Stephen F. Cohen Helped Us Understand the Russian Revolution and Nikolai Bukharin

Stephen Cohen, who passed away earlier this year, resisted ideological conformity at every turn. The great historian of Nikolai Bukharin and the Russian Revolution left behind a deep body of work that will remain invaluable for generations of socialists to come.

Stephen F. Cohen (1938–2020).

Stephen Cohen, historian of the Russian Revolution and commentator on Russian-American relations, passed away earlier this year.

His most important and enduring contribution was a groundbreaking 1973 biography of Nikolai Bukharin. Cohen was born in 1938, the same year Bukharin was executed by Stalin, and his work encouraged socialists and historians to engage with both the neglected legacy of one of the true geniuses of the Russian Revolution and larger interpretive questions about the rise of Stalinism.

Taking issue with the anti-Communist narrative of the Russian Revolution leading inexorably to Stalinism, Cohen argued that Bolshevism “was a diverse movement” with “endless disputes over fundamental issues.” The 1920s was a “golden era” of Marxist thought, with “contrary theories and rival schools.” Bukharin, “rightly considered the favorite of the whole party,” according to Lenin, was at the center of many of these controversies. More than a political biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938 offered “a way of reexamining the Bolshevik revolution” and the formative years of Soviet history.

Unearthing the Real Bukharin

At age seventeen, Bukharin joined the Bolsheviks during the 1905 Revolution and helped rally Moscow youth groups into a citywide organization. Along with fellow students Valerian Osinsky and Vladimir Smirnov, he spearheaded “theoretical raids” at Moscow University seminars, putting forward Marxist critiques against liberal professors. He was also involved in the workers’ movement and by age twenty was elected to the Bolshevik Moscow Committee.

Bukharin made his mark, however, as an economist and theoretician. The free enterprise system analyzed in Capital had undergone profound changes that he examined in Imperialism and World Economy. Influenced by Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital, Bukharin described how free competition of early capitalism was supplanted by “monopoly alliances of entrepreneurs” in which “state capitalist trusts” of “several hundred billionaires and millionaires hold in their hands the fate of the whole world.” During the war, state power was “sucking in almost all branches of production” and “more and more became a direct exploiter, organizing and directing production as a collective capitalist.”

But the major issue that placed the rising young star at loggerheads with Lenin was over the Marxist theory of the state. Several European Marxists, including Anton Pannekoek and Zeth Höglund, had rehabilitated the anti-statism of Marx, while Bukharin became the first Bolshevik to do so in his Toward a Theory of the Imperialist State. Lenin refused to publish the essay and accused Bukharin of “semi-anarchism” for advocating the “exploding of the state.” Bukharin complained to Lenin of rumors that the leader had surrounded himself with an obsequious coterie (presumably Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev) and would not tolerate anyone “with brains.”

When Bukharin returned to Moscow in May 1917, Nadezhda Krupskaya’s first words to him were that Lenin “no longer has any disagreements with you on the question of the state.” Lenin had undertaken his own research on Marxism on the State before he returned to Russia that would guide much of his 1917 strategy. Lenin’s arguments for insurrection were seen by many of his lieutenants, including Kamenev and Zinoviev in Petrograd and Viktor Nogin in Moscow, as “almost a betrayal of accepted Marxist ideology” according to Bukharin. Cohen posits that Lenin relied on new leaders such as Leon Trotsky and Interdistricters in Petrograd and Bukharin and young Moscow Lefts to overcome the Bolshevik right wing and push his party toward the October Revolution later that year.

In early 1918, Bukharin headed “the largest and powerful Bolshevik opposition in the history of the Soviet Union.” Bukharin and his young Moscow comrades inspired the Left Communists to oppose the peace treaty with Germany, calling for a guerilla “holy war against militarism and imperialism” and produced their own journal, Kommunist. The future defender of “socialism in one country” was the most resolute internationalist, asserting that it was their duty to aid the fledgling European rebellion that was underway in Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest.

With the young Soviet state’s resources stretched and a population eager for peace, support for the Left Communists quickly melted, but the faction persisted in defending their differences with Lenin over the transition to socialism. With the economic catastrophe worsening, Lenin called for an end to nationalizations, giving commissars “dictatorial powers,” technical and financial collaboration with capitalists, and increased labor discipline to restore productivity (supplanting workers’ control in the process). Bukharin reviewed Lenin’s State and Revolution enthusiastically in Kommunist, with its repudiation of bureaucratic political and economic authority. For Bukharin and the Left, Lenin’s volte-face represented an abandonment of the ideals of the “commune state.”

