In Defence of Truth – “Anarcho”

IN DEFENCE OF THE TRUTH

“Anarcho”

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote that “to tell the truth is a communist and revolutionary act.” If we apply this maxim to most of the left, we would draw the obvious conclusion that it is neither communist nor revolutionary. The Socialist Workers Party is a classic example of this mentality, rewriting history to suit the recruitment needs of the organisation. One of the ironies of history is that the Trotskyists who spent so much time combating the “Stalin school of falsification” have created their own.

The SWP is notorious, of course, for its inaccurate diatribes on anarchism. Pat Stack’s laughably bad “Anarchy in the UK?” [see reply to this article] (Socialist Review, no. 246) is just the latest in a long line of articles whose relationship to reality is one of accidental coincidence. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to the Russian Revolution, we get a similar distortions. This is for an obvious reason. It would be harder to maintain the Bolshevik myth if an accurate account of the Russian Revolution was widely available.

One of the party’s major attempts to “defend” the Bolshevik tradition is “In Defence of October” by John Rees, which appeared in International Socialism no. 52 and as been reprinted as a pamphlet. Needless to say, a comprehensive analysis of the whole article cannot be done here and, therefore, it is necessary to concentrate on his account of the anarchist influenced Makhnovist movement. Such an analysis is useful for three reasons. Firstly, it exposes the flaws (and honesty) of his approach. Secondly, it shows the depths to which a so-called “revolutionary” will sink to justify his ideology. Thirdly, it allows us to review the activities of the Makhnovists and show that there is an alternative to the bankrupt politics of Bolshevism.

Objective Factors

Rees is at pains to blame the authoritarian policies of the Bolsheviks on what he calls “the weight of objective factors” facing the Bolsheviks. He argues that the “subjective factor” of Bolshevik ideology played had an impact (indeed, “was decisive”) on the outcome of the Russian Revolution within the “choice between capitulation to the Whites or defending the revolution with whatever means were at hand.” Such an argument explains his dishonest account of the Makhnovist movement. After all, they faced the same “weight of objective factors” as the Bolsheviks yet did not make the same decisions, act in the same way, or come to the same ideological conclusions.

Clearly, then, the Makhnovists undermine his basic thesis and effectively refutes the claim that the Bolsheviks had no choice but to act as they did. This means that the Makhnovists are strong evidence that Bolshevik politics played a key role in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Such a conclusion is dangerous to Bolshevism and so the Maknovist movement must be attacked, regardless of the facts. This Rees does in abundance, distorting and abusing the source material he bases his account on in the process.

Rees on Makhno

The Makhnovist movement, named after anarchist Nestor Makhno, was a popular peasant based army which was active in the Ukraine during 1918 to 1921. It played a key role in the defeat of the White Generals Denikin and Wrangel and pursued the anarchist dream of a self-managed society based on a federation of free communes and workers’ councils (soviets). Rees, however, talks about the “muddled anarchism” of Makhno, dismissing the whole movement as offering no alternative to Bolshevism and being without “an articulated political programme.” Ultimately, for Rees, Makhno’s “anarchism was a thin veneer on peasant rebellion” and while “on paper” the Makhnovists “appeared to have a more democratic programme” than the Bolsheviks, there were “frauds.”

The reality of the situation is totally different. We shall analyse his account of the Makhnovist movement in order to show exactly how low the supporters of Bolshevism will go to distort the historical record for their own aims. Once the selective and edited quotations provided by Rees are corrected, the picture that clearly emerges is that rather than the Makhnovists being “frauds,” it is Rees’ account which is the fraud (along with the political tradition which inspired it).

Rees presents two aspects of his critique of the Makhnovists. The first is a history of the movement and its relationships (or lack of them) with the Bolsheviks. The second is a discussion of the ideas which the Makhnovists tried to put into practice. Both aspects of his critique are extremely flawed. Indeed, the errors in his history of the movement are so fundamental (and so at odds with his references) that it suggests that ideology overcame objectivity (to be polite). The best that can be said of his account is that at least he does not raise the totally discredited accusation that the Makhnovists were anti-Semitic. However, he more than makes up for this by distorting the facts and references he uses. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to argue that the only information Rees gets correct about his sources is the page number.

Needless to say, every distortion and error cannot be corrected as space would prohibit it. As such, we must concentrate on the important ones.

