The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Nestor Makhno

Chapter 27: The agrarian communes; their organization; their enemies

February March, 1918. The moment had come to distribute the livestock and implements which had been seized from the pomeshchiks in the autumn of 1917 and to organize agrarian communes on the former estates. All the toilers of the raion understood the importance of decisive action at this moment, both for the construction of a new life, and for its defence. Under the direction of the Revkom, ex-soldiers from the Front began moving all the implements and livestock from the estates of the pomeshchiks and large farms to a central holding area. Their former owners were left with two pairs of horses, one or two cows (depending on the size of the family), one plough, one seeding machine, one mower, one winnowing machine, etc. Meanwhile the peasants went to the fields to finish the division of the land begun in the fall. At the same time some peasants and workers, previously organized into agrarian communes, left their villages and, with their whole families, took possession of the former properties of the pomeshchiks. In doing so, they paid no attention to the fact that the Red Guard units of the Left Bloc, after the agreement with the emperors of Austria and Germany, had evacuated Ukraine. The remaining revolutionary military formations could offer only token resistance to the regular German and Austrian troops who were supported by the armed bands of the Central Rada.

Once the communes were set up, their members, without losing any time, began to organize themselves: some were employed in the normal springtime agricultural work, while others formed combat groups to defend the Revolution and its conquests. The same thing happened in other raions, setting an example for the whole country.

The majority of the agricultural communes were composed of peasants; a minority were a mixture of peasants and workers. Their organization was based on equality and the solidarity. All members of these communes both men and women brought a very positive attitude to their work, whether it was in the field or domestic work.

The communes had common kitchens and dining halls. But the wish of any members to prepare their own food for their families, or to prepare food in the communal kitchen and then carry it home, never met with any objection from the other members. Each member, or even a whole group, could organize their feeding any way they wished, on condition, however, that they give advance notice to the other members so the appropriate dispositions could be made in the communal kitchen and pantry.

The members of a commune were also required to get up early to tend to the cattle and horses and take care of other domestic chores.
Members of the commune had the right to absent themselves, but they were required to advise their work partner in advance so a replacement could be found. This applied to normal work days. On days of rest (Sundays) members took turns going on excursions.

The program of work of the whole commune was worked out during meetings of all the members. Each of the members knew exactly what was expected from them.

Only the question of schools remained open, because the communes did not want to re-establish schools of the former type; among the new schools the first choice was the anarchist model of F. Ferrer which was well known to the communes because of the activities of the Anarchist Communist Group which distributed brochures on the subject. But people trained in the methods of this school were lacking and the communes tried to recruit them from the cities, through the intermediary of the Anarchist Communist Group. If this proved impossible, it was decided, at least for the first year, to get people who were simply able to teach the school subjects.

There existed within a seven or eight kilometre radius from Gulyai-Pole four of these communes. There were many others in the raion. If I dwell on these four, it is because I organized them personally. Their first initiative took place under my supervision, and all the important questions were always submitted to me for advice.

As a member of one of these communes, probably the largest one, I helped out two days a week in all facets of the operation: in the springtime in the fields behind the bukker or the seeding machine; before and after the seeding I did other types of farm work or helped the mechanic at the electric station.

The remaining four days of the week I worked in Gulyai-Pole, in the Anarchist Communist Group or the raion Revkom. This work regime was expected of me by the Group and all the communes and lasted until the defence of the Revolution required the mobilizing of all available forces. For, advancing from the west was the Counter-Revolution in the form of the German and Austro-Hungarian imperial armies and the Central Rada.

In all the communes there were peasant anarchists, but the majority of their members were not anarchists. However the internal life of the commune was a model of anarchist solidarity. In today's world, only the simple natures of toilers not yet affected by the poisonous atmosphere of the cities are capable of such spontaneous solidarity. The cities always emanate an odour of lies and betrayal which infect even many so-called anarchists.

Each commune was composed of a dozen families of peasants and workers, reaching a size of 100, 200, or even 300 members. Each commune received from former estates of pomeshechiks, by the decision of the Raion Congress of Land Committees, a quantity of land which it would be able to farm with its own labour. Moreover, the communes received the livestock and machinery which were already on the property.

