Bukharin; drawing by David Levine

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.

For the peasants the answer lay in cooperative farming and marketing. The cooperative system could in no circumstances be imposed by force. But the state and the party which controlled it could, by providing the necessary economic incentives and by demonstrating the superiority of state aid and cooperation over individualism, eventually bring the peasants to socialism by persuasion. But—and this Lenin emphasized again and again, as Bukharin would do until he was silenced—the essential condition for such a policy was to abandon the class war between the towns and the villages which had prevailed up to 1921 and which had been necessary in the early stages of the revolution. Nothing but peace between town and villages could provide the basis for the future socialism which was still to come in the Soviet state, according to Lenin. This peace had to be preserved at all costs and as a first priority, since it was only in a harmonious society that the peasant majority stood any chance of “growing into” socialism, and of acquiring the social consciousness which, in theory, should have been the foundation for the “socialism” which had in reality never been achieved after 1917, in spite of claims to the contrary.

Such, in rough outline, was the slender framework of theory upon which Bukharin was to build after 1923 a detailed, elaborate system of what, in more modern terminology, could be described as “socialism with a human face.” The linchpin of his system was social peace—peace between classes, between town and countryside. This meant an end to the traditional exploitation of the Russian peasant, who had for centuries borne the brunt of all economic development in Russia. It also meant renunciation of the traditional class warfare of Bolshevik tactics. Bukharin, although in theory as much prone to accept talk of Bolshevik ruthlessness as any Bolshevik, was of a gentle temperament, averse in practice to the terror which he often advocated in theory, and never able to shake off the traditional ethics of a European socialist.

In time Bukharin added several new elements to Lenin’s sketch of a policy. One was his theory of economic expansion and industrialization: following Lenin, this was based uncompromisingly on the need for a lasting peace between town and country. The peasant would in time “grow into” socialism. The process could and should be helped on fiscally: but one could not create socialism at machinegun point, or, as the Left Opposition advocated, accumulate capital for industrial expansion by extracting it forcibly from the peasants. The proper course, Bukharin repeatedly argued, was to encourage the peasants to increase their own prosperity, and to develop industry progressively: light industries to start with, so as to produce the many commodities which the peasants badly needed, and then, with the capital accumulated from the sale of consumer goods to the peasants, to develop heavy industry.

Stalin, whose prime concern after 1923 was to prevent the rise to power of Trotsky and his supporters, readily espoused Bukharin’s doctrines. Bukharin’s prestige as a theorist and as editor of Pravda, the fact that he had stood very close to Lenin after 1921 as well as his influence and reputation abroad through the Comintern (over which he presided) were all of inestimable value to Stalin in routing his “Left” opponents on the basis of the doctrine of “socialism in one country.” Bukharin, for his part, gave Stalin invaluable service, using every dirty trick in the communist armory to hasten the defeat and disgrace of Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev. Mr. Cohen (with the intolerance of youth, perhaps) is somewhat censorious about Bukharin in this period, placing a verse from I Corinthians 13 on the importance of charity as an epigraph to the relevant chapter of his book. Yet Bukharin was, after all, a communist, reared in the communist tradition, with little sympathy for democratic niceties.

There are few, if any, examples of political chicanery which are not to be found in Lenin’s career. It is easy to say (Mr. Cohen does not say it) that when Stalin, having destroyed the Left Opposition with Bukharin’s aid, promptly and quite unexpectedly started to dismantle the New Economic Policy and turned on Bukharin and his main supporters, Rykov and Tomsky, this was poetic justice. This is really unhistorical nonsense. Bukharin never doubted for a moment that after the Left had been routed, Lenin’s policy would be fully implemented, and the foundations laid for a socialist future for Russia on the lines which Lenin had only had time to sketch. In order to achieve this the Left had to be defeated, and in terms of communist politics Stalin’s way in the Twenties seemed the only way. It was in the Thirties that Stalin was revealed as the blood-thirsty maniac that he was, not in the Twenties.

Of course, Bukharin was no democrat. He believed in dictatorship, in terror—in theory, at all events; he had no liking for it in practice—and in treating political opponents as enemies to be routed. Nevertheless, he stood for certain principles that belonged to the tradition of social democracy which probably still survived to some slight extent in Lenin, and were eradicated by Stalin. Bukharin believed firmly that the time for class war was over and that socialism could only be built on the basis of reconciliation and harmony. He expressed (long before the idea was developed by Preobrazhensky in exile and much later by Dzhilas) the fear that the commissars who controlled the resources of the state were in danger of becoming a new exploiting class. He even voiced some apprehensions (nowhere to be found in any published writing of Lenin’s) that a communist party, enjoying monopoly of power and subject to no control whatsoever, was in danger of becoming corrupted.