Rees starts by setting the appropriate tone. He states that the “methods used by Makhno” in his “fight against the Red Army often mirrored those used by the Whites.” Strangely enough, he fails to specify any. He does quote from “the diary of Makhno’s wife” from 1920, the entries of which he claims “betray the nature of the movement” when fighting the Bolsheviks in early 1920 (after the Bolsheviks engineered the outlawing of the Makhnovists). The major problem for Rees’ case is the fact that this diary is a fake and has been known to be a fake since Arshinov wrote his classic account of the Makhnovists in 1923. [1] Rees implicitly acknowledges this by lamely admitting (in an end note) that “Makhno seems to have had two ‘wives'”

As regards these “methods,” Rees simply shows that Bolsheviks were shot by Makhno’s troops. This went both ways, as Rees fails to note. In “military operations the Bolsheviks shot all prisoners. The Makhnovists shot all captured officers unless the Red rank and file strongly interceded for them. The rank and file were usually sent home, though a number volunteered for service with the Insurgents.” Equally, “[o]n the occupation of a village by the Red Army the Cheka would hunt out and hang all active Makhnovite supporters; an amenable Soviet would be set up; officials would be appointed or imported to organise the poor peasants . . . and three or four Red militia men left as armed support for the new village bosses.” [2] As such, Rees’ account of Makhnovist “terror” against the Bolsheviks seems somewhat hypocritical. We can equally be surmise events that the methods used by the Bolsheviks against the Makhnovists also “often mirrored those used by the Whites”! It should also be stressed that the conflict Rees is referring to was needlessly started by the Bolsheviks and so he is attacking the Makhnovists for defending themselves!
Betraying the Makhnovists
As regards the historical summary Rees presents, it would be fair to say his account of the relationships between the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks are a total distortion. The two armies had three “pacts” and Rees totally distorts the first two. Simply put, Rees alleges that the Makhnovists broke with the Bolsheviks. The opposite is the case – the Bolsheviks turned on the Makhnovists and betrayed them. These facts are hardly unknown to Rees as they are contained in the very books he quotes as evidence for his rewritten history.

According to Rees, “[c]o-operation continued until June 1919 when the Insurgent Army broke from the Red Army” and quotes Michael Palij’s book as follows: “as soon as Makhno left the front he and his associates began to organise new partisan detachments in the Bolsheviks’ rear, which subsequently attacked strongholds, troops, police, trains and food collectors.” Rees is clearly implying that Makhno attacked the Bolsheviks, apparently for no reason. The truth is totally different.

Rees quotes Palij on page 177. This page is from chapter 16, which is called “The Bolsheviks Break with Makhno.” As this was not enough of a clue, Palij presents some necessary background to this event. He notes that “the Bolsheviks renewed their anti-Makhno propaganda. Trotsky, in particular, led a violent campaign against the Makhno movement.” He also mentions that “[a]t the same time, the supplies of arms and other war materials to Makhno were stopped, this weakening the Makhno forces vis-a-vis the Denikin troops.” In this context, the Makhnovists Revolutionary Military Council “decided to call a fourth congress of peasants, workers, and partisans” for June 15th, 1919, which Trotsky promptly banned and warned the population that “participation in the Congress shall be considered an act of state treason against the Soviet Republic and the front.” [3]

The Bolsheviks had tried to ban the third congress in April but had been ignored. This time, they made sure that they were not. Makhno and his staff were not informed of Trotsky’s dictatorial order and learned of it three days latter. On June 9th, Makhno sent a telegram informing the Bolsheviks that he was leaving his post as leader of the Makhnovists. He “handed over his command and left the front with a few of his close associates and a cavalry detachment” while calling upon the partisans to “remain at the front to hold off Denikin’s forces.” Trotsky ordered his arrest, but Makhno was warned in advance and escaped. On June 15-16th, members of Makhno’s staff “were captured and executed the next day.” Now Palij recounts how “[a]s soon as Makhno left the front he and his associates began to organise new partisan detachments in the Bolsheviks’ rear, which subsequently attacked strongholds, troops, police, trains and food collectors.”

Palij “subsequently” refers to Makhno after Denikin’s breakthrough and his occupation of the Ukraine. “The oppressive policy of the Denikin regime,” he notes, “convinced the population that it was as bad as the Bolshevik regime, and brought a strong reaction that led able young men . . . to leave their homes and join Makhno and other partisan groups.” As Makhno put it: “When the Red Army in south Ukraine began to retreat . . . as if to straighten the front line, but in reality to evacuate Ukraine . . . only then did my staff and I decide to act.” After trying to fight Denikin’s troops, he retreated and called upon his troops to leave the Red Army and rejoin the fight against Denikin. He “sent agents amongst the Red troops” to carry out propaganda urging them to stay and fight Denikin with the Makhnovists, which they did in large numbers. This propaganda was “combined with sabotage.” Between these two events, Makhno had entered the territory of pogromist warlord Hryhor’iv (which did not contain Red troops as they were in conflict) and assassinated him. [4]

Clearly, Rees’s summary leaves a lot to be desired! Rather than Makhno attacking the Bolsheviks, it was they who broke with him as Palij, Rees’s source, makes clear. The dishonesty is obvious, although understandable as Trotsky banning a worker, peasant and partisan congress would hardly fit into Rees’ attempt to portray the Bolsheviks as democratic socialists overcome by objective circumstances! Given that the Makhnovists had successfully held three such congresses to discuss the war against reaction, how could objective circumstances be blamed for the dictatorial actions of Trotsky and other leading Red Army officers in the Ukraine?

