Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3
Wladislaw Hedeler and Ruth Stoljarowa
HEDELER and Stoljarowa’s book is a strangely passionless treatment of Bukharin’s life and work. This surprising, because whilst he was alive, Bukharin was surrounded by controversy. He was a revolutionary leader, who, as a Left Communist, aroused furious debate over the nature of the state, imperialism and the immediate tasks of the 1917 Revolution. Later on he was an outspoken supporter of War Communism. By the mid-1920s his was the most articulate supporter of a market orientation and Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’. He may have been ‘the darling of the party’, to use Lenin’s phrase, but this did not blunt the sharpness of criticism directed against him, or by him against others. Bukharin fell from political influence in 1929, but returned to prominence as the key defendant in the last of the great purge trials of the 1930s.
Although out of the limelight for 50 years, Bukharin received renewed interest after the publication of a major biography by Stephen Cohen. Then, in the mid-1980s, as the USSR began moving towards market structures, Gorbachev adopted what were described as ‘Bukharinist’ policies. Thus, in the recent period Bukharin’s work has become a battleground for those who would coopt him to the cause of market Socialism, those who believe he was a right-wing deviationist portrayed by Stalin, and yet others who wish to rescue elements of his work (in particular his analysis of imperialism and the state) from the general mêlée.
This book certainly has merits. It makes use of the most up-to-date material released from the Russian archives, and gives extensive coverage to two relatively neglected periods of Bukharin’s life, his early years and the last years of his life.
The coverage of the formative period of Bukharin’s political career is useful in filling gaps in our knowledge of his activity in Moscow. In addition, there is a valuable analysis of the influence on Bukharin of Alexander Bogdanov, the empirio-monist philosopher, and of David Riazanov, the Marx expert who has not been noted till now as having played such a role with Bukharin. The emphasis in the book on Bukharin’s philosophy is a valuable corrective to Cohen’s biography, which dismisses his philosophy as unimportant.
Bukharin’s later years have also been often overlooked, for an obvious reason. During that time the weight of Stalinist repression meant that Bukharin was not able to speak freely, and therefore much of what he said and wrote cannot be treated as a true expression of the man. However, Hedeler and Stoljarowa are able to tease out developments in his later thinking on philosophy and culture, as well as giving a comprehensive account of the circumstances leading up to his trial and execution in 1938.
Nevertheless, the treatment of Bukharin’s life and work is altogether too disengaged. This is meant in a double sense: disengaged from its social context, and disengaged from political debate. There is no sense of the fantastic twists and turns in events – revolution, civil war, the New Economic Policy, collectivisation and so on, which moulded Bukharin, and which, through his activity, moulded leading circles of the party.
It is true to say that in the book Bukharin’s enthusiastic and yet mistaken belief in the compatibility of the market and Socialist society is treated with mild sympathy, but this is the closest we get to a sense of the current debates. Now, objectivity and clear-thinking analysis are, of course, desirable things. But unless there is a sense of direction or purpose in a work, it remains dry and lifeless. A sign of this in the book is the fact that the selection of material seems to have been an arbitrary process without a firm rationale.
On the cover of the book Hedeler and Stoljarowa write that they wish to rescue Bukharin ‘from the warehouse of the revolutionary museum’ into which he has recently been returned after his brief airing in the late 1980s. I agree. But after reading this book, it is not clear why he should be rescued.
The two authors come from the East German historical tradition. It may be the case that they represent a current of academic writers and historians who are seeking a new revolutionary politics in the post-unified Germany. If so, such politics will not come from simply noting what Bukharin has to say, but from a sharp analysis. Socialists today should be highly critical of his 1920s writings on the market, whilst recognising the theoretical contribution he made to understanding modern capitalism.
This may be a contentious polemical point. But as Bukharin was someone who grew up in the Bolshevik tradition, and who, however erroneous his subsequent path, died believing in it, such a polemic is the least he would have expected and deserved.
Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011