Posts Tagged ‘Treaty of Brest-Litovsk’

Pravda International on Ukrainian Anarchist Revolutionary Nestor Makhno from c. 1988.

November 2, 2017

This is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which broke out in October/November 1917, depending on which calendar is being used – the Julian or Gregorian. One of the results of Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s was that historians were at last able to examine and reappraise other left-wing revolutionaries against the former Russian empire, who would previously have been dismissed or attacked by the Communists as ‘bourgeois socialist’ or counterrevolutionary, simply because they weren’t Communists. The edition of Pravda International which I managed to dig out the other week, vol. 3 no. 5, dating from around 1988/89, began a series of articles by Vasily Golovanov, reprinted from the Literaturnaya Gazeta, about the Ukrainian anarchist, Nestor Makhno, who led an uprising of the workers and peasants in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and Civil War in the 1920s.

Nestor Ivanovich Makhno: the ‘little father’ of the Ukraine

The introduction to the article ran

The Makhnovist Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine – an independent popular movement which expropriated the estates of the landed gentry and distributed the land to the peasants, fought the Austrian invaders, the White Armies of Deniken and Wrangel, finally, Trotsky’s Red Command – took its name and inspiration from it charismatic military leader, Nestor Makhno. VASILY GOLOVANOV’s article in Literaturnaya Gazeta illustrates how the revolutionary potential of the peasantry – not only in the struggle to overthrow the old landowning system in Russia, but also in the work to create a new society – has been largely ignored or underrated.

In the history of the revolution, no figure is so shrouded in mystery and contradiction as Nestor Ivanovich Makhno. Even while he was still alive the most unlikely rumours circulated about him.

One story goes that when he was baptised, the priest’s vestments caught fire, which signified to all present that the child would be a rebel. Other rumours have it he was sentenced to hard labour for the murder of his brother, and that during the first months of the revolution he robbed his own villagers to buy a house in Moscow where he lived in luxury – a story put about by the Austrian troops who occupied the area after the treaty of Brest Litovsk, when Makhno was already a partisan. It is precisely these ‘facts’ that have coloured our view of this almost mythological figure.

Due to the black and white view of history in the 20s and 30s no serious historical works deal with Makhno. The journal War and Revolution published an analysis of Makhno’s partisan warfare tactics, but to date there has been no research on Makhno as the social phenomenon he was. Labelled a bandit, his memory has been stowed away among the historical archives in the hope that time would erase the image of the man who had led the peasant war in the Ukraine.

Makhno was born of a poor, fatherless peasant family. At 16 he was apprenticed to a carpenter in his home village Gulyai-Polya in the Ukraine, where joined a local anarchist group involved in carrying out expropriations.

In October 1907, following the death of a postman during the hold-up of a post coach, the police hunted the group down in earnest and by the following year 14 people had been arrested. All broke down under interrogation and blamed Makhno for the murders, but still he would not confess.

Due to his youth, Makhno’s sentence of 20 years’ hard labour was commuted to imprisonment in the Butyrky prison in Moscow, where he spent nine years shackled hand and foot for bad behaviour. But it was in prison that Makhno met his mentor, Peter Arshinov, a fellow Ukrainian anarchist whom he trusted completely.

Released after the February 1917 revolution, Makhno – now 28 and without a penny to his name – returned to his native Gulyai-Polya where he found himself playing a central role in village affairs. Elected chairman of the Peasant Union, he was also made head of the Council of Peasant Deputies.

But the pace of events did not allow for the luxury of reflection. In June, workers’ control was proclaimed and a Committee of hired Farm labourers was set up under the Union of Workers and Peasants to act against the landed gentry. In August, during Kornilov’s advance on Petrograd, Makhno organised the confiscation of weapons held by the landowners and bourgeoisie in the region.

The regional Congress of Soviets and the Gulyai-Polya anarchist group next called on the peasants to ignore the caretaker government and the Central Rada (council) and declared the immediate expropriation of land from the churches and landowners. They also set up free agricultural communes on the estates with – as far as possible – the kulaks and landowners being included in the communes.

By October the estates had been expropriated and the land ploughed up despite ‘threats from government agents’. With sedition in Gulyai-Polya threatening to spread to neighbouring provinces, the caretaker government sent a representative to punish those who had confiscated the weapons. Makhno summoned the government agent to the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution and ordered him to ‘leave Gulyai-Polya within 20 minutes, and the boundaries of (his) revolutionary territory within two hours’. After this incident no one ever troubled this strange Soviet region against until the German invasion in June 1918.