Rees moves onto the next alliance between the insurgents and the Bolsheviks which occurred after Denikin’s defeat (needless to say, his version of Denikin’s defeat downplays the Makhnovists key role in it). Again, the Bolsheviks broke it and again Rees attempts to blame the Makhnovists. He argues that “by the end of 1919 the immediate White threat was removed. Makhno refused to move his troops to the Polish front to meet the imminent invasion and hostilities with the Red Army began again on an even more widespread scale.”

This, needless to say, is a total distortion of the facts. Firstly, it should be noted that the “imminent” invasion by Poland Rees mentions did not occur until the 26th of April. The break with Makhno occurred as a result of an order issued on the 8th of January. Clearly, the excuse of “imminent” invasion was a cover, as recognised by all the historians Rees himself uses. In the words of Palij:

“The author of the order realised at that time there was no real war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks at that time and he also knew that Makhno would not abandon his region . . . Uborevich [the author] explained that ‘an appropriate reaction by Makhno to this order would give us the chance to have accurate grounds for our next steps’ . . . [He] concluded: ‘The order is a certain political manoeuvre and, at the very least, we expect positive results from Makhno’s realisation of this.'” [5]

Footman concurs, noting that it was “admitted on the Soviet side that this order was primarily ‘dictated by the necessity’ of liquidating Makhnovshchina as an independent movement.” [6] Rees argues that “[i]n fact it was Makhno’s actions against the Red Army which made ‘a brief return of the Whites possible.'” In defence of his claims, Rees quotes from W. Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory. Looking at that work we discover that Lincoln is well aware who is to blame for the return of the Whites and it is not the Makhnovists:

“Once Trotsky’s Red Army had crushed Iudenich and Kolchak and driven Deniken’s forces back upon their bases in the Crimea and the Kuban, it turned upon Makhno’s partisan forces with a vengeance . . . [I]n mid-January 1920, after a typhus epidemic had decimated his forces, a re-established Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party declared Makhno an outlaw. Yet the Bolsheviks could not free themselves form Makhno’s grasp so easily, and it became one of the supreme ironies of the Russian Civil War that his attacks against the rear of the Red Army made it possible for the resurrected White armies . . . to return briefly to the southern Ukraine in 1920.” [7]

After reading the same fact in three different sources, Rees rewrites history and reverses the facts in true Stalinist fashion. Consider what Rees is (distortedly) accounting. The White Generals had been defeated. The civil war appeared to be over. Yet the Bolsheviks turn on their allies after issuing an ultimatum which they knew would never be obeyed. They provoked a conflict with an ally against counter-revolution. It cannot be justified in military terms, as Rees tries to do.

The third and final break

The third pact was suggested by the Makhnovists in light of White success under Wrangel. The Bolsheviks ignored the offer — until Wrangel’s break through in mid-September. Rees argues that the final pact was (“unsurprisingly”) a “treaty of convenience on the part of both sides and as soon as Wrangel was defeated at the end of the year the Red Army fought Makhno until he gave up the struggle.” Makhno, however, “assumed [that] the forthcoming conflict with the Bolsheviks could be limited to the realm of ideas” and that they “would not attack his movement immediately.” [8] He was wrong. Instead the Bolsheviks attacked the Makhnovists without warning and, unlike the other breaks, without pretext.

Let us not forget the circumstances in which this betrayal took place. The country was, as Rees continually reminds us, in a state of economic collapse caused, in part by the civil war and on which he blames the anti-working class and dictatorial actions and policies of the Bolsheviks. Yet here they are prolonging the civil war by turning (yet again!) on their allies. Resources which could have been used to aid the post-war rebuilding were used to attack their former allies. The talents and energy of the Makhnovists were destroyed or wasted in a pointless conflict. Should we be surprised? The Bolsheviks had preferred to compound their foes during the Civil War (and, indirectly, aid the very Whites they were fighting) by betraying their Makhnovist allies on two previous occasions. Clearly, Bolshevik politics and ideology played a key role in all these decisions.

They were not driven by terrible objective circumstances (indeed, they made them worse).

Dictatorship of the Party

To understand why the Bolsheviks betrayed the Makhnovists, we need to consider the very factor which Rees is at pains to downplay — the “subjective” role of Bolshevik ideology.

Ever since taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks had become increasingly alienated from the working class (something Rees simply fails to acknowledge). Rather than subject themselves to soviet democracy, the Bolsheviks held on to power by any means necessary. The spring and summer of 1918 saw “great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections.” The Bolsheviks forcibly disbanded such soviets. They continually postponed elections and “pack[ed] local soviets once they could not longer count on an electoral majority” by giving representation to organisations they dominated which made workplace elections meaningless. [9] The regime remained “soviet” in name only.

These events occurred before the start of civil war. However Rees argues that “the revolution and civil war . . . were one” and so the Bolsheviks cannot be blamed for any of their actions. This is incredulous. Lenin correctly argued that revolutions “give rise to exceptionally complicated circumstances.” He stressed that revolution was “the sharpest, most furious, desperate class war and civil war. Not a single great revolution in history has escaped civil war. No one who does not live in a shell could imagine that civil war is conceivable without exceptionally complicated circumstances.” [10] If Bolshevism cannot handle the inevitable, then it is one more reason to reject it!

Therefore to blame the inevitable effects of revolution for the degeneration of Bolshevism is question begging. Rees argues that it “is a tribute to the power of the Bolsheviks’ politics and organisation that they took the measures necessary.” Let us consider these measures, the politics Rees claims had no effect on the outcome of the revolution. In the same year as the Bolsheviks twice turned on the Makhnovists, Trotsky (in Terrorism and Communism) argued that there was “no substitution at all” when “the power of the party” replaces “the power of the working class.” [11] Zinoviev argued at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern that “the dictatorship of the proletariat is at the same time the dictatorship of the Communist Party.” [12]. Lenin had argued in 1919 that “we are reproached with having established a dictatorship of one party . . . we say, ‘Yes, it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position . . . ‘”[13] By the end of the civil war, he was arguing that “the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be exercised through an organisation embracing the whole of the class . . . It can be exercised only by a vanguard.” This was applicable to “all capitalist countries.” [14]

This was applied to the Makhnovists. The final agreement which the Bolsheviks ripped-up consisted of military and political sections. The political agreement just gave the Makhnovists and anarchists the rights (such as freedom of expression and participation in soviet elections) they should have had according to the Soviet Constitution! The Makhnovists, however, insisted on a fourth point of the political agreement, which was never ratified by the Bolsheviks as it was “absolutely unacceptable to the dictatorship of the proletariat” [15] :

“One of the basic principles of the Makhno movement being the struggle for the self-administration of the toilers, the Partisan Army brings up a fourth point: in the region of the Makhno movement, the worker and peasant population is to organise and maintain its own free institutions for economic and political self-administration; this region is subsequently federated with Soviet republics by means of agreements freely negotiated with the appropriate Soviet governmental organ.” [16]

This idea of worker and peasant self-management, like soviet democracy, could not be reconciled with the Bolshevik party dictatorship as the expression of “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” As such, Bolshevik policy explains the betrayals of the Makhnovists. A libertarian alternative to Bolshevism could not be tolerated and was crushed.
Rees argues that the Bolsheviks were “inclined to make a virtue of necessity, to claim that the harsh measures of the civil war were the epitome of socialism.” The question arises of how committed to socialist values were the leading Bolsheviks when they could eliminate soviet, military and workplace democracy, raise the dictatorship of their party to an ideological truism and argue that this was socialism? Does Rees really believe that such perspectives had no impact on how the Bolsheviks acted during the Revolution?

The betrayal of the Makhnovists can only be understood in terms of the “subjective factor” Rees seeks to ignore. If you think, as the Bolsheviks clearly did, that the dictatorship of the proletariat equalled the dictatorship of the party, then anything which threatened the rule of the party had to be destroyed. Whether this was soviet democracy or the Makhnovists did not matter.

Thus, Rees’s underlying objective is to prove that the politics of the Bolsheviks had no influence on the outcome of the revolution — it was a product purely of “objective factors.” He also subscribes to the contradictory idea that Bolshevik politics were essential for the success of that revolution. The facts of the matter are that people are faced with choices, choices that arise from the objective conditions that they face. What decisions they make will be influenced by the ideas they hold — they will not occur automatically, as if people were on auto-pilot — and their ideas are shaped by the social relationships they experience. Thus, someone placed into a position of power over others will act in certain ways, have a certain world view, which would be alien to someone subject to egalitarian social relations.

So, obviously, political ideas matter, particularly during a revolution. Someone in favour of centralisation, centralised power and who equates party rule with class rule (like Lenin and Trotsky), will act in ways (and create structures) totally different from someone who believes in decentralisation, federalism and working class autonomy (like the Makhnovists). As the practice of the Makhnovists proves, Rees’ basic thesis is false. Faced with the same “objective factors,” the Makhnovists did everything they could to promote working class self-management and did not replace working class power with the power of “revolutionaries.”

Anarchism in practice

After distorting Makhnovist relations with the Bolsheviks, Rees moves onto distorting the social-political ideas and practice of the Makhnovists. Like his account of military aspects of the Makhnovist movement, his account of its theoretical ideas and its attempts to apply them again abuse the facts.

For example, Rees states that under the Makhnovists “[p]apers could be published, but the Bolshevik and Left Socialist Revolutionary press were not allowed to call for revolution” and references Palij’s book. Looking at the page in question, we discover a somewhat different account. What the Makhnovists actually “prohibited” was these parties “propagat[ing] armed uprisings against the Makhnovist movement.” [17] A clear rewriting of the source material. Significantly, Palij notes that “freedom of speech, press, assembly and association” was implemented under the Makhnovists “[i]n contrast to the Bolshevik regime.”

However, this distortion of the source material does give us an insight into the mentality of Leninism. After all when the Makhnovists entered a city or town they “immediately announced to the population that the army did not intend to exercise political authority.” The workers and peasants were to set up soviets “that would carry out the will and orders of their constituents” as well as “organis[ing] their own self-defence force against counter-revolution and banditry.” These political changes were matched in the economic sphere, with the “holdings of the landlords, the monasteries and the state, including all livestocks and goods, were to be transferred to the peasants” and “all factories, plants, mines, and other means of production were to become property of all the workers under control of their professional unions.” [18]

As the Makhnovists were clearly defending working class and peasant self-government, a call for “revolution” (i.e. “armed uprisings against the Makhno movement”) could only mean a coup to install a Bolshevik party dictatorship and the end of working class autonomy. Arshinov makes the situation clear:

“The only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left Socialist Revolutionaries and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those ‘revolutionary committees’ which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people. In Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, right after the occupation of these cities by the Makhnovists, the Bolsheviks hastened to organise Revkoms (Revolutionary Committees) seeking to organise their political power and govern the population . . . Makhno advised them to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers . . . In this context the Makhnovists’ attitude was completely justified and consistent. To protect the full freedom of speech, press, and organisation, they had to take measures against formations which sought to stifle this freedom, to suppress other organisations, and to impose their will and dictatorial authority on the workers.” [19]

Little wonder Rees distorts his source and the issues, transforming a policy to defend the real revolution into one which banned a “call for revolution”! We should be grateful that he distorted the Makhnovist message for it allows us to indicate the dictatorial nature of the regime and politics Rees is defending.

Rees claims that “Makhno held elections, but no parties were allowed to participate in them.” This is probably derived from Palij’s comment that the free soviets would “carry out the will and orders of their constituents” and “[o]nly working people, not representatives of political parties, might join the soviets.” [20]

Rees comments indicate that he is not familiar with the make-up of the soviets, which allowed various parties to acquire voting representation in the soviet executive committees (and so were not directly elected by the producers). [21] In addition, Russian Anarchists had often attacked the use of “party lists” in soviet elections, which turned the soviets from working class organs into talking-shops. [22] This use of party-lists meant that soviet delegates could be anyone. For example, the leading left-wing Menshevik Martov recounts that in early 1920 a chemical factory “put up Lenin against me as a candidate [to the Moscow soviet]. I received seventy-six votes he-eight (in an open vote).” [23] How would either of these two intellectuals actually know and reflect the concerns and interests of the workers they would be “delegates” of? If the soviets were meant to be the delegates of working people, then why should non-working class members of political parties be elected to a soviet?

As such, the Makhnovist ideas on soviets did not, in fact, mean that workers and peasants could not elect or send delegates who were members of political parties. They had no problems as such with delegates who happened to be working class party members. They did have problems with delegates representing only political parties, delegates who were not workers and soviets being ciphers covering party rule.

This can be seen from the fact that the Makhnovist Revolutionary Military Soviet created at the Olexandrivske congress in late 1919 had three Communists elected to it. Of the 18 worker delegates at that congress, six were Mensheviks and the remaining 12 included Communists [24] As such, the idea that free soviets excluding members of political parties is false – they were organised to stop parties dominating them. This could, of course, change. In the words of the Makhnovist reply to the first Bolshevik attempt to ban one of their congresses:

“The Revolutionary Military Council . . . holds itself above the pressure and influence of all parties and only recognises the people who elected it. Its duty is to accomplish what the people have instructed it to do, and to create no obstacles to any left socialist party in the propagation of ideas. Consequently, if one day the Bolshevik idea succeeds among the workers, the Revolutionary Military Council . . . will necessarily be replaced by another organisation, ‘more revolutionary’ and more Bolshevik.” [25]

As such, the Makhnovists supported the right of working class self-determination, as expressed by one delegate to Huliai Pole conference in February 1919:
“No party has a right to usurp governmental power into its hands . . . We want life, all problems, to be decided locally, not by order from any authority above; and all peasants and workers should decide their own fate, while those elected should only carry out the toilers wish.” [26]

Therefore, Rees’ attempt to imply the Makhnovists were anti-democratic backfires on Bolshevism. The Russian soviets were no longer organs of working class power and had long since become little more than rubberstamps for the Bolshevik dictatorship. Under the Makhnovists, the soviets had independence and were made up of working people and executed the wishes of their electorate. If a worker who was a member of a political party could convince their work mates of their ideas, the delegate would reflect the decisions of the mass assembly. The input of political parties would exist in proportion to their influence and their domination eliminated.

Making the trails run on time

Rees tries to paint the Makhnovists as anti-working class. This is the core of his dismissal of them as a “libertarian alternative to the Bolsheviks.” He gives the example of Makhno’s advice to railway workers in Aleksandrovsk “who had not been paid for many weeks” that they should “simply charge passengers a fair price and so generate their own wages.” He states that this “advice aimed at reproducing the petit-bourgeois patterns of the countryside.” Two points can be raised to this argument.

Firstly, we should highlight the Bolshevik (and so, presumably, “proletarian”) patterns imposed on the railway workers. Trotsky simply “plac[ed] the railwaymen and the personal of the repair workshops under martial law” and “summarily ousted” the leaders of the railwaymen’s trade union when they objected.” The Central Administrative Body of Railways (Tsektran) he created was run by him “along strictly military and bureaucratic lines.” In other words, he applied his ideas on the “militarisation of labour” in full. [27] Compared to this, only an ideologue could suggest that Makhno’s advice (and it was advice, not a decree imposed from above, as was Trotsky’s) can be considered worse. Indeed, by being based on workers’ self-management it was infinitely more socialist than the militarised Bolshevik state capitalist system.

Secondly, Rees fails to understand the nature of anarchism. Anarchism argues that it is up to working class people to organise their own activities. This meant that, ultimately, it was up to the railway workers themselves (in association with other workers) to organise their own work and industry. Rather than being imposed by a few leaders, real socialism can only come from below, built by working people by their own efforts and own class organisations. Anarchists can suggest ideas and solutions, but ultimately its up to workers (and peasants) to organise their own affairs. Thus, rather than being a source of condemnation, Makhno’s comments should be considered as praiseworthy as they were made in a spirit of equality and were based on encouraging workers’ self-management.

However, the best reply to Rees is simply the fact that after holding a “general conference of the workers of the city” at which it was “proposed that the workers organise the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organisations” based on “the principles of self-management,” the “[r]ailroad workers took the first step in this direction” by “form[ing] a committee charged with organising the railway network of the region.” [28]

Peasants and revolution

Rees argues that states that the Makhnovists “did not disturb the age old class structure of the countryside” and that the “real basis of Makhno’s support was not his anarchism, but his opposition to grain requisitioning and his determination not to disturb the peasant economy.” He quotes Palij:

“Makhno had not put an end to the agricultural inequalities. His aim was to avoid conflicts with the villages and to maintain a sort of united front of the entire peasantry.”
Needless to say, Rees would have a fit if it were suggested that the basis of Bolshevik support was not their socialism, but their opposition to the world war! However, this is a side issue as we can fault Rees’ argument simply by showing how he selectively quotes from Palij’s work. Here is the actual context of the (corrected) quote:

“Peasants’ economic conditions in the region of the Makhno movement were greatly improved at the expense of the estates of the landlords, the church, monasteries, and the richest peasants, but Makhno had not put an end to the agricultural inequalities. His aim was to avoid conflicts within the villages and to maintain a sort of united front of the entire peasantry.” [29]

Rees has, again, distorted his source material, conveniently missing out the information that Makhno had most definitely “disturbed” the peasant economy at the expense of the rich and fundamentally transformed the “age old class structure”! In fact, “Makhno and his associates brought sociopolitical issues into the daily life of the people, who in turn supported the expropriation of large estates.” The official Makhnovist position was, of course, that the “holdings of the landlords, the monasteries, and the state, including all livestock and goods, were to be transferred to the peasants.” At the second congress of workers, peasants and insurgents held in February, 1919, it was resolved that “all land be transferred to the hands of toiling peasants . . . according to the norm of equal distribution.” [30] This meant that every peasant family had as much land as they could cultivate without the use of hired labour.

That the Makhnovist policy was correct can be seen from the fact that the Bolsheviks changed their policies and brought them in line with the Makhnovist one. The initial Bolshevik policy meet with “peasant resistance” and their “agricultural policy and terrorism brought about a strong reaction against the Bolshevik regime” and by the “middle of 1919, all peasants, rich and poor, distrusted the Bolsheviks.” In February, 1920, the Bolsheviks “modified their agricultural policy” by “distributing the formers landlords’, state, and church lands among the peasants.” [31] Which was a vindication of Makhnovist policy.

As such, it is ironic that Rees attacks the Makhnovists for not pursuing Bolshevik peasant policies. Considering their absolute failure, the fact that Makhno did not follow them is hardly cause for condemnation! Indeed, given the numerous anti-Bolshevik uprisings and large scale state repression they provoked, attacking the Makhnovists for not pursuing such insane policies is deeply ironic. After all, who in the middle of a Civil War makes matters whose for themselves by creating more enemies? Only the insane – or the Bolsheviks! We can also wonder just how sensible is it to “disturb” the economy that produces the food you eat. Given that Rees in part blames Bolshevik tyranny on the disruption of the economy, it seems incredulous that he faults Makhno for not adding to the chaos by failing to “disrupt the peasant economy”!

