Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Ken Tarbuck

Review: Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution

(Summer 1977)

From International, Vol. 3 No. 4, Summer 1977.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Stephen F. Cohen,
Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888–1938,
Wildwood House, £4.50

Like most of the other leaders of the Bolshevik revolution, Bukharin has, for the last 40 years, been in the shadows cast by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. It is only of recent date that Bukharin’s ideas and legacy are being re-examined and with a little more objectivity. The biography of Bukharin by Stephen F. Cohen fills a gap and has been much needed; from this point of view the book is very welcome.

One of the problems facing any biographer of a Bolshevik leader is the inaccessibility of Soviet archives and of private papers located in the Soviet Union. As Cohen points out, only Trotsky’s private archives are open to inspection (and until 1980 some of these will remain closed); the remainder of the Bolshevik leaders’ private papers are still under lock and key in the Soviet Union. This problem has meant that anyone wishing to write such a book as Cohen’s must, of necessity, largely rely on published records. Cohen recognises these limitations when he remarks: ‘When Soviet scholars are eventually able to study and write freely about their revolutionary founders and their formative history, the account in this book will presumably be supplemented and some judgements revised.’ Any such biography is even more of a work of detection than biographical researchers normally have to face. But I do not think we have to wait until the Soviet archives are opened before some of Cohen’s judgements are revised, but more on that later.

Such a biography of Bukharin is long overdue, since it helps to restore a proper perspective to what for many is now rather a remote period. Moreover, a biography of Bukharin is doubly welcome, since it also serves as a signal reminder of the central place that he occupied in the development of Bolshevik theory and practice. The true stature of Bukharin has been overlaid and obscured by the attention focused upon the latter part of his life, ending in the obscene farce of the 1938 Moscow trial. Among revolutionary Marxists Bukharin has largely been ignored, partly because his name has tended to become synonymous with the appellation ‘right-wing’ that was justly bestowed on him in the last decade of his life. However, it might be pertinent to remind ourselves that, firstly, Bukharin did not always carry such a label and, secondly, that even in his right-wing days he was the leader of Bolshevik-Communists, even if right-wing ones. Because of this neglect it has been left to liberal academics to rescue Bukharin from his undeserved obscurity.

Cohen documents much of Bukharin’s pioneering work in the theoretical field on such questions as imperialism and the imperialist state, and how he related to both these phenomena developments in modern capitalism (circa 1916). Among the Bolsheviks and Russian socialists generally, Bukharin was among the first to develop ideas about the nature of imperialism and the consequences of monopolisation upon the state. Lenin drew heavily on Bukharin’s work when he came to write his own much more widely-known book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, although it is wrong – as Cohen indicates – to suggest that there were no differences in the approach of the two. The differences substantially revolved around the question of the role and nature of the imperialist state, Lenin tending to think that Bukharin was showing semi-anarchist tendencies. The war and the collapse of the Second International, however, forced Lenin to reappraise a number of previous positions. In this sense Bukharin’s writing on the imperialist state prefigures and points the direction for Lenin’s State and Revolution. After a period of disagreement on the subject of the state, Lenin came to acknowledge the correctness of Bukharin’s ideas, and embodied them in his own work of 1917.

Bukharin also pioneered study of the theoretical implications of the transition to socialism in his work The Economics of the Transition Period. Cohen has not given an adequate treatment of this book, which is a highly compressed text – Bukharin himself admitted that it was written ‘in almost algebraic form’. A proper consideration of this text would have enabled Cohen to understand many of the constants in Bukharin’s subsequent evolution during the 1920s.

However, Cohen gives an interesting description of Bukharin’s independent cast of mind in his relations with Lenin. It shows a finely balanced relationship, being a mixture of affection and heated exchanges. Whatever Bukharin’s faults, he was not a sycophant with Lenin, in fact of all Lenin’s close collaborators Bukharin seems to have disagreed with him most often; and Lenin does not always emerge with credit from Cohen’s account.

Bukharin was the youngest of the top Bolshevik leaders in 1917, and this point needs to be weighed when assessing his subsequent evolution. The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd has always claimed the overwhelming attention of those who study the revolution of October 1917. Cohen’s account brings out two important points that have tended to be obscured in this respect. Firstly, in the period leading up to October, from April 1917, Lenin relied heavily upon the younger Bolsheviks in winning the party to his position, firstly in the struggle to get his April Theses adopted and then to take the decision to seize power. Bukharin played a key role in this process, since he was the leader of the younger generation in the Moscow organisation, and it was he and his peer group who overturned the older, established Bolsheviks in the Moscow region. In the discussions of the actual seizure of power it seemed likely that Moscow would be the first to take the uprising from the sphere of discussion to that of action. In the event it was Petrograd that led the way. However, it is worthwhile to note that Bukharin was only 29 years old when he led the uprising in Moscow. Unlike the Petrograd events, there was fairly heavy fighting in Moscow in which 500 party members lost their lives. Bukharin is usually portrayed as being wholly intellectual – not a ‘practical’ man – yet his role in Moscow in 1917 does not bear out this assessment. The second point that emerges from Cohen’s account is that it was Trotsky and his group, who only joined the Bolsheviks in June 1917, who dominated events in Petrograd during the period of preparation and actual seizure of power. Almost without exception the old guard of Leninist Bolsheviks played subordinate roles or actually opposed the party in the October revolution. Cohen quite skilfully and concretely demonstrates the validity of these two propositions.

