Nestor Makhno: The Struggle Against the State

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) is a controversial figure in the history of the anarchist movement. For three years he led a guerrilla army campaign in Ukraine during the civil war that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He would sometimes summarily execute counter-revolutionaries, and his army conscripted some of its members. On the other hand, when his forces liberated a village or town from the control of the Czarists (the “Whites”) or from the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), they would reopen the presses and meeting halls shut down by those forces and free everyone from the local jails. With his comrade, Peter Arshinov, and some other anarchists, he helped craft the “Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists,” which called on anarchists to form a federalist revolutionary organization based on collective responsibility, which some anarchists regarded as a vanguard organization that would function more like a revolutionary socialist party than a federalist anarchist organization. Around the same time as the Platform appeared, Makhno published this essay on the struggle against the State, summarizing his views on the tasks ahead based on the lessons of the Russian Revolution. I included excerpts from the Platform and responses from some of its critics, including Malatesta and Voline, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, as well as some proclamations by the Makhnovist army and excerpts from Arshinov’s history of the Makhnovist movement.

The Struggle Against the State

The Struggle Against the State

THE STRUGGLE AGAINST THE STATE

The fact that the modern State is the organizational form of an authority founded upon arbitrariness and violence in the social life of toilers is independent of whether it may be “bourgeois” or “proletarian.” It relies upon oppressive centralism, arising out of the direct violence of a minority deployed against the majority In order to enforce and impose the legality of its system, the State resorts not only to the gun and money, but also to potent weapons of psychological pressure. With the aid of such weapons, a tiny group of politicians enforces psychological repression of an entire society, and, in particular, of the toiling masses, conditioning them in such a way as to divert their attention from the slavery instituted by the State.

So it must be clear that if we are to combat the organized violence of the modern State, we have to deploy powerful weapons appropriate to the magnitude of the task.

Thus far, the methods of social action employed by the revolutionary working class against the power of the oppressors and exploiters — the State and Capital — in conformity with libertarian ideas, were insufficient to lead the toilers on to complete victory.

It has come to pass in history that the workers have defeated Capital, but the victory then slipped from their grasp because some State power emerged, amalgamating the interests of private capital and those of State capitalism for the sake of success over the toilers.

The experience of the Russian revolution has blatantly exposed our shortcomings in this regard. We must not forget that, but should rather apply ourselves to identifying those shortcomings plainly.

We may acknowledge that our struggle against the State in the Russian revolution was remarkable, despite the disorganization by which our ranks were afflicted: remarkable above all insofar as the destruction of that odious institution is concerned.

But, by contrast, our struggle was insignificant in the realm of construction of the free society of toilers and its social structures, which might have ensured that it prospered beyond reach of the tutelage of the State and its repressive institutions.

The fact that we libertarian communists or anarcho-syndicalists failed to anticipate the sequel to the Russian revolution, and that we failed to make haste to devise new forms of social activity in time, led many of our groups and organizations to dither yet again in their political and socio-strategic policy on the fighting front of the Revolution.

If we are to avert a future relapse into these same errors, when a revolutionary situation comes about, and in order to retain the cohesion and coherence of our organizational line, we must first of all amalgamate all of our forces into one active collective, then without further ado, define our constructive conception of economic, social, local and territorial units, so that they are outlined in detail (free soviets), and in particular describe in broad outline their basic revolutionary mission in the struggle against the State. Contemporary life and the Russian revolution require that.

Those who have blended in with the very ranks of the worker and peasant masses, participating actively in the victories and defeats of their campaign, must without doubt come to our own conclusions, and more specifically to an appreciation that our struggle against the State must be carried on until the State has been utterly eradicated: they will also acknowledge that the toughest role in that struggle is the role of the revolutionary armed force.

It is essential that the action of the Revolution’s armed forces be linked with the social and economic unit, wherein the labouring people will organize itself from the earliest days of the revolution onwards, so that total self-organization of life may be introduced, out of reach of all statist structures.

From this moment forth, anarchists must focus their attention upon that aspect of the Revolution. They have to be convinced that, if the revolution’s armed forces are organized into huge armies or into lots of local armed detachments, they cannot but overcome the State’s incumbents and defenders, and thereby bring about the conditions needed by the toiling populace supporting the revolution, so that it may cut all ties with the past and look to the final detail of the process of constructing a new socio-economic existence.

The State will, though, be able to cling to a few local enclaves and try to place multifarious obstacles in the path of the toilers’ new life, slowing the pace of growth and harmonious development of new relationships founded on the complete emancipation of man.

The final and utter liquidation of the State can only come to pass when the struggle of the toilers is oriented along the most libertarian lines possible, when the toilers will themselves determine the structures of their social action. These structures should assume the form of organs of social and economic self-direction, the form of free “anti-authoritarian” soviets. The revolutionary workers and their vanguard — the anarchists — must analyze the nature and structure of these soviets and specify their revolutionary functions in advance. It is upon that, chiefly, that the positive evolution and development of anarchist ideas, in the ranks of those who will accomplish the liquidation of the State on their own account in order to build a free society, will be dependent.

Dyelo Truda No.17, October 1926

Makhnovist Flag (trans.)

Makhnovist Flag (trans.)

Building the Revolution in Greece

The New Anarchism (1974-2012)

The New Anarchism

Below I reproduce excerpts from a recent report at Truthout by Joshua Stephens on the constructive efforts by Greek anarchists to create alternatives to capitalism and the nation-state. The approaches they have been developing since the uprising in 2008 are similar to those proposed by Alexander Berkman based on his experiences during the Russian Revolution. Directly democratic popular assemblies formed the basis of the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Revolution, and were later championed by Murray Bookchin. Stephens refers to Colin Ward, whose ground breaking article on anarchism as a theory of organization is included in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Anarchist alternatives to capitalism and hierarchical organization are well documented in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, now on sale at AK Press.

