Who Was Makhno and What Did He Stand For?
To this day, anarchists hold up Makhno as the true champion of the workers and peasants of Russia after the 1917 revolution. This myth ignores the real nature of the Makhnovite army and the social layers that it represented. Because Makhno did not base himself on the working class but on certain layers within the peasantry, he ended up with what amounted to a reactionary position.
Anarchists like to counterpose to the Bolsheviks the example of the peasant Makhno. They claim that, unlike the Bolshevik leaders, he was the real spokesman of the interests of the workers, the advocate of anarcho-communism, in contrast to Lenin’s “Party dictatorship.” So what was this phenomenon called Makhnovism?
The army of Makhno consisted mainly of peasants. And this fact was directly reflected in its character. The class basis of this movement was the petty-bourgeois peasantry, and this was expressed in the extremely unstable character of its political line, which could just as easily align itself with revolution as with counterrevolution. That was fully revealed at the time of the Civil War in Russia. The peasantry was prone to pass from Red to White and back again, depending on the circumstances.
At the time of the occupation of the Ukraine by the German army, the insurgent forces of Makhno were at war with the invaders and their local Ukrainian puppets, who were pursuing a policy of systematic plunder against the peasants of the Ukraine. After the German interventionists were driven out, the main enemy was the White general Denikin who aspired to bringing about the return of the landowners. At this particular time Makhno had the strongest army in the Ukraine and did good work fighting against the Whites.
His strength was based mainly on the fact that the peasants, defending their own property interests, at this moment had before them a single enemy— Denikin. At this time in the Makhnovite armies, three quarters of the soldiers were made up of poor peasants. And in such a situation Makhno did not have any other alternative but to fight together with the Red Army, since only in this way could he could keep his influence over the Ukrainian peasants.
However, this situation changed with the destruction of Denikin’s forces. Once the threat of the return of the big landowners had been removed, the class divisions within the villages came to the fore. The contradiction between the Kulaks (rich peasants) and the poor peasants began to emerge, creating confrontations in the villages. As a result, in the 1920s, Makhno’s army swiftly began to lose support. Increasingly, it became a Kulak army.
The Kulaks were above all interested in a free market in grain. Consequently, they now saw the main enemy as the Bolsheviks. The village poor, in contrast, understood that their interests were not represented by Makhno who, whether intentionally or not, was fighting to protect the Kulaks’ interests. Makhno declared that there was essentially no difference between mobilisation against the Reds or the Whites.
Likewise, the commitment of the Makhnovites to the principles of “Freedom and Anarchy” is open to serious question. P. Arshinov writes that the maintenance of the insurgent army was assigned to the peasants. However, in Makhno’s army only the lower commanders were elected, while all the senior commanders were appointed personally by Makhno himself.
The Makhnovites imposed levies on the captured cities. After the capture of Yekaterinoslav, for instance, they imposed a levy of 50 million rubles. The dictatorial tendencies of the so-called “anarcho-communist” Makhno were revealed by the execution of M. L. Polonsky, the Bolshevik commander of the 13th Crimean regiment. Having accused the latter of trying to poison Makhno, the Makhnovites shot the Bolshevik commander, together with his wife, without any pretence of a trial. When the Yekaterinoslav Communists demanded that Polonsky be tried in public, Makhno, despite all his demagogic rhetoric about freedom and democracy, refused point blank. When the workers of Yekaterinoslav requested the release of the arrested Bolsheviks, Makhno threatened them with execution. In general, the attitude of the workers to Makhno was an extremely negative one.
In the Aleksandrovsk congress of peasants and workers, Makhno launched sharp attacks against the working class, calling workers swine, scoundrels, parasites, henchmen of the bourgeoisie and that the sooner they left the congress the better. By these means, he attempted to ingratiate himself with the great bulk of the army, which consisted of backward peasants, who considered all city-dwellers as their enemies.
As we have pointed out, at the beginning of the 1920s the numbers of Makhnovites began to decline sharply. The external danger posed by Denikin had by now disappeared, as the land which Denikin had returned to the landowners, had once again been transferred to the peasants. Therefore, those who now remained with Makhno were mainly drawn from the Kulaks, who were bitterly opposed to Soviet power. The withdrawal of the poorest peasantry from Makhno’s army provoked his anger. In May 1920, after the refusal of the peasants of the village of Rozhdestvensk to join his army, Makhno ordered his men to burn the village down, and opened fire on its inhabitants with machine-guns.
Now Makhno began a reign of open terror against the Party workers and Soviet activists. The threat posed by the White general Wrangel once again provided Makhno with the chance of uniting wider layers of the peasantry under his banner, using the peasants’ fear of a return of the landowners. At this difficult moment, Soviet power also needed to reach a truce with the Makhnovites. After the defeat of Wrangel, however, the fate of the Makhnovite armies was decided.
Even the Makhnovites themselves understood the hopelessness of opposition to the Soviet power. Makhno’s chief of staff, Belash, recognised that the Makhnovite armies were saved from complete disintegration only by fear of reprisals. Without this, they would have collapsed at once, after the liquidation of Wrangel. The irreversible decline of the Makhnovites begins at this point. Makhno’s army now more and more comes to resemble a gang of bandits.
The introduction of the New Economic Policy definitively buried the last hopes of a revival of Makhnovism. And the amnesty declared by the Soviet power deprived Makhno of the majority of his army.
The alleged anarchism of Makhno also raises many questions. This was the case even at that time. His policies eventually compelled some ideological anarchists to criticise him. The well-known anarchist Baron, a member of the secretariat of “Nabat,” wrote that: “It is better to disappear in a Soviet prison, than to vegetate in these notorious anarchical conditions.” At the all-Ukrainian Conference of “Nabat,” the delegates recognised that Makhno had ceased, in fact, to be an anarchist.
The truth is that Makhno was the spokesman of the interests of the prosperous peasantry, and acted accordingly. In order not to lose his influence among this layer, he tailed behind all its meanderings. The Kulaks were mainly interested in “cheap government,” in the abolition of taxation and in free trade. Thus, anarchism, with its negation of the state, was the best ideological cover for the creation of a Kulak volunteer army. It is no accident that the Makhnovite movement arose and flourished in the southern Ukrainian region where the Kulaks accounted for 20% of the economy. Outside of this region Makhno never managed to establish a stable base.
Actually, anarchism represents a very reactionary idealistic current. It sets out from the view that it is possible to achieve communism simply through the subjective desire of the population. Despite its revolutionary aura, it inevitably leads to opportunism. Communism is not just a good idea, as the utopian socialists imagined, nor does it arise at will. As Marx explained, socialism must have a material base; it can only arise when the economic conditions have matured for it to come into being. It is absurd to expect to construct socialism on the basis of the peasantry, that is to say, a class of small proprietors, which has no economic future, and is doomed to extinction on the basis of capitalism.
It is impossible to abolish the state just by willing it away, as the anarchists imagine. The state will only wither away when the material conditions that gave rise to it have disappeared. For this reason, a regime of genuine workers’ democracy (i.e., the “dictatorship of proletariat”, as Marx would put it) is an inevitable stage in the transition from capitalist slavery towards a classless society in which the state and every other manifestation of barbarism will be relegated to the museum of prehistory.