Peter Sedgwick

The Return of Bukharin

(February 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1975, pp.16-20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, Stephen F. Cohen, Wildwood House, £4.50.

THE LAST two years of Lenin’s life included some long spells of an agonising isolation, as his constitution collapsed before the strains of revolutionary government, Fanya Kaplan’s old bullet-wounds in the neck and shoulder, and the strokes that invaded his brain in 1922 and 1923. Reduced to an invalid state over much of this period, Lenin had few visitors. It is striking that a chief among comrades, a gregarious and genial figure whose attention to personal relations both in collective work and in the aftermath of party feuds had been little short of exemplary, should have been so alone during his hours of need. The only Bolshevik who felt impelled constantly to seek Lenin out, to chat with him and cheer him during the long months of blurred or strangled speech, was Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin: Bukharin the old Moscow student leader, veteran of 1905, key agitator of the Moscow Party, theorist of imperialism and the destruction of the bourgeois state, organiser of the exile underground, survivor of the sharpest factional struggles (several with Lenin himself), member of the original Politburo of 1919 (and to remain so until 1929), editor of Pravda from 1917 to 1929, author of the main Bolshevik works on the transition period to Socialism, organiser of day-to-day operations for the Executive of the Communist International, and conciliator-in-chief between Party and trade unions, government and masses.

Bukharin visited the sick Lenin. Where were the others? Some of them would be too busy intriguing over the succession. Others might feel a stupid sense of intrusion. Most of them, one suspects, were quite unable to see Lenin as a human being. They had become accustomed to receiving from his hands, and thus incapable of giving anything to him. The time of Lenin’s illness was a test of their comradeship, and they failed him. Apart from Krupskaya and his devoted secretaries, Lenin was cut off from the Communist collective that he had spent a lifetime building around himself. He had no wings to fly out; Bukharin knew this and flew to him. And in the settlement of Lenin’s final wishes, it was Bukharin alone among the Party leadership who stood up to be counted on the question of Bolshevik Georgia’s forcible incorporation – at Stalin’s behest – into Soviet Russia. Trotsky, who had received Lenin’s plea to defend the Georgians against their persecutors, joined in the conspiracy of silence at the ensuing Twelfth Congress. Bukharin’s defence of the Georgians, on anti-imperialist as well as pro-peasant grounds, went unsupported.

At the risk of oversimplifying Bukharin’s character, it seems useful to imagine him as a man who was superlatively successful at the two extreme poles of Marxist politics: systematic social and economic theory at one end of the scale and immediate comradely relations at the other; and yet simply appalling within the middle range of political skills that come between high theory and daily action.

Of his theoretical work on capitalism, only his Imperialism and World Economy, written in 1915 and published just after the Bolshevik revolution, is readily available to English readers [1]: but in a sequel, Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State, written shortly afterwards and published-only in Russian – in 1925, he sketches a remarkable outline of the capitalist world as we have come to know it since. In the modern ‘collective capitalism’ whose dominant ‘finance capitalist oligarchy’ merges with the state, ‘the state power thus sucks in almost all branches of production; it not only maintains the general conditions of the exploitative process, the state more and more becomes a direct exploiter, organising and directing production as a collective capitalist.’ Within national boundaries, capitalist planning could co-ordinate production: ‘the process of organisation continually eliminates the anarchy of the separate parts of the ‘national economic’ mechanism, placing all of economic life under the iron heel of the militaristic state.’ The contradictions of the system would thus increasingly become expressed at a planetary level, as the nation-state (or ‘state-capitalist trust’) replaced the firm as the unit of capital and competition became expressed more and more ferociously within the international arena. ‘Thus arises the final type of the contemporary imperialist robber state, an iron organisation which envelops the living body of society in tenacious, grasping paws. It is a New Leviathan, before which the fantasy of Thomas Hobbes appears child’s play.’ Bukharin’s Marxism foreshadows the epoch of Hitler, of the Common Market, of the permanent arms economy, of the state-capitalisms of the developing world, of the huge bureaucracies of the advanced world, of Wedgwood Benn and Wilson. (It was, incidentally, Bukharin who used the expression ‘the commanding heights’ to describe the role of State ownership in Soviet Russia’s New Economic Policy during the Twenties: modern Labour gradualism bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Socialism at a snail’s pace’ programme of Bukharin in this period, and has the same flavour of cautious ineptitude.)

