Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Свобода або Смерть (2)

I imagine going back in time and meeting Nestor Makhno, tired after a day’s campaigning, maybe at one and the same time full of the adrenalin rush of victory but weary of all the killing. I imagine telling him that I believe as passionately in freedom as he does, that I believe freedom is not in the gift of governments but in the hands of ordinary people, that I believe in the flattening of states and corporations and in grass-roots democracy, that I believe freedom is not guaranteed but rather suppressed by countries and by governments and by what passes in bourgeois terms for “democracy”, that I believe all such systems are inherently oppressive.

I imagine him looking at me for a second, and then thrusting a rifle into my hands.

“So you believe in freedom, right? Very well – Svoboda abo smert – freedom or death! Are you prepared to die for it? No? Then get out of my sight!”

Nestor Makhno was not a philosopher, not a political theorist. His education in the abstract must have been nil, given his schooling. His education in what it is like to labour for landowners and factory-owners came first hand, and his conviction that nothing is conceded and everything worthwhile has to be fought for and seized came from experience. He was, in short, uncompromising. He was certainly as uncompromising as any enemy of his that you might care to name.

During his career (and up to the present day) the anarchist movement and Makhno in particular were subject to attack, accusation, and counter-propaganda. I want to look at this in brief. Most of it does not hold up to scrutiny, but I want to look first at what is probably the most serious accusation against him and against the Black Army, and the one which undoubtedly has a basis in fact – the atrocities against the German Mennonite communities in the Ukraine. Here I must add another caveat: there is little objective material about this issue, and in trying to advance ideas of how to understand it I may seem to be offering an apologia for it. However that will not be so.

Atrocities against Mennonite communities:

Mennonites are well-known in many countries for being a minority pacifist Christian church. German-speaking Mennonite communities (as well as other ethnic German communities) had been in the Ukraine for at least one hundred years by the time of the Civil War, and apart from those Mennonites who joined the German Selbstschutz militias in an attempt to fend off attacks from other wartime factions, they refused to take part in any fighting. Makhno however, like all the revolutionaries of the time saw religion as being a wholly counter-revolutionary institution. Mikhail Bakunin, one of the first major theorists of anarchism, said words to the effect that the moment a person decides to believe in a heavenly authority is the moment he gives up his earthly autonomy. Karl Marx of course famously called religion “the opiate of the masses”, meaning that it persuaded them to a lethargic acceptance of their wretched status and lot. When you look at the monoliths of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant religions of the time and note how they bolstered the social and political status quo, you can see instantly why they were despised by revolutionaries. In my own time even I (a personal believer) look at the baleful influence of the “Christian” reactionaries in America and the “Muslim” reactionaries in the East and despair[*]. And I put quotation marks around those descriptions deliberately.

 [*] Excursus: My researches into anarchism for this blog have uncovered a diversity of personal views amongst the loosely-federated anarchists of today. One particular anarchist FAQ page impishly cites Jesus of Nazareth as one of their own, pointing out how his uncompromising stand against the temporal and religious authorities of the day and his declaration that a rich man had no more chance of heaven than a camel had of passing through the eye of a needle are inherently anarchistic. In fact the early Christian Church at Jerusalem was as flat a structure as one could get, holding all their property in common. Even in the Pauline model of the church with its episkopoi (“those who watch over”), diakonoi (“servants”), and apostoloi (“those sent on a mission”), and the whole church addressed as “saints” by Peter, was the movement of whom others would say “Here are the men who would turn the world upside down!” and can be seen as a federacy of autonomous communities; it is only when this model mutated into a hierarchy, and in particular when that hierarchy was subsumed into the structure of the Roman Empire under Constantine, that Christianity became one of the most hierarchical institutions ever known and far from turning the world upside down ensured that the world stayed right where it had always been.

So what did Makhno meet when he led his army into a Mennonite village? To him they were quiescent subjects of the Tsar, even collaborators. They were families of comparatively rich landowners – it is possible that Makhno had worked as a labourer on Mennonite farms when he was a boy – of the class of people from under whose yoke he was striving to liberate the peasants. If they would not actually join an army, they had assisted Tsarist forces in non-combat roles (hospital or forestry, for example) freeing others to fight. It is not possible to rule out some ethnic resentment amongst his Ukrainian followers, as many of them would have suffered at the hands of German and Austrian troops. However the Black Army was not a nationalist force, and although the vast majority of its members were ethnic Ukrainians it also had Russian, Jewish, and other minorities in its ranks, probably including Germans; one of its commanders, Klein, was of Ukrainian-German origin. Makhno could be generous to the defeated – we have seen how he would not kill captured soldiers of the working or peasant classes, but would receive them into the Black Army or send them home. I have to speculate that in the case of his encounter with the Mennonites of the Katerynoslav area the uncompromising Makhno came up against the uncompromising obstacle of a community of those whom he saw as oppressors, and simply swept it out of the way. Unfortunately that obstacle was unresisting flesh and blood.

