1921 turning point?

Mike Macnair spoke to Online Communist Forum on March 7 about the related centenaries of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion, the adoption of the NEP and the ban on factions in the Russian Communist Party

This talk was titled ‘NEP, the banning of factions and Kronstadt - the turning point in the Russian Revolution?’ I began by emphasising the question mark, and giving the preliminary answer to the question: ‘No’. But we have to start with the centenary.

By spring 1921, it looked as though the civil war was won, while the war with Poland was over for practical purposes. In this context, at the beginning of March the Kronstadt garrison held fresh elections to the local soviet and raised a whole series of demands - including, notably, the right to free speech, the right of opposition parties to organise and the right to free elections - and those Bolsheviks who did not leave the fortress were arrested.

On March 5 Trotsky issued an ultimatum in his capacity as war minister: “Surrender or we invade”. But over March 7-10 the government’s initial attack on Kronstadt failed. Then there was a pause, which coincided with the 10th Party Congress (March 8-16), which adopted the New Economic Policy. The NEP was not a response to Kronstadt, of course, because the plans for it had been made before the Congress, but, as it involved extensive concessions, in particular to the peasantry, it undercut potential wider support for Kronstadt.

Because the party was making a retreat on the economic front from war communism to a mixed economy, the leadership felt the need to tighten up control on the political front. Hence the same party congress adopted the formal ban on organised factions within the party - something that is still echoed by today’s left. Then on March 16-18, immediately after the congress, the Red Army launched a successful attack across the ice, and Kronstadt soon fell.

At this point it is worth flagging two other dates in 1921. The first is the March Action in Germany (March 21-April 1) - the failed attempt by the German Communist Party to organise a general strike to prevent the disarmament of the workers in Saxony. The second is the Third Congress of Comintern (June 22-July 12). This Congress generalised the civil war organisational norms adopted by the Russian Communist Party, through its ‘Theses on the organisational structure of the communist parties and the methods and context of their work’. This incorporated top-down military discipline, a ban on ‘power struggles’ - another way of saying ‘No more factions’ - and a ruling that central committee members who attend local party meetings have the right to veto their decisions, while the leadership has full control over all publications.

Why might it be said that March 1921 marked ‘the turning point in the Russian Revolution’? First, one might say that the NEP was the turning point because, by introducing partial market measures, it was a retreat from socialism. But in point of fact the Bolsheviks had never intended war communism as a move straight to socialism: war communism was merely an expedient for fighting the civil war. I want to be a little bit cautious in making this point, because some of the things Lenin wrote in July, August and September 1917 could be interpreted as pointing in the direction of war communism.

However, while the NEP was seen as a retreat, war communism was not the Bolsheviks’ vision of socialism. It was chaotic - and characterised by very extensive corruption, etc. In this framework, the NEP certainly did not mark the defeat of the Russian Revolution, because the social power of the working class had actually been pretty weak under war communism - and would have remained weak if Trotsky’s alternative economic proposal, the militarisation of labour, had been adopted before the NEP was undertaken.

Second, the crushing of the Kronstadt movement certainly marks the moment when many who had been sympathetic to the Russian Revolution - particularly the anarchists - became unsympathetic. Yet we cannot escape from the point which the Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, made at the time: there were British warships hovering in the gulf off Kronstadt, just waiting for the ice to melt and hence the opportunity to land the Royal Marines and set up a blockade on Russian access to the Baltic, producing conditions for the recommencement of civil war. While the leadership of the Kronstadt rebels were certainly not British agents, during the brief life of this movement during the first three weeks of March, some participants were indeed looking for British naval intervention - and, in fact, advised the rebel leadership not to show their hand until the ice had melted.

We should therefore remember that the context in which Kronstadt occurred - and other repressive measures taken by the Bolshevik government - is that the world’s main imperialist power at the time, the United Kingdom, and its leading allies, were engaged in counterrevolutionary, military and intelligence sabotage operations against what was to become the Soviet Union. That makes it problematic to claim that the communists should have allowed themselves to be kicked out of Kronstadt in order to preserve the honour of the revolution.

Banning factions

A third reason - and in some ways a stronger one - for seeing March 1921 as the ‘turning point’ is the ban on factions. This represented the destruction of the last legal means by which the working class could overthrow its own apparatus. This is because from the summer of 1918 Russia had become a de facto one-party state through the banning of parties other than the Communist Party, with the consequence that the Bolshevik Party then formed the real core of the state structure.

