A Communist Left Critique of Platformism (Part I): The Makhnovshchina

A Communist Left Critique of Platformism (Part I): The Makhnovshchina

Many over the years have pointed out the apparent similarities between Platformism and the Communist Left, and indeed some comrades whom today we count among our ranks first came to the politics of the Communist Left through Platformism. But while the need for revolutionaries to come together, in an organisation united around a common platform, is something both tendencies acknowledge, the differences go a bit further than whether one stands beneath a red or black banner. We often get asked what is our attitude towards Platformism and the following is a two-part attempt to grapple with the question.

The impulse for drafting what eventually became the founding document of the Platformist tendency, The Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists or simply the Platform, came from militants who escaped Ukraine following the final defeat of the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army around August 1921. They eventually found themselves in Paris around the journal Dielo Truda (Workers' Cause) together with other anarchist exiles from the former Russian Empire. Two of the authors, Nestor Makhno and Peter Arshinov, were veterans of the Russian Revolution and, as we will see, saw first-hand the march of the counter-revolution. In Part I we examine the historical background of their movement in Ukraine, in order to understand the political conclusions the authors of the Platform later drew from their experience.

The Russian Revolution in Ukraine

Before 1914 the majority of the territories of modern day Ukraine were part of the Russian Empire, with the notable exception of Galicia which belonged to Austria-Hungary. As such, upon the outbreak of the First World War, Ukraine found itself in the centre of imperialist hostilities, with Ukrainians used as cannon-fodder by both the Central and Allied Powers. The destruction wrought on the population heightened both national and class grievances, and the February Revolution in Russia unleashed them in full force. The new Russian Provisional Government granted a degree of autonomy to the Central Rada to appease the national aspirations of Ukrainians. Meanwhile, by March 1917, hundreds of workers’ and soldiers’ councils (soviets) emerged in all the main industrial centres of Ukraine: Kiev (Kyiv), Kharkov (Kharkiv), Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro), Odessa, Yuzovka (Donetsk), Aleksandrovsk (Zaporizhzhia), among others. They sent delegates to nearby towns and villages, as well as to Moscow and Petrograd (Saint Petersburg). They set up factory and workers’ committees, efforts were made to link up with the revolution in the countryside by encouraging the formation of peasants’ soviets. Within these organs numerous political parties vied for influence. On the one hand, those supporting the Central Rada (USDLP, SRs, Mensheviks and the Bund), on the other hand, the Bolsheviks and anarchists supporting the continuation of the revolution. In May and June new elections were held in many soviets across Ukraine, reflecting the increasing support for the Bolsheviks and their tireless anti-war pro-soviet activity at the grass-roots. In September and October, in the aftermath of the Kornilov affair, the Bolsheviks gained majorities at an accelerated pace, even upsetting the status quo in the SR- and Menshevik-dominated Kiev Soviet. Under the influence of the Bolsheviks, the soviets began to pass resolutions in favour of “all power to the soviets” and set about organising their Red Guard.

The revolutionary movement in Petrograd culminated in the assault on the Winter Palace and the fall of the Provisional Government. The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets elected an All-Russian Central Executive Committee and a Council of People's Commissars, made up of Bolsheviks and Left SRs. An armistice was signed with the Central Powers to exit the war, and peace negotiations were initiated. Revolutionary committees (revkoms) sprang up across the former Russian Empire to organise kindred uprisings. In Kiev, workers inspired by the October Revolution defeated the forces of the Provisional Government on the streets, but it was the Central Rada that took power instead and set about building an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic. The rift between class and nation was coming to a head. At the request of the Bolsheviks, who were hoping to proclaim a Soviet Ukraine, the First All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers', Soldiers', and Peasants' Deputies was called for 17 December 1917 in Kiev. However, the Bolsheviks were outnumbered by the mobilised peasant vote. The Bolsheviks, and the newly emerged left factions of the USDLP, SRs and Mensheviks, walked out. A few days later, Red Guards from Petrograd and Moscow under the Bolshevik Antonov-Ovseyenko went to Kharkov, where they helped local Red Guards take over the city. The Kharkov Soviet set about organising an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets for 24 December. This time, the Congress proclaimed the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, elected an All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee and a People's Secretariat, made up of Bolsheviks and individual Left SRs, Left USDLPs and Menshevik-Internationalists.

