Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2014

Chris Ford’s introduction to Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism”

Filed under: Russia,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

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This is the introduction to Ivan Maistrenko’s “Borot’bism: A Chapter in the History of the Ukrainian Revolution”. Maistrenko was a veteran of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1919-1920 who eventually joined the Trotskyist movement. In referring to the Ukrainian revolution, I choose my words carefully. Although it occurred around the same time as the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks did not lead it. In fact they mostly functioned as a bureaucratic obstacle, sadly anticipating the Kremlin’s repeated miscues in Germany a few years later. The more I read about this period, the more I am convinced that there were no “heroic days” of the Comintern. When I joined the Trotskyist movement, I was indoctrinated into believing that the rise of Stalin was a kind of fall from paradise. In reality, the world would have been much better off it there had been no Comintern and that revolutionary parties had been allowed to learn from their own mistakes rather than having mistakes imposed upon them from afar. The details in Fords’ article overlaps to a considerable degree with those in Zbigniew Kowalewski’s “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” (http://louisproyect.org/2014/04/20/lenins-party-great-russian-chauvinism-and-the-betrayal-of-ukrainian-national-aspirations/). Reading these two articles is mandatory for those trying to come to grips with the tangled history of Russia, the Ukraine and the socialist movement. For those content to repeat RT.com’s talking points, it is probably too late for you—god save your miserable soul.

Social emancipation and national liberation: the dialectics of the Ukrainian Revolution

By Chris Ford

Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the most well known Ukrainian leaders in the 20th century, coined the phrase vsebichne vyzvolennia — “universal liberation”. By this he meant the “universal (social, national, political, moral, cultural, etc.) liberation” of the worker and peasant masses. This striving for “such a total and radical liberation” represented the “Ukrainian Revolution” in the broad historical sense. However the expression the “Ukrainian Revolution” may also be used in the narrower sense, of the great upheavals aimed at this object, the most noteworthy of which marked the years 1917-1920. According to Vynnychenko, the “universal current” which strove to realize this historical tendency of the revolution comprised the most radical of the socialist parties, the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ party (Independentists), or Nezalezhnyky, the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries-Borotbisty and the oppositional currents amongst the Bolsheviks in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Revolution cannot be understood without sharing the hopes, disappointments and aspirations of its participants. One such participant in those dramatic events which form the subject of this book is its author Ivan Maistrenko. His book tells the story of the revolution through the history of one element of that “universal current” — the Borotbisty. Long out of print, Borotbism is one of the most valuable studies of the revolution; its republication will fill a gap in our knowledge of this pivotal moment of the 20th century.


On the eve of the revolution Ukraine was partitioned between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, the majority of its territory having been held in a colonial position by Tsarist Russia for over two and a half centuries. But contrary to the prognosis of a number of analysts, the development of capitalism did not render permanent its status as a so-called “non-historic” nation.’ Though this was not for the want of trying; in the mind of Moscow there was no Ukraine; only the southern province known as Malorossia — ‘Little Russia’. To maintain it in this position Ukraine was subjected to systematic institutional discrimination through policies of Russification.

Whereas movements of the subject peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as the Czechs, and Ukrainians of Galicia developed apace, this was not so across the border. There the Ukrainian movement developed slowly in a protracted struggle with Tsarist absolutism, which responded with a hostility and severe repression qualitatively different from its attitude towards other nationalities. This can be explained by the role Ukraine played in the foundation of the Russian Empire. Its ingestion by the Muscovite state, which usurped the name of the medieval state of Kievan ‘Rus‘ , brought with it the acquisition of the black earth belt, the banks of the Black Sea and its large natural resources of Ukraine. This strengthened its ability to take part in world economic life and was the step which transformed it into the Russian Empire, a factor which is of no small importance in the mind of Russian nationalism to this day.

The social and economic geography of Ukraine was changed drastically over the centuries of Russian rule, transformed into what the economist Mykhaylo Volobuyev characterized as a colony of a “European type”. As opposed to the more underdeveloped “Asiatic type” colonies, the development of capitalism resulted in a peculiar mixture of backwardness and modernity in Ukraine. This arose from a combination of the Russian state forcing the growth of capitalism and the extensive intervention of European capital. Whilst European capital appeared to relegate Russian capital to second place, it did not diminish but compounded Ukraine’s position. Volobuyev observed a dual process in the economy of the Russian Empire, a tendency towards its concentration on a capitalist basis and a centrifugal tendency to integrate with the global economy directly:

Hence, the question of whether there was a single Russian pre-revolutionary economy should be answered as follows: it was a single economy on an antagonistic, imperialist basis, but from the viewpoint of centrifugal forces of the colonies oppressed by her, it was a complex of national economies…. The Ukrainian economy was not an ordinary province of Czarist Russia, but a land which was placed in a colonial position.

The development of capitalism in Ukraine was not organic; rather, development occurred to suit the needs of others. Within the colonial framework this impacted on the state, capital, labor relations and composition of the social classes. The capitalist class on the territory of Ukraine was overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian, prompting Ukrainian socialists to consider their nation as bezburzhaunisf , bourgeoisless. In 1917 the number of wage workers stood at approximately 3.6 million, with almost half in the mining and steel enclave of the Donbas. Inclusive of their dependents, the working class generically amounted to some 6.5 million – 21 percent of the populace, with Ukrainians in the industrial centers of Katerynoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev comprising only 17 percent.

The working class also bore the stigmata of colonialism, emerging at the historic conjuncture when capitalism was shifting into the phase of imperialism. This saw the division of the globe based on the relative strength and influence of the core metropolitan states, a phase characterized by a further concentration and centralization of capital, shifting from laissez-faire with the rise of cartels, trusts and state monopolies. This witnessed a transformation not only in capital but within the working class itself, seeing the growth of a privileged strata, an ‘aristocracy of labor’. Whilst it is rarely acknowledged, Russian imperialism was no exception. In Ukraine the working class was comprised initially of mainly Russian migrant labor inclusive of an upper layer in the higher paid, skilled posts. Ukrainian new entrants found Russian not only the language of the state and administration but of the labor regime, the factory owner and foreman, their immediate class adversary.

These developments posited the national question at the point of production through a division of labor which relegated Ukrainians to the low paid, flexible labor strata, under-represented in heavy industry and over-represented in service and agricultural sectors. Like the Irish emigrants in England, they served as a pool of cheap labor, with one difference; it was in their own country. It was not coincidental that Russian nationalism expressed itself in the most extreme forms in Ukraine where the notorious Black Hundreds were disproportionately strong. This chauvinism permeated the working class. The observations of a local blacksmith in Yuzovka (now Donetsk) during the 1905 revolution provide flavor: “Whose running this? A bunch of Khokholy and Zhidy“, that is Ukrainians and Jews.

Ukraine’s process of urbanization followed the pattern of being complementary of the needs of Russian and European capital, with Russians and other non-Ukrainian minorities hegemonic. Ukrainians constituted about a third of the population; nine out of ten Ukrainians lived in the rural districts, mostly classed as peasants with whom Ukrainian was synonymous. It was here more than anywhere that the social and national questions became enmeshed in an explosive cocktail.

