H.6.8 Weren't the Makhnovists just Kulaks?

According to Trotsky (and, of course, repeated by his followers), "Makhno created a cavalry of peasants who supplied their own horses. These were not the downtrodden village poor whom the October revolution first awakened, but the strong and well-fed peasants who were afraid of losing what they had. The anarchist ideas of Makhno (ignoring of the state, non-recognition of the central power) corresponded to the spirit of this kulak cavalry as nothing else could." He argued that the Makhnovist struggle was not the anarchist struggle against the state and capitalism, but rather "a struggle of the infuriated petty property owner against the proletarian dictatorship." The Makhno movement, he stressed, was just an example of the "convulsions of the peasant petty bourgeoisie which desired, of course, to liberate itself from capital but at the same time did not consent to subordinate itself to the dictatorship of the proletariat." [Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 80, p. 89 and pp. 89-90]

Unfortunately for those who use this kind of argument against the Makhnovists, it fails to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Ignoring the sophistry of equating the Bolshevik party's dictatorship with the "dictatorship of the proletariat," we can easily refute Trotsky's somewhat spurious argument concerning the background of the Makhnovists.

Firstly, however, we should clarify what is meant by the term "kulak." According to one set of Trotskyist editors, it was "popularly used to refer to well-to-do peasants who owned land and hired poor peasants to work it." ["glossary," Lenin and Trotsky, Kronstadt, p. 146] The term itself derives from the Russian for "fist," with appropriate overtones of grasping and meanness. In other words, a rural small-scale capitalist (employer of wage labour and often the renter of land and loaner of money as well) rather than a well-off peasant as such. Trotsky, however, muddies the water considerably by talking about the "peasant petty bourgeoisie" as well. Given that a peasant is "petty" (i.e. petit) bourgeois (i.e. own and use their own means of production), Trotsky is blurring the lines between rural capitalist (kulak) and the middle peasantry, as occurred so often under Bolshevik rule.

Secondly, we could just point to the eyewitness accounts of the anarchists Arshinov and Voline. Both stress that the Makhno movement was a mass revolutionary movement of the peasant and working poor in the Southern Ukraine. Arshinov states that after Denikin's troops had been broken in 1919, the Makhnovists "literally swept through villages, towns and cities like an enormous broom" and the "returned pomeshchiks [landlords], the kulaks , the police, the priests" were destroyed, so refuting the "the myth spread by the Bolsheviks about the so-called kulak character of the Makhnovshchina." Ironically, he states that "wherever the Makhnovist movement developed, the kulaks sought the protection of the Soviet authorities, and found it there." [Op. Cit., p. 145] Yossif the Emigrant, another anarchist active in the movement, told anarchist Alexander Berkman that while there was a "kulak" element within it, "the great majority are not of that type." [quoted by Berkman, The Bolshevik Myth, p. 187] According to Halyna Makhno (Makhno's wife), when entering a town or village it was "always Makhno's practice to compel the rich peasants, the kulaki , to give up their surplus wealth, which was then divided among the poor, Makhno keeping a share for his army. Then he would call a meeting of the villagers, address them on the purposes of the povstantsi [partisan] movement, and distribute his literature." [Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia, p. 149]

However, this would be replying to Trotsky's assertions with testimony which was obviously pro-Makhnovist. As such, we need to do more than this, we need to refute Trotsky's assertions in depth, drawing on as many non-anarchist sources and facts as possible.

The key to refuting Trotsky's argument that the Makhnovists were just kulaks is to understand the nature of rural life before and during 1917. Michael Malet estimates that in 1917, the peasantry could be divided into three broad categories. About 40 percent could no longer make a living off their land or had none, another 40 per cent who could make ends meet, except in a bad year, and 20 per cent who were relatively well off, with a fraction at the very top who were very well off. [Op. Cit., p. 117] Assuming that "kulak" simply meant "rich" or "well-off" peasant, then Trotsky is arguing that the Makhnovist movement represented and was based on this top 20 per cent. However, if we take the term "kulak" to mean "small rural capitalist" (i.e. employer of wage labour) then this figure would be substantially smaller as few within this group would employ hired labour or rent land. In fact, the percentage of peasant households in Russia employing permanent wage-labour was 3.3% in 1917, falling to 1% in 1920. [Teodor Shanin, The Awkward Class, p. 171]

