Nestor Makhno and Anarchist Myth Making

This article, orignally titled Anarchists in the Russian Revolution: The Makhno Myth, comes from International Socialist Review, the journal of the U.S.-based International Socialist Organization.

It tackles the history of the anarchist movement during the Russian Revolution which was lead by Nestor Makhno. I am posting it because this is an important point of reference among many anarchists, especially among the current known as Platformists (which includes organizations like the North East Federation of Anarchist Communists), but at the same time it has received very little critical attention from either academic scholars or other revolutionary trends. The following article does just this by presenting a detailed critique of both the myth-making around Makhno and the strategic conclusions anarchists have drawn from said semi-mythologized history.

By Jason Yanowitz, an activist in western Massachusetts.

STARTING IN the 1970s, a new consensus emerged among serious scholars of the Russian Revolution. Instead of seeing the rise of Stalinism as the predetermined outcome of Leninism or workers’ power, “revisionist” historians looked instead to the devastating effects of civil war and international isolation. They discovered that the early years of the workers’ state were far more complicated and rich than the standard right-wing inevitable-march-to-totalitarianism version. In its broad outlines, their work confirmed that material conditions, rather than Bolshevik original sin, transformed a mass, popular revolution into its opposite, Stalinism.1

However, anarchists continue to maintain that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution was the inevitable result of the Bolsheviks’ authoritarianism. According to their narrative, once in power via a devious coup, the Bolsheviks wasted no time in destroying their opponents, in particular, the anarchists, whom they saw as a threat to their “statist” desires. Anarchists point chiefly to the example of anarchist Nestor Makhno and the Makhnovists in the Ukraine as a positive example of a libertarian alternative to Leninism.2

Makhnovist participant and chronicler Peter Arshinov writes:

The history of the Makhnovist movement, during which the popular masses tried for years to realize an independence which is better than any known to us, making enormous sacrifices for its sake, definitely unmasks Bolshevism and completely demolished the legend about its pretended revolutionary and proletarian character.3

In its summary of the movement,’s “An anarchist FAQ” writes:

Here we have a mass movement operating in the same “exceptional circumstances” as the Bolsheviks, which did not implement the same policies. Indeed, rather than suppress soviet, workplace and military democracy in favor of centralized, top-down party power and modify their political line to justify their implementation of party dictatorship, the Makhnovists did all they could to implement and encourage working-class self-government.4

Most anarchist histories of the movement take a similar line. This article argues that these characterizations range from fraud to fantasy. In reality, the experience of the Makhnovists stands as a case study in the failure of anarchist politics. In the face of the civil war, the Makhnovist movement quickly abandoned their principles, recreating all the features of Bolshevism they reviled. But without the theoretical underpinnings of Marxism, their actions were often devoid of revolutionary content.

A Legend is Born

There is little controversy over the main points of Makhno’s biography. Born in 1889 to a poor peasant family in the Ukraine, Nestor Makhno (Nestor Ivanovich Mikhailenko) worked in the fields from childhood.5 After leaving school, he worked briefly as an apprentice painter and later in an iron foundry.6 After the 1905 Revolution, he became interested in politics and joined an anarchist circle in Guliai-Pole that engaged in assassinations and financial “expropriations,” until he was imprisoned in 1909 and eventually sentenced to life with hard labor.7 There he languished until workers overthrew the tsar in the February Revolution of 1917 and declared a general amnesty for political prisoners. He moved back to his home outside of Guliai-Pole and began organizing for social revolution.

His efforts were soon interrupted by the Austro-German invasion of 1918, which rolled back the redistribution of land guaranteed by the October Revolution to the peasantry. The army began pillaging the countryside. Makhno organized an armed response and harassed the occupying forces. After one particularly harrowing battle, Makhno was given the title of Batko (Father) by his troops.8 When the German war efforts collapsed in November, the Ukraine became a battleground in the civil war as the White Army sought to create a dictatorship and base of operations.

The Makhnovists continued to organize and fight. Despite scattered reports to the contrary, their leadership was principally against anti-Semitism or alliances with the Whites.9 Early on, they displayed brilliant guerrilla tactics. Later, they found themselves in larger set piece battles. Makhno’s army varied in size from a few hundred to tens of thousands and marched under the banners “Liberty or Death” and “The land to the peasants, the factories to the workers.” They entered into alliances with the Bolsheviks against the forces of reaction, but these alliances repeatedly fell apart amid mutual recriminations. Eventually, the Red Army drove Makhno into exile. He died of tuberculosis in 1934.

In the ensuing decades, anarchists waged a largely one-sided battle to tell the “true” story of Nestor Makhno.

A Lie Piously Repeated10

When writing history, it is critical to get multiple sources for key events. None of the major anarchist works on Makhno do so. Nonetheless, these books are useful because they provide the general sweep of the movement and inadvertently reveal the flaws and contradictions in Makhno’s activity.

The principal texts for the Makhno mythology are, in order of publication, Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, Voline, The Unknown Revolution, and Alexander Skirda, Nestor Makhno–Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine 1917–1921.11 These authors rarely offer corroboration for their main arguments, substituting assertions and invective for evidence and reasoning.12

Arshinov first met Makhno in prison and later joined him in the Ukraine. Voline was another Russian anarchist who came to the Ukraine to organize in the area controlled by the Makhnovists. In his doctoral dissertation on the movement, Marxist scholar Colin Darch did an extensive review of the work of Arshinov and Voline and concluded:

The existing texts are unreliable on empirical grounds. The most detailed accounts, those by Makhno’s anarchist comrades, are empirically unreliable in suggestive ways. Events are conflated, chronologies confused, whole periods glossed over, logical jumps made, and excuses offered. Although Arshinov’s and Voline’s texts are fundamental to an understanding of the trajectory of the Makhnovist Movement, every factual assertion, every reference to a date, must be checked against other sources. In addition, Voline’s version relies heavily on Arshinov for the main outline of the story, which he merely embellishes with eyewitness anecdotes from time to time.13

Skirda’s text is probably the most widely read today. AK Press reprinted it recently, and writings like “An anarchist FAQ” refer to it as “by far the best account of the movement available.”14 Under Skirda’s pen, Makhno emerges as the Second Coming. With “exceptional strength of spirit,” he was an “intractable character”: “literally death-defying,” “ingenious and daring,” “methodical to the point of mania,” “ready for any eventuality,” with “white-hot determination,” “humble among the humble,” “extremely meticulous, almost obsessive.” He “[again and] again displayed the measure of his extraordinary gifts as a leader of men,” as a “strategical genius” while others “made a mistake which Makhno himself would assuredly have avoided” because of the “unbelievable resourcefulness of his tactical genius,” “daring act of terrorism,” and “genius for partisan warfare.” Continues Skirda:

To these gifts, Makhno added the qualities of rare sangfroid and presence of mind; he scarcely ever was ruffled, would sum up the situation in a flash and devised the best possible solution, which would allow him to extricate himself yet again from the hornet’s nest.15

