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(en) Ireland, WSM*, Red and Black Revolution No 10 - Book Review: Anarchy's Cossak Nestor Makhno By Alexandre Skirda, Published by AK Press 13.00str

Date Sat, 24 Dec 2005 12:05:44 +0200


This was a much awaited book. Published originally in French back
in 1982, its English version was advertised for a couple of years by
AK Press, until it finally saw the light of day, and the wait was well
worth it. This fine edition includes the interesting photographs of the
original edition, plus a new appendix to discuss the state of the
research around the Makhnovist movement after the date of its first
edition. It constitutes an invaluable document in anarchist history,
and provides a vivid glimpse of the anarchist principles in action and
of a number of good lessons to be drawn for tomorrow's revolutions.
Needless to say, we're very glad to have such a book available in English.

For those who are not familiar with the subject, the Makhnovists
were a libertarian movement, deeply rooted in the traditions of
anarchist-communism, that developed an experience of
revolutionary changes in the economic and political structures of the
backwarded Ukrainian society - its name coming from Nestor
Makhno, a remarkable militant who remained the main figure of the
movement. To defend the gains of the Social Revolution, they
launched a guerrilla warfare in Ukraine against a number of
enemies: foreign troops, Nationalists, Whites, different warlords and
Bolsheviks. Finally defeated treacherously by the Bolsheviks, the
book tells the story of the movement from its very origin,
contradicting the traditional view of it as appearing literally from
nowhere.

The movement sprung from the rebellious history of the peasant and
cossack revolts of the region, and the ground for anarchist ideas was
well prepared for more than 10 years before the 1917 revolution by
the agitational activities of the Gulyai Polye anarchist-communist
group, founded by the Semenyuta brothers and V. Antoni. Thus,
anarchism had a local tradition among the local population and it
was this advantage that made it fertile soil for the Makhnovist
experience. At the same time, it gives a very fine description of
Makhno's own life. To understand the radicality of its revolutionary
convictions: the serf origins of his family, his hard life as a child
labourer, his brief schooling years, his experiences of early revolt
against unfair treatment given by landlords, his activities in the
Gulyai Polye anarchist-communist group, the terrorist years and his
imprisonement in the different dungeons of the Czar.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to the revolutionary period
between 1917, when Makhno gained his freedom with the February
revolution, to 1921, when the Bolsheviks won complete control over
Ukraine. It depicts, with first hand information and using a wide
range of sources, the Makhnovist campaigns, the difficulties of
revolutionary warfare and the political struggle for the triumph of the
"free soviets". Well informed, it brings together valuable accounts
that discredit most of the usual charges of the Bolshevik historical
mythomania against him and his movement: banditry,
anti-semitism, his alleged alcoholism and their self-indulgence in
orgies (!). All these are systematically exposed as utter lies, with no
factual evidence, but the intention of discrediting the movement. It is
important to take into account that even the sacrosanct "official
anarchist historian" of the Russian Revolution, Volin, echoes these
false accusations - presumably, as part of a personal vendetta against
Makhno, with whom they clashed over a number of issues, mainly
when in exile in Paris. Thus, by way of repeating a lie again and
again, many ended up accepting it as truth. This book is a healthy
way of putting the record straight on the movement.

The other merit of the book, is showing the absurdity of the claim
that the exile in Paris was a period of complete decadence for
Makhno in terms of his activity as an anarchist militant. Quite the
opposite: it's this time that proved to be the richest in terms of his
literary and theoretical contributions to the anarchist movement,
mainly through the paper Dyelo Trouda, despite all of the difficulties
of life in exile. It was here that he started writing his memoirs, that
he had time to draw the conclusions from his own experiences in the
Revolution and that he takes part in drafting the famous "Platform".
Thus, his active participation into the debates of the time on
organisation and what way to follow for the anarchist movement,
that shaped in one way or another the international anarchist
movement for decades to come, have still a resounding importance,
and give enough material for thought and practice even in our times.

