Nestor Makhno: the failure of anarchism

by Mick Armstrong • Published 12 July 2016

Nestor Makhno, the Ukrainian anarchist partisan leader, is one of the great romantic heroes of anarchism. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the sixties New Left, declared in his book Obsolete Communism The Left-Wing Alternative that: “The Makhnovchina, better perhaps than any other movement, shows that the Russian Revolution could have become a great liberating force.”[2] More recently Lucien Van der Walt and Michael Schmidt in Black Flame. The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, a book that is widely read and influential in anarchist circles, have championed the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists drawn up by Makhno and his close collaborator Peter Arshinov. They extravagantly claim that the Makhnovist movement

created space for the blossoming of an anarchist revolution in a large part of the southern Ukraine. Based among poor peasants, but with a substantial degree of urban support, the Ukrainian Revolution involved large-scale land expropriation, the formation of agrarian collectives, and the establishment of industrial self-management, all coordinated through federations and congresses of soviets.[3]

Similarly the Anarchist FAQ declares that the Makhnovists based themselves “on the anarchist idea of Free Soviets” and “did all they could do to protect working-class autonomy and freedom”.[4]

The Bolsheviks’ suppression of Makhno and their crushing of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising are for anarchists two key examples of “Red tyranny”. The Bolsheviks had just as sharp opinions. Lenin condemned Makhno as a “bandit”, while Trotsky stated that

hostility to the city nourished the movement of Makhno, who seized and looted trains marked for the factories, the plants, and the Red Army; tore up railroad tracks; shot Communists. Of course, Makhno called this the anarchist struggle with the state. In reality, this was the struggle of the infuriated petty property owner against the proletarian dictatorship.[5]

Makhno is worth studying, not just because he is a controversial historical figure, but because his movement reveals the profound dichotomy in anarchist politics – the enormous separation between their utopian theory and their practice. As many anarchists are little more than romantic dreamers, this contradiction is not sharply posed. It was glaring in Makhno’s case as he was above all an activist, who scorned the dilettantish amateurism of the city-based Russian anarchists. Indeed I will argue that under the pressure of events, a partisan leader like Makhno, who wanted to win a bloody civil war, had to increasingly forsake his libertarian “principles” and replicate the methods of his hated rivals, the Bolsheviks.

The problem was that while he copied many of the Bolsheviks’ organisational methods, he did not, despite certain rhetorical asides, embrace the Marxist world view centred around the self-emancipation of the working class which alone gave Bolshevism a liberating and revolutionary content. Instead, spurning the working class, Makhno hoped to establish anarchism by armed conquest. He built a disciplined and centralised peasant army, formed his own officer corps, and set up a security apparatus just as brutally efficient as the Bolshevik Cheka. He tortured and shot both White and Red prisoners, banned rival political parties and assassinated their activists.

Anarchist rhetoric can seem very revolutionary and “libertarian” in non-revolutionary times, but in revolutionary upheavals it is useless. As Trotsky put it in another context, anarchist theory is like “raincoats that leak only when it rains, i.e., in ‘exceptional’ circumstances, but during dry weather they remain waterproof with complete success.”[6]


Nestor Makhno was of peasant stock from the large village of Gulyai-Pole, population 20-30,000, in southern Ukraine. He had little formal education and worked on the estates of local nobles and rich German peasants and briefly in a factory before at the age of 17 becoming associated with a local anarcho-terrorist group. This was during the course of the 1905-06 Russian revolution, when the peasant uprisings in Ukraine were among the most violent in the empire. The tsarist regime unleashed a wave of repression to crush the risings. A detachment of mounted police was dispatched to Gulyai-Pole to suppress gatherings and terrorise the population. Whoever was caught on the streets was brutally whipped. These savage measures left an indelible mark on the town and sowed the seeds of covert unrest that infected all the people, especially the young.

The Gulyai-Pole anarchist group was involved in small-scale robbery to finance its activities – a hectograph machine to print leaflets, plus bombs and guns. But as is typical for terrorist groups, things soon started to go wrong. A drunk who talked too much had to be killed by one of the anarchists. A subsequent expropriation resulted in the shooting of a popular local policeman. An informer sent in from a nearby town was shot. Stepped-up police action broke up the group – several were killed in a shoot-out, some were executed and a number of others were jailed, including Makhno who in 1910 was convicted of murder. A few survivors fled or went underground to keep the local anarchist cell alive.

While incarcerated in Moscow’s notorious Butyrki prison, Makhno came under the ideological sway of a more experienced anarchist, Peter Arshinov. Arshinov, a fellow anarcho-terrorist, had been jailed for blowing up a police station and assassinating a railway official. Both were freed in an amnesty following the 1917 February revolution, and Makhno returned to his village in glory as a former political prisoner. Against the advice of many of the local anarchists who wanted to concentrate on propaganda activity and opposed taking office in workers’ or peasants’ organisations, he helped found a peasant union, local workers’ unions and eventually a soviet. As head of the local soviet he soon established himself as a leading figure in the rapidly developing peasant movement.

Ukraine was predominantly rural and less industrially advanced than Russia itself. Of a population of around 33 million in 1917, only 300,000 were industrial workers.[7] The small working class was concentrated in the north, while Makhno’s area in the south was overwhelmingly peasant. Ukraine however was a vital grain bowl and raw material centre for the tsarist empire. Its agricultural production was on a larger scale and much more directed to the capitalist market. The percentage of self-sufficient and poor peasants was noticeably less than in the rest of the empire.

The revolution in Ukraine was incredibly kaleidoscopic, both complicated and bloody. The revolution saw a revival of Ukrainian nationalism and following the October revolution the petty bourgeois nationalists of the Rada seized power in Ukraine. However there was only limited peasant support for the nationalists, and the workers in the towns, who were predominantly Russian, Jewish or Russified Ukrainian, were hostile. When Red Guards from Russia invaded Ukraine in January 1918, the local working class rose up to back the invasion and oust the Rada, which had allied itself with the invading German army. As a Ukrainian nationalist historian hostile to the Bolsheviks put it:

The Ukrainian peasant troops, infected by Bolshevik demagogy, literally disintegrated, leaving the defense of the nation’s capital to college and gymnasium students and the few nationally conscious workers.[8]

By April 1918 the advancing German and Austrian armies had routed the revolutionary forces and, dispensing with their former allies of the Rada, installed a brutal military dictatorship headed by the Hetman Skoropads’kyi, a Cossack leader. The Hetman faced insurrections in the towns and when he brought back the old landlords and attempted to reclaim the land the peasants had seized, a wave of rebellion engulfed the countryside. In the course of the peasant insurgency of late 1918 Makhno, who had initially fled Ukraine in the face of the German advance, established his own partisan army. He commenced a campaign of killing army officers and landlords and looting their estates. He raided trains and confiscated the property of the passengers, executing those who refused to co-operate. In a typical incident described by the Ukrainian nationalist historian Michael Palij, who is sympathetic to Makhno, Makhno attacked a train of Don Cossacks, “throwing some of the Cossack officers from the Kichkas bridge into the Dnieper”.[9] The booty was distributed amongst his fighters and the peasants of the surrounding villages.[10] However those villages that collaborated with the Germans and Austrians were subject to savage reprisals.[11]

