Peter Arshinov


Peter Arshinov was a metal worker from the Ukraine who in 1904 joined the Bolshevik Party, turning to anarchism after the 1905-6 revolution. He was involved in terrorist acts, was imprisoned, and escaped to France, returning to Russia in 1909; having been caught transporting arms from Austria, he was imprisoned in Moscow, where he met Nestor Makhno. Both men were released early in the 1917 revolution, and in 1919 Arshinov joined Makhno in the Ukraine and became involved in cultural and educational work in the area controlled by the Makhnovite insurrectionary army. In 1921 Arshinov left the Ukraine, and, hiding in Moscow, wrote his History of the Makhnovist Movement.


History of the Makhnovist Movement

The Two Octobers

The Old and New in Anarchism


Peter Arshinov: History of the Makhnovist Movement (excerpt)

It is necessary to emphasize the historic fact that the honor of having annihilated the Denikinist counter-revolution in the autumn of 1919 belongs almost entirely to the Makhnovists.

If the insurgents had not won the decisive victory at Peregonovka, and had not destroyed the Denikinist supply lines for artillery, food and ammunition, the Whites would probably have entered Moscow in December 1919. The battle between the Whites and the Reds near Orel was relatively insignificant. In fact, Denikin’s southern retreat had already begun before this battle, having been provoked precisely by the defeat of his rearguard. All the subsequent military operations of the Denikinists had the sole purpose of protecting their rear and evacuating their munitions and supplies. Along the whole length of the route from Orel through Kursk to the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the Red Army advanced almost without resistance. Its entry into the Ukraine and the Caucasus was carried out in exactly the same way as its entry had been carried out a year earlier, at the time of the fall of the Hetman- along paths that were already cleared.

Purely military concerns absorbed nearly all the forces of the Makhnovists at this time. The state of war in the region was absolutely unfavorable to internal creative activities. Even so, the Makhnovists demonstrated the necessary initiative and diligence in this domain as well. First of all, wherever they went they undertook to prevent an important misunderstanding: the possibility of being taken for a new power or party. As soon as they entered a city, they declared that they did not represent any kind of authority, that their armed forces obliged no one to any sort of obligation and had no other aim than to protect the freedom of the working people. The freedom of the peasants and workers, said the Makhnovists, resided in the peasants and workers themselves and might not be restricted. In all fields of their lives it was up to the workers and peasants to construct what they considered necessary. As for the Makhnovists, they could only assist them with advice, and by putting at their disposal the intellectual or military forces they needed, but under no circumstances could the Makhnovists in any way prescribe for them.

Alexandrovsk and the surrounding region were the first places where the Makhnovists remained for a fairly long time. They immediately invited the working population to participate in a general conference of the workers of the city. When the conference met, a detailed report was given on the military situation in the region and it was proposed that the workers organize the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organizations, basing themselves on the principles of labour and equality. The workers enthusiastically acclaimed all these suggestions; but they hesitated to carry them out, troubled by their novelty, and troubled mainly by the nearness of the front, which made them fear that the situation of the city was uncertain and unstable. The first conference was followed by a second. The problems of organizing life according to the principles of self-management by the workers were examined and discussed with animation by the masses of workers, who all welcomed this idea with the greatest enthusiasm, but who only with difficulty succeeded in giving it concrete forms. Railroad workers took the first step in this direction. They formed a committee charged with organizing the railway network of the region, establishing a detailed plan for the movement of trains, the transport of passengers, the system of payments, etc. From this point on, the proletariat of Alexandrovsk began to turn systematically to the problem of creating organs of self-management.

Shortly after the workers’ meetings, a regional congress of peasants and workers was called at Alexandrovsk for October 20 1919. More than 200 delegates took part, among whom 180 were peasants, and the rest workers. The congress dealt with: a) military questions (the struggle against Denikin; reinforcement and maintenance of the insurrectionary army); b)) questions dealing with the constructive activity in the region.

