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

Prelude to the Russian Revolution: Alexander Ge – Against the War


The most popular posts on my blog remain the ones on the Russian Revolution. As the 100th anniversary of the 1917 February Revolution is fast approaching, I thought I would again add some more background material that I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, which has an entire chapter on the Russian Revolution, including material by Voline, the Makhnovists and the Russian Anarcho-Syndicalists. Today I present an open letter to Kropotkin from the Russian anarchist, Alexander Ge, written during the height of the First World War. Kropotkin’s pro-war stance had been widely denounced by other anarchists, many of whom issued their own manifesto against the war. Ge’s letter ranks with Errico Malatesta’s criticisms of Kropotkin’s position as one of the most eloquent rebuttals of Kropotkin’s stance, and helped mend the deep divisions within the Russian anarchist movement engendered by Kropotkin’s support for the war against Germany. Noteworthy is Ge’s reference to Bakunin’s approach during the Franco-Prussian war, which was to refuse support for any state during the conflict, but rather to incite uprisings across France against both the Prussian invaders and the French ruling class.

Russian Civil War battle scene

Russian Civil War battle scene

At the time, Ge (sometimes spelt ‘Ghé’) was a radical anarchist communist living in exile in Switzerland. After the February 1917 Revolution, he returned to Russia, where he threw himself into the revolutionary struggle. He became a delegate to the revolutionary Soviets, where he defended the anarchists against Bolshevik attacks. He denounced the Bolshevik’s 1918 ‘Brest-Litovsk’ peace treaty with Germany, arguing that it ‘is better to die for the worldwide social revolution than to live as a result of an agreement with German imperialism.’  However, after the Russian Civil War began in earnest, Ge supported the Bolsheviks in their fight against the “Whites” (the Czarists), becoming (according to another erstwhile anarchist, Victor Serge),  an official with the notorious Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police. He was killed in action in the Caucasus. This translation of Ge’s letter is by Shawn Wilbur.


Open Letter to Peter Kropotkin

After an entire series of public declarations in favor of the Triple and Quadruple Entente, which have produced consternation in the anarchist and internationalist milieus, there has recently appeared a new Manifesto, which the bourgeois press has hastened to describe as an “Anarchist Manifesto.”

In that Manifesto, also signed by you, you follow the line of conduct that you have mapped out since the beginning of the war, inviting us to support the belligerent Entente.

I will not dwell, for the moment, specifically on the Manifesto, because its detailed critique would lead us too far afield. But, as the social character of your public assessments with regard to the facts of the European war give each of us the right to demand explanations of you, because these assessments touch directly on the very principles of Anarchy, I will allow myself to submit these lines to you.

For us, everything in your recent public declarations is an enigma. We differ with you, one of the greatest theorists of Anarchy, not only in the individual evaluation of the events, but on the principled relations that the anarchists must have with these facts. And, above all, it poses for us the question: what is the cause of our divergence? Is it that we are bad anarchists and you are good, or, on the contrary, have we remained anarchists while you have ceased to be one? There are not two different anarchisms in existence and this is why I think I have the right to formulate my question in precisely this way.

Additionally, — and this second question is also of great importance, — I would ask you to clarify from what moment our disagreement dates. Did a community of ideas exist between us before the war? Was the divergence only produced by the fact of the hostilities?

Finally, — a third and last question, — does your present conduct follow logically from all that you taught and maintained before the war or is it in contradiction with your previous writings?

In order to facilitate your responses to the questions posed, I will clarify the points on which we have held common ideas and on which we are today in opposition.

Formerly, you would find, that, without exception, all the forms of the State are in the same measure instruments of oppression of the working classes, and that is why you were anti-democrat. In 1883, before the Criminal Court of Lyon, you declared: “We want liberty and we think that it is incompatible with the existence of any statist power, no matter its origin and form. What does it matter if it is imposed or elected, monarchist or republican, resting on divine right or the right of the people, of the coronation or universal suffrage? History teaches us that all governments are the same and that one is as good as the other. Some are more cynical, and others are more hypocritical; the best often appear the worst: all have the same language, everywhere the same intolerance. Even the most liberal keep deep down in the dust some old codes, some convenient little laws against the International, in order to apply them in the favorable cases against their troublesome adversaries. In other words, the anarchists do see the evil not in one form of government or another, but in the idea of government and in the very principle of power.”