In his development of the state-capitalist case, Bukharin showed an unfortunate tendency which was fairly typical of much of his theorising: he underplayed the importance of the traditional, private-capitalist elements of the system, and the sharpness of class competition and internal crisis within the nation-state; at this stage too. he minimised the role of nationalist revolutions and national wars by oppressed peoples, since he envisaged a globe successfully partitioned among the state-capitalist super powers. Lenin corrected him on both points. When in 1920 Bukharin wrote that ‘Finance capital destroys the anarchy of production inside large capitalist countries’, Lenin would insist: ‘does not “destroy”.’ And the proclamation of the end of national struggles, linked with the denial of the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples, evoked a sharp Leninist polemic: Bukharin in fact soon made a tactical volte-face from leftism to liberalism, supporting a total merger of the colonial Communist Parties with the emerging nationalist fronts – the Kuomintang of China being the most famous example.

Nevertheless, the creative influence of Bukharin upon Lenin was considerable. Lenin at first rejected the thesis, propounded in Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State, that socialism ‘must strongly emphasise its hostility in principle to state power’; this seemed to him to smack of ‘semi-anarchism’, and a period of bitter estrangement between the two leading Bolshevik theorists ensued. Bukharin broke the squabble with a letter in late 1916 asking: ‘If you must polemicist, etc., preserve such a tone that it will not lead to a split ... I look upon you as my revolutionary teacher and love you.’ Lenin responded affectionately, but at first insisted on maintaining his theoretical disagreement. His slow movement towards Bukharin’s standpoint on state power, which he would embrace and develop enthusiastically in State and Revolution, proceeded in line with the movement of the Russian masses against the autocracy. By May 1917 when Bukharin returned from exile to Russia, Krupskaya had a message for him: ‘V.I. asked me to tell you that he no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state.’

This is only one of many of Bukharin’s positions that are presented in detail in Stephen Cohen’s fine biography. Cohen, a liberal scholar whose sympathies are with the human costs of revolution rather than with the revolution itself, does go too far in the political rehabilitation of Bukharin, presenting him as the true inheritor of Lenin’s line on the peasantry and as the forerunner of present-day liberal tendencies in the Russian bloc. But Lenin’s movement towards a plan of building, in an isolated Russia, ‘a complete socialist society from the co-operatives alone’ among the peasants took place very late, in some sickbed notes of early 1923, and does not represent a developed position; he argues for caution towards the peasants, but is very cautious in stating what this caution should consist of, except that State aid should concentrate its incentives on co-operative trade arrangements ‘in which really large masses of the population really take part.’ It is a far cry from this to the indiscriminate softness towards the peasantry preached and practised by Bukharin in the mid-Twenties, with tax concessions for the richer farmers, permissiveness towards private trade, increased prices for grain and lower prices for industrial deliveries to the countryside. Lenin’s vague programme of gradual socialism through the agrarian co-ops, making NEP into a positive benefit rather than a mere retreat, represents a fairly typical tactical switch, which could easily have been reversed in the different circumstances of the later Twenties when, with co-operative trading virtually a dead letter, the peasantry tried to manipulate the State market by withholding grain sales. Contrary to what Cohen alleges, Lenin’s partiality towards co-ops which are not simply marketing groups but where The land on which they are centred and the means of production belong to the state’ is entered in his notes on the subject: Bukharin only emphasised marketing co-ops for private farmers. For Bukharin’s pro-peasant line was more than tactical: it represented a politics of post-Civil War exhaustion, a weariness with siege that wanted peace with the peasantry, if not at any price then at least with a strong bias towards underestimating the price that might have to be paid.

In foreign policy, too, Bukharin’s politics consisted in seizing on the most Rightist elements in the Rightward-moving Lenin of 1922-3 and solidifying what was fluid and opportune into a fixed – and entirely misguided – strategy. The Communist International’s flirtation with the Kuomintang had already begun in Lenin’s time. It is important to realise that the Bolsheviks were quite used to working with hopes of unrest in Asia whenever the prospects for the workers’ revolution in the West seemed to have receded. Their expectations from rebellion in China and India often did not go beyond the calculation of some military trouble that would keep imperialism busy and have backlash effects in the metropolitan centres themselves. Thus even in August 1919 Trotsky could note that ‘the European revolution appears to have withdrawn into the background’ and that ‘the international situation is evidently shaping in such a way that the road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab and Bengal.’ [2]

