H.6.7 Did they apply their ideas in practice?

Yes, the Makhnovists consistently applied their political and social ideas when they had the opportunity to do so. Unlike the Bolsheviks, who quickly turned away from their stated aims of soviet democracy and workers' control in favour of dictatorship by the Bolshevik party, the Makhnovists did all in their power to encourage, create and defend working-class freedom and self-management (see section H.6.14 for further discussion). In the words of historian Christopher Reed:

"there can be no question that the anarchists did everything they could to free the peasants and workers and give them the opportunity to develop their own forms of collective control over land and factories . . . [T]he Ukrainian anarchists fought under the slogan of land to the peasants, factories to the workers and power to the soviets. Wherever they had influence they supported the setting up of communes and soviets. They introduced safeguards intended to protect direct self-government from organised interference . . . They conducted relentless class war against landlords, officers, factory owners and the commercial classes could expect short shrift from Makhno and his men, especially if they had taken up arms against the people or, like the Whites . . ., had been responsible for looting, pogroms and vicious reprisals against unarmed peasants on a colossal scale." [From Tsar to Soviets, p. 263]

As we discussed in the last section, the core ideas which inspired the Makhnovists were working-class self-determination and self-management. They aimed at the creation of a "free soviet system" and the end of capitalism by rural and industrial self-management. It is to the credit of the Makhnovists that they applied these ideas in practice rather than talking about high principles and doing the exact opposite.

In practice, of course, the war left little room for much construction work. As Voline pointed out, one of the key disadvantages of the movement was the "almost continual necessity of fighting and defending itself against all kinds of enemies, without being able to concentrate on peaceful and truly positive works." [The Unknown Revolution, p. 571] However, in the disruption of the Civil War the Makhnovists applied their ideas when and where they could.

Within the army, as we discussed in section H.6.5, the insurgent troops elected their own commanders and had regular mass assemblies to discuss policy and the agreed norms of conduct within it. In civilian matters, the Makhnovists from the start encouraged working-class self-organisation and self-government. By late 1917, in the area around Hulyai Pole "the toiling masses proceeded . . . to consolidate their revolution. The little factories functioned . . . under the control of the workers. The estates were split up . . . among the peasants . . . a certain number of agricultural communes were formed." [David Footman, Op. Cit., p. 248]

The aim of the Makhnovists was to "transfer all the lands owned by the gentry, monasteries, and the state into the hands of peasants or to organise, if they wished, peasant communes." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 70] This policy was introduced from the start, and by the autumn of 1917, all land, equipment and livestock around Hulyai Pole had been expropriated from the gentry and kulaks and placed in the hands of working peasants. Land reform had been achieved by the direct action of the peasantry.

However, "many of the peasants understood that the task was not finished, that it was not enough to appropriate a plot of land and be content with it. From the hardships of their lives they learned that enemies were watching from all sides, and that they must stick together. In several places there were attempts to organise social life communally." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 86]

In line with social anarchist theory, the Makhnovists also tried to introduce collective forms of farming. These experiments in collective working and living were called "free communes." Despite the difficult military situation communes were established, principally near Hulyai Pole, in the autumn of 1917. This activity was resumed in February to March of 1918. They re-appeared in early 1919, once the threat of counter-revolution had been (temporarily) defeated.

There were four of these communes within five miles of Hulyai Pole itself and many more further afield. According to Makhno, these agricultural communes "were in most cases organised by peasants, though sometimes their composition was a mixture of peasants and workmen [sic!]. Their organisation was based on equality and solidarity of the members. All members of these communes -- both men and women -- applied themselves willingly to their tasks, whether in the field or the household." Unlike many communes, people were given the personal space they desired, so "any members of the commune who wanted to cook separately for themselves and their children, or to take food from the communal kitchens and eat it in their own quarters, met with no objection from the other members." The management of each commune "was conducted by a general meeting of all its members." In addition, the communes decided to introducing anarchist schooling based on the ideas of Franciso Ferrer (see section J.5.13 for details). Makhno himself worked on one for two days a week for a period. [Makhno, quoted by Paul Avrich, Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, pp. 131]

They were set up on the former estates of landlords, and consisted of around 10 families or 100 to 300 people and although each had peasant anarchist members not all the members were anarchists. Makhno worked on Commune No. 1, which was on the estate of former landlord Klassen. When re-founded in 1919 this commune was named after Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist revolutionary who had recently been murdered in the German revolution. It was a success, for by the spring sowing it had grown from nine families to 285 members working 340 acres of land. The communes represented a way that poor and middle peasants could pool resources to work estates that they could not have worked otherwise and, as Michael Malet points out, "they were organised from the bottom up, not the top down." [Op. Cit., p. 121]

However, as Makhno himself acknowledged, while the "majority of the toiling population saw in the organisation of rural communes the healthy germ of a new social life" which could provide a "model of a free and communal form of life," the "mass of people did not go over to it." They cited as their reasons "the advance of the German and Austrian armies, their own lack of organisation, and their inability to defend this order against the new 'revolutionary' [Bolshevik] and counter-revolutionary authorities. For this reason the toiling population of the district limited their revolutionary activity to supporting in every way those bold springs." [Makhno, quoted by Avrich, Op. Cit., p. 132] Given that the communes were finally destroyed by White and Red forces in June 1919, their caution was justified. After this, peace did not return long enough for the experiment to be restarted.

As Michael Malet argues:

"Very few peasant movements in history have been able to show in practice the sort of society and type of landholding they would like to see. The Makhnovist movement is proof that peasant revolutionaries can put forward positive, practical ideas." [Op. Cit., p. 121]

The Makhnovist experiments, it should be noted, have strong similarities to the rural revolution during the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (see sections I.8.5 and I.8.6 for more details).

As well as implementing their economic ideas on workers' self-management, land reform and free communes, the Makhnovists also organised regional congresses as well as local soviets. Most of the activity happened in and around Hulyai Pole, the focal point of the movement.This was in accord with their vision of a "free soviet system." Needless to say, the congresses could only be called during periods of relative calm (i.e. the Makhnovist home area was not occupied by hostile forces) and so congresses of insurgents, peasants and workers were called in early 1919 and another in October of that year. The actual dates of the regional congresses were:

23 January 1919 at Velyka Mykhailivka

12 February 1919 at Hulyai Pole

10 April 1919 at Hulyai Pole

20 October 1919 at Aleksandrovsk

A congress for the fifteenth of June 1919 never met because Trotsky unilaterally banned it, under pain of death to anyone even discussing it, never mind calling for it or attending as a delegate. Unlike the third congress, which ignored a similar ban by Dybenko, the fourth congress could not go ahead due to the treacherous attack by the Red Army that preceded it. Four Makhnovist commanders were executed by the Red Army for advertising this congress. Another congress planned for Aleksandrovsk in November 1920 was also prevented by Bolshevik betrayal, namely the attack after Wrangel had been defeated. [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 108] See section H.6.13 for further details.

The reason for these regional congresses was simple, to co-ordinate the revolution. "It was indispensable," Arshinov notes, "to establish institutions which unified first a district composed of various villages, and then the districts and departments which composed the liberated region. It was indispensable to find general solutions for problems common to the entire region. It was indispensable to create organs suitable for these tasks. And the peasants did not fail to create them. These organs were the regional congresses of peasants and workers." [Op. Cit., pp. 87-8] These congresses "were composed of delegates of peasants, workers and of the insurgent army, and were intended to clarify and record the decisions of the toiling masses and to be regarded as the supreme authority for the liberated area." [David Footman, Op. Cit., p. 266]

The first congress, which was the smallest, discussed the strengthening of the front, the adoption of a common nomenclature for popular organisations (soviets and the like) and to send a delegation to convince the draftees in the Nationalist forces to return home. It was also decided to organise a second congress. The second congress was larger, having 245 delegates from 350 districts. This congress "was strongly anti-Bolshevik and favoured a democratic socio-political way of life." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 153] One delegate made the issue clear:

