The Makhnovists in the Liberated Regions
The permanent armed struggle, the life of a "kingdom on wheels" which denied the population of the Makhnovist region any kind of stability, also denied them, inevitably, the possibility of extensive positive and constructive activity. Nevertheless, whenever it was possible, the movement gave evidence of great organic vitality and the working masses demonstrated a remarkable creative will and capacity.
Let us give a few examples. We have spoken, more than once, of the Makhnovist press. Despite the various obstacles and difficulties of the time, the Makhnovists, who remained in direct contact with the Anarchist "Nabat" Federation, continued to publish leaflets, newspapers, etc. They even found time to produce a sizeable booklet, under the title General Theses of the Revolutionary (Makhnovist) Insurgents Concerning the Free Soviets.
The newspaper Road to Freedom which sometimes appeared daily and sometimes weekly, was primarily devoted to the popular and concrete exposition of libertarian ideas. Nabat, concerned more with theory and doctrine, appeared every week. We should also mention The Makhnovist Voice, a newspaper which dealt primarily with the interests, problems and tasks of the Makhnovist movement and its army.
As for General Theses, this pamphlet summarised the Makhnovist's views on the burning problems of the hour: the economic organisation of the region and the free Soviets; the social basis of the society that was to be built, the problem of defence, the exercise of justice, etc.
A question frequently asked is: How did the Makhnovists behave in the cities and towns that they took in the course of the struggle? In what way did they organise the civil population? In what way did they organise the life of the conquered cities, i.e. administration, production, trade, municipal services, etc.?
Since a great many myths and slanders have circulated on this subject, it is necessary to expose them and establish the truth. And since I was with the Makhnovist army at the very time when, after the battle of Peregonovka, they took several important cities, such as Aleksandrovsk, Ekaterinoslav and others, I can give the reader a first-hand and accurate account.
The first concern of the Makhnovists, as soon as they entered some city as conquerors, was to remove the dangerous misunderstanding that they were a new power, a new political party, a kind of dictatorship. They immediately posted on the walls large notices in which they said approximately the following to the population:
"To all the workers of the city and its environs!
Workers, your city is for the present occupied by the Revolutionary Insurrectionary (Makhnovist) Army. This army does not serve any political party, any power, any dictatorship. On the contrary, it seeks to free the region of all political power, of all dictatorship. It strives to protect the freedom of action, the free life of the workers, against all exploitation and domination.
The Makhnovist Army does not therefore represent any authority. It will not subject anyone to any obligation whatsoever. Its role is confined to defending the freedom of the workers. The freedom of the peasants and the workers belongs to themselves, and should not suffer any restriction.
It is up to the workers and peasants themselves to act, to organise themselves, to reach mutual understanding in all fields of their lives, in so far as they desire it, and in whatever way they may think right.
They must, therefore, know right away, that the Makhnovist Army will not impose on them, will not dictate to them, will not order them to do anything. The Makhnovists can only help them, by giving them opinions or advice, by putting at their disposal the intellectual, military and other forces that they need. But they cannot, and, in any case, will not govern them or prescribe for them in any way."
Nearly always these notices ended with an invitation to the working population of the city and its environs to attend a big meeting where the Makhnovist comrades would set forth their views in a more detailed manner, and give, if necessary, some practical advice for beginning to organise the life of the region on a basis of freedom and economic equality, without authority and without the exploitation of man by man.
When, for some reason, such an invitation could not appear on the same notice, it was made a little later, by means of a small special notice.
Usually, although at first a little surprised by this absolutely new way of acting, the population quickly got used to the situation, and set about the task of free organisation with great enthusiasm and success.
It goes without saying that in the meantime, reassured about the attitude of the "military force", the city simply resumed its normal appearance and its usual way of life; the shops reopened, work started again where it was possible, the various administrations resumed their functions, the markets were held. Thus, in an atmosphere of peace and freedom, the workers prepared for positive activity to replace the old worn-out system in a methodical manner.
In each liberated region, the Makhnovists were the only organisation with enough forces to be able to impose their will on the enemy. But they never used these forces for the purpose of domination or even for any political influence. They never used them against their purely political or ideological opponents. The military opponents, the conspirators against the freedom of action of the workers, the police, the prisons, these were the elements against which the efforts of the Makhnovist army were directed.
As for free ideological activity, exchange of ideas, discussion, propaganda and the freedom of organisations and associations of a non-authoritarian nature, the Makhnovists guaranteed, everywhere and integrally, the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, press, conscience, assembly, and political, ideological or other association. In all the cities and towns that were occupied, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the organs of the press and on political organisations by whatever power.
At Berdyansk, the prison was dynamited, in the presence of an enormous crowd, which took an active part in its destruction. At Aleksandrovsk, Krivoi-Rog, Ekaterinoslav and elsewhere, the prisons were demolished or burned. Everywhere the workers cheered this act.
Complete freedom of speech, press, assembly and association of any kind and for everyone was immediately proclaimed. Here is the authentic text of the Declaration in which the Makhnovists made known this proposition in the localities they occupied.
"I. All Socialist  political parties, organisations and tendencies have the right to propagate their ideas, theories, views and opinions freely, both orally and in writing. No restriction of Socialist freedom of speech and press will be allowed, and no persecution may take place in this domain.
Remark: - Military communiqués may not be printed unless they are supplied by the management of the central organ of the revolutionary insurgents, the Road to Freedom.
II. In allowing all political parties and organisations full and complete freedom to propagate their ideas, the Makhnovist Insurgent Army wishes to inform all the parties that any attempt to prepare, organise and impose a political authority on the working masses will not be permitted by the revolutionary insurgents, such an act having nothing in common with freedom of ideas and propaganda.
Ekaterinoslav, November 5th, 1919.
Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army."
In the course of the whole Russian Revolution, the period of the Makhnovshchina in the Ukraine was the only one in which the true freedom of the working masses found full expression. While the region remained free, the workers of the cities and districts occupied by the Makhnovists could say and do, for the first time, anything they wanted and as they wanted. And furthermore, they at last had the opportunity to organise their life and work themselves, according to their own judgment, according to their own feelings of justice and truth.
