Nikolai Bukharin: ‘The favourite of the whole party’

By Doug Enaa Greene

February 13, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- “Bukharin has thirty years of revolutionary work to his credit.”[1] This was the final judgment of Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin's erstwhile adversary in 1938, after his death. These words were not without truth. He lived a life of deep revolutionary and intellectual commitment. Bukharin was one of the leading theorists and leaders of the Bolshevik Party, reaching the heights of power in the USSR in the 1920s.

He was the fierce proponent for the New Economic Policy (NEP) and presented an alternative path of market socialism, to those of Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. He was an ally of Stalin during the party debates of the 1920s, when Stalin declared, "We are, and shall be, for Bukharin."[2]

Trotsky considered Bukharin to be his greatest adversary in the Bolshevik Party. Bukharin found himself opposed to the methods of industrialisation and collectivisation pursued by the USSR at the end of the 1920s. He was martyred during the most famous Show Trial in 1938, after a brilliant defence strategy that denied his guilt and exposed the monstrosity of the trials. Bukharin's ideas did not die with him, but were taken up by reforming currents within Eastern European Communist parties – which believed that Bukharin's program represented a more humane, balanced, pluralistic and market-friendly socialism. I hope that this talk can help present an over-all outline to the life, ideas and legacy of Nikolai Bukharin.

Early life

Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was born on September 27, 1888, in Moscow into a family of highly cultured and progressive teachers. He was inculcated with an urge to read and to learn, that remained a constant throughout his life. By all accounts, Bukharin had a relatively happy childhood and remained close to his father throughout his life. Bukharin's early years is also movingly recalled by him in an autobiographical novel, How It All Began, written during his final prison term in the late 1930s.

Like many of his generation, Bukharin was not untouched by the revolutionary storms that were erupting across the decrepit tsarist empire and that would ultimately bring it down. Early in life, Bukharin broke with religion and developed an affinity with nihilism. Yet by the time of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, Bukharin had adopted socialist views and at 16 he was the leader of an illegal student socialist organisation at Moscow University. Moscow happened to be one of the regions where Bolshevism was stronger than the moderate Mensheviks and Bukharin was attracted to the more revolutionary Bolsheviks. He joined the Bolshevik underground in 1906.

Bukharin spent the next four years developing rapidly as a professional revolutionary – organising and writing propaganda while working for his university degree. By the age of 20, Bukharin's commitment and ability had elevated him to the leading Bolshevik in Moscow, which also brought him unwarranted police attention. In 1909, he was arrested twice by the tsarist police.

After the failure of the 1905 revolution, there was a major crackdown on the left and popular movements by the tsarist state, leading to mass arrests and executions that brought a major loss of members for the Bolshevik Party. Somehow Bukharin managed to continue his political work as an editor for a trade union newspaper and teaching in a political school. In 1911, Bukharin was arrested due to the work of a double agent of the tsarist police -- Roman Malinovski, the head of the Bolshevik parliamentary delegation in the Duma. After his arrest, Bukharin was convinced that Malinovski was a tsarist agent and, later in exile, tried to convince Lenin of this. Lenin refused to believe that one of the most effective Bolshevik agents was actually a double-agent and this soured his relations with Bukharin. As it would turn out, Bukharin was correct, and after the 1917 Revolution, Malinovski would be exposed as a traitor and executed.

Following his 1911 arrest, Bukharin escaped to Hanover in Germany. During his period of exile, which lasted from 1911 until 1917, Bukharin lived in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, England, Japan and the United States, learning French, German and English in the process. This was a period not only of intense political activity for Bukharin in the international socialist movement, but was a creative period theoretically for him.


By the time of the Russian Revolution, Bukharin, who was just 29, would be recognised as a well-respected Bolshevik theorist, considered by many party members to be second only to Lenin. In exile, Bukharin met Lenin (whom he adored), Stalin (who he helped with research on the national question) and Trotsky in American exile (where they collaborated on emigre publications).

While in Vienna, Bukharin took up the task of debunking the work of the Austrian school of economists known as the marginalists, who sought to refute Marx and his labour theory of value. Bukharin attended several lectures of the bourgeois economists Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk and Frederick von Weiser, listening closely to their arguments. The fruit of these ideas was Bukharin's 1914 book, Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, which defending the orthodox Marxist position against the Austrians. Bukharin's critique drew on the existing criticisms of marginalism and combining the methodological criticism and that of sociology.

In terms of methodology, Bukharin defended an orthodox Marxist position in regards the study of political economy and that of society. In regards to sociology, Bukharin argued that marginalism was the ideology of the rentier bourgeois, who had been eliminated from the process of production and were now parasitic on the economy.[3]

This work did a great deal to establish Bukharin as a serious Marxist thinker. The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class became the “definitive” Marxist statement on the Austrian school and was widely published in the Soviet Union. More than this, Bukharin showed that he was a Marxist who was not afraid to engage with rival schools of thought and was willing to learn from them.

