On the 100th Anniversary of the Suppression of Kronstadt

Paul Burrows (March 7, 2021)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the day that the repression against the Kronstadt soviet began. Judging from the relative absence of any discussion about Kronstadt over the last several years — since the fanfare marking the centenary of the October Revolution in 2017 as well as the 80th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination in 2020 — it seems that many self-described Marxists would still prefer to ignore the massacre of rank-and-file workers and sailors that was presided over by the leading lights of the Bolshevik Party in March 1921.  And as we will see below, even among those willing to discuss it today, there remains a hundred years after the fact a problematic tendency in some quarters to downplay, rationalize, or seek alibis for the perpetrators.  There are, of course, independent Marxist voices that have been more critical, and recent work by historian Simon Pirani (a former Trotskyist himself) is worth mentioning in this regard.[1]  Likewise, Samuel Farber continues to be someone who takes repression, and the Bolsheviks’ less-than-stellar relationship to both political and economic democracy seriously –– which he has been doing since his book Before Stalinism came out 30 years ago[2] But for the most part, the word “Kronstadt” has been conspicuously absent from the commemorative tributes to the “spirit of October” and to Trotsky himself that have flowered over the last several years. 

Amongst anarchists, of course, Kronstadt has long been viewed as a watershed moment on the slippery slope towards Stalinism.  It remains a symbolic watershed for understandable reasons, although there is a great deal of historical evidence that the “slippery slope” was already good and wet by 1918.  Some anarchists and fellow-travellers have also spoken about the Kronstadt soviet “rebellion” in more positive terms, and have been quick to post the 15-point “Kronstadt manifesto” that was drafted aboard the battleship Petropavlosk to not only let the workers and sailors speak for themselves, but also to emphasize that their political vision was revolutionary in its own right.[3]  Indicative of this more celebratory view of Kronstadt as resistance is the fact that anarchists and others from North America, Europe and Russia have organized an online conference called “Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia, 1921-2021 and Beyond,” to be held March 20-21 this month.[4] 

The contrast in emphasis is still surprisingly stark.  In the wake of glowing tributes to the spirit of the Russian Revolution, and to the ostensibly-invaluable intellectual and political contributions of figures like Trotsky, it has been unpopular to point out pretty modest truths –– why, for example, fawning tributes to Trotsky that failed to mention his role in repression were no better than tributes to Andrew Jackson that failed to mention the Trail of Tears and the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and other indigenous nations.  But apart from a few anarchist critiques here and there, and a few attempts by Marxists to distinguish themselves from Stalinism, there’s been relatively little said about the repression of working-class and peasant revolutionaries between 1917 and 1921 who had different visions about what a worker-led and ‘toiler’-led non-capitalist economy and polity ought to look like. This absence –– and the occasional ‘softer’ rationalizations that continue in many ways to follow the very talking points first articulated by Lenin, Trotsky and even more critical voices like Victor Serge –– does not bode well for a left-revolutionary movement that seeks to learn from the past, and that professes to advocate a qualitatively different form of “socialism from below.”[5]

It’s also important to point out that the wider scholarly historiography of the Russian Revolution has in many ways vindicated –– even arguably, given scholarly rigor to –– important aspects of the anarchist and libertarian analysis over the last 50 years –– even if some leftists, particularly those still-enamored with Lenin and Trotsky, have been reluctant to acknowledge it.  British historian Edward Acton discussed this sea change already evident in the historiography back in the early 90s.[6]  Arguably the work of Marxist historians like Pirani and Farber reinforce the point made by Acton, even if they themselves might be reluctant to concur. 

Back in November 2017 I wrote a short commemorative commentary about the Russian Revolution myself — in an attempt to neither blindly repeat hagiographic hero-worshipping, nor outright dismiss the spirit of the revolution from the standpoint of those ordinary workers and peasants who took part. One of the ways I did this was simply by showing how many prominent anarchists initially supported the revolution, without much qualification, both in terms of their enthusiasm for worker-led initiatives, factory takeovers, and other sprouts of a new post-Tsarist society, and also in terms of their opposition to capitalist states’ intervention and ‘bourgeois’ or Tsarist counter-revolutionary forces.  

