A Question of Principle (“Forgotten Words” of Democracy)

Written before May 25 (June 7), 1917 and published May 28 (June 10), 1917 in Pravda No. 68.

The filthy torrent of lies and slander which the capitalist papers have spewed out against the Kronstadt comrades has revealed once more how dishonest these papers are. They have seized on a quite ordinary and unimportant incident and magnified it to the dimensions of a “state” affair, of “secession” from Russia and so on and so forth.[1]

Izvestia of the Petrograd Soviet No. 74 reports that the Kronstadt incident has been settled. As was to have been expected, Ministers Tsereteli and Skobelev easily came to an understanding with the Kronstadt people on the basis of a compromise resolution. Needless to say, we express our hope and confidence that this compromise resolution, provided both sides faithfully live up to it, will, for a sufficiently lengthy period of time, eliminate conflicts in the work of the revolution both in Kronstadt and the rest of Russia.

The Kronstadt incident is a matter of principle to us in two respects.

First, it has revealed a fact long ago observed by us and officially recognised in our Party’s resolution (on the Soviets), namely, that in the local areas the revolution has gone farther than it has in Petrograd. Succumbing to the current craze for the revolutionary phrase, the Narodniks and Mensheviks as well as the Cadets did not wish to or could not grasp the significance of this fact.

Secondly, the Kronstadt incident raised an important, fundamental issue of programmatic significance, which no honest democrat, to say nothing of a socialist, can afford to treat with indifference. It is the question of whether the central authority has the right to endorse officials elected by the local population or not.

The Mensheviks, to whose party Ministers Tsereteli and Skobelev belong, still claim to be Marxists. Tsereteli and Skobelev got a resolution passed in favour of such endorsement. In doing so, did they stop to think of their duty as Marxists?

Should the reader find this question naive and pass a remark to the effect that the Mensheviks now have really become a petty-bourgeois, even defencist (i.e., chauvinist) party, and therefore it would be ludicrous even to talk about Marxism, we shall not argue the point. All we shall say is that Marxism always gives close attention to questions of democratism, and the name of democrats can hardly be denied to citizens Tsereteli and Skobelev.

Did they stop to think of their duty as democrats, of their “title” as democrats, when they passed the resolution authorising the Provisional Government to “endorse” officials elected by the Kronstadt population?

Obviously, they did not.

In support of this conclusion, we shall quote the opinion of a writer who, we hope, even in the eyes of Tsereteli and Skobelev, is considered something of a scientific and Marxian authority. That writer is Frederick Engels.

In criticising the draft programme of the German Social-Democrats (now known as the Erfurt Programme) Engels wrote in 1891 that the German proletariat was in need of a single and united republic.

“But not,” Engels added, “such a republic as the present French Republic, which is really an empire founded in 1798 but without an emperor. From 1792 to 1798 every French department, every commune enjoyed complete self-government after the American pattern. That is what we [the German Social-Democrats] should have too. How self-government can be organised and how a bureaucracy can be dispensed with has been demonstrated to us by America and the First French Republic, as well as by Australia, Canada and other British colonies even today. Such provincial and communal self-government is much freer than, for instance, Swiss federalism, where each canton is really independent of the confederation [i.e., the central government] but at the same time is the supreme authority as far as the minor subdivisions of the canton are concerned—the Bezirk and the Commune. The cantonal governments appoint the Bezirkestatthalter and Prefects. This right of appointing local officers is entirely unknown in English-speaking countries, and in future we must politely abolish this right [i.e., appointment from above], just as we should the Prussian Landräthe and Regierungräthe.”[2]

Such was Engels’s opinion on questions of democracy as applied to the right of appointing officers from above. To express these views with greater precision and accuracy, he proposed that the German Social-Democrats should insert in their programme the following demand:

“Complete self-government in the communes, districts, and regions through officers elected by universal suffrage; abolition of all state-appointed local and regional authorities.”

The italicised words leave nothing to be desired in the way of clarity and definiteness.

Worthy citizens, Ministers Tsereteli and Skobelev! You are probably flattered to have your names mentioned in history books. But will it be flattering to have every Marxist—and every honest democrat—say that Ministers Tsereteli and Skobelev helped the Russian capitalists to build such a republic in Russia as would turn out to be not a republic at all, but a monarchy without a monarch?

P.S. This article was written before the Kronstadt incident entered its last stage, as reported in today’s papers. The Kronstadt people have not broken the compromise agreement. Not a single fact remotely suggesting a breach of this agreement has been cited. Rech’s reference to newspaper articles is mere subterfuge, since you can only break an agreement by deeds and not by newspaper articles. The fact then remains, that Ministers Tsereteli, Skobelev and Co. have allowed themselves to be scared for the hundredth and thousandth time by the screams of the frightened bourgeoisie and have resorted to gross threats against the people of Kronstadt. Crude, absurd threats, that merely serve the counter-revolution.


[1] [SOURCE? not a footnote on page 536]
1) --> A conflict had arisen between the Kronstadt Soviet (most of whom were anachists) and the Commissar of the Provisional Government (Pepelyaev), a resolution moved by the non-party section of the Soviet and supported by the Bolsheviks was passed on May 17(30), 1917; abolishing the office of Government Commissar and vesting all power in the Kronstadt Soviet. This resolution stated that the sole authority in the town of Kronstadt was the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which, on affairs of state concern, entered into direct contact with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

The bourgeois press raised a hue and cry against the people of Kronstadt and the Bolsheviks, declaring that Russia was on the verge of collapse and anarchy, that Kronstadt was seceding, and so on.

A delegation from the Petrograd Soviet (Chkheidze, Gotz and others) followed by one from the Provisional Government (Ministers Skobelev and Tsereteli) went out to settle the Kronstadt incident. The latter succeeded in getting a decision passed through the Kronstadt Soviet arranging a compromise settlement, under which the Commissar was to be elected by the Soviet and endorsed by the Provisional Government. In addition, a general political resolution was adopted in which the Kronstadt Soviet declared that it recognised the authority of the Provisional Government, but that this “recognition does not, of course, exclude criticism and the desire that revolutionary democracy should create a new organisation of central authority by vesting all power in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” The resolution also expressed the hope that the Bolsheviks would succeed in achieving this. It ended with a strong protest against attempts to ascribe to the Kronstadt Bolsheviks the intention of separating Kronstadt from the rest of Russia.

Lenin considered the revolutionary action in Kronstadt to have been premature. The negotiations by the Bolshevik group of the Kronstadt Soviet to settle the conflict and the further work of the Kronstadt Party organisation were directed by Lenin. —Lenin

[2] This is a quotation from Engels’s “Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Programmentwurfes 1891” (see Neue Zeit, Jg. 20, I. Bd., Stuttgart, S. 12).

Source: Marxist Internet Archive.