• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Bukharin’s Way

Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938

by Stephen F. Cohen
Knopf, 495 pp., $15.00

There are several reasons why Bukharin is unique among communist leaders as a subject for a biographer. In the first place there can be few, if any, leading communists of any nationality who, in the general consensus of those who knew them and worked closely with them, are invariably described in such terms as warmhearted, generous, and lovable. Brave scholars, gritting their teeth, have tried to do justice to Stalin out of a sense of duty. Trotsky, probably undeservedly, has aroused the romantic imagination of disappointed communists. To write about Bukharin calls neither for sacrifice nor for romantic self-delusion. Personality apart, Bukharin’s unique importance in the history of Soviet Russia lies in the fact that he alone offered for that country a way forward radically opposed to the one adopted by Stalin. Trotsky, after all, before his routing by Stalin, had only put forward Stalin’s eventual solution, but without drawing the logical conclusions that Stalin would draw.

Bukharin’s plan was detailed, consistent, fully analyzed, and based in every aspect, though not every detail, on Lenin’s views as sketched by the dying leader at the very end of his active life. This is, of course, not to say that one can assert with any confidence that Bukharin’s policy would have worked. This kind of hypothetical question is about as valueless as are the arguments adduced by some of our “communisant” academics to show that Stalin’s policy was “realistic” or “necessary.” The historian cannot say what might have been, since it is impossible to assess all the consequences that would eventually have flowed from a certain course of action had it been taken at a certain moment of time. On the other hand, human reason instinctively revolts against accepting the argument that a policy involving the massacre of tens of millions of innocent people and an internal upheaval of which the traces are fully evident over forty years later can ever be regarded as either realistic or necessary.

Hence the fascination of Burkharin. For disappointed socialists he offers a ray of hope. For Stalinists and neo-Stalinists the very fact that he existed is an uncomfortable fact to be suppressed and forgotten. The lickspittle left-wing intellectuals, who did such signal service to Stalin in bolstering the credibility of the preposterous show trials of the late Thirties, devoted extra zeal to the assassination of Bukharin’s character and to the suppression of his views. It is now no longer fashionable to defend the trials, so Bukharin, though not described any more as a spy and a traitor, becomes a simpleminded idealist with no sense of reality.

Certainly, a few reputable historians of Soviet Russia have, since the end of the war, told the truth about Bukharin. But their accounts have necessarily been short and incomplete. It has remained for a young historian (Professor Stephen Cohen is thirty-five) to put right some of the sins of the fathers, and to produce a full, fair, balanced, enormously well-documented, sympathetic yet not uncritical study of Bukharin’s life and thought. I confidently predict that this magnificent book will come to be regarded by those whose opinions are worth listening to as one of the two or three really outstanding studies in the history of the Soviet Union of the past twenty-five years.

There is yet an additional reason why Bukharin is so uniquely attractive a subject for the biographer of a communist leader. In the course of 1936, a little less than a year before the arrest which was to culminate in his judicial murder, he was allowed to visit Western Europe—ostensibly on business connected with the acquisition of certain archives. During this visit he had long, frank, and detailed conversations about the situation in the Soviet Union and his own position with the late Boris Nicolaevsky and with the late Feodor and Lydia Dan. Some of the sensational (and subsequently confirmed) political information was published by Nicolaevsky at the time, in a form which carefully concealed Bukharin as the source, in the famous anonymous “Letter of an Old Bolshevik.”

Reports of the other conversations were known for many years only to a few who could be trusted not to betray confidences which were likely to damage people who were still alive. But both Mrs. Dan before her death and Boris Nicolaevsky felt it safe to publish (in 1964 and 1965 respectively) some of their records of these fascinating conversations, and also to reveal to those of us who were privileged to know them and to enjoy their confidence further details about Bukharin. This kind of authentic insight into the mind of one of Stalin’s top victims cannot, so far as I am aware, be parallelled in the Soviet Union or elsewhere.

Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was born in Moscow on September 27 (October 9), 1888, like Lenin the son of a schoolteacher who rose in the public service by his own merits, and whose civilized influence on the boy’s education was to be so evident in the man. Already a radical at school, the young Bukharin was formed as a revolutionary in the turbulent year of 1905, and became a professional Bolshevik, rising meteorically in the Moscow organization. Betrayed by Lenin’s protégé, the police spy Malinovskii (a cause of prolonged friction between Bukharin and Lenin), Nikolai Ivanovich was arrested in 1910, escaped from his remote place of exile, and spent from 1911 until the revolution as a political émigré. Lenin’s relations with him during these years were a curious amalgam of irritation and—something rare for Lenin—genuine affection. The passionate, almost loverlike quarrels between the brilliant young theorist and the Master during the war sound a little ridiculous today, particularly when one realizes that, with or without acknowledgment, Lenin in the end derived some of his most publicized views (on imperialism, for example) precisely from Bukharin. Bukharin’s “semi-anarchist” views on the state (1916) become Lenin’s in 1917 (Krupskaia to Bukharin: “V. I. asked me to tell you that he no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state”). All this is fully and sympathetically analyzed by Mr. Cohen.

