Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 2


Philosophical Arabesques

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
Monthly Review Press, New York 2005, pp. 407, $49.95

PHILOSOPHICAL Arabesques is one of four books that Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin wrote in prison from the time of his arrest in February 1937 until his execution 13 months later. Another was the roman à clef titled How It All Began that was reviewed in the 3 February 2003 edition of Swans. Based on the outstanding quality of Bukharin’s thought in this twilight period of his life, when despair might have robbed ordinary mortals of their creativity, one can only hope that the remaining two – Socialism and Its Culture and The Transformation of the World – will eventually find a publisher as well.

Although Bukharin has emerged from the shadows in recent years as a result of Stephen Cohen’s definitive biography and the efforts of reform elements in the USSR to resuscitate a kind of Marxism consistent with their own market-oriented experiments, a word or two of introduction might be in order. In the 1920s, there was a fierce struggle between elements of the Communist Party who favoured a slow and incremental transition to socialism based on market relations, particularly in farming, and those who favoured a much more rapid pace with an emphasis upon industrialisation. The two key leaders associated with each side are Bukharin and Trotsky, respectively.

However, Bukharin relied heavily on the backing of Joseph Stalin, who had wrested control of the party apparatus not long after Lenin’s death. Long before Bukharin had been arrested, the same kind of arbitrary and repressive measures had been meted out to Trotsky and his followers.

In the late 1920s, as the growth of market relations in the countryside would begin to threaten the socialist underpinnings of the economy, Stalin lurched leftwards – apparently converted to Trotsky’s rapid industrialisation proposals. However, his Five Year Plans and agrarian collectivisation schemas were carried out in such a haphazard and brutal fashion that the Soviet economy would ultimately face a deep crisis. As criticisms began to be mounted against the breakneck pace and helter-skelter character of Stalin’s measures, he resorted to the wholesale repression that would characterise his regime and ultimately undermine socialism. Bukharin was probably the best-known victim of these police state tactics after Trotsky, his erstwhile leftist opponent.

Despite the efforts of Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon to portray a fictionalised Bukharin as a victim of what amounts to a self-immolation, there is little doubt that Bukharin’s confessions were an exchange for the survival of his wife and young child. As Helena Sheehan points out in her exemplary introduction to Philosophical Arabesques, his confession was marked by subordinate clauses that virtually contradicted the main assertions: ‘I plead guilty to … the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organisation, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took part in, any particular act.’ Lewis Carroll could not have put it better!

Although Bukharin was prevented by his jailers from criticising the Stalinist regime, he nonetheless made implicit criticisms by defending classical Marxism. He certainly must have understood that communists everywhere would see the stark contrast between his own understanding of dialectical materialism and the cant being churned out of the Soviet academy with Stalin’s blessing.

As a work of Marxist philosophy, Philosophical Arabesques can rank with such classics as Engels’ Anti-Dühring or Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. It is an attempt to defend Marxism as a philosophy against a wide range of opponents, from nineteenth-century idealism to the kind of obscurantist mysticism that was being churned up by capitalism in its death throes. As Bukharin put it in his introduction:

Today’s working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, ‘Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?’ [A reference to an eighteenth-century play.] It is the workers’ enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine’s dog, to which they have fitted an historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.

In everyday language, idealism is a good thing. When you are an idealist, you live by your convictions and not by mercenary considerations of private gain. In philosophical and political terms, idealism has an entirely different meaning. It is simply the system of thought that Plato introduced and that has held sway until Marx’s materialist challenge of the mid-nineteenth century. Fundamentally, idealism posits a world of transcendent ideals or essences that exists independently of the material world. The job of the philosopher is to penetrate into this higher reality, just as it is the job of the politician to shape society after its hallowed image.

Throughout the book Bukharin pays tribute to Hegel, who, despite being in the idealist tradition, understood that the Ideal was constantly changing as history moved forward. It was not static, but was something that was subject to an unfolding dialectic. Despite Hegel’s refusal to take the logical next step and challenge the fundamental precepts of idealism itself, he opened the door to Marx and Engels, who saw the material world as having primacy over ideas and not the other way around. Bukharin put it this way:

The dialectical movement of ideas that is found in Hegel, and that reflects real movement in idealist form, contains elements that are highly valuable. These are the ideas of universal relationship, of movement, of change, and the forms of this movement; here the division, or self-differentiation, of the whole, the revealing of opposites and their interpenetration, serve as the motivating principle. This is the great revolutionary side of Hegel that is restricted and smothered by the elements of idealism and by the idealist conception of the world. All form is understood here in its movement, that is, in its rise, development, downfall and extinction, in its contradictions and the resolution of contradictions, in the rise of new forms and the revealing of new contradictions, in the peculiarities and qualities of new forms, which again and again become subject to the process of change. The great contribution made by Hegel lies in this fearlessness of thought that encompasses the objective dialectic of being, nature and history. The basic dialectical contradiction of Hegel’s own system, a contradiction noted by Engels, led to the system’s collapse, and gave rise to a new historical unity, at a new stage of historical development, in the dialectical materialism of Marx.