I doubt if there ever was an army – state or revolutionary – that has not committed some recorded or unrecorded atrocity. It goes with the territory. One tends to find this when studying history, and it is never a comfortable fact.

Criticism from Bolsheviks and other leftists:

During the Civil War Bolshevik propaganda was unrelenting against Makhno and the Black Army. One constant allegation was that they were no different from the Whites. Leon Trotsky, Bolshevism’s best polemicist and speechmaker and perhaps their most charismatic civil-wartime leader, said in a lecture: “The bourgeoisie says: don’t touch the state power; it is the sacred hereditary privilege of the educated classes. But the Anarchists say: don’t touch it, it is an infernal invention, a diabolical device, don’t have anything to do with it. The bourgeoisie says, don’t touch it, it’s sacred. The Anarchists say: don’t touch it, because it’s sinful. Both say: don’t touch it. But we say: don’t just touch it, take it in your hands, and set it to work in your own interests, for the abolition of private ownership and the emancipation of the working class.” This deliberately traduces anarchist principles, which say replace state power with something totally different, something which does not have reference to the state; it says if you seize state power you become the problem you seek to solve, and history now has the Soviet Union to draw on as its proof! A saying attributed to Mikhail Bakunin goes “If you give the most ardent revolutionary absolute power he will become a tyrant”, and history has that ardent revolutionary J V Stalin as its proof!

A Bolshevik poster showing a cartoon Makhno and other Blacks advancing with the White forces – an aristocratic officer and what may be a couple of Orthodox priests or a priest and the Tsar.

Another Bolshevik criticism was surprisingly that of statism! This accusation can still be seen, ironically, in modern socialist/communist critiques of Makhno and the anarchist society of Ukraine. I say ironically because the accusation is essentially “See – you are like us!”. This was not a new criticism at the time of the Civil War, as Marx, Engels, and Lafargue wrote in 1873: “Thus in this anarchistic organization…we have first the Council of the Commune, then the executive committees, which, to be able to do anything at all, must be vested with some power and supported by a public force; this is to be followed by nothing short of a federal parliament, whose principal object will be to organize this public force. Like the Commune Council, this parliament will have to assign executive power to one or more committees which by this act alone will be given an authoritarian character that the demands of the struggle will increasingly accentuate. We are thus confronted with a perfect reconstruction of all the elements of the ‘authoritarian State’; and the fact that we call this machine ‘a revolutionary commune organized from bottom to top’ makes little difference. The name changes nothing of the substance.”

In my own view, when you are bordered on two sides by inimical “states” and on the other two by inimical Red and White armies, the territory you occupy is going to look like a state with borders and so on, no matter what you do! Any structure, to someone who expects to see a particular structure and wants to define things in his/her own terms will be the structure he/she expects, and it is so in the minds of the Bolshevists. Moreover the mistake is often made elsewhere of seeing anarchism as meaning something entirely without structure or authority. This isn’t true, and criticizing anarchism for embracing a structure or authority is a redundant argument. Mikhail Bakunin said (to the effect) “in the matter of bootmaking I defer unreservedly to the authority of the bootmaker”. An ideal anarchist society is a structure as flat as it is possible to be. There will come a time when a local community needs to cooperate with others, so they will need to send delegates to discuss things; such delegate discussions are not set over the local communities but are in fact working for them to a specific end. Such federate activities may well take place over what one could think of (ethnically or geographically) as a nation, but that does not make them statist, and does not rule out the possibility that communities from the other side of a perceived border can be involved if necessary. None of this is statism just because the Bolshevists say it is. In fact it is precisely the opposite of what the Bolshevists say it is!

Accusations of anti-semitism:

These appear to be unsubstantiated and are probably deliberate disinformation. There were Jews in the Black Army, either in their own units or in units with their non-Jewish comrades, and many prominent people in the Ukrainian anarchist movement were Jewish.

It is worthy of note that the Central Committee of the Zionist Organisation in Russia accused many armed groups of pogroms – Ukrainian nationalists, White Army, Red Army – but never the Black Army.

