H.6.2 Why was the movement named after Makhno?

Officially, the Makhnovist movement was called the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine. In practice, it was usually called the "Makhno movement" ("Makhnovshchina" in Russian) or the Makhnovists. Unsurprisingly, Trotsky placed great significance on this:

"The anti-popular character of the Makhno movement is most clearly revealed in the fact that the army of Hulyai Pole is actually called 'Makhno's Army'. There, armed men are united not around a programme, not around an ideological banner, but around a man." [The Makhno Movement]

Ignoring the irony of a self-proclaimed Marxist (and later Leninist and founder of Trotskyism!) making such a comment, we can only indicate why the Makhnovists called themselves by that name:

"Because, first, in the terrible days of reaction in the Ukraine, we saw in our ranks an unfailing friend and leader, MAKHNO, whose voice of protest against any kind of coercion of the working people rang out in all the Ukraine, calling for a battle against all oppressors, pillagers and political charlatans who betray us; and who is now marching together with us in our common ranks unwavering toward the final goal: liberation of the working people from any kind of oppression." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 272]

The two of the anarchists who took part in the movement and later wrote its history concur. Voline argues that the reason why the movement was known as the "Makhnovist movement" was because the "most important role in this work of unification [of the peasant masses] and in the general development of the revolutionary insurrection in the southern Ukraine was performed by the detachment of partisans guided by a peasant native to the region: Nestor Makhno." [The Unknown Revolution, p. 551] "From the first days of the movement," Arshinov notes, "up to its culminating point, when the peasants vanquished the landowners, Makhno played a preponderant and central role to such an extent that the whole insurgent region and the most heroic moments of the struggle are linked to his name. Later, when the insurrection had triumphed completely over the Skoropadsky counter-revolution and the region was threatened by Denikin, Makhno became the rallying point for millions of peasants in several regions." [Op. Cit., p. 50]

It must be stressed that Nestor Mahkno was not the boss of the Mahknovista. He was not their ruler or general. As such, the fact that the Makhnovists were (unofficially) named after Makhno does not imply that it was his personal fiefdom, nor that those involved followed him as an individual. Rather, the movement was named after him because he was universally respected within it as a leading militant. This fact also explains why Makhno was nicknamed "Batko" (see next section).

This can be seen from how the movement was organised and was run. As we discuss in section H.6.5, it was organised in a fundamentally democratic way, by means of mass assemblies of insurgents, elected officers, regular insurgent, peasant and worker congresses and an elected "Revolutionary Military Soviet." The driving force in the Makhnovist movement was not, therefore, Makhno but rather the anarchist ideas of self-management. As Trotsky himself was aware, the Makhnovists were influenced by anarchist ideas:

"Makhno and his companions-in-arms are not non-party people at all. They are all of the Anarchist persuasion, and send out circulars and letters summoning Anarchists to Hulyai Pole so as to organise their own Anarchist power there." [Trotsky, Op. Cit.]

As part of this support for anarchist theory, the Makhnovists organised insurgent, peasant and worker conferences to discuss key issues in the revolution and the activities of the Makhno movement itself. Three such conferences had been before Trotsky wrote his diatribe The Makhno Movement on June 2nd, 1919. A fourth one was called for June 15th, which Trotsky promptly banned (on pain of death) on June 4th (see section H.6.13 for full details). Unlike the Bolshevik dictatorship, the Makhnovists took every possibility of ensuring the participation of the working people they were fighting for in the revolution. The calling of congresses by the Makhnovists shows clearly that the movement did not, as Trotsky asserted, follow a man, but rather ideas.

As Voline argued, "the movement would have existed without Makhno, since the living forces, the living masses who created and developed the movement, and who brought Makhno forward merely as their talented military leader, would have existed without Makhno." Ultimately, the term "Makhnovshchina" is used "to describe a unique, completely original and independent revolutionary movement of the working class which gradually becomes conscious of itself and steps out on the broad arena of historical activity." ["preface," Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 19]


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