Any discussion on Kronstadt today, as 70 years ago, is a historical discussion in the full sense of the word. Neither details nor these or those interpretation of concrete facts are at stake. Instead, the discussion’s central issue is revolution and revolutionary war as such, the significance and the logic of October. The supression of the Kronstadt Uprising has taken a lasting position in the “top ten” moral indictments of Bolshevism, along with the “philosophical steamboat” and the “money of the German general staff”.
Both anarchists and liberals find themselves agreeing over this point of accusatory indictment in their critique from both right and left, forming what Trotsky aptly called a “people’s front” of sorts, and calling the validity of the October Revolution into question. For the right, this episode is important because it confirms that the establishing of the “commissars’” totalitarianism had reached its final stage of becoming, stepping into conflict with its recent mainstay, the revolutionary sailors. To anarchists, Kronstadt is a timeless continent drowned in non-being, an “Atlantis” of the democratic socialism of the masses, the revolution’s turning point, after which its fate was already completely pre-determined. The question is whether there was really any possibility of a historical turn and whether Kronstadt really did offer any political or social alternatives?
It goes without saying that this question did not arise in 1921. Instead, it emerged from a meaningful history distance, almost twenty years later. The “Bolshevization of Comintern”, the supression of the Left Opposition within the Soviet communist party, and, finally, the Moscow show-trials of the late 1930s confronted the European left with the problem of rethinking Russia’s post-revolutionary construction of socialism. The rapid onset of fascism and the defeat of the worker’s movement pushes the absolute majority to one of two answers, namely either to accept Stalinism at the continuation of the logic of revolution and building socialism, or of declaring the policies of the Bolsheviks to be flawed from their very beginning onward.
Debates as to whether the Kronstadt Uprising is a historical turn from revolution to dictatorship, the first step in the establishment of a totalitarian state, only began in 1938, in both the liberal ?migr? press and all along the socialist spectrum. These discussions included significant figures such as Viktor Serge and Mark Eastman. However, the driving force behind their declarations can hardly be found in the need to analyze the Kronstadt episode of the civil war in retrospect, but in the desperate desire to find a reason for breaking with the Bolshevik tradition completely. The tragic experience of the international revolution’s defeat led the initiators of this noisy discussion to rethink Marxist historicism as such. The object of the polemic that followed was not the concrete historical situation of March 1921 so much as the legitimacy of the October revolution’s legacy in principle.
But was Kronstadt really a political alternative? Isn’t this alternative actually something that was written into the myth post facto, constructed by the consciousness of another epoch? Pamphlets, memoirs, and eye-witness accounts only provide us with abstract slogans torn from the context of the direct class confrontation of the civil war, slogans of the “revolution’s continuation”, “Soviet without parties”, or the battle against “commissariat sovereignty”: shards and fragments of political ideas glued together to crotchety ideologies for two opposed camps that rose into existence and receded into oblivion.
The verdict of Kronstadt – if any such verdict is possible – can only be pronounced on the basis of an analysis of the general situation of Soviet Russia and its enemies, defined by its specific between village and city, the turn toward the NEP and the danger of “petit bourgeois passions”, which the 10th Party Congress noted with brutal honesty. This kind of analysis needs to be based upon a method that rejects any kind of myth-making in principle. This means that the question of Kronstadt has a definitive political meaning as an attempt to withstand the “wrong”, complex, and self-contradictory history of revolutionary dictatorship in Russia with a certain ideal variation of its development, which did not and could not actually take place. Perhaps this is the essence of its somewhat infantile attraction.