During the few weeks that the Makhnovists spent at Ekaterinoslav, five or six newspapers of various political orientations appeared with full freedom - the Right Social-Revolutionary paper Narodovlastie (The People's Power), the Left Social-Revolutionary Znamya Vosstaniya (The Standard of Revolt), the Bolshevik Star, and others. To tell the truth, the Bolsheviks had less right to freedom of press and association, because they had destroyed, everywhere that they could, the freedom of press and association for the working class, and also because their organisation at Ekaterinoslav had taken a direct part in the criminal invasion of the Gulyai-Pole region in June 1919 and it would have been only justice to inflict a severe punishment on them. But, in order not to injure the great principles of freedom of speech and assembly, they were not disturbed and could enjoy, along with all the other political tendencies, all the rights inscribed on the banner of the social revolution.
The only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the Social-Revolutionaries and other statists was the prohibition against the formation of those Jacobin "revolutionary committees" which sought to impose a dictatorship on the people. Several occurrences proved that this measure was not unjustified.
As soon as the Makhnovist troops took Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the local Bolsheviks, coming out of their hiding places, hastened to organise this kind of committee (the "Revkoms") seeking to establish their political power and govern the population. At Aleksandrovsk, the members of such a committee went so far as to propose to Makhno a "division of spheres of action", leaving him the military power and reserving for the committee full freedom of action and all political and civil authority. Makhno advised them to "go and take up some honest trade", instead of seeking to impose their will on the labouring population. A similar incident occurred at Ekaterinoslav.
This attitude of the Makhnovists was just and logical. Precisely because they wanted to insure and defend full freedom of speech, press, organisation, etc., they could without any hesitation take any measure against those formations which sought to stifle this freedom, to suppress other organisations and impose their will and dictatorial authority on the working masses.
And the Makhnovists did not hesitate to do so. At Aleksandrovsk, Makhno threatened to arrest and shoot all the members of the "Rev-Com" if they made the least attempt of this nature. He acted in the same way at Ekaterinoslav. And when, in November 1919, the commander of the 3rd Insurrectionary (Makhnovist) Regiment, Polonsky, who had Communist leanings, was convicted of having participated in this kind of action, he was executed along with his accomplices.
At the end of the month, the Makhnovists were forced to leave Ekaterinoslav. But they had time to demonstrate to the working masses that true freedom resided in the hands of the workers themselves, and that it began to radiate and develop as soon as the libertarian spirit and true equality of rights were established among them.
Aleksandrovsk and the surrounding region were the first places in which the Makhnovists remained for a fairly long time. Immediately, they invited the working population to participate in a general conference of the workers of the city.
The conference began with a detailed report by the Makhnovists on the military situation in the district. Then it proposed that the workers organise the life of the liberated region themselves, that is to say reconstruct their organisation that had been destroyed by the reaction; get the factories and shops back into production as soon as possible, organise Consumers' Co-operatives, get together right away with the peasants of the surrounding countryside and establish direct and regular relations between the workers' and peasants' organisations for the purpose of exchanging products, etc.
The workers enthusiastically acclaimed all these ideas. But, at first, they hesitated to carry them out, troubled by their novelty, and moreover, uncertain because of the nearness of the front. They feared the return of the Whites - or the Reds - in the near future. As always, the instability of the situation prevented positive work.
Nevertheless, matters did not rest there. A few days later, a second conference took place. The problems of organising life according to the principles of self-administration by the workers were examined and discussed with animation. Finally the conference reached the crucial point -- the precise way to go about it, the first step to take.
The proposition was made to form a Commission of Initiative, composed of delegates of several active labour unions. The conference would give this Commission the task of working out a project for immediate action. Several members of the railway-men's and the shoemakers' unions declared that they were ready to organise immediately this Commission of Initiative which would proceed to create the indispensable workers' organs, to reactivate, as quickly as possible, the economic and social life of the region. The Commission went energetically to work. Soon the railway workers got the trains running again, several factories reopened their doors, several unions were re-established, etc.
While waiting for more fundamental reforms, it was decided that the money in use - a kind of paper money of various issues - would continue to serve as a means of exchange. But this problem was of secondary importance, since for some time the population had been using other methods of exchange.
Shortly after the workers' meetings, a big regional congress of workers was called at Aleksandrovsk for October 20th, 1919. This congress deserves particular attention, since it was very exceptional in the way it was organised, in its procedures and in its accomplishments. I was an active participant and can give a detailed account
In taking the initiative of calling a regional workers' congress, the Makhnovists had assumed a very delicate task. They hoped to give an important impetus to the activity of the population, which was necessary, praiseworthy and understandable. But on the other hand, they had to avoid imposing themselves on the congress and the population, they had to avoid the appearance of dictating.
It was important, above all, that this congress should be different from those called by the authorities of a political party (or a dominant caste), who would submit to the congress ready-made resolutions, destined to be adopted docilely, after a semblance of discussion, and imposed on the so-called delegates, under threat of the repression of all eventual opposition. Moreover, the Makhnovists had a number of questions concerning the Insurrectionary Army to submit to the congress. The fate of the army and the whole task it had undertaken depended on the way the congress answered these questions. But, even in this special field, the Makhnovists tried to avoid any kind of pressure on the delegates.
To avoid all pitfalls, the following was decided:
Two or three days before the congress, I experienced a curious episode. One evening, a very young man presented himself to me. He identified himself as Comrade Lubim, a member of the local committee of the Left Social Revolutionary party. I immediately noticed his overwrought condition, and, in great excitement, he went to the point that had led him to come to me without any preliminaries.
"Comrade V.", he cried, pacing up and down in the little hotel room in which we were, "Excuse my crudeness, but the danger is immense. You are certainly not aware of it. And there is not a minute to lose. Very well, you are Anarchists, therefore Utopians, and therefore naive. But you can't carry your naivete to the point of stupidity. You haven't even the right to do it, since it isn't only a question of yourselves, but of other people and of a whole cause."
I confessed that I did not understand a word of his tirade.
