On the Question of the Defence of the Revolution

Nestor Makhno

Within the context of the debate that has taken place among our comrades in many countries regarding the Draft Platform of the General Union of Anarchists, published by the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad, I have been asked by a number of comrades to write one or two articles specifically on the defence of the revolution.

I shall strive to deal with this serious question most diligently, but, before I do, I think I have a duty to warn comrades that the point regarding the defence of the revolution is not the central issue of the Draft Platform of the General Union of Anarchists… And since this point is not fundamental, I do not feel any pressing urge or necessity to devote time and energy on discussing it to the extent that many of our comrades do.

For me personally (and I would also say for every serious, conscientious comrade) what is important is the fundamental aspect of the "Draft Platform of the General Union of Anarchists". It is correct, and it points out the necessity for our anarcho-communist circles to study it seriously. Whatever is missing should be added and, based on the resulting work, we need to carry out a regrouping, introducing a greater organization of our forces. Otherwise, our movement will be condemned to succumb once and for all to the influences of the opportunists and liberals who haunt our circles, if not outright speculators and all sorts of political adventurers, who, at best, can prattle on and on but are incapable of fighting on the ground for the attainment of our movement's great objectives. The latter can only happen if we carry along with us all who instinctively believe in our movement and who seek to achieve the widest possible freedom and independence through revolution, so as to build a new society, a new justice, a new order, wherein every individual may at last freely exercise his creative drive for the benefit of himself and his equals.

As far as the question of defence of the revolution generally goes, I shall be relying upon my long experiences first-hand during the Russian revolution in Ukraine, in the course of that unequal, but decisive struggle waged by the revolutionary movement of the Ukrainian working people. Those experiences taught me, firstly, that the defence of the revolution is directly bound up with the revolution's offensive against the counter-revolution. Secondly, the growth and development of the forces for the defence of the revolution are at all times conditioned by the resistance of the counter-revolutionaries. And thirdly, what follows from the above, namely that revolutionary actions in the majority of cases are closely dependent on the political content, structure and organizational methods adopted by the armed revolutionary detachments, who are obliged to confront conventional, counter-revolutionary armies along a huge front.

In its fight against the counter-revolution, the Russian revolution at first began by organizing Red Guard detachments under the leadership of the bolsheviks. It was very quickly spotted the Red Guards failed to withstand the pressures from the organized counter-revolution, to be specific, the German, Austrian and Hungarian expeditionary corps, for the simple reason that, most of the time, they operated without any overall operational guide-lines. That is why the bolsheviks turned to the organization of a Red Army in the spring of 1918.

It was then that we issued the call to form "free battalions" of Ukrainian working people. It quickly transpired that the organization of the "free battalions" in the spring of 1918 was powerless to survive internal provocations of every sort, given that, without adequate vetting, political or social, it took in all volunteers provided only that they wanted to take up their weapons and fight. That was why the armed units established by that organization were treacherously delivered to the counter-revolutionaries. And this prevented it from seeing through its historical mission in the fight against the German, Austrian and Hungarian counter-revolution.

However, following that initial set-back to the organization of "free battalions" - which might be described as direct revolutionary combat units for the defence of the revolution - we did not lose our heads. The organization of "free battalions" was somewhat overhauled in its format. The battalions were complemented by auxiliaries or light partisan detachments of a mixed type, that is, comprising infantry and cavalry alike, whose task was to operate far behind the enemy's lines. And, I repeat, it proved itself during its revolutionary operations against the German, Austrian and Hungarian expeditionary forces and the bands of the Hetman Skoropadsky in the late summer and autumn of 1918.

Sticking to that form of organizing the defence of the revolution, the revolutionary Ukrainian working people themselves were able to wrest from the clutches of the Austro-German Junkers the noose that the latter had thrown around the revolution in Ukraine and, not content with defending the revolution, they followed it through as fully as they could for a number of months, defending it from the German-Hungarian armies and from the forces of the Ukrainian directory, led by Petlyura and Vinichenko, and from the forces of the generals Kaledin and Denikin.*

But as the counter-revolution spread inside the country, it received aid from other countries. From these other countries, the counter-revolution received support not just in the form of arms and munitions but also in the shape of troops. Despite that, our organization of the defence of the revolution also expanded in size and at the same time, as the need arose, adopted a new format and more suitable fighting methods.

As is known, the most dangerous counter-revolutionary front at that time was that of Denikin. However, the revolutionary insurgent movement held its own against Denikin for a period of 5-6 months. Many of the best Denikinist commanders came to grief against our organized revolutionary forces, who had not yet sought any support and who were armed only with weapons taken from the enemy. Our organization made a large contribution to that: without trampling on the internal autonomy of the fighting units, it enabled them to be re-organized into regiments and brigades, coordinated by a common operational staff.

It is true that the establishment of a general operational staff was feasible only thanks to the appreciation by the revolutionary working masses, fighting on the front as well as behind his lines, of the need for a united command. These workers, under the influence of our anarcho-communist peasant group, also saw to it that every individual was awarded equal rights to take part in all areas of the construction of the new society, including the obligation to defend its gains. Thus, while the counter-revolutionary Denikinist front threatened the very life of the revolution (and our anti-statist ideas which were behind it), which was being watched with a lively interest by the revolutionary workers, these workers came together on the basis of our organizational notion of the defence of the revolution, making it their own and bolstering the insurgent army with a regular influx of fresh combatants to relieve the wounded and the weary.

This phenomenon in the practical requirements of the struggle induced our movement for the defence of the revolution to establish an operational and organizational staff to share the overseeing of all active fighting units.

It is because of this practice that I find myself unable to subscribe to the view that revolutionary anarchists in their practical activity among the ranks of the revolutionary masses should reject the need for such a united operational command Staff to strategically guide the armed forces of the revolution against the forces of counter-revolution.

We are convinced that any revolutionary anarchist finding himself, during an authentic revolution of the workers, in the same circumstances as those we encountered in the civil war in Ukraine will be forced to use the same military-revolutionary methods as we did when we lived through the history of the civil struggle in Ukraine. But if, in the course of a future social revolution, there are anarchists who reject the above-mentioned organizational principles in spite of the existence of armed fronts of counter-revolution, then these anarchists will be part of the movement in word only, whereas in reality they will be outside it, or they will harm it.

In resolving the question of the revolution's defence, anarchists must be guided by the social character of anarcho-communism. If our movement is a revolutionary social movement, we have to acknowledge the need for it to be organized and endow it with certain means for social action worthy of it, meaning social institutions, then throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the practical life and struggle of the working masses.

Otherwise, if this movement is a utopia of dreamers, then we must not hamper the path of the revolutionary working people, in particular those who do not understand us and who follow the state socialists. It goes without saying that anarchism is a revolutionary social movement and that is why I stand and will always stand for its specific organization now and support the organization, come the revolution, of battalions, regiments, brigades and divisions which it will prove necessary to amalgamate, at certain times, into one common regional army, under a united regional command in the shape of supervisory organizational Staffs, the task of which will be, according to the requirements and conditions of the struggle, to draw up a federative operational plan, co-ordinating the actions of regional armies, so as to bring to a successful conclusion the fighting conducted on all fronts against the armed counter-revolution.

The question of the defence of the revolution from the armed counter-revolution is no easy matter. It may require very great organizational commitment from the armed revolutionary masses. Revolutionary anarchists must realise this and stand by to assist them in that undertaking.


* Note. At the time, the bolsheviks had no forces in Ukraine. Bolshevik forces arrived in Ukraine from Russia some time later and immediately occupied a parallel front against the counter-revolution to ours, endeavouring in appearance to unite with the revolutionary working people who were organized autonomously and not according to their state-controlled prescription, but in reality busying themselves with the decomposition and dispersion of the workers, not disdaining to use methods such as sabotaging prompt supplies of cartridges and shells - exactly at the moment when we were seeking to carry out an offensive along our entire front, and when the outcome of the battle depended on the strength of our artillery and machine-guns.)

Delo Truda N°25, June 1927, pp. 1 3-14.


Translated from Russian to French by Alexandre Skirda and from French to English by Paul Sharkey. English translation revised with reference to the Russian by the Nestor Makhno Archive.

Return to The Nestor Makhno Archive

Other pages connected to this site:

Anarchist Groups & Organizations

An Anarchist Reader