In 1917, the peasants all across the Russian Empire took back the land stolen by the landlords. This lead to two developments. Firstly, there was a "powerful levelling effect" in rural life. [Shanin, Op. Cit., p. 159] Secondly, the peasants would only support those who supported their aspirations for land reform (which was why the Bolsheviks effectively stole the Socialist-Revolutionary land policy in 1917). The Ukraine was no different. In 1917 the class structure in the countryside changed when the Hulyai Pole peasants were amongst the first to seize the landlords' land. In August 1917 Makhno assembled all the landed gentry ("pomeshchiks") of the region "and made them give him all the documents relating to lands and buildings." After making an exact inventory of all this property and presenting a report to the local and then district congress of soviets, he "proceeded to equalise the rights of the pomeshchiks and kulaks with those of the poor peasant labourers in regard to the use of the land . . . the congress decided to let the pomeshchiks and kulaks have a share of the land, as well as tools and livestock, equal to that of the labourers." Several other peasant congresses nearby followed this example and adopted the same measure. [Peter Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 53-4]

Most of this land, tools and livestock was distributed to poor peasants, the rest was used to set up voluntary communes where the peasants themselves (and not the state) self-managed the land. Thus the peasants' "economic conditions in the region of the Makhno movement were greatly improved at the expense of the landlords, the church, monasteries, and the richest peasants." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 214] This redistribution was based on the principle that every peasant was entitled to as much land as their family could cultivate without the use of hired labour. The abolition of wage labour in the countryside was also the method the anarchists were to use in Spain to divide up the land some 20 years later.

We should also note that the Makhnovist policy of land reform based on the abolition of wage labour was, as we noted in section H.6.7, the position agreed at the second regional congress called in 1919. The Makhnovists specifically argued with regards to the kulaks:

"We are sure that . . . the kulak elements of the village will be pushed to one side by the very course of events. The toiling peasantry will itself turn effortlessly on the kulaks, first by adopting the kulak's surplus land for general use, then naturally drawing the kulak elements into the social organisation." [cited by Michael Malet, Op. Cit., pp. 118-9]

As such, when Trotsky talks about the "downtrodden village poor whom the October revolution first awakened," he is wrong. In the area around Hulyai Pole it was not the October revolution which "first awakened" them into action, it was the activities of Makhno and the anarchists during the summer and autumn of 1917 which had done that (or, more correctly, it was their activities which aided this process as the poor peasants and landless workers needed no encouragement to expropriate the landlords).

Needless to say, this land redistribution reinforced Makhno's popularity with the people and was essential for the army's later popularity and its ability to depend on the peasants for support. However, the landlords and richer kulaks did not appreciate it and, unsurprisingly, tried to crush the movement when they could. Once the Austro-Germans invaded, the local rich took the opportunity to roll back the social revolution and the local pomeshchiks and kulaks formed a "special volunteer detachment" to fight Makhno once he had returned from exile in July 1918. [Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 59]

This system of land reform did not seek to divide the village. Indeed, the Makhnovist approach is sometimes called the "united village" theory. Rather than provoke unnecessary and damaging conflict behind the frontlines, land reform would be placed in the hands of the village community, which would ensure that even the kulaks would have a fair stake in the post-revolutionary society as everyone would have as much land as they could till without using hired labour. The Bolshevik policy, as we will see, aimed at artificially imposing "class conflict" upon the villages from without and was a disaster as it was totally alien to the actual socio-economic situation. Unsurprisingly, peasant communities as a whole rose up against the Bolsheviks all across Russia.

As such, the claim that the Makhnovists were simply "kulaks" is false as it fails to, firstly, acknowledge the actual pre-revolutionary composition of the peasantry and, secondly, to understand the social-revolution that had happened in the region of Hulyai Pole in 1917 and, thirdly, totally ignores the actual Makhnovist position on land reform. As Michael Malet argues, the Bolsheviks "totally misconstrued the nature of the Makhno movement. It was not a movement of kulaks, but of the broad mass of the peasants, especially the poor and middle peasants." [Op. Cit., p. 122]

This was sometimes acknowledged by Bolsheviks themselves. IAkovlev acknowledged in 1920 that in 1919 Makhno "was a real peasant idol, an expression of all peasant spontaneity against . . . Communists in the cities and simultaneously against city capitalists and landowners. In the Makhno movement it is difficult to distinguish where the poor peasant begins [and] the 'kulak' ends. It was a spontaneous peasant movement .. . . In the village we had no foothold, there was not one element with which we could join that would be our ally in the struggle against the bandits [sic!]." [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 157]

According to a Soviet author present at the Makhnovist regional congresses on January 23 and February 12: "In 1919 when I asked the chairman of the two Congresses (a Jewish farmer) whether the 'kulaks' were allowed to participate in the Congress, he angrily responded: 'When will you finally stop talking about kulaks? Now we have no kulaks among us: everybody is tilling as much land as he wishes and as much as he can.'" [quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 293]

According to Christian Rakovskii, the Bolshevik ruler of Ukraine, "three-fourths of the membership of the [partisan] bands were poor peasants." He presented a highly original and inventive explanation of this fact by arguing that "rich peasants stayed in the village and paid poor ones to fight. Poor peasants were the hired army of the kulaks." [Vladimir N. Brovkin, Behind the Front the Lines of the Civil War, p. 112 and p. 328]

Even Trotsky (himself the son of a rich peasant!) let the cat out of the bag in 1919:

"The liquidation of Makhno does not mean the end of the Makhnovschyna, which has its roots in the ignorant popular masses." [quoted by Malet, Op. Cit., p. 122]

Ultimately, all sources (including Bolshevik ones) accept that in the autumn of 1919 (at the very least) Makhno's support was overwhelming and came from all sections of the population.

