Krondstadt 1921: one hundred years on

A century ago a myth was born. A 'dictatorship of the Russian proletariat' had been set up amid the chaos of World War 1. The simple slogan Peace, Land and Bread echoed from the cities to the remotest villages.

As the dust settled, facts emerged. The peasants had seized whatever land they could while the landlords, rightly fearing a repetition of the French Revolution, packed up and fled. Peace broke out as far as Russia's involvement in the World War was concerned but only temporarily: civil war was to follow. Bread was to be very scarce for a long time. The workers' councils, the Soviets, had no real power. The Bolshevik Party were in power and they meant to stay there. Within weeks the Cheka took the place of the dreaded Tsarist Okhrana - with unlimited powers. This was not a dictatorship of the proletariat - it was a dictatorship over the proletariat, and shortly over the peasants too.

The myth of a classless society - as socialism will indeed be - was widely publicised. Yet the Russian reality was a society split by irreconcilable antagonisms. The Bolsheviks were desperate for food for the starving cities and sent raiding parties to rob the peasants, who fought back.

The 1921 crisis

This conflict came to a head a hundred years ago. The winter of 1920-21 was terrible: in the cities food was very scarce, rationing was arbitrary and chaotic, and many workers fled the cities to join relatives in the countryside, while those who remained were half-starved on wages which were less than 10 per cent of the 1913 level.

In Kronstadt, sailors who had spear-headed the Petersburg Revolution of 1917, mutinied. The Kronstadt revolt highlighted real grievances, demanding better food supplies and new elections. "The Communist Party, master of the State, has detached itself from the masses ... Countless incidents have recently occurred in Petrograd and Moscow which show clearly that the Party has lost the confidence of the working masses. [1] ... Our cause is just. We stand for the power of the Soviets, not for that of the Party. We stand for freely elected representatives of the toiling masses. Deformed Soviets, dominated by the Party, have remained deaf to our pleas. Our appeals have been answered with bullets"[2].

At the same time, peasant risings showed resistance to grain procurements. Lenin did a U-turn. In 1921, within weeks of Trotsky's massacre of the Kronstadt garrison, he instituted the New Economic Policy. The collapse of Russian agriculture was halted and grain harvests increased through the twenties until the first Five Year Plan brought compulsory collectivisation and attacks on so-called kulaks. Food production nose-dived in the years 1928-32 and peasants slaughtered their livestock. Millions of people were liquidated or disappeared to concentration camps, others fled the hungry, terrorised countryside for the overcrowded cities.

The gap between Bolshevik theory and practice widened:

"From their bloodstained platforms they shout that the soil belongs to the peasants and the factories belong to the workers ... [But] a new Communist serfdom arose. The peasant in the Soviet farms became a slave, and the worker in the factories a day-labourer." [3]

From the time of the first Five Year Plan, we may date the completion of Russia's capitalist revolution. This was the third Russian Revolution. The first, in February 1917, toppled the Tsar and brought about a liberal bourgeois government under Kerensky; the second was the November coup by the Bolsheviks with promises of "Peace, Land and Bread". Between 1927 and 1932, the number of wage-workers in Russia increased by 30 per cent and the expropriation of the peasants proceeded by leaps and bounds.

Marx wrote of the "primitive accumulation" of capital - the process by which a landless proletariat is brought into being, with no means of livelihood except the sale of their labour power, renting themselves out for hire by the hour, the day or the week for wages. He pointed out that everywhere the methods employed "all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hothouse fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition "[4]. This ruthless, enforced process, was as cruel in the steppes of Russia as in the Highlands of Scotland. For Highland Clearances, read "de-kulakisation and collectivisation."

Was this capitalism?

But Russia, it was claimed, was different. There was no exploitation - it was illegal for individuals to own factories or mines, or to enrich themselves by employing a workforce. If there were no individual capitalists, there could be no capitalist class. Therefore this was not capitalism. QED! Such were the simple-minded arguments of the Bolsheviks and their gullible supporters in the West.

But, as Marx, Engels and Bukharin explained earlier, the wages system does not require individual capitalists. The capitalist class as a whole collectively exploits the working class as a whole. This can be done by means of institutional or corporate ownership of the land, factories, mines and so on as had already happened in the 19th century. (When Bismarck nationalised the railways, this had nothing whatever to do with socialism, as Engels pointed out.) Lenin's view was that in Russia what was needed was state capitalism, on the Prussian model. Yet to this day, it is generally believed that Russia's nationalisation is characteristic of socialism in practice. Later, Khrushchev tried to explain away the so-called "dictatorship of the proletariat". This, he said, had been superseded by a "government of the whole people": there was still to be coercion "but not in a class sense, since it was no longer necessary to suppress entire social layers and classes, but only criminals and individuals who violated Soviet laws."[5]

Now, however, this policy is disavowed in Moscow. On a visit to Russia in the Brezhnev era, near the end of the Soviet Union, we were invited to take part in a discussion with two official spokesmen at the Marx-Engels Institute. In response to this point - that Russia had developed beyond the dictatorship of the proletariat and had become a classless society, a "government of the whole people" - the official spokesmen were anxious to reassure all present that nothing so terrible had happened. Khrushchev, he scoffed, talked a lot of twaddle. Yet this position had been endorsed as part of the CPSU's programme at the 22nd Congress (1961): "(the party had) transformed the state of the proletarian dictatorship into a state of the whole people"[6]. Evidently, the CPSU also talked twaddle.

