An Anarchist FAQ - Did the rebellion involve new sailors?
The most common Trotskyist assertion to justify the repression of the Kronstadt revolt is that of Trotsky. It basically consists of arguing that the sailors in 1921 were different than those in 1917. Trotsky started this line of justification during the revolt when he stated on March 16th that the Baltic Fleet had been "inevitably thinned out with respect to personnel" and so a "great many of the revolutionary sailors" of 1917 had been "transferred" elsewhere. They had been "replaced in large measure by accidental elements." This "facilitated" the work of the "counterrevolutionary organisers" who had "selected" Kronstadt. He repeated this argument in 1937 and 1938 [Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, pp. 68-9, p. 79, p. 81 and p. 87]
His followers repeated his assertions. Wright argues that "the personnel of the fortress could not possibly have remained static throughout the years between 1917 and 1921." He doubts that the revolutionary sailors of 1917 could have remained behind in the fortress while their comrades fought the Whites. [Op. Cit., pp. 122-3] These sailors had been replaced by peasant conscripts. John Rees, continuing this line of rationale, argued that "the composition of the garrison had changed . . . it seems likely that the peasants had increased their weight in the Kronstadt, as Trotsky suggested." [Rees, Op. Cit., p. 61]
As can be seen, the allegation that the Kronstadt sailors were a "grey mass" and had changed in social composition is a common one in Trotskyist circles. What are we to make of these claims?
Firstly, we must evaluate what are the facts as regards the social composition and turnover of personnel in Kronstadt. Secondly, we must see how Trotskyists have misused these sources in order to indicate how far they will abuse the truth.
The first task is now, thanks to recent research, easy to do. Were the majority of the sailors during the uprising new recruits or veterans from 1917? The answer is that it was predominantly the latter. Academic Israel Getzler investigated this issue and demonstrated that of those serving in the Baltic fleet on 1st January 1921 at least 75.5% were drafted before 1918. Over 80% were from Great Russian areas, 10% from the Ukraine and 9% from Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Poland. He argues that the "veteran politicised Red sailor still predominated in Kronstadt at the end of 1920" and presents more "hard statistical data" like that just quoted. He investigated the crews of the two major battleships, the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol (both renown since 1917 for their revolutionary zeal and revolutionary allegiance and, in Paul Avrich's words, "the powder kegs of the rising." [Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 93]). His findings are conclusive, showing that of the 2,028 sailors where years of enlistment are known, 93.9% were recruited into the navy before and during the 1917 revolution (the largest group, 1,195, joined in the years 1914-16). Only 6.8% of the sailors were recruited in the years 1918-21 (including three who were conscripted in 1921) and they were the only ones who had not been there during the 1917 revolution. [Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921, pp. 207-8] Historian Fedotoff-White indicates that the cruiser Rossiia had joined in the decision to re-elect the Kronstadt Soviet and its "crew consisted mostly of old seamen." [The Growth of the Red Army, p. 138]
Moreover, the majority of the revolutionary committee were veterans of the Kronstadt Soviet and the October revolution. [Ida Mett, Op. Cit., p. 42] "Given their maturity and experience, not to speak of their keen disillusionment as former participants in the revolution, it was only natural that these seasoned bluejackets should be thrust into the forefront of the uprising." [Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 91]
Getzler stresses that it was "certainly the case" that the "activists of the 1921 uprising had been participants of the 1917 revolutions" for the "1,900 veteran sailors of the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol who spearheaded it. It was certainly true of a majority of the Revolutionary Committee and of the intellectuals . . . Likewise, at least three-quarters of the 10,000 to 12,000 sailors -- the mainstay of the uprising -- were old hands who had served in the navy through war and revolution." [Op. Cit., p. 226]
Little wonder, then, that Paul Avrich argues (in a review of Getzler's book) that "Getzler draws attention to the continuity in institutions, ideology, and personnel linking 1921 with 1917. In doing so he demolishes the allegation of Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders that the majority of veteran Red sailors had, in the course of the Civil War, been replaced by politically retarded peasant recruits from the Ukraine and Western borderlands, thereby diluting the revolutionary character of the Baltic fleet. He shows, on the contrary, that no significant change had taken place in the fleet's political and social composition, that at least three-quarters of the sailors on active duty in 1921 had been drafted before 1918 and were drawn predominantly from Great Russian areas." [Soviet Studies, vol. XXXVI, 1984, pp. 139-40]
