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Reassessing Nestor Makhno 

D.R. O’Connor Lysaght

15 December 2006

Central to the task of reviving the socialist movement is the drafting of balance sheets of past mistakes and successes. In too many cases, there has been a tendency to accept in a fundamentalist spirit the assertions of the founding fathers of the movement and, even worse, to accept such assertions when they made unsupported with detailed fact or analysis.

One example of this is the treatment of the Ukrainian Cossack Anarchist, Nestor Makhno. As he opposed the Communists for most of the Russian Civil War, his victorious enemies, Trotskyist and Stalinite, have dismissed his role and his achievements, placing him with such petty bourgeois ‘Socialists’ as Antonov, Khrustalev-Nosar, Petrechenko and even the anti-semite gangster Grigoriev.  What is more, there are many who would oppose the Bolsheviks and their legacy but who would accept their evaluation of their most effective opponent on their left. This is understandable in the case of right-wingers opposed to any idea of social equality. 

What is odd is the relative silence of Anarchy on one whom it might be expected to have acknowledged as its outstanding practical leader. The 1921 Kronstadt mutineers are praised. The Spanish Anarchists are commemorated even by their few Irish comrades (Eddie Conlon has produced a pamphlet). Yet, in the English-speaking world, Makhno is only a name. In France, this gap has been fill somewhat since the Berlin Wall fell. In 1999 Alexander Skirda claimed that fifteen  books had been published about Makhno in the previous decade, though he had to admit that ‘most of them lack rigour and are of limited interest to anyone conversant with the subject’.

Skirda’s own book claims to give a scientific account of ‘Nestor Makhno, Anarchy’s Cossack’. It goes in detail into the primary sources illustrating its subject’s life, and succeeds in giving as clear a picture of his rise and decline as has been seen, certainly as published or republished in English. It raises a number of points that have to be investigated. Skirda attacks the Communist Party’s use of the term ‘Kulak’, insisting that, by 1920, only 0.5% of the peasants owned more than ten hectares of land, and O.9% owned more than three horses. He asserts Makhno’s importance in defeating the White Army of Denikin and Wrangel, which he insists was the major White army in the civil war. He notes that, at the high points of his power, in 1917, the first half of 1919 and for shorter while still in 1920, Makhno and his fellow thinkers could claim to lead in the rich south-east Ukraine – an area of 75,000 square kilometres inhabited by 7,500,000 people (the symmetry of the figures is suspicious), including, it appears, the Donetz coal mines and, briefly, the city of Kharkhov.  Skirda claims that this territory was organised on libertarian Communist lines, the populace organising itself collectively, at once without parties, but with freedom of publication. He quotes witnesses, including the Communist Party leaders, Kamenev and Antonov-Ovseenko, as to the high level of social services provided there by and for the workers and peasants.  He disposes of such charges against Makhno as that he had declared ‘Russia needs neither posts nor telegraphs’ (a libel repeated by the British Trotskyist super-sect, the Socialist Labour League in the 1960s) and also claims as to his drunkenness and anti-semitism. Altogether, he confirms his subject’s massive stature and makes a serious case against the Communist Party in its handling of him.

Yet, in the last resort, Skirda’s work does not lead this reader to abandon his belief in the necessity of the state in the task of preparing the world socialist order. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is Skirda’s own approach to the background of his story. As happens even with non-libertarians, his chronology is skewed. That time is merely a dimension is true cosmologically, as Einstein showed, but for humanity’s practical purposes it is an absolute. The author’s carelessness in this is made the more   confusing by the lack of an index. It is an overall reflection of a casualness that appears regularly. Alexiev is described as Kornilov’s successor as Commander of the Russian army; he was one of his predecessors. Antonov-Ovseenko is said to have been ‘an old Bolshevik militant’ - he was an old Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks on seeing them to be serious about leading the workers to state power. Closer to Makhno’s Ukraine, Skirda says Pilsudski was a socialist in 1920, when. in fact, his socialist credentials (never very impressive) had been abandoned., though it enables the author to dismiss Communist Party propaganda warning against the ‘Polish lords’, who were all too real as west Ukraine was to learn to its cost. This is in keeping, again, with his sketchmap of Ukraine’s borders in 1919 making west Ukraine a part of Poland a year before the Poles grabbed it and making nonsense of his mild criticism of Makhno’s failure to appeal to the Ukrainian national spirit.

