1921: Beginning of the Counter-Revolution?

Today we are the witnesses of a tragedy of a social revolution being contained within national frontiers, as a result of the passivity of the peoples of Europe faced with intelligent and well-armed reactionary forces. It is thus stifled and reduced to playing for time with the enemy within and without. We have seen many mistakes made, many errors revealed and from the libertarian point of view many precious truths have been confirmed.

Thus wrote Victor Serge in June 1921 in the preface to his essay The anarchists and the experience of the Russian revolution. The essay (1) was an appeal to the anarchists to recognise what was proletarian and positive about the October Revolution. Although it was written before the rising at Kronstadt in March 1921 against the Bolsheviks, Serge makes no reference to that tragedy in his introduction written a few months later. Indeed he states that his conclusions are "more true now than they were a year ago". What the quotation highlights is the fact that the isolation of the "social revolution" to one territory was now becoming an unbearable burden. Not only did Kronstadt throw a "flash of light which illuminated reality" as Lenin said but the events of the Tenth Party Congress (adoption of the NEP, banning of factions), the failure of the March Action in Germany and the adoption of the united front policy, in all but name, at the Third Congress of the Comintern, made 1921 a highly significant year in the degeneration of both the Russian and international revolution. This article is aimed at weighing up the significance of that decline eighty years ago.

130 years ago the Paris Commune of 1871 gave a glimpse of what the working class could achieve and how it could run society for itself. But after 74 days the Commune was crushed by the bourgeois government of Thiers backed by the international power of the capitalist class. Confined to a single city it was isolated and defeated with 20,000 Parisian workers massacred in cold blood in a single week in May 1871. In response, the Communards shot their bourgeois hostages. The number of ruling class victims of the Commune was 84. Thus it is always that the white terror of the ruling class exceeds in numbers and horrors the red terror of the working class. As Marx noted the problem of the Commune was that it was isolated to a single city. The problem of the Russian proletariat was that their revolution was isolated to a single country.

The Russian Revolution of October 1917 remains the only occasion in history when a contingent of workers actually overthrew the capitalist state power over an entire territory. For this reason we continue to examine and to try to understand it. The fundamental question is to explain how a revolution which began by offering the widest liberation to the working class and thus to humanity could have become by 1928 one of the greatest tyrannies of the twentieth century. Looking back on the events of eighty years ago with the benefit of hindsight we can understand that 1921 was a significant turning point on the road to defeat for the revolution. At the time it did not appear so to many of the participants. That 1921 was a year of crisis they could plainly see. Over one million dead from famine, with many more from typhus and other diseases. The outbreak of strikes against the Council of People's Commissars (Sovnarkom) and the Kronstadt Revolt brought home the harshness of the situation. And to add to the woe the international revolution not only failed to occur as the Bolshevik leaders expected but suffered a hammer blow with the defeat of the March Action in Germany.

Our task here is not simply to chronicle what went on but to explain what it means for us today. We are aware that there will be no revolution like the Russian experience again. Nor are we using "the condescension of the present" as E.P. Thompson called it. Any revolutionaries who seek simply to slavishly replicate what happened in Russia deserve only ridicule (as do those Trotskyists who consider the question of leadership to be just a question of the right individuals in strategic positions). We need to avoid the trap into which so many so-called Marxists and revolutionaries fall in seeing the past as a blueprint for the future. However only by learning from what really happened can we arm ourselves for the struggles ahead. And the first step in this learning process is to debate what the significance of the past is.


Already some "libertarian Marxists" (2) and anarchists will be screaming that the revolution was lost long before 1921. We don't deny that soviet power in the territory of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (the name USSR was not adopted until 1923) was already an empty shell by the end of 1920 (although there were healthy pockets of it in 1919) (3). Nor do we deny the excesses of the Cheka during the Civil War where it became a state within the state. But the Red Terror arose out of the civil war. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks were letting former tsarist generals go free if they promised not to take up arms against them. A few months later the same Tsarist generals were not only leading invasions of Russia, armed by British and French imperialism but were literally crucifying any workers they suspected of Bolshevik sympathies. Although both sides resorted to terror in this class war it was hardly on the same scale. Here we can point to the evidence of the US Commander in Siberia, General William S. Graves who reported that

I am well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia to every one killed by the Bolsheviks. (4)

Nor do we claim that the revolution had abolished capitalist relations of production, except in so far as there had been a total economic collapse as soon as the Bolsheviks came to power. Since at least 60% of industry was devoted to war production achieving peace meant unemployment. As Edward Acton observed,

In the aftermath of October, the country suffered an economic collapse on the scale of a modern Black Death... The capital lost no less than a million inhabitants in the first six months after October as workers streamed from the capital in search of bread. (5)

Even those workers who had jobs still had to spend their time looking for food and demoralisation was compounded by mass absenteeism. Attempts by Bolsheviks on the factory committees at this time to increase labour discipline led to new delegates being elected who were more compliant with the workers' demands. Eventually though even these factory committees began to be more concerned with labour discipline and output. In the anarchist/libertarian demonology this was, of course because the Bolsheviks had suppressed the workers' initiative in the factory committees. But this is too simplistic as S.Smith showed in his Red Petrograd.