Only people that were hostile to the thesis of the Platform, their
organisational approach and their revolutionary class-struggle
anarchism, could have depicted his exile as unproductive, in order
not to deal with this most important legacy to the movement and try
to silence it. It is easier to accept the figure of Makhno only as part of
the anarchist "folklore" of somewhere far away, on the Ukrainian
steppes, than to let him expose the historical failures of our
movement. All in all, self-criticism has never been a strong feature
of anarchists.

We can't leave unnoticed, though, certain aspects of the book that
seriously undermine its value, specially to the eyes of the
non-anarchist reader: first of all, we have Skirda's style that is full of
adjectives and too obviously takes sides. We all know that absolute
objectivity in history is nothing but a myth, but a historical book (in
opposition to a political diatribe, or a historical-political polemic)
shouldn't go as far as Skirda does in terms of using nicknames for
the side that doesn't happen to be in the author's grace: there's no
need to say things like "blotting paper revolutionaries", "supreme
guide" (referring to Lenin) or to resort to ridicule everytime one is to
mention the Bolsheviks, no matter how justified the indignation of
Skirda against them might be. In that point of view, it reminds me of
an inverse sort of "Bolshevik" history, were anarchists were usually
depicted as "bandits", "dreamers", "individualists", "petty-burgeois"
and so on. Immediately, one has a ground to doubt the "objectivity"
of the author -understood as a respect for historical and factual
accuracy. And when one suspects that the bias is too much, the
natural reaction is to leave the book aside and entertain youself with
some other book. Instead of writing history, sometimes it appears
he's just bitching.

His tendency, as well, to blame the Bolsheviks for absolutely every
evil in the Civil War, makes his genuine complaints about them
appear less credible to the non-anarchist reader. For example,
blaming the Bolsheviks for the emergence of the Whites, as Skirda
insinuates in some parts of his book, is inaccurate and naive:
"(Shkuro) had begun to fight the Bolsheviks (...), having tasted their
summary methods of justice" (p144) or "(The Kuban Cossacks), at
first neutral, (...) they had quickly been persuaded of the danger
inherent in the Bolsheviks who abruptly abolished their traditional
rights and, moreover, brutally commandeered their foodstuffs and
belongings" (p70). He seems somehow to be justifying not the revolt
against the Bolsheviks, but white revolt against the Bolsheviks -
Makhno, who wasn't a pro-Bolshevik at all, agreed that the worst
catastrophe for Russia would be the triumph of the whites. It is naive
to explain the side taken by reactionary militaries, indoctrinated in
their distrust for the riff raff, in terms of the "excesses" of Lenin's
goverment, as we can explain many of the workers' and peasants'
revolts of the time - rather, they can be explained by their fear to lose
the privileges they enjoyed in the former regime. Every revolution
faces opposition from reactionary quarters, that are not particularly
motivated by the "excesses" of the revolutionaries, as the very
excesses of all these counter-revolutionaries show. This undermines
claims, that have a factual ground - like the military mistakes and
actual sabotage of the southern front by the Bolsheviks as the main
reason for Denikin's successful offensive in mid 1919.

The same could be said about the support of the Allies to the
Whites: "Discovering its perilous consequences (of the Soviet regime
and its truce with the Central Empires, ed.) in the shape of German
offensives on the French front, Paris, London and Washington were
forced to make a stand" (p73). Skirda seems to forget the fact that
this was a time of violent proletarian upheavals in most of Europe
and the example set by the Russian Revolution was sparking flames
everywhere! This was the main reason why the reactionaries in the
West wanted to see the revolution smashed, not for secondary
military tactical matters; in fact, after the end of the WWI, they kept
supporting the whites -so "forced" they were to take a stand!