Congress continued for nearly a week and was characterized by a remarkable spirit on the part of those present. This was largely due to specific circumstances. First of all, the return of the victorious Makhnovist army to its own region was an extremely important event for the peasants, since nearly every family bad one or two of its members among the insurgents. But still more important was the fact that the congress met in conditions of absolute freedom. There was no influence emanating from above. Besides all this, the congress had an excellent militant and speaker in the anarchist Voline, who, to the amazement of the peasants, lucidly expressed their own thoughts and wishes. The idea of free Soviets genuinely functioning in the interests of the working population; the question of direct relations between peasants and city workers, based on mutual exchange of the products of their labor, the launching of a stateless and egalitarian social organization in the cities and the country – all these ideas which Voline developed in his lectures, represented the very ideas of the peasantry. This was precisely the way the peasants conceived the revolution and creative revolutionary work …

“When the peasants left, they emphasized the need to put the decisions of the congress into practice. The delegates took away with them copies of the resolutions in order to make them known all over the countryside . . . Unfortunately, the freedom of the working masses is continually threatened by its worst enemy-authority. The delegates hardly had time to return to their homes when many of their villages were again occupied by Denikin’s troops, coming by forced marches from the northern front. To be sure, this time the invasion was only of short duration; it was the death agony of a dying enemy. But it halted the constructive work of the peasants at the most vital moment, and since another authority, equally hostile to the freedom of the masses – Bolshevism -was approaching from the north, this invasion did irreparable harm to the workers* cause: not only was it impossible to assemble a new congress, but even the decisions of the first could not be put into practice.

In the city of Ekaterinoslav, which was occupied by the insurgent army at the time of the congress, conditions were even less favorable for constructive activity in the economic sphere. Denikin’s troops, who were driven out of the city, managed to dig in on the left bank of the Dnieper River. Daily, for a whole month, they bombarded the city from their numerous armored trains. Each time the cultural section of the insurrectionary army managed to call a meeting of the city’s workers, the Denikinists, who were well informed, fired great numbers of shells, especially in the places where the sessions were held. No serious work, no systematic organization was possible. It was possible to hold only a few meetings in the center and in the suburbs of the city. The Makhnovists did, however, succeed in publishing their daily newspaper…

Throughout the liberated region, the Makhnovists were the only organization powerful enough to impose its will on the enemy. But they never used this power for the purpose of domination or even to gain political influence; they never used it against their purely political or ideological opponents. The military opponents, the conspirators against the freedom of action of the workers and peasants, the state apparatus, the prisons – these were the elements against which the efforts of the Makhnovist army were directed.

Prisons are the symbol of the servitude of the people. They are always built to subjugate the people, the workers and peasants. Throughout the centuries, the bourgeoisie in all countries crushed the spirit of rebellion or resistance of the masses by means of execution and imprisonment. And in our time, in the Communist and Socialist State, prisons devour mainly the proletariat of the city and the countryside. Free people have no use for prisons. Wherever prisons exist, the people are not free. Prisons represent a constant threat to the workers, an encroachment on their consciousness and will, and a visible sign of their servitude. This is how the Makhnovists defined their relationship to prisons. In keeping with this attitude, they demolished prisons wherever they went. In Berdyansk the prison was dynamited in the presence of an enormous crowd, which took an active part in its destruction. At Alexandrovsk, Krivoi-Rog, Ekaterinoslav and elsewhere, prisons were demolished or burned by the Makhnovists. Everywhere the workers cheered this act.

“It gives us great satisfaction to be able to state that the Makhnovists fully applied the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, of thought, of the Press, and of political association. In all the cities and towns occupied by the Makhnovists, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the Press and on political organizations by one or another power. Complete freedom of speech. Press, assembly, and association of any kind and for everyone were immediately proclaimed. During the few weeks that the Makhnovists spent at Ekaterinoslav, five or six newspapers of various political orientations appeared: the right Socialist-Revolutionary paper, Narodovlastie (The People’s Power), the left Socialist-Revolutionary paper, Znamya Vosstanya (The Standard of Revolt), the Bolshevik Zvezda (Star), and others. However, the Bolsheviks hardly had the right to freedom of the Press and association because they had destroyed, wherever they had been able to, the freedom of the Press and association of the working class, and also because their organization at Ekaterinoslav had taken a direct part in the criminal invasion of the Gulyai-Polye region in June 1919; it would only have been just to inflict a severe punishment on them. But, in order not to injure the great principles of freedom of speech and assembly, the Bolsheviks were not disturbed and could enjoy, along with all the other political tendencies, all the rights inscribed on the banner of the proletarian revolution.