To call this a “workers’ state” then had to mean a state where the working class could exercise power through the Communist Party and nothing else. The Bolsheviks were completely open about this. The 1920 ‘Theses on the role and structure of the Communist Party before and after the taking of power by the proletariat’, adopted by the Second Comintern Congress, were perfectly clear and explicit on this point. At the time of the October revolution - and perhaps even still in the 1918 polemics over soviet versus parliamentary democracy - the communist leadership was still thinking that soviet power was the institutional alternative to bourgeois power. But by the time of the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, the institutional alternative was to be the Communist Party itself.

How do you know that the Communist Party is a workers’ party? It does not work to say that it is a workers’ party because the majority of its members are working class: if you look at Britain in the 1950s, probably the majority of Conservative Party members were working class, just as the majority of people in society were working class. Today one can guess that the majority of the Democratic Party - or indeed of the Republican Party - in the United States are working class people. Nor does it work to say that the Communist Party is a workers’ party because it has an ideological commitment to socialism. All sorts of nationalist and other such parties, which are not parties through which the working class could rule, have at least nominal or formal ideological commitments to socialism.

The right answer is that the mechanisms of democratic centralism, together with the commitment of the party to socialism - and to the particular form of socialism which is expressed in the idea of working class power - create the situation where the class can identify the party as its own vehicle, and the party leadership is, or can be made, answerable to the class. It is transparent that the parties of the Second International, because of these features, could aim for power - as the Bolsheviks did - or be won in their majority to communism by Comintern - as was true of the French Socialist Party and several others.

In other words, the ability of the working class to organise to work against its own apparatus - through factions, through the right of localities and sectors to publish - is essential. The working class is the potential carrier of socialism, because it needs to organise collective action - which foreshadows the possibility of the future cooperative commonwealth. The workers are separated from the means of production and therefore need to organise trade unions, cooperatives, mutual funds and associations, and so on. This need to organise collective action is the thing that poses the potential alternative to market society and the ‘liberal constitutional order’.

If you take away the right of the working class to organise against its own leadership, you have actually destroyed that potential. You have created the ‘dictatorship of the apparatus’ (which is a section of the petty-proprietor class) over the working class. The result is that the party eviscerates itself, losing its ability to mobilise the working class. The Russian Communist Party after 1921 repeatedly attempted to renew its working class membership (‘levies’ and recruitment campaigns) and to purge itself of careerists, etc - but failed on both sides. It is the freedom to organise which enables the class to use the party as its own instrument.

So 1921 is a turning point, since the ban on factions destroyed the last legal opportunity for the working class to overthrow any leadership - whether it was leftist or rightist - by legal means of action. I doubly emphasise legal, for in fact the ban was only very partially implemented. The moment at which it was actually implemented is the ‘one-two, right hook, left hook’ of 1927-29. Then, Stalin and his co-thinkers allied with the right to kick Trotsky and the left out of the party, repress them and send them into exile in 1927-28 - and then within six months stole the now excluded opposition’s political clothes - an accelerated programme of industrialisation, ‘socialist primitive accumulation’ against the peasantry, and a more aggressive international policy - and applied the same ‘anti-factional’ method of police action against the right as had previously been applied against the left. This fully constitutionalised the ban on factions.

So we can perfectly well imagine the working class taking back power, but what would have been needed between 1921 and 1928 would have been a successful illegal faction struggle. It would also have needed the opposition to have a clearer idea of what was going on in both world affairs and in the Russian economy. There were, on the one hand, the Bukharinists with their belief that socialism in one country could be achieved very gradually, in tandem with the peasantry - not understanding that what the peasantry was engaged in was a tax strike in order to force the capitulation of the cities - which would, if successful, have resulted in the recreation of feudalism. The Left Opposition, on the other hand, imagined that forced-march industrialisation could be done without terroristic measures against the peasantry. Both sides were trapped within the regime of economic sanctions imposed by the British and French and the failure of revolution in the west. In fact the overwhelming majority of the Russian left capitulated, joining up with the Stalinists when the latter turned left in 1929-30.

In any case, the point is that the working class could perhaps have taken power back, but to have done so would have involved an illegal faction. Of course, legality was not the decisive issue in the fate of the revolution in Russia. It was far less important than the domestic configuration of class forces (the antagonism between the worker minority and the peasant majority) and the international configuration of class forces (the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1916-21 outside the former tsarist empire). Rather, the legality issue is important because the ban on factions - as applied in workers’ political groupings under capitalism - ends up creating organisations that share the culture of managerialism and which demobilise the working class, thus serving the capitalist class. Either they are like the Labour Party, the trade unions and many other equivalent organisations, which have mass paper membership but are not able to mobilise forces, or else they are sects like the Socialist Workers Party and so on, which can mobilise their own membership but cannot be a vehicle through which working class masses can mobilise.

