We see that until now all the published sources in Turkish about Makhno are anarchist, and especially Makhnovist sources.
If the Makhno Movement (Makhnovshchina) which governed southern Ukraine in the period of 1917-1921 may be accepted as a rare example of “anarchism in power” and the claim is widespread that Makhno put into practice on the basis of “free soviets” and “village communes” an alternative practice to the communism of the Bolsheviks, then the example of Makhno is an opportunity for the comparative study of these two models in practical application.
Was Makhno a pioneer of “libertarian” anarchism, as anarchist writings in Turkey suggest, an example of the applicability of an alternative new order to the Reds and the Whites, a criticism in the practice of Bolshevik authoritarianism, and against centralised planning the founder of local village communes? Or was he, as Trotsky suggests, an “anarcho-kulak movement” that represented the interests of rich peasants? In this piece, we will try to bring light to at least the outlines of this topic.
Due to the limitations imposed on us by the environment of the internet, we don’t have the opportunity to write in the breadth and depth this subject demands. We will essentially limit ourselves to taking up the economic-social model and the practice of “free soviets” that were put into practice by Makhno in areas which he controlled. We will exclude from the scope of the article the important dimension of military processes for this issue.
REVOLUTION IN HULIAIPOLE
Nestor Makhno was an anarchist political prisoner who was released from prison with the February Revolution. He had received a heavy sentence for shooting a Tsarist police officer and spent 9 years in prison. In prison he educated himself and read anarchist and communist writings. His ideas were close to Kropotkin’s. In accordance with his teachings, he predicted that the society of the future should consist of a flexible federation of productive associations, that division of labour would end in this society, and thus return to an organic communal society in which everyone would work of their own free will.
After being freed, Makhno returned to his village of Huliaipole in western Ukraine, where he began organising work. He had a great reputation as the only political prisoner who returned to the village after the revolution. He soon became chairman of the Huliaipole Social Committee and acquired local power in the village. He united anarchists in the region around him. This was based on extensive mass work. He convinced his comrades of the necessity of forming an anarchist organisation. In his work he sought the support of theoretically strong anarchist circles in Moscow; in private, he also wrote to Kropotkin asking for his support. He also met face to face with these circles when he visited Moscow in 1918. The responses he received were not especially heartening. He was advised to act as he himself knew. In fact, there was no contribution of anarchist theorists to his struggle, which lasted from 1917 to 1921.
This is a clear expression of the lack of effectiveness of anarchist theory in the 1917 revolution. No matter how many sweet-sounding anarchist concepts there were up until the outbreak of the revolution, they all shattered in the face of revolutionary times, could not be applied, and anarchist militants were thus condemned proceed grasping at air in a chaotic context.1
When this occurred, Makhno listened to his own revolutionary instincts rather than the anarchist theoreticians. What directed him was the demands of the Ukrainain peasants who had been united with his will.
Makhno was able to convince anarchists in the region by numbing the “Social Committee” (the local ruling body in Huliaipole) with anti-authoritarian theory. Another important achievement of Makhno’s during this period was bringing together all the peasants through the creation of the Peasant League. He had succeeded in the first mass experiment of a united front of all classes in the village in Huliaipole, which would form the basis of his political struggle. In the process, the Peasant League became the Peasant Soviet.
Unlike the anarchist leaders who congregatedin Moscow and Petersburg after the February Revolution and lacked much of a connection with the masses, Makhno encountered very favorable social foundation for organising. In his own words: “at that time, an instinctive anarchism was directing all the plans of the Ukrainian working peasantry. This trend arose in the form of a clear hatred of all kinds of state authorities and a desire to save oneself from it.” (Makhno, 1996)
In 1917, Ukraine was an agrarian region of the Russian Empire. It had a socioeconomic structure based in the villages in which class differentiation was developed, a landlord and estate system, as well as the rich peasant class (kulaks) class which was strong. Capitalist production and meta-market relations dominated agriculture. When the power of the landlords was destroyed by the February Revolution, all the remaining classes of the village (kulaks, middle-small peasantry, poor peasantry, landless peasantry) united in confiscating their land. In this sense, it was possible to speak about a common village front. On this basis, a union of democratic will was born between the bourgeois and working classes of the village. The landlords confiscated the estates of the nobility and divided them among the peasants. Without a doubt, it was again the kulak class that emerged the most profitable from this distribution, obtaining the largest and most fertile land. After the fragmentation of the estates, the new ruling class of the Ukrainian Crimea became the kulaks. Though outnumbered, thanks to their economic power and wide connections, the kulaks also had the ability to drag the rural working poor peasantry after them.
