1920: Bukharin and the period of transition

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In the last article in this series (International Review no.95), we examined in some detail the 1919 programme of the Communist Party of Russia, considering it to be an important gauge of the highest levels of understanding that the revolutionaries of those days had reached about the forms, methods, and goals of the communist transformation of society. But any such examination would be incomplete if we ignored that period's most serious effort to elaborate, alongside the practical measures outlined in the RCP programme, a more general and theoretical framework for analysing the problems of the transition period. This, like the Programme itself, was the work of Nikolai Bukharin, whom Lenin considered to be "the most valuable and most prominent theoretician of the party"; and the text in question is the Economics of the Transformation Period (henceforward ETP), written in 1920. According to the editor of the 1971 English edition of this book, "Up until the introduction of the Five-year plan, in 1928, which coincided with Bukharin's downfall as the leader of the Comintern, Economics of the Transformation Period was considered as an achievement of Bolshevik theory next in importance to Lenin's State and Revolution"(Bergman Publishers, New York, and Pluto Press, p 212)

As we will show, Bukharin's book contains some fundamental weaknesses which have not allowed it to pass the test of time in the way that State and Revolution has. It nevertheless remains an important contribution to marxist theory.

A real contribution to marxist theory

Bukharin had risen to prominence during the great imperialist war, when along with Piatakov and others, he was active in a group of Bolshevik exiles in Switzerland (the so-called 'Baugy group'), which was situated on the, extreme left of the party. In 1915 he published Imperialism and World Economy, in which he showed that capitalism, precisely by becoming a global system, a world economy, had created the conditions for its own superseding; but that far from evolving peacefully into a harmonious world order, this 'globalisation' had plunged the system into the throes of violent collapse. This line of thought paralleled the work of Rosa Luxemburg. In her book The Accumulation of Capital (1913) Luxemburg, with a more profound reference to the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, had demonstrated why capitalism's period of expansion was now at an end. Like Luxemburg, Bukharin showed that the concrete form of capitalism's decline was the exacerbation of inter-imperialist competition, culminating in the World War. Imperialism and World Economy was also a landmark in the marxist analysis of state capitalism, the totalitarian political and economic regime required by the sharpening of both imperialist antagonisms 'externally' and of social antagonisms 'internally'. The relative subordination of competition within each capitalist country had, Bukharin emphasised only been the corollary of the accentuation of conflict between national "state capitalist trusts" for the domination of the world market.

In his article 'Towards a Theory of the Imperialist State' (1916), Bukharin went further into the implications of these developments. The rise of this national state capitalist kraken, which was spreading its tentacles into all aspects of social and economic life, led Bukharin (as Pannekoek had done a few years earlier) to revisit the classics of marxism and to return defending the view that the proletarian revolution could not conquer such a state but would have to fight for its "revolutionary destruction" and the creation of new organs of political power. Another equally radical conclusion drawn from his analysis of the new stage in capitalism was summarised in the theses that the Baugy group presented to the Berne Bolshevik conference in 1915. Here, Bukharin and Piatakov, in line with the arguments put forward by Rosa Luxemburg at the same time called for the party to reject the slogans of 'national self-determination' and 'national liberation':

"The imperialist epoch is an epoch of the absorption of small states by the large states units ... It is therefore impossible to struggle against the enslavement of nations otherwise than by struggling against imperialism, ergo - by struggling against finance capital, ergo against capitalism in general. Any deviation from that road, any advancement of 'partial' tasks, of the 'liberation of nations' within the realms of capitalist civilisation, means a diverting of proletarian forces from the actual solution of the problem" (quoted in D Gluckstein, The Tragedy of Bukharin, Pluto Press, 1994, p15).

Initially, Lenin was furious with Bukharin on both counts. But whereas he never changed his mind on the national question, he was step by step converted to what he had initially termed Bukharin's "semi-anarchist" position on the state - and of course was in turn accused of "semi-anarchism" when he expounded his new vision in State and Revolution in 1917.

It is thus clear that at this stage in the germination and flowering of the proletarian revolution provoked by the World War, Bukharin was at the very spearhead of the marxist effort to understand the new conditions brought about by the decadence of capitalism; and a number of his most important theoretical contributions not only appear in the ETP, but are further elaborated within it.