For example, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman were both initially supportive of the revolutionary uprisings in February and October.[7]  Writing from the U.S. in October 1917 in Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine, Berkman even described the Bolsheviks as “the true revolutionists.”  After being deported to Russia in 1919, and upon arriving in late January 1920, Berkman described it as “the most sublime day of my life.” He spoke at a welcoming reception in Belo-Ostrov (north of Petrograd) the same day about setting aside sectarian differences:

            “From now on we are all one –– one in the sacred work of the Revolution, one in its defense, one in our common aim for the freedom and welfare of the people.  Socialists or anarchists –– our theoretical differences are left behind.  We are all revolutionists now, and shoulder to shoulder we’ll stand, together to fight and to work for the liberating Revolution.”[8]

But as Barry Pateman has noted, this honeymoon was short-lived for both Goldman and Berkman, partly due to the fact that their views from afar in the United States had been relatively uninformed.  Their short two-year time in ‘revolutionary’ Russia (between early 1920 and the end of 1921) –– including significantly the period when the Bolsheviks moved to systematically eliminate both the Makhnovist movement in Ukraine and all pretense to independence on the part of not just the Kronstadt Soviet but all workers –– was a belated but crucial lesson in the limits of this hoped-for “common aim”.  The experience had a profoundly negative impact on them both, but particularly on Berkman’s spirit and will to live.  One of the first things Goldman and Berkman did upon leaving Russia was jointly to publish an article in the British anarchist newspaper Freedom in early 1922 to try to raise awareness about the Bolshevik-led atrocities against workers and dissidents. [9]

Similarly, when Peter Kropotkin returned to Russia in the summer after February’s revolution he was invited to join the Provisional Government, although he declined.  As late as 1919, well after the Bolshevik consolidation of power, Kropotkin called for workers in other lands to try to force their own governments to cease any and all armed intervention in Russia, and he stated: “Russia is undergoing now a revolution of the same extent and importance as England underwent in 1639 to ’48, and France in 1789 to ’94. Every nation should refuse to play the shameful role played by England, Prussia, Austria and Russia during the French Revolution.”  He went on to defend the revolution against any and all “foreign armed intervention [that] necessarily strengthens the dictatorial tendencies of the government.” In other words, he was certainly not blind to the repressive elements, and in fact stated in 1919 that: “This effort to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralized state communism under the iron law of party dictatorship is bound to end in failure. We are learning … in Russia how not to introduce communism.” But he distinguished crucially between support for the revolution (which was ‘owned’ by no one) and support for the Bolshevik-led government that was attempting not only to consolidate power, but also to turn its attention towards suppressing ostensible allies and fellow-travellers.[10]

Like Kropotkin, I have always felt that it was important to distinguish between the revolution and those who claimed to speak for it, and even more so, from those who came to hold power by fair means or foul.  The relevant questions, it seems to me, remain the ones I posed in November 2017 around the time of the centenary:

Which revolution? Which spirit? Which ideas? Which struggles are liberatory and worth advancing, and which become oppressive (and why)? Whose interests are being advanced, and whose are being steam-rolled? What means are justified by our ostensible ends?”

Sadly, I don’t see a lot of these sorts of questions being asked. Instead, there is a lot of defaulting to ‘campism’ and party lines and the quoting of sacred texts and heroes. People love to inhabit their ideological and movement silos, and the confirmation biases that go with that ought to be self-evident. I would rather side with good ideas and good arguments than campism, which is why it’s important to face up to uncomfortable facts. I share Maurice Brinton’s view that it is better to eschew camps and labels, and talk about substance.  Rejecting the usual Marxist-anarchist hair-splitting, Brinton wrote in 1965: “We live here and now, not in Petrograd in 1917, nor in Barcelona in 1936. We have no gods, not even revolutionary ones.”[11]

Part of recognizing this is acknowledging basic facts, however inconvenient, not to mention failures of vision, as well as crimes committed. Yes, anarchists were rounded up, imprisoned, had their newspapers seized and printing presses destroyed, and were sometimes killed outright for advancing different revolutionary ideas starting quite early. Due process, evidence, trials, free expression, free association, indeed workers’ self-management itself, were sometimes mocked by Lenin and Trotsky and others within the Bolshevik Party as “bourgeois”, “anarchist”, and/or “syndicalist” deviations that were, in their view, “counter-revolutionary.”