Ukraine was now in a state of disarray with two competing centres of power. The uneven and tortured process of the Russian Revolution in Ukraine was heading towards civil war. The Ukrainian People’s Republic sought support from both the Central and Allied Powers, while the Ukrainian Soviet Republic naturally looked to Soviet Russia. Initially, the latter seemed to have the upper hand. In late January 1918 a working class uprising broke out in Kiev at the Arsenal factory and soon after Red Guards from Petrograd and Moscow under the Left SR Muravyov occupied the city forcing the Ukrainian Government out. Short-lived Soviet Republics emerged in Donets-Krivoy Rog and Odessa. But the Central Rada, on its last legs, made a deal with the German Government: food supplies in exchange for direct military support. German and Austrian troops now quickly advanced into Ukraine, re-taking Kiev by 1 March 1918. After stalling for months in hopes of a coming international revolution, in desperation Soviet Russia finally signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March. This officially ended Soviet Russia’s participation in the First World War, but it also meant renouncing many of its territorial claims, including Ukraine. Leading Bolsheviks in Ukraine opposed the Treaty – Antonov-Ovseyenko, joined by the left communists Yevgenia Bosch and Georgy Pyatakov, even tried re-organising troops for partisan warfare against the Germans, as did all kinds of anarchist and Left SR militias. The Second All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets still managed to take place in mid-March 1918 in Yekaterinoslav, but by early April the city was taken by the Germans as well. By the end of April, under the aegis of German imperialism, the Central Rada was replaced by the Hetmanate under Pavlo Skoropadskyi. Soviets were dissolved and private property restored. The Bolsheviks were pushed all the way back, and this marked the end of the first period of the Russian Revolution in Ukraine. The All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee and People's Secretariat merged into the Povstanburo (Insurgent Bureau), and went through all kinds of metamorphoses over the proceeding months. The Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine – divided between the Right, which advocated a centralised army subordinated to Moscow, and the Left, which defended the use of partisan forces – had to be formed in Moscow. The Provisional Workers' and Peasants' Government of Ukraine was formed in Kursk. The civil war in Ukraine robbed the Bolsheviks-turned-Communists of much of their social base, and they had to resort to military force of the recently formed Red Army under Trotsky in order to regain their foothold.

The birth of the Platform is inextricably tied up with this workers’ tragedy. Makhno, born to a peasant family, was politicised by the 1905 Revolution and got involved with underground anarchist groups in his homeland, the rural Gulyai-Pole (Huliaipole) region of Southern Ukraine. Following multiple arrests, he was condemned to hang, but his sentence was reduced to life in prison. It was in a Moscow prison that he first met Arshinov, an ex-Bolshevik turned anarchist, and the pair became friends and comrades. Both were eventually freed thanks to the February Revolution, when the Provisional Government declared an amnesty for political prisoners. Arshinov stayed in Moscow to build the anarchist movement there, while Makhno returned to Gulyai-Pole to much local fanfare, where he laid the basis for what is today commonly known as the Free Territory, Makhnovia or Makhnovshchina, which, depending on who you ask, was either an anarchist utopia or a ruthless bandit army.