After distorting the source material once, Rees does it again. He states “by the spring of 1920” the local Bolsheviks “had reversed the policy towards the peasants and instituted Committees of Poor Peasants, these ‘hurt Makhno . . . his heart hardened and he sometimes ordered executions.’ This policy helped the Bolshevik ascendancy.” Rees quotes Palij as evidence. We shall quote the same pages:

“Although they [the Bolsheviks] modified their agricultural policy by introducing on February 5, 1920, a new land law, distributing the former landlords’, state and church lands among the peasants, they did not succeed in placating them because of the requisitions, which the peasants considered outright robbery . . . Subsequently the Bolsheviks decided to introduce class warfare into the villages. A decree was issued on May 19, 1920, establishing ‘Committees of the Poor’ . . . Authority in the villages was delegated to the committees, which assisted the Bolsheviks in seizing the surplus grain…

The establishment of Committees of the Poor was painful to Makhno because they became not only part of the Bolshevik administrative apparatus the peasants opposed, but also informers helping the Bolshevik secret police in its persecution of the partisans, their families and supporters, even to the extent of hunting down and executing wounded partisans . . . Consequently, Makhno’s ‘heart hardened and he sometimes ordered executions where some generosity would have bestowed more credit upon him and his movement. That the Bolsheviks preceded him with the bad example was no excuse. For he claimed to be fighting for a better cause.’ Although the committees in time gave the Bolsheviks a hold on every village, their abuse of power disorganised and slowed down agricultural life . . . This policy of terror and exploitation turned almost all segments of Ukrainian society against the Bolsheviks, substantially strengthened the Makhno movement, and consequently facilitated the advance of the reorganised anti-Bolshevik force of General Wrangel from the Crimea into South Ukraine, the Makhno region.” [32]

Amazing what a “. . .” can hide, is it not! Rees turns an account which is an indictment of Bolshevik policy into a victory and transforms it so that the victims are portrayed as the villains! Given the actual record of the Bolsheviks attempts to break up what they considered the “age old class structure” of the villages with the “Committees of the Poor,” it is clear why Rees distorts his source. All in all, the Makhnovist policies were clearly the most successful as regards the peasantry. They broke up the class system in the countryside by expropriating the ruling class and did not create new conflicts by artificially imposing themselves onto the villages.

Peasant Communes

After distorting the wealth of information on Makhnovist land policy, Rees turns to their attempts to form free agrarian communes. He argues that Makhno’s attempts “to go beyond the traditional peasant economy were doomed” and quotes Makhno memoirs which state “the mass of the people did not go over” to his peasant communes, which only involved a few hundred families.

Looking at Makhno’s memoirs a somewhat different picture appears. Makhno does state that “the mass of people did not over to it” but, significantly, he argues that this was because of “the advance of the German and Austrian armies, their [the peasants] own lack of organisation, and their inability to defend this order against the new ‘revolutionary’ and counter-revolutionary authorities. For this reason the toiling population of the district limited their real revolutionary activity to supporting in every way those bold spirits among them who had settled on the old estates [of the landlords] and organised their personal and economic life on free communal lines.” [33]

Of course, Rees failing to mention the “objective factors” facing these communes does distort their success (or lack of it). Soon after the communes were being set up, the area was occupied by Austrian troops and it was early 1919 before the situation was stable enough to allow their reintroduction. Conflict with the Whites and Bolsheviks resulted in their destruction in July 1919. In such circumstances, can it be surprising that only a minority of peasants got involved? Rather than praise the Makhnovists for positive social experimentation in difficult circumstances, Rees shows his ignorance of the objective conditions facing the Makhnovists. His concern for “objective factors” is distinctly selective.

Paper Decrees?

Ironically, Rees states that given the Makhnovist peasant base, it is “hardly surprising” that “much of Makhno’s libertarianism amounted to little more than paper decrees.” Ironically, the list of “paper decrees” he presents (when not false or distorted) are also failings associated with the Bolsheviks (and taken to more extreme degrees by them)! As such, his lambastes against the Makhnovists seem deeply hypocritical. After all, if the Bolshevik violations of principle can be blamed on “objective factors” then why not the Makhnovists?

