Natural insights

Derek Wall, a founder member of Green Revolution, the socialist platform in the Green Party of England and Wales, reviews Nikolai Bukharin Philosophical Arabesques Pluto Press, 2005, pp407, £35

Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938) seems a rather lonely and contradictory figure. A leading Bolshevik killed by Stalin, unlike Trotsky he left no international of squabbling or supportative Bukharinites. He shifted position from ultra-left opposition to Lenin prior to 1917, to a 'rightist' stance in alliance with Stalin against Trotsky.

Stalin condemned him, rehabilitated him and eventually executed him after the typical show trial. In the last years of the Soviet Union, he was once again rehabilitated by Gorbachev and this work was unearthed. It is impossible here to comprehensively review his political thought and action; variously he came up with the defining Stalinist slogan 'Socialism in one country', wrote a classic Marxist account of imperialism, opposed collectivisation of agriculture and fought Trotsky tooth and nail. A moderate, a humanist, an ally of Stalin, it is difficult to summarise his history in a paragraph or two and draw from it a clear political morality tale.

Philosophical Arabesques was written in 1937, while Bukharin was effectively on death row. It lay unread for over 50 years. It makes Gramsci's Prison notebooks look like the works of a happy man in comparison. In her introduction - 'A voice from the dead' - Helena Sheehan notes: "He could not have envisioned when labouring in his bleak cell to write the 310 tightly handwritten pages of this text that it would be buried in a vault for 54 years, that it would be published in a Russia that had renounced the legacy of the USSR, that it would come to me via 41 email attachments from New York to Dublin in 2001 "¦ We imagine an audience, but our published words move into the world along paths previously unimagined" (p30).

Philosophical Arabesques is on the face of it an arid title dealing with dry questions of epistemology and ontology. So why read it? I think there are number of reasons above and beyond the fact that it deals with difficult concepts with a lightness of touch that makes it enjoyable as well as challenging.

It provides a humanist and subtle interpretation of Marxism that marks a contrast to the arid 'diamat' nurtured in the era of the Second International and then pruned back and further simplified by Stalin. It gives a very good guide to those new to Marxism of the real depth, beauty and practical utility of Marxist philosophy as a way of explaining the world and equipping us to transform it.

For instance, Bukharin has much to say to green socialists and he deals explicitly with ecological issues from a materialist point of view. You may think this surprising for a 1930s Marxist thinker, but ecological manifestations of socialism are common in our collective history, from William Morris to the Bolsheviks' support for conservation and their establishment of the first nature reserve in the Urals in 1920 - "the first reserve anywhere by a government exclusively aimed at the scientific study of nature" (J Bellamy Foster Marx's ecology New York 2000, p243).

In turn, Bukharin's text reminds us of the difficult task of building socialism in a world where capitalism remains dominant and difficult decisions have to be made. Best of all, it is beautifully written: one reviewer has noted that this is a very elegant book.

Bukharin knew that practical struggle was more important than philosophy, but he understood that a battle over ideas was also indispensable. The opening chapters of Arabesques contain a fierce attack on various forms of philosophical scepticism. Of course, while Marx numbered among his favourite phrases 'doubt everything', the scepticism that doubts the existence of the material world leaves no room for practical interventions. Depressingly, while Bukharin's contemporary philosophical foes have long disappeared, his polemical assault on them also speaks against today's latest philosophical fad, postmodernism.

This type of idealist trend of thought is made short work of by Bukharin, its irrational rejection of the material world correctly identified as a product of the decay of capitalism itself, a decline that also spawns the atavistic philosophies of fascism.

Bukharin, unlike both Stalin and Trotsky, but like Marx and Lenin, had a deep concern for environmental issues. In this work, he rejects various forms of ecological mysticism, arguing instead that the need for a clean, safe and pleasant environment is a very real material need. He notes in turn that if this need is unfulfilled different species of green irrationalism will grow. Chapters such as 'Hindu mysticism and western European philosophy' illustrate how capitalist despoliation of nature can engender all manner of superstitions and absurd new age palliatives:

"The rational kernel of all this mysticism, however, consists in the yearning of despiritualised capitalist humanity for nature. Shut up in a stone coffin, the urban neurasthenic, deprived of sun, forests, waters, and air, overwhelmed by the din of machines, transformed into a screw in a gigantic mechanism, yearns for a ray of sun, for light, for greenery, for the purling of a brook. Such a person is damaged, deformed. His or her biological nature protests at being torn asunder from the natural world. This problem is not, however, one of cognition, but of people's way of life. It does not have to do with a higher type of penetration into the secrets of nature; it is a problem of achieving a greater fullness of life. The need for the shared experience of nature, that is, for the enjoyment of nature, for closeness to it, for links with it, for aesthetic love of it, is a legitimate need and a rightful protest against the abnormality of the crippled, one-sided urban human being of capitalist culture. But in exactly the same way as this does not justify rejecting machines and theoretical science, it does not justify rejecting rational cognition either.

"Under socialism, people will enjoy nature and feel its warm breath. But they will not turn into primitive animists" (pp152-53).

Bukharin draws strongly on Lenin's important but little read Philosophical notebooks to argue that, while Marx stood Hegelism on its head and revised its mystical teleological approach, it is impossible to understand the truth of Marxism, especially of Capital, without reference to Hegel. Much of the book deals with the importance of dialectics and shows the subtlety of a genuinely dialectical approach, as opposed to the crudely linear materialism of Stalin. Contradiction gives rise to change and, like Engels, Bukharin sees the dialectic as a concept applicable to both human society and nature:

"Let us return to our starting point of living nature. The demand for a 'living' study, seeing an object as a 'living' process and so on, is a terminology often encountered in the works of Lenin. When used in relation to objects that stricto sensu are not alive, it is of course a metaphorical reference to dialectical cognition as cognition of a fluid, mobile state of being, a reference to the flexibility of intellectual forms, and only this" (p103).

Bukharin was taken from the prison cell where he had written Philosophical Arbesques, made to confess to absurdly improbable crimes in a crude show trial and subsequently executed. Both his confession and his distressingly fawning praise for Stalin in the book can be explained by his concern to protect his wife and family.

The relationship between Stalinism and the Marxist left has been the curse of 20th century socialism. Those who supported the Stalinist regime could in the 1930s and 1940s point to the need to combat the fascist threat. Those like the POUM, the anarchists and Trotsky's supporters, who fought fascism while simultaneously opposing Stalin, remained marginal. Bukharin, for all his political faults and inconsistencies in the 1920s and 1930s, produced a powerful philosophical call for communism with a human heart at its core rather than a machine's engine. He should be read, remembered and used to remind us of the brave struggles during some of the darkest decades of the last century.