The following year, 1915, Bukharin wrote a work on imperialism entitled Imperialism and World Economy[4] that preceded Lenin's more famous work, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, by several months. Until Bukharin's fall from power in 1929, the works Bukharin and Lenin was jointly honoured as the definitive Bolshevik treatments on imperialism. Yet Bukharin differed from Lenin on a number of points, as we shall elaborate below.

World War I
Bukharin's Imperialism, like that of Lenin, was written in the amidst of World War I as the capitalist powers fought to determine which colonies would be enslaved by which vampires, resulting in 10 million deaths. The major socialist parties of Europe had supported the war and had also argued that imperialism, while deplorable, was not an inevitable development of capitalism. Analysing why this colossal slaughter had taken place and the way forward for revolutionaries was thus no abstract theoretical exercise.

Bukharin, who built on the work of the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding, looked at the growth of monopolies, trustification and finance capital in modern capitalism as compared to the more competitive capitalism of Marx's day. Bukharin defined imperialism as the policy of finance capital, and insisted that finance capital can follow no other course than an imperialist one. Finance capital sought out colonies for raw materials and to export surplus capital, and thus far from being an aberration, this was essential to the structure of monopoly capitalism.

Bukharin argued that the competition between the imperialist powers for colonies and resources meant that a periodic re-division of the world through war was inevitable. Thus World War I was not an accident or the result of bad capitalist policy, it was the unavoidable result of modern capitalism and imperialism. Yet Bukharin also believed that while imperialism brought with it the horrors of war, it also unveiled the ripeness of contradictions that could lead to a socialist revolution (a position similar to Lenin's).

Yet in analysing the contradictions of imperialism, Bukharin had overlooked a major one: the role of anti-colonial nationalism. In fact, during the war Bukharin was opposed to all forms of nationalism and national self-determination. And while opposition to the nationalism of the imperialist powers was certainly to be commended, Bukharin also lumped in the nationalism of the oppressed. Lenin on the other hand not only understood that nationalism had not been exhausted, but that in colonial countries it might serve as a revolutionary force. The differing positions of Lenin and Bukharin led to friction between them. It is true that the argument in Imperialism and World Economy was not incompatible with an understanding of struggles for national liberation, something Bukharin later came to adopt.[5]

Returning to the main arguments of Imperialism and World Economy, Bukharin argued that under imperialism the development of trusts and monopolies preceded at a dramatic pace. Smaller firms were either eliminated or subordinated to the enormous trusts of finance capital. This meant that the economy became a combined enterprise – or a national trust. Modern imperialism thus saw industrial and finance capital interests merge with that of the state – forming a giant state capitalist trust. And for Bukharin, the future inevitably belonged to state capitalism.

State capitalism

The development of state capitalism meant that the state was now heavily intervening in the economy compared to the earlier lasses-faire era of capitalism. In Bukharin's eyes, finance capital thus became a direct organiser and owner of the state – as he called it, a “colossal, almost monstrous power.”[6] Bukharin practically says that under imperialism, capitalism has managed to overcome the crises inherent in the system by developing state capitalism.

Lenin's work on imperialism did not argue that competition had been as eliminated completely as Bukharin claimed. Lenin believed that under imperialism the anarchy of the capitalist economy had not abolished internal crises and had intensified both the anarchistic and competitive aspects of the capitalist economy as a whole.

Later, in a short essay, Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State, written shortly after his book on imperialism, Bukharin further elaborated upon his view in regards to imperialism, but also the Marxist view of the state. His central argument was that, “In the first place, the imperialist epoch is one of intensified struggle on the part of state-capitalist trusts, with the result that the question of the state’s military might, its ‘Machtpolitik’, etc., acquires enormous importance. In the second place, this same epoch also gives unprecedented significance to state power in the ‘internal’ life of the peoples, the tentacles of this monster penetrating every crack and embracing every aspect of social life.”[7] Bukharin's vision was haunting – the imperialist state was a new Levitation with an iron heel clamped down on the neck of the proletariat.

Towards the end of his work on the imperialist state, Bukharin made this startling conclusion: “Any further development of the state organisms – before the socialist revolution – is possible only in the form of militaristic state capitalism. Centralization is becoming the centralization of a barracks. In the upper stratum of society a vile military clique is inevitably growing in strength, resulting in brutal drilling and bloody repression of the proletariat. On the other hand, we have already seen that any activity by the proletariat, under these conditions, is inevitably directed against state power. Hence, a definite tactical demand: Social democracy must forcefully underline its hostility, in principle, to state power.”[8] Bukharin argued that communists should seize this state, but to smash it. For Marxists who had been schooled in the Second International to say this was to be branded an anarchist.