His anti-Bolshevism as well, can lead sometimes to ambiguous
positions like his defense of the Constituent Assembly (pp. 43-44,
72). He forgets that the defense of the Constituent Assembly was the
defense of the burgeois concept of representative and parliamentary
democracy, of the "liberal" State, in opposition to the direct
democracy and the organic workers' and peasants' society being
formed from below through the Soviets and Factory Commitees, and
the whole network of rank and file organisation that flourished in
Russia during 1917. It's true that Bolshevik opposition to the
Assembly was not progressive at all: they attacked the liberal State
(where they were a minority) for the sake of the dictatorship of their
sole party, but they were not alone in their criticisms and many
quarters, with different arguments, did criticise it; indeed, he doesn't
mention the fact that he surely knows, in the face of his deep
knowledge of Russian anarchism, that the Assembly was dissolved
actually by the detachment of the anarchist Anatoli Zheleshniakov!
But again, he'd still blame the Bolsheviks.

I think it is time to move beyond the history of "goodies" and
"baddies", of "marxists" versus "anarchists" and try to see the
underlying forces operating in society as a whole. Skirda's anarchist
point about the State as a reactionary institution to be abolished is
seriously undermined by his moralistic and simplistic approach to
the Bolshevik strategy of seizure of power: "(Lenin) had merely
played upon these (popular) aspirations for the sole purpose of
ensconcing himself in power; once at the controls, he was to devote
himself primarily to consolidation of his tenous authority" (p43).

Thus, it could be understood the treason of the revolution due to the
Bolshevik's greediness for power, instead of the unavoidable logic of
the bourgeois division of powers in the form of Statist institutions.
No matter how genuine Lenin or other Bolsheviks were as
revolutionaries (and certainly many weren't) the results couldn't
have been any different, and that is the main strength of anarchism
as a revolutionary alternative: it's not about who's in power, is about
how we control the power from below.

Finally, Paul Sharkey's translation, also, is a bit difficult to the
reader, full of twists and turns, literal translations and words in
French, that give a certain elegance to the edition, but seriously
make the reading quite difficult at points, even to the extent of
making the reader unsure of the real meaning behind some
paragraphs. This is noted in others of Sharkey's translations as well
(like Facing the Enemy, for instance).

These flaws that are commented upon don't invalidate the work at
all; but they make it more directed to an anarchist public, than to a
non-anarchist one; and unfortunately, the information provided here
is quite strong and well researched, and would be very valuable to
discuss with a broader leftist audience, but the language make it a bit
difficult, as it sounds sectarian. We are still waiting for a further
history on the Makhnovist movement that is done in such a fashion
that allows us to start that discussion around the methods of the
revolution under the light of this historical experience.

We want to finish the review thanking the people of AK Press for the
fantastic work they've done in providing us with so many interesting
books and documents, certainly filling many gaps in anarchist
history and theory in English speaking countries. In particular, to
thank them for providing us with this jewel of anarchist history that
is Skirda's work on the Makhnovist movement, a book that definitely
will make any libertarian militant vibrate.

Reviewed by Jose Antonio Gutierrez
haeological analysis. We should not disregard their
campaign but rather work in tandem with them where possible.

This said, it is also important that in certain cases we must realise
our differences, for example, I think it's impossible for class
struggle
libertarian communists to work with primitivists on issues like road
or development because our points of view are so far apart. Our
working together will only heighten tension and weaken campaigns.

Activists in Ireland still lack involvement in what are seen as more
directly environmental issues, such as road projects. There is
certainly a trend within anarchism influenced by 'deep ecology' that
opposes all roads and development. We do not oppose all road
development but we should certainly take issue with many of the
current proposals where profit is all and community is nothing.
Instead we should support sustainable development such as the
plans suggested for the M1, M2 and M3 to be replaced by a single
motorway with link roads to the major towns. These also
incorporated reopening a disused railway that runs almost exactly
down the route of these motorways.