Makhno’s was but one of dozens of peasant bands and marauders, formed largely from armed ex-soldiers (by October 1917 there were an estimated two million deserters in Ukraine) and headed by all sorts of adventurers and bandit figures. These bands inherited some of the Cossack tradition of independent military communities, which was particularly strong in southern Ukraine. The most powerful band, headed by Hryhoriyiv, consisted, according to a leading bourgeois historian Arthur Adams, of “a rabble of peasants and Cossacks in which the middle and upper layers of the peasantry predominated, but which also contained a fair share of political agitators, adventurous ruffians, and out-and-out criminals.”[12]

Hryhoriyiv’s opportunist career typifies the general trend. He started as a tsarist army officer, backed the reactionary Hetman’s regime, and then sided with the nationalist rebellion against it. But with the collapse of the German army following the German revolution of late 1918, Hryhoriyiv could see which way the wind was blowing. The Reds were on the rise again so he backed their second advance into Ukraine in January-February 1919. His partisan forces inflicted major defeats on the nationalists and their latest ally the French (though the workers of the Bolshevik-led soviet of Nikolaev opposed Hryhoriyiv entering the city as he was “an obvious degenerate”).[13]

Both anarchists and Ukrainian nationalists like to portray the Red Army advance in 1919 as imperialist and authoritarian. However at the time nearly all the local partisans, including Makhno, supported the Reds. Indeed Makhno’s partisans co-operated with a Bolshevik-led workers’ uprising to capture the city of Ekaterinoslav from the nationalists.[14] The workers of the Ukrainian towns rose up to welcome the Red troops as liberators. In Kharkov pro-Bolshevik workers formed a soviet, launched a general strike and with the support of rank and file German soldiers, drove out a Ukrainian nationalist general before the Reds arrived. The Bolsheviks were backed by the local Jewish population who had suffered from nationalist-led pogroms. Furthermore the Bolsheviks initially had broad support amongst the peasants, who were hostile to the nationalists, now re-organised as the Directory, for their refusal to expropriate the landlords. The nationalists had been discredited in the eyes of the masses by their alliances with the invading imperialist powers, first the Germans and subsequently the French.

…the Directory in action meant censorship, military suppression, and rule by a conservative middle class, the aroused peasantry turned against the Directory with a ferocity similar to that which it had shown the Germans and Skoropadskyi.[15]

By February 1919 the nationalist forces had shrunk to about 21,000 as the armed peasant masses moved into the Bolshevik camp, seeking radical solutions for their social and economic problems.[16] The Bolsheviks were not an invading outside Red Army; they had in fact little material support from Moscow. So the Red commander Antonov-Ovseenko had no option but “to build his army out of the people of the Ukraine”.[17] As the Ukrainian nationalist leader Vynnychenko later declared, “If our own peasantry had not risen against us, the Russian Soviet government would have been powerless against us.”[18] It was in this period that Makhno’s forces were incorporated into the Red Army and held a key position on the front against the White armies which were attempting to invade Ukraine from their base in the Don Cossack territory to the south-east. For a brief few months he was on reasonably good terms with the Bolshevik forces.

However in the course of 1919 the Bolsheviks became increasingly unpopular in Ukraine. The small size of the Ukrainian working class meant they had only a narrow social base and were overly reliant on adventurers like Hryhoriyiv who led the various peasant bands.[19] Furthermore, despite Lenin’s support as early as June 1917 “for the autonomy and for the complete freedom of secession of the Ukraine”,[20] the local Communists badly mishandled the national question. Some were ultra-lefts, like Piatakov, Bubnov and Bosh, who held a Luxemburgist position that opposed demands for national self-determination as reactionary, while other rightist elements reflected the prejudices against the Ukrainian language of the predominantly Russian-speaking urban workers.[21] Despite anguished pleas from Lenin that the Ukrainian Bolsheviks show extreme tact in dealing with the national question, even the veteran Romanian Communist Christian Rakovsky, who had been appointed in place of the ultra-left Piatakov as President of the Ukrainian soviet government, publicly ridiculed Ukrainian culture and the little clique of intellectuals whom he accused of having “invented” the Ukrainian nation.[22]

Most disastrously, Bolshevik agrarian policies provoked peasant discontent. Again this was partly due to the ultra-leftism of the local Ukrainian Communists. They considered that Ukrainian agriculture, which was more capitalistic and larger-scale than in Russia, was ripe for collectivisation. So, even in the face of Lenin’s hostility, they prevented the peasants and landless labourers from breaking up many of the large estates into small plots.

However the key factor undermining the initial enthusiasm of the peasant masses for the Bolsheviks was grain requisitioning. Ukraine was a vital grain producer; without its food the workers of Moscow and Petrograd and the Red Army troops would starve. The collapse of industry and the chaos of the Civil War meant there were few industrial goods to exchange for grain, so forced requisitioning became essential. Initially not particularly authoritarian measures were used to collect grain, but even these provoked hostility. Increasingly the Reds had to rely on draconian measures to obtain even limited supplies of grain for the starving cities from the sullen peasants.

Makhnovism in practice

Anarchists such as Van der Walt and Schmidt and Alexander Skirda make great play of the supposed success of Makhno’s agricultural collectives in comparison to the failure of Bolshevik collectivisation. The reality is that only tiny numbers were involved in the Makhnovist collectives – a number of whom were already ideologically committed anarchists. The mass of the peasantry held fast to their private plots.[23] Even the anarchist historian Volin, who was a political advisor to Makhno, states that there were no more than a few hundred families involved in the Makhnovist communes.[24] Makhno in his memoirs admits that “the mass of people did not go over” to the free communal order;[25] while even the strongly pro-Makhno anarchist Alexander Skirda acknowledges: “The idyllic dream of ‘cooperative enterprise’ was to dissolve in discord and bitterness, or even in ‘dismal despair,’ with commune workers quitting one after another.”[26]

On the one hand the anarchist supporters of Makhno excuse the failure of the Makhnovist communes on the difficult material circumstances. Yet on the other hand anarchists such as Van der Walt and Schmidt and the Anarchist FAQ are highly critical of the Bolsheviks’ argument that the harsh material reality in Russia – the mass poverty, the devastation caused by the Civil War and imperialist invasions, the collapse of industrial production and so on – made it impossible for the revolution to immediately establish a totally free and equal society. This points to one of the key differences between Marxism and anarchism. Marxists are not simply dreamers hoping for a better world. The Marxist political program starts from the concrete material reality that socialists are confronted with and attempts to elaborate a way forward for the exploited and the oppressed.

The Bolsheviks recognised that it was impossible to build a genuine socialist society based on the resources of a devastated and economically backward Russia. The only way forward was to spread the revolution to the more advanced capitalist societies of Western Europe. As Trotsky spelt it out:

We rest all our hopes on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the revolting peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed – that is indubitable. Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution.[27]

In contrast Makhno was an impractical dreamer who had no political program or strategy for overcoming the material backwardness of Russian society. As the academic historian Colin Darch puts it, Makhno

could not at a stroke introduce into the Ukraine, or even Guliai-Pole, a socio-economic system that contradicted the development of the productive forces. Neither Makhno nor any other anarchist could turn the clock back to the crude village communism without authority or the state, which was their only vision of the future.[28]

This meant that Makhno had nothing positive to offer.