Those targeted were not just actually-existing self-identified anarchists (like Gregory Maximov (or ‘Maximoff’ depending on the book) — who was arrested no less than six times between 1919 and 1921, largely for the views he expressed in the newspaper Golos Truda).[12]  But rather anyone so-labeled, including members of various left parties, and even Bolsheviks themselves began to be targeted as well. Just as we see to this day, the labels “anarchist”, “antifa,” “petty-bourgeois,” and so forth, are quite versatile in the vagueness and utility of their use as epithets –– whether deployed by actual pro-capitalist voices, or by one sector of the revolutionary left against another. 

The Cheka (secret police) was formed at the end of 1917, and — as Samuel Farber noted — quickly “acquired uncontrolled repressive powers.”[13]  The Red Terror began in the summer of 1918 — but the attacks against anarchists had begun more systematically even earlier in April. By November 1920, after they were no longer needed to help fight against genuine White Army counter-revolutionary forces allied with western capitalist states, Trotsky set out (and not for the first time) to eliminate the Ukrainian anarchists led by Nestor Makhno — not surprising, given that the Makhnovists were armed and battle-hardened from years of fighting “white” armies, and occasionally fending off “red” ones too.[14]  Adopting a modus operandi that would be repeated only a few months later at Kronstadt, all manner of lies and epithets were deployed against the Makhnovists to justify this repression.  Most notably, they were accused of being “backwards” and “anti-proletarian,” “bandits,” “kulaks,” “anti-Semites,” “counter-revolutionaries,” and even “White guard” agents or allies –– smears that were useful for the Bolsheviks, but which had little relationship to the truth, as both Iain McKay and Sean Patterson have discussed.[15] 

When Goldman and Berkman appealed to Bolshevik leaders like Alexandra Kollontai — and even directly to Lenin himself — on behalf of jailed anarchists, they received sympathy and assurances that “anarchists of ideas” (like themselves) would have nothing to fear.  The implication, of course, was that every anarchist executed, detained without charge, or imprisoned by the Cheka must by definition have deserved it.[16]  Ironically, Kollontai herself — an ardent Bolshevik since the beginning — came under attack later on for her role in the Workers’ Opposition movement that arose in 1920.  And what was the later charge against her and the entire Workers’ Opposition current?  Lenin called her ideas a “syndicalist and anarchist deviation” from Marx, and rebuked the idea that he himself had advanced in his polemic “State and Revolution” that workers were capable of governing their own political and economic affairs.  He called his own earlier ideas about this a “fairy tale.”  A motion was passed at the 10th Party Congress –– held in Moscow in March 1921 at the exact same moment that the Red Army was moving to crush Kronstadt –– condemning the Workers’ Opposition within the Bolshevik Party itself as “an anarcho-syndicalist deviation.”[17]

Kollontai’s treatment might remind one of that famous quote by Martin Niemoller: “First, they came for the [fill in the blank] and I did not speak out because I was not a [fill in the blank].” By the time Kollontai, Shlyapnikov, and other Workers’ Opposition members were being accused of “anarchist deviations” the repressive apparatus and the ideology that ran through it, and justified its measures, had a long 2-3 year history of being directed at non-Party dissenters.  Kollontai herself had more or less shrugged when Goldman had raised the issue of anarchist treatment.  But now the attacks –– which included familiar forms of name-calling, as well as outright threats of violence and formal bans on all “factions” within the party –– were being leveled against Bolshevik leaders themselves, and there was no one left to turn to for support.[18] 

