History of the Makhnovist Movement (1918-1921)

Chapter 13


The history just narrated does not nearly give an exhaustive picture of the movement in its entirety. We have merely traced - very briefly - the story of a single, though central, current of this movement, the current that arose in the Gulyai-Pole region. This current was only a part of a much greater whole. As a social movement of Ukrainian workers, the Makhnovshchina was much more extensive than the picture we were able to draw of it. Its spirit and its slogans echoed throughout the Ukraine. There was social and psychological agitation among the peasants and the workers of almost every government of the Ukraine; everywhere the working masses made attempts to realize their independence in the sense which the Makhnovshchina gave to it; everywhere people heard calls to social revolution and attempted to engage in revolutionary struggle and massive revolutionary creative activity. And if we could have followed the movement in all its ramifications throughout the whole Ukraine, if we could have traced the history of each of the currents and then linked them together and illuminated them in the light of the whole, we could have obtained a great tableau of several million people in revolt, struggling under the flag of the Makhnovshchina for the fundamental ideas of the revolution - freedom and equality. But it is unfortunately impossible to carry out such a work in the conditions of contemporary Bolshevik life, even if one is willing to tolerate all sorts of hardships.

Even the present work, which deals with only one current of the movement, has been drastically condensed. Due to the absence of a large amount of documentary and factual material, this work is unintentionally abridged, both in form and in content.

We firmly hope that a more complete history of the Makhnovist movement will be written one day.

In addition to the flaws we have just mentioned, the present work may also suffer from the fact that the negative aspects of the movement were not sufficiently examined.

No social movement of historical importance, no matter how lofty its aspirations, can avoid errors, serious shortcomings, negative aspects. These were obviously present in the Makhnovshchina. But we must always remember that the Makhnovshchina did not have the opportunity to carry out social experiments, and consequently could not err in this field. The Makhnovshchina is only a powerful movement of the masses, their selfless effort to overcome the reaction and save the cause of the revolution. Consequently, it is in this field that we must look for the shortcomings of the movement.

The basic shortcoming of the movement resides in the fact that during its last two years it concentrated mainly on military activities. This was not an organic flaw of the movement itself, but rather its misfortune - it was imposed on the movement by the situation in the Ukraine.

Three years of uninterrupted civil wars made the southern Ukraine a permanent battlefield. Numerous armies of various parties traversed it in every direction, wreaking material, social and moral destruction on the peasants. This exhausted the peasants. It destroyed their first experiments in the field of workers' self-management. Their spirit of social creativity was crushed. These conditions tore the Makhnovshchina away from its healthy foundation, away from socially creative work among the masses, and forced it to concentrate on war - revolutionary war, it is true, but war nevertheless.

Even today the enemies of freedom are devoting all their forces to the task of preventing the insurrection from leaving the arduous path of military operations. This is the great tragedy of the Makhnovshchina. It suffered from this for more than two years, and judging by the state of things in Russia, this tragedy will continue.

These facts themselves provide an answer to those anarchists who, on the basis of third- or fourth-hand accounts - distorted at that - reproach the Makhnovshchina for its martial character, and for this reason stand aloof from it. The military character was imposed on the movement. Furthermore, all the authorities who appeared in the Ukraine, and mainly the Communists, made extraordinary efforts to drive the Makhnovshchina into a blind alley with only one outlet: banditism. The Soviet government's entire strategy in its struggle against the Makhnovshchina during the past three years was devised for this purpose. Can these Bolshevik machinations be considered flaws of the Makhnovshchina? Obviously not. When speaking about the military character of the movement, we should not begin with the fact that the Makhnovists devoted a great deal of time to artillery and cavalry combats; we should rather ask how the Makhnovists began, what goals they pursued, and what means they had to realize them.

We know that they began by chasing the Hetman's authorities out of the country, and by proclaiming that all the land and all industry belong to the working people. Their goal was the construction of a free life based on the complete social and economic independence of the working classes. Their means were social revolution and free workers' councils.

As active revolutionaries they obviously did not limit themselves to chasing out the Hetman and proclaiming their rights. To destroy the bourgeoisie thoroughly, to secure their rights and revolutionary gains, they organized armed self-defence, thus demonstrating their profound understanding of their role in the social revolution. The positive program of the revolution can be successfully realized only on condition that the workers destroy the military power of the bourgeois state at the right time.

Due to the fact that, as an active and offensive force, the movement was not general but was limited to a few governments, it was encircled by hostile forces: statist-Petliurists, statist Bolsheviks, and Denikin's enormous armed forces, all of which assaulted it from all sides with colossal military force. The movement obviously had to undergo great changes in its strategy, in its ways and means of action, and was forced to devote a large part of its forces to the military side of the struggle for freedom. But as we said, this was not its fault, but its misfortune.