Later, you proclaimed the same ideas in several works. Notably, in Anarchie you said: “The State has been produced, created by the centuries, in order to maintain the domination of the privileged classes over the peasants and workers. Consequently, neither the Church, nor the State can become the force that would serve for the annihilation of those privileges.” And then: “The weapon of oppression and of enslavement cannot become a weapon of liberation.”

You did not protest when, in the columns of the newspaper Pain et Liberté, of which you were one of the originators, the article of Elisée Reclus was printed, in which the author said: “We have tolerated enough the kings anointed by the Lord or seated by the will of the people; all these ministers plenipotentiaries, responsible or irresponsible; these legislators who manage to obtain a bit of power from an emperor or from a flock of voters; these judges who sell what they call Justice to those who pay the most; these priest who represent God on earth and who promise a place in paradise to those who become their slaves here below.” And in the same place: “We anarchists do not want to reconstruct anew the State that we have always disavowed.”

Ten years ago, you said, with regard to the Russo-Japanese War, responding to a Frenchman in an article that I have before me: “Each war is an evil, whether it ends in victory or defeat. It is an evil for the belligerent powers, an evil for the neutral powers. I do not believe in beneficial wars. The Japanese, Russian or English capitalists, yellow or white, are equally odious to me. I prefer to put myself on the side of the young Japanese socialist party; however small in number, it expresses the will of the Japanese people when it declares itself against war. In short, in the present war I see a danger for progress in all of Europe in general. Can the triumph of the lowest instincts of contemporary capitalism aid in the triumph of progress?”

So you have adopted the anti-statist way of seeing, proper to anarchists, not only as regards the future society, but also the present society. And we have always believed, in agreement with you, that true liberty is not compatible with the existence of any statist power, whatever its form and origin. From your point of view, and ours, the evil (and, consequently, the good) is not only in one or the other form of government, but in the very principle of power.

Like you, we have also accepted that the instrument of oppression cannot be the instrument of deliverance. On the foundation of that truth, which has always been for us an axiom, we have refused the collaboration of classes, practiced by the socialists, and we have attempted to wrest the proletariat from the struggle based on statist legislation. We have pushed that formula to the maximum, as far as the absolute exclusion of all mitigating circumstances. In an article “Pour la caractéristique de notice tactique,” in the fourth number of the newspaper Pain et Liberté, we have underlined this point: “There can be no alliance, no coalition, even temporary, with the bourgeoisie. Between it and us there exists no other field of activity than the field of battle, where each wants to bury the other in the tomb. We are fully convinced that there exists no moment in history that will demand of the proletariat a collaboration with the bourgeois parties, for the proletariat cannot, even temporarily, ally itself with them without interrupting its struggle against the bourgeoisie.”

To think like our common master, Bakunin, detested by all the bourgeoisie and by all the state socialists: still in the era of the First International, he foresaw what would happen to the working class, by participating in bourgeois politics, and that is why he withdrew from the International, which had become Marxist, as soon as it had begun to march openly down the path of political struggle. In his remarkable article: “The Policy of the International,” which is, in places, prophetic, he said:

“The people have always been misled. Even the great French Revolution betrayed them. It killed the aristocratic nobility and put the bourgeoisie in its place. The people are no longer called slaves or serfs, they are proclaimed freeborn by law, but in fact their slavery and poverty remain the same.

“And they will always remain the same as long as the popular masses continue to serve as an instrument for bourgeois politics, whether that politics is called conservative, liberal, progressive, or radical, and even when it is given the most revolutionary appearances in the world. For all bourgeois politics, whatever its colour and name, can at base only have one aim: the maintenance of bourgeois domination; and bourgeois domination is the slavery of the proletariat.

“What then was the International to do? It first had to detach the working masses from all bourgeois politics, it had to eliminate from its own program all the political programs of the bourgeois.”

