Bukharin’s Way

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

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

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.