In practice, after initial ultra-left attacks on the wealthy peasant proprietors (including assassinations), the Makhnovists ignored their collectivist principles and accommodated to private property ownership. Indeed they froze the class war between rich and poor and made no attempt to abolish rural capitalism.[29] The Makhnovists attempted to appeal to the entire peasant population, both rich and poor, on the basis of hostility to the “parasites” of the cities. As Palij puts it, Makhno

made no real attempt to put the anarchist idea of a free, non-governmental society into practice. His partisans and the peasants understood the slogan “free anarcho-communes” to mean free individual farms, and decentralized democratic self-government.[30]

Reflecting the rising peasant discontent, Makhno became more and more antagonistic to the Bolsheviks. In April 1919 he arrested all Communist political workers operating within his brigade.[31] However, fearful of opening the front to the Whites, he refused to launch an open rebellion against the Reds. So when in late April 1919 Hryhoriyiv revolted against the Bolsheviks, Makhno initially maintained armed neutrality.

A key feature of the anti-Bolshevik rebellion in Ukraine was anti-Jewish pogroms. A common slogan was “Death to the Jews and down with the Communists”.[32] Just about all the peasant partisan leaders, notably Hryhoriyiv, were involved in outrages in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed. One of the common charges against Makhno is that his forces also carried out anti-Semitic pogroms. This is an allegation made not just by Bolshevik sources, but also by some leading anarchists, such as Alexander Shapiro.[33] Sections of the anarchist émigré press in the 1920s continued to carry articles charging Makhno with responsibility for anti-Jewish pogroms and he publicly debated the issue when in exile in Paris.[34] However a detailed examination of the available evidence leads me to reject this charge. While there were some examples of anti-Semitic actions by individual Makhnovists, the official position of the movement was unambiguously clear – anybody involved in anti-Semitic activities would be shot.[35] They ruthlessly enforced this policy, with Makhno personally often carrying out the executions.[36]

One sidelight is worth mentioning here as it gives an insight into the real nature of the Makhnovist forces and how much they subscribed to “libertarian” principles. In the middle of 1919, after he had broken with the Red Army, Makhno was to briefly negotiate an alliance with Hryhoriyiv, only to break with him and execute him for anti-Semitism. Makhno’s and Hryhoriyiv’s forces held a joint assembly in July 1919. According to the account of an eyewitness, the anarchist theoretician Arshinov, Makhno began to condemn Hryhoriyiv:

“Such blackguards as Hryhoriyiv degrade all the rebels of the Ukraine, and for them there can be no place in the ranks of the honourable workers of the revolution.” Thus Makhno concluded his accusation of Hryhoriyiv. The latter saw that the affair was taking a terrible turn for him. He reached for his gun. But he was too late. Simon Karetnik – the closest assistant of Makhno – drove him to the ground with several bullets of his Colt, and Makhno, triumphantly proclaiming, “Death to the Ataman” shot him dead. The friends and members of Hryhoriyiv’s staff would have rushed to help him, but were shot on the spot by a group of Makhno’s men previously designated for the task.

At first the assembly was somewhat disturbed by the deeds accomplished, but then, after the following reports of Makhno, Chubenko, and other representatives of the Makhnovtsy, the assembly approved these deeds, calling them historically necessary.[37]

Interesting phrase, “historically necessary”. It is exactly what Lenin and Trotsky said about the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion.

In May 1919 Denikin’s White Army broke through the sector of the Red front controlled by Makhno. It was precisely at this point, as Denikin’s forces were rapidly advancing into Ukraine, that Makhno broke with the Red Army and launched an open rebellion.[38] It is commonly argued by Makhno’s supporters that he only fought the Red Army when attacked by it. However in this case it was clearly Makhno who took the offensive and sabotaged the retreat of the Reds in the face of the White advance. Red Army staff and political commissars were executed by the Makhnovists.[39]

At this stage Makhno had a force of 15,000 troops and over the next six months he was to fight in turn the Reds, the Whites and the Ukrainian nationalists. This was the period in which the Makhnovists were at their height. Previously independent guerrilla bands were brought under Makhno’s command. His army peaked at about 40,000 troops (some accounts say 50,000) and liberated a huge area of Ukraine from White control.

This period is worth examining in some detail as it represented their greatest opportunity to put their anarchist program into practice. Makhno’s anarchist supporters claim that he set up a system of free soviets, which were much more democratic than the “Bolshevik soviets”. However strict limits were placed on the ability of political parties to contest the elections for the soviets in the territory occupied by the Makhnovist army. A Makhnovist proclamation of 7 January 1920 declared:

Representatives of political organizations have no place in workers’ and peasants’ soviets, for their participation will transform the latter into soviets of party deputies, which can only bring about the demise of the soviet order.[40]

Michael Malet, a supporter of Makhno, admits that for the fourth Makhnovist Soviet Congress: “There was no electoral campaign for delegates, the Makhnovists holding that this would open the way for the political parties to make a mess of things and confuse the electorate.”[41] So much for anarchist anti-elitism. For all their talk of abolishing “authority” and “hierarchy”, the Makhnovists, as a leading anarchist historian, Paul Avrich, puts it, “in effect formed a loose-knit government in the territory around Gulyai-Pole”.[42] And there was nothing libertarian about it. They disarmed all partisan units which would not subordinate themselves to Makhno. When in Aleksandrovsk and Ekaterinoslav the local Bolsheviks attempted to set up revolutionary committees, according to the anarchist Volin, “Makhno threatened to arrest and shoot all members of the ‘Rev-Com’ if they made the least attempt of this nature.”[43] Similarly they restricted freedom of the press. They declared:

In allowing freedom to propagate their ideas, the Makhnovist Insurgent Army wishes to inform all the parties that any attempt to prepare, organise or impose a political authority on the working masses will not be permitted.[44]

Anarchists today counterpose the “democracy” of the Makhnovist army, to the “authoritarian” Red Army, in which the election of officers had been abolished. This had been a necessary step following the widespread introduction of former tsarist officers and the influx of politically unreliable peasant conscripts, who massively outnumbered the revolutionary workers who had originally formed the fully democratic Red Guards. A system of Commissars was now introduced so that the workers’ state could discipline the military specialists. The active proletarian core of the Red Army remained however its driving force. The spirit of the Red Army was totally different from that of bourgeois armies. While discipline at the front was necessarily severe, it remained based on a revolutionary enthusiasm and a clear understanding of what they were fighting for – to defend workers’ power from the White counter-revolution. This explains the heroic fighting capacity of the Red troops, especially the 200,000 Communists who gave their lives at the front.[45]

In theory the Makhnovist partisans did have the right to elect their commanders, but in practice Makhno removed commanders he did not approve of. Democracy was a mere formality, as even the more honest anarchist historians are reluctantly forced to concede. As the anarchist George Woodcock writes, “theoretically…[the army] was under the control of the Congress of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents, but in practice it was ruled by Makhno and his commanders, and, like all armies, was libertarian only in name”.[46] Makhno and his inner clique totally dominated the army and often behaved in a completely arbitrary fashion. As Darch puts it, “the Bat’ko’s control remained absolute, arbitrary and impulsive.”[47] A considerable personality cult developed around Makhno, who established his own elite 200-strong personal bodyguard of cavalrymen.[48] Nor did they stick to the anarchist theory of a voluntary army. As Trotsky pointed out,

the partisan who enters the detachment is not at all free to leave. Anyone leaving voluntarily is considered a traitor and threatened with bloody vengeance, especially if he goes into a Red unit. Thus the “volunteers” are caught in an iron vice, unable to leave. One should add that there are non-combatants, such as the choir of Estonian musicians, medical personnel, etc., who have been taken prisoner and compelled to carry out their duties.[49]