In the first place, Bukharin's book has to be seen alongside such seminal works as Lenin's The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky and Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism, which led the Bolsheviks' response to the bastardised marxism of Karl Kautsky, who had passed from a position of centrism and pacifism to one of out and out defence of the bourgeois order against the threat of revolution - but who still claimed the crown of marxist orthodoxy in doing so. Lenin had mainly replied to Kautsky's advocacy of bourgeois democracy against the proletarian democracy of the soviets, while Trotsky's book focussed on the problem of revolutionary violence. For his part, Bukharin had already seen Imperialism and World Economy and similar works as a polemic against Kautsky's theory of 'ultra-imperialism', which pretended that capitalism was advancing towards a unified world order in which war could only be an aberration. Now, in the ETP, Bukharin set about re-establishing the marxist conception of social change in opposition to the Kautskyite idyll of a peaceful and orderly transition to socialism. Echoing Marx, Bukharin insists that for any new social order to emerge, the old one has to pass through a phase of profound crisis and collapse - and that this is more than ever true of the passage from capitalism to communism: " ... the experience of all revolutions, which from the very point of view of the development of productive powers had a powerful, positive influence, shows that this development was bought at the price of an enormous plundering and destruction of these powers. (...) If that is so ... then it must be a priori evident that the proletarian revolution is inevitably accompanied by a strong decline of productive powers, for no revolution experiences such a broad and deep break in old relationships and their rebuilding in a new way" (p105-6). ETP is to a very large extent a defence of the Russian revolution despite the considerable "costs" it involved, and against all those who pointed to those costs in order to counsel the workers to be good law-abiding citizens whose only hope for social change lay with the ballot box.

Secondly, ETP reiterates the argument that, although it has effectively established itself as a world economy, capitalism is incapable of organising humanity's productive forces as a unified, conscious subject, since it is precisely upon reaching this stage that capitalist competition is pushed to its most extreme and catastrophic conclusions. But here Bukharin goes further and arrives at a number of brilliant anticipations about capitalism's mode of functioning in its decadent epoch, i.e. its obligation to survive through the sterilisation and outright destruction of the productive forces, above all through the war economy and war itself. This is where Bukharin introduces his concept of "expanded negative reproduction" - a term that may be open to question, but which certainly grapples with a fundamental reality, as where Bukharin shows that despite the apparent growth it brings about, war production actually signifies not an expansion but a destruction of capital: "War production has a completely different meaning: a cannon does not transform itself into an element of the new cycle of production; powder is shot into the air and in no way appears in a new shell in the following cycle. On the contrary. The economic effect of these elements in actu is of purely negative quality ... Let us observe the means of consumption with which the army is supplied. Here we perceive the same thing. The means of consumption do not produce labour powers, for the soldiers do not figure in the process of production; they are eliminated from it, they are outside of the process of production ... the process of reproduction assumes with the war a 'deformed', regressive, negative character, namely: with every successive production cycle, the real base of production grows narrower and narrower, the 'development' is carried out not in a widening but in a continually narrowing spiral" (p44-45). In decadent capitalism, this ever-narrowing spiral is the essential reality of economic activity even outside of periods of open global warfare, both because of the tendency towards a permanent war economy and because more and more capitalism finances its 'growth' through the totally artificial stimulus of debt. Bukharin's insights offer an excellent rebuttal to all those worshippers of economic growth who scoff at the notion of capitalism being decadent because they cannot see the decadent, fictitious essence of this growth.

Again, on the question of state capitalism, ETP repeats previous formulations about state capitalism, showing it to be the characteristic form of capital political organisation in the epoch of decay. Bukharin recalls its dual function: both to limit economic competition within each national capital, the better to a e economic and above all military competition on the world arena; and to preserve social peace in a situation where the miseries provoked by economic crisis and war tend to push the proletariat towards a confrontation with the bourgeois regime. Of particular interest is Bukharin's recognition that the most important way that state capitalism guards the existing order is through the annexation of the old workers' organisations, their incorporation into the state Leviathan: "The method of restructuring was the same method as the subordination to the all-encompassing bourgeois state. The betrayal of the socialist parties and the unions expressed itself in the very fact that they entered into the service of the bourgeois state, that they were actually nationalised by this imperialist state, that they transformed themselves into labour departments of the military machine" (p41).