The only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left-Socialist-Revolutionaries, and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those ‘revolutionary committees’ which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people. In Alexandrovsk, right after the occupation of these cities by the Makhnovists, the Bolsheviks hastened to organize Revkoms (Revolutionary Committees), seeking through them to establish their political power and govern the population. At Alexandrovsk, the members of the Revkom went so far as to propose to Makhno a division of spheres of action, leaving Makhno the military power and reserving for the Committee full freedom of action and all political and civil authority. Makhno advised them to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers; he even threatened to put to death the members of the Revkom if they undertook any authoritarian measures against the working population. At Ekaterinoslav, a similar Revkom was dissolved in the same way. In this context the Makhnovists attitude was completely justified and consistent. To protect the full freedom of speech, Press organization, they had to take measures against formations which sought to stifle this freedom, to suppress other organizations, and to impose their will and dictatorial authority on the workers. And when, in November, 1919, the commander of the Makhnovist Third (Crimean) insurrectional Regiment, Polonsky, was implicated in the activities of an authoritarian organization of this type, he was executed along with other members of the organization.

Here is the Makhnovists’ text regarding freedom of the Press and of association:

All socialist political parties, organizations and tendencies have the right to propagate their ideas, theories, views and opinions freely, both orally and in writing. No restriction of socialist freedom of speech and Press will be allowed, and no persecution will take place in this domain.

Remark. Military communiques may not be printed unless they are supplied by the editors of the central organ of the revolutionary insurgents. Put’ k Svobode.

In allowing all political parties and organizations full and complete freedom to propagate their ideas, the Makhnovist insurgent army wishes to inform all the parties that any attempt to prepare, organize and impose a political authority over the working people will not be permitted by the revolutionary insurgents, such an act having nothing in common with the free dissemination of ideas. Ekaterinoslav, November 5, 1919. Revolutionary Military Council of the Makhnovist Insurgent Army.

In the course of the whole Russian Revolution, the period of the Makhnovschina was the only period in which the freedom of the working masses found full expression. However painful and unstable the situation in Alexandrovsk, and especially in Ekaterinoslav, where shells from the armored trains of Denikin’s army fell daily, the workers of these two cities could for the first time in their history say and do anything they wanted, and as they wanted. In addition, they at last held in their own hands the tremendous possibility to organize their life and their work themselves, according to their own judgments and their own understanding of justice and truth.

At the end of the month, the Makhnovists were forced to leave Ekaterinoslav. But they had time to demonstrate to the working masses that true freedom resides in the hands of the workers themselves, and that it begins to radiate and develop as soon as statelessness and equality are established among them.

Peter Arshinov: The Old and New in Anarchism

In the anarchist organ Le Reveil of Geneva, in the form of a leaflet, comrade Errico Malatesta has published a critical article on the project of the Organisational platform edited by the Group of Russian Anarchists Abroad.

This article has provoked perplexity and regret in us. We very much expected, and we still expect, that the idea of organised anarchism would meet an obstinate resistance among the partisans of chaos, so numerous in the anarchist milieu, because that idea obliges all anarchists who participate in the movement to be responsible and poses the notions of duty and constancy. For up to now the favourite principle in which most anarchists are educated can be explained by the following axiom: “I do what I want, I take account of nothing”. It is very natural that anarchists of this species, impregnated by such principles, are violently hostile to all ideas of organized anarchism and of collective responsibility.

Comrade Malatesta is foreign to this principle, and it is for this reason that his text provokes this reaction in us. Perplexity, because he is a veteran of international anarchism, and if he has not grasped the spirit of the Platform, its vital character and its topicality, which derives from the requirements of our revolutionary epoch. Regret, because, to be faithful to the dogma inherent in the cult of individuality, he has put himself against (let us hope this is only temporary) the work which appears as an indispensable stage in the extension and external development of the anarchist movement.

Right at the start of his article, Malatesta says that he shares a number of theses of the Platform or even backs them up by the ideas he expounds. He would agree in noting that the anarchists did not and do not have influence on social and political events, because of a lack of serious and active organization.

