H.6.11 Were the Makhnovists nationalists?

Some books on the Makhnovist movement try to present the Makhnovists as being Ukrainian nationalists. A few discuss the matter in order, perhaps, to increase the respectability of the Makhnovist movement by associating it with a more "serious" and "respectable" political theory than anarchism, namely "Nationalism." Those who seriously investigate the issue come to the same conclusion, namely that neither Makhno nor the Makhnovist movement was nationalist (see, for example, Frank Sysyn's essay Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian Revolution which discusses this issue).

Therefore, any claims that the Makhnovists were nationalists are incorrect. The Makhnovist movement was first and foremost an internationalist movement of working people. This is to be expected as anarchists have long argued that nationalism is a cross-class movement which aims to maintain the existing class system but without foreign domination (see section D.6 for details). As such, the Makhnovists were well aware that nationalism could not solve the social question and would simply replace a Russian ruling class and state with a Ukrainian one.

This meant that the aims of the Makhnovists went further than simply national liberation or self-determination. Anarchists, rather, aim for working-class self-liberation and self-determination, both as individuals and as groups, as well as politically, economically and socially. To quote Makhno's wire to Lenin in December 1918, the Makhnovist "aims are known and clear to all. They are fighting against the authority of all political governments and for liberty and independence of the working people." [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 80]

>From this class and anti-hierarchical perspective, it is not unsurprising that the Makhnovists were not nationalists. They did not seek Ukrainian independence but rather working- class autonomy. This, of necessity, meant they opposed all those who aimed to govern and/or exploit the working class. Hence Arshinov:

"Composed of the poorest peasants, who were united by the fact that they all worked with their own hands, the Makhnovist movement was founded on the deep feeling of fraternity which characterises only the most oppressed. During its entire history it did not for an instant appeal to national sentiments. The whole struggle of the Makhnovists against the Bolsheviks was conducted solely in the name of the rights and interests of the workers. Denikin's troops, the Austro-Germans, Petliura, the French troops in Berdyansk, Wrangel -- were all treated by the Makhnovists as enemies of the workers. Each one of these invasions represented for them essentially a threat to the workers, and the Makhnovists had no interest in the national flag under which they marched." [Op. Cit., p. 210]

He stressed that "national prejudices had no place in the Makhnovshchina. There was also no place in the movement for religious prejudices . . . Among modern social movements, the Makhnovshchina was one of the few in which an individual had absolutely no interest in his own or his neighbour's religion or nationality, in which he respected only the labour and the freedom of the worker." [Op. Cit., p. 211]

The Makhnovists made their position on nationalism clear in the 'Declaration' published by the Revolutionary Military Council of the army in October, 1919:

"When speaking of Ukrainian independence, we do not mean national independence in Petliura's sense but the social independence of workers and peasants. We declare that Ukrainian, and all other, working people have the right to self-determination not as an 'independent nation' but as 'independent workers'" [quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 210]

In other words, the Makhnovists "declared, that in their option Petlurovtchina [the Petliura movement, Petliura being the leader of the Nationalists] was a bourgeois nationalist movement whose road was entirely different from that of the revolutionary peasants, that the Ukraine should be organised on a basis of free labour and the independence of the peasants and the workers . . . and that nothing but struggle was possible between the Makhnovitchina , the movement of the workers, and the Petlurovtchina , the movement of the bourgeoisie." [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 572]

This does not mean that anarchists are indifferent to cultural and national domination and oppression. Far from it! As we discussed in sections D.6 and D.7, anarchists are against foreign domination and cultural imperialism, believing that every community or national group has the right to be itself and develop as it sees fit. This means that anarchists seek to transform national liberation struggles into human liberation struggles, turning any struggle against foreign oppression and domination into a struggle against all forms of oppression and domination.

