Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Stephen Cohen, Historian of the Soviet Union, and Bukharin, Dies at 81.

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Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution - National Book Foundation

One of the Most Important Books on the Russian Revolution.

Stephen Cohen has passed away (Wikpedia)

There is a full tribute in the New York Times today.

“He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Stephen Cohen’s full-scale study of Bukharin is the first major study of this remarkable associate of Lenin,” Harrison Salisbury’s wrote in a review in The Times. “As such it constitutes a milestone in Soviet studies, the byproduct both of increased academic sophistication in the use of Soviet materials and also of the very substantial increase in basic information which has become available in the 20 years since Stalin’s death.”

Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution deeply influenced many people, from mainstream historians, to those the left, above all those with a critical view on Stalin and Stalinism.


It is both a study of Bukharin the theorist of Imperialism and World Economy (1917) and political career from left-communism, alliance with Stalin against the left, champion of the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some private business to continue, and then, the last independent figure to Stalin He emerges as a figure  both accommodated to the Egocrat and, finally, pushed to resisting, tried to mitigate the worst. Fully aware of the depths of mass killing and famine that went with forced collectivisation, Bukharin was, he argued, a far more formidable opponent to Stalin that Trotsky, who had been exiled without great difficulty from a party which did not hold him in high regard.  Out of power the one-time ‘darling of the party’, continued to offer an alternative to totalitarian rule by forced labour and mass murder, a (relatively) moderate ‘right’ Communism.

When that terror reached its crescendo Cohen  shows that Bukharin was did not cooperate in his own Show Trail, for the greater good of the Revolution, as suggested in fictional form by Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), and  (more sceptically) pondered over in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on the sacrifices needed for the goal of socialism,   Humanisme et terreur,  (1947).

This was the final episode in Bukharin’s life: the Moscow Trials

Bukharin was tried in the Trial of the Twenty One on 2–13 March 1938 during the Great Purge, along with ex-premier Alexei Rykov, Christian RakovskyNikolai Krestinsky, Genrikh Yagoda, and 16 other defendants alleged to belong to the so-called “Bloc of Rightists and Trotskyites”. In a trial meant to be the culmination of previous show trials, it was alleged that Bukharin and others sought to assassinate Lenin and Stalin from 1918, murder Maxim Gorky by poison, partition the Soviet Union and hand out her territories to Germany, Japan, and Great Britain.

Even more than earlier Moscow show trials, Bukharin’s trial horrified many previously sympathetic observers as they watched allegations become more absurd than ever and the purge expand to include almost every living Old Bolshevik leader except Stalin. For some prominent communists such as Bertram WolfeJay LovestoneArthur Koestler, and Heinrich Brandler, the Bukharin trial marked their final break with communism and even turned the first three into passionate anti-Communists eventually.

This is how Stephen Cohen describes Bukharin’s last stand.

“Protecting Bolshevism’s  historical legacy by refuting the criminal indictment was Bukharin’s main objective. But eh wanted also to use his courtroom testimony to make a last political statement on the two major issues confronting the country – war with Germany and he advent of terror by Stalinism.” (Page 378)

In many people’s view Cohen established, by a forensic examination of the accused’s conditions of imprisonment, his personal stakes in the process, and a  detailed account of his testimony, that Bukharin, rebutted the criminal indictment, within the limits set by the Court. He ended, “prepared to die” was as an American correspondent said, “manly, proud and almost defiant He is the first of the the fifty-four men who have faced the court in the last three public treason trails who has not based himself in the last hours of the trial”.

Cohen says, “It is difficult to judge Bukharin’s real optimism about the possibility of decisive reform and resisting Stalinism, or to know exactly when ti turned to despair” (Page 264) Yet while not making a judgement about his political actions a large audience should remember the moment when his “socialist humanism” led him to protest at the brutality of the regime, its forced collectivism, “a mass annihilation of completely defenceless men, together with their wives and children.” (ibid)>

Nigel Doggett published this account of the book in Chartist in 2018.

Nikolai Bukharin – Forgotten Revolutionary

Stephen Cohen’s 1973 biography Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution covers his life and legacy in a broader account of the revolution than the many histories focussing on Lenin and Trotsky. The Mensheviks and other ‘old’ Bolsheviks have largely been marginalised, maybe lacking the appeal of ideological purity. The old adage that history is written by the victors was true in Russia under Stalin’s rule but Trotsky survived in exile to write eloquently about the revolution, Soviet Union and Stalin and to bolster opposition until his assassination in 1941.

Dominant narratives on Soviet history present the succession to Lenin in 1924 in terms of Trotsky and Stalin. Given such a choice, most on the left might opt for the former, but residual Stalinist attitudes still retain influence, manifested in attitudes to Russia today (see Paterson and Zernova, Chartist 293) where post-Soviet traumas have spawned an unholy Russian Orthodox-Nationalist-Communist-kleptocrat alliance.

A decade younger than Trotsky and Stalin, Bukharin was described by Lenin in his final ‘testament’ as its biggest theoretician and “favourite of the whole party”. He was the principal advocate of the New Economic Policy (NEP), leader of the Right wing and finally Right Opposition.