Thus you had, before the war, maintained without reservations an equally negative conception for all the forms of bourgeois statism, and thus you accepted the formulas of Bakunin. Before the war you declared that the existence of liberty is incompatible with the existence of the statist power, whatever its form and origin. Then, you had found that all the governments are alike and that one is as good as another; that not one of those existing can become an instrument of liberation.

As for war, you have always reckoned without reservations that it was an evil and that, being the lowest consequence of capitalism, it could never serve the triumph of progress.

And now you say: “At the present moment, each man who wants to do something useful for the rescue of European civilization and for the prolongation of the struggle in favour of the workers’ International, can and must do only one thing: to aid in the defeat of the enemy of our dearest aspirations — Prussian militarism.”

That phrase alone already contains a full denial of all that you have said before, for if, for the rescue of European civilization, you should go to war against the Germans, it is probably because liberal England or republican France, with their militarisms, represent greater values than Germany. So why did you maintain before that all the governments are equal?

Then if France and England contain more elements of communist progress than Germany, and if the victory of the allies should open the gate wider for the continuation of the struggle in favour of the workers’ International than a victory for Germany, we must admit, consequently, that France and England, representing a more elevated culture, are an instrument of liberation to a greater extent than Caesarian Germany. And why then have you taught before that none of the present governments cannot become an instrument of liberation?

Now you advise us to go to war as volunteers to fire on the German workers with 50 cm. guns, in order to save civilization and European culture. Where then is the superiority of Anglo-French culture over German culture? Does it guarantee the workers the “equality in fact” that the French Revolution had wanted to attain? You have said that “only in an egalitarian society will we find justice.” Well, is there a gram more justice and economic equality in Anglo-French culture than in German culture? “The full development of the personality is only permitted to those who are not dangerous to the existence of bourgeois society,” you have also said. But does the French republic or the English democracy allow any more attacks on their integrities, in the bourgeois and capitalist sense of that word, than German Caesarism? Finally, it seems to me that the watchword: “we must defend the highest culture,” — if we admit that such a taxonomy of cultures exists, which is not anarchist, but properly bourgeois, — such a watchword would lead us to practical conclusions that are statist and nationalist.

Then we would often be obliged, in future wars, to take the side of some State whose culture appears to us more elevated. In that case, in the interest of the defense of the preferred culture, we would never have the right to be antimilitarists, but we would be obliged to vote for the military credits on the demand of the respective State that defends that high culture, and we would always be obliged to support militarism, which fulfills the sacred mission of its defence. Then we should also admit that if our participation in war is necessary for the continuation of the war in favour of the workers’ international, then that militarism that, in this case, helps us to clear the road toward our communist ideal, must be inscribed as a categorical imperative in our anarchist tactics.

Finally, one more point, of secondary importance. In inviting us to actively support the Entente, you say: “After the defeat of Napoleon III, the old Garibaldi rose up suddenly for the defence of France.” Certainly, it was a very generous impulse on the part of the great Italian idealist, but I do not understand what that could have to do with our tactics. Was Garibaldi an anarchist? On the contrary, I remember that article 7 of his “Propositions” at the First Congress of the League of Peace and Freedom, in 1867, was conceived as follows: “The religion of God is adopted by the Congress.” Should that also serve as an example to us, because it was Garibaldi who said it? And wouldn’t it be better and more justified in such circumstances, if one should have already invoked the authority of Garibaldi, to recall article 12 of his “Propositions,” which says explicitly that “only the slave has a right to make war against tyrants” and that “this is the only case where war is permitted”?

There, dear Master, are the questions that I have to pose to you and to which, I am persuaded, I will not have to wait long for your response.