"Now then," he continued, more and more excited, "you call a congress of peasants and workers. This congress will have enormous importance. But you are such babies! in your ineffable naivete, what do you do? You send out little slips of paper on which is scrawled that a congress will take place! That is all. It's frightening, it's crazy. No explanation, no propaganda, no electoral campaign, no list of candidates, nothing, nothing! I beg you, Comrade V., open your eyes a little! In your situation, you have to be a little realistic, after all! Do something, while there is still time. Send agitators, present candidates to the voters. Give us time to make a little campaign. For what would you say if the population - who are mainly peasants - send you reactionary delegates who demand the calling of the Constituent Assembly, or even the restoration of the monarchy? The people are seriously influenced by the counter-revolution. And what would you do if the majority of the delegates are counter-revolutionary and sabotage your congress. Act, therefore, before it is too late! Postpone the congress a little while and take some steps."
I understood. As a member of a political party, Lubim saw things in that way.
"Listen, Lubim," I said to him, "If, in the existing conditions, in the midst of a popular revolution, and after everything that has happened, the working masses send counter-revolutionaries and monarchists to their own congress, then the whole of my life's work will have been a profound error, and I shall have only one thing to do - to blow out my brains with that revolver you see on my desk."
"We must talk seriously," he interrupted, "and not dramatise..."
"I assure you, Comrade Lubim, that I am talking very seriously. We will change nothing in our procedure, and if the congress is counter-revolutionary, I will kill myself. I could not survive such a terrible disillusionment. And now, please take note of one basic fact. It is not / who am calling the congress, nor was it I who decided how to call it. All that is the work of a group of comrades. I have no power to alter anything."
"Yes, I know, but you have great influence. You could propose a change. They would listen to you."
"I have no desire to propose it, Lubim, since we are all in agreement."
The conversation ended, and Lubim, unconsoled, left me.
On October 20th, 1919, more than two hundred delegates, peasants and workers, met in the congress hall. Beside the delegates, several places were reserved for representatives of the right-wing Socialist Parties - Social-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks - and those of the Left-Social-Revolutionaries. They all attended the congress with a consultative voice. Among the Left-Social-Revolutionaries I saw Comrade Lubim.
What struck me especially on that first day of the congress was a coldness or rather a mistrust which nearly all the delegates seemed to manifest. We learned later that they expected a congress like so many others; they expected to see on the platform men with revolvers in their belts who would manoeuvre the delegates and make them vote for resolutions which had been prepared in advance. The meeting was frozen, and it took some time to thaw it.
I had the job of opening the congress, and I gave the delegates the agreed explanations and declared that they should first elect an executive committee and then consider the agenda proposed by the Makhnovists.
The members of the congress wished me to preside over their meetings. I consulted my comrades and then agreed. But I declared to the delegates that my role would be strictly limited to the technical conduct of the congress, that is, to following the agenda that was adopted, to recognising the speakers, giving them the floor, facilitating the order of business, etc., and that the delegates should deliberate and reach their decisions in complete freedom, without fearing any pressure or manoeuvring from me.
Immediately a right-wing Socialist asked for the floor. He delivered a violent attack on the organisers of the congress. "Comrade delegates," he said, "we Socialists consider it our duty to warn you that a disgraceful comedy is being acted here. They are not imposing anything on you, they say! Yet already they have very adroitly imposed an Anarchist chairman on you, and you will continue to be manoeuvred by these people."
Makhno, who had arrived a few minutes earlier to wish the congress good luck and excuse himself for having to leave for the front, took the floor and replied sharply to the Socialist speaker. He reminded the delegates of the complete freedom of their election, and, accusing the Socialists of being the faithful defenders of the bourgeoisie, he advised their representatives not to disturb the work of the congress by political interventions. "You are not delegates," he ended, "Therefore, if the congress does not please you, you are free to leave."
Nobody opposed this, and four or five Socialists demonstratively left the hall, protesting vehemently at such an "expulsion". Nobody seemed to regret their departure. On the contrary, the meeting seemed satisfied and a little less frigid than before.
After this interruption, one of the delegates got up to speak. "Comrades," he said, "before passing to the agenda, I would like to submit a preliminary question which, in my opinion, is of great importance. Just now, a word was mentioned here - the bourgeoisie. Clearly, the bourgeoisie is being attacked as if we knew perfectly what it is, and as if everyone were in agreement about it. But this seems to me a great error. The term bourgeoisie is not clear to everybody. And I am of the opinion that because of its importance it would be useful, before we set to work, to define it precisely and know what exactly we mean by it."
Despite the orator's skill (I felt that notwithstanding his simple peasant costume he was not a real peasant), the gist of his speech demonstrated clearly that we had among us a defender of the bourgeoisie and that his intention was to sound out the congress and if possible to undermine the spirit of the delegates. He certainly expected to be supported - consciously or ingenuously - by an appreciable number of delegates. If he had succeeded, the congress would have been in danger of falling into ridiculous confusion, and its work might have been seriously disturbed.
The moment was tense. I had, as I had just explained to the congress - no right to impose myself and eliminate by some simple device the delegate's unfortunate proposal. It was up to the congress, to the other delegates, to decide the question in complete freedom. Their mentality was not yet evident. All of them were unknowns, and obviously very distrustful unknowns at that. Deciding to let the incident take its course, I asked myself what was going to happen. And Lubim's apprehensions occurred to me.
As all these thoughts passed rapidly through my mind, the delegate finished his speech and sat down. For a moment, I saw distinctly, the gathering was puzzled. Then, quite suddenly and almost as if it had been arranged in advance, delegates began to call out from all over the hall.
"Hey, what kind of a bird is this delegate? Where does he come from? Who sent him? If he doesn't know what the bourgeoisie is after everything that has happened, they made a queer choice in sending him here! Tell us old boy, haven't you found out yet what the bourgeoisie is? Well, you must have a thick skull. You'd better go home and find out, or else keep quiet and don't take us for idiots."