Other research confirms Getzler's work. Evan Mawdsley argues that "it seems reasonable to challenge the previous interpretation" that there had been a "marked change in the composition of the men in the fleet . . . particularly . . . at the Kronstadt Naval Base." "The composition of the DOT [Active Detachment]," he concludes, "had not fundamentally changed, and anarchistic young peasants did not predominate there. The available data suggests that the main difficulty was not . . . that the experienced sailors were being demobilised. Rather, they were not being demobilised rapidly enough." The "relevant point is length of service, and available information indicates that as many as three-quarters of the DOT ratings -- the Kronstadt mutineers -- had served in the fleet at least since the World War." In a nutshell, "the majority of men seem to have been veterans of 1917." He presents data which shows that of the "2,028 ratings aboard the DOT battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol at the time of the uprising, 20.2% had begun service before 1914, 59% between 1914 and 1916, 14% in 1917, and 6.8% from 1918 to 1921." For the DOT as a whole on 1st January, 1921, 23.5% could have been drafted before 1911, 52% from 1911 to 1918 and 24.5% after 1918. ["The Baltic Fleet and the Kronstadt Mutiny", pp. 506-521, Soviet Studies, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 508-10]
This is not the end of the matter. Unfortunately for Trotsky recently released documents from the Soviet Archives also refutes his case. A report by Vasilii Sevei, Plenipotentiary of the Special Section of the Vecheka, dated March 7th, 1921, stated that a "large majority" of the sailors of Baltic Fleet "were and still are professional revolutionaries and could well form the basis for a possible third revolution." He notes that the "disease from which they suffer has been too long neglected." What is significant about this social-political profile of the "large majority" of sailors was that it was not written in response of the Kronstadt revolt but that it was formulated well before. As its author put it in the report, "I stated these views more than a month ago in my memorandum to comrade Krestinskii" (then secretary of the Communist Party). [quoted by Israel Getzler, "The Communist Leaders' Role in the Kronstadt Tragedy of 1921 in the Light of Recently Published Archival Documents", Revolutionary Russia, pp. 24-44, Vol. 15, No. 1, June 2002, pp. 32-3]
In other words, some time in January, 1921, a leading member of the Cheka was of the opinion that the "large majority" of sailors in the Baltic fleet "were and still are professional revolutionaries." No mention was made of new recruits, indeed the opposite is implied as the sailors' "disease" had been "too long neglected." And the recipient of this March 7th, 1921, report? Leon Trotsky. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky did not mention this report during the crisis or any time afterward.
Needless to say, this statistical information was unavailable when anarchists and others wrote their accounts of the uprising. All they could go on were the facts of the uprising itself and the demands of the rebels. Based on these, it is little wonder that anarchists like Alexander Berkman stressed the continuity between the Red Kronstadters of 1917 and the rebels of 1921. Firstly, the rebels in 1921 took action in solidarity with the striking workers in Petrograd. In the words of Emma Goldman, it was "after the report of their Committee of the real state of affairs among the workers in Petrograd that the Kronstadt sailors did in 1921 what they had done in 1917. They immediately made common cause with the workers. The part of the sailors in 1917 was hailed as the red pride and glory of the Revolution. Their identical part in 1921 was denounced to the whole world as counter-revolutionary treason" by the Bolsheviks. [Trotsky Protests Too Much] Secondly, their demands were thoroughly in-line with the aspirations and politics of 1917 and clearly showed a socialist awareness and analysis. Thirdly, Emma Goldman spoke to some of those wounded in the attack on Kronstadt. She records how one "had realised that he had been duped by the cry of 'counter-revolution.' There were no Tsarist generals in Kronstadt, no White Guardists -- he found only his own comrades, sailors and soldiers who had heroically fought for the Revolution." [My Disillusionment in Russia, pp. 199-200]
The later research has just confirmed what is obvious from an analysis of such facts, namely that the rebels in 1921 were acting in the spirit of their comrades of 1917 and this implies a significant continuity in personnel (which perhaps explains the unwillingness of Leninists to mention that the revolt was in solidarity with the strikers or the demands of the rebels). Thus the research provides empirical evidence to support the political analysis of the revolt conducted by revolutionaries like Berkman, Voline and so on.