Lenin was adamantly opposed to Bukharin's conclusions in regards to the state. Lenin argued that Bukharin's argument was semi-anarchist, a political and theoretical error, a misinterpretation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and that revolutionaries needed to seize the existing state apparatus. Lenin also argued that Bukharin denied the need for a proletarian state. This wasn't true since Bukharin did argue for a temporary state during the transition period. The polemics between the two men were fierce and, in 1916, it seemed that Bukharin had been alienated from Lenin. Bukharin in fact extended an olive branch to Lenin to avoid a complete breach, saying: “If you must polemicise, etc., preserve such a tone that it will not lead to a split ... I look upon you as my revolutionary teacher and love you.” Lenin, who maintained his differences with Bukharin, toned things down, and the two men continued to work together.[9]

However, Bukharin ended up the last laugh. His reinterpretation of the state caused Lenin to rethink his own position, and he promised to investigate the matter further. So in early 1917, Lenin began his own research on the Marxist view of the state, which eventually became the foundation for his major work, State and Revolution. In this work, Lenin argued that the fundamental lesson of Marx and Engels in regards to the bourgeois state was that the working class must break, smash and destroy it and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat. This perspective of Lenin's would guide the practice of the Bolshevik Party during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Russian Revolution

When Bukharin returned to Russia in May 1917, the first thing Lenin's wife Krupskaya told him was -- “V.I. asked me to tell you that he no longer has disagreements with you on the question of the state.”[10] While it is true that Lenin wrote the major treatise on the Marxist view of the state, we should never forget that the initial impetus for this work came from Bukharin.

Following the February Revolution of 1917, Bukharin returned to Russia. Bukharin's position in the party was remarkably high -- he was not only head of the Moscow party organisation, but an editor for the major revolutionary paper, Pravda, and in August 1917 he was elected to the Central Committee, where he took an active part in planning for the October Revolution. During this time, Bukharin was on the far left of the party – arguing for the overthrow of the provisional government and the transfer of power to the soviets, transforming the imperialist war into a civil war. He possessed an impatient insurrectionist streak (he wanted to take power in July 1917). Bukharin and his co-thinkers were maximalists in their revolutionary demands and aims -- little open to compromise and they often came off as self-righteous and inflexible.

In 1917, Bukharin was involved in the planning and the execution of the bloody Moscow uprising. By early 1918, Soviet power was being shakily established across the former Russian Empire and Bukharin was now a key player in the politics of revolutionary Russia.

Bukharin, perhaps more than any other Bolshevik leader, including Trotsky, was intoxicated by the idea of a European revolution and refused to compromise on this position. While all the Bolsheviks wanted revolution in the major capitalist powers, they had to contend with the realities of a war-torn and ruined country without an army. The Bolsheviks had also come to power promising an end to war with Germany.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks planned to conclude a peace with imperial Germany. After long negotiations conducted by Trotsky at Brest-Livtrosk, the Germans placed an ultimatum on Russia that included harsh peace terms, the loss of territory, resources, industry and population to the Germans. Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks had to accept the treaty since they had no way to resist and needed to preserve the Soviet Republic until the world revolution broke out. Bukharin and radical comrades known as the “Left Communists” argued against accepting the draconian peace terms and for continuing the war against Germany. Bukharin didn't argue for war as a Russian patriot but as a communist – he wanted a revolutionary war and believed that even if the Soviets had to retreat beyond the Urals, this would rally support from the Russian and international proletariat to their struggle and in turn they would overthrow capitalism. Bukharin's plan was willing to gamble the loss of power in the hope of sparking off an international revolution. Not even Trotsky was willing to accept such a plan. Needless to say, Bukharin's position was outvoted by the party and the Brest treaty was grudgingly accepted.


Bukharin remained on the far left of the Bolshevik Party during the years of civil war. He was not only a member of the Central Committee, but in 1919 he was elected to the executive of the Communist International(Comintern). His record in the Comintern was less than stellar (for instance, Bukharin bears some responsibility for the disastrous March Action of the German Communist Party in 1921). However, Bukharin also further established his international reputation among communists by co-authoring the official party textbook ABCs of Communism in 1919 with Evgeny Preobrazhensky (a Bolshevik economist and later a Trotskyist opponent of Bukharin). The ABC was an elaboration on the Bolshevik Party program and served as a popular introduction to the principles of communism for millions of militants. The ABC was practically the Communist Bible and was more well known than works of leading communists such as Lenin and Trotsky. This book established Bukharin's fame in communist circles, where he was dubbed “the golden boy of the revolution”.
During the post-revolution civil war, the Soviet Republic instituted an emergency policy known as War Communism that established state control of the economy, requisitioned grain from the peasantry in order to feed the cities and the Red Army, commanded by Trotsky. While War Communism enabled the Bolsheviks to win the horrific civil war, by 1921 Russia was falling apart with industry in collapse and sections of the peasantry rising up. While War Communism enabled the Soviet state win the war, it came at a horrific cost. Despite the costs, there were some Bolsheviks who saw War Communism as leading directly to communism. Commonly, Bukharin is presented as a proponent of War Communism – supporting its whole-scale nationalisations, planning of the economy and of moving directly into communism.
Certainly, Bukharin acknowledged the sacrifices that communist revolution demanded, saying in a speech to the Comintern: “There are many thorns upon our path, but we must go onward, undaunted. The great revolution which is turning the old world upside down cannot go smoothly; the great revolution cannot be carried out in white gloves; it is born in pain. These birth pangs must be gone through with infinite patience; when duly born they will serve to free us from the iron grip of capitalist slavery.”[11]
Yet, I would like to complicate the picture that Bukharin believed that War Communism was bringing Russia to Communism.[12] The ABC of Communism is often interpreted, even by sympathetic Bukharin biographers, as arguing that War Communism was the realisation of the Marxist ideal. For instance in a passage describing “war or full communism”, Bukharin says: “
The main direction will be entrusted to various kinds of book-keeping offices or statistical bureaux. There, from day to day, account will be kept of production and all its needs; there also it will be decided whither workers must be sent, whence they must be taken, and how much work there is to be done. And inasmuch as, from childhood onwards, all will have been accustomed to social labour, and since all will understand that this work is necessary and that life goes easier when everything is done according to a prearranged plan and when the social order is like a well-oiled machine, all will work in accordance with the indications of these statistical bureaux. There will be no need for special ministers of State, for police and prisons, for laws and decrees -- nothing of the sort.”[13]

