The Russian Revolution in Ukraine
Chapter 23: My observations on the Left Bloc in Aleksandrovsk
The Front established against the advance of the Cossacks coming from the External Front towards Zaporozh'e was dismantled. No more Cossacks were expected from that direction. All revolutionary units were withdrawn from the right bank of the Dnepr to the left – to the city of Aleksandrovsk and nearby villages.
The goal of Bogdanov's staff was to advance in the direction of Crimea. The city of Aleksandrovsk was left without defence and the inhabitants were obliged to organize themselves for this purpose. The workers began to do this.
The Revkom, with the support of its constituent
parties, also began to display its "revolutionary" activity. Its activity
consisted of arbitrary interference in the life the local peasantry and, of
course, it adopted an imperious, even threatening tone, in its written and
The Revkom also acted boldly in city matters: it imposed on the bourgeoisie of Aleksandrovsk a levy of 18,000,000 roubles.
Against, just as under the Provisional Government and the Central Rada, arrests started taking place. First on the list were the right-wing socialists (the anarchists, because of their influence in Gulyai-Pole and Kamishevansky raions, could not be touched). At the Revkom one often heard talk of a "Commissar of the Prison", for that was almost the most important post in this "socialist" regime.
I often felt like blowing up the prison, but never succeeded in acquiring a sufficient quantity of dynamite or pyroxylin for this purpose. I spoke about this a number of times to the Left SR Mirgorodsky and M. Nikiforova, but I only frightened them and they proceeded to heap all kinds of work on me which prevented me from approaching the Red Guards, who had all kinds of explosive stuff.
In Aleksandrovsk, I plunged into any kind of work the Revkom gave me to do and carried it through to the end.
But to work like a horse and not know what was going on behind my back was not in my character – all the more so in that I was not a novice at revolutionary work. I wasn't working just to impress whoever happened to be "all-knowing" or "all-powerful" at the current moment.
I saw clearly that collaboration with the Left Bloc was impossible for an anarchist revolutionary – even in the struggle to defend the Revolution. The revolutionary spirit of the Left Bloc parties began to change noticeably as they sought only to dominate the Revolution and to rule in the crudest sort of way.
Observing their work in Aleksandrovsk, and earlier at the uyezd and provincial congresses of peasants and workers, where at that time they were in a majority, I foresaw that the bloc of these two parties was a fiction. Sooner or later one of them would absorb the other for they both supported the principle of the State and its authority over the free community of toilers.
It's true that the toilers, the active element of the Revolution, could not notice this tendency of the political parties in time. They had such confidence in all the revolutionaries that they hardly concerned themselves with scrutinizing their ideas and actions. One constantly had to explain to them what was going on. And who could carry out this necessary function I often asked himself – the anarchists and only the anarchists!
And where at this time in the Russian Revolution did the anarchists have connections with the broad labouring masses? The majority of those claiming to be leaders of Russian anarchism were dragging along behind the centralizing powers of the Left Bloc or not involved in any kind of direct revolutionary action, i.e. at the margins of the Revolution. This was true of the top circles of both the anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-communists (about the anarcho-individualists I shall not speak, because they had no organizations in Russian or Ukraine).
Some independent working class and peasant anarchist groups, having belatedly arrived at some or other tactical decision, threw themselves into the revolutionary fray and were honourably consumed by it in fighting for their own ideals. But alas! They were used up in the storm of the revolution prematurely and without any, or very little, benefit for their own movement.
You might ask: how could things happen this way? Personally, I have only one response to give: "Not being organized, the anarchists lacked unity in action." The Bolsheviks and Left SRs, on the other hand, exploited the faith of the workers in the Revolution, methodically opposing their party interests to the interests of the workers.
Under other circumstances these parties would never have dared replace grass roots revolutionary activity with the shady scheming of their Central Committees. It was all too clear that there was no one to unmask their perfidy. The right-wing socialists allowed themselves to be led by the bourgeoisie. That left only the anarchists to lead the revolutionary forces of the toilers against these machinations. But we, the anarchists, did not have at our disposal an organized force with a definite and positive grasp of the problems of the day.
The Bolsheviks and the Left SRs, under the leadership of the crafty Lenin, noted these deficiencies in our movement and rejoiced. Because we were organizationally powerless, we were unable to oppose the statists from dominating the Revolution which from beginning to end had been connected with anarchist ideas. The statist parties approached the masses with more assurance, deceiving them with the slogan "All Power to the Local Soviets", and created at their expense a party-state type of political power which subordinated all aspects of the Revolution to itself and especially the toilers who had only just succeeded in breaking their chains but were by no means entirely free of them.
By collaborating with the bourgeoisie when all working people were against this collaboration, the Right SRs and Mensheviks contributed to the success of the Left Bloc parties. At this point working people had not rejected the Right SRs, even if they had outstripped their programs. The Right Socialists, to avoid having to bear all the weight of their collaboration with the bourgeoisie, tried to drag working people along with them by referring to the "law" and the "legal power" of the Constituent Assembly, etc.