Alexandre Ghé

Lausanne, Switzerland 1916

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

February Revolution 1917

February Revolution 1917

The Makhnovist Movement in the Russian Revolution

Makhnovist tachanka

Makhnovist tachanka

Today I continue with selections on anarchism in the Russian Revolution taken from my survey of the historical development and influence of anarchist ideas, the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this selection, I discuss anarchist responses to counter-revolution in Russia, focusing on the struggle for freedom and equality conducted by the “Makhnovist” movement in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, where the anarchists did battle with the “Whites” (pro-Czarist counter-revolutionaries) and the “Reds” (the Bolsheviks). Although the anarchist insurgency, led by Nestor Makhno, was ultimately defeated, it provided an example of how an anarchist inspired movement for popular liberation could mobilize large numbers of people to take up arms against forces intent on re-establishing state power. I included some Makhnovist proclamations and other material regarding the Makhnovist movement in Volume One of my Anarchism anthology.

CHEKA Chairman Dzerzhinsky: the face of the Bolshevik Counter-Revolution

CHEKA Chairman Dzerzhinsky: the face of the Bolshevik Counter-Revolution

Counter-Revolution in Russia

The Russian Revolution raised another issue of fundamental importance to revolutionary anarchists: how to deal with counter-revolution, whether from the left or the right. From 1918 to 1921, Russia was racked by civil war. Many anarchists took the position that in order to protect the gains of the 1917 Revolution, they had no choice but to work with the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”) in preventing Czarist counter-revolutionaries (the “Whites”) from forcing a return to the old order, with all the reprisals and massacres of the revolutionaries that that would entail. According to Paul Avrich, during the civil war “a large majority [of anarchists] gave varying degrees of support to the beleaguered regime,” leading Lenin in 1919 to compliment some anarchists for “becoming the most dedicated supporters of Soviet power” (1978: 196-197).

Makhnovist Proclamation

Makhnovist Proclamation

The Makhnovist Movement

Other anarchists argued that there were alternatives to simply supporting the Bolsheviks in their struggle against the White counter-revolutionaries, thereby strengthening the Bolshevik dictatorship. Instead, they argued for “relentless partisan war, here, there and everywhere,” as Voline put it in February 1918 (Avrich, 1973: 107). But it was only in Ukraine that anarchists were able to instigate a popular insurgency, with the anarchist Nestor Makhno leading a peasant and worker guerrilla army (the “Makhnovshchina”) against a variety of forces, from occupying German and Austrian troops, to local strongmen (the “Hetman”), to the Whites, and when necessary, to the Bolsheviks themselves (Volume One, Selections 85 & 86).

When the Makhnovists liberated an area, they would abolish all decrees issued by the Whites and the Reds, leaving it to “the peasants in assemblies, [and] the workers in their factories and workshops” to decide for themselves how to organize their affairs. The land was to be returned to “those peasants who support themselves through their own labour,” and the “factories, workshops, mines and other tools and means of production” to the workers themselves (Volume One, Selection 85).

The Makhnovists denounced “the bourgeois-landlord authority on the one hand and the Bolshevik-Communist dictatorship on the other.” They would throw out the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka, from areas that had been under Bolshevik control and reopen the presses and meeting places that the Bolsheviks had shut down, proclaiming that “freedom of speech, press, assembly, unions and the like are inalienable rights of every worker and any restriction on them is a counter-revolutionary act.” The Makhnovists called upon the soldiers of the Red Army, sometimes with some success, to desert and join the Makhnovists in their struggle for “a non-authoritarian labourers’ society without parasites and without commissar-bureaucrats” (Volume One, Selection 85).


Despite their opposition to “state militia, policemen and armies,” which they would declare abolished in the areas they had liberated (Volume One, Selection 85), the Makhnovist insurgents adopted some aspects of more conventional military organization, including a chain of command and conscription, and sometimes carried out “summary executions” (Avrich, 1988: 114 & 121).

Many anarchists who were still free to do so, such as Voline, Aaron Baron and Peter Arshinov, went to Ukraine to support the Makhnovists, setting up the Nabat confederation, one of the more effective anarchist organizations during the Revolution and Civil War. But as Peter Arshinov noted, “three years of uninterrupted civil wars made the southern Ukraine a permanent battlefield,” making it difficult for the anarchists and Makhnovists to accomplish anything positive (Volume One, Selection 86). Yet for five months in early 1919, “the Gulyai-Polye region” where Makhno was based “was virtually free of all political authority,” giving the anarchists a chance, albeit a very brief one, to put their constructive ideas into practice by helping the peasants and workers to set up libertarian communes and soviets (Avrich, 1988: 114).