There are innumerable instances of humanitarian acts by Bukharin, from his efforts to save the lives of the socialist revolutionaries put on trial in 1922, right up to the end when his influence was gone, and his life in imminent peril. Nadezhda Mandelstam has recently paid tribute to Bukharin—there are many more instances on record.

Above all Bukharin should be remembered with respect and admiration for the enormous part which he played in helping to create a relatively free and varied Marxist culture which survived until the Thirties, the like of which has never been seen since. Bukharin’s influence was exercised mainly through the Institute of Red Professors and through the Communist Academy, and through the Writers’ Congress. A recognizable group of foremost scholars in history, literature, and law (most of whom perished without trace after Bukharin’s fall) wrote important and original works, influenced and encouraged by Bukharin. Many of these works are very rare today. There is one work, by Ia. V. Staroselskii, on the Jacobin dictatorship, of which a copy was given by the author to the late Harold Laski (I have been unable to trace another copy in the major libraries in the United States). There is little doubt that this book, published in 1930, like many others including some works on Nechaev, and like some of Bukharin’s own articles in the Thirties, was intended as veiled criticism of Stalin. It is much to be hoped that as full a study as possible of this golden age in Russian Marxist scholarship, which I understand is in train, will be available before too long.

The outstanding Russian Marxist theorist of law, E. B. Pashukanis, wrote a preface to Staroselskii’s book—Pashukanis was “liquidated” in 1937. The reason for killing him (he was criticized for heretical views, long recanted, on the withering away of the state) was plainly the fact that, as chairman of the Institute of Law of the new Academy of Sciences, he was, in the course of the summer of 1936, the guiding spirit of a group of lawyers working on the reform of Soviet criminal law in a more humane and liberal direction. There can be no doubt about Bukharin’s involvement in this activity since, as he told Nicolaevsky, he was the main author of the civil rights section of the Stalin Constitution of 1936.

It may seem surprising that Bukharin, whose political downfall was complete by 1929, could have continued at liberty, active in the intellectual sphere as far as this remained possible, editing Izvestiia and drafting the new constitution. But in the first place, Stalin was able successfully to assert his will over the party leaders only in 1936 and to inaugurate the great terror, the staged trials, and the judicial murder of leading oppositionists. For so long as he was unable to start the butchery of mid-1936 to 1938 he was content to allow all kinds of liberal fancies to flourish, either with the object of lulling the liberals, which meant the Bukharinites, into a false sense of security, or to let a hundred flowers bloom, like Chairman Mao, the better to lop their heads off when the time was ripe. Bukharin was not arrested until the spring of 1937: many members of the Central Committee, who, of course, paid with their lives, seem to have made a very belated if courageous stand to save Bukharin and something of the honor of the party. Bukharin was put on trial, with Rykov (Tomsky had already committed suicide and nineteen others from March 2-13, 1938. He was sentenced to death, and on March 15 it was announced that the execution had been carried out.

The tragic fate of Bukharin raises a number of questions, the answers to which seem to me to be vital for the understanding of Soviet history and society. Stalin’s motives in destroying him and his many important supporters in the party are clear enough. Since Stalin was determined to establish the kind of police state, ruled by terror and based on the conformity of the graveyard, which the Soviet Union became under his rule, it was essential for him to annihilate and defame all those communists who stood for social peace and some degree of tolerance and gradualism in economic policy. The usual arguments used to justify Stalin’s action simply will not stand up—that the “kulaks” would “hold the country up to ransom,” or that the rise of Hitler called for rapid industrialization in preparation for inevitable war. Evidence of “kulak” conspiracy is virtually nonexistent except in the imagination of Stalin’s apologists.

Assuming that Stalin’s methods of industrialization were more successful and faster than Bukharin’s gradualism would have been (and who can tell?), the link with the rise of Hitler is completely unconvincing. Would Hitler have come to power, or come to power so soon and so easily, if it had not been for the bacchanalia let loose by Stalin, or for Stalin’s direction of the German communists? No one can tell. Did Stalin, whose dearest wish after 1934 was to make a deal with Hitler, and who persisted in the face of all the evidence to believe in Hitler’s pacific intentions toward Russia right up to the invasion of June 21, 1941, really ever believe that he was arming the Soviet Union against a Nazi attack?

It was, of course, Stalin’s mastery over the party apparatus and his skill in manipulating it that made his victory over Bukharin and “the Right” possible, in spite of the very widespread support that they enjoyed in the country. But, as Mr. Cohen rightly points out, this was not the only reason for Stalin’s victory. The tradition of revolutionary extremism was very strong in the Bolshevik party, the tradition of all-out strife, of ruthlessness, of achieving the impossible, of storming the impregnable fortress and the like. This was indeed the tradition which had inspired Lenin—the tradition of Chernyshevsky, whose portrayal of the “new man” in the Sixties, especially in his novel What Is to Be Done?, first started Lenin on his revolutionary career.

