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Nikolai Bukharin on the life of A. A. Bogdanov

Evgeni V. Pavlov

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013



Nikolai Bukharin opens his “Personal Confession,” written on June 2, 1937, with a list of his “general theoretical anti-Leninist views.”[1] The first item on the list is his “lack of understanding of dialectics and substitution of Marxist dialectics with the so-called theory of equilibrium.” To explain this lack of understanding, Bukharin continues: “[I] was under the influence of A. Bogdanov, whom I wished to interpret only in a materialist way, which unavoidably led to a peculiar eclecticism - simply put, theoretical confusion - where mechanical materialism united with empty schemas and abstractions.”[2] This formulation is revealing in many ways. Bukharin’s renunciation of Bogdanov must be understood in light of the connection between the two. That Bogdanov’s ideas and his very person were influential in Bukharin’s intellectual development is difficult, even impossible, to deny. However, the level of this influence, the amount of alleged “borrowings” and the independence of Bukharin’s own theorizations are up for debate. An additional difficulty arises out of the use that the persecutors of Bukharin made of this relationship in order to discredit his ideas and political positions.

The year of Bogdanov’s death – 1928 - was an eventful year in Bukharin’s political life. The fifteenth Party Congress finished its work in December 1927, and the discussions about industrialization and collectivization were heated and fraught with factional conflicts. The grain shortage and the failures in foreign policy greatly contributed to the combative nature of the discussions. On the domestic front, the infamous Shakhty “conspiracy” went from the initial preparatory stages, characterized by intense internal discussions in the Party leadership, to the frenzy of the media’s coverage of the disastrous show trial that took place between May 18 and July 6. In July Bukharin negotiated with Kamenev about a possible opposition against Stalinist hard-liners.[3] In September he penned “Notes of an Economist” for Pravda in which he denounced plans for accelerated industrialization, emphasizing the need to “balance” various aspects of a complex economic system.[4] The political maneuvers by Bukharin and his supporters, attempting to use the Moscow Party Committee in their struggle, ended in defeat with the Central Committee’s condemnation in October 1928. The next month, Bukharin’s views were attacked at the Plenum of the Central Committee, and again in December 1928 at the eighth Congress of Professional Unions. At the joint meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Control Committee in January 1929, Stalin delivered his infamous speech – “Bukharin’s Group and the Rightist Deviation in Our Party.”

Alexander Bogdanov died on April 7, 1928 as a result of a blood transfusion experiment that he conducted on himself at the Institute for Blood Transfusions he founded in 1926. “Lenin’s rival,” according to the title of the most comprehensive biography of Bogdanov by Dietrich Grille, Bogdanov was an early member of the Bolshevik faction and later the leader of various Bolshevik split groups. Bogdanov’s split with Lenin is well-documented and illustrated by the latter’s attacks on his alleged “Machism” in Materialism and Empirio-criticism. Prolific author and erudite, all-around, scholar, Bogdanov’s final contribution to science was his “universal organizational science” (or “Tektology”). The history of Bogdanov’s personal and professional interactions with Bukharin is not well-documented. Bogdanov and Bukharin were active in the Socialist (later Communist) Academy, of which they were both founding members. The latter, while privately defending “Tektology” from Lenin’s attacks in the 1920s, later joined the (already customary by then) attacks on Bogdanov’s Marxist credentials.[5] Such “excommunications from Marxism,” as Bogdanov called them in 1914, were a common occurrence in critical attacks on his ideas.

Although we cannot know for sure whether Bukharin, in the heat of his struggle against Stalin and his policies, could already foresee his own “excommunication,” it is not unlikely that he contemplated his fate if defeated. As a participant in the previous fights against the opposition of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, although before the former was expelled from the Soviet Union and the latter were put on trial, Bukharin knew what awaited him and his supporters if their appeals to the Party and their attempts to persuade the moderates failed. Bogdanov spent several weeks in GPU jail in 1923 on the suspicion of connection with an opposition group. He was released after he demanded and received a meeting with Dzerzhinsky. Because of his generally apolitical positions during the 1920s, he was able to write, teach and publish, and, despite his “heretical” theoretical status, constituted no real threat to those in power. Always sensitive to criticisms of his views as "idealist" or "anti-Marxist," Bogdanov often carefully dissociated himself from persons or causes he thought might be compromised by an open link to him and his ideas. The ultimate link between Bogdanov’s "anti-Leninist" views and Bukharin’s "anti-Party" views were “demonstrated” in the notorious 1937 squib by A. V. Shcheglov called “Lenin’s Struggle Against Bogdanov’s Revision of Marxism.”[6] The “direct link” between Bogdanov’s “revision of Marxism” and Bukharin’s “rightist deviation” is no longer hinted at or implied but is stated quite openly throughout the book.