[...] one cannot see in this the triumph of the Bolshevik party over the factory committees. From the first the committees had been committed both to maintaining production and to democratising factory life, but the condition of industry was such that these two objectives now conflicted with one another.


But the civil war was taking further toll on the revolution. The Bolshevik Party had been a party predominantly of workers in 1917. By 1920 these workers had become officials in the Red Army, the Cheka and the bureaucracy. By 1922 over two thirds of the party membership were administrators of one kind or another. At the same time the fight against imperialist invasion and the Whites had led to a closing of ranks. Inner party discussions declined and increasingly the local elected posts were filled by the local party secretary simply appointing delegates to higher bodies. The practice of democratic centralism within the Party (where lower bodies elected all higher bodies) had virtually collapsed. What was left was only centralism. It needed only a Stalin to become the Party Secretary in charge of these local secretaries to have in his hands the levers of power. But that was still some time in the future. When Serge arrived back in Petrograd after being deported from France in January 1919 he reported,

We were entering a world frozen to death... At a reception centre we were issued with bread and dried fish. Never until now had any of us known such a horrid diet. Girls with red headbands joined with young bespectacled agitators to give us a summary of the state of affairs: "Famine, typhus and counter-revolution everywhere. But the world revolution is bound to save us". (6)

And it was this belief in the world revolution which lay at the heart of the hopes of the Russian working class even at the beginning of 1921 when they had suffered and were suffering so much. Serge was asked "what is the French proletariat waiting for" by his young hosts but it was the German proletariat that most Bolsheviks had the highest hopes in.

The Third (Communist) International

The whole Bolshevik programme cannot be understood without reference to its international character. The insistence on outright opposition to the imperialist war in 1914 distinguished the Bolshevik party as the only major European party to oppose the war with revolutionary demands (7). It was the Bolsheviks who led the split at the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences with the centrist and pacifist socialist majority. And when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia they shared exactly the sentiment of Rosa Luxemburg that

The question of socialism has been posed in Russia. It cannot be solved in Russia.

At the Third Congress of Soviets in January 1918 Lenin stated,

The final victory of socialism in a single country is, of course, impossible. Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army. (8)

And in March, at the time of the acceptance of Brest-Litovsk he repeated this:

It is the absolute truth that without a German revolution we are doomed. (9)

In his April Theses of 1917 Lenin had posed the need for a new International to replace the Second which had gone over to imperialism in August 1914. The war itself began to provide the material basis for this international as workers and former social democrats stepped up their resistance to their own governments. The First World War's end was hastened by the strikes in Vienna, in Hamburg and Bremen and all across Germany. When news reached Moscow of the Vienna rising, Radek, one of the Bolshevik leaders, recorded the spontaneous demonstration that occurred outside the Kremlin.

I have never seen such a sight. Workers, both men and women, and Red Army soldiers filed past until late evening. The world revolution had arrived. The masses of the people were listening to its iron step. Our isolation had ended. (10)

This was a bit premature. Although many workers and ex-soldiers around Europe were increasingly supportive of the soviet idea this had not taken the concrete form of new communist parties in most countries. Even in a place like Germany the revolutionaries had failed to distinguish themselves clearly from the social-chauvinist Socialists. Although Luxemburg and Liebknecht had formed the Spartakus League they remained inside the German centrist USPD (which included Kautsky and Bernstein) as they feared isolation from the mass of the class. This only confused the workers and isolated the Spartakists from the smaller but politically clearer groups such as the Bremen Left and the International Socialists (IKD). Given too that the Social Democrats did not openly oppose soviets but worked behind the scenes to destroy them it meant that the Spartakists were not seen as the only supporter of workers councils (as had been the case with the Bolsheviks in Russia). If we return to the Victor Serge quote at the top of this text the greater sophistication of the Western European bourgeoisie which incorporated so-called socialists into their defence was a major factor in defeating the spread of revolution in Germany and beyond.