Before 1921

If we look beyond the issue of Soviet legality, we cannot say that 1921 was the turning point, because it was not yet decisive: it was the actual implementation of the ban on factions in the splits of 1927-29 which was the final blow. But it was also not the turning point because there were earlier steps that led to the decision to ban factions. If we ask why these earlier steps took place, the answer is that, actually, the Bolsheviks had a problem in terms of what they were going to do once they took power.

Lars T Lih has recently drawn attention to Lenin’s ‘Tasks of the revolution’, published in late September (old style) 1917. There is a passage of this text which is quite diagnostic of the problem. One of the things that Lenin is proposing is that the party should immediately offer to make peace. Let me quote a large section:

Such peace terms will not meet with the approval of the capitalists, but they will meet with such tremendous sympathy on the part of all the peoples and will cause such a great worldwide outburst of enthusiasm and general indignation against the continuation of the predatory war that it is extremely probable that we shall at once obtain a truce and a consent to open peace negotiations. For the workers’ revolution against the war is irresistibly growing everywhere, and it can be spurred on not by phrases about peace, with which the workers and peasants have been deceived by all the imperialist governments, including our own Kerensky government, but by a break with the capitalists and the offer of peace.

If the least probable thing happens - ie, not a single belligerent state accepts even a truce - then, as far as we are concerned, the war becomes truly forced on us. It becomes truly a war of defence. If this is understood by the proletariat and the poor peasantry, Russia will become many times stronger, even in the military sense, especially after a complete break with the capitalists, who are robbing the people.

Furthermore, under such conditions, it would, as far as we are concerned, be a war in league with the oppressed classes of all countries - a war in league with the oppressed peoples of the whole world, not in word, but in deed. The people must be particularly cautioned against the capitalists’ assertion, which sometimes influences the petty bourgeoisie and others who are frightened: namely that the British and other capitalists are capable of doing serious damage to the Russian Revolution, if we break the present predatory alliance with them.

Such an assertion is false through and through. For ‘allied financial aid’ enriches the bankers and ‘supports’ the Russian workers and peasants in exactly the same way as a rope supports a man who is being hanged.

There is plenty of bread, coal, oil and iron in Russia. For these products to be properly distributed it is only necessary for us to rid ourselves of the landowners and capitalists who are robbing the people.

As to the possibility of the Russian people being threatened with war by the present allies, it is obviously absurd to assume that the French and Italians could unite their armies with those of the Germans and move them against Russia who offer them a just peace.

What is wrong with this diagnosis is that, first, the British government had already started making war on the Soviet regime. The British government was behind, and supported, the Kornilov putsch attempt of August 1917. In fact, as soon as the October revolution took place, the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising was a ‘local’ attempt to retake Petrograd; but the Cossack movement against the Bolsheviks and the Alekseyev-Kornilov ‘Volunteer Army’, operating in south Russia in November-December 1917, did so with British and French finance and material aid. So actually the British, French and American governments were able to make war on Russia on account of Russia’s peace offer and indeed did so.

Moreover, it turned out that even the Germans were not willing to make peace. The Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime stabbed the German army in the back for the sake of class solidarity with the Russian landlord class, by refusing the peace without annexations that it could have had. It elected instead to make war on the Bolsheviks in December 1917-March 1918. As a consequence of maintaining a large number of troops on the eastern front, these were not available to make the possibly decisive breakthrough on the western front. Had they made peace and transferred those troops, they could have forced a negotiated solution before the Americans got themselves fully into the war. They would not have won a total, outright victory - that was not on the cards - but they could have got something much better than what they actually achieved.

The Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 in alliance with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, without whom they would have had no majority. The Left SRs were not initially in coalition with the Bolsheviks, but were in the military revolutionary committee and they came very rapidly into government with them.

