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Haditha Ethics - From Iraq to Iran?

The Spokesman, 91


Nikolai Bukharin, Philosophical Arabesques, translated by Renfrey Clarke, Pluto Press, London 2005, 448 pages, hardback ISBN 0745324770 £35.00


Nikolai Bukharin was arrested in February 1937, and shot in the back of the head thirteen months later. When he was not actually starring in the show trial which provided the culminating moment in Stalin’s purge of the old Bolshevik Party, he was engaged in a desperate negotiation with the secret police to save his young wife, Larina, and their baby son, from the executioners.


Evidently, the price of their lives was not only the extinction of Bukharin himself, but also a dreadful ignominy, in which he took upon himself responsibility for all sorts of imaginary crimes. The purpose of the Bukharin trial was to incriminate all the oppositionists which it destroyed in fictitious plots to dismember the Soviet Union in the service of the Nazis, thus making unavoidable the golden rule, so often since invoked: ‘there is no alternative’.


It was already evident to rational observers that by the time Bukharin was brought to trial, he was doomed. The fact that he wrote four books while he was being interrogated is remarkable testimony to his self-control and personal courage. But since he, above all, must have had a strong presentiment of the fate which awaited him, he must, at least some of the time, assumed that he was writing for an audience of one. The principal mystery which remains is how it came about that these four prison books were kept from the incinerator when their author was dispatched.


Helena Sheehan contributes an introduction to Philosophical Arabesques, under the title ‘A Voice from the Dead’. It is a thoughtful essay. She sketches out the work programme that Bukharin had undertaken. The four manuscripts involved were: Socialism and its Culture, ‘a sequel to his book The Degradation of Culture and Fascism’ which he was in the course of writing immediately before he was arrested. This prison manuscript was intended to be published as the second part of a two-volume work called The Crisis of Capitalist Culture and Socialism. The second prison volume was a collection of poems entitled The Transformation of the World. The third was an autobiographical novel, and the fourth was the book we are considering, Philosophical Arabesques.


Thanks to the intervention of Gorbachev, and the eloquent prompting of Stephen Cohen, Bukharin’s biographer, these books were exhumed from the archives. Two of them, the Arabesques and the autobiographical work, were published in Russian soon after, and have been translated into English very recently. The others may be expected when the publishing industry catches up with these forgotten events.


Whatever modern philosophers may think about them, there is no doubt that Bukharin himself regarded his philosophical manuscripts as central to his legacy.


‘I wrote (them) mostly at night, literally wrenching them from my heart. I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear … don’t let this work perish … this is completely apart from my personal fate.’


That he felt it necessary to address such a letter to Stalin explains how very far the criticism of events had already gone to falsify his philosophy. Stalin, here, disposed of absolute power, and could decide on the merest whim whether to extinguish Bukharin’s life or not. He could also decide whether to extinguish what was left of Bukharin’s philosophy. Philosophical Arabesques, the prisoner told his wife, Anna, was ‘the most important thing’.


Long ago in his heyday, Bukharin had composed a primer of Marxist sociology, widely published under the title Historical Materialism.


This was a scholarly book, replete with modern instances, but it was squarely within the tradition of Russian Marxist thinking, established by Plekhanov. A thousand miles away from the later pieties which were so much esteemed by Stalin, this was nonetheless a somewhat mechanical work, and drew down a barrage of criticism from the most significant Marxian philosophers in Central and Western Europe, such as Gramsci, Karl Korsch and Lukacs. Their criticisms must have stung Bukharin because they all echoed somewhat comments by Lenin (in his famous testament), to the effect that Bukharin ‘had never really understood the dialectic’. Now, in prison, this bruising apologia was Bukharin’s attempt to claim that dialectic. As a moment in the history of ideas it is interesting: but not anything like as interesting as it is poignant. It is as if Galileo were to seek to compose his testament within the mental framework of the medieval church. Bukharin begins his book with an obligatory proclamation of the proletarian confession, and a denunciation of his historical opponents.


‘These walking dead, these living corpses, remote from material practice, “pure thinkers,” intellectual human dust, still exist, and most importantly, continue to infect the air with the excreta of their brains, and to cast their nets, fine, sticky nets of arguments, which to many people still seem convincing.’


This is his general anathema pronounced upon ‘the devil of solipsism’. But that devil continues to exist, while Bukharin, himself genuinely enlisted among the walking dead, would soon stop walking.