As it was the news that the Second International was reforming in January 1919 forced the Bolsheviks to send out feelers for a new international which they intended would meet in Berlin. Before it could meet Liebknecht had precipitated the Spartakist uprising which was crushed by the Social Democrats in alliance with the proto-fascist Freikorps. In the reprisals which followed hundreds of workers were shot in cold blood and Liebknecht and Luxemburg were brutally murdered. The planned first meeting of the new International was now moved to Moscow. The move was meant to be temporary until revolution broke out in the West. However this was the first step in the process of intertwining of the fate of the Russian Revolution and the International. And because it was the Russian party which physically and ideologically dominated the International it very quickly became an organ for defending soviet power in Russia whatever problems it was going through. In the event the First Congress of the Communist International did little more than declare its existence. The fifty delegates who assembled in Moscow did not all have formal mandates, a factor which only led to further Bolshevik dominance of the new body. This wasn't quite how Lenin saw it when he announced in Communist International that

The new third "International Workingmen's Association" has already begun to coincide in a certain measure with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (11)

By this he meant that the process of unfolding of the world revolution would also be accompanied by the advance of socialism in Russia. Unfortunately for the proletariat the process was to go in the opposite direction. The growing counter-revolution in the USSR would also destroy the revolutionary aim of the Third International.

However this could not be seen in 1919 when world revolution and capitalist counter-revolution were locked in deadly embrace and the existence (however feeble) of the Third International was a banner around which workers everywhere could rally. Early in the year revolution had broken out in Bavaria and Hungary where Soviet Republics were proclaimed. The Allied powers (Britain, France and the USA) were faced with mutinies in their own armies in Russia. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister announced that the British intervention was not only finished but the revolts on the Clyde and in South Wales were alarming the British state at home.

[...] if a military enterprise were started against the Bolsheviki, that would make England Bolshevist and there would be a Soviet in London. (12)

Lenin was talking about July 1919 as "our last difficult July" since within a year there would be the victory of "the international Soviet republic". However the heady atmosphere which so threatened capitalism did not last. By the end of May the Bavarian Soviet Republic, isolated even in Germany, had collapsed. It was followed in August by the Hungarian Soviet Republic which succumbed due to internal squabbles and the invasion of a Romanian Army supplied by the Allies. By the autumn the Whites in Russia had reached their most threatening. Yudenich was at the gates of Petrograd, Kolchak was moving from Siberia and Denikin from the Ukraine. In October and November

the continued existence of the regime hung by a thread. (13)

To add to the misery the young German Communist Party, which had lost its best leaders in the murders of January to March 1919, was split by Paul Levi at its Heidelberg Congress in October 1919. The Party had adopted the tactics of using existing parliamentary and trades unions means to increase its influence but only by the narrowest of votes. Not content with this victory Levi (against the advice of the Bolsheviks) proposed the expulsion of all those who had voted against the majority. The Left wing which constituted half the party and controlled its North German sections (including Berlin) went away to form the German Communist Workers Party (KAPD). Similar difficulties occurred in different forms in other countries. Lenin tried to win all those who rejected social democratic reformism to the Third, including anarcho-syndicalists. At this time he also told the British groups negotiating to form a party that he himself was in favour of using trades unions and parliamentary tactics but did not condemn those who called for different tactics.

By the end of 1920 the civil war had been won but Russia remained isolated and the price of victory was, as we saw at the start of this article, almost a Pyrrhic one. Industrial production was only a fifth of that of 1913 and agricultural production had declined by a half. The Bolshevik economist, L. Kritsman described the situation as one of economic collapse "unparalleled in the history of humanity" (14) The policy of sending out military detachments to the countryside during the civil war to forcibly requisition grain had led to 113 peasant revolts (50,000 followed the ex-SR Antonov in the Tambov region alone). The Bolsheviks had succeeded in retaining state power but as Bukharin (and other leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin) later acknowledged in 1921 they had held on to state power but had lost the proletariat in the process. For Lenin this material fact was the single most important reason for the Kronstadt Revolt of March 1921.

The Petrograd Strikes and Kronstadt

There is no more emotive name in the history of the Russian Revolution than Kronstadt. It is the litmus test of everyone's understanding of the way in which the revolution slid to defeat. For most Trotskyists and Stalinists it was either a plot of the White reaction who took advantage of the terrible conditions at the end of the civil war to incite a revolt against the proletariat or it was (in the Socialist Workers' Party version) (15) because the Kronstadt sailors were now all peasants and this was a revolt of the petty bourgeoisie. For anarchists it was the real "third revolution" against the Bolshevik dictatorship and for the historians of the capitalist class it has been a gleeful episode to demonstrate that any alternative to their system ends in bloodshed. E.H Carr devotes only two one line references to the Kronstadt Revolt in his The Bolshevik Revolution Volume 1. This only underlines that his is a history of the Soviet state and not of the revolutionary proletariat. For revolutionaries today the issue cannot so easily be ducked since it frames how we answer the questions posed by the last revolutionary experience.