A “series of Regional Congresses of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents” was held, the third in April 1919, “in defiance of a ban placed upon it” by the Bolsheviks (Avrich, 1988: 114-115). After “two Cheka agents [who] were sent to assassinate Makhno were caught and executed” in May 1919, and the Makhnovists called upon the Red Army soldiers to join them, Trotsky outlawed the Makhnovists, sending in troops to dismantle their peasant communes (Avrich, 1988: 115). Despite subsequent temporary alliances to fight the Whites, by early 1921, the Bolsheviks had crushed the Makhnovist movement.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists were able to garner significant support among the Ukrainian peasantry, who resented Bolshevik seizures of their grain and food, seeing that “the bread taken by force from [them] nourishes mainly the enormous governmental machine” being created by the Bolsheviks. For the revolution to succeed, the anarchists believed that the masses “must feel truly free; they must know that the work they do is their own; they must see in every social measure which is adopted the manifestation of their will, their hopes and their aspirations” (Volume One, Selection 86).

Robert Graham




The 1917 Russian Revolution and the Factory Committees

The 1917 Russian Revolution

The 1917 Russian Revolution

Every February, I get renewed interest in my posts and pages regarding the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. I imagine interest will continue as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. I included a Chapter on the Russian Revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I reproduce excerpts from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my Anarchism anthology, dealing with the February Revolution and the rise of factory committees during the revolutionary upheavals in Europe that began in Russia in February 1917.

russian revolution soldiers on street

The Russian Revolution

In 1916, echoing Bakunin’s position during the Franco-Prussian War, Russian anarchists who rejected Kropotkin’s pro-war stance called for the “imperialist war” in Europe to be transformed into an all embracing social revolution (Geneva Group of Anarchist-Communists, 1916: 44-47). In February 1917, the long sought after Russian Revolution began with relatively spontaneous uprisings for which, much like the 1905 Russian Revolution, no particular group could claim credit.

For the anarchists, the “February Revolution” was another vindication of their view of social revolution. “All revolutions necessarily begin in a more or less spontaneous manner,” wrote the Russian anarchist Voline. The task for revolutionary anarchists is to work with the insurgent people to enable them to take control of their own affairs, without any intermediaries, and to prevent the reconstitution of state power. For Voline and the anarchists, effective “emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action of those concerned, of the workers themselves, grouped, not under the banner of a political party or of an ideological formation, but in their own class organizations (productive workers’ unions, factory committees, co-operatives, etc.) on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped, but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass” (Volume One, Selection 87).

The anarchists therefore opposed the Provisional Government which replaced the Czarist regime and pressed for the expropriation by the workers and peasants themselves of the means of production and distribution, a process the workers and peasants had already begun, with workers taking over their factories and peasants seizing the land that they had worked for generations. Anarchist communists expropriated the homes of the rich and called for the creation of revolutionary communes (Avrich, 1978: 125-126 & 130).

Many anarchists supported and participated in the peasant and worker “soviets” that sprang up across Russia, following a pattern similar to the 1905 Russian Revolution. The anarcho-syndicalist, Gregory Maksimov, described the soviets as having “been brought into being by the proletariat spontaneously, by revolutionary means, and with that element of improvisation which springs from the needs of each locality and which entails (a) the revolutionizing of the masses, (b) the development of their activity and self-reliance, and (c) the strengthening of their faith in their own creative powers” (Volume One, Selection 83).

When Lenin rejected the orthodox Marxist view that Russia had to proceed through a “bourgeois” revolution and the development of a capitalist economy before socialism could be implemented, calling for a proletarian revolution that would replace the Russian state with worker and peasant soviets modeled after the Paris Commune, he was not only recognizing what was already happening, but adopting a position so close to the anarchists that both orthodox Marxists and many anarchists regarded the Bolsheviks as the anarchists’ allies (Avrich, 1978: 127-130). Many anarchists worked with the Bolsheviks to overthrow the Provisional Government in October 1917, and to dissolve the newly elected Constituent Assembly in January 1918.