These formal failings are connected to a more serious general one. At times, it seems as if Skirda is less concerned with revealing the truth about Makhno than with slagging the Communist Party. He quotes unnamed Russian and French historians as calling the October revolution the ‘Bolshevik Coup D’etat’ and renders this more profound by calling the event the ‘Bolshevik Counter-revolution’. He declares that Kornilov was ‘no reactionary’ because he commanded the squad that placed the Tsar under arrest, ignoring the general’s extreme conservatism on all other matters. Unlike contemporary Anarchists (whom he ignores on this), he seems to regret the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.  He praises the Left Social Revolutionaries’ revolt in July 1918, overlooking its specific aim of rejoining the World War. He seems to hanker after some liberal democratic alternative to both Whites and Reds, such as Makhno would have repudiated. He writes favourably of the Committee for a Constituent Assembly in Samara, regretting only its denationalisation of banks and its smashing by the brutal Kolchak. As an anti-Statist, he does not ask what would be done with the nationalised banks if there were no state. Nor does he seem to consider that the defeat of the Samara committee reflects the weakness of Russian liberalism; the actual choice was state Communism, incipient fascism or, in Ukraine, Makhnovism.  (After their defeat, the remaining Samara committee members chose the first). What is more, the fact that Makhnovism was limited to Ukraine reflects an overall weakness in Russian Anarchy, which he shows Makhno criticising. 

What Skirda cannot hide is the fact that Makhno’s unique success was linked to his departure from Anarchist orthodoxy. He himself described himself as a Libertarian Communist rather than as an Anarchist. He headed a broad movement, including some Communist Party members. His Military Revolutionary Council was an embryo state machine, albeit one controlling its territory more loosely than the Communists did theirs. Skirda does not investigate reports of other authorities that the council revived military hierarchy in a manner he denounces in the Communists and, indeed, imposed conscription. In exile, he worked to develop a loose revolutionary coalition around a programme in a manner resembling that of Marxism. Not surprisingly, this was opposed by many of the Anarchist intellectuals he despised, and giving them cause to neglect him. His own closest intellectual collaborator, Arshinov, abandoned him for Stalin.

It is possible to regret that Trotsky’s proposal to allow Makhno his own territory to operate his ideas in peaceful competition with those followed under the Communist Party was not followed.  Even more regrettable would be that the Party’s treatment of Makhno were marked by the double-dealing attributed to it by Skirda. Even if it were, it is understandable that matters went the way they did. Civil war was being waged compared to which that in Ireland would seem like a minor meal break. Makhno spoke openly of attacking the reds after defeating the Whites. If the Communist Party was paranoid, Makhno was one of many out to get it.

For there were basic differences between the two.  Makhno’s sociology was primitive. He seems to have believed in substituting barter for currency. His movement was one of peasants, if not of the ‘kulaks’ ascribed to its base by Trotsky and other detractors. Its central decision-making body was its Congresses of Peasants, Workers and Soldiers and Skirda’s own account reveals its bias against the revolutionary potential of the urban workers. Above all, there is still a question mark as to whether the spontaneous self-organisation of Makhno’s Free Soviets could have survived the routine of post-war life.
None of this means that there is much point in orienting towards the Anarchists, let alone the few that are in Ireland. Even less does it mean that mistakes made by the Communists under Lenin equal those of Stalin. It does mean that we must use hindsight better than does Skirda, recognise that mistakes may have been made and evaluate them accordingly.


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