However, a different reading of this passage is possible – Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, when describing the statistical bureaus are merely restating the traditional socialist narrative of a society without bosses and crises. This is clear if one looks at the sources cited in this chapter of ABC, which are old-school social-democratic literature.
Furthermore, Bukharin's work, Economics of the Transitional Period, is said to be a theoretical justification for War Communism, but I believe it should be read with more nuance. In one passage Bukharin is arguing that the rebirth of industry needed for socialism and for establishing a proper balance or equilibrium is needed between town and country. Bukharin says that in Soviet Russia the current equilibrium between town and country is maintained by coercion, he saw the main path of equilibrium between town and country to be mutual advantage of both workers and peasants (something we shall encounter again in the 1920s).[14]

The coercive measures used against the peasantry are also explicitly described as an emergency measure undertaken by the Soviets.

Historical Materialism
Bukharin's 1921 work, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology, came under heavy criticism both within Russia and abroad. Bukharin's Historical Materialism was an attempt to explain and popularise Marxist theory through the categories of sociology – showing his continued engagement with the bourgeois social sciences. Yet Bukharin's work was preoccupied with absolutes and minimised internal contradictions in society – a major problem with his dialectical method.

According to Bukharin, every society was to be understood as a social system that maintained a stable level of equilibrium: “The stability of any structural equilibrium – that is, the equilibrium among different groups of human society (or the human elements in a social system) – depends on a certain equilibrium first being established between society and its external environment.”[15] Bukharin's work stressed equilibrium and there were certainly positive environmental aspects to his stress on equilibrium, arguing for a harmonious balance between society and nature. For Bukharin, equilibrium became a desirable goal because it ensured systematic survival.
Yet this was a marked contrast to Bukharin's argument only a short time before when he argued that "... it is a miserable reformist illusion to imagine a transition to socialism without the crash, without the destruction of social equilibrium, and without a bloody struggle."[16] Thus Bukharin was moving from one extreme to the other in theory. In politics, he would soon move from the far left of the Bolshevik Party to its far right.
A number of Marxists criticised Bukharin's Historical Materialism such as Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci and Lenin. To Lukacs, Bukharin's work showed the problems that came from systematising and popularizing Marxist theory – Bukharin had simplified base and superstructure; his methodology of materialism was closer to the bourgeois natural science than dialectics; and he argued that the social revolution could be predicted much the same way as scientific phenomena even though the methods and predictions of natural and social sciences were vastly different; Bukharin argued for technological determinism.[17] Gramsci shared many of the same arguments as Lukacs, also adding that Bukharin's Marxism was “undialectical”, banal and crude, resembling the deterministic Marxism of the Second International. In fact, while Gramsci was imprisoned by Fascist Italy, he would devote hundreds of pages to lengthy philosophical and political criticism of Bukharin's Historical Materialism.[18]

Lenin said that Bukharin, in using sociological categories, was taking a step backward and that he lacked concreteness when discussing classes and class struggle. According to Lenin, Bukharin's dialectical approach would forget and ignore tendencies he identified operated in concrete circumstances alongside other countertendencies and this led in political practice to Bukharin jumping from one extreme to another. It also meant that Bukharin proved to be ineffective in conceiving the possibilities and strategies of a conjuncture, which would ultimately mark him as a poor political leader.[19]
Furthermore, Lenin had also been politically opposed to Bukharin during the 1921 trade union debate where Bukharin had supported Trotsky's call to incorporate trade unions into the state machine as part of the militarisation of the labour force.
In 1923, as Lenin lay dying, he wrote his Testament which contained his final opinion of various party leaders. His final words on Bukharin were full of warm praise and deep criticism: "Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of the dialectics, and, I think, never fully understood it)."[20] While Lenin's criticism in regards to Bukharin's dialectics was correct, later in life bukharin overcame his deficiency in understanding the dialectic.