To these Bolsheviks the New Economic Policy and the talk of generations of social peace and of “growing into socialism” which Bukharin stood for seemed to be an aberration of the ailing Lenin, and a departure from everything that he had stood for hitherto—the latter was certainly true. There was, I believe, yet a third reason for Stalin’s victory. Stalin appealed to what was most corrupt and degenerate in the party—the self-seeking careerist, the unprincipled sycophant, the new type of communist, totally indifferent to doctrine, whose horizon was limited to rising on the backs of those above him and treading on those whom he was in a position to betray. The fall of Bukharin was the triumph of a communist way of life which has not changed a great deal in its essentials to this day.

Why did Bukharin return to Soviet Russia in 1936 when he had the opportunity of staying away, and when he was in no doubt of the fate which ultimately awaited him? Primarily, perhaps, because his young wife and child were hostages in Stalin’s hands. Bukharin also had a strong sense of responsibility for the many young intellectuals who made up an important part of his following, and may have had some hopes of saving them or shielding them. And, in contrast to Stalin, Bukharin was obsessed by the rising tide of Nazism and quite convinced that a clash was inevitable. In this coming clash he appears to have believed, and rightly, that a victory of Stalin’s communism with all its faults held out more hope for the future than the darkness that would descend over mankind should Hitler win.

It was beyond doubt this fear of the rise of Nazism and the sense of the need to bolster communism, even Stalin’s communism, as a defense against it that formed one of Bukharin’s motives in agreeing to a minimum of cooperation with Stalin and his henchmen at the trial in 1938. Much nonsense has been written about Bukharin’s “Confession.” Dishonest or imbecile reporters, like Feuchtwanger or Ambassador Davies, leaned over backward to do Stalin’s work for him, and to show that Bukharin’s guilt had been proved. Koestler, in Darkness at Noon, invented the romantic theory of “last service to the party.” The explanation, we now know, was much simpler. First and foremost was Bukharin’s wish to purchase the lives of his wife and son—they spent twenty years in concentration camps, but they survived. Secondly, he did not confess—as several shrewd and honest observers noted at the time, and as Dr. Katkov’s illuminating study of the trial established beyond doubt in 1969 in a book which, until the appearance of Mr. Cohen’s, was the only serious study of Bukharin available.2

Bukharin at his trial made the minimal admission that his captors required and no more—the admission of general “counterrevolutionary” activity and membership in the bloc of “Rightists and Trotskyites”: he denied every specific charge, such as wrecking activities, connections with German fascists, espionage activity on behalf of foreign intelligence services, and, the most grotesque charge of all, of forming a plan in 1918 to assassinate Lenin. His evidence, read in conjunction with the last article which he published, makes it clear that he was attempting to use the trial in order to outwit his captors, and to convey, in Aesopian language, something of the ideals to which he had devoted his life, and to sound his fears of Nazi ascendancy. It gives one a little satisfaction to be able to record that his attempt has in recent years been understood. Better late than never.

What is the significance of Bukharin for posterity? For those socialists to whom Stalinism has proved a disillusionment, and for those who see little to hope for from the various forms of violent revolution in which followers of Trotsky or Mao see the vision of a happy future, Bukharin offers the only alternative—a form of postrevolutionary revisionism. It is not surprising that voices are occasionally heard inside the Soviet Union echoing some of Bukharin’s thoughts, if without acknowledgment. The attempt by the Czech communists to create something more civilized out of the wreckage of their Stalinist system was nothing but Bukharinism—even though this could never be mentioned without opening the floodgates of Soviet abuse and accusations of counterrevolution.

The fact that Bukharin has never been rehabilitated in the Soviet Union—beyond the grudging admission that he was not in fact a German or Japanese spy—need cause no surprise. To rehabilitate Bukharin, to permit, in other words, the open discussion and study of his works and his career, would be to remove the very foundations on which Brezhnev’s police state rests, just as much as Stalin’s did—arbitrariness, illegality, terror, albeit much reduced in extent, suppression of freedom of discussion even of Marxist theory, party control of literature and scholarship (again reduced in extent as compared with Stalin, but real nevertheless), and a morbid fear of economic incentives. The rehabilitation of Bukharin may come—who can tell? If it ever does it will be a sure sign that real and substantial changes have taken place in the essential nature of the Soviet system of rule.

This Issue

February 7, 1974