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Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin

politician , Revolutionary

Prominent leader of the Bolshevik party, leading critic during the 1920's first of Trotskyism and later of Stalinism, and an original proponent of using market forces in socialist construction.


Bukharin, Nikolai was born on October 9, 1888 in Moscow. Son of a teacher.


Studied economics at Moscow University, 1907-1910, but was more involved in organizing student rallies and in revolutionary propaganda work.


In the autumn of 1912 Bukharin went to Cracow to meet Lenin for the first time and was invited to collaborate on Pravda (which he later edited from 1918 to 1929). In 1913 he met Stalin in Vienna and assisted him in writing "Marxism and the National Question." While in Vienna he attended university lectures on marginalist economic theory, developed a lifelong interest in sociology, and came under the influence of the Austrian Marxist theoretician Rudolf Hilferding, whose book Finance Capital also strongly influenced Lenin. In 1914 he completed The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class, describing the marginal utility theory of value, the main alternative to the labor theory of value central to both classical and Marxian economic theory, as the viewpoint of rentier capitalists who had lost their role in production through industrial concentration. In 1915 he wrote "Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State" and traced the rise of a "new Leviathan" in the form of a "state-capitalist trust." In Imperialism and World Economy (also written mainly in 1915) he interpreted imperialist wars to be the result of rivalry between the "state-capitalist trusts" of the leading countries.

When World War I broke out in 1914 Bukharin was deported to Switzerland, later moving to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and finally the United States. Arriving in New York in November 1916, he remained there until the following April and assisted Trotsky in publishing the newspaper Novyi Mir.

In the following months Bukharin and other "left communists" came into conflict with Lenin. Lenin favored signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany; Bukharin demanded a "revolutionary war" to evoke proletarian support in the West. When the treaty was ratified in March 1918, debate turned to economic issues. The "left communists" opposed Lenin's call for a mixed, transitional economy of "state capitalism." Bukharin thought "state capitalism" implied rule by capitalists and called instead for extensive nationalization. In an article on "Left-Wing Childishness" Lenin accused the "lefts" of ignoring the need for any transitional period at all. By June 1918, however, almost all industry was nationalized to prevent it from falling into German hands (German property rights had been guaranteed in the treaty). With the onset of civil war and foreign intervention in the summer of 1918, Lenin's theory of "state capitalism" gave way to "war communism" until the spring of 1921.

Reconciled with Lenin, in March 1919 Bukharin was elected a candidate member of the party's first politburo. In October he and Evgeny Preobrazhensky published The ABC of Communism (a popular manual); and in May 1920 Bukharin published The Economics of the Transition Period, a comprehensive rationalization of war communism. Supporting Trotsky's "war commissariat" in its effort to impose "labor conscription" upon the trade unions, Bukharin described the proletarian dictatorship as "state capitalism turned inside out." All proletarian organizations were to be subordinated to the workers' state, "the most universal organization," in which the "collective reason" of the working class was embodied. "Labor freedom" was to be replaced by labor planning; markets and prices were to give way to calculations in kind; peasant resistance to grain requisitioning was to be met by "state compulsion"; and "primitive socialist accumulation" was to ensure rapid movement toward communism, "the very first instance of an absolutely unified, organized 'whole'."

Leaders of the new Soviet trade unions had other ideas, believing that the workers themselves, through the trade unions, should have exclusive responsibility for organizing the economy. Fearful of "syndicalism" and economic anarchy, but also of the growing bureaucratization of the Soviet government, Lenin urged concessions to the union leaders. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky formed a "buffer group" between Lenin and Trotsky, but basically agreed with Trotsky; Lenin denounced both Bukharin and Trotsky; and the issue was not settled until the introduction of the "new economic policy" (NEP), in 1921, changed all the terms of economic debate.

With the introduction of NEP Bukharin moved from the party's left to its right wing, where he remained for the rest of his life. From his study of marginal economics he had adopted the concept of "equilibrium"; from A. A. Bogdanov's theory of "tectology" he had learned to think of society as a "system" maintaining "equilibrium" with a changing environment. He explained this approach in Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology (1921); and in the same year he wrote The New Course in Economic Policy, presenting NEP as the restoration of "equilibrium" after war communism. The history of Bukharin's work after 1921 is the history of his defense of NEP first against Trotsky and Preobrazhensky and then against Stalin.

