The exhaustion of the Soviet working class placed a critical responsibility on the Communist Party and its leadership to defend the gains of the revolution.
War conditions destroyed the soviets, the basic organs of the workers’ state. By 1921, even the Executive of the Congress of Soviets was meeting only three times a year. “Sovnarkom” (the Council of People’s Commissars, or government) remained as the effective organ of state power.
Sovnarkom consisted of leading Communists, elected to carry out party policy. Naturally they operated within the discipline of the party.
The party remained, in other words, as the nucleus and backbone of the workers’ state. Authority was necessarily concentrated in the hands of the central committee – and, later, the political bureau (“Politbureau”) elected by the central committee as a result of the extreme centralisation required by the war.
Trotsky gave an example of what this meant at the Comintern congress of 1920, in relation to the question of signing peace with Poland:
Who decided this question? We have Sovnarkom, but it must be subject to a certain control. Whose control? The control of the working class as a formless chaotic mass? No. The central committee of the party has been called together to discuss the proposal and decide whether to answer it.Quoted in E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution
But the centralisation of power under Lenin and Trotsky, however uncompromising, at no stage degenerated into systematic bureaucratic imposition from above.
The party and its cadre had been built through the struggle to unite a large number of separate revolutionary groups, each with its own leadership and ideas, around a Marxist program. The method was that of debate. The right of members or groups (“factions” or “tendencies”) to question the leadership, and campaign for their ideas in an organised manner, was absolutely taken for granted.
In 1918, for example, the opposition of the “Left Communists” arose out of sharp debates within the party over the question of peace with Germany. For a fortnight they published their own daily paper in Petrograd; in Moscow they won control of the party organisation.
But, with the start of the civil war, the Lefts closed ranks with the rest of the party and threw themselves into the struggle.
The explosion of unbridled workers’ democracy during those early days is well captured by the account of Ilyin Zhenevsky:
A People’s Commissar [Minister]… was obliged in some cases not to issue orders but to address requests to an administrative organ that was subordinate to him. And this own organ might not agree with the People’s Commissar, and might refuse his request. This sort of thing was a common occurrence. A broad democratism in the way of affairs were conducted found expression in the slogan ‘power at a local level’.The Bolsheviks in Power
Even in the red army, critics of Trotsky’s leadership – essentially supporters of guerrilla war – were able to organise themselves as a “military opposition” and campaign for their views. They were defeated through argument and example.
In late 1920 there emerged the so-called Workers’ Opposition, with a program summed up by Carr as “a hotchpotch of current discontents, directed in the main against the growing centralisation of economic and political controls”.
Their view were carried in the party press, day by day, for months on end. A pamphlet stating their case was circulated at the party congress in March 1921, where the issues were to be fully debated.
The proceedings of the congress, however, were dramatically cut across by the uprising of sailors at the naval base of Kronstadt, an island in the Bay of Finland facing Petrograd.
The Kronstadt Uprising
In 1917 the Kronstadt sailors had been in the forefront of the revolution. By 1921 this generation had disappeared to the war fronts and been replaced with peasant conscripts, politically inexperienced, who came under Anarchist influence.
Affected by all the peasants’ grievances, demanding more freedom but without a program for solving the country’s problems, they staged an armed insurrection under the slogan “Down with Bolshevik tyranny!”
This presented a far more serious threat to the workers’ state than the bands of armed insurgents still roaming parts of the country. Kronstadt commanded the approach to Petrograd. With Kronstadt out of government control, Petrograd could not be defended. This gave the Whites and the imperialists a unique opportunity to attack a key centre of the revolution.
The Bay of Finland was still frozen, defended by heavy guns and by the Baltic Fleet, would become impregnable. Time to solve the crisis was very short.
The sailors refused to surrender. Trotsky with the unanimous support of the party leadership, ordered the attack. After days of bitter fighting, Kronstadt was taken by Bolshevik troops.
The survival of the Soviet Union once again hung by a thread. Would the rebellion spread? To delegates at the party congress it was clear that firm and united leadership was essential. Public divisions in the party, at this point, would have been seized upon by the enemy to disorient the workers and peasants. It was decided that organised factions within the party had to be dissolved.
Lenin, a year later, summed up the basis for this unprecedented position:
If we do not close our eyes to reality we must admit that at the present time the proletarian policy of the party is determined not by the character of its membership, but by the enormous undivided prestige enjoyed by the small group which might be called the Old Guard of the party. A slight conflict within this group would be enough, if not to destroy this prestige, at all events to weaken the group to such a degree as to rob it of its power to determine policy.Collected Works, Volume 33
The operative words were “at the present time”. The Bolsheviks knew that problems could not be resolved by organisational measures alone; in the longer run, unity could only be built on discussion, education and agreement. The denial of tendency rights could only be justified as an emergency measure in grappling with the immediate crisis, to be abolished as soon as the situation was once again under control.