H.6.14 How did the Makhnovists and Bolsheviks differ?

Like chalk and cheese.

Whereas the Bolsheviks talked about soviet democracy while exercising a party dictatorship, the Makhnovists not only talked about "free soviets," they also encouraged them with all their ability. Similarly, while Lenin stated that free speech was "a bourgeois notion" and that there could be "no free speech in a revolutionary period," the Makhnovists proclaimed free speech for working people. [Lenin quoted by Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia, p. 33] While the Bolsheviks ended up arguing for the necessity of party dictatorship during a revolution, the Makhnovists introduced free soviets and organised peasant, worker and insurgent congresses to conduct the revolution.

We have discussed the Makhnovist ideas in both theory and practice in sections H.6.5, H.6.6 and H.6.7. In spite of the chaos and difficulties imposed upon the movement by having to fight the counter-revolution, the Makhnovists applied their ideals constantly. The Makhnovists were a mass movement and its constructive efforts showed that there was an alternative route the Russian revolution could have followed other than the authoritarian dictatorship that Leninists, then and now, claimed was inevitable if the revolution was to be saved.

To see why, we must compare Bolshevik ideology and practice to that of the Makhnovists in three key areas. Firstly, on how a revolution should be defended. Secondly, on the role of the soviets and party in the revolution. Thirdly, on the question of working-class freedom.

Early in 1918, after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty the Bolsheviks re-introduced Tsarist officers into the army alongside bourgeois military discipline. As Maurice Brinton correctly summarises:

"Trotsky, appointed Commissar of Military Affairs after Brest-Litovsk, had rapidly been reorganising the Red Army. The death penalty for disobedience under fire had been restored. So, more gradually, had saluting, special forms of address, separate living quarters and other privileges for officers. Democratic forms of organisation, including the election of officers, had been quickly dispensed with." [The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. 37]

Officers were appointed rather then elected. They argued this had to be done to win the war. The "principle of election," stated Trotsky, "is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient and has been, in practice, abolished by decree." Thus the election of officers and the creation of soldiers' committees was abolished from the top, replaced by appointed officers. Trotsky's rationale for this was simply that "political power is in the hands of the same working class from whose ranks the Army is recruited." In other words, the Bolshevik Party held power as power was actually held by it, not the working class. Trotsky tried to answer the obvious objection:

"Once we have established the Soviet regime, that is a system under which the government is headed by persons who have been directly elected by the Soviets of Workers', Peasants' and Soldiers' Deputies, there can be no antagonism between the government and the mass of the workers, just as there is no antagonism between the administration of the union and the general assembly of its members, and, therefore, there cannot be any grounds for fearing the appointment of members of the commanding staff by the organs of the Soviet Power." [Work, Discipline, Order]

He repeated this argument in his 1919 diatribe against the Makhnovists:

"The Makhnovites shout raucously: 'Down with appointed commanders!' This they do only so as to delude the ignorant element among their own soldiers. One can speak of 'appointed' persons only under the bourgeois order, when Tsarist officials or bourgeois ministers appointed at their own discretion commanders who kept the soldier masses subject to the bourgeois classes. Today there is no authority in Russia but that which is elected by the whole working class and working peasantry. It follows that commanders appointed by the central Soviet Government are installed in their positions by the will of the working millions. But the Makhnovite commanders reflect the interests of a minute group of Anarchists who rely on the kulaks and the ignorant." [The Makhno Movement]

Of course, most workers are well aware that the administration of a trade union usually works against them during periods of struggle. Indeed, so are most Trotskyists as they often denounce the betrayals by that administration. Thus Trotsky's own analogy indicates the fallacy of his argument. Equally, it was not "the will of the working millions" which appointed anyone, it was a handful of leaders of the Bolshevik party (which had manipulated the soviets to remain in power). Needless to say, this was a vast change from Lenin's comments in State and Revolution opposing appointment and calling for election of all officials!