This lucidity about the characteristics and forms of capitalism in decay was accompanied by a genuine grasp of the methods and aims of the proletarian revolution. ETP shows that a revolution which aims to replace the blind laws of the commodity with the conscious regulation of social life by a liberated humanity can only be conscious revolution, founded on the self-activity and self-organisation of the proletariat through its new organs of political power such as the soviets and the factory committees. At the same time, the revolution engendered by the collapse of the capitalist world economy can only be a world-wide revolution, and it can only arrive at its ultimate goals on the scale of the entire globe. Bukharin's concluding paragraphs summarise the authentic, internationalist hopes of the day, anticipating a future in which "for the first time since humanity existed, a system arises which is constructed harmonically in all its parts; it knows neither social hierarchy nor hierarchy of production. It annihilates once and for all the struggle of people against people and welds the entire human race into a community which rapidly seizes the countless riches of nature" (p173. The French edition of the text uses the word "anarchy" rather than "hierarchy" in the above passage. We are not sure how the original Russian text put it).

Mistaking the embryo for the full-grown man

The recognition of the authentic means and goals of the revolution cannot, however, remain at the level of generality; it has to be applied and concretised in the revolutionary process itself - an extremely difficult task which, in the case of the Russian revolution, required much painful experience and many years of reflection. Globally, this work of drawing and deepening the lessons of the Russian revolution was carried out by the communist left in the wake of the revolution's defeat. But even in the heat of the revolution, and within the Bolshevik party itself, critical voices emerged who were already laying the bases for future reflection. However, although Bukharin's name is generally connected to the Left Communist opposition in the party in 1918,the Bukharin of ETP had by 1920 embarked on a trajectory that was to take him away from the communist left as a whole; and the book reflects this in that, alongside its significant contributions to marxist theory, it has a deeply 'conservative' side, in which the author slides away from the radical critique of the status quo - even the 'revolutionary' status quo - towards an apologia for things as they were. To be more exact, Bukharin - and in this he was by no means alone, but merely provided the theoretical underpinning of a more widespread illusion - tends to conflate the methods and exigencies of 'war communism' with the actual emergence of communism itself; he looks at a contingent - and extremely difficult situation - for the revolution, and deduces from this certain 'laws' or norms which are universally applicable to the transition period as a whole. Before going further with this line of argument, it is necessary to point out that Bukharin was quick to defend himself against it. In December 1921, he wrote an 'afterword' to the German edition which begins: "Since this book was written, some time has elapsed. Since then in Russia the so-called 'new direction in economic policy' has been adopted, which for the first time brought socialised industry, petit-bourgeois economy, private-capitalist business, and the 'mixed' enterprises into correct economic relation to each other. This specifically Russian change, the deepest precondition of which is the peasant-agrarian character of the country, caused some of my ingenious critics to remark that I must rewrite my work from the beginning. This view rests on the total illiteracy of these clever ones, who in their sacred simplicity do not grasp the difference between an abstract examination, which depicts things and processes in their 'ideal cross-cut' - according to the expression used by Marx - and the empirical reality, which is always and under all circumstances infinitely more complicated than its abstract representation. 1 have not written an economic history of Soviet Russia but rather a general theory of the transition period, for which the powers of comprehension of the journalists par excellence and of the narrow 'practical men' who are unable to comprehend the general problems, are no match" (p202)[1].

Bukharin's strictures against his bourgeois critics are no doubt valid. The fact remains that Bukharin himself, throughout the ETP, also fails to grasp the difference between general theory and empirical reality. A number of examples could be given in support of this contention; we will restrict ourselves only to the most significant.

