Monday, 11 November 2013

Kronstadt, the rebellion forgotten by many

If you speak to many Trotskyists and mention the K word they will go white in the face and shift uneasy as Kronstadt for them is a difficult one to explain. The workers rebellion of March 1921 stands out as one of the most brutal acts the BOLSHEVIKS Committed in their time in power. For me the Russian Revolution itself is a major inspiration to my political ideas but the Kronstadt rebellion which I brought up once when I was a member of the socialist party was rarely discussed and if it was I was brought to one side and told this act by the BOLSHEVIKS Was necessary to defend the revolution from "outside forces". This seems to be the common line from Trotskyists who try to justify this brutal act on the good sailors and workers who helped in the early days of the revolution who were not happy with the authoritarian nature of the BOLSHEVIKS And their methods of suppression of freedoms. “An understanding of the Russian revolution is vital for any understanding of why the left failed in the 20th century. Yet most discussion amongst revolutionaries never goes beyond the usual argument about the Kronstadt rebellion. The left's present crisis has forced rethinking in some circles but many of us continue to cope with isolation by clinging onto our respective traditions. Anarchists and libertarian communists emphasize the Bolsheviks' authoritarian policies, blaming them for the revolution's failure, while underestimating the difficulties of constructing a new society in an isolated country devastated by civil war. In contrast Trotskyists blame these material conditions exclusively for the revolution's degeneration, dismissing most left-wing criticisms of the Bolsheviks as giving comfort to the right. Bolshevik policies were problematic from the start. In 1917 Lenin argued that, as private capitalism could not develop Russia, a revolutionary state would have to use 'state capitalism' to build the prerequisites for the transition to communism. This approach was always likely to come into conflict with the working class. Then, as the revolution failed to spread outside Russia, the Bolsheviks imposed even more external discipline on workers, effectively abandoning Marx's insistence on "the self-emancipation of the working class". This concept of "self-emancipation" implies that the working class can only create communism by freely making and defending the revolution themselves. So the action of workers taking day-to-day control of every aspect of society is itself the essence of the revolutionary process. Considerable compromises with the ideals of self-emancipation were inevitable in the crippling conditions of the Russian revolution. By October 1917 there were 900 workers' councils or soviets, controlling everything from housing to hospitals. There were also more than 2,000 elected factory committees which were even more powerful because they had been compelled to supervise the factory owners and production. The Bolshevik party was dwarfed by these bodies and was often overtaken by the rapid radicalization of workers. However, unlike the reformist Mensheviks or the peasant oriented Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), it had not joined the repressive Provisional Government; a regime that had totally discredited itself by its failure to maintain living standards, authorise land seizures or provide peace. The openness and flexibility of the Bolshevik party allowed it to express workers' desire for a government of all the soviet parties. On 25 October it organised the overthrow of the Provisional Government and set up a Soviet government headed by Lenin Once in power the overriding concern of the Bolshevik leadership was the revival of industry to overcome a largely feudal crisis-ridden society. To this end they proposed to nationalise the largest monopolies, initially leaving the rest of industry under capitalist ownership combined with both government and workers' control. This was consistent with Lenin's arguments before October that "socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole people and has to that extent ceased to be capitalist monopoly." He later said, "we recognise only one road - changes from below; we wanted the workers themselves, from below, to draw up the new, basic economic principles." But, like the Second International he came from, Lenin never developed a consistent theory of workers' self-management, tending to only advocate "inspection", "accounting and control" by workers of the decisions of others.” This is very similar to many Trotskyist parties today and their programme is very close if not identical to the original programme Lenin looked to set about putting into place. The term those who fail to learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat them. So for me whilst being inspired by the early days of the Russian revolution what followed the suppression and the terror does not inspire me and has lead me to re assess my thoughts and political feelings as to how a revolution can be carried out. Kronstadt for me is a chilling tale of a rebellion by workers who were involved in the original revolution in 1917 yet had grown tired of the lack of freedom and democracy that was allowed. They feared the growing tide of suppression by the government. “Trotskyists usually justify the Bolshevik's actions on the grounds that the heroic sailors of 1917 had been replaced by