"We have other things to do than waste time splitting hairs," cried other delegates. "There are questions to settle which are important for the whole region. And for more than an hour we have been fooling around instead of working. It's beginning to look like sabotage. Let's get to work."
"Yes, yes, enough fooling, let's get down to work," came the shouts from all sides.
The pro-bourgeois delegate swallowed it all without a word. He had made a mistake. He was completely silent for the rest of the conference, which lasted nearly a week, and during that whole time, he remained isolated from the other delegates.
While the delegates were thus berating their unfortunate colleague, I looked at Lubim. He seemed surprised and pleased. However, the preliminary incidents were not yet finished, for the storm had hardly died down over the last interruption when Lubim himself leaped to the platform.
"Comrades," he began, "excuse my intervention. It will be brief. I make it in the name of the local committee of the Left Social-Revolutionary Party. This time it is a really important question. According to our chairman's declaration, he doesn't want to preside effectively. And you must be aware that he is not in fact fulfilling the real function of chairman of the congress. Comrades, we Left Social-Revolutionaries find that very bad and fear it will be harmful. It means that your congress has to work without a head, without direction. Comrades, have you ever seen an organism without a head? No, comrades, that is not possible. It would mean disorder and chaos. We have had enough of that already. No, it is impossible to work usefully, fruitfully and unconfusedly under these conditions. You need a head, for the congress, you need a real chairman, a real head."
As Lubim delivered his diatribe in a rather tragic and imploring tone, his intervention sounded more and more ridiculous with each repetition of the word "head". But, since my method of procedure had not yet proved itself, I wondered if the delegates might not be impressed by Lubim's ideas.
"We have had enough of those heads," came shouted from all over the hall. "Always heads and more heads! Let us try and do without them for once. Let us try to work really freely. Comrade V. has explained that he will help the congress technically. That is enough. It is up to us to observe our own discipline, to work well and keep our eyes open. We don't want any more of these 'heads' who lead us like puppets and who call that 'work and discipline'."
Lubim could do nothing but sit down. This was the last incident. I set about reading the agenda and the congress began its work. Arshinov was quite correct when he said that in its discipline, in the orderliness of its work, in the prodigious enthusiasm that animated the delegates, in its serious and concentrated character, in the importance of its decisions and in the results it achieved, this congress was exceptional.
The work was accomplished rapidly, and in perfect order, with remarkable unanimity, intimacy and ardour. By the end of the third day, all signs of distrust had disappeared. The delegates were thoroughly inspired by the freedom of their activity and the importance of their task. They consecrated themselves to it without reservations. They were convinced that they were working on their own and for their own cause.
There were no grand speeches or grandiose resolutions. The work assumed a practical and down-to-earth character. When a rather complicated problem needed reducing to simple terms, or when the delegates wanted clarification before they began their work, they asked to be presented with a detailed report, and I or some other qualified comrade would give an explanation. After a short discussion, the delegates would then set about working for definite results. Once agreed on the basic principles of a question, they usually created a special commission, which would draw up a very thoughtful project and arrive at practical solutions instead of composing literary resolutions. In this way a number of immediate and concrete questions, of great interest to the life of the region or the defence of its freedom, were eagerly discussed and worked over in their smallest detail by the committees and the delegates.
In my capacity of Technical Chairman, as I was called, I had only to supervise the order of business, formulate and announce the results of each completed task, call upon the delegates to consider and adopt certain rules of procedure, etc. The most important thing was that the congress functioned under the auspices of absolute and genuine freedom. No influence from above, no element of constraint, was felt.
The idea of free Soviets, genuinely functioning in the interests of the working population; the question of direct relations between peasants and city workers, based on mutual exchange of the products of their labour; the launching of a libertarian and egalitarian social organisation in the cities and the country; all these questions were seriously and closely studied by the delegates themselves, with the assistance and co-operation of qualified comrades.
Among other things, the congress resolved numerous problems concerning the Insurrectionary Army, its organisation and reinforcement. It was decided that the whole male population, up to the age of 48, would go to serve in this army. In keeping with the spirit of the congress, this enrolment would be voluntary, but as general and numerous as possible, in view of the extremely dangerous and precarious situation in which the region found itself.
The congress also decided that the supplying of the army would be done primarily by free gifts from the peasants, in addition to the spoils of victory and requisitions from the privileged groups. The size of these gifts would be carefully established, according to the size of each family.
As for the purely "political" questions, the congress decided that the workers, doing without any authority, would organise their economic, political and administrative life for themselves, by means of their own abilities, and through their own direct organs, united on a federative basis. Arshinov tells us that:
"The peasants, among whom there were old and even ancient men, said that this was the first congress where they felt not only perfectly free and their own masters, but also real brothers, and that they would never forget it. And, indeed, it is hardly likely that anyone who took part in that congress could ever forget it. For many, if not for all, it remained engraved for ever on their memories as a beautiful dream of the life in which true liberty would bring men together, giving them the opportunity to live united at heart, joined by a feeling of love and brotherhood.
And when they left, the peasants emphasised the necessity of putting the decisions of the congress into practice. The delegates took away with them copies of the resolutions in order to make them known all over the countryside. It is certain that at the end of three or four weeks the results of the congress would have been known all over the district and that the next congress, called on the initiative of the peasants and workers themselves, would not have failed to attract the interest and active participation of great masses of workers.
Unfortunately, the true freedom of the labouring masses is continually being destroyed by its worst enemy, Power. The delegates had hardly time to return to their homes, when many of the villages were again occupied by Denikin's troops, coming by forced marches from the northern front. To be sure, this time the invasion was only of short duration; it was the death agony of a dying enemy. But it halted the constructive work of the peasants at the most vital moment, and since another authority equally hostile to the ideas of freedom for the masses (Bolshevism) was approaching from the north, this invasion did irreparable harm to the workers' cause; not only was it impossible to assemble a new congress, but even the decisions of the first could not be put into practice." (Op. cit., pp. 242-4)
I cannot pass over in silence certain episodes which marked the last phase of the congress. A short while before its termination, when I announced the classic "general questions", several delegates undertook and carried out a delicate task which gave another proof of the complete independence of the congress and of the enthusiasm to which it gave rise, as well as the moral influence it exercised in the course of its labours.
