Bukharin, Nikolai (1888–1938)

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Russian Bolshevik leader.

Born in Moscow into a middle-class intelligentsia family, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin joined the Bolshevik Party in 1906 after participating in the revolutionary events of the year before. In 1917 he was one of the leaders of the Bolshevik party organization in Moscow. Shortly after the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917, Bukharin became a spokesman of the "Left communists," who opposed Vladimir Lenin over the role of "bourgeois specialists" in industry and even more over the failure to continue the war with Germany. Bukharin soon returned to the fold and took over the editorship of the party newspaper, Pravda, a post he retained throughout the 1920s. Starting in 1918 Bukharin established himself as the Bolshevik Party's leading theorist. The party textbook ABC of Communism (coauthored in 1919 with Yevgeny Preobrazhensky) had worldwide sales and remains the best introduction to the aspirations that animated the Bolshevik Party during its first years in power.

In the early 1920s, after the civil war had run its course, the Bolsheviks introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP). NEP was based on the realization that the price mechanism was the only available way of managing economic relations with millions of scattered single-owner peasant farms. Bukharin, who provided the most elaborate theoretical justifications of NEP, did not see it as a repudiation of earlier policy but rather as an adjustment to the new challenge of managing the transition to socialism in a peasant country. Relying on Lenin's 1923 article "On Cooperation," Bukharin argued that the cooperatives could be used to transform peasant agriculture gradually by appealing to the peasant's direct material interest. In this way the market would integrate peasants into the state-run socialist sector of the economy—and thus prepare the ground for its own self-negation. In 1925 he wrote: "How will we be able to draw [the peasant] into our socialist organization? … We will provide him with material incentives as a small property-owner.… On the basis of [the resulting] economic growth, the peasant will be moved along the path of a transformation of both himself and his enterprise into a particle of our general state socialist system."

During the NEP period, Bukharin was a political ally of Joseph Stalin and provided the polemical heavy artillery against the leaders of the opposition within the Bolshevik Party, especially Leon Trotsky, Preobrazhensky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev. In the late 1920s, when Stalin broke with NEP and moved toward collectivization and breakneck industrialization, Bukharin continued to defend earlier policies. Stalin quickly branded him a "right deviationist." The ensuing struggle was sharp but short and ended in Bukharin's complete political defeat.

Bukharin soon recanted and again provided theoretical justification for government policy, this time for Stalin's "revolution from above." In 1934 he became editor of the government newspaper Izvestia. Soon thereafter, however, he fell victim to Stalin's murderous assault on the Bolshevik elite. Bukharin was arrested in February 1937 and spent a year in prison before being condemned to death in one of the last great public show trials of the Stalin era. Bukharin's remarkable achievement during his time in prison only became known after Soviet archives were opened and it was discovered that he had written extensive philosophical notebooks as well as a novel-memoir of his childhood in Moscow (available in English under the title How It All Began). Some analysts have further argued that Bukharin managed to use his courtroom confession of 1938 to deliver a veiled indictment of Stalin.

In the early years of the Gorbachev era (1985–1991), when the reforms were still portrayed as a return to Leninism, Bukharin was regarded by many reform-minded intellectuals almost as the patron saint of perestroika. In 1988 Bukharin was officially cleared of all charges and posthumously readmitted into the party. He became a powerful symbol of supporters of perestroika not only because of his reputation as a defender of NEP but also because he was widely viewed as a representative of the best aspects of the Bolshevik tradition. However, the "Bukharin boom" in Russia was relatively short-lived.

In the early twenty-first century Bukharin is remembered mainly because of his role as a spokesman for the Soviet NEP period, with all its hopes and contradictions. He himself did not view NEP as an alternative model of socialism, since he clearly meant what he said about the market negating itself. He consistently looked forward to a thoroughly organized and centralized socialist society. Nevertheless, Bukharin at his best embodied the vision of an alternative path to socialism—one that avoided the violence and catastrophes of the Stalin era.

See alsoBolshevism; Lenin, Vladimir; New Economic Policy (NEP); Soviet Union; Stalin, Joseph; Trotsky, Leon.


Primary Sources

Bukharin, Nikolai. How It All Began. Translated by George Shriver. New York, 1998.

——. The ABC of Communism. London, 2004.

Secondary Sources

Cohen, Stephen F. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938. New York, 1971.

Lih, Lars T. "Bukharin's 'Illusion': War Communism and the Meaning of NEP." Russian History/Histoire Russe 27, no. 4 (winter 2000): 417–460.

Lars T. Lih