These ideas which the Right Socialists made so much of were already unacceptable to the toilers. The Right Socialists were objectively already acting against the Revolution. This resulted in the labouring masses giving their preference to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs as well as provoking absolute distrust and a hostile stance towards the Right Socialists.
This phenomenon, so tragic for the Revolution, was known to every revolutionary anarchist who worked with the workers and peasants and who shared with them the successes and errors of this turn in the Revolution.
It distressed me to see that the Left Bloc was not the revolutionary grouping necessary at the moment of the decisive conflict of labour with capital and governmental power. To reach this moment the revolutionaries had expended their strength, including their lives. But the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs were going to spoil the opportunity either by retreating before the reaction of the right socialists who were allied with the bourgeoisie or by massacring each other in a battle to see which would have the number one position in power. In any case the Left Bloc was not providing the help needed to the Revolution so that it could develop freely in its own creative way.
Convinced of this, I gathered several comrades from the Aleksandrovsk Federation of Anarchists (who brought with them sympathetic workers and soldiers) along with my comrades from the Gulyai-Pole brigade. I shared with them my fears on the subject of the Revolution which was, in my opinion, threatened with death on all sides and particularly from the side of the Left Bloc.
I said to my comrades that it would have been better for the Revolution if the Bolsheviks and Left SRs had not formed a bloc because both parties want supreme power over the Revolution and incapable of sharing that power. Ultimately this would lead to a falling out with internal struggles which would cause enormous damage to the Revolution.
"One sees already," I said, "that it's not the people who are enjoying liberty but the political parties. The day will soon come when the people will be completely crushed under the boot of these parties. The parties do not serve the people, rather the people serve the parties. Note that it often happens nowadays that in some question which concerns the people, they are mentioned by name but all the decisions are made directly by the political parties. The people are good only to listen to what the governments tell them!"
Then, after sharing my impressions and my profound conviction that it was time to prepare ourselves to struggle against the schemes of these parties, I shared my plans, not with the whole group but with an intimate circle of fellow-anarchists. I had been mulling over these plans since July-August 1917 and they had partially been put into effect in our organizing work among the peasantry. These plans can be summarized as follows: since the peasants aspire to be their own masters, we ought to approach their local autonomous organizations and explain to them each move made by the socialists to gain supreme power and tell them that the Revolution which they, the peasants, had made had quite another thing in mind. Namely the right of the toilers to liberty and free work and the destruction of any tendency to authoritarian power over the working classes.
If one wants to, one can always get close to the peasants. It's only necessary to settle among them and work with them – work honestly and tirelessly. When, through lack of knowledge, the peasants try to create something that could be harmful for the development of a free society, one must explain to them, convince them that it would be a heavy burden rather than a boon. Instead propose something which would respond to their needs without contradicting the anarchist ideal.
"Our ideal is very rich and there are many points in in which can be immediately put into practice by the peasants for their greatest good," I said.
My other plans were of a conspiratorial character. I did not speak of them at the meeting of comrades that day, but I had progressively prepared the members of the Gulyai-Pole Anarchist Communist Group to carry out these plans. Thanks to our intensive work among the peasants, we had created links with the population which would soon allow us to pass to the realizations of these plans. We, militant revolutionary anarchists, were called to act by the circumstances in which a variety of causes were placing the Revolution in danger.
After consulting with the Aleksandrovsk comrades, I decided to sever my connections with the Revkom and return to Gulyai-Pole with the whole detachment.
On the same day I ran into Comrade Mirgorodsky (Left SR) and invited him to have supper with me at the dining room of the Federation. When he arrived, I didn't beat around the bush but told him that the next day I would tell the Revkom that my detachment was withdrawing me as a representative and would not be sending another in my place.
Comrade M. Nikiforova and some other comrades from the Federation begged me not to be in such a hurry. Mirgorodsky also tried to reason with me but I could not go back on a decision which had already been made with the agreement of my detachment. There remained only to formulate the decision officially in such a way that the Revkom would not interpret it erroneously.
At the Federation of Anarchists not everybody knew about this decision. When they found out, they asked me to explain the cause or the goal of my departure from the Revkom. At that time there were also some workers close to the Left SRs present. They also insisted that I say why I was leaving the Revkom and the city of Aleksandrovsk.
I had to repeat what I had already told numerous comrades. I said that, in my opinion, there were already signs of a rift in the Left Bloc and this at a time when it had hardly been formed. The cause of this, again in my opinion, was, on the one hand, the historico-philosophical divergence between Marxism and Socialist-Revolutionary theory; and, on the other hand, the vanity which pushed each party to get the upper hand over the other in the mad struggle for power over the Revolution.
"It appears quite obvious to me," I said, "that in the not-too-distant future these two parties currently running the country will have a falling out and actually try to exterminate each other, threatening with ruin the Revolution and all that is best in it.
Why in hell should I waste my energy here when I can see the beginnings of the real Revolution in the countryside? The peasants are becoming conscious in a revolutionary way, they are showing their will to struggle for their ideal of justice, we must help them!" I cried out furiously, to the astonishment of the comrades present.