"Comrades," said a delegate who took the floor at this moment, "before ending our work and dispersing, several delegates have decided to bring to the knowledge of the congress some painful and regrettable facts which in our opinion should receive the attention of the members. It has come to our ears that the many sick and wounded of the Insurrectionary Army are very badly cared for because of the lack of medicine, medical help, etc. To make sure, we ourselves visited the hospitals and other places where these unfortunate men have been placed. Comrades, what we have just seen is very sad. Not only are the sick and wounded deprived of all medical care, but they are not even humanely lodged or fed. The greater part are sleeping any old way, even on the ground, without mattresses, pillows or covers. It seems that there is not even enough straw in the city to soften the hardness of the ground a little. Many of these poor men die only because of lack of care. Nobody looks after them. We understand very well that, in the difficult conditions which exist, the staff of our army has not the time to supervise this need. Comrade Makhno also is absorbed by the immediate problems of the front. All the more reason, Comrades, why the congress should take' over. These sick and wounded are our comrades, our brothers, our sons. They are suffering for the cause of us all. I am sure that with a little goodwill we can at least find some straw to ease their sufferings. Comrades, I propose to the congress that it immediately name a commission which will concern itself energetically with this matter and do everything in its power to organise this service. It should also get in touch with all the doctors and druggists in the city, and request their aid and assistance."
Not only was the proposition adopted by the whole congress, but fifteen delegates volunteered to form a commission to attend to the matter. These delegates, who at first had expected to return to their homes in a day or two after a sham congress, did not hesitate to sacrifice their own interests and delay their return in order to serve the comrades in distress. They had to remain several days in Aleksandrovsk and accomplished their task successfully. They found the straw, and managed to organise a free-lance medical service.
[After this matter had been quickly settled] another delegate claimed the floor. "Comrades," he declared, "I want to speak to you about another matter that is equally disturbing. We have learned that a certain amount of friction has occurred between the civil population and the services of the Insurrectionary Army. In particular, it has been reported to us that in the Army there exists a counter-espionage service which engages in arbitrary and uncontrolled actions - of which some are very serious, rather like the Bolshevik Cheka. Searches, arrests, even torture and executions are reported. We do not know if these rumours are true, but some complaints we have heard certainly seemed serious. It would seriously prejudice and even endanger our whole cause. We do not want to interfere in purely military matters, but we have a duty to oppose abuses and excesses if they really exist, for they will turn the population against our movement Since it enjoys the confidence and general esteem of the population, the congress has a duty to make a basic enquiry on this point, to find out the truth, to take steps where they are needed and to reassure the people. It is our congress, emanating from the living interests of the workers, which at this moment is the supreme institution of the region. It is above everything else, for it represents the workers themselves. I therefore propose that it immediately create a commission in charge of investigating these stories and acting in accordance [with its findings]."
Immediately a commission of several delegates was constituted for this purpose. Such an initiative on the part of workers' delegates would not have been possible under the Bolshevik regime. It was by activity of this kind that the congress gave a preview of the way in which a society should function from the beginning if it is based on a desire for progress and self-realisation.
We should add that the events that followed did not permit j this commission to complete its work to the end. The incessant j fighting, the movements of the army, the urgent tasks which absorbed all its services, prevented it.
A final incident remains to be told. Yet another delegate rose to his feet. "Comrades," he said, "since the congress is acting against certain defects and weaknesses, let me mention another regrettable incident. It is not very important, but all the same it merits our attention because of the sad state of mind of which it gives evidence. All of you must have read the notices posted on the walls of our city several days ago, bearing the signature of Comrade Klein, military commander of Aleksandrovsk. In this notice, Commander Klein calls on the population to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages to excess, and especially not to go out in the street drunk. That is very fair and good. The form of the notice is not at all insulting or gross, it is not insolent or authoritarian, and one can only congratulate Comrade Klein on it. Only, comrades, not later than the day before yesterday, a popular evening party took place here with music, dancing and other distractions, in this very building where the congress is sitting. Not only insurgents, but also citizens and citizenesses attended it. I hasten to say to you that there is absolutely nothing reprehensible about that. The young people amused themselves and relaxed. That is entirely human and natural. But there was also a great deal of drinking at this party. Many insurgents and citizens got blind drunk. To see for yourselves you have only to look at the number of empty bottles piled up in the passage. (Laughter). Wait, comrades, the principal object of my intervention is not that. One amuses oneself, one drinks, one gets drunk. That isn't so bad. But what is more serious is the fact that one of those who got as drunk as a pig was our Comrade Klein, one of the commanders of the army, military commander of the city and the signatory of the excellent notice against drunkenness! Comrades, he was so drunk that he couldn't walk and had to be put in a carriage and taken home in the early morning. And, on the way, he behaved scandalously, cursing and so forth. So, comrades, a question arises: in drawing up and signing his notice did Comrade Klein believe that he himself was above the rest of the citizens, exempt from the good conduct that he preaches for others'? Should he not, on the contrary, be the first to set a good example? In my opinion, he has committed a fault so serious that it should not be disregarded."
While Klein's conduct was really fairly harmless, and the delegates considered the incident as rather comic, it aroused a certain amount of feeling. The annoyance at Klein was general, for his behaviour might be the expression of a culpable state of mind, that of a "chief" who considered himself above the "mass" and believed that he could do anything.
"Klein must be called right away!" someone proposed. "Let him come and explain himself before the congress!" Directly, three or four delegates were sent after Klein, with the mission of bringing him back. A half hour later, the delegates returned with him.
I was very curious to see what his attitude would be. Klein was one of the best commanders of the Insurrectionary Army. Young, courageous, very energetic and combative - physically a big, well-built fellow, with a hard appearance and warlike gestures - he always threw himself into the hottest part of the battle and feared nothing and nobody. He had been wounded many times. Well liked, as much by his colleagues as by the ordinary soldiers, he was one of those who had thrown over the Bolsheviks and brought Makhno several regiments of the Red Army. The son of a peasant family of German origin, if I am not mistaken, he was rough and uncouth in manner.
