my cousin, the subcommandante

This is an example of Anarchist political structures, yeah. Usually thought of as just another band of guerrilla insurgents during the wider revolution in Eastern Europe, this region was surrounded and infiltrated, constantly, by imperialists. Makhno fought the foreign occupying forces of Poland, Austro-Hungary, the Red Army, white Russia, white Ukraine, and the propaganda war against Trotsky.

Though he shared command of the fighters with other comrades, Makhno was the name signed to communiques. Since Makhno appeared to guide the movement in this way and was accountable for the actions of the insurgent army, the revolution was dubbed Makhnovist, thus relegating the ideas of these free councils to platformist obscurity in Anarchist history.

Sadly, this article implies by language choice that Makhnovists were all men. Not so! There were even a general or two who were women.  Makhno was very much into inclusion and militantly opposed anti-Semitism both in the movement and as a tactic of opposing forces.

Free Territory (Ukraine) (1918-1921) (from Wikipedia)

In March 1918, Russia (led by the Bolsheviks), the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the Central Powers, signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to pull Russia out of World War I. The Treaty resulted in the occupation of the territory of the weak Ukrainian state by the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. This was done without consulting Ukrainian population. Various insurgence groups arose, including the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, led by the anarcho-communist Nestor Makhno. They won popular support due to their attacks on the Austro-Hungarian puppet-leader Hetman Skoropadsky and the Nationalist Petliurists.

Although the movement was forced to spend great energy and resources to fight off the invaders, they still managed to carry out a social revolution according to the principles of anarchism.

It seemed as though a giant grate composed of bayonets shuttled back and forth across the region, from North to South and back again, wiping out all traces of creative social construction. [Arshinov]

The Makhnovists aimed for a true social revolution in which the working classes (both urban and rural) could actively manage their own affairs and society. Their social program aimed to eliminate both the state and private property because oppression had its roots in both political and economic power. At the core of their social ideas was the principle of working-class autonomy, the idea that the liberation of working-class people must be done by the working-class people themselves. This vision is at the heart of anarchism and was expressed most elegantly by Makhno:

Conquer or die– such is the dilemma that faces the Ukrainian peasants and workers at this historic moment . . . But we will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of the past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters; we will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives according to our own will and our own conception of the truth.

Around Gulyai-Polye (Makhno’s birthplace), several communes sprang up. Several regional congresses of peasants and workers were organized. A general statute supporting the creation of ‘free soviets’ (elected councils of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates) was passed, though little could be done towards its implementation in much of the Ukraine because of the constantly changing battlefront.

The Makhnovist movement consisted almost entirely of poor peasants and in contradiction to the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, the Makhnovists were very popular. Wherever they came, they were enthusiastically greeted by the population, who provided food, lodging and information on the enemy. The Bolsheviks and Whites relied on terror, imprisoning and killing thousands of peasants.

It is rare for a group of anarchists to be named after an individual. This occurred because the movement, although inspired by Anarchism, contained few people who had solidly defined their anarchist views. The movement encouraged learning and political discussion, but most combatants and supporters still called themselves Makhnovists and the name stuck.

The Makhnovist movement was quite a threat to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks clung to the idea that the “masses” were unable to carry out a social revolution on their own and perform self-management. This was proven wrong by the Makhnovist movement, prompting Bolshevik attacks. Even in the military area it seemed that the anarchist answer was superior. The Makhnovists defeated on several occasions armies up to 30 times their size, and had great morale.  The army was organized according to three main principles:

Voluntary enlistment meant that the army was composed only of revolutionary fighters who entered it of their own free will.

The electoral principle meant that the commanders of all units of the army, including the staff, as well as all the men who held other positions in the army, were either elected or accepted by the insurgents of the unit in question or by the whole army.

Self-discipline meant that all the rules of discipline were drawn up by commissions of insurgents, then approved by general assemblies of the various units; once approved, they were rigorously observed on the individual responsibility of each insurgent and each commander.”


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