The Brest-Litovsk treaty in March 1918 had no majority support in Russia. There was majority support on the Bolshevik central committee only by virtue of the centre group around Trotsky, which, having tried to maintain the ‘No war, no peace’ position, then collapsed and accepted Lenin’s position. But the consequence of this was that on March 19 1918 the Left SRs withdrew from the government. It is symptomatic that in March-April 1918 there was also a fight within the Bolshevik Party over the use of tsarist officers as military commanders, and over workers’ control versus one-man management. The Left Communist faction, which also wanted no peace at Brest-Litovsk, argued for workers’ control, while Lenin argued that ‘one-man management’ was essential for productive efficiency.

In May 1918 the Brest-Litovsk treaty triggered the rising of the Czech Legion, which seized the Trans-Siberian railway and a large amount of territory around it. The rising of the Czech Legion made a serious Entente military intervention much more feasible, which indeed developed, with significant American and Canadian forces operating from around Vladivostok in the far east, British and French forces in the Black Sea area, and British forces in Archangel and Murmansk.

The Left SRs turned to terrorism, with the politically symbolic assassination of the German ambassador. It was politically symbolic, as opposed to a serious attempt to take power; but this led to the sharp repression of the Left SRs, and the Bolsheviks also halted soviet elections. Other opposition parties were also expelled from the Central Executive Committee of the soviets, while the Left SRs were removed from the Congress of Soviets. In August came the attempted assassination of Lenin and the actual assassination of Moisei Yuritsky, the Bolshevik head of the Cheka security force - accidentally uncovering a much more serious coup plot orchestrated by British intelligence.

My point here is that the Bolsheviks did not ‘go authoritarian’ for arbitrary reasons or because they wanted to resist workers’ control. From the beginning the context was civil war and imperialist intervention. While anarchists and libertarians characteristically say, ‘The civil war didn’t begin until 1918’, that is false. It began with the Kornilov putsch and continued with Krasnov in October 1917, and so on. The Bolsheviks faced a civil war from the very beginning, and the enormous dislocation of the economy, inherited from the failure of tsarist war planning and production, was exacerbated rather than aided by peasant land seizures.

They were in an impossible position. Refusing the Brest-Litovsk treaty might have brought on the German revolution more rapidly, and thus saved them; but it would have been an extreme gamble. The major political retreat of March 1918 looked, to Lenin and his immediate co-thinkers, like a better chance - and the Austrian and German collapses in November 1918 appeared to vindicate that choice. But the cost of minority rule, requiring a Red Terror in autumn 1918, could be and was used against western communists by the pro-imperialist social democrats.

European civil war?

Russia was not the only place where civil war was objectively posed. The German Revolution began in November 1918; the Majority Social Democrats allied with the far-right Freikorps to ‘re-establish order’ and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in the process in January 1919. In March 1919 there was an attempted army putsch, defeated by a general strike, with fighting in Thuringia and Saxony won by the army, and in the Ruhr by the workers.

On March 20, Béla Kun became prime minister of Hungary - a ‘soviet republic’ created by the collapse of the old parties, without a serious Hungarian communist party. In April Romania invaded Hungary. There was also the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of April-May 1919, and an attempted communist putsch in Vienna, as well as a vast mass of more or less acute struggles more widely.

In other words, the situation almost resembled a European civil war, and it was in this context that the Eighth Congress of the Russian CP (March 18-23 1919) introduced military-type centralism to the party and abolished the right of local and sectional organisations to publish. Also part of the background to this decision was the Tsaritsyn affair of September-October 1918, where Stalin relied on his political authority and the support of the local Bolsheviks to override the military commander of Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd), which led to Lenin recalling Stalin after protests by Trotsky and others. Meanwhile, the White Army was in quite a strong position, with Anton Denikin’s forces in June taking Tsaritsyn with British tanks and threatening Moscow from the south. In October the White general, Nikolai Yudenich, attacked Petrograd from the Baltic states. The tide turned only after these offensives had been defeated and when, in November-December, the White Army in Siberia was destroyed by a Red Army offensive.

My point, therefore, is that the banning of factions, the Red Terror, and so on, should be seen in the context of the situation in Europe, as well as the civil war in Russia. There was an urgent need for centralised control of production and centralised planning, so what happened in 1920-21 was hugely influenced by the civil war context, with the Whites backed by the Entente powers. Once the Entente powers pulled out, the White armies began to wither away.

Let’s consider a couple of counter-factuals or alternative histories. Imagine what would have happened if the Germans had made an acceptable peace with the Bolsheviks in December 1917, pulling all their troops out from the east and transferring them all to the western front, where they made a breakthrough and were able to force a negotiated settlement with the Allies. The question of what the Bolsheviks would have been able to do - holding on to power, maintaining majority support and not being forced into a minority dictatorship over the working class - would have been posed in an utterly different way.