He knew that in any circumstances, he would be vigorously supported and defended by his colleagues - the other commanders and Makhno himself. Would he have enough knowledge to realise that a congress of working people was above him and above the army and Makhno? Would he understand that the workers and their congress were the masters: that the army, Makhno, etc. were only the servants of the common cause, bound to be held accountable at all times by the workers and their organs? Such were the questions that preoccupied me while the congress awaited the return of the mission.
Such a conception was entirely new. The Bolsheviks had done everything to wipe it out of the spirit of the masses. It would be something to see, for example, if a workers' congress called a commissar or a commander of the Red Army to order! Of course, that is absolutely inconceivable. But even supposing that somehow a workers' congress dared to do it, with what indignation, with what self-possession would this commissar or commander denounce the congress, while playing with his weapons on the platform and singing his own praises: "What!" he would shout, "you, a simple collection of workers, have the nerve to call to account a commissar, a practical leader, with exploits, wounds, citations to his credit, an esteemed, celebrated, decorated leader? You have no such right! I am only responsible to my superiors. If you have anything to reproach me for, address yourselves to them."
Would not Klein be tempted to use similar language? Would he sincerely understand an entirely different situation and an entirely different psychological attitude?
Smartly clad in his uniform and well armed, Klein mounted the platform. He had a rather surprised air, and it seemed to me that he was uneasy.
"Comrade Klein," the questioning delegate asked him, "you are the military commander of our city?"
"You are the one who drew up and had posted the notice against the abuse of beverages and drunkenness in public places?" "Yes, comrade, it was I."
"Tell me, Comrade Klein, as a citizen of our city, and its military commander, do you consider yourself morally obliged to obey your own recommendations or do you believe yourself outside of or above this notice?"
Visibly uneasy and confused, Klein took a few steps to the edge of the platform and said very sincerely in an uncertain voice.
"Comrades, I was wrong. I know it. I made a mistake in getting disgracefully drunk the other day. But, listen to me a little and try to understand. I am a fighting man, a man of the front, a soldier. I am no bureaucrat. I don't know why in spite of my protests they landed me with this job of commander of the city. As commander I don't have a bloody thing to do, except stay all day at a desk and sign papers. That isn't for me! I need action, the open air, the front, companions. I am bored to death here. And that's why I got drunk the other evening. Comrades, I would like to make up for my mistake. For that, you have only to ask that I be sent back to the front. There, I can give real service. But here, at this cursed post of commander, I can't promise you anything. Let them find another man for my place, a man who can do this job. Forgive me, comrades, and have me sent to the front."
The delegates asked him to go out for a few minutes. He obeyed docilely. They deliberated on his case. It was evident that his conduct was not due to the mentality of a vainglorious, overbearing leader. That was all they wanted to know. The congress very clearly recognised his sincerity and his reasons. They called him back to tell him that, taking account of his explanation, they would not hold his mistake against him and would do what was necessary to have him sent back to the front. He thanked the delegates and left very simply, as' he had come. The delegates intervened in his favour, and a few days later he returned to the front.
To some readers, these episodes may seem trivial and insignificant, and not worth so many pages. I would venture to say that from a revolutionary standpoint, I consider them infinitely more important, more suggestive, and more useful in their slightest details than all the speeches of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, delivered before, during and after the revolution.
[And I would like to] relate one more little episode - a personal one - which took place outside the congress itself. As I was leaving, I met Lubim, who was smiling radiantly. "You cannot imagine," he told me, "why I am so pleased. You must have seen how busy I was during the congress. Do you know what I did? I have specialised in the formation of scouting units and special detachments. This very question came up on the agenda. Well, for two days, I worked with the committee of delegates in charge of studying it, and finding a practical solution. I gave them a lot of help. They thanked me for my work. And I have really done something good and necessary. I know that is going to help the cause, and I am very pleased."
"Lubim," I said to him, "tell me sincerely: in the course of this good and necessary work, did you think for a single instant of your political role? Did you recall your position as a member of a political party? Did you think of being responsible before your party? Was not your useful work, in fact, an apolitical task, concrete and precise, a work of collaboration and co-operation, and not that of a 'head', of a 'direction that imposes itself, of governmental action?"
Lubim looked at me pensively.
"The congress was very fine, very successful, I admit it," he said.
"There, Lubim," I concluded, "reflect well upon it. You really played your part and did a good job at the moment when you left your political activity! And very simply helped your colleagues as a comrade who knew about the task. ,You should realise that that is the whole secret of the success of the congress. And that is also the whole secret of the success of the revolution. It is like this that all revolutions should act, both on a local level and on a vaster scale. When the revolutionists and the masses have learned that, the real victory of the revolution is assured."
I never saw Lubim again. I do not know what became of him. If he is alive, I do not know what he thinks to-day. But I hope these lines may come to his eyes, and that he remembers.
* * *
A few days after the end of the Aleksandrovsk congress, the Makhnovists finally took Ekaterinoslav. But they could not organise - or even try to organise - anything positive there. Denikin's troops, who were driven out of the city, managed to dig in nearby, on the left bank of the Dnepr. Despite their efforts, the Makhnovists could not dislodge them. Daily, for a whole month, the Denikinists bombarded the city, which was within the range of the batteries on their numerous armoured trains. Each time the Cultural Commission of the Insurrectionary Army managed to call a meeting of the city's workers, the Denikinists, who were well-informed, fired great numbers of shells, especially on the places where the sessions were to be held. No serious work, no systematic organisation was possible. It was only possible to hold a few meetings in the suburbs.
