and the Bolshevik Revolution

A Political Biography 1888-1938
by Stephen F. Cohen

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Knopf: New York, 1973
495 pages

February 2004

Kinds of revolutions

Revolution has a variety of meanings in Twentieth-Century Russia, and even the term Bolshevik Revolution has narrow and wider senses. The narrowest application speaks of the second of the 1917 revolutions in wartime Russia, the Bolsheviks' October coup d'etat against Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government. Wider applications would extend the revolutionary period to include the chaotic Civil War through 1921, or to the death of Lenin in January 1924. The widest sense of Bolshevik Revolution applies to the political and economic transformation of Soviet Russia during the 1920s.

Stephen F. Cohen's fine and detailed biography of Nikolai Bukharin, who is arguably the leading theorist of all the Bolshevik Communists — not excluding Vladimir Lenin — employs the latter sense. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888-1938 concentrates almost exclusively on Bukharin's intellectual development and political struggles during the 1920s, and the political and economic situation in the Soviet Union as seen from the Politburo leadership's vantage. Throughout the 1920s Bukharin was among the top leaders of the Soviet Union. Toward the end of this time he was at the very top in a duumvirate with Joseph Stalin.

No Bolshevik plan

All during the 1920s, battles over theory — how to run a socialist state — dominated and divided the Soviet leadership. Contrary to popular opinion, Cohen shows clearly that there was no blueprint at hand.

Several reasons explain why Bolshevism — an avowedly doctrinal movement — came to power without a coherent program of economic and social revolution. Before 1917, the party had concentrated almost exclusively on the political struggle against czarism, not the seemingly remote problems of a socialist regime. The February revolt surprised its leaders, who then spent the remaining months before October debating the prospects of power rather than its uses.

Second, there was little in traditional Marxism to guide their thinking about post-insurrectionary questions. Marx himself had viewed economic modernization as the historical function of capitalism, neither addressing nor even admitting the possibility of socialists in the role of modernizers. ...

Revolutionary war became an official, integral part of Bolshevik thinking in 1917 largely because it replaced the missing program of social change and economic development. 

A vast nation slowly recovering from defeat in the World War, from disruptive social revolution, from heartbreaking Civil War. Power in the hands of socialists at last; what to do?

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx
"Theses on Feuerbach" (1845)
  included in:
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
The German Ideology

Yes, exactly! But — what is to be done?

No Bolshevik factions

One of the most fateful decisions was a procedural one, Lenin's early ruling that there could be no factions within Communism. This sidelined the semi-reconciled former Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries and others who clung to any non-Bolshevik ideas. Most critically, it also implied that although theories as well as ways and means were debated in the Politburo and Central Committee, real political maneuvers and divisions were hidden. Unity was important. Keeping up the appearance of unity, even within the inner circles, was deemed essential.

Lenin's anti-faction ruling also meant that persisting in a losing debate or minority viewpoint was defined to be: divisive and misdirecting; causing factionalism in the Bolshevik Party; contributing to rifts between peasants and proletarians; damaging morale and efficiency in the Soviet Union — and therefore was anti-socialist, unpatriotic, and counter-revolutionary.

In the Soviet rulers' practice, the more important and divisive a issue, the more hidden its discussion. Increasingly during the 1920s, those who held the losing sides in debates were pushed out of the Politburo, out of the Central Committee, perhaps out of Russia. The secrecy on debates coupled with outward unity allowed Joseph Stalin, manager of the day-to-day party bureaucratic machinery, to keep strengthening his position by replacing in office his rivals' supporters and then the rivals themselves. In the 1930s the questioners and dissidents and especially all rivals to Stalin were killed.

The obsessive and deadly Soviet secrecy is a stark contrast to what David Brin forecasts for the world, and applauds, in The Transparent Society.

Bukharin in New York

Cohen presumes that you have a general familiarity with Russian history in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy is a good book to have read before Cohen's. Figes provides a massive history of the Russian revolutionary period in social context with many background sketches and enlivening details of individuals. The color and details in this passage, for instance, are not in Cohen:

[Leon] Trotsky's boat sailed into New York harbour on a cold and rainy Sunday evening in January 1917. ...