He began on the Bolshevik left, enthusiastically supporting the October Revolution. Following the civil war and authoritarian ‘War Communism’, in the light of the ruinous state of the country he supported a more politically and economically conciliatory approach.  From 1921 when Lenin instituted the NEP, Bukharin provided theoretical justification. Private business was tolerated and even encouraged. Whilst favouring the ‘smychka’ (alliance of peasants and workers) he was open to attracting elements from the middle classes (in our terms the ‘precariat’) but no further.

Russia also became more intellectually and culturally pluralistic, allowing space for a glorious flowering of creativity in the arts.  Bukharin was a sponsor of ‘proletarian’ culture but valued variety and toleration. Throughout his life he engaged in dialogue with alternative viewpoints and opponents. When the foundation of a Communist Third International was mooted he advocated including anti-war social democrats and Mensheviks, an early indication of his ecumenical approach.

When the anticipated revolutions failed to materialise in Germany and elsewhere he sympathised with the pragmatic call to pursue what became known as ‘socialism in one country’ (anathema to Trotsky and the left). In 1925 the other leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev joined Trotsky to oppose Stalin. Bukharin disastrously opted for joint leadership with Stalin on the basis of Bukharin’s liberal economic policy. But his call to the peasants to “enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your economy”, went a step too far towards liberalisation, which he was forced to retract.

Stalin manipulated the party in his quest for absolute power, switching policies to wrong-foot his opponents, while left and right alike underestimated him, seeing him as preferable to the other side. Within three years the left was defeated and Bukharin in turn was ousted by Stalin, who now pursued policies of rapid industrialisation more radical than those advocated by Trotsky. Bukharin belatedly approached Trotsky, writing “the disagreements between us and Stalin are many times more serious than all of the disagreements we had with you,” but was spurned with the quip: “With Stalin against Bukharin? – Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin? – Never!”

Though sidelined, he continued to write, extolling a ‘socialist humanist’ alternative to the rising totalitarian fascism, and implicitly to Stalinism too. In 1936, shortly before his final downfall, on a trip West he confided in emigré Mensheviks, describing Stalin as “ this small, malicious man, no, not a man, a devil”. He nevertheless returned to Russia knowing he was doomed, leading inexorably to a bizarre final act where Bukharin, with fellow rightist leaders Rykov and Tomsky and others were accused of plotting with the Trotskyites to overthrow the revolution. It is widely believed that he capitulated to Stalin in the final show trial.

Right wing and liberal accounts tend to conclude that Stalinism grew inevitably from Leninism. Orwell too believed that a victorious Trotsky would have been as bad as Stalin. Yet many roads not taken might have lessened the dangers of tyranny, which had been foreseen in revolutionary circles. Trotsky warned in 1904 (long before he joined the Bolsheviks) of the dangers of a Leninist centralised party: ‘The party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organisation, and, finally, a “dictator” substitutes himself for the central committee’. Similar arguments were made by Rosa Luxemburg in 1911.

Cohen sees Bukharin as an inspiration for such developments as the 1968 Prague spring, the Italian and Spanish ‘Eurocommunist’ parties and Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, all seeking to liberalise Communism.

Here are Cohen’s views on the post-Soviet developments,

Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s first democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in fact, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times review. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as overly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian cities, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

His attitude towards Putin remains controversial.

Here is the NYT’s summary,

Many journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed democratic freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for ordinary Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as rising prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this obituary, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds views that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I defend, not Putin.




Written by Andrew Coates

September 19, 2020 at 12:00 pm

6 Responses

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  1. More recently, Stephen Cohen had been one of the most trenchant critics of the paranoia about Russian influence that has infected liberal circles in particular, especially in the US. His comments about ‘Russiagate’ in particular have not been popular among US Democrats, who find it much more pleasant to blame Russia for Trump than to take a cold, hard look at themselves and the political system they seek to perpetuate.


    September 19, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    • I only added the passages about his views on present-day Russia after many people pointed them out, on FB and elsewhere.

      Not being in a position to judge I left them out initially and concentrated on Stephen Cohen’s best known book.

      There are of course critical views from the left on this study of Bukharin,

      Ken Tarbuck Review: Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution
      (Summer 1977).

      “Insofar as Cohen has written only a one-volume biography he has been forced to be selective. However, even allowing for the lack of Bukharin’s private papers, I feel that there are certain important areas and points that are missing. The most notable absence is any real treatment of Bukharin’s role in the Comintern. From its inception in 1919 Bukharin played a leading role in the functions of that body. It is true that, until his fall from power in 1925, Zinoviev played the central public role, and only after 1925 did Bukharin occupy the centre of the Comintern stage. But Bukharin’s involvement was on a continuing basis for 10 years. Cohen’s failure to make more than a passing reference to these activities seems to me to flow from more than the need to compress. From the year 1920 onwards Cohen has concentrated his attention on Bukharin’s relationship to internal Soviet and party affairs, and in particular his role in the industrialisation debate. Coupled with this is an inadequate analysis of the social forces behind the debating positions.