Unsurprisingly, Skirda accepts all of Makhno’s statements as true on their face. For example, Makhno claims to have met with Lenin in 1918.16 The only evidence that this meeting occurred is Makhno himself—it doesn’t appear in the notes or diaries of any of those who were supposed to be present, including Sverdlov and Lenin. Even Arshinov, who notes Makhno’s trip to Moscow, has no mention of a meeting with Lenin during the visit.17

Accepting Makhno’s words as holy writ, Skirda portrays all critics of him as opportunists, hypocrites, or authoritarians. So deep is his antipathy for the Bolsheviks, Skirda goes so far as to idealize their enemy, the brutal White Army General Kornilov:

Contrary to what has often been claimed, Kornilov was a patriotic officer who had risen through the ranks, the son of a mere Cossack, with a Sart (Mongolian) for a mother, and while no inflammatory revolutionary, it had nonetheless been he who had ordered the arrest of the Tsar and his family; so he was no reactionary but was solidly anti-monarchy and wont to say to any who would listen that he would emigrate to the United States should the monarchy be restored in Russia.18

Kind words for a man who said that he and his fellow officers “would not hesitate to hang all the Soviet members if need be” during their coup attempt.19 At the beginning of the civil war, Kornilov said, “The greater the terror, the greater our victories” and “We must save Russia! Even if we have to set fire to half of it and shed the blood of three-fourths of all the Russians!”20

Anarchists have been aided in their myth making by the relative absence of scholarly attention to Makhno’s movement during the civil war. Despite the paucity of archival material and decent scholarship, we can still draw some valuable lessons. Let’s start where few anarchist histories do—examining the real conditions in which Russia found herself in revolution and civil war.

Not in Conditions of Their Choosing21

The successful building of socialism ultimately requires well-developed productive forces to end scarcity and liberate humanity. The Bolsheviks knew that socialist revolution could begin in Russia but not be finished there. Because of Russia’s economic backwardness and small working class, the Bolsheviks knew they would be doomed unless the revolution spread internationally. Their main task was to fight to hang on, doing what they could to spread international revolution and wait for relief from the working class of an advanced capitalist state like Germany. Without more productive tools like tractors, Russia risked a disastrous split between the peasants (the vast majority of the population) and the workers (disproportionately powerful, but still a small minority of the population).22

But the Soviet state was to be given no breathing space. Horrified by the Russian example, the world’s bourgeoisie began plotting the overthrow of the workers’ state.23 They funded a viciously reactionary White Army that plunged the country into civil war. The fledgling revolution stood at the precipice. Over the course of the conflict, the Soviets would face troops from fourteen countries.24 “By the summer of 1918, thirty different governments functioned in the lands that once had been the Russian Empire, and twenty-nine of them stood against the Bolsheviks.”25 “Again and again Soviet power was restricted to the principality of Moscow—the cities of Moscow and Petrograd and a small area around them.”26 Petrograd, a major industrial hub, was nearly taken by the Whites and the battle to hold onto it left most of the city’s population destitute and gray from malnutrition.27

The Soviets had to rebuild an army, virtually from scratch, in a country already exhausted by the World War. Initially formed as a voluntary force with elected officers, the Red Army was forced to institute conscription and appoint officers.28 But they had to win. One historian of the Russian Revolution wrote that “the alternative to Bolshevism, had it failed to survive the ordeal of civil war…would not have been Chernov, opening a Constituent Assembly…but a military dictator, a Kolchak or a Denikin, riding into Moscow on a white horse.”29

The White record was horrific:

[White General Denikin] imposed a regime marked by….a vicious hatred of all Jews. As the pogroms of 1919 burst upon the Jews of the Ukraine with an incredible ferocity, the enemies of Bolshevism committed some of the most brutal acts of persecution in the modern history of the Western world…. Estimates of the numbers killed ran as high as one Jew out of every thirteen. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless, and tens of thousands more became the victims of serious injuries or disease…. No longer spontaneous outpourings of racial and religious hatred, pogroms now became coldly calculated incidents of wholesale rape, extreme brutality and unprecedented destruction. In a single day at the end of August in the Jewish settlement of Kremenchug, the Whites raped 350 women, including pregnant women, women who had just given birth and even women who were dying.30

The Red Army ultimately prevailed in the civil war, but at a terrible cost. Although 350,000 died in combat, more than 7 million perished from disease and famine caused by war conditions.31 And the failure of the revolutionary upheavals in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere to translate into workers’ power left the workers’ state in Russia isolated.

The difficulties of the civil war led to a collapse in industrial output. In 1918, iron ore production dropped to 12.3 percent of 1913 levels. By 1920, it dropped to 1.7 percent. The production of every commodity fell during this time. Huge sections of the rail system and 50 percent of locomotives were inoperative. By 1919, productivity had slipped to 22 percent of its (already low) 1913 level.32 The total employed workforce declined by half through the civil war period.33 By the autumn of 1920, Petrograd, the main industrial center, had lost almost 60 percent of its population. Writes historian E.H. Carr, “The paradox arose that the establishment of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was followed by a marked diminution both of the numbers and of the specific weight in the economy of the class in whose name the dictatorship was exercised.”34

Thirty percent absenteeism in factories was standard (in many cases it was much higher) and the most common cause was hunger.35 By the spring of 1918, food rations were down to 10 percent of what was needed to sustain the average worker.36 And then the blockade—sanctions—by the imperialist powers began. By 1919, “not one letter, not one food parcel, not one package of goods, not one foreign newspaper could enter Red Russia.”37 In 1913, Russia exported 26.5 million tons of commodities; by 1917 that had shrunk to 1.1 million; by 1918, 32,000; and by 1919, zero.38
Despite the desperate need for industrial output, Lenin was reduced to urging the workers of Petrograd, the cradle of the revolution, to head into the countryside to forage for food in July 1918. Twenty-five percent of Russia’s population suffered from acute hunger. People dug up dead horses to eat their flesh; others practiced cannibalism.39 And yet there was grain. The Northern Caucasus alone had 2.5 million tons of grain. Only 270,000 tons a month were needed to keep the big towns supplied. The rich peasants or kulaks primarily hoarded it.40

As part of a policy known as war communism, the Bolsheviks began requisitioning grain from the peasantry.41 Every day that kulaks held onto grain more people died. Less repressive measures to get the food had failed, leaving force as the only means in these dire circumstances. The people’s commissar of food supplies explained, “There are only two possibilities, either we perish from hunger, or we weaken the (peasant economy) to some extent, but (manage to) get out of our temporary difficulties.”42 The anarchist historian Paul Avrich summarized the tragic catch-22:

There is little doubt that compulsory requisitioning saved the Bolshevik regime from defeat, for without it neither the army nor the urban population, from which the government drew its main support, could have survived. Yet the inevitable price was the estrangement of the peasantry. Forced at gunpoint to hand over their surpluses and denied the compensation of badly needed consumer goods, the villagers responded in predictable fashion: the food detachments, when not met by open resistance, were stymied by evasive tactics to which every ounce of peasant ingenuity was applied. In 1920, a leading authority estimated, more than a third of the total harvest was successfully hidden from the government’s collection teams.43

The Makhnovists existed at a special moment in history. As the peasants seized the land, each family getting its own parcel, the desire to be free of any external interference blossomed. The peasantry was caught between an understandable resentment of the Bolshevik requisitioning and their greater fear of White rule. Makhno built his army on this foundation.