As mentioned earlier, Bukharin moved to the far right of the Bolshevik party during the 1920s. This shift was not only due to his movement from one extreme to another but due to the changed international and domestic situation confronting the revolution. By the early 1920s, the hopes of the Soviet Union being rescued by an international revolution had grown increasingly remote. It was now clear that the USSR would have to develop socialism with its own resources and no outside aid. Bukharin came to believe that the Soviet path to socialism lay through the New Economic Policy (NEP).
The NEP was instituted in 1921 following the victorious conclusion of the civil war in order to provide breathing space for the Bolsheviks and to restore production. The NEP relaxed state control over the economy – allowing small businesses and private trade, ended requisitions and permitted the development of a money economy. By 1927, the NEP had restored Soviet industry and agriculture to its pre-war levels, but it also led to the growth of the class of rich peasants and the private traders known as the NEP-men.
During the 1920s, as the country recovered, several factions developed within the Bolshevik Party, each with their own differing ideas of how to develop socialism -- ranging from Stalin (Bukharin's main ally) to Trotsky and Preobrazhensky on the left. Bukharin, now at the pinnacle of power in the party (and the Comintern) became the “official” theorist and ideologue for the NEP as Russia's path to socialism.

Bukharin's ideas on how Russia would develop socialism

It is to Bukharin's ideas on Russia would develop socialism that we now turn. What follows is a very rough outline of Bukharin's positions drawing on not only Bukharin's writings but commentary by Moshe Lewin and Stephen Cohen.[21] Bukharin began with the premise that power was in the hands of the proletariat and that the working class was shaping policy. In order for socialism to develop, it was necessary for the guiding aim of the government to be to secure its alliance with the whole of the peasantry – in the end, this would ensure the survival of the USSR.
However, Bukharin recognised that there were difficulties in dealing with the peasantry. The peasants were, in their majority, small property owners with no political experience and open to bourgeois influences. The peasants had divided loyalties. On the one hand, Bukharin believed that the peasantry needed socialism, but they did not possess comprehension of that fact. On the other hand, the proletariat wants socialism, but is not anxious to share power with other classes. Therefore, the NEP was needed to secure the worker-peasant alliance and to build socialism. Bukharin's conclusion was that socialism would be achieved through the laws of the market economy.
Bukharin said that agriculture would develop toward socialism since the peasant would operate under the dual pressure of self-interest and state guidance. This double combination would lead to an increase in the size of farms, crop yields and make farms more profitable. According to Bukharin, this would benefit the whole peasantry. Bukharin declared in an infamous statement: “Overall, we need to say to the entire peasantry, to all its different strata: enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your farms. Only idiots can say that the poor must always be with us. We must now implement a policy which will result in the disappearance of poverty.”[22]

Needless to say, these remarks came under heavy criticism from Trotsky and the Left Opposition, who believed that Bukharin was downplaying the kulak [rich peasant] danger.
Bukharin did not argue for the peasantry to develop production wholly on market mechanisms, but following the last writings of Lenin, to expand their farms using cooperatives. However, in order for their cooperatives to expand, the peasantry needed a way to collectively purchase, sell and gain credit. Bukharin believed that by providing state aid, the cooperative sector along with cultivation would gradually increase. And as cooperatives proved their worth, the peasants would gradually become collectivised and draw closer to the state and industry.
While Bukharin argued for a much slower pace of industrialisation than Trotsky and the Left Opposition -- he said that socialism would develop “at a snail's pace” -- he understood that the USSR needed industry to function efficiently and to be capable of satisfying the needs of the countryside. Bukharin also believed that because industry was controlled by the state, it was socialist and thus superior to market mechanisms, therefore it would develop faster than the rural sector. One thing that Bukharin repeatedly argued was that in order to gain the support of the peasantry, it was absolutely necessary that their cooperation be voluntary (he took aim at Trotsky and Preobrazhensky for wanting to exploit and extract tribute from the peasantry to develop industry).

Key to Bukharin's approach to socialist development was that the class struggle would have to change character. In fact, for his ideas to be successful, there would have to be equilibrium and class peace. This meant that all peasants, even the kulaks, needed to be allowed to take part in economic life free of coercion, which would allow the state to use the funds generated in the countryside to develop industry. Bukharin thought that a market economy could be utilised by the USSR to build socialism, provided it was strictly controlled. The state sector and industry controlled by the proletariat would ultimately become a more effective competitor than the bourgeoisie and develop its productive forces faster, better and more cheaply. Ultimately, socialism would prove itself by developing to its full potential in the economic sphere.
It should be noted that Bukharin (and Trotsky too) didn't say much about the role of collective farms since he believed their development lay far in the future once industry could provide the necessary resources to allow them to flourish and out produce small farms. While Bukharin did argue that the kulaks were an alien capitalist element in the countryside, he also held that they should be allowed to build cooperatives, and that kulak cooperatives could be moved in a socialist direction determined within the framework established by the Soviet state.
Bukharin's approach, by his own admission, ensured slow progress towards socialism. He was not overly worried about potential capitalist intervention and the international revolution was not foremost in his mind (even though he was head of the Comintern). Although Bukharin did think that the USSR needed an international revolution to survive, he believed that to prepare the Soviet Union for world revolution, it needed to be kept stable. To maintain equilibrium and develop industry, the support of the whole peasantry and their alliance with the working class was the lynchpin of Bukharin's strategy.