In summary, the bulk of the sailors at the start of 1921 had been there since 1917. Even if this was not the case and we assume that a majority of the sailors at Kronstadt were recent recruits, does this invalidate the rebellion? After all, the Red sailors of 1917 were once raw recruits. They had become politicised over time by debate, discussion and struggle. So had the workers in Petrograd and elsewhere. Would Leninists have denounced strikers in 1905 or 1917 if it was discovered that most of them were recent peasant arrivals in the city? We doubt it.
Indeed, the Bolsheviks were simply repeating old Menshevik arguments. Between 1910 and 1914, the industrial workforce grew from 1,793,000 workers to 2,400,000. At the same time, the influence of the Bolsheviks grew at Menshevik expense. The Mensheviks considered this a "consequence of the changes that were taking place in the character of urban Russia" with peasants joining the labour force. ["introduction", The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, Abraham Archer (Ed.), p. 24] Somewhat ironically, given later Leninist arguments against Kronstadt, the Mensheviks argued that the Bolsheviks gained their influence from such worker-peasant industrial "raw recruits" and not from the genuine working class. [Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy, p. 830] As Robert Service noted in his study of the Bolshevik party during the 1917 revolution, "Menshevik critics were fond of carping that most Bolshevik newcomers were young lads fresh from the villages and wanting in long experience of industrial life and political activity. It was not completely unknown for Bolshevik spokesmen to come close to admitting this." [The Bolshevik Party in Revolution, p. 44] And, of course, it was the industrial "raw recruits" who had taken part in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions. They helped formulate demands and organise soviets, strikes and demonstrations. They helped raised slogans which were to the left of the Bolsheviks. Does this process somehow grind to a halt when these "raw recruits" oppose Trotsky? Of course not.
Given the political aspects of the Kronstadt demands we can safely argue that even if the rebellion had been the work of recent recruits they obviously had been influenced by the veteran sailors who remained. They, like the peasant-workers of 1905 and 1917, would have been able to raise their own political demands and ideas while, at the same time, listening to those among them with more political experience. In other words, the assumption that the sailors could not raise revolutionary political demands if they were "raw recruits" only makes sense if we subscribe to Lenin's dictum that the working class, by its own efforts, can only reach a trade union consciousness (i.e. that toiling people cannot liberate themselves). In other words, this Trotsky inspired sociology misses the point. Sadly, we have to address it in order to refute Leninist arguments.
Therefore, Getzler's research refutes the claims of Trotskyists such as Chris Harman who follow Trotsky and argue that "Kronstadt in 1921 was not Kronstadt of 1917. The class composition of its sailors had changed. The best socialist elements had long ago gone off to fight in the army in the front line. They were replaced in the main by peasants whose devotion to the revolution was that of their class." [quoted by Sam Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 192] As can be seen, the ship crews were remarkably consistent over the period in question. It is, however, useful to discuss this question further in order to show what passes as analysis in Trotskyist circles.
Harman is, of course, following Trotsky. Writing in 1937 Trotsky argued that Kronstadt had "been completely emptied of proletarian elements" as "[a]ll the sailors" belonging to the ships' crews "had become commissars, commanders, chairmen of local soviets." Later, realising the stupidity of this claim, he changed it to Kronstadt being "denuded of all revolutionary forces" by "the winter of 1919." He also acknowledged that "a certain number of qualified workers and technicians" remained to "take care of the machinery" but these were "politically unreliable" as proven by the fact they had not been selected to fight in the civil war. As evidence, he mentions that he had wired a "request at the end of 1919, or in 1920, to 'send a group of Kronstadt sailors to this or that point'" and they had answered "No one left to send." [Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 87, p. 90 and p. 81] Obviously, the Communist commander at Kronstadt had left his fortress and its ships totally unmanned! Such common sense is sadly lacking from Trotsky (as indicated above, the evidence supports the common sense analysis and not Trotsky's claims).
Moreover, does this claim also apply to the Communist Party membership at Kronstadt? Is Trotsky really arguing that the Bolsheviks in Kronstadt after the winter of 1919 were not revolutionary? Given that the bulk of them had joined the CP during or after this time, we must obviously conclude that the recruiters let anyone join. Moreover, there had been a "rigorous local purge" of the party conducted in the autumn of 1920 by the commander of the Baltic Fleet. [I. Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921, p. 211 and p. 205] Must we also conclude that this purge did not have revolutionary politics as a factor when determining whether a party member should be expelled or not?
