Nikolai Bukharin – Forgotten Revolutionary

Nigel Doggett finds political lessons from a victim of Stalin’s purges

Among notable anniversaries this year fall two for Nikolai Bukharin, the Russian Communist. Born 130 years ago, he was the main defendant in the last major Stalinist show trial, leading to his execution 80 years ago.

Stephen Cohen’s 1973 biography Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution covers his life and legacy in a broader account of the revolution than the many histories focussing on Lenin and Trotsky. The Mensheviks and other ‘old’ Bolsheviks have largely been marginalised, maybe lacking the appeal of ideological purity. The old adage that history is written by the victors was true in Russia under Stalin’s rule but Trotsky survived in exile to write eloquently about the revolution, Soviet Union and Stalin and to bolster opposition until his assassination in 1941.

Dominant narratives on Soviet history present the succession to Lenin in 1924 in terms of Trotsky and Stalin. Given such a choice, most on the left might opt for the former, but residual Stalinist attitudes still retain influence, manifested in attitudes to Russia today (see Paterson and Zernova, Chartist 293) where post-Soviet traumas have spawned an unholy Russian Orthodox-Nationalist-Communist-kleptocrat alliance.

A decade younger than Trotsky and Stalin, Bukharin was described by Lenin in his final ‘testament’ as its biggest theoretician and “favourite of the whole party”. He was the principal advocate of the New Economic Policy (NEP), leader of the Right wing and finally Right Opposition.

He began on the Bolshevik left, enthusiastically supporting the October Revolution. Following the civil war and authoritarian ‘War Communism’, in the light of the ruinous state of the country he supported a more politically and economically conciliatory approach.  From 1921 when Lenin instituted the NEP, Bukharin provided theoretical justification. Private business was tolerated and even encouraged. Whilst favouring the ‘smychka’ (alliance of peasants and workers) he was open to attracting elements from the middle classes (in our terms the ‘precariat’) but no further.

Russia also became more intellectually and culturally pluralistic, allowing space for a glorious flowering of creativity in the arts.  Bukharin was a sponsor of ‘proletarian’ culture but valued variety and toleration. Throughout his life he engaged in dialogue with alternative viewpoints and opponents. When the foundation of a Communist Third International was mooted he advocated including anti-war social democrats and Mensheviks, an early indication of his ecumenical approach.

When the anticipated revolutions failed to materialise in Germany and elsewhere he sympathised with the pragmatic call to pursue what became known as ‘socialism in one country’ (anathema to Trotsky and the left). In 1925 the other leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev joined Trotsky to oppose Stalin. Bukharin disastrously opted for joint leadership with Stalin on the basis of Bukharin’s liberal economic policy. But his call to the peasants to “enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your economy”, went a step too far towards liberalisation, which he was forced to retract.

Stalin manipulated the party in his quest for absolute power, switching policies to wrong-foot his opponents, while left and right alike underestimated him, seeing him as preferable to the other side. Within three years the left was defeated and Bukharin in turn was ousted by Stalin, who now pursued policies of rapid industrialisation more radical than those advocated by Trotsky. Bukharin belatedly approached Trotsky, writing “the disagreements between us and Stalin are many times more serious than all of the disagreements we had with you,” but was spurned with the quip: “With Stalin against Bukharin? – Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? – Never!”

Though sidelined, he continued to write, extolling a ‘socialist humanist’ alternative to the rising totalitarian fascism, and implicitly to Stalinism too. In 1936, shortly before his final downfall, on a trip West he confided in emigré Mensheviks, describing Stalin as “ this small, malicious man, no, not a man, a devil”. He nevertheless returned to Russia knowing he was doomed, leading inexorably to a bizarre final act where Bukharin, with fellow rightist leaders Rykov and Tomsky and others were accused of plotting with the Trotskyites to overthrow the revolution. It is widely believed that he capitulated to Stalin in the final show trial; however, this belief is mistaken. Though Arthur Koestler’s influential novel, Darkness at Noon, centres on an old Bolshevik modelled on Bukharin, who submits, Cohen describes how he turned his defence into a trial of the regime in the name of the Bolshevik revolution, using cryptic ‘Aesopian’ language (a technique used to evade censorship from Tsarist times).

Right wing and liberal accounts tend to conclude that Stalinism grew inevitably from Leninism. Orwell too believed that a victorious Trotsky would have been as bad as Stalin. Yet many roads not taken might have lessened the dangers of tyranny, which had been foreseen in revolutionary circles. Trotsky warned in 1904 (long before he joined the Bolsheviks) of the dangers of a Leninist centralised party: ‘The party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organisation, and, finally, a “dictator” substitutes himself for the central committee’. Similar arguments were made by Rosa Luxemburg in 1911.

Cohen sees Bukharin as an inspiration for such developments as the 1968 Prague spring, the Italian and Spanish ‘Eurocommunist’ parties and Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, all seeking to liberalise Communism.

Whilst the 57 varieties of Leninism who like the Bourbons have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing” seem passé in this century, Bukharin’s acceptance of a mixed economy, advocacy of socialist humanism and engagement with opponents should all resonate within today’s open left.

NB: This article was edited on 26/11/20 to reflect Lee Carney’s comment below – and the author’s clarification in the following issue of Chartist – that Bukharin used Aesopian techniques to subvert his trial.


  1. This says Bukharin capitulated to Stalin in the end, but from what I’ve read don’t most people interpret his performance in his show trial as an Aesop type tour-de-force that very subtly shredded the narrative of the show trials using logic & clever language to tell the world what a nonsense the whole thing was (at a time when not just fellow travelers & useful idiots were backing Stalin but even neutral & even hostile observers were of the belief there must be some truth to the charges seeing as they all were confessing??)

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