Following the Kornilov coup in September, there was also a social revolution in Huliaipole. The anarchists, who founded the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution by implementing the call of the Petersburg Soviet, overthrew the Social Committee and seized power. Landlords and the bourgeoisie were dispossessed. As chairman of the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, Makhno also led this revolution locally. About a month before, Huliaipole also accomplished the same gains as the October Revolution: the overthrow of the bourgeois provisional government, the establishment of a Soviet power in which the exploiter classes were excluded from state bodies, and the dispossession of the landlords and the bourgeoisie. This fact also exposes the hollowness of the liberal discourse of the October Revolution as a “Bolshevik coup”. The stage of the class struggle in Russia between September and October of 1917 necessitated either a bourgeois counter-revolution of the type seen in the Kornilov coup or a proletarian revolution of the type seen in Red October. The period of dual power brought about by the February Revolution was now finally over. Determined revolutionaries responded to this fact with their actions, leading to the establishment of Soviet power.
ANARCHIST PEASANT COMMUNES
During the distribution of estate lands in the Huliaipole region, certain lands were reserved for the purpose of establish communes for the poor peasantry. In February of 1918, anarchist peasant communes were created. The only written document which remains to this day with regard to these communes which were established by Makhno’s initiative, are those narrated by Makhno and Arshinov in their recollections.
In Makhno’s long and detailed description of the communes, there is no concrete information about the production process (how production was carried out, what the division of labour was, on what level machines were used, how seeds and other such supplies were provided, how the harvest was shared, etc.) (Darch, 1994: 106-108). A communal kitchen and common meals, on the other hand, are described in detail. In this description, we understand the communes more through cooperative consumption. We also know from Makhno’s account that decisions about the commune were made by a general assembly with all the members of the commune.
Makhno’s theoretician, Arshinov, describes these communes thus:
“These were real peasant communes which cared about work for themselves and others. The peasants worked in these communes first and foremost to obtain their daily bread. In addition to this, each of them found the material and moral support they needed […] the principles of fraternity and equality directed these communes. Everyone–women, men, and children–worked in accordance with their abilities.”
Makhno mentions 4 communes in whose establishment he was personally involved. He also shares the information that in every commune there are 10 families. He states that the most populous commune consists of 300 people. Thus we understand that in a region inhabited by millions of peasants, Makhno’s communes account for at most 1200 people, at best a few thousand more. Outside of these communes, the peasants carried out production in the old manner. The soil was sown and reaped individually and the kulaks directed the market.
Established in February, the communes were disbanded in March due to the occupation of the area by the Austrian army. However, after the end of the Austro-German occupation, the communes began to be re-established in early 1919, during a period of conflict between the nationalist Directorate regime and the Bolsheviks in Ukraine. The number of communes was again small.
A limited number of peasant communes were located in an area of 20 square kilometres of Huliaipole. However, according to Arshinov, the area of influence of the Makhno movement, or “central Makhnovist zone”, was the 128-kilometre radius around Huliaipole. Therefore, the anarchist communes established in this region, where millions of peasants lived, were practically “drops in the sea” in terms of regulating total agricultural production. Moreover, the life of this second practical move towards the establishment of the communes lasted about 6 months due to the conditions of the civil war. It is scarcely possible to suggest that foundation of a social revolution could emerge from these experiences, the longest of which lasted for several months and covering an insignificant volume of production.
Starvation-inducing lack of land united the entire Ukrainian peasantry in revolutionary action against the estates, however, the interest in anarchist communes was scant. In the same place where he describes the communes, Makhno mentions the peasant masses who, “not having been liberated from dependence on the kulaks”, remain outside the communes. This is also a clear statement that agricultural production in the Ukrainian countryside was under the sway of the kulaks. Small and middle peasants were economically dependent on the rich peasantry. Makhno’s communes encompassing a few thousand peasants, would not change this fact.