Trotsky claims too much. Based on his claims we must conclude one of two possibilities. The first possibility is that the Kronstadt Communist Party was not revolutionary and was made up of politically backward individuals, careerists and so on. If that was the case in Kronstadt then it must also have been the case elsewhere in Russia and this discredits any attempt to argue that the Bolshevik party dictatorship was revolutionary. The second possibility is that it did have revolutionary elements. If so, then the fact that hundreds of these members left the party during the revolt and only a minority of them opposed it makes the claim that the rebellion was "counter-revolutionary" difficult (indeed, impossible) to maintain (of the 2,900 members of the Communist Party in Kronstadt, 784 officially resigned and 327 had been arrested). And it also makes Trotsky's claims that Kronstadt was "denuded" of revolutionary elements false.
J.G. Wright, as noted above, thought that it was "impossible" to believe that the sailors of 1917 could leave their comrades to fight the Whites while they stayed at Kronstadt. This may have been a valid argument if the Soviet armed forces were democratically run. However, as we indicated in section 2, it was organised in a typically bourgeois fashion. Trotsky had abolished democratic soldiers and sailors councils and the election of officers in favour of appointed officers and hierarchical, top-down, military structures. This meant that the sailors would have stayed in Kronstadt if they had been ordered to. The fact that they had to defend Petrograd combined with the level of technical knowledge and experience required to operate the battleships and defences at Kronstadt would have meant that the 1917 sailors would have been irreplaceable and so had to remain at Kronstadt. This is what, in fact, did happen. In the words of Israel Gelzter:
"One reason for the remarkable survival in Kronstadt of these veteran sailors, albeit in greatly diminished numbers, was precisely the difficulty of training, in war-time conditions, a new generation competent in the sophisticated technical skills required of Russia's ultra-modern battleships, and, indeed, in the fleet generally." [Op. Cit., p. 208]
We should also note here that "by the end of 1919 thousands of veteran sailors, who had served on many fronts of the civil war and in the administrative network of the expanding Soviet state, had returned to the Baltic Fleet and to Kronstadt, most by way of remobilisation." [Getzler, Op. Cit., pp. 197-8] Thus the idea that the sailors left and did not come back is not a valid one.
Trotsky obviously felt that this (recently refuted) argument of changing social composition of the sailors would hold more water than claims White Guards organised it. He continued this theme:
"The best, most self-sacrificing sailors were completely withdrawn from Kronstadt and played an important role at the fronts and in the local soviets throughout the country What was left was the grey mass with big pretensions ('We are from Kronstadt'), but without the political education and unprepared for revolutionary sacrifice. The country was starving. The Kronstadters demanded privileges. The uprising was dictated by a desire to get privileged food rations." [Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 79]
This was Trotsky's first comment on the uprising for 16 years and it contained a lie. As Ida Mett notes, "[s]uch a demand was never put forward by the men of Kronstadt" and so Trotsky "started his public accusations with a lie." [The Kronstadt Uprising, p. 73] He repeated the claim again, six months later [Lenin and Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 92] Unfortunately for him, the opposite was the case. Point 9 of the Kronstadt demands explicitly called for an end of privileges by the "equalisation of rations for all workers." This was implemented during the uprising.
As an aside, Trotsky later states that "[w]hen conditions became very critical in hungry Petrograd, the Political Bureau more than once discussed the possibility of securing an 'internal loan' from Kronstadt, where a quantity of old provisions still remained. But delegates of the Petrograd workers answered: 'You will get nothing from them by kindness. They speculate in cloth, coal, and bread. At present in Kronstadt every kind of riffraff has raised its head.'" [Lenin and Trotsky, Op. Cit., pp. 87-8] As Ida Mett pointed out, "[w]e should add that before the insurrection these 'stores' were in the hands of communist functionaries and that it was upon these people alone that consent to the proposed 'loan' depended. The rank and file sailor, who took part in the insurrection, had no means open to him whereby he could have opposed the loan, even if he had wanted to." [The Kronstadt Uprising, pp. 74-5] If Trotsky's words were true, then they were a crushing indictment of Bolshevik practice, not the Kronstadt sailors.
