Last writings of the party favourite

Issue: 116

Donny Gluckstein

Nikolai Bukharin, Socialism and its Culture (Berg, 2007), £16.99

Under normal circumstances any reviewer for this journal would take one look at Nikolai Bukharin’s Socialism and its Culture and consign it to the nearest dustbin. Written at the height of Joseph Stalin’s repression, it argues his “leadership displays a masterly application of Marxist-Leninist dialectics”, while any criticism of the USSR is “nothing other than a fascist-Trotskyist calumny”. So this book could easily be treated as just another stone in that mountain of trash published by Russian state capitalism in its heyday. However, it will be my difficult task to suggest that you reserve judgement, as least for a while.

This manuscript is part of a series of works, including a novel and philosophical treatise, which Bukharin wrote while awaiting trial and inevitable execution at Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison. In the hands of Stalin’s secret police he was lucky to have any writing materials at all, and was subject to perpetual interrogation and psychological torture. The fact that the book is an example of prison writing is no indication of its quality, yet, if only on a personal plane, it is of interest.

However, if you are expecting something like Antonio Gramsci’s prison writings you will be disappointed. With some reason the foreword claims that Socialism and its Culture was written “with only one reader in mind—the one on whom Bukharin’s life depended, along with the lives of his family members, and the fate of his manuscripts, their survival or destruction. The book, in effect, was a long letter to Stalin without the usual salutation ‘Dear Koba’.” We do not find the Italian Marxist praising Benito Mussolini, his jailer, as Bukharin does Stalin: “a man who has a magnificent expert knowledge of military literature, military technology, military organisation, strategy and tactics”, etc, etc, etc. To that extent much of this book is patent rubbish (although in its 226 pages plaudits for Stalin are few and far between, a mere scattering compared to the conventional eulogy per page of the time).

But rubbish can be very informative (archaeologists tell us), and this book deserves careful attention. Consider its author. Whatever he may have written in 1937, Bukharin’s background meant he was no ordinary apparatchik. Lenin’s Testament of 1922 described him as the Bolshevik’s “biggest theoretician” and the party’s “favourite”. Bukharin wrote the first systematic treatment of state capitalism, Imperialism and World Economy, and edited the Bolshevik’s daily, Pravda, during the early years of the Russian Revolution. He sided with Stalin against Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the faction fight following Lenin’s death in 1924, but by 1928_9 Bukharin’s Right Opposition disagreed with Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture. Thus Bukharin led the last internal party opposition for half a century.

Given the circumstances of its composition, the words used in Socialism and its Culture cannot be taken at face value, because the book operates on several levels simultaneously. On one level it contains a mass of glaring untruths: “Is there a class hierarchy in the USSR? No, there is no such hierarchy, because class distinctions have been erased.” “In the USSR…freedoms are felt as fact every hour and every day, in all life experience.” Although the book ignores the mass labour camps, the famines, the exploitation and brutal oppression of Stalin’s regime, it is important not to slip into Cold War judgements when confronting it. The McCarthyite right castigated Russia for not imitating Western capitalism. In complete contrast, Trotsky criticised Russia as an obstacle to socialism. Ordinary Communists were misguided—not the enemy.

In Socialism and its Culture Bukharin’s primary literary aim was to uphold the idea of socialism against its critics. In doing so, however, his argument is framed in the following way: the Soviet Union is presented as the epitome of socialism. To modern eyes this is a spectacularly peculiar style of argument. However, for many years equating the USSR with “actually existing socialism” was universal among Communists. In judging their beliefs the question was what took priority—defence of the USSR (with socialism as the spurious justification) or allegiance to socialism (with the USSR falsely believed to be its embodiment). The answer depended on the individual. Stalinist hacks fitted the former category, but there were many real socialists who through ignorance or naivety belonged in the latter category.

Bukharin was certainly not ignorant, though perhaps naive. If we cannot answer certainly on which side of the divide he stood, his book nevertheless gives an invaluable insight into the thinking of the millions of people who, in the dark days of the 1930s with Nazism in the ascendant, looked to Russia as a beacon of resistance.