The Makhnovshchina

In the course of the Russian Revolution in Ukraine, a movement of Peasants’ Unions emerged in the countryside. Its membership swelled to millions, politically gravitating between the populism of the SRs and Ukrainian nationalism. Makhno, upon his arrival in Gulyai-Pole in March 1917, re-united with his comrades in the Anarcho-Communist Group and decided to help build the Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union. He threw himself into various local struggles of workers and peasants. He made links with workers and anarchists in Aleksandrovsk (e.g. the anarchist terrorist Maria Nikiforova), and in August 1917 he attended the Provincial Congress of Soviets in Yekaterinoslav as the Gulyai-Pole delegate. The Congress agreed to transform the Peasants’ Unions into peasants’ soviets, and so Makhno was now the chairman of the Gulyai-Pole Soviet. Although the peasants were initially not so keen on forming anarchist communes, they did set about expropriating local landlords and disarming the authorities, a process encouraged by the anarchists and intensified following the Kornilov affair. The October Revolution at first had limited ramifications in Gulyai-Pole itself (where power was already essentially in the hands of the soviet), but it threw the surrounding urban areas into crisis. It was at this point that the Gulyai-Pole anarchists decided to form a Black Guard. Their first military excursion took place towards the end of the year, helping the Red Guards in Aleksandrovsk and surrounding areas fend off the forces of the Central Rada. Makhno and his comrades even joined the local revkom alongside Bolsheviks and Left SRs. But, convinced that the heart of the revolution was among the peasants in Gulyai-Pole, and suspicious of the urban revolutionaries, he soon returned to Gulyai-Pole. The Gulyai-Pole Soviet now formed its own revkom, of which Makhno became the leader. Between February and March 1918 efforts were made again to establish anarchist communes on the seized land, but little is known of their activity outside of Makhno’s own brief account, and in any case these experiments were cut short by the advancing German and Austrian troops which took over Gulyai-Pole. Makhno headed towards Moscow.

In Moscow, Makhno is said to have met not only with Arshinov and Kropotkin, but also with Sverdlov and Lenin. Despite these generally comradely encounters, Makhno at this point was critical of all revolutionary tendencies in Russia, be they Bolsheviks (for trying to erect a "proletarian state"), Left SRs (for working with the Bolsheviks) and anarchists (for being disconnected from the revolutionary process). His perspectives were localist, rather than internationalist:

"That’s why, after having feverishly searched for a guiding rule in the works of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta, we arrived at the conclusion that our group of anarchist-communist peasants of Gulyai-Pole could neither imitate the anarchist movement of the cities, nor could we listen to its voice. We could count on no one but ourselves at this critical moment in the Revolution. It was up to us to help the downtrodden peasants realize that they must create the Revolution themselves in the villages, that it is up to them to determine the character and the course of the Revolution. We must not let their faith in themselves be shaken by the political parties and the government which have done nothing to create the revolutionary movement in the villages." (Makhno, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, 1926)

Unsurprisingly then, Makhno resolved to clandestinely return to Gulyai-Pole as soon as possible, which, according to his own account, was made possible thanks to Lenin’s personal assistance. The Southern Ukraine that Makhno found upon his arrival in July 1918 was dominated by reaction. On the one hand, Skoropadskyi brutally enforcing the interests of landlords and the German and Austrian armies (restoring estates, requisitioning, etc.), on the other hand, rising anti-Semitic sentiments among the peasantry (even revolutionary ones, who blamed the “Jews”, i.e. the Bolsheviks, for betraying the revolution). Navigating this situation in order to rebuild an anarchist presence in Gulyai-Pole proved no small task. In the nearby Ternovka (Ternivka) he established a base out of local peasants and demobilised Ukrainians, and organised raids to sustain his activity. Meanwhile, the Nabat Confederation of Anarchist Organizations, whose members (among them Voline, Aron Baron and Arshinov) left Petrograd and Moscow due to the increasingly hostile political atmosphere there (raids on anarchist centres, and the Left SR uprising), began to establish itself in Kharkov. The Makhnovshchina was born out of the coming together of these two elements, one military and one civilian, which never quite harmonised (leading to personal and political conflicts later down the line). Makhno finally managed to reclaim Gulyai-Pole in October 1918, when the Austrian army was recalled due to the desperate situation on the Western Front. Soviet power was restored in Gulyai-Pole, and the anarchists began rebuilding their social base.