"No party has a right to usurp governmental power into its own hands . . . We want life, all problems, to be decided locally, not by order from any authority above; and all peasants and workers should decide their own fate, while those elected should only carry out the toilers' wish." [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 154]

A general resolution was passed, which acknowledged the fact that the Bolshevik party was "demanding a monopoly of the Revolution." It also stated:

"With deep regret the Congress must also declare that apart from external enemies a perhaps even greater danger, arising from its internal shortcomings, threatens the Revolution of the Russian and Ukrainian peasants and workers. The Soviet Governments of Russia and of the Ukraine, by their orders and decrees, are making efforts to deprive local soviets of peasants and workers' deputies of their freedom and autonomy." [quoted by Footman, Op. Cit., p. 267]

As noted in section H.6.5, the congress also decided to issue an "obligatory" mobilisation to gather troops for the Army. It also accepted a resolution on land reform, stating that the land "belongs to nobody" and could be used by anyone as long as they did not use wage labour (see section H.6.6 for the full resolution). The congress accepted a resolution against plunder, violence, and anti-Jewish pogroms, recognising it as an attempt by the Tsarist government to "turn the attention of all toiling people away from the real reason for their poverty," namely the Tsarist regime's oppression. [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 155]

The second congress also elected the Revolutionary Military Soviet of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents, which had "no powers to initiate policy but designed merely to implement the decisions of the periodic congresses." [Footman, Op. Cit., p. 267]

The third congress was the largest and most representative, with delegates from 72 volosts (in which two million people lived). This congress aimed to "clarify the situation and to consider the prospects for the future of the region." It decided to conduct a voluntary mobilisation of men to fight the Whites and "rejected, with the approval of both rich and poor peasants, the Bolshevik expropriations." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 158] Toward the end of the congress, it received a telegram from the Bolshevik commander Dybenko calling it "counter-revolutionary," its organisers "outlaws" and dissolving it by his order. The congress immediately voted an indignant resolution in rely. This corrected Dybenko's factual mistakes on who called it, informed him why it was called, gave him a history lesson on the Makhnovist region and asked him:

"Can there exist laws made by a few people who call themselves revolutionaries which permit them to outlaw a whole people who are more revolutionary than they are themselves? . . .

"Is it permissible, is it admissible, that they should come to the country to establish laws of violence, to subjugate a people who have just overthrown all lawmakers and all laws?

"Does there exist a law according to which a revolutionary has the right to apply the most severe penalties to a revolutionary mass, of which he calls himself the defender, simply because this mass has taken the good things which the revolution promised them, freedom and equality, without his permission?

"Should the mass of revolutionary people perhaps be silent when such a revolutionary takes away the freedom which they have just conquered?

"Do the laws of the revolution order the shooting of a delegate because he believes he ought to carry out the mandate given him by the revolutionary mass which elected him?

"Whose interests should the revolutionary defend; those of the Party or those of the people who set the revolution in motion with their blood?" [quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 103]

As we discuss in section H.6.13, Trotsky's order to ban the fourth congress indicates that such laws do exist, with the "entire peasant and labouring population are declared guilty of high treason if they dare participate in their own free congress." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 123]

The last congress was held between 20th and 26th of October in Aleksandrovsk. One delegate was to be elected per 3000 people and one delegate per military unit. This gave 270 mostly peasant delegates. Only 18 were workers, of which 6 were Mensheviks, who walked out after Makhno called them "lapdogs of the bourgeoisie" during the discussion on "free socio-economic organisations"! [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 109] The congress passed a number of resolutions, concentrating on the care of the wounded and the poorest part of the population, a voluntary mobilisation, voluntary peasant contributions to feed the army and forced levies on the bourgeoisie.