Furthermore, the Second Makhnovist Congress, meeting on 12 February 1919, voted in favour of “voluntary mobilization”, which in reality according to Avrich “meant outright conscription, as all able-bodied men were required to serve when called up”.[50] As the war dragged on, Makhno was increasingly unaccountable to his peasant followers. Volin, one of the leaders of the Makhnovists, explained that there developed

a kind of military clique or camarilla about Makhno. This clique sometimes made decisions and committed acts without taking account of the Council or of other institutions. It lost its sense of proportion, showed contempt towards all those who were outside it, and detached itself more and more from the mass of the combatants and the working population.[51]

As Trotsky argued:

The anti-popular character of the Makhnovite movement is most clearly revealed by the fact that the Gulyai-Pole “army” is actually called the “Makhnovite army”. There armed men gather not around a programme nor under an ideological banner but around a man.[52]

All of this should come as no great surprise. There is no way that the peasantry as a class could exert collective discipline and control over the partisan forces. As independent small producers they were incapable of developing the collective institutions that the working class can develop to democratically control its fighting forces. The peasantry cannot achieve its own self-emancipation; instead it looks to liberators from outside – saviours from on high. To his peasant supporters, Makhno was their “little father” or batko, come to rescue the poor from their oppressors and to grant them land and liberty. As the US anarchist Alexander Berkman put it, Makhno became “the avenging angel of the lowly, and presently he was looked upon as the great liberator, whose coming had been prophesied by Pugachev in his dying moments”.[53]

Volin acknowledges that one of the reasons for the increasing authoritarianism of the Makhnovist army was “the lack of a vigorous and organised workers’ movement to support the insurrection”.[54] The reality was that – as even Makhno’s closest supporter, the anarchist Arshinov, admits – considerable sections of the working class remained loyal to the Bolsheviks: “the difference between the Communists and Wrangel was that the Communists had the support of the masses with faith in the revolution”.[55]

There are numerous horror stories about the behaviour of partisan commanders. The most gross concern their treatment of women, who as Volin admits were compelled to have sex with Makhnovist commanders during drunken debaucheries.[56] This is an issue that Makhno’s anarchist backers skate around or totally ignore. Indeed not only do Van der Walt and Schmidt refuse to face up to these serious allegations, they spuriously attempt to make out that the Makhnovist movement was some sort of champion of women’s liberation.[57]

Volin and numerous others also point out that Makhno was prone to extreme outbursts of violence during his frequent drunken bouts.[58] One resolution adopted at a meeting of the partisans gives the flavour of the movement: “To obey the orders of the commanders if the commanders are sober enough to give them.”[59]

The Makhnovists established their own internal security forces, the Kontrrazvedka and the Punitive Commission. They were a law unto themselves, accountable only to Makhno personally. In one case in Ekaterinoslav, “a trade union delegation that went to complain about the arrest of a woman cultural activist was told that the workers’ place was in the factory, and that they would interfere with the work of the Kontrrazvedka at their peril”.[60]

The Kontrrazvedka was responsible for numerous killings and the torture of opponents, whether they be White agents, Communists, Left Social Revolutionaries or Ukrainian nationalists. Even one of the Makhnovist leaders, Volin, subsequently admitted that at the Olexandrivske Makhnovist Congress delegates complained of “arbitrary and uncontrolled actions, of which some are very serious, rather like the Bolshevik. Searches, arrests, even torture and executions are reported.”[61] Indeed the Makhnovists systematically utilised terror against their left wing rivals. As early as 1918 they assassinated Social Revolutionaries in the Gulyai-Pole soviet. Makhno proclaimed “terror against all those who dare now or are preparing in the future…to persecute the anarchist idea.”[62] After assassinating the Social Revolutionary leader in Gulyai-Pole, the secretary of the local anarchist group, the aptly named Kalashnikov, stated: “it [the anarchist group] killed him and [is] ready to kill in the future such an unworthy”.[63]

The most famous case was in November 1919, just after the partisans seized the city of Ekaterinoslav, where a strong Bolshevik presence among workers posed a serious threat to Makhno. He risked losing control of his army. The Bolsheviks, via underground fraction work, had won the leadership of two of his five regiments, and a third Makhno considered unreliable. How did the supposed libertarian anarchists respond to this challenge – with political debate? Hardly. They unleashed their counter-intelligence. The local worker Bolsheviks and their supporters in the partisan army were rounded up, taken down to the river and shot.[64]

Relationship to the working class

The Makhnovists never developed any serious working class following in the towns they occupied. Even most anarchist supporters of Makhno, including his close collaborator Arshinov, acknowledge this reality. Van der Walt and Schmidt are among the few commentators to claim otherwise, so they are under an obligation to provide serious proof. However they offer absolutely no evidence to substantiate their assertion that the Makhnovists had “a substantial degree of urban support”.[65] The reality is that the workers remained loyal to either the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks or the Left Social Revolutionaries. The Makhnovists were simply an invading peasant army which occupied the cities. They had no roots there and were totally alien to working class life. Like any occupying army, even one with the noblest intentions, they were bound to eventually come into conflict with the working class. These conflicts were sharpened by a combination of anarchist utopianism, utter incompetence and peasant hostility to the towns. On entering a city or a town the Makhnovists posted wall notices stating:

This army does not serve any political party, any power, any dictatorship. On the contrary, it seeks to free the region of all political power, of all dictatorship. It strives to protect the freedom of action, the free life of the workers against all exploitation and domination. The Makhno Army does not therefore represent any authority. It will not subject anyone to any obligation whatsoever. Its role is confined to defending the freedom of the workers. The freedom of the peasants and workers belongs to themselves, and should not suffer any restriction.[66]

Arshinov states that at Ekaterinoslav the Makhnovists

acted as a revolutionary military detachment, mounting guard for the freedom of the city. In this capacity, it was not at all their job to try and achieve a constructive programme for the revolution. This task could only be carried out by the workers of the place. The Makhnovist army could, at most, help them with its opinions and advice.[67]

These statements reflect the height of anarchist irresponsibility and utopianism. You seize a city and then take no responsibility for elaborating a program of action to take the struggle forward – a total dereliction of revolutionary duty. It also represents an absurd separation of politics and economics from military action. As though it is not “political” to seize a city by armed force. As though military force does not represent “authority” and “power”, and does not serve political and economic ends. As though you can simply proclaim the abolition of “political power”. As David Footman comments:

In all towns occupied workers’ representatives were convened and urged to form free associations for the manufacture and distribution of their products. The results, of course, were almost nil: what the workers wanted in that time of acute shortage, confusion and fantastic currency-inflation was some assured means of supporting themselves and their families, and the Makhnovites had no practical help to offer along with their exhortations.[68]

The anarchists’ utopianism also led them to release all prisoners and burn down the jails whenever they seized a town. This was sheer idiocy. In one famous case in Ekaterinoslav, the ex-prisoners immediately proceeded to loot the town. The local inhabitants were outraged and Makhno had to personally execute a number of the criminals he had just released.[69]

A greater source of discontent was that the Makhnovists refused to pay workers wages. In Ekaterinoslav Makhno insisted that the workers accept payment in kind and engage in barter with the peasants. Workers in Olexandrivske also demanded wages and as Malet puts it “were not very keen” on Makhno’s proposals “to restart production under their own control, and establish direct relations with the peasants”.[70] Makhno told railroad workers: “I propose that the comrade workers…energetically organise and restore things themselves, setting sufficient tariffs and wages for their work, apart from military traffic.”[71]

But as most rail traffic was military traffic, this would have meant the workers would have received virtually no income. It was little wonder that the Makhnovists soon totally fell out with Olexandrivske workers. After some initial co-operation this pattern was repeated in Ekaterinoslav.

