Nestor Makhno: From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Russian peasants

After his return to Ukraine in March 1917, Nestor Makhno focused on creating a Peasants’ Union that would organize the local peasantry for the purpose of instituting a form of socialist self-management of the land by the peasants themselves. He debated those local anarchists who opposed taking a leadership role, concerned that they would be placing themselves in positions of authority above the people. He spoke against organizing support for revolutionary parties for the purpose of enabling them to push for the expropriation of the land by a Constituent Assembly, when the peasants could do this themselves without waiting for the political parties to do this for them. He also argued for the replacement of the local Public Committee, which represented the Provisional Government, by the Peasants’ Union. The following excerpts, from Volume One of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, begin with Makhno attending a general meeting of the Public Committee.

From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Towards noon I arrived at the general meeting which had just started with the report of the chairman of the Public Committee, Ensign Prusinsky…

At the conclusion of his report, the chairman of the Public Committee asked me to address the Council in support of his views. This I refused to do and instead asked to speak on another matter.

In my speech I pointed out to the peasants the absurdity of allowing in revolutionary Gulyai-Pole such a Public Committee, headed by people who were strangers to the community and who were not accountable to the community for their actions. And I proposed that the assembly immediately delegate four people from each sotnia (Gulyai-Pole was divided into seven wards, called sotnias) to hold a special conference about this and other questions…

It was decided that delegates should be elected at separate meetings of the sotnias and a day was fixed for the meetings. Thus ended my first public appearance after getting out of prison…

After this I went to a meeting of our whole group.

Here we analyzed my report and Kalenichenko’s criticism of it. As a result, we decided to begin methodical propaganda work in the sotnias: among the peasants, and in the mills and workshops. This agitation work was to be based on two premises:

  1. So long as the peasants and workers found themselves in a disorganized state, they would not be able to constitute themselves as a regional social force of [an] anti-authoritarian character, capable of struggling against the “Public Committee”. Up to this point the peasants and workers, whether they liked it or not, had been obliged to adhere to the “Public Committee”, organized under the auspices of the Provisional Coalition Government. That is why it was important to re-elect this Committee in Gulyai-Pole.
  2. Sustained agitation must be carried out for the organization of a Peasants’ Union, which we would take part in and in which we would exercise the dominant influence. We would express our lack of confidence in the “Public Committee”, an organ of the central government, and urge the Peasants’ Union to take over this organ.

“This tactic,” I told the comrades, “I see leading to the repudiation of government rule with its concept of this type of Public Committee. Moreover, if we are successful in our efforts, we shall help the peasants and workers to realize a fundamental truth. Namely that once they take a conscious and serious approach to the question of revolution, then they themselves will become the true bearers of the concept of self-management. And they won’t need the guidance of political parties with their servant — the State.

The time is very favourable for us, anarchists, to strive for a practical solution to a whole range of problems of the present and the future, even if there are great difficulties and the possibility of frequent mistakes. These problems are connected in one way or another with our ideal and by struggling for our demands we shall become the true bearers of the free society. We can’t let this opportunity pass by. That would be an unforgivable error for our group, for we would become separated from the labouring masses.

At all costs we must beware of losing touch with the workers. This is equivalent to political death for revolutionaries. Or even worse, we could force the workers to reject our ideas, ideas which attract them now and will continue to attract them so long as we are among them, marching, fighting, and dying, or winning and rejoicing.”

The comrades, smiling ironically, replied: “Old buddy, you are deviating from the normal Anarchist tactic. We should be listening to the voice of our movement, as you yourself called upon us to do at our first meeting.”

“You are quite right, we must and we shall listen to the voice of our movement, if there is a movement. At present I don’t see it. But I know we must work now, without delay. I proposed a plan of work and we have already adopted it. What else remains to do, except work?”…

About the middle of the week, the elected delegates gathered at the school to discuss the re-election of the Public Committee…

The elected peasant delegates consulted with the delegates from the factory workers and jointly passed a resolution demanding the re-election of the “Public Committee”…

The delegates returned to their own electors and discussed the resolution with them. When the resolution had been confirmed by the electors, a date was set for new elections.