Following the German invasion, Makhno travelled to Moscow for advice. There – according to Makhno – he met Lenin who was greatly interested in his agrarian changes. In his memoirs Makhno recalls Lenin asking three times how the peasants understood the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. Makhno replied that to them it mean the Soviets and all bodies under their control, should be responsible for setting policy at local level.
‘In that case, the peasants in your region have been infected with anarchy,’ Lenin is reported to have said.
‘And is that such a bad thing?’ responded Makhno.
‘I don’t mean to say that it is. On the contrary, I would be very glad since it would accelerate the victory of Communism over capitalism,’ Lenin explained – adding that he considered peasant anarchy to be a temporary ailment which would soon pass.

Makhno left Moscow with the opposite conviction. Although he was a ‘soviet’ anarchist, his understanding of the revolution was very different from that of the Bolsheviks. Makhno naturally did not recognise that the party had any leading role to play. For him, the ‘lowly’ regional soviet was the only organisation which could directly express the will of the people; the hierarchy of the soviets was to him absurd and the proletarian state – personified by bureaucrats – was a dangerous lie.

In December 1917, when the Bolsheviks had consolidated their position in the Levoberezhna, their relationship with the anarchists was friendly, despite obvious differences of opinion.

During this period Makhno worked in the legal commission of the Aleksandrovsky revolutionary committee, a body which reviewed cases of people arrested under Soviet power, but it was work he did not enjoy. Moreover, when they started arresting the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, Makhno was on the point of storming the local jail.

The row over the elections to the founding congress, which he dubbed the ‘political game of cards’, also annoyed him. ‘The parties won’t serve the people, but the people the parties. Already they are talking about “the people”, but it is the parties which are running things,’ he told his new comrades-in-arms. But they did not agree with him and he resigned from the revolutionary committee and returned to Gulyai-Polya – to escape from the distortions of ‘politics with a capital P’.

In Gulyai-Polya an agricultural commune had been set up on the former estates of the gentry. Peasants and workers, who owned no property were allocated land and equipment confiscated from the land owners and kulaks.

The attempt by the Gulyai-Polya soviet to set up a direct exchange with the city is interesting. The village soviet sent flour to the workers in the Prokhovorovskaya and Morozowskaya textile mills with a request for cloth in exchange. But because the authorities opposed this petty bourgeois method of supplying the towns, the cloth sent by the textile workers was intercepted by the authorities and shipped instead to Aleksandrovsk. Subsequent events may possibly have brought the disagreements between the nascent ‘proletarian’ model of socialism and its ‘peasant’ alternative to a head and led to some sort of compromise, but the unexpected German invasion of the Ukraine prevented this development. It is not easy to explain why Makhno parted company with the Bolsheviks, since there was a period when his relationship with the Reds was official and apparently permanent.

Makhno returned from Moscow in 1918 disappointed with some of his fellow anarchists who he felt had ‘slept through’ the revolution. While he had little sympathy for the Bolsheviks’ ‘staid’ revolution, Mkahno nevertheless realised that none of the opposition parties had a leader of Lenin’s stature or strength to ‘reorganise the road of revolution’. For this reason he amalgamated the peasant insurgent ‘army’ – which had liberated a large area of eastern Ukraine from Petlyurov – with the Bolsheviks.

By agreement with the Red Army High Command (March 1919), Makhno’s army was allowed to keep the name Revolutionary insurgent Army. They were sent communist commissars and weapons, and came under the tactical direction of the command fighting Denikin. Yet for months later the idyll came to an end when, according to the generally accepted version of events, Makhno opened the front to the White due to a rift between himself and the Bolsheviks.

I Teper, one of Makhno’s cultural department, who wrote an account of the period, blames the assortment of semi-criminals who surrounded Makhno, flattering him as the ‘second Bakunin’. Yet it was not vanity which separated Makhno from the Bolsheviks. It is difficult to know why, having ceased to support Soviet power, Makhno did not go over to the Whites, but stubbornly continued to fight on against all odd on two fronts at once. In his opinion the revolution had not added a single thing to the peasant conquests on the left bank of the Dnieper; they had held the land even before the Land Decree was passed. Then, when they started founding state farms in the Ukraine the peasants’ response to this wholesale ploughing up of land was to ensure they did not leave a single shred of anything which could be used by the state farm.