We do not know when and where Bogdanov and Bukharin met for the last time, but we do have a report about the last meeting between Bogdanov and Lenin. They met at the apartment of Ekaterina Peshkova on October 19, 1920. The occasion of the gathering was the performance of the works of Beethoven, Grieg, Ravel, Mozart and Rachmaninov by the young pianist Isaiah Dobrovein.[7] Although we have no historical record of their conversation, the very fact of such a meeting indicates, as do many previous encounters, the incredible personal civility of the Old Guard. After the Stalinists consolidated their grip on power and thoroughly purged the Party, Bogdanov’s name joined that of many others, including Bukharin, on the list of “ideological enemies.” As is often the case with Trotsky, one wonders when contemplating Bogdanov’s trajectory: What was so incredibly threatening about his ideas that it required such an assault, both private (in “confessions”) and institutional (in “rebuttals”), on his life and work?


In Memory of A. A. Bogdanov

(Speech at the Civil Funeral Ceremony)

Nikolai Bukharin


A number of us who are present are old Bolsheviks. We came here directly from the Plenum of the Central Committee of our Party in order to say one last "farewell" to A. A. Bogdanov.

During the last years of his life Bogdanov was not a member of our Party. In many issues, too many issues, he was not in agreement with the Party.  It is well-known that our Party - a party “as stubborn as stone,” as it was ironically called by the liberal bourgeoisie - does not make compromises of principle and does not permit cowardly and rotten concessions in the sphere of ideology.  It is a Party of fighters, fighters of a harsh and beautiful time, and it does not acknowledge relaxation of will and sugary sentimentality.  But I did not come here to speak in order to gloss over our disagreements with the deceased, or, abandoning principles, to engage in some trade in ideas by eclectically connecting what is impossible to connect.

I came here, despite all of our disagreements, in order to say farewell to a man whose intellectual status cannot be measured by ordinary means.  Yes, he was not orthodox in his views. Yes, from our point of view, he was a “heretic.” But he was no apprentice of thought. He was its most significant artist. In the brave flights of his intellectual fantasy, in the stern and clear stubbornness of his extraordinarily consistent mind, in the unusual gracefulness and internal elegance of his theoretical constructions, Bogdanov was, despite the non-dialectical nature and abstract schematism of his thinking, undoubtedly one of the most powerful and most original thinkers of our time.   He fascinated and enchanted everyone with his passion for theoretical monism; his theoretical attempts to introduce a grand plan into the entire system of human knowledge; his intense search for the universal-scientific, and not the philosopher’s, stone; and his search for, if we can put it this way, theoretical collectivism.

In the person of Alexander Alexandrovich we have lost a man who in terms of his encyclopedic knowledge occupied a special place not only in the Soviet Union, but was one of the most significant minds of all countries.  This is one of the rarest qualities amongst revolutionaries.  Bogdanov felt equally at ease in the refined atmosphere of philosophical abstraction and in concrete formulations of the theory of crises.  The natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences: he was an expert in these fields, he could survive battles in all of these areas, and he felt “at home” in all of these spheres of human knowledge.  From the theory of fireball lightning to the analysis of blood to the broadest generalizations of "Tektology" - this was the true scope of Bogdanov's theoretical interests.  An economist, a sociologist, a biologist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a doctor, a revolutionary and, finally, an author of the beautiful “Red Star” - in all of these areas he was an absolutely exceptional figure in the history of our social thought.  Bogdanov’s errors are unlikely ever to be resurrected.  But history will undoubtedly search through and find that which is most valuable in Bogdanov’s thought; it will allocate to him a worthy place among the fighters for revolution, science and labor.  The exceptional strength of his mind, his nobility of spirit, his loyalty to ideas - all these qualities entitle him to the lowering of our banners at his grave.

