on January 15, 2006
Fascinating. For anyone with historical interest in Soviet thinking, politics and history, this is a great read. My only complaint is that while it went into some depth on Bukharin's Marxist economic ideas, it didn't follow up with detail on actual economic policy after the revolution - probably because Bukharin wasn't intimately involved with those policies. To be more clear, it did go into detail on political questions of economic policy, but not on the nitty gritty of planning per se. If you have interest in the politics, policies, theory and inner workings of the Bolshevik leadership, the men who fought with Lenin to gain power and worked with Stalin to keep it, this is the book for you. Obviously centered on Bukharin, this book provides insight outside of just him; it is not a personal biographical work, its a political biography, as it claims, meaning that it focuses on his ideas, policies and politics.
In this excellent "political biography," Stephen Cohen uses Nikolai Bukharin's life as revolutionary to critically examine the experience of the Bolsheviks in gaining and exercising power in what became the Soviet Union. Cohen explicitly pursues 2 major themes and implicitly pursues a third major theme. The explicit major themes are the relative heterorgeneity of the Bolsheviks, and in particular, the idea the Bukharin's economic and political policies posed a major alternative to the Stalinist revolution from above. The implicit important theme is the close relationship between Bukharin's development of Marxist ideology and the policies he advocated.
Bukharin turns out to be a fairly attractive character, and not just by comparison with the horrifying Stalin. Highly intelligent, well- (though largely self-) educated, articulate, relatively humane and open-minded, Bukharin was an engaged intellectual and probably the most popular of the Bolsheviks who made the Russian Revolution. He was also, as shown by his conduct during the Purge trial that resulted in his execution, personally courageous. Cohen is careful to show Bukharin's significant flaws. Bukharin was no liberal democrat, was dedicated to the idea of the Communist Party as a revolutionary vanguard controlling the state, and could be ruthless towards opponents.
Bukharin attempted throughout his life to extend Marxism in ways that responded accurately to the conditions of his time and was receptive to a variety of intellectual currents. In exile in the years leading up the Revolution, he lived in variety of Western states, including a brief stay in the USA. While living in Vienna, he attended lectures of prominent Austrian school economists like Wieser who very critical of Marx. Its clear that he read and profited from the revisionist Marxism of figure like Bernstein and Hilferding. All of this led him to new elaborations of Merxist theory that recognized the relative stability and regenerative powers of capitalism, as well as prescient concerns about the powers of states combining political and economic states. He remained committed to Marx's model of history and vague goals.
Cohen presents Buhkarin as one important strand of Bolshevik ideology and policy before, during, and after the Revolution. While Bukharin is naturally the focal point of the story, other points of view are discussed well. Cohen wants to overturn the impression that the Bolsheviks were an ideologically uniform group and explores the often marked differences in ideology and policy among the Bolsheviks. Bukharin, for example, was strongly opposed to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the highly pragmatic Lenin recognized as the key to cementing Bolshevik control. Cohen follows the development of Bukharin's thought and policies throughout the post-revolutionary period, providing a very clear guide to the complex policy arguments of this period. Bukharin emerged as the principal advocate of the New Economic Policy (NEP), a largely market based program to conciliate the peasantry and restore the devastated economy. Backed by a sophisticated extension of Marxist thought in which Bukharin attempted to match some of Marx's basic ideas to the reality of the survival of capitalism in the postwar years, the success of a Communist Party in a rural nation, and the practical problems of the Soviet economy.
Bukharin's version of the NEP becomes the major alternative to Stalinism. Buhkarin supported and envisioned a largely market-based economy with private agriculture, industrial development driven by increasing consumer demand, and light industrial development. These policies were opposed by a spectrum of Bolsheviks who thought rapid industrialization was both feasible and necessary. Bukharin correctly feared that such policies would involve imposition of the brutalities of the Civil War period. Cohen provides an excellent narrative of the tortured politics of the 1920s which eventuated in Bukharin being out-manuevered by Stalin, followed by horrifying Stalinist revolution. Cohen presents this as an essentially tragic story in which Bukharin's tragic flaw was his total adherence to the Bolshevik ideal of a vanguard and dominating party. Bukharin also clearly favored a more pluralistic society and collective leadership which would have been something like the more liberal Eastern European Communist states or modern China. In Cohen's analysis, Bukharin was a real alternative to Stalin and the success of Bukharin's policies would have meant a much more humane Soviet Union - authoritarian but not totalitarian.
