Power in Practice: Kronstadt and the Spanish Revolution 

Political discussions aim to draw lines between the powerful and the powerless, between victim and oppressor. This is very obvious if we look at war, which is about violence, the most naked form of power. But this principle is also true of matters such as healthcare. Healthcare is about ensuring that people do not have to worry about minor illnesses or accidents. In a society with universal health care, the populace could be free of these worries and thus spend more time considering how to combat injustice. To argue against universal health care is to argue in favor of the current balance of power; to argue in favor of universal healthcare is to argue against this current balance. Power lurks everywhere and is at the heart of every political argument. If we want to effect political change, we must engage in politics. If we want to engage in politics, we must engage with and struggle for power. To be revolutionary is (in part) to desire an inversion of the balance of power-to grant power to the oppressed by taking it away from the oppressors.

Many self-styled revolutionaries, especially those who identify as anarchists, reject this analysis. They claim that power is not instrumentalized, that it will always be oppressive. Even if those in power claim to be exercising it on behalf of the oppressed, indeed, even if they sincerely believe themselves to be doing so, they will always ultimately pursue their own interests: the continuation of power.

As evidence for this, anarchists often cite the Kronstadt rebellion. The Bolsheviks, who either cloaked themselves as defenders of the oppressed or genuinely thought they filled this role, took power in the interests of the workers. When a group of workers and soldiers rose up against the government at Kronstadt, they were mercilessly crushed. This is supposedly evidence of the corrupting nature of power. In this essay, I will argue that the Kronstadt rebellion was not crushed because of power-madness, but rather specific material conditions and an uncorrupted desire to defend the oppressed. In so doing, I will open up Leninism-a politics concerned with the conquest of political power-as a viable strategy.

I would like to counterpose the effectiveness of this strategy to the Spanish Revolution of 1936, in which a group of anarchists took power in Catalonia amidst a civil war. I have spent considerable time discussing this event elsewhere, so there is little point in spending a great deal of space doing so here. However, I believe it is an instructive example of where the aversion (what we might call an “allergic reaction”) to power will lead us. As such, I want to briefly draw some lessons from it here.

Firstly, I should mention that the Kronstadt naval base was the first line of defense against an invasion of Moscow, the new capital of the Soviet Union. It was a key defensive point. If the government had not exercised iron control over it, the invading enemies could have ended the fledgling socialist state.

The Kronstadt sailors felt that their concerns over worker’s rights and repression outweighed these concerns. Their first move was to form a Provisional Revolutionary Committee. Following this, they put forward a series of demands. These encompassed not only the economic but also the social and political. In the economic sphere, they desired a relaxation of the strict conditions of war communism (a policy imposed, as the name suggests, by the particular conditions of the ongoing Civil War). The rebels also called for Increased food supplies to be sent to the cities. Their political demands included the restoration of  freedom of speech, increased democratic input and consultation in policy formulation, the release of non-Bolshevik socialists from detention, guarantees of civil rights and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Soviets without communists.” Their document asserted that the Bolsheviks were “usurpers” and described the conditions imposed by the new government as “greater enslavement”, “moral slavery”, “a new serfdom” and much greater than the oppressions of tsarism. The Kronstadt sailors called for the revolution to be placed back into the hands of the workers who it had originally claimed to represent.

The popular image that anti-Bolshevik critics cling to is that there was widespread sympathy among the Red Army soldiers towards the rebels. There has been a lot of speculation about the mass of soldiers refusing to take part in the attack for political reasons, as well as stories of mass desertions among the Red Army soldiers. It is claimed that many of them passed to the side of the Kronstadt rebels.

There was one case where one unit moved to the side of those defending Kronstadt. This was during the first unsuccessful attack. It was a battalion from the 561st Red Army regiment. This regiment was recruited from among former Makhno, Wrangel and Denikin prisoners. During the civil war in Russia, some peasant units also changed sides even several times as a result of military failures. This incident was not the result of political ideas or anti-Bolshevism, but rather a desire to remain safe (and, to put it bluntly, alive).

