H.6.6 Did the Makhnovists have a constructive social programme?

Yes, they did. The Makhnovists spent a great deal of energy and effort in developing, propagating and explaining their ideas on how a free society should be created and run. As Michael Malet noted, the "leading Makhnovists had definite ideas about the ideal form of social organisation." [Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, p. 107] Moreover, as we discuss in the next section, they also successfully applied these ideas when and where they could.

So what was their social programme? Being anarchists, it comprised two parts, namely political and economic aspects. The Makhnovists aimed for a true social revolution in which the working classes (both urban and rural) could actively manage their own affairs and society. As such, their social programme reflected the fact that oppression has its roots in both political and economic power and so aimed at eliminating both the state and private property. As the core of their social ideas was the simple principle of working-class autonomy, the idea that the liberation of working-class people must be the task of the working-class people themselves. This vision is at the heart of anarchism and was expressed most elegantly by Makhno:

"Conquer or die -- such is the dilemma that faces the Ukrainian peasants and workers at this historic moment . . . But we will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of the past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters; we will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives according to our own will and our own conception of the truth." [quoted by Peter Arshinov, The History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 58]

As such, the Makhnovists were extremely hostile to the idea of state power, recognising it simply as a means by which the majority are ruled by the few. Equally, they were opposed to wage slavery (to private or state bosses), recognising that as long as the workers do not manage their own work, they can never be free. As they put it, their goals could only be achieved by an "implacable revolution and consistent struggle against all lies, arbitrariness and coercion, wherever they come from, a struggle to the death, a struggle for free speech, for the righteous cause, a struggle with weapons in hand. Only through the abolition of all rulers, through the destruction of the whole foundation of their lies, in state affairs as well as in political and economic affairs. And only through the social revolution can the genuine Worker-Peasant soviet system be realised and can we arrive at SOCIALISM." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 273] They, like other anarchists and the Kronstadt rebels, termed this programme of working class self-management the "third revolution."

We will discuss the political aspect of the Makhnovist programme first, then its economic one. However, the Maknovists considered (correctly) that both aspects could not be separated. As they put it: "We will not lay down our arms until we have wiped out once and for all every political and economic oppression and until genuine equality and brotherhood is established in the land." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 281] We split the aspects simply to aid the presentation of their ideas.

At the core of their ideas was what they termed the "Free Soviet System" (or "free soviets" for short). It was this system which would allow the working class to create and run a new society. As they put it:

"[The] Makhnovists realise that the working people are no longer a flock of sheep to be ordered about by anyone. We consider the working people capable of building, on their own and without parties, commissars or generals, their own FREE SOVIET SYSTEM, in which those who are elected to the Soviet will not, as now [under the Bolsheviks], command and order us, but on the contrary, will be only the executors of the decisions made in our own workers' gatherings and conferences." [contained in Peter Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 280-1]

Thus the key idea advocated by the leading Makhnovista for social organisation and decision-making was the "free toilers' soviet of peasant and worker organisations." This meant they were to be independent of all central authority and composed of those who worked, and not political parties. They were to federate on a local, then regional and then national level, and power within the federation was to be horizontal and not vertical. [Michael Malet, Op. Cit., p. 107] Such a system was in opposition to the Bolshevik practice of Soviets defined and dominated by political parties with a vertical decision- making structure that reached its highest point in the Bolshevik Central Committee.

Thus, for the Makhnovists, the soviet system would be a "bottom-up" system, one designed not to empower a few party leaders at the centre but rather a means by which working people could manage their own affairs. As the put it, the "soviet system is not the power of the social-democratic Communist-Bolsheviks who now call themselves a soviet power; rather it is the supreme form of non-authoritarian anti-state socialism, which expresses itself in the organisation of a free, happy and independent system of social life for the working people." This would be based on the "principles of solidarity, friendship and equality." This meant that in the Makhnovist system of free soviets, the "working people themselves must freely choose their own soviets, which will carry out the will and desires of the working people themselvs, that is to say, ADMINISTRATIVE, not ruling soviets." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 272-3]

As David Footman summarises, Makhno's "ultimate aims were simple. All instruments of government were to be destroyed. All political parties were to be opposed, as all of them were working for some or other form of new government in which the party members would assume the role of a ruling class. All social and economic affairs were to be settled in friendly discussion between freely elected representatives of the toiling masses." [Op. Cit., p. 247]

Hence the Makhnovist social organisation was a federation of self-managed workers' and peasants' councils (soviets), which would "be only the executors of the decisions made in our workers' gatherings and conferences." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 281] In other words, an anarchist system based on mass assemblies and decision-making from the bottom up.

Economically, as is to be expected, the Makhnovists opposed private property, capitalism and wage-slavery. Their economic ideas were summarised in a Makhnovist declaration as follows:

"The lands of the service gentry, of the monasteries, of the princes and other enemies of the toiling masses, with all their livestock and goods, are passed on to the use of those peasants who support themselves solely through their own labour. This transfer will be carried out in an orderly fashion determined in common at peasant assemblies, which must remember in this matter not only each of their own personal interests, but also bear in mind the common interest of all the oppressed, working peasantry.

"Factories, workshops, mines and other tools and means of production become the property of the working class as a whole, which will run all enterprises themselves, through their trade unions, getting production under way and striving to tie together all industry in the country in a single, unitary organisation." [contained in Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 266]

They continually stressed that the "land, the factories, the workshops, the mines, the railroads and the other wealth of the people must belong to the working people themselves, to those who work in them, that is to say, they must be socialised." This meant a system of use-rights, as "the land, the mines, the factories, the workshops, the railroads, and so on, will belong neither to individuals nor to the government, but solely to those who work with them." [Op. Cit., p. 273 and p. 281]

In industry, such a system clearly implied a system of worker's self-management within a system of federated factory committees or union branches. On the land, it meant the end of landlordism, with peasants being entitled to as much land and equipment as they could cultivate without the use of hired labour. As a Makhnovist congress in 1919 resolved:

"The land question should be decided on a Ukraine-wide scale at an all-Ukrainian congress of peasants on the following basis: in the interests of socialism and the struggle against the bourgeoisie, all land should be transferred to the hands of the toiling peasants. According to the principle that 'the land belongs to nobody' and can be used only by those who care about it, who cultivate it, the land should be transferred to the toiling peasantry of Ukraine for their use without pay according to the norm of equal distribution." [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 155]

In addition to advocating the abolition of private property in land and the end of wage labour by distributing land to those who worked it, the Makhnovists also supported the forming of "free" or "working" communes. Like their policy of land distribution, it also aimed to benefit the poorer peasants and rural wage labourers. The "free commune" was a voluntary association of rural workers who took over an expropriated estate and managed the land in common. The commune was managed by a general meeting of all its members and based on the liberty, equality and solidarity of its members.

Clearly, in terms of their economic policies, the Makhnovists proposed a clear and viable alternative to both rural and urban capitalism, namely workers' self-management. Industry and land would be socialised, with the actual management of production resting in the hands of the workers themselves and co-ordinated by federated workers' organisations. On the land, they proposed the creation of voluntary communes which would enable the benefits of co-operative labour to be applied. Like their political ideas, their economic ideas were designed to ensure the freedom of working people and the end of hierarchy in all aspects of society.

In summary, the Makhnovist had a constructive social ideas which aimed to ensure the total economic and political emancipation of the working people. Their vision of a free society was based on a federation of free, self-managed soviets, the socialisation of the means of life and workers' self-management of production by a federation of labour unions or factory committees. As the black flags they carried into battle read, "liberty or death" and "the land to the peasants, the factories to the workers."


Back to Index

On to Next Section