Book Review
The Socialist Vision and the Silenced Voices of Democracy- New Perspective- Nikolai Bukharin,
Sobhanlal Datta Gupta,
Seriban, 2019, Kolkata, Rs 495

The other Bukharin

Sankar Ray

“So then Comrades! I had the chance to hike among the mighty mountain peaks when the sun was shining, and down below me on the Alpine meadows I saw various flowers growing, I gathered them in a basket and wore a wreath of them, which I propose to lay on the communal grave of those who have given their lives in the affirmation of Life Itself, for the cause of our country, for the happiness and earthly joys of the peoples of world”. This is excerpted from the preface to The Prison Diary of Nikolai Bukharin: Transformation of the World (Verse about the Ages and about people). Bukharin penned this when the knell of his ‘parting day’ was loud with the eternal and endless post-life umbra awaiting at the Lubyanka Prison. The ‘moving passage’, quoted by the Indian Comintern scholar Sobhanlal Datta Gupta in his The Socialist Vision and the Silenced Voices of Democracy- New Perspective- Nikolai Bukharin *, ends in apparently in a philosophical tone: “I have brought roots and seeds. Others too have planted then, so that they can grow. Feci quod potui. Faciant meliora potentes! (I have done what I could. May others who can do better. (p 29)”. One gets a rare shot of whom V I Lenin described as ‘not only a most valuable ´and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party’ - a muse with abiding faith on the mankind of the future  and looking forward optimistically to tearing off the traumatic and  humanimalistic era of Joseph Stalin. The pathos is manifest but the ‘roots and seeds’ were of great expectations of a future of ‘tolerance, moderation, socialist pluralism’ stressing ‘consciousness, humanism and culture under socialism’ (p 31).

It is well-known that the USSR Supreme Court sentenced Bukharin to death on 13 March, 1938 and was shot dead two days later by a firing squad in the village of Kommunarka of Moscow region. But Bukharin had to pay for his unholy coalescence with Stalin a k a ‘Koba’ who pitted him against Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev and others. In 1929, Stalin and his sidekicks condemned Bukharin as a leader of the so-called “Right Deviation” faction, which Stalin branded as ‘harmful to the construction of socialism’. But Bukharin seemed to have thought Stalin would forgive him if he publicly accepted defeat. In 1934 Bukharin publicly accepted defeat. At the Party Congress (1934) he said in his speech, “The members of the Communist Party ought to stand together to make the ideals of Comrade Stalin come true.”  But the plan to humiliate Bukharin was ready. He was elected (sic) a candidate member of the party’s central committee robbing him of the right to vote on major issues.

 He indicted Stalin as “an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his appetite for power. At any given moment he will change his theories in order to get rid of someone.” But there might have been few listeners as his crimes were inerasable. Datta Gupta, sticking to canons of dispassionate ethics, admitted, ‘he rapidly turned out to be the bête noire of the established Marxist circles of his time.’

The rest is history. He was arrested in 1936, released temporarily only to be rearrested next year. But then he was reborn. Datta Gupta’s scholastic narrative is about the new Bukharin. “I have primarily tried to explore his contributions to an alternative understanding of Marxism in the capacity of a theorist and situate him in the revolutionary-humanist tradition of Marxism”. His decision to refrain from touching on the trial of Bukharin is judicious as materials available are partial to date. He wrote   Prison Manuscripts that comprises Socialism and its Culture, Philosophical Arabesques (dialectical sketches), Transformation of the World, Poems on Century and Individuals (187 poems), Concerning Some Questions of our Time (an 11-page manuscript and How It All Began (an unfinished autobiographical novel, penned between February 1937 and March 1938).

Split into four chapters, excluding a 13-page preface, select bibliography and name, plus conclusion, Datta Gupta’s sleek 127-page book is no rapid reader. Extensive references slow down the pace of reading as in the era of internet kicks up temptation of browsing through references and cross-references. The four chapters are Nikolai Bukharin: The Voice of Socialist Humanism, From War Communism to NEP and Beyond, From NEP to Prison Manuscripts: Socialism and the Problem of Culture, From War Communism to Prison Manuscripts: Marxism and Philosophy. Special mention may be made on his unfinished autobiographical novel How It all Began where he features as Kolya Petrov. Datta Gupta feels there a ‘distant thunder of the approaching revolution’. (p 30) One wonders how it compares with Arthur Koestler’s Nicholas Rubashof in Darkness at Noon. All these were exhumed from the Russian Presidential Archives in 1992, Bukharin in this text is completely hyphenated from the Bukharin as a factional collaborator of Stalin who exploited the intellectual brilliance of Bukharin to combat Trotsky in the main.

The author rightly states that unlike Stalin and Trotsky, Bukharin has no followers. But he is a favourite among the scholarly community the world over outside Russia. Stephen F Cohen, Richard B Day, Lars Lih, Herman Schmid, Mark McNally, Valerij Pisigin, Sidney Heitman and many others –last but not the least Wladislaw Hedeler. Datta Gupta mentioned (OMIT are) a segment of a fairly sizable group of scholars including Datta Gupta too, engaged in discovering Bukharin and his alternative path, distinctively different from Stalin and Trotsky.  Unlike Stalin, no researcher found in Bukharin a reflex of tyrants like Ivan The Terrible. New interest about him, Datta Gupta reveals, began in China ahead of Mikhail Gorbachev who led the process of political rehabilitation of Bukharin in 1988. Two Chinese scholars, Yin Xuyi and Zheng Yihan at an international Bukharin symposium un Wuppertal in 1988 disclosed that between 1980 and 1986 ’52 contributions were published’ in China, 36 of which between 1981-82. It was a post-Cultural Revolution ‘second wave’ of research on the Bolshevik leader, the first being  in the late 1930s in ‘China’s Marxist circles, but abruptly shelved after being branded as ‘a counter-revolutionary and traitor in 1937 like a dog that needed to be given a bad name to be hanged. Bukharin is possibly the only Russian Marxist whose political restoration took place outside and independent of the erstwhile Communist Party of Soviet Union (pp 11-13). Datta Gupta is thankful to apprise us about a highly informative paper by James D White on Chinese studies on Bukharin, based on inner party polemics, published in Soviet Studies in 1991.

