Chris Harman


Increasing blindness

(June 1983)

From Socialist Review, No. 55, June 1983, p. 35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bukharin: Selected Writings on the state and the transition to socialism
Edited by Richard B. Day
Spokesman £20.00

Bukharin was one of the most important theorists in the history of Marxism, as well as being one of the Bolshevik leaders of 1917.

He developed a theory of imperialism to explain the First World War before Lenin did, and was also in advance of Lenin in rescuing the genuine Marxist theory of the state from the distortions it had undergone in the years after the deaths of Marx and Engels.

In some ways his writings on imperialism are today more relevant even than Lenin’s. They are not encumbered by the confusing notion of finance capital which Lenin took over from the English liberal economist Hobson – a notion which can easily be misinterpreted to mean that industrial capital is a victim of finance capital’s imperialist drive (a view quite alien to Lenin himself).

Bukharin’s theory is centred on the way industrial capital becomes more and more integrated with the state, even though the forces of production increasingly operate at an international level. He sees this contradiction as underlying the drive towards war: each capital turns to the state to help it combat other capitals internationally, and military competition complements or even supplants market competition.

His theory of imperialism is therefore also a theory of state capitalism.

Bukharin’s theory does not contradict Lenin’s as properly understood (Lenin wrote a very favourable introduction to Bukharin’s Imperialism and the World Economy and his marginal notes to the Economics of the Transformation Period are by no means wholly critical). But it does go further in pointing to factors which are vital for an understanding of world conflict today.

The first part of this book is made up of extracts from Bukharin’s writings on these questions – Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State and The Economics of the Transformation Period – which are examples of Marxist theory at its best.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the writings in the second part of the book. They come from the period 1922–28, when all the weaknesses in Bukharin’s approach to practice and theory came to the fore.

Already in the earlier years Lenin had had to criticise one fault in Bukharin’s approach – he tended to forget that the very real tendencies he pointed to in the system operated in concrete circumstances alongside other, counter-tendencies. This led him to a political practice which veered from one extreme to another.

In the years before 1920 Bukharin was on the extreme left of the Bolshevik Party – opposing national liberation struggles since they could only ‘play into the hands of other imperialisms’, rejecting the peace of Brest Litovsk and urging ‘revolutionary war’ regardless of the cost, glorifying in the ‘war communism’ imposed on the revolution by the harsh requirements of survival.

In 1921 the Bolsheviks were forced to abandon war communism because of the threat of peasant rebellion and the weakness of their worker-base as revealed by the Kronstadt uprising.

A ‘new economic policy’ based upon a free market for the peasants and petty traders replaced the previous total state control.

For Lenin and Trotsky this was a ‘retreat’ under pressure of circumstances. But Bukharin’s inclination to see things in terms of abstract tendencies led him to come to a different conclusion. The NEP, he argued, could enable Russia to wove inexorably forward to socialism ‘at a snail’s pace’.

It was on this basis that he developed the ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’ – a theory Stalin was only too eager to take up.

The new ‘theory’ blinded Bukharin to the real domestic and international pitfalls facing any attempt to maintain ‘socialism’ in an isolated, overwhelmingly agricultural Russia.

It also led him to fail to understand what motivated Stalin and the bureaucratic elements in the party.

For five years he continued with undaunted optimism to attack anyone who saw these dangers.

In the process he revised many of the tenets held by all wings of Bolshevism in 1917. It was, for instance, he who first systematically propagandised the idea that socialism would be brought about by a ‘bloc’ of different classes, rather than by the working class leading all oppressed and exploited groups. What some ignorant Eurocommunists see as the great ‘innovation’ in Gramsci’s later writings is only in fact part of the general orthodoxy of the Comintern during the period in which Bukharin dominated its proceedings – an analysis brilliantly refuted in Trotsky’s The Third International after Lenin.

Overall, Bukharin’s writings of this period lack the vigour and perception of those left oppositionists who he polemicised against. They can only be of interest today to those with a specialist interest in the period – and to those who repeat Bukharin’s mistake by believing there is a reformist road to ‘socialism with a human face’ in one or other country of Eastern Europe.

The ossification of the revolutions seems to have produced an ossification in Bukharin’s head, so that he was incapable of applying the notion of state capitalism he had developed a decade before to what was going on around him in Russia. Instead, he went so far as to suggest ‘socialism’ could advance if nationalised Russian industry could produce at lower costs (presumably including wage costs) than its private competitors. His blindness led him to encourage the clampdown on workers that Stalin was to take to its logical conclusion.

What this meant was suddenly revealed in 1928–29 when an agricultural crisis showed the complete inadequacy of what Bukharin had been preaching for five years. Statified industry competing militarily on an international scale was proved to be incompatible with a relatively prosperous peasantry. Stalin reacted by seizing the land from the peasants through a bloody campaign of ‘collectivisation’ and by hammering workers’ living standards right down. The gains which both workers and peasants had made in 1917 were finally destroyed.

The last section of the book; called The years of Disorientation and Defeat contains two pieces Bukharin wrote as this was happening.

In them Bukharin tries to criticise Stalinism without explicit mention either of Stalinism or of the bureaucracy which supported him. He does this first by condemning ‘Trotskyism’ for what are clearly the policies of Stalin (a trick Gramsci also resorted to in bits of the Prison Notebooks) – something which could not do anything to stop Stalin’s advance, but which could make it still more difficult for workers to understand what was happening.

Then in ‘the theory of organised economic disorder’ he reviews a book about developments in Western capitalism, hinting that similar trends are present in Russia. It is here you get odd references to his old ideas about state capitalism. But they are never spelt out.

Trotsky never developed a theory of state capitalism as the young Bukharin had. But because he fought Stalinism and did not hide behind clever, Aesopian formulations, his writings on it are infinitely more interesting than Bukharin’s, for all their theoretical faults.

The young Bukharin remains necessary reading for every serious Marxist today. But it is probably a better bet to read them in the separately published Imperialism and the World Economy (available in this quarter’s Bookmarks list) or in one of the two English editions of The Economics of the Transformation (or Transition) Period rather than in this collection with material of much loss interest.

Last updated on 5 October 2019