A typical misunderstanding occurred when the Makhnovists sent some captured White guns to the big Bryansk engineering works for repair…the workers demanded payment. Not surprisingly, they felt insulted at the offer of a small payment in kind. Angered in turn by this seeming ingratitude, Makhno ordered the guns to be taken without any payment at all.[72]

Makhno denounced the workers in the partisan paper as “[s]cum, self-seekers and blackmailers, trying to increase their prosperity at the expense of the blood and heroism of the front-line fighters”. [73] The pro-Makhno anarchist historian Skirda is appalled at the very idea that workers should demand to be paid wages by the Makhnovists. It was simply treating Makhno as a “boss”. It supposedly proved that the “working class was less radical than the poor peasantry”.[74]

However as Max Nomad comments:

The workers of the small trades could barter shoes, clothing and other commodities against food, but the miners and metal workers, producing for the country at large but not for the peasants’ direct needs, had to shift for themselves. To provide for them Makhno would have had to give them “something for nothing”, that is do what the Bolsheviks did: force the rural population to feed the cities. Which, in turn, would have discredited him among the peasants; for by acting in that manner he would be doing exactly what the farmers held against all the preceding governments.[75]

The Makhnovists’ economic policies verged on the insane. They wanted to drive society back to a primitive pre-capitalist barter economy – a supposed “natural economy” in which products were directly exchanged between workers and peasants.[76] But no modern society can conceivably function on that basis. The great bulk of the working class – nurses, shop assistants, truck drivers, teachers, wharfies, construction workers, communications workers, fire fighters, clerical workers – do not produce commodities that can be simply bartered for a chicken or a loaf of bread.

To further compound the problem, the Makhnovists recognised all currencies – Red, White or Ukrainian Nationalist. This led to rampant inflation which hurt workers in the towns most.[77] Moreover the Makhnovists’ immediate financial program stated that “all compulsory taxation should be discontinued and replaced by free and voluntary contributions from toilers. In a context of free and independent construction, these contributions will undoubtedly produce the best results.”[78] This fairyland policy could only conceivably benefit the better off sections of the peasantry.

Furthermore, despite severe punishments, looting “was never eradicated: the peasant insurgents had been brought up to regard townsmen as their enemies and conceived it their right to take what they wanted from towns”.[79] Indeed Footman states that “when they occupied a town Makhno allowed his men to take one pair of whatever he needed, provided the man could carry it himself. Whoever took more than that was shot.”[80]

According to the anarchist historian George Woodcock:

At heart he [Makhno] was both a countryman and a regionalist; he hated the cities and urban civilization, and he longed for “natural simplicity”, for the return to an age when, as in the past of peasant legends, “the free toilers” would “set to work to the tune of free and joyous songs”. This explains why…the Makhnovists… never gained the loyalties of more than a few urban workers.[81]

As a leading Russian anarcho-syndicalist G.P. Maksimov argued, the Makhno movement, lacking links to the urban working class, would have benefitted only the petty-capitalist mentality of the peasantry, producing at best “peasant democracy on the basis of private property”.[82] Makhno outlined his hostility to the cities in his memoirs written in exile. Speaking of the rural communes he wrote:

[T]hey felt an anarchist solidarity such as manifests itself only in the practical life of ordinary toilers who have not yet tasted the political poison of the cities, with their atmosphere of deception and betrayal that smothers even many who call themselves anarchists.[83]

Should the Bolsheviks have suppressed Makhno?

After nine months of bitter fighting, the Red Army and Makhno again formed an alliance in October 1920, to defeat the advance of Wrangel’s White Army from the Crimea. As part of this agreement the Bolsheviks released all anarchist political prisoners. However after the defeat of Wrangel in late November 1920, the Bolsheviks launched their final campaign to suppress the Makhnovists. Anarchists present the rupture of this alliance as typical Bolshevik duplicity. However both sides at the time recognised that the alliance was simply one of convenience. Wrangel’s advance threatened Makhno’s position and this forced him towards an understanding with the Bolsheviks, who for their part saw that he could be a useful short term ally.[84] Both sides clearly recognised that their long term interests were counterposed and that a showdown was imminent once the Whites were defeated.[85] As David Footman writes,

it would be idle to pretend that there was good faith on the Makhnovite side. They were all perfectly aware that a further clash would come, and they were determined that their own ideas, and not the Bolsheviks’, should in the end prevail.[86]

The Bolsheviks had drawn the lesson that a centralised Red Army was a vital necessity to win the Civil War. Trotsky had disbanded the Red Guards and the various partisan detachments. The incorporation of partisan units proved unsatisfactory, because it infected the regular detachments with the “guerrilla spirit”. This inevitably meant a showdown with the likes of Makhno. The campaign was extremely brutal on both sides. The Red Army executed or imprisoned large numbers of Makhno’s supporters. Makhno responded in kind. As Oliver Radkey describes: “In one single district Makhno massacred the food commissioner, the members of the food committee, and forty-two of the field workers.”[87]

By mid-1921 the peasants were tired of the endless terror caused by the successive occupation of village after village by Red troops and the Cheka. The continuous fighting and requisitioning left the peasants with little food and horses for the partisans. The Bolsheviks gradually began to build up a base in the villages. In February 1920 regulations were passed to assure a further redistribution of land to the poor peasants and the unpopular State farms were reduced by two-thirds in acreage. Land was taken from the richer peasants and handed over to the poorer. The rural poor were given a share of the grain they helped seize from the better off. Max Nomad comments:

Makhno could have counteracted the Bolshevik inroads among the poorer sections of the peasantry by putting an end to the economic inequalities within the rural population… The Batko was apparently afraid lest such a measure, with its ensuing internecine conflicts within the village, should break the backbone of his military resistance. His wish was to maintain a sort of united front of the entire peasantry…

So he maintained the existing inequalities, and thus to a certain extent justified the gibes of his Bolshevik enemies and the criticism of his anarcho-syndicalist cousins – to wit, that in spite of all his anarchist verbiage, he was at bottom a typical peasant rebel whose movement, if victorious, would not have gone beyond the establishment of a farmers’ republic.[88]

It is important to note in this context that the contrast between rich and poor peasants was more sharply marked in Ukraine, where commercial farming was dominant, than in Russia.[89] There is no evidence to support the claims of anarchists like Van der Walt and Schmidt that the Makhnovists were “[b]ased among poor peasants”.[90] Indeed as Darch puts it:

It is easy to see why richer peasants might prefer a movement which proposed that “the ways and means of the new method of land organization should be left to the completely free and natural decision and movement of the entire peasantry,” to the Bolsheviks with their emphasis on the sharpening of class conflict at the expense of the rural bourgeoisie.[91]

The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which ended food requisitioning, further reconciled many of the war-weary peasants. As well the Communists had drawn the lessons of their mistakes of 1919. They adopted a more sensible position on the national question and this gave them a broader base of support. All soviet institutions were ordered to employ workers capable of using the native language.[92] The merger of the local Bolsheviks, under pressure from Lenin, with a left split from the Ukrainian Left Social Revolutionaries assisted this process. An isolated and severely wounded Makhno was now forced into exile, crossing the border into Romania in August 1921.