It was a mark of the party's frustration that three of the leading Social Democrats — Trotsky, Bukharin, and [Alexandra] Kolontai — should find themselves together in New York, 5000 miles from Russia, on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. ...

Short and slight with a boyish, sympathetic face and a thin red beard, [Bukharin] was waiting for Trotsky on the quayside. ... He greeted them with a bear hug and immediately began to tell them, as Trotsky's wife recalled, 'about a public library which stayed open late at night and which he proposed to show us at once.' Although it was late and the Trotskys were very tired, they were dragged across town 'to admire his great discovery'.

Orlando Figes
A People's Tragedy:
A History of the Russian Revolution

Suppose Bukharin in that New York public library had learned the virtues of the American Constitution as the instrument supporting American freedoms, and talked this over persuasively with Trotsky and Kolontai? ... But apparently inexorably, the revolutions in Russia in 1917, like that in France in 1789, devolved into betrayal and disaster.

In contrast to Figes, Stephen Cohen goes into a little detail about Bukharin's brief editorship of a Russian-language, and socialist, daily paper in New York; and disagreements with Trotsky:

It was characteristic of Bukharin to assume that political differences need not influence personal relations — one of his attractive features as a man and one of his considerable blind spots as a politician. Despite the dispute, he and Trotsky developed a warm friendship and collaborated politically at Novyi Mir.

The editorial experience helped prepare him for his editorship of Pravda from 1917 to 1928, one of the most important platforms for explaining Bolshevist ideas to the Soviet people.

Building socialism in the 1920s

Generally, those of the Bolshevik leadership who were more open, more European in outlook, more aware of world history and of alternate theories and practices, were those who had spent some time in exile abroad. Those who held to narrower and more dogmatic outlooks, like Stalin and his henchmen, had stayed in Russia, variously in underground activities or in jail or in Siberia.

The center of Cohen's history is the struggle throughout the 1920s for a coherent theory and practice which would rule in the Soviet Union.

The idea of planning, with its promise of "economic rationality," agitated every Bolshevik's imagination. All were agreed on its virtues and desirability, few on its meaning or implementation. A single industrial plan was the Left's great cause, so compelling that it united the several different tendencies within the opposition. Partly for this reason, and partly in reaction to the centralizing excesses which had passed for planning during war communism, Bukharin's remarks on the subject were frequently negative between 1924 and 1926.

He ridiculed the notion of an instant general plan imposed from above — materializing "like a deus ex machina" — as a remnant of those war communist illusions which should have expired ...

More to the point was his criticism of an industrial plan calculated independently of market forces, of the demand and supply of the peasant sector, as "unthinkable": "the correlation ... inside state industry is determined by the correlation with the peasant market. ..."

Bukharin believed that the Soviets could not build heavy industry at the cost of starving the peasantry — still the great majority of Soviet people. Much could be done if it were done slowly, organically as it were, encouraging the Soviet economy to grow healthily and while maintaining a balance among its components. Collectivization of the vast farmlands would also grow naturally, encouraged by economics and education rather than forced by the Soviet government.

Of course there are critical problems with socialist theory as well as practice, many of which Ludwig von Mises discussed in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, as early as 1922.

The theoretical and political struggles within the Soviet leadership were complex and generally hidden, and Cohen portrays them with clarity. Joseph Stalin's ideas were quite different from Bukharin's. Eventually it became clear that so were his methods.

Bukharin or Stalin?

Another helpful placing of Nikolai Bukharin within the larger Russian revolutionary experience may be found in Robert C. Tucker's excellent books: Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929: A Study in History and Personality; and the sequel, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941. These provide more of the general Soviet context than does Cohen's biography. Stalin in Power gives additional details about Bukharin's treason trial, and his great trial defense aimed at the judgment of history, despite knowing he faced a certain death sentence.