During the First World War Lenin had devoted some time in exile to the study of Hegel’s logic. In his notebooks on that study, he had insisted that the consistency of thoroughgoing idealism was closer to the truth than mechanical materialism. In short, he recognised a greater affinity between Marx and Hegel than had become fashionable among most of the Marxists of the late nineteenth century. That is perhaps why Bukharin, seeking to claim the patrimony of Lenin’s view, was at pains to begin his work with an attack on solipsism, or ‘subjective’ idealism. In its classic embodiment, Bishop Berkeley had argued that our knowledge of the external world could not penetrate beyond the sense-data through which we received it. For those for whom it matters, it is possible to play quite a large number of word games based on this perception. Does the material world exist? Hegel and Marx were not concerned with unravelling word games, but with understanding the connections in reality, which one called ‘ideal’ and another ‘material’.


When refuting Bishop Berkeley’s earlier exposition of solipsism, Samuel Johnson was said to have kicked a stone, and proclaimed: ‘I refute it thus’. Bukharin cites a number of other such vulgar refutations. Stalin’s refutation, however, was even more vulgar and brutal. The annihilation of Bukharin guaranteed that the one-time numerous public which avidly followed the progress of his earlier thought would shrink to the merest coterie, while the principal interest of his book for scholars would be as a trigger to assist the understanding of the dictator’s aberrant psychology.


I was involved in the late history of this affair. Approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Bukharin’s execution, his son, Yuri Larin, drafted an appeal to Enrico Berlinguer, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, to intercede for the rehabilitation of his father. Since Berlinguer did not respond, Roy Medvedev sent a copy of this appeal to me, with the request that I do what I could to secure a favourable response.


Bukharin’s rehabilitation had been in train in 1956, but it was aborted by Khrushchev, because important Communist Parties in Western Europe had taken objection to it. Following the Secret Speech of 1956, they had lost very large numbers of members, and they thought that the haemorrhage could even wash them away if it were not staunched. Evidently, Yuri Larin had rightly intuited that something was stirring in Italian Communism, which was made of different and more inquisitive stuff from the rigorous orthodoxy of the latter-day Stalinists in France.


A large part of the support for Bukharin’s rehabilitation naturally came from those who approved of his economic policies. Their numbers had much increased in Russia itself, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. I did not share their view, but I did share the opinion that the rehabilitation of Bukharin was important in the struggle for the re-establishment of human rights, and for the reassertion of a measure of freedom of enquiry. So I drafted an appeal for the Russell Foundation, and we set about the systematic collection of signatures among Socialists and Communists in Western Europe and further afield.


Very nearly straight away, prominent Italian Socialists such as Riccardo Lombardi, Lelio Basso and Enzo Agnoletti signed the appeal, and announced that they had done so in the Italian press. There followed a rapid and generous response from leading Italian Communists. Others joined their voices, from Australia all the way across to the United States. Then came Berlinguer’s answer to Larin’s appeal: the Istituto Gramsci promulgated a seminar on the life and work of Bukharin, with keynote papers by Steve Cohen, his biographer, and by prominent scholars such as Alex Nove, Moshe Lewin, Wlodzimierz Brus, Su Shaozhi and Guiseppe Boffa.


As this argument continued to gather force, it found powerful supporters in the Soviet Union, and ultimately it brought about Gorbachev’s decision to repudiate the infamous trial, and make belated amends to Bukharin’s family for his destruction. So it came about that Steve Cohen established a major victory, and restored these books to the open library shelves.


But the political momentum of this restoration went far further, restoring greatly more of the market than anyone in Bukharin’s time had imagined to be possible. Thus poor Russia endured a plague of oligarchs and speculators, who established new world records for cupidity and unbridled greed.


I cannot here digress into the impact of these events in China, which was in some ways even greater. There, my short booklet on the Bukharin case was translated into Chinese on the initiative of Su Shaozhi, later to become the head of the Institute of Marxism, Leninism, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, and one of the first exiles following the confrontation of Tiananmen Square.


In a way, Bukharin’s rehabilitation was too complete, even if it was at least as muddled as its own subject. Socialism with Chinese characteristics has at one level been incredibly successful, and owns a very large part of the American National Debt. But at another level, it would have been a great disappointment to Bukharin, since it can still only be promoted in smoke signals, and in the language of hints, nods and winks.


Solipsism may not avoid the reproaches levelled at it by those previous generations of Marxists: but compared to the depredations of capitalist Communism, it might seem relatively rational.


Ken Coates




Independent News Collective


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