History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921)
The Makhnovshchina and Anarchism
Anarchism embraces two worlds: the world of philosophy, of ideas, and the world of practice, of activity. The two are intimately linked. The struggling working class stands mainly on the concrete, practical side of anarchism. The essential and fundamental principle of this side is the principle of the revolutionary initiative of workers and their self-liberation. From this naturally flows the further principle of statelessness and self-management of the workers in the new society. But until the present, the history of the proletarian struggle does not contain a massive anarchist movement in its pure, strictly principled form. All of the workers' and peasants' movements which have taken place until today have been movements within the limits of the capitalist regime, and have been more or less tinged with anarchism. This is perfectly natural and understandable. The working classes do not act within a world of wishes, but in the real world where they are daily subjected to the physical and psychological blows of hostile forces. Outside of the world of anarchist ideas, which have not been greatly disseminated, the workers continually feel the influence of all the real conditions of the capitalist regime and of intermediate groups.
The conditions of contemporary life encircle the workers on all sides, surround them, like water surrounds fish in the sea. The workers are not able to escape from these conditions. Consequently it is natural that the struggle which they undertake inevitably carries the stamp of various conditions and characteristics of contemporary society. The struggle can never be born in the finished and perfected anarchist form which would correspond to all the requirements of the ideal. Such a perfect form is possible only in narrow political circles, and even there not in practice, but in plans, in programs. When the popular masses engage in a struggle of large dimensions, they inevitably start by committing errors, they allow contradictions and deviations, and only through the process of this struggle do they direct their efforts in the direction of the ideal for which they are struggling.
It has always been so. And it will always be so. No matter how carefully we have prepared the organizations and foreseen the position of the working class in advance, during times of peace, from the first day of the decisive struggle of the masses, their real activity is very different from what was expected in the plan. In some cases the very fact of widespread mass activity may upset certain expectations. In other cases, the deviations and blows of the masses will require the definition of new positions. And only gradually will the immense movement of the masses engage itself on the well-defined and principled path which leads toward the goal.
This, obviously, does not mean that preliminary organization of the forces and positions of the working class is not necessary. On the contrary, preparatory work of this nature is a necessary condition for the victory of the workers. But in this context we must constantly remember that this is not the end of the task, and that even if it is done, the movement will still need insight at every moment, it will have to know how to orient itself quickly in newly created situations - in a word, it will still need a revolutionary class strategy on which the outcome will largely depend.
The anarchist ideal is large and rich in its diversity. Nevertheless, the role of anarchists in the social struggle of the masses is extremely modest. Their task is to help the masses take the right road in the struggle and in the construction of the new society. If the mass movement has not entered the stage of decisive collision, their duty is to help the masses clarify the significance, the tasks and the goals, of the struggle ahead; their duty is to help the masses make the necessary military preparations and organize their forces. If the movement has already entered the stage of decisive collision, anarchists should join the movement without losing an instant; they should help the masses free themselves from erroneous deviations, support their first creative efforts, assist them intellectually, always striving to help the movement remain on the path which leads toward the essential goals of the workers. This is the basic and, in fact, the only task of anarchists in the first phase of the revolution. The working class, once it has mastered the struggle and begins its social construction, will no longer surrender to anyone the initiative in creative work. The working class will then direct itself by its own thought; it will create its society according to its own plans. Whether or not this will be an anarchist plan, the plan as well as the society based on it will emerge from the depths of emancipated labour, shaped and framed by its thought and its will.
When we examine the Makhnovshchina, we are immediately aware of two basic aspects of this movement:
During the course of its entire development the movement stubbornly and consistently maintained these principles. For their sake the movement lost from 200 to 300 thousand of the best sons of the people, turned down alliances with any and all statist powers, and for three years, in unimaginably difficult conditions and with a heroism rare in human history, it held high the black flag of oppressed humanity, the banner which proclaims the real freedom of the workers, true equality in the new society.
In the Makhnovshchina we have an anarchist movement of the working masses - not completely realized, not entirely crystallized, but striving toward the anarchist ideal and moving along the anarchist path.
But precisely because this movement grew out of the depths of the masses, it did not have the necessary theoretical forces, the powers of generalization indispensable to any widespread social movement. This shortcoming manifested itself in the fact that the movement, in the face of the general situation, did not succeed in developing its ideas and its slogans, or in elaborating its concrete and practical forms. This is why the movement developed slowly and painfully, especially in view of the numerous enemy forces which attacked it from all sides.
