History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921)

Chapter 1

Democracy and the Working Masses in the Russian Revolution

There has not been one revolution in the world's history which was carried out by the working people in their own interests - by urban workers and poor peasants who do not exploit the work of others. Although the main force of all great revolutions consisted of workers and peasants, who made innumerable sacrifices for their success, the leaders, ideologists and organizers of the forms and goals of the revolution were invariably neither workers nor peasants, but elements foreign to the workers and peasants, generally intermediaries who hesitated between the ruling class of the dying epoch and the proletariat of the cities and fields.

This element was always born and grew out of the soil of the disintegrating old regime, the old State system, and was nourished by the existence of a movement for freedom among the enslaved masses. Because of their class characteristics and their aspiration to State power, they take a revolutionary position in relation to the dying political regime and readily become leaders of enslaved workers, leaders of mass revolutionary movements. But, while organizing the revolution and leading it under the banner of the vital interests of workers and peasants, this element always pursues its own group or caste interest, and aspires to make use of the revolution with the aim of establishing its own dominant position in the country. This is what happened in the English revolution. This is what happened in the great French revolution. This is what happened in the French and German revolutions of 1848. This is what happened in a whole series of other revolutions where the proletariat of the cities and the countryside fought for freedom, and spilled their blood profusely - and the fruits of their efforts and sacrifices were divided up by the leaders, politicians with varied labels, operating behind the backs of the people to exploit the tasks and goals of the revolution in the interest of their groups.

In the great French revolution, the workers made colossal efforts and sacrifices for its triumph. But the politicians of this revolution: were they the sons of the proletariat and did they fight for its aspirations - equality and freedom? In no way. Danton, Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and a whole series of other "high priests" of the revolution were representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie of the time. They struggled for a specific bourgeois type of social relations, and in fact had nothing in common with the revolutionary ideals of equality and freedom of the French popular masses of the 18th century. Yet they were, and still are, generally considered the leaders of the great revolution. In the 1848 revolution the French working class, which had given up to the revolution three months of heroic efforts, misery, privation and sacrifice - did they obtain the "social republic" which had been promised by the managers of the revolution? The working class harvested from them only slavery and mass killings; 50 thousand workers were shot in Paris, when they attempted to rise up against those treacherous leaders.

The workers and peasants of all past revolutions succeeded only in sketching their fundamental aspirations, only in defining their course, which was generally perverted and then liquidated by the cleverer, more cunning and better educated "leaders" of the revolution. The most the workers got from these revolutions was an insignificant bone, in the form of the right to vote, to gather, to print - in the form of the right to choose their rulers. And even this bone was given to them for a short time, the time needed by the new regime to consolidate itself. After this the life of the masses returned to its former course of submission, exploitation and fraud.

Stenka Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea by Vasily Surikov, 1906

It is only in mass movements from below, like the revolt of Razin, or like the revolutionary peasant and worker insurrections of our time, that the people become the masters of the movement, giving it its form and content. But these movements, which are usually greeted by the abuse and the curses of all "thinking" people, have never yet triumphed, and they differ sharply, in terms of their content as well as their form, from revolutions led by political groups and parties.

Our Russian revolution is, without a doubt, a political revolution which uses the forces of the people to serve interests foreign to the people. The fundamental fact of this revolution, with a background of enormous sacrifices, sufferings and revolutionary efforts of workers and peasants, is the seizure of political power by an intermediary group, the so-called socialist revolutionary intelligentsia, the Social Democrats.

A great deal has been written about the Russian as well as the international intelligentsia. They are generally praised, and called the carriers of the highest human ideals, champions of eternal truth. They are rarely abused. But all that has been written about them, the good and the bad, has one essential shortcoming: namely, they are defined by themselves, praised by themselves and abused by themselves. To the independent mind of workers or peasants this is completely unconvincing and can have no weight in the relations between the intellectuals and the people. In these relations the people are concerned only with facts. The real, indisputable fact of life of the socialist intelligentsia is the fact that they have always enjoyed a privileged social position. Living in privilege, the intelligentsia became privileged not only socially but also psychologically. All their spiritual aspirations, everything they call their "social ideals," inevitably carries within itself the spirit of caste privilege. We come across it throughout the entire social development of the intelligentsia. If we take the era of the Decembrists as the beginning of the revolutionary movement of the intelligentsia, and pass consecutively through all the stages of this movement - the "Narodnichestvo," the "Narodovol'chestvo," Marxism and socialism in general with all their ramifications - we find this spirit of caste privilege clearly expressed throughout.

No matter how lofty a social ideal may be externally, as soon as it carries within itself privileges for which the people will have to pay with their work and their rights, it is no longer the complete truth. A social ideal which does not offer the people the whole truth is a lie for them. It is precisely such a lie that the ideology of the socialist intellectuals, and the intellectuals themselves, represent to the people. This fact determines everything about the relations between the people and the intelligentsia. The people will never forget and forgive the fact that, speculating on their forced labour and lack of rights, a certain social group created social privileges for itself and tried to carry them into the new society.

 The people - that's one thing; democracy and its socialist ideology - that's something else, which comes to the people prudently and cunningly. Certainly isolated heroic individuals, like Sofya Perovskaya, stood above the vile privileges inherent in socialism, but only because they did not understand reality in terms of a democratic-class doctrine, but psychologically or ethically. These are the flowers of life, the beauty of the human race. Inspired by the passion for truth, they lived entirely to serve the people and by their beautiful example exposed the false character of the socialist ideology. The people will never forget them and will eternally carry a great love for them in their hearts.

Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were hanged on April 3, 1881 for killing Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881.