Moreover, the explanation that "the ignorant" were to blame for Makhnovist opposition to appointed officers had a long legacy with Trotsky. In April 1918, when justifying Bolshevik introduction of appointed officers, he had argued that the "Soviet government is the same as the committee of a trade union. It is elected by the workers and peasants and you can at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, at any moment you like, dismiss that government and appoint another. But once you have appointed it, you must give it the right to choose the technical specialists." He stressed that this applied "in military affairs, in particular." Using the trade union analogy, he argued that the workers had "entrusted us [the Bolshevik leaders] with the direction of the union" and this meant that the Bolshevik leaders, not the workers, should decide things as "we are better able to judge in the matter" than them! The workers role was stated clearly: "if our way of conducting the business is bad, then throw us out and elect another committee!" [Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 113] In other words, like any bureaucrat, for Trotsky working-class participation in the affairs of the revolution was seen as irrelevant: the masses had voted and their role was now that of obeying those who "are better able to judge."

Using an argument the Tsar could have been proud of, Trotsky defended the elimination of soldier democracy:

"How could soldiers who have just entered the army choose the chiefs! Have they any vote to go by? They have none. And therefore elections are impossible." [Ibid.]

Equally, how could workers and peasants who have just entered political or economic struggle in 1917 choose the chiefs? Had they any vote to go by? They had none. And therefore political and workplace elections are impossible. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky soon ended up applying this logic to politics as well, defending (like all the leaders of Bolshevism) the dictatorship of the party over working class. How could the "ignorant" workers be expected to elect the best "chiefs" never mind manage their own affairs!

Ironically, in 1936 the Stalinist Communist Party in Spain was to make very similar arguments about the need for a regular army and army discipline to win the war. As Aileen O'Carroll in her essay "Freedom and Revolution" argues:

"The conventional army structure evolved when feudal kings or capitalist governments required the working class to fight its wars for them. These had to be authoritarian institutions, because although propaganda and jingoism can play a part initially in encouraging enlistment, the horrors of war soon expose the futility of nationalism. A large part of military organisation is aimed at ensuring that soldiers remain fighting for causes they do not necessarily believe in. Military discipline attempts to create an unthinking, unquestioning body of soldiers, as fearful of their own side as of the other." [Red & Black Revolution, no. 1]

In short in both Russia and Spain the Bolsheviks wanted an army that would obey them regardless of whether the individual soldiers felt they were doing the correct thing, indeed who would obey through fear of their officers even when they knew what they were doing was wrong. Such a body would be essential for enforcing minority rule over the wishes of the workers. Would a self-managed army be inclined to repress workers' and peasants' strikes and protests? Of course not.

The Makhnovists show that another kind of revolutionary army was possible in the Russian Revolution and that the "ignorant" masses could choose their own officers. In other words, the latter-day justifications of the followers of Bolshevism are wrong when they assert that the creation of the top-down, hierarchical Red Army was a result of the "contradiction between the political consciousness and circumstantial coercion" and "a retreat" because "officers were appointed and not elected," it was a conscript army and "severe military discipline." [John Rees, "In Defence of October", International Socialism, no. 52, pp. 3-82, p. 46] As can be seen, Trotsky did not consider it as a "retreat" or caused by "circumstances." Equally, the Makhnovists managed to organise themselves relatively democratically in the circumstances created by the same civil war.

As such, the differences between the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks as regards the internal organisation of a revolutionary army are clear. The Bolsheviks applied top-down, bourgeois methods of internal organisation and discipline. The Makhnovists applied democratic internal organisation and discipline as far as possible.

>From our discussion of the Bolshevik justifications for its system of appointed officers in the Red Army, it will come as no surprise that as regards the relationship of the soviets to the revolutionary organisation (party) the Makhnovists and Bolsheviks were (again) miles apart. While we discuss this in greater detail in section H.4, we will give a flavour of Bolshevik ideology on this subject here.