As for Trotsky's claim of a "lack of political education," the 15 point resolution voted upon by the sailors exposes this as nonsense and the fact the sailors fought the Red Army to the end indicates that there were prepared to die for their ideals. Similarly, Trotsky's argument that "in 1917-18, the Kronstadt sailor stood considerably higher than the average level of the Red Army" but by 1921 they "stood . . . on a level considerably lower, in general, than the average level of the Red Army." In fact, as we indicate in section 9, the political programme of the revolt was fundamentally the same as Kronstadt's soviet democracy of 1917 and, we should note, opposed the introduction of wage labour, a basic socialist idea (and one missing from the Bolshevik's NEP policies). Moreover, the mass meeting that agreed the resolution did so unanimously, meaning old and new sailors agreed to it. So much for Trotsky's assertions.
Others have pointed out the weak nature of Trotsky's arguments as regards the changing nature of the sailors. We will quote Emma Goldman's evaluation of Trotsky's assertions. As will be seen, Trotsky's assertions seem to be based on expediency (and, significantly, were not uttered before the revolt):
"Now, I do not presume to argue what the Kronstadt sailors were in 1918 or 1919. I did not reach Russia until January, 1920. From that time on until Kronstadt was 'liquidated' the sailors of the Baltic fleet were held up as the glorious example of valour and unflinching courage. Time on end I was told not only by Anarchists, Mensheviks and social revolutionists, but by many Communists, that the sailors were the very backbone of the Revolution. On the 1st of May, 1920, during the celebration and the other festivities organised for the first British Labour Mission, the Kronstadt sailors presented a large clear-cut contingent, and were then pointed out as among the great heroes who had saved the Revolution from Kerensky, and Petrograd from Yudenich. During the anniversary of October the sailors were again in the front ranks, and their re-enactment of the taking of the Winter Palace was wildly acclaimed by a packed mass. "Is it possible that the leading members of the party, save Leon Trotsky, were unaware of the corruption and the demoralisation of Kronstadt, claimed by him? I do not think so. Moreover, I doubt whether Trotsky himself held this view of the Kronstadt sailors until March, 1921. His story must, therefore, be an afterthought, or is it a rationalisation to justify the senseless 'liquidation' of Kronstadt?" [Trotsky Protests Too Much]
Ante Ciliga quoted the testimony regarding Kronstadt of a fellow political prisoner in Soviet Russia:
"'It is a myth that, from the social point of view, Kronstadt of 1921 had a wholly different population from that of 1917,' [a] man from Petrograd, Dv., said to me in prison. In 1921 he was a member of the Communist youth, and was imprisoned in 1932 as a 'decist' (a member of Sapronov's group of 'Democratic Centralists')." [Op. Cit., pp. 335-6]
Since then, both Paul Avrich and Israel Gelzter have analysed this question and confirmed the arguments and accounts of Goldman and Ciliga. Moreover, continuity between the sailors of 1917 and 1921 can also been seen from their actions (rising in solidarity with the Petrograd workers) and in their politics (as expressed in their demands and in their paper).
Now we turn to our second reason for looking into this issue, namely the misuse of these sources to support their case. This indicates well the nature of Bolshevik ethics. "While the revolutionaries," argued Ciliga with regards to the Bolsheviks, "remaining such only in words, accomplished in fact the task of the reaction and counter-revolution, they were compelled, inevitably, to have recourse to lies, to calumny and falsification." [Op. Cit., p. 335] Defending these acts also pays its toll on those who follow this tradition, as we shall see.
Needless to say, such evidence as provided by Avrich and Getzler is rarely mentioned by supporters of Bolshevism. However, rather than ignore new evidence, the Trotskyists use it in their own way, for their own purposes. Every new work about Kronstadt has been selectively quoted from by Trotskyists to support their arguments, regardless of the honesty of such activity. We can point to two works, Paul Avrich's Kronstadt 1921 and Kronstadt 1917-1921 by Israel Getzler, which have been used to support Bolshevist conclusions when, in fact, they do the opposite. The misuse of these references is quite unbelievable and shows the mentality of Trotskyism well.
Pierre Frank argues that Paul Avrich's work has "conclusions" which are "similar to Trotsky's" and "confirms the changes in the composition of the Kronstadt garrison that took place during the civil war, although with a few reservations." [Lenin and Trotsky, Op. Cit., p. 25] A quick look at these reservations shows how false Frank is. It is worth quoting Avrich at length to show this:
"There can be little doubt that during the Civil War years a large turnover had indeed taken place within the Baltic Fleet, and that many of the old-timers had been replaced by conscripts from rural districts who brought with them the deeply felt discontent of the Russian peasantry. By 1921, according to official figures, more than three-quarters of the sailors were of peasant origin, a substantially higher proportion that in 1917 . . . Yet this does not necessarily mean that the behavioural patterns of the fleet had undergone any fundamental change. On the contrary, alongside the technical ratings, who were largely drawn from the working class, there had always been a large and unruly peasant element among the sailors . . . Indeed, in 1905 and 1917 it was these very youths from the countryside who had given Kronstadt its reputation as a hotbed of revolutionary extremism. And throughout the Civil War the Kronstadters had remained an independent and headstrong lot, difficult to control and far from constant in their support for the government. It was for this reason so many of them . . . had found themselves transferred to new posts remote from the centres of Bolshevik powers. Of those who remained, many hankered for the freedoms they had won in 1917 before the new regime began to establish its one-party dictatorship throughout the country. "Actually, there was little to distinguish the old-timers from the recent recruits in their midst. Both groups were largely of peasant background . . . Not unexpectedly, when the rebellion finally erupted, it was the older seamen, veterans of many years of service (dating in some cases before the First World War) who took the lead . . . Given their maturity and experience, not to speak of their keen disillusionment as former participants of the revolution, it was only natural that these seasoned bluejackets should be thrust into the forefront of the uprising . . . The proximity of Petrograd, moreover, with its intense intellectual and political life, had contributed towards sharpening their political awareness, and a good many had engaged in revolutionary activity during 1917 and after. . . "As late as the autumn of 1920, Emma Goldman recalled, the sailors were still held up by the Communists themselves as a glowing example of valour and unflinching courage; on November 7, the third anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, they were in the front ranks of the celebrations . . . No one at the time spoke of any 'class degeneration' at Kronstadt. The allegation that politically retarded muzhiks had diluted the revolutionary character of the fleet, it would seem, was largely a device to explain away dissident movements among the sailors, and had been used as such as early as October 1918, following the abortive mutiny at the Petrograd naval station, when the social composition of the fleet could not yet have undergone any sweeping transformation." [Kronstadt 1921, pp. 89-92]
As can be seen, Avrich's "reservations" are such as to make clear he does not share Trotsky's "conclusions" as regards the class make-up of Kronstadt and, indeed, noted the ideological bias in this "explanation."
Moreover, Avrich points to earlier revolts which the Bolsheviks had also explained in terms of a diluting of the revolutionary sailors of the Baltic Fleet by peasants. In April 1918 "the crews of several Baltic vessels passed a strongly worded resolution" which "went so far as to call for a general uprising to dislodge the Bolsheviks and install a new regime that would adhere more faithfully to the principles of the revolution." In October that year, "a mass meeting at the Petrograd naval base adopted a resolution" which included the sailors going "on record against the Bolshevik monopoly of political power. Condemning the suppression of the anarchists and opposition socialists, they called for free elections to the soviets . . . [and] denounced the compulsory seizure of gain." Their demands, as Avrich notes, "strikingly anticipated the Kronstadt programme of 1921, down to the slogans of 'free soviets' and 'Away with the commissarocracy.'" He stresses that a "glance at the behaviour of the Baltic Fleet from 1905 to 1921 reveals many elements of continuity." [Avrich, Op. Cit., pp. 63-4]
However, a worse example of Trotskyist betrayal of the truth is provided by the British SWP's John Rees. The evidence Rees musters for the claim that the "composition" of the Kronstadt sailors "had changed" between 1917 and 1921 is a useful indication of the general Leninist method when it comes to the Russian revolution. Rees argues as follows:
"In September and October 1920 the writer and the Bolshevik party lecturer Ieronymus Yasinksky went to Kronstadt to lecture 400 naval recruits. They were 'straight from the plough'. And he was shocked to find that many, 'including a few party members, were politically illiterate, worlds removed from the highly politicised veteran Kronstadt sailors who had deeply impressed him'. Yasinsky worried that those steeled in the revolutionary fire' would be replaced by 'inexperienced freshly mobilised young sailors'." [Op. Cit., p. 61]
This quote is referenced to Israel Getzler's Kronstadt 1917-1921. Rees account is a fair version of the first half of Yasinskys' report. The quote however continues exactly as reproduced below:
"Yasinsky was apprehensive about the future when, 'sooner or later, Kronstadt's veteran sailors, who were steeled in revolutionary fire and had acquired a clear revolutionary world-view would be replaced by inexperienced, freshly mobilised young sailors'. Still he comforted himself with the hope that Kronstadt's sailors would gradually infuse them with their 'noble spirit of revolutionary self-dedication' to which Soviet Russia owed so much. As for the present he felt reassured that 'in Kronstadt the red sailor still predominates.'" [Getzler, Op. Cit., p. 207]
Rees handy 'editing' of this quote transforms it from one showing that three months before the rising that Kronstadt had retained its revolutionary spirit to one implying the garrison had indeed been replaced.