Our Party cannot but be thankful to Bogdanov for all the years that he spent fighting, hand in hand, alongside Lenin - on the frontlines of the Bolshevik faction, this embryo of the great Party of Communism.  He experienced with this Party, and as one of its leaders, an entire historical period, the period of the first attacks of the proletariat; these first heroic bloody battles received artistic representation in the last pages of “Red Star,” pages that our revolutionary youth read with awe and excitement.  He greatly influenced an entire generation of Russian Social Democrats, and it was because of him that many comrades made their decision to become revolutionaries.

Bogdanov was one of those people who, owing to the special qualities of their character, fight heroically for a great idea.  Bogdanov had it in his blood; he was a collectivist in feeling and in mind simultaneously.  Even his ideas about the transfusion of blood were based on the necessity for a peculiar physiological collectivism in which separate individuals are connected into one physiological circuit thus increasing the life activity of both individuals and of the entire collective. When Alexander Alexandrovich was still a political fighter, his Bolshevik theory did not contradict his practice, and he was one of the most significant revolutionary organizers, underground operatives and leaders of the Party.  The events that shook the world drew a deep tragic line between him and the Party and condemned him to political passivity. Undoubtedly, the most significant deviation - more significant than the political differences of the “Vpered!” era - resided in the theoretical errors of Alexander Alexandrovich: one may compare his ideas about culture and the necessity of preliminary cultural maturation of the proletariat with his political attitude toward the October Revolution in order to understand the deep and intimate link between the two, and one may connect this line of thinking with the very origins of Bogdanov’s worldview, but this is not my task right now.  The fact remains: Bogdanov withdrew from the Party and ceased to exist as a politician.

But with the same passion and the same “physical strength of the mind” he fully immersed himself in scientific activity.  And even here he was fighting like a “fanatic” for his ideas.  The word – “fanatic” - is a frightening word only for the philistines.  For us, “fanatic” is anyone who tenaciously and seriously pursues the best and most beautiful goal that one sets for oneself.  Bogdanov died a genuinely beautiful death. He died in battle, fighting for the cause in which he believed and for which he worked.

The tragic and beautiful death of Alexander Alexandrovich may be used by his enemies in order to discredit his selfless experiments, to strangle and finish off the very idea of blood transfusion, to put a headstone on the cause for which this martyr of science died.  This must not be allowed! We cannot let some idiots of small caliber, some scientific petty bourgeois cowardly both in theory and in life, some folks of the old ways who would be incapable of inventing even a wheel, to use Bogdanov’s death in order to kill and annihilate the significance of his scientific sacrifice.  No important, really important and really new, task comes without risks for the pioneers and trailblazers. In the realm of class struggle, in the realm of labor, in the realm of science, people - the very best, the most selfless and bravest people whose ideas and passions burn with bright flame - often perish in order to achieve the desired goal of their lives, their own individual “task,” the task that is a part of the objective social force that pushes them forward and onward.  For philistines this is “madness.” But this “madness” is the highest peak of human hearts and minds. Bogdanov died while performing his duty.  And the very death of comrade Bogdanov is the beautiful sacrifice of the man who knowingly risked his individual life in order to give a mighty impetus to the development of the entire human collective.

From the group of comrades and from Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya I say here our final “farewell.” |P

Translated by Evgeni V. Pavlov

[1]. For the discussion of this confession and the full English translation, see Grover Furr and Vladimir Bobrov, “Nikolai Bukharin’s First Statement of Confession in the Lubianka,” Cultural Logic (2007), 1-37.

[2]. Ibid., 19.

[3]. Cf. Vadim Rogovin, Vlast i oppozitsii [Power and Oppositions] (Moskva, 1993), Chapter VI.

[4]. N.I. Bukharin, “Zametki ekonomista,” Pravda (30 September 1928), in Put’ k sotsializmu (Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1990), 336-66.

[5]. Cf. Nikolai Bukharin, "Kollektivisticheskoe Likvidatorstvo," Pravda, 13 December 1921.

[6]. A.V. Shcheglov, Bor’ba Lenina protiv bogdanovskoi revizii Marksizma (Moskva, 1937).

[7]. Lenin, Biograficheskaia khronika [Biographical Chronicle], Volume 9, 390.

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