Just read a classic anti-authoritarian Left pamphlet on Krondstadt.

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Ken Burch
Just read a classic anti-authoritarian Left pamphlet on Krondstadt.



(Actual cover image from the original pamphlet)

Issues Pages: 
Ken Burch

At the start, Thorndycraft goes into a description of the conditions that existed in the USSR in 1921, just at the end of the western-backed White Russian invasion of the USSR:



I. The Crisis of War Communism

A fair account of the Kronstadt Rebellion must understand the economic crisis in the Soviet Union following several years of war -both inter­national and civil. David Shub writes:

In 1919 and 1920, famine, disease, cold, and infant mortality had claimed some nine million lives--apart from the military cas­ualties of the civil war. In the Urals and the Don region, the population had been re­duced by a third. The living standard of the Russian worker had sunk to less than a third of the pre-war level, industrial out­put to less than a sixth of 1913 production. The prices of manufactured goods skyrocketed, while paper currency dropped in value until in January 1921 a gold ruble was worth 26,529 paper rubles. Nearly half the in­dustrial work force deserted the towns for the villages.(1)

The continuing crisis provoked peasant risings all over Russia. (The Cheka reported 118 inci­dents in February 1921 alone.)  The cornerstone of Lenin's policy of War Communism was the for­cible seizure of grains from the peasants by armed detachments from the cities. "We actually took from the peasant," admitted Lenin, "all his sur­pluses and sometimes not only the surpluses but part of the grain the peasant needed for food. We took this in order to meet the rejuirements of the army and to sustain the workers."(2) Grain as well as livestock was often confiscated without payment of any kind, and there were frequent complaints that even the seed needed for the next sowing had been seized. In the face of all this, the peas­antry resorted to both passive and active resist­ance. In 1920 it was estimated that over a third of the harvest had been hidden from the govern­ments troops. The amount of sown acreage dropped to three-fifths of the figure for 1913, as the peasants rebelled against growing crops only to have them seized.

(end of excerpt)

Ken Burch

Things were also dire for the urban proletariat, the class that was SUPPOSED to be given immediate control of the means of production and the wealth that they created through their labour:


Shortage of machinery, raw materials and especially fuel meant that many large factories could operate only part-time. Retreating White armies had destroyed many railway lines, interrupting the delivery of food to the cities. What food there was was distributed according to a preferential system which favored heavy industry and especially armament workers over less valued categories. Some were allotted only 200 grams of black bread a day. Paul Avrich describes the sit­uation:
Driven by cold and hunger, men abandoned their machines for days on end to gather wood and forage for food in the surrounding country­side. Traveling on foot or in overcrowded railway cars, they brought their personal possessions and materials which they had filched from the factories to exchange for whatever food they could get. The government did all it could to stop this illegal trade. Armed roadblock detachments were deployed to guard the approaches to the cities and to confiscate the precious sacks of food which the "speculators" were carrying 'back to their families. The brutality of the roadblock detachments was a byword throughout the country, and complaints about their arbitrary methods flooded the commissariats in Moscow.(3)

(end excerpt)

Ken Burch


In addition to the economic grievances of the workers there was growing opposition to the War Communist labor policies imposed by Leon Trotsky, the Commissar of War. He sought to apply the mil­itary discipline which had whipped the Red Army into fighting shape to the crumbling industrial economy. The militarization of labor was charac­terized by forced conscription of demobilized Red Army troops into "labor armies," disciplining of the civilian workers for pilfering and absenteeism, the installation of armed guards in the workplace, nationalization of the larger factories, and the gradual abandonment of workers' control in favor of management by "bourgeois specialists." This last was the ultimate outrage to many workers. Avrich explains:
A new bureaucracy had begun to flourish. It was a mixed lot, veteran administrative personnel rubbing shoulders with untrained neophytes; yet however disparate their values and outlook, they shared vested interests of their own that set them apart from the workers at the bench.
For the rank-and-file workmen, the restor­ation of the class enemy to a dominant place in the factory meant a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution. As they saw it, their dream of a proletarian democracy, momentarily realized in 1917, had been snatched away and replaced by the coercive and bureaucratic methods of capitalism .... Small wonder that, during the winter of I920-1921...murmurings of discontent could no longer be silenced, not even by threats of expulsion with the loss of rations. At workshop meetings, where speakers angrily denounced the militarization and bureaucratization of industry, critical references to the comforts and privileges of Bolshevik officials drew indignant shouts of agreement from the listeners. The Communists, it was said, always got the best jobs, and seemed to suffer less from hunger and cold than everyone else.