Cohen describes Bukharin’s 1920 Economics of the Transition Period as his “ode to war communism.” During the Civil War, it provided “a theoretical justification of voluntarism and social leaps,” as well as coercion against the peasantry to feed the Red Army. Bukharin claimed there was “a struggle between the organizing tendencies of the proletariat and the commodity-anarchical tendencies of the peasantry.” With the Civil War over and the Soviet Union ravaged by economic catastrophe and famine, Bukharin revised his earlier positions. Within a year, he argued that this same working class itself “has been peasantized” and later would assert that war communism had been a “caricature of socialism.”

Lenin’s more lenient New Economic Policy (NEP), introduced in 1921, emphasized persuasion instead of coercion and encouraged peasants to cultivate their own land and to sell their produce on the market. Bukharin was Lenin’s closest collaborator after his second stroke at the end of 1922. By April 1923, Bukharin had become “the most convinced and consistent defender” of the smychka (“alliance”) between the working class and peasantry and advocate of the NEP. Citing Lenin’s last five articles before his January 1924 death, Cohen shows that Bukharin reiterated arguments initially made by the Bolshevik leader. Lenin warned against “exaggerated revolutionism” and the need for a “‘reformist,’ gradualist, cautiously roundabout method of activity of economic construction.”

To get the entire population participating in cooperatives, posited Lenin, would take a “whole historical epoch,” at best, “one or two decades.” Collaboration between the working class and the peasantry was crucial, as a split “would be fatal for the Soviet Republic.”

Central to Bukharin’s vision of the worker-peasant smychka was lowering industrial prices for peasants as consumers. Instead of focusing on production, as had the Preobrazhensky and the forces now on the party’s left, Bukharin envisioned expanding peasant demand as the driving force to stimulate all branches of industry. Bukharin’s call for peasants to “enrich themselves” was aimed at the middle peasants, “the most important stratum” that had to be won by Soviet power.

The task was to pull the lower strata up through increasing output, rather than have them dwell in “equality in poverty.” Above all, Bukharin maintained the transition to socialism should not be “parasitic” based on “socialist primitive accumulation” and the rapid transfer of surplus from the countryside to the cities, as suggested by Preobrazhensky, since this would endanger the smychka and the Bolshevik government’s very survival.

Bukharin himself had used the term “socialist primitive accumulation” in his 1920 Economics of the Transition Period, but Cohen did not include Lenin’s commentary that this was “extremely unfortunate. A childish game in its imitation of terms, used by adults.” Given the brutal historical role that “primitive capitalist accumulation” had played in the early development of capitalism, it was preposterous to suggest that either the workers or peasants should be exploited under a workers’ state. Similarly, Bukharin himself later criticized Preobrazhensky’s method of treating the peasantry as objects outside the early socialist system, to be manipulated in the state’s interests in collectivization and forced industrialization.

With rising urban unemployment and without foreign investment, the late NEP crisis renewed the economic conundrum of how an isolated Soviet Union was to pay for further industrial expansion beyond the recovery of the early NEP. When Great Britain broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1927, an exaggerated war scare ensued and brought Bukharin much closer to the Left on the need for increased state planning and spending on heavy industry. But as Bukharin asked, “the major problem: how is a poverty-ridden country to scrap together the abundant capital for industrialization?”

As Mike Haynes has argued, no democratic solution was possible for overcoming economic backwardness. Bukharin advocated a policy of a modest “belt-tightening” that included increased labor productivity. The Left favored increased taxation of so-called kulaks (“wealthy peasants”) and NEPmen (businessmen). Cohen points out that both strategies were framed within the confines of the NEP and both were far less draconian than Stalin’s ultimate solution of war against the entire peasantry and working class to pay for industrialization. As Cohen asserted, Bukharin and the Left “fought over principles while an intriguer gradually acquired the power to destroy them all.”

