Philosophical Arabesques

“A Film Run Backwards”: Bukharin’s Voice from the Dead

Nikolai Bukharin, Philosophical Arabesques, translated by Renfrey Clarke with editorial assistance by George Shriver; Introduction by Helena Sheehan (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005).

After Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin may have been Stalin’s most illustrious victim. A founder of the Soviet Union and designer of its economic system, Bukharin was falsely convicted of terror and treason in a famous show trial publicized across the globe. He wrote Philosophical Arabesques in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison while enduring a cruel 13-month imprisonment. This important book reveals a different, more sophisticated form of Soviet Marxism than was ever available under Stalin; it offers a unique glimpse into the intellectual climate of pre-war Europe, and presents a challenging interpretation of Hegel and his relationship to Marx.

Bukharin was the most charming and beloved of the old Bolsheviks, but in 1937-38 these personal qualities of a hero of the Revolution hardly mattered to anyone outside his immediate family. He was an abandoned figure, his witch trial and execution by gunfire warmly approved by the public. Stalin’s justice extended to Bukharin’s wife Anna Larina who suffered two decades in the Gulag; his son was sent into adoption and his daughter imprisoned. Along with three other prison works—a discussion of socialist culture, a novel, and a book of poems, Philosophical Arabesques moldered in a Kremlin vault for half a century. Gorbachev had Bukharin rehabilitated in the Soviet Union just before its collapse; after 1991 the doomed Bolshevik leader once again slid into obscurity in his native Russia.

Philosophical Arabesques,” observes Helena Sheehan in her riveting introduction, “was an ambitious and systematic work of philosophy…. It marshaled the motif of Arabic art to refer to a series of discourses on various themes interwoven with each other to form an intricate pattern.” How can one explain the ghastly origins of this complex and inspiring book? Why would Bukharin—pleading vainly with Stalin to execute him with poison “like Socrates” rather than a bullet—embark on this profound exploration of labour and thought, technology and nature? I think the reason lies in Bukharin’s enormous intellectual ambition, his internationalism, and his faith in the power of ideas. We know little of his experience in prison, but these aspects of his personality had received vivid expression six years earlier.

Bukharin spearheaded the Soviet delegation to the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931 and prophetically entitled “Science at the Cross Roads.” Together with his seven colleagues, Bukharin wrenched the historiography and sociology of science into the modern world. Themes from the 1931 Congress reappear in Philosophical Arabesques, where the author of worldwide best sellers The ABC of Communism and Historical Materialism wrestles with the material underpinnings of philosophy, technology, and society. Bukharin’s respect and admiration for western intellectual life, underlined by his enthusiastic participation at the Congress, is also affirmed in Philosophical Arabesques, which includes probing analyses of the sociology of knowledge and the thought of Max Weber and Georg Simmel. While Stalin and his agents engaged in secret diplomacy with Hitler that would culminate in an infamous peace treaty with Germany, Bukharin mocks the vulgar betrayal of modern thought prevailing in fascism and its exponents among racist scientists and philosophers.

Hegel is a towering figure in Philosophical Arabesques, cited twice as often as Marx himself. Bukharin alternately denounces the Berlin philosopher as an irredeemable idealist and celebrates his indispensable contribution to Marxism. In some respects, Philosophical Arabesques is a dull repetition of well-known phrases in Engels, Marx and Lenin. But the text soars beyond these standard conceptions. Had it been published in 1938 instead of disappearing into Moscow’s gigantic archives of terror, Bukharin’s text would have immeasurably advanced the reputation of Soviet Marxism—which was about to be fatally wounded by Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938) and Marxism and the Problem of Linguistics (1950). In my opinion, Bukharin’s intimate familiarity with Hegel’s works and his nuanced interpretation of key passages from “the dialectical maestro” make Philosophical Arabesque an insightful contribution to our understanding of Marxism and its relation to Hegel.

Bukharin is slyly revealing about Hegel—almost noting that Marx’s derogatory image of Hegelian idealism (walking on one’s head) came from the master himself (105). The book’s structure eerily resembles Hegel’s Science of Logic, advancing from space and time; quality and quantity, through to teleology; the organism; truth; and the good, often using identical chapter headings. Bukharin identifies the dialectics of labour as a central Hegelian concept—anathema to the Stalinist construction of Hegel as bourgeois idealist, and still highly controversial. He indicates, for example, how Hegel foreshadows the triadic structure of Marx’s labour process, with the goal, means and object of production coming together in human practice. Reflecting on Hegel’s materialist analysis of the Stoics, Bukharin offers a jarring insight into his own circumstances at Lubyanka Prison:

The conditions of life, social collapse, life constantly beneath the sword of Damocles, without any hope of an active breakthrough, lead in intellectual terms to the “ethical” abolition of the world, to training in order to resist “fear and desire.” The highest good lies in saying “A wise man is free even in chains, since he acts from within himself, without being suborned by fear or by desire.”

Bukharin exposes troubling aspects of Hegel that continue to feed debate about his work, including Hegel’s apparent hostility to the idea of evolution in nature, and his ethnocentric European view of Africa and Asia. But Philosophical Arabesques is mostly an appreciation of Hegel, even recognizing that the Logic is no dry, abstract compendium but a brilliant exposition of dialectics “developed in an extremely convincing and weighty form, with unusual subtlety and wit.”

Lenin tipped Bukharin as chief communist party theorist, but he worried that his favoured successor embraced a mechanistic view of Marxism. Philosophical Arabesques stands as Bukharin’s reconciliation with Lenin’s account of dialectics and Hegel in The Philosophical Notebooks. Lenin did not know of Marx’s early writings such as The German Ideology and The Paris Manuscripts, which were first published in 1932. But Bukharin was familiar with these writings and employs them to reconstruct a compelling version of Marxism.

I would argue that Bukharin does not go far enough in his recasting of Hegel. Philosophical Arabesques sees the Hegelian Idea too narrowly. My own view (which parallels Lenin’s in The Philosophical Notebooks) is that Hegel’s concept of ideality resembles Marx’s notion of “revolutionizing practice,” the unity of thought and being that comprises human action. The notion of ideality is best illustrated by a familiar social relationship—work. Work, observed Hegel in the Philosophy of Right,1 is the “middle term between the subjective and the objective.” Because work transforms natural objects into instruments and expressions of human will, work is also the chief aspect of the transcendental, creative quality of consciousness. Hegel embraced this unity and extended it into the entire structure of logic, aesthetics, history, and society. But this is an argument for another day and hardly a criticism of Bukharin’s provocative exploration of dialectical thought.

Bukharin twice refers to “a cinema film of the history of the world… run backwards.” Philosophical Arabesques draws the reader back to Russia in 1938, when Hitler is about to strike and an agonized earth will soon gush blood and corpses. Sheehan calls this book “a voice from the dead… It is a voice inciting us to deal with the darkness of our own days and to reach for the future.” Bukharin is not the fictional character Rubashov, with whom he has often been compared, confessing in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon to astronomical crimes to preserve his own hopeless, totalitarian vision. While Bukharin refers to Machiavelli’s dictum that any treachery should be countenanced if it would save the homeland, Philosophical Arabesques is an affirmation of freedom and ethical life in socialist society.

Reviewed by David MacGregor


1. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967, p. 126.

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