Capitalist growth required an end to serfdom but the ‘Emancipation’ of 1861 did not solve the agrarian problem; by 1905 it was acute with a growing a wave of discontent across the Empire. In 1917, there were 4,011,000 peasant households in Russian-ruled Ukraine. Of them, 15.8 percent had no land under cultivation, 20 percent owned between 0.1 to 3.0 desyatinas per farm and 55.6 percent owned 3.1 to 10.0 desyatinas per farm.12 These sections lived in relative scales of poverty, whilst the remaining 8.6 percent owned more than 10.0 desyatinas each and were wealthy peasants – kurkuls [kulaks].

Half of the poorer farms rented their land and made a living as sharecroppers or hired labor. The situation was exacerbated by the growth of the rural populace which outpaced the peasants’ ability to purchase land. The rate of impoverishment grew apace. In the ‘bread basket of Europe’ the kurkuls and landlords exported 24 percent of grain harvests whilst the majority lived at subsistence level or hunger. The health of Ukrainian peasants was on a scale markedly worse than European Russia. The intimate relationship between the agrarian and national questions flowed not only from the class composition of the Ukrainian nation, but directly from the nature of the landowners. Alongside the Russian state, church and monasteries, a third of arable land was held by a class of which three out of four were Russians or Poles. The alienation of the peasants was captured by the Ukrainian Bolshevik Vasyl Shakhray who, looking through the eyes of a peasant, wrote:

The city rules the village and the city is ‘alien’. The city draws to itself all the wealth and gives the village nothing in return. The city extracts taxes, which never return to the village in the Ukraine. In the city one must pay bribes to be freed from scorn and red tape. In the city are warm fires, schools, theatres, and music plays. The city is expensively dressed as for a holiday, it eats and drinks well, many people promenade. In the village there is, besides hard work, impenetrable darkness and misery, almost nothing. The city is aristocratic it is alien. It is not ours, not Ukrainian. It is Great-Russian, Jewish, Polish, but not ours, not Ukrainian.

This position as a colony of Russia and semi-colony of European capital was further evident in the economic inequality which prevailed. In 1882 to 1906, less than half of the revenue raised in Ukraine remained for reinvestment in Ukraine; a trend that continued year after year. Karl Kautsky observed that for Ukraine:

Capitalism develops in only one dimension for the Ukrainian people -it proletarianizes them, while the other dimension – the flowering of the productive forces, the accumulation of surplus and wealth – is mainly for the benefit of other countries. Because of this, capitalism reveals to Ukrainians only its negative, revolutionizing dimension…it does not lead to an increase in their wealth.

In this historical context we may delineate the problems that faced the rebirth of Ukraine. Which of the social classes could attain hegemony and transcend the deep social cleavages, establishing a cohesive and viable system? To adopt a Gramscian approach, only a fundamental class which occupies one of the poles in society could become hegemonic, securing the national-popular elements, and appear as the representative of the general interest. Whilst the emergence of national states had previously coincided with the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the nature of the capitalist system in Ukraine negated such a role for the bourgeoisie as the unifying ethico-political element. For a “nation of workers and peasants” with “no nationally conscious bourgeoisie” it logically followed that the hegemonic role should correspond to the nation’s character, making the emancipation of labor integral to the quest for national liberation. Concurrently the leading theorist of the Ukrainian Social Democrats, Mykola Porsh, concluded in 1907 that the:

Ukrainian national movement will not be a bourgeois movement of triumphant capitalism as in the case of the Czechs. It will be more like the Irish case, a proletarian and semi-proletarianized peasant movement.


These contours of the Ukrainian movement were already apparent in 1905, having produced its own organic intellectuals and organized in political parties, unions, co-operatives, cultural and Prosvita educational associations. The movement which emerged at the start of the 20th century contained an energetic current which was strongly influenced by socialist thought and the struggles of the worker-peasant masses. It was the starting point of a new period for the Ukrainian movement.

With the fall of the autocracy in 1917 the Ukrainian Revolution soon differentiated itself from the wider Russian Revolution, setting as its task the achievement of national liberation through the creation of a self-governing Ukrainian state. The period between February and October 1917 was one of unprecedented “national enthusiasm among the masses of Ukrainian peasants, soldiers and worker masses” in the conflict with the Russian Provisional Government.

The movement was a bloc of the petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and the Ukrainian section of the working class, centered in the Ukrainian Central Rada. At its head was Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, Ukraine’s greatest historian, elected chairman on behalf of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR), and the Marxist Volodymyr Vynnychenko, popular writer and leader of the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party (USDRP), elected vice-president and then first president of the General Secretariat, the autonomous government of Ukraine. For all its imperfections arising from its improvised character, lack of experience and political culture, it was the most democratic parliament in Ukraine’s history. The Central Rada was a mass assembly consisting of councils of peasants’, soldiers’ and workers’ deputies elected at their respective congresses; it later expanded its constituency, drawing in the national minorities. This included the pioneering organization of Jewish national autonomy in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian word ‘rada’ and Russian ‘sovet’, meaning council, are direct transliterations, and such a political translation was made on many occasions with Ukrainians declaring support for soviet power and the Central Rada because it was a soviet. The revolution in Ukraine contrasted with the ‘dual power’ situation in Russia between the soviets and the Provisional Government. This was due to the national peculiarities of the revolution which gave rise to a rich diversity of popular organs of self-government, such as the Ukrainian Peasant Union, councils of workers’ deputies, soldiers’ councils, factory committees and the Ukrainian Central Rada which drew delegates from many of these and other bodies which appeared in the localities of Ukraine.

The Central Rada did not exist in a vacuum; it faced the burning questions of the world war, agrarian revolution, spiralling economic crisis and demands for workers’ control. If the project of national liberation was to succeed, it needed to provide solutions. In this regard all parties were tested by the movement from below which gave little room for prevarication for those at the helm. But whilst all the leading parties in the Central Rada identified themselves as socialists, there were fundamental differences in their conceptions of the revolution and requisite political strategy. On the burning questions they prevaricated and at key moments lagged behind the pace of the popular movement, even on the national question with which it was preoccupied. As a result, relations strained within the Central Rada, between its ruling circles drawn largely from the intelligentsia and the middle class, and the rank and file of the Ukrainian movement. The emergence of this milieu, which increasingly diverged from the radicalism of the rank and file, pointed to the danger of bureaucracy even within a body as democratic as the Central Rada.

This divergence was, as Vynnychenko explained, not about personalities but politics. The prevailing opinion was that the creation of a sovereign state was the “precondition of the success of its struggle for political and social liberation”. This perspective corresponded with the predominant view held by most socialists that the revolution in the backward Russian Empire could only be bourgeois democratic in its nature. There were differences over who comprised the camp of the ‘revolutionary democracy’, and whether it should be an alliance of the working class with the liberal bourgeoisie or an independent bloc of the workers and peasantry, excluding the latter. Either way, few believed that the requisite material and social conditions were available for a socialist revolution. In Ukraine the national question brought an additional dimension to this debate. As the urban working class was largely Russian, critics of a socialist revolution considered that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ would exclude the Ukrainian peasantry, negating national liberation.

These traditional opinions were challenged, on the one hand by the popular movement from below and on the other hand from above by the antagonism towards the Ukrainian national democratic movement by the liberal and conservative wings of Russia. The opinion steadily grew in the socialist parties that they were in a transitional phase; the task being to “carry the bourgeois democratic revolution to its conclusion” and “carry out a social revolution.” The historical orthodoxies have largely neglected this tendency within the Ukrainian Revolution, considering its location of origin as Bolshevik influence in the soviets, or even in Russia itself. This view holds but a partial truth, for to grasp fully this conjuncture it is necessary to recognize that this tendency also grew organically out of the development of the Ukrainian Revolution itself; a fact illustrated by the increased levels of class consciousness of workers and peasants, confirmed in the evolution experienced by the Ukrainian socialist parties. One criticism levelled at Maistrenko’s Borotbism was that he adopted a “somewhat doctrinaire approach” and “party history in the Bolshevist sense.” Yet it was precisely such organs through which the subjective forces articulated their aspirations and solutions during the revolutionary process.