For readers who enjoy this excellent book, Robert Allen's very interesting Farm to Factory is an excellent complement. Allen, a prominent economic historian, argues that the NEP would not have led to successful industrialization, at least on anything less than a time scale of decades. If Allen is correct, a Bukharinist triumph over Stalin would probably have left the Soviet Union unable to fend off the German invasion.
on March 3, 2013
This is a first-rate book. It ought to be read by anyone interested in the history of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, I have two quibbles. The first is that the book devotes perhaps too much attention to Bukharin's intellectual life and not enough attention to his role in the making of policy. Who today reads Bukharin's books? He did not become part of the communist philosophical pantheon or indeed of the anti-communist pantheon. Possibly his works would have been more highly regarded if his side had won rather than that of Stalin.
This leads into the second quibble. The author views Bukharin as the most "liberal" of the Bolsheviks and as a possible alternative to Stalin. The author is not entirely wrong. Bukharin was more "like us" and more urbane than most of the other leading Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, he was on both sides of several important issues. More seriously, he was a political ally of Stalin until Stalin turned on him. Lastly, the book does not provide sufficient evidence that Bukharin could have been a viable alternative to Stalin.
This book aroused great interest in certain quarters when it was published many years ago. Some thought that the book has useful lessons for the contemporary left. Although that did not prove to be the case, the book appears to remain the standard treatment of Bukharin for the foreseeable future.
on January 16, 2011
This is a biography of a young communist, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, who was the presumed heir to Lenin. Arguably his leadership would have resulted in an entirely different USSR had Stalin not ruthlessly seized power and purged his competitors, including the young, charismatic Bukharin. Bukharin was close to Lenin and was one of his principal supporters in the 1920s when Lenin backed off from collectivization of farms and businesses after it became obvious that it was hurting the economy and causing undue hardship. This "backing off", which allowed private farming and business to resume, was entitled the New Economic Policy or NEP. The economy began to prosper again but then Lenin suffered an untimely stroke that impaired his ability to lead and prompted Stalin to oust Trotsky and gradually purge all of the remaining leadership. Bukharin was one of the last to go, sentenced to death on bogus charges following a show trial in 1937. We know the tragic results of Stalin's brutal leadership. It led to the unnecessary death and imprisonment of countless millions of USSR citizens. Bukharin is an interesting historical figure because he was a revolutionary communist but, unlike Stalin, he was compassionate and a realist. His principal fault was his trust in Stalin and failure to capitalize on his own popularity. It seems clear that his leadership would have taken the USSR in a substantially different direction. Communism as a political and economic system has now been rejected in large part because of the failure of its experimentation in the USSR and its satellite nations. It's interesting to think of how that experiment might have fared under rational, compassionate leadership. Bukharin was a strong believer in Marxism, as were many intellectuals in the 20s-40s. But he also exhibited a willingness to be pragmatic in response to realities. One could speculate as to an alternative history for the USSR. Under Bukharin's influence the USSR would not have become a world scourge. The various USSR nationalities would not have been enslaved or displaced. There would not have been constant purging and imprisoning of citizens. The USSR would not have entered the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which Germany divided Poland with the USSR. WWII would not have resulted in the subjugation of Eastern Europe. World history since the 30s would have been entirely different. But, unfortunately, this is all mere speculation.
As a companion to this book, I also highly recommend "This I Cannot Forget" by Bukharin,s young widow, Anna Larina. She was both a reliable witness to this period of history and suffered imprisonment and exile under Stalin.
on December 26, 2013
As a student of Russian History, I have always been disappointed in the lack of biographies of early bolshevik leaders--outside of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky . This book is one of the few biographies of Bolshevik leaders that I have found in the English language. It was a rare find.