newly recruited peasants, easily influenced by counter-revolutionary ideas. But Evan Mawdsley and Israel Getzler cite Soviet research which shows that three-quarters of all the sailors in Kronstadt in 1921 had probably been there since World War One. It also clearly demonstrates that 90% of the sailors on the two main battleships were drafted before 1918 White exiles had tried to help the mutineers and the main leader of the rebellion, Petrichenko, did join the Whites for a period after the mutiny was suppressed. Still, there is no convincing evidence that the mutineers had any ties to the Whites during the rebellion itself and it appears that no foreign power even attempted to take military advantage of the situation. Moreover Lenin himself said, "There they do not want either the White Guards or our government". So the Bolshevik regime's need to suppress any rebellion calling for democracy was at least as much a factor in its attitude to the sailors as the threat of intervention from abroad. Trotskyists are right to say that a major cause of the degeneration of the revolution was its inability to spread which meant that it was crippled by objective factors such as economic backwardness, isolation and civil war. Nevertheless they are wrong to advocate a rigid determinism, minimising ideological factors. This is especially the case when at every stage of the bureaucratisation of the regime there were vocal critics within the Bolshevik party itself who proposed alternative policies that might have slowed this process. Even if the appalling conditions of the civil war justified their policies then, they cannot excuse the repression both before and after the war. Of course Trotskyists could argue that the civil war and economic collapse started in 1917 so Lenin's attitudes were justified from the beginning. But soviet democracy withstood the crises of 1917 and then expanded sufficiently to make a revolution in October. So it must have had the potential to survive the threats of 1918 better than it did, especially as it was supposedly holding state power. The civil war also cannot be used to excuse the Bolshevik leaders' lack of regret about their use of repression. For instance, although Lenin described the NEP as a 'defeat', at no stage did he describe the suppression of soviet democracy and workers' control in such language. Indeed the Bolsheviks even called their civil war policies "communist" although they were obviously the antithesis of genuine communism. It is easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight. However there is something very disturbing about the fact that Trotskyists still claim that the Bolsheviks were acting as communists after 1918 when they were clearly acting more as agents of the degeneration of the revolution. Material conditions did limit everything at this time but this includes Lenin and Trotsky's ideas so their applicability eighty years later is surely also severely limited. Effectively many Trotskyists are arguing that, if it is necessary, Marx's insistence on "self-emancipation" and a democratic workers' republic can be postponed provided people like Lenin and Trotsky run the 'workers' state' and raise the red flag for international revolution. Yet for the Bolsheviks to suppress the Russian working class - on behalf of a world working class that has no say in this policy - contradicts any concept of proletarian self-emancipation. Workers will never be inspired by a Marxism that offers the possibility of state subjugation in a 'holding operation' until the whole world has had a revolution. This argument also assumes that Lenin's internationalism could have remained intact while the revolution degenerated all around him. But future writing will show that his internationalism was compromised not long after October. Some Trotskyists do have criticisms of a number of Bolshevik policies, such as the post-war restrictions on soviet democracy. However none of them are willing to stray too far from Trotsky's own reservations which he only really voiced when he had lost power. Their lack of appreciation of what might be valuable in the Bolshevik tradition is shown by the fact that no Trotskyist organisation today allows the range of views that coexisted in the Bolshevik party even during the civil war. Besides, considering the extent of the repression resorted to by Lenin's regime, the priority is not to criticise individual policies but to try and work out how revolutionaries could have avoided getting into this appalling situation in the first place. If the Bolsheviks had respected workers' democracy they may well have lost power. Nevertheless this would have been a gamble, like the October revolution, that they would have been right to take, one that in itself would have restored some of the party's popularity. It would also have had more chance of success than Trotsky's bureaucratic attempts to prevent Stalin's dictatorship. Even if the gamble had failed, the outcome could not have been worse than 'Stalinism', which not only slaughtered millions, but did so in the name of communism and so stifled the prospects for revolution world-wide for the rest of the century. In the end perhaps the most interesting aspect of this whole issue is why so many Marxists who claim to believe in workers' self-emancipation defend a politics that effectively denies it. “ With thanks for quotes and extracts at libcom

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