By 1921 soviet power had become an empty shell. Elections to the soviets were under the watchful eye of the Cheka. Similarly armed guards patrolled the factories as Taylorism and one-man management were imposed on the most revolutionary working class in history. The workers accepted this as long as the civil war against the Whites created an exceptional situation. At the same time they had also accepted the abandonment of the election of officers in the armed forces as Trotsky brought in members of the old officer class to defeat the Whites. But by the time the last White General had been run out of Russia in December 1920 there were already signs that the emergency regime was to continue. Grain requisitioning carried on, Trotsky had even announced that his Red Army methods should be imposed on the whole workforce (the militarisation of labour debate) and there were no new elections for the Soviets. Everywhere the talk was of "iron discipline" and more dictatorship. Little wonder that the Party, now increasingly a party of functionaries rather than workers was prey to bureaucratisation. This bureaucratisation in turn led to the emergence of opposition from proletarian groups within the Bolshevik Party: groups like the Democratic Centralists led by Ossinsky and Sapronov, the Workers' Opposition led by Shlyapnikov and Kollontai and Miasnikov's Workers' Group. These oppositions, whatever their weaknesses and errors, wanted a return to the revolutionary principles of 1917. No wonder Lenin could say in February 1921,

We must have the courage to look in the face of harsh reality. The Party is sick, the Party is shaken by fever. And unless it succeeds in quickly and radically curing its own illness, a break will occur which will have fatal consequences for the revolution. (16)

But before the Party debates could begin at the Tenth Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March the workers of Petrograd and Moscow went on strike. In Petrograd the strikes were mass affairs demanding freedom of the press, release of political prisoners and a return to democracy in the state. Some demanded the opening of local food markets to counter growing shortages (which would eventually become famine in 1921). Counter-revolutionaries also tried to take advantage of the situation by putting forward demands for a return of the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks' reaction was one of panic. Troops were sent in to break up strike meetings and the leaders arrested. The Cheka put around the lie that the movement was dominated by peasant elements (since only the hard core proletariat was left in Petrograd by this time). The clinching factor in the ending of strikes was the arrival of new bread supplies since it was the announcement of cuts in the bread ration which had sparked the strikes in the first place.

The Kronstadt Revolt that broke out in the naval base was a direct response to the strikes in Petrograd and the repression that followed. On 28th February delegates from Petrograd reported on the situation and the programme of the sailors of the battleship Petropavlovsk was adopted. It called for new Soviet elections and for freedom for all socialists and anarchists. It is noticeable that the programme did not call for freedom for the bourgeoisie and the sailors overwhelmingly rejected a reactionary proposal to recall the Constituent Assembly. Economically the programme advocated fairer rationing, limited handicraft production and the peasants to produce freely so long as they did not use hired labour. It was in fact far less "capitalist" than the New Economic Policy which Lenin had already begun to float before the revolt broke out.

Kalinin, later Stalinist President of the USSR, was sent to Kronstadt where he simply denounced the sailors (who were not yet in open revolt). The response was the production of the Kronstadt Izvestia (Kronstadt News) which declared

The Communist Party, master of the state, has detached itself from the masses. It has shown itself incapable of getting the country out of its mess. Countless incidents have recently occurred in Petrograd and Moscow which show that the party has lost the confidence of the masses. (17)

The response of the Bolshevik Government was to announce that it was "a White Guard plot" led by an ex-tsarist general called Kozlovsky. The fact that émigré papers in Paris had spoken of trouble at Kronstadt earlier helped furnish the proof that was needed, despite the known rejection of the counter-revolution by the Kronstadters. Fundamentally the Bolsheviks saw counter-revolution as something which could only come from abroad and therefore the Kronstadters must objectively be working for that counter-revolution. There were very important strategic considerations which heightened the panic in government circles. As long as the sea around Kronstadt was frozen it could be reached but once the ice melted as the spring thaw took hold then Kronstadt would be out of reach and potentially become a base from which a foreign capitalist force could operate. This is why there was no possibility of lengthy negotiations. Trotsky sent the Kronstadters an ultimatum (which incidentally did not include the phrase that the sailors would be "shot like partridges". This was in fact in a leaflet sent by the Petrograd Defence Committee under Zinoviev). These were rejected on March 7th 1921 when the Kronstadt Izvestia denounced Trotsky as "the dictator of Soviet Russia". The first attack took place the next day but failed with 500 government troops killed.

There now came a hiatus as the Tenth Party Congress of the Russian Communist party (Bolshevik) began on the same day. If further evidence were needed to suggest that 1921 was a significant turning point in the fate of the Soviet revolution then it was duly provided by the Tenth Congress. There were three big issues at this conference. The first was the role of the trades unions in the Soviet system, the second was the policy to be adopted towards the peasantry given that the emergency system of the Civil War period had reduced agricultural production to half that of 1913 and the third was the banning of factions in the Party.