In Russia this radical turn saw the different strands of the popular movement brought into unity by the Bolshevik-Left SRs leadership in the soviets, which caught up with the changed mood. The key feature of the revolution in Ukraine was not of such harmony but of the divergence between the subjective forces.

The Russian or Russified population in the cities was cut off from Ukrainian towns and villages and linked instead economically and psychologically with Russia. They saw themselves as part of a wider Russian Revolution. The result was that the leading role of large sections of the urban labor movement was assumed by leaders who stood apart from the Ukrainian Revolution. Whilst the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (RSDRP) Mensheviks participated in the Central Rada, except for a brief period, the RSDRP (Bolsheviks) in the majority remained aloof from the national revolution, shaking the ground around them, and considered it “chauvinist”.

What rapidly emerged as the salient feature of the revolution in Ukraine was a split between the Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian section of the working class, the alienation of the peasantry from the urban workers and the separation of the social and national dimensions.

The question which could make or break the Ukrainian Revolution was the agrarian question. The engines of the movement were both spontaneous and organized through the All-Ukrainian Peasants Union, and its founder the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries; between them they represented millions of peasants. The agrarian revolution grew apace outstripping the Central Rada. Peasants and returning soldiers proceeded to expropriate estates and redistribute the land; whilst the Central Rada repeatedly made radical declarations it delayed taking decisive action until the convening of a Constituent Assembly.

In its popular base there was increasing feeling that the inactivity of the Central Rada in the social sphere could not be justified by the obstacle of the Provisional Government. The October Revolution brought these contradictions to a head, serving as a stimulus in the national sphere and sharply focusing the question of the nature of the revolution. When the Central Rada seized power in November and declared the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UNR), it offered the possibility for a new beginning. The national question was the strategic key to unifying the popular elements of the revolution; a priori this required that if the UNR was to be viable, it had to be the unifying means by which social and national objectives were realized.

A favorable conjuncture for a rapprochement between these divergent elements arose from two trends offering the possibility of a secure foundation for the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The first was the growth in support in the USDRP and the UPSR for the regeneration of the Central Rada on a thoroughly socialist basis. The second was the surge of support in the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies recognizing the UNR and seeking its re-election to widen its constituency to include the soviets. In seven out of the ten of Ukraine’s largest cities the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies supported the formation of a socialist government with the Central Rada as its supreme organ. This development found support from a significant section of the Russian and Jewish social democrats splitting the Bolsheviks in Ukraine.

That this rapprochement was a viable possibility can be seen from the example of short-lived initiatives in two of Ukraine’s major cities. In Kiev the Bolsheviks and Central Rada co-operated to defeat the forces of the Provisional Government. This united front took organizational form in a ‘National Committee for the defense of the revolution’ created by the Central Rada, composed of representatives of all revolutionary organizations in Kiev and socialist parties in Ukraine, including representatives of the Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Kiev, Kharkov, Katerynoslav and Odessa. It sought to extend its authority throughout Ukraine, and appealed to all revolutionary organizations to join local committees. It expressed what the majority of workers, peasants and soldiers sought: a socialist coalition based upon the popular revolutionary organizations. In Kharkov the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils established a ‘Kharkov Province Military Revolutionary Committee’ combining the soviets and the Free Ukrainian Rada, trade unions, factory committees and socialist parties. It had a “left orientation and a strong Ukrainian component”.

The crisis in industry, land seizures and chaos in the military all pointed in one direction – a socialist transformation. But the forces that could bring this about did not combine and moved unevenly. The rapprochement necessary for its realization was retarded. Neither the fractious Bolsheviks in Ukraine, nor their leadership in Petrograd were unified around such a perspective from within the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Their approach was tactless, taking no account of the Ukrainian peculiarities and attempting to superimpose the model of the Russian Revolution. The result compounded the divisions, hindering those wishing to give the emerging socialist transformation a Ukrainian character and form.

The All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies on 16th December 1917 was a strategic disaster. The whole event was ignited by the surprise ultimatum of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars threatening war against the UNR. The leaders of the UNR denied proportional representation to the urban soviets and some USDRP leaders ignored the mandate of their own party to seek agreement with the Bolsheviks. In an atmosphere of recriminations the Congress endorsed the Central Rada, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and an opportunity lost. The internal fragmentation produced two rival bodies claiming to be the government of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic. One was in Kharkov appointed by the ‘Central Executive Committee of the All-Ukrainian Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies’, elected by a subsequent smaller Congress of soviets. The other was formed by the Central Rada in Kiev, which also claimed to be elected by “Ukrainian congresses of peasants, workers and soldiers”. It was testament to the strength of the Ukrainian Revolution that the issue of contention had become not whether there should be a Ukrainian Peoples Republic but the class composition and political nature of its government.

The Ukrainian democracy cracked; seven left wing members of Its Central Committee of the UPSR were arrested for plotting a pro-soviet uprising. This failure of the left was mirrored by the failure of the right UPSRs which headed the government of the UNR in Kiev. In this conflict the Central Rada was victim to its own policies which had sown disillusionment amongst its popular base, illustrated in the “fratricidal war” with Soviet Russia. Many Bolshevik workers had been inclined to an accommodation with the Ukrainian movement and did not see the war as being of their making. The Soviet forces that were mustered were incredibly small, approximately 6,500 strong. The Central Rada also ran into trouble. Despite the country being awash with arms there was no will to fight and many took a neutral position or defected. For all the efforts of the Russian Bolsheviks to make the war one of classes it took the form of a national conflict, which paralyzed much of the Ukrainian left. The Kharkov government was not so much a puppet but stillborn and largely ignored by Soviet Russia’s troops.

The involvement of Soviet Russia and the Central Powers deepened the malaise; through the substitution of internal elements by external forces, the revolution consumed itself. Lured by the appeal of the Germans the Central Rada delegates at Brest Litovsk entered a union with the Central Powers. The Germans then deposed both Ukrainian Peoples Republics; first the soviet, then like the proverbial horse of Troy, they turned on their hosts and dispersed the Central Rada as unreliable “left opportunists”.

Maistrenko’s account of the ‘Ukrainian State’ brought into being by the German backed coup is particularly valuable in light of the current fashion for the Hetmanate in some quarters. In his assessment this retrogressive regime of comprador capitalists and landlords was “aimed at the destruction of the revolutionary gains” in the social, then national spheres. This provoked militant resistance by the labor movement, but the most intense and violent opposition was peasant resistance to food requisitioning and restoration of land to the landowners. The Hetmanate proved to be a defining moment, sharpening the process of differentiation in the Ukrainian Revolution.

This is confirmed by the growth of the Borotbisty, the USDRP (Independents) and the trend amongst the Ukrainian Bolsheviks known as the ‘Poltavans’ or ‘nationals’ represented by such figures as Mykola Skrypnyk and Vasyl Shakhray. This diverse current sought the transcendence of the revolution’s contradictions, encapsulated in the idea of an ‘independent Ukrainian Socialist Republic of Councils’.

