Thursday, March 17, 2011

Donny Gluckstein - The Tragedy of Bukharin

I first developed an interest in the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin after I read an account of his show trial by Fitzroy Maclean in his autobiography Eastern Approaches. There, Maclean describes how Bukharin runs rings around his prosecutors, who have tried to portray him as an enemy of the revolution, who plotted to assassinate Lenin and Stalin.

These accusations were based on nothing. Bukharin was a loyal revolutionary. Someone who had spent time in the prisons of Europe as he attempted to build the organisations that could overthrow capitalism. Lenin thought Bukharin "Bolshevism's biggest theoretician". He was a leading figure, popular for his speeches and ideas. Some of Bukharin's early writings were particularly important. His work on Imperialism for instance, is still of great use today, and was recently republished.

But following the isolation and defeat of the revolution, the growth of the internal bureaucracy meant that the Soviet Union travelled increasingly further from the workers state that Lenin, Bukharin and the other Bolshevik's fought for.

Donny Gluckstein's political biography then looks at Bukharin's life in the context of this changing role. In particular he examines key debates in the years following 1917, and how Bukharin's ideas and arguments shaped those debates. Bukharin comes across very much as someone who is constantly fighting for the revolution and for a socialist society. However he often seems to lack the ability to know when to retreat or step back, or to put it more crudely, he sometimes "can't see the wood for the trees".

For example the disappearance of money is something that would happen, it was argued, as socialism developed. But that doesn't mean that when money goes, socialism has been created. Economic collapse, the hoarding of wealth, the lack of availability of things to buy can also cause this. Bukharin was too busy arguing that this was a good thing, to be able to provide a coherent way out of the mess.

The problem was, that the isolation of the revolution had created an almost impossible situation. At best, what could be hoped for was survival for a time when revolutions elsewhere would rescue Russia. This had been a real hope in the years immediately after World War One, when revolutions swept Europe. By the mid-1920s this was no longer on the cards. With the death of Lenin and the degeneration of the revolution, Bukharin lost the best influences upon him. All revolutionaries make mistakes, but their collective organisation helps correct and challenge this. Left to his own devices, Bukharin increasingly comes to represent the growing influence of other forces in society - in particular the rising bureaucracy and the richer peasants.

In the great battle between Trotsky and Stalin, Bukharin becomes the best weapon Stalin has. His ability to articulate an argument, and his position as an old-bureaucracy, makes him a formidable weapon. Gluckstein traces the contradictions of Bukharin's position and shows how, as his use as the "hammer of Trotskyism" disappears, then he is next in the firing line.

This is not an easy book. It assumes a good deal of knowledge of the inner dynamics of the Russian Revolution as well as the debates and discussions. Some sections of it are very dated. Bukharin is no longer lauded by many as the "third way" between Stalin and Trotsky, because of his perceived pro-market ideas. This was, it seems the case as an aging Soviet Union's internal contradictions started to come out.

But Gluckstein does argue that Bukharin wasn't the enemy of the revolution that Stalin was. Bukharin's lack of theoretical clarity and, as Lenin argued, his lack of dialectical thinking meant that his mistakes could appear accurate but did not stand up to the test of events. But for all this, Gluckstein rescues Bukharin the revolutionary - a flawed revolutionary, but a man committed to fighting for a better world.

No comments: