Thinking like an Anarchist: Exploring Anarchist Perspectives of the 1921 Kronstadt Uprising
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
The Kronstadt uprising of 1921 began as a reaction to strikes in Petrograd regarding food and fuel shortages and news of a heavy Red Army suppression. Siding with the strikers and taking action into their own hands, the crews of the ships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol drafted a fifteen-point list of demands for the Bolshevik government, calling for free elections, freedom of speech, and the abolition of all political sections within the armed forces. When local pro-Bolshevik officers demanded that the agitators back down, the workers, sailors, and soldiers detained them under the authority of their new ‘Provisional Revolutionary Committee.’ The Bolsheviks responded with an ultimatum soon after. Refusing to forfeit, the Kronstadt garrison began its defensive on 7 March, as military commander Mikhail Tukhachevski led Red Army troops across the frozen bay. On 18 March, the Red Army entered the city and seized control of Kronstadt.
Red soldiers enter Kronstadt after the suppression of the uprising
This blog post, which is a condensed version of a much larger unpublished piece, advances two basic arguments. The first is a reminder that initial interpretations of the Kronstadt Rebellion came from either anarchist witnesses and sympathizers, or the Communist Party. The second argument posits that liberal—primarily Western academic—analyses adopted the anarchist interpretation during the Cold War without acknowledging its anarchist origin. The point is to move Anarchism as a political ideology away from the periphery of academic histories of the revolutionary decade, and to propose exploring other aspects of the rebellion besides its origins and relation to Stalinism. Doing so will advance scholarship beyond the bifurcated worldview of “revolutionaries” versus everyone else and begin to centre the messy political reality of 1917 and beyond.
In the 20th century, scholarship on the Kronstadt Rebellion either went the way of the Marxist-Leninist party line or used the Anarchist interpretation to identify the root of Stalinism. At the 10th Party Congress, from 8-16 March 1921, held just a week after the rebellion began (1 March) and a few days before the fortresses fell (18 March), Lenin outlined what would become the Party’s official opinion. In Resolution no. 12 “On Party Unity” he explicitly used the case of the Kronstadt sailors to emphasize the dangers of factionalism. Lenin argued that the history of preceding revolutions confirmed that “petty-bourgeois” elements would do anything, even mislead innocent workers by touting pro-Soviet slogans, to disrupt party unity and bypass the appropriate modes of raising and addressing grievances within the Party. The idea that the Kronstadt Rebellion was a counter-revolutionary conspiracy and its suppression a “tragic necessity” became the dominant interpretation in official Soviet discourse, buoyed by its appearance in the official History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course, published in 1938 under the direction of Stalin.
Anarchism had a major influence on the Baltic fleet, but as Paul Avrich has argued, it was by no means the homogenic ideology of the rebels, but rather “the creative spirit of the masses” reinforced by the libertarian ideas emanating from the coauthor of the Peropavlovsk resolution and head of agitation and propaganda, G.P. Perepelkin. Nevertheless, immediately after the event, anarchists claimed its legacy and used it to identify a contradiction between Bolshevik theory and practice. They looked on with disillusionment as it became clear that the new revolutionary state would not tolerate dissent or “spontaneous” action. One of those anarchists, Alexander Berkman, an initial supporter of the Bolshevik revolution, travelled throughout Russia in the 1920s commenting on the appalling conditions of the country and the behaviour of the Party. But nothing revealed the sinister consequences of 1917 more than the Bolshevik actions against the Kronstadt garrison. According to Berkman and his anarchist comrade Emma Goldman, the suppression of the rebellion was not a “tragic necessity,” as Trotsky would later argue, but a blatant power grab and divisive deviation from working class interests. Berkman and Goldman saw the Bolshevik reaction to the uprising as foreshadowing the authoritarian leanings of Lenin’s Party by demonstrating its willingness to use violence against those who challenged the Party. Although this line of argumentation is used by anarchists to evince the bankruptcy of communism in practice, it had the greatest impact on Cold War historiography throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Alexander Berkman in 1892
Source: Library of Congress
Berkman, who was in Moscow during the events, penned one of the first interpretations of the Kronstadt uprising outside of the USSR. He notes that the sailors merely wanted elected councils (known as Soviets) free from party interference, and that they strove to find points of agreement with the Bolsheviks. Challenging the Party’s claim that the rebellion was led by foreign agitators and white generals, Berkman points out “There was indeed a former general, Kozlovsky, in Kronstadt. It was Trotsky who had placed him there as an artillery specialist.” Hence, the individuals blamed for being counter-revolutionary were actually Bolsheviks themselves. In that way, Berkman’s brief history seeks to undermine the narrative of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy, claiming instead that it was a “spontaneous, unprepared, and peaceful” revolution. In the end, Berkman likens the rebellion to the Paris Commune of 1871, where the rebels were supposedly leaderless and unprepared for the full repressive force of a newly consolidated and militarized state. According to Berkman, the triumph of the Bolsheviks over Kronstadt “held within itself the defeat of Bolshevism” as a working-class movement.
