THE MAKHNO MOVEMENT AND OPPOSITION WITHIN THE PARTY
(from “Obsolete Communism, the Left-Wing Alternative”)
Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit
The Makhnovchina, better perhaps than any other movement, shows that the Russian Revolution could have become a great liberating force. It was inspired by Makhno, a young Ukrainian anarchist, and has been almost totally ignored by bourgeois historians no less than by Stalinist and Trotskyist apologists — and for good reason. It shows the Bolsheviks stifling workers and peasants, and then crushing them in a bloody massacre.
Geographically, the Makhno movement covered a region inhabited by seven million people and measuring some 150 miles in diameter. Its centre was the small Ukrainian town of Gulye Pole with 30,000 inhabitants.
The movement flourished from 1918 until the summer of 1921, when it was finally crushed by the Red Army.
From 1918 to 1921, armed Makhnovite groups fought the White Guards and later the Red Army without respite. They were responsible for holding the Ukrainian front against the White general Denikin, whose armies Makhno defeated in 1919, and then against General Wrangel. The best way of showing who they were and what they stood for is to quote from the manifesto published by the Cultural and Educational Section of the Insurrectional Makhnovite Army. It was widely distributed among the peasants and workers.
(i) Who are the Makhnovites and what are they fighting for?
The Makhnovites are peasants and workers who in 1918 rose up against the brutality of the German, Hungarian, and Austrian interventionists and against the Hetman of the Ukraine.
The Makhnovites are workers who have carried the battle-standard against Denikin and against every form of oppression and violence, who have rejected lies from whatever source.
The Makhnovites are the workers who by their life’s labour have enriched and fattened the bourgeoisie in the past, and today are enriching new masters.
(ii) Why are they called Makhnovites?
Because during the greatest and most painful days of the reactionary intervention in the Ukraine, they had within their ranks the staunch friend and comrade, Makhno, whose voice was heard across the entire Ukraine, challenging every act of violence against the workers, calling for struggle against the oppressors, the thieves, the usurpers and those charlatans who were deceiving the workers. That voice still rings among us today, and unwaveringly calls for the liberation and emancipation of the workers from all oppression.
(iii) How do you think you will obtain this liberation?
By overthrowing the coalition of monarchists, republicans, social democrats, communists and Bolsheviks. In its place we call for the free election of workers’ councils which will not rule by arbitrary laws because no true soviet system can be authoritarian. Ours is the purest form of socialism, anti-authoritarian and anti-government, it calls for the free organization of the social life of the workers, independent of authority, a life in which each worker, in free association with his brothers, can build his own happiness and well-being in accordance with the principles of solidarity, amity and equality.
(iv) What do the Makhnovites think of the Soviet regime?
The workers themselves must choose their own councils (soviets), to express the will and carry out the orders of these self-same workers. The soviets will be executive organs of, and not authorities over, the workers. The land, the factories, the businesses, the mines, transport, etc. must belong to those who work in them. All that the people inherit must be socialized.
(v) What are the paths that will lead to the final goals of the Makhnovites?
A consistent and implacable revolutionary battle against all false theories, against all arbitrary power and violence, no matter from what quarter, a struggle to the death. Free speech, justice, honest battle with guns in our hands.
Only by overthrowing all governments, every representative of authority, by destroying all political, economic, and authoritarian lies, wherever they are found, by destroying the state, by a social revolution, can we introduce a true system of workers’ and peasants’ soviets and advance towards socialism.
Trotsky was one of Makhno’s bitterest adversaries among the Bolsheviks, and never forgave Makhno for refusing to serve under his supreme command in the Red Army. On 4 June 1919, Trotsky began his first campaign of calumny and military intimidation, by publishing notorious order No. 1824. It forbade the holding of a congress in the Ukraine, and accused Makhno of delivering this front over to the enemy. “The Makhno brigade has constantly retreated before the White Guards, owing to the incapacity, criminal tendencies, and the treachery of its leaders.”
Trotsky’s orders stipulated, inter alia:
- It is forbidden to hold this congress, which must not take place under any circumstances;
- Participation in the congress by any worker or peasant will be deemed to constitute an act of high treason;
- All delegates to the said congress must be apprehended and brought before the revolutionary tribunal of the Fourteenth Army of the Ukraine.
So much for Trotsky’s respect for the workers’ right of free assembly!
The accusation that Makhno had retreated before the White Guards, when in fact he defeated them, was repeated by the entire Soviet press. But for the time being, continued attacks by the White Guards prevented Trotsky from implementing his Order 1824 — he shelved it but did not forget it. In November 1920, the Soviet authorities invited several officers of Makhno’s army to a military council meeting, and shot them. The ensuing battle raged for nine long months. At the end, Trotsky’s troops, who were superior in number and in arms and had constant replacements, won the day. It was in the course of the last battle that the Makhnovites issued the following appeal to their brethren in the Red Army:
Stop, Read and Think!
Comrades of the Red Army!
You have been sent out by your commissars to fight the revolutionary Makhnovites.
On the orders of your commander you ruin peaceful villages, you will raid, arrest, and kill men and women whom you do not know but who have been presented to you as enemies of the people, bandits and counter-revolutionary. You will be told to kill us, you will not be asked. You will be made to march like slaves. You will arrest and you will murder. Why? For what cause?
Think, comrades of the Red Army; think, workers, peasants suffering under the lash of new masters who bear the high-sounding name of “worker-peasant authorities”! We are revolutionary Makhnovites. The same peasants and workers as you, our brethren in the Red Army,. We have risen up against oppression and slavery, we fight for a better life and a more enlightened one. Our ideal is to build a community of workers without authorities, without parasites, and without commissars. Our immediate aim is to establish a free Soviet regime, not controlled by the Bolsheviks, without the pressure of any party.
The government of the Bolsheviks and Communists has sent you out on a punitive expedition. It hastens to make peace with Denikin and with the rich Poles and other rabble of the White Army, the better to suppress the popular movement of the revolutionary insurgents, of the oppressed, of the rebels against the yoke of all authority.
But the threats of the White and Red commanders do not frighten us. We shall reply to violence with violence. If necessary, we, a small handful of people shall put to flight the divisions of the Red Army because we are free and love our liberty. We are revolutionaries who have risen up in a just cause.
Comrades, think for whom you are fighting and against whom! Throw off your shackles, you are free men!
The Revolutionary Makhnovites
Let us hope that one day some publisher will see fit to translate Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement which is unobtainable today but is fundamental to any true understanding of the history of the Russian Revolution. Makhno’s defeat spelled the defeat of the Revolution; Trotsky’s victory, the victory of the bureaucratic counter-revolution.
Source: Obsolete Communism, the Left-Wing Alternative, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit ; translated by Arnold Pomerans, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968. Originally published in German and French in 1968. p. 220-224: IV. The Strategy and Nature of Bolshevism. 3. The Makhno Movement and Opposition within the Party. Submitted to the Nestor Makhno Archive by Imp.