The most thought-provoking as also the largest chapter of the book is the one on socialism and culture, a theoretical construct of Bukharin’s ideation of socialist humanism, ‘pluralist line on questions of culture and socialist realism (distinctively different from Stalin version, a totalitarian frame of proletcult). ‘Socialist realism is distinguished from other realism by the fact that it is inevitably focuses attention on the portrayal of the building of socialism, struggle of the proletariat, of the new man….the old realism is anti-lyrical…anti-realistic...socialistic realism is not anti-lyrical’, Datta Gupta quoted him in his historical- critical endeavour to his firm hypothesis that Bukharin in the last decade of life was in a transitional advance towards Marx. The author quoted the then editor of Izvestia, I M Gronsky (OMIT  on Stalin) (ADD  on Stalin’s diktat)   ordered undemocratic demolition of the perception of socialist realism, adopted by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) whose ‘dialectical-materialist creative method’. Stalin imposed ‘Party-oriented (partiny) method’ and mandated that it would ‘define the position of the Party on questions of literature and arts. (p 69)’. That was in 1932 when Bukharin was already removed from the politburo and central committee of the party ( OMIT  ‘the same Stalin’, ADD .The same Stalin)  told the Ukrainian writers on 12 February 1929, “Excuse me. I cannot demand that a writer be a Communist and follow the party line…If you demand that literature and the author follow the party point of view, then you have to drive out all the party members.” (p 61) – a reflex of Stalin the hypocrite. Stalin shelved the resolution, adopted the central committee-adopted ‘On Party policy in the sphere of literature’ in 1925, published on 1 July 1925 albeit in the era of New Economic Policy, authored by Lenin. The party ‘must use every means to prevent manifestation of Communist conceit.’

In 1924, in Lenin as a Marxist, he firmly said that Marx had only established "The inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat". He thought and said that the socialist revolution went beyond the teaching of Marx himself. Lenin had enriched Marxism in showing how to make the revolution (destructive task) but for constructive tasks (where Marxism had to surpass itself), he had only " sketched out" the solutions. In 1937, in the introduction to Arabesques, (ADD, Bukharin stated,) Marxism is "the supreme generalization
of the theory and practice of socialism ".

Bukharin’s Historical Materialism was critiqued by both Gramsci and Lukacs. Gramsci questioned his positivist position, ‘monocausal interpretation’ and bluntly observed that Bukharin’s Historical Materialism is erroneous in interpretation for being ‘made into a dogma’, reminding Engels’ warning against drift towards dogmatism. Lukacs took on Bukharin’s ‘false objectivity’ terming it as ‘technological fetishism’ (pp 106-7). Datta Gupta refers to Lukacs’ critique of Bukharin’s, The Theory of Historical Materialism, a Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology (1921) in the New Left Review in 1966. Although endorsed by Lenin and the RSDLP(B), ‘Bukharin draws almost completely on secondary sources, ignoring most recent research’, wrote Lukacs, who points out that writing a popular textbook intensifies ‘risk of simplifying the problems themselves’ (italics in original), despite his ‘brilliant and clear’ presentation. Lukacs rates Georgi Plekhanov and Franz Mehring higher than Bukharin in explanation and elaboration of Historical Materialism. However, this reviewer only mentions Gramsci and Lukacs, two most outstanding ‘Marxist’ theoreticians of the 20th century while pointing out that neither Historical Materialism nor Dialectical Materialism was conceived by Marx who formulated Materialist Dialectics and materialist concept of history.

The author’s defence of NEP and War Communism, which were formulated by Lenin but theorised by Bukharin, is debatable as both are to a considerable (ADD extent)  incompatible with the Marxian perception. Bukharin wrote, ‘Market relations, money and plays a big role in the transitional economy’ (Nikolai Bukharin, Izbrannye Proizvedeniya or selected works, p 396) – reflecting deviation from basics of Marx. But this is due to his mentor Lenin whose experiment in Bolshevised socialism is questioned by many Marx scholars many of whom are not Marxists following Marx himself (Marx told Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde, two top French socialists in 1981 in chaste French, “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” - If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist). 

Lenin at the ninth congress of RSDLP emphasised the need for ‘fighting against the survivals of preslovootogo demokfatisma (notorious democratism). Bukharin didn’t express his reservations but his ethical transition in post-Lenin years suggest he charted a new path which Datta Gupta commendably presented in this scholastic narrative.

Bukharin’s prison writings are still to open up as files of Lazar Kogan, chief interrogator of Bukharin in Lubyanka remains classified (p 21). Stephen Frand Cohen,  professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, appointed as proxy by Bukharin’s widow, Anna Larina and the two children of Bukharin, legal heirs of his work when Boris Yeltsin became  the President of Russia, is expected  to unveil  the rest of   Bukharin archives for scholars not only like Datta Gupta but youngers one the world over.

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Jul 10, 2019

Sankar Ray

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