The conditions of warfare which constantly surrounded the Makhnovists engendered among them many characteristics which were due to their exceptional situation: strict discipline in the army and extreme severity toward their enemies. In spite of these characteristics, the Makhnovists remained first of all revolutionaries. When they occupied Ekaterinoslav in October, 1919, the Makhnovists did not in any way disturb the soldiers of Denikin's or of other armies who were being treated in the hospitals of the city, whether they were plain soldiers or officers. And these same Makhnovists shot their own commanders, Bogdanov and Lashkevich, for infractions of discipline and revolutionary honour.[1]

In Chapter 8 we mentioned certain errors and shortcomings of the movement. Other faults and defects of the movement are so trivial and unimportant that there is no reason to dwell on them.[2]

*  *  *

The question is - what next?

During the past year and a half, the struggle of the Makhnovists against the Communist power had an exclusively military character. Neither organizational nor educational work among the peasants and workers was possible. There was no room for free socialist construction. What is the point of continuing such a struggle? What hopes could sustain it?

It is obvious that at the present moment, when a cult of militarism has been implanted throughout the Russian State, when the popular masses of the Ukraine and of Great Russia are completely subjugated, when the entire country is infected by an epidemic of denunciations and unjust trials, the situation of the Makhnovshchina is critical, and any further struggle seems hopeless. But this seems to be so only if the question is considered from a narrow, statist point of view.

We are living in a revolutionary epoch full of massive revolutionary movements of workers and peasants, movements which alternate with reactionary attempts of various authorities to become masters of the movements and to establish their dictatorship. The mass movement which took place in February-March, 1917, gave way to the government of the Duma. The agrarian-industrial mass movement of the summer of 1917 called to life, as a counterweight to itself, the bourgeois-socialist coalition government. And on the crest of the powerful October movement of workers and peasants surfaced the Communist government.

The fact that the Communist power has succeeded in maintaining itself for a long period in revolutionary Russia has made many people think that this system is the product of the Russian revolution and its natural form. But this is profoundly untrue. The Russian revolution and the Communist authority are two antipodes, two opposites. Throughout the Russian revolution, the Communist power has only been the shrewdest, the most flexible and at the same time the most tenacious form of reaction. It struggled against the Russian revolution from the day it began. In this struggle the working masses of Russia have already lost the main achievements of their revolution: freedom of organization, of speech, of the press, the inviolability of life, etc. This struggle spread throughout the expanse of Russia, affecting every village and every factory; its highest point was the revolutionary insurrection in the Ukraine; it re-appeared in several governments in Great Russia, and in February-March, 1921, it reverberated again in the uprising of Kronstadt.

Today Russia is undergoing a phase of acute reaction. It is impossible to predict if the revolutionary movement of workers and peasants will be victorious, or if the reaction will succeed in maintaining itself and consolidating its power. But one thing is clear: the revolutionary epoch which began in Russia is by no means over; enormous revolutionary energy is stored up in the workers and peasants; they still have gunpowder in their powder-flasks, and they may yet engage in massive revolutionary actions in the near future.

Three circumstances might give rise to the resumption of revolutionary activity. First of all, it could arise from the direct struggle of the masses against the Bolshevik reaction. Secondly, it could be caused by the attack of a foreign bourgeoisie against the Russian revolution. And thirdly, it could be stimulated if a power overturned during the course of the revolution attempted to change its course. At first sight it would seem that the latter two circumstances - counter-revolution from without and from within - would not add anything new to the existing Communist counter-revolution. But this is not the case. As new forces they could detonate the masses, who might then break through the reactionary Communist shell which envelops them, and continue the further development of the revolution.

The Makhnovshchina lives from these revolutionary forces of the masses temporarily suppressed by the counterrevolution. It is through them that the Makhnovshchina realized brilliant revolutionary achievements for which the Soviet authority falsely takes credit. It was the Makhnovshchina that buried the Hetman's government, that demolished Petliura's enterprise, that defended the revolution against Denikin, and that contributed significantly to the final defeat of Wrangel.

It might seem paradoxical, but it is nevertheless unquestionable, that the Communist authority implanted and consolidated its power in Russia because of the extraordinary struggle of the Makhnovists against the numerous counterrevolutions.

And in the future, whenever the revolutionary flame is kindled in the masses, the Makhnovshchina will be on the field of revolutionary struggle.

At the present moment it is forced to devote all its efforts to the task of surviving through this period of acute reaction. This is a revolutionary tactic, a strategic manoeuvre on its part, and it might have to be continued for several years. The next five or ten years will decide the fate of the Makhnovshchina and of the entire Russian revolution.