Or, alternatively, what if the Bolsheviks had gambled on rejecting Brest-Litovsk, and the German eastern front army had been sucked deeper and deeper into Russia in spring 1918, with partisans springing up in its rear, and less able to mount a serious offensive in the west, leading to the Hindenburg-Ludendorff regime falling in July, rather than November?

But, of course, the question was not posed in a different way, and here we come to the core contradiction. The rule of the capitalist class is a class order, in just the same way as ancient slavery and feudalism were class orders: a regime where some people hold other people in subordination. The rule of capital was also actually, from its beginnings, an imperialist order. Imperialism is not some sort of weird superstructure which is superimposed on what would otherwise be peaceful relationships between national capitalists. Imperialism begins with the Venetians setting up slave sugar plantations on late medieval Cyprus and Crete, and similar operations by the Genoese in alliance with the Portuguese in the Atlantic. Imperialism was already there in the global operations of the Dutch Republic and of the early British empire: it was not just the bourgeoisie holding other classes in subordination, but other peoples.

The Germans under the kaiser-regime were attempting to break out from subordination to the United Kingdom. And that is more transparent in the case of the Turks, because the Turks were more radically subordinated, subject to an International Monetary Fund-style debt management regime - imposed by the creditors, Britain and France - which took control of the whole Turkish tax system, etc. It is possible to escape from subordination: the USA escaped from British indirect control in 1861-65.

In his September 1917 ‘Tasks of the revolution’, Lenin hoped that a peaceful solution with Germany would enable the Bolsheviks to exercise control over the economy after taking power. The argument implicitly imagined a situation where international relations are (as they are ideologically represented as being) the pursuit of the objective interests of various states, and that would allow the Bolsheviks to make peace and thereby rebuild the Russian economy. But in reality it was more important for the German Junker class to solidarise with the Russian aristocracy than to win the war. And, as far as the British, etc were concerned, there was never any issue of peaceful coexistence - that was not on the agenda. The United States regarded itself as practically at war with the Soviet regime from 1918 right until 1991, with a brief interlude in 1941-46. Yes, there were deals struck, and so on, but there were continuous anti-Soviet operations, continuous military pressure, etc.


So one side of the contradiction is that it is delusive to imagine that the working class can take power in a single country without international interference. Any attempt to escape from capitalist subordination is viewed as a threat to the whole system and will be met with as much force and terror as is necessary to ‘restore order’.

The other side of the contradiction, however, is this: the working class needs political democracy. Even though it was the case that opposition to the Bolsheviks to a considerable extent succumbed to the temptation of obtaining support from Entente intelligence services, using police measures against working class democracy undermines the ability of the class to mobilise itself. The building of socialism depends on the creativity of the masses, which is made possible by the right of local organisations to publish, by the right to form factions, by fluid, dynamic discussions and so forth. The working class needs these organisational forms in order to mobilise itself as a class. Everything we have seen since 1918-19 points to the destructive effects of the militarisation of the party, the abolition of the right of local publication, the ban on factions, etc. Such measures tend to undermine the class nature of the party and to demobilise the working class. In the end, in the Soviet Union there was nothing more than passive resistance - ‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’ - and in 1989-91, the total inability of the working class even to form ideas about what might be an alternative.

In capitalist countries too, the more we get of this nonsense in the workers’ movement, the more we get demoralisation and potential collapse. Working class power and the suppression of democracy are in contradiction with one another. On the other hand, it is illusory to suppose that capitalism can be overthrown without civil war and without the levels of destruction which that involves. The capitalist regime is no more peaceful than the slaveholder or feudal regimes.

But the solution to capitalist suppression cannot be that we ban factions, etc, because the evidence of not just the Soviet Union, but also of the mass socialist and communist parties, is that this is a demobilising policy which leads naturally towards the likely regaining of control by the capitalist class.

My conclusion then is that 1921 was not the turning point: it was one of the steps - beginning with Brest-Litovsk and continuing through to 1928-29 and Stalin’s bringing the police into the party. We can probably even include the terror of 1934-37, when there were still dreams among old communists of re-establishing opposition and restoring workers’ power.

Kronstadt and the banning of factions were not the turning point, but are symbolic of the problem. They were part of a process which arises because the regime of the capitalist class is an international, coercive one, while conversely the workers’ movement needs political democracy in order to organise itself as a class.