While moderates set themselves the goal of restoring the Ukrainian People’s Republic, essentially unchanged in its socio-economic content, the radical left set itself other goals. The experience of year one of the revolution and this unrest was naturally reflected in the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries. Its congress elected a left wing majority to the Central Committee, splitting the party between the moderates and the reconstituted UPSR, which became known as the Borotbisty. One cannot fully appreciate the growth of the Borotbisty outside of the context of the growing unrest in Europe, in response to the First World War and the October Revolution. The left saw the Ukrainian Revolution as an integral part of a revived international struggle for socialism and dependent was upon its success. From this flowed their tactics; no compromise with the Hetmanate and preparing for a decisive struggle with capital.

The strength of this left wing revealed itself during the rebellion against the German occupation and Hetmanate, initially headed by a bloc of parties under the leadership of the Directory of the UNR. The restored UNR also coincided with the revival of the councils of workers’ and peasants’ deputies. Once again the revolution stood at a crossroad. On the one hand the international situation the revolution in Germany and Austro-Hungary and the example of Soviet Russia, pushed it with redoubled force onto the path of socialist revolution. On the other hand the middle class and moderate elements proclaimed the revolution above all a national democratic revolution. The broad movement from below outgrew these constraints into one directed towards an independent soviet Ukraine.


One criticism of the Ukrainian pro-Soviet parties is that whilst the contest remained an internal affair they were defeated by their moderate socialist opponents; evidence of this is seen in the revival of the UNR in late 1918, not the soviet republic they envisaged. The balance was shifted towards them by the Russian Red Army. This critique wrests on the presumption that democratic channels existed under the Directory for such choices to be freely made. But the participatory democracy was not revived within the UNR; instead the conservative elements of the Hetmanate, in particular the military circles – the otamanschyna, were its inherent partner. It was Petlyura’s militarists, who were engaged in pogroms and indiscriminate repression of the labor and peasant movement, who emerged as the face of the revived UNR, not Vynnychenko’s “labor principle” or the democracy of the moderate socialists.

The All-Ukrainian Toilers’ Congress called in January 1919 was to have based the UNR on a new foundation of ‘labor councils’, thus bridging the divide between workers and peasants. It was also the last effort of the revolutionary socialists to come to some agreement with the Directory. Regardless of the fact that the Directory declared itself a transitory body until the congress, the military circles mounted a campaign of harassment of the very forces on which the republic was to be based. As a consequence the popular movement took a passive attitude toward the Congress whilst the radical left was prevented from carrying on agitation, and the elections were stifled.

The above assessment is further flawed in its presumption that the fall of the Directory was due to external factors. In fact the Bolsheviks could not have attained power without a shift internally. A measure of the decline in the popularity of the directory was the collapse of its armed forces from over 100,000 in December 1918 to a mere 21,000 in just over a month. Having broadly supported the Directory during the ‘November Ukrainian Revolution’, the peasants, who were dissatisfied with its policies, rapidly went into opposition. Extensive evidence reveals considerable support for the Borotbisty in the countryside in their fight with Petlyura’s evaporating forces. That a string of additional partisans actively supported their platform bears further testament to Borotbist influence. The Red Army which advanced on Kiev did so in circumstances in stark contrast to the earlier war with the Central Rada. Its ranks were swollen by Ukrainian troops who went over en masse, seeing in the revolt the means by which to realize their social aspirations so neglected by the Directory. When Arthur Adams writes that, “Peasant carts carried the Soviet infantry rapidly across the great steppes of the Dnepr’s Left Bank”, he provides an apt description of this conjuncture.

The situation in spring 1919 could not have been more favorable for a convergence between the Ukrainian and the Russian Revolutions, and reconciliation of the internal elements. The creation of a Ukrainian republic based on councils with a plurality of pro-soviet parties was a viable possibility. Why then despite these favorable circumstances was their conception of Ukraine not fully realized?

An explanation can be found in the antagonism which continued between the internal and external forces. The tendency of the internal forces was apparent in the struggle of the Central Rada for self-government, in the proclamation of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic; and in the striving to create an independent Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. In contradiction, the tendency of the external forces strove to subordinate Ukraine to Russia and retard the internal forces. It is a striking example of a clash between what Hal Draper later described as the “two souls of socialism”, the democratic conception of ‘socialism from below’ versus the elitist conception of ‘socialism from above’. The agency of this external, ‘socialism-from-above’ was in this case the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and its regional branch the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine (CP(b)U).

This overarching conflict was exacerbated by the existence of a dual centre inside Ukraine which created a state of instability in the social revolution. This duality also revealed an inherent weakness of the Borotbisty. Maistrenko writes that though they were “strong in the countryside, they failed in their bid to control the revolutionary movement in the cities, where they were powerless to compete with the Bolshevik influence.” But it would be a mistake to believe there was a uniform hostility of urban workers towards the Ukrainian movement. Indeed in May 1918 the All-Ukrainian Workers Congress representing half a million workers, whose delegates were overwhelmingly non-Ukrainian, favored a struggle for “an independent Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

In tracing the fate of the Borotbisty, Maistrenko introduces the reader to a pivotal aspect of the revolution which has been surprisingly overlooked by labor historians and critical Marxist analysis of this period. In 1919 the crisis that arose after the First World War was at its peak. The “whole existing order” wrote English Prime Minister Lloyd George “is questioned by the masses from one end of Europe to the other”. In Hungary a social democrat-communist alliance proclaimed a Soviet Republic, followed by the Bavarian Soviet Republic and in June the Slovak Soy let Republic. The Ukrainian question became the decisive factor in deciding the fate of the social revolution; for it was from here that any unity could be extended to the rest of European socialism.

Symptomatic of the Bolsheviks’ approach to the Ukrainian question at this time was the composition of the ‘Provisional Worker-Peasant Government of Ukraine’. Initially at its head, then posted to Council of the National Economy, was Georgii Pyatakov who provided its theoretical scaffolding. Pyatakov belonged to the ‘radical left’ current of Marxism represented by such figures as Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannakoek which opposed national self-determination as a slogan invalidated by imperialism and in contradiction to internationalism. Flushed with revolutionary romanticism this was a strong current within Bolshevism. By 1919 though still ignoring the national question, Pyatakov considered the Bolsheviks needed to adjust to Ukrainian realities and demanded greater autonomy. But this ‘independence’ from Moscow was one of freedom of manoeuvre for his faction. In their attitude to the pro-soviet parties and even other Ukrainian Bolsheviks they remained elitist and hostile.

By decision of Moscow, Pyatakov had been replaced as Head of the government by Christian Rakovsky. It was not an improvement. Recently arrived from the Balkans this self-styled specialist on the Ukrainian question denied the very existence of Ukrainians as a national entity. He announced that the Ukrainian peasantry had no national consciousness, and that what did exist was now submerged in class consciousness. The national movement was simply the invention of the intelligentsia as a means to obtain power. These views of Rakovsky, combined with the existing ‘left communist’ and Russophile currents, were a recipe for disaster.

When in March 1919 the “independent” Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded, this was welcomed by the Ukrainian pro-soviet parties. Far-reaching socialist policies were outlined in the resolutions of the Third All-Ukrainian Congress of Workers’ Peasants’ and Red Army Deputies, and by the new Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR. The problem was that the Constitution was not implemented; Ukraine remained, and was considered by the government, a regional unit of Russia. The rift that grew within the revolutionary left stemmed not only from dissatisfaction with policy on the national question but also despite the promise of the “rebirth of soviet power locally”, there was an overall absence of self-government.