(end excerpt)

Ken Burch

In the midst of this, and as they also became aware that the confiscated food was not always given to the troops but sometimes simply shared about among the party hierarchy, the soldiers and sailors of Krondstadt, joining revolutionary workers all over Russia, chose to rebel and defend the original program of the Revolution:

Here, as quoted by Thorndycraft, was their program(or their list of demands, depending on how you looked at it):

Having heard the report of the representa­tives sent by the general meeting of ships' crews to Petrograd to investigate the situa­tion there, we resolve:

1. In view of the fact that the present soviets do not express the will of the workers and peasants, immediately to hold new elections by secret ballot, with freedom to carry on agitation beforehand for all workers and peasants;

2. To give freedom of speech and press to workers and peasants, to anarchists, and left socialist parties;

3. To secure freedom of assembly for trade unions and peasant organizations;

4. To call a nonparty conference of the workers, Red Army soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt and the Petrograd Prov­ince, no later than March 10, 1921;

5. To liberate all political prisoners of socialist partieis, as well as all workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors imprisoned in connection with the labor and peasant move­ments;

6. To elect a commission to review the cases of those being held in prisons and concentration camps;

7. To abolish all political departments because no party should be given special priv­ileges in the propagation of its ideas or receive the financial support of the state for such purposes. Instead, there should be established cultural and educational commis­sions, locally elected and financed by the state;

8. To remove immediately all roadblock detachments;

9. To equalize the rations of all working people, with the exception of those employed in trades detrimental to health;

10. To abolish the Communist fighting de­tachments in all branches of the army, as well as the Communist guards kept on duty in factories and mills. Should such guards or detachments be found necessary, they are to be appointed in the army from the ranks and in the factories and mills at the discretion of the workers;

11. To give the peasants full freedom of action in regard to the land, and also the right to keep cattle, on condition that the peasants manage within their own means, that is, without employing hired labor;

12. To request all branches of the army, as well as our comrades in the military cadets, (kursanty) to endorse our resolution;

13. To demand that the press give all our resolutions wide publicity;

14. To appoint an itinerant bureau of con­trol;

15. To permit free handicrafts production by one's own labor.

Ken Burch

In response to this Trotsky made the absurd claim that the Krondstadt garrison, which had been the most revolutionary sector of the Red Army only three years before, was now, in 1921, filled with reactionaries and foreign agents.

And the Kremlin made the unfounded accusation that Krondstadt was under the command of a former White(Russian counterrevolutionary) Army officer(which, they argued, proved that the revolt was nothing more than a White plot).




Ken Burch

Thorndycraft points out in the pamphlet several key tactical errors the Krondstadt rebels made


The military strategy of the Kronstadters was entirely defensive, a reflection of their illusion that they had merely to wait and the rest of Russia, starting with Petrograd, would rush to their sup­port. They ignored the suggestions of military officers to break up the ice around the island with cannon fire, which could have prevented an assault by land. They further rejected the idea of seizing the fortress of Oranienbaum, from which they could have launched a surprise offensive. Had they done so, they would have saved the lives of the aerial squadron at Oranienbaum, which was caught in a plan to join the rebels. Several Red Army regiments at Oranienbaum also refused to fight the sailors. Cheka units rushed to the scene and shot every fifth soldier.

On largely ideological grounds, the sailors de­clined outside help in the form of supplies, thus dooming themselves to slow starvation. But they most gravely miscalculated the situation in Petro­grad. The strikes in Red Peter were already de­clining as the Kronstadt uprising began. Through a combination of repression and concessions - most notably the removal of roadblock detachments - the city was calmed. Hundreds of dissident workers had been arrested and all soldiers suspected of sympathy with Kronstadt were transferred further inland. Kronstadt was alone.