This was not a demand for the establishment of socialist states in the colonial hinterland but rather an attempt to create ‘one, two, three, many Vietnams’ as a brushfire that would consume the resources of imperialism and take pressure off the Soviet state. Just because no perspective for socialist revolution in the backward world was envisaged, the Communist International was quite lax and permissive in admitting petty-bourgeois nationalists to the status of accredited anti-imperialist revolutionaries. The Chinese revolution was conceived as one with purely national-democratic tasks, and the early negotiations with Sun Yat-Sen were conducted with the blessing of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev. Even in April 1924 Trotsky stated to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East: ‘We approve of Communist support to the Kuomintang Party in China, which we are endeavouring to revolutionise.’ [3] All wings of Bolshevism were blind to the class-divisions in the heart of the nationalist struggle: by the time the Left Opposition extended their criticism to the Comintern’s conduct of the Chinese revolution in 1927, the butcher’s knife of the Kuomintang was already poised over the throats of China’s workers and peasants. By a bitter paradox, the lessons of the Permanent Revolution had to be learnt all over again by Trotsky and the Trotskyists in order to apply them to the colonial revolution. They have to be learned even today when the national-bloc politics of Bukharin and Stalin are tried and found wanting in Chile, Ireland and elsewhere. For the Stalinism of the Great Purge and the show trials was not the only Stalinism: the earlier, softer Stalinism, of which Bukharin himself was a main founder, was an important moment in the degeneration of the revolution. The Communist Parties of today do not cleanse themselves of Stalinism by repudiating purge and terror. The Stalinism of nationally-minded moderation, of Socialism in One Country, of weak-kneed alliances with the progressive bourgeoisie and the progressive trade-union bureaucrats, is with us still.

With the European revolution in recession, and the hope of a new awakening in China blasted for years ahead, any prospect of a fresh Left alternative for the Russian masses was now lost. Trotsky’s memoirs disclose the political consequence of Bukharin-Stalin’s policies: ‘... the opposition could not rise on the defeat of the Chinese revolution. The fact that our forecast had proved correct might attract one thousand, five thousand or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions, the significant thing was not our forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese proletariat. After the defeat of the German revolution in 1923, after the breakdown of the British General Strike in 1926, the new disaster in China would only intensify the disappointment of the masses in the international revolution. And it was this same disappointment that served as the psychological source for Stalin’s policy of national-reformism.’ [4] There is in Cohen’s treatment of the same subject scarcely an inkling of any general political consequence. ‘The Chinese debacle was among Bukharin’s worst political experiences as a leader.’ Yes, but it was also pretty bad for the Chinese. The physical extirpation in 1927 of the living heart of the peasant and labour unions, numbering thousands in the most active provinces and cities, precipitated a mass exodus from the institutions of what had been hitherto a popular movement of millions, flooding across China in an ebb-tide of revolution that was, in its day, unparalleled in the rest of the world. Harold Isaacs’ outstanding account of the debacle of the Stalin-Bukharin policy in China raises a doubt as to whether a successful Chinese Communist policy, mastering the Kuomintang instead of being mastered by it, could have fulfilled Trotsky’s hopes for the revitalisation of revolutionary initiative within the USSR itself. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘it is certain that such a victory would have changed the political face of Asia and the rest of the world. The great revision in relations between the Western powers and China and their colonies in Asia would have taken place, then, in the 1920s, instead of waiting for a generation on the outcome of a second World War. The imperialist strategy of Japan would have been drastically altered, and so would the whole timetable of wars and revolutions that we have since experienced in these decades.’ [5] As it was, the Bukharin-Stalin politics of capitulation before the Kuomintang robbed the Chinese Communist Party for decades of any effective urban, working-class base: even today the involvement of the Chinese workers in the politics of mass action is only just beginning, refracted through the quarrels of rival youth factions during 1967-8 and since that time carefully corralled by the central Maoist bureaucracy in orchestrated, deliberately time-consuming campaigns against the deceased Lin Piao and the extinct Confucius.