One of the great illusions of the war communism period was precisely that it was indeed communism; and one of the main sources of this illusion was the apparent disappearance of capitalist categories such as money and wages. It was this same illusion - together with war communism's statification of vast swathes of the economy - which later gave rise to the idea that the NEP of 1921 represented a step back towards capitalism because it restored a considerable amount of formal private ownership and brought the commodity economy back into the open. In fact, the disappearance of money and wages in the period 1918-20 was by no means the result of a deliberate, pre-planned policy by the soviet power; rather it directly expressed the catastrophic collapse of the economy in the face of economic blockade, imperialist invasion and internal civil war. It went hand in hand with widespread famine and disease, the depletion of the cities, and the physical and social decimation of the working class. Of course, this very heavy 'cost' of the revolution was imposed on it by the furious class hatred of the entire world bourgeoisie; and the Russian proletariat paid it willingly, making the most gigantic and heroic sacrifices to ensure the military crushing of the forces of counter-revolution. But, as we shall see later on, the biggest 'cost' of this struggle was the very rapid political enfeeblement of the working class and of its real dictatorship over society. To confuse this terrible situation with the conscious construction of communist society is a very serious error; and as the following passage shows, Bukharin did make this error:

"This phenomenon (the tendency towards the disappearance of value) is for its part also tied to the collapse of the money system. Money represents the real social tie, those knots, in which the entire developed commodity system is entangled. It is conceivable that in the transition period, in the process of the annihilation of the commodity system as such, a process of 'self-negation' of money occurs. It is expressed at first in the so-called 'money devaluation', second, in the fact that the distribution of money symbols become dependent on the distribution of products, and vice versa. Money ceases to be a universal equivalent and becomes a conventional - and thereby highly imperfect - symbol of the circulation of products.

Wages become an illusory quantity which has no content. As long as the working class is the ruling class, wage labour disappears. In socialised production there is no wage labour, and insofar as there is no wage labour, there are also no wages as the price of the labour power sold to the capitalists. Only the outer shell remains of wages - the money form, which together with the money system approaches self-annihilation. In the system of the proletarian dictatorship, the 'worker' receives a social share (in Russian, 'payok'), but no wages" (p147).

It is evident that Bukharin is confusing a number of different things here. First, he confuses the period of the civil war - the period of life and death struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie - with the real transition period, which can only begin its proper, constructive work once the civil war has been won on a world scale. Secondly, and consequently, he confuses the collapse of the money system as a result of economic breakdown - devaluation, dire scarcity - with the real overcoming of the commodity economy, which can only be completed through the communist unification of global society and the emergence of a society of abundance. Otherwise, any 'abolition' of money or wages in a given region remains under the overall domination of the law of value and in no way guarantees an automatic movement towards communism. And yet Bukharin clearly gives the impression that in Russia this desirable stage has already been reached - there is even a Russian word for it, and the worker has got inverted commas around himself, implying that he is no longer part of the exploited. And this is the most dangerous error in this passage: the idea that once the proletariat has won political power, established its political dictatorship, and got rid of private ownership of the means of production, there is no wage labour, no more exploitation. Bukharin states this even more explicitly elsewhere, when he says that "capitalist production relations are absolutely inconceivable under the political rule of the working class" (p50). In appearance very radical, such formulations actually came to justify the increasing exploitation of the working class.