The German Revolution in November 1918 brought an end to the First World War and nullified the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. German and Austrian armies withdrew, but the conflict in Ukraine was far from over. The Allies were now organising their own military intervention in support of the Whites. The White Armies of Anton Denikin and Pyotr Wrangel started making in-roads into Ukraine. In December 1919 Skoropadskyi’s government in Kiev, having lost German backing, was overthrown by the Directorate which re-established the Ukrainian People's Republic. It eventually came under the control of Symon Petliura. Meanwhile, in early 1919, the Red Army set up a Ukrainian Front (commanded by Antonov-Ovseyenko), which began its successful march across Ukraine re-establishing soviet power on the territories it seized. The military pressures were felt in the Makhnovshchina as well and, over the course of that year, Makhno’s newly formed Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army grew from a couple hundred fighters to a force of 15,000-100,000 (estimates vary depending on the source). Makhno, with the help of Viktor Belash and Lev Zadov, had now essentially created a (federal) standing army, complete with its own secret service (the Kontrrazvedka).

We will not go into detail here about the military adventures and the various intrigues of the next two years. Suffice it to say, Makhno and the Red Army formed an uneasy alliance (with Makhno’s army being briefly incorporated into the Red Army), which broke down and resumed a number of times. There were voices within the Bolsheviks calling for closer cooperation with the Makhnovists and vice-versa. But the political and material tensions proved too much. The Makhnovists had created their own Military Revolutionary Soviet, in competition with the Bolshevik-dominated Revolutionary Military Council, each questioning the other’s legitimacy. The initial spark for the first breakdown in relations was the Grigoriev affair. Nikifor Grigoriev was an opportunist SR military leader who at first supported Skoropadskyi’s coup, only to revolt against it and form his own insurgent army. In February 1919 he, like Makhno, joined the Red Army and went against the Allied intervention force. Pretty soon however he was plundering cities, killing Communists and leading anti-Semitic pogroms. The Communist policy of class warfare in the countryside, organised through the kombeds (Committees of Poor Peasants) which carried out grain requisitions and proved highly unpopular, gave Grigoriev a social base to now organise an uprising against the "Jewish commissars" and for soviets without Communists. The Grigoriev revolt undermined the whole Red Army front, allowed the Whites to advance with little opposition and destroyed the hopes of providing support to the ongoing Hungarian Revolution. Now the Bolsheviks were worried that Grigoriev would link up with Makhno, the other peasant force in the region. While Makhno publicly denounced Grigoriev’s anti-Semitism, he did not organise a military opposition to him. When Makhno attempted to call a Regional Congress of Soviets, Trotsky sent out an order forbidding it from taking place, on the basis that it “could not produce any result other than to (...) deliver the front to the Whites” (ORDER No.1824, June 1919). In July 1919 in Sentovo a joint meeting between Makhno and Grigoriev did take place – the Makhnovists accused Grigoriev of being a Denikinist agent and open pogromist and shot him on the spot. Grigoviev’s troops were then incorporated into Makhno’s army. Nevertheless the whole episode soured relations and seemed to give support to Trotsky’s argument, in the party debates over how the Red Army should be organised, that partisan forces cannot be relied on. For Makhno, it was confirmation that the agrarian policies of the Communists, on which he blamed the rise of Grigoriev in the first place, were counter-revolutionary.