Bukharin's dream of a gradual development toward socialism fell apart in the late 1920s. Although the NEP was successful in allowing the USSR to recover its industry and agriculture to pre-war levels, it had generated class differentiation in the countryside.
The NEP had never quite solved the problem of equilibrium between the town and countryside. Chief among the factors explaining the imbalance was the peasants, who produced a great deal of grain, could only sell to the towns at high prices due to the backwardness of industry. However Bukharin, in promoting a slow pace of industrial development, in fact allowed industry to stagnate while the peasants accumulated. This merely aggravated the shortage of goods for the peasantry to buy and fostered their distrust in cooperating with the Soviet state. By 1927-8, there were acute food shortages in the cities as the peasants refused to sell, wanting higher prices.[23]

Coercion against the peasantry
By 1927, Bukharin was starting to change his positions, beginning to advocate an increased rate of industrialisation, more emphasis on planning, higher taxes on the kulak and a voluntary collective farm sector within the framework of the NEP. At the same time, sections of the Left Opposition such as Preobrazhensky were moving towards some of Bukharin's positions.[24] However, in late 1927, Bukharin's proposals could not quite cope with the magnitude of the situation in the countryside. Soviet imports and production were falling as grain collections fell off anywhere between a third to half. In response to the “grain strike”, the party instituted extraordinary measures throughout the countryside with activists, volunteers and the GPU [intelligence service] sent to collect grain. The use of coercion against the peasantry was able to collect grain, and it inevitably led to the development of class war in the countryside as the party embarked on a campaign of collectivisation and liquidating the kulaks as a class, breaking with Bukharin and the NEP. Furthermore, Stalin began a campaign of industrialisation to develop the economy and provide machinery for the collective farms and the five year plans to develop the USSR.
Yet the planning was done at an accelerated rate and breakneck speeds, beyond anything proposed by either Trotsky or Preobrazhensky. The focus was on achieving growth and developing heavy industry without the balanced growth that Bukharin had championed. Bukharin also believed that the campaign of collectivisation would alienate the peasantry and ruin the revolution. All of this led Bukharin into conflict with the party line and Stalin. Bukharin and his “Right” Opposition attacked the party line in Pravda and other organs. One of the most famous of Bukharin's writings opposed to collectivisation was the Notes of an Economist,[25] which while seemingly attacking Trotsky's policies was actually a veiled attack on Stalin. He warned of disaster for the USSR if Stalin's line was pursued. However, Bukharin kept most of his criticisms veiled using Aesopian language and behind closed doors, not daring to openly oppose Stalin.

Even though Bukharin was deeply opposed to Trotsky and the defeated Left Opposition, he was willing to ally with them against Stalin. Trotsky saw Bukharin as his main enemy, declaring “With Stalin against Bukharin? Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? Never.”[26] Despite this, Trotsky was willing to make a limited pact with Bukharin to restore inner party democracy, but he would not compromise his fundamental ideas. Yet the alliance between the former Left and Right oppositions fell through because the rank-and-file followers in both camps were too distrustful of each other and thwarted the pact.
Over time, Trotsky himself came to see the validity of many of Bukharin's points about the dangers of prematurely abolishing the NEP and the market, arguing in 1932 that, when Stalin allowed private plots on collective farms, “all around collectivization ... extraordinarily lowered the labour incentives available to the peasantry...The answer to this was the legalization of trade. In other words ... it was partially necessary to restore the NEP, or the free market, which was abolished too soon and too definitely.”[27]

Trotsky went on in a 1932 work, The Soviet Economy in Danger, that planning needed to make use of the market: “The innumerable living participants in the economy, state and private, collective and individual, must serve notice of their needs and of their relative strength not only through the statistical determinations of plan commissions but by the direct pressure of supply and demand. The plan is checked and, to a considerable degree, realized through the market. The regulation of the market itself must depend upon the tendencies that are brought out through its mechanism. The blueprints produced by the departments must demonstrate their economic efficacy through commercial calculation.”[28]
Bukharin's Right Opposition was ultimately defeated within the party in 1929 and he made a public recantation. This led to the loss of his position in the Politburo, his editorship of Pravda, removal from the Comintern and a restriction of his writing in regards to politics and theory.
Yet Bukharin remained on the Central Committee and an influential voice within the Soviet Union. He moved toward acceptance of the official party line in the early 1930s. Bukharin wrote on and studied questions of industrial organisation, planning, philosophy and science. In 1934, he was made an editor on Ivestia and in 1936 he helped to write the new Soviet constitution. He was a proponent of socialist humanism and a firm anti-fascist – an advocate for the Popular Front and alliances with Western powers.[29]