One example of this could be seen when 236 and 237 infantry regiment refused to attack. When questioned as to their motives, they replied, “We’ll not go on the ice.” These peasant units were terrified at the idea of having to attack across the ice this first class fortress defended by battleships. There are other reports about refusals to carry out orders on the part of different units, but in all these cases the causes were such things as the poor quality of food and clothing, the bad quality of the camouflage, and unfavorable weather conditions No political reasons were ever given. 

At this juncture, it is important to remember that the Soviet government had been forced to use its scarce resources to defend itself against the White armies backed by the imperialists who were trying to crush the revolution. They could not devote resources to improving the lives of their soldiers because they were struggling simply to survive. This is the same reason they imposed War Communism in the first place. In light of these circumstances, it is understandable why conditions on the battlefield were so bad.

There was no solid mass of soldiers firmly behind the rebellion. Even bourgeois historians such as Krasnov have had to recognize this fact. Inside Kronstadt, there were clashes between the old revolutionary sailors and the new recruits who came from peasant and petit-bourgeois families. As a result of this lack of unity, the Kronstadt sailors continually shifted positions and acted erratically. Some ships declared their neutrality. Others disregarded this completely and moved against the rebels.

To further illustrate this, we should turn to of the statements issued by the crews of a number of ships: the minesweepers “Ural,” and”Orfei.” They said, “The men of the White guards that are leading the rebels can do a lot of damage to the Republic, and they may not even hesitate to bomb Petrograd.”

The same situation was to be found behind the rebel battle lines. According to the 7th Army intelligence report, many rebel sailors and soldiers wanted to move over to the side of the Bolsheviks, but they were terrorized by their rebel commanders. It is interesting to note that the rebels justified their rebellion as an objection to Bolshevik terror, but were more than willing to use similar tactics when it suited them.

According to documents published in recently declassified Soviet archives, during the attack on Kronstadt, the workers of the town liberated it even before the main forces of the Red Army arrived. Cooperation between the sailors and the Bolsheviks-against the rebels-was far more common than the reverse.

The Kronstadt rebellion itself was not led by the workers. Rather, according to the Kronstadt archives themselves, the rebellion had been instigated by “the men of the White guards that are leading the rebels.” The real command over the rebels was concentrated not in the Kronstadt Soviet, as the anarchist propagandists assume, but in the so-called “Court for the Defense of Kronstadt Fortress.” One of its leaders was rear-admiral S.H. Dmitriev (who was executed after the fortress fell). The other was General A. H. Kozlovsky, who escaped to Finland. Both of these senior officers were allied with Tsarists, and thus very far from having any kind of sympathy for Socialism “with Bolsheviks” or “without Bolsheviks.” The counter-revolutionary forces co-opted Ultraleft, anti-soviet rhetoric to secretly launch an attempt to restore the previous feudal order. This is one reason why the “Worker’s Opposition,” itself formed to defend the particular interests of the industrial proletariat, sided with the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt.

S. M. Petrechenko, sailor and anti-Bolshevik leader, was recruited by Stalin’s GPU in 1927. He remained one of Stalin’s agents until 1944 when he was arrested by the Finnish authorities. The following year he died in a Finnish concentration camp. Even the most prominent leader of the rebellion came to understand that the Soviet state was one worth defending.

The Kronstadt workers and sailors actually understood the real nature of these rebels far better than any of the later intellectuals who have tried to build up the myth of Kronstadt. The same can be said of the counterrevolutionary forces that were operating in Kronstadt. The former Tsarist prime-minister and finance minister, Kokovzev, transferred 225 thousand francs to the Kronstadt rebels. The Russian-Asian bank transferred 200 thousand francs. The French prime-minister, Briand, during the meeting with the former ambassador of Kerensky’s government, Malachov, promised: “anything necessary to help Kronstadt.”