"One of the favourite arguments of the Bolsheviks against the Makhnovists is the claim that the insurgents did nothing, while they were masters of Ekaterinoslav, to achieve a constructive organisation of the life of that city. In saying this, the Bolsheviks hide from the masses two circumstances of capital importance. In the first place, the Makhnovists were never the representatives of a party or of any authority. At Ekaterinoslav, they acted as a revolutionary military detachment, mounting guard for the freedom of the city. In this capacity, it was not at all their job to try and achieve a constructive programme for the revolution. This task could only be carried out by the workers of the place. The Makhnovist army could, at most, help them with its opinions and advice, with its spirit of initiative and its organisational ability, and it did this as much as possible. In particular, the Bolsheviks say nothing of the exceptional situation in which the city was at that moment. During the whole time that the Makhnovists remained there, it was not only in a state of siege, but actually under bombardment. Not an hour passed without shells bursting. It was this situation that prevented the workers, and not the Makhnovist army, from setting about on the spot to organise life according to the principles of free action.
As for the fable according to which the Makhnovists declared to the railway workers who came to them for help that they did not need railroads since the Steppes and their good horses were perfectly sufficient, this gross invention was started by Denikin's newspapers in October, 1919, and from that source the Bolsheviks took it to serve their own ends." (Peter Arshinov, Op. cit., p. 246).
This fable was added to the other myths and calumnies spread by the Bolsheviks for the purpose of compromising the Makhnovist movement in the eyes of the workers.
At the end of November, a terrible epidemic, which was spreading all over Russia, attacked the Insurrectionary Army. At least half the men were sick, and the death rate was high. This was the principal reason why the Makhnovists were obliged to abandon Ekaterinoslav when the city was attacked, towards the end of November, by Denikin's main forces, who were beating a retreat towards the Crimea with the Bolsheviks in pursuit.
Having left Ekaterinoslav, the Insurrectionary Army regrouped in the region between the cities of Melitopol', Nikopol' and Aleksandrovsk. It was in the last city that the Makhnovist staff was overtaken, at the end of December, 1919, by the high command of several divisions of the Red Army who were in pursuit of Denikin. For some time already, the Makhnovists had been expecting this event, and, envisaging in the new circumstances a fraternal meeting rather than a collision, they had taken no precautions.
The meeting was exactly like several others that had preceded it. Friendly, and even cordial, in appearance, it might nevertheless conceal storms and surprises - and we waited for this to happen. Without any doubt, the Bolsheviks remembered with rancour and bitterness the blow given them recently by the Makhnovist troops which had left their army and taken with them several Red regiments. Without the slightest doubt, also, they could not long tolerate the presence at their side of a free army or of the independent movement of a whole region that did not recognise their authority. Sooner or later, conflict was inevitable, and it was clear that the Bolsheviks would not hesitate to attack at the first opportunity. As for the Makhnovists, they were more or less aware of this situation, and, while they were ready to reconcile all their differences peacefully and fraternally, they could not help feeling mistrustful.
However, the soldiers of the two armies greeted each other fraternally and a meeting took place at which the combatants shook hands and declared that they would fight together against the common enemies - capitalism and counter-revolution. Some units of the Red Army even showed a desire to go over to the Makhnovist ranks.
Eight days later the storm broke. The "Commander of the Insurrectionary Army" - Makhno - received an order from the Revolutionary Military Council of the 14th Corps of the Red Army to move the Insurrectionary Army to the Polish front.
Everyone understood immediately that this was the first step in a new attack on the Makhnovists. In itself, the order to leave for the Polish front was nonsensical for a number of reasons. In the first place, the Insurrectionary Army was subordinate neither to the 14th Corps nor to any other unit of the Red Army. The Red commander had no authority to give orders to the Insurrectionary Army, which alone had supported the whole weight of the fight against Denikin. Furthermore, even if this departure had been fraternally envisaged, it was materially impossible to carry it out, since half the men, as well as nearly all the commanders and staff, and Makhno himself, were sick. Finally, the fighting qualities and revolutionary usefulness of the Insurrectionary Army were certainly much greater on their own ground, in the Ukraine, than on the Polish front, where this army, in unfamiliar surroundings and unknown [to the local population], would be obliged to fight for goals it did not understand. It was [with these arguments] that the Makhnovists replied to the Red commander's order, and flatly refused to carry it out.
But on both sides it was perfectly understood that the proposition, like the reply, was pure diplomacy. Everybody knew what was really involved. To send the Insurrectionary Army to the Polish front meant to cut off the main nerve-centre of the revolutionary movement in the Ukraine. That is just what the Bolsheviks wanted; they hoped to be the absolute masters of the region. If the Insurrectionary Army submitted, they would attain their objective. In case of refusal, they had prepared a thrust which (they hoped) would accomplish the same result. The Makhnovists knew this, and got ready to parry the blow.
The response to the Makhnovist refusal was not long in coming. But the Insurrectionary Army acted first, and thus averted immediate bloodshed. At the same time as they sent their reply to the Red headquarters, they addressed an appeal to the soldiers of the Red Army, calling on them not to be the dupes of the provocative manoeuvres of their leaders. Having done this, they broke camp, and set out for Gulyai-Pole, which had just been evacuated by the Whites and was under no authority whatever. They arrived without accident, and for the moment the Red Army did not oppose their move. Only a few unimportant detachments and some isolated individuals who remained in the rear of the bulk of the troops were taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks. But two weeks later, in mid-January, 1920, the Bolsheviks declared Makhno and the members of his army outlaws for their refusal to go to the Polish front.
The third act of the drama began. It lasted for nine months, and it was marked by a violent struggle between the Makhnovists and the Communist authorities. We shall not go into details, but will confine ourselves to saying that on both sides it was a merciless struggle. In order to avert eventual fraternisation between the soldiers of the Red Army and the Makhnovists, the Bolshevik commander sent against the latter a division of Lettish sharpshooters and some Chinese detachments, that is to say, units whose members had not the slightest idea of the true meaning of the Russian Revolution and were content blindly to obey the orders of their leaders. On the Bolshevik side, the struggle was conducted with incredible deceit and savagery.
Since the Red troops were ten times more numerous, Makhno's detachment and Makhno himself, by manoeuvring very skilfully and with the aid of the population, kept constantly out of their reach. At the same time, the Bolshevik High Command deliberately avoided open fighting with the Insurrectionary Army. It preferred another kind of war. By means of numerous reconnaissances, the Red Army found out the villages and localities where Makhnovist detachments were weak or non-existent. They then attacked these defenceless communities and occupied them almost without fighting. Thus the Bolsheviks were able to establish themselves solidly in several places, and thus to stop the free development of the region.