It is even doubtful whether the Bukharinite policy of support to petty-bourgeois nationalisms can be termed a ‘pro-peasant’ strategy. According to the memoirs of Albert Treint, the French Comintern representative who at this time tried to oppose the instruction to the Chinese Communist Party to capitulate before the Left Kuomintang politicians and generals of Hankow, Bukharin not only advocated the curbing of the peasant revolt so as not to frighten the Kuomintang but gave an affirmative answer to Treint’s outraged question: would the Communists be expected to support Hankow in the armed suppression of the peasants? [6] Ever since the collapse of his ultra-left line opposing national self-determination and supporting ‘revolutionary war’ against a powerful Germany in 1918, Bukharin maintained a consistent stance of pursuing a united front with forces outside the revolutionary ranks in a manner which drew no effective distinction between the reactionary upper strata and the masses that they influenced. Alliance with the Western labour movements meant for Bukharin a deal with the TUC bureaucrats who were about to sell out the General Strike, alliance with the Russian peasantry meant, for crucial periods, promiscuous encouragement to market forces and the richest farmers; solidarity with the Chinese masses meant the successive fatal blocs with Chiang Kai-Shek. Wang Ching-Wei and the ‘Christian general’ Peng Yu-Hsiang who baptised himself into a new faith during a trip to the USSR in 1926, acquired liberal supplies of Russian arms and then proceeded to use them to behead the mass movement.

Bukharin played no major role in international Communist politics after the Chinese slaughter, although he took part in various manoeuvres – unrecorded in Stephen Cohen’s book – to purge the Western Communist Parties of their more creative Left-wing leaderships. Instead, he continued his politics of cautious dependency within whatever branch of Russian public life remained open to him after Stalin’s ‘Left’ turn of 1928-9 had forced him from the editorship of Pravda and the secretaryship of the Communist International. He refused to make public his opposition to Stalin’s forced march of industrialisation over the backs of the workers and peasants: thus he endorsed the new international Stalinist line of 1928 that ‘the Right deviation now represents the central danger’ in the Communist Parties (not realising that within months this position would be used to expel ail his supporters from the Comintern and within a year or two to persecute himself and his own comrades in Russia). For the Central Committee plenum of November 1928 he even personally drafted the resolution condemning ‘right deviationism’. Less than a year later Pravda, with an editorial denouncing Bukharin as ‘the chief leader and inspirer of the Right deviationists’, the long campaign of vilification that, with various intervals during which Bukharin was allowed some leeway as a liberal publicist for the regime, continued until his arrest in February 1937, his incarceration with the merciless interrogators of the NKVD for thirteen months, his ‘confession’ at the last Great Purge Trial in March 1938, and his execution shortly after, following the long line of Stalinist murders of the Bolshevik Old Guard. Stephen Cohen’s analysis of Bukharin’s behaviour from the late Twenties onward credits him with far more capacity for resistance than he was able to display. He and his immediate allies, Rykov the Soviet Prime Minister of 1924-30 and Tomsky the trade-union chief of 1918-29, fought Stalin’s policies of ruthless accumulation at the expense of peasants and workers-but behind closed doors, at Politburo and committee meetings, often thankful for small verbal or formal concessions that left Stalin’s dominance intact or strengthened, Bukharin produced oblique, technical articles on economics complaining about frenzied tempos of growth and excessive centralisation. But he never took the argument outside the Central Committee to the Party ranks and the non-Party masses. It should be remembered that this was a man who, at the hour of the Soviet Republic’s worst peril in 1918, had formed a highly successful public faction against Lenin’s policy of peace with Germany, with its own newspaper and an immense agitation at all levels of the party. Cohen does what he can with the limited evidences of Bukharin’s opposition to Stalin. In the mid-Thirties he was restored to public status as an official representative at international scientific and sociological gatherings: he protected scientists and creative artists against bureaucratic interference and persecution, but there seems to be nothing in Cohen’s record which even approaches a revolutionary socialist role as a defender of the Soviet working class. And yet, in the Thirties, many Parry cadres did undertake the defence of the workers, at considerable risk to themselves. In 1932 Mikhail Ryutin, the deposed Moscow secretary who in his loyalist days had organised thug-squads to break up Left Opposition meetings, joined with a number of others to circulate a 200-page indictment of Stalin within the Party and the Moscow factories. The Ryutin platform demanded the release of the peasantry from compulsory collectivisation, a reduction of the surplus squeezed from the worker for investment, the democratisation of the party through the re-admission of expelled opposition including Trotsky and – with especial vigour and bitterness-the removal of Stalin, ‘the evil genius of the Russian revolution’, from power. Even a Politburo up to its elbows in blood (for, quite apart from the massacres of reluctant peasants, several isolated Trotskyist Oppositionists had already been done to death) would not yield to Stalin’s demand for the killing of the Ryutin group. Their cases dragged on, some of them being treated leniently – one of them, Petr Petrovsky being (as Cohen points out) made editor of Leningrad Pravda in 1934 after his party suspension was over-while in the fall and winter of 1932-3 worker discontent in the Moscow and Leningrad factories continued to rise. A letter from Moscow in February 1933 reports:

