A Death Signifying Lost Opportunities

Paul Berman is the author of "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1960," which will be published this summer by W. W. Norton

Anna M. Larina, the widow of Nikolai I. Bukharin, died at age 87 in Moscow, on Feb. 24. It is a bitter thing to reflect that, with her death, we have lost a last link to some of the grand "what ifs" of this century.

She grew up in the circle around Vladimir I. Lenin and, at age 20, married Bukharin--a hero of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and perhaps the greatest of the Bolshevik theoreticians. Bukharin was a leader of the Soviet Communist Party during the 1920s. But at the end of that decade, his faction was defeated by Josef Stalin and, in 1938, he was accused of treason in the Moscow Trials.

Under extreme pressure, Bukharin made a bizarre confession: "The monstrousness of my crimes is immeasurable." His actions served as the basis for "Darkness at Noon," Arthur Koestler's immortal novel about totalitarianism. Having confessed, Bukharin was executed. But what if he had not been? What if, instead, he had triumphed?

Bukharin was a Communist, not a democrat, yet, unlike Stalin, he was willing to allow the Soviet peasants to own land. Stalin's collectivization of Soviet agriculture proved one of the great horrors of the 20th century. What would have happened to the Soviet farmers if Bukharin had prevailed? The violent collectivization would probably have been avoided, and literally millions of peasants might have lived.

For a time, Bukharin headed the Communist International, the Comintern. There, too, he entertained a view of his own. Stalin wanted communist parties the world over to follow Soviet orders in the strictest manner, on the ground that the Soviet experience offered a universal model--which everyone had to emulate.

Bukharin's alternative theory, called "the general theory of exceptionalism," asserted that the Soviet Union was not, in fact, a universal model. Instead, every country's situation was different, and the communist parties in every country ought to choose their own policy.

Following Stalin's orders, communist parties in Germany and around the world refused to unite with the enemies of fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and '30s. They made it far easier for the fascists and Nazis to come to power. In 1939, communists all over the world, on Stalin's orders, looked on Britain, instead of Nazi Germany, as the world's worst tyrant--a bit of foolishness that made it simpler for Adolf Hitler to begin the war. Stalin's policy was, in short, a calamity.

What would have happened if Bukharin's general theory of exceptionalism had been pursued instead, and the communist movements in different countries had followed their own instincts? It is likely that, in Germany and elsewhere, the communist movement would have fought more vigorously against the Nazis and fascists, and history might well have taken a somewhat different course.

The "what ifs" of Bukharin's life have an American echo. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Bukharin spent seven months in the United States. He worked with Leon Trotsky, on St. Marks Place in New York's East Village, editing a Russian newspaper called Novy Mir. He returned to Russia for the revolution and rose to power, but he always maintained some close American ties.

The leader of the American Communist Party in the late 1920s, Jay Lovestone, was a close friend of Bukharin's and a supporter of his general theory of exceptionalism. Lovestone's version was called "American exceptionalism," a phrase that entered modern usage to denote the qualities that make the United States different from all other countries.

When Stalin defeated Bukharin in the Soviet Union, Lovestone was removed as head of the American Communist Party. But Lovestone refused to accept defeat. He regarded himself as the Communist Party's legitimate leader and formed a tiny splinter organization called the Communist Party (Majority Group), with support in the garment workers' union, the textile workers and the miners.

Tiny as it was, Lovestone's organization contained some of the brightest minds of the American left. The writers Bertram Wolfe, a historian of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Will Herberg, an important theologian, were ardent Lovestoneites. The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted murals for the Lovestoneite school in New York.

In the 1930s and '40s, the official American Communist Party commanded a significant amount of support in the U.S. labor movement. But Lovestone's faction of anti-Stalin Communists fought bitterly against the official Communists.

After Bukharin's execution, Lovestone and his group gave up on communism entirely--and fought it vehemently. Lovestoneites became the American labor movement's leading experts in combating communist influence in the trade unions. Eventually, communism was driven out of most of the American unions, and Lovestone and his organization were one reason why.

Lovestone rose in the AFL-CIO to become head of the labor federation's international-affairs department, where he commanded 20% of the AFL-CIO's budget. He and his comrades from the old Bukharinite days went all over the world, on behalf of the AFL-CIO--and also on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency. Ardently anti-communist, they supported the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and elsewhere, they promoted non-communist unions--and, above all, they led a struggle against any union that was communist-controlled. The Lovestoneites helped orchestrate an anti-communist split in the French labor movement after World War II, which diminished the power of the French Communist Party.

What would have happened if Bukharin had not been Lovestone's personal friend. Would Lovestone and his organization have played such a zealous role around the world, and would they have exacted so much vengeance against the Soviet Union? Would the Lovestoneites still have thrown in with the CIA?

Larina's life with Bukharin was hard. When she married him, his star was already falling. Before he was taken away from her, Bukharin wrote a political testament proclaiming his innocence and his loyalty to the communist cause.

He gave it to his wife, hoping she would present it to the Communist Party after Stalin was gone. But that wasn't easily done. Larina spent 20 years in Siberian exile in Stalin's gulag, the vast system of prisons, for the crime of having been Bukharin's wife.

She destroyed her husband's written testament--but first committed it to memory. Her son grew up not even knowing his father was the great Bolshevik. Only in 1988, under Mikhail S. Gorbachev's government, was Larina finally able to publish Bukharin's secret testament.

Bukharin was more than rehabilitated. Gorbachev made clear that, in his own judgment, Bukharin's ideas had been right, and Stalin's wrong. But, by then, it was too late for communism of any kind--Bukharin's or otherwise. Gorbachev's effort to draw a few inspirations from Bukharin had no chance to succeed.

Now Larina is dead, and there is no one left from the tight circle around Lenin and we have lost our last tie to some of the most important "what ifs" of this most terrible of centuries.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°