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International Socialism, Autumn 1994


Rob Ferguson

Hero and villain?


From International Socialism 2:64, Autumn 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


D. Gluckstein
The Tragedy of Bukharin
Pluto 1994, £12.95

The October revolution of 1917 and Stalin’s seizure of power in the late 1920s face each other across a momentous decade. Both, in different ways, were points of cleavage in the socialist movement that challenged socialists to either defend or disown the principles of working class self emancipation and internationalism. Any consideration of the historical and political importance of the October revolution and the rise of Stalinism are dominated by two closely related questions. First, what was the relationship between these two events, and second, could an alternative to Stalinism have emerged from the revolution?

For those who were dismayed by the first victorious workers’ revolution, Stalinism provided ‘proof’ of the evils of revolution in general and Lenin and the Bolsheviks in particular. For those who wished to defend the Stalinist system the October revolution became a weapon used to legitimise every monstrous crime and betrayal perpetrated in the name of ‘the workers’ state’. The scale of the dilemma led many socialists to lose their grip on the principles that had once inspired them. Many slipped into a chasm believing their only choice was either to defend Stalinist Russia or to ditch socialist revolution.

In order to avoid being trapped in the jaws of this dilemma it is essential to understand how and why the revolution decayed from within. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution has been one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented periods of the 20th century. Thus The Tragedy of Bukharin is a refreshing breath of air. Donny Gluckstein traces in depth the political and economic questions that confronted the Bolsheviks in the decade or so following the October revolution through a study of the political thought of Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin was a leading Bolshevik – described by Lenin as the ‘favourite’ of the whole party – who came to embody the degeneration of the Russian Revolution during the 1920s. Donny examines Bukharin’s development as a revolutionary theorist, how he faced the enormous contradictions and pressures of his time and how, tragically, he succumbed to them. Donny seeks to demolish the claims of two groups of historians that Bukharin provided the basis for a ‘humanistic’, democratic and pro-market alternative to Stalin. [1] In doing so he also rescues Bukharin from the grasp of his latter day disciples, demonstrating that, in spite of his great faults, he remained inspired by the hope of an end to capitalism and the victory of socialism until his death.

In the interpretation and counter-interpretation of Russian history the waters have often become tremendously muddied. The Cold War warriors were happy to disregard the evidence and draw a direct line from Lenin to Stalin. Historians like E.H. Carr and Isaac Deutscher made important contributions to the study of the period but they saw no alternative to the rise of Stalin which they regarded as an inevitable consequence of the economic crisis at the end of the 1920s. [2] Many in the ‘revisionist’ school of Sovietology who focus on social history and ‘history from below’ have produced valuable insights but shun any examination of class relations and reach varied, contradictory and often confused conclusions. [3]

To the question, ‘Was there a socialist alternative to Stalinism?’ the foes of socialist revolution and the supporters of Stalin both responded with a resounding ‘No!’ For decades there was one discordant voice – from the Trotskyist tradition. Despite the fragmentation and tiny size of the movement which Trotsky left behind him there was no disguising the fact that the most tenacious, vehement and determined opposition to the rise of Stalin in the 1920s had come from Trotsky and the Left Opposition. For this they paid with their lives.

In the 1970s however some Western historians claimed Bukharin, rather than Trotsky, as the real alternative to Stalin. They were joined in the 1980s by a group of Soviet academics. [4] On the face of it the notion of Bukharin as an alternative to Stalin is a strange one. It is true that after 1928 he was increasingly hounded by Stalin and became a victim of the monstrous show trials, but in the crucial period of the mid to late 1920s Bukharin was Stalin’s foremost ally in the politburo. He formulated the defence for the doctrine of ‘socialism in one country’ and presided over the Comintern (the Communist International) during a period when it imposed the most disastrous policies on the international working class movement. These policies led to working class defeat in China and Britain, reinforcing Russia’s isolation and creating the conditions for the defeat of the revolution at Stalin’s hands. He fought the Left Opposition who were demanding democracy within the party and the strengthening of the political weight of workers against the increasing power and influence of the bureaucracy. He provided the theoretical armoury against Stalin’s opponents and was a vital component of what became known as the Stalin-Bukharin ‘duumvirate’ (rule by two leaders).

But Bukharin has two great attractions for his latter day adherents. His economic writings of the mid-1920s enable them, on a highly selective reading, to present him as the tribune of a market alternative to Stalin. It is a reading that has to ignore much of Bukharin’s work and distort the remainder. His second attraction is that he left no revolutionary political tradition behind him. This makes it easier to remove Bukharin’s life and work from the context of his times and present him as the forerunner of today’s supporters of the market. In order to counter the distortion Donny traces Bukharin’s political development, in all its contradictions, through some of the most momentous events in 20th century history.