The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta had presciently observed a couple years before Kronstadt that the Bolshevik leaders who were busy justifying the centralization of power in their own party’s hands, and empowering the Cheka to not only define who is an “enemy” but carry out summary executions as well, would themselves become victims of their own making.  Malatesta wrote:

            “Lenin, Trotsky and their companions are certainly sincere revolutionaries –– as they understand the revolution … but they prepare the governmental cadres that will serve those that will come, who will profit from the revolution and kill it.  They will be the first victims of their method, and with them, I fear, will fall the revolution.  And history will repeat itself; mutatis mutandis, it was the dictatorship of Robespierre that brought Robespierre to the guillotine and prepared the way for Napoleon.[19]  

By the time Stalinist assassins came to murder an exiled Trotsky many years later in Mexico, the machinery of repression may have been quantitatively different. But was it qualitatively different? Reasonable people can argue about the degrees.  Unlike Kollontai, however, Trotsky had done a lot more than shrug to contribute to the apparatus that ultimately led to his own purging and murder. By the time March 7th, 1921 came along, Trotsky had already played a crucial role in the crushing of the Makhnovists –– experiences that informed the subsequent discourse and methods brought to bear at Kronstadt.  Trotsky had also been one of leaders who had aided in the suppression of the Workers’ Opposition at the 10th Party Congress, an irony Kollontai herself pointed out when Trotsky faced his purging a few years later.[20]  His record was hardly the basis of political integrity from which to launch a grievance against his own isolation, expulsion, and exile after 1927.

Trotsky’s fate was by no means unique in this regard.  Writing in the late 1940s, Ida Mett had already noted that of the prominent Communist Party members who had played “an active part in the suppression [of Kronstadt],” at least six of them were subsequently shot in the wave of Stalinist purges (not counting Trotsky’s own murder), three were simply “disappeared,” and one committed suicide.[21]  One of the few who cut their teeth crushing Kronstadt to actually escape the later purges was Kliment Voroshilov –– who became a loyal servant of Stalin and, according to one account, personally signed no less than 185 execution lists during the 1930s. 

In other words, Malatesta’s prophetic words from 1919 were more than borne out by subsequent events.  Even Roy Medvedev, who seemed to take many early Bolshevik leaders’ pronouncements at face value, stated at one point that “Examples of this kind can be adduced endlessly.”[22]  By “this kind” he meant: examples of Communist Party members who, at one time aided and abetted the purges and executions, becoming in their own turn victims.       

Why should any of this old history matter now?  It matters because if we fail to properly understand the origins not just of Stalinism, but of the ideological and organizational framework that propelled and justified repressive measures against workers and peasants as early as 1918, and if we fail also to acknowledge and own up to historical crimes when they are so far removed in time and place, and if we continue to justify or find alibis for a process that centralized all political, economic, and military functions in the hands of a one-party State –– and if we buy into the notion that this one-party State was somehow synonymous with “rule by the working class” or buy into the notion that objective factors outside the Bolsheviks’ control were solely or even primarily responsible for the centralizing and repressive measures that were taken ––then we are essentially admitting that we have no idea what the actual class and social relations were in revolutionary Russia, and no idea how to avoid similar trajectories towards Stalinism in the future.[23]

How we explain the origins and nature of Stalinism is important, and how we explain both the Kronstadt “uprising” and its suppression also matters. Surprisingly, most of the justifications or soft alibis for the suppression of Kronstadt that continue to be articulated today derive from the same talking points first advanced by the likes of Lenin and Trotsky, and their supporters, as well as voices like Victor Serge (whose views changed somewhat over time, but remained fairly timid even in his latter-day challenges to Trotsky’s interpretation).  One needs only read the selections in the Pathfinder Press collection of Lenin and Trotsky’s views on Kronstadt, including the introduction by Pierre Frank and the supplementary material by John G. Wright (AKA Joseph Vanzler) of the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., and the exchanges between Serge and Trotsky in David Cotterill’s collection, to get a sense of how central mud-slinging and ad hominem attacks, and other fallacies were to these foundational narratives.[24]  It’s almost embarrassing to read such impoverished polemics.  To give only one example: in Lenin’s “report” to the 10th Party Congress on March 8, 1921 on the situation then unfolding at Kronstadt, almost every second sentence contained one his favoured epithets –– “White guard generals,” “White guard emigrés,” “petty-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries,” or “petty-bourgeois anarchists.”  There was almost nothing of substance beyond insults. 