The principles taken up by comrade Malatesta correspond to the principal positions of the Platform. One would have expected that he would have as equally examined, understood and accepted a number of other principles developed in our project, because there is a link of coherence and logic between all the theses of the Platform. However, Malatesta goes on to explain in a trenchant manner his difference of opinion with the Platform. He asks whether the General Union of Anarchists projected by the Platform can resolve the problem of the education of the working masses. He replies in the negative. He gives as reason the pretended authoritarian character of the Union, which according to him, would develop the idea of submission to directors and leaders.

On what basis can such a serious accusation repose? It is in the idea of collective responsibility, recommended by the Platform,that he sees the principal reason for formulating such an accusation. He cannot admit the principle that the entire Union would be responsible for every member, and that inversely each member would be responsible for the political line of all the Union. This signifies that Malatesta does not precisely accept the principle of organization which appears to us to be the most essential, in order that the anarchist movement can continue to develop.

Nowhere up to here has the anarchist movement attained the stage of a popular organized movement as such. Not in the least does the cause of this reside in objective conditions, for example because the working masses do not understand anarchism or are not interested in it outside of revolutionary periods;no, the cause of the weakness of the anarchist movement resides essentially in the anarchists themselves. Not one time yet have they attempted to carry on in an organised manner either the propaganda of their ideas or their practical activity among the working masses.

If that appears strange to comrade Malatesta, we strongly affirm that the activity of the most active anarchists-which includes himself-assume, by necessity, an individualist character; even if this activity is distinguished by a high personal responsibility, it concerns only an individual and not an organization. In the past, when our movement was just being born as a national or international movement, it could not be otherwise; the first stones of the mass anarchist movement had to be laid; an appeal had to be launched to the working masses to invite them to engage in the anarchist way of struggle. That was necessary, even if it was only the work of isolated individuals with limited means. These militants of anarchism fulfilled their mission; they attracted the most active workers towards anarchist ideas. However, that was only half of the job.. At the moment where the number of anarchist elements coming from the working masses increased considerably, it became impossible to restrict oneself to carrying on an isolated propaganda and practice, individually or in scattered groups. To continue this would be like running on the spot. We have to go beyond so as not to be left behind. The general decadence of the anarchist movement is exactly explained thus: we have accomplished the first step without going further.

This second step consisted and still consists in the grouping of anarchist elements, coming from the working masses, in an active collective capable of leading the organized struggle of the workers with the aim of realizing the anarchist ideas.

The question for anarchists of all countries is the following: can our movement content itself with subsisting on the base of old forms of organization, of local groups having no organic link between them, and each acting on their side according to its particular ideology and particular practice? Or, just fancy, must our movement have recourse to new forms of organization which will help it develop and root it amongst the broad masses of workers?

The experience of the last 20 years, and more particularly that of the two Russian revolutions-1905 and 1917-19- suggests to us the reply to this question better than all the “theoretical considerations”.

During the Russian Revolution, the working masses were won to anarchist ideas; nevertheless anarchism, as an organized movement suffered a complete setback whilst from the beginning of the revolution, we were at the most advanced positions of struggle, from the beginning of the constructive phase we found ourselves irremediably apart from the said constructive phase, and consequently outside the masses. This was not pure chance: such an attitude inevitably flowed from our own impotence, as much from an organisational point of view as from our ideological confusion.

This setback was caused by the fact that, throughout the revolution,the anarchists did not know how to put over their social and political programme and only approached the masses with a fragmented and contradictory propaganda; we had no stable organization. Our movement was represented by organizations of encounter, springing up here, springing up there, not seeking what they wanted in a firm fashion, and which most often vanished at the end of a little time without leaving a trace. It would be desperately naive and stupid to believe that workers could support and participate in such “organizations”, from the moment of the social struggle and communist construction.

We have taken the habit of attributing the defeat of the anarchist movement of 1917-19 in Russia to the statist repression of the Bolshevik Party; this is a big mistake. The Bolshevik repression impeded the extension of the anarchist movement during the revolution but it wasn’t the only obstacle. It’s rather the internal impotence of the movement itself which was one of the principal causes of this defeat, an impotence proceeding from the vagueness and indecision which characterized different political affirmations concerning organization and tactics.