Insofar as Cohen has written only a one-volume biography he has been forced to be selective. However, even allowing for the lack of Bukharin’s private papers, I feel that there are certain important areas and points that are missing. The most notable absence is any real treatment of Bukharin’s role in the Comintern. From its inception in 1919 Bukharin played a leading role in the functions of that body. It is true that, until his fall from power in 1925, Zinoviev played the central public role, and only after 1925 did Bukharin occupy the centre of the Comintern stage. But Bukharin’s involvement was on a continuing basis for 10 years. Cohen’s failure to make more than a passing reference to these activities seems to me to flow from more than the need to compress. From the year 1920 onwards Cohen has concentrated his attention on Bukharin’s relationship to internal Soviet and party affairs, and in particular his role in the industrialisation debate. Coupled with this is an inadequate analysis of the social forces behind the debating positions.

This is where Cohen’s treatment falls down: without an adequate analysis of international events, particularly the failure of the German revolution and the débâcle of the Chinese Communist Party under the tutelage of Bukharin and Stalin, one cannot grapple with the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy and its subsequent victory. It is true that internal Soviet conditions were themselves alone sufficient for the rise of such a social formation, but there was no inevitability about its victory and Cohen does not really try to explain the rise of this formation and its relationship to external factors. Nor can one divorce the triumph of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ from the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy. Cohen makes no attempt at such an analysis and because of this muffs his discussion of the origins of the theory. It is true that some of the phrases and ideas that he pinpoints from Bukharin seem to be the first utterance of the theory, but one feels that had events taken another course one would not remark upon them now. Cohen does not ask why, despite what seem to be hints and allusions from Bukharin, it was Stalin who first articulated the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ in its most rounded manner. If Cohen had examined this point he might have been led on to the question of the bureaucracy. And if he had done so he would have been forced to look at Bukharin’s relationship with that particular force. In this respect Cohen’s treatment of Bukharin’s fear of the ‘new Leviathan’ is devoid of class content and as such tends to downgrade Bukharin to a liberal-democrat.

Whilst there is, obviously, a fairly full treatment of Bukharin’s economic ideas in the 1920s, Cohen does less than justice to Bukharin’s opponents and this often tends to obscure the discussion. Every now and again Cohen admits that the ideas of the Left Opposition were distorted, but he makes no attempt to present a balanced picture. Nor is this accidental, as we shall see.

There is another aspect with which Cohen has failed to deal, namely Bukharin’s role in the campaign against ‘Trotskyism’ in the mid-1920s. Bukharin and his Red Professors unleashed a deluge of lies and distortions upon the left – and Trotsky in particular – which played no small part in rallying a large part of the new intake of raw party members (the Lenin levy) around the Central Committee majority. (I leave aside the particular ‘skills’ which Stalin used at the same time.) To write a biography of Bukharin with such omissions vitiates its overall usefulness. Bukharin helped to perfect the techniques which were later to lead to his own rout by Stalin in 1928–29, but Cohen passes this over. Was he perhaps afraid that it would detract from his hero? I say hero deliberately, for that is how Bukharin appears in Cohen’s account. Perhaps all good biographers have this tendency, but Cohen seems to have allowed it to obscure his judgement.

Cohen started out to write this biography with a particular thesis which he wanted to prove. In the preface he writes:

Much of what follows will suggest that by the mid-1920s Bukharin ... and his allies were more important in Bolshevik politics and thinking than Trotsky or Trotskyism. It will suggest, in short, that the view of Trotsky ‘as the representative figure of pre-Stalinist communism and the precursor of post-Stalinist communism’ is a serious misconception. (p. xvi)

This theme is linked, right at the end of the book, to the idea that Bukharinism is the underlying ideology of ‘socialism with a human face’ in Eastern Europe. In trying to prove his thesis, Cohen is trying to prove too much. If Trotsky was not the precursor of post-Stalinist communism, how does Cohen account for the enduring and increasing appeal of Trotsky’s ideas to the youth of the world? Every time there has been a radical upsurge Trotsky’s ideas have gained currency. One may not like some of the ways that Trotsky’s ideas are presented, but I have not seen any Bukharinist organisation propagating its ideas recently. Any groups that owed allegiance to Bukharin faded away in the late 1930s. To say this does not in any way detract from Bukharin’s merits, but it does mean that in the scales of history Trotsky weighs far more than Bukharin. For history is not made by Professors of History writing books, but by people – such as the 29-year-old Bukharin – acting it out in actual struggle. (Incidentally, I feel that only an academic could talk of Stalinist communism, there is no way these two terms can be coupled in reality, since they stand in constant opposition to each other.)