Even ignoring the fact there was a social revolution and the eye-witness Bolshevik accounts (including Trotsky's!) which contradict Trotsky's assertions, Trotsky can be faulted for other reasons.

The most important issue is simply that the Makhnovist movement could not have survived four years if (at best) 20 per cent of the population supported it. As Christopher Reed notes, when the Makhnovists were "in retreat they would abandon their weapons and merge with the local population. The fact that they were able to succeed shows how closely they were linked with the ordinary peasants because such tactics made Makhno's men very vulnerable to informers. There were very few examples of betrayal." [Op. Cit., p. 260] If Makhno's social base was as weak as claimed there would have been no need for the Bolsheviks to enter into alliances with him, particularly in the autumn of 1920 when the Makhnovists held no significant liberated area. Even after the defeat of Wrangel and the subsequent Bolshevik betrayal and repression, Makhno's mass base allowed him to remain active for months. Indeed, it was only when the peasants themselves had become exhausted in 1921 due to worsening economic conditions and state repression, were the Makhnovists finally forced into exile.

In the attempt to "eradicate his influence in the countryside" the Bolsheviks "by weight of numbers and consistent ruthlessness they achieved a partial success." This was achieved by state terrorism:

"On the occupation of a village by the Red Army the Cheka would hunt out and hang all active Makhnovist supporters; an amenable Soviet would be set up; officials would be appointed or imported to organise the poor peasants . . . and three or four Red militia men left as armed support for the new village bosses." [David Footman, Op. Cit., p. 292]

Moreover, in these "military operations the Bolsheviks shot all prisoners. The Makhnovists shot all captured officers unless the Red rank and file strongly interceded for them. The rank and file were usually sent home, though a number volunteered for service with the Insurgents. Red Army reports complain of poor morale . . . The Reds used a number of Lettish and Chinese troops to decrease the risk of fraternisation." [Footman, Op. Cit., p. 293] If the Makhnovists were made up of kulaks, why would the Bolsheviks fear fraternisation? Equally, if the Makhnovists were "kulaks" then how could they have such an impact on Red Army troops (who were mostly poor peasants)? After all, Trotsky had been complaining that "Makhnovism" had been infecting nearby Red Army troops and in August 1919 was arguing that it was "still a poison which has infected backward units in the Ukrainian army." In December 1919, he noted that "disintegration takes place in unstable units of our army when they came into contact with Makhno's forces." It seems unlikely that a movement made up of "kulaks" could have such an impact. Moreover, as Trotsky noted, not all Makhnovists were anarchists, "some of them wrongly regard themselves as Communists." Again, why would people who regarded themselves as Communists join a movement of "kulaks"? [How the Revolution Armed, vol. II, p. 367, p. 110 and p. 137]

In addition, it seems highly unlikely (to say the least!) that a movement which is alleged to be either made up of or supported by the kulaks could have had a land policy which emphasised and implemented an equal share for the poorest peasantry, not just of land but also of live and dead stock as well as opposing the hiring of labour. This fact is reinforced when we look at the peasant reaction to the Bolshevik (and, presumably, anti-kulak and pro-"downtrodden village poor") land policy. Simply put, their policies resulted in massive peasant unrest directed against the Bolsheviks.

The Bolshevik land decrees of the 5th and 11th of February, 1919, stated that large landlord holdings would become state farms and all stock was to be taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture, with only between one third and one half of the land being reserved for poor peasants. This was "largely irrelevant, since the peasantry had expected, and in some cases already controlled, all of it. To them, the government was taking away their land, and not seizing it from the landlords, then keeping some of it and handing the rest over to its rightful owners." [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 134] Thus the land was to expropriated by the state, not by the peasants. The result of this policy soon became clear:

"The Bolsheviks expropriation policy was countervailed by the peasants' resistance based upon their assumption that 'the land belongs to nobody . . . it can be used only by those who care about it, who cultivate it.' Thus the peasants maintained that all the property of the former landlords was now by right their own. This attitude was shared not only by the rich and middle peasants but also the poor and landless, for they all wished to be independent farmers. The poorer the areas, the more dissatisfied were the peasants with the Bolshevik decrees.