One of Bukharin’s most important contributions to Marxism was his analysis of imperialism. [5] Bukharin brilliantly exposed the belief of the reformists that modern capitalism could develop peacefully and that war and imperialism were an aberration. Bukharin analysed how capital increasingly merged with the state and how competition on a world scale meant war and imperialism, far from being an aberration were the natural conditions of modern capitalist development. However, from the outset Bukharin was to demonstrate a tendency for allowing his vast theoretical sweep to obliterate the complexities of social relations, particularly those posed by the class struggle itself. He opposed Lenin’s demand for the right of nations to self determination, for example, on the grounds that in the age of imperialism national self determination was an illusion. His level of abstraction, while on the one hand his strength, prevented him from grasping the nature of combined and uneven development, and his argument, while correct in the abstract, simply played into the hands of national chauvinism when translated into a guide for action.

Bukharin’s tendency towards what Lenin referred to as ‘scholasticism’ – the study of theory divorced from practice – was to become a feature of his development. In March 1918, even though the Bolsheviks had no army with which to fight, Bukharin opposed a separate peace with Germany on the grounds that to leave the field of battle was to desert the international revolution. During the civil war that lasted from summer 1918 until 1921 Bukharin wrote the Economics of the Transition Period. These were times of tremendous destruction. The revolution was blockaded and besieged by 14 invading armies. Industry all but collapsed, as did the soviets – the organs of workers’ power. The working class itself disintegrated. Its most advanced sections joined the Red Army or took up posts in the military, state and party administration. Many workers were forced into the countryside in order to find food to survive. This was the period known as War Communism – characterised by the state takeover of industry, payment of wages in kind (if at all) and the requisition of grain from the peasantry. Bukharin described with great insight how the building of a socialist society necessarily involved destructive processes as capitalist relations were dismantled. But too often he made a virtue out of necessity. The disappearance of money for example was not, as Bukharin would have it, a consequence of the development of socialism but the result of economic collapse. Under the pressures of the time many Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky, made similar errors but a tendency that often stemmed from the need to galvanise the defence of the revolution was elevated by Bukharin to the level of theoretical principle. [6]

However, by the end of the civil war the population, and in particular the peasantry, would no longer tolerate the rigours of War Communism. With the defeat of the White army its rationale had disappeared. Peasant uprisings and strikes by workers culminated in the Kronstadt rebellion, a sailors’ mutiny in what had once been a stronghold of Bolshevism and revolution. War Communism was abandoned and the era of the New Economic Policy (NEP) ushered in.

The NEP was a retreat. Given the failure of revolution in Germany and the destruction wreaked by war and blockade on what was already a backward economy, the Bolshevik government was forced to rely on the market to provide the basis for economic recuperation and restore trade between town and country. In this it was to a considerable degree successful but the price paid was heavy. Urban unemployment grew dramatically while hucksters and middlemen made small fortunes. Social inequality was displayed openly for all to see, class differentiation grew in both the towns and countryside. Most important of all the party and state bureaucracy developed into a distinct social layer, divorced from workers, with its own political outlook and interests. For as long as Bukharin had been part of a strong revolutionary party his strengths were able to flower and enrich the movement and his weaknesses were held in check. However, as the party itself began to decay, Bukharin’s faults carried him into the arms of those who wished to turn their backs on the revolution.

Bukharin’s theoretical approach would not allow room for an analysis of the tensions and contradictions that the retreat of the 1920s imposed. The market, whilst necessary in the circumstances, inevitably undermined the possibility for developing the productive forces on a socialist basis; the priorities of the peasant and the trader overrode the urgent need to invest in industry. Above all the NEP strengthened the conservatism of the party bureaucracy itself which adapted to the pressures of the wealthier peasant and the capitalist trader or ‘nepman’.

All this imposed the need for a struggle to continually reinforce democracy within the party, to ensure that workers and poorer peasants, rather than nepmen, benefited from increased productivity, to shift resources from agriculture into industrial investment without destroying the delicate balance of a desperately backward economy. It was this struggle that Trotsky and the Left Opposition urgently tried to foster. Bukharin opposed them. Cold realities deal harshly with theoretical abstractions. Fault lines can rip apart, shattering both theory and conviction. Kronstadt had disabused Bukharin of his illusions in War Communism but now he performed a theoretical double flip. He argued that the NEP was not a retreat and that since the working class were in power the danger of capitalism from within was not a threat. He became, in effect, the tribune of the alliance between the bureaucracy and the rich peasant and nepman. His theoretical wizardry provided essential cover for Stalin and his supporters.

Despite Bukharin’s faith in the NEP it could not provide for a smooth transition to socialism. Recovery reached its limits and economic crises of increasing severity forced the Soviet leadership to address their misplaced confidence in the NEP. It was at this point that Bukharin and Stalin began to diverge. Today Bukharin is praised for his belief that the manipulation of prices would lead to an increased circulation of goods in the market and that this would foster economic growth. This, his would-be disciples argue, was the alternative to Stalin’s brutal collectivisation of the peasantry and forced industrialisation programme.

The problem went far deeper. The failure to resist the pressures of the peasant market in the early 1920s had deprived industry of capital investment, weakened the working class and strengthened the position of the bureaucracy. But agriculture and industry were not separate spheres. Without affordable agricultural tools and machinery, agriculture itself remained backward. With no alternative on offer the poorer peasantry were cemented politically to their richer neighbours. The hostility of both towards the towns and the state deepened. Beyond Russia’s borders fascism was on the rise; in 1929 the Great Depression racked the Western economies; war scares disturbed the Soviet leaders.

The grain crisis of 1927 convinced Stalin and his supporters that they could no longer tolerate the obstacle to development posed by the peasant market. The bureaucracy had strengthened itself through the NEP but no longer wished to be shackled by it. It no longer required an alliance with the wealthy peasant and nepman. First tentatively, sometimes in panic, but then with increasing confidence, Stalin began to resort to the systematic use of force against peasant and worker in order to subjugate them to the requirements of capital accumulation. Bukharin never understood how he and his ideas had helped to cut the ground away from underneath the revolutionary tradition of which he was a part. He refused, however, to countenance Stalin’s counter-revolution and became one of the most famous of its millions of victims.

Donny also compares Bukharin’s development to that of Trotsky. Western supporters of Bukharin attempt to smother Trotsky in a false embrace arguing that he and Bukharin were in fact natural allies who allowed petty personal and theoretical differences to divide them. The Soviet supporters of Bukharin (and many Western historians) attempt to bury Trotsky in Stalin’s grave, maintaining that in implementing forced industrialisation Stalin merely stole Trotsky’s clothes. Donny elaborates the real alternative that Trotsky posed while at the same time providing an honest examination of his mistakes and weaknesses and his mis-estimation of the class character of Stalinism.

I have some reservations about the book, though none of them should detract from the important contribution that it is. My principal concern is that it will be largely inaccessible to the reader who does not have a thorough grounding in the history of the revolution and its defeat. Here the socialist defence of the October revolution – against the mass of misrepresentation that fills the shelves – is often taken as read. It would not have been possible to elaborate the argument at length in such a book. However, I feel Donny’s argument would have been more persuasive to those not acquainted with the revolutionary tradition if some of the central myths had been debunked. [7]

The fashion for Bukharin has largely waned. The post-Soviet intelligentsia in particular no longer need the artificial theoretical bridge they required in the 1980s to span the abyss between the Russian Revolution and the market. However, this book helps fill what has been a major gap in historical and political writing. This study of the complex process of degeneration during the 1920s fulfils three essential purposes. It underlines the gulf that separates the October revolution from Stalinism. It demolishes the idea that the restoration of market relations could have provided a humane alternative to Stalinism and in doing so challenges today’s orthodoxy that the market is the necessary condition for economic life. Finally The Tragedy of Bukharin restores Bukharin himself to his rightful place – as an often brilliant, if flawed, revolutionary theorist whose achievements and failures are so instructive to those who aspire to fight for the cause to which he dedicated his life.


1. The main Western texts are S. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Oxford 1971), and M. Lewin, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates (Princeton, NJ 1974). D. Gluckstein cites as Soviet examples discussions at the Thirteenth Round Table of historians, 1988, and journal articles including G.A. Bordyugov and V.A. Kozlov, Man in History; History in Man. Nikolai Bukharin, Episodes of a Political Biography, in Kommunist, September 1988, p. 105.

2. See E.H. Carr, The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin 1917-1929 (London 1979), and I. Deutscher, Stalin: a Political Biography (Harmondsworth 1974).

3. Two examples are S. Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (Oxford 1982), and J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered 1933-38 (Cambridge 1985).

4. See note 1.

5. N. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy [1915] (London 1987).

6. N. Bukharin, The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period [1920] (London 1979).

7. For a recent defence of the revolution see J. Rees, In Defence of October, International Socialism 52, and the subsequent debate by R. Service, S. Farber, R. Blackburn and J. Rees in International Socialism 54. Also see D. Howell, Bookwatch: The Russian Revolution, International Socialism 62.

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