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Either Death to Capitalism or Death Under Capitalism

Factory Committees

Soon after the October Revolution, some anarchists began to realize that rather than pushing the social revolution forward, the Bolsheviks were seeking to establish their own dictatorship, subordinating the soviets to their party organization. Maksimov therefore proclaimed in December 1917 that the anarchists “will go with the Bolsheviks no longer, for their ‘constructive’ work has begun, directed towards what we have always fought… the strengthening of the state. It is not our cause to strengthen what we have resolved to destroy. We must go to the lower classes to organize the work of the third—and perhaps the last—revolution” (Volume One, Selection 83).

Because the soviets, as “presently constituted,” were being transformed by the Bolsheviks into organs of state power, Maksimov argued that the anarchists “must work for their conversion from centres of authority and decrees into non-authoritarian centres,” linking the “autonomous organizations” of the workers together (Volume One, Selection 83). But as the Bolsheviks continued to consolidate their power, subordinating not only the soviets but also the trade unions to their “revolutionary” government, the anarcho-syndicalists began to emphasize the role of the factory committees in furthering the cause of the anarchist social revolution and in combatting both capitalism and the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship.

At their August 1918 congress, the Russian anarcho-syndicalists described the factory committee as “a fighting organizational form of the entire workers’ movement, more perfect than the soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies in that it is a basic self-governing producers’ organization under the continuous and alert control of the workers… With the aid of the factory committees and their industry-wide federations, the working class will destroy both the existing economic slavery and its new form of state capitalism which is falsely labelled ‘socialism’,” which the Bolsheviks were in the process of establishing (Volume One, Selection 84).

A similar approach was put forward by anarchists in Italy during the factory occupations in 1919-1920, and by anarchists in Germany. Malatesta, returning to Italy in late 1919, argued, as he had before in his debates with the syndicalists (Volume One, Selection 60), that general strikes were not sufficient to bring about a revolution. The anarchists therefore “put forward an idea: the take-over of factories,” which would constitute “an exercise preparing one for the ultimate general act of expropriation” (Malatesta, 1920: 134). The Italian factory occupation movement peaked in September 1920, with armed workers running their own factories using a factory committee form of organization, but ended that same month when reformist trade union and socialist leaders negotiated an agreement with the government that returned control of the factories to their capitalist owners.

In Germany, anarchists fought to establish a system of workers’ councils, most notably in Bavaria, where Gustav Landauer and Erich Muhsam were directly involved in the short lived Council Republic of 1919. However, the Bavarian Revolution was crushed by troops sent in by the more conservative Social Democrats, whom Landauer had been denouncing as the scourge of the socialist movement for years (Volume One, Selections 79 & 111). Landauer was brutally murdered, and Muhsam was imprisoned for several years (Kuhn, 2011: 8-10).

Both the soviet and factory committee models of revolutionary organization were very influential in anarchist circles. At the founding congress of the reconstituted anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association in early 1922, the delegates declared themselves in favour of “a system of free councils without subordination to any authority or political party” (Volume One, Selection 114). Nevertheless, some anarchists voiced concerns regarding the limitations of soviet and factory council modes of organization.

Maksimov pointed to the danger of the soviets being transformed into representative bodies instead of direct organs of libertarian self-management (Volume One, Selection 83). More recently, Murray Bookchin has argued that “council modes of organization are not immune to centralization, manipulation and perversion. These councils are still particularistic, one-sided and mediated forms of social management,” being limited to the workers’ self-management of production, “the preconditions of life, not the conditions of life” (Volume Two, Selection 62). Following the May-June 1968 events in France, Maurice Joyeux pointed out that factory committees need to coordinate their actions during the revolutionary process in order to spread and succeed, and then, after the revolution, to coordinate production and distribution, leading him to suggest that broader trade union federations would be better able to undertake this coordinating role (Volume Two, Selection 61).

Robert Graham

Workers' Control

Workers’ Control