The Red Army was gradually re-organised into a more professional standing army and the Communists adopted a siege mentality in the face of imperialist intervention and crushed revolutions in Finland (April 1918), Germany (January 1919, April 1920) and Hungary (August 1919). Autonomous soviets and militias were now seen as an inherent threat. Meanwhile, Makhno and his comrades were now posing themselves as an an alternative to the “Bolshevik-Communist dictatorship” and proclaimed that “representatives of political organisations have no place in workers' and peasants' soviets” (To All Peasants and Workers of the Ukraine, January 1920). Makhno saw the Communists as counter-revolutionary, and the feeling was mutual. There was no going back. But the shift from “War Communism” to the “New Economic Policy”, and the consolidation of Red Army victories over the Whites and the Ukrainian Government, gradually took the wind from Makhno’s sails. His forces dwindled to a few hundred and, after defeat of the White Army of Wrangel in November 1920, the Red Army moved in to liquidate the Makhnovshchina. In a final illustration of how things had changed, Makhno and his insurgents stopped at a small village to requisition fresh horses, and in response they were attacked by peasants. Makhno was wounded, and following a few more hopeless skirmishes with the Red Army, he fled over the border to Romania. Victor Serge would later write that the idea, floated in Bolshevik circles, of granting local autonomy to the Makhnovshchina would have been a “just and generous solution [that] would have spared the Soviet regime many internal calamities” (Voline Obituary, 1945). Alas, the Makhnovists, betrayed by the Red Army and having lost their social base, were a spent force by August 1920 (although sporadic underground resistance continued on).

This is by no means an in depth historical exposition of the situation in Southern Ukraine. In fact, conflict in the region continued well into the Polish–Soviet War until the Peace of Riga of March 1921. But let us just conclude that by modern day standards, the Makhnovshchina – with its secret services, summary executions, alleged excesses, and so much authority vested in the hands of one man – can hardly be considered “libertarian”. Even at the time some anarchists (e.g. within the Nabat) denounced it for its authoritarian militarist overtures. Arshinov answered his critics in the following way:

"The basic shortcoming of the movement resides in the fact that during its last two years it concentrated mainly on military activities. This was not an organic flaw of the movement itself, but rather its misfortune – it was imposed on the movement by the situation in the Ukraine. Three years of uninterrupted civil wars made the Southern Ukraine a permanent battlefield. Numerous armies of various parties traversed it in every direction, wreaking material, social and moral destruction on the peasants. This exhausted the peasants. It destroyed their first experiments in the field of workers' self-management. Their spirit of social creativity was crushed. These conditions tore the Makhnovshchina away from its healthy foundation, away from socially creative work among the masses, and forced it to concentrate on war – revolutionary war, it is true, but war nevertheless." (Arshinov, History Of The Makhnovist Movement, 1923)

In fact, we could say the same of the entire Russian Revolution and the fate of the Bolsheviks after April 1918. Dreams of social revolution were put on hold as military campaigns took precedence. Initially bodies like the Red Army and the Cheka, a response to the attempts to crush the revolution by the former ruling class and imperialist intervention, were understood to be provisional: “all the instruments created by the proletariat for the critical period of the civil war are transient.” (The ABC of Communism, 1920). But as revolutions failed one by one in other parts of the world, the opposite process took place. The Red Army and the Cheka became foundations for the rebirth of the capitalist state, which could no longer tolerate independent activity (like that of the Makhnovshchina, or later the Kronstadt Soviet). Increasingly, spreading soviet power meant “revolution from above” introduced “on the points of bayonets”. The counter-revolution arrived both from within and without.

In Part II we will look critically at the political conclusions that Makhno and Arshinov drew from their experience in Ukraine, in fact part of a revolutionary wave which shook Europe in 1917-21, and how their disciples developed those ideas into what is today Platformism.

25 June 2021

Some Further Reading:

• Our critical introductions to the translations from Kommunist (March-June 1918), the journal of the Russian Left Communists, discuss many of the historical events mentioned here: the formation of the Red Army, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the imperialist threats to the Russian Revolution, etc. They are available here: Russian Communist Left. On the Polish–Soviet War, see: The Battle of Warsaw and the Defeat of the Revolutionary Wave in Europe.
• Our pamphlet on the degeneration of the Russian Revolution is available here: 1921: Beginning of the Counter-Revolution?. Those arguments will be further developed in our upcoming book on Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Russia 1905-24.
• There is no shortage of sources on the Makhnovshchina, often written from an anarchist perspective. Apart from the already cited texts by Arshinov and Makhno, there are books by Voline, Paul Avrich, Michael Palij, Alexandre Skirda, Michael Malet or the most recent one by Colin Darch.