The Great Purge
The seeming mood of liberalisation ended in the mid-1930s with the onset of the Great Purge. The purges saw hundreds of thousands of dedicated party members, army officers and ordinary Soviet citizens arrested and executed en masse on charges of being in league with foreign powers and spying, etc. Most of the leaders of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 were also accused of being part of a vast counterrevolutionary terrorist conspiracy tied to Trotsky, the Nazis and foreign powers. This was “proven” when all these Bolsheviks confessed during three public show trials in 1936, 1937 and 1938.

Since that time not a shred of evidence has corroborated any of those confessions – as such they are without foundation and those communists were not only innocent, but murdered.
Bukharin himself was put on trial during the most famous show trial in 1938. Bukharin was arrested in 1937, initially refusing to confess for two months as he held out under interrogation. While there is no evidence that he was ever tortured, Bukharin did send letters to Stalin begging for his life. However, considering the atmosphere during this period, the fear of arbitrary and summary punishment was a real threat hanging over both Bukharin and his family. When Bukharin's young wife and child were threatened, he relented and agreed to publicly confess at trial.[30]

During the year he was imprisoned before trial, Bukharin wrote a number of works. One of which, How It All Began, was an autobiographical novel of his childhood. A second was a collection of poems. A third was a book, Socialism and Its Culture, focusing on issues of culture, ideology and philosophy related to socialism.

I'd like to say a few words about a single work of Bukharin – the Philosophical Arabesques. This work was a systematic work on Marxist philosophy, defending it against all challengers. Bukharin's work contains a defence of Hegel and shows a close reading of Lenin's philosophical notebooks. Bukharin ultimately defended a humanistic Marxism and differentiated himself from “diamat” and Second International determinism. I would argue that Bukharin finally got the point in Lenin's Testament and at last overcame his lack of understanding in regards to dialectics.

Final drama
Bukharin's trial took place from March 2 to March 12, 1938. Bukharin, along with multiple other defendants, were accused of being the ring leaders of a “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites” who were in league with at least several foreign powers (Britain, Poland, Japan and Germany), Trotsky and were engaged in espionage, treason, wrecking and plotting to assassinate the Soviet leadership and to launch a military coup to restore capitalism in the USSR. This conspiracy was so far reaching that in 1918 Bukharin was supposedly working with Trotsky to murder Lenin. While nearly all of Bukharin's co-defendants confessed to these charges, he developed an interesting trial tactic. Knowing he was going to die, Bukharin cooperated with the prosecution and admitted his overall guilt in the conspiracy. Yet he denied every specific charge. In effect, Bukharin wrecked the show.
Bukharin's opening statement shows his approach: “Consequently, I plead guilty to what directly follows from this, the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organisation, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part, in any particular act.”[31] During the trial, he repeatedly denied charges and refused to answer questions. His testimony was filled with all kinds of hidden messages and Aesopian language. Bukharin continually frustrated the prosecutors and even cross-examined witnesses. At one point, prosecutor Vyshinsky spewed vitriol against Bukharin. During a long closing speech that called for the defendants to be shot like mad dogs, Vyshinsky declared: “Bukharin shrinks from the admission of his guilt as the devil from incense. Bukharin denies his guilt here.”[32] Yet Bukharin not only wanted to refute the charges against him, but in his own words, he was appealing to the verdict of history: “World history is a world court of judgment.”[33] Bukharin was defending not only his personal honour, but the honour of Bolshevism and challenging the official narrative of Stalin before a much larger audience.
In a single line near the end of Bukharin's closing speech, he declared his whole testimony as worthless with a single statement: “The confession of the accused is not essential. The confession of the accused is a medieval principle of jurisprudence."[34] It should be remembered that the show trials were built wholly on confessions and possessed no physical proof at all. So Bukharin declared that all his testimony and the trials in general were based not only on lies but on medieval and savage methods of justice, thereby condemning the whole “justice system” of the Soviet Union. Bukharin was able to defend his honour and turn the tables on his accusers, but this did not change his fate.

He was shot on March 15, 1938, as an enemy of the people.
Yet that is not the last word on Bukharin. The charges against him were so fraudulent and outlandish that they could not hold up under any honest scrutiny. Thus following Stalin's death, there were efforts by Bukharin's widow to overturn the verdict and rehabilitate him and restore him to party membership. This was finally achieved in 1988 under Mikhail Gorbachev, when the Soviet government declared Bukharin innocent and restored him to party membership posthumously.
Part of the reason that Gorbachev supported Bukharin's rehabilitation is that he found much to support in Bukharin's ideas. In fact, even though Bukharin was condemned and his ideas were considered heretical and counterrevolutionary, they remained an undercurrent in opposition and reform communist circles in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc.[35]

Bukharin was seen as a representative of a socialism that was consumer-friendly that balanced planning and growth, was humanistic and market based. For many reformers, Bukharin represented a viable alternative to the system Stalin created – with his advocacy to continue the New Economic Policy.