>From the start, Lenin identified soviet (or working class) power with the power of their own party. In October 1917, Lenin was equating party and class: "the power of the Bolsheviks -- that is, the power of the proletariat." [Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 102] After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks were clear that the soviets would not have "all power." Rather, the first act of soviet sovereignty was to alienate it into the hands of a Bolshevik government. In response to a few leading Bolsheviks who called for a coalition government, the Bolshevik Central Committee stated that it was "impossible to refuse a purely Bolshevik government without treason to the slogan of the power of the Soviets, since a majority at the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets . . . handed power over to this government." [quoted by Robery V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism, vol. 1, pp. 127-8] How can the "power of the Soviets" exist when said soviets immediately "handed power" over to another body? Thus the only "power" the soviets had was simply the "power" to determine who actually held political power.

The question of who held power, the soviets or the party, came into focus when the soviet elections resulted in non-Bolshevik majorities being elected. After the initial honeymoon period, soviet elections started to go badly for the Bolsheviks. Ever since taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks had become increasingly alienated from the working class. The spring and summer of 1918 saw "great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections" in all provincial city elections that data is available for. The Mensheviks were the main beneficiaries of these election swings (Socialist Revolutionaries also gained) The Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded such soviets. They continually postponed elections and "pack[ed] local soviets once they could no longer count on an electoral majority" by giving representation to the organisations they dominated which made workplace elections meaningless. [Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, pp. 22-4 and p. 33] In Petrograd, such packing swamped the actual number of workplace delegates, transforming the soviets and making elections irrelevant. Of the 700-plus deputies to the "new" soviet, over half were elected by Bolshevik dominated organisations so ensuring a solid Bolshevik majority even before the factory voting began.

Thus, the regime remained "soviet" in name only. Faced with a defeat in the soviets, the Bolsheviks simply abolished them or changed them to ensure their position. This process, it should be noted, started before the outbreak of Civil War in late May 1918, implying that Bolshevik authoritarianism cannot be explained as reactions to difficult objective circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, Bolshevik ideology started to adjust to the position the party found itself in. As Samuel Farber argues, in the "period of March to June 1918, Lenin began to make frequent distinctions within the working class, singling out workers who could still be trusted, denouncing workers whom he accused of abandoning the working class and deserting to the side of the bourgeoisie, and complaining about how the working class had become 'infected with the disease of petty-bourgeois disintegration.'" [Op. Cit., p. 25] Combined with the vision of "working-class" or "soviet" power expressed by the power of his party, this laid the foundations for what came next. In 1919 Lenin fully and explicitly argued that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was, in fact, the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party:

"we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party . . . we say, 'Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position . . . '" [Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 535]

This quickly become Bolshevik orthodoxy. Trotsky argued in his infamous work Terrorism and Communism that there was "no substitution at all" when "the power of the party" replaces "the power of the working class." Zinoviev argued this point at the Second Congress of the Communist International. As he put it:

"Today, people like Kautsky come along and say that in Russia you do not have the dictatorship of the working class but the dictatorship of the party. They think this is a reproach against us. Not in the least! We have a dictatorship of the working class and that is precisely why we also have a dictatorship of the Communist Party. The dictatorship of the Communist Party is only a function, an attribute, an expression of the dictatorship of the working class . . . [T]he 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, pp. 151-2]

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky disagreed. By the end of the civil war, Lenin was arguing that "the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class, because in all capitalist countries (and not only over here, in one of the most backward) the proletariat is still so divided, so degraded, and so corrupted in parts . . . that an organisation taking in the whole proletariat cannot directly exercise proletarian dictatorship. It can be exercised only by a vanguard . . . the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised by a mass proletarian organisation." [Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21]

This places the Bolshevik betrayals of the Makhnovists in 1919 and 1920 into political context. It also explains the Bolshevik opposition to the proposed fourth clause of the 1920 political and military agreement (see last section). Simply put, at the time (and long afterwards) the Bolsheviks equated the revolution with their own power. As such, Makhnovist calls for soviet self-management threatened the "dictatorship of the proletariat" (i.e. dictatorship of the party) by encouraging working people to participate in the revolution and giving the radically false idea that working-class power could be exercised by working people and their own class organisations.

Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev held this position until their deaths. Trotsky, for example, was arguing in 1923 that "[i]f there is one question which basically not only does not require revision but does not so much as admit the thought of revision, it is the question of the dictatorship of the Party, and its leadership in all spheres of our work." [Leon Trotsky Speaks, p. 158] Even after the rise of Stalinism, he was still arguing for the "objective necessity" of the "revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party" in 1937. He stressed that the "revolutionary party (vanguard) which renounces its own dictatorship surrenders the masses to the counter-revolution . . . Abstractly speaking, it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the 'dictatorship' of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions." [Trotsky, Writings 1936-37, pp. 513-4]

This suggests that the later Trotskyist argument that the Bolsheviks were forced by "objective factors" to replace the dictatorship of the proletariat by that of the party is false. At the time, and afterwards, the Bolsheviks did not argue in these terms. The end of soviet democracy was not considered a problem or a retreat for the revolution. The opposite was the case, with the elimination of democracy being raised to an ideological truism to be applied everywhere. Equally, the fact that the Makhnovists did all they could to promote soviet self-management and actually called regional congresses of workers, peasants and insurgents suggests that "objective factors" simply cannot explain Bolshevik actions. Simply put, like the Bolshevik betrayals of the Makhnovists, the Bolshevik elimination of soviet democracy by party dictatorship can only be fully understood by looking at Bolshevik ideology.

Little wonder the Makhnovists argued as followed:

"Since the arrival of the Bolsheviks the dictatorship of their party has been established here. As a party of statists, the Bolshevik Party everywhere has set up state organs for the purpose of governing the revolutionary people. Everything has to be submitted to their authority and take place under their vigilant eye. All opposition, protest, or even independent initiative has been stifled by their Extraordinary Commissions [the secret police, the Cheka]. Furthermore, all these institutions are composed of people who are removed from labour and from revolution. In other words, what has been created is a situation in which the labouring and revolutionary people have fallen under the surveillance and rule of people who are alien to the working classes, people who are inclined to exercise arbitrariness and violence over the workers. Such is the dictatorship of the Bolshevik-Communist Party . . .

"We again remind the working people that they will liberate themselves from oppression, misery and violence only through their own efforts. No change in power will help them in this. Only by means of their own free worker-peasant organisations can the workers reach the summit of the social revolution -- complete freedom and real equality." [quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit. pp. 116-7]

Which brings us to the next issue, namely working-class freedom. For anarchists, the key point of a revolution is to increase working-class freedom. It means the end of hierarchy and the direct participation in the revolution by the working classes themselves. As Bakunin put it, "revolution is only sincere, honest and real in the hands of the masses, and that when it is concentrated in those of a few ruling individuals it inevitably and immediately becomes reaction." [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 237] For this reason, the Makhnovists (like Bakunin) argued for a revolutionary society based on free federations of worker and peasant organisations (free soviets).

This means that actions which consolidated rule by a few cannot be revolutionary, even if the few are made up of the most revolutionary of the revolutionaries. Thus working class power cannot be equated to the power of a political party, no matter how "socialist" or "revolutionary" its ideas or rhetoric. This means that Bolshevik restrictions on working class freedom (of speech, assembly, press, organisation) struck at the heart of the revolution. It did not signify the defence of the revolution, but rather its defeat. Ultimately, as Emma Goldman quickly recognised, what the Bolsheviks called "defence of the Revolution" was "really only the defence of [the] party in power." [My Disillusionment in Russia, p. 57]

Anarchists had long argued that, to quote Goldman again, there is "no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. This conception is a potent menace to social regeneration. All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they influence it, modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical." [Op. Cit., p. 260] The evolution of Bolshevik practice and theory reinforces this argument. The means used had an impact on the course of events, which in turn shaped the next set of means and the ideology used to justify it.

