Jim Feast reviews No Harmless Power: The Life and Times of the Ukrainian Anarchist Nestor Makhno

By Jim Feast

No Harmless Power by Charlie Allison is both stirring and depressing. It tells the story of Unranian anarchist Nestor Makhno who during the time of the Russian Revolution, generalled a small army, one that expanded and contracted according to the fortunes of war. This force was fighting the white armies of reactionaries who wanted to stop the revolution, working sometimes in alliance with Bolsheviks and later, after the reds had repeatedly betrayed them, battling both reds and whites. Of special significance is that when Makhno’s troops liberated a Ukranian territory, which would be made up largely of farms, they expelled the rich landowners and gave the land to the peasants who often ran their farms cooperatively. It was a short-lived trial of small peasant-control since as soon as the whites, who had superior forces and weaponry – Makhno’s group often had to turn away volunteers as they had no guns to give them – took back the land, they re-enslaved any peasants they didn’t kill for over zealously backing the anarchists.

Like the peasants, Makhno was himself was multiply beset, fending off assassinatiton attempts and betrayals from conservatives, the communists and turncoats within his ranks who disliked his often-highhanded methods. Fighting on all sides from 1917-1921 when the Bolsheviks overran the Ukraine, Makhno fled the country, ending up in Paris to spend the rest of his life isolated and on the verge of destitution.

Where Allison can be praised for giving a well-reseached and sobering account, he can also be complimented for his admirable brashness. Where most academic historians, trained to hide their biases under the mask of objectivity, will refrain from passing explicit judgement on their material, Allison hoists his black flag. With a healthy suspicion of heroes, he depicts Makhno as a man of both flaws and strengths. Moreover, without mincing words, he roundly excoriates the trickery and treachery of the Bolsheviks, who, for example, when Makhno’s men were allied with them, keeping trying to send them to Poland, where they would have little local support. More generally, Allison underscores the corruptiton and venality of the ownership class and frequently takes digs at how the police usually function to harshly put down even the mildest dissent while never noticing the fraud and misconduct of the wealthy.

One can see this as part of a larger effort to make an anarchist understanding more accessible. This involves writing novels, histories, poetry, science books and other works that take up an anarchist world view. This also involves, for example in composing a history, making the chronicles highly readable in the way Allison does in how he puts in jokes, relevant references to the present, colorful anecdotes and well-placed insults of the haves. Peter Werbe’s Summer on Fire, about the 1976 Detroit riot is another good example of this genre. It’s an open secret that most mainstream history is unspeakably dull. The best anarchist history goes in the other direction, being informing, gripping, relevant and, when appropriate, filled with barbed humor.