An Anarchist FAQ - Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?
- Who was Nestor Makhno?
- Why was the movement named after Makhno?
- Why was Makhno called "Batko"?
- Can you give a short overview of the Makhnovist movement?
- How were the Makhnovists organised?
- Did the Makhnovists have a constructive social programme?
- Did they apply their ideas in practice?
- Weren't the Makhnovists just Kulaks?
- Were the Makhnovists anti-Semitic and pogromists?
- Did the Makhnovists hate the city and city workers?
- Were the Makhnovists nationalists?
- Did the Makhnovists support the Whites?
- What was the relationship of the Bolsheviks to the movement?
- How did the Makhnovists and Bolsheviks differ?
- How do the modern followers of Bolshevism slander the Makhnovists?
- What lessons can be learned from the Makhnovists?
The key Leninist defence of the actions of the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution is that they had no other choice. Complaints against the Bolshevik attacks on the gains of the revolution and the pro-revolutionary Left in Russia are met with a mantra involving the white terror, the primitive state of Russia and the reactionary peasantry, the invading imperialist armies (although the actual number can, and does, vary depending on who you are talking to) and other such "forces of nature" which we are to believe could only be met by a centralised authoritarian regime that would flinch at nothing in order to survive.
However, this is not the case. This is for three reasons.
Firstly, there is the slight problem that many of the attacks on the revolution (disbanding soviets, undermining the factory committees, repressing socialists and anarchists, and so on) started before the start of the civil war. As such, its difficult to blame the degeneration of the revolution on an event which had yet to happen (see section 3 of the appendix "What caused the degeneration of the Russian Revolution?" for details).
Secondly, Leninists like to portray their ideology as "realistic," that it recognises the problems facing a revolution and can provide the necessary solutions. Some even claim, flying in the face of the facts, that anarchists think the ruling class will just "disappear" (see section H.2.1 ) or that we think "full-blown" communism will appear "overnight" (see section H.2.5). Only Bolshevism, it is claimed, recognises that civil war is inevitable during a revolution and only it provides the necessary solution, namely a "workers state." Lenin himself argued that "[n]ot a single great revolution in history has escaped civil war. No one who does not live in a shell could imagine that civil war is conceivable without exceptionally complicated circumstances." [Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 81] As such, its incredulous that modern day followers of Lenin blame the degeneration of the Russian Revolution on the very factors (civil war and exceptional circumstances) that they claim to recognise an inevitable!
Thirdly, and even more embarrassingly for the Leninists, numerous examples exist both from revolutionary Russia at the time and from earlier and later revolutions that suggest far from Bolshevik tactics being the most efficient way of defending the revolution other methods existed which looked to the massive creative energies of the working masses unleashed by the revolution.
During the Russian Revolution the biggest example of this is found in South-Eastern Ukraine. For much of the Civil War this area operated without a centralised state apparatus of the Bolshevik type and was, instead, based on the anarchist idea of Free Soviets. There "the insurgents raised the black flag of anarchism and set forth on the anti-authoritarian road of the free organisation of the workers." [Arshinov, The History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 50] The space in which this happened was created by a partisan force that instead of using the "efficiency" of executions for desertion, tsarist officers appointed over the rank and file soldiers' wishes and saluting so loved by the Bolsheviks instead operated as a volunteer army with elected officers and voluntary discipline. This movement was the Makhnovists, named after its leader, the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno. The Black Flag which floated over the lead wagon of the Insurgent Army was inscribed with the slogans "Liberty or Death" and "The Land to the Peasants, the Factories to the Workers." These slogans summarised what the Makhnovist were fighting for -- a libertarian socialist society. At its height in the autumn of 1919, the Maknovists numbered around 40,000 and its extended area of influence corresponded to nearly one third of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, comprising a population of over seven million.
It is this that explains the importance of the Makhnovists. As historian Christopher Reed notes, the "Bolsheviks' main claim to legitimacy rested on the argument that they were the only ones capable of preventing a similar disaster [counter-revolution] for the workers and peasants of Russia and that their harsh methods were necessary in the face of a ruthless and unrelenting enemy." However, Reed argues that "the Makhno movement in the Ukraine suggests that there was more than one way to fight against the counter-revolution." [From Tsar to Soviets, pp. 258-9] This is why the Makhnovist movement is so important, why it shows that there was, and is, an alternative to the ideas of Bolshevism. Here we have a mass movement operating in the same "exceptional circumstances" as the Bolsheviks which did not implement the same policies. Indeed, rather than suppress soviet, workplace and military democracy in favour of centralised, top-down party power and modify their political line to justify their implementation of party dictatorship, the Makhnovists did all they could to implement and encourage working-class self-government.
As such, it is difficult to blame the development of Bolshevik policies towards state-capitalist and party-dictatorship directions on the problems caused during the revolution when the Makhnovists, facing similar conditions, did all they could to protect working- class autonomy and freedom. Indeed, it could be argued that the problems facing the Makhnovists were greater in many ways. The Ukraine probably saw more fighting in the Russian Civil War then any other area. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists lost the centre of their movement and had to re-liberate it. To do so they fought the Austrian and German armies, Ukrainian Nationalists, Bolsheviks and the White Armies of Denikin and then Wrangel. There were smaller skirmishes involving Cossacks returning to the Don and independent "Green" bands. The anarchists fought all these various armies over the four years their movement was in existence. This war was not only bloody but saw constant shifts of fronts, advances and retreats and changes from near conventional war to mobile partisan war. The consequences of this was that no area of the territory was a safe "rear" area for any period of time and so little constructive activity was possible. Section 4 presents a summary of the military campaigns of these years. A brief idea of the depth of fighting in these years can be seen by considering the town at the centre of the Makhnovists, Hulyai Pole which changed hands no less then 16 times in the period from 1917-1921.