This explains the Makhnovist and Bolshevik differences in relationship to working-class freedom. For anarchists, only freedom or the struggle for freedom can teach people to be free (and so is genuinely revolutionary). This explains why the Makhnovists not only proclaimed freedom of election, speech, press, assembly and organisation for working people, which was an essential revolutionary position, they also implemented it (see section H.6.7). The Bolsheviks did the reverse, clamping down on the opposition at every occasion (including workers' strikes and protests). For the Makhnovists, working-class freedom was the key gain of the revolution, and so had to be introduced, practised and defended. Hence Makhno:

"I consider it an inviolable right of the workers and peasants, a right won by the revolution, to call congresses on their own account, to discuss their affairs. That is why the prohibitions of such congresses, and the declaration proclaiming them illegal . . . , represent a direct and insolent violation of the rights of the workers." [quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 129]

For the Bolsheviks, working-class freedom was something to fear. Back in 1903, Lenin laid the groundwork for this by arguing that the "spontaneous development of the labour movement leads to it being subordinated to bourgeois ideology." He stressed that "the working class, exclusively by their own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness . . . the theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose quite independently of the spontaneous growth of the labour movement; it arose as a natural and inevitable outcome of ideas among the revolutionary socialist intelligentsia." This meant that "Social Democratic [i.e. socialist] consciousness . . . could only be brought to them from without." [Essential Works of Lenin, p. 82 and pp. 74-5] Clearly, if the workers turned against the party, then the workers were "being subordinated to bourgeois ideology." It was in their own interests, therefore, for the party to subordinate the workers and so soviet democracy became not an expression of working-class power but rather something which undermined it!

This perspective can be seen when the Makhnovists liberated cities. In Alexandrovsk and Katerinoslav, the Bolsheviks proposed to the Makhnovists spheres of action - their Revkom (Revolutionary Committee) would handle political affairs and the Makhnovists military ones. Makhno advised them "to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers." Instead, the Makhnovists called upon "the working population to participate in a general conference .. . . and it was proposed that the workers organise the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forced and their organisations." [Arshinov Op. Cit., p. 154 and p. 149] The differences between the Bolsheviks and Makhnovists could not be clearer.

Lastly, we should note that while Lenin and the leading Bolsheviks wholeheartedly opposed working-class economic self-management by factory committees and instead urged "efficient" top-down one-man management, the Makhnovists supported working-class self-management of production. Under the Bolsheviks, as Arshinov argued, the "nationalisation of industry, [while] removing the workers from the hands of individual capitalists, delivered them to the yet more rapacious hands of a single, ever-present capitalist boss, the State. The relations between the workers and this new boss are the same as earlier relations between labour and capital, with the sole difference that the Communist boss, the State, not only exploits the workers, but also punishes them himself . . . Wage labour has remained what it was before, except that it has taken on the character of an obligation to the State . . . It is clear that in all this we are dealing with a simple substitution of State capitalism for private capitalism." [Op. Cit., p. 71] The Makhnovist propaganda, in contrast, stressed the need for workers to socialise the means of production and place it under their direct management by their own class organs. In other words, the abolition of wage slavery by workers' self-management of production.

Unsurprisingly, the Makhnovists supported the Kronstadt rebellion (see section H.5 for more on Kronstadt). Indeed, there is significant overlap between the Kronstadt demands and the ideas of the Makhnovist movement. For example, the Makhnovist idea of free soviets is almost identical to the first three points of the Kronstadt programme and their land policy the same as point 11 of the Kronstadt demands. The Kronstadt rebels also raised the idea of "free soviets" and the "third revolution," common Makhnovist slogans (see section H.5.3 for details). As one Bolshevik writer notes, it is "characteristic that the anarchist-Makhnovists in the Ukraine reprinted the appeal of the Kronstadters, and in general did not hide their sympathy for them." [quoted by Malet, Op. Cit., p. 108] Voline also noted that the "ideas and activities of the Makhnovist peasants were similar in all respects to those of the Kronstadt rebels in 1921." [Op. Cit., p. 575]

In summary, the major difference between the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks is that the former stuck by and introduced their stated aims of "soviet power" and working-class freedom while the latter rejected them once they clashed with Bolshevik party policies.


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