"Thus Communist agricultural policy and terrorism brought about a strong reaction against the new Bolshevik regime. By the middle of 1919, all peasants, rich and poor, distrusted the Bolsheviks." [Palij, Op. Cit., p. 156]

The Bolshevik inspired Poor Peasant Committees were "associated with this disastrous policy, were discredited, and their reintroduction would need the aid of troops." [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 135] The Makhnovists, in contrast, did not impose themselves onto the villages, nor did they attempt to tell the peasants what to do and how to divide the land. Rather they advocated the formation of Free Soviets through which these decisions could be made. This, along with their support for land reform, helped win them mass support.

After evacuating the Ukraine in mid-1919 due to the success of Denikin's counter-revolution, the Ukrainian Communists took time to mull over what had happened. The Central Committee's November 1919 resolution on the Ukraine "gave top priority to the middle peasant -- so often and so conveniently lumped in together with the kulak and dealt with accordingly -- the transfer of landlord land to the poor peasants with only minimum exceptions for state farms." These points were the basis of the new Ukrainian land law of 5th of February, 1920. [Malet, Op. Cit., p. 135] This new law reflected long standing Makhnovist theory and practice. Therefore, the changing nature of Bolshevik land policy in the Ukraine indicates that Trotsky's claims are false. The very fact that the Bolsheviks had to adjust their policies in line with Makhnovist theory indicates that the later appealed to the middle and poor peasants.

Equally, it seems strange that the "kulaks" who apparently dominated the movement should have let themselves be led by poor peasants and workers. Voline presents a list of some of the participants of the movement and the vast majority are either peasants or workers. [Op. Cit., pp. 688-91] As historian Michael Palij notes, "[a]lmost to a man, they [the Makhnovist leadership] were of poor peasant origin, with little formal education." [Op. Cit., p. 254] Exceptions to the general rule were usually workers. Most were Anarchists or Socialist-Revolutionaries. [Palij, Op. Cit., pp. 254-62]

Of course, it can be argued that the leadership of a movement need not come from the class which it claims to lead. The leadership of the Bolsheviks, for example, had very few actual proletarians within it. However, it seems unlikely that a class would select as its leaders members of the population it oppressed! Equally, it seems as unlikely that poor peasants and workers would let themselves lead a movement of kulaks, whose aims would be alien to theirs. After all, poor peasants would seek land reform while kulaks would view this as a threat to their social position. As can be seen from the Makhnovist land policy, they argued for (and implemented) radical land reform, placing the land into the hands of peasants who worked the land without hiring labour (see section H.6.7)

As regards Trotsky's argument that the Makhnovists had to be kulaks because they originally formed a cavalry unit, it is easy to refute. Makhno himself was the son of poor peasants, an agricultural labourer and a worker in a factory. He was able to ride a horse, so why could other poor peasants not do so? Ultimately, it simply shows that Trotsky knew very little of Ukrainian peasant life and society.

Given that the Bolshevik government was meant to be a "worker-peasant" power, it seems strange that Trotsky dismisses the concerns of the peasantry so. He should have remembered that peasant uprisings against the Bolshevik government occurred constantly under the Bolsheviks, forcing them (eventually) to, first, recognise the false nature of their peasant policies in 1919 and, second, to introduce the NEP in 1921. As such, it seems somewhat ironic for Trotsky to attack the Makhnovists for not following flawed Bolshevik ideology as regards the peasantry!

The Bolsheviks, as Marxists, saw the peasants as "petit bourgeoisie" and uninterested in the revolution except as a means to grab their own plot of land. Their idea of land collectivisation was limited to state ownership. The initial Bolshevik land strategy can be summed up as mobilising the poor peasantry against the rest on the one hand and mobilising the city worker against the peasants (through forced grain confiscation on the other). The lack of knowledge of peasant life was the basis of this policy, which was abandoned in 1919 when it was soon proven to be totally wrong. Rather than see wealth extremes rise, the 1917 revolution saw a general levelling.

As regards the peasantry, here as elsewhere the Bolsheviks claimed their strategy was the objectively necessary (only possible) one in the circumstances. And here again the Makhnovists demonstrate this to be false, as the Bolsheviks themselves acknowledged in practice by changing their agricultural policies and bringing them closer to the Makhnovist position.

Clearly, both factually and logically, Trotsky's arguments are false. Ultimately, like most Bolsheviks, Trotsky uses the term "kulak" as a meaningless term of abuse, with no relation to the actual class structure of peasant life. It simply means a peasant opposed to the Bolsheviks rather than an actual social strata. Essentially, he is using the standard Leninist technique of specifying a person's class (or ideas) based on whether they subscribe to (or simply follow without question) Leninist ideology (see section H.2.12 for further discussion of this). This explains why the Makhnovists went from being heroic revolutionaries to kulak bandits (and back again!) depending on whether their activity coincided with the needs of Bolshevik power or not. Expediency is not a sound base to build a critique, particularly one based simply on assertions like Trotsky's.


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