Should the Bolsheviks have suppressed Makhno? While the Red Army made all sorts of mistakes and committed atrocities which Marxists today would be stupid to defend, the harsh reality is that the peasant insurgency had to be put down if workers’ power was to survive in any form. The Makhnovists were one of many peasant revolts, the most serious being by the Green army in Tambov, which threatened the workers’ state following the defeat of the Whites.[93] The peasants had supported the Reds as long as they defended peasant property against the return of the old landlords. Once that threat was eliminated with the defeat of the White armies, the peasantry turned sharply against the cities. Indeed the rural petty bourgeoisie could only hope to defeat the Bolshevik regime after it had been exhausted by the Civil War.

The Civil War had ravaged the economy, famine was widespread and a desperate, impoverished peasantry lashed out against the Communists, whose “eyes and tongues were cut out; bodies were dismembered; crosses were branded on foreheads and torsos; heads were cut off; men were burned alive or drowned in ice-packed rivers or ponds”.[94] A contemporary Communist Party report explains that the peasant bands were

joined by people who have been completely displaced through poverty and hunger. The Kulaks help the bandits materially, but themselves take up arms very rarely indeed… The slogan “Kill the Communists! Smash the kommuny!” is very popular amongst the ignorant and poor peasants, searching for any escape from their desperate situation. It must be frankly admitted that the most backward and downtrodden strata of the peasantry, which suffer the most acutely from the famine and other deprivations, blame their plight entirely on the Communists.[95]

This peasant counter-revolution had no constructive program. For the likes of the Greens the towns were for plunder only.[96] A peasant victory could only have resulted in chaos, total economic collapse, the slaughter of Jews and Communists and the eventual return of the Whites. Not to have suppressed the Makhnovist army would have allowed it to become a rallying point for the armed peasant counter-revolution. The unreliability of Makhno’s forces was reflected in the fact that they suffered from considerable defections to both the Ukrainian nationalists and to the Whites. Indeed some of Makhno’s former commanders, such as Volodin and Yutsenko, joined Wrangel’s White Army.[97]

Nor could Makhno have been dealt with by giving him his own autonomous territory as Lenin and Trotsky it seems briefly contemplated.[98] If Makhno had got autonomy, the Bolsheviks would have been dependent on his favour for the vital railways from Russia proper to the Crimea and part of the Don basin, quite apart from southern Ukraine’s own agricultural value. The area would have become a magnet for all opponents of workers’ power and refugees from Bolshevik-held territory. Indeed Makhno, continually attracted deserters from the Red Army.

The Bolshevik victory and the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) provided a vital breathing space for the beleaguered workers’ revolution. It gave the Russian revolutionaries time to try to build an international communist movement – their only possible salvation. For it was not possible to build a genuinely socialist society of human freedom in an isolated, backward and war-ravaged Russia. If the revolution was to survive it had to spread to the more advanced economies in the West. This was the task that the leading Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky set themselves. And there were revolutions in the West. As late as October 1923 it seemed that a revolution in Germany would relieve Russia.

However the defeat of the German revolution sealed the fate of the Bolsheviks; a conservative reaction set in inside Russia. Stalin commenced his rise to power. The old revolutionary policies were now increasingly forsaken in an attempt to build up the Russian national economy under the control of a privileged bureaucracy.

However, the NEP of the early 1920s did temporarily preserve some of the important gains of the revolution. The peasants retained the land they had expropriated from the old landlords and achieved their greatest ever prosperity in the course of the early to mid-1920s. As even a critic of the Bolsheviks, Orlando Figes, comments:

Once the famine crisis had been overcome and the economy restored to peaceful conditions, the Russian peasantry enjoyed a period of unparalleled freedom and well-being during the 1920s… The village communes remained virtually autonomous in the supervision of land relations, the organization of the agricultural economy and the maintenance of peasant culture. The power of the landowners had been destroyed by the revolution, and the influence of capitalist elements substantially reduced. The extremes of rural poverty had been eliminated, and the social dominance of the middle peasantry greatly strengthened. Favourable market conditions and the improvement of agricultural technology helped to bring about an expansion of peasant commodity production. The level of literacy amongst the rural population, especially the women, rose rapidly. Hospitals, theatres, cinemas, libraries, and the other trappings of urban civilization at last began to appear in the countryside. For the mass of the peasantry, these were the precarious fruits of revolution gained.[99]

Similarly, Ukraine obtained unprecedented national rights – the flowering of the Ukrainian language and culture. All these revolutionary gains were only overturned with Stalin’s counter-revolution which restored capitalism at the end of the 1920s.


While Makhno was not simply a “bandit”, like nearly all peasant partisan leaders, he gained support as a Robin Hood figure. He was very much within the tradition of earlier peasant leaders like Stenka Razin or Emelian Pugachev. The degree of support for the partisans had little to do with the formal politics they espoused, whether social revolutionary, communist, nationalist or anarchist. Although some of Makhno’s anarchist ideas were compatible with traditional peasant aspirations, the basic desire of the Ukrainian peasants was not the creation of an anarchist utopia, but the expulsion of the foreign invaders who exploited them and disrupted their way of life.

There was a strong tradition of peasant hostility towards the tsarist state which had imposed upon them taxation, conscription for military service and ruthless enforcement of “order”. Their subsequent experience of invading armies during the Civil War years reinforced their prejudices “that all governments were essentially alike – take everything and give nothing”.[100] The following comment of one Ukrainian peasant reflects the ambivalent attitude of the peasantry to Makhno: “Oh, he should die, this Makhno, so much trouble and misfortune he has brought us, but he also is defending us from plunderers, Bolsheviks and all the other rascals.”[101]

The third anarchist conference of the Nabat (Alarm) group declared in September 1920:

As regards the “Revolutionary Partisan Army of Ukraine (Makhnovites)”…it is a mistake to call it anarchist… Mostly they are Red soldiers who fell into captivity, and middle peasant partisan volunteers.[102]