The Russian revolution can only be saved by its liberation from the chains of statism and by the creation of a social regime founded on the principles of social self-direction of the peasants and workers. And when a thrust in this direction appears among the working masses, the Makhnovshchina will be the centre of their general revolutionary unification. It will be the standard and the rallying point for all who are brave, daring, and firmly devoted to the workers. It is then that the Makhnovshchina's devotion to the masses, its experience and its military genius, will serve to protect the truly proletarian social revolution. This is why it continues to carry on the seemingly hopeless struggle against the Communist dictatorship. This is why it continues to disturb the peace and quiet of the Communists.

*  *  *

Yet another question arises.

The Makhnovist movement is primarily a movement of the poorest sectors of the Ukrainian peasantry. The triumph of the Makhnovshchina will mean the triumph of these poor peasants. But will this mean the triumph of the idea of the Makhnovshchina, the triumph of the social revolution?

The day after the triumph of such a revolution the peasants will have to provide foodstuffs to support the urban workers. Assuming that industrial activity in the cities is disorganized and is hardly geared to the needs of the countryside, the workers will not be able to pay the peasants with the products of their own labour. Consequently, in the beginning the peasants will voluntarily and without remuneration have to undertake to support the urban proletariat. Will they be capable of such generosity, of such a revolutionary act? The Communists consistently depict the peasants as a reactionary force imbued with narrow proprietary instincts. Will they be dominated by this proprietary instinct, this spirit of avarice? Will they turn their backs on the cities and abandon them without providing the needed assistance?

We are convinced that this will not happen.

The Makhnovshchina understands the social revolution in its true sense. It understands that the victory and consolidation of the revolution, the development of the well being which can flow from it, cannot be realized without a close alliance between the working classes of the cities and those of the countryside. The peasants understand that without urban workers and powerful industrial enterprises they will be deprived of most of the benefits which the social revolution makes possible. Furthermore, they consider the urban workers to be their brothers, members of the same family of workers.

There can be no doubt that, at the moment of the victory of the social revolution, the peasants will give their entire support to the workers. This will be voluntary and truly revolutionary support given directly to the urban proletariat. In the present-day situation, the bread taken by force from the peasants nourishes mainly the enormous governmental machine. The peasants see and understand perfectly that this expensive bureaucratic machine is not in any way needed by them or by the workers, and that in relation to the workers it plays the same role as that of a prison administration toward the inmates. This is why the peasants do not have the slightest desire to give their bread voluntarily to the State. This is why they are so hostile in their relations with the contemporary tax collectors - the commissars and the various supply organs of the State.

But the peasants always try to enter into direct relations with the urban workers. This question was raised more than once at peasant congresses, and the peasants always resolved it in a revolutionary and positive manner. At the time of the social revolution, when the masses of urban proletarians become truly independent and relate directly to the peasants through their own organizations, the peasants will furnish the indispensable foodstuffs and raw materials, knowing that in the near future the workers will place the entire gigantic power of industry at the service of the needs of the workers of the city and the countryside.

*  *  *

The Makhnovshchina sheds light on only one corner of contemporary Russia. There is no doubt that, with the passage of time, people will come who will expose this Russia from every corner, subjecting all its aspects to the light of truth. And then the role of Bolshevism in the Russian revolution will be clear to everyone.

Already today, in the domain which we examined, we can see its true face. The history of the Makhnovist movement, during which the popular masses tried for years to realize an independence which is better than any known to us, making enormous sacrifices for its sake, definitively unmasks Bolshevism and completely demolishes the legend about its pretended revolutionary and proletarian character.

Throughout the Russian revolution, whenever workers tried to act on their own, the Bolsheviks crushed them. Their reactionary spirit did not even hesitate when it became clear to all, including the Bolsheviks, that the Russian revolution was being killed by their murderous dictatorship. They did not for an instant abandon the insane and morbid desire to forcibly hold the entire revolution within the vice of their program.

It was still altogether possible to rescue the Russian revolution in 1919 and 1920. This is still possible today. What can save it is the revolutionary spirit of the masses, the self-activity of the workers' and peasants' organizations, their independence in thought and action. The revolution would recover its confidence and its will; it would again arouse the great enthusiasm of the masses, stimulating them to heroic struggles and great deeds, curing all the wounds of the social and economic organism.

Statists lie when they claim that the masses are capable only of destroying the old, that they are great and heroic only when they engage in destruction, and that in creative work they are inert and vulgar.

In the realm of creative activity, in the realm of daily work, the masses are capable of great deeds and of heroism. But they must feel a solid foundation under their feet; they must feel truly free; they must know that the work they do is their own; they must see in every social measure which is adopted the manifestation of their will, their hopes and their aspirations. In short, the masses must direct themselves in the largest meaning of those words.