Rees tries to generate "[f]urther evidence of the changing class composition" by looking at the "social background of the Bolsheviks at the base." However, he goes on to contradict himself about the composition of the Bolshevik party at the time. On page 61 he says the "same figures for the Bolshevik party as a whole in 1921 are 28.7% peasants, 41% workers and 30.8% white collar and others". On page 66 however he says the figures at the end of the civil war (also 1921) were 10% factory workers, 25% army and 60% in "the government or party machine". An endnote says even of those classed as factory workers "most were in administration." [Op. Cit., p. 61 and p. 78] The first set of figures is more useful for attacking Kronstadt and so is used.
What is the basis of Rees "further evidence"? Simply that in "September 1920, six months before the revolt, the Bolsheviks had 4,435 members at Kronstadt. Some 50 per cent of these were peasants, 40 percent workers and 10 percent intellectuals . . . Thus the percentage of peasants in the party was considerably higher than nationally . . . If we assume [our emphasis] that the Bolshevik party was more working class in composition than the base as a whole, then it seems likely [our emphasis] that the peasants had increased their weight in the Kronstadt, as Trotsky suggested." [Op. Cit., p. 61]
So on the basis of an assumption, it may be "likely" that Trotsky was correct! Impressive "evidence" indeed!
The figures Rees uses are extracted from D. Fedotoff-White's The Growth of the Red Army. Significantly, Rees fails to mention that the Kronstadt communists had just undergone a "re-registration" which saw about a quarter of the 4,435 members in August 1920 voluntarily resigning. By March 1921, the party had half as many members as in the previous August and during the rebellion 497 members (again, about one-quarter of the total membership) voluntarily resigned, 211 were excluded after the defeat of the rebellion and 137 did not report for re-registration. [Fedotoff-White, The Growth of the Red Army, p. 140] It seems strange that the party leadership had not taken the opportunity to purge the Kronstadt party of "excessive" peasant influence in August 1920 when it had the chance.
Other questions arise from Rees' argument. He uses the figures of Communist Party membership in an attempt to prove that the class composition of Kronstadt had changed, favouring the peasantry over the workers. Yet this is illogical. Kronstadt was primarily a military base and so its "class composition" would be skewed accordingly. Since the Bolshevik military machine was made up mostly of peasants, can we be surprised that the Communist Party in Kronstadt had a higher percentage of peasants than the national average? Significantly, Rees does not ponder the fact that the percentage of workers in the Kronstadt Communist Party was around the national average (indeed, Fedotoff-White notes that it "compares favourably in that respect with some of the large industrial centres." [Op. Cit., p. 142]).
Also, given that Rees acknowledges that by December 1920 only 1,313 new recruits had arrived in the Baltic Fleet, his pondering of the composition of the Communist organisation at Kronstadt smacks more of desperation than serious analysis. By arguing that we "do not know how many more new recruits arrived in the three months before Kronstadt erupted," Rees fails to see that this shows the irrelevance of his statistical analysis. [Op. Cit., p. 61] After all, how many of these "new recruits" would been allowed to join the Communist Party in the first place? Given that the Bolshevik membership had halved between August 1920 and March 1921, his analysis is simply pointless, a smokescreen to draw attention away from the weakness of his own case.
Moreover, as evidence of changing class composition these figures are not very useful. This is because they do not compare the composition of the Kronstadt Bolsheviks in 1917 to those in 1921. Given that the Kronstadt base always had a high percentage of peasants in its ranks, it follows that in 1917 the percentage of Bolsheviks of peasant origin could have been higher than normal as well. If this was the case, then Rees argument falls. Simply put, he is not comparing the appropriate figures.
