May 17, 2009

Gustaw Herling on Bukharin and Nikolaevsky


Bukharin went to Paris in February 1936 at the head of a delegation that was to negotiate the purchase of the Marx and Engels archives, which Nikolaevsky had taken from Berlin at the request of the German social democrats. Negotiations went on for two months and got nowhere despite a handsome offer from Moscow. But the “legal” – nay, “official” – cover offered by the proposed transaction made it possible for Bukharin and Nikolaevsky often to meet privately. It is likely that Nikolaevsky took notes after every meeting.

Bukharin was tired, exhausted; he longed for a rest. It was suggested that be become an émigré and found an opposition paper. “I couldn’t live outside Russia. All of us have become used to the strain of life in Russia,” he answered. One day, half serious and half facetious, he suggested they both go to see Trotsky in Oslo: “We have had our clashes, but I will never cease to admire and respect him.” Bukharin avoided direct comment about the situation in the USSR, either because he did not trust his interlocutor one hundred per cent or because (and this is Nikolaevsky’s hypothesis) he feared the conclusions he would inevitably have been forced to reach by too open an exchange of ideas.

Did he know, or even suspect, what was in store for him? There would seem to be evidence that he did, since he described his relations with Stalin as “exceptionally bad.” There would seem to be evidence that he did not, since he spoke of the new Soviet constitution with unfeigned euphoria: “I wrote the whole thing with this very pen. Yes, the whole thing, only Radek helped out a bit. I came to Paris because I had finished the job. They are printing the text now. From now on there will be more room for the people, they can no longer be ignored.” In any case, euphoric or not, he kept coming back obsessively to two points: the need to found a second party and the extreme urgency of purifying the work of the revolution through “proletarian humanism.”

Without a second party, how can the Soviet regime distinguish itself from Naziism? It does not have to be a party contrary to the new order: suffice that it advocate “change and reform.” It might be drawn from the intelligentsia so as not to disrupt the unity of the working class. As to “proletarian humanism,” Bukharin himself had seen sufficient horrors during forced collectivization – horrors that could not even be compared to the pitiless but ineluctable cruelty of civil war – to look to the future with the utmost concern. The very psyche of the communists had been contaminated and mutilated: instead of going mad, after the experience of collectivization, they became professional bureaucrats, partisans of terror as the natural method of government, slaves of obedience to any order from above, of obedience considered as the supreme virtue. “They are no longer humans, they are gears in a terrible machine.” That is where the most serious danger is hidden, that is why the coming of “proletarian humanism” is so important and imperative to prevent the Soviet Union from turning into “a regime with an iron boot.”

He was so fervent, and constantly repeated the same things with such desperate obstinacy, that Nikolaevsky interrupted him at one point: “Nikolai Ivanovich, what you are suggesting is a return to the Ten Commandments. That’s not new.” Bukharin thought about it: “Do you believe that Moses’ commandments are outdated and anachronistic?” Nikolaevsky: “I am not saying they are outdated and anachronistic. All I am saying is that they have existed for five thousand years. Are we going to discover that the Ten Commandments are a new truth? Is that the point we have reached?” Bukharin made no answer. It was only in a Moscow prison cell that Aichenvald finally heard the answer, between the lines of Bukharin’s confession of the threshold of his last agony.

- Gustaw Herling


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