And the free toilers of the communes set to work, singing happy songs as they did so. Their songs reflected the spirit of the Revolution, the spirit of those warriors who propagated revolution for many years and had perished or remained alive and implacable in the struggle for "higher justice" which must triumph over injustice, a struggle which must intensify and become a beacon for all humanity.

The toilers sowed the fields and worked in the vegetable gardens, full of confidence in themselves and in their strong resolution to not allow the former proprietors to recover lands which they had never worked with their own hands, lands which the proprietors had possessed by the authority of the State and which they were attempting to seize again.

The inhabitants of the villages and hamlets adjacent to these communes often had a lower level of political consciousness and were not yet completely liberated from sucking up to the "kulaks". These people envied the communards and frequently expressed the desire to confiscate the livestock and machinery left by the pomeshchiks and divide them up among themselves.

"The communards could always buy them back from us later, if they want to," they said. But this attitude was severely condemned by a vast majority of the toilers at congresses and other meetings. The majority of the labouring population saw the organizing of agricultural communes as the healthy beginning of a new social life which, as the Revolution approached the culmination of its creative phase, would grow and develop and stimulate similar phenomena throughout the whole country, or at least in all the villages and hamlets of the raion.

The structure of the free communes was considered by the toilers as the most advanced form of a just society. Nevertheless, most of the toilers decided not to join communes at that time because of the approach of German-Austrian troops, their own lack of organization, and their inability to defend the new system against both "revolutionary" and counter-revolutionary authorities.

That's why the revolutionary toilers of the raion contented themselves with trying to support in every way those among them the boldest ones who had organized themselves into free agrarian communes on the former properties of the pomeshchiks and were leading an independent life there on new social bases.

A certain number of the pomeshchiks and kulaks, as well as some of the German colonists, realized that one way or another they could not continue as owners of thousands of dessyatins of land, exploiting the work of others. Without hesitating any longer, they sided with the Revolution and organized their lives on a new basis, i.e. without using batrak labour and without enjoying the right to rent out their land.

However, at the moment when the oppressed were seized with joy everywhere on liberated soil; when the toilers, oppressed and degraded by political, economic, and social inequality, began to be conscious of their own slavery and sought to be rid of this disgrace once and for all; when it seemed that this liberation was on the point of being accomplished, for the toilers had already become the direct exponents of this concept; when the ideas of freedom, equality, and solidarity among the people began gradually to permeate their lives and simultaneously stifle any possibility of the rebirth of a new slavery; at this moment, the mouthpieces of the ruling Left Bloc, guided by the crafty Lenin, furiously peddled the notion that Lenin's government controlled the Revolution and that everyone must submit to this government as the only repository of the people's secular desires freedom, equality, and free labour.

The urge to dominate the people and their thoughts, and the great Russian Revolution which they had created, so befuddled the state socialists that they forgot for the moment their fundamental divergences on the Peace of Brest-Litovsk, a peace concluded with the German and Austro-Hungarian "tsars" which was regarded by the revolutionary population with hostility. This fundamental problem, with its stormy discussions, the state socialists neglected for the moment. Now another thorny problem had risen up before them. How, while remaining the originators and leaders of the Revolution in the eyes of the revolutionary masses, could they manage to distort the very essence of the concept of social revolution without being destroyed when their secret intentions were exposed? Their intentions were to divert the Revolution from the path of autonomous, creative action and subject it entirely to the statist doctrines following from the resolutions and directives of the Central Executive Committee and the government.

It was quite obvious that within the framework envisaged by the Left Bloc for the Great Russian Revolution there was no place either for autonomous agricultural communes or artels, organized freely on conquered territory without the approval of the government; or for the direct, independent take-over by the workers of factories, workshops, printing plants, and other public enterprises.

The direct actions of the toilers during the Great Russian Revolution clearly reflected their anarchist tendencies. And it was these tendencies which alarmed the state socialists of the Left the most, because the toilers of the cities and villages were pulling themselves together and preparing to launch an anarchist movement which would attack the very idea of the State, in order to recover the State's chief functions and turn them over to their own local autonomous organs.

By their direct revolutionary acts, the toilers showed great daring in their quest for self-liberation. Even if they were imperfectly organized, at least they acted tenaciously.

