[Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, by Victor Peters, Book review]


Until now there have been only three book-length accounts of Nestor Makhno, his life and achievements. All have been written by avowed anarchists and all by men closely involved in the Makhnovist movement – Makhno himself, Peter Arshinov, and V. H. Eichenbaum, called Voline. Only Voline’s account, forming the greater part of The Unknown Revolution, has appeared in English.

There have been references to Makhno in recent English books on anarchism and on the Russian revolution, but no more than a chapter has been devoted to him in any of these books, which include David Footman’s Civil War in Russia, Max Nomad’s Apostles of Revolution and Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists – and at times, as in Nomad’s case, the treatment has been offensively sensational.

One therefore welcomes the first book on Makhno actually to be written in English – Nestor Makhno: The Life of an Anarchist, by Victor Peters. Peters is not an anarchist. At the same time he is not a man seeking sensation for its own sake, and his approach is admirably objective; he keeps faithfully to his material and does not attempt to distort it in the arrangement or interpretation of his narrative.

In collecting and assessing this material, Peters has had one advantage over all who have written on Makhnovism with the exception of the actual participants in the movement. He is the son of a Mennonite peasant from the region of Gulyai Polye, the heart of Makhno country, and he himself was born in that locality. Living in Canada, where many Ukrainians and Mennonites emigrated after the Russian civil war, he has had unique opportunities to meet and correspond with survivors of the Makhnovite insurrection – one of them a former member of Makhno’s insurrectionary army, others former Ukrainian nationalists and supporters of Petlura, yet others local peasants whose lives were shaped by the happenings of the time. Naturally, each account is coloured by the teller’s own views of events, but there is an advantage in this, since the variety of impressions balances the distortions that inevitably appeared in the narratives of Arshinov, Voline and Makhno himself, all of them seeking to justify themselves before history. In balancing these viewpoints, Peters strives to achieve a fair picture, reproducing the evidence of Makhnovist brutalities (which even Voline admitted) but also defending Makhno strongly from the accusations of anti-Semitism which his enemies brought against him. 

Inevitably, this book will stir again the doubts which any account of Makhno is bound to arouse in those who take anarchism to be a doctrine of freedom based on the assumption that man is a naturally social creature whose inclinations to mutual aid have been perverted by authoritarian structures.

Makhno, of course, acknowledged such beliefs. He simplified Kropotkin’s anarchist-communism into a kind of pastoral radicalism, which held that urban existence defied the natural law of mutuality and freedom, and that only in the villages of the steppes and the forests could men live as truly social beings. But these naive and benevolent tenets were combined in practice with a violence and a capricious authoritarianism that denied both the rights and the redeemability of any man who did not accept Makhno’s doctrine or who might merely belong to the wrong class or follow the wrong occupation. 

Reading the sickeningly frequent accounts of summary executions, one realises that Makhno, a Ukrainian peasant to the depths of his being (Peters disposes convincingly of the legend that he was a teacher), combined with his libertarian creed the disposition and the habits of the freebooting Cossack leaders who ruled this region in the past; rather than a rural Bakunin, he was a latter-day Stenka Razin. He was a brilliant guerrilla tactician. He understood the peasant mentality (which is why – as Peters suggests – he often gives the best account of the background to events at Gulyai Polye) and he drew the support of the poor and the young. Yet there is no denying that he was a leader, and often a ruthless if rather sporadic disciplinarian; he was also a hero. And heroes and leaders are myth-inflated figures, appealing to false emotions, whom anarchists should distrust as much as the village priests and smalltown merchants whom the Makhnovists killed as class enemies. (A recent Freedom supplement unconsciously admitted the equivocal nature of the appeal of men like Makhno and Durruti by billing them as “unsung heroes”; heroism is a false criterion, since one can be a hero – or a martyr – in the most despicable of causes; men must be judged outside the Homeric context, as men.) 

Like the record of Durruti (adored like Makhno by peasants to whom he was a distant legend more fervently than by those through whose country his columns marched) that of Makhno is filled with ambivalences, and some of them have appalling resonances.

There is the problem, which neither Makhno nor the Spanish anarchists ever solved, of creating by libertarian means an army that would stand against more ruthlessly disciplined aggressors. Makhno mingled liberty with terror in organising his levies, some of whom were virtually conscripts, and the outcome was an army that had fantastic mobility, that could inflict considerable and even decisive defeats on armies like those of Denikin and Wrangel whose logistics were primitive, but that could not stand against the sustained pressure of the Red Army combined with Trotsky’s treachery, which merely hastened an inevitable hour of defeat. War is a totalitarian affair, the prototype of a totalitarian society. That is why the involvement of anarchists in organised longterm conflicts has always ended in catastrophe. The citizen army that wins victories out of idealist enthusiasm is an old revolutionary myth, but it has never been any more than a myth; the victorious armies of the French revolution were filled with terror-stricken conscripts.

And then there is the general question of violence, by which I mean in this case the willingness to kill others in the pursuit of political goals. Here there is a point of fundamental anarchist logic which Godwin, Proudhon, Tolstoy, Read and Ghandi all understood, and which Kropotkin at least sensed but did not directly admit out of loyalty to his youthful mythology. There is no way of destroying a man’s liberty more thoroughly than by killing him; in that act we usurp all power over his destiny, and so become the ultimate tyrants. There may be justification for killing in self-defence; there can be excuse for killing in passion. But the kind of coldly conceived ‘executions’ which the Makhnovists and later many of the Spanish anarchists perpetrated, the slaughter of defenceless men who happened to be in their power just because of their social backgrounds, their beliefs or even their sexual predilections (for it is established that Barcelona anarchists at one time rounded up male prostitutes and liquidated them), are in effect demonstrations of the illusory nature of anarchist beliefs. For if we cannot accept the possibility that our enemies may change and redeem their errors, then we are denying our belief that men are naturally inclined to freedom and mutual aid and are merely perverted by authority. I can see no way out of this dilemma, no way in which a man can deliberately encompass the death of another without in effect denying his anarchism.

I accept Makhno’s sincerity, I acknowledge his heroism but reject it as irrelevant, I believe he genuinely desired to liberate the poor peasants and as genuinely detested Bolshevik authoritarianism, I credit him with being a tactician probably unrivalled in the history of guerrilla warfare, I find him a fascinating personality, but I do not think that his pretensions to being an anarchist can be accepted. He was a peasant insurrectionary whose vaguely libertarian ideals were overwhelmed by the Wagnerian resonances of Cossack legends; he was the last of the bandit leaders in the Ukrainian tradition. One can grant that the Ukraine would have been better off if he had not been defeated by the Bolsheviks. But that, like everything else connected with Makhno, was part of the local history in which he was imprisoned. To reinflate and universalise the epic of his heroism, as some modern libertarians have done (particularly the more suspect ones like Cohn-Bendit) is not merely to perform an act of absurd antiquarian piety; it is to fail to observe that Makhno left unsolved, because he did not understand it, the dilemma of freedom and violence that has bedevilled anarchism for a century.

George Woodcock

Anarchy (Second Series) #10 [1972] p27-28

For a response, see ‘The Nature of Non-Violent Fascism and the George Woodcock Myth‘ [Uploaded as supporting material for ‘Slaughter or slander? Notes on the Albert Meltzer-George Woodcock conflict’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No.107-108, December 2022: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/cjt075 ]