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Book Reviews

Dead man writing

Philosophical Arabesques. By Nikolai
Bukharin. Pluto Press. 2005. £35
(hardback)

While Bukharin was in prison, awaiting the show trial that would lead to him being sentenced to death and executed in 1938 on p r e p o s t e r o u s , t r u m p e d – u p charges of sabotage and
treason, he chose to spent the time writing books. One of these was on philosophy. It was found in the Kremlin archives after the fall of state capitalism, published in Russia and now in English translation.

 Bukharin was one of the more interesting and able of the Bolsheviks. Even before the Bolshevik seizure of power he had written a couple of books which are quite acceptable as an expression of a Marxist point of view: Imperialism and the World Economy and The Theory of the Leisure Class (a criticism of the Austrian school of marginalist economics), both written in 1914 when he was 26. After the Bolsheviks came to power he was an obvious candidate to codify Bolshevik theory; which he did in The ABC of Communism (written with E. Preobrazhensky) (1919),
The Economics of the Transformation Period (1920), and The Theory of Historical Materialism (1921) which are sophisticated defences of Bolshevik theory and practice using Marxian terminology and concepts.

 As a member of the Politburo, Bukharin also played a political role. In the struggles amongst the Bolshevik leaders following the death of Lenin in 1924, he supported the policy of consolidating the Bolshevik regime internally (as opposed to trying to foment world revolution) favoured by Stalin and most members of the Russian party. In fact, as editor of Pravda in the 1920s, it fell to him to come up with a theoretical defence of this policy.

 It can even be said that he, even more than Stalin, elaborated the theory of “socialism in one country” so reviled by Trotskyists. To do so he had to identify “socialism” with the state sector of the economy, i.e. with what he had once called “state capitalism” (he had temporarily been
one of the “leftist blockheads” denounced by Lenin in 1918 for opposing the Bolsheviks’ economic policy of the time as “state capitalism”: of course it was state capitalism, retorted Lenin, adding that, what’s more, state capitalism would be a step forward for economically backward
Russia). He opposed the adoption of Stalin’s policy of forced industrialization and collectivisation of agriculture in 1929 and so fell from favour, but remained a leading figure in the regime. 
 However,once Stalin decided in the mid-1930s to eliminate all potential rivals he was a doomed man.

 Perhaps surprisingly, Philosophical Arabesques represents a return to his earlier Marxist approach to things, in the tradition of Plekhanov who wrote extensively on materialism and problems of philosophy. He does follow rather slavishly Lenin’s philosophical views as expressed in Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1908) and Philosophical Notebooks (1915), but these were not all that different from those of other pre-WWI Social Democrats in the Marxist tradition. The trouble was that Lenin was intellectually intolerant and in his 1908 book violently denounced other materialists, who didn’t agree with his version of materialism, for being not
materialists but crypto-idealists, solipsists (people who believe that only their self exists) and what he called “fideists” (religious).

  Thus, it is rather offputting to find in the opening chapters of Bukharin’s book the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume described as a “subjective idealist” and a “solipsist”, whereas all he had done was to question whether or not such a thing as absolute knowledge was possible (a proposition also challenged, even if from a different angle, by dialectics). Hume – and the others in the British empiricist tradition which includes Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer, both declared atheists – were not “idealists” in the sense of believing that the outside world only existed in the mind and were certainly not so mad as to think that only they existed.

They are certainly open to criticism for their approach of starting from the point of view of an isolated philosopher sitting in his study trying to work out, on the basis of his personal sense-perceptions, if he really can either know or believe that the outside world and other people exist; instead of from the point of view of humans living and producing as a social and socialised group – a criticism Bukharin also makes of them, pointing out that the fact that the isolated philosopher uses words to think shows in itself that other humans must exist since language is a product of human society. But to call them names that suggest they deny the existence of a world outside the human mind is absurd, in fact a display of ignorance.

  Bukharin is more at home with German philosophy (which really was idealist) – Kant, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel. Although he mentions Hegel in every chapter, he provides a balanced view of his system, warts and all (and some of the warts were enormous) and of what Marx took from it as its “rational core”.

  Basically, what Marx retained and applied to the real world as opposed to the world of ideas was (1) that you should not judge by empirical appearances alone (otherwise you might think that the Sun went round the Earth) but try, by theoretical analysis, to get at what might be behind them, (2) that everything is an inter- related part of the whole that is the universe, and (3) that everything is in a constant process of being transformed into something else, but that this change is not always continuous but involves leaps and breaks.

   Add to this the traditional materialist view, that non-living nature preceded living forms of nature, that as an animal capable of abstract thought and consciousness of self humans evolved from animals without this capacity, and that mind and consciousness cannot exist apart from a living body, and you have “dialectical materialism”.

  Whether dialectics is the basic law of motion of the universe (as Bukharin argues) or a human description and interpretation of what they observe in nature remains a subject of debate, evenamongst Marxists.

Bukharin’s book would be of interest merely as the writing of someone who knows he is soon going to be killed but it is also worth reading in its own right as a work of philosophy. Bukharin obviously thought this an important subject to choose it as his last writing. He even asked to be
executed by poison “like Socrates”. Stalin let him be shot.
ALB

Hypocrisy Exposed

Simon Schama: Rough Crossings:
Britain, the Slaves and the American
Revolution. BBC Books £20.

  Forget Schama the TV historian – this is a solid piece of research into a sordid piece of British and American history from the late 18th and early 19th century. The European colonists in America rebelled against their British rulers, leading to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
 
  This was the period of slavery and the slave trade, and many black slaves (and ‘free’ blacks) saw through American protestations about liberty and supported the loyalist (i.e. British) side. Some black people fought on the patriot (American) side, though slaves were excluded from the American army and giving arms to any black people was anathema to many, especially in the south.

  But once Britain had been defeated, the question arose of what would happen to these black ‘loyalists’. Some escaped slaves were recaptured by their owners, but most managed to avoid this dire fate and were given certificates by the British commandant of New York, stating that they were free to go where they wished (i.e. they were no longer slaves and subject to the orders of their owner).

  In 1783 many loyalists, both white and black, were shipped off to Nova Scotia to start a new life. But the 3,500 black settlers there were subject to appalling discrimination, being always last in line for such things as food supplies and allotment of land. Consequently, many of the former slaves travelled (in some cases, returned) to Africa, specifically to what later became Freetown in Sierra Leone.

 Under the initially somewhat paternalistic regime of the Sierra Leone Company, they attempted to establish a settlement of their own where they could produce their own crops and trade with local chiefs. In principle, everything was run democratically, with each head of household having a vote, including women. Says Schama, ‘the first women to cast their votes for any kind of public office anywhere in the world were black, liberated slaves who had chosen British freedom’.

  But this freedom was illusory: in 1800 the black residents of Freetown rebelled against mistreatment but were savagely put down, by a Company army partly consisting of Maroons (former Jamaican slaves who now fought on the British side). Two of the leaders were hanged.

Schama effectively exposes the hypocrisy of the rulers on both sides. The British government scoffed at the Americans’ pretensions to freedom while owning other human beings, and Americans condemned a system where the poorest inhabitants of British cities were little better than slaves. He also brings out the courage and tenacity of slaves and ex- slaves who fought for some dignity in their lives.

PB