The Russian revolution of 1917 was the most significant political event of the twentieth century - and possibly of the twenty first. There will always be dreams of the perfect society and a belief that capitalism is not it. Putting religion to one side, three centuries of progressive secular thought have led to no significant alternative to Marxism.
In 1917 a party which was completely committed to Marx's vision attained state power. As they saw it, they had an opportunity to create the future they dreamt of. Unfortunately, there was no blueprint, no roadmap. They had been granted the vision; the rest they would have to work out for themselves.
Post-revolution, World War One still continued. The workers and peasants across Russia were out of control. The peasants were busy expropriating the landlords and creating that regressive peasant-utopia of small self-owned landholdings. The workers had seized the factories and were running them themselves. The army had elected soldiers' councils and was ungovernable. The economy had collapsed. Then came the armed counter-revolution.
The Soviet regime survived - just - but only by taking administrative control of industry and the agrarian economy. This was the period known as 'War Communism'.
By 1921 the policy was bankrupt: peasants would not produce grain and livestock to be requisitioned; micromanagement of industrial production was a disaster. The party introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) which restored market relations between town and country and in the SME sector.
Important sections of the Bolshevik party violently opposed NEP seeing the danger of a restoration of capitalism. Yet over the next few years the policy was remarkably successful in stabilising, and then growing the economy. Nikolai Bukharin - warm, gregarious intellectual, liberal and cultured - was the principal architect of NEP economics and achieved great prominence in this period.
By 1928, NEP had hit the buffers. Factories were at full capacity, agricultural productivity was abysmal (all those undercapitalised smallholdings) while unemployment was increasing in the cities as peasants deserted the land. Worse, with fascism on the ascendant in Germany, there were worrying indications of war.
The problem was the urgent need for a massive injection of capital to drive industrialisation: electrification, heavy industry, transportation. No-one seriously believed the capitalist financial sector could be relied upon - the source would have to be endogenous.
Bukharin and his group believed that an organic, harmonious re-tweaking of the economy could keep everyone happy: the peasantry, workers, light and heavy industry. The unpleasant alternative was to soak the peasants. This would involve forced collectivisation of the agrarian workforce into large, economically-efficient holdings and manipulation of agricultural prices to subsidise industrial investment.
Since no-one thought the peasants would agree to this, it could only be achieved by force. In 1929 Stalin launched his 'revolution from above', mass agrarian requisitions and forced collectivization.
Over the next decade as the new policies played out, the level of opposition within the party was immense. Stalin's response was intense repression, culminating in the infamous Moscow Trials. Bukharin, the 'Last Bolshevik', was perhaps the most high-profile victim.
From Stephen Cohen's book (pp 374 ff.)
"History sometimes remembers its important actors in inappropriate ways. For many years after his death, Bukharin was defined in the Western political imagination not by his role in the Bolshevik Party or by what he represented in Soviet history, but almost exclusively by his show trial of 1938.
The grim fascination of an illustrious founding father pilloried and executed as a "rabid enemy" of the Soviet Republic is understandable. It was made doubly compelling, however, by a widespread misconception - that Bukharin willingly confessed to hideous, preposterous crimes in order to repudiate what he himself represented, to repent sincerely his opposition to Stalinism, and thereby to perform a "last service" to the party and its myth of infallibility.
Derived from a misinterpretation of his conduct at his trial, this notion gained popularity with Arthur Koestler's famous 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, whose fictional purge victim, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik modeled largely on Bukharin, is persuaded by his police interrogator (and by himself) of the necessity and rightness of such a "last service."
Owing largely to Koestler's powerful art, this image of Bukharin-Rubashov as repentant Bolshevik and morally bankrupt intellectual prevailed for two generations. In fact, however, as some understood at the time and others eventually came to see, Bukharin did not really confess to the criminal charges at all.
Why so many confessed is no longer a mystery. By 1917, Soviet political prisons had become the scene of the cruelest methods of physical torture, continual debilitating interrogation (the "conveyor" system) for weeks on end, countless summary executions.
Brutal atrocities were inflicted on men and women, young and old alike. It was, concludes one Soviet historian, "probably the most terrible page in Russian history." Many prisoners somehow held out, finally tortured to death or shot without confessing. Those who "confessed" did so for the most human of reasons: they were physically or otherwise compelled. A few Bolsheviks may have confessed because of Rubashov-like motives; but for the great tormented majority, a survivor tells us, Darkness at Noon "would have been the subject of gay mockery."
In these surroundings, Bukharin, reportedly not tortured, held out "with remarkable vigor" for three months against the continual threats and interrogation directed by Yezhov on Stalin's instructions. On around June 2, 1937, he finally relented, "only after the investigators threatened to kill his wife and newborn son."
This was no idle threat. "'Wives of Enemies of the People" with their children were routinely arrested and used as hostages (particularly in cases of major Bolsheviks scheduled to appear in show trials), sentenced to long prison terms or shot.
Within weeks of his arrest, Bukharin's wife and son had been exiled with relatives of other "politicals" to Astrakhan. To save them - they spent the next twenty years in prison camps - he had to "confess" and stand trial."
We look at the Russian revolution and ask: did it have to turn out this way? Could Trotsky or Bukharin have won? If they had, would things have turned out .. OK?
You would expect Stephen Cohen - such a fan of Bukharin - to be pretty optimistic here. And yet .. . If Bukharin had won, the economy would not have developed as it undoubtedly did (despite many stupidities) under Stalin's first and second five-year plans.
Because Soviet Russia did manage to industrialise (on the backs and bodies of the peasantry) they were able to defeat the Nazis in WW2. We in the UK probably owe our existence as an independent country to that fact.
Omelettes and eggs: despite all the calumny heaped upon Stalin personally, he didn't do it all by himself. His policies had support - perhaps because they were least-wrong. The tragedy for Russia was that once the mincing machine had done its work they couldn't find a way to retire Stalin and the police state and return to Bukharin's vision.
But the deeper truth from Stephen Cohen's excellent book is that even Bukharin's liberal Marxism was in practice illiberal, undemocratic, top-down and unworkable. To this day we lack any Marxist thinkers who can summon up a compelling and authoritative strategy for improving on capitalism.
In this centenary of the Bolshevik revolution everybody will have an agenda. Liberal pieties will not be in short supply. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin is a breath of fresh air, refreshingly non-doctrinaire and taking the reader into the heart of debates untainted by hindsight.