The republic was ruled through appointed revolutionary committees, revkomy, and in the countryside, committees of poor peasants, kombedy. Workers councils existed only in the large towns and then only in an advisory capacity; soviet power as such did not exist. The Ukrainian trade union movement was purged, subordinated to the state and absorbed into All-Russian structures. Despite their adherence to the soviet platform, the Ukrainian socialist parties were sidelined by the Pyatakov-Rakovsky regime. Even though the UPSR had adopted a communist program and sought unity with the Bolsheviks, they were still looked upon suspiciously and excluded from positions of authority. Branded by Ukrainian Marxists as the ‘commissar state’ the administration gave greater prominence to the Russian middle class imbued with chauvinist prejudices.

It was, complained the Borotbisty to Lenin, like an “expansion of a ‘red’ Imperialism (Russian nationalism)”, giving the impression that “Soviet power has fallen into the hands of hardened Black Hundreds preparing a counter revolution”.

This dangerous alienation was compounded by the retarding the agrarian revolution through excesses of grain requisitioning and the transplanting from Russia of an elitist land policy of the ‘commune’, formed not by the self-activity of the peasants but imposed from above. As opposed to positively transcending the social and national cleavages, the Bolshevik regime exacerbated them. This produced powerful centrifugal forces; engulfed by peasant unrest, the Ukrainian SSR split and disintegrated into internecine conflict. This crisis saw two distinct tendencies which have complicated historical analysis ever since: on the one hand the attempted revolutionary mobilization of society and on the other its antithesis – fragmentation and class decomposition. Indicative of the latter were pogroms, brigandage and ataman adventurers. No sides in the conflict escaped being tainted by the effects of this vortex.

This was an historically unprecedented situation, a result of the conflict between the internal and external forces and the heritage of imperialism. These risings, which split the Red Army, were on a scale far larger and of greater historical consequence than the more widely known Kronstadt Revolt in 1921. The most popular demand was that of democratically elected soviets. An All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee led by the USDRP (Independents) attempted to gain the leadership of the insurgency, raising the slogan for ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants”. It sought to overthrow the “government as an occupation power”, forestall Petlyura and force the Russian communists to agree to a truly Ukrainian soviet republic.

Amidst meltdown the Bolsheviks admitted a handful of Borotbisty to the government. In an act that remains a subject of controversy, with some exceptions the Borotbisty fought alongside the Bolsheviks and sought to curtail the internecine conflict.

It is remarkable considering the conditions in which they operated that the Borotbisty could secure positive achievements at this time, but this was the case in such spheres as education and language. The Ukrainian social democrat Semen Mazurenko visited Soviet Ukraine as a UNR diplomat in the summer of 1919 recording that: “The Ukrainian language has been recognized on a par with Russian”. Achievements in the intimately connected issue of education were recognized at the time. According to one teacher, the “Bolsheviks in all their policies disclosed two tendencies”, the development of Ukrainian schools by the Borotbisty run Commissariat of Education, and the obstructiveness of local bureaucrats in “suppressing the ‘Petlyurian’ (Ukrainian) language”.


Maistrenko considers that the Bolsheviks had “more chances than the Jacobins to continue the national revolution, in other words to organize the creative impetus of the masses which was directed towards the construction of a new society”. One of those chances afforded to them was in 1919 by the calls for the reconstitution of Soviet Ukraine as a genuinely independent and participatory democracy. This was being demanded not only by the most radical of the Ukrainian socialists, but the Red Army commander on the Ukrainian front Antonov-Ovseyenko, and significantly by the newly established Hungarian Soviet Republic.

The beleaguered Hungarians pinned their hopes on aid from a Red Army advance through the Danube valley; as such the Ukrainian question was key to their survival. In Budapest former head of the UNR Vynnychenko and Soviet Hungary’s leader Bela Kun demanded a radical change of policy. They reached an agreement calling for an independent Soviet Ukraine with a coalition government of the Borotbisty, USDRP (Independents) and the Bolsheviks. But it was spurned by Rakovsky; prophetically Bela Kun concluded: “Forcing Rakovsky on the Ukrainians against their wish, in my opinion, will be an irreparable mistake”.

The experience of this and preceding episodes of the Ukrainian Revolution brings into question what has been a long accepted explanation for the fate of the Russian Revolution: the primary role of external factors in its degeneration and rise of Stalinism. Coupled with this assessment is the contention that unfavorable circumstances imposed on the Bolsheviks a restriction on options available to them. Yet on reading Borotbism, can we really agree that this fully explains the fate of the revolution? Even if one accepted the view that the one-party state in Russia arose from lack of Bolshevik allies this cannot explain events in Ukraine. Here the Borotbisty, unlike the Russian Left-SRs, did not go over to open revolt; whilst many of the other socialists who did were in part pushed and in part pulled by a situation created by the Russian Communists themselves. A multi-party democracy based on the rule of the soviets was denied the opportunity to exist in Ukraine. Any objective reader must surely conclude that Lenin’s insistence that the Borotbisty be accused of a “counter revolutionary mentality” was without any basis in fact.

For the Bolsheviks, socialism could not be developed in a single, isolated, backward country such as Russia without the aid of the more developed countries of Europe. Their project was predicated on extending the revolution westward. The entire approach of socialism-from-above in Ukraine contributed to undermining the very perspective on which the October Revolution was based.

In the summer of 1919 Bolshevik rule in Ukraine disintegrated, changing the correlation of power between the Red Army and the Russian Volunteer Army, and resulting in its occupation of large areas of Ukraine. The appalling policies and practices of the western backed ‘Emergency Government’ of General Denikin with its pogroms; repression and chauvinism are well recorded. They provide an indictment of the Russian liberal intellectuals who headed its Political Center. Barely distinguishable in their nationalism from the conservatives and militarists, their main objective was the preservation of the “one, indivisible Russia” and the restoration of Russia as a ‘great power’.

What is striking about this key juncture is that despite despair with the Bolsheviks there was not a collapse or decline in support for the pro-Soviet parties. Indeed the opposite occurred. In the case of the Borotbisty, having relaunched themselves as the ‘Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbisty)’ they witnessed a surge in support. Hrushevsky notes that “under the slogan of a Ukrainian Republic that would be independent yet Soviet and friendly toward the Bolsheviks and Soviet Russia, the masses flocked to their banner.” The Bolsheviks received a similar surge of support enabling the Red Army to repulse Denikin’s offensive into central Russia.

One explanation for this mobilization is that it was based on a choice between restoration and resistance; this however does not fully explain Ukraine. This poses again the contention discussed above that whilst the contest remained an internal affair the pro-Soviet groups lost to their more moderate rivals. Yet despite circumstances which would appear most favorable to the parties of the UNR, they did not gain hegemony of the popular resistance in the winter of 1920. Maistrenko points to military inferiority as the cause of UNR defeat by the Whites. There is no doubt some truth in this but it does not fully explain its overall disintegration; for this we must also recognize the progressive political degeneration of the UNR played out in their encounter with Denikin.

In August 1919 Kiev was handed over to the Volunteer Army with hardly a shot fired. The reason was that the UNR leaders were contemplating an alliance with Denikin, partly in the hope of securing the support of the Entente. The delays in confronting Denikin further eroded its support especially amongst the partisans. Meanwhile life in UNR territory was so bad that even its loyal social democrats complained that citizens saw little difference between Petlyura and Denikin. Internally there was a further antagonism fracturing the UNR.