I found the gook very easy to read. During the October, 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Nicolai Bukharin was a leader of the Bolsheviks in the city of Moscow. Whereas most of the histories of the October Bolshevik revolution of 1917, that I have read, have dealt only with the October revolution in St. Petersburg, this book provided a wide survey of the October revolution in the city of Moscow. Additionally, the book provided an accurate examination and explanation for the supposed shift of Nicolai Bukharin from the left wing of the Bolshevik Communist Party to the right wing of that party over the issue of the New Economic Program.
on March 11, 2015
This book is an excellent well written historical account of the Bolshevik intellectual and theoretician named M. Bukharin.
He was a true Russian ideologue/intellectual admired by N. Lenin, who like many others, believed that Socialism/Communism was the
future for the Russian people.. Unfortunately, Bukharin, Trotsky, Kirov, and many others, were murdered
by Stalin and his apparatchiks.
on June 26, 2012
- but let me play devil's advocate with Professor Cohen's take on this era. Like many Western scholars, he idealizes the period of the New Economic Policy as a "golden era," a "lost opportunity" for a "kinder, gentler" USSR. There's no doubt that under Bukharin's leadership - or even Trotsky's - the history of the Soviet Union might have been quite different, with its people spared the worst horrors of the "Time of Stalin." Yet from a Soviet/Communist point of view one can also see why Bukharin and the NEP lost out and Stalin gained the upper hand.
Bukharin's concliatory attitude toward the West and domestic opposition parallels Gorbachev's in the 80s; indeed, Gorby's following this road, and rehabilitation of Bukharin, owes something to Cohen's own passionate advocacy. Which leads to the question, would a Bukharanist USSR have followed the same perestroika path to dissolution? Doubtless many wish it would have, and this is exactly what many in the CPSU feared, and why they gravitated toward Stalin in the party struggles of the late 20s. "Coddling" the kulaks and the NEPmen with a share of economic power would, they charged, lead to demands for sharing political power as well, and to opening the economy to the expanding global capitalism of the period. To the generation that had fought the Revolution and the Civil War, the thought of any such "surrender" was unforgivable. Bukharin strongly resented imputing any such motive to him. But the actual end of Gorbachev and the USSR must give Bukharin's supporters pause.
And if the USSR had made it through the decade, and the Soviet 30s doubtless spared much of the gruesome history we now know, could it have survived WW II? A peasant country with limited industry would never have recovered from the Nazi conquest. Hitler could have won his war in the east, making the entire war itself a draw. It was on this basis that Stalin projected his pre-emptive "charges" onto Bukharin as a "fascist agent" and "wrecker." The falseness of the personal accusation does not invalidate the longterm drawbacks of Bukharin's program for Soviet security.
There are few good choices in history; more often just lesser evils, that seem such only because we know the others so well.
on September 15, 2015
If interested in the Russian Revolution and how Stalin assumed complete power, this is a great read.
Moreso though, it is an in depth look at Nikolai Bukharin, surely one of the most likeable and revered of the Bolshevik party leaders.
Stalin feared Bukharin's popularity and had him arrested on ridiculous charges.
The world was treated to a show trial and predictability, Bukharin was executed and shot.
Bukharin was important as he was very close to Lenin and was in agreement with Lenin's New Economic Policy which allowed some capitalism on a small scale.
Very few Russians in the latter years of the Soviet Union knew the person and reputation of Nikolai Bukharin.
Dr. Stephen Cohen, in writing this, produced the first and definitive work on Bukharin. After Gorbachev came to power, it was translated to Russian and published.
The interesting question of course, is what Russia wouldbhave become had Bukharin became the leader instead of Stalin. It still stands as the definitive political biography of Nikolai Bukharin. An excellent read.
on September 9, 2014
A great piece on Soviet Political History.