H.6.5 How were the Makhnovists organised?

Being influenced by anarchist ideas, the Makhnovists were organised along libertarian lines. This meant that in both civilian and military areas, self-management was practised. This section discusses the military organisation, while the next discusses the social aspect of the movement.

By practising self-management, the Makhnovists offered a completely different model of military organisation to that of both the Red Army and traditional military forces. While the army structure changed depending on its circumstances, the core ideas remained. These were as follows:

"The Makhnovist insurrectionary army was organised according to three fundamental principles: voluntary enlistment, the electoral principle, and self-discipline.

"Voluntary enlistment meant that the army was composed only of revolutionary fighters who entered it of their own free will.

"The electoral principle meant that the commanders of all units of the army, including the staff, as well as all the men who held other positions in the army, were either elected or accepted by the insurgents of the unit in question or by the whole army.

"Self-discipline meant that all the rules of discipline were drawn up by commissions of insurgents, then approved by general assemblies of the various units; once approved, they were rigorously observed on the individual responsibility of each insurgent and each commander." [Op. Cit., p. 96]

Voline paints a similar picture. He also notes that the electoral principle was sometimes violated and commanders appointed "in urgent situations by the commander himself," although such people had to be "accepted without reservation" by "the insurgents of the unit in question or by the whole army." [Op. Cit., p. 584]

Thus the Makhnovist army, bar some deviation provoked by circumstances, was a fundamentally democratic organisation. The guerrillas elected the officers of their detachments, and, at mass assemblies and congresses, decided policy and discipline for the army. In the words of historian Michael Palij:

"As the Makhno army gradually grew, it assumed a more regular army organisation. Each tactical unit was composed of three subordinate units: a division consisted of three brigades; a brigade, of three regiments; a regiment, of three battalions. Theoretically commanders were elected; in practice, however, the top commanders were usually carefully selected by Makhno from among his close friends. As a rule, they were all equal and if several units fought together the top commanders commanded jointly. The army was nominally headed by a Revolutionary Military Council of about ten to twenty members . . . Like the commanders, the council members were elected, but some were appointed by Makhno .. . . There also was an elected cultural section in the army. Its aim was to conduct political and ideological propaganda among the partisans and peasants." [Palij, Op. Cit., pp. 108-9]

The Revolutionary Military Council was elected and directly accountable to the regional workers, peasants and insurgent congresses. It was designed to co-ordinate the local soviets and execute the decisions of the regional congresses.

Hence Voline:

"This council embraced the whole free region. It was supposed to carry out all the economic, political, social and military decisions made at the congress. It was thus, in a certain sense, the supreme executive of the whole movement. But it was not at all an authoritarian organ. Only strictly executive functions were assigned to it. It confined itself to carrying out the instructions and decisions of the congress. At any moment, it could be dissolved by the congress and cease to exist." [Op. Cit., p. 577]

As such, when Palij notes that this council "had no decisive voice in the army's actions," he misses the point of the council. [Palij, Ibid.] It did not determine the military affairs of the army, but rather the interaction of the military and civilians and made sure that the decisions of congresses were executed. Thus the whole army was nominally under the control of the regional congresses of workers, peasants and insurgents. At these congresses, delegates of the toiling people decided upon the policy to be pursued by the Makhnovist Army. The Revolutionary Military Soviet existed to oversee that decisions were implemented, not to determine the military activities of the troops.

It should also be noted that women not only supported the Makhnovists, they also "fought alongside the men." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 145] However, "the participation of women in the movement (by all accounts, quite substantial)" needs "further investigation." [Serge Cipko, "Nestor Makhno: A Mini-Historiography of the Anarchist Revolution in Ukraine, 1917-1921," pp. 57-75, The Raven, no. 13, p. 75]

At its height, the army was made up of infantry, cavalry, artillery, machine-gun units, and special branches, including an intelligence service. As the success of partisan warfare depends upon mobility, the army gradually mounted its infantry in light carts (called "tachanka") during 1918-19. As Michael Malet notes, this was a "novel tactic" and Makhno "could be described as the inventor of the motorised division before the car came into general use." [Op. Cit., p. 85] The tachanka was used to transport as many troops as possible, giving the Makhnovists mobile infantry which could keep up with the cavalry. In addition, a machine-gun was sometimes mounted in the rear (in autumn 1919, the 1st machine-gun regiment consisted of 120 guns, all mounted on tachanki).

