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This Day in Labor History: March 17, 1921

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On March 17, 1921, the Kronstadt Rebellion was crushed by Soviet military forces. This moment was not only a critical one in the consolidation of the Russian Revolution, but also the final nail in the coffin to any idea that workers would have the ability to protest their new proletarian government.

One of the great contradictions of Marxism is the dictatorship of the proletariat. The idea of a dictatorship to create the workers’ state and suppress rightist forces perhaps made sense, but if workers’ activism is necessary to create that state, then it was an awful lot to ask for those workers to then give up their activism outside of state-building. But then Marx was both a romantic and basically wrong about how the new state would be built. Leninism made Marxism more realistic but also created a state with a vanguard standing in for the proletariat and dictating its future without asking workers what they want. After the October Revolution of 1917, this tension probably had to be worked out in some way.

The background to the actual action came from the Soviets’ War Communism policies required by the fighting of the civil war. With that winding down, discontent grew. Industrial production was a small fraction of what it had been in 1914 and requisitioning grain for the military had alienated the small farmers. In February 1921, over 100 peasant rebellions around Russia against their treatment by the Soviets took place. Moreover, and perhaps more seriously, was the boiling anger from the workers in Petrograd, especially at the Kronstadt naval base. Of course Petrograd had played a legendary role in the 1917 Revolution, not to mention the failed 1905 Revolution. Trotsky had called the workers here the “pride and glory of the Russian Revolution.” The workers there had created their own democratic soviet that operated effectively independently for some time. This also led an attitude of independence that did not necessarily mesh well with Lenin’s centralization of power and authority.

In 1921, these workers were not anti-Soviet by and large, but they were resentful over the economic conditions in which they lived. Most of these workers were also the children of peasants. They knew what was going on at home and they could already see the new class system developing under the Soviets, where, once again, they would lose. Their leader was Stepan Petrichenko, the son of Ukrainian peasants. A leftist but only briefly a Bolsehvik, Petrichenko was a ship engineer and a skilled political organizer who became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet experiment.

The final straw was a 1/3 reduction in bread rations. That led to action. On February 26, in responses to strikes in Petrograd proper, the Kronstadt workers created a delegation to see what to do. After visiting with the strikers, they decided to act in support. The workers created a list of demands that ranged from freedom of speech and direct worker democracy to the liberation of political prisoners and the equal distribution of rations to all workers. In other words, this was the relatively rare labor action where economic concerns actually were secondary to larger political action.

On March 1, during a meeting of 15-16,000 people at Anchor Square, a nearly unanimous vote was taken to support the strike. Leading Soviet (and one of the only top people to not later be killed by Stalin) Mikhail Kalinin and Commissar of the Soviet Baltic Fleet Nikolai Kuzmin, attended the meeting and threatened the workers with repression if they continued. The workers responded the next day by actually arresting Kuzmin and other Soviet leaders they dealt with. When a second delegation went out to the Petrograd workers, the Soviets arrested them. This began the Soviet crack down on this grassroots worker activism. Lenin and other Soviet leaders immediately characterized this as counter-revolutionary treason coming from outside forces, the French in this case, working of course with Tsarist forces. On March 2, the Kronstadt workers created a defense force and central committee to organize “the third revolution.” They revived the “All Power to the Soviets” slogan with the addition of “And Not to Parties.”

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman offered to mediate between the workers and the government, but the Soviets had no interest in listening to outside activists, legendary as they may have been. On March 7, Soviet forces, commanded by Leon Trotsky, attacked Kronstadt, with 60,000 troops under Mikhail Tukhachevsky. If this had not worked, Trotsky was ready to gas the workers. Martial law was imposed on the workers of Petrograd. This was violent and bloody. The workers were armed and they fought back. Ten thousands of those troops died, mostly when they engaged in an idiotic attack on open ice where the Kronstadt defenders simply mowed them down. This was on the Soviet officers, who had to employ Cheka officers with machine guns behind the troops to stop the raw recruits from retreating. Upon taking the city with a final attack on March 17, the Soviet army suffered up to 1,400 additional casualties. It’s a bit harder to know how many Kronstadt defenders died. But perhaps more than 2,000 were executed and a similar number sent to prison camps, where they mostly died. Quite a few–several thousand–managed to flee to Finland.

The Kronstadt Rebellion was also a serious wake-up call to Lenin and the other leading Soviets. Lenin gave up on the idea that world revolution was imminent after this discontent was so strongly stated and began working on stabilizing his own nation, a policy that Stalin would more than double down on through his long reign. Two weeks after its suppression, War Communism was replaced by the New Economic Policy.

Leftists long tried to prove there were counterrevolutionary forces behind Kronstadt, which demonstrates the extent to which smart committed people were willing to excuse horrible Soviet actions for a very long time. Emma Goldman sharply criticized Trotsky and the Soviet leadership for their actions at Kronstadt, which helped make up her mind to leave the supposed workers’ paradise. Petrichenko was among the workers who escaped across the ice to Finland where he remained until 1940, when he crossed the Finnish government by supporting Soviet groups in the Winter War. The Finns arrested him and then gave him to the Soviets when the war ended in 1945. He died in a prison camp in 1947.

As for the rights of unions or worker protest in the Soviet Union, there were none.

This is the 261st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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