A Leaky Raincoat44

Clearly, conditions were not ripe for egalitarian socialism, let alone the statelessness of communism. But anarchists ignore the objective difficulties facing the revolution and proffer Makhno as the valid alternative. To make their case, anarchists have constructed an idealized version of Makhno’s “free communes.”45

The Makhnovists made two attempts at organizing production along anarchist lines. Both were centered on their base of operations, Guliai-Pole. The first, in February 1918, lasted three weeks before the Austro-German invasion destroyed it.46 We know little of this experiment. Makhno’s own memoirs barely touch on the political and economic organization of the communes. Instead, he spends most of the time discussing eating arrangements. Makhno ignores all the key issues for describing a society’s workings. Darch writes:

There is nothing on social relations of production, on the division of labor, on crop selection, on the labor process, on marketing, on the distribution of surplus; simply three hundred undifferentiated anarchists and peasants in a communal canteen, taking a day off whenever they felt like it. And these few weeks in spring were to serve as a basis for a social revolution.47

Makhno’s second attempt at establishing communes came with the end of the First World War in late 1918 and the withdrawal of the Central Powers. By early 1919, Makhno and his followers had more communes up and running. These lasted until June, when they fell apart during battles between the Red Army and the Makhnovists. Arshinov describes them as:

[R]eal working communes of peasants who…found there whatever moral and material support he needed. The principles of brotherhood and equality permeated the communes. Everyone—men, women and children—worked according to his or her abilities. Organization work was assigned to one or two comrades who, after finishing it, took up the remaining tasks together with the other members of the commune.48

This sounds quite nice. But Arshinov acknowledges that there were few communes (he describes four), “and included only a minority of the population—especially those who did not have well-established farmlands.”

With the massive land reform of the revolution, most peasants now had access to their own land. There was almost no interest in joining anarchist-led communes. The peasantry had little in their lived experience that drove them to seek such radical change.49 In fact, at most, a few thousand in a population of several million were involved in the communes—or less than 0.1 percent of those in the area over which the Makhnovists claimed influence. These experiments made no attempt to address issues of modern production and therefore cannot reasonably serve as a model for society. This becomes clearer when examining the Makhnovists’ attitude towards workers.

Despite once sending a hundred train cars of wheat to Moscow that he captured from the Whites, Makhno generally had a distrustful attitude toward the cities, calling them “a poison.”50 His vision for worker and peasant relations was based on barter between the two. But humanity cannot build a viable system of production on the chance that peasants will have a surplus they are willing to trade.51

When they occupied towns, the Makhnovists would declare null and void all laws and state structures. In the midst of a civil war, they emptied all the prisons and jails. Then they would hand out all the money and food until it was gone.52 They destroyed the existing economic and political structures and then denied responsibility for the consequences. There was no thought of rationing the resources because there was no consideration of problems of production beyond small-scale family agriculture.

When local railway and telegraph workers who had not been paid for months asked for help, Makhno told them, “We are not like the Bolsheviks to feed you, we don’t need the railways; if you need money, take the bread from those who need your railways and telegraphs.”53 In reality, the Makhnovists did need the railways. But Makhno declared his army exempt from rail charges. In the context of civil war and mass famine, his was less a call for workers’ power and more a prescription for starvation.54

Makhno issued a currency that carried the text: “feel free to forge this.” He also declared valid all currencies, including those of defunct governments. While this may just seem like Abbie Hoffman-style antics, the ensuing mass inflation was devastating for workers. Unlike the peasants who grew their own food, the workers were dependent on a wage to eat and desperately needed price controls.55 But they could not look to Makhno for help, who later told the workers of Briansk, “Because the workers do not want to support Makhno’s movement and demand pay for the repairs of the armored car, I will take this armored car for free and pay nothing.”56

Leon Trotsky, head of the Red Army, wrote of a similar incident:

[S]ince the Makhnovists are sitting on the railway branch-line from Mariupol, they are refusing to allow the coal and grain to leave except in exchange for other supplies. It has come about that, while rejecting the “state power” created by the workers and peasants of the whole country, the Makhnovists leadership has organized its own little semi-piratical power, which dares to bar the way for the Soviet power of the Ukraine and all of Russia. Instead of the country’s economy being properly organized according to a general plan and conception, and instead of a co-operative, socialist and uniform distribution of all the necessary products, the Makhnovists are trying to establish domination by gangs and bands: whoever has grabbed something is its rightful owner, and can then exchange it for whatever he hasn’t got. This is not products-exchange but commodity-stealing.57

In this 1919 document, the Makhnovists seem almost willfully ignorant of the devastation facing Russia after the revolution:

[The supply] issue was particularly easy to resolve at the beginning of the revolution, when life was not yet in complete disarray and when food was available everywhere in more or less adequate supply.58

The reality was quite different. In October 1917, Petrograd was down to less than four days of food.59 Although peasants had access to food, the cities were starving and the war-ravaged economy was in shambles. The Makhnovist solution was unworkable: decentralized anarchy to leap over the real problems of production. In reality, local autonomy would mean no coordinated, centralized plan for war production and defense. If implemented on a wide scale, the Makhnovist approach would have led to a swift White victory with an immediate reversal of all of the peasantry’s gains.

If It Walks Like a Duck…

Anarchists identify authority as the root cause of human oppression. There is a wide range of opinion over what kind of authority is the “bad” kind—some reject all authority, others just hierarchical authority, and others just state authority. Most believe the authority of the majority over the minority (i.e., democracy) is antithetical to freedom. The inherent contradictions in this approach have been addressed in this magazine and elsewhere.60 When occupying cities or towns, Makhno’s troops would post notices on walls that read:

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 Makhno 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.61

But left in control of territory that they wanted to secure, the Makhnovists ended up forming what most would call a state. The Makhnovists set monetary policy.62 They regulated the press.63 They redistributed land according to specific laws they passed. They organized regional legislative conferences. 64 They controlled armed detachments to enforce their policies.65 To combat epidemics, they promulgated mandatory standards of cleanliness for the public health.66 Except for the Makhnovists, parties were banned from organizing for election to regional bodies. They banned authority with which they disagreed to “prevent those hostile to our political ideas from establishing themselves.”67 They delegated broad authority to a “Regional Military-Revolutionary Council of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents.” The Makhnovists used their military authority to suppress rival political ideas and organizations.68 The anarchist historian Paul Avrich notes, “the Military-Revolutionary Council, acting in conjunction with the Regional Congresses and the local soviets, in effect formed a loose-knit government in the territory surrounding Guliai-Pole.”69

Why did self-proclaimed anarchists create a state? They were not confused or impure. They built a state because they had no choice. Ultimately, states are coercive instruments whereby one class rules society. A workers’ state is unique in history because the class wielding power does so in the interests of the vast majority. During the civil war, the Ukraine was far from a classless society, as the actions of the Makhnovists show. Of course, they never called their instrument a “state.” When reality overwhelms theory, anarchists have traditionally just created new labels. In 1873, Marx, Engels, and Lafargue wrote this analysis of the anarchist program:

Thus in this anarchistic organization…we have first the Council of the Commune, then the executive committees, which, to be able to do anything at all, must be vested with some power and supported by a public force; this is to be followed by nothing short of a federal parliament, whose principal object will be to organize this public force. Like the Commune Council, this parliament will have to assign executive power to one or more committees which by this act alone will be given an authoritarian character that the demands of the struggle will increasingly accentuate. We are thus confronted with a perfect reconstruction of all the elements of the “authoritarian State”; and the fact that we call this machine “a revolutionary commune organized from bottom to top” makes little difference. The name changes nothing of the substance.70

Anarchist attacks on the Bolsheviks’ civil war policies often focus on the severe military discipline, conscription, grain requisitioning, and creation of a secret police. Yet, under the same conditions of civil war, Makhno’s army adopted all these measures, albeit with different names.

