Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Bukharin’s Ghost

"Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” by Stephen F Cohen, 2009

The counter-revolutions in the USSR and in Eastern Europe provide valuable information about how not to organize a socialist society.  This book by Stephen Cohen, a historian of Soviet history and a social-democrat of sorts, is an outstanding detailed addition to the literature.  He styles himself in public forums as sort of a latter-day George Kennan, prescribing a rational and non-hostile approach to Russia.  This book is a good companion volume to the analysis of the counter-revolution in Poland, “From Solidarity to Sellout – the Transition to Capitalism in Poland,” reviewed below. (Use blog search box, upper left.)  Cohen identifies the principal initiators and beneficiaries of counter-revolution in the USSR as the majority of the former Communist Party nomenklatura led by Boris Yeltsin.  It was not a ‘revolution of the people’ or ‘oppressed nations’ or some automatic breakdown, as the Western fairy tales go. 


Cohen is a ‘kind of’ co-thinker of Nicolai Bukharin, the executed leader of the Right Opposition in the USSR, who was killed in 1938.  Cohen spends some time on a defense of the New Economic Policy (NEP) developed by Lenin as a post-war strategy, then supported by the whole party.  Cohen thinks the NEP and a ‘mixed economy’ should have become a permanent feature of the USSR.  He supports the general thrust of Khrushchev, Gorbachev and the Chinese Communist Party, and their approaches to a ‘mixed economy.’  Cohen was a Bukharin biographer, and met with his family.  Doing that time he came into possession of some of the last 4 documents written by Bukharin while he was jailed in the Lubyanka – a novel about his childhood, a book of poetry, a philosophical treatise and a book on modern politics and culture.  Bukharin was rehabilitated by Gorbachev in 1988, along with a million other individuals. Khrushchev had earlier released and rehabilitated millions more.

Cohen shows how, even while Bukharin’s ‘confession’ admitted he was a ‘"degenerate fascist" working for the "restoration of capitalism" he also attempted to undermine the terms and claims of Stalin’s show trial.  Bukharin was, of course, put in an impossible situation, trying to protect his family (which didn’t work anyway) and perhaps spare his life.  He chose, like his politics, a ‘middle’ path.

The oddest part of this section is the complete invisibility of Leon Trotsky.  As an historian, this is negligent.  Cohen mentions Trotsky’s name once, but not as an opponent of Stalin.  He claims the title of most significant opponent of Stalin for Bukharin.  He does not mention that Bukharin collaborated with Stalin in ousting Trotsky from any leadership position in 1924 after Lenin’s death, or later helped to remove Kamenev, Zinoviev and many others from leadership.  Cohen misrepresents Lenin’s Last Testament in the process.  Nor does he mention that Bukharin edited Izvestia from 1934 until 1937, which was full of anti-Oppostion slanders during those years.  A letter to “Koba” from Bukharin was even found on Stalin’s desk in 1953, which shows how close they were.  Bukharin was the original author of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ - a theory carried out by Stalin. Trotsky, unlike Bukharin, was never rehabilitated by the Soviet bureaucracy, and for good reason.

Gulag Survivors

But I have not come to bury Cohen, but to praise him.  He was one of the first (and perhaps only) U.S. historians to collect the stories of gulag survivors, which he started on during his time in Moscow through contact with the Bukharin family.  He interviewed first-hand many ‘zeks’ - some from the Communist Party elite and later from other sectors, 60 in all, later turning over the material to another academic.  Stories of ‘camp life’ were prominent during Khrushchev's time, then disappeared, so by the time Cohen did this in the 1980s, it was again difficult.  The gulag survivors came out into a society where they were ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with the people who put them in the camps.  A continuing theme in his book is proposals for a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist camps and the purges which even Dimitri Medvedev recently supported.  Of course, it has never been built.  A Nuremberg solution was kicked about, but rejected by Khrushchev as hitting too close to home.

Perestroika & Glasnost

Cohen’s detailed description of the effects of the years of perestroika and glasnost are invaluable.  They provide a very careful rebuttal to the anti-communist and capitalist orthodoxy about who brought ‘democracy’ to Russia, who ended the ‘cold war’ and who began to change the economy.  It wasn’t Yeltsin, it was Gorbachev.  Cohen takes direct aim at every myth promulgated by American ideologues who can't admit a 'Communist' could ever do anything right.  But in the process he exposes Gorbachev to accusations of preparing the ground for counter-revolution too. Yeltsin and his cronies were all in Gorbachev’s camp.  The privatization and ‘grabbing’ of collectivized property began under Gorbachev.  The ‘multi-party’ democracy envisioned by Gorbachev led to capitalist restorationists gaining a large voice in the political arena.  Yeltsin was elected President or Russia by this method.  In his eagerness to do away with the cold war, Gorbachev backed Bush I during the first Iraq war, thus encouraging the U.S. in the Middle East.   

Yet this fits Cohen’s thesis that the ‘existing socialism’ under Gorbachev could have become kind of like a Scandinavian social-democracy if given the chance, and not the disaster that American-approved capitalist ‘shock treatment’ became.  Yeltsin’s shock treatment led to 10 years of the most severe peace-time depression in human history in Russia.  A Scandinavian social-democracy could have certainly been a vast improvement!  It was headed that way until the fateful Belovezh meeting in 1991, when Yeltsin and two other Republic leaders - Belarus and Ukraine - plotted to destroy the USSR, and did. 