For Lenin and the purveyors of similar accusations, the insults themselves were supposed to qualify as “explanatory evidence” justifying the repression.  There was no need for qualification, indeed no need for evidence.[25]  The implication, of course, was that whoever they/we happen to be arresting, imprisoning, expelling, killing or executing must be “backward” or “primitive”, “petty-bourgeois” or “counter-revolutionary,” “foreign agents” or stooges of foreign agents, “White guard” Tsarist enemies, or “anarcho-syndicalist” enemies.  It was enough to utter the epithets, and these, in turn, justified whatever treatment was meted out.  Evidentiary standards were almost irrelevant.  The epithets, and the punishments meted out, were to be understood as appropriate by definition.  There were, of course, lots of references to “irrefutable proof” of this or that by Lenin and Trotsky in their speeches and writings about Kronstadt, but given the relative absence of any actual evidence, and given the lack of any relevant causal relationship between the “facts” offered and the repression adopted, the “proof” and the mud-slinging were also apparently a litmus test of one’s faith in the party and its leadership. 

One could go on ad nauseum with such examples of fabrication, irrelevant and deceptive invective, and logical fallacies.  But in truth, anarchists and libertarian socialists and historians of varying political persuasion have been documenting and rebutting these points literally since the 1920s.  Emma Goldman’s 1938 pamphlet “Trotsky Protests Too Much” is merely one case in point.[26]  Some of Victor Serge’s exchanges with Trotsky in the late-30s are also indicative.[27]  It seems pointless to have to repeat the arguments here, again, about an historical event and crime whose basic causes and contours have long been known to those who cared to know.  It is lovely to see how time and scholarship have vindicated crucial aspects of the anarchist and libertarian narrative around Kronstadt, even if the process has been glacial, and the ‘vindication’ goes largely uncredited. Thirty years ago, Farber’s well-documented study showed how the Kronstadt rebels’ demands were anything but “petty-bourgeois” and in fact reflected a flexible and class-conscious, if inchoate, program “for a fully democratic worker and peasant soviet democracy.”[28]  This was hardly a revelation to anyone familiar with the historiography, but it was certainly nice to see cracks in the hitherto quite-contemptuous Marxist representations that were dominant throughout the Cold War. 

Similarly, Simon Pirani has more recently shown that the Bolsheviks outright lied about the aspirations and politics of the rebels (a fact that libertarians have been stating, with admittedly wide-ranging degrees of rigour since 1921), and more than this, his work has also shown that the Bolsheviks moved to crush both armed challenges to their Party’s exclusive control, but also to legal, intra-Party democratization efforts in equal measure.[29]  Both Farber and Pirani are well aware that the hardships of war and civil war are inadequate explanations, let alone alibis, for both the centralizing tendencies and policies of the Bolshevik leadership, and the repression they unleashed and facilitated –– again, nothing new to those who have been immersed in the libertarian left and anarchist historiography in particular, but nevertheless welcome contributions coming from within a Marxist framework.   

To this day, however, we still find ‘softer’ alibis for Bolshevik repression poking their way up through the cracks in the pavement.  Trotsky called the suppression of Kronstadt a “tragic necessity” and many still frame the question in this way: something the Bolsheviks had to do –– reluctantly or enthusiastically it didn’t matter –– because of the alleged “objective” circumstances they faced: war, civil war, counter-revolution, famine.  Even Paul Avrich himself suggested way back in 1970 that Kronstadt was an event whereby “the historian can sympathize with the rebels and still concede that the Bolsheviks were justified in subduing them.”[30]  

But it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that much of what revolutionary left voices writing about the Russian Revolution now understand to be the twin dangers of centralizing and bureaucratic party and state institutions, and an unaccountable apparatus of repression –– in other words, the basic anarchist position since 1918 –– were already evident before the Civil War in Russia began, and did not end after the White counter-revolution was defeated.[31]  The arguments about external threats and objective hardships and material constraints can only get you so far as permanent justifications for anti-democratic decision-making structures, new forms of class-stratification, continued exploitation of workers, forced requisitions and collectivization policies against peasants, suspension of civil liberties, criminalization of “factions” and dissent, and purges and summary executions of those who have different visions and ideas about how to build a post-Tsarist, let alone post-capitalist world. 

