Order Online


Recent Titles

The Spokesman


Bertrand Russell


Philosophical Writings


Socialist Renewal


Peace & 

Human Rights


Socialist Classics

Labour History


New Thinkers' Library


Noam Chomsky

Kurt Vonnegut

Tony Benn

Ken Coates


Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation




A-Z by Author

A-Z Books





Contact Us





Bukharin’s Prison Writings


Nikolai Bukharin, translated by George Shriver, Socialism and Its Culture,

258 pages, Seagull Books, ISBN 978 1 90542 222 7, £16.99


Up-to-the-minute capitalist globalism here presents itself at the service of ancient Communism. The Prison Manuscripts of Nikolai Bukharin, written in unbelievable ‘medieval’ circumstances during his detention prior to the mock trial which sentenced him to death, have been appearing in a series of volumes from different publishers. I reviewed one of these a year ago, but here there appears another, typeset in Calcutta and printed in Kings Lynn. This example of international capitalist co-operation stands in marked contrast (which would have astonished Bukharin) to the troubled evolution of the former Soviet Union.

Where, today, is the


‘respect and comradeship in the relations between collective farmers of Turkmenistan and those of Ukraine, those of Tajikistan and those of Georgia, those of the Moscow region and those of Azerbaijan, those of Siberia, and those of Birobijan (the Jewish autonomous region in the Soviet Far East) …’?


It is unfortunately hazardous to believe one’s own propaganda too deeply, and this kind of belief is a hallmark of Bukharin’s posthumous book. He argues that the mutual respect and comradeship of the farmers


‘is evident at the congresses held by collective farmers where the most important decisions are made in common.’


It is true that some collective farms have survived in a relatively healthy condition, especially in Belarus. But the collegiality of decision making withered long since, if it had ever truly existed.


Of course, Bukharin was locked in prison, with no access to research materials, and he had to write from memory. Equally significantly, he was actually writing for a known audience of one, who alone held the power of life and death over him. This was not a time to try to induct Stalin into a more objective understanding of social conditions in the Soviet Union, and of the relative powers of different social groups there. Whatever Bukharin said would have to echo official propaganda in all substantial matters. The only relative freedom of movement would be in matters of high ideology.


Even here, flatulent slogans are by no means avoided.


‘The USSR is showing the world a model of brotherhood and unity among nationalities. This is not the abstract cosmopolitanism of a utopian rationalist who fails to see the real particularities and distinctive features among nationalities …’


There would soon be time to explore these real particularities when whole nationalities were being deported, very shortly after Bukharin’s own extinction. This trauma had effects which lived on long after the Second World War, and erupted in a series of bloody conflicts in the declining years of the USSR, which persist and indeed get worse.


In short, Bukharin’s parting thoughts have not weathered well. Since they were marshalled under such adverse conditions, it is not really reasonable to expect that they might. Quite aside from any appeal for clemency for himself, which must have been a part of his thinking, even if unstated, these prison writings were certainly aimed at securing a reprieve for his wife and young son, Anna Larina and Yuri. Anna was half his age, and very beautiful. He doted on her. But in fact, Anna had already been sent to the Gulag before these writings were finished, and Yuri was already placed into foster care.


Steve Cohen, Bukharin’s biographer, who describes his valiant efforts to recover the Prison Manuscripts, tells us how Anna and Yuri were reunited, after she had made a prolonged journey through Stalin’s prisons, labour camps and Siberian exile, and after Yuri had spent two decades under a different family name, in various foster homes and orphanages. Brought together again in 1956, they met up with Bukharin’s biographer before the rehabilitation in 1988.


Bukharin was a cultivated man and could be highly persuasive. But he was also capable of lucid analysis and sober political judgement, which qualities are not very evident in these Prison Manuscripts. If Stalin’s purge of the old Bolsheviks was not simply an aberration, then it needed explanation. Evidently this cannot be found in these pages. Attempts to explain would certainly bring down on those who were presumptuous enough to embark upon them, condign punishment.

This was the fate of Trotsky, who was already in exile, and who was, in 1940, murdered by a KGB agent in Mexico (as is now known, with direct support from

Moscow). It happens that Trotsky had published, in 1936, his remarkable book on The Revolution Betrayed. Readers of Bukharin’s Prison Manuscripts will be mainly motivated by the desire to understand the poignant tragedy of their author. If they are looking for a real light on the subject of the manuscripts, then they should certainly begin their reading with The Revolution Betrayed, however far they may subsequently succeed in going beyond it.


Since 1936 we in the West have also become familiar with another Russian voice, which was not at that time very widely available. This was the voice of

André Platonov, a certified ‘unstable element’ who left the Communist Party in 1921. It was only a year after Bukharin’s rehabilitation that saw the publication in the Soviet Union of The Foundation Pit, which had been written long before, from

1929-30. A group of workers are digging an immense pit, to lay the foundations of a colossal building, intended to house the local proletariat in its entirety. This, of course, is destined never to be built.


Platonov captures the extraordinary mixture of hope and despair ‘by which many ordinary people must have lived during Stalin’s revolution from above’. Perhaps those who seek to understand Bukharin’s tortured last manuscripts, to do him justice need Platonov as their guide.


Ken Coates








































Independent News Collective


Spokesman Books,

 Russell House,

Bulwell Lane,




contact us


tel: 0115 970 8318 | fax: 0115 942 0433