Joshua Stephen’s on the situation in Greece:

“On the first day of the uprising, we smashed the police stations,” an anarchist in Thessaloniki told me last spring.  “On the second, we smashed the banks.  On the third, there was nothing left to smash, and we were suddenly faced with the fact that we didn’t really know what to do.”  It seems to have been a widespread frustration.  The occupations of academic and political institutions that occurred amidst the uprising gave way to what are called Popular Assemblies in some 70 neighborhoods across Athens.

About half of these are still operating, composed of an often unlikely spectrum of participants.  Anarchists, local workers, even municipal employees and officeholders all collaborate off the political grid in democratically administering needs, redistributing available resources and bolstering existing struggles against both austerity and the steady creep of fascism.

Their strategy can be read in a short 1958 article by Colin Ward in the British anarchist journal Freedom, entitled “The Unwritten Handbook”:  “The choice between libertarian and authoritarian solutions occurs every day and in every way, and the extent to which we choose, or accept…  or lack the imagination and inventiveness to discover alternatives to the authoritarian solutions to small problems is the extent to which we are their powerless victims in big affairs.”  When a round of austerity measures included a new and often unaffordable property tax in electricity bills, many Greeks saw their power abruptly cut.  Popular Assemblies began compiling lists of households without power, ranking them based on vulnerability (age, the presence of infants, etc.), and deploying qualified people to restore electricity, illegally.

On a cool April evening in the neighborhood of Peristeri, assembly participants debated models for localizing economic transactions through alternative currencies and non-monetary programs like time-banks.  Over drinks following a talk I gave last spring, the bulk of the questions from local anarchists known the world over for bravado and street warfare were about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, an overwhelmingly liberal phenomena back home, hardly considered political (much less radical).  In Greece, however, forging direct relationships with the agricultural sector amounts to a fuck-you to the International Monetary Fund and its threats of import cutoffs, issued to leverage passage of austerity measures.

During my few days on the ground in Athens this trip, I was invited to an anti-fascist march organized by the Popular Assemblies of south Athens.  It marked what felt like an expansion of their role into directly confronting Golden Dawn, where the state has proved either unwilling or unable to tread. “If we don’t resist in every neighborhood, they will soon become our prisons” could be heard reverberating off the facades of buildings.

Counting by tens, I estimated roughly a thousand marching from the commercial plaza adjacent to the Dafni Metro, winding through a number of its various neighborhoods before reaching a former military installation occupied and renamed Asyrmatos Greek for “wireless,” referring to the towering antennas jutting out of what is now a sizable community garden and community-managed conservatory.

In the adjacent neighborhood of Aghios Dimitrios, where much of the march was organized, the Popular Assembly meets weekly in theatrical space of a local municipal building.  On the surface, it appears quite innocuous, as though it’s scheduled through an arrangement with the local government.  I was surprised to learn that each week’s meeting is a sort of micro-occupation; participants simply walk in and seize the space, with zero visible pushback from employees, and no police response.  “In 2008 (during the uprising), we seized the building for a month,” one local told me.  “So, I think that, for them, two hours a week is a bargain.”

The oldest Popular Assembly in Athens operates in the neighborhood of Petralona, the site of a recent, widely publicized murder of a Pakistani man at the hands of fascists.  When I visited with them last spring, they were opening a kitchen and cafe space for educating people about nutrition and food production, and operating an extensive calendar of peer-led health and mental health events, inspired in part by Mexico’s Zapatistas.  Today, they operate medical, dental and eye clinics in coordination with other Popular Assemblies, based on non-monetary mutual aid.

As we weaved through commercial corridors and narrow neighborhood  arteries last week, all of this seemed to be shifting from a sort of quiet mode of survival into an overt assertion of power.  Scattered action commanded the attention of onlookers.  Quarter-sheet fliers were tossed into open bus windows, open supermarkets and even into the day’s light breeze, scattering like ticker tape. Two masked young women darted out of the crowd periodically, spray-painting a stencil onto walls featuring a sort of close-up frontal image of a boy with his fist forward, reading “The sons of Adolf will receive a red and black punch” (a reference to the colors of the traditional anarchist flag).

The smell of fresh spray paint hung in the air, the fire to its smoke appearing on walls, the sides of buses, and a newly favorite target in the country’s crisis establishments set up to buy people’s gold.  These entrepreneurs are referred to as mavragoriters a termcoined during Greece’s years under Nazi occupation. “They were Greeks, usually friends of or sympathetic to the Nazis, and they took advantage of the crisis and the starvation that existed all over the country,” explained a young woman, who asked not to be named.  “It reached a point where they were buying houses in exchange for two bottles of olive oil, or quantities of rice.”

The subtext of the young woman’s description seems the soul of the Popular Assemblies:  dignity.  She later pointed me to a communique posted at Indymedia Athens, in which anarchists in the city set about countering the neoliberal mantra heard around the country, and the ethics of the mavragoriters “No job is a shame.”  The Popular Assemblies appear to operate from the inverse that appears in the communique “Shame is not a job.” Surviving merely to revive histories of foreign occupation or homegrown fascism, for them, is a path without hope.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anti-capitalist, international solidarity and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades.  He currently divides his time between the northeastern US and various parts of the Mediterranean.

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens

Anarchist Demonstration in Athens

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