A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


commanders council

The winter of 1923 brought in its train many important organizational discoveries determining, for a long time ahead, the forms of our collective. Of these, the most important were--detachments and commanders.

There are to this day detachments and commanders in the Gorky Colony, the Dzerzhinsky Commune, and other colonies scattered about the Ukraine.

There was, of course, very little in common between the detachments of the Gorky Colony, or those of the Dzerzhinsky Commune in 1927 and 1928, and the first detachments of Zadorov and Burun. But something fundamental was established as early as the winter of 1923. The theoretical significance of our detachments only asserted itself considerably later, when they shook the pedagogical world with the wide sweep of their onset in marching order, and when they had become a target for the wit of a certain section of pedagogical scribblers. At that time it was the thing to refer to all our work as "regimental pedagogics," and it was taken for granted that this combination of words was in itself the severest condemnation.

In 1923 no one guessed that an important institution, around which stormy passions were to rage, was being created in our forest.

It all started with a trifle.

As usual, counting on our resourcefulness, no one gave us any wood for that year. As before, we used dead trees and the yield of our clearing of the forest. The summer accumulations of this not very valuable fuel were all used up by November, and once again we were in for a fuel crisis. To tell the truth we were all heartily sick of collecting dead wood. It was no trouble to fell, but the gathering up of a hundred poods of what it would have been euphemistic to call wood, required the ransacking of acres of forest, the difficult penetration of thick undergrowth, only to carry back to the colony a dubious assortment of twig and brushwood at the cost of a great and useless waste of energy. This work was ruinous to clothes, for which, as it was, we were sufficiently badly off, while in the winter the search for firewood meant frozen toes and frantic squabbling in the stable. Anton would not hear of sending the horses.

"Do it yourselves, the horses aren't going to be used for that. They're to go for fuel, indeed! D' you call that fuel?"

"But Bratchenko, haven't we got to heat?" asked Kalina Ivanovich, thinking he had found an unanswerable argument.

Anton waved aside the question.

"As far as I'm concerned you needn't. Nobody heats the stable, and we're all right."

In our quandary we did however manage, at a general meeting, to persuade Sherre to call a temporary halt to the carting of manure and mobilize the strongest and best-shed of the boys for work in the forest. A group of twenty was formed, which included our most socially active members--Burun, Belukhin, Vershnev, Volokhov, Osadchy, Chobot and others. They stuffed their pockets with bread in the morning, and spent the whole of the day in the forest. By evening our paved roadway would be adorned with piles of brushwood, for which Anton would sally forth on his two-horse sleigh, donning, as it were, a scornful mask for that purpose.

The boys would return famished but lively. Very often they relieved the return journey by a curious game, in which could be traced elements of their bandit reminiscences. While Anton, with the help of a couple of lads, loaded the sleighs with brushwood, the rest chased one another about the woods, and everything ended in a free-for-all and the capture of bandits. The captured forest dwellers were escorted to the colony by a convoy armed with axes and saws. They were pushed, all in fun, into my office, and Osadchy or Koryto, the latter of whom had at one time served under Makhno and even lost a finger in his service, noisily demanded of me:

"Off with his head, or shoot him! Found in the woods with arms--perhaps there are some more of them there."

An interrogation began. Volokhov would knit his brows and fasten upon Belukhin.

"Out with it--how many machine guns?"

Belukhin, choking with laughter, would ask: "What's a machine gun? Is it good to eat?"

"What? A machine gun? You son-of-a-gun!"

"So it isn't good to eat? In that case I take no interest in machine guns."

Fedorenko, the most inveterate countryman, would suddenly be asked:

"Own up--didn't you serve under Makhno?"

Fedorenko was not slow in making up his mind how to answer without spoiling the game:

"I did."

"And what did you do there?"

While Fedorenko was thinking out his reply, someone from behind him said, sleepily and stupidly, in Fedorenko's voice:

"Took the cows out to pasture."

Fedorenko looked round, but met innocent countenances. A combined roar of laughter broke out. Koryto looked at Fedorenko fiercely, then turned to me and declared in a tense whisper:

"Hang him! He's a terrible fellow--just look at his eyes!"

I would reply in the same tone:

"Yes, he deserves no quarter. Take him to the dining room and give him two helpings."

"Terrible penalty!" said Koryto in tragic tones.

Belukhin broke in at a gabble:

"For that matter I'm a terrible bandit myself. I used to pasture cows for the atamans."

Only then did Fedorenko smile and close his gaping mouth. The lads began to exchange impressions of their work. Burun said:

"Our detachment brought in twelve cartloads today, not less. We told you there'd be a thousand poods by Christmas, and so there will."

The word "detachment" was an expression used in that period when the waves of revolution had not as yet been diverted into the orderly ranks of regiments and divisions. Guerilla warfare, especially in the Ukraine, where it was so long drawn-out, was carried on exclusively by detachments. A detachment might contain several thousand or less than a hundred members--in either case military feats were performed, with the depths of the forest affording shelter.

Our colonists had a special partiality for the military-guerilla romanticism of the revolutionary struggle. And individuals whom the whim of fate had thrown into the camp of hostile class elements, found in it first and foremost this same romanticism. Many of them neither knew nor understood the true meaning of the struggle, or of class contradictions, and hence it was that the Soviet authorities asked very little of them, and sent them to the colony.

The detachment in our forest, even though it was equipped with nothing but axes and saws, revived the familiar, beloved image of that other detachment, of which, if there were no actual memories, there were innumerable tales and legends.

I had no wish to interfere with the half-conscious play of the revolutionary instincts of our colonists. The pedagogical scriveners who criticized so harshly our detachments and our military games were simply incapable of understanding what it all was about. The word detachment held no pleasing associations for those whom detachments had once given short shrift--seizing their apartments and ignoring their psychology, shooting right and left from their three-inch guns, without respect for their science or their thought-wrinkled brows.

But there was no help for it. Ignoring the tastes of our critics, the colony began with a detachment.

Burun always played first fiddle in the woodcutting detachment, and there was none to dispute this honour with him. Following the rules of the same game, the boys began to call him their ataman.

"We can't call anyone ataman," I said. "It was only bandits who had atamans."

"Why only bandits?" clamoured the boys. "The guerillas had atamans too. The Red partisans had plenty."

"They don't say 'ataman' in the Red Army."

"In the Red Army they have commanders. But we're not the Red Army!"

"What if we're not! 'Commander' is much better."

The felling of wood was over: by the first of January we had over a thousand ponds. But we did not disperse Burun's detachment, which was turned over wholesale to the construction of hothouses in the new colony. This detachment went to work every morning, dining away from home, only coming back in the evening.

One day Zadorov addressed me as follows:

"See how things are with us! There's Burun's detachment, but what about the other chaps?"

We did not waste much time thinking about this. At that period orders were issued for each day in the colony, and one was added for the organization of a second detachment under the command of Zadorov.

The whole of this second detachment worked in the shops, and skilled workers like Belukhin and Vershnev left Burun's detachment and joined Zadorov's.

The further development of detachments proceeded apace. In the new colony a third and fourth detachment, each with its own commander, were organized. The girls formed a fifth detachment under the command of Nastya Nochevnaya.

The system of detachments was finally worked out by spring. The detachments became smaller, and were organized on the principle of the distribution of their members among the workshops. The cobblers always had the number one, the smiths--number six, the grooms--number two, the pig keepers--number ten. At first we had no sort of charter, and the commanders were appointed by myself, but by spring I was beginning to call commanders' meetings (which the lads gave the new and more pleasing name of Commanders' Councils) more and more frequently. I soon got used to undertaking nothing of importance without calling a Commanders' Council; and gradually the appointment of commanders themselves was left to the Council, which thus began to be increased by means of cooptation. It was long before commanders were appointed by general election and made accountable to the electors, and I myself never considered, and still do not consider, such free election as an achievement. In the Commanders' Council the election of a new commander was invariably accompanied by extremely close discussion. Thanks to the system of cooptation we always got the most splendid commanders, and at the same time we had a Council which never ceased its activities as a body, and never resigned.

One very important rule, preserved up to the present day, was the absolute prohibition of any privileges whatsoever for commanders, who never got anything in the way of extras, and were never exempted from work.

By the spring of 1923 we had made a great improvement in our detachment system, and one which turned out to be the most important invention of our collective during the thirteen years of its existence. It was this alone which enabled our detachments to be fused into a real, firm, and single collective, with both working and organizational differentiation, the democracy of the general assembly, the order, and the subordination of comrade to comrade.

This invention was--the composite, or "mixed" detachment.

The opponents of our system, attacking so violently "regimental pedagogics," had never seen one of our commanders at work. But this did not matter so much. What mattered much more was that they had never even heard of the mixed detachment, and thus had no idea whatever of the main principle of our system.

