LENIN, TROTSKY & MAKHNO
(an extract from Lenin and the Bolsheviks)
Adam B. Ulam
The guilty passion for the unruly, anarchistic, even partly criminal “man of the people” never quite left Lenin, but it was entirely absent in Trotsky’s make-up. In the latter’s view the conduct of the war required a regular army staffed by professional officers. He looked with distaste upon partisan activities and the undisciplined private detachments that were a notable feature of the Civil War.
The war had spawned many private bands and armies, neither Red nor White in their political complexion. Sometimes they were led by Anarchists and sometimes by soldiers of fortune, but in practically every case there was a strong admixture of the outright criminal element. The most famous of those armies was led in the Ukraine by Nestor Makhno. A half-illiterate Ukrainian peasant, self-professed Anarchist, Makhno appeared in the spring of 1918 in Moscow where he had an interview with Lenin, who received him graciously and facilitated his return to the Ukraine, still under Austro-German occupation. Once on his home ground Makhno organized a guerrilla band, which intermittently fought every armed force that passed through the unfortunate land: the Germans, Ukrainian nationalists, Denikin’s, and other partisan bands. At times he would collaborate with the Red Army in its fight against the Whites, at other times he would turn against them. Captured Communists, especially if they were connected with the Cheka, were often executed by his forces. Still, at the most critical period of the Civil War the Bolshevik policy was to establish some form of collaboration with Makhno. In April 1919 no less a dignitary than L. Kamenev was dispatched to negotiate with Makhno. It must have been an incongruous conference with this barely literate and usually intoxicated Anarchist chieftain. “Father Makhno,” as he was known to his followers, assured Kamenev that he was a friend of the Soviet power and showed him the tree where with his own hands he had just hanged a White colonel. He denied the charges of banditry and anti-Semitism, and his visitor, evidently satisfied, told Makhno that his forces were included in the Red Army and addressed him as “Comrade”.(1)
Though Makhno compared favourably with other partisan leaders insofar as he discouraged, not always successfully, pillaging and Jewish pogroms, Trotsky’s reaction to this alliance was one of anger and humiliation. His comments on Makhno’s partisans even when they were fighting alongside the Reds against Denikin are characteristic of his military philosophy: “There is no regard for order and discipline in that ‘army’. No sources of supply…. In that ‘army’ officers were elected…. Dark deluded … armed masses become a blind instrument in the hands of adventurers…. High time to end this half kulak, half anarchist dissipation….”(2) But Makhno continued his uneasy collaboration with the Red Army long after Trotsky had written those words. Only in 1921, when his help was no longer needed, was his band liquidated and he himself forced to flee from the country.
Except for being headed by an avowed Anarchist, makhno’s forces were not really too different from many an early Soviet army or partisan detachment. Trotsky worked ceaselessly to have them transformed into regular disciplined units. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of the employment of the former Tsarist officers. That the latter contributed decisively to the Red Army’s victory is one thing on which both the Bolshevik and White sources are unanimously agreed. The employment of those people was bound to encounter strong opposition. If we discount the story of Lenin’s hesitation on this count, it is still a fact that many old-line Communists found this step unpalatable, and for some of them who had assumed command or were commissars this represented a direct threat. As is well known, Trotsky accompanied his policy with the famous circular warning that his ministry would keep a register of the professional officers’ families and that they would be held responsible for their desertion or disloyalty. But he was an enthusiastic defender of the professional officer, whom he praised frequently and protected from attacks by the doctrinaires. In Party circles his defence of the “gentlemen” was being caustically compared with his readiness to punish Communists. Another of his famous orders stipulated that in the case of a unit’s desertion its commissar would be shot first and then the commanding officer. He had none of Lenin’s occasional toleration of hooliganism when produced by an excess of proletarian zeal. Severe penalties awaited the Red Army soldiers caught looting and Trotsky’s sense of orderliness went so far as to make him protest against exactions and humiliation inflicted upon the bourgeoisie in the recaptured territory.
Ironically enough, it was Lenin who can be said to have been the main political beneficiary of his War Commissar’s severity and authoritarianism. Himself a stern disciplinarian under whose hand many Bolsheviks had chafed in the first months of the Revolution, Lenin now appeared as almost a semi-anarchist when compared with Trotsky.
(1) V.S., “The Expedition of L. Kamenev to the Ukraine, in April, 1919,” in The Proletarian Revolution, 1925, No.6.
(2) Trotsky, How the Revolution Armed, Vol.2, Part 1, p.191
Source: Adam B. Ulam, Lenin And The Bolsheviks, The Intellectual and Political History of The Triumph of Communism in Russia, Part VIII, Chapter 2 “The Dictator”.