      This is where Cohen’s treatment falls down: without an adequate analysis of international events, particularly the failure of the German revolution and the débâcle of the Chinese Communist Party under the tutelage of Bukharin and Stalin, one cannot grapple with the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy and its subsequent victory. It is true that internal Soviet conditions were themselves alone sufficient for the rise of such a social formation, but there was no inevitability about its victory and Cohen does not really try to explain the rise of this formation and its relationship to external factors. Nor can one divorce the triumph of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ from the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy. Cohen makes no attempt at such an analysis and because of this muffs his discussion of the origins of the theory. It is true that some of the phrases and ideas that he pinpoints from Bukharin seem to be the first utterance of the theory, but one feels that had events taken another course one would not remark upon them now. Cohen does not ask why, despite what seem to be hints and allusions from Bukharin, it was Stalin who first articulated the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ in its most rounded manner. If Cohen had examined this point he might have been led on to the question of the bureaucracy. And if he had done so he would have been forced to look at Bukharin’s relationship with that particular force. In this respect Cohen’s treatment of Bukharin’s fear of the ‘new Leviathan’ is devoid of class content and as such tends to downgrade Bukharin to a liberal-democrat.”


      Andrew Coates

      September 19, 2020 at 5:29 pm

  2. I’m coming back to an old post for the simple task of flagging up a link to a post put up this week on the New statesman’s website, and which is one of a series of archive articles they are giving a showing to. The article, on the outcome first of the Moscow Trials, is unsigned, but I suspect it was written by Kingsley Martin, the NS’s editor of the day. Reading it, you can see why Orwell once walked out of a London restaurant when he realised Martin was sitting at a nearby table. The piece need no further comment from me. https://www.newstatesman.com/2020/09/ns-archive-moscow-purge It may be useful as a historical base when next we have to talk about how some of our comrades uncritically eulogise the Xi regime in China.

    david walsh

    September 25, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    • Very likely there was a plot. The public evidence is not of a kind to enable us to speak with confidence. We must allow for the traditions of the G.P.U., for its tendency to regard all criticism as treachery and to label as Trotskyism any protest, however subdued, against the increasing nationalism of official Soviet policy – a protest that has gathered force with Russia’s acceptance of a non-intervention policy in Spain. Allowance must be made for the intrigues and rivalries that are inseparable from dictatorship. Even assuming the whole story of the plot, such a general purge means much individual injustice. In the absence of safeguards against arbitrary arrest, informers are encouraged by the general atmosphere of suspicion and fear engendered by wholesale arrests. But there may well be more than this. Nazi agents have been even more active in Soviet Russia than elsewhere, and it would be surprising if they had found no discontent to exploit. When we hear that so close and trusted a friend of Stalin as Radek is suspected and t….”

      “Whatever view we accept of this plot and of the general round-up of Trotskyites we must admit that the present atmosphere is not favourable to the feeling of security that is essential if opposition opinion – even Trotskyist opinion – is to be freely expressed at an election.”

      Certainly sounds like Kinsley Martin.

      Here hw is describing how one person, a journalist came to read the New Statesman and Nation in the 1930s, and how it shaped his views,

      “He began to understand why it seemed to us the capitalist alternatives were Fascism or War. We obviously did not like working with the Communists, we had neither our love of honesty nor our notions of political honesty. But was it true that the Popular Front was the only hope of salvatio?> Of course our advocacy involved inconsistences, but…”

      Father Figures, Kinsley Martin A First Volume of Autobiography. 1897 – 1931.

      I don’t know how Martin explained this attitude towards the USSR and the Show Trials in particular in the following volume of his autobiography which covers 1931 onwards but I lay a hefty bet that this kind of political contortion marks it.
      I shall have a look in “The New Civilisation?
      By Paul Flewers
      This book covers a vast range of material published in Britain, from the far left to the far right, on all aspects of the Soviet Union during 1929–1941.”

      Andrew Coates

      September 25, 2020 at 7:52 pm

      • Indeed. But Martin’s views were tempered by expert peers “on the scene”. “Mr. Pritt, K.C., who should be a good judge of evidence was present at the proceedings and cabled that the trial was fair. No doubt the conduct of the trial itself was fair. It was a far more elaborate business than the usual press reports suggest, and Russian procedure has advantages as well as disadvantages in comparison with Western methods”. It is good to see the genesis of the Mandy Rice Davies evidence forming even then.

        david walsh

        September 25, 2020 at 10:08 pm

        • I wonder if there’s legal experts of Pritt’s quality to help avoid misunderstanding this example of China’s human rights system,

          Chinese Property Tycoon Who Called Xi Jinping A ‘Clown’ Imprisoned For 18 Years
          Siladitya Ray
          Siladitya RayForbes Staff
          Covering breaking news and tech policy stories at Forbes.
          Updated Sep 22, 2020, 05:08pm EDT
          TOPLINE A Beijing court has sentenced Ren Zhiqiang, a former real estate executive, to 18 years in prison on corruption charges, months after he called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “clown” for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in the latest crackdown on a high-profile dissident.


          Andrew Coates

          September 25, 2020 at 10:29 pm

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