How we frame these questions matters today.  Was the repression against Kronstadt a “tragic necessity” as Trotsky and many of his acolytes continue to suggest ?  Was it a “tragic mistake” as Serge and many of his admirers continue to suggest?[32]  Or was it a political and ethical crime that should be understood as antithetical to any kind of socialism or anarchism worthy of the name –– as anarchists have been stating consistently since 1921?  When we describe a crime against humanity, or a crime against the working-class in its broadest sense, as a “mistake” it suggests that the actions in question were either a blunder or a tactical error –– a lapse in otherwise good judgment and noble intentions, rather than a fundamentally unprincipled policy choice.  The language we use, even a hundred years after the fact, can serve as subtle alibis for this kind of repression, and for the wider ideological, organizational, and institutional systems in question. This is no less true for Kronstadt as it is for countless other historical crimes, even if these are in very different contexts.  For example, the aforementioned hagiography of Andrew Jackson can serve as an alibi for settler-colonialism precisely because it calls the Trail of Tears a ‘tragic mistake.’  The Trail of Tears was no aberration, for starters –– and the U.S. colonial leadership knew quite well what it was doing: it was consciously dispossessing indigenous nations and expelling them in order to steal their land.  That’s not a ‘mistake,’ that’s a plan.  Likewise, histories of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam can serve as alibis for U.S. imperialism precisely because they frame the wanton slaughter of millions of civilians in southeast Asia as a ‘mistake’ rather than a conscious, calculated imperialist crime.  We can learn from these crimes, we can oppose ongoing and new ones in the present day, but we sure as hell ought not to be white-washing them with assertions of “necessity” or weasel words like “mistake.” 

[1] See Simon Pirani, “The Kronshtadt Revolt and the Workers’ Movement” (People & Nature, 26 February 2021).  https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/site-contents/the-kronshtadt-revolt-and-the-workers-movement/.

[2] See, for example, Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Verso, 1990), and a more recent article “The Russian Revolution Reconsidered,” Jacobin (1918): https://jacobinmag.com/2018/11/russian-revolution-civil-war-peasants-red-victory .

[3] For the 15-point “manifesto” and the context in which it was written, see Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising 1921 (Black Rose Books, 1971, iterations of which were originally published in French in 1938), p. 40-41; or Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton University Press, 1970, 1991 edition), p. 73-74.

[4] For details, panelists, and schedule see https://kronstadt2021.wordpress.com.

[5] An overview of Lenin and Trotsky’s views on the subject, as well as others in the later Trotskyist current, including John G. Wright (AKA Joseph Vanzler) of the Socialist Workers Party, can be found in V.I. Lenin & Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt (Monad Press/Pathfinder Press, 1979).  Some of Serge’s exchanges with Trotsky on Kronstadt can be found in David Cotterill (ed.), The Serge-Trotsky Papers (Pluto Press, 1994). 

[6] See for example the historiographical overviews in Edward Acton, “The Libertarians Vindicated?: The Libertarian View of the Revolution in the Light of Recent Western Research,” in Edith Frankel, Jonathan Frankel & Baruch Knei-Paz (eds.), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1992) and Edward Acton, Rethinking the Russian Revolution (Edward Arnold, 1990).

[7] The last couple issues of Berkman’s newspaper The Blast (in May and June of 1917) were positively glowing in their optimism about the Russian revolutionary potential.  See the complete collection published by AK Press in 2005.

[8] Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth (Pluto Press, 1989, originally published in 1925), p. 30.