Cohen pulls no punches in critiquing the division of labor between Bukharin’s defense of the NEP and Stalin’s increasingly ruthless control of the party apparatus, closing his eyes to what he knew were “the opposition’s legitimate grievances.” Bukharin went so far as to rationalize the substitution problem in which the party had replaced the rule of an “immature” working class for its own rule — a deferral of self-emancipation that would become one of the pillars of Stalinism in the twentieth century. Bukharin never connected his analysis of Stalinism with his conception of state capitalism, as his old comrade Osinsky and the Democratic Centralist opposition had when they wrote that “Socialism and socialist organization must be built by the proletariat itself, otherwise it will not be built at all . . .”

The July 1928 Central Committee plenum, claims Cohen, was the crucial event in the confrontation with Stalin’s loyalists. By then Bukharin saw Stalin as “an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to the preservation of his power” and who “changes theories depending on whom he wants to get rid of the most.” Support for Bukharin’s policies was substantial, but Stalin controlled the party apparatus as all the uncommitted members sided with him. For the first time, Stalin talked openly about a new Soviet agrarian policy, that the peasantry would have to pay “something in the nature of a ‘tribute’” to fund industrialization.

Before the plenum dispersed, Bukharin met secretly with former Left leader Kamenev. Bukharin described Stalin as a “Ghengis Khan” whose policies would destroy the revolution and that his disagreements with Stalin were “many times more serious than were our disagreements with you.” Kamenev recounted that Bukharin talked as “a man who is doomed.”

Much more was at stake than Bukharin’s personal fate. Cohen demonstrates that by mid-1928 Bukharin had understood, much better than the Left, the implications of Stalin and the bureaucracy’s new turn. The peasants’ “tribute” to the state was in fact the “military-feudal exploitation of the peasantry” to pay for industrialization. Stalin’s anti-kulak campaign was a war against the entire peasantry, which had created a “united village against us.” And Bukharin predicted that such policies would mean driving the peasants into collectives “by force.” Stalin was determined to “cut our throats,” while his policies were “leading to civil war. He will have to drown the uprisings in blood.”

Bukharin’s prognosis proved accurate. We now know the scale of resistance to Stalinism’s war against the peasantry, even without organized direction. In 1930 alone, 2,468,000 peasants participated in 13,754 mass disturbances, 176 of which were described by the OGPU (secret police) as of an “insurrectionary nature.” We also know that Ivanovo textile workers rebelled against the regime’s policies, that discontent spread to metalworkers in Moscow, and that OGPU reports to Stalin record similar sentiments around the Soviet Union.

The OGPU was particularly alarmed by workers’ and soldiers’ sympathetic attitudes to the peasants — the possibility of a smychka against Stalinism was a very real possibility.

Bukharin’s tragedy, according to Cohen, was his “unwillingness to appeal” to such “popular sentiment,” limiting the discussion over the fate of revolution to “a small private arena.” The larger tragedy was that the Left Opposition of Trotsky and the Bukharinsts did not find common ground when Stalinism launched its bloody four-year war against the peasantry and working class. Trotsky himself had incorrectly depicted Stalinism as a centrist “Bonapartist” regime, wavering between the interests of the working class and phantom kulaks. “The problem of Thermidor and Bonapartism is at bottom the problem of the kulak” which meant “With Stalin against Bukharin – Yes. With Bukharin against Stalin – Never!”

Cohen After Bukharin

Cohen’s work on the Soviet experience continued in the years after Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution’s release. His 1985 essay Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 took direct aim at what he termed the pervasive “continuity thesis.” This was the standard scholarly interpretation of the Russian Revolution that views Stalinism as the natural and even inevitable outcome of the revolution. “A remarkable consensus of interpretation formed” that saw “no meaningful differences or discontinuity existed between Bolshevism and Stalinism, which were fundamentally the same, politically and ideologically.” From this perspective, policies before 1929 are treated “as merely the antechamber of Stalinism, as half-blown totalitarianism,” while the terms “Bolshevik, Leninist, Stalinist” are used “interchangeably.”

Cohen expertly disputed the simplistic assumptions and logic of this rendering of Soviet history. “Bolshevism was a far more diverse political movement — ideologically, programmatically, generationally . . . than is usually acknowledged in our scholarship.” In addition to Bukharin’s policies, he pointed out that it was “factually incorrect” to assert that “Trotsky and Left opposition are said to have been anti-NEP and even embryonic Stalinist, the progenitors of almost every major item in the political program that Stalin carried out.”