MAKHNO’S SOCIAL BASE
What is certain is that Makhno found his social base in the “village”, that he had the support of the peasants, and that peasants made up his Black Army which was a peasant’s movement. The basis was creating a united front of the peasantry, rising up from an alliance across all peasant classes and without bringing class warfare to the villages. However, the organisation of communes would mean bringing class warfare into the village. Volin notes that the Makhnovists did not put any pressure on the peasants to join the communes, but simply made propaganda of free communes (Darch, 1994: 37). Arshinov similarly narrates:
The number of communes was not very large and included only a small minority of the population. It was especially composed of peasants whose land was not in very good condition. But the striking phenomenon was that these communes were founded by the poor peasants themselves. The Makhnovists did not put the slightest pressure on the peasants in this direction, limiting themselves only to propagating the idea of a free commune. (Arshinov, 1998: 72)
In the later years of the struggle, the village communes failed to keep the attention of the Makhnovists, their entire focus shifted to meet the growing needs of the Black Army. Finding themselves in a tight spot, their dependence on the kulaks and the materials they could provide only increased.
The kulaks and labouring peasants had certain common denominators in Ukraine during the period of 1917-1921. Firstly, the peasant classes enthusiastically supported the October Revolution’s purge of the landlord class of nobles and the redistribution of estate lands to the peasants. Therefore, they were strongly against the German-Austrian occupiers and their puppet Hetman regime who were trying to restore the old order of the nobility, as well as the White Armies established by the Tsarist generals. The kulaks, who had the largest share of land in this distribution, were at least as opposed to the reestablishment of the old land order as the working peasants were.
On the other hand, the peasant classes did not want to send grain to the cities, wanting to keep the surplus grain for themselves. They preferred to hoard the grain, which Soviet power desperately needed to feed the cities, in warehouses. The cities, from their point of view, were a foreign power that took grain from them without giving them anything. Within the policy framework of “war communism”, the Bolsheviks began to collect grain from villages and forcibly take grain from warehouses. This was a necessity for the cities to survive. Soviet Russia was under blockade. On the territory of the country were the armies of 14 states, while outside of Soviet power 29 other bourgeois and White governments had been declared. Due to the imperialist blockade, “not a single letter, not a single food parcel, not a single foreign newspaper could enter Red Russia from outside in 1919” (Yanowitz, 2007). There was not a single source of wheat which Soviet power could find anywhere outside of Russia and the Ukrainian countryside. However, as industrial production had bottomed out due to the Civil War, Soviet power was also in no position to pay the peasants for grain as a product. Lenin explained this situation with the concept of an “advance”; the peasantry, who gained land thanks to the October Revolution, should see the grain seizures of Soviet power, which defended their land against the White Armies, as an advance to be paid in the future. (The New Economic Policy introduced in 1921 after the end of the civil war–NEP–in a sense meant the repayment of this advance.) Forced grain from villages was the only way the population in cities could survive during the difficult civil war years. Although 350,000 people died in conflicts throughout the civil war, 7 million people died from starvation and epidemics.
25% of the population of Russia faced constant starvation during these years. People ate dead horses, and in some cases even cannibalism was attested. However, there was no grain in the country. 270,000 tonnes of wheat per month was enough to feed the major cities, while only in the North Caucasus region there were 2.5 million tonnes of grain hoarded.
The October Revolution took place in a country where 80% of the population consisted of peasants. The proletarian (socialist) revolution in the cities had triumphed with the support of a peasant war that tore apart estates in the countryside. But having gained their land, the peasantry was now uninterested in the fate of the cities, preferring to hoard grain. Although Soviet power first tried methods other than seizure, when it became clear that it had no option but seizure to obtain grain, grain seizure teams were sent to the villages. Grain seizures were the only guarantee that the masses living in the cities could be fed, albeit to a limited extent, throughout the Civil War. Doubtless, it also had an alienating effect on the peasant masses.
The kulaks, middle and small peasantry (albeit to varying degrees) were opposed to grain seizures. Bolshevik grain seizure units were attacked in many places, and thousands of communists were killed in these attacks. In cases where there was no violence, the peasants found ways to hide their harvest. In 1920, a government official estimated that more than 1/3 of the total harvest was hidden from government officials.
Thus in Ukraine, the Makhno movement was growing stronger by combining the twin oppositions of the peasant masses within itself: no to the White Army of the nobles and the return of the landlords, no to the Bolshevik Red Army and its grain seizures! Let it not be inferred from this that we share Trotsky’s description of Makhnovshchina as the “anarcho-kulak movement”. On the contrary, this was a rather superficial and simplistic definition. Although Trotsky initially emphasised that Makhno’s pro-kulak politics were “not conscious”, he increasingly began to describe Makhno as a kulak movement in subjective terms as well. An emphasis was even made to identify Makhno with the counter-revolutionary Ataman Grigoryev. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia and other Soviet sources described Makhno as a rich peasant (kulak) movement.