There is still more to Socialism and its Culture than that. Many of its arguments are relevant in the struggle today. We live in a world where the bosses want 24/7 working and everything subordinated to the market. Against this, Bukharin makes a plea for humanism: “The most important thing, which must be placed in the forefront, is the development of the working people themselves…socialism is the abolition of exploitation, the fact that ‘hired hands’ are turned into people, the collective creators and organisers. People working for themselves, conscious makers of their own ‘destiny’, who genuinely forge their own happiness.”

Bukharin discusses a number of contemporary issues such as national cultures and the “clash of civilisations”. Today the tendency is towards the globalising and flattening of culture through multinational corporations and US superpower dominance. Socialism and its Culture makes a plea for preservation and strengthening of the diversity of cultural life without descending into parochialism or racism. Internationalism and human unity are achieved not by suppressing national culture (as capitalism does), but by creating freedom and real equality between people and cultures. Unity comes through each person valuing the other’s difference—unity through the expression of diversity.

There is a fascinating discussion of individuality. Bukharin is answering those who say that under socialism individual difference is obliterated in a monochrome world of state control. Bukharin shows how the concept of individuality is historically determined. In pre-class societies the individual might have existed as a separate biological entity, but socially people were “bands or hordes; the individual as such did not exist at all”. In ancient societies such as Egypt it was meaningless to talk about “the individual in general” because there was nothing in common between the god_Pharoah, the high priest and the slave.

This would eventually change: “Capitalism unleashed the ‘free individual’, under which was concealed the free commodity producer… The individual leapt out upon the historical stage in an extraordinarily vivid way. The very type of society, that is, this capitalist society—anarchic, bound together only by the bonds of exchange and characterised by the conflict of competition—brought this ‘free individual’ to the forefront.”

Bukharin contrasts this with socialism where “the growth of one individual brings with it the growth of another. In capitalist society the bourgeois individual suppressed the proletarian individual. In socialist society with the growth of the individual the entire mass rises, that is, all individuals taken together… Therefore in capitalist society the growth of the individual…is bound up with ‘egoism’ and individualism, that is with characteristics that divide people, that set one individual apart from another, that oppose one individual to another in a situation of more or less sharp conflict, psychological hostility and fragmentation.

“In socialist society, on the contrary, the growth of the individual causes an ever greater connection…because this is accompanied by an ever greater consciousness of the good of the cause, the aim held in common, the general dependence of the overall result on the degree of cooperation and harmony.”

Socialism and its Culture has equally interesting discussions on women’s rights, the environment, hierarchy and equality, culture and much more. These are powerfully written and show that the depth of imagination that led Lenin to call Bukharin a “big” theorist was not misplaced.

Lenin criticised Bukharin for not properly understanding the dialectic, and Bukharin’s biography showed how he found it difficult to accept contradiction—the interpenetration of opposites. At crucial moments he would grasp one side of a problem but not the other. Thus in 1918 he was an ultra_left, emphasising the need to spread the Russian Revolution internationally without taking into account the pressing need for the Bolsheviks to consolidate their fragile hold on power. So he called for revolutionary war when there was no army to speak of.

In the 1920s, at the time of the New Economic Policy, he swung to the right and argued that “socialism in one country was possible…if we abstract from international factors”. Trotsky rightly poked fun at this: “If we accomplish this ‘abstraction’, then, of course, the rest is easy. But we cannot… It is possible to walk naked in the streets of Moscow in January, if we can abstract ourselves from the weather and the police.” In a truly dialectical twist, Bukharin’s lack of dialectics turned into a real strength. The ability to grasp hold of one aspect and follow it through to its logical conclusion without being troubled by contradictions contributed to his pioneering Imperialism and World Economy, and it re-emerges in Socialism and its Culture.

Bukharin had witnessed tremendous forces unleashed in 1917, which gave a vividness and concreteness to socialism which it had never possessed before (except for a brief moment during the Paris Commune of 1871). Russia’s isolation and subsequent counter-revolution meant that in 1937 nothing remained of that upsurge. Yet Bukharin’s lack of dialectics meant that behind the genuflections to the Great Leader, he could abstract himself from the horrible reality he found himself in and return to that original source of inspiration untainted by subsequent events.

To conclude, Socialism and its Culture is worth reading if you can see beyond the mound of rubbish that first confronts you. First, as a human document from a key Bolshevik figure it is high tragedy; second, it gives an insight into the ideological world of millions of Communists during the central decades of the 20th century; finally, and most importantly, it provides a fascinating defence of socialism which even today is fresh and stimulating.