Anarchism, militarism and civil war - Can you have an anarchist army?

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Andrew Flood

AS ANARCHISTS believe the bosses will resist arevolution, it follows that we accept the needfor armed force to defend the revolution. Butanarchists also oppose militarism, that includesstanding armies controlled by the state withofficers who have special privileges like extrarations, better quarters, saluting, etc. So whatalternative do anarchists propose?

Anarchists advocate militias where officers areelected and recallable, and discipline is agreedby all in the unit. This is not simply a theorybut has been put into practice by anarchists inthe course of several revolutions. The Russianrevolution saw an anarchist influenced force,the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army - alsoknown as the Makhnovista - who liberated theEastern Ukraine. They provide one such example.

In his article (opposite) 'The Two Octobers',the Russian anarchist Piotr Arshinov describeshow in April of 1917 "big rural landowners beganeverywhere to evacuate the countryside, fleeingfrom the insurgent peasantry and seekingprotection for their possessions". Throughdirect action "the agrarian question wasvirtually solved by the poor peasants as earlyas June - September 1917". As the landlords fledthe peasants took over the land and "all ofrevolutionary Russia was covered with a vastnetwork of workers' and peasant soviets, whichbegan to function as organs of self-management".

The decrees passed by the Bolshevik governmentin the months after October 'legalised' thesetakeovers. This was part of the process by whichthe Bolsheviks got rid of the power ofindependent organs of workers' self-managementlike the Soviets (elected workers' councils) andthe Factory Committees. 'Legalising' what theworkers had already achieved was one way ofpromoting the right of the central state to havethe final say over the working class.

The Bolshevik attitude towards the working classis perhaps best demonstrated by Trotsky's speechto the 1920 9th Party Congress when he declared"The working class cannot be left wandering allover Russia. They must be thrown here and there,appointed, commanded, just like soldiers"."Compulsion of labour will reach the highestdegree of intensity during the transition fromcapitalism to socialism". "Deserters from labourought to be formed into punitive battalions orput into concentration camps".

These quotes demonstrate the thinking when theBolsheviks dissolved Soviets, broke up factorycommittees or jailed and even executed strikers.But if this is how they saw the worker in thefactory, how about the 'worker in uniform' inthe Red Army?

In 1917 the Czarist Army had fallen apart. Farfrom the army opposing the revolution, militaryunits were often at the heart of its defence.Not of course the officers, they were for themost part opposed to the revolution. But in 1917traditional military discipline haddisintegrated as soldiers deserted the front,refused to obey orders and elected soldiers'committees. If the soldiers had obeyed theirofficers in October or February then therevolution would probably have been defeated. Sothe ending of top down (or 'bourgeois') militarydiscipline was essential to the revolution.

This break down of the old discipline may havebeen essential to the revolution but once theBolsheviks were in power it worked against them.They didn't want an army where units mightrefuse to carry out an order like the crushingof a peasant rebellion or the breaking up of astrike. So, in July 1918 Trotsky (the Bolshevikcommander of the Red Army) re-introduced all theold methods of the bourgeois army. He even re-appointed old Czarist officers.

Alongside this the death penalty fordisobedience under fire was reintroduced; aswere saluting, special forms of address,separate living quarters and privileges forofficers. Officers were appointed rather thanelected. Trotsky argued that "the elective basisis politically pointless and technicallyinexpedient and has already been set aside bydecree".

These changes were deeply unpopular to the rankand file of the army. This, along with theBolshevik suppression of the revolution, meantthe Red Army had one of the highest rates ofdesertion of any army in history.

Large scale executions and 'PunishmentBattalions' were used to compel soldiers to obeyorders. In addition the Red Army's relationshipwith the local peasants and workers was that ofan army of occupation. It seized the supplies itneeded and was often used to put down localstrikes and insurrections.