[9] Berkman cited in Barry Pateman, “Cries in the Wilderness: Alexander Berkman and Russian Prisoner Aid,” in Bloodstained: One Hundred Years of Leninist Counter-revolution (AK Press, 2017), p. 244.  The initial article in Freedom was simply called “Bolsheviks Shooting Anarchists,” and it led to a flurry of similarly-veined material in the global anarchist press, and eventually to the publication of separate books by Goldman and Berkman.  See Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924); as well as Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth and Alexander Berkman, The Russian Tragedy (Black Rose,1976, originally published as three separate pamphlets in 1922). 

[10] See Peter Kropotkin, “Letter to the Workers of Western Europe,” April 28, 1919, in Roger N. Baldwin (ed.), Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets (Dover, 1970, originally published in 1927), p. 253-54.  This letter is also included in Iain McKay’s Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (AK Press, 2014) although it uses a different translation and gives a later date for the letter.

[11] David Goodway (ed), For Workers’ Power: The Selected Writings of Maurice Brinton (AK Press, 2004), p. 67.

[12] See Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (W.W. Norton, 1978) and Gregory Maximoff, The Guillotine at Work: Vol. 1: The Leninist Counter-Revolution (Black Thorn Books, 1979, originally published in 1940).

[13] Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Verso, 1990), specifically Chapter 4 entitled “Repression.”

[14] In fact, the Bolshevik betrayal of the Makhnovshchina was worse than this.  It had begun in 1919 with rear attacks on the Makhnovists while they were fighting against Denikin’s White Army forces, and after Denikin was defeated in October 1919, later attempts to disarm or bring Makhno’s forces under Red Army (and Bolshevik) control devolved into eight months of violent clashes as Makhno’s army waged a protracted guerrilla war against Red Army forces.  But in October 1920, when a renewed White Army threat against the entire revolutionary project emerged in the form of another major offensive –– this time led by “the Black Baron” Pyotr Wrangel, a Tsarist military officer –– the Bolsheviks once again appealed to Makhno for aid, and offered numerous concessions to the Ukrainian anarchists, in return for a military alliance against Wrangel.  As soon as this threat was dealt with, and victory over the Tsarist counter-revolution was all but assured, historian Paul Avrich noted that “the Soviet leaders [once again] tore up their agreement with Makhno,” and engaged in summary executions of Makhnovist leaders and widespread raids and arrests by the Cheka.  See Chapters 6 and 7 of Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, 1918-1921 (Freedom Press, 1987, originally published in 1923).  Also, Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 219-221. 

[15] See, for example, Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 (Black Rose, 1975, originally published in French in 1957), p. 657.  A new edition with a very good historical introduction by Iain Mckay that addresses these accusations in some detail was published by PM Press in 2019.  Also, see Alexandre Skirda, Nestor Makhno, Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1917-1921 (AK Press, 2004), and Sean Patterson, Makhno and Memory: Anarchist and Mennonite Narratives of Ukraine’s Civil War, 1917-1921 (University of Manitoba Press, 2020).

[16] Notwithstanding the absurdity of setting up a binary between “good” and “bad” anarchists that ostensibly justified the latter’s treatment, it was clear that even anarchists “of ideas” who were primarily engaged in intellectual work were ruthlessly suppressed by the Cheka.  V.M. Eikhenbaum (AKA Voline) was, like Maximov, primarily an intellectual and critic.  He was jailed at least twice by the Bolsheviks, and was ordered executed by Trotsky himself –– a fate that he only escaped due to public pressure on his behalf.  Eventually, the Bolsheviks agreed to release him from prison on condition that he go into permanent exile.  See Avrich, Anarchist Portraits (Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 129-130.

[17] Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 176.

[18] Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography (Haymarket, 2014, originally published in 1980), particular Chapter 16 on the Workers’ Opposition movement and the debates and resolutions of the 10th Party Congress in March 1921.

[19] Davide Turcato (ed), The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader (AK Press, 2014), p. 392.

[20] Porter, Alexandra Kollontai, p. 413.

[21] Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising, p. 31-32.