The vague political aspirations of the Russian intelligentsia in 1825 took shape during the course of half a century in a perfected socialistic Statist system, and this intelligentsia itself, in a well-defined social-economic group: the socialist democracy. The relations between this intelligentsia and the people were definitively established: the people moved toward civic and economic self-determination; the democrats aspired to power over them. The connection between them could be maintained only by means of cunning, trickery and violence, but in no way as the natural result of a community of interests. They are hostile toward each other.

The doctrine of the State itself, the idea of managing the masses by force, was always an attribute of individuals who lacked the sentiment of equality and in whom the instinct of egoism was dominant; individuals for whom the human masses are a raw material lacking will, initiative and intelligence, incapable of directing themselves.

This idea was always held by dominant privileged groups who stood outside the working population - the aristocracy, military castes, nobility, clergy, industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, etc.

It is not by chance that contemporary socialism shows itself to be the zealous servant of this idea: it is the ideology of the new ruling caste. If we attentively observe the carriers and apostles of state socialism, we will see that every one of them is full of centralist urges, that every one sees himself, above all, as a directing and commanding centre around which the masses gravitate. This psychological trait of state socialism and its carriers is a direct outgrowth of the psychology of former groups of rulers which are extinct or in the process of dying.

The second fundamental fact of our revolution is that the workers and the peasant labourers remained within the earlier situation of "working classes" - producers managed by authority from above.

All the present day so-called socialist construction carried out in Russia, the entire State apparatus and management of the country, the creation of new social-political relations - all this is largely nothing other than the construction of a new class domination over the producers, the establishment of a new socialist power over them. The plan for this construction and this domination was elaborated and prepared during several decades by the leaders of the socialist democracy and was known before the Russian revolution by the name of collectivism. Today it calls itself the soviet system.

This system makes its first historical appearance on the soil of the revolutionary movement of Russian workers and peasants. This is the first attempt of socialist democracy to establish its statist domination in a country by the force of a revolution. As a first attempt, undertaken at that by only one part of the democracy - by the most active, most enterprising and most revolutionary part, its communist left wing - it surprised the broad masses of democrats, and its brutal forms at first split the democracy itself into several rival groups. Some of these groups (Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc.) considered it premature and risky to introduce communism into Russia at the present time. They retained the hope of achieving State domination in the country by the so-called legal and parliamentary route: by winning the majority of seats in parliament by means of votes from workers and peasants. This was the basis of their disagreement with their left-wing colleagues, the Communists. This disagreement is temporary, accidental and not serious. It is provoked by a misunderstanding on the part of the broader and more timid section of democrats, who failed to understand the meaning of the political upheaval carried out by the Bolsheviks. As soon as this group sees that the communist system does not contain anything that threatens them, but on the contrary opens up to them superb posts in the new State, all the disagreements between the rival factions of the democracy will disappear, and the entire democracy will carry on under the guidance of the unified Communist Party.

And already today we observe a certain "enlightenment" of the democracy in this direction. A whole series of groups and parties, in Russia and abroad, are rallying to the "soviet platform." Enormous political parties from different countries, until recently animators of the Second International, who fought Bolshevism from that standpoint, are today preparing to join the Communist International and present themselves to the working class with the Communist flag, with "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" on their lips.

But, as in earlier great revolutions in which workers and peasants fought, our revolution was also accompanied by a series of original and independent struggles of working people for freedom and equality, profound currents which marked the revolution. One of these currents, the most powerful and the most vivid, is the Makhnovshchina. For a period of three years the Makhnovshchina heroically cleared a path in the revolution by which the working people of Russia could realize their age-old aspirations -- freedom and independence. In spite of the savage policy of the Communist government to smother this current, to distort and befoul it, it continued to grow, live and develop, struggling on several fronts in the civil war, frequently dealing serious blows to its enemies, arousing and supporting the revolutionary expectations of the workers and peasants of Great Russia, Siberia and the Caucasus. The continued development of the Makhnovshchina is explained by the fact that many of the Russian workers and peasants were to some extent familiar with the histories of revolutions of other peoples as well as the revolutionary movements of their ancestors, and were able to lean on this experience. In addition, workers came out of the ranks who were able to find, formulate, and attract the attention of the masses, to the most fundamental and basic aspects of their revolutionary movement, to contrast these aspects with the political goals of the democracy, and to defend the workers' aspirations with dignity, perseverance and talent.

Before going on to the history of the Makhnovist movement, it is necessary to note that, when the Russian revolution is called the "October Revolution," two distinct phenomena are confused: the slogans under which the masses carried out the revolution, and its results.

The slogans of the October 1917 mass movement were: "The Factories to the Workers! The Land to the Peasants!" The entire social and revolutionary program of the masses is communicated by this brief but profoundly significant slogan: the destruction of capitalism, wage labour, enslavement to the State, and the organization of a new life based on the self-direction of the producers. But in reality this October program was not realized in any way. Capitalism has not been destroyed but reformed. Wage labour and the exploitation of the producers remains in force. And the new State apparatus oppresses the workers no less than the State apparatus of landowners and private capitalists. Thus the Russian revolution can be called the "October revolution" only in a specific and narrow sense: as a realization of the goals and tasks of the Communist Party.

The October upheaval, as well as the one of February-March 1917, was only a stage in the general advance of the Russian revolution. The revolutionary forces of the October movement were used by the Communist Party for its own plans and goals. But this act does not represent our entire revolution. The general course of the revolution includes a whole series of other currents which do not stop in October but go further, toward the implementation of the historic tasks of the workers and peasants: the egalitarian, stateless community of workers. The currently protracted and already hardened October must, without a doubt, give way to the next popular stage of the revolution. If this does not happen, the Russian revolution, like all its predecessors, will have been nothing but a change of government.


On to Chapter 2: The October Upheaval in Great Russia and in the Ukraine

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