On January 22, 1919, the Directory of the UNR had officially united with the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. But this sobornist did not achieve the long sought historic unity of Ukraine; it was a symbolic act, with the western Ukrainians retaining their own army and government structure. The conservative Petrushevych regime guarded its autonomy, fearful of the socialism of the Dnieper Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Peoples Republic disintegrated when Petrushevych placed the Galician Army at the service of Denikin, whilst Petlyura turned to Pilsudski’s Poland signing away Eastern Galicia in return for an alliance. What was left of the UNR army turned to guerilla warfare, whilst several thousand went over to the Borotbisty.

Considering this end game of the UNR one cannot but question the accusation of “national treason” levelled at the Ukrainian radical socialists. On the question of independence the actual record of the various national governments of 1917-20, supported by the moderate socialists, leaves a lot to be desired. Having declared independence in January 1918, sovereignty was surrendered to the Central Powers; the Directory restored independence only to agree to give the French control over the army, railways, finance and composition of the government. Exchanging territory and sovereignty with Poland continued the same practice in which preservation of independence was not the primary principle.

In contrast the Borotbisty, the USDRP Independentists and sections of the Bolsheviks were consistent advocates of Ukrainian Independence within an international view of creating a new social order. Throughout this period they made no compromise with regard to the existence of a Ukrainian republic. In their international relations this stance strengthened reciprocal recognition by the Bolshevik leadership who, despite their centralist outlook, did not retreat from accepting the necessity of a distinct Ukrainian republic.

It would be wrong to conclude from the above that the popularity of the Borotbisty can be explained solely by a fierce reaction to the rule of Denikin and Petlyura. Such a view denigrates the fact that ordinary working people, including illiterate peasants, consciously engaged in an effort to transform the society in which they lived. Difficult as it is for some in our era of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘end of history’ to comprehend, revolutions are remarkable moments which radically change people as well as their surroundings. We should not lose sight of the fact that in 1917-1920 Ukraine experienced such a moment.

It is remarkable that even though exhausted by World War, occupation and civil war any Ukrainians remained with a reserve of energy to be powered by such ideals. Yet such was the scale of insurgency in the winter of 1919-1920 that Denikin committed as many troops against Ukrainian partisans as against the Russian Red Army itself. This vice broke the Volunteer Army, bringing a decisive turn in the revolution militarily and politically. It heralded a radical re-examination in Bolshevik Ukrainian policy, the first initiative by the Bolsheviks aimed at drawing together the social and national elements of the revolution. Maistrenko’s thorough outline of the complexities of this shift reveals an approach to ‘communist unity in Ukraine’ by the Borotbisty that was far from “national treason”. They gave every consideration to utilizing their popular base and Ukrainian Red Army to gain the upper hand in shaping Soviet Ukraine and secure recognition of the Communist International.

From our 21st century vantage point it would be easy to consider the faith of the Borotbisty in the Communist International a grave error. This would fail to appreciate the difficult choices they faced and perspective to which they adhered. The Russian Communists as a governing party were in a position to take advantage of the strength of the state apparatus, the Red Army, and the financial and moral support RCP(B) held as the main section of the Communist International.

The Borotbisty considered that the prospects for independence would be more promising in the framework of extending the revolution than on a pan-Russian level. From this standpoint the Borotbisty, like much of the international labor movement, held the Communist International in high esteem. When the Executive Committee of the International instructed them to amalgamate with the CP(b)U, a body already affiliated through the RCP(B), they were faced with the choice of remaining separate and competing with the Bolsheviks for power, or merge.

This episode also reveals the serious contradictions of Lenin’s own thought. He continued to adhere to the RSDRP policy of ‘one party, one state’, which had already had negative consequences for the revolution. Ukrainian socialists had long argued authentic internationalism was represented by self-organized national parties having equal involvement in an International alongside the Russian socialists. The Ukrainians resisted their subordination to an existing dominant-state Party, which could so easily become the conduit for chauvinism and stifle democratic initiative.

The Borotbisty and Lenin shared a common fear; they both sought to prevent a repeat of the internecine conflicts of the summer of 1919. The threat from the Polish regime of Jozef Pilsudski influenced both parties, who feared a renewed war between the left which would provide an opportunity to the right, The Borotbisty decision to merge was not considered by all a defeat; writing just three years later the communist historian Ravich-Cherkasski considered it was under their influence that the Bolsheviks evolved from being “the Russian Communist Party in the Ukraine” to becoming the “Communist Party of Ukraine”.

That Maistrenko himself did not remain with his Borotbist comrades in the CP(b)U reminds us that for many the concept of a party subordinated to the Russian party, tended to vitiate the whole notion of national liberation. The CP(b)U did not have the right to be a separate section of the Communist International. Whereas as in other countries the young communist parties were founded through a process of unity between socialist organizations, this was not the pattern in Ukraine. Consecutive efforts by the Borotbisty, USDRP Independentists and Bolsheviks such as Shakhray and Lapchynsky’s “group of federalists” to bring about such a regroupment had not succeeded in sufficient strength or consensus.

Maistrenko, like many others, did not accept amalgamation as the means to achieving a sovereign Soviet Ukraine. Instead he joined the Ukrainian Communist Party founded by the USDRP (Independentists). Known as the Ukapisty, they considered that due to the CP(b)U’s lack of organic links it relied on the military forces of Russia, meaning the revolution had took the form of occupation. After two defeats it was essential the “internal proletarian forces of Ukraine must get control over the socialist revolution and shape its course and character”.

The Ukapisty differed from the Borotbisty in an aspect which Maistrenko considers explains part of the weakness of the Borotbisty relative to the Bolsheviks. Coming out of the theoretical tradition of Classical Marxism, though having weaker links with the masses, the Ukapisty were stronger at the theoretical level. The Borotbisty with their populist origins were a party of which it was said the art of poetry was understood more than political theory. It was an attribute that Roman Rosdolsky described as “our specific Ukrainian ‘local color”‘ that all Ukrainian Marxists in one way or another emerged from.

Those who organized in the Ukapisty and other opposition parties attempted to achieve their goals through the soviets. It was a route made difficult by the fact that the soviets were steadily being supplanted by a one-Party state. At the Fourth All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets of 1920 the political landscape was shaped by the Russian Communists; elections were restricted, diminishing the representation of the Ukrainian peasantry and the working class, with many deputies drawn from the Russian Red Army stationed in Ukraine. It was a pale shadow of the mass assemblies of 1917, the scene of a persistent, but rearguard battle for an “economic and politically independent Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic”.

Any honest historian, and most of all a labor historian, would surely recognize that Lenin and the Bolsheviks reneged on their earlier assurances to convoke a congress of Soviets able to freely decide on independence, federalism or union with Russia. The soviets, the subjective element by which the divergent social and national elements of the revolution could have been positively reconciled, fell into abeyance as the locus of real political power shifted to the higher organs of the RCP(B).


In 1920 the depleted, exhausted pro-soviet forces defeated the Volunteer Army and the Polish invasion. The resulting Riga peace treaty re-partitioned Ukraine; five million Ukrainians remained under Polish rule. Maistrenko concludes that the “struggle for a sovereign Ukrainian SSR was decided in the negative not by the internal development of Ukrainian political life but by the external pressure of administrative organization.”