Anarchism had no firm and concrete opinion on the essential problems of the social revolution; an opinion indispensable to satisfy the seeking after of the masses who created the revolution. The anarchists praised the communist principle of: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” but they never concerned themselves with applying this principle to reality, although they allowed certain suspect elements to transform this great principle into a caricature of anarchism – just remember how many con-men benefited by seizing for their personal profit the assets of the collectivity. The anarchists talked a lot about revolutionary activity of the workers, but they could not help them, even in indicating approximately the forms that this activity should take; they did not know how to sort out the reciprocal relations between the masses and their center of ideological inspiration. They pushed the workers to shake off the yoke of Authority, but they did not indicate the means of consolidating and defending the conquests of the Revolution. They lacked clear and precise conceptions , of a programme of action on many other problems. It was this that distanced them from the activity of the masses and condemned them to social and historical impotence. It is in this that we must seek the primordial cause of their defeat in the Russian revolution.

And we do not doubt that, if the revolution broke out in several European countries, anarchists would suffer the same defeat because they are no less-if not even more so-divided on the plan of ideas and organization.

The present epoch, when, by millions, workers engaged on the battlefield of social struggle, demanded direct and precise responses from the anarchists concerning this struggle and the communist construction which must follow it; it demanded of the same, the , the collective responsibility of the anarchists regarding these responses and anarchist propaganda in general.If they did not assume this responsibility the anarchists like anyone else in this case, do not have the right to propagandize in an inconsequent manner among the working masses, who struggled in agreeing to heavy sacrifices and lost numberless victims.

At this level, it it not a question of a game or the object of an experiment. That is how, if we do not have a General Union of Anarchists, we cannot furnish common responses on all those vital questions.

At the start of his article, comrade Malatesta appears to salute the idea of the creation of a vast anarchist organization, however, in categorically repudiating collective responsibility, he renders impossible the realization of such an organization. For that will not only not be possible if there exists no theoretical and organizational agreement, constituting a common platform where numerous militants can meet. In the measure to which they accept this platform, that must be obligatory for all. Those who do not recognize these basic principles, cannot become, and besides would themselves not want to,become a member of the organization.

In this fashion, this organization will be the union of those who will have a common conception of a theoretical, tactical and political line to be realized.

Consequently, the practical activity of a member of the organisation will be naturally in full harmony with the general activity, and inversely the activity of all the organization will not know how to be in contradiction with the conscience and activity of each of its members, if they accept the programme on which the organization is founded.

It is this that characterizes collective responsibility: the entire Union is responsible for the activity of each member, knowing that they will accomplish their political and revolutionary work in the political spirit of the Union. At the same time, each member is fully responsible for the entire Union, seeing that his activity will not be contrary to that elaborated by all its members. This does not signify in the least any authoritarianism, as comrade Malatesta wrongly affirms, it is the expression of a conscientious and responsible understanding of militant work.

It is obvious that in calling on anarchists to organize on the basis of a definite programme, we are not taking away as such the right of anarchists of other tendencies to organize as they think fit. However, we are persuaded that, from the moment that anarchists create an important organization, the hollowness and vanity of the traditional organizations will be revealed.

The principle of responsibility is understood by comrade Malatesta in the sense of a moral responsibility of individuals and of groups.This is why he only grants to conferences and their resolutions the role of a sort of conversation between friends, which in sum pronounce only platonic wishes.

This traditional manner of representing the role of conferences does not stand up to the test of life. In effect, what would be the value of a conference if it only had “opinions” and did not charge itself with realizing them in life? None. In a vast movement, a uniquely moral and non-organizational responsibility loses all its value.

Let us come to the question concerning majority and minority. we think that all discussion on this subject is superfluous. In practice, it has been resolved a long time ago. Always and everywhere among us, practical problems have been resolved by a majority of votes. It is completely understandable, because there is no other way of resolving these problems inside an organization that wants to act.

in all the objections raised against the Platform, there is lacking up to the moment the understanding of the most important thesis that it contains; the understanding of our approach to the organizational problem and to the method of its resolution. In effect, an understanding of these is extremely important and possesses a decisive significance with the idea of a precise appreciation of the Platform and all the organizational activity of the Dielo Trouda group.