Another Leftwing fantasy is that in Soviet Russia there was no unemployment. But with deportation to Siberia; pass laws which fixed where any individual was allowed to live; black-listing of the system's critics; a paternalist and authoritarian state; and gross waste of human resources in the overmanned and hopelessly inefficient farms, large scale unemployment would be unlikely. Yet there were unemployed workers in Soviet Russia.

Workers were sacked for absenteeism or other infringements of the Labour Code. They could be sacked and blacklisted for complaining or protesting against abuses by management [7]. Once sacked, these workers were then unemployed. The only difference was that in Russia, unemployed workers could not get any unemployment benefit and there were no published statistics. In any case, with or without unemployment, the wages system exploits workers.

Russia is said to represent a "transition stage", not capitalist (no individual capitalists) but not yet communist. But how long can a transition be expected to last? This one qualified for the Guinness Book of Records: almost a century - that was an awful long time to be in transition. And Lenin's belief that state capitalism would be an early form of socialism / communism has been thoroughly debunked: it was simply an early stage of capitalism.

The claim that in Soviet Russia there was no class struggle is fraudulent. In the 1920-21 crisis, peasants fiercely resisted the squads sent from the cities to procure - i.e. steal - grain. Later, many peasants fought against forced collectivisation and the seizure of their livestock and land. In 1956-57 there was a wave of strikes (especially "Italian strikes", a form of go-slow); in Novocherkassk in 1962, the Army machine-gunned demonstrators, including children, protesting at food prices and work norms; and about ten years ago, 30,000 workers struck at the Kiev car factory.

The state as the "national capitalist"

What has developed is just a form of capitalism where most capital is state property. As Engels wrote: "State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict... The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers - proletarians." [9]

The history of Russia in the last fifty years has demonstrated the truth of this proposition. Yet even in this system, the state's managers - the corrupt Party apparatchiks and factory bosses - have found ways to enrich themselves, unofficially helping themselves to enterprise funds, including those funds intended for the welfare of the workers and their families. Now, long after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Putin and his siloviki and other hangers-on continue with this corrupt practice of helping themselves to state funds, on a far larger scale.

Workers have learned to associate Marxism and socialism with a totalitarian dictatorship, ruthless and corrupt. The damage done by this to the socialist cause is immeasurable. Yet there was some cause for hope. Moscow's magicians found it harder to support the illusion of a Workers' Paradise. From the 1960s, the publication of samizdat (DIY written material) became well established. The early critics wrote poems and novels. Later came scientists, historians, economists and engineers, and in the last decade a number of shop-floor workers.

These usually follow Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, who described the system as state capitalism. As in the 1972 leaflet: "It is not towards communism that we are heading: all that is idle talk. Our system is state capitalism - the very worst, the most wretched political system possible ... The Kremlin bosses and their hangers-on live better and richer than many Tsarist noblemen did before the Revolution - and yet they call themselves 'the vanguard of the Soviet people', its servants! "[10]

Just as forthright were the comments of Pohyba arguing for independent trade unions: "ultimately it is the state which is the exploiter along with the State-party bourgeoisie which is in its service and which is the one wielding real power in the country ... Our country is actually a State capitalist society with a totalitarian form of government". [11]

How can Left-wingers and CP fellow-travellers explain the existence of profits in what they claim is or was a socialist society? The Soviet Union's tame economists worried about new methods of measuring "the true rate of profit for each enterprise" (Nemchinov), and Liberman's Kharkov plan stipulated that a factory's rewards should be linked to the profits it could earn on its capital investment. [12]

But if there were profits, these could only have come about by the exploitation of the working class. Profits arc part of our unpaid labour. Yet the Bolshevik myth of this "socialist state", zealously echoed by the Western mass media propagandists, and their tame 'historians' lingers on, and debunking it is still a necessary but tedious chore for every socialist speaker or writer.
Charmian Skelton

1. 1st issue of the Kronstadt Izvestya (3 March 1921) - see Ida Mett The Kronstadt Uprising.
2. Final Kronstadt appeal (same source).
3. Kronstadt Izvestya, quoted by Karl Kautsky Bolshevism at a Deadlock (1930).
4. Capital I ch. xxxi (Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist).
5. Pravda, December 1964.
6. Quoted by Gollan in C.P.G.B. pamphlet Socialist Democracy - some problems (1976) from The Road to Communism - The Proceedings of the 22nd Congress (Moscow, 1961).
7. See Workers Against the Gulag (Pluto Press 1979).
8. Censorship rules banned publication of information on accidents, epidemics and unemployment.
9. Socialism Utopian and Scientific.
10. An Underground Leaflet, June 1972. published in full in Socialist Standard. January 1973.
11. Cf. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the Soviet Union, Penguin.

Taken from December 1982 issue of SOCIALIST STANDARD and updated by author and re-titled for the century passing of the 1921 Kronstadt up-rising

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.