In the course of the Civil War many Russian anarchists broke with Makhno. Indeed most of the anarchist intellectuals, such as Aaron and Fania Baron, who served with Makhno, “in a few months, found it impossible to reconcile anarchist theory with partisan practice and left”.[103] Arshinov alone remained with Makhno till the spring of 1921.[104] Some made entirely correct criticisms of the authoritarianism of the partisan army. For example Marc Mratchny, a member of the Nabat anarchist group, criticised the “military anarchism” of the Makhnovists, which made them more like the Left SRs than a pro-working class force.[105] Another Nabat anarchist, Lewandovsky, stated that “among the Makhnovists, as among the Bolsheviks, a Cheka existed; there were shootings, mobilization, there was Makhno’s dictatorship and his staff’s, and freedom existed only if one did not engage in propaganda against them”.[106]

What underpinned many of these criticisms, however, was their own utopianism and lack of political seriousness. They preferred to retreat from any involvement in practical activity rather than get their hands dirty. For example another anarchist, E.Z. Dolinin, pointed out that the Makhnovist “free soviets”, just as much as the Bolshevik-controlled soviets, actually were a sort of state. “Anarchism cannot rely upon bayonets: it can only be the product of mankind’s spiritual cultivation”, he argued.[107] Such an approach meant abstaining from the struggle to defend the revolution against the White armies. It simply highlights the fact that anarchist “principles” offer no guide for action in the context of revolution and bloody civil war. Makhno at least wanted to fight, but he was totally ill-equipped, both politically and theoretically, to win the battle for human liberation.

The anarcho-communists, the anarchist tendency to which Makhno and his ideological mentor Arshinov belonged, wanted a decentralised society based on the free association of local communes following the overthrow of the state. But what was the social force that was to bring about this free society? Unlike Marxists they did not see the self-emancipation of the working class as the key to winning human liberation. They had a quite eclectic standpoint, seeing a working class uprising as but one possible means of achieving a communist society. Anarcho-communists like Kropotkin on various occasions endorsed spontaneous insurrectionism, a peasant revolt or syndicalism; at other times they relied on abstract propaganda and preaching about the anarchist utopia; while at still other times they endorsed expropriations and individual terrorism – the propaganda of the deed.

In exile in France in the 1920s, Makhno and Arshinov thought they could resolve this problem. They were contemptuous of the mainstream Russian anarchist movement; Arshinov wrote that “when the mass movement, in the form of the Makhnochina, rose from the depths of the people, the anarchists showed themselves completely unprepared, spineless and weak”.[108] He and Makhno argued that the key reason for the defeat of the Russian anarchists was their lack of leadership and centralised organisation. In 1926 they published the “Platform” which argued that: “The uncoordinated groups had been easily picked off by the Bolsheviks: a general union of anarchists, with a central executant committee for action, would ensure that this mistake would not be repeated.”[109] Volin and other Russian anarchists launched a scathing attack on the Platform, and they were supported by foreign anarchists like Goldman, Berkman and Maletesta. At the Tenth Congress of the Union of Revolutionary Anarchist-Communists in 1930 the Platform was soundly beaten.

While the Platform contained certain limited insights, it did not come to grips with one of the fundamental problems of anarchism – its lack of a clear political orientation to the working class as the force for social emancipation. The Platform argued that “the General Union of Anarchists depends equally on the two fundamental classes of society: the workers and the peasants”.[110] Makhno’s latter day supporters Van der Walt and Schmidt continue to adhere to this cross-class approach and attack Marxists for stressing the central role of the working class in the struggle for human liberation;[111] while the Anarchist FAQ is incapable of even distinguishing workers from peasants, ludicrously declaring: “The Makhnovist movement was, fundamentally, a working class movement.”[112] Skirda at least is more honest, acknowledging that Makhno emphasised “that the insurgent movement that bore his name was essentially the emanation of the impoverished peasantry”.[113]

Despite a certain amount of rhetoric invoking the working class and their hostility to the classless liberalism of much of the anarchist milieu, Arshinov and Makhno looked to a peasant partisan army as the historical agency that could bring about an anarchist society. What was needed to ensure its success was a tightly disciplined anarchist party to control the army. This orientation, as was acknowledged by one of Makhno’s anarchist supporters, Daniel Guerin, essentially foreshadowed Maoism in China, where a peasant army under the command of the Stalinist Communist Party was to seize power in 1949 and impose a totalitarian dictatorship over the working class.[114] More recently, reflecting a similar romantic and classless guerrillaism, various anarchists have embraced the supposed “libertarianism” of the authoritarian Kurdish PKK armed forces.[115]

If you don’t put the self-activity of the working class at the centre of your politics, then simply drawing the conclusion that anarchists needed centralised organisation could lead you to flip over to Stalinism. It is then no coincidence that Peter Arshinov, Makhno’s closest collaborator, attracted by the wild ultra-left rhetoric of Third Period Stalinism, was himself to embrace Stalin in 1931 and subsequently returned to Russia and joined the Communist Party. He was not the only anarchist or syndicalist to do so. The small remnant of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia joined the newly Stalinised Communist Party of Australia at precisely this point.

Adams, Arthur E. 1963, Bolsheviks in the Ukraine The Second Campaign, 1918-1919, Yale University Press.

Adams, Arthur E. 1977, “The Great Ukrainian Jacquerie” in Taras Hunczak (ed), The Ukraine, 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution, Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Anarchist FAQ, “Appendix: The Russian Revolution”,

Armstrong, Mick 1990, “Nestor Makhno: The Failure of Anarchism”, Socialist Review, 3.

Arshinov, Peter 1974, History of the Makhnovist Movement 1918-1921, Black & Red.

Avrich, Paul (ed) 1973, The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, Thames and Hudson.

Avrich, Paul 1988, Anarchist Portraits, Princeton University Press.

Bilinsky, Yaroslav 1977, “The Communist Take-over of the Ukraine”, in Taras Hunczak (ed), The Ukraine, 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution, Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Borys, Jurij 1980, The Sovietization of the Ukraine 1917-1923, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

Carr, E.H. 1966, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, 1, Pelican.

Chamberlin, William Henry 1987, The Russian Revolution (1917-1921), Princeton University Press.

Cliff, Tony 1990, Trotsky: The sword of the revolution 1917-1923, Bookmarks.

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit 1968, Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative, Andre Deutsch.

D’Agostino, Anthony 1971, Marxism and the Russian Anarchists, PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Darch, Colin 1985, “The myth of Nestor Makhno”, Economy and Society, 14, (4).

Darch, Colin 1994, The MAKHNOVSCHINA, 1917-192: ideology, nationalism, and peasant insurgency in early twentieth century Ukraine, PhD thesis, University of Bradford.

Figes, Orlando 1989, Peasant Russia, Civil War. The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-1921), Clarendon Press.

Footman, David 1961, Civil War in Russia, Faber & Faber.

Footman, David 1956, “Nestor Makhno and the Russian Civil War”, History Today, 6, (12).

Malet, Michael 1982, Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War, Palgrave Macmillan.

Nomad, Max 1939, Apostles of Revolution, Little Brown.

Palij, Michael 1976, The Anarchism of Nestor Makhno 1918-1921 An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, University of Washington Press.

Peters, Victor 1970, Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, Echo Books.

Radkey, Oliver 1976, The Unknown Civil War in Soviet Russia: A Study of the Green Movement in the Tambov Region, 1920-1921, Hoover Institution Press.

Serge, Victor 1978, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941, Oxford University Press.

Skirda, Alexander 2004, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack: The Struggle for Free Soviets in the Ukraine, 1918-1921, AK Press.