‘In recent months there have been many arrests in the factories. More than a hundred workers have been arrested in the AMO factory where an opposition pamphlet was distributed’; in another factory ‘a portrait of Stalin was put up but in the morning, lo and behold, it was Trotsky’s ... Such “mysteries” have occurred from time to time in other factories ... Many separate opposition groups have sprung up in the factories which operate quite independently. In many arrests they find Trotskyist literature ... By different paths the workers are taking up our slogans. The questions of repressions, bureaucratic hypocrisy and the draconic conditions in the factories are being posed in a much sharper manner ... In January in the Moscow Party aktiv meeting Kaganovich said that “in the Istrinsk raion (near Moscow) all cells for four months have been in the hands of Trotskyists”.’ [7]

Tie earlier years of the Stalinist industrialisation thus produced he political effects that were projected in the Left Opposition’s earlier insistence (rejected by Bukharin and Stalin) that the development of state industry should be the cornerstone of the Party’s economic policy. A revival of the revolution’s social base took place in the enlarged ranks of the working class, and it was the growing demands of this proletarianised mass, sometimes refracted upwards through the Party apparatus itself, that gave new power to the oppositions. To term this current of resistance a ‘Right’ or ‘Bukharinist’ opposition (as Cohen does) is quite misleading; by 1931-2 no tendency in the Party accepted the classic Bukharinist case that the pace of industrialisation should be set by the slow development of agriculture. The Centre of the Party – i.e. the Stalin supporters who objected to Stalin’s total replacement of politics by terror – were undeclared adherents of the position that Trotsky had advocated in the early Twenties: determined that the planned development of industry should set the terms for agriculture (and not vice versa), and that agrarian policy should be resolved by the provision of incentives to the peasantry rather than through their mass liquidation. The movement of the apparatchiki towards Trotskyist positions was broken by a number of factors: as Deutscher records, it was just at this time late in 1932 that Trotsky recoiled from the slogan ‘Down with Stalin’ and stated publicly that ‘If the bureaucratic equilibrium in the USSR were to be upset at present, this would almost certainly benefit the forces of counterrevolution.’ [8] The publication of this retreat by Trotsky must have demoralised the new opposition, which was also already subject to vicious NKVD repression. In January 1933 a further opposition surfaced with the disclosure of the underground organisation, among Old Bolshevik workers in the trade unions of Moscow, Leningrad and other cities, that was headed by A.P. Smirnov, Eismont and Tolmachev. The demands of this tendency were similar to those of the Ryutin group. [9]Yet Smirnov was only removed from the Central Committee, not expelled from the Party (as his co-thinkers were): Stalin demanded the death-penalty for them but was over-ruled by the Politbureau. Bukharin’s contribution to the Central Committee debate on this question demanded ‘the severe punishment of A.P. Smirnov’s grouping’ [10] (a fact not mentioned by Cohen). Thus, Bukharin not only refused to engage in the type of opposition to Stalin that was possible in the early Thirties; he was actually unwilling to identify himself with the opposition by advocating leniency in the manner of those Stalinists (like Kirov, Ordzhonikidze and others) who were becoming responsive to the catastrophic situation in the Party and the nation.