Everywhere that they did establish themselves, they made war, not on the Insurrectionary Army, but on the peasant population in general. Mass arrests and executions soon began, and the Denikinist repression paled beside that of the Bolsheviks. In speaking of the fight against the insurgents, the Communist press of the time would cite the number of Makhnovists defeated, captured or shot. But it always neglected to mention that it was usually a question, not of military insurgents, but of simple villagers, convicted or merely suspected of some sympathy for the Makhnovists. The arrival of the Red Army in a village meant the immediate arrest of many peasants who were later imprisoned and for the most part shot, either as Makhnovist insurgents or as "hostages". The village of Gulyai-Pole passed many times from one side to the other. Naturally, it suffered greatly from the repeated invasions of the Bolsheviks, and every survivor in the village could tell of frightful cases of Communist repression. According to the most moderate estimates, more than 20,000 peasants and workers were shot or seriously injured by the Soviet authorities in the Ukraine at that time. Nearly as many were imprisoned or deported to Siberia or elsewhere.
Makhno himself, sick and often unconscious, more than once barely escaped falling into the hands of the enemy who were in search of him. He owed his safety - and also his cure - to the sublime devotion of the peasants who would sometimes sacrifice themselves to gain time for the sick man to be moved to a safer place.
Naturally, the Makhnovists could not remain indifferent to such a monstrous distortion of the Revolution. To the Bolshevik terror they replied with blows no less severe, and used against their enemies all the guerrilla methods they had formerly employed in their struggle against the Hetman Skoropadsky. When they captured Red prisoners, they disarmed the soldiers and set them free, knowing that they had been sent into battle under compulsion. Those of the soldiers who wished to join them were received fraternally. But as for the chiefs, the Commissars and the representatives of the Communist Party, they were generally put to the sword, unless for some good reason the private soldiers asked that they should be spared. Let us not forget that all Makhnovists, whoever they were, were invariably shot on the spot if they fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks.
The Soviet authorities and their agents often depicted the Makhnovists as common assassins without pity, as bandits without faith or law. They published long lists of soldiers of the Red Army and members of the Communist Party put to death by these "criminals". But they were always silent about the essential fact that these victims fell during combats started or provoked by the Communists themselves.
One of the greatest annoyances of the Bolshevik government was the knowledge that Makhno was alive but that they were unable to capture him. They were sure that to suppress him would be the equivalent of liquidating the movement. Therefore, throughout the summer of 1920, they fomented continual attempts to assassinate Makhno, none of which succeeded.
"All through the year of 1920 and even later," says Arshinov, "the Soviet authorities carried on the fight against the Makhnovists, pretending to be fighting banditry. They engaged in intense agitation to persuade the country of this, using their press and all their means of propaganda to uphold the slander both within and outside Russia.
"At the same time, numerous divisions of sharpshooters and cavalry were sent against the insurgents, for the purpose of destroying the movement and pushing its members towards the gulf of real banditry. The Makhnovist prisoners were pitilessly put to death, their families - fathers, mothers, wives, relatives - were tortured and killed, their property was pillaged or confiscated, their houses were destroyed. All this was practised on a large scale.
"A superhuman will and heroic efforts were needed by the vast masses of insurgents, in the face of all these horrors committed daily by the authorities, to retain intact their rigorously revolutionary position and not to fall, in exasperation, into the abyss of banditry. But the masses never lost their courage, they never lowered their revolutionary banner, but remained to the end faithful to their task.
"For those who saw it during this hard and painful period, this spectacle was a genuine miracle, demonstrating how deep was the faith in the revolution of these working masses, how strong their devotion to the cause whose ideas had won them over."
(Op. cit., pp. 273-4).
At the end of the summer of 1920, the Makhnovists had to carry on the struggle, not merely against detachments of the Red Army, but against the whole Bolshevik system, against all its governmental forces in Russia and the Ukraine. Each day this struggle intensified and widened. In these conditions, the insurrectionary troops were sometimes obliged - so as to avoid encountering an enemy of too superior numbers - to leave their base and make forced marches of a thousand kilometres or more. Sometimes they had to retreat to the Donets basin, sometimes to the departments of Khar'kov and Poltava.
These involuntary wanderings were put to considerable use by the insurgents for propaganda purposes, and every village in which they halted for a day or two became a vast Makhnovist auditorium.
It should be added that the exceptionally difficult situation of the Insurrectionary Army did not prevent it from taking care of the perfection of its own organisation. After the defeat of Denikin and the return of the insurgents to their own region, a Council of Revolutionary (Makhnovist) Insurgents was created. It consisted of delegates from all units of the army and it functioned fairly regularly. It was concerned with questions which did not involve strictly military operations.
During the summer of 1920, when the army found itself in particularly unstable and painful circumstances, such an institution became too cumbersome and was incapable of functioning satisfactorily. It was replaced by a smaller council, consisting of seven members, elected or ratified by the mass of the insurgents. This council was divided into three sections -- military affairs and operations, organisation and general control, education, propaganda and culture.
1. In certain cities the Makhnovists appointed a "commander"; his function consisted only of serving as a contact man between the troops and the population, to make certain measures dictated by military necessity, which might have certain repercussions on the life of the inhabitants, and which the military command felt it opportune to take. These commanders had no authority over the population and did not interfere in any way with their civil life.
2. They spoke here of Socialist parties and other organisations not because they wanted to keep these rights from the non-Socialists, but only because in the midst of a popular revolution the rightist elements were not active. There was not even any question of them. It was natural that the bourgeoisie would not dare, in the circumstances, to publish its press, and that the printing workers, masters of the printing houses, would flatly refuse to print it. It was therefore not worth speaking of it. The logical accent fell on "all" and not on "Socialist". If, nevertheless, the reactionaries succeeded in printing and publishing their works, no one was disturbed by it. For, in the new situation, this did not represent any danger.
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