Before going further into this point, it is instructive to give another example of Bukharin's methodological error. War communism was also characterised by the application of military solutions to more and more areas of the revolution's life - most perniciously, to areas where it is vital that political aspects take precedence over military ones. One of the most important of these concerns the international extension of the revolution. A proletarian bastion that has established itself in one region cannot extend the revolution by imposing it militarily on other sectors of the world working class; the revolution extends itself above all by political means, by propaganda, by example, by calling on the workers of the world to rise up against their own bourgeoisies. And indeed, at the height of the revolutionary wave that began in 1917, this was exactly how the revolution did extend. By 1920, however, the Russian revolution was already experiencing the deadly consequences of isolation, of the defeat of the revolutionary assaults in other countries. In this situation - which was coupled with a growing military success in the internal civil war - many Bolsheviks began to put their hopes in spreading the revolution at bayonet point. The Red Army's advance on Warsaw was fuelled by these hopes - and the failure of this 'experiment', which merely pushed the Polish workers into a common front with their own bourgeoisie, was to confirm how misplaced these hopes had been. Bukharin, on the other hand, had been a fervent advocate of "revolutionary war" during the 1918 debates over the Brest-Litovsk treaty; and his 1920 work contains strong echoes of this position. Once again, he takes a contingent reality of the Russian situation - the necessity for a war of fronts across the huge territory of Russia, and the unavoidable formation of a standing army - and turns it into a 'norm' of the entire civil war period: "With the growth of the revolutionary process into the revolutionary world process, the civil war is transformed into a class war, which is led by a regular 'red army' on the part of the proletariat" (p109). In fact the opposite is more likely to be true: the more the revolution spreads worldwide, the more it will be led directly by the workers' councils and their militias, the more the political aspects of the struggle will predominate over the military, the less there will be a need for a 'red army' to lead the struggle. A war of fronts is not at all the proletariat's strong point. In purely military terms, the bourgeoisie will always have the best weapons. The proletariat's strength resides in its capacity to organise, to spread its struggles, to win over more and more sectors of the class, to undermine the armed forces of the enemy through fraternisation and the development of class consciousness. In another passage, Bukharin shows even more clearly that he has turned things on their head by identifying class war with military conflict between states:

"Socialist war is class war, which must be distinguished from simple civil war. The latter is not war in the true sense of the word, for it is not war between two state organisations. In class war, on the other hand, both sides are organised as state powers - on the one side the state of finance capital, on the other side the state of the proletariat". This idea is even more dangerous than the position Bukharin put forward in 1918, where he largely envisaged a defensive war of resistance by partisan units; here, the world revolution itself becomes an apocalyptic battle between two kinds of state power. It is significant that Lenin, who had firmly opposed Bukharin in the Brest-Litovsk debate, but whose marginal notes on the ETP rarely raise substantial criticisms, has no patience with this argument, which he calls a "total confusion" (p213).

Blindness to the danger from the state

One of the ironies of the ETP is that Bukharin, who had expressed such a high point of clarity in the understanding of state capitalism, completely fails to recognise the danger of state capitalism emerging out of the degeneration of the revolution. We have already noted that Bukharin insists that capitalist relations cannot exist under the political dictatorship of the proletariat. In another passage, Bukharin says explicitly that "since state capitalism is a growing together of the bourgeois state with capitalist trusts, it is evident that one can speak of no kind of 'state capitalism' in the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in principle excludes such a possibility" (p116). And he elaborates this further with the following argument: "In the system of state capitalism, the economically active subject is the capitalist state, the collective total capitalist. In the dictatorship of the proletariat, the economically active subject is the proletarian state, the collectively organised working class, 'the proletariat organised as state power'. In state capitalism, the production process is a process of production of surplus value which falls into the hands of the capitalist class, with the tendency to transform this value into surplus product. In the proletarian dictatorship, the production process serves as a means of systematic satisfaction of social needs. The system of state capitalism is the most perfect form of exploitation of the masses by a handful of oligarchs. The system of proletarian dictatorship makes any kind of exploitation whatsoever inconceivable, for it transforms the collective capitalist property and its private capitalist form into collective proletarian property '. Therefore, according to its essence, in spite of the formal similarity, the diametrical opposite is provided" (p117). And finally: "If one does not - as the representatives of bourgeois science do - regard the state apparatus as all organisation of neutrally mystical nature, then one must comprehend that all functions of the state also bear a class character. It follows that one must keep strictly separate bourgeois nationalisation and proletarian nationalisation. Bourgeois nationalisation leads to a system of state capitalism. Proletarian nationalisation leads to a state form of socialism. Just as the proletarian dictatorship. is the negation, the antipode of bourgeois dictatorship, proletarian nationalisation is the negation, the complete opposite of bourgeois nationalisation" (p120).