If the toilers of the cities and villages had received effective organizational assistance from revolutionary anarchists, they would have been able to achieve their aspirations and would drawn all the active forces of the Revolution to their side. And this would have put an end to the irresponsible and incoherent actions of the new socialist rulers who, with Lenin, Ustinov and Co. in command, tried to impose itself on the mass of workers. And the abominable terror of the Bolsheviks, directed against humanity in general and against those who kept their personal convictions and were not afraid to criticize the Bolsheviks and their so-called "proletarian" government in particular, would not have existed in Russia or in Ukraine nor in the other Bolshevik republics.

Alas! We, the revolutionary anarchists, were never capable of seizing the initiative in the midst of great popular revolutionary actions, of understanding their significance and how to help them develop even further. And now we remained powerless, simply because of the lack of even the most rudimentary organization during the most decisive days of the Revolution.

The left-wing state-socialists, on the contrary, while they could not embrace completely the direct revolutionary actions of the toilers, at least quickly understood them and realized that, from the point of view of their ideology, it was impossible to support these popular actions because this would be the end of their illusions of power and would drag them down from the summits of the State which these new masters had attained by climbing on the backs of the direct defenders of the Revolution. The statist Bolsheviks and Left SRs hastened to move against these direct popular revolutionary actions. That is, they not only allowed the government of Lenin to restrain the revolutionary toilers of the cities and villages by decrees handed down from the top, but personally contributed to the disorganization of the toilers at the moment when they had succeeded for the first time in grouping their revolutionary forces effectively. These left-wing parties restrained the process of destruction, and thus the Revolution could not attain its ultimate phase in which the process of reconstruction could find its point of departure and acquire its full development. The new society opposes itself to all that was old and rotten in the former society and which is quite useless in a healthy human society. But always, in times of wholesale psychological changes in the population, the old system tends, under the most varied aspects and forms, hastily and superficially camouflaged, to find its place in the new, free social formations.

These left-wing state socialists, profiting from the naive trust of the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and other regions in their revolutionary work, abused this trust. With their notion of a socialist, proletarian state, they caused the people to swerve off the path of widening and intensifying the Revolution and brought disorganization into the nascent free society, distorting its individual and social tendencies and slowing down the process of its realization. It was this fact, and none other, which gave rise to weariness and indifference on the part of the partisans of liberation, while their enemies, regaining their composure, began to organize themselves and to act while taking into account the relative strengths of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces.

Such moments are advantageous for the new revolutionary forces because they can easily subdue the revolutionary toilers, this devoted vanguard of the Revolution, and separate them from the revolutionary front, broad and creative, which develops outside the control of the authorities. It is precisely under such conditions that the Ukrainian toilers were removed from the revolutionary front.

The politics of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the German and Austro-Hungarian emperors contributed in no small measure to this situation. It should be noted that the Left SRs protested vigorously against this treaty. But, being allied with the Bolsheviks in the business of deceiving and enslaving the toilers for the supposed purpose of constructing a new society in the name of the Revolution, the Left SRs submitted to a fait accompli. Along with the Bolsheviks, they withdrew all their Red Guard detachments from Ukraine in accord with the Treaty. Almost no resistance was offered to the counter-revolutionary forces of Germany and Austro-Hungarian or to the detachments of the Central Rada.
As for the revolutionary Ukrainian toilers, they were left, for the most part, totally at the mercy of the hangmen of the Revolution, invading from the west. The revolutionary commanders either took all the weapons with them, or abandoned them to the invaders.

It's true that the retreat of the revolutionary forces of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs went on for months. During this time, those commanders who had not yet been affected by the poison of these political parties did whatever they could to arm the revolutionary population of Ukraine. But the circumstances were quite unfavourable. The armies were retreating, which is why all the weapons could not be transferred to the revolutionary population and used by them against the advancing counter-revolutionary armies. The retreat of the Red Guards was transformed, indeed, into a veritable rout and the revolutionary territories abandoned were most often occupied the same day by the counter-revolutionary forces, so the revolutionary population had no time to organize themselves into combat units to repulse the invaders.

On to Chapter 28 The successes of the German-Austrian armies and the Ukrainian Central Rada against the Revolution; Agents of the Counter-Revolution and the struggle against them

Back to Chapter 26 New members of our Group

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