Another Russian Anarchist and émigré, Ida Mett, sought to discover the roots of the rebellion within the Communist Party itself. In her pamphlet, The Kronstadt Uprising, Mett focuses on the Constitution of the Soviet Republic from 1918 to argue that sailors were reacting to perceived contradictions between the promises and rights outlined in that document and Bolshevik repressive practices. For instance, she points out that articles 13, 14, 15, and 16 assured the workers certain “democratic rights,” including the freedom of worship, assembly, union, and press. They also sought to prevent the allocation of special privileges. In that case, the Bolsheviks were guilty of contradicting their own constitution, and the sailors—as the historical vanguard and protectors of the revolution—reacted as it became evident through the Petrograd strikes in February.
American historian and anarchist Paul Avrich’s commanding 1970 study of the Kronstadt rebellion has come closest to a balanced study. Avrich’s thesis is that the rebellion was a spontaneous reflection of disillusionment with Bolshevik policies, especially the grain requisitioning of War Communism. Admitting the spontaneous element is key because, as he points out, “an essential feature of Bolshevism was its distrust of mass spontaneity.” The Kronstadt sailors never believed that they could win a defensive battle against the Red Army, which explains why they strove to find common ground with the Soviet government throughout the early days of the rebellion. He agrees with Marxist historians that the rebellion must be placed in a broader context of social and political events, but maintains that force was avoidable and that the uprising made Bolshevik leaders like Lenin extremely worried about a possible renewed revolution. Unlike many of his colleagues in American universities, Avrich acknowledged the anarchist affinity of the sailors but nevertheless presented a less politically charged chronology.
In sum, the anarchist position can be seen as entirely sympathetic to the sailors, and highly critical of the Bolsheviks. Unlike Marxist historians, anarchists argue that the rebellion offered the chance for the new Soviet government to perfect the repressive practices that came to define the regime. This explains partially why self-ascribed anarchist witnesses like Victor Serge, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman were so shocked by the disinformation campaign perpetuated by their fellow leftists and the Red Army. According to anarchist witnesses, the suppression of the rebellion signaled the final sign that the Bolsheviks concentrated the full power of a propagandistic, militaristic, and ideologically repressive state—the ultimate inevitability of Leninism in practice. This argument became the unacknowledged intellectual line of thinking that many Western historians adopted from anarchist thinkers.
Western Cold War historians, much like their anarchist predecessors, refused to believe the narrative of “tragic necessity” or counter-revolution, seeing the event instead as the root of Stalinism or the natural outcome of a populist Party movement. One of the earliest examples of this appeared in American historian Emanuel Pollack’s The Kronstadt Rebellion (The First Armed Revolt Against the Soviets), which simply pitted the “totalitarian” and Marxist-Leninist interpretations against each other. Pollack saw the rebellion as the first instance of working-class hostility toward the Bolsheviks, but failed to recognise or discuss the ideological and class affiliations of the rebels, let alone the event’s international resonance. Pollack wasn’t alone: in their chronology of the revolution, influential Cold War era scholars like E.H. Carr, Richard Pipes, Robert Service, Alexander Rabinowich, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and Laura Engelstein, among others, use anarchist argumentation and sources, but confirm the Leninist and Stalinist chronology of events in order to identify a narrative turning point that neatly aligns with the 10th Party Congress in 1921. However, because they fail to recognise the Anarchist ideology of the participants, pre- and post-Kronstadt Anarchism, as a political movement, disappears from their historical purview and narratives, and the rebellion itself remains relegated to a vague movement against Bolshevik power with little to no collective identity or legacy beyond the Civil War. In other words, they view the mutiny’s suppression as the event that symbolically ended factionalism and debate within the Party, thereby uncritically accepting the rebellion’s position as the book-end of the Civil War and the end of counter-revolution, as propagated by Stalin in the Short Course.