Of the numerous flaws in these arguments, two stand out most clearly. To begin with, we have, once again, Bukharin's confusion between the period of civil war, where proletarian bastions can exist temporarily in individual countries or regions, and the period of transition proper, which commences once the proletariat has won power on a global scale. The whole experience of the Russian revolution teaches us that the appropriation by the state of the means of production, even by the soviet state, does not do away with exploitation. This would be true in a proletarian dictatorship operating under 'optimal' conditions (an expanding world revolutionary process, maximum workers' democracy, etc), since the worldwide exigencies of the law of value would still exert their pitiless pressure on the workers. It is even more true in a proletarian bastion suffering from isolation and extreme material deprivation: in such circumstances, a tendency towards degeneration would appear straight away, as it did in Russia. The workers would be faced with the' imminent danger of losing their political authority and independence, while on the economic front they would be subjected to ever more draconian demands on their living and working conditions. To talk in such circumstances of the 'impossibility of exploitation', simply because the private capitalists have been expropriated, can only weaken the efforts of the proletariat to defend itself on both the political and economic fronts.

Secondly, history has indeed confirmed that the organ through which this process of degeneration expresses itself most readily is precisely the 'proletarian' state. Bukharin's simplistic definition of ' the state as a mere 'tool' of the ruling class ignores the more profound marxist understanding that the state, in its historic origins, was not the ex nihilo creation of a ruling class, but "arose" out of a situation of growing class antagonisms that threatened to pull society apart. This does not mean that is "mystically neutral": it arises to defend a divided order and can thus only operate on behalf of the economically dominant class. But neither does it mean that the state no more than a passive tool of such a class. In fact, state capitalism is precisely the expression of the fact that, in its epoch of decline, capital has had to function more and more 'without capitalists'. Even in the so-called mixed economies, it is the private capitalist, the 'finance capitalists' and the rest, who have had to subordinate their particular interests to the impersonal and general needs of the national capital, which are imposed above all by the state.

In the period of instability that follows the destruction of the old bourgeois state, a new state emerges, once again out of the need to hold society together, to prevent class antagonisms from tearing it asunder. But this time, there is no 'economically dominant' class: the new ruling class is also an exploited class which does not own any means of production. Consequently, there is even less reason for assuming that the new state automatically operates on behalf of the proletariat. It will only do so if the working class is organised and conscious, and imposes its revolutionary direction on the new state power. The moment the revolution enters into retreat, the forces of social conservation will tend to gather around the state and make it their instrument against the interests of the proletariat. And this is why state capitalism remains a profound danger even under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For the proletariat to guard against such dangers, it needs to maintain its own class organs as intact and as vibrant as possible both its unitary organs (councils, factory committees, etc) and its political vanguard, the party. But the ETP, far from seeing the need for these organs to avoid entangling themselves with the state, calls for the authentic class organs of the proletariat to fuse themselves into the state - to subordinate themselves entirely to it:

"Now we must raise the question as to the general principle of the system of the proletarian apparatus, i. e. as to the interchanging relationships between different forms of the proletarian organisations. It is clear that the same method is formally necessary for the working class as for the bourgeoisie at the time of state capitalism. This organisational method exists in the coordination of all proletarian organisations with one all-encompassing organisation, i.e. with the state organisation of the working class, with the soviet state of the proletariat. The 'nationalisation' of the trade unions and the effectual nationalisation of all mass organisations of the proletariat result from the internal logic of the process of transformation itself. The minutest cells of the labour apparatus must transform themselves into agents of the general process of organisation, which is systematically directed and led by the collective reason of the working class, which finds its highest and most all-encompassing organisation in its state apparatus. Thus the system of state capitalism dialectically transforms itself into its own inversion, into the state form of workers' socialism" (p 79).

By the same "dialectic", Bukharin explains elsewhere that the system of one-man management, of appointment from above in the running of industry - a practice which became almost universal in the war communism period and was in reality a set-back resulting from the break-down of the industrial proletariat and the loss of its self-organisation -actually expresses a higher phase of revolutionary maturation. This is because it "does not rest on the principal change of relations of production but in the discovery of such a form of administration which guarantees maximum efficiency. The principle of far-reaching eligibility from below upward (usually even by the workers within the factories) is replaced by the principle of painstaking selection in dependence on technological and administrative personnel, on the competence and the reliability of the candidates" (p 130). In other words, since capitalist relations have already been abolished by the 'proletarian state', the military principle of "maximum efficiency" can replace the political principle of the self-education of the proletariat through its direct and collective participation in the running of the economy and the state.