This means that the Makhnovists, like anarchists in general, seek to encourage local culture and language while opposed nationalism. As Frank Sysyn argues, it "would be a mistake . . . to label the Makhnivtsi as 'anti-Ukrainian.' Although they opposed the political goals of most 'svidomi ukraintsi' (nationally conscious Ukrainians), they accepted the existence of a Ukrainian nation and used the terms 'Ukraine' and 'Ukrainian.'" [Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian Revolution, p. 288] It should be noted that opponents of Ukrainian independence generally called it the "south of Russia" or "Little Russia."

Thus an opposition to nationalism did not imply a rejection or blindness to foreign domination and free cultural expression. On the question of the language to be taught in schools, the Cultural-Educational Section of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army wrote the following in October, 1919:

"The cultural-educational section of the Makhnovist army constantly receives questions from school teachers asking about the language in which instruction should be given in the schools, now that Denikin's troops have been expelled.

"The revolutionary insurgents, holding to the principles of true socialism, cannot in any field or by any measure do violence to the natural desires and needs of the Ukrainian people. This is why the question of the language to be taught in the schools cannot be solved by our army, but can only be decided by the people themselves, by parents, teachers and students

"It goes without saying that all the orders of Denikin's so-called 'Special Bureau' as well as General Mai-Maevsky's order No. 22, which forbids the use of the mother tongue in the schools, are null and void, having been forcibly imposed on the schools.

"In the interest of the greatest intellectual development of the people, the language of instruction should be that toward which the local population naturally tends, and this is why the population, the students, the teachers and the parents, and not authorities or the army, should freely and independently resolve this question." [quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 210-1]

They also printed a Ukrainian version of their paper ("The Road to Freedom").

Clearly their opposition to Ukrainian nationalism did not mean that the Makhnovists were indifferent to imperialism and foreign political or cultural domination. This explains why Makhno criticised his enemies for anti-Ukrainian actions and language. Michael Malet summarises, for the Makhnovists "Ukrainian culture was welcome, but political nationalism was highly suspect." [Op. Cit., p. 143]

Given anarchist support for federal organisation from below upwards, working-class self-determination and autonomy, plus a healthy respect for local culture, it is easy to see why some historians have fostered a nationalist perspective onto the Makhnovists where none existed. This means that when they agitated with the slogan "All to whom freedom and independence are dear should stay in the Ukraine and fight the Denikinists," it should be noted that "[n]owhere .. . . nationalism openly advocated, and the line of argument put forward can more easily be interpreted as libertarian and, above all, anti-White." [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 146]

In 1928, Makhno wrote a rebuttal to a Soviet historian's claim that Makhno became a Ukrainian Nationalist during the 1920-21 period. He "totally dismissed the charges" and argued that the historian "distorted anarchism's espousal of local autonomy so as to create trumped-up charges of nationalism." As Sysyn argues, while Makhno "never became a nationalist, he did to a degree become a Ukrainian anarchist." [Op. Cit., p. 292 and p. 303]

Thus while neither Makhno nor the movement were nationalists, they were not blind to national and cultural oppression. They considered nationalism as too narrow a goal to satisfy the social aspirations of the working classes. As Makhno argued in exile, the Ukrainian toilers had "asserted their rights to use their own language and their entitlement to their own culture, which had been regarded before the revolution as anathema. They also asserted their right to conform in their lives to their own way of life and specific customs." However, "[i]n the aim of building an independent Ukrainian State, certain statist gentlemen would dearly love to arrogate to themselves all natural manifestations of Ukrainian reality." Yet the "healthy instincts of the Ukrainian toilers and their baleful life under the Bolshevik yoke has not made them oblivious of the State danger in general" and so they "shun the chauvinist trend and do not mix it up with their social aspirations, rather seeking their own road to emancipation." [The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, pp. 24-5]

In summary, the Makhnovists were opposed to nationalism but supported culture diversity and self-determination within a free federation of toilers communes and councils. They did not limit their aims to national liberation, but rather sought the self-liberation of the working classes from every oppression -- foreign or domestic, economic or political, cultural or social.


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