Meanwhile the members of our group were preparing the peasants for the organization of the Peasants’ Union.

During this period an agent arrived from the District Committee of the Peasants’ Union, formed from the ranks of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. This was Comrade Krylov-Martynov, who was charged with organizing a committee of the Peasants’ Union in Gulyai-Pole…

The SR Krylov-Martynov was an effective orator. He described in glowing terms to the peasants the impending struggle of the Socialist-Revolutionaries for the transfer of land to the peasants without compensation. This struggle was to take place in the Constituent Assembly, expected to be convened in the near future. For this struggle the support of the peasants was required. He appealed to them to organize themselves into a Peasants’ Union and support the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

This provided an opening for me and several other members of our group to intervene. I said:

“We, the Anarchists, agree with the Socialist-Revolutionaries on the necessity of the peasants organizing themselves into a Peasants’ Union. But not for the purpose of supporting the SRs in their future oratorical struggle with the social-democrats and kadets in the contemplated Constitutional Struggle (if indeed it ever comes to be).

From the revolutionary Anarchist point of view, the organization of the Peasants’ Union is necessary so the peasants can make the maximum contribution of their vital energies to the revolutionary current. In doing so they will leave their stamp upon the Revolution and determine its concrete results.

These results, for the labouring peasantry, will logically turn out as follows. At present the power of Capital and its creature — its system of organized thuggery — the State — is based on the forced labour and artificially-subjugated intelligence of the labouring masses. But now the labouring masses of the countryside and the cities can struggle to create their own lives and their own freedom. And they can manage this without the leadership of political parties with their proposed debates in the Constituent Assembly.

The labouring peasants and workers shouldn’t even be thinking about the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly is their enemy. It would be criminal on the part of the workers to expect from it their own freedom and happiness.

The Constituent Assembly is a gambling casino run by political parties. Ask anyone who hangs around such places if it is possible to visit them without being deceived! It’s impossible.

The working class — the peasantry and the workers — will inevitably be deceived if they send their own representatives to the Constituent Assembly.

Now is not the time for the labouring peasantry to be thinking about the Constituent Assembly and about organizing support for political parties, including the Socialist-Revolutionaries. No! The peasants and the workers are facing more serious problems. They should prepare to transform all the land, factories, and workshops into communal property as the basis on which they will build a new life.

The Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union, which we are proposing to found at this meeting, will be the first step in this direction…”

The SR agent of the District Party Committee of the Peasants’ Union was not perturbed by our intervention. In fact he agreed with us. And so on March 28–29, 1917, was founded the Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union.

Nestor Makhno

Makhno – fighting for the revolution

After February: Makhno Returns to Ukraine for the Revolution

Nestor Makhno

After his release from prison at the beginning of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, Nestor Makhno made his way back to his home town in Ukraine, Gulyai-Pole. There he met up with surviving anarchists to take stock of the situation and determine a course of action. Initially, Makhno had considered making the overthrow of the local organ of the Provisional Government, the Public Committee, their first priority. However, he decided it would be better to first focus on creating a Peasants’ Union, which would spearhead the expropriation of the land without having to wait for the Provisional Government to take action. He proposed placing an anarchist at the head of the Peasants’ Union to prevent it from being co-opted by any of the political parties. His comrade, Kalinichenko, opposed this approach, arguing that the anarchists should not take any leadership positions but should instead spread anarchist propaganda to encourage the peasants themselves to take an anarchist path. The following excerpts from Makhno’s memoirs are taken from Chapter 2 of his book, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine.