And by the same dialectic, state coercion of the proletariat becomes the highest form of class self-activity: "It is obvious that this element of compulsion, which is here the self-compulsion of the working class, grows from the crystallised centre towards the significantly more amorphous and dispersed periphery. This is the conscious power of cohesion of the little parts of the working class, which, power represents for some categories, subjectively, an external pressure, which constitutes, for the entire working class, objectively, its accelerated self-organisation" (p156-7). By the "amorphous periphery", Bukharin means not simply the other, non-exploiting strata of society, but "the less revolutionary" strata of the working class itself, for whom there is "the necessity of compulsory discipline, the compulsory character of which is that much more tangible the less the internal voluntary discipline"(p156). It is certainly true that the working class, in a revolution, will have to practice a gigantic self-discipline, and that it will have to ensure that majority decisions are adhered to. But there can be no question of 'compelling' the more backward layers of the class to adhere to the communist project; and the experience of the Kronstadt tragedy has taught us that settling even the most acute conflicts within the class by violence can only weaken the proletariat's hold on society. Bukharin's dialectics, by contrast, already appear as an apology for an increasingly intolerable militarisation of the proletariat. Taken to their logical conclusion, they lead straight to the terrible error committed at Kronstadt, herein the "crystallised centre" - the party- state apparatus, which had increasingly divorced itself from the masses - imposed "compulsory discipline" on what it judged to be the "amorphous periphery", the "less revolutionary" layers of the proletariat - who were actually calling for the very necessary regeneration of the soviets and an end to the excesses of war communism.

Bukharin's trajectory: reflection of the revolution's course

After initially criticising the NEP, Bukharin soon became its most enthusiastic advocate. Just as the ETP tended to see war communism as the 'finally discovered' road to the new society, Bukharin's later writings more and more presented the NEP, with its pragmatic, cautious approach, as the exemplary model of the transition period. His sudden conversion to a kind of 'market socialism' has provoked a revival of interest in Bukharin among latter day bourgeois economists, repentant Stalinists and others, but naturally not in the authentically revolutionary writings of his earlier period. By 1924 Bukharin had gone even further: the NEP had already achieved socialism - socialism in a single country. At this point, Bukharin had begun to operate as Stalin's ally against the left, as his tame theoretician - even though, within a few years, Bukharin himself was to be crushed under the Stalinist juggernaut.

This rapid about-face is not quite so startling as it might appear. The apologia for war communism and NEP alike were based on significant concessions to the idea that some kind of socialism was being built within the confines of Russia, or at the very least that a "primitive socialist accumulation" (a term used in the ETP) was taking place. From here to the conclusion that socialism had already arrived was not altogether too dizzying a leap - although it needed the counter-revolution to act as a stepping stone.

Nonetheless, Bukharin's trajectory from the extreme left of the party in the 1915-19 period, to the extreme right after 1921, does need some explaining. In The Tragedy of Bukharin (1994), Donny Gluckstein approaches the question from the standpoint of the Trotskyist SWP. This is an extremely sophisticated work, and contains many criticisms of Bukharin's thought, including the ETP, which are formally identical to those made by the communist left. But the fundamentally leftist approach of Gluckstein's book reveals itself when, in answering the question about Bukharin's trajectory, it focuses on the question of Bukharin's 'philosophical' method, its tendency towards scholasticism, towards formal logic, towards posing rigid 'either/or' alternatives, as well as its penchant for Bogdanov's 'monist' philosophy and for amalgamating marxism with sociology. Thus, the jump from uncritical advocacy of war communism to the equally uncritical embracing of the NEP betrays a lack of dialectical thinking, an inability to see the complex and ever-changing nature of reality. By the same token, Bukharin's call for revolutionary war in the Brest-Litovsk debate is also based on a set of methodological errors, since it assumes that the Russian revolution was faced with an absolute and immediate choice between 'selling out' to German imperialism, or making a heroic if doomed gesture in front of the world proletariat; and just as the ETP had reduced the extension of the world revolution to little more than a concluding flourish, an afterthought to the creation of communist relations in Russia, so the Bukharin of 1918 had been prepared to sacrifice the entire proletarian bastion in Russia for a world revolution which was not yet an immediate reality and was thus treated as a kind of abstract ideal. Certainly, both Lenin and Trotsky made a number of incisive criticisms of Bukharin's method - some of Lenin's appear in his marginal notes to the ETP. But behind his emphasis on this point, Gluckstein has another agenda - proving that Bukharin's rigid either/or method was fundamentally that of left communism. The book's critique of Bukharin is thus a 'warning' against what happens when you mess around with left communist positions and politics.