The same abdication by Bukharin can be observed later at the 17th Party Congress of 1934, at which a considerable faction against Stalin was mobilised. Stalin received fewer votes for the Central Committee than any other candidate, 270 delegates voting against him; it also appears that he lost his position as General Secretary, becoming only the first of four secretaries of the Central Committee. [11] Bukharin did not identify himself with this faction-fight, but alternated between heaping praise on Stalin (Cohen tries to deduce that his eulogy of Stalin as ‘the glorious field-marshal of the proletarian forces’ was some kind of veiled insult, but this is not very convincing) and opening a powerful but rather uncontroversial attack on German Nazism. Again, Cohen tries to distinguish Bukharin’s attack on Nazism from what he sees as an early attempt by Stalin, even as early as 1934, to reach some kind of deal with Hitler. However, Stalin’s own speech to this congress is also highly anti-Nazi in tone, particularly, in regard to the war danger from Germany, where he concludes with his famous warning that those who ‘poke their pig’s snouts into our Soviet garden’ will receive ‘a crushing repulse’. Cohen persists in drawing the conclusion that Bukharin’s public writings over 1934 to 1936 (when he was editor of the official government paper Izvestia) contain a distinct current in Russian politics, anti-fascist in foreign policy and ‘socialist humanist’ in domestic matters. But the quotations that he provides indicate that Bukharin’s anti-fascism was the official Popular-Front variety argued by all the spokesmen for the regime, based on a diplomatic agreement with the Western powers rather than on a united-front struggle by the workers’ movements. As to the theme of ‘socialist humanism’, this was an extremely common piece of window-dressing among apologists of the Stalinist regime and even the defenders of the Purge. Thus, an editorial in Izvestia of August 24 1936 – with Bukharin’s name still on the masthead of the paper – declares in relation to the on-going terror trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev that ‘the true humanism, the only humanism is in the defence of the regime which, under the leadership of the great Stalin, has assured millions of mankind of a new life and a free life’; it concludes with a quotation from ‘the great proletarian humanist Maxim Gorky: “If the enemy does not surrender, destroy him”.’ [12] (Bukharin was at this time being implicated by defendants in this very trial and it is not clear what control he still had over the contents of Izvestia.) The Letter of An Old Bolshevik, which was leaked abroad during 1936 and whose main author was Bukharin, in any case admits that the language of ‘proletarian humanism’ used by himself and the liberal wing of the Stalin regime in the 1930s, in an attempt to appease the Leader and cure his ‘acute crisis of morbid mistrust’, was quite wrongheaded and naive: it covered up the real trend in the Party, towards the physical extermination of all opponents. [13] Even his last testament, a letter dictated just before his arrest to his wife Larina and memorised by her over the years she spent in concentration-camps (until she could get it out to the world in 1961) insists that this is now ‘the seventh year in which I have had not a shadow of disagreement with the Party’; as Roy Medvedev points out, he defends only himself in his letter, dissociates himself from the Ryutin opposition and fails to denounce the other Moscow trials. [14]

Despite the rare scholarship and historical excitement of Stephen Cohen’s biography, its political line actually acclaims Bukharin’s weaknesses and errors as magnificent virtues. It is just because Bukharin ceased to be a fighter for the socialist class-struggle and became a charming liberal, an ornament to a repressive and anti-proletarian regime, capable of dialogue with other liberals in the academic field but incapable of common action with revolutionary socialists, that he can now be offered as a model Bolshevik for liberal and non-socialist readers. In his comments on modern Soviet and East European politics, Cohen labels virtually every new development from the old Stalinism, be it market-incentive planning of the Dubcek-Tito variety, Khrushchev’s party programme or clandestine novels in the Soviet Union, as pointers to a revived ‘Bukharinist tradition’. Essentially, the apolitical, anti-international, managerial currents of the present Soviet bloc are baptised in the name of the most moderate wing to emerge from the October revolution. Just as the Stalinist bogey was brandished by academics to feed the politics of the old Cold War, the ghost of Bukharin is being summoned to preside over the wheat deals of the US-Soviet detente.

For socialists, the most serious warning that Bukharin’s story provides is his incapacity, after Lenin’s death, to grasp and use the most basic norms of Marxist political debate. The meaning of ‘democratic centralism’ within a functioning revolutionary organisation consists in the strict adherence to a set of rules for arriving at and carrying out decisions on policy. The inevitable controversies that must arise in practical socialist politics have to be resolved by the submission of the various debated positions to the membership, without personal vilification of opponents or the packing of votes through administrative double-dealing. Bukharin’s willingness to lend himself to the slander campaigns and bureaucratic manoeuvres against the Left and other oppositions would shortly stoke the furnaces of his own destruction. He put his programmatic disagreement with the Left before the most elementary party norms; and when he did for a short time, in 1928, admit to the Left Opposition that ‘the disagreements between us and Stalin arc many times more serious than all the disagreements we had with you’, it was Trotsky’s turn to put the programmatic question before the struggle for democratic centralism itself: ‘With Stalin against Bukharin? – Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? – Never!’ It is staggering, with all the hindsight that we can possess today, to read these words. For it was just at this point, in the late Twenties and early Thirties, that a new opposition could have been created for the defence of the working masses of Russia, uniting elements of the old Left, Right and even Stalinist Centre. Such a current might have been able to work in the Communist International for genuine united-front policies with a good chance of defeating the rise of Nazism. But the death of Lenin left his generation of Bolsheviks with a terrible disorientation: because Bukharin’s personal bond with Lenin was so intense, his potential for an independent and critical Marxism was particularly damaged by the loss. He ended as a victim of the very fusion of State and Capital of whose imminence he had warned the working class in his early theoretical writings, and which, when it appeared in his own life to destroy him, surpassed his comprehension.