Clearly, in terms of conflict (and the resulting disruption caused by it), the Makhnovists did not have the relative peace the Bolsheviks had (who never once lost their main bases of Petrograd or Moscow, although they came close). As such, the problems used to justify the repressive and dictatorial policies of the Bolsheviks also apply to the Makhnovists. Despite this, the activity of the Makhnovists in the Ukraine demonstrated that an alternative to the supposedly necessary methods of the Bolsheviks did exist. Where the Bolsheviks suppressed freedom of speech, assembly and press, the Makhnovists encouraged it. Where the Bolsheviks turned the soviets into mere cyphers of their government and undermined soviet power, the Makhnovists encouraged working-class participation and free soviets. As we discuss in section 7, the Makhnovists applied their ideas of working class self-management whenever and wherever they could.
Sadly, the Makhnovist movement is a relatively unknown event during the revolution. There are few non-anarchist accounts of it and the few histories which do mention it often simply slander it. However, as the Cohn-Bendit brothers correctly argue, the movement, "better perhaps than any other movement, shows that the Russian Revolution could have been a great liberating force." Equally, the reason why it has been almost totally ignored (or slandered, when mentioned) by Stalinist and Trotskyist writers is simple: "It shows the Bolsheviks stifling workers and peasants with lies and calumnies, and then crushing them in a bloody massacre." [Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, p. 200]
This section of our FAQ will indicate the nature and history of this important social movement. As we will prove, "the Makhnovshchina . . . was a true popular movement of peasants and workers, and . . . its essential goal was to establish the freedom of workers by means of revolutionary self-activity on the part of the masses." [Arshinov, The History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 209] They achieved this goal in extremely difficult circumstances and resisted all attempts to limit the freedom of the working class, no matter where it came from. As Makhno himself once noted:
"Our practice in the Ukraine showed clearly that the peasant problem had very different solutions from those imposed by Bolshevism. If our experience had spread to the rest of Russia, a pernicious division between country and city would not have been created. Years of famine would have been avoided and useless struggles between peasant and workers. And what is more important, the revolution would have grown and developed along very different lines . . . We were all fighters and workers. The popular assembly made the decisions. In military life it was the War Committee composed of delegates of all the guerrilla detachments which acted. To sum up, everyone took part in the collective work, to prevent the birth of a managing class which would monopolise power. And we were successful. Because we had succeeded and gave lie to Bolshevik bureaucratic practices, Trotsky, betraying the treaty between the Ukraine and the Bolshevik authorities, sent the Red Army to fight us. Bolshevism triumphed militarily over the Ukraine and at Kronstadt, but revolutionary history will acclaim us one day and condemn the victors as counter-revolutionary grave-diggers of the Russian Revolution." [quoted by Abel Paz, Durruti: The People Armed, p. 88-9]
Two distinct aspects of the anarchist movement existed in the Ukraine at this time, a political and non-military structure called the Nabat (Alarm) federation which operated through the soviets and collectives and a military command structure usually known after is commander Nestor Makhno as the Makhnovshchina (which means the "Makhno movement") although its proper name was the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine. This section of the FAQ will cover both, although the Makhnovshchina will be the main focus.
For more information on the Makhnovist movement, consult the following books. Anarchist accounts of the movement can be found in Peter Arshinov's excellent The History of the Makhnovist Movement and Voline's The Unknown Revolution (Voline's work is based on extensive quotes from Arshinov's work, but does contain useful additional material). For non-anarchist accounts, Michael Malet's Nestor Makhno in the Russian Revolution is essential reading as it contains useful information on both the history of the movement, its social basis and political ideas. Malet considers his work as a supplement to Michael Palij's The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918-1921 which is primarily a military account of the movement but which does cover some of its social and political aspects. Unfortunately, both books are rare. Paul Avrich's The Russian Anarchists contains a short account of the movement and his Anarchist Portraits has a chapter on Nestor Makhno. Makhnovist source material is included in Avrich's The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution. Daniel Guerin includes a section on Makhno and the Makhnovist Movement in volume 2 of No Gods, No Masters. As well as extracts from Arshinov's book, it has various manifestos from the movement as well as Makhno's account of his meeting with Lenin. Christopher Read's From Tsar to Soviets has an excellent section on the Makhnovists. Serge Cipko presents an excellent overview of works on the Makhnovists in his "Nestor Makhno: A Mini-Historiography of the Anarchist Revolution in Ukraine, 1917-1921" (The Raven, no. 13). Alexander Skirda presents an overview of perestroika soviet accounts of Makhno in his essay "The Rehabilitation of Makhno" (The Raven, no. 8). Skirda's biography Nestor Makhno: Le Cosaque de l'anarchie is by far the best account of the movement available.
Lastly, a few words on names. There is a large variation on the spelling of names within the source material. For example, Makhno's home town has been translated as Gulyai Pole, Gulyai Polye Huliai-Pole and Hulyai Pole. Similarly, with other place names. The bandit Grigor'ev has been also translated as Hryhor'iv and Hryhoriyiv. We generally take Michael Malet's translations of names as a basis (i.e. we use Hulyai Pole and Hryhoriyiv, for example).