In his army, Makhno claimed that units had the right to elect their commanders. However, he retained veto power over any decisions.71 He increasingly relied on a close group of friends for his senior command.72 As Darch notes, “Although some of Makhno’s aides attempted to introduce more conventional structures into the army, [Makhno]’s control remained absolute, arbitrary and impulsive.”73 One regiment found it necessary to pass a resolution that “all orders must be obeyed provided that the commanding officer was sober at the time of giving it.”74 As the war went on, his forces moved from voting on their orders to carrying out executions ordered by Makhno to enforce discipline.75

The pressures of war forced Makhno to move to compulsory military service, a far cry from the free association of individuals extolled in anarchist theory. Tellingly, all the anarchist histories call it a “voluntary” mobilization (complete with quotation marks).76 Historian David Footman describes the linguistic back-flips:

Accordingly, at Makhno’s insistence, the second Congress passed a resolution in favor of “general, voluntary and egalitarian mobilization.” The orthodox Anarchist line, expressed at an Anarchist gathering of this period, was that “no compulsory army…can be regarded as a true defender of the social revolution,” and debate ranged round the issue as to whether enlistment could be described as “voluntary” (whatever the feelings of individuals) if it took place as the result of a resolution voluntarily passed by representatives of the community as a whole.77

Just in case people did not understand the meaning of “voluntary,” the Makhnovists issued a clarifying bulletin:

Some groups have understood voluntary mobilization as mobilization only for those who wish to enter the Insurrectionary Army, and that anyone who for any reason wishes to stay at home is not liable…. This is not correct…. The voluntary mobilization has been called because the peasants, workers and insurgents themselves decided to mobilize themselves without awaiting the arrival of instructions from the central authorities.78

The Makhnovists needed conscription for the same reason the Bolsheviks did: the bulk of the peasantry was sick of fighting. The difference between the two is that the Bolsheviks had a political outlook that saw conscription as part of a transitional period with the future depending on world revolution, when the productive power of humanity first unleashed by capitalism could be brought to bear on all spheres of life, in the interest of the vast majority. The peasants of Russia and the Ukraine were still using wooden ploughs and harvesting by hand. They stood to gain immensely from an increase in both productivity and leisure time. In contrast, Makhno had no similar perspective and had no generalized plan or vision for the future.

An army needs to eat. As they moved through the Ukraine, locals would point out the kulaks who would “agree” to provide food.79 Despite orders to the contrary, Makhnovists would loot town after town, adding to the workers’ misery. One witness recalled:

Food supply was primitive, on the traditional insurgent pattern: the bratishki—the Makhnovists’ name for each other—would scatter to the peasant huts on entering a village, and eat what God sent; there was thus no shortage, although plundering and thoughtless damage to peasant stock did occur; I saw them shoot peasant cattle for fun more than once, amid the howls of women and children.80

From their earliest days, they took the equipment they needed from those who had it.81 As they passed through towns and villages, they required the populace to quarter them.82
While condemning the Soviet Cheka as an authoritarian betrayal, Makhno created two secret police forces that carried out numerous acts of terror.82 After a battle in one village, they shot a villager suspected of treachery with no trial. They summarily executed many of their prisoners of war.84 Their secret police were tasked with getting rid of “opponents within or outwith [sic] the movement.”85 Their activities led to one anarchist Congress asking Makhno to explain his activities:

It has been reported to us that there exists in the army 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.86

Makhno was not the saint his supporters suppose. He accepted a number of political posts despite, in Skirda’s words, it “amount[ing] to a relative infringement of the anarchist teaching that forbade acceptance of any formal authority.” But fear not—he took them only to “reduce the authority of those committees.” This is a standard weakness with anarchism. In the real world, it is impossible to dispense with all authority. Instead, anarchists rely on morally upstanding and special individuals. After all, the reasoning goes, authority is bad because ordinary people would quickly abuse it.87

Makhno declared public drunkenness of his soldiers a capital offense, but placed himself above his own law.88 As his close collaborator, Voline, notes in a chronicle of the movement:

His greatest fault was certainly the abuse of alcohol…. Under [its influence], Makhno became irresponsible in his actions; he lost control of himself. Then it was personal caprice, often supported by violence, that suddenly replaced his sense of revolutionary duty; it was the despotism, the absurd pranks, the dictatorial antics of a warrior chief.89

Others also note Makhno’s alcoholism.90

More disturbing was Makhno’s treatment of women. According to Voline, Makhno and his commanders would hold drunken parties that turned into “orgies in which certain women were forced to participate.”91 Again, Skirda defends Makhno. First, he quotes Makhno’s boasting to a comrade that “he could have any woman he wanted in his glory days.” Presumably Makhno was not raping women—they all wanted it. Then, Skirda asserts that Makhno’s wife, who traveled with him, would not have allowed it.92 However, theirs was clearly a complicated relationship. She tried to kill him when they were in exile. In later photos, his face bears a huge scar from her knife attack.93 What we know about the treatment of women in Makhno’s army reflects the politics of the peasantry whose struggles do not necessarily challenge the ruling ideas of society.

Foul Weather Friends

Reciting the ins and outs of every military campaign in the Ukraine is well beyond the scope of this article. Makhno was clearly a gifted tactician. He pioneered the use of tachanaka, machine guns mounted on horse-drawn carriages. He would dress in the enemy’s uniforms, penetrate their lines, and attack from the rear. When facing overwhelming odds, his forces would simply bury their weapons and melt into the surrounding villages. At various points in the civil war, his forces played a critical role in conjunction with the Red Army. However, anarchists overstate the case when they claim his forces single-handedly won the war by overwhelming the Whites’ rear. At its height, the Soviets had five million troops in sixteen armies, fought along a 5,000-mile front, and produced all their own weaponry.94 Makhno’s army peaked at 30,000 troops, never fought outside the Ukraine, and relied on others for their weapons.95 Additionally, the bulk of Makhno’s tactics—harassing the rear of the White Army—would have been impossible if the Red Army was not engaging the White’s front.

Anarchist histories spend most of their time recounting Makhno’s military genius and Bolshevik betrayals. But their explanation for the Makhno-Bolshevik alliances collapsing—Bolshevik fear of a successful example of anarchism—falls flat. The real causes for the battles between the two came from the way the original alliance fractured and the impossibility of having an unreliable “anarchist” region in the southern Ukraine amid a sea of hostile capitalist forces.

The first alliance between Makhno and the Red Army broke apart in May 1919. It was never particularly strong. Despite their agreement, Makhno prevented grain collection in areas he controlled and raided any supply trains passing through.96

This was a time of immense danger to the Soviet state. The White Army was advancing, using the planes, tanks, machine guns, field guns, rifles, and millions of shells and bullets it received from the Western powers.97 In mid-May, Denikin broke through Makhno’s lines and advanced about thirty miles into the Red Army’s rear. Over the next three days, the White Army opened a massive gap in Makhno’s sector. Soon the whole Red Army was in retreat.98

With his portion of the line in shambles, Makhno resigned his command on May 29 and abandoned the front. The Makhnovists cabled the Red Army that they were going “to create an independent insurgent army, entrusting Comrade Makhno with the army’s leadership.” That day, the Bolsheviks ordered his arrest.99 Darch writes:

In the meantime, the insurgents decided to call an extraordinary congress for 15 June to discuss the White breakthrough and the crisis in relations with the Reds. The call which was issued was addressed to all the districts of two provinces, to all insurgents, and provocatively to all Red Army troops in the area. The Bolshevik reaction was harsh. The Whites had captured Bakhmut, north-east of Guliai-Pole, on 1 June. The Bolsheviks accused Makhno of seeking the protection of the Soviet flag, and of then attacking the political organization of the Red Army and the Soviet government, while trying to consolidate his power. On 4 June Trotsky issued Order No.1824, a document Arshinov prints as proof of Bolshevik perfidy. Skirda also quotes the provisions, if not the preamble. In the circumstances, the order was reasonable; it banned the Congress as an incitement to another anti-Soviet revolt and the further opening up of the front.100

The Makhnovist announcement for the congress stated that the Soviet state must be overthrown and urged members of the Red Army to desert their posts to attend.101 With the collapse of the alliance, both sides set on each other, with the Cheka hunting down Makhnovists and Makhno’s forces summarily executing Bolsheviks. For decades, anarchists have written polemics about how they were betrayed. However, their timeline and version of events is well refuted by Darch, who concludes:

[Arshinov and Voline] seriously misrepresent the sequence of events which led to Makhno’s calamitous abandonment of the Red Army front against Denikin in May and June 1919, in order to organize and attend a local anarchist congress in Guliai-Pole. [They] have been followed in this misrepresentation by many secondary sources. Once a more probable chronology is established, the received interpretation…becomes notably less convincing. A likely alternative is that Makhno did in fact desert his post with his forces, as the Bolsheviks claimed at the time. This is much more than a mere detail. Anarchist claims for Makhno-as-victim of Soviet treachery have been ideologically important at various junctures, such as the French student revolt of 1968, and have relied heavily on this kind of ambiguity.102

Over the next eighteen months, the civil war raged on in the Ukraine. By late 1920, Makhno was in a bind. Wrangel (Denikin’s successor) had successfully penned him in and denied him his base of operations at Guliai-Pole. Wrangel tried to ally with the Makhnovists, but they shot his emissaries.103 However, there was one regiment of Makhno’s that believed he had struck an alliance and so joined Wrangel’s forces for several weeks.104

Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks were close to defeating Wrangel, but they needed to drive him from the Ukraine before he could loot that year’s grain harvest. The Red Army and the Makhnovists struck a new deal and quickly crippled Wrangel.105 Although there is disagreement about the role played by Makhno’s army in this period, Wrangel was forced to evacuate all his forces before the end of the year.106 Soon after, the Red Army attacked the Makhnovists, eventually driving Makhno into exile.

To understand why the Red Army attacked Makhno, we must step back. By 1920, so much mutual distrust had built up that even though they agreed to another alliance, it was bound to disintegrate once the pressures of fighting a common enemy were lifted. Both sides recognized this.107 For the Bolsheviks, they faced a situation where the Makhnovists had previously betrayed them, had repeatedly declared overwhelming hostility to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and had nothing but vague platitudes to offer as a substitute. The Makhnovists were organized with an approach of anarchism from above as the peasant army would roll into a town and obliterate existing state structures before moving on. The Soviet state was still barely holding on, and it could ill afford to leave such a hostile force organized in the Ukraine.

Regardless, with the threat of the White Army ended, the bulk of Makhno’s support came from peasants angered at grain requisitioning. When the policy of war communism was replaced with a limited market system for the peasants known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), much of Makhno’s base dissipated.108


This article could not cover all the controversies that swirled around Makhno, nor could it examine all the activities of the Makhnovists. Instead, I focused on those activities most relevant to understanding the political nature and limits of Makhno’s movement. Ironically, while condemning Bolshevism and ignoring the incredibly unfavorable situation it faced, Arshinov excuses all the problems of the Makhnovists by citing the same “exceptional” circumstances:

The basic shortcoming of the movement resides in the fact that during its last two years it concentrated mainly on military activities. This was not an organic flaw of the movement itself but rather its misfortune—it was imposed on the movement by the situation in the Ukraine. Three years of uninterrupted civil wars made the southern Ukraine a permanent battlefield…. These conditions tore the Makhnovists away from its healthy foundation, away from socially creative work among the masses, and forced it to concentrate on war…. When speaking about the military character of the movement we should not begin with the fact that Makhnovists devoted a great deal of time to artillery and cavalry combats; we should rather ask how the Makhnovists began, what goals they pursued and what means they had to realize them…. The movement obviously had to undergo great changes in its strategy in its ways and means of action and was forced to devote a large part of its forces to the military side of the struggle for freedom. But as we said, this was not its fault, but its misfortune.109

Change the names and this roughly describes the trajectory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. The difference is that the Bolsheviks had an understanding of human liberation that was connected to the real world. The Makhnovists never had a realistic plan for transforming and organizing society. The only reason they were able to operate at all was because the Russian working class overthrew the tsar and bourgeoisie. But almost ninety years later, Makhno is still revered by anarchists. Explaining the ongoing interest in Makhno, Darch writes:

The Makhnovist movement, because it attracted literate supporters from the anarchist intelligentsia, is the best documented of the [peasant rebellions]. Historically, anarchism has often been the political expression of resistance adopted by social classes whose position is undermined by the historical trend of their times. Typically, anarchist revolutionaries are rural aristocrats—Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy—or wealthy peasants; rarely are they involved in centralization or industrialization. Anarchists are not so much anti-nationalist as pre-nationalist. They look back to the community that preceded the centralized nation-state. Their future is firmly rooted in an idealized past…. When Makhno began to struggle against the modernizing revolution of the Bolsheviks, a party of great theoretical and practical sophistication with the ability to adapt its strategy to changing circumstances, he failed. It is a measure of his gifts that his resistance to Bolshevism lasted so long. It is hardly an indication of the viability of the anarchist vision.110

In the 1920s, some of the surviving membership of the Makhnovists engaged in a debate over next steps for the anarchist movement.111 They sought to understand the experience in Russia and use it as a guide for future action. In that discussion, Makhno wrote:

Without discipline inside the organization, there is no way of undertaking any consequential revolutionary activity at all. In the absence of discipline, the revolutionary vanguard cannot exist, for in that case it would find itself in utter disarray in its practice and would be incapable of identifying the tasks of the moment or of living up to the initiator role that the masses expect of it.112

Makhno calls for the forms of Bolshevism—revolutionary discipline, vanguard party—without the content, the self-emancipation of the working class. He saw the degeneration in Russia primarily as a problem of ideas—“statism” and authoritarianism—instead of material conditions—poverty and isolation. Thus, he concludes that, “had anarchists been closely connected in organizational terms and had they in their actions abided strictly by a well-defined discipline, they would never have suffered such a rout.”113 But the strength required to fundamentally transform society and set it on new foundations cannot exist only among the enlightened few who “get it.” Instead, it is found in the collective energy and self-activity of the working class. With their hand on the lever of production, only the working class can revolutionize society. The Russian experience demonstrates they will need a state when they do so—to defend their new gains. But it also shows that when workers’ power next establishes itself, its wielders will have to put tremendous energy into helping workers in other countries in their project of self-emancipation. A socialist revolution left isolated is ultimately doomed.

To overthrow the bourgeoisie requires organization and authority. In their actions, the Makhnovists recognized this. But their utopian views prevented them from uniting with the workers’ state. Other anarchists, such as Victor Serge and Bill Shatov, recognized that the moment required unshakeable unity of revolutionaries and knew that immediate aims had to fall short of long-term goals. Although the Bolsheviks were ultimately unsuccessful (and certainly made many mistakes along the way), any other course would have prematurely thrown in the towel on the possibility of spreading workers’ power. In an address on anarchism during the civil war, Trotsky neatly summarized the Marxist position on the state:

The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it, it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device, don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.114

1 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1975); Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976; reprint Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004); S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917–18 (Cambridge University Press, 1983); Moshe Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985); Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985); Diane Koenker, William Rosenberg, and Ronald Grigor Suny, eds., Party, State and Society in the Russian Civil War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). More recently, Kevin Murphy traces the shop floor battles against Stalinism (Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory [Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005]). For a good short introduction on the state of Soviet historiography, see Murphy, 1–7. I am grateful to Annie Zirin for feedback and suggestions on multiple drafts of this article.

2 A quick note on transliteration is needed here. Obviously, proper names in the Ukraine and Russia are not natively expressed in the Roman alphabet. There are many competing systems of transliteration. For example, Makhno’s base of operations is rendered in at least the following ways: Gulyai-Poyle, Guliai-Pole, Guliai-Polya, Huliai-Pole, or Hulyai-Poyle. To reduce confusion and improve legibility, I have tried to normalize the spelling of words throughout, including in quotations, without notice. Also, since independence Ukraine has dropped the article “the” before its name, but references here that are historical retain the article.

3 Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, 1918–1921 (1922; reprint London: Freedom Press, 1987), 259. Smith traces the inability of anarchists in the cities to connect with the working class (142–56). Because they pushed for decentralization in the face of economic collapse, their proposals were voted down and their influence was miniscule. One proposal put forth by Voline (before he joined Makhno in the Ukraine) got only 8 votes while the Bolsheviks got 290 for a counter-proposal (Smith, 144). Smith’s whole book describes the process by which the Bolsheviks won the allegiance of the vast majority of the working class during 1917.

4 “Appendix 4.6: Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?”, “An anarchist FAQ” (currently located at For more libertarian information on Makhno, see

5 Arshinov, 51. Most sources agree on 1889, but Alexander Skirda puts it in 1888 (Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1918–1921 [1982; reprint with new afterword, Oakland: AK Press, 2004], 17).

6 Michael Malet, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), xxi.

7 Skirda, 28.

8 It was a title peasants gave to leaders. There is some disagreement in the literature about whether Batko should be translated as “Father” or “Little Father.”

9 Many of the charges of anti-Semitism appeared after Makhno was in exile, and it seems all are without merit. Throughout his army’s existence, Makhno was militant in opposing the scapegoating of Jews.

10 This section aims to show that Skirda writes with unintentional irony: “That a lie piously repeated can sometimes achieve the standing of a half-truth in some minds, we know.” (4)

11 Voline, The Unknown Revolution (1947; reprint with new translation and more material, Detroit: Black and Red, 1974). Other works with an acknowledged libertarian perspective include Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton University Press, 1967[Reprinted, Oakland: AK Press, 2005]); Michael Malet, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War (London: Macmillan Press, 1982), which is out of print. Michael Palij’s book suffers from trying to overlay Ukrainian nationalist politics onto the Makhnovist movement (The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, 1918–1921 [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976]). Although there is useful analysis and history that peeps through, the nationalist contortions reduce the utility of most of the text. For a full review of Skirda and Malet, see Colin Darch, “The myth of Nestor Makhno,” Economy and Society 14, no. 4 (1985), 524–36. I am grateful to James Fiorentino for helping me locate some of the rarer works.

12 For an extended review of Makhnovist historiography, see Colin Darch, “The Makhnovschina, 1917–1921: Ideology, Nationalism and Peasant Insurgency in Early 20th Century Ukraine” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Bradford, 1994), 22–60. Portions of the dissertation are available at I am grateful to Dr. Darch for making both his full dissertation and journal article available

to me.

13 Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 526.

14 “Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?” found at

15 Page numbers for Skirda listed in order of appearance in paragraph: 251; 32; 2; 78; 64; 298; 32; 301; 134; 134; 249; 247; 251; 64; 260; 64. Many of his descriptions read like Stalinist accounts of Lenin. In some ways, Skirda merely echoes the Makhnovists: “Why do we call ourselves Makhnovists? Because in the darkest days of the reaction in the Ukraine we have seen among us through thick and thin, our friend and guide Makhno whose voice has spoken out against all oppression of toilers throughout the Ukraine, inciting struggle against all oppressors and all the marauders and political tricksters who misled us.” Quoted in Skirda, 383. This overstates the necessity of Makhno’s involvement. As Darch notes, “Makhno was the most articulate and the most successful of the peasant insurgent leaders—Grigorev, Angel, Zeleny, Struk, Antonov and crucially he survived to tell his tale. If a gendarme had killed him in 1906, or if he had stayed in Moscow in 1917, the peasants of the Ukraine would still have resisted the Whites and the Bolsheviks without him (‘Makhnovschina,’ 68).”

16 Skirda, 50–52.

17 Arshinov, 54–55. Darch discusses this absence and Makhno’s description (“Makhnovschina,” 187–217).

18 Skirda, 69.

19 John Rees, “In defense of October,” International Socialism 2, no. 51 (1991), 15.

20 W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War: 1918–1921 (1989; reprint Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1999), 85–86. At least Makhno would have had no illusions in Kornilov. Given the opportunity, he probably would have put a bullet in the general’s head. Skirda also celebrates the Czech Legion uprising that opened the doors to years of civil war, 72. Taking an odd position for an anarchist, Skirda thinks the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly was unjustified, 156. He also argues that the Reds were worse than the Whites, 169.

