Anarchist Idol Nestor Makhno and Peasant Counterrevolution


Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 839, 7 January 2005.

19 August 2004

Dear Workers Vanguard,

The leaflet protesting an anarchist attempt to exclude Spartacists from a radical event at the Democratic National Convention, reprinted in the August 6, 2004 issue of Workers Vanguard, contains a historical inaccuracy.

It refers to the "counterrevolutionary exploits of Makhno and others who sided with the imperialist-allied White Guards against the Soviet workers state."

Petrichenko, the leader of the semi-anarchist 1921 mutiny of the Kronstadt sailors, did indeed have connections with White Guards and foreign imperialists, as is documented in anarchist historian Paul Avrich's book, "Kronstadt 1921."

Nestor Makhno certainly perpetrated numerous counter-revolutionary exploits. His secret police tortured and murdered many communists. His Ukrainian peasant followers committed frequent pogroms against Jewish petty shopkeepers and merchants. But his guerilla bands did side with Soviet forces against the landlord-backed White Guards.

Trotsky describes in his "Military Writings" how Makhno's mutiny in the spring of 1919, which reflected Ukrainian peasant antagonism to the overwhelmingly Russian and Jewish working class of the Ukrainian cities, played a major role in the collapse of the Southern front, and led to White Guard commander Denikin's seizure of the Ukraine that summer. But Makhno never sided with Denikin. To the contrary. The Makhnovite insurgency played a major role in the collapse of White rule in the Ukraine that fall. And when Denikin's successor, White Guard commander Wrangel, invaded the Ukraine in 1920, a Bolshevik-Makhnovite alliance was reconstituted, which lasted until Wrangel was driven out.

Makhno did attempt to ally with other anti-Bolshevik forces in the Ukraine. Notably, there was Makhno's attempt to ally with the forces of fellow former Red Army commander Grigorev. Grigorev had the worst record of murder, rape, torture and other atrocities committed against Jews of all the peasant bandit leaders ravaging the Ukrainian country-side during the Russian Civil War.

This alliance ended badly for Grigorev. Makhno murdered him, and Grigorev's peasant followers joined Makhno's rebel army—but continued to commit pogroms.

Makhno himself was not personally anti-Semitic, indeed there were Jews in his "collective." In a sense, it could be said that Makhno was simply following anarchist principle. If his secret policemen were torturing prisoners, and if his peasant followers were committing pogroms, what right did Makhno, as just one member of the "collective," have to object?

Fraternally, John H.

YSp Replies: While it is true that there was no formal military alliance or documented connection between Makhno and the White armies in the Ukraine, these facts do not change the substance of the de facto bloc in action between the two. The formulation on Makhno in the Boston Spartacist League/Spartacus Youth Club leaflet is a part of a polemic against the "anti-authoritarian" Bl(A)ck Tea Society (BTS), for whom "democracy" is a cudgel to wield against communists:

"The BTS follows in the worst of the anarchist tradition, from Prince Kropotkin who preferred the hapless bourgeois politician Kerensky to the Bolsheviks, to the counterrevolutionary exploits of Makhno and others who sided with the imperialist-allied White Guards against the Soviet workers state. At bottom, there isn't much to distinguish the BTS from social democrats and liberals who have and will resort to any means to smear communists as ‘authoritarian,' denouncing the ‘extremism' of right and left, giving oh-so-‘democratic' aid and comfort to the forces of bourgeois repression."

This formulation does not pretend to characterize the nature, extent or evolution of Makhno's relationship with the White forces or the Red Army. We have previously addressed at some length the history of the Makhnoite movement when replying to an anarchist recycling numerous lies and distortions in its defense (see "An Exchange on Nestor Makhno: Peasant ‘Anarchism,' Pogroms and the Russian Revolution," WV No. 656, 22 November 1996).

Especially since the late 1930s—when Trotsky devastatingly exposed the treachery of the Spanish anarchists, who joined in a capitalist government which suppressed workers revolution—anarchists have raised a hue and cry about the fate of the Makhnoite movement (and the Kronstadt mutiny). Today, a popular Anarchist FAQ (3 October 2004) purports to show among other things why the Makhnoite movement was an "alternative" to Bolshevism.

In the section of the FAQ titled "Did the Makhnovists support the Whites?", the authors quote from one of Leon Trotsky's writings on Makhno: "Undoubtedly Makhno actually cooperated with Wrangel, and also with the Polish szlachta, as he fought with them against the Red Army." This translation from the Russian text, taken from Michael Palij's book on the Makhnoite movement, makes it appear that Trotsky—the head of the Red Army—had claimed that Makhno fought directly together with Wrangel and the Polish gentry. In this same piece, Trotsky disavows all rumors of a formal alliance between Makhno and Wrangel. By so rendering Trotsky, the anarchists paint him as purposefully deceitful or woefully ignorant about the relationship between Makhno and the White generals and they dodge the substance of Trotsky's polemic against Makhno. Here is what Trotsky actually wrote: "Without a doubt, Makhno provided de facto aid to Wrangel, as well as to the Polish gentry, since he fought at the same time as they did against the Red Army" (translated from "Makhno and Wrangel," 14 October 1920, Kak vooruzhalas' revolyutsiya [How the Revolution Armed], Vol. 2, Book 2 [1924]).