Even if we charitably grant that the Kronstadt sailors had noble intentions, the fact remains that their rebellion was quickly co-opted by reactionary and anti-communist forces, seeking to revive the Tsarist system of rule. This is the reason it was crushed. The notion that Lenin crushed the rebellion because he had a vendetta against the working class is more or less a moot point in light of the above evidence, but I would also like to point out that Lenin called for greater worker participation in the Central Committee. He made that call in April of 1921, the same year as the rebellion. He also fought against Trotsky to give trade unions power in workplaces. A month later, 14 capitalist nations launched a full-scale invasion of the backward Soviet Union. Their only option at the time was to centralize productive forces so that necessary defense material could be produced.

Some might argue that the above evidence does not negate the fact that the Kronstadt rebels had explicitly socialist demands. If these demands were not being met by the Soviet government, it must, therefore, follow that the Soviet Union was oppressing its workers. If this is the case, it must be true that power has inherently corrosive effects. Surprisingly, there are elements of truth to this argument. Apart from the Kronstadt rebellion, there was widespread dissatisfaction among peasants and workers over the state of the Soviet economy. However, claims that this dissatisfaction was the result of Leninism are false. We know this because it was Lenin who called for the New Economic Policy at the Tenth Party Congress. This NEP, in response to the demands of the peasants, ended the policy of forced grain requisition by the State. It also made possible the creation of agricultural co-ops and the private operation of means of production. This was one of the demands of the Kronstadt sailors. Lenin, although he ultimately crushed the uprising due to its counter-revolutionary character, sympathized with many of the expressed demands of its participants.

We can conclude from all of this that Lenin crushed the Kronstadt rebels because material conditions dictated that he had to do so, rather than out of any twisted personal desire. The actions taken by Lenin flowed from said material conditions, not the power that Lenin wielded. 

As with Kronstadt itself, Anarchist propagandists portray the Soviet government as a ruthless, dictatorial body that “crushed” the anarchists for ideological reasons, because the ideology of anarchism threatened the power of the Bolsheviks. Also as with Kronstadt, the truth is very different.

Thousands of anarchists in Soviet Russia were ardent defenders of the Soviet government, giving their energy in battle, their lives at the front and their participation in the soviet institutions. The Bolsheviks worked alongside these anarchists and regarded them as their comrades.

Four anarchists, Bogatsky, Bleikhman, Shatov, and Iatshurk, were members of the Military Revolutionary Committee which carried out the October Revolution—the insurrection which today’s anarchists (wrongfully) denounce as a coup d’état. The armed detachment carrying out the orders of the Soviet Government to dissolve the Constituent Assembly was led by an anarchist named Anatoly Zheleteznyakov. Almost all anarchists were opposed to the bourgeois Constituent Assembly in revolutionary Russia, yet today’s anarchists denounce the Bolsheviks’ decision to dissolve it as having been “anti-democratic”. Historian Jeff Hemmer gives more detail about the aforementioned Vladimir Shatov and other anarchists who staunchly defended the Soviet state:

“A member of the Military Revolutionary Committee in 1917, Shatov became the chief of police in Petrograd in 1918. In 1919 he defended Petrograd against the advance of General Yudenich as an officer in the Tenth Red Army, and in 1920 was appointed Minister of Transport in the Far Eastern Republic. A number of other anarchists followed his example and accepted small government posts, urging their comrades to do the same or at least refrain from anti-Bolshevik activities that would jeopardize the revolution. The Bolshevik cause attracted anarchists from all backgrounds, ranging from former Black Banner terrorists like Heitzman and Roschin to Anarcho-Communists like German Sandomirskii, who took a position in Chicherin’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Alexander Ge, according Victor Serge one of the organisers of Red Terror in the Terek region. Other well-known anarchists in the service of the Bolsheviks were the Anarcho-Syndicalists Shapiro, who joined Sandomirskii in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and Daniil Novomirskii, in 1905 a prominent figure in syndicalist circles in Odessa, who entered the Communist Party and became a Comintern official in 1919…