The revolution in the Ukraine

As elsewhere in rural Russia, the Bolshevikparty had no significant presence in the EasternUkraine before the October revolution.Nevertheless in this period the peasants andworkers of the towns had seized the land, takenover the workplaces and set up their ownmilitary units.

The most prominent figure in the regional co-ordination of all this was the anarchist NestorMakhno, who had been released from prison afterthe February revolution. Working with anarchistsin the town of Hulyai Pole, he had built linkswith the workers, peasants and even theoccupying Serbian soldiers. They confiscated thelandlords' deeds and set up militia units.

Immediately after October these militias leftHulyai Pole to disarm the Cossacks in nearbytowns, seized the funds of the banks anddistributed them to the peasants. They alsoarranged a food for textiles transfer with aMoscow factory. At this time the firstagricultural communes were set up in thevicinity of Hulyai Pole.

A bad peace

Then, for the first time, outside interventionsmashed the gains that had been made. TheBolsheviks signed the treaty of Breast Livtosk,which amongst other things handed over theEastern Ukraine to the Austrian army. TheAustrians put down the revolution, forcing theinsurgents to retreat and conduct a guerrillawar. This they did with great success and it isfrom this period that the army became known asthe Makhnovista.

In the Makhnovista, officers were popularlyselected from the ranks of the revolutionaries.It was a volunteer army - its shortage wasalways of weapons rather than combatants. Itrelied on the peasants' solidarity for support,both in terms of directly providing food and indirecting them to local kulaks (wealthy farmers)who could stand the loss of "two or three sheepto make a soup for the insurgents".

It had none of the bourgeois discipline of theRed Army. The very fact that it was based onrevolutionary spirit instead of fear meant itwas a very effective and innovative fightingforce. One of the Red Army generals who faced itlater wrote "the particular composition of thearmy needed a completely trusted, cunning,experienced and courageous commander, and suchwere the Makhnovists".

Finally and most importantly the Makhnovista wasnot run by a central government but wasanswerable to the local peasants' and workers'soviets. As such it could never be a tool forrepression in the way the Red Army was.

The Makhnovist army existed until 1921. In thistime, the two largest 'White' (pro-Czarist)interventions of the Civil War came through theEastern Ukraine, those of Generals Wrangel andDenkin. In both of these cases, the Makhnovistsplayed a key part in defeating their advances.

Their militia organisation, and innovations likemachines guns mounted on horse drawn carts,enabled them to avoid the major concentrationsof white troops and smash through the rear ofthe the enemy. On one occasion they advancedover 200 miles in three days. Some historiansbelieve that without their action Petrogradwould have fallen.

In these struggles they allied with the RedArmy, sometimes technically operating as part ofit. They attempted to reach an agreement wherebyin return for not accepting Red Army deserterstheir Soviets would be allowed to functionindependently of the Bolshevik state. It appearsthat both Lenin and Trotsky toyed with thisidea.


But on all three occasions the alliance endedwhen the Whites were defeated and the Bolshevikslaunched surprise attacks on the Makhnoivsts.Those Makhnovists who were seized were eitherexecuted or imprisoned, the number imprisonedwent into tens of thousands. The same fateawaited the civilian delegates of theindependent soviets, and at least one anarchistdeported from the USA in 1919 (Bogush) wasexecuted by the Bolsheviks when he tried toreach the Makhnovists.

The Makhnovists were finally suppressed afterthe Civil War when the Bolsheviks concentratedhuge numbers of troops against them and steppedup brutal actions against peasants who shelteredthem. This counter insurgency strategy, whichthe US later used in Vietnam, succeeded becauseof the relatively small size and isolation ofthe Eastern Ukraine.

However their existence did demonstrate that ananarchist organised militia could take on anddefeat larger conventional forces. It wasperhaps this threat of a good example that wasthe major reason why the Bolsheviks went to suchlengths to crush them.

Further reading:

Nestor Makhno in the Russian Civil War by MikeMalet
History of the Makhnovist Movement by PeterArshinov

This article from Workers Solidarity No59
Published Spring 2000

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