According to Voline, the chairman, Makhnovist ideas were freely discussed:

"The idea of free Soviets, genuinely functioning in the interests of the working population; the question of direct relationships between peasants and city workers, based on mutual exchange of the products of their labour; the launching of a libertarian and egalitarian social organisation in the cities and the country; all these question were seriously and closely studied by the delegates themselves, with the assistance and co-operation of qualified comrades." [Op. Cit., p. 640]

He notes that the congress "decided that the workers, without any authority, would organise their economic, political and administrative life for themselves, by means of their own abilities, and through their own direct organs, united on a federative basis." [Op. Cit., p. 641]

It is significant to note that the congress also discussed the activities of the Makhnovists within the city itself. One delegate raised the issue of the activities of the Kontrrazvedka, the Makhnovist "counter-intelligence" section. As noted in section H.6.5, the Makhnovists, like all the armies in the Russian Civil War, had its intelligence service. It combined a number of functions, such as military reconnaissance, arrest and holding of prisoners, counter-insurgency ("Originally it had a punitive function, but because of improper treatment of prisoners of war, it was deprived of its punitive function." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 300]). The delegate stated that this "counter-espionage service" was engaged in "arbitrary acts and uncontrolled actions -- of which some are very serious, rather like the Bolshevik Cheka." [quoted by Voline, Op. Cit., p. 643] Immediately a commission of several delegates was created to investigate the situation. Voline argues that "[s]uch an initiative on the part of workers' delegates would not have been possible under the Bolshevik regime. It was by activity of this kind that the congress gave a preview of the way in which a society should function from the beginning if it is based on a desire for progress and self-realisation." [Voline, Ibid.] Sadly, the commission could not complete its work due to the city being evacuated soon after the congress.

Another incident shows that under the Makhnovists the civilian population was in control. A delegate noted that Klein, the Makhnovist military commander in the city, had become publicly and riotously drunk after issuing proclamations against drunkenness. Klein was called before the congress, which accepted his apology and his request to be sent to the front, away from the boredom of desk work which had driven him to drink! This, according to Voline, showed that the workers and their congress were the masters and the army its servant. [Voline, Op. Cit., pp. 645-7]

Outside of the congresses the work of local Soviets was to be co-ordinated through the Revolutionary Military Soviet (RMS), the first RMS was set up by the 2nd congress and consisted of one delegate for each of the 32 volsts the Makhnovista had liberated. The RMS was to be answerable to the congresses and limited to implementing their decisions but the difficult military situation meant this seldom happened. When it did (the 3rd Congress) the Congress had no problems with its actions in the previous period. After the Aleksandrovsk congress, the RMS consisted of 22 delegates including three known Bolsheviks and four known Makhnovists, the Bolsheviks considered the remaining delegates "anarchists or anarchist sympathisers".

The military chaos of 1920 saw the RMS dissolved and replaced by the Soviet of Revolutionary Insurgents of the Ukraine, which consisted of seven members elected by the insurgent army. Its secretary was a left Socialist Revolutionary. The RMS in addition to making decisions between Congresses carried out propaganda work including the editing of the Makhnovist paper "The Road to Freedom" and collected and distributed money.

Lastly, we must discuss what happened when the Makhnovists applied their ideas in any cities they liberated as this gives a clear idea of the way they applied their ideas in practice. Anarchist participant Yossif the Emigrant stated that it was "Makhno's custom upon taking a city or town to call the people together and announce to them that henceforth they are free to organise their lives as they think best for themselves. He always proclaims complete freedom of speech and press; he does not fill the prisons or begin executions, as the Communists do." He stressed it was "the expression of the toilers themselves" and "the first great mass movement that by its own efforts seeks to free itself from government and establish economic self-determination. In that sense it is thoroughly Anarchistic." [Alexander Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, pp. 193-5]

Arshinov paints a similar picture:

"As soon as they entered a city, they declared that they did not represent any kind of authority, that their armed forces obliged no one to any sort of obligation and had no other aim than to protect the freedom of the working people. The freedom of the peasants and the workers, said the Makhnovists, resides in the peasants and workers themselves and may not be restricted. In all fields of their lives it is up to the workers and peasants themselves to construct whatever they consider necessary. As for the Makhnovists -- they can only assist them with advice, by putting at their disposal the intellectual or military forces they need, but under no circumstances can the Makhnovists prescribe for them in any manner." [Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 148]

In addition, the Makhnovists "fully applied the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, and of political association. In all cities and towns occupied by the Makhnovists, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the press and on political organisations by one or another power." Indeed, the "only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left Socialist-Revolutionaries and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those 'revolutionary committees' which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people." They also took the opportunity to destroy every prison they got their hands on, believing that free people "have no use for prisons" which are "always built only to subjugate the people, the workers and peasants." [Op. Cit., p. 153, p. 154 and p. 153]

The Makhnovists encouraged self-management. Looking at Aleksandrovsk:

"They immediately invited the working population to participate in a general conference of the workers of the city. When the conference met, a detailed report was given on the military situation in the region and it was proposed that the workers organise the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organisations, basing themselves on the principles of labour and equality. The workers enthusiastically acclaimed all these suggestions; but they hesitated to carry them out, troubled by their novelty, and troubled mainly by the nearness of the front, which made them fear that the situation of the town was uncertain and unstable. The first conference was followed by a second. The problems of organising life according to principles of self-management by workers were examined and discussed with animation by the masses of workers, who all welcomed these ideas with the greatest enthusiasm, but who only with difficulty succeeded in giving them concrete forms. Railroad workers took the first step in this direction. They formed a committee charged with organising the railway network of the region . . . From this point, the proletariat of Aleksandrovsk began to turn systematically to the problem of creating organs of self-management." [Op. Cit., p. 149]

Unfortunately, the Makhnovists occupied only two cities (Alexandrovsk for four weeks and Katerinoslav for two periods of one and five weeks respectively). As a rule the Makhnovist rank and file had little or no experience of life in the cities and this placed severe limits on their ability to understand the specific problems of the workers there. In addition, the cities did not have a large anarchist movement, meaning that the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had more support then they did. Both parties were, at best, neutral to the Makhnovists and anarchists, so making it likely that they would influence the city workers against the movement. As Voline noted, the "absence of a vigorous organised workers' movement which could support the peasant insurgents" was a disadvantage. [Op. Cit., p. 571]

There were minor successes in both cities. In Alexandrovsk, some trains were got running and a few factories reopened. In Katerinoslav (where the city was under a state of siege and constant bombardment by the Whites), the tobacco workers won a collective agreement that had long been refused and the bakers set themselves to preparing the socialisation of their industry and drawing up plans to feed both the army and the civilian population. Unsurprisingly, the bakers had long been under anarcho-syndicalist influence. [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 124]

Clearly, whenever they could, the Makhnovists practised their stated goals of working-class self-management and supported the organisational structures to ensure the control of and participation in the social revolution by the toiling masses. Equally, when they liberated towns and cities they did not impose their own power upon the working-class population but rather urged it to organise itself by setting up soviets, unions and other forms of working-class power. They urged workers to organise self-management of industry. True to the anarchist vision of a free society, they advocated and practised freedom of assembly, speech and organisation. In the words of historian Christopher Reed:

"Makhno's Insurgent Army . . . was the quintessence of a self-administered, people's revolutionary army. It arose from the peasants, it was composed of peasants, it handed power to the peasants. It encouraged the growth of communes, co-operatives and soviets but distrusted all permanent elites attempting to take hold within them. It would be foolish to think that Makhno was supported by every peasant or that he and his followers could not, on occasions, direct their cruelty towards dissidents within their own ranks, but, on the whole, the movement perhaps erred on the side of being too self-effacing, of handing too much authority to the population at key moments." [From Tsar to Soviets, p. 260]

As such, Makhnovist practice matched its theory. This can be said of few social movements and it is to their credit that this is the case.


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