Personal accusations of abusive behaviour towards women:

These were made almost exclusively by Makhno’s former comrade Volin, with whom he had a violent falling-out, in a book published long after Makhno’s death. However these too are not corroborated elsewhere, and considering the number of women active in the movement including bearing arms, the punishments given by the movement to rapists, and the constant presence of Makhno’s wife in his company, it is highly unlikely that they are true…

So, is Nestor Makhno one of my heroes? Yes and no. Yes because I admire his strengths. No because he is too big a person to be purely heroic. Yes and no because I would do him a greater service by insisting that he been seen, in full daylight, in his proper and worthy place in history, where he could be open to honest scrutiny by all-comers, where everything – cruelty and nobility, dazzle and darkness – could be seen. I don’t think he would wish for more, and I believe that like Cromwell he would want us to paint him “warts and all”. The terms “hero” and “heroine”, from my point of view, are better used to describe small people who do small acts of open defiance, such as Rosa Lee Parks’ refusal to sit at the rear of a segregated bus. Oh, it is easy to see her as a mere piecemeal reformist, but hers was an act of revolution, an example of an ordinary person seizing her freedom. Other than that, I am sure that amongst Makhno’s enemies as much as amongst the Black Army there were personal instances of the unremarked kind of wartime bravery, and equally amongst members of the Mennonite community who faced their deaths with stoicism and forgiveness. The individual pixels of history may be black and white, the overall picture however is largely much greyer.

I still have one loose end regarding Makhno, and it is a strange one. Why has neo-capitalist Russia, of all places, made a TV mini-series about him?


As I wrote the above blog an important thought came to me. I live in the capitalist West. I have done so all my life. It is here that my own freedom of thought has thrived, and that I have seen the freedom of thought and expression of others thrive. By contrast it has been in the communist East of yesteryear and the Islamicist East of today where such freedom is most obviously suppressed.

I have asked myself over and over – “Why the hell is this?”

The negative is easy enough to answer. Bolshevism has always been a repressive force, from the very beginning when it argued that it had to seize state power. Islamicism is simply reactionary and backward-looking. In neither is toleration of freedom of expression an option.

But here, where I live, in a system where corporate capitalism is the least accountable, least democratic institution since the feudal monarchies of the middle ages, and where bourgeois democracy means that once every four years or so I give away my autonomy by marking an X on a piece of paper, and here where I cannot be free by definition, I am allowed to think and say what I want to.

The economic and social systems are blatantly unfair and unjust, so the argument that they somehow represent a natural order and true freedom can’t possibly hold water. There must be another answer, and the only one I can think of is this: that my freedom of thought and expression makes little or no difference to the system. The system is robust enough to deflect it, rich and powerful enough to influence sufficient general opinion in its favour to make my exercising my freedom of little consequence. And the system can proclaim its generosity in allowing me this freedom, as if it is in the system’s gift! Subtle indeed.

However, the only way I have of proving this answer correct is for ideas like mine to gain strength and influence. That, I predict, would be the moment when the repression would start.

Then I think of how many peaceful protests I have known over the years where somebody has thrown a stone…


Tomorrow, back to the teepee, or to Keats and Chapman perhaps...


  1. The topic of "freedom" keeps returning in your blog posts, but I'm still not clear on how exactly you are defining it. Would you care to satisfy my desire for definitions? ;-)


  2. That is an interesting question, and not as easy to answer as one might imagine. I had a paragraph on this very subject in a draft of a blog entry I was going to post, but the entry was far too long and I had to cut it. As a result, I have no longer got the draft of what I was going to say.

    The drift of my argument was this:

    As a historian (that's how I like to see myself) I have to be aware of cultural context in everything I read, and indeed in what I write myself. On this specific subject - freedom - it quickly becomes very clear that the word is appropriated and interpreted by any group that uses it. There are almost as many interpretations as there are individuals using the word!

    "Freedom" means something totally different to, for example, the Scottish Nationalists who chiseled the word in gigantic letters on the pedestal of the "Braveheart" statue in Stirling, to the Tea-Partyites in the USA, and to myself, anarchist-leaning in politics. In my August entry "Brain Teasers and Guns", the probable difference between the basic meaning of the word in the UK and in the USA (the difference between "freedom TO..." and "freedom FROM..." is explored.

    Maybe the important question is not how I define it, but how YOU define it, and maybe you ought to comment again and give some indication of your own idea of what it is, so we can add it to the list. :-)

    The reason I say this is that I refuse to think for anyone else. I know you're not asking me to. But I really mean this - for people to be "free" they have to think for themselves and come to their own decisions. I can't do it for them. The moment I do it for them, then they are no longer exercising any sort of freedom; rather they are giving it away.

    Maybe this calls for a separate blog entry altogether, in which the nature of freedom can be addressed, defined, debated...

    I think that must be so, because blogspot has just refused to accept the whole answer I just drafted - it exceeded 4096 characters!