Nestor Makhno: The February Revolution and Freedom for Political Prisoners

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno

Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) is one of the best known (or notorious) of the anarchists involved in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was from Gulyai-Pole (Huliaipole) in southern Ukraine. He became active in the local anarchist movement in 1906. Two years later he was sentenced to death for his participation in a shoot out with the local police that left a district police officer dead, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He spent nine years in Moscow’s Butyrki Prison, where he met Peter Arshinov, who helped solidify Makhno’s commitment to revolutionary anarchism (Arshinov was to reunite with Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War). After the February Revolution, Makhno and many other political prisoners were amnestied by the Provisional Government. Makhno returned to Gulyai-Pole, ultimately organizing and leading an anarchist inspired insurgency (the “Makhnovshchina”) against the Czarists (the “Whites”), the Bolsheviks (the “Reds”), and Ukrainian nationalists during the Russian Civil War. I included material on the Makhnovist movement, including excerpts from Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement, in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary history of Libertarian Ideas. Here I present the first chapter from volume one of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, in which Makhno describes his imprisonment, his release by the Provisional Government, and his return to Gulyai-Pole to participate in the revolution.


My Liberation

The February Revolution of 1917 opened the gates of all Russian prisons for political prisoners. There can be no doubt this was mainly brought about by armed workers and peasants taking to the streets, some in their blue smocks, others in grey military overcoats.

These revolutionary workers demanded an immediate amnesty as the first conquest of the Revolution. They made this demand to the state-socialists who, together with bourgeois liberals, had formed the Provisional “Revolutionary” Government with the intention of submitting revolutionary events to their own wisdom. The Socialist-Revolutionary A. Kerensky, the Minister of Justice, rapidly acceded to this demand of the workers. In a matter of days, all political prisoners were released from prison and were able to devote themselves to vital work among the workers and peasants, work which they had started during the difficult years of underground activity.

The tsarist government of Russia, based on the landowning aristocracy, had walled up these political prisoners in damp dungeons with the aim of depriving the labouring classes of their advanced elements and destroying their means of denouncing the iniquities of the regime. Now these workers and peasants, fighters against the aristocracy, again found themselves free. And I was one of them.

The eight years and eight months I spent in prison, during which I was shackled hand and foot (as a “lifer”) and suffered from a serious illness, failed to shake my belief in the soundness of anarchism. For me anarchism meant the struggle against the State as a form of organizing social life and as a form of power over this social life. On the contrary, in many ways my term in prison helped to strengthen and develop my convictions. Because of them I had been seized by the authorities and locked up “for life” in prison.

Convinced that liberty, free labour, equality, and solidarity will triumph over slavery under the yoke of State and Capital, I emerged from the gates of Butyrki Prison on March 2, 1917. Inspired by these convictions, three days after my release I threw myself into the activities of the Lefortovo Anarchist Group right there in Moscow. But not for a moment did I cease to think about the work of our Gulyai-Pole group of peasant anarcho-communists. As I learned through friends, the work of this group, started over a decade earlier, was still on-going despite the overwhelming loss of its leading members.

One thing oppressed me – my lack of the necessary education and practical preparation in the area of the social and political problems of anarchism. I felt this deficiency deeply. But even more deeply I recognized that nine out of ten of my fellow-anarchists were lacking in the necessary preparation for our work. The source of this harmful situation I found in the failure to establish our own school, despite our frequent plans for such a project. Only the hope that this state of affairs would not endure encouraged and endowed me with energy, for I believed the everyday work of anarchists in the intense revolutionary situation would inevitably lead them to a realization of the necessity of creating their own revolutionary organization and building up its strength.

Such an organization would be capable of gathering all the available forces of anarchism to create a movement which could act in a conscious and coherent manner. The enormous growth of the Russian Revolution immediately suggested to me the unshakable notion that anarchist activity at such a time must be inseparably connected with the labouring masses. These masses were the element of society most dedicated to the triumph of liberty and justice, to the winning of new victories, and to the creation of a new communal social structure and new human relationships.

Such were my cherished thoughts about the development of the anarchist movement in the Russian Revolution and the ideological influence of this movement on revolutionary events.

With these convictions I returned to Gulyai-Pole three weeks after my release from prison. Gulyai-Pole was my home town where there were many people and things close to my mind and heart. There I could do something useful among the peasants. Our group was founded there among the peasants and there it still survived despite losing two-thirds of its members. Some were killed in shoot-outs, others on the scaffold. Some disappeared into far-off, icy Siberia while others were forced into exile abroad. The entire central core of the group had almost entirely been wiped out. But the ideas of the group had struck deep roots in Gulyai-Pole and even beyond.

The greatest concentration of will-power and a profound knowledge of the goals of anarchism are necessary in order to decide what it is possible to gain from an unfolding political revolution.

It is there in Gulyai-Pole, in the heart of the labouring peasantry, that will arise that powerful revolutionary force – the self-activity of the masses – on which revolutionary anarchism must be based according to Bakunin, Kropotkin, and a host of other theoreticians of anarchism. This force will show to the oppressed class the ways and means of destroying the old regime of slavery and replacing it with a new world in which slavery has disappeared and authority will no longer have a place. Liberty, equality, and solidarity will then be the principles which will guide individuals and human societies in their lives and struggles, and in their quest for new ideas and equitable relations between people.

These ideas sustained me through the long years of suffering in prison and now I carried them back with me to Gulyai-Pole.

Nestor Makhno



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 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.)