[22] Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (Vintage, 1971), p. 406.

[23] A lot of ink has been spilled on how best to label and define the “Stalinist” economic and political system that came into being in the Soviet Union.  Trotskyists have sometimes followed their master by calling it a “deformed workers’ state,” although frankly that’s giving it far too much credit.  Others have adopted terms like “bureaucratic collectivism,” “state-capitalism,” and “state-communism,” for various reasons. One’s preferred term hinges greatly on one’s interpretation of the actually-existing class and social relations in the USSR, and partly on presumed continuities and discontinuities between Leninism and Stalinism in power.  I tend to share Cornelius Castoriadis’s view that any pretense to discussing the Soviet system at any historical moment as constituting something “socialist” or resembling a “workers’ state” in any meaningful sense, is nothing but a “horrendous enterprise of mystification.”  Castoriadis cited in Michael Albert & Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow (South End Press, 1981), p. 57.  Time and space limitations preclude going into this literature in any detail, but Castoriadis, Maurice Brinton, and Albert & Hahnel are all worth reading and reflecting on here.  As always, labels are less important than the substance of what is being discussed.

[24] Lenin & Trotsky, Kronstadt, and Cotterill (ed.), The Serge-Trotsky Papers

[25] See for example Lenin and Trotsky’s joint statement published in Pravda on March 2, 1921 in which they asserted as a matter of fact that the Kronstadt “mutineers” were led by a “White guard” Tsarist General named Alexander Kozlovsky.  See “The Revolt of Ex-General Kozlovsky and the Warship Petropavlovsk,” in Lenin & Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 65-66.  As Paul Avrich demonstrated, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest this was the case.  The Bolsheviks just assumed it must be true, and used the fabrication to garner support for their subsequent attack on the soviet.  See Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p. 99-101.  

[26] Emma Goldman, “Trotsky Protests Too Much” (1938): https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-goldman-trotsky-protests-too-much

[27] Serge started out in the early 1920s parroting some of the official Bolshevik propaganda related to Kronstadt, as Cotterill notes in The Serge-Trotsky Papers: “Since Serge was in Petrograd at the time of the Kronstadt rising, and in sympathetic contact with anarchist mediators of the dispute, his retelling of the Soviet regime’s falsifications of the sailors’ demands is particularly culpable.” (p. 217-218 footnote 36).  Fortunately, as Cotterill also notes, Serge’s representation of the events had improved markedly by the time of his debates with Trotsky in the late 30s, and by the time he wrote his own memoirs.

[28] Farber, p. 190.

[29] Pirani, “The Kronshtadt Revolt,” see Footnote 1 above.

[30] Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p. 6.  This remark by Avrich was understandably quoted with great fanfare by Pierre Frank in his introduction to the Pathfinder Press collection of Lenin and Trotsky’s writings on Kronstadt –– although the fact that Avrich then went on to debunk almost every salient talking point that Lenin and Trotsky made on the topic was conspicuously absent from Frank’s opening remarks.  Salient in this regard was what Frank called the “irrefutable proof of a conspiracy between outside forces and those at Kronstadt” (Lenin & Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 31).  Frank deliberately distorts and omits Avrich’s evidence and conclusions on this and other Lenin and Trotsky talking points, as Avrich himself makes clear on p. 129. 

[31] Iain McKay has powerfully summed up these arguments in his introduction to the PM Press edition of Voline’s The Unknown Revolution (see Footnote 15 above).

[32] To be fair, Serge described Kronstadt as both a “needless crime” and as a “mistake,” so in some respects he viewed these as similar things: “Trotsky did not know what all the rank and file communist knew: that out of inhumanity a needless crime had just been committed against the proletariat and the peasants … It is indeed in the field of repression that the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party committed the most serious mistakes from the beginning of the revolution, mistakes which were to contribute most dangerously, on the one hand, to bureaucratizing the party and the state, and on the other, to disarming the masses and more particularly the revolutionists.”  Victor Serge, “Reply to Trotsky,” The New International (1939), reprinted in Cotterill, The Serge-Trotsky Papers, p. 176.

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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