However, rather than apply his main thesis to the Makhnovists, he attempts to ground the few deviations that exist between Makhnovist practice and theory in the peasant base of the army. This is an abuse of class analysis. After all, these deviations were also shared by the Bolsheviks (although they did not even pay lip service to the ideals raised by the Makhnovists). Take, for example, the election of commanders. The Makhnovists applied this principle extensively but not completely. The Bolsheviks abolished it by decree (and did not blame it on “exceptional circumstances” nor consider it as a “retreat” as Rees asserts). Unlike the Red Army, Makhnovist policy was decided by mass assemblies and conferences. Now, if Rees “class analysis” of the limitations of the Makhnovists was true, does this mean that an army of a regime with a proletarian base (as he considers the Bolshevik regime) cannot have elected commanders? Similarly, his attack on Makhno’s advice to the railway workers suggests, as noted above, that a “proletarian” regime would be based on the militarisation of labour and not workers’ self-management. As such, his pathetic attempt at “class analysis” of the Makhnovists simply shows up the dictatorial nature of the Bolsheviks. If trying to live up to libertarian/democratic ideals but not totally succeeding is “petty-bourgeois” while dismissing those ideals totally in favour of top-down, autocratic hierarchies is “proletarian” then sane people would happily be labelled “petty-bourgeois”!

Conclusion

As should be clear by now, Rees’ account of the Makhnovist movement is deeply flawed. Rather than present an honest account the movement, he abuses his sources to blacken its name. This is hardly surprising as an honest account of the movement would undermine his basic argument that Bolshevik policies played no role in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

Faced with the same “objective factors,” the Makhnovists did not embrace the Bolshevik mantra of party dictatorship. They regularly held workers, peasant and partisan assemblies and conferences to discuss the development of the revolution, promoted freedom of speech, organisation and assembly and did all they could to promote self-management in difficult circumstances. In contrast, the Bolsheviks continually violated socialist principles and created increasingly bizarre ideological justifications for them. And Rees states that “[n]either Makhno’s social programme nor his political regime could provide an alternative to the Bolsheviks”!

This indicates the weakness of Rees’ main thesis as, clearly, the “subjective factor” of Bolshevik politics cannot be ignored or downplayed. Rees states somewhat incredulously that the “degree by which workers can ‘make their own history’ depends on the weight of objective factors bearing down on them. At the height of the revolutionary wave such freedom can be considerable, in the concentration camp it can be reduced to virtually zero.” Post-October, one of the key “objective factors” bearing down on the workers was, quite simply, the Bolshevik ideology itself. Like the US officer in Vietnam who destroyed a village in order to save it, the Bolsheviks destroyed the revolution in order to save it (or, more correctly, their own hold on power, which they identified with the revolution). As the experience of the Makhnovists showed, there was no objective factors stopping the free election of soviets, the calling of workers and peasants conferences to make policy, and protecting the real gains of revolution.

Little wonder Rees spent so much time lying about the Makhnovists.

End Notes

1. Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 226f
2. David Footman, Civil War in Russia, p. 292-3
3. Michael Palij, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno, p. 175-6
4. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 177, p. 191 and p. 173
5. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 210
6. The Russian Civil War, pp. 290-1
7. Red Victory, p. 327
8. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 231
9. Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, pp. 23-4, p. 22 and p. 33
10. Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 80 and p. 81
11. Trotsky stressed that “it can be said with complete justice that the dictatorship of the Soviets became possible only by means of the dictatorship of the party. It is thanks to the . . . party . . . [that] the Soviets . . . [became] transformed from shapeless parliaments of labour into the apparatus of the supremacy of labour.” In 1937, he was still arguing this: “Those who propose the abstraction of Soviets to the party dictatorship should understand that only thanks to the party dictatorship were the Soviets able to lift themselves out of the mud of reformism and attain the state form of the proletariat.” [“Stalinism and Bolshevism,” Socialist Review, no. 146, p. 18]
12. Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress 1920, vol. 1, p. 152
13. Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 535
14. Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 21. This was obvious considered a key lesson of the revolution, as Trotsky was still speaking about the “objective necessity” of “revolutionary dictatorship of a proletarian party” due ” the heterogeneity of the revolutionary class” in 1937! “Abstractly speaking,” he stressed, “it would be very well if the party dictatorship could be replaced by the ‘dictatorship’ of the whole toiling people without any party, but this presupposes such a high level of political development among the masses that it can never be achieved under capitalist conditions.” [Writings 1936-37, pp. 513-4]
15. Bolshevik military historian, quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 225
16. quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 224
17. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 152
18. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 151
19. Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 154
20. Palij, Op. Cit, p. 151
21. Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, p. 31
22. Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 190
23. quoted by Israel Getzler, Martov, p. 202
24. Michael Malet, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Revolution, p. 111, p. 124
25. quoted by Arshinov, Op. Cit., pp. 103-4
26. quoted by Palij, Op. Cit., p. 154
27. M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 67
28. Arshinov, Op. Cit., p. 149
29. M. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 214
30. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 71, p. 151 and p. 154
31. Palij, Op. Cit., p. 156 and p. 213
32. M. Palij, Op. Cit., pp. 213-4
33. quoted by Paul Avrich, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, pp. 130-2

 

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