Yet this definition is deceptive. As Max Nomad said; “if he had accepted the invitation of Ukrainian nationalists, he could have been one of the most illustrious generals of their army, which was yet to be formed. But a ‘kulak’ Ukraine led by teachers and lawyers was not the ideal he wanted to achieve.” So he did not collaborate with the Rada, the Directorate, or Petliura.
Formed on the basis of a village coalition, not developing the class struggle and in this way not spreading the communes to all the villages, maintaining reconciliation with the kulaks to the end, Makhno’s was a peasant movement of petty bourgeois class character. As much as it was not a kulak movement in subjective terms, in objective terms it also a fact that it remained in the sphere of influence of the kulaks. Just as the orientation of the united mass of the Ukrainian peasantry was directed by the kulak class on the basis of its economic power, so too was the Makhno movement, which was based on being an indiscriminate representative of the united masses, directed by the class interests of the kulaks in the final instance.2
SOVIET POWER AND MAKHNO
Makhno himself was a poor peasant. The majority of the Black Army was made up of small, middle, and poor peasants. (Although there were also those who joined from kulak families, ex-Narodniks, some adventurists, anti-Bolshevists, etc.) In the advancing stages of the Civil War, although he allied himself twice with the Red Army, at no point did he ally himself with the Whites or the Ukrainian nationalists. Indeed, when White Army general Wrangel sent an offer of alliance, Makhno, understanding this as an insult, even shot the messenger. This attitude distinguishes Makhno from Ataman Grigoriev, who first allied with the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists and then with the White Army, and from Novoselov, one of the leaders of the Siberian anarchist movement, who allied with the White Army against the Red Army. Although he once united his forces with Ataman Grigoriev, it was Makhno who ultimately punished this counter-revolutionary thug. It was this uncompromising attitude towards the White Armies and bourgeois nationalists that carried Makhno to this day and glorified him.
However, that’s not all there is to this matter. Makhno also banned the institutions of Soviet power in the areas he dominated. The organisation of the Bolshevik Party (or any party) was forbidden: “the existence of the Cheka, party committees and similar coercive authoritarian and disciplinarian institutions cannot be tolerated from the point of view of free workers and peasants.” In Makhno’s “free” Soviets, “there is no place for parties”, because the participation of parties in the Soviets could turn these bodies into “party representatives, which could lead to the overthrow of the Soviet system”. The presence of the Red Army was also prohibited: “the state militia, police and armies are prohibited. Instead, the people will organise their own self-defense. Self-defense can only be organised by workers and peasants”. The Cheka, the main apparatus that kept Soviet power afloat in the Civil War, was banned (Arshinov, 1998: 203-204).
Makhno did not print his own money. That would be against anarchist theory. Instead, he declared equal all printed currencies at that time: the money printed by Soviet power, the coins of the Ukrainian nationalist administrations, the White Army, and even money from the Tsarist era would all be accepted. Acting contrary to this would be subject to “revolutionary punishment.” This arrangement was also in the interest of the peasants, who had money from all these currencies on hand.
All decisions taken by the Whites were invalidated. Decisions of “the communist authorities” and those decisions “in contradiction with the interests of the peasants and workers” were likewise declared invalid. Peasant Councils which also included kulaks had the power to invalidate Soviet decrees. The decisions of the All-Russia Workers and Peasants’ Soviets, if they contradicted the village assemblies of the Makhnovist region, were be considered invalid.
Makhno and his “rebel army” claimed to have established the true Soviet socialist order, but did not recognise the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) elected by the General Congress of the Soviets. According to them, only local Soviets should have been in charge. However, the local Soviets of Ukraine also depended on the decisions of the Soviet General Congress, which consisted of delegates of their own choice. As such, the Makhnovists also did not recognise the decisions of the local Soviets of Ukraine. So, what was their “Soviet Order” like? They recognised only the “free Soviets” of Huliaipole and the surrounding region, where the Makhnovists were the majority. In this region they formed a regional government by convening a congress of “Peasants, Workers and Rebel Soviets” four times.