Conflict between the theoretical and dogmatic Bukharin and Lenin, the practical and pragmatic tactician of revolution, who had little regard either for promises or for doctrine, was inevitable. There was also a strong ethical element in Bukharin which Lenin did not share, or for that matter understand. Although he never referred to the subject (except for an oblique reference in 1922, in a speech at the Comintern) it is a fair inference that Bukharin was aware of and profoundly shocked by Lenin’s acceptance of large sums of money from the Germans. Perhaps it was this factor that made him such a passionate opponent of the pragmatically sensible, but to a true revolutionary repugnant, surrender at Brest-Litovsk in 1918. However, by the end of 1918, after a period of opposition as a leader of so-called Left Communism, Bukharin became more integrated into the new communist system, and reconciled to Lenin, of whom he remained a passionate admirer for the rest of his (Bukharin’s) life.

By the end of the civil war he was the undisputed theorist of Marxism in its Bolshevik form. His two major wartime works—Imperialism and World Economy and The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class—were published in full only in 1918 and 1919. In 1920 there appeared The Economics of the Transition Period and in the autumn of 1921 his Historical Materialism, which was beyond doubt one of the most influential works of the Twenties in the whole vast literature of Marxism. All these works together formed an outstanding contribution to the theory of twentieth-century Marxism. They are very little read these days, at any rate by the adherents of the various shades on the left of the political spectrum. No doubt for both “Stalinists” and “Trotskyists” Bukharin’s name is anathema for different reasons; while the more revolutionary extremists are repelled by the ethical, conciliatory, evolutionary attitude toward socialism which, under Lenin’s influence, he firmly espoused.

It may come as a surprise to some readers to see the words “conciliatory” and “evolutionary” applied to Lenin at any period of his career. It is, of course, clear beyond dispute that the guiding principles throughout Lenin’s active life were strife and conflict—class conflict, as he saw it in Marxist terms, but at all events conflict between those who were right, that is to say himself and his supporters, and the rest, who were wrong. Almost from the age of seventeen, certainly from 1899 onward, when he first realized what he believed to be a real danger of the triumph in Russia of revisionism, he stood uncompromisingly for the inevitable, and much to be desired and worked for, violent, revolutionary transformation of society—going beyond Marx in this respect, perhaps.

In his revolutionary tactics and in his leadership of the new Soviet state, up till 1922, he stood for uncompromising conflict against political opponents and the clear separation of the sheep from the goats with which Iskra had in 1900 opened the campaign for the victory of what was to become Bolshevism. The peasants would for all time be led by the proletariat—if need be by force: thus Lenin in 1902, and right up to 1921, when the economic concessions, forced on the Bolsheviks by the threat of a general strike and the prospect of a peasant guerrilla war, were accompanied by stringent tightening of party control over the life of the whole country.

The New Economic Policy seemed to many Bolsheviks little more than a regrettable but necessary retreat, a temporary setback on the path of true Bolshevism, almost something of a trick, perhaps, to tide over a crisis in power. However, by the end of 1922 and early 1923, in those last articles which the dying Lenin, surrounded by Stalin’s spies and cut off from, or deserted by, most of his friends, contrived to get published (including “On Co-operation,” “Better Less But Better,” “Our Revolution”), an entirely new doctrine was enunciated for the first time. We know from what Nicolaevsky tells us Bukharin told him in 1936 (and there can be no possible reason to doubt his account) that Bukharin had held frequent conversations with Lenin during the last months of the dying leader’s active life.1 Besides, as Mr. Cohen’s analysis proves beyond doubt, Bukharin’s entire doctrine as it evolved after 1922 on the future course of Soviet Russia was little more than an expansion of Lenin’s views, as sketched in embryo in these last articles.

The October Revolution, Lenin argued, had been premature in the sense that power was seized by the proletariat long before social conditions were ripe for it. However, this could not have been helped; the Bolsheviks could not in the circumstances have acted otherwise than they did. The task now before the Bolsheviks was to undo the consequences which Marx, and every Marxist, knew necessarily flowed from a premature seizure of power. The object now must be to create over a long period—generations, as Lenin described it, not centuries—in a predominantly peasant country, the social conditions which were essential to true socialism. The New Economic Policy, which was neither a ruse nor a temporary retreat in panic, but a policy embarked upon “seriously and over a long period,” provided such an opportunity: the “commanding heights” of the economy remained under the control of the party, and all the essential preconditions for creating socialism were there.

  1. 1

    Boris I. Nicolaevsky, Power and the Soviet Elite (Praeger, 1965), p. 12.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print