(end excerpt)

Ken Burch

In what was, to me, the most poignant passage of the pamphlet, Thorndycraft contrasts a quote from Lenin at the beginning of the Revolution, a quote about the kind of humane, liberating, life-giving socialist values the original Bolshevik program stood for:


"Socialism is not created by orders from above. State-bureaucratic automat­ism is alien to its spirit; socialism is alive, creative - the creation of the popular masses them­selves."

(end excerpt)

With the bureaucratic and stifling form the Soviet state was irrevocably forced into after Krondstadt was crushed(crushed at the cost of 1500 rebel lives and 10,000 Red Army lives).  Yes, the New Economic Policy did make some economic concessions to the Krondstadt demands, but it didn't make any concessions at all to the demands for a revolution free of repression and of bans on all dissent. 

The Krondstadt rebels were stopped, and when they were, there was no chance of anyone else resisting the direction that the Party was set on.  In leading the suppression of the troops that had the only possibly means of resisting what became Stalinism, Trotsky himself doomed his resistance against Stalin to failure, and doomed the Soviet Union to be a state in which the revolution was strangled at birth.

If the Left is to survive, it needs to commit itself to revolution without repression, without censorship, secret police, prisons, or the use of terror.  The story of what happened in the USSR after Krondstadt proves that revolution can never be made through fear and coerced silence.  And revolution can only ever be made from below.  The indignados of Spain, the anti-austerity rebels in Greece, the Occupy activists worldwide, have grasped this.  To make the new world in the shell of the old, we ALL need to learn the lessons of Krondstadt as well.

I'll leave this with the last sentences of the pamphlet, which express the views that, I think, have guided my political development.

I suggest that the real tragedy is that so many people have for so long done just that: from Kronstadt to Berlin, to Budapest and Prague, tyranny has been justified as somehow progressive. Even if one accepts the argument that their rise to power - in situations of scarcity and under­development - is inevitable, there is no need to enshrine tyrants. The Russian Revolution suffered a mortal setback in 1921. What should concern us, says Nicolas Walter, is not the "possibility that the success of Kronstadt might have led to chaos, civil war or counter-revolution, but the certainty that the failure of Kronstadt led to dictatorship, purges and counter-revolution."(35)


Ken Burch

Here's a link to the text of the pamphlet:

(note:the numbers in various passages are footnotes that can be found on the link).


The author is Lynne Thorndycraft, one of the founders of Left Bank Books, the great radical bookstore by the Pike Place Market in Seattle(if you end up in downtown Seattle for any reason with any disposable coin in your pocket, please, please PLEASE go there and buy some stuff.  It's a cooperative and the people who run it-most of whom, as I understand it, are in the IWW-truly walk the walk on everything Babblers stand for).  This was originally published in 1973, at a time, when most published accounts of Krondstadt(including, of course, any that were available in the Soviet Union, were written from a pro-Bolshevik, pro-repression viewpoint-one of the few exceptions being THE UNKNOWN REVOLUTION, by the Maknovite who called himself "Voline").

I'll post just a few quotes from the pamphlet here.



On a more dreary note, February 13, 1921 was the date that marked the end of black flags in Soviet Russia. On that day, Peter Kropotkin’s funeral took place in Moscow. Masses of people whose march stretched for miles, carried black banners that read, “Where there is authority there is no freedom” (Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, p.26). It seems that black flags didn’t appear in Russia until the founding of the Chernoc Zhania (“black banner”) movement in 1905. Only two weeks after Kropotkin’s funeral march, the Kronstadt rebellion broke out and anarchism was erased from Soviet Russia for good.

This is an interesting history of the Black Flag. 

Bread Work or Lead was the cry of the first black flag protestors.


According to Anarchist historian George Woodcock, Michel flew the black flagon March 9, 1883, during demonstration of the unemployed in Paris, France. With 500 strong, Michel at the lead and shouting “Bread, work, or lead!”, they pillaged three baker’s shops before being arrested by the police (Woodcock, pp.284-285)

By the way George Woodcock was a prolific author from UBC. His books on anarchy are still available and well worth the read.  He also did a great biography of Gabriel Dumont.



Ken Burch

Check your pm's in a minute.

Thanks for posting in this thread, btw.