21 A common paraphrasing of the Marx’s famous line, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already given and transmitted from the past.” Karl Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 1852,

22 For further discussion on this point, see Tony Cliff, Lenin: The Revolution Besieged (London: Bookmarks, 1987), 207–83.

23 See David Foglesong, America’s Secret War Against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

24 Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution (London: Bookmarks, 1990), 58.

25 Lincoln, 73.

26 Cliff, Trotsky, 58.

27 Leon Trotsky, My Life, “The defense of Petrograd,” Chapter 35,

28 Ibid., 64–68.

29 Quoted in Rees, 31.

30 Lincoln, 317–23. Incidentally, despite this record, Skirda persists in viewing the Whites as the lesser evil, sympathetically describing Denikin as “also of very modest origins” (70), and claiming that “the Whites’ sinister record had been beaten out of sight [by the Reds]!”169.

31 Cliff, “Lenin,” 90.

32 Ibid., 84–86.

33 Smith, 243. In the metal factories of the Petrograd province that employed more than 100 workers, the total workforce slumped from 197,686 to 57,995 between January and April 1918.

34 E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 2, 1917–1923 (London: Penguin books, 1972), 198.

35 Cliff, “Lenin,” 84–86.

36 Smith, 243.

37 Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, trans. Peter Sedgwick (1930, reprint London: Pluto Press, Bookmarks, 1992), 351.

38 Cliff, “Lenin,” 84.

39 Rees, 56.

40 Ibid., 45.

41 For more on war communism, see Cliff, “Lenin,” 83–97.

42 Quoted in Rees, 44.

43 Paul Avrich, Kronstadt, 1921 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970), 9–10.

44 In discussing the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky wrote that anarchist practice and theory are like “raincoats that leak only when it rains, i.e., in ‘exceptional’ circumstances, but during dry weather they remain waterproof with complete success.” Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution, 1931–39 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 327.

45 For example, “An anarchist FAQ” writes, “The ‘free commune’ was a voluntary association of rural workers who took over an expropriated estate and managed the land in common. The commune was managed by a general meeting of all its members and based on the liberty, equality and solidarity of its members…. Like their political ideas, their economic ideas were designed to ensure the freedom of working people and the end of hierarchy in all aspects of society. In summary, the Makhnovist had a [sic] constructive social ideas which aimed to ensure the total economic and political emancipation of the working people.” Currently located at

46 Darch, “Myth,” 527.

47 Ibid., 528.

48 Arshinov, 87.

49 There was a tradition of community-level decision making and responsibility. These communes (Mir) were formed out of several families living in the same area. They made decisions to which the whole group was accountable and they jointly paid taxes to the tsar. However, there was little socialized production. They all worked their own separate plots of land, even if they jointly planned the division of that land. The Makhnovists were careful to distinguish between those and their “free working communes.” Darch describes these dynamics (“Makhnovschina,” 114–51).

50 The wheat is described by Skirda, 88, and the poison by Avrich, 219.

51 In fact, the peasants most likely to have a surplus were the kulaks, wealthier peasants who employed others to till the land. In practice, his approach would benefit the wealthy (Darch, “Myth,” 530). Even later when Bolshevik policy produced a great leveling of the peasantry (although some kulaks remained), under Makhno’s approach, the kulaks would have easily risen again. In practice, Makhno tended toward conciliation with the kulaks, downplaying the class tensions within the peasantry, much to the frustration of the Bolsheviks. In describing their class approach, David Footman quotes the Guliai-Pole Congress: “ways and means of our new agricultural order must be devised by the free and natural decision and initiative of the peasantry as a whole (Civil War in Russia [London: Faber and Faber, 1961], 277).” Trotsky and Lenin both also comment on this in various articles on Makhno. Darch notes: “There is no conclusive proof that the movement’s membership consisted mainly of poor peasants. There are grounds for supposing that a principle motive behind the Makhnovists was the highly developed sense of property among the Ukrainian rural population. If this is the case, then the Soviet charge that the movement was a kulak one might be partly justified.” (“Makhnovschina,” 46)

52 Darch, “Myth,” 531.

53 Quote in A. Kramer, internet article,

54 Malet reproduces Makhno’s order, 123. Skirda reproduces a related article from the Makhnovinist paper, 156.

55 Footman, 279.

56 Kramer and Skirda (156–57) describe the same incident.

57 Leon Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, Vol. 2, 1919 (1924, reprint and translation London: New Park, 1979), 277. Also available at

58 “Draft declaration of the (Makhnovist) revolutionary insurgent army of the Ukraine adopted on October 20, 1919 at a session of the Military Revolutionary Soviet,” reproduced in Skirda, 373.

59 Smith, 86.

60 For example, in a disagreement, someone has to prevail. If the minority can overrule the majority, we are left with an even more “authoritarian” state of affairs. For more on the general flaws of anarchism, see Paul D’Amato, “Anarchism: How not to make a revolution,” International Socialist Review, 3 (1997); Geoff Bailey, “Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War,” International Socialist Review, 24 (2002); Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 4, Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990) 107–75, 270–304.

61 Quoted in Palij, 59.

62 From a Makhnovist bulletin: “Soviet and Ukranian currencies are to have the same value as other currencies. Those who violate this disposition are to be liable to revolutionary sanction [i.e., execution].” Quoted in Skirda, 165.

63 Skirda recounts one case of a Bolshevik paper being repressed because it was critical of the Makhnovists, 92. Malet reprints the full order, including the army’s right of censorship on military reports, 176.

64 These bodies supposedly had no decision-making authority. They were only allowed to carry out the congress’s decisions. In the fast moving situation of the civil war, it seems certain that these bodies had to make decisions in the light of changing circumstance. Regardless, one “congress of the front” in early 1919 passed a set of regulations on military organization. According to Skirda, “All detachments refusing to acknowledge its authority were to be disarmed and their commanders brought before a general tribunal of the insurgents (79).”

65 Malet writes, “Despite assurances that the town commandants did not interfere in the civil life of their cities, they did have a lot of power. Klein at Olexandrivske complained that all he did was sit at a desk and sign bits of paper, while Lashkevich at Katerynoslav threatened to shoot the local Bolsheviks if they tried to take over civilian power in the city. Skaladytsky in Nykopil ordered that anyone who did not allow free exchange of the various currencies would be dealt with as a counter-revolutionary,” 93.

66 Malet, 96. Responding to a typhus epidemic, they had to “threaten punishment to all who did not keep their places clean.”

67 Palij, 151. Quote of Makhno in Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 92.

68 Skirda, 359. From a Makhnovist bulletin: “…the cultivation, organization and erection by constraints on their part of any political authority hostile to the laboring people—which has nothing to do with the free expression of ideas—will in no ways be tolerated by the revolutionary insurgents.” Makhno’s supporters point to his allowing the freedom of the press. At various points, Bolsheviks and others were allowed to publish newspapers, but if they advocated specific policies with which the anarchists disagreed, they would be shut down. Whether one thinks this is valid is less important then recognizing that this behavior is “authoritarian” and “statist.”

