Heroes and Villains: A Review of Kontrrazvedka by Vyacheslav Azarov

Anarchists can’t seem to give up their heroes, no matter how badly they are shown to have behaved. When anarchists rule or kill or silence or tax others there is always some justification for these actions. Often the excuse is wartime conditions, but in other cases the misdeeds are seen as simple mistakes by well-intended class warriors. Apparently anarchists, especially anarchist leaders, are not to be held to the same standards as mere mortals or the “class enemy.”

The root of this willingness to justify unlibertarian actions by anarchists lies in the need for examples of supposedly successful anarchist experiments, for movements to look back at for inspiration, for larger-than-life leaders to admire and emulate. One sees this in the anarchist proclivity for naming their projects after anarchist icons like Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Lysander Spooner, or Errico Malatesta. Other anarchists reanimate once-dead (one had hoped) anarchist tendencies like platformism or syndicalism. And anarchist authors continue to lionize and make excuses for hopelessly flawed historical anarchists and movements, whether it is Bakunin, the spanish revolution, or the ukrainian makhnovshchina. This tradition of apologizing for authoritarian anarchists continues in the 2008 book Kontrrazvedka by anarchist Vyacheslav Azarov.

The Libertarian KGB

When I ordered this book, subtitled The Story of the Makhnovist Secret Service, I was laboring under the illusion that this would be a critique of the authoritarianism of Makhno and his associates, of which the existence of an “anarchist” spy service serves as a perfect example. Imagine my surprise when this book turned out to be a glorification of the secretive, military style organization of the makhnovist apparatus which ruled over a large area of ukraine for a number of years early in the 20th century. Just as the details provided about the conduct of Makhno and his associates were either not new or not unexpected, the largely uncritical acceptance of their statist and hierarchical behavior was, sadly, quite predictable.

Throughout this book, as the author describes the structure of both the makhnovist army and its secret police he talks of officers, subordinates, directors. He describes alliances made by Makhno and the other leaders with both red and white armies, noting that Makhno actually served as an officer in the red army at times. He documents that the supposedly libertarian military stole (expropriated or requisitioned in the words of the author) food, clothing and other supplies from the people in areas they controlled.

And he goes on. Summary executions (liquidations according to Azarov) with or without the pretense of a trial appear to have been not uncommon when someone was identified as an enemy, but in other cases officers from the red army were absorbed by the makhnovist military and were allowed to retain their positions of authority. They sometimes allowed oppositional press and agitation, but other times suppressed it, dismissing officers for spreading bolshevik propaganda. The leaders appear to have based their decisions on some calculation of which approach best promoted their ends in the different situations, not on any ethical principles.

Makhno was referred to as batko or ataman, both of which are ukrainian names for authoritarian military leaders. And he happily lived up to this description. He gave orders, expected obedience, and had his own personal security service. The army had a representative, not participatory, structure where leaders were elected by some larger group but once in power acted like any other authoritarian leaders, expecting discipline, requiring obedience, and meting out punishment for those who would not comply.   That the differences between the various military organizations at-large were largely lost on rank-and-file soldiers is demonstrated by Azarov’s stories of the periodic realignment of some army units from red to white to anarchist. The military was the core institution of the makhnovshchina and constituted a government in all but name.

Both inside and outside the army, this supposed anarchist experiment was riddled with spies. In the non-military sphere there were networks of loyalists not unlike the committees for the defense of the revolution in cuba, always seeking to uncover hidden “anti-makhnovist elements” and ready to narc on their neighbors. In addition to the kontrrazvedka there was a military police force that was responsible for the maintenance of order and discipline in places where troops were stationed, as well as a commission for anti-makhnovist activities. While Azarov claims that Makhno allowed freedom of the press, he tells us of an episode where Makhno wanted to arrest and shoot the authors of articles that criticized him but was “talked…out of this with difficulty.”

The Road to Unfreedom

Azarov clearly demonstrates that the makhnovshchina was run by a military hierarchy which had more in common with the red army than it had differences from it. And this oxymoronic anarchist military was dominated by one person—Makhno. In a society supposedly striving for freedom and equality the batko was clearly more equal than others. There were commanders and those who obeyed, there were police, there were neighborhood spies, there were executions. The army took what it wanted from those it ruled and killed those it considered enemies. And all this time the makhnovists and their supporters spouted libertarian-sounding slogans, while behaving like authoritarians.

There were critics at the time all this was happening, including among the Nabat federation anarchists in ukraine. However, they tended to mute their criticism or offer “critical support,” under the misguided assumption that these quasi-anarchists following the batko might somehow evolve into real libertarians when they had won the war. Since that never happened, there is no way to know if, in fact, there would have been an epiphany in the makhnovshchina and Makhno would either have relinquished his authority or would have been forced from power by his former acolytes. His later advocacy of the platformist approach to anarchist organizing argues against that. As does the sad example of so many others, from bolsheviks to sandinistas, who justified their wartime authoritarianism as a requirement for victory, but continued to embrace the same statist approach even after the fighting was over and they had consolidated their power.

But Azarov, as others have done before him, continues to give Makhno a pass. While acknowledging the brutality of some of Makhno’s actions, the writer defends them on the basis that they weren’t as bad as those of Makhno’s opponents. He cites the numbers killed by the anarchists, reds, and whites in various situations to demonstrate that the libertarians killed far fewer people than did their enemies, as if there is some magic number at which murder morphs from justifiable to indefensible. A quote form the book illustrates Azarov’s view: “Nevertheless, any active organization of anarchists was compelled to make use of weapons and mechanisms of ‘the old society’ in order to pave the way towards an anarchical future. Compelled for the simple reason that there were no other effective mechanisms. The main question here is whether the anarchists could control these mechanisms or would there be yet another State generated under their, albeit black, banners.” The answer to that question is that Makhno’s army did constitute a state.

The author goes even further, though. He not only makes excuses, but in fact goes on to endorse the makhnovist approach. He writes: “[W]ithout the kontrrazvedka … the makhnovshchina would generally not have been able to develop its full strength and show the world the heights of the human spirit liberated from authority…The makhnovist kontrrazvedka…shows better than any other structure how competent, sensible, composed, and resourceful people can be who are true to the anarchist ideal.” Really? A top-down, thoroughly authoritarian army run by one person better demonstrates how libertarians could live freely together than do the numerous examples of anarchists engaging in workaday mutual aid, libertarian labor organizations, intentional communities like Modern Times, etc? The word doublespeak springs to mind.

Other Voices, Other Rooms

 The core problem with the makhnovshchina was that the participants never challenged the conventional model of statist societies and economies. They continued to have leaders and followers, officers and recruits, those who gave orders and those who obeyed them at risk of punishment including death. The most common excuse for this is that there was a war going on against the red and white authoritarians. The argument goes that if the libertarians didn’t win the war they would not have had any chance of setting up their anarchist society. In other words, the ends justify the means. This flies in the face of the anarchist insight that the means are just as important as the ends—that if you have to treat people like shit to get to a place where you believe they will be treated well, there is something wrong with your project. The free society will never be achieved by adopting the methods of the enemies of liberty.

This point is too often lost on libertarians who seem drawn to guerrilla movements and people’s militias which use anarchist (or even socialist)–sounding rhetoric while simultaneously maintaining a command structure within their organizations, universally pushing charismatic leaders up to the top to direct the struggle of the “masses.” Anarchists, like everyone else seem to need heroes, and like others are all too willing to look the other way when these idols do not live up to their principles or promises. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.      I am not a pacifist. I believe in armed self-defense as needed. But individuals and voluntary groupings fighting back against the attacks of others who wish to coerce them has nothing in common with an army or other military institution. Looking back on the events that took place in the makhnovshchina, Voline/Eichenbaum, one of the anarchists involved in this project, made exactly this point when he wrote at the end of The Unknown Revolution: “Any army, of whatever kind, is an evil, and even a free and popular army, composed of volunteers and dedicated to the defense of a noble cause, is by its very nature a danger…it becomes a collection of idlers who acquire antisocial, authoritarian and even dictatorial leanings, acquire also a taste for violence as a thing in itself, for the use of brute force even in cases where recourse to such means is contrary to the very cause it purports to defend.”

This point is too often lost on libertarians who seem drawn to guerrilla movements and people’s militias which use anarchist (or even socialist)–sounding rhetoric while simultaneously maintaining a command structure within their organizations, universally pushing charismatic leaders up to the top to direct the struggle of the “masses.”  Anarchists, like everyone else seem to need heroes, and like others are all too willing to look the other way when these idols do not live up to their principles or promises.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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