Sysyn, Frank 1977, “Nestor Makhno and the Ukrainian Revolution” in Taras Hunczak (ed), The Ukraine, 1917-1921: A Study in Revolution, Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Trotsky, Leon 1973, The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), Pathfinder Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1975, “Kak Vooruzhalas Revolyutsiya, 2 (Part 1)” in Martin McCauley (ed), The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State 1917-1921, Macmillan.

Trotsky, Leon, 1977, The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1979, “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt” in V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt, Monad Press.

Van der Walt, Lucien and Michael Schmidt 2009, Black Flame. The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, AK Press.

Volin 1955, The Unknown Revolution: Kronstadt 1921, Ukraine 1918-21, Libertarian Book Club.

Woodcock, George 1963, Anarchism, Harmondsworth.


[1] This is a revised and updated version of an earlier article, Armstrong 1990.

[2] Cohn-Bendit 1968, p220.

[3] Van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p255.

[4] Anarchist FAQ.

[5] Trotsky 1979, p89.

[6] Trotsky 1973, p327.

[7] Adams 1977, p258.

[8] Bilinsky 1977, p112.

[9] Palij 1976, p84.

[10] Palij 1976, p73, Peters 1970, pp44-59.

[11] Palij 1976, p102.

[12] Adams 1977, p263.

[13] Adams 1963, p184.

[14] Palij 1976, p145.

[15] Adams 1977, p262.

[16] Adams 1977, p259.

[17] Adams 1977, p260.

[18] Adams 1977, p262.

[19] In August 1917 the badly disorganised Ukrainian Bolsheviks had only 23,000 members according to Borys 1980, p88. The Bolsheviks obtained ten percent of the vote in Ukraine in the November 1917 Constituent Assembly elections.

[20] Carr 1966, p295.

[21] Piatakov saw Kiev “as one of Russia’s large cities and not as the centre of Ukraine” and argued that “Ukraine does not form a distinct economic region, for it does not possess a banking centre as Finland does”. He concluded that separation “represents a retrograde step and is extremely undesirable for the proletariat”. Borys 1980, p135.

[22] Adams 1963, p119.

[23] Darch 1994, pp29-33 and pp105-113.

[24] Volin 1955, pp105-106.

[25] Avrich 1973, p132.

[26] Skirda 2004, p39.

[27] Trotsky 1977, pp1184-1185.

[28] Darch 1994, p69.

[29] Malet 1982, p118.

[30] Palij 1976, p60.

[31] Adams 1963, p278.

[32] Adams 1963, p228.

[33] Sysyn 1977, p302.

[34] Sysyn 1977, p294.

[35] Adams 1963, p323, quotes Makhno’s statement condemning Hryhoriyiv’s rebellion: “In the first words of his ‘Universal’ he says that the people who govern the Ukraine are the crucifiers of Christ and people from the ‘eating stalls of Moscow’. Brother! Do you not hear in these words a sombre summons to Jewish pogroms? Do you not sense the aspirations of Ataman Grigoriev to cut off the brotherly contact between the revolutionary Ukraine and revolutionary Russia?”

[36] Malet 1982, p170: “At Kyrylivka station he noticed a placard saying ‘Smash the Jews, save the revolution, long live batko Makhno!’… [He had] the person responsible, the stationmaster Khizny…an insurgent, a personal friend who had fought against the Whites…shot soon afterwards.”

[37] Adams 1963, p403.

[38] Darch 1985, pp531-534. Darch 1994, pp526-527.

[39] Darch 1994, pp285-296.

[40] Avrich 1973, p134.

[41] Malet 1982, p109.

[42] Avrich 1988, p114.

[43] Volin 1955, p162.

[44] Malet 1982, p176.

[45] For a detailed account of the Red Army see Cliff 1990.

[46] Woodcock 1963, p397.

[47] Darch 1994, p328.

[48] Palij 1976, p192.

[49] Malet 1982, p106.

[50] Avrich 1988, p114.

[51] Volin 1955, p223.

[52] Trotsky 1975, pp189-91.

[53] Avrich 1988, p118.

[54] Volin 1955, p223.

[55] Arshinov 1974, p176.

[56] Volin quoted in Footman 1961, p290. Peters 1970, p58 refers to other rapes.

[57] Van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p334.

[58] Volin quoted in Footman 1961 p290, also Volin 1955, p226: “one evening, when the Council had complained of the misconduct of certain commanders, Makhno entered in the middle of the session. He was drunk, and extremely excited. He drew his revolver, pointed it at the gathering, and waving it to and fro before the members of the assembly, insulted them grossly.”

[59] Chamberlin 1987, p236.

[60] Malet 1982, p103.

[61] Volin 1955, p173.

[62] Palij 1976, p86.

[63] Palij 1976, p86.

[64] Malet 1982, pp50-52.

[65] Van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p255.

[66] Palij 1976, p59.

[67] Volin 1955, p179.

[68] Footman 1956, pp816-817.

[69] Palij 1976, p146 and Malet 1982, p23.

[70] Malet 1982, p123.

[71] Malet 1982, p123.

[72] Malet 1982, p124.

[73] Malet 1982, p124.

[74] Skirda 2004, p156.

[75] Nomad 1939, p326.

[76] Skirda 2004, pp158-159.

[77] Footman 1961, p279.

[78] Skirda 2004, p377.

[79] Footman 1961, p286.

[80] Footman 1961, p266.

[81] Woodcock 1963, p396.

[82] D’Agostino 1971, p192.

[83] Avrich 1973, pp131-132.

[84] Though initially Makhno had attacked the Red troops retreating in the face of Wrangel’s advance, there was no formal alliance between Makhno and Wrangel. Palij 1976, p219 and p225.

[85] Malet 1982, pp61-66.

[86] Footman 1961, p296.

[87] Radkey 1976, p399.

[88] Nomad 1939, p331, argues that inequality also existed inside Makhno’s army: “Makhno’s horsemen constituted a sort of ‘Anarchist’ nobility, and looked with a certain contempt upon their own infantry.”

[89] Darch 1985, p48.

[90] Van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, p255.

[91] Darch 1985, p529.

[92] Lenin led the rethinking of Communist Party policy. He was however opposed by Rakovsky, Bubnov and Manuilski, who argued against concessions to Ukrainian nationalism. The Russian Communist Party now formally recognised the independence of Ukraine. Adams 1963, p367.

[93] For the Green revolt see Radkey 1976.

[94] Figes 1989, p346.

[95] Figes 1989, p349.

[96] Malet 1982, p151.

[97] Malet 1982, p61.

[98] Serge 1978, p119.

[99] Figes 1989, p356.

[100] Palij 1976, p58.

[101] Palij 1976, p56.

[102] Palij 1976, p58.

[103] Footman 1961, p283.

[104] Malet 1982, p163.

[105] Skirda 2004, p326.

[106] Skirda 2004, p331.

[107] Skirda 2004, p327.

[108] Arshinov 1974, p245.

[109] Malet 1982, p189.

[111] Van der Walt and Schmidt 2009, pp6-7, 93.

[112] Anarchist FAQ.

[113] Skirda 2004, p157.

[114] Skirda 2004, p352, D’Agostino 1971, p278.

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