The trades union issue was dominated by the debate with the Workers Opposition led by Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov. The Workers Opposition wanted the trades union to take over the running of production but as they only had the support of about fifty delegates the final resolution "On the role and tasks of trades unions" rejected this. Instead it was decided that the unions would be "schools of communism" therefore they could not be part of the state apparatus. In this light it was also agreed that the trades unions "are the one place... where the selection of leaders should be done by the organised masses themselves." This itself is evidence of the extent of the decline of soviet power since it implies that there is to be no revival of Soviet democracy.

On the 15th March the Congress also accepted the need for a New Economic Policy so that the grain requisitions would be replaced with a tax in kind. In practice this was even more of a concession to the peasants than the Kronstadters themselves were demanding. Many Bolsheviks opposed it, including Ossinsky of the Democratic Centralist group. Riazanov described it as the "peasant Brest" meaning that it was another concession to a class enemy. Lenin's reply was that, "only an agreement with the peasantry can save the revolution".

In fact NEP presaged a full-scale attack on the working class since it led to the privatisation of smaller firms. Without state support they laid off workers and this led to a rapid rise in unemployment and a fall in wages. The Bolshevik Party was now both the ruling party of a state which was attempting to hold on until the world revolution and carrying out the peasant counter-revolution at the same time. Despite this, as long as the Bolshevik Party remained true to its traditions of open debate revolutionaries could still preserve some hope for the future. The final resolution of the Tenth Party Congress, however, called for the banning of factions (and the Workers' Opposition and Democratic Centralists were mentioned by name in the resolution). Whilst it did not have the effect that was perhaps intended (factions continued to re-appear until 1927) it did commit Bolsheviks to defend the Party more strongly than ever. Indeed Lenin seems to have over-reacted to the threat posed by the various tendencies over the trades union debate. He mistakenly thought the Workers Opposition were supporting the idea of the unions against that of the party. Just how far he was mistaken was demonstrated by the fact that whilst Bolsheviks in Kronstadt defended the Kronstadt Naval base, the rest of the Party rallied together to suppress it. This included the oppositions who comprised part of the 300 strong contingent of party delegates which took part in the final storming of Kronstadt and which was ultimately successful on March 18th. Ironically the crushing of the Kronstadt Commune came exactly fifty years after the Paris Commune had been formed. Serge found the celebrations of the Paris Commune a little sickening given that 10,000 of the attackers lost their lives on the ice whilst 1,500 defenders died and a further 2,500 were captured. Some of these were shot by the Cheka. Serge though supported the attack himself. His agonised appraisal of the situation was as good as any contemporary could give us.

After many hesitations, and with unutterable anguish, my Communist friends and I declared ourselves on the side of the Party. This is why. Kronstadt had right on its side. Kronstadt was the beginning of a fresh liberating revolution for popular democracy; "The Third Revolution!" it was called by certain anarchists whose heads were stuffed with infantile illusions. However the country was absolutely exhausted, and production practically at a standstill; there were no reserves of any kind, not even reserves of stamina in the hearts of the masses. The working class elite that had been moulded in the struggle against the old regime was literally decimated. The party, swollen by the influx of power seekers, inspired little confidence. Of the other parties only minute nuclei existed, whose character was highly questionable [...] If the Bolshevik dictatorship fell, it was only a short step to chaos, and through chaos to a peasant rising, the massacre of the Communists, the return of the émigrés, and in the end, through sheer force of events, another dictatorship, this time anti-proletarian. (18)

Much the same was later said by Bolshevik leaders even if they repeated the Cheka lie that Kronstadt was "a White Guard plot" before it was crushed. Bukharin wrote that it was no such thing but that they had to stamp out the revolt of "our erring proletarian brothers". Lenin later stated more accurately that the Kronstadters neither wanted the government of the Whites nor of the Bolsheviks but "there is no other". And this was accepted internationally at the time. Even the KAPD who were already moving into opposition to the Third International accepted in 1921 that the suppression of Kronstadt was necessary.

However, it is one thing to say that all internationalists at the time supported the crushing of Kronstadt and another not to draw lessons from it. Whilst Trotsky could still write in his biography of Stalin in August 1940 that the suppression of Kronstadt was "a tragic necessity" today we can take a rather longer look at its historical lessons. Here we cannot look at Kronstadt in isolation. As it turned out, whichever side won was a victory for the counter-revolution. However, whilst the defeat of the Kronstadt sailors was a defeat for soviet power inside Russia, the prospect of international revolution still lay open and this was the critical factor in the opinions of the revolutionaries of the time.