Cohen points out that the most democratic and free period in modern Russia was during glasnost.  After Yeltsin gained power, he re-seized the media, jailed opponents and most famously militarily attacked the Russian Supreme Soviet in October 1993 with tanks, dispersing it, outlawing and arresting opposition parties and killing many.  Putin has only continued this process, but perhaps in a less clumsy, drunken way.  As you might remember, Putin gave Yeltsin life-time immunity after taking over. Putin continues to represent the new capitalist oligarchs and Russian nationalism in an authoritarian manner.

Soviet bureaucracy

Cohen has a long defense of Victor Ligachev, who was demonized by the West for not going along with Gorbachev 100%, but backed off as it became apparent that Gorbachev’s reforms were leading to counter-revolution. Ligachev was a transitional figure in the bureaucracy, but without a mass activist Communist Party and working class, any resistance to Yeltsin was aborted.   The August 1991 coup attempt, which did not involve Ligachev, was the pathetic last attempt by a wing of the conservative bureaucracy to retain power. In essence, isolated bureaucratic defense of a workers state is ultimately a failed policy. It failed because the leaders of the military – the armed bodies of men – had already begun to go over to capital, taking their lead from the majority of the nomenklatura.  Some military leaders were already engaged in privatization.  It also failed because it had no mass support.  Cohen puts the main emphasis on Yeltsin, but the ‘one man’ theory of politics is dwarfed by the social class theory of politics – as even a social-democrat like Cohen should know.

Cohen clearly points out that there is no such thing as a monolithic party, in spite of all the song and dance about ‘democratic centralism.’  Cohen identifies at least 3 major groupings in the Soviet CP during Gorbachev’s time which could have become mass parties.  He mourns that Gorbachev did not initiate a mass social-democratic party in the USSR or Russia.  Cohen indicates  that these ‘crypto-parties’ existed in some form throughout the USSR's post-revolutionary history. 

Trotsky’s warning about a counter-revolutionary faction of the bureaucracy came to life when a pro-capitalist majority of the Soviet bureaucracy demanded capitalism and privatization, and took power under Yeltsin.  They had immediate financial benefits from this transition – ownership of factories, oil and gas fields, offices, etc.  Cohen elucidates how the history of Russia since then is the history of this seizure of public property by this group of  new oligarchs.  Trotsky always pointed out that the bureaucracy was ultimately counter-revolutionary in effect, and also for a faction, in practice.  This book proves the point.  This also jibes with Kowalik’s views about what happened in Poland.  There, the individual factory managers grew more and more independent, and the plan disappeared. 


Cohen has a long discussion on whether the Soviet system was ‘reformable’ (in a debate with pro-capitalist ideologues) and, after going through all the alternatives, shows that the facts indicate it was reformable.  In other words, there is no such thing as fate, but only ‘lost alternatives,’ much as in every society.  Even the Soviet CP in 1990 elected their leadership for the first time – something the U.S. C.P. is probably yet to do. 

National Question

Cohen also punctures the myths about nationalistic uprisings all over the USSR.  While it was true of the tiny Baltic republics, most realized that the USSR was a ‘single economic space.’  There was a March 1991 referendum among the populations, which voted overwhelmingly for the Union.  In August 1991 the 9 major republics negotiated a new Union structure.  Only a few months later the Union was dismantled from the top by Yeltsin’s coup.  At that point, even the befuddled Communist delegates in the parliament voted to dissolve the USSR after an hour of discussion!  A fait accompli.  

Hostility to Russia

Cohen eviscerates the ruling class attitude towards Russia and clearly places the blame for the ‘new cold war’ on the U.S. and its allies – a process that started years ago under Clinton, and has come to fruition under Obama and the Ukraine.   If you imagine, as an American, a Russian coup in Mexico, with their missiles ringing the USA in Canada, the Caribbean and Central America, you might know how the Russians feel.  Putin even tried to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, but it did no good.  Cohen pays particular attention to the Ossetian war in 2008, which was a proxy war between Russia and the US.

The new cold war started after the US unilaterally rejected Russian membership in the WTO, adopted sanctions against Belarus and deleted any mention of a Russian/US partnership in 2006.  According to Cohen the new cold war consists of:  1. Military encirclement of Russia; 2. hypocritical denial that Russia has any legitimate security concerns outside its border; 3. even an assertion that Russia does not have full sovereignty inside its own borders; 4. double-standards on behavior; and 5. nuclear superiority.  This geo-political jihad for world domination by U.S. imperialism is ongoing.


Cohen is married to one of the editors of the Nation magazine, a social-democratic outfit that criticizes Democrats, then votes for them, and never advocates or organizes for an independent socialist, peoples or working-class party.  It is, in essence, the left-wing of the Democratic Party.  His stubborn defense of Bukharin makes him an intellectual outlier in this bunch – after all Bukharin was a Bolshevik – and his more intelligent analysis of the provocative coup in Ukraine and military/economic encirclement of Russia by the US and EU ruling classes is refreshing.  This all puts him outside the orbit of the Democratic Party, yet that is the party the Nation ends up supporting year in, year out.  

Most notable in the book is its analysis based on the ‘great men’ of Russia.  That analysis fails to take into account that the weaknesses in the USSR were not just forced collectivization or the purges or Stalin, but a long-running bureaucratic system that shut out the working class from exercising ultimate power.  These crimes were outgrowths of that top-end control.  Which is why the bureaucrats found it so easy to ‘take’ the factories, mines, offices, oil and gas fields, mills, shops and warehouses when their turn came - and to ultimately end the USSR. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
September 23, 2014

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