In spring 1918 the Anarcho-Communist Apollon Karelin formed the pro-Bolshevik All-Russian Federation of Anarchist-Communists in Moscow, arguing that a Soviet dictatorship was acceptable as a transitional phase in the development of a free anarchist society. According to Karelin, the defence of the Soviet Government was to be regarded not as an affirmation of authority, but as a means of protecting the revolution. A similar view was put forward by the Moscow-based Universalists, formed in 1920 by the brothers Gordin, who had previously been rabid anti-Marxists and anti-intellectuals, and German Askarov, an Anarchist-Communist who was also a member of the Soviet Central Executive Committee [as was Karelin from 1918]. Roschin, the former Chernoznamenets and staunch anti-Marxist who, in 1919, came to see the Bolsheviks as “the advance guard of the revolution,” seems to have taken these ideas even further; according to Victor Serge, he tried to develop an “anarchist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

The support from the “Soviet Anarchists” was welcomed by the Bolshevik leadership, who insisted that the only anarchists that were persecuted in Russia were criminal elements.”

We can see, then, that there was a strong current of unity between the Marxists and the Anarchists in the Soviet Union. If it were true that the repression of Soviet Anarchists was carried out on ideological grounds, this would not have been the case. If power had an inherently corrupting effect, then it would it be the case that the Marxists would have crushed the Anarchists in the very beginning. They did not do this, and in fact took great pains to accommodate the Anarchists.

If the repression of anarchists was not ideological, as I have argued, how and why did it arise? The answer lies in the anarchist Black Guards, which flourished throughout Russia and Ukraine in 1918. Originally created in Alexandrovsk during the summer of 1917 by Maria Nikiforova, these armed anarchist detachments had spread to Moscow by January 1918, and by April 1918 “there were already more than 50 groups and detachments of the Black Guard, numbering some 2,000 militants” In the city.

“All groups and organizational units of the Black Guard have grouped around the Council of the MFAG [Moscow Federation of Anarchist Groups] and headquarters of the Black Guard, stationed in the House of Anarchy in Malaya Dmitrovka.” Nestor Makhno would later establish similar detachments in different regions of Ukraine which ultimately grew into the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. According to the American anarchist historian Paul Avrich, the MFAG armed the Black Guards “with rifles, pistols, and grenades. From their headquarters in the House of Anarchy, the leaders of the Federation tried to impose a measure of discipline on the Black Guardsmen and to limit the activities of the local clubs to the distribution of propaganda and the “requisitioning” of private residences. This proved to be an impossible task; once armed, a number of groups and isolated individuals succumbed to the temptation of carrying out “expropriations,” and, adding insult to injury, they sometimes acted in the name of the Federation.”

Avrich explains that “armed detachments of Black Guards… held up banks, shops, and private homes. Many of their comrades — especially the “Soviet anarchists” – condemned such acts as parodies of the libertarian ideal, which wasted precious lives, demoralized the movement’s true adherents and discredited anarchism in the eyes of the general public.”

Looting was rife among the Black Guards. The leadership of the MFAG seemed unable to discipline its detachments. The Bolshevik (and former anarchist) Victor Serge wrote that “The anarchists themselves admitted that suspicious elements, adventurers, common criminals, and counterrevolutionaries, were thriving among them, but their libertarian principles did not permit them to refuse entrance to their organizations to any man or to subject anyone to really control. They sensed acutely that their movement needed to be purged, but this was impossible without authority or a disciplined organization. Splits among them and this reverence for principle were slowly leading to the political suicide of the movement, which was becoming more compromised each day…”

The Black Guards were out of control. “Several incidents such as an attack on an American car, the murder of several Cheka agents followed by the summary execution of several bandits, the arrests of “expropriators” who were promptly claimed by the Anarchist Federation, led Dzerzhinsky, the President of the Cheka, to insist on the liquidation of the Black Guard.”