They raised the slogan of Soviets without Parties, or more concretely Soviets without Bolsheviks. But it was the Bolshevik Party that strengthened the Soviets to first repel the Kornilov coup, and then overthrow the provisional (bourgeois) government, gathering all power in the hands of the Soviets. From February to October, no other party could defend the establishment of Soviet power by overthrowing the bourgeois government, even at the level of slogans. Lenin and the Bolsheviks insisted on “all power to the Soviets!”, putting forth this slogan where the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries (Srs) dared not, even while other parties were in their majority in the Soviets. It was the Bolshevik Communist Party that brought the Soviets to power. If it hadn’t been for the October Revolution, the option for Russia would have been a tyrannical bourgeois power in which the Soviets were completely liquidated-and probably a white General of the Kornilov type would have been at the head of that regime.
During this period, the imperialist West also adopted and used the slogan “Soviets without Bolsheviks”. The counter-revolutionary Ataman Grigoryev also said that “the Soviets are fighting for their real power against the commissars” (!) (Arshinov, 1998). Because Soviets without Bolsheviks would be like a lion without teeth, would be destroyed in a few months, and the White Army generals would enter Moscow on horseback. Thus, in the context of the civil war, the slogan “Soviets without Bolsheviks” was synonymous with abandoning Soviet power.
These were the outlines of the order declared by Makhno’s Land Army. But behind this “libertarian” rhetoric, Makhno also did not shy away from building similar institutions to those Soviet ones he had banned under his own Black Flag. The Red Army was forbidden, but he had his Black Army. The Bolshevik Party was forbidden, but in areas ruled by Makhno, power was invested in his anarchist organisation. Although he might not have declared a party and did not appear as the leader of such before the masses, the organised political power of the Makhnovist anarchist movement was the only political movement in all “free” Soviets. The Cheka was forbidden, but Makhno had set up his own secret service under the label of “counter-intelligence”. Makhno’s Intelligence Department also did everything that the Cheka did (prosecution, imprisonment, trial, executions).3
THE ECONOMIC-SOCIAL PRACTICE OF THE MAKHNO MOVEMENT
Outside of the military sphere, in all political problems Makhno showed his perpetual weakness in dealing with practical problems. He declared all currencies, White or Red, Ukrainian or Russian, legally valid and distributed the money in the banks to the public. Price controls vital for the workers were not implemented. When the Makhnovists occupied a city, food and money were distributed to the public without question until they ran out. Transportation problems, industrial relations, financial policy–all kinds of economic problems above the level of family agriculture–were addressed in this cavalier fashion (Darch, 1994). Because of this, despite all its heroic fighting, the Black Army was never able to produce its own weapons and ammunition, and in this respect it was always dependent on other forces.
In Ekaterinoslav (today’s Dnipro), where the Black Army ruled for a while, the Makhnovists could not establish any serious ties with the working class. They took no steps to organise production in a new style. When the railway workers in Ekaterinoslav asked for their wages, Makhno’s response was: “we can’t feed you like the Bolsheviks, we don’t need railways, if you need bread, go get it yourself from those who use the railways” (Kramer 2004 and Nomad 1939). It could have been a joke, were it not for the particularly risible circumstances of the time. Because the railways were largely used for military purposes, civilian transport was almost nonexistent, and Makhno’s army did not pay for military transport. If Makhno had paid wages to the workers, he could have done so with the products he would have collected from the peasants. Therefore, he preferred to starve the railway workers, who did not produce a service from which the peasants in the area saw tangible benefit. But unlike the food-producing peasants, the railway, telegraph, and industrial workers needed money to avoid starvation.
Also, since the Makhnovists had control over the railway line from Mariupol, they did not allow the passage of trains full of grain and coal, but allowed trains to pass if other products were given in return. This practice, which Trotsky described as “piracy”, prevented the implementation of production and circulation within the framework of the Soviet order and throughout the country, and instead gave everyone the freedom to confiscate the property they wanted! (Trotsky, 1919). If this were applied across the country, taking into account the continuation of the war and, in the place of the Red Army’s supply of large-scale production and distribution, fragmented and uncoordinated local economies, it would not be hard to predict that in this case, the winner of the civil war would be the Whites backed by Western capital. At the peak of its power, the Red Army consisted of 5 million soldiers and 16 armies, all of which produced the logistics and weapons of this army itself (Yanowitz, 2007). Moreover, socialist production managed to feed all the cities under Soviet power (albeit at an inadequate level). If Soviet power was able to survive despite the heavy blockade of the imperialists and the devastating conditions of civil war, this was a clear victory of central planning and socialised production.