In recalling the cultural and psychological mood of the period of Bukharin’s final years, it is important to note the utter collapse of scientific and rationalist thinking across the board. While a belief in Platonic ideals might in and of itself be harmless, the rancid offshoots of idealist thought defended by fascist intellectuals demanded a rebuttal. The collapse of the capitalist economy and the failure of socialist revolution in Europe provided a fertile ground for all sorts of reactionary mystification. Bukharin’s arguments were like a bracing glass of cold water thrown in the face of a dying culture, as Christopher Caudwell, a casualty of the Spanish Civil War, would put it.

In the chapter entitled On So-Called Racial Thought, Bukharin takes aim at fascist ideology in the same manner that left-oriented scientists have taken on the notions of a ‘bell curve’ or any other racial supremacy doctrines. The only way effectively to challenge such theories is to be grounded in a materialist understanding of society that disposes of any essentialist notions of race or blood. Bukharin saw fascist ideology as an outgrowth of idealist mysticism, which introduced ‘greater and greater does of inborn and unchanging mystical virtues to their warrior-gangster conception replacing the chemical composition of the blood with the “voice of the blood” …’

Any attempt to essentialise a nation or a people does violence to the historical record. This is obviously the case of Jews being demonised the 1930s. But it is also wrong to essentialise the Germans themselves as an anti-Semitic race after the fashion of the ‘Goldhagen thesis’. All nations and peoples are governed by historical laws that explain their behaviour and reputation in a given moment in time rather than by some sort of inherent psychology, including the Germans. Bukharin writes:

At one time, during the French Revolution, the Germans were regarded as barbarians. Then they were transformed into a nation of dreamers, inhabiting a country of poets and philosophers. When railroads were first being built it was written of the Germans that they were not fit for commercial–industrial life, and that railroads would conflict with the calm patriarchal–melancholic constitution and character of the German people. The Germans, it was remarked, were not Italians, with their banks, commerce, overseas operations, industry, and so forth. Later, the German national character became that of the most industry-oriented people in Europe. Now the fascists are fostering militarism, the barracks, bloodthirsty predatory bellicosity, and so on. The country of poets and thinkers has been transformed into a country of mercenaries and praetorians.

Although it would be premature to describe the current government in Washington, DC as fascist, there are obvious affinities between Nazism and the Republican Right. Just as a manufactured hatred and fear of Jewry and international Bolshevism allowed the Nazi state to run rampant over rights once regarded as sacrosanct to the German citizenry, so has Bush whittled away at freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including the right to privacy. Instead of Jews and communists, the national security state tries to enforce political discipline through a fear of Islamic radicals and terrorism.

As part of the political and ideological superstructure of the Republican Right, hostility toward science and Darwinian science in particular has become a fixture. It should not come as a big surprise that Bukharin had to confront the same sort of challenge. In a chapter simply titled Evolution, he defends the idea of social and biological evolution against any attempts to superimpose teleological or theological schemas on living history. If Bukharin were alive today, one could imagine him picking up his pen (or sitting down at his keyboard) to mock the whole idea of ‘intelligent design’. Interestingly enough, Bukharin seems to have anticipated Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, long before the Marxist palaeontologist considered it:

The dialectical interpretation of development thus includes both gradualness and leaps, in their transition from one into another and in their unity. The real historical process, whether in nature or in society, presupposes both gradualness and leaps, and Saint-Simon already divided epochs into ‘organic’ and ‘critical’. Is it really the case that the history of the earth, its geological history, has been without catastrophes, ice ages, earthquakes, ‘inundations’, the disappearance of dry land beneath the sea, the vanishing of water, and so forth? Is it true that the universe does not know the collision of planets and stars with one another? Has human society not witnessed the downfall of whole civilisations? Has it not known wars and revolutions? Of course, we look closely at Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Does it, despite the gradualness of evolution, really exclude leaps? Let us take the appearance of the adaptive feature, the concrete peculiarity, which selection ‘seizes upon’. This peculiarity appears ‘by chance’; Darwin’s law is a law of selection, necessity that includes fortuity. But how does it occur, the appearance of such a feature? As a mutation, that is, a leap. Furthermore, the process of selection includes struggle. When, for example, a war between ants takes place, and one ant colony destroys another, is this not a leap? And so on to infinity.

Above and beyond the importance of Bukharin’s analysis for the 1930s and for our own epoch, there is the power of his expression. Bukharin, along with Leon Trotsky, was one of the great prose stylists of twentieth-century Marxism. Even if you find it difficult to accept a rigorous defence of the much-maligned dialectical materialist method which has been linked to official Soviet doctrine, Bukharin will captivate the reader through his biting irony and his passion.

Unlike Trotsky, Bukharin never had a movement created after his example. While the Fourth International was seen as the alternative to Stalinism following Trotsky’s expulsion from the USSR, there has never been that much of an effort to come to terms with Bukharin’s Marxism. This is unfortunate, since his highly flexible and deeply humanitarian approach would seem to resonate with recent directions taken by the Cuban government. In trying to assess his long-term contribution, the publication of books such as Philosophical Arabesques will play an invaluable role.

Louis Proyect

This review first appeared on the Swans website, www.swans.com. It has been reproduced here with permission.

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011