Avrich gives the details of this operation:

“[O]n the night of the 11-12th of April, armed detachments of the Cheka raided 26 anarchist centres in the capital. Most anarchists surrendered without a fight, but in the Donskoi Monastery and the House of Anarchy itself, Black Guardsmen offered fierce resistance. A dozen Cheka agents were slain in the struggle, about 40 anarchists were killed or wounded, and more than 500 were taken prisoner.”

Anarchist propagandists, with their dishonest “selective memory,” take this evening’s events out of historical context; treating it in isolation and ignoring the backward trend of conflict that the anarchist Black Guards had been unleashing in Russia. The Bolsheviks had been forced into carrying out the task that the anarchists were seemingly incapable of achieving on their own; purging from their ranks the “criminal elements” that were pillaging and burgling under the flag of anarchism and causing chaos throughout Russia. As the elected and legitimate government, it was their obligation to restore order.

The Bolsheviks sought to eradicate these “criminal elements” which were considered to be “pseudo-anarchists.” In their view, no genuine anarchist could condone random acts of theft and violence against workers and the Soviets’ officials. Trotsky stated in Moscow on the 14th of April that “these hooligans… are simply raiders and burglars who compromise the anarchists. Anarchism is an idea although a mistaken one, but hooliganism is hooliganism… I have talked about it to the idealist anarchists and they themselves say: ‘A lot of these jailbirds, hooligans, and criminals have smuggled themselves into our movement…’… It is stated that among these hooligans there are a few who are honest anarchists; if that is true… then it is a great pity, and it is necessary to render them their freedom as quickly as possible.” His general argument was that the “honest anarchists” should distance themselves from the “hooligans” so that “one should know once for all… that is a burglar, and this is an honest idealist…” This was not an attack against anarchism or the “honest” anarchists. It was an attack against “the hooligans, who put on the mask of anarchism in order to destroy the order and life and labor of the working class.” Yet “some fifteen anarchists demonstratively left the hall” creating a frightening scene, breaking solidarity and order.

Before long, the anarchists resorted “once more to their terrorist ways.” According to Avrich: “Anarchists in Rostov, Ekaterinoslav, and Briansk broke into city jails and liberated the prisoners” in the middle of a civil war. “[I]n the summer of 1918, Black Guardsmen who had survived the Cheka raids of the preceding months, contemplated the armed seizure of the capital but Aleksei Borovoi and Daniil Novomirskii talked them out of it.” But according to the historian Marcel Liebman — evidently against the wishes of Borovoi and Novomirskii — some anarchists were involved in the Left SR revolt in Moscow on the 6th and 7th of July, which was, of course, an “armed seizure of the capital” that was quickly crushed.

“Lev Chernyi, secretary of the Moscow Federation of Anarchists… joined an organization called the Underground Anarchists, founded by Kazimir Kovalevich, a member of the Moscow Union of Railway Workers, and a Ukrainian anarchist named Petr Sobolev. Though based in the capital, the Underground Anarchists established ties with the battle detachments of the south… On the 25th of September [1919], together with a number of Left SR’s, they bombed the headquarters of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party in Leontiev Street, while a plenary meeting was in session. The explosion killed 12 members of the Committee and wounded 55 others, including Nikolai Bukharin, the eminent Bolshevik theorist and editor of Pravda…”

But even while chaos ensued on the streets of Moscow — terrorism conducted under the flag of anarchism — the Bolsheviks tried their best to meet the “honest” anarchists halfway:

“When Kamenev in 1920 offered the Moscow Anarchists freedom to issue their papers and to run their clubs and bookshops in exchange for their adoption of party discipline and a purge of the criminal and irresponsible elements which had infiltrated into their membership, they indignantly rejected the offer.”

