Book Review from the December 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Philosophical Arabesques. By Nikolai Bukharin. Pluto Press. 2005. £35 (hardback)
While Bukharin was in prison, awaiting the show trial that would lead to him being sentenced to death and executed in 1938 on preposterous, trumped-up charges of sabotage and treason, he chose to spent the time writing books. One of these was on philosophy. It was found in the Kremlin archives after the fall of state capitalism, published in Russia and now in English translation.
Bukharin was one of the more interesting and able of the Bolsheviks. Even before the Bolshevik seizure of power he had written a couple of books which are quite acceptable as an expression of a Marxist point of view: Imperialism and the World Economy and The Theory of the Leisure Class (a criticism of the Austrian school of marginalist economics), both written in 1914 when he was 26. After the Bolsheviks came to power he was an obvious candidate to codify Bolshevik theory; which he did in The ABC of Communism (written with E. Preobrazhensky) (1919), The Economics of the Transformation Period (1920), and The Theory of Historical Materialism (1921) which are sophisticated defences of Bolshevik theory and practice using Marxian terminology and concepts.
As a member of the Politburo, Bukharin also played a political role. In the struggles amongst the Bolshevik leaders following the death of Lenin in 1924, he supported the policy of consolidating the Bolshevik regime internally (as opposed to trying to foment world revolution) favoured by Stalin and most members of the Russian party. In fact, as editor of Pravda in the 1920s, it fell to him to come up with a theoretical defence of this policy.
It can even be said that he, even more than Stalin, elaborated the theory of "socialism in one country" so reviled by Trotskyists. To do so he had to identify "socialism" with the state sector of the economy, i.e. with what he had once called "state capitalism" (he had temporarily been one of the "leftist blockheads" denounced by Lenin in 1918 for opposing the Bolsheviks' economic policy of the time as "state capitalism": of course it was state capitalism, retorted Lenin, adding that, what's more, state capitalism would be a step forward for economically backward Russia). He opposed the adoption of Stalin's policy of forced industrialization and collectivisation of agriculture in 1929 and so fell from favour, but remained a leading figure in the regime. However, once Stalin decided in the mid-1930s to eliminate all potential rivals he was a doomed man.
Perhaps surprisingly, Philosophical Arabesques represents a return to his earlier Marxist approach to things, in the tradition of Plekhanov who wrote extensively on materialism and problems of philosophy. He does follow rather slavishly Lenin's philosophical views as expressed in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908) and Philosophical Notebooks (1915), but these were not all that different from those of other pre-WWI Social Democrats in the Marxist tradition. The trouble was that Lenin was intellectually intolerant and in his 1908 book violently denounced other materialists, who didn't agree with his version of materialism, for being not materialists but crypto-idealists, solipsists (people who believe that only their self exists) and what he called "fideists" (religious).
Thus, it is rather off-putting to find in the opening chapters of Bukharin's book the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume described as a "subjective idealist" and a "solipsist", whereas all he had done was to question whether or not such a thing as absolute knowledge was possible (a proposition also challenged, even if from a different angle, by dialectics). Hume - and the others in the British empiricist tradition which includes Bertrand Russell and AJ Ayer, both declared atheists - were not "idealists" in the sense of believing that the outside world only existed in the mind and were certainly not so mad as to think that only they existed.
They are certainly open to criticism for their approach of starting from the point of view of an isolated philosopher sitting in his study trying to work out, on the basis of his personal sense-perceptions, if he really can either know or believe that the outside world and other people exist; instead of from the point of view of humans living and producing as a social and socialised group - a criticism Bukharin also makes of them, pointing out that the fact that the isolated philosopher uses words to think shows in itself that other humans must exist since language is a product of human society. But to call them names that suggest they deny the existence of a world outside the human mind is absurd, in fact a display of ignorance.
Bukharin is more at home with German philosophy (which really was idealist) - Kant, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel. Although he mentions Hegel in every chapter, he provides a balanced view of his system, warts and all (and some of the warts were enormous) and of what Marx took from it as its "rational core".
Basically, what Marx retained and applied to the real world as opposed to the world of ideas was (1) that you should not judge by empirical appearances alone (otherwise you might think that the Sun went round the Earth) but try, by theoretical analysis, to get at what might be behind them, (2) that everything is an inter-related part of the whole that is the universe, and (3) that everything is in a constant process of being transformed into something else, but that this change is not always continuous but involves leaps and breaks.
Add to this the traditional materialist view, that non-living nature preceded living forms of nature, that as an animal capable of abstract thought and consciousness of self humans evolved from animals without this capacity, and that mind and consciousness cannot exist apart from a living body, and you have "dialectical materialism".
Whether dialectics is the basic law of motion of the universe (as Bukharin argues) or a human description and interpretation of what they observe in nature remains a subject of debate, evenamongst Marxists.
Bukharin's book would be of interest merely as the writing of someone who knows he is soon going to be killed but it is also worth reading in its own right as a work of philosophy. Bukharin obviously thought this an important subject to choose it as his last writing. He even asked to be executed by poison "like Socrates". Stalin let him be shot.