Sunday, April 6, 2014

Take that, Bukharin!

For a long time, I had a vague idea of Nikolai Bukharin as one of the more thoughtful, decent Bolsheviks (relatively speaking, of course), an image probably stemming in part from his portrayal in popular culture (possibly this film in particular, in which, if it’s the one I’m remembering, he was portrayed as a gentle, polite, reasonable man), in part from knowledge of his opposition to collectivization, and in part from the portrait of the victims of the Stalinist show trials created through the composite character Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

As a result of this and other works, the Communists killed in the Stalinist purges, especially those like Bukharin who publicly confessed to their supposed crimes against the revolution, came to be viewed in the liberal imagination as victims of their own alleged willingness to submerge and dissolve their selves and their consciences entirely in a totalizing ideology and party organization. But as Robert C. Tucker and Stephen F. Cohen, biographers of Stalin and Bukharin respectively, have argued, Bukharin’s case doesn’t support this interpretation.* According to Tucker in Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941, Bukharin’s performance at his trial, read carefully and in context, was actually an act of defiance in which he managed, as far as was possible under the circumstances, to turn the proceedings into an “antitrial” of Stalin “for his crimes against Lenin’s Bolshevism.” In his confession, Bukharin sought to underline the political nature of his choices and his persecution:
Only if the public or history should see the accused Bukharin as a political man would it see that the accuser Stalin was destroying a political tendency. So it was vital to Bukharin’s case in the antitrial to show that he had been a Bolshevik oppositionist in relation to Stalin and not, as Vyshinsky was trying to argue, a criminal masquerading for long years as a revolutionary. The duel that raged between the two throughout the trial was thus one in which Vyshinsky argued that all Bukharin’s purported political acts were really crimes, and Bukharin maintained that all his alleged crimes were really political acts. If he came off well in the encounter, despite all the disadvantages of his situation compared with Vyshinky’s, the reason is that his contention was true. (500)
So I think it’s fitting and good to consider Bukharin’s political writings and acts not in terms of how well they illustrate some notion of the totalitarian mind or “mass man” or what have you but as, well, political writings and acts. We get a very different sense of Bukharin from his 1922 “Anarchy and Scientific Communism,” written during his rise to power. It’s an ideological work through and through; I don’t mean by this that it shows someone who’s abandoned his own ideas and sense of ethics to the Party or History, but that it’s written by a firm believer in and advocate of the authoritarian Marxist-Leninist program. In the article, Bukharin misrepresents, belittles, and attacks the anarchists who opposed the Communist revolutionary program. It’s not a mere theoretical exercise - written in the years in which anarchists were being not just marginalized but systematically persecuted by the Bolsheviks (see volume 2 of Gregori Maximoff’s 1940 The Guillotine at Work: Twenty Years of Terror in Russia), Bukharin’s broadside forms a part of those, real, political crimes.

“Anarchy and Scientific Communism” is included in The Poverty of Statism: Anarchism vs. Marxism, a Debate (2013), along with a scathing response from the Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri, “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism,” and two related pieces by German anarchist Rudolf Rocker, “Anarchism and Sovietism” and “Marx and Anarchism.” Like Bukharin’s, the articles by Fabbri and Rocker were written in 1922. You can read them individually for free online at my links, or you can pay a few dollars for the Kindle edition published by the fascinating Christie Press.

I was thrilled to hear of this translation. I love reading Italian political theorists and philosophers, even those with whom I have strong disagreements or whose ideas I find repugnant. But anarchists? I’m overcome. And among Italian anarchist political theorists, Fabbri is one of the best. I read some of his work years ago in French translation and thought it was brilliant. It’s a shame that so few of his writings have been translated into English, so I was happy to read in the introduction to The Poverty of Statism that more are probably in the pipeline.

And Fabbri is at his level-headed best in “Anarchy and ‘Scientific’ Communism.” He sharply but calmly responds to Bukharin’s mischaracterizations of anarchism and anarchists, exposes the Bolshevist’s authoritarian attitudes (“These people are really odd, wanting (in theory) to achieve the abolition of the state while in practice they cannot conceive of the most elementary social function without statist overtones!”), and warns of the course the Bolshevik-dominated revolution will take. Towards the end, he states:
[I]t is the authoritarian communists…who place obstacles before organisation and mass activity and set out along the road diametrically opposed to that which will lead to communism and abolition of the state. It is they who are the ridiculous ones, as ridiculous as anyone who, wishing to travel east, sets out in the direction of the setting sun.
I wonder if Bukharin, years later during his trial, ever thought of his article or Fabbri’s... Given the fate of anarchists and anarchism in the 20th century,** it’s no comfort or joy to be able to say in 2014 that the anarchists (not just Fabbri, but a string of anarchists from Bakunin on) had accurately analyzed the Marxist political program and predicted its terrible course. That Communist leaders and ideologues like Bukharin were themselves destroyed by the very system they created just adds to the tragedy.

But while schadenfreude is hardly appropriate here, there are good reasons to attend to this and similar exchanges. First, since they were also radical anticapitalist and antifascist activists, 20th-century anarchists’ criticisms of authoritarian communism have a special moral standing and political value. They’re not compromised by complicity with non-Communist forms of oppression like others on the Left. And their writings about political action and ethics are meant not for those who want to preserve existing forms of oppression but for those working to overthrow them and build a more just world. It’s easy to simplistically dismiss or reject the Communist program from the perspective of the status quo, and even to present it, self-servingly, as the logical outcome of all projects to fundamentally upset the existing order. The disputes between anarchists and Communists, though, raise the complex questions involved with struggling for radical change.

Second, Fabbri’s critical analysis of Communist ideology applies well beyond it, because, as he suggests, the Communists’ ideas about “development,” “modernization,” and production and the top-down authoritarian practices associated with them grew directly out of capitalist ideology. We see many of these same ideas, and similar pretenses to “science,” in contemporary neoliberalism, in international institutions and government policy, and in the arguments used against labor and other oppositional movements. These anarchist ideas are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1922.

* As Corey Robin has discussed in Fear: The History of a Political Idea, understanding the real experiences and motives of Bukharin and other authoritarians and victims of authoritarianism has significant implications for political theory.

** Fabbri himself was forced into exile by Mussolini’s fascist government.

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