While the Makhnovists abolished the existing laws of the region in which they found themselves, disbanded state institutions and economic structures and established new ones, they also took no responsibility for the resultant consequences. In contrast to the Bolsheviks, who envisioned a more advanced economic-social order, they did not build up new economic structures to replace that which they distributed. They attempted to conceal their lack of ability to establish a more advanced order in economic and social terms by glorifying the spontaneity of the masses.
In the face of criticism that the Makhno movement could not build any order in Ekaterinoslav, which it held for a month, Arshinov, a theorist of the movement, puts forward the following rationale:
“The Makhnovists were neither a party nor an authority. In Ekaterinoslav they acted as a revolutionary military detachment defending the freedom of the city. In these circumstances, they did not have to carry out constructive revolutionary work. This was solely the duty of the local people.” (Arshinov, 1998: 125)
Skirda and Volin, also, approved of this spontaneous economic policy (or rather, non-policy), saying, “anarchists are not after power… the ‘throngs’ must act on their own account” (Darch, 1994: 37).
In economic problems, when you scrape away all manner of discourse that rejects the role of will and glorifies spontaneity, underneath you will find nothing more than the continuation of the established order. Spontaneity, or denial of conscious, willful regulation of the economy, means that the current established functioning is maintained behind the curtain of supreme freedom. The economic liberation of the proletariat can not be achieved by spontaneity, but by regulating the economy by human will.
The practice of free trade in agriculture, which the Makhno movement advocated with similar slogans, pleased the rich peasants. The decision of the anarchist congress in Huliaipole was as follows: “the methods and tools of the new agricultural order must be designed with the free and natural decision and initiative of the whole peasantry.” (Yanowitz, 2007) In practice, this meant that the kulaks determine the agricultural order. Undoubtedly, from the point of view of the kulak class, the Makhno movement, which gave them the “freedom” to hoard grain indefinitely, was strongly preferable to the Bolsheviks, who constantly collected grain by force from the villages.
When the Makhno army captured a city or district, it would hang the following declaration on the walls:
“This army does not serve any political party, power, dictatorship. On the contrary, it aims to purge the region of all political powers, all dictatorships. The army struggles to defend freedom of action, the free life of workers from all forms of exploitation and sovereignty. Therefore, the Makhno Army does not represent any authority. It will not apply any coercion to anyone. Its role is limited to defending workers’ freedom. The freedom of peasants and workers belongs to them and should not be subject to any restrictions.” (Yanowitz, 2007)
However, what was implemented was just the opposite of this. The Makhnovists put into practice the concrete policies outlined above (acceptance of all currencies) and punished disobedience. (For example, Skaladytsky, the Makhnovist commander of the city of Nikopol, declared that individuals who hampered the free movement of different currencies would be regarded as counter-revolutionaries. Thus, the circulation of money minted by the White Army was ensured under threat of execution by the Makhnovists.) They regulated the press and instituted censorship of the news, particularly with regard to military matters. They distributed land in accordance with laws that they wrote. They held local legislative conferences. In order to restore order in the cities they stationed armed troops. Certain health standards were implemented in order to suppress epidemics. They prevented parties other than their own organisations from running in Soviet elections. They used their military forces to suppress the organisation and work among the masses by adversarial political groups (principally the Bolsheviks).4
They made the Revolutionary Military Council of peasants, workers and rebels into a de facto local government. Soviet power in the cities was replaced by the administration of military chiefs attached to the council. The Makhnovist army imposed an obligation to join the army, although this was a “voluntary” obligation, because the army in question was based on the the voluntary union of peasants of the Huliaipole region!5As a result, despite all the anti-authority, anti-state rhetoric, in reality, as the anarchist historian Paul Avrich acknowledged, the “Military Revolutionary Council”, led by Makhno, formed a loosely knit government in the region around Huliaipole, working in relation to regional congresses and local Soviets.” (Yanowitz, 2007)
Arshinov also notes that this council which was established, “covers the entire region”, is responsible for “implementing all economic, political, social and military decisions taken at the Congress”, that it is, “the highest executive body of the entire movement”. But he adds: “It was by no means an authoritarian body. Its only task was to carry out the measures taken and the instructions set out in the workers’ and peasants’ Congress.”
Again, as Arshinov clearly acknowledged, “the only organisation in the liberated region that was able to impose its will on its enemies was the Makhnovists.”
Clearly, it was a regional government created here, and it was at least as authoritarian as Soviet power. As Engels notes;
“A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.” (F.Engels, Anti-Dühring)
The same ideological dissonance was evident in the organisation of Makhno’s Army. This “anti-authoritarian” army had adopted the principle that commanders come by election, criticizing the Red Army, where commanders were appointed from the hill. However, in reality, Makhno determined all the commanders and submitted them for the approval of the Union. Makhno has the final say in possible disputes, moreover, he also held the power of veto if a name he disapproved of was “elected”.
Makhno himself, as the “father” (Batko) of the army, had a special bodyguard unit called the ‘Black Union’. The cavalry in Makhno’s army formed a kind of “noble” group, superior to the other troops. It was common practice for commanders to hit the soldiers in the face to discipline them, or to shoot a disobedient soldier instantly. The orders of the commanders (“when they are not drunk”) [Yanowitz] had to be strictly obeyed. In the Black Army, where even the commanders’ orders were put to a vote at the beginning of the war, executions began to be carried out on Makhno’s orders in order to ensure discipline at the later stages.
His military-political organisation and military achievements, which made Makhno particularly successful and allowed him to occupy a certain place in history, were clearly achieved in defiance of anarchist theory. In fact, on the level of principle, there is not the slightest difference between communists and anarchists in terms of being against the regular army, compulsory military service, and military hierarchy. But in a civil war environment, these principles can never be applied, or their implementation will do nothing but serve the victory of the counter-revolutionary armies.
However, Makhno, who copied all his administrative, political and military organisation from Soviet power (which was a very bad copy, on the level of a caricature), banned Soviet institutions on the grounds that they were “authoritarian”. Unlike the Bolsheviks, Makhno did not have the goal of a more advanced society that transcended and transformed the existing economic social order. The Makhnovist organisation, like the Bolshevik Party bound to its theoretical perspective, lacked the competence to respond to changing conditions with new tactics. Thus, although its military capabilities and maneuverability might extend his life, Makhno’s defeat in the face of the Red Army and Soviet power was inevitable.
We bore witness, in flesh and blood, to an “anarchist state”, with its army, its public order groups, its intelligence services, its laws and prohibitions, its executions, its land laws, etc. Once again, social practice demonstrated the invalidity of the anarchist theory, which predicted that “the state, the source of all ills” would be destroyed “and swept away” in the immediate aftermath of the social revolution. The experience of Makhno himself confirmed the necessity of a new state for the suppression of counter-revolution and the establishment of a new order. However, the Makhnovists established not the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, but the authority of the peasant classes, including the kulaks. This authority was rising above the united village, and the hegemonic element that united that village was the kulaks. Makhno’s “state” was confined to the narrow horizons of the peasant classes and did not foresee an economic-social order that superseded the existing order. The fact that he played a progressive, revolutionary role was entirely conditional: he was progressive when he defended the peasants’ territorial revolution against the White Army, but reactionary against the Red Army, which represented the Soviet power of all Russia and the revolutionary power of the proletariat.
Soviet power’s victory over the Makhno movement began with the establishment of the Poor Peasants’ Committees in 1920. The Bolsheviks, who organised landless peasants and peasants with little land in the Poor Peasants’ Committees, began distributing some of the grain taken from the village to these committees. The introduction of class warfare into the village placed a strain on the “village front” on which the Makhno movement relied. Makhno faced a difficult choice: he could either intervene to correct social inequalities in the village to keep the poor peasants on his side, thus coming into conflict with the kulaks; or he could try to maintain the current situation and keep his relationship with the kulaks intact, but in this case he would have to watch as the Bolsheviks gained strength in the villages. Ultimately, Makhno did not support this attack on the kulaks by the proletarian and semi-proletarian peasants which the Bolsheviks encouraged. Poor Peasant Committees became increasingly common and formed the material basis of Soviet power in rural Ukraine. But the intensification of class warfare in the village forced Makhno, once again, to make a pact with the Red Army against General Wrangel’s White Army. This pact ended on November 15th, 1921, when Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, was taken and Wrangel was defeated; the final clash of the Red and Black Armies began.