If Nikolai Bukharin was the best of the Bolsheviks, even a "good Bolshevik", would he have done a better job than Stalin in bringing social justice and prosperity to the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union? — Undoubtedly. And I don't mean the cheap answer that hardly anyone but possibly Tsar Ivan the Terrible could have done a worse job than the blundering and murderous Stalin. Rather that Bukharin, as a brilliant, reasonable, and good-natured man, was willing to temper his utopianism to real people and real economics.

Next, as to the survival of the Soviet Union and its populace when the Nazi ambition to rule in Russia brought the Wehrmacht upon the Soviet people like a thousand-mile-wide sledgehammer. Would Bukharin have negotiated a Nazi-Soviet Pact as Stalin did in August 1939? Would a Soviet Union led by Bukharin, or inspired by him, have been sufficiently prepared, and tough enough, to stand up to the Nazi onslaught as it came in June 1941? We cannot know. In the event, as managed by Stalin, forty percent of the Soviet population was overrun by the German armies, with still-untold death and suffering.

The trial of a life

At Bukharin's show trial in March 1938,

Protecting Bolshevism's historical legacy by refuting the criminal indictment was Bukharin's main objective. But he wanted also to use his courtroom testimony to make a last political statement on the two major issues confronting the country — war with Germany and the advent by terror of Stalinism.

Even with his own death sentence certain, and the fate of his wife and son as a deadly threat, Bukharin out-thought, out-maneuvered, and out-spoke Stalin's prosecutors throughout the trial. It was one of history's triumphs of the rhetorical art in the passionate service of truth. This final act was well worthy of how Bukharin had lived the revolution he believed in.

For many years after his death, Bukharin was defined in the Western political imagination not by his role in the Bolshevik Party or by what he represented in Soviet history, but almost exclusively by his show trial of 1938. The grim fascination of an illustrious founding father pilloried and executed as a "rabid enemy" of the Soviet Republic is understandable. It was made doubly compelling, however, by a widespread misconception — that Bukharin willingly confessed to hideous, preposterous crimes in order to repudiate what he himself represented, to repent sincerely his opposition to Stalinism, and thereby to perform a "last service" to the party and its myth of infallibility.

Derived from a misrepresentation of his conduct at his trial, this notion gained popularity with Arthur Koestler's famous 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, whose fictional purge victim, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik modeled largely on Bukharin, is persuaded by his police interrogator (and by himself) of the necessity and rightness of such a "last service." Owing largely to Koestler's powerful art, this image of Bukharin-Rubashov as repentant Bolshevik and morally bankrupt intellectual prevailed for two generations. In fact, however ... Bukharin did not really confess to the criminal charges at all.

It is important to understand this denouement, and in all its context. Stephen F. Cohen's excellent biography helps us to see that Nikolai Bukharin's trial was a tremendous drama, but his eloquent self-defense at the trial was the brave and thoughtful capstone of his life. He died fighting to the last for what he always believed in, and our history should know this.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

Russia at Troynovant
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R. W. Franson's review of
"The Illusionists"  ("Space Fear")
by James H. Schmitz

Josef Stalin meditates while interviewing V. S. Abakumov,
Soviet Minister of State Security:

Breathing noisily into his pipe and staring at that overfed, rosy-cheeked bullyboy with the burning ears, Stalin was thinking what he always thought when he saw subordinates so mettlesome, so ready for anything, so eager to please. Indeed, it was not so much a thought as an instinctive reaction: How far can this man be trusted today? And with it, automatically: Has the time come to sacrifice this man?

Stalin knew very well that Abakumov had lined his pockets in 1945. But he was in no hurry to punish him. It suited Stalin that Abakumov was what he was. Such men were easier to manage. In the course of a lifetime Stalin had found that the people to be treated with the greatest caution were men of principle, so-called, like Bukharin. They were the nimblest of tricksters, difficult to trip up.

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
21. "Give Us Back the Death Penalty!"
In the First Circle
A Novel. The Restored Text.  (1968; 2009)
translated by Harry T. Willetts


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