Returning to Ukraine to Make the Revolution

Upon arrival in Gulyai-Pole, I immediately got together with my comrades from the anarchist group…

I saw before me my own peasant friends – unknown revolutionary anarchist fighters who in their own lives didn’t know what it means to cheat one another. They were pure peasant types, tough to convince, but once convinced, once they had grasped an idea and tested it against their own reasoning, why then they pushed that idea at every conceivable opportunity. Truly, seeing these people before me I trembled with joy and was overcome with emotion.

I immediately decided to start the very next day to carry out active propaganda among the peasants and workers of Gulyai-Pole. I wanted to dissolve the Public Committee (the local organ of the Provisional Government) and the militia, and prevent the formation of any more committees. I decided to take up anarchist action as the first order of business…

The members of our group hastily set up a meeting to discuss practical affairs. By this time my enthusiasm for rushing into action had cooled off considerably. In my report I down played for the time being the carrying on of propaganda work among the peasants and workers and the overthrow of the Public Committee.

Indeed I surprised my comrades by insisting that we as a group reach a clear understanding of the state of the anarchist movement generally in Russia. The fragmentation of anarchist groups, a phenomenon well-known to me before the Revolution, was a source of dissatisfaction for me personally. I could never be happy with such a situation.

“It is necessary,” I said, “to organize the forces of the workers on a scale which can adequately express the revolutionary enthusiasm of the labouring masses when the Revolution is going through its destructive phase. And if the anarchists continue to act in an uncoordinated way, one of two things will happen: either they will lose touch with events and restrict themselves to sectarian propaganda; or they will trail along in the tail-end of these events, carrying out tasks for the benefit of their political enemies.

Here in Gulyai-Pole and the surrounding region we should act decisively to dissolve government institutions and absolutely put an end to private property in land, factories, plants, and other types of enterprises. To accomplish this we must keep in close contact with the peasant masses, assuring ourselves of the steadfastness of their revolutionary enthusiasm.

We must convince the peasants we are fighting for them and are unswervingly devoted to those concepts which we will present to them at the village assemblies and other meetings. And while this is going on we must keep an eye of what is happening with our movement in the cities.

This, comrades, is one of those tactical questions which we shall decide tomorrow. It seems to me it deserves to be thoroughly discussed because the type of action to be engaged in by our group depends on the correct resolution of this question.

For us, natives of Gulyai-Pole, this plan of action is all the more important as we are the only group of anarcho-communists which has kept in touch with the peasants continuously over the last 11 years. We know of no other groups in the vicinity.

In the closest cities, Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav, the former anarchist groups were virtually wiped out. The few survivors are far away. Some of the Ekaterinoslav anarchists stayed in Moscow. We don’t know when they will return. And we still haven’t heard anything about those who emigrated to Sweden, France, or America.

At the present time we can depend only on ourselves. No matter how weak we are in our knowledge of the theory of anarchism, we are compelled to work out an immediate plan of action to be undertaken among the peasants of this region. Without any hesitation we must begin work on organizing the Peasants’ Union. And we must see to it that one of the peasants from our group is at the head of this Union.

This is important for two reasons: first, we can prevent any political group hostile to our ideals from infiltrating the Union; and secondly, by being able to address meetings of the Union at any time on current issues, we shall be creating a close bond between our group and the Peasants’ Union. This will give the peasants a chance to deal with the land question themselves. They can go ahead and declare the land public property without waiting for the ‘revolutionary’ government to decide this question which is so crucial for the peasants.”

The comrades were pleased with my report but were far from agreeing with my approach to the whole matter. Comrade Kalinichenko sharply criticized this approach, advocating that our role as anarchists in the current revolution should be restricted to publicizing our ideas. He noted that since we could now act openly, we should make use of this situation to explain our ideas to the workers, without involving ourselves in unions or other organizations.

“This will show the peasants,” he said, “that we are not interested in dominating them but only in giving them advice. Then they will look seriously at our ideas and, embracing our methods, they will independently begin to build a new life.”

At this juncture we concluded our meeting… For the time being we decided simply to review my report and submit it to further analysis and discussion.

Nestor Makhno