The case of the M3 illustrates classically how our analysis could
succeed. The M3 is a motorway to nowhere, serving little purpose
and will partially destroy one of Ireland's and indeed north-western
Europe's most important prehistoric sites - Tara. The motorway is
supposedly being built to alleviate traffic for commuters to Dublin
from the major towns on the route - Dunshaughlin, Clonee, Kells.
The support for the motorway in some of the local towns is naturally
quite high. People in the area have been told continuously that this
road will solve all the congestion problems. The motorway will
however only feed the commuters to a huge traffic jam where this
motorway will meet the ring motorway around Dublin, the M50.

At the moment the campaign is being fought over the historically
and archaeologically rich valley of Tara- Skryne. That the campaign
against the current route has focused on the archaeological
significance of the sites to be destroyed in many ways shows equal
disregard for the people of Kells, Dunshaughlin and Clonee (the
towns most effected by the traffic congestion). It's only when the
campaign spokespeople are accused of holding up progress that they
challenge the need and practicality of the motorway.

This approach along with an over-concentration on legal cases
alienates the most crucial people whose support is needed to win
these cases - the local communities.

The arguments being made by the campaign are largely academic
and risk alienating those without the time and money to buy and
read archaeology texts. The government are prepared to change the
law, as illustrated at Carrickmines, should they lose any legal
challenges.

There is a danger that once the campaign reaches that stage it will
have alienated a majority of the local support needed to mount a
serious challenge to the motorway. This campaign may well lose in
a
similar fashion to the way Carrickmines and the Glen of the Downs
lost where a relatively small group of activists try to face down the
State and the courts through direct action.

However if the campaign were to follow the example of the Mayo
pipeline campaign and concentrate on local people rather than the
special interest of a minority (which, although I hate to admit it,
archaeology is) the campaign could succeed.

Many people of Dunshaughlin and Clonee are now turning to the
only people who are claiming to have their interests at heart - the
National Roads Authority (N.R.A.) and the government. They have
not been told the reality of the motorway, which is that it is really
only a faster way to get people to a super traffic-jam.

Undoubtedly there are going to be more environmental struggles in
Ireland in the next few years. The approach to the Bin Tax was very
positive in many respects. People are perhaps in a strong position to
fight issues like the attempt to implement a water tax in Dublin. We
have seen mistakes but more importantly we have also seen a
working example of how people taking real direct action can really
threaten the power of the State.

They have been parts of a working model of how communities can
take on the power of the state. Crucially these are past examples of
how we can engage the issues around environmentalism. Activists
must, however, broaden our horizons and tackle issues like the
National Development Plan, whilst working with special interest
campaigns where possible.

This article is not an attempt to be a pejorative statement from a
class struggle point of view; there is a lot to be learnt on our part
from these campaigns. Primarily the heritage based activists who
took on the authorities at Carrickmines and the ecologists at the
Glen of the Downs were doing something we failed at - taking on
the
issue of the environment. The campaign at Carrickmines, which I
was directly involved in, felt resentment at the time due to the lack
of
participation and even interest from organised political left-wing
groups.

Individuals at the Glen of the Downs felt a similar resentment at the
fact that left-wing political parties used them at the time when the
campaign became high profile. Without help from other groups they
concentrated on what they knew best - at Carrickmines it was
archaeology. In this they were undoubtedly right - they fought the
campaign on their ground. The point I am making is that
archaeologists will do what they do best, as will ecologists. If class
struggle activists feel we have a better approach and analysis then
we
must act on it.

The issues of the environment should not be dismissed, but the
preservation of trees or heritage is unlikely to be the main priority of
people who spend up to four hours getting to and from work. But
both sets of issues are crucial to us and should not be mutually
exclusive with sustainable development.

by Sean Mallory
--------------------------------------------
This article is from Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Autumn 2005) http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr10/index.html

Read more articles from this issue
http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/rbr10/index.html

Print out a PDF file of Issue 10
http://struggle.ws/wsm/pdf/rbr/rbr10.html

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http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr.html#Back
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