What was posed in Russia during the Civil War was whether the fledgling workers state would survive or succumb to the organized might of the bosses and landlords. To claim Makhno did not in effect side with the imperialist-allied White Guards against the Soviet workers state for extended periods of time because there was no formal alliance is to accept the alibi for Makhno's counterrevolutionary exploits. The Makhnoite movement showed on the battlefield how there is no "third camp" between the army of the workers state and the military organization of the bourgeoisie.

John H. lists a number of those counterrevolutionary exploits committed by the Makhnoites. The authors of the Anarchist FAQ charge the Bolsheviks with having "engineered" Makhno's outlawing and expulsion from the Red Army. But even when he was a commander in the Red Army, Makhno sabotaged defense of the social revolution, from commandeering supply trains to refusing to collect surplus grain for the Soviet government, while engaging in an anti-Bolshevik ideological campaign. This campaign directed at the Bolsheviks, the lone group in the revolutionary crisis of 1917 to fight for a regime based on soviet power and spearheading its defense, could only serve White Guardism. For example, in May 1919, while still allied with the Red Army, Makhno adopted a neutral position toward Grigorev who was calling for an alliance of all anti-Bolshevik forces, including the White armies.

In writing about the Makhnoite movement, Trotsky recognized that the conflict between the Red Army and Makhno was not one primarily between the ideas of Marxism versus anarchism but rather involved defense of the Soviet workers state against peasant-centered counterrevolution. Many anarchists, e.g., Bill Shatov, a veteran of the American Industrial Workers of the World, actively collaborated with and supported the Bolshevik forces throughout the Civil War. Trotsky later recounted how in 1918 he and Lenin had thought of recognizing an autonomous region for the anarchist peasants of the Ukraine. But this idea was scrapped partially because Makhno's Insurgent Army showed its true loyalties in battle.

In the first instance, these loyalties were dictated not by ideological but by class conflicts. German and Austrian occupation delayed the development of the Russian Revolution in the Ukraine so that the drawing together of the working people and poor peasants against the exploiters and kulaks was incomplete. Makhno's army was drawn from all layers of the peasantry. The fundamental desire of the peasants was not the creation of an anarchist utopia but to possess the land and then to be left alone by gentry, officials, tax collectors, recruiting sergeants and all external agents of authority. The wealthier kulaks in particular did not want the landlords to return but feared above all the rule of the working class and poor peasants.

The anti-state prejudices of the Makhnoite leadership, shared by its peasant base, led them into the camp of enemies of the Soviet state power. But this anti-authoritarian "principle" was one of the few that the Makhnoites respected when confronted by the practical realities of the Civil War. Achieving military success meant forced conscription, summary executions and recruiting anti-Semitic pogromists into their ranks; hostility toward the Bolsheviks meant establishing an alternative government hostile to the central Soviet workers state. As anarchist historian Paul Avrich wrote in his sympathetic account of Makhno (Anarchist Portraits [1988]):

"The Second [Makhnoite Regional] Congress, meeting on February 12, 1919, voted in favor of ‘voluntary mobilization,' which in reality meant outright conscription, as all able-bodied men were required to serve when called up. The delegates also elected a Regional Military Revolutionary Council of Peasants, Workers, and Insurgents to carry out the decisions of the periodic congresses. The new councils encouraged the election of ‘free' soviets in the towns and villages—that is, soviets from which members of political parties were excluded. Although Makhno's aim in setting up these bodies was to do away with political authority, the Military Revolutionary Council, acting in conjunction with the Regional Congresses and the local soviets, in effect formed a loose-knit government in the territory surrounding Gulyai-Polye.

"Like the Military Revolutionary Council, the Insurgent Army of the Ukraine, as the Makhnovist forces were called, was in theory subject to the supervision of the Regional Congresses. In practice, however, the reins of authority rested with Makhno and his staff. Despite his efforts to avoid anything that smacked of regimentation, Makhno appointed his key officers (the rest were elected by the men themselves) and subjected his troops to the stern military discipline traditional among the Cossack legions of the nearby Zaporozhian region."

Since the majority of anarchists in Russia and the Ukraine at the time were generally familiar with the class character and practices of the Makhnoite forces, they did not support the Makhnoites. For this, Voline and Arshinov, the two leading anarchist intellectuals who joined with Makhno, both strongly condemned the anarchist majority. Today, however, almost every anarchist in the world has embraced the Makhnoites as their own. We pointed to this contradiction in concluding our 1996 exchange: "Why is that? Because in their hostility to Leninism, they have bought into the anti-Communist prejudices which pervade the bourgeois society in which they live and which have shaped their political consciousness."

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