By resuscitating and centring the sailor’s Anarchist leanings, which has been erased by Stalinists and Western academics alike, Kronstadt becomes less of a symbolic end to inter-party factionalism, and more of a demonstration of the wide variety of sympathetic, but not entirely identical, ideologies on the periphery of Petrograd and Moscow. Indeed, we lack a comprehensive study of the Anarchist movement more broadly, and Kronstadt rebels in particular—their collective identity, resource mobilisation, and emotionality—because we’ve been so focused on the interpretation of the event and its implications.
In order to continue to develop our understanding, scholars of the Russian revolution have to not only acknowledge the place of Anarchist thought within the Bolshevik and SR parties, but they also need to be willing to push beyond a partisan wager over the causes of the rebellion and its relationship to Stalinism. Anarchists especially continued to exist in the Soviet Union and critique it from abroad, offering perspectives from fellow revolutionaries to the world that would outlast them. Furthermore, leftists across Europe read about what happened at Kronstadt, and their emotional responses may shed light on politics in Europe’s interwar period. The rebellion definitely signalled a split in international leftism, and anarchist papers continued to proliferate throughout Western Europe, with ex-Bolsheviks and Russian emigres as regular contributors. Thus, saving Anarchism from the periphery of academic histories is the first step toward re-assessing the variety and complexity of leftism in Russia, which further upends the debate over Bolshevik majority, ideological homogeneity, and popular support, and adds more branches to our currently bifurcated histories of the revolution.
Alexander Herbert is a PhD candidate in History at Brandeis University. His interests include social movements, environmentalism, and counterculture in the late Soviet period. Alexander’s dissertation examines the history and controversy surrounding the construction of the Complex of Structures to Protect Leningrad from Floods. In 2019 he published an oral history of punk rock in Russia from the Soviet Era to Pussy Riot (Microcosm Publishing), and he continues to run a blog about horror films in the USSR (www.punksaround.com/soviethorror)
 Anyone interested in publishing the longer peer-reviewed historiographical essay can contact the author with inquiries.  “’official’ historians don’t have eyes or ears to hear that acts and words with [that?] express the workers’ spontaneous activity… they lack the categories of thought—one might even say brain cells—necessary to understand or even to perceive this activity as it really is. To them an activity that has no leader or programme, no institutions and no statues, can only be described as ‘troubles’ or ‘disorders’. The spontaneous activity of the masses belongs by definition to what history suppressed.” Mett, Kronstad, 18.  Istoriia vsesoiuznoi kommunisticheskoi partii (bol’shevikov): kratkii kurs (Moskva: OGIZ Gos. izd. politicheskoi literatury, 1945), g. 9. Accessed October 3 2019: http://lib.ru/DIALEKTIKA/kr_vkpb.txt_with-big-pictures.html  Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 168-171. , Barbara Mutnick ed., Kronstadt by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky (New York: Pathfinder, 1979) “A tragic necessity” Kronstadt, 127.  This was an argument succinctly put by student revolutionaries in the 1960s. In particular, read Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2000), 218-219.  Berkman, Kronstadt, 8.  Berkman, Kronstadt, 9.  Berkman, Kronstadt, 25. Berkman, Krosntadt, 26.  Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising, 85.  Avrich, Kronstadt, 190. Bolshevism’s theory of spontaneity, read Lenin, “What is to Be Done?” found in Henry M. Christman ed., The Essential Works of Lenin: “What is to Be Done?” and Other Writings (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), 80-82. Ida Mett, an anarchist thinker, wrote of western academics “’official’ historians don’t have eyes or ears to hear that acts and words with [that?] express the workers’ spontaneous activity… they lack the categories of thought—one might even say brain cells—necessary to understand or even to perceive this activity as it really is. To them an activity that has no leader or programme, no institutions and no statues, can only be described as ‘troubles’ or ‘disorders’. The spontaneous activity of the masses belongs by definition to what history suppressed.” Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1971), 18.  Emanuel Pollack, The Kronstadt Rebellion (The First Armed Revolt Against the Soviets) (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), 10. This is also the line of argument of Sheila Fitzpatrick in The Russian Revolution:  For an example of the extent of Anarchist publications and networks Europe-wide, see this list: http://socialist.memo.ru/books/biblio/periodika_do_1917.htm