But the failure to establish a fully independent Ukraine in 1920 is neither the end of the history of the Borotbisty nor would it be an adequate assessment of the Ukrainian Revolution. The dialectics of the revolution resulted in what Marko Bojcun describes as “less than the Ukrainian socialists wanted to win. Yet it was more than the Russian socialists had been willing to concede.” Prior to 1917 there existed only ‘southern Russia’. The revolution had swept away the old social order and forged the Ukrainian SSR, a “clearly defined national, economic and cultural organism”. It became the framework for a significant struggle between the two trends of the CP(b)U, the centralist Russophile element, and the ‘universal current’ of Ukrainian communists born in the revolution. Those communists of the oppressed nations combined with Russian allies and succeeded in committing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the policy of korenizatsiia (indigenization) a program of ‘positive action’ with regard to language, culture and promotion of non-Russians in the soviet, party, trade unions and co-operative apparatus.

Whilst this gain was fragile, Ukrainization heralded an unprecedented national renaissance in the 1920’s. The Ukrainian communists, including prominent ex-Borotbisty, energetically carried forward Ukrainization, viewed as a “weapon of cultural revolution in Ukraine”. Maistrenko places this “final expression” of the Borotbisty in the context of the then intense conflict to shape the USSR. As such Ukrainization was not only the engine of efforts to assert autonomy and liquidate the vestiges of colonialism but a manifestation of opposition to ascendant Stalinism. It brought “the Ukrainian people to the threshold of nationhood by the end of the decade”.

The dynamics of Stalinist centralism and its inherent partner Russian nationalism destroyed the last vestiges of equality between the republics. The Ukrainian communists and intelligentsia were annihilated. So deeply rooted were the Borotbist “co-founders of the Ukrainian SSR” that they were amongst the last remnants of opposition purged under the guise of the destruction of the fake “Borotbist Center” in 1936. They continued to represent such a vital force in politics that they were still being subjected to official attack in 1938.

Yet the people whose name the Ukrainian SSR continued to bear survived the Stalinist holocaust the revolution providing a beacon to future generations.

The reader of Maistrenko’s Borotbism cannot but be moved by what is an historical tragedy and provoked by the questions that it poses to long accepted explanations of the fate of the revolutions. We may recall a neglected speech in Zurich in 1914 where Lenin had said:

What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its independence.

How well Lenin should have remembered Marx’s statement that “the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland. This shall not happen twice!” It did, in Russia’s Ireland.


One of the first significant accounts of the revolution in Borotbism is a unique work whose republication comes at a time of increased interest in Ukraine. Yet amidst the array of materials now available to the reader, there remains a deficiency with regard to the pivotal role of Ukrainian Revolutionary socialism in those years.

‘This problem of the revolution’s historiography is not new and Its continuation makes this book as important today as when it first appeared in 1954. Maistrenko’s work remains the principal study of the Borotbisty, the majority left wing of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries, the largest party of the revolution which represented the mainly peasant masses. An explanation for this deficiency can be found in the perseverance of the twin paradigms that have dominated the historiography of the Ukrainian Revolution.

For six decades two historical orthodoxies of the Ukrainian Revolution dominated, both intimately linked to their twin historiography of the Russian Revolution.”‘ On the one hand was the official Soviet history of the revolution which crystallized in the late 1920s with the ascendancy of Stalinism. Molded by ‘Marxism-Leninism’, history was encaged within the parameters of partiinost and served as a source of legitimacy for the system. This considered that the revolution in Ukraine had no independent aspect but was “part and parcel of the Socialist Revolution in all Russia”. It presented the Russian Bolsheviks in the leading role of the entire revolutionary process of 1917-1920. The UPSR and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party were characterized as “petty-bourgeois parties” similar to the Russian Mensheviks, who attempted to retard the developing socialist revolution. The importance of the national question was minimized and written of pejoratively. Within this paradigm, following the October Revolution the first national government, the Central Rada, which formed the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, took the side of the counter-revolution and continued this role in its various forms of appearance during 1917-1920. The most radical elements of the Ukrainian movement broke off and joined the Bolsheviks, thus securing the position of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The omega of the Soviet orthodoxy can be found in the literature of the national paradigm developed mainly, though not exclusively, by Ukrainian émigrés. Whilst considering a distinctive revolutionary process in Ukraine, it gives the national dimension primary place to the detriment and subordination of social questions. Though free from the restrictions imposed upon Soviet historians, this school, whilst producing scholarly and valuable works, has its own self-imposed restrictions: an approach stilted towards ‘history from above’. Being overly focused on institutions and leaders, the object of the revolution narrowed to that of the achievement of a national state. In this paradigm the Bolsheviks and the Ukrainian Revolutionary socialists had little support. The real principles of the revolution were those of national self-determination, denied by an invading Russian army who imposed a “puppet” Soviet government. The Ukrainian Revolutionary socialists are guilty in this paradigm of fragmenting the UNR and allying with Bolshevism, by deliberate betrayal or political naiveté.

What is often overlooked is the similarity of the two Orthodoxies: traits considered negative in one are portrayed positively in the other. This is notable in the treatment of the socialist element of the Ukrainian Revolution. Whilst it is recognized that the majority of deputies of the Central Rada were drawn from the socialist parties, both orthodoxies put emphasis on their more moderate tendency as if it were their overall character. Both also share a conception of continuity in Soviet history running from Lenin, Stalin to the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Ukraine in 1991.

These problems of history cannot be seen separately from the context of the climate of the Cold War in which they existed. Symmetrical ideological systems existed in the East and West, mutually antagonistic, elitist and conservative in their conceptions of society. Both ruled out the possibility of an alternative to the established facts of “actually existing socialism” or western capitalism, and their assumptions were pervasive in intellectual life, including history.

Between them these orthodoxies squeezed out the possibility that a viable alternative historical course of development existed: that of an emancipatory Ukrainian socialism. To accept this actuality was to consider history as one of discontinuity between what came to exist and what was attempted in the period before Stalinism. This was Maistrenko’s view both as an activist in attempting to realize that emancipatory vision of a new society and as an historian keeping alive its memory. Maistrenko considered that Stalin’s ascendancy at the head of the bureaucracy represented not the victory of ‘socialism’ but a break with the revolution: the “Bolshevik Thermidor”. Ukrainians were “deprived not only of their national independence, but even those elementary national freedoms which they had achieved during the first years of the revolution.” In his analysis Stalinism represented Russian imperialism in a modern form reconstituting “the tradition of Russification”.

Not the spreading of communism is the task of the permanent Bolshevist war as the Stalinist propaganda columns read, but the introduction of the Russian state-capitalist system into foreign countries. This can be mixed up with socialism and communism only by he who consciously wants to discredit the liberation movement of the working people; but he actually aids imperialistic Russia, recommending her as a socialist country to those who are ignorant of the state of affairs.

Maistrenko’s concern that the identification of Stalinism with socialism could discredit the movement for workers’ liberty was well founded. By the time Maistrenko wrote Borotbism all of his former comrades had fallen under Stalinist persecution. The terror and holodomor, the genocidal famine of 1932-33, dealt a body blow to the Ukrainian socialist movement, with the surviving generation turning to revolutionary nationalism. In Canada the Ukrainian socialist bodies remained largely within the Stalinist orbit. The obvious consequence of such an absence of socialists made the field of Ukrainian labor history a difficult endeavor indeed. This was compounded by the fact that for a long time considerations of Ukraine and other nationalities were marginal within Soviet studies as a whole.