The real problem lay in the fact that the Party was the state. The lesson is that Party has to be the party of the international proletariat whatever its members do inside the soviets of a particular territory. It may be in the future that there will be occasions where party members clash again in a revolutionary situation due to material privation, as in 1921, but the Party of the future as a body will be international. And this does not just mean in spirit. It will not be physically tied to one territorial entity. If soviet power means what it says then the soviets in each territory may vote for Party delegates and remove them but the Party itself stands only for the programme of international proletarian revolution. It is not the state nor does it wield state power even in the temporary workers' state of the transition from capitalism to communism (19). For revolutionaries at the time the young workers' state had survived a critical moment. For us, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that whatever happened at Kronstadt the counter-revolution was on the march. We are still suffering the consequences of that today.

The March Action and the Third Congress of the Communist International

Kronstadt was not the only event in that month that indicated the ebbing of the revolutionary wave. In Germany, as we saw above the Communists had split between the KAPD and the KPD in 1919 and all attempts to re-unite them fell on deaf ears on both sides. For its part the KPD oscillated from its birth between putschism and passivity. Its participation in the so-called March Action was a disaster which not only cost its three fifths of its membership (falling from 450,000 to 180,000 in three months) but really sapped the morale and revolutionary will of the working class. Partly the KPD responded to a provocation of the Army (which tried to disarm workers), partly to the encouragement of Radek and Bela Kun to help break the isolation of soviet Russia and partly to be seen to act more decisively than it had done during the Kapp Putsch where it had let the SPD organise the strikes which overthrew that right wing attempt at a coup. At the end of the Action the KPD leader Eberlein tried to stimulate the workers to carry on fighting by blowing up KPD buildings - a tactic which backfired when it was exposed by the ruling class. The final fiasco came when workers in Hamburg who wanted to carry on ended up fighting workers who saw the Action was over.

Long before the defeat of the March Action in Germany Soviet Russia was negotiating its survival in the post-war imperialist set up. This did not mean the automatic abandonment of the world revolution, simply a recognition of the weakness of the soviet economy and the need to re-establish foreign trade. On March 16th 1921, two days before the final suppression of Kronstadt the British Government signed the Anglo-Soviet Trade agreement which involved de facto recognition of the Bolshevik government in return for the suspension of all propaganda against the British in Afghanistan and India. However secret negotiations had being going on longer with the German Army and Government so that even though the March Action was taking place a German trade mission under Rathenau came to Moscow. Krasin, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Trade even warned German workers at this critical point that striking would impede deliveries to the Soviet Union!

Further evidence that the revolutionary wave was dying out came at the Third Congress of the Third (Communist) International in June - July of 1921. Here Trotsky told the delegates that in 1919 they had expected world revolution in a matter of months. Now they were talking about "a question of years". The debacle of the March Action and the Kronstadt Revolt lay heavy on the minds of the Bolshevik leaders who organised the main debates. No longer was the framework one of intransigent defence of revolutionary positions in the 21 Conditions adopted by the Second Congress. At this point the main concern was how to achieve a mass basis for Communist parties. Given that the revolutionary wave was ebbing this meant seeking alliance with the very Social Democrats who had joined the imperialist camp in 1914 and had connived at the murder of hundreds of communist by the crypto-fascists. The Third Congress of the International was thus another watershed in the counter-revolutionary turn of 1921. It also indicated how the fate of the International would remain bound up with the course of the counter-revolution in Russia. This first became clear in the debate on what had previously been called "the national and colonial question". Previously the International had had an exaggerated policy of seeing national struggles against imperialism as linked to the struggle for communism. Now (only nine months after the Baku Conference) it did not even refer to "national and colonial struggles but to the "eastern question". A Russian trade treaty with the British Empire plus treaties with Persia (Iran) and Turkey meant that these governments were not to be offended. Small wonder that the Indian Communist, M.N. Roy delivered the only really heavyweight verdict on the debate by denouncing Comintern policy as "pure opportunism" "more suitable for a congress of the Second International" (20).

The same thing was also true of the shift in policy towards social democracy in general. The united front with the butchers of the working class would have been proclaimed at the Third Congress if it had not already been associated with the disgraced German KPD leader Paul Levi who had been expelled at the beginning of the year. Instead the exhortation of the Bolshevik leaders in the Third Congress was "to the masses". But the Communists had already been using this idea even when trying to split the social democratic parties. So what could the new slogan mean? Nothing other than a rapprochement with social democracy at all levels. Whilst our political ancestors who then led the Communist Party of Italy had no trouble with the slogan they did choose to apply it differently. To them going "to the masses" meant joining in strikes and other actions with workers in the social democratic parties but continuing to oppose the class collaborationism of their leaders. By December when the Russian Party adopted the slogan of the "united front" for the first time it was clear that the idea was not about working with the rank and file but with the leaders - this was the first step in abandoning the revolutionary path on an international scale. It was not announced as such but de facto it was already that. If 1921 showed that the revolution inside Russia had now swung against the working class it was also the beginning of the process that led to the abandoning the proletarian principles of internationalism. In the verdict of our comrades in the Internationalist Communist Party the Third Congress was the turning point in the history of the Communist International:

The contradictions which loomed on a global scale continued to grip the first revolutionary experience. To have made the revolution in any country, to have momentarily defeated in armed conflict its own bourgeoisie did not mean socialism was being built but only the establishment of the necessary political conditions for it. It is absolutely essential to destroy the political instrument through which the bourgeoisie exercises its class domination and to replace it with another, proletarian, one, organised on the basis of an iron class dictatorship but this, in itself, is not enough.
In order to have gone on effectively towards socialism, the revolution needed a sufficiently developed political structure and an economy which was totally autonomous from the world market, conditions which Russia in those years lacked. Which is why the only salvation from Russia's backwardness lay in revolutionary victory in some western, or better still, some industrially advanced country. It followed from this that the Communist International and the Bolshevik Party which, like it on not, was the backbone of the Comintern, had to make every effort to accelerate or at least promote, uncompromising revolutionary solutions on the basis of the first two Congresses.
However it was dressed up, abandoning the political autonomy of the class party and the dictatorship of the proletariat served neither to convince the leaders of social democracy nor to re-unite the masses around a programme of revolutionary compromise but only to confuse the international proletariat, blunt its political weapon of struggle and obscure its goals. The legitimate doubt arises that behind the official analysis of the Bolshevik leaders, and the Comintern itself, there was the idea that the situation was less favourable than previously foreseen. It was thus deemed worthwhile assisting the still-precarious Russian situation by an international alliance with social democracy to give it a firmer guarantee of safety than extend the revolution. Only in this way can we understand how the tactical adjustments to the united front and the workers' government emerged from ambiguity to assume their real shape. (21)

On May Day 1922 the slogan of "world revolution" was missed out for the first time from the slogans issued by the Russian Communist Party.

To the revolutionaries of the time however the significance of this was not so obvious. Setbacks will always occur in any process and revolutionaries have to maintain a rational optimism that such setbacks can be reversed. Trotsky defended the adoption of "to the masses" as "the strategy of temporary retreat" but how long is "temporary"? By 1922 Bordiga was openly criticising "the danger of seeing the united front degenerate into a communist revisionism" (22). By 1924 he was demanding the abandonment of the "united front" and the "workers' government" slogans as total confusions. By this time however further degeneration had set in with all the Communist Parties affiliated to the International subject to "bolshevisation" i.e. their leaders were chosen for their compliance to Moscow and to the interests of the Soviet state's foreign policy. Gramsci replaced Bordiga on Moscow's insistence and he used various organisational means to destroy the hold that the Italian Communist Left held over the Communist Party of Italy (even if it did take until the Lyons Congress of 1926) (23). By this time our political ancestors in the Communist Left had formed the Committee of Intesa (alliance) whose Platform summed up their verdict on the whole fiasco of the Comintern's policy.

It is mistaken to think that in every situation expedients and tactical manoeuvres can widen the Party base since relations between the party and the masses depends in large part on the objective situation. (24)

Revolution is an Affair of the Masses

To conclude then,1921 was not just a chain of disconnected setbacks but represented the real end of the revolutionary wave and the definitive beginning of the reversal of the process which had put world proletarian revolution on the historical agenda. To the revolutionaries of the time it was obvious that a massive retreat on an international scale was taking place. The Bolsheviks took the view that they had to hold the original proletarian bastion together until the world revolution arrived. But the weakness of the Russian proletariat meant that increasingly the Bolshevik Party transformed itself not simply into the director of the state but into the state itself. And this state was increasingly one of nascent Soviet capitalism against the working class. Thus we have one of the most confusing counter-revolutions in history where the party that had been the highest expression of working class consciousness in 1917 was transformed by the historical circumstance of the Russian proletariat's isolated war against imperialism into the agent of proletarian defeat. None of this went unremarked by the oppositions inside the Bolshevik Party and even by Lenin himself. At the Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party in March 1922 he told delegates:

[...] and if we take that huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth they are not directing, they are being directed. (25)

