The Rehabilitation of Bukharin

After having him shot as a traitor and a spy in 1938 after one of Stalin’s notorious treason trials, the Russian authorities have decided to “rehabilitate” Bukharin. They now say that it was all a frame-up and that the evidence used to convict him was false and obtained by torture. This was obvious at the time, except to those (and a long list could be given of eminent writers, scientists and artists) who thought that Stalin was a demi-god and Russia a workers’ paradise.

Nikolai Bukharin was one of those Bolsheviks who knew what socialism really was. In The ABC of Communism, written jointly with Preobrazhensky in 1919, socialism is described as a moneyless society in which there would be distribution according to need. Bukharin was of course profoundly mistaken as to how to get socialism, favouring not majority action using democratic methods but the minority action of an elite vanguard using dictatorship and terror — of which he himself was eventually to be a victim.

Bukharin was also the author of a number of books which, once the Bolshevik nonsense about the political incapacity of ordinary workers and the need for a vanguard party to lead them, has been eliminated, are not too bad from a Marxian point of view. World Economy and Imperialism, written during the First World War, discussed how capitalism had become a world system dominated by competing national blocs of capital organised by the state. Historical Materialism and The Theory of the Leisure Class deal with contemporary criticisms of Marx’s views on, respectively, history and economics. Bukharin in fact showed much more knowledge about Marxism and the nature of socialism than did Trotsky, who was never able to understand the difference between socialism and state capitalism.

In 1918 Bukharin went on record as saying that Russia under Lenin was pursuing a policy of state capitalism. For this insight he was denounced by Lenin as a “leftist blockhead” but this did provoke Lenin’s famous admission that Russia was indeed heading for state capitalism, forced on the Bolshevik government by the backward economic state of Russia at the time.

Later Bukharin came to accept Lenin’s point of view and became an enthusiastic supporter of the New Economic Policy, officially described by the Bolshevik Party as “the development of capitalism under the control of the proletarian state”, that was introduced in 1921. Indeed, after Lenin’s death in 1924, he became its main advocate and ideological apologist. At first the new dictator, Stalin, went along with him but by 1928 the rich peasants (kulaks) and small businessmen (nepmen) that flourished under NEP were seen as a potential threat to Bolshevik rule by providing a social basis for a movement to “restore capitalism” in Russia. Stalin decided to crush and eliminate them and embarked on a policy of forced industrialisation and collectivisation. Bukharin, who from 1925, while still in his thirties, had been the number 2 man in the Russian regime, didn’t agree and was excluded from the ruling Politburo in 1929 as a “rightwing deviationist” — the first step towards his final, humiliating end nine years later.

It is being suggested that one of the reasons Gorbachev wanted to rehabilitate Bukharin is that his own new economic policy bears some resemblance to that of the 1920s, in that it is also a policy of the development of capitalism under the control of a so-called proletarian state. This may be true, except that, while in the 1920s the Bolsheviks still called a shovel a shovel, this is no longer the case. Since Stalin’s time what Bolsheviks like Bukharin once frankly admitted was state capitalism is now called socialism. Gorbachev is too much of a Stalinist to return to the old terminology.

In any event, it is to be hoped that Bukharin’s rehabilitation will lead to his writings becoming available in Russia, beginning with those in which he correctly defines socialism as a moneyless society and in which he rightly saw that Russia was heading for state capitalism. Then Russian workers could put two and two together and see Gorbachev for what he is: the political dictator of a state capitalist empire. But no doubt that would be carrying glasnost just a little too far.

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