For the most part the Makhnovist army was a volunteer army, unlike all others operating in the Russian Civil War. However, at times of crisis attempts were made to mobilise troops. For example, the Second regional congress agreed that a "general voluntary and equalitarian mobilisation" should take place. This meant that this appeal, "sanctioned by the moral authority of the congress, emphasised the need for fresh troops in the insurrectionary army, no-one was compelled to enlist." [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 577] The Congress itself passed a resolution after a long and passionate debate that stated it "rejected 'compulsory' mobilisation, opting for an 'obligatory' one; that is, each peasant who is able to carry arms, should recognise his obligation to enlist in the ranks of the partisans and to defend the interests of the entire toiling people of Ukraine." [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 155] There were far more volunteers than arms, the opposite of what occurred to both the Reds and Whites during the Civil War. [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 106]

The third Congress decided to conduct a voluntary mobilisation all those born between 1889 and 1898. This congress told them to assemble at certain points, organise themselves and elect their officers. Another mobilisation decided at the Aleksandrovsk congress never took place. How far the Makhnovists were forced to conscript troops is still a matter of debate. Paul Avrich, for example, states that "voluntary mobilisation" in reality "meant outright conscription, as all able-bodied men were required to serve." [Op. Cit., p. 114] On the other side, surviving leaflets from 1920 "are in the nature of appeals to join up, not instructions." [Malet,Op. Cit., p. 105] Trotsky, ironically, noted that "Makhno does not have general mobilisations, and indeed these would be impossible, as he lacks the necessary apparatus." [quoted by Malet, Op. Cit., p. 106] It is probably right to say that the Congresses desired that every able-bodied man join the Makhnovist army, but they simply did not have the means to enforce that desire and that the Makhnovists tried their best to avoid conscription by appealing to the peasants' revolutionary conscience, with some success.

As well as the military organisation, there was also an explicitly anarchist federation operating in the Ukraine at the same time. The first conference to organise a "Confederation of Anarchist Organisations of the Ukraine" was held between November 12th to 16th, 1918. The new federation was named "Nabat" (Alarm) and had a six-person Secretariat. Kharkiv was chosen as its headquarters, while it had groups in other major Ukrainian cities (including Kyiv, Odessa and Katerynoslav). The final organisation of the Nabat was accomplished at a conference held in April 2-7, 1919. The federation aimed to form a "united anarchism" and guaranteed a substantial degree of autonomy for every participating group and individual. A number of newspapers appeared in a Ukrainian towns and cities (mostly entitled Nabat), as did leaflets and pamphlets. There was a main weekly paper (called Nabat) which was concerned largely with anarchist theory. This completed the Makhnovist papers Road to Freedom (which was often daily, sometimes weekly and dealt with libertarian ideas, everyday problems and information on partisan activities) and The Makhnovist Voice (which dealt primarily with the interests, problems, and tasks of the Makhnovist movement and its army). The Nabat organisation was also published a pamphlet dealing with the Makhnovist movement's problems, the economic organisation of the region, the free soviets, the social basis of the society that was to be built, and the problem of defence.

Unsurprisingly, the Nabat federation and the Makhnovists worked together closely, with Nabat members worked in the army (particularly its cultural section). Some of its members were also elected to the Makhnovist Revolutionary Military Soviet. It should be noted that the Nabat federation gained a number of experienced anarchists from Soviet Russia, who fled to the Ukraine to escape Bolshevik repression. The Nabat shared the fortunes of the Makhno movement. It carried on its work freely as long as the region was controlled by the Makhnovist Army, but when Bolshevik or White forces prevailed, the anarchists were forced underground. The movement was finally crushed in November 1920, when the Bolsheviks betrayed the Makhnovists.

As can be seen, the Makhnovists implemented to a large degree the anarchist idea of self-managed, horizontally federated associations (when possible, of course). Both the two major organisational layers to the Makhnovist structure (the army and the congresses) were federated horizontally and the "top" structure was essentially a mass peasant, worker and guerrilla decision-making coalition. In other words, the masses took decisions at the "top" level that the Revolutionary Military Soviet and the Makhnovist army were bound to follow. The army was answerable to the local Soviets and to the congresses of soviets and, as we discuss in section H.6.7, the Makhnovists called working-people and insurgent congresses whenever they could.

The Makhnovist movement was, fundamentally, a working class movement. It was "one of the very few revolutionary movements to be led and controlled throughout by members of 'the toiling masses.'" [David Footman, Op. Cit., p. 245] It applied its principles of working class autonomy and self-organisation as far as it could. Unlike the Red Army, it was predominantly organised from the bottom up, rejecting the use of Tsarist officers, appointed commanders, and other "top-down" ways of the Red Army (see section H.6.14 for further discussion of the differences between the two forces).

The Makhnovist army was not by any means a perfect model of anarchist military organisation. However, compared to the Red Army, its violations of principle are small and hardly detract from their accomplishment of applying anarchist ideas in often extremely difficult circumstances.


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