The heroic, tragic tale of the Kronstadt sailors can be viewed from two very different and, to be honest, diametrically opposing angles. That of the communist dictatorship, and that of human emancipation (the completest form of which is anarchism, just as communist dictatorship is the most comprehensive form of oppression experienced to date).
From the angle of the communist dictatorship, Kronstadt, that bastion of revolution, amounted in 1917 to a weapon in the destruction of the liberal, peasant and social democratic parties (which were dominant in the Constituent Assembly at that point) and a crucial factor in the duality of power that had emerged between the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets and Kerensky’s “petit bourgeois” government. But in October 1917, the Communist Party put paid to that duality by overthrowing the petit bourgeois government on the one hand and by enslaving the workers’ soviets – neutralizing both.
Like the Makhnovist epic, the Kronstadt revolt was ultimately a battle foisted by the communist dictatorship upon its former allies of 1917 and taken by it to the lengths of utter liquidation of those same allies. Naturally, the slanders targeting the Baltic sailors and the Ukrainian peasants were borrowed from the familiar Jacobin and communist lexicon – “Agents of the reaction” and “agents of the foreigner”, “traitors to the homeland and the revolution.” “Apologizing” for the victims of Red tyranny is redundant: fighting – even by recourse to arms – against the most virulent and destructive form of oppression requires no apology; and there is no need to apologize for one’s anti-communism, any more than there would be for one’s anti-fascism or anti-Nazism.
From the libertarian point of view, Kronstadt marked an awakening on the part of personnel who had thought that in Bolshevism they were looking at a “socially progressive” element, an “historic stride in the direction of the emancipation of labour” and who had been brought by events to the realization that Bolshevism was the precise opposite of all that.
There is no denying that Kronstadt tabled and championed demands that anarchists cannot but applaud and which are still wholly valid in the Iron Curtain countries:
1. A secret ballot with unrestricted freedom of speech and expression for all schools of thought within organizations such as trade unions, communes and cooperatives.
2. Exclusion of political parties, meaning formations that dispense with the unfettered jockeying of these schools of thought and replace it with orchestrated capture of votes and positions.
3. The separation of every party and the State (or, and it boils down to the same thing, of Church and State) and this of spiritual and temporal power, which means nothing short of genuine secularism.
4. Complete freedom for peasants and artisans to make use of land, livestock, tools and premises in their possession, as long as they do not exploit the labour of anyone else.
5. Finally, a call for human bloodshed to be avoided and for presumed adversaries to be treated as persons eligible for emancipation and not as straightforward instruments of the machinery of social oppression being eliminated, elevating the Kronstadt commune to a moral loftiness rarely witnessed in past revolutions.
One final word, by way of answering those who still look upon anarchism as an aim immanent within communism, and anarchists as irregulars or outriders in a battle in which the communists make up the bulk of the army. It was argued that Lenin and Trotsky, instead of treating the Kronstadt sailors like (to borrow their own expression) game or vermin, could have come to an arrangement with them in order to copper fasten the communist system; that way, they add, they might have been spared the step backwards that was the NEP.
This is a point of view with which I am well familiar, having subscribed to it myself during the 1920s along with other bona fide revolutionaries. I now think that it is untenable and for two basic reasons. For a start, we now know that the NEP on its own allowed the Russian people to escape death by starvation and the most utter economic disorganization: the 1921-1928 period lingers still in the memories of Russian workers as a time of fattened calves, peace at home and growing prosperity, sandwiched between two periods of horrific terror and famine. Then again we have to keep it in mind that the relative freedoms afforded by the NEP were effectively a concession made to the people’s demands as articulated by Kronstadt.
Those demands could not be welcomed by the Bolshevik dictatorship under pressure from without and without admitting its own demise and its own liquidation; in order to remain intact whilst wriggling out of a certain desperate economic situation, it had to begin by massacring every last one of the men calling for reforms before introducing some of those same reforms from on high at the “sovereign” instigation of absolute authority. Which is why every Bolshevik gyration since 1917 has been accompanied by a ruthless purge of personnel who had been calling for a change of direction: before their policies were hijacked, the dictatorship liquidated them. This is the opposite procedure to that employed by parliamentary regimes that can call upon fresh line-ups and diligently preserves them so as to – in appearance at any rate – satisfy every change in opinion. A parliamentary regime would undoubtedly suggested to “the Kronstadters” that, through their delegates, they become partners in a new legislative assembly and a new ministry: a despotic regime had no recourse other than to kill them off in order then to steal the politically useful parts of their “programme”.
Témoins (Zurich), No 10/11, Autumn-Winter 1955-56) From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult https://tumult.noblogs.org/post/2020/02/15/un-anarchisme-hors-norme-andre-prudhommeaux/ )
Translated by: Paul Sharkey.