It would have been very easy for Rees to inform his readers of the real facts concerning the changing composition of the Kronstadt garrison. He could quoted Getzler's work on this subject. As noted above, Getzler demonstrates that the crew of the battleships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, which formed the core of the rising, were recruited into the navy before 1917, only 6.9% having been recruited between 1918 and 1921. These figures are on the same page as the earlier quotes Rees uses but are ignored by him. Unbelievably Rees even states "[w]e do not know how many new recruits arrived in the three months before Kronstadt erupted" in spite of quoting a source which indicates the composition of the two battleships which started the revolt! [Op. Cit., p. 61]
Or, then again, he could have reported Samuel Farber's summary of Getzler's (and others) evidence. Rees rather lamely notes that Farber "does not look at the figures for the composition of the Bolsheviks" [Op. Cit., p. 62] Why should he when he has the appropriate figures for the sailors? Here is Farber's account of the facts:
"this [Trotsky's class composition] interpretation has failed to meet the historical test of the growing and relatively recent scholarship on the Russian Revolution. . . . In fact, in 1921, a smaller proportion of Kronstadt sailors were of peasant social origin than was the case of the Red Army troops supporting the government . . . recently published data strongly suggest that the class composition of the ships and naval base had probably remained unchanged since before the Civil War. We now know that, given the war-time difficulties of training new people in the technical skills required in Russia's ultra-modern battleships, very few replacements had been sent to Kronstadt to take the place of the dead and injured sailors. Thus, at the end of the Civil War in late 1920, no less than 93.9 per cent of the members of the crews of the Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol . . . were recruited into the navy before and during the 1917 revolutions. In fact, 59 per cent of these crews joined the navy in the years 1914-16, while only 6.8 per cent had been recruited in the years 1918-21 . . . of the approximately 10,000 recruits who were supposed to be trained to replenish the Kronstadt garrison, only a few more than 1,000 had arrived by the end of 1920, and those had been stationed not in Kronstadt, but in Petrograd, where they were supposed to be trained." '[Before Stalinism, pp. 192-3]
And Rees bemoans Farber for not looking at the Bolshevik membership figures! Yes, assumptions and "likely" conclusions drawn from assumptions are more important than hard statistical evidence!
After stating "if, for the sake of argument, we accept Sam Farber's interpretation of the evidence" (evidence Rees refuses to inform the reader of) Rees then tries to save his case. He states Farber's "point only has any validity if we take the statistics in isolation. But in reality this change [!] in composition acted on a fleet whose ties with the peasantry had recently been strengthened in other ways. In particular, the Kronstadt sailors had recently been granted leave for the first time since the civil war. Many returned to their villages and came face to face with the condition of the countryside and the trials of the peasantry faced with food detachments." [Op. Cit., p. 62]
Of course, such an argument has nothing to do with Rees original case. Let us not forget that he argued that the class composition of the garrison had changed, not that its political composition had changed. Faced with overwhelming evidence against his case, he not only does not inform his readers of it, he changes his original argument! Very impressive.
So, what of this argument? Hardly an impressive one. Let us not forget that the revolt came about in response to the wave of strikes in Petrograd, not a peasant revolt. Moreover, the demands of the revolt predominantly reflected workers demands, not peasant ones (Rees himself acknowledges that the Kronstadt demands were not reproduced by any other "peasant" insurrection). The political aspects of these ideas reflected the political traditions of Kronstadt, which were not, in the main, Bolshevik. The sailors supported soviet power in 1917, not party power, and they again raised that demand in 1921 (see section 9 for details). In other words, the political composition of the garrison was the same as in 1917. Rees is clearly clutching at straws.
The fact that the class composition of the sailors was similar in 1917 and in 1921 and that the bulk of the sailors at the heart of the revolt were veterans of 1917, means that Trotskyists can only fall back on their ideological definition of class. This perspective involves defining a specific "proletarian" political position (i.e. the politics of Bolshevism) and arguing that anyone who does not subscribe to that position is "petty-bourgeois" regardless of their actual position in society (i.e. their class position). As Ida Mett notes:
"When Trotsky asserts that all those supporting the government were genuinely proletarian and progressive, whereas all others represented the peasant counterrevolution, we have a right to ask of him that he present us with a serious factual analysis in support of his contention." [Op. Cit., pp. 75-6]
As we show in the next section, the political composition of the Kronstadt rebels, like their class composition, was basically unchanged in 1921 when compared to that which pre-dominated in 1917.