The mixed detachment was called into life by the fact that our principal work was agriculture. We had up to seventy desayatins, and in the summer Sherre demanded all hands for the work. At the same time each member of the colony was assigned to one or other of the workshops, and nobody wanted to lose his contacts there, for all regarded farming merely as a means of livelihood and the improvement of our life, and the workshop as a means of gaining skill.

In the winter, when work on the land was almost at a standstill, all the workshops were filled, but by January Sherre began to demand members of the colony for work in the hothouses and for carting manure, and these demands became every day more insistent.

Work on the land was marked by the continual change of its place and nature, and consequently led to all sorts of divisions of the collective for all sorts of tasks. The absolute authority of our commanders during work, and their responsibility from the very first, seemed to us a most important point, and Sherre was the first to insist that one of the members of the colony should be responsible for discipline, for the implements, for the work itself, and for its quality. Not a single rational person would now be found to raise objections to these demands, and even then, I think, it was only the pundits who had any objections.

We hit upon the idea of mixed detachments for the satisfaction of quite natural organizational requirements.

The mixed detachment is a temporary detachment, organized for not more than a week at a time and receiving short, definite tasks, such as weeding potatoes in a particular field, ploughing a particular allotment, sorting a consignment of seeds, carting a certain amount of manure, sowing a definite area, and so on.

Each assignment demanded different numbers of workers--in some mixed detachments, only two persons were required, in others five, eight, or even twenty. The work of the mixed detachments also varied as to the time it required. In the winter, while school was being attended, the boys worked either before or after dinner, in two shifts. When school was out, a six-hour day was introduced, with everyone working simultaneously, but the necessity for exploiting to the full both livestock and inventory led to some boys working from six a.m. to noon, and others from noon to six p.m. Sometimes there was so much to do that working hours had to be increased.

All this variety of work as to type and length of time, caused a great variety in the mixed detachments themselves. Our network of mixed detachments began to look something like a railway schedule.

It was well known throughout the colony that 3-1 Mixed worked from eight a.m. till four p.m., with an interval for dinner, and invariably in the truck garden, that 3-0 worked in the orchard, 3-R worked on repairs, 3-H in the hothouse, that the First Mixed worked from six a.m. till twelve noon, and the Second Mixed from noon till six p.m. The number of mixed detachments soon reached thirteen.

The mixed detachment was always a purely working detachment. As soon as its assignment was completed and the boys had returned to the colony, the mixed detachment ceased to exist.

Each member of the colony belonged to a permanent detachment, with its own permanent commander, its own place in the system of workshops, in the dormitory, and in the dining room. The permanent detachment is a sort of nucleus for the colony, and its commander has to be a member of the Commanders' Council. But from spring on, the nearer we got to summer, the more frequently a member of the colony was assigned to a mixed detachment for a week, with a given function.

Even when there were only two members in a mixed detachment, one of them was appointed commander, and organized and answered for the work. But as soon as working hours were over, the mixed detachment was dispersed. Every mixed detachment was composed for a week, and, consequently, each individual member of the colony usually received an assignment for the next week on new work, under a new commander. The commander of a mixed detachment was also appointed by the Commanders' Council for a week, after which they were, as a rule, no longer commanders in the next mixed detachment, but simply rank-and-file members.

The Commanders' Council endeavoured to make all members of the colony in turn--with the exception of the most glaringly unsuitable-mixed detachment commanders. This was quite fair, since the command of a mixed detachment entailed great responsibility, and a lot of trouble. Thanks to this system, most of the colony members not only took part in work assignments, but also shouldered organizational functions. This was extremely important, and exactly what was required for communist education. And it was thanks to this system that our colony distinguished itself in 1926 by its striking ability to adapt itself to any task, while for the fulfilment of the various tasks there was always an abundance of capable and independent organizers, and proficient managers--persons who could be relied upon.

The post of commander of a permanent detachment was shorn of much of its importance. Permanent commanders hardly ever appointed themselves commanders of mixed detachments, considering that they had enough to do as it was. The commander of a permanent detachment went to work as a rank-and-file member of a mixed detachment, and during work obeyed the orders of the mixed detachment commander, who was, as often as not, a member of the permanent commander's own detachment.

This created an extremely intricate chain of subordination in the colony, in which it was impossible for individual members to become unduly conspicuous, or to predominate in the collective.

The system of mixed detachments with its alternation of working and organizational functions, its practice in command and subordination, in collective and individual activities, keyed up the life of the colony and filled it with interest.