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Bukharin and Others

In response to:

Bukharin's Way from the February 7, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

It is good, as Professor Leonard Schapiro notes [NYR, February 7], that the life and thought of N. I. Bukharin is becoming accessible to a wider public. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to “rehabilitate” Bukharin (an otiose project, one would think) Schapiro has managed to obfuscate the political differences between Bukharin and Stalin.

In declaring that no one can tell whether Bukharin’s methods of industrialization would have been as effective as Stalin’s, Schapiro obscures the fact that the issue between the two men concerned not merely methods but goals: what kind of industrialization was needed? Bukharin, as Schapiro correctly notes, stood not simply for “gradualism” but also for developing “light industries to start with…and then, with the capital accumulated from the sale of consumer goods to the peasantry, to develop heavy industry.” Stalin, of course, favored immediate concentration on heavy industry: coal, steel, machine tools, etc.—which is to say, the basis for a modern armaments industry. This policy, as Schapiro correctly intimates, implied that the necessary capital would have to be obtained by exploiting the peasants—because there was essentially no one else to exploit.

But Stalin’s rationale for this policy was not, as Schapiro alleges, “the rise of Hitler.” At the time the dispute with Bukharin occurred, in 1927-1929, Hitler’s assumption of power was not viewed as a serious possibility, by Stalin, Bukharin, or anyone else. Rather, the rationale was that a weak, unarmed Soviet Russia would sooner or later be attacked by “the imperialists,” individually or collectively. This presumption was given color by the invasions of Soviet Russia in 1918-1920 by half a dozen “imperialist” (i.e., western or western-supported) armies, by the German invasion of 1916-1918, and even by the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. It was given further color by the detestation in which the Soviets were held from their inception by the rich and powerful throughout the world.

Taking all these historic facts together, it appears that Stalin (or any other Soviet leader) would have had excellent reasons, in 1929 or earlier, to fear an ultimate invasion—if not by a Hitler (as in fact occurred), then by some less flamboyant but no less predatory German nationalist regime, and if not that, by Japan—which within a few years would begin dismembering China.

Thus it is hard to take seriously Schapiro’s rhetorical question “Did Stalin…ever really believe that he was arming the Soviet Union against Nazi attack?” As evidence that he did not, Schapiro claims that Stalin’s “dearest wish after 1934 was to make a deal with Hitler,” and that he “persisted in the face of all the evidence to believe (sic) in Hitler’s pacific intentions toward Russia….” Not being a mindreader, I cannot say what Stalin’s “dearest wish” was. The historic fact is that the entire thrust of Soviet foreign policy for five years “after 1934” centered on “the united front against war and fascism”—which meant, in essence, war by fascism against the USSR. This was reflected in, among other things, the policies of the Communist International (which, to put it mildly, were heavily influenced by Stalin), to the point where it was accused by, e.g., the Trotskyites, of subordinating the interests of the world revolution to the defense of the Soviet Union. Between 1939 and 1941, Stalin did indeed (if one believes Khrushchev) permit himself certain illusions about Hitler’s intentions. But if he in fact held these same illusions in 1934-1939, then every Communist party in the world during that period must have been trumpeting doctrine that was at odds with his thinking. Which is ridiculous.

That Bukharin’s projected approach to industrialization was more humane than Stalin’s goes without saying. That it was more realistic is by no means self-evident. Even if one chooses to assume, indeed, that Stalin did wish (in 1934) to make a deal with Hitler, he can hardly have failed to note a basic—and ancient—fact of international life: in making a deal, it is far better to negotiate from (military) strength than from weakness.

In short, it seems to me probable that Stalin’s approach to industrialization, coercive though it was bound to be at best, was nonetheless founded on a realistic appraisal of Soviet Russia’s world situation. Of course to say that the policy was realistic cannot and should not obscure the fact that Stalin chose to carry it out in a typically “Stalinist” manner—or, as the late Isaac Deutcher might have said, in a typically Russian (in the worst sense) manner: with a maximum of crudity, brutality, and coercion. But the fact that Stalin’s methods were abominable does not prove that his goals were arbitrary or fatuous; equally, the fact that the murdered Bukharin was in almost every way a more attractive personality than his murderer does not mean that his views were invariably sensible. If the good guys were always right and the bad guys always wrong, the world would be a much simpler place than it is.

Robert Claiborne

New York City

Leonard Schapiro replies:

I fear I do not share Mr. James A. Young’s view of the importance of abstract Marxist ideology, since I regard it as very largely irrelevant to real life. That is why I did not include such prominent “liberal” or “humanist” communists as Mao and Trotsky (a strange choice of epithets for these gentlemen, but as the Russians say, paper will stand anything). I have a great respect for Gramsci’s intellect and character, but I fail to see what he has to do with Soviet Russia, 1928. The importance of Bukharin did not lie in his Historical Materialism, or any other theoretical work. It lay in his realization that Soviet Communism had reached an impasse which threatened to destroy all human values. His proposed solution was humane, pragmatic and realistic, and much more akin to modified state capitalism (which Lenin had said would represent real progress in Soviet Russia) than to Marxism.

Mr. Claiborne’s defense of Stalin’s policy follows the familiar lines on which I tried to throw doubt. If I failed to convince Mr. Claiborne then, I fear I am not likely to do so by entering into argument with him on possible alternatives to Stalin’s policy, the validity of which will remain forever incapable of proof. If Mr. Claiborne thinks that Stalin’s policy which cost millions of lives, crippled Russia’s agriculture for at least a generation, and created the social damage and trauma which are still evident over forty years later was “realistic” that is his concern. However, he should get the few facts that we really know about Stalin right before rushing to his defense. The relevant documents of the German foreign office show beyond doubt that after 1934 Stalin was trying to conclude a deal with Hitler. Hitler rebuffed the approaches—hence, no doubt, Stalin’s prudent reinsurance policy of Litvinov and the League, the Popular Front, and all the rest of the Soviet anti-fascist posture. As for his faith in Hitler’s intentions, right up to the moment of invasion, in the face of all the accumulating evidence—I should have thought there could be no serious doubt about this in anyone’s mind. I do not claim, and never have claimed, to read Stalin’s mind, or anyone else’s. All I was concerned to do was to cast doubt on the argument of Stalin’s apologists that he showed great foresight in 1929 by deciding to industrialize the country with all speed. No one could have been more repeatedly wrong in his assessment of foreign affairs than Stalin.

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