After the defeat of the White Armies, support for the Makhno movement was almost entirely due to discontent with the grain seizures. This discontent reached an explosive height due to the defeat of the Whites and the fact that Soviet power would hold over all of Russia. In Ukraine, there were Ataman Grigoriev’s revolts. Antonov’s revolts in Tambov, the sailors’ revolt in Kronstadt (most of which came from the Ukrainian countryside dominated by Makhno), and peasant revolts in Dagestan and Western Siberia. Although anarchist literature attempts to describe this as a wave of “third revolution”, in fact, these movements, which were actually undisciplined and isolated from one another, reflected the outbursts of anger at the grain seizures of the civil war-weary peasantry, rather than the act of a force trying to push the revolution forward past its October limitations. It was Lenin who grasped this most deeply and comprehensively. War communism had to end. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was to replace it, giving the peasantry the freedom to sell their grain at any price. A single-rate in-kind tax was to be introduced in the place of the grain tax. (Lenin, 1996)
With the birth of the NEP the worker-peasant alliance was reestablished under new conditions following the civil war. The working class gave the peasantry an important concession, moreover consenting to the establishment of a layer of merchants (nepman) between the countryside and the city, but in doing so, kept the main sectors of the economy under socialist public ownership. The NEP put the circulation of goods between the city and the countryside in a certain order. Thus, the conditions for peaceful socialist construction were formed. This order would last until the famine of 1927.
With the establishment of the NEP, the social support on which the Makhno movement had relied nearly entirely eroded. Makhno, in order to keep his army standing, began carrying out seizures from peasants here and there. Eventually, near the end of 1921, Makhno, together with his calvary, crossed over to Romania and took refuge in that country. With the defeat of the White Army, and the end of the grain seizures so too came an end Makhno’s role in history.
1) “Anarchism was a very revolutionary theory in non-revolutionary times”, but in revolutionary times it was not possible for this to be carried into practice. [Max Nomad] Anarchist theory and practice “are like a raincoat which only leaks when it rains, which is to say only under ‘exceptional’ circumstances does it leak, but on sunny days it certainly does not”. (Trotsky, as narrated by Yanowitz, 2007: 44th Footnote)
2) From this point on, it can also be suggested that Makhno was standing on Narodnik ground. Because Makhno’s program of uniting all classes of the village was identical to that of the Narodniks. The Narodniks advocated the transition from feudalism to direct socialism against the backdrop of village unions (mir) based on all classes of the village. The participation of the SRs (social revolutionaries) from the Narodnik tradition in the ranks of Makhno also reflected this trend. One of Makhno’s commanders was Boris Veretelnikov, who was originally an SR. But more important was the fact that Dimitri Ivanovich Popov, the military leader of the left SR coup in Moscow on July 7, 1918, fled after the failure of the coup and joined Makhno’s ranks.
3) A local anarchist congress questioned Makhno’s secret service, taking this decision: “In the reports we’ve received, there exists a counter-intelligence service within the army, and this service does its work in an arbitrary and unchecked manner, in some cases it is quite serious, just like the Bolshevik Cheka. Searches, arrests, torture, and executions have been reported.” [Source: Yanowitz 2007)
4) During the period when the Makhnovist army ruled, propaganda activities of socialist parties (despite censorship in military news) in the cities of Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav were generally free. However, the establishment of revolutionary committees and the activities of revolutionary organising in general were prohibited. [Arshinov, 123-124] “while the Makhnovist Army grants political parties and organisations freedom to spread propaganda, it states that the Revolutionary Rebels will never allow any preparation or organisation they will make to establish authority over the people, because such activities have nothing to do with the idea of spreading freedom.” [Arshinov, 124] In short, this was the “freedom” that the Makhnovist Army “recognised”. By destroying all the legal and administrative structures that existed in the cities it captured, the Makhnovists also forcefully suppressed the attempts of revolutionary parties to organise civil and social life. In Aleksandrovsk, when the local Bolshevik organisation proposed to Makhno that “areas of action be shared, military power be left to Makhno’s control, political action and civil powers be left to the Revolutionary Committees”, Makhno’s response was to threaten the Bolsheviks with execution. [Arshinov, 124] The Makhnovists, who banned the establishment of other parties on the grounds of their evaluation of them as opposed to the idea of freedom determined by the “revolutionary committees”, ruled the region for 3 years on the basis of their own Military Revolutionary Committee.
5) This “volunteerism” was described in a Makhnovist newspaper as follows: the peasants decided to mobilise voluntarily, so accordingly no one in this region has the right to refuse military service. [Path to freedom, by Max Nomad from 24.05.1919]
“Some groups perceived voluntary mobilisation as something that binds only those who want to join the Rebel Army and does not bind those who want to sit in their homes for any reason… This is not true… voluntary mobilisation was initiated by the peasants, workers and rebels themselves, as they decided to mobilise themselves without waiting for instructions from any central authority” [From Malet. Yanowitz, 2007]