However, only with the enormous benefit of hindsight can we see that 1921 was the year in which the revolution was lost and this has to be part of our balance sheet of the Russian experience. What we draw from that experience is not the councilist one that all parties are bourgeois (as Otto Ruhle concluded, before running off to work for the Mexican Government of the Party of the Institutionalised Revolution!). Because the working class has no property to defend its consciousness (encapsulated in its programme) can only take form as a collective body. And because some workers, by virtue of their experience, will come to revolutionary ideas before others they have to take the lead in organising themselves. This means a political body which is not based on compromise with the capitalist class but is its constant adversary. This to us can only imply a revolutionary party. What 1921 and the decline of the revolution demonstrate, however, is the need for that party to be international and centralised prior to the revolutionary outbreak. That same party remains outside all governmental or statist functions as a body whatever its local membership have to do. At a local level power is wielded by the armed workers' councils. They are the only state bodies until the bourgeoisie is suppressed world wide. The Party is a political vanguard which defends the programme of communism rather than any territory claiming to be en route to communism. There may be those who would argue that this is as utopian as it is idealist but we have to remember that in 1921 itself, at the Tenth Party Congress

For a brief moment Lenin flirted with the idea of effecting a separation between Party and state. He briefly urged a clear specification and demarcation of the respective spheres of each and proposed that the organs of the state be given much greater autonomy and freedom from Party interference. (26)

Harding later tells us that Lenin recognised "almost instantly" that his proposal would not work. But this was because the situation in 1921 made it impossible to re-write the past. The Bolsheviks could not abandon state power because the soviets were already empty shells. Had this proposal been made in November 1917 and had the soviets retained political life, then it would have been possible. In 1921 the Bolsheviks were reduced to the Micawber position of holding on to state power in the hope that "something would turn up" in the shape of world revolution.

All this is simply utopian if the working class is not moving en masse and breathing life into the international party and the workers' councils. Ultimately the only guarantee of victory is the relatively rapid extension of the revolution to at least the major imperialist countries, for, until they are paralysed they have the capacity to destroy any revolutionary initiative. By imposing an international civil war on an already exhausted soviet republic they were able to destroy it materially. Whilst the Bolsheviks won militarily on Russian territory the failure of the world revolution elsewhere meant that the class struggle was lost politically. The adoption of NEP and the united front in 1921 were the epitaphs of that political defeat. The working class is still living with the consequences.

Communist Workers’ Organisation


(1) See Victor Serge The Revolution in Danger [translated by Ian Birchall] (Redwords,1997)

(2) We don't accept the term "libertarian Marxist" as for real Marxists, Marxism is libertarian or it is nothing. Stalinism etc. is not Marxism. For our wider views on the Russian Revolution see our pamphlet 1917 [£2 from the Sheffield address]. A new version which has been extended to take in the counter-revolution is in preparation.

(3) See the contrast between Arthur Ransome's Six Weeks in Russia 1919 and The Crisis in Russia 1920 [both published by Redwords,1992]

(4) Quoted in W.P. and Z. K. Coates Armed Intervention in Russia 1918-22 [London 1935] p.229.

(5) Rethinking the Russian Revolution [Edward Arnold,1990] p.204.

(6) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Oxford,1963) pp.70-1.

(7) Although the heroic opposition of the smaller Balkan Socialist parties in Serbia and Bulgaria should also be recorded.

(8) Lenin Selected Works Vol.2 p.505.

(9) Lenin Collected Works Vol.33 p.98.

(10) Quoted in The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power (ed. John Riddell, Pathfinder Press, New York 1986 p.33).

(11) Quoted in E.H.Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Vol.3 (Pelican edition,1966) p.133.

(12) Carr ibid. British troops were not withdrawn for another six months and not before London dockers had refused to load the Jolly George supply ship bound for Archangel and Murmansk.

(13) Carr op. cit. p.138.

(14) L. Kritsman The Heroic Period in the Great October Revolution (1926) p.166.

(15) See P. Binns, T. Cliff and C. Harman, Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism, (Bookmarks 1987) p.20. They are doing no more than repeating Trotsky's own false accusations in his 1938 article, Hue and Cry over Kronstadt.

(16) Quoted in Kronstadt 1921 Analysis of Popular Uprising in the time of Lenin in Revolutionary Perspectives 23 p.22.

(17) Ida Mett The Kronstadt Commune.

(18) Serge op.cit. pp.128-9

(19) We reject too the idealism of the International Communist Current which thinks that it is enough to say that "all actions of violence within the proletariat are to be outlawed" (see International Review 100 p.21) as if this solves the problem. Not only is this simply a pious resolution with which anyone can agree but it does also pose another question. The decision of who is proletarian and who not still has to be made, and we certainly would be nervous of passing any test imposed by the ICC!

(20) See E.H.Carr The Bolshevik Revolution Vol.3 p.386.

(21) I nodi irrisolti dello stalinismo alla base della perestrojka (Edizioni Prometeo 1989) pp.20-21 [from our Milano address].

(22) See G. Williams Proletarian Order p. 213

(23) See our pamphlet Platform of the Committee of Intesa (£3 from CWO address)

(24) ibid p.18

(25) Lenin Collected Works Vol.33.

(26) N. Harding Lenin's Political Thought [Macmillan 1977] p. 296