The only way to move away from chaos and revive the anarchist movement is a theoretical and organizational clarification of our milieu, leading to a differentiation and to the selection of an active core of militants, on the basis of a homogeneous theoretical and practical programme. It is in this that resides one of the principle objectives of our text.

What does our clarification represent and what must it lead to ? The absence of a homogeneous general programme has always been a very noticeable failing in the anarchist movement, and has contributed to making it very often very vulnerable, its propaganda not ever having been coherent and consistent in relation to the ideas professed and the practical principles defended. Very much to the contrary, it often happens that what is propagated by one group is elsewhere denigrated by another group. And that not solely in tactical applications, but also in fundamental theses.

Certain people defend such a state of play in saying that in such a way is explained the variety of anarchist ideas. Well, let us admit it, but what interest can this variety represent to the workers?

They struggle and suffer today and now and immediately need a precise conception of the revolution, which can lead them to their emancipation right away; they don’t need an abstract conception, but a living conception, real , elaborated and responding to their demands. Whilst the anarchists often proposed, in practice, numerous contradictory ideas, systems and programmes, where the most important was neighbor to the insignificant, or just as much again, contradicted each other. In such conditions, it is easily understandable that anarchism cannot and will not ever in the future, impregnate the masses and be one with them, so as to inspire its emancipatory movement.

For the masses sense the futility of contradictory notions and avoid them instinctively; in spite of this, in a revolutionary period, they act and live in a libertarian fashion.

To conclude, comrade Malatesta thinks that the success of the Bolsheviks in their country stops Russian anarchists who have edited the Platform from getting a good night’s sleep. The error of Malatesta is that he does not take account of the extremely important circumstances of which the Organizational Platform is the product, not solely of the Russian revolution but equally of the anarchist movement in this revolution. Now, it is impossible not to take account of this circumstance so that one can resolve the problem of anarchist organization, of its form and its theoretical basis. It is indispensable to look at the place occupied by anarchism in the great social upheaval in 1917. What was the attitude of the insurgent masses with regard to anarchism and the anarchists? What did they appreciate in them? Why, despite this, did anarchism receive a setback in this revolution? What lessons are to be drawn? All these questions, and many others still, must inevitably put themselves to those who tackle the questions raised by the Platform. Comrade Malatesta has not done this. He has taken up the current problem of organization in dogmatic abstraction.It is pretty incomprehensible for us, who have got used to seeing in him, not an ideologue but a practician of real and active anarchism. He is content to examine in what measure this or that thesis of the Platform is or is not in agreement with traditional points of view of anarchism, then he refutes them, in finding them opposed to those old conceptions. Hecannot bring himself to thinking that this might be the opposite, that it is precisely these that could be erroneous, and that this has necessitated the appearance of the Platform. It is thus that can be explained all the series of errors and contradictions raised above.

Let us note in him a grave neglect; he does not deal at all with the theoretical basis, nor with the constructive section of the Platform, but uniquely with the project of organization. Our text has not solely refuted the idea of the Synthesis, as well as that of anarcho-syndicalism as inapplicable and bankrupt, it has also advanced the project of a grouping of active militants of anarchism on the basis of a more or less homogeneous programme. Comrade Malatesta should have dwelt with precision on this method; however,he has passed over it in silence, as well as the constructive section, although his conclusions apparently apply to the entirety of the Platform. This gives his article a contradictory and unstable character.

Libertarian communism cannot linger in the impasse of the past, it must go beyond it, in combating and surmounting its faults. The original aspect of the Platform and of the Dielo Trouda group consists precisely in that they are strangers to out of date dogmas, to ready made ideas, and that, quite the contrary, they endeavor to carry on their activity starting from real and present facts.This approach constitutes the first attempt to fuse anarchism with real life and to create an anarchist activity on this basis. It is only thus that libertarian communism can tear itself free of a superannuated dogma and boost the living movement of the masses.

Compiled by Romano Krauth
Originally published by which went offline in 2006

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