Tension was also growing between Moscow, Kharkov and the countryside. Attempts to imagine the new society and how it differed from capitalism, have led Marxists to believe that under socialism all areas of the economy should be nationalised, right down to the smallest peasant smallholding. That was why in 1919 most communists thought of the peasantry as the last bourgeois class not conscious of its social obligations; they looked upon it as a material which the proletariat needed in order to fulfil its historical mission. A Kollontai wrote at the time: ‘In the Ukraine, now that worker and peasant power have been consolidated, the inevitable gap is starting to appear between these two irreconcilable elements… the petty bourgeois peasantry is totally opposed to the new principles of the national economy which come from communist teaching.’

Hence the cruelty of the food policy, and the trend of describing all peasant protests against food allocation and the resolutions passed by arbitrary peasant congresses, as ‘kulak protests’. A series of spontaneous, sometimes very violent uprisings swept through the young republic during the summer of 1918, only quietening down during the White invasion. But the understanding that the interests of the agrarian petty bourgeoisie could not be ignored came only three years later, after a series of outbursts culminating in the Kronstadt rebellion where, under the slogans of ‘free Soviets’ armed peasant troops and units of the Red Navy established a revolutionary commune which survived for 16 days, until an army was sent to crush it.

Taranovsky, one of Makhno’s lieutenants, the commander of the Jewish division at Gulyai-Polya.

Another of Makhno’s lieutenants, Fyodor Shchus.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the following issues. Makhno is discussed in George Woodcock’s book Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 2nd edition (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986). The Anarchist Reader, (Fontana Press 1986) also edited by George Woodcock, also contains a passage by Peter Arshinov, ‘Makhno’s Anarchism in practice’ (pp.236-42).

The kulaks, denounced by the Bolsheviks, were the rich peasants, who they considered formed a separate class exploiting the landless peasants beneath them. It was against this section of the peasantry that the collectivisation policy was directed. The results, particularly in the Ukraine, as an horrific famine, which carried off millions of people. I think the death toll for Ukraine was seven million. Despite wanting to reappraise Makhno, Golovanov still follows Marxist ideology in describing him as petty bourgeois, and expecting him to side with the counterrevolutionary forces of the Whites following his break with Lenin. In fact, it’s not hard to understand why Makhno did not do so: it was precisely because he was an anarchist that he didn’t join the Whites in their campaign to re-establish Tsarism and the traditional quasi-feudal, capitalist hierarchy. Some historians have also concluded that Makhno’s revolution in Ukraine was also quasi-nationalistic. It was a form of national independence movement, but the Ukrainians had not then developed a complete idea of themselves as forming a separate nation, and so Makhno’s anarchist revolution formed as a kind of substitute.

Makhno ultimately failed, the Bolshevik Red Army reconquered Ukraine, and Makhno and his followers fled into exile, dying in Paris. When the Germans invaded in 1942, the were welcomed by many Ukrainians as liberators, only for opinion to turn against them when the Nazis began to behave as Nazis, treating them as Slav subhumans to be brutalised and exploited. It was only following the Fall of Communism that Ukraine became an independent state during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Makhno’s revolution in Ukraine and his resistance to the Bolsheviks have nevertheless been an inspiration to subsequent anarchist revolutionaries across the world. And it’s interesting to speculate how different world history would have been, had he won, and created an independent, anarchist Ukraine.

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The German Workers Who Struck For Peace

March 29, 2014

German War Corpse

Corpse of German trooper outside his dugout: a vivid image of the horrific carnage experienced by all the combatants in the ‘War to End All Wars’.

This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The BBC has already commemorating this by putting on numerous documentaries about the Great War, setting up on-line resources for schools so you can see what your particular bit of the country was like and did at the time. they’re also running trailers for forthcoming dramas where idealistic young nurses meet handsome soldiers in a saga of love amid the mass slaughter of the War. Documentaries about the World Wars are a staple of British television anyway. Dan Snow on the One Show has appeared several times striding across a World War I battlefield, while a few years ago Tony Robinson presented a Time Team special on the excavation of a system of WWI trenches in Flanders. Some of the coverage has already proven somewhat controversial. There was some comment a few weeks ago on television that something the BBC broadcast had provoked a complaint from the German embassy. There’s a difference of opinion here between German historians and the rest of the world. Most other nations see the War as being caused by Germany. German historians, on the other hand, believe that no single nation is to blame and that the growth of international tension and the web of alliances with which each nation surrounded itself led inexorably to the War. I really don’t know anything beyond the most general outline of events surrounding the First World War, and so leave it to people much better informed than I do to explain it.

