling has been respected.


1 See Avrich 1970; Berkman 1982; Mett 1993; and an impressive collection of Russian texts, Vinogradov and Kozlov (eds.) 1999.

2 This claim that the Kronstadt insurgents were led by the ‘White Guard’ was based on the presence of an old Tsarist general, who was serving in the fleet. But Tukhachevsky was also an old Tsarist officer. At the end of 1919, the official figures showed the integration of 100,000 Tsarist officers out of the total of 500,000 in the Red Army. The Kronstadt insurgents refused to follow the military advice of the old Tsarist general, Aleksandr Kozlovsky (1864–1940), who officially commanded the artillery as a ‘military specialist’, and was able to escape to Finland after the defeat. It is certain, however, that the Whites did not remain inactive. […]

3 Kronstadt Izvestia, No. 5, 7 March 1921: from the French translation published in 1969 by Bélibaste, Paris. The Kronstadters made a clear distinction between Lenin and Trotsky. They believed that Lenin, being ill, had fallen under the influence of Zinoviev and Trotsky. In No. 12, on 14 March, the Kronstadters acknowledged their disappointment in Lenin, when he had declared at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party that ‘the movement was for the soviets but against the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks’ and that it was a ‘counter-revolution of a new kind’. They thought, like the Russian workers, that ‘Lenin was different from Trotsky and Zinoviev’. They still ‘trusted in him’ (Kronstadt Izvestia, No. 12, 14 March 1921). They concluded from it that Lenin was finally led to ‘slander’ them, like Trotsky and Zinoviev. But Lenin was ‘sincere’, although sinking into ‘confusion’.

4This radio message from Trotsky is taken from the 1969 Bélibaste translation. We have not been able to verify the Russian text of Izvestia No. 5 of 7 March. Ida Mett indicates not that the insurgents would be ‘executed’, but rather ‘crushed by armed force’ […]

5 Alexandra Kollontai declared that the members of the Opposition would be the first to volunteer to crush the Kronstadt revolt: Avrich 1970, p. 175.

6 In 1939, the Stalinist régime accused Tukhachevsky of being responsible for the Kronstadt insurrection!

7 It is highly significant that the insurgents, who had imprisoned a small minority of Communists who were hostile to the uprising, used no violence against them. All violence was excluded in the insurgents’ camp […].

8 Resolution from the ship Petropavlovsk, 28 February 1921; quoted by Avrich 1970, pp. 75–6. It is certain that the weight of the small peasants was felt by the sailors, because two-thirds were of peasant-origin in 1921. But this social composition was not very different from that of the Kronstadt sailors in 1918.

9 KAZ Berlin, No. 177.

10 KAZ Berlin, No. 179, ‘Die Offensive gegen Russland beginnt!’.

11 Goldstein, soon replaced by B. Reichenbach (1888–1975; pseudonym: Johannes Seemann), was in contact with the Russian Workers’ Opposition in Moscow. It was he who brought Kollontai’s manuscript of the Workers’ Opposition to the West via a special KAPD courier. It was immediately translated into German and Dutch and produced by the KAPD and the organ of the opposition in the Netherlands, De Kommunistische Arbeider. The Solidarity group published an English version in September 1968.

12 Intervention at the extraordinary congress of the KAPD in Berlin, 11–14 September 1921. Reproduced in the proceedings: Klockner (ed.) 1981, pp. 58–9.

13 Komintern 1921a, pp. 90, 342. Schwab (pseudonyms: Franz Sachs; Sigrist), KAPD delegate to the Third Congress, had the same point of view as Gorter, declaring that ‘Gorter does not side with the Kronstadt insurgents and it is the same for the KAPD’ (p. 621).

14 Die Klassenkampf Organisation des Proletariats, in Gorter and Pannekoek, 1969.

15 The KAPD delegates in Moscow had more contact with the group of Efim Nikitich Ignatov (1890–1938?) in Moscow (see KAZ No. 204) than with Alexandra Kollontai. The Ignatov group demanded respect for workers’ democracy and the struggle against the party-bureaucracy. It also demanded – and this did not displease the KAPD – that the leading organs of the Bolshevik party should be at least two-thirds composed of workers. It was based on the Workers’ Opposition.

16 Gorter 1972.

17 Gorter, ‘Partei, Klasse und Masse’, in Proletarier, organ of the KAPD, No. 4, Berlin, March 1921.