We do not intend to refute Gluckstein's attack on the "theoretical roots of left communism" here. While there is undoubtedly a connection between Bukharin's political errors and some of his underlying 'philosophical' conceptions, the latter are by no means identical with left communism and are more often antithetical to it. In any case, it is much more instructive to consider Bukharin's over-all trajectory as a reflection of the course of the revolution in general. It is often the case that the 'personal' trajectory of a revolutionary has an almost symbolic relationship to the more general one. Trotsky, for example, was expelled from Russia in the wake of the defeat of the 1905 revolution, returned to lead the October victory, and was expelled again in 1929 when the counter- revolution had swept all before it. Bukharin's trajectory is different, but equally significant: his best contributions to marxism were in the years 1915-19, when the revolutionary wave was either building up or reaching its high point, and the Bolshevik party was acting as a real laboratory of revolutionary thought. But although, as we have mentioned, Bukharin's name was closely associated with the Left Communist group in 1918, he followed a different road from that of the other leading left communists after 1919. Bukharin's main bone of contention in 1918 had been the Brest-Litovsk treaty. Once this debate was closed, other committed 'lefts' trained their attention on the internal problems of the regime, particularly the danger of opportunism and bureaucratism in the party and the state. Some of these elements - such as Sapranov and V Smirnov - maintained and elaborated their criticisms throughout the period of degeneration and even into the depths of the counter-revolution. Bukharin, on the other hand, was to more and become a 'man of the state' - one might say, the 'theoretician of the state'. Certainly this trajectory explains the ambiguities and inconsistencies of the ETP, with its melange of radical theory and conservative apologia for the status quo, for at this point the Russian revolution itself had reached a watershed where both the upward movement and the downward movement were in contention. After 1921, the downward movement clearly predominated, and now Bukharin more and more became the spokesman and rationaliser of the process of degeneration, even though he became yet another of its victims in the end. Behind this personal history of intellectual decline lies the history of the Bolshevik party, which, the more it fused itself with the state, the more it became unable to play the role of a real political and theoretical avant-garde. The story of how the most far-seeing elements of the Bolshevik party, and of the international communist movement, resisted this course will have to be told in future articles in this series.


[1] In this same afterword, Bukharin also says that his work has been wrongly taken as a justification for the theory of the "offensive under all circumstances", which had a considerable following in the German party and which had contributed to the disaster of the March Action in 1921.

Nevertheless, there are certain connections, notably in the way that the ETP tends to present the decline of capitalism not as a whole epoch but as a final, once and for all death crisis, from which a "restoration of industry, of which the utopians of capitalism dream, is impossible" (p57). The theory of the offensive was based precisely on the idea that there was no prospect of any capitalist reconstruction and that the open crisis could only get worse and worse.

Perhaps more to the point, Bukharin's apocalyptic view of the crisis also lends support to his tendency to equate the collapse of capitalism with the emergence of communism. In the face of the bourgeoisie, Bukharin was right to insist that the proletarian revolution inevitably involved a certain level of social anarchy, of breakdown in the productive activities of society. But there is in the ETP a definite underestimation of the dangers posed to the proletariat if this process of breakdown goes too far - dangers that were very real in the Russia of 1920, where the working class had been decimated and to a certain extent decomposed by the ravages of the civil war. Certain passages of the book give the impression that the more the economy disintegrates, the more salutary this is, the more it is hastening the development of communist social relations.


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Communism is not a nice ideal; it is on the agenda of history