But the Bolsheviks habitually seek only the support and obedience of the masses, and never their revolutionary spirit.

It is a historically established fact that, from 1918 on, Ukrainian peasants and workers were continually engaged in revolutionary uprisings, against Skoropadsky, the Austro-Germans, Petliura, Denikin, etc. These uprisings played an enormous role in the destiny of the entire Russian revolution: they created and sustained a situation of permanent revolution in the country which decisively turned the attention of the workers toward the solution of the essential problems of the revolution.

This situation of permanent revolution in the country was not broken by the counter-revolution of the bourgeoisie or of the Tsarist generals, but by that of the Communist power. In the name of the dictatorship of their Party, the Communists militarily crushed all the attempts of workers to realize their own self-direction - the basic goal of the Russian revolution - and thus crushed the revolutionary ferment in the country.

Their morbid faith in their own dictatorship led the Bolsheviks to become so callous, so ossified and rigid, that the needs and the sufferings of the revolution became totally foreign to them; they preferred to see the revolution dead rather than make any concessions to it. Their role in the entire Russian revolution was fatal. They killed the revolutionary initiative and the self-activity of the masses and shattered the greatest revolutionary possibilities that the workers had ever had in all history. And for this the proletarians of the whole world will forever nail them to the pillory.

However, one should not make the mistake of thinking that only the Bolsheviks are responsible for the defeat of the Russian revolution. Bolshevism merely put into practice what had been elaborated by decades of socialist science. Its entire program of action is based on the theories of scientific socialism. We can see how hypocritically this same scientific socialism treats the workers in other European States, shackling them to the bourgeois dictatorship.

When the world's working class looks for those who are responsible for the shameful and extraordinarily difficult situation of Russian peasants and workers under the socialist dictatorship, it will have to blame socialism in its entirety, and condemn it.

The bloody tragedy of the Russian peasants and workers cannot pass without leaving traces. The practice of socialism in Russia has demonstrated better than anything else that the working classes have no friends, but only enemies who seek to take away the fruits of their labour. Socialism has amply demonstrated that it belongs among these enemies. From year to year, this idea is being implanted more firmly in the consciousness of the masses of the people.

Proletarians of the world, look into the depths of your own beings, seek out the truth and realize it yourselves: you will find it nowhere else.

Such is the watchword of the Russian revolution.

*  *  *

At the time of their third assault on the insurrectionary region, the Soviet power did everything possible to deal the death blow to the Makhnovshchina. Due to their numerous troops freed from military operations in the Crimea and to their superiority in armaments, they succeeded in defeating the insurrectionary army in the summer of 1921, and in forcing the central core of this army, headed by Nestor Makhno, to retreat to Romanian territory. After this the Red Army occupied the entire insurrectionary region, and the revolutionary masses were violently subjected to the dictatorship of Bolshevism.

*  *  *

The Makhnovshchina is now in a new situation, and it faces a new stage in the struggle for the social revolution.

What sort of struggle will this be?

Life itself will determine its character and its forms. But one thing is certain: until the last day the movement will remain true to oppressed humanity; until the last day it will struggle and be prepared to die for the great ideals of labour - freedom and equality.

The Makhnovshchina is steadfast and immortal.

Wherever the working masses do not let themselves be subjugated, wherever they cultivate the love of independence, wherever they concentrate their class will, they will always create their own historical social movement, they will act on their own. This is the essence of the Makhnovshchina.

January-June, 1921.




1. Bogdanov was chief of staff of the 2nd insurrectionary brigade. He was shot in October, 1919, in Aleksandrovsk, for having imposed an indemnity on the bourgeoisie of the region in the name of the army, but for his own interests.

Lashkevich was the well-known commander of the famous 13th regiment of the insurrectionary army. He was shot in the summer of 1920, after a decision made by a general assembly of insurgents, for having spent army funds for his own pleasure, and, in possession of these funds, having refused to help certain insurgent workers who were in a critical situation.

2. We might note in passing that the faults and defects which the governmental press attributed to the movement: plundering, violence against the peaceful population, anti-Semitism, are all fantastic lies. To reduce all these lies to nothing, it is enough to point to the exceptionally joyful welcome given to the Makhnovists by all the villagers of the Ukraine and of Great Russia whenever the Makhnovist army passed through. An additional proof is provided by the Bolsheviks' own documents. In all their references to the struggle against the Makhnovshchina (in secret documents, not in those intended for publication), the agents of the Soviet power always emphasized that the struggle against the Makhnovshchina is particularly difficult because of the aid which the peasants everywhere give to the Makhnovist army, while these same peasants place numerous obstacles in the way of the Red Army.


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