During the post-war period Maistrenko and a small number of survivors in the émigré published Vpered, a critical Marxist paper. They co-operated with other anti-Stalinist socialists who were then on the margins of the western labor movement. Part of the activity of Vpered was not only coming to terms with the changed world but reaching back to the years before Stalinism, disseminating the true history of the revolution. Amidst the cold war atmosphere and conservative climate in the diaspora, this was a difficult task. Nevertheless for a decade they maintained themselves and engaged in a battle of ideas with the prevailing orthodoxy.

Yet the influence of this small current was minor and they never were able to offset the dominant historiography. In this context we should consider Maistrenko’s Borotbism as pioneering, appearing as it did before the ‘new left’ of 1956 and the watershed of 1968. This period saw the emergence of ‘social history’ or ‘history from below’ influenced by the French Annales school and the English Marxist EP Thompson. After 1968 there was far wider dissemination of works of the revolutionary period long suppressed in the USSR and reduced to the small circles of the anti-Stalinist left. In some degree Borotbism missed this moment, and Vpered had already folded in 1960. These new historians conceptualized the Russian Revolution as a popular upsurge, the Bolsheviks achieving power not due to Machiavellian organization and ruthless tactics, but actual support amongst the self-organized workers and soldiers. They recorded a revolution of radicalized social classes and mass parties articulating their aspirations. Nor had the revolution automatically led to Stalinism; the civil war, the struggle to survive and isolation had all impacted on the conduct of the revolutionaries and the revolution’s outcome.

This new environment should have created a more fertile soil for such developments in the study of the Ukrainian Revolution, with its complex of social and national dimensions, its array of radical currents and pivotal role in the fate of the Russian Revolution itself. However despite scholarly works and the development of Ukrainian studies, the historiography largely remained within the national paradigm. Amongst the positive exceptions was the Ukrainian new left around the journals Meta and Dialoh, which emerged in the mid-seventies and whose influences still remain. This milieu attempted to rediscover the lost history of the vernacular left and revitalize study of the revolution; they were supported in their activities by the ongoing work of Maistrenko and his former Vpered comrades.

However the new approaches to the study of the revolution, instead of receiving a boost by the collapse of the USSR, have been seriously challenged. The collapse in the East coincided with a resurgence of the right in the West. The political climate was encapsulated in TINA – ‘there is no alternative’. Western capitalism was vindicated, history ended. Historiography in the East became embroiled in the politics of the transition. Historians in their rejection of old order turned to the old orthodoxy in the West. The Ancien Regime of such historians as Richard Pipes, whose propositions had been meticulously debunked, returned to prominence. This retrogression has seen a number of the social historians abandon their views or adopt the negative attributes of post-modernism.

In Ukraine the new found freedoms have seen an array of works on the revolution and much has been written to fill the historical gaps, including the fate of the Ukrainian communists of 1920s. Nevertheless historians have followed the shift and have transferred to the national paradigm. As one scholar bemoaned, most historians “concentrate on political and intellectual history, while few write on social history in general or on peasants as subjects in particular.” This situation has been to the detriment of an authentic labor history. For example, of 86 Articles in Ukrainskyi istorychnyi zhurnal in the eight years from independence, only seven on the revolution touched on peasants or workers. There are however welcome signs of new challengers to this retrogression, including the founding of the Ukrainian Labor History Society in Kiev. In these efforts Maistrenko’s Borotbism is indispensable to those who wish to defend the real history of the revolution and to break new ground in the study of the revolution. It is to be hoped that soon Borotbism will be published in its original Ukrainian. This study invites a new engagement with the radicalism of the Ukrainian Revolution. It also poses a challenge to labor historians in particular to develop an understanding of the revolution which moves outside of the prism of Petrograd. The question of labor history is a thorny one, for to its own detriment labor historians have largely failed to engage with the Ukrainian socialist movement. The explanation for this inexcusable neglect is multiple and is linked to the very fate of the revolution itself.

Firstly it is necessary to recognize the deep rooted antagonism of the Russian social democracy towards Ukrainian socialism. This can be traced to the very inception of both movements in the 19th century. Indeed it brought Engels into conflict with the ‘father of Russian Marxism’, Plekhanov, when he failed to support Ukrainian national rights. This hostility was carried over into the debates on the national question in the era of Classical Marxism of the Second International.

Secondly whilst currents like the Borotbisty were received sympathetically by some western socialists it was still the case that the conflicts between the Ukrainian and Russian Revolutionaries were not fully appreciated in a western labor movement otherwise engaged with the upheavals of the time. In the decade after the revolution the rich Ukrainian socialist literature, including fascinating engagements with Gramsci and Lukacs, was not reproduced in the West, whilst Russian writings were being widely translated. Thirdly this situation was compounded during the rise of Stalinism. Anti-Stalinist historiography often drew on such survivors as Trotsky, Serge et al, but the few Ukrainians did not receive similar recognition. The anarchists and libertarians who looked to Ukraine tended to elevate Nestor Makhno to heights beyond his actual proportion.

Fourthly there is no escaping the unfortunate reality that the two historical orthodoxies did have some influences on labor history, the Soviet distortingly and the national repulsively.

The present book is not only of importance in the context of filling a vacuum; it is a key element to our understanding of the revolution and its fate, which should take a prominent place in setting the new historical agenda.



  1. Odin Almighty! That’s a lot of nuanced history for an old Norse Prol to absorb but it rings true as a most invaluable history lesson.

    It’s great to see how an old dog like Proyect can teach himself new tricks.

    For all the flaws that were attributed to the Bolsheviks under Lenin most were bullshit propaganda by class enemies while the real neglected critiques were right under their noses but weren’t skillfully illucidated, mainly, to be sure, because no men of letters in the West gave a shit about miserable Ukranians.

    If Proyect ever longed for an afterlife it certainly wouldn’t be from the spititual kind like most of the duped imagine but rather from the historical kind, like Lenin or Marx or Trotsky and their ilk who leave a mark on historical consciousness — those whose writings impact future generations.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 13, 2014 @ 1:48 am

  2. Very good piece: Rakovsky and the Ukraine (1919-23)


    Comment by Rick — May 14, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

  3. Reblogged this on Socialist Fight and commented:
    For those of you who want to study in detail what an anti-communist (and proud of it!0 Chris Ford has become here it is:

    Comment by socialistfight — June 17, 2014 @ 2:34 pm

  4. […] to the research of Paul Kellogg on the Red Army’s disastrous intervention in Poland in 1920 and the work of people like Chris Ford on Ukraine. It is understandable why Trotsky would subscribe to the “heroic Comintern” narrative given his […]

    Pingback by Comments on “Strategy and Tactics in a Revolutionary Period: U. S. Trotskyism and the European Revolution, 1943–1946″ | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 29, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

  5. Reblogged this on parkslavykomsomola and commented:
    A more readable version of the last reblog.

    Comment by alexfresel — December 20, 2014 @ 1:25 am

  6. […] Chris Ford, Introduction to the book, “Borotbism”, by Ivan Majstrenko (2007) http://louisproyect.org/2014/05/12/chris-fords-introduction-to-ivan-maistrenkos-borotbism/ […]

    Pingback by Rex — December 28, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

  7. […] The Dialectics of the Ukrainian Revolution – Introduction to Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko […]

    Pingback by ウクライナの労働運動や左翼運動のサイト(リンク集) – ne plu kapitalismo — March 25, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

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