Yet it could also be argued that Gorbachev's advocacy of Bukharin and was also taking those ideas to the final conclusion. While Bukharin could not have known the end result of his ideas for a market socialism, when Gorbachev let the market and the law of value flourish in his effort to reform, it did not lead to harmonious growth and a flourishing of socialism but an end to the Soviet Union and the development of gangster capitalism.
The question remains, though. To what extent were Bukharin's ideas and the advocacy of the NEP a “socialist” alternative to both Trotsky and Stalin? For one, Bukharin's plan hinged on a relaxation of the class struggle, a firm worker-peasant alliance under the NEP that would allow harmonious growth and steady industrialisation. Yet the policies Bukharin advocated actually aggravated the class alliance and ultimately led to the end of the NEP. The immense problems of laying the foundations for economic development in the industrial sphere – such as finding the resources and establishing a planning system in isolation – would have existed no matter who led the USSR. If Bukharin had won out, it is possible to imagine a slower and steadier industrialisation, but the questions remain if this would be socialism and if Bukharin's plans could meet the danger of war.

I would argue no on both counts. While Bukharin's ideas have outlived him, their implementation did not represent an alternative of “socialism with a human face”, but ultimately led straight back to capitalism.

All of this being said, despite all the contradictions of Bukharin's life and legacy, I think we should remember these words from his “Letter to Future Party Leaders”, written in prison but which was only read fifty years later: "Remember, Comrades, that on the red flag you carry on the victorious road toward communism lies a drop of my blood as well."[36]


[1]Quoted in Donny Gluckstein, The Tragedy of Bukharin (London: Pluto Books, 1994), p.3.

[2]Quoted in Alexander Erlich, The Soviet Industrialization Debate, 1924-8 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 90.

[3]See Nikolai Bukharin, “The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class,” Marxists Internet Archive. and Stephen F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. A Political Biography 1888–1938 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973, and London: Wildwood House, 1974), pp. 17-20.

[4]Nikolai Bukharin, “Imperialism and World Economy,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[5]The information on the debates between Bukharin and Lenin on the subject of imperialism and national liberation was taken from Cohen, 1974, pp. 26-37.

[6]Nikolai Bukharin, “Imperialism and World Economy,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[7] Nikolai Bukharin, “Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State,” Marxists Internet Archive.


[9]For Lenin and Bukharin's debates on the state, see Cohen 1974, p. 37-43.

[10]Quoted in ibid. p. 42.

[11]Nikolai Bukharin, “Programme of the World Revolution,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[12]My analysis here draws heavily on the work of Lars T. Lih in two essays: “The Mystery of the ABC.” Slavic Review 56.1 (Spring, 1997), 50-72 and “Political Testament of Lenin and Bukharin and the Meaning of NEP.” Slavic Review 50.2 (Summer, 1991), 241-252.

[13]Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), p. 74.

[14]Nikolai Bukharin, The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period (Boston: Routledge, 1979), p. 116.

[15]Ibid. p. 119.

[16]Ibid. p. 97.

[17]For Georg Lukacs' critique of Bukharin's Historical Materialism see Georg Lukacs, Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays, 1919-1929 (London: New Left Books, 1972), pp. 134-141.

[18]Antonio Gramsci's critique can be found in the Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), pp. 419-472.

[19]Lenin's criticisms of Bukharin is summarised quite nicely by Richard Day in his introduction to Nikolai Bukharin, Selected Writings on the State and the Transition to Socialism (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1972), pp. xli-xlviii.

[20]V. I. Lenin, “Letter to the Congress,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[21]See mainly Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1975), pp. 135-42 and Cohen 1974, pp. 160-212.

[22]See “Concerning the New Economic Policy and Our Tasks”, in Bukharin 1972, p. 197.

[23]Michal Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism: The USSR on the Eve of the 'Second Revolution' (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 43-4.

[24]See Erlich 1960, pp. 146-164.

[25]For the Notes of an Economist see Bukharin 1972, pp. 301-330.

[26]See Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, Trotsky 1921-1929 (New York: Verso Books, 2003), p. 264 and pp. 370-9.

[27]Quoted in Richard B. Day, Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation (Cambridge, 1973), p. 182.

[28]Leon Trotsky, “The Soviet Economy in Danger,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[29]Cohen 1974, pp. 359-64.

[30]Ibid. pp. 375-6.

[31]Robert C. Tucker and Stephen Cohen, ed. The Great Purge Trial (New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers,1965), p. 328.

[32]Ibid. p. 521.

[33]Ibid. p. 667.


[35]Cohen 1974, pp. 382-6 and especially Moshe Lewin, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates: From Bukharin to the Modern Reformers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

[36]Quoted in Anna Larina, This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin's Widow (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 345.