It is clear then from the information I have provided that, contrary to anarchist mythology, the Bolsheviks did not “crush” the anarchists in Soviet Russia for ideological reasons. The Bolsheviks-alongside the anarchists who peacefully collaborated with them -appealed to sincere anarchists involved in the dubious activity to distance themselves from the hooligans who had infiltrated their ranks. The “anarchists” who were subdued had been looting, burgling, engaging in violent and destructive acts and assassinating government figures. The “repression” of these explicitly anti-soviet and counter-revolutionary terrorists should be seen as nothing more than an overdue retaliation to criminal provocation.

We have seen that Leninists have historically been willing to place unity in the struggle over ideology, while anarchists have not. This proves that it is possible to wield power on behalf of the oppressed, and need not devolve into an “authoritarian” nightmare.

Indeed, it is not possible to succeed without wielding power in this manner. This was true during the Spanish Revolution, another historical event that anarchists uphold as a successful example of their theory in practice. Salvador de Madariaga, a Spanish historian, wrote about the elections in the period leading up to the Civil War in this way: “the workers affiliated to the U.G.T. voted for their men. But the Anarcho-Syndicalists voted for the middle-class liberals. There were two reasons for this: the first, the unbridgeable enmity which separates Socialists and Syndicalists, due to their rival bid for the leadership of the working classes; and the second, that as the Anarchists always preached contempt for suffrage, they had no political machinery of their own; so that when it coming to voting—which they did this time to help oust the Monarchy—they preferred to vote for the middle-class Republican whose liberal views were more in harmony with the anti-Marxist idea of the Spanish Syndicalists than with the orthodox and dogmatic tenets of the Socialists.”

In this context, anarchist ideology worked against the interests of the proletariat by advancing the interests of the petite-bourgeoisie. Anarchists put their ideology ahead of the struggle. It was impossible for them to avoid doing this because they refused to engage with the centers of power. Ultimately, that is what led to the defeat of the Spanish Revolution.

It has not, historically, been Leninist parties that put their own power ahead of worker’s struggles. On the contrary, Leninists have been more than willing to cooperate with forces which were not ideologically aligned with them for the purpose of making or defending the revolution. The two most successful anarchist movements, Soviet anarchism, and the Spanish Revolution have in fact been guilty of a rank sectarianism. Leninists have stood for workers, Anarchists have stood for themselves.

The anarchist “allergic reaction” to power has, time and again, alienated them from the struggle. The working class instinctively understands that politics is about power. They learn this through their struggle with the bosses, which is ultimately about the balance of power between two opposing camps. This is why the anarchist movement has taken hold primarily among petit-bourgeois artisans and middle-class liberals. In its a priori rejection of power, anarchism dooms itself to discontinuity with the revolutionary agent: the working class. In swearing off power, anarchism also swears off victory.


Kronstadt Tragedy, by Russian historian Yuri Shchetinov

“The Truth About Kronstadt” John G. Wrangel

Kronstadt: 1921,  Paul Avrich

Cronstadt, Jean-Jacques Marie

The Unknown Trotsky: The Red Bonaparte V. G. Krasnov

Blackshirts and Reds, Michael Parenti

The New Cambridge Modern History, volume xxi.

Steve Phillips (2000). Lenin and the Russian Revolution.

The Demands of the Kronstadt Sailors, available at  http://alphahistory.com/russianrevolution/kronstadt-rebellion/

Hemmer, J. What Was The Role Of Anarchists In The Russian Revolution?

Trotsky, L. The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky – Vol. 2).

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Avrich, P. Russian Anarchists, and the Civil War

Serge, V. Year One of the Russian Revolution

Avrich, P. The Russian Anarchists

Trotsky, L. An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe

Liebman, M. Leninism Under Lenin

Schapiro, L. The Origin of the Communist Autocracy

Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, Cambridge Univ. Press. London, 1950

Spain, a Modern History, Salvador Madariaga, Praeger. N.Y., 1958

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