A note of qualification
(by the Editor – Duncan Hallas)



1. Published in paperback by Merlin Press in 1972.

2. The Trotsky Papers, ed. Jan M. Meijer, Vol.1, 1964, pp.627.625. See also Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, 1954, pp.456-7.

3. Leon Trotsky, The Chinese Revolution, Problemi and Perspectives, 1971, p.8. Trotsky had been opposed to the membership of the Chinese Communist Party in the Kuomintang from 1923 on (see his Problems of the Chinese Revolution, 1962 edition, p.19); but even in April 1927 Trotsky proposes the correction of this course by the withdrawal of the Communists from the Kuomintang and the conclusion of ‘a bloc with that organisation through its left wing’ (The Chinese Revolution, Problems end Perspectives, p.14). The left wing of the Kuomintang was itself soon to join wholeheartedly in the anti-Communist massacres. His letters to Preobrazhensky on the Chinese question reveal that Trotsky only broke with the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ for China (in which a Left Kuomintang would play the role of coalition partner with the workers’ party, the Communist Party) after May 1927 (op. cit., p.22). With this qualification. Trotsky’s writings on China remain an incomparable guide to revolutionary policy in the struggle against imperialism, and should be read more carefully by those who have repeated Trotskyist slogans while practising subordination to petty-bourgeois or bourgeois nationalist movements.

4. Leon Trotsky, My Life, 1960, p.530.

5. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, 1961, pp.314-5.

6. Ibid., p.243.

7. Byulletin Oppozitsii, No.33, March 1933, p.25, with a similar letter from Leningrad on p.24. Cohen states on the contrary that ‘virtually every oppositionist trend in the party during the early thirties ... was Bukharinist in economic outlook’ and explicitly endorses Stalin’s own judgment that the Left’s economic opposition was then Rightist (op. cit., pp.348. 465). I am indebted to Jeff Gleisner for bringing to my attention and translating the extracts from the Byulletin Oppozitsii; a more careful discussion than Cohen’s of what Bukharin’s economic ideas actually were is to be found in Alec Nove, Some Observations on Bukharin and His Ideas, Ch.9 in C. Abramsky, ed., Essays in Honour of E.H. Carr, 1974; and in C. Dallemagne, Justice for Bukharin, Critique, No4. Spring 1975.

8. See Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, 1963, p.175. When Trotsky’s rather positive evaluation of the Five-Year Plan (Problems of the Development of the USSR, 1931) reached his imprisoned Russian supporters in the summer of 1932, it caused great dissatisfaction among them; a Left group split away from them convinced now that ‘Trotsky and his supporters are too closely linked with the bureaucratic regime of the USSR to conduct the struggle against this regime to its final consequences’. (A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, 1940, pp.270-2).

9. See Robert Conquest. The Great Terror, revised edition, 1973, pp.55-6.

10. Ibid., p.56.

11. Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge, 1973, p.156, quoting the deputy chairman of the Elections Commission at the Congress. Boris Nicolaevsky drew the conclusion that Stalin had lost the General Secretaryship through comparing the reports of this Congress with previous Congresses: see his Power and the Soviet Elite, 1966. p.92.

12. Victor Serge quotes this and other rabid articles from the Izvestia of August 1936 in 16 Fusillés à Moscou, 1972 edition, pp.48-9. While it is wrong to credit (as Serge did) Bukharin with the responsibility for drafting or authorising these denunciations, it makes more sense to treat the ‘socialist humanism’ of official Soviet propaganda in these years as one more romantic myth of the regime than as an oppositional current.

13. Nicolaevsky, op. cit., pp.59-60.

14. Medvedev, op. cit., pp. 183-4.


Last updated on 19.4.2007