I'm not saying you must all go to the peasants, comrades. I know you well – you are used to the city and are close to the workers. Work here, but remember that here the Revolution has passed from direct action to rules and regulations issued by the Revkom. In the villages, the Revkom will not have such an easy time of it. That's where the soul of the Revolution is, here is where the Counter-Revolution will be. Only an intensive organization of the revolutionary forces of the villages can prevent attempts to kill the Revolution."
To this my comrades from the anarchists and their friends, the Left S-R sympathizers, replied that the future will be revealed in due time. "But in the meantime the Left Bloc is still following the road of the Worker-Peasant Revolution. It is firmly staying the course. A majority of the toiling masses masses see this and support the Bloc. Consequently, to agitate against it or raise an insurrection would simply pave the way for the return of the semi-bourgeois Kerensky regime or, still worse, consolidate the position of the Central Rada which has almost abdicated from the the struggle for the liberation of the toilers. Such adventurism would be a crime against the Revolution."
"We deplore your attitude towards the Left Bloc," said my comrades, "and would be happy if you looked at things from a different point of view. As you yourself constantly stress, the revolutionaries must always be with the people in order to broaden, deepen and further develop the Revolution.
Up to the present you and we have done this. What is stopping us from continuing this work? We all know that if the Left Bloc turns to the right, or tries to bring a halt before the toilers have attained their goals – liberty, equality and independent work – we will immediately pursue a campaign against it. And then each toiler will see and understand that we are right to rebel against the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs."
I recall that Maria Nikiforova and all the friends who worked with her in this city defended this position. She cited several times the name of Comrade A. Karelin, saying that before her departure from Petrograd she had talked to him a lot about this question and he said that this was the best attitude that we could take towards the power of the Left Bloc.
However, these reasonable-sounding arguments of my comrades didn't shake me in the least. I was profoundly convinced that the Bloc was not long for this world. A sign of this, besides those mentioned above, I found in the fact that Lenin acted without any control not only by the Party of Left SRs, but also by his own party, of which he was the creator and leader.
Having organized the peasants of Gulyai-Pole and its raion where the Bolsheviks and SRs had no influence, I had an outsider's point of view on these things. I saw that Lenin intended to make of the Left SRs (among whom I saw none of the core members of the old SR Party) a toy in his hands. That's why I abstained from any response to the comrades and only said once more that I was nevertheless returning to Gulyai-Pole.
While we were exchanging opinions about the Left Bloc and the future of the Revolution which it was trying to control, I received from the commissar of posts a telephonogram from Gulyai-Pole. It announced that agents of the Central Rada had arrived in Gulyai-Pole who, while declaring themselves supporters of the soviets, were carrying on an energetic agitation to persuade solders returning from the External Front to organize haidamak units in Gulyai-Pole and its raion. The nationalists had already got started on this. The telephonogram was signed by M. Shramko.
This message helped me to quit the Aleksandrovsk Revkom and hastened my departure for Gulyai-Pole.
After drawing up an official document, recalling me from the Revkom in the name of the Gulyai-Pole detachment, I went to the Revkom to submit this document as required and to say goodbye. At the Revkom my recall was greeted unfavourably, the executive expressed its disapproval but in a restrained tone. When I explained the reason why I and the whole detachment were in such a hurry to get back to Gulyai-Pole, the chairman of the Revkom, Comrade Mikhailevsky, pulled me aside into a private office and gushed that he was overjoyed that I was rushing back to my raion.
"Your presence in Gulyai-Pole, Comrade Makhno, is necessary now more than ever. And besides, as I think you know already, we are thinking of dividing Aleksandrovsk uyezd into two administrative units, on an initiative from higher up. It is proposed that one of these units be organized under your direction at Gulyai-Pole!"
I responded to my "benefactor" that this idea didn't interest me, that it didn't fit in with my views on the subsequent growth and development of the Revolution.
"Besides," I added, "this all depends on your future successes, does it not?"
"But our successes are assured. All the workers and peasants are with us, and they already hold everything in their hands" exclaimed my ex-colleague.
"Have you not read the telephonogram I got from Gulyai-Pole? And do you not understand what was in it?" I said to him.
"We'd better leave our conversation for later," I remarked. "Now you need to order the commandant of the Ekaterinoslav station to prepare an echelon for four o'clock to transport the Gulyai-Pole detachment."
The order was given immediately.
I continued speaking with him and other members of the Revkom, including the anarchist M. Nikiforova. I talked about the clearly revolutionary mood in the raion and then, taking leave of everyone, I departed for the station. A few minutes later members of the Revkom arrived at the station, most of them in an automobile, M. Nikiforova on horseback. They came to say goodbye again and see us off.
Once more I exchanged a few words with the directors
of the Revkom. Then the detachment sang the anarchist marching song and the
train left the station.
On to Chapter 24 Suppression of the zemstvo territorial units; formation of a Revkom by members of the Soviet; search for funds
Back to Chapter 22 Battle with Cossacks, negotiations, and an agreement
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