69 Avrich, Russian Anarchists, 214.

70 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “From the alliance of socialist democracy and the International Working Men’s Association,” in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 110–11. Bakunin in this tract Engels’ cites, then goes on to argue that one hundred anarchists organizing secretly as the “revolutionary general staff” would be sufficient for the success of the revolution in Europe. The Bakuninist program, “Program and purpose of the revolutionary organization of the international brothers,” can be found in Michael Bakunin, Selected Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1973), 172.

71 Footman, 286.

72 Malet, 93 and Avrich, Russian Anarchists, 215.

73 Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 328. Darch summarizes a report from an officer in the Ukrainian National Army assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Makhnovists.

74 Footman, 286.

75 Malet, 102.

76 Skirda, 157.

77 Footman, 268. Ellipses are his.

78 Quoted in Malet, 105. Ellipses are his.

79 Footman, 260. Palij notes that the “primary source of the food would be free gifts from the peasants, the spoils of victory, and requisitions from privileged groups (197).”

80 Quoted in Malet, 98.

81 Ibid., 18.

82 Footman, 265–66.

83 Ibid., 288. They were the Razvedka and the Kommissiya Protivmakhnovskikh Del. Palij also describes them, 192.

84 Ibid., 261. Although they developed a reputation for freeing the rank and file (which they did sometimes), there was no semblance of a trial for the officers, who were almost always summarily executed.

85 Malet, 102.

86 Quoted in Ibid., 103.

87 Skirda, 35.

88 On ban, see Palij, 197. Malet notes that he also banned card playing, 101.

89 Voline, 705–06.

90 Malet, 100-101; Footman, 289; Victor Peters, Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist (Winnipeg: Echo Books, 1970), 57. Darch discusses his early anarchist years and notes “According to one account the other members did not trust him because he was an habitual drunkard. In such a condition, he was aggressive and talkative, and liked to pick fights (‘Makhnovschina,’ 19).” Malet notes that once in exile, he cut back because he no longer had to “keep up the drinking standards of his fellow Ukrainian peasants,” only resuming heavy drinking in the last few years of his life, when “he knew that tuberculosis was killing him anyway,” 189. Skirda dismisses this portion of Voline’s book, claiming it was lies driven by factional infighting and hurt feelings. This defense is weak. Voline spends the bulk of his time singing Makhno’s praises and defending him from unjust criticism such as anti-Semitism. He devotes less than 6 of 170 pages on the Makhnovists to criticisms of the movement.

91 Voline, 705. Peters mentions others rapes, 58.

92 Skirda, 306.

93 Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 50–51.

94 Cliff, Lenin, 155.

95 For size estimate, see Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 408. Makhno’s army either expended energy on raids to acquire weapons, or, when in alliance with the Red Army, got them from the workers’ state, Ibid., 329.

96 Ibid., 271.

97 Lincoln, 198.

98 Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 288. To explain their failure, the Makhnovists claim it was not their fault—they were deliberately deprived of weapons by the treacherous Bolsheviks. This does not explain their abandonment of the front. Additionally, a more credible explanation for supply problems is a combination of the fog of war and the generally poor material conditions the Red Army faced. It’s not as if the rest of the Red Army was superbly equipped by a well-oiled machine. Indeed, there are cables from Bolsheviks traveling with Makhno requesting arms and reinforcements from Bolsheviks in the rear. Ibid., 289–90.

99 Ibid., 291.

100 Ibid., 42. The full text of Order 1824 can be found online at

101 Ibid., 291. From the announcement addressed to all units of Makhno’s division and Red Army troops in the region: “The Executive Committee of the RVS […] has reached the conclusion that only the working masses themselves can find a solution, and not individuals or parties.”

102 Ibid., 530.

103 Ibid., 418.

104 Skirda, 194. This may reveal a lack of political awareness by many in Makhno’s army. It also may have fueled incorrect rumors of a Wrangel-Makhno alliance.

105 The details of this agreement are covered by Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 419–25.

106 Skirda argues that “Thus, in two weeks the Makhnovists had done what the Red Army had failed to achieve over six months! (226)” Malet notes that “it is not easy to evaluate the contribution of the Makhnovists to Wrangel’s defeat” and goes on to quote a Bolshevik writer on the Makhnovists’ heroism, 69. However, Darch points out that during the campaign against Wrangel, the Red Army leaders were sending a constant stream of cables to the rear about the failures and slowness of the Makhnovists (“Makhnovschina,” 115). Lincoln concludes that the key factor was sending fresh reserves of committed Bolsheviks that meant their proportion in the Red Army on the front rose to one in eight, 440–43.

107 Darch, “Makhnovschina,”.

108 Ibid., 543–45. While acknowledging the NEP’s critical role, Darch argues there are additional factors, including the peasants’ exhaustion with war, Makhno’s lack of resources, and Makhno’s military defeat at the hands of the Red Army.

109 Arshinov, 252–53. Emphasis in original.

110 Darch, “Makhnovschina,” 56–57.

111 This is known as the debate over the Platform.

112 Nestor Makhno, ed. Alexander Skirda, The Struggle Against the State and other Essays (San Francisco: AK Press, 1996), 67. The original essay “On revolutionary discipline” was written in 1925.

113 Ibid.

114 Leon Trotsky, How The Revolution Armed, Vol. 1, 1918 (London: New Park, 1979), 400–401. Also available online at


Posted on May 30, 2010, in Radical History, Revolutionary Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting if partisan (small p) analysis.

  2. As Anti-capitalists, we need to spend less time arguing the relative merits of bolshevism and anarkhism, and instead learn from each other. Both ideologies have some good ideas, and if we truly unite –(although it will have to be entirely voluntary because anarkhists will unite in no other way, and without state power, before the revolution, bolshevics have no other way than persuasion to get people together)– then we can defeat the capitalists, because if we spend all out time fighting each other, we will not have the energy to defeat the enemy who holds us all in thral. The capitalists will use all of their power, rhe power of money and the power of the media, to defeat the revolution, which they have gotten very good at since 1917.

    We should study the Cuban Revolution, I believe. While calling himslf a Marxist-Leninist, Fidel Castro has been such an egalitarian head of state that he has allowed the Cuban people’s enthusiasm for socialism to determine the shape of the government and society in Cuba. I am thinking specifically of the women’s orgaanizations, and the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, which were formed spontaneously by the people, and later added to the structure of the government.

    As an anarkhist, I am delighted with the “anarkhist-like” methods which the Cuban Communist Party has employed to learn the wishes of the common People of Cuba. And as a Gay person, I have been very glad to see that Gay Liberation could, and did, procede in Cuba without Gay people being silenced as “a symptom of bourgeois decadence.” That positive social change could happen after the Revolution in Cuba is proof to me that the government of Cuba remains as flexible and as free as any anarkhist could desire, since we will obviously need some sort of government so that we can learn to run our civilization ourselves, as free people, after we get rid of the yoke of capitalism.

    Need I mention free healthcare, free housing, and free muilk for all growing children?

  3. Well written article, though the author mis-characterizes history and goes into the article looking to tear down not just Mahkno, but anarchism as well. Thus I’m left with the same feeling I would have if I was reading an article “critiquing” Islam, written by the Knights of Columbus.

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