One would have thought that the anarchists - who had always talked so much about a revolutionary movement of the masses, who had waited for such a movement for many years the way some people wait for the arrival of the Messiah - would have hastened to join this movement, to merge with it, to give their whole being to it. But in practice this did not take place.
The majority of Russian anarchists who had passed through the theoretical school of anarchism remained in their isolated circles, which were of no use to anyone. They stood aside, asking what kind of a movement this was, why they should relate to it, and without moving they consoled themselves with the thought that the movement did not seem to be purely anarchist.
And yet, their contribution to the movement, especially in the period before Bolshevism blocked its normal development, would have been invaluable. The masses urgently needed militants who could have formulated and developed their ideas, helped them realize these ideas in the grand arena of life, and elaborated the forms and the direction of the movement. The anarchists did not want, or did not know how, to be such militants. As a result, they inflicted a great injury on the movement and on themselves. They injured the movement by failing to devote their organizational and cultural forces to it in time, forcing the movement to develop slowly and painfully with the meagre theoretical forces which the poorest of peasants themselves possessed. They injured themselves by remaining outside of living history, thereby condemning themselves to inactivity and sterility.
We are obliged to state that Russian anarchists remained in their circles and slept through a mass movement of paramount importance, a movement which is unique in the present revolution for having undertaken to realize the historic tasks of oppressed humanity.
But at the same time, we discover that this deplorable situation is not accidental, but that it has very specific causes, which we will now consider.
The majority of our anarchist theorists have their origins in the intelligentsia. This circumstance is very significant. While standing under the banner of anarchism, many of them are not able to break altogether with the psychological context from which they emerged. They concentrate on anarchist theory more than other comrades; and they gradually come to consider themselves leaders of the anarchist world; they come to believe that the anarchist movement begins with them, and that it depends on their direct participation. But the movement began far away from them, in a distant province and, furthermore, among the lowest sectors of contemporary society. Very few among the isolated anarchist theorists found in themselves the necessary sensitivity and courage to recognize that this movement was in fact the one which anarchism had been anticipating for many years, and they rushed to help it. It would be even more accurate to say that of all the intelligent and educated anarchist theorists, only Volin firmly joined the movement, putting at its service all his abilities, powers and knowledge. All the other anarchist theorists stayed away from the movement. This is not a reflection on the Makhnovshchina or on anarchism, but only on the anarchist individuals and organizations who were so narrow, passive and helpless during the historical social movement of workers and peasants, and who either did not dare or did not want to take part in their own project when it appeared in flesh and blood and called to its camp all those to whom the freedom of labour and the ideas of anarchism were dear.
An even more important aspect of the helplessness and inactivity of the anarchists is the confusion in anarchist theory and the organizational chaos in anarchist ranks.
Although the ideal of anarchism is powerful, positive and self-evident, it contains a number of gaps, obscurities, and digressions into fields that have no relation to the workers' social movement. This creates a foundation for all types of distorted interpretations of the goals of anarchism and its practical program.
Thus many anarchists devote their energies to the question of whether the problem of anarchism is the liberation of classes, of humanity, or of the personality. The question is empty, but it is based on some unclear anarchist positions and provides a broad field for abuses of anarchist thought and anarchist practice.
An even greater field for abuse is created by the unclear anarchist theory of individual freedom. Obviously active people with determined wills and well developed revolutionary instincts understand the anarchist idea of individual freedom as an idea of anarchist relations towards all other individuals, as an idea of the continual struggle for the anarchist freedom of the masses. But those who do not know the passion of the revolution, who are most concerned with the manifestations of their "I", understand this idea in their own fashion. Whenever the question of practical anarchist organization or the question of organization with a serious intent is posed, they hang on to the anarchist theory of individual liberty and, using this as a basis, oppose all organization and escape from all responsibility. Each one of them runs to his own garden, does his own thing and preaches his own anarchism. The ideas and actions of anarchists are thus pulverized to the point of derangement.
As a result of all this, we find a large number of practical systems advocated by Russian anarchists. From 1904 to 1907 we saw the practical programs of the Beznachal'tsi (Without Authority) and the Chernoznamentsi (Black Flag), which preached partial expropriation and unmotivated terror as methods of anarchist struggle. It is easy to see that these programs were nothing more than the arbitrary inclinations of people who were accidentally anarchists, and such programs could be suggested in the context of anarchism only because of an underdeveloped sense of responsibility toward the people and their revolution. Most recently we saw a large number of theories, some of which express sympathy for state authority or the wielding of power over the masses, while others reject all principles of organization and preach the absolute freedom of the personality; yet others are exclusively concerned with the "universal" tasks of anarchism and in practice escape from the urgent needs of the moment.
