H.6.10 Did the Makhnovists hate the city and city workers?

For some reason the Makhnovists have been portrayed as being against the city and even history as such. This assertion is false, although sometimes made. For example, historian Bruce Lincoln states that Makhno "had studied the anarchist writings of Bakunin, whose condemnation of cities and large-scale industries fit so well with the anti-urban, anti-industrial feelings of the Ukrainian peasants, and his program was precisely the sort that struck responsive chords in peasant hearts." [Red Victory, p. 325] Lincoln fails to present any evidence for this claim. This is unsurprising as it is 
doubtful that Makhno read such condemnations in Bakunin as they do not, in fact, exist. Similarly, the Makhnovist "program" (like anarchism in general) was not "anti-urban" or "anti-industrial." 

However, Lincoln's inventions are mild compared to Trotsky's. According to Trotsky, "the followers of Makhno" were marked by "hatred for the city and the city worker." He later gives some more concrete examples of this "hostility to the city" which, as with the general peasant revolt, also "nourished the movement of Makhno, who seized and looted trains marked for the factories, the plants, and the Red Army; tore up railway tracks, shot Communists, etc." [Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 80 and p. 89]

Unsurprisingly, Trotsky simply shows his ignorance of the Makhno movement by these statements. To refute Trotsky's claim we can simply point to how the Makhnovists acted once they occupied a city. As we discuss in section H.6.7, the first thing the Makhnovists did was to call a conference of workers and urge them to organise their own affairs directly, using their own class organs of self-management (soviets, unions, etc.). Hardly the activity of a group of people who allegedly "hated" city workers!

We can also point to the fact that the Makhnovists arranged direct exchanges of goods between the towns and country. In early 1918, for example, corn was shipped directly to a Moscow factory in return for textiles (without state interference). In 1919, 1500 tons of grain (and a small amount of coal) was sent by train to Petrograd and Moscow where the commander of the train was to exchange it again for textiles. The initiative in both cases came from the Hulyai Pole peasants. Again, hardly the work of city-hating peasants.

Peter Arshinov indicates the underlying theory behind the Makhnovists as regards the relations between city and country:

"The Makhnovshchina . . . understands that the victory and consolidation of the revolution . . . cannot be realised without a close alliance between the working classes of the cities and those of the countryside. The peasants understand that without urban workers and powerful industrial enterprises they will be deprived of most of the benefits which the social revolution makes possible. Furthermore, they consider the urban workers to be their brothers, members of the same family of workers.

"There can be no doubt that, at the moment of the victory of the social revolution, the peasants will give their entire support to the workers. This will be voluntary and truly revolutionary support given directly to the urban proletariat. In the present-day situation [under the Bolsheviks], the bread taken by force from the peasants nourishes mainly the enormous governmental machine. The peasants see and understand perfectly that this expensive bureaucratic machine is not in any way needed by them or by the workers, and that in relation to the workers it plays the same role as that of a prison administration toward the inmates. This is why the peasants do not have the slightest desire to give their bread voluntarily to the State. This is why they are so hostile in their relations with the contemporary tax collectors -- the commissars and the various supply organs of the State.

"But the peasants always try to enter into direct relations with the urban workers. The question was raised more than once at peasant congresses, and the peasants always resolved it in a revolutionary and positive manner." [Op. Cit., p. 258]

Simply put, Trotsky misinterprets hostility to the repressive policies of the Bolshevik dictatorship with hostility to the city.

Moreover, ignoring the actual relationships of the Makhnovists with the city workers, we can fault Trotsky's arguments without resource to such minor things as facts. This is because every one of his "examples" of "hatred for the city and the city worker" can be explained by more common sense arguments.

As regards the destruction of trains and railway tracks, a far simpler and more plausible explanation can be found than Trotsky's "hostility to the city." This is the fact that a civil war was taking place. Both the Reds and Whites used armoured trains to move troops and as bases of operations. To destroy the means by which your enemy attacks you is common sense! Equally, in the chaotic times of the war, resources were often in low supply and in order to survive the Makhnovists had to "loot" trains (needless to say, Trotsky does not explain how the Makhnovists knew the trains were "marked for the factories."). It should be noted that the Bolsheviks "looted" the countryside, can we surmise that the Bolsheviks simply expressed "hostility to the village"?

