Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Interview with Paul Gregory on new Bukharin Book

Soviet Roulette recently reviewed Paul Gregory’s new book, Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Russia: The Story of Nikolai and Anna Larina. As our readers know, Gregory made a