The Makhno Movement

The Махновщина, or Makhno movement, was a peasant revolt led by the anarchist Nestor Makhno during the period of the Russian revolution and civil war, 1917-1921. In 1921 Makhno and his remaining followers were driven out of Ukraine by the Red Army, and Makhno died in exile in Paris in the mid-1930s.

I have written a seminar paper, a review article and a doctoral dissertation on the subject of this revolt [see below]. The topic continues to excite minor interest because Makhno can claim to be one of the few anarchists to have actually exercised power (Barcelona in the 1930s may be another case). But it remains unclear whether all his followers were really anarchist.

Several years ago, I made two chapters of my dissertation available on my now defunct website at Tripod.com. Subsequently, I sent a copy at his request to Jason Yanowitz, who cited it extensively in his article "The Makhno myth", published in the International Socialist Review no.53, May-June 2007 [click here]. This piece was subsequently attacked by the anarchist Iain McKay in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. Although his main target is Yanowitz, McKay accuses me in passing of having produced what he calls an "obviously biased account" that relies "on Soviet sources for many of [the] key attacks on the Makhnovists". With no sense of irony, given that he apparently regards what he insists on calling "Soviet sources" as uniformly tainted, McKay asserts that my "Marxism may [i.e. does] get in the way of [my] objectivity". In an earlier polemic in the Weekly Worker (no.507, 4 December 2003, p.3), McKay had also criticised "Darch's uncritical use of Soviet histories on the subject" of Makhno.

Nestor Makhno


Meanwhile, other commentators more interested in military history than polemic reached other conclusions: "Colin Darch is more reliable. For a start he read the White sources" and "a quite dispassionate account, and pretty good on military details. (Peregenovka is particularly well covered.)" [Click here or here]. Similarly, the recent book by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, Black flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2009) [click here for details] is written from an anarchist perspective and cites my work critically in several places. Despite fundamental differences in analysis, the authors nevertheless politely describe my work as "excellent, if fairly hostile" to the anarchist project (p.266, note 105), and avoid personal attacks altogether.

In fact, the dissertation relies on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, which might perhaps be characterised as "anarchist", "Soviet", "Ukrainian nationalist" and so forth, if such a classification were helpful. McKay, I suggest, falls into the trap of believing that the voices from the past that we hear in the sources are speaking directly to us. But in fact, as historians, we are eavesdropping on forgotten conversations from which large chunks have been excised by the accidents of the intervening decades. There is no universal reason to trust or mistrust particular kinds of source - rather they must all, without exception, be subjected to critical evaluation for reliability and coherence. I have no objection to being proven wrong, and my account of the Махновщина is doubtless defective in many ways. But to accuse me of partiality in the use of sources is to mistake the discourse of political polemic for the discourse of the professional writing of history.

Iain McKay's recent response to my comments above, dated February 2020, is available here.



Nestor Makhno

My new book on Makhno will be published in June by Pluto Press:

Histories of the Russian Revolution often present the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 as the central event, neglecting the diverse struggles of urban and rural revolutionaries across the heartlands of the Russian Empire. This book takes as its subject one such struggle, the anarcho-communist peasant revolt led by Nestor Makhno in left-bank Ukraine, locating it in the context of the final collapse of the Empire that began in 1914.

Between 1917 and 1921, the Makhnovists fought German and Austrian invaders, reactionary monarchist forces, Ukrainian nationalists and sometimes the Bolsheviks themselves. Drawing upon anarchist ideology, the Makhnovists gathered widespread support amongst the Ukrainian peasantry, taking up arms when under attack and playing a significant role - in temporary alliance with the Red Army - in the defeats of the White Generals Denikin and Wrangel. Often dismissed as a kulak revolt, or a manifestation of Ukrainian nationalism, Colin Darch analyses the successes and failures of the Makhnovist movement, emphasising its revolutionary character.

Over 100 years after the revolutions, this book reveals a lesser known side of 1917, contributing both to histories of the period and broadening the narrative of 1917, whilst enriching the lineage of anarchist history.

♦ The Makhnovshchina, 1917-1921: ideology, nationalism and peasant insurgency in early twentieth century Ukraine. Ph.D. dissertation, Dept. of Social and Economic Studies, University of Bradford, 1994. 556 pages. Available from the British Library EThOS website here.

♦ The myth of Nestor Makhno. Economy and Society vol.14 no.4, November 1985, pages 524-536. Click here to view or download a PDF file, [750 Kb.]

♦ Nestor Makhno and peasant anarchism in southern Russia during the revolution and civil war, 1917-1921. Paper presented to the History Department Seminar, University of Dar es Salaam, 1978. Not yet available.