One immediate result of the War was the break-up of international socialism. Previously the European Socialist parties had opposed working class involvement in any conflict between the European nations. For them, it would be a fratricidal conflict, as the working classes in each country had more in common with each other than with their rulers. The war would be a bourgeois war, started by the European ruling classes for their own further profit and enrichment, with the working class troops solely the exploited means by which they sought to do so. When the War finally broke out, however, the Socialist parties all over Europe joined the other parties in backing their governments.

Karl Kautsky, the head of the German Social Democrats, modified his party’s view of the conflict. He considered that Socialists in each country should now see the war only as defending their homelands. They should also campaign for a just peace, which would maintain the integrity of the defeated nations and avoid any cause for resentment on their part. This would prevent any further War from breaking out. He wrote

Further, the Social Democracy in every nation is obliged to consider the war only as a war of defence, and to set as its goal only defending itself against the enemy, not of ‘punishing’ or belittling the enemy. As this conception seeks the causes of the war not in the personal depravity or inferiority of the opponent, but in objective conditions, it will strive for the security which they conclusion of peace brings not by humiliating or mutilating its opponent, which would only cause new wars in the future, but by replacing those condition which led to the war – that is, imperialist conflicts and the armaments race.

Patrick Goode, ed. and trans., Karl Kautsky: Selected Political Writings (London: Macmillan Press 1983) 95.

It’s a pity that the Allies did not follow this advice when imposing the reparations and conditions on Germany afterwards. This could have removed some of the feelings of humiliation and resentment felt in Germany, feelings on which the Nazi preyed and used in their campaign to seize power.

Some Socialist parties continued to campaign against the War, such as the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the USPD – the Independent Social Democratic Party in Germany. One of those who campaigned against the War was the radical deputy, Karl Liebknecht, who went on to found the Spartacist League and the German Communist Party. There were also a number of strikes in Germany against the War. When Liebknecht was tried by a court martial for treason on the 28th June 1916, 55,000 workers went on strike in solidarity.

In April 1917 there was a much larger strike due to the government cutting the bread ration by a quarter. In Leipzig, the striking workers demanded in addition to the removal of their economic grievances the introduction of a direct, general and equal franchise, the removal of the state of siege, lifting of censorship, the release of all political prisoners, the re-instatement of the right to strike and hold political meetings. the government was also to make a declaration in favour of immediate peace without annexations.

On the 28th January 1918 a further mass strike broke out. In Berlin alone 200,000 workers downed tools and elected an action committee consisting of eleven Revolutionary Shop Stewards from The Turners’ union, and three delegates each from the pro-War Social Democratic and anti-War Independent Social Democratic Parties. Their demands included the

speedy conclusion of a peace without annexations and indemnities, on the basis of the nations’ right to self-determination, according to the provisions formulated by the Russian People’s Commissars at Brest-Litovsk.

They also wanted the removal of the state of siege and military control of the factories, the release of all political prisoners, the introduction of a general and equal franchise and a thorough democratisation of all institutions of the state. The strike spread rapidly to towns throughout Germany, including Munich, Mannheim, Brunswick, Bremen, Cologne, Hamburg, Kiel, Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) Leipzig and Nuremberg. In all of these towns with the exception of Munich and Berlin the strike collapsed after a week. In Berlin Military Command suppressed it by placing the leading armaments factories under martial law. In Munich Kurt Eisner, one of the leading USPD politicians and opponent of the War, Kurt Eisner, was arrested before he could call for a general strike to bring down the government. The moderate Social Democrats were thus able to retake control and the Strike ended a few days later.

See F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-1919 (Aldershot: Wildwood House 1972) 14-15.

I’ve blogged about the bitterness caused by the First World War across Europe, and the anti-War poems of some of the soldiers, who fought in it, like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Germany also has its great anti-War work from the time of the First World War, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The original German title is Nichts Neues Im Westen – ‘There is Nothing New in the West’. It’s also a bitter comment on the belligerent nature of Western civilisation. I think it’s also important At this time to recognise that Germany also had its campaigners for an end to the War and for a just peace that would establish friendship between nations afterwards. It’s a point that could easily get forgotten in the programmes, documentaries and debates about the War during this centenary.