At the 12th party congress in 1923 Trotsky charged that inadequate support for industry had created a "price scissors" (high industrial prices relative to low agricultural prices) and an industrial "goods famine." In these circumstances, Trotsky warned, small-scale private manufacturing might displace state industry.

Bukharin answered that the real problem was a "sales crisis," caused by state industry's exercise of monopoly power to raise prices. In his Critique of the Economic Platform of the Opposition (the first part of which appeared in 1924), he accused Trotsky and Preobrazhensky of "monopolistic prejudices." The result of "cartel superprofits" would be "monopolistic decay and stagnation." Instead of a "dictatorship of industry," prices must be reduced to permit "mutual fertilization" between town and country. Lower prices would increase industrial sales and profits. Accumulation of industrial capital required prior growth of peasants' effective demand.

Bukharin's policy proved successful in the short run, but by 1925 new problems arose. Industrial capacity was approaching full utilization, and new investment sources had to be found. In The New Economics Preobrazhensky saw monopoly pricing as the only solution; Bukharin replied that to exploit the peasantry like "colonies" would provoke a new "class war." Trotsky urged pursuit of foreign credits and expanded trade; Bukharin thought Trotsky was a "pessimist" whose theory of "permanent revolution" ruled out building "socialism in one country." Joining forces with Stalin, Bukharin urged peasants to "enrich" themselves in the hope that rural savings might be transformed into credits for industry. Hilferding had demonstrated the efficacy of modern banking in Finance Capital; and Bukharin cited Lenin's 1923 article "On Cooperation" to show that peasant cooperatives would "grow into" the state banking system and thus into socialism. Believing a period of "civil peace" was needed to avert a return to war communism, in The Road to Socialism and the Worker-Peasant Alliance (1925) Bukharin argued that it was essential to preserve a mutually profitable market relationship between town and country.

No sooner had Trotsky and Preobrazhensky been defeated, however, than Bukharin realized that he had helped to create an even greater threat to "civil peace"--Stalin. Expecting a "third period" of wars and revolutions, by autumn 1927 Stalin resolved to expand heavy industry at any cost. As head of the Communist International (having replaced Grigori Zinoviev in 1926), Bukharin insisted that in reality capitalism was experiencing a new period of stabilization. But when grain deliveries fell below targets in 1927-1928, Stalin responded with the "Siberian method"--essentially a reversion to war communist requisitioning.

In February 1929, over Bukharin's desperate protests, Stalin had Trotsky expelled from the Soviet Union, thus preventing any bloc between his two greatest opponents. In the spring of 1929 Bukharin was removed from the leadership of the Communist International; in November the Stalinists expelled him from the politburo. By the end of 1929 Stalin had embarked upon forced collectivization and "liquidation of the kulaks [prosperous peasants] as a class." At this point Bukharin (belatedly) realized that Stalin had become the real architect of the "new Leviathan," a monstrous bureaucratic regime of "organized economic disorder."

The years following 1929 brought Bukharin's partial rehabilitation but no return of his previous authority. He continued to pursue his interest in science and literature, served as editor of Izvestia from 1934 to 1936, and was the principal author of the "great Stalin constitution" (as the Stalinists dubbed it) in 1936. As the "great terror" of the 1930's approached its climax, however, Bukharin was arrested in February 1937. In 1938 he appeared as the leading defendant in the last of Stalin's show trials, the case of the "anti-Soviet bloc of rights and Trotskyites."

A final appraisal of Bukharin must be a mixed one. As a Marxist theorist he frequently adopted questionable concepts from positivist sociology; as a politician he fatally misjudged Stalin; as editor of Pravda he helped to create the regime of party intolerance of which he eventually became the victim. Whether his solutions were appropriate to the crisis of the 1920's is an issue open to historical debate. While it is a fact that Bukharin himself never saw the market as a permanent feature of socialist society, he must nevertheless be counted among the original inspirers of all modern attempts to find an alternative to Stalinism in "market socialism." In the post-Stalin era, in many countries, efforts to reform Soviet-style planning raised echoes of Bukharin. Finally the Soviet Union itself, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, recognized the need for a radical restructuring of its economy on the basis of principles that Bukharin had consistently defended from 1921 on. In July 1988 Bukharin's membership in the Communist Party was posthumously restored to him.