Cohen suggested to me several months ago that this essay was an even larger contribution to Soviet history than even his study of Bukharin. Unfortunately, thirty-five years after this essay was published, only a handful of studies have directly confronted the “continuity thesis.” As he argued in his 1985 essay, “All the basic tenets of Sovietological literature grew repetition and intellectually state, as it retold or amplified the same basic story.”

In Voices of Glasnost, Cohen and his partner and co-editor Katrina vanden Heuvel interviewed fourteen leading Soviet reformers for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Cohen states that his personal friend, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, made it clear that “lessons of NEP” are an essential part of their “renewal of socialism.” Among the enormous obstacles that they had to overcome, argued Cohen, were massive corruption, Communist Party anti-reformers, a bloated state bureaucracy that employed 17.7 million, and an economy that had “virtually stopped.”

Gorbachev’s economic restructuring had counted on the initiative “from below” for the non-state sector, but as this collection illustrates, it offered few specifics. In their discussion with Alexander Yakovlev, “perestroika’s leading ideologist,” vanden Heuvel and Cohen repeated Gorbachev’s admission that economic reforms were not going well and commented, “Now in late 1989, it seems the economic situation is even worse than it was before the Gorbachev leadership came to power in early 1985.” Such failures emboldened both those pushing for privatization schemes and anti-reform Communists who wanted to go back to the Brezhnev years. As writer Yuri Bondarev quipped, perestroika was like “a plane that took off without knowing where it would land.”

Studying the Post-Soviet Disaster

After the failure of the reformers and the USSR’s demise, in Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, Cohen confronted the overwhelming Western portrayal of the post-Soviet transition. In a series of Nation essays published during the 1990s, he disputed “the basic assumption underpinning the entire U.S. crusade — the idea that Russia was in transition to American-style capitalism and democracy.”

The dominant “crusade” rendering identified Boris Yeltsin with “radical reform,” claimed that a new “middle class” was developing, that setbacks were caused by the “legacy of communism,” and repeatedly asserted that the benefits of the reforms were always just around the corner. Hundreds of citations by a “Who’s Who?” of Western expert “transitionologists” prove how ubiquitous this account was. “Smitten with the Yeltsin government’s reforms, some became not merely its boosters but, with US government and foundation support, its employees and advisors.”

Cohen contends that the Soviet Union did not “collapse” but was “conspiratorially abolished by Yeltsin and his allies in Ukraine and Belarus . . .” in December 1991. He points out that this maneuver ignored the March 1991 referendum in which 77 percent voted in favor of preserving the Soviet Union, and that in 1992, 95 percent of Russia’s economy remained in the state’s hands. For Cohen, the catastrophe occurred under Yeltsin, backed by the IMF and the Clinton administration, one of whom explained, “Yeltsin represents the direction toward the kind of Russia we want.”

That kind of Russia was to be brought about through “shock therapy” — or as Cohen suggested, “shock without therapy” — severe budgetary austerity, an end to Soviet-era consumer and welfare subsidies, and wholesale privatization of state enterprises. As former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “the economic and even political destiny of what was not long ago a threatening superpower is now increasingly passing into de facto Western receivership.”

US policy assumed it should “intervene deeply in Russia’s internal affairs to transform that nation into an American-style system at home and a compliant junior partner abroad.” The Clinton administration supported Yeltsin’s resort to “special powers” to dissolve Parliament in September 1993, a move even right-wing historian Richard Pipes acknowledged that “in the West would be unacceptable.”

Cohen’s essays described how before the 1996 Russian presidential runoff election, the Clinton administration helped arrange a $10 billion IMF loan to pay workers’ back wages and how the White House helped finance every Yeltsin government, including bankrolling the First Chechen War of 1994–96.

In August 1997, finance minister and architect of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, by then known as “Russia’s most hated man,” announced a new round of “shock therapy,” removing subsidies for rent and utilities. Cohen commented, “People don’t receive their wages and now the government is going to raise their rents!” The same Chubais received a $5 million interest-free loan that he used to take control of a large oil company. The banking system was so mired in the shady dealings of the rich and powerful that a member of Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle three years later admitted that Russian banks “have never been banks in the real sense.”

For some advocates of the “transition,” the failure to sustain institutional structures did not matter. Eugene Huskey, one of the main proponents, argued that the “transition . . . requires the razing of the entire edifice” of the pre-1992 order. Similarly, Richard Pipes argued it was “desirable” for “Russia to keep on disintegrating until nothing remains of its institutional structures” or, as Richard Ericson claimed, “A successful reform program must be trenchantly negative . . . It must aim at destroying institutions.”