But, it may be said, in Eastern Europe, in the ‘socialist’ countries, Bukharin and his ideas inspire the ‘liberalisers’. Suffice it to say here that it is among the bureaucrats that a bowdlerised version of his ideas are popular. However, serious consideration must be given to the idea of the convergence of basic ideas between the Bukharinist opposition and the Trotskyist one, particularly in 1929–30. Moshe Lewin, in his Political Undercurrents in the Soviet Economic Debate, provides much evidence to support this thesis. Cohen, on the other hand, does not seriously consider this question, and this arises from his determination to ‘prove’ his thesis that Bukharin was more realistic than Trotsky. However, it must be admitted that any serious reading of the economic ideas advanced by both Trotsky and Bukharin in this period does show considerable agreement when faced with the excesses and irrationalities of Stalin’s industrialisation and collectivisation drive.

The fact that many Left Oppositionists capitulated to Stalin at this period (1929–30) is usually taken as a sign that they thought that Stalin was adopting, albeit in a bureaucratic manner, the economic policies of the Left Opposition. After some momentary initial hesitation, Trotsky came to the conclusion that this was not the case, and remained firmly in opposition to the whole of Stalin’s policies. And Trotsky, who for a number of years had appeared to be the radical on economic questions, was now forced into the role of moderate. It seems to me that Trotsky did this because he realised that without, as a first step, the restoration of inner-party democracy, the vastly increased tempo of industrialisation and wholesale unprepared collectivisation of agriculture presented as many dangers, if not more, than the previous snail’s pace tempo. The fact that Trotsky was prepared to consider a bloc with Bukharin against Stalin, to fight for the restoration of inner-party democracy, indicates Trotsky’s appreciation of the seminal importance of an overall, and not one-sided, strategy of development for the Soviet Union.

In this respect it has to be considered whether Trotsky merely stood firm on his previous positions when faced with capitulations within his own ranks, or whether he came to realise that the Left Opposition had not been so homogeneous as had been (and still is) assumed. The fact that Preobrazhensky, the leading economist of the Left Opposition, capitulated to Stalin, while Trotsky remained firmly opposed, should provide some ground for reconsideration of the period and the evolution of Trotsky and Bukharin. The years 1929-30 presents a picture of two ships that pass in the night, both seeming to be on the same course, but this did not last.

Cohen consistently fails to come to grips with these problems, since it would tend to detract from the picture he wishes to present of Bukharin. There was a clear shift on the part of Bukharin in 1928–30, which brought the possibility of a bloc with the Left Opposition within sight. The fact that it did not take place is not only important in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Left Opposition, but even more so in examining the Right Opposition and Bukharin in particular. Cohen does not even attempt to deal with such problems, since for him Trotsky and the Left Opposition are merely a small band crying in the wilderness, whilst Bukharin apparently represented a broad, if diffused, opposition within all sections of Soviet society. What Cohen forgets is that the social base of the Left Opposition – the Soviet working class – has been enormously increased since 1930, whilst the social strata that the Right Opposition reflected – the small peasants – has all but disappeared from Soviet society. The Left Opposition may have been crying in the wilderness by 1930, but in the last analysis all that Bukharin could do was to cry in anguish at the actions of the predatory monster he had helped to victory.

The historic merit of Trotsky lies precisely in the fact that he did not capitulate, that he was prepared to carry on a principled struggle against the Soviet bureaucracy against all odds. In the process he forged many of the intellectual weapons that are needed, firstly to understand this phenomenon and secondly to combat it. Bukharin’s consistent refusal to take up the struggle against Stalin in public meant that he always had to compromise to Stalin’s advantage. It was of little consequence after 1930 that Bukharin’s private views sometimes coincided with Trotsky’s public positions, because Bukharin never did anything about them, while Trotsky did.

If this review has seemed overly critical, it is because the matters dealt with are not merely ones of historical interpretation or judgement, they are central to politics here and now. And as such the omissions and failures cannot go unnoticed. This is not to say that those who are interested in uncovering the real heritage of revolutionary Marxism should not rescue Bukharin from his undeserved oblivion, but at the same time it may be necessary to rescue him from his more uncritical admirers. A study of Bukharin’s writings is necessary for us to reappropriate our heritage, those who do so will be richly rewarded. But they have to study critically. Cohen’s book needs to be used in the same way.

Ken Tarbuck   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 14 October 2014