For dozens of years the Russian anarchists have suffered from the disease of disorganization. This disease destroyed their ability to think concretely and condemned them to historical inactivity at the moment of the revolution. Disorganization is the twin sister of irresponsibility, and together they lead to impoverished ideas and futile practice.
Thus when the mass movement, in the form of the Makhnovshchina, rose from the depths of the people, the anarchists showed themselves completely unprepared, spineless and weak.
In our opinion this is temporary. It can be explained by the lack of crystallization and organization among Russian anarchists. They will have to organize themselves, to establish links among all those who strive for anarchism and are genuinely devoted to the working class. The disruptive and arbitrary elements in anarchism will then be eliminated.
Anarchism is not mysticism; it is not a discourse on beauty; it is not a cry of despair. Its greatness is due, above all, to its devotion to the cause of oppressed humanity. It carries within itself the truth, the heroism and the aspirations of the masses, and it is today the only social doctrine which the masses can count on in their struggle. But to justify this confidence, it is not enough for anarchism to be a great idea and for anarchists to be its Platonic spokesmen. Anarchists have to participate continually and directly in the revolutionary movement of the masses. Only then will the movement breathe the fullness of the anarchist ideal. But nothing will come out of nothing. Every achievement requires continual effort and sacrifice. Anarchism needs to find unity of will and unity of action to define its historic role accurately. Anarchism must go to the masses and merge with them.
Although the Makhnovshchina came into being and developed independently, without the influence of anarchist organizations, the fate of the Makhnovshchina and that of anarchism were intimately linked during the Russian revolution. The very essence of the Makhnovshchina glowed with the light of anarchism and unintentionally drew anarchism to itself. The mass of insurgents embraced only anarchism from among all social doctrines. A large number of insurgents called themselves anarchists and did not renounce this name even in the face of death. And at the same time, anarchism gave the Makhnovshchina several outstanding militants who passionately and devotedly gave all their forces and knowledge to this movement. However small the number of these militants, they succeeded in contributing a great deal to the movement, and they linked anarchism to the tragic fate of the Makhnovshchina.
This coupling of the destinies of anarchism and the Makhnovshchina began in the middle of 1919. It was consolidated in the Ukraine in the summer of 1920 by the Bolsheviks' simultaneous attack against the Makhnovists and the anarchists, and it was strikingly underlined in October, 1920, at the time of the military and political agreement between the Makhnovists and the Soviet authority, when the Makhnovists demanded, as a first condition of this agreement, that all the Makhnovists and anarchists be released from prison in the Ukraine and in Great Russia, and that they be given the right to freely profess and disseminate their ideas and theories.
We will describe the participation of anarchists in the Makhnovist movement in chronological order.
During the first days of the 1917 revolution, a group of anarchist-communists was organized in Gulyai-Poly; this group carried out significant revolutionary work in the region. Out of this group emerged several remarkable participants and guides of the Makhnovshchina: N. Makhno, S. Karetnik, Marchenko, Kalashnikov, Lyutyi, Grigory Makhno and others. This group retained close links with the Makhnovist movement from its very origin.
Toward the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, other anarchist groups were organized in the region of the Makhnovshchina, and tried to relate to it. However, some of these groups, for example in Berdyansk and some other places, did not live up to their name and offered nothing but obstacles to the movement. Fortunately the movement was healthy enough to do without them.
At the beginning of 1919 there were in Gulyai-Pole not only local peasant anarchists like Makhno, Karetnik, Marchenko, Vasilevsky and others, but also anarchists who came from organizations in other cities: Burbyga, Mikhalev-Pavlenko and others. They worked exclusively among the insurrectionary troops at the front or at the rear.
In the spring of 1919 some comrades arrived in Gulyai-Pole with the intention of organizing cultural and educational activity in the region: they created the newspaper Put' k Svobode - the principal organ of the Makhnovists - and organized the Gulyai-Pole Anarchist Federation, which worked with the army as well as among the peasants.
At that time, an anarchist group linked to the "Nabat" Confederation was organized in Gulyai-Polye. This group worked closely with the Makhnovists, especially in the field of culture, and published a local newspaper, Nabat. Soon this organization merged with the Gulyai-Polye Anarchist Federation.
In May, 36 anarchist workers came to Gulyai-Pole from Ivanovo-Voznesensk. Among them were the fairly well-known anarchists, Chernyakov and Makeev. Some of these people settled in a commune about four miles from Gulyai-Pole, some engaged in cultural work in the region, and the rest joined the army.
It was also in May, 1919, that the Confederation of Anarchist Organizations of the Ukraine, "Nabat," the most active and effective of all the anarchist organizations in Russia, began to see that the pulse of the revolutionary life of the masses was beating in the liberated insurrectionary region. "Nabat" decided to direct its forces toward this region. At the beginning of June, 1919, they sent to Gulyai-Pole several militants, including Volin, Mrachnyi and losif Emigrant. They were going to transfer the central organs of the Confederation to Gulyai-Pole immediately after the congress of workers and peasants called for June 15 by the Revolutionary Military Council. But the simultaneous attacks on the region by the Bolsheviks and the Denikinists kept this plan from being carried out. Mrachnyi was the only one who reached Gulyai-Pole, but in view of the general retreat he was obliged to return after one or two days. Volin and others were not able to leave Ekaterinoslav, and it was only in August, 1919, that they were able to join the retreating Makhnovist army near Odessa.
Thus the anarchists came to the movement very late, after its normal development had already been interrupted, after it had been thrown out of the context of social construction and forced by the pressure of circumstances into primarily military activity.
From the end of 1918 to June 1919 the conditions for positive work in the region had been extremely favourable: the front was about 200 miles away, near Taganrog, and the enormous population scattered throughout eight to ten districts was left to itself.
Later the anarchists could only work in conditions of military activity, under continual fire from all sides, and were obliged to move daily from place to place. The anarchists who joined the army did everything they could do in these conditions of constant warfare. Some of them, like Makeev and Kogan, took part in military activity; most of them did cultural work among the insurgents and in the villages which the Makhnovist army traversed. But this was not creative and constructive work among the masses in the fullest meaning of those words. Conditions of constant warfare limited this activity largely to superficial propaganda. It was impossible to dream of creative, positive work. Only in a few rare cases, for example after the occupation of Aleksandrovsk, Berdyansk, Melitopol' and other cities and districts, could the anarchists and Makhnovists lay the foundations for more extensive and profound activity. But another wave of war appeared from one side or the other, removing all traces of their work, and once again they were reduced to superficial agitation and propaganda among the insurgents and the peasants. The time was hostile to large-scale creative work among the masses.
On the basis of this period, some individuals who did not take part in the movement or who participated very briefly, drew the erroneous conclusion that the Makhnovshchina was excessively military, that it devoted too much attention to military aspects and not enough attention to positive work among the masses. But in actual fact, the military period in its history did not in any way grow out of the Makhnovshchina, but rather out of the conditions which surrounded it after the middle of 1919.
The Bolshevik statists were perfectly aware of the significance of the Makhnovist movement and of the position of anarchism in Russia. They knew perfectly well that, at present, anarchism in Russia, lacking any contact with a mass movement as important as the Makhnovshchina, did not have a base and could neither threaten nor endanger them. And conversely, by their calculations, anarchism was the only conception on which the Makhnovshchina could depend in its relentless struggle against Bolshevism. This is why they spared no effort to keep the two apart. And, in justice to them, it should be pointed out that they stubbornly carried this out: they declared the Makhnovshchina to be outside of all human law. And as prudent men of affairs, they acted, in Russia and especially abroad, as if the outlawing of the Makhnovshchina was self-explanatory to everyone, as if this could not possibly give rise to any doubts, and that only those who are blind or who are completely unfamiliar with Russia would fail to recognize their measures as just and reasonable.
The Bolsheviks did not officially outlaw the anarchist idea, but they gave the name "Makhnovist" to any revolutionary gesture, any sincere act in which anarchists engaged - and with perfect innocence, as if this was as clear as the light of day to everyone, they threw anarchists in jail, shot them, beheaded them. In the last analysis, the Makhnovshchina and anarchism, because they did not cringe before the Bolsheviks, were treated in the same way.
On to Conclusion
Back to Index
Return to The Nestor Makhno Archive
Other pages connected to this site:
Anarchist Groups & Organizations
An Anarchist Reader