The result was that cronyism and corruption dominated the fire sale of the century, an insider affair at bargain-basement prices. The sell-off saw “billions of dollars of state property that Yeltsin’s Kremlin has handed over to a small segment of the former Soviet ruling class and others . . .” Little of this booty was reinvested as capital flight from Russia soared to two billion dollars a month.

Rather than modernization, Cohen shows that the “transitionology” experts missed “the most important development of Russia since 1991, the exact reverse of the process . . . the country’s year-by-year demodernization.”

Any attempts to change course, even slightly, were actively opposed by Western capital.

When Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov made moves toward state regulation and deficit spending in the late 1990s, the IMF refused financial help, only to renew it once he was unceremoniously ousted after only eight months in office.

By 2000 half of Russian lived below the official poverty line of just $45 a month and another 25–30 percent close to it. Reports from the provinces depict the infrastructure of production, technology, science, transportation, heating, sewage disposal had “disintegrated.” Even highly educated professionals had to grow their own food in order to survive, over half the nation’s transactions were bartered, and doctors in one town compensated in manure.

One resident asserted, “The twenty-first century does not matter. It’s the nineteenth century here.” Another report noted that “There is no work at all. People are eating dogs . . . Apartments have broken toilets, no gas, running water only in the kitchen.” Argued Cohen, “Since 1991, Russia’s realities have included the worst peacetime industrial depression of the twentieth century . . . the impoverishment or near impoverishment of some 75 percent or more . . . the transformation of superpower into a beggar state . . .”

By the end of the decade with Yeltsin’s popularity sinking to single digits, more Western reports started to question the previous rosy version of events. A 1999 study of the Wall Street Journal Moscow bureau concluded that its reporting had been “little more than a PR conduit for a corrupt regime.” A New York Times investigative piece argued that “The whole political struggle in Russia between 1992 and 1998 was between different groups trying to take control of state assets. It was not about democracy or market reform.” Many Russian democrats openly characterized the 1990s as a “great civil war over property.” By 2000, a Yeltsin newspaper acknowledged “Russia has dropped out of the community of developed nations.”

Anything, it would seem, would be better than life for working people in 1990s Russia.

Surveying what happened after, War with Russia?, another collection of Nation essays, was Cohen’s last and most controversial book. Cohen argued that the United States and the West have continued to treat post-Soviet Russia as a “defeated nation,” including Obama’s declaration to “isolate Putin’s Russia,” leading to a return to Cold War–like tensions. The United States was repeatedly the aggressor, contends Cohen, such as in Ukraine in 2014 when US-NATO placed “heavy weapons and troops near Russia’s western borders.”

Cohen’s solution to this escalation was a return to détente, in which both sides recognized “spheres of influence” with “red lines that should not be challenged” and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs. He believed in a kinder US foreign policy without regime change and an end to “Washington’s quest for international hegemony.” But such a solution ignores more than a century of US imperialism, including 1917 when Wilson began funding anti-Bolshevik warlords in an effort to install a “military dictatorship” amenable to American interests. Why would the United States suddenly renounce its victory that George H. Bush declared in 1992 had been won “by the grace of God”?

Cohen also asserted that Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine “were largely reactive” and a “predictable response to US and NATO expansionist policies.” Cohen knew the scale of Putin’s “many repugnant policies” but chose not to mention what they were. And he cites an academic review praising how Putin “skillfully managed Russia’s economic fortunes.”

Yet thirty-four years after perestroika began, aside from weapons, Russia manufactures almost no commodities for a much more integrated capitalist world — indeed, three-quarters of Russian exports are still natural resources. Moscow’s aspirations for European integration were indeed “rebuffed by the West” in favor of isolating Russia. However, as Tony Wood notes, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military interventions in Syria and the Donbass as not merely reactive, but attempts to reassert its unresolved “global relevance” as a second-tier rather than equal power, in a “much less stable” world.

In an academic field still dominated by dull anti-communist ideological conformity, Stephen Cohen was a rare maverick, a man of principles invariably taking minority and sometimes solitary stances that disputed orthodox interpretations. For socialists interested in understanding early Soviet society, Stalinism, and the catastrophe of post-Soviet Russia, Cohen’s provocative studies are and will remain invaluable.