As regards the shooting of Communists, a far simpler and more plausible explanation also exists. Rather than show "hostility to the city," it shows "hostility" to the Communist Party, its policies and its authoritarian ideas. Given that the Bolsheviks had betrayed the Makhnovists on three occasions (see section H.6.13) and attacked them, "hostility" to Communists seems a sensible position to take! Equally, the first Bolshevik attack on the Makhnovists occurred in mid-1919, when the Bolsheviks began justifying their party dictatorship as essential for the success of the revolution. The other two occurred in 1920, when the Bolsheviks were announcing to the whole world at the Communist International (to quote Zinoviev) that "the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party." [Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 152] Given this, perhaps the fact that the Makhnovists shot Communists can be explained in terms of defence against Bolshevik betrayal and opposition to the dictatorship of the Communist Party rather than "hostility to the city." Needless to say, the Communists shot Makhnovists and anarchists. What does that suggest a "hostility" to by the Bolsheviks? Working-class autonomy and freedom?

Clearly, Trotsky was clutching at straws in his smearing of the Makhnovist movement as haters of the city worker. The "hostility" Trotsky speaks of can be far more easily explained in terms of the necessities imposed upon the Makhnovists by the civil war and the betrayals of the Bolsheviks. As such, it would be fairer to state that the Makhnovists showed "hostility" or "hatred" to the city or city workers only if you equate both with the Bolshevik party dictatorship. In other words, the Makhnovists showed "hostility" to the new ruling class of the Communist Party hierarchy.

All this does not mean that there were not misunderstandings between the Makhno movement, a predominantly rural movement, and the workers in the cities. Far from it. Equally, it can be said that the Makhnovists did not understand the workings of an urban economy and society as well as they understood their own. However, they made no attempt to impose their world-view on the city workers (unlike the Bolsheviks, who did so on both urban and rural workers). However, ignorance of the city and its resulting misunderstandings do not constitute "hostility" or "hatred."

Moreover, where these misunderstandings developed show that the claims that the Makhnovists hated the city workers are simply false. Simply put, the misunderstanding occurred when the Makhnovists had liberated cities from the Whites. As we discussed in section H.6.7, the first thing the Makhnovists did was to call a conference of workers' delegates to discuss the current situation and to urge them to form soviets, unions and co-operatives in order to manage their own affairs. This hardly shows "hatred" of the city worker. In contrast, the first thing the Bolsheviks did in taking a city was to form a "revolutionary committee" to govern the town and implement Bolshevik policy.

This, needless to say, shows a distinct "hostility" to the city workers on the part of the Bolsheviks. Equally, the Bolshevik advocacy of party dictatorship to overcome the "wavering" of the working class. In the words of Trotsky himself (in 1921):

"The Workers' Opposition has come out with dangerous slogans, making a fetish of democratic principles! They place the workers' right to elect representatives above the Party, as if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers' democracy. It is necessary to create amongst us the awareness of the revolutionary birthright of the party. which is obliged to maintain its dictatorship, regardless of temporary wavering even in the working classes. This awareness is for us the indispensable element. The dictatorship does not base itself at every given moment on the formal principle of a workers' democracy." [quoted by Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 209]

Opposing workers' democracy because working people could make decisions that the party thought were wrong shows a deep "hostility" to the real city workers and their liberty and equality. Equally, Bolshevik repression of workers' strikes, freedom of speech, assembly, organisation and self-determination shows far more "hostility" to the city worker than a few Makhnovist misunderstandings!

All in all, any claim that the Makhnovists "hated" city workers is simply false. While some Makhnovists may not have liked the city nor really understood the complexities of an urban economy, they did recognise the importance of encouraging working-class autonomy and self-organisation
within them and building links between the rural and urban toilers. While the lack of a large-scale anarcho-syndicalist movement hindered any positive construction, the Makhnovists at least tried to promote urban self-management. Given Bolshevik authoritarianism and its various rationalisations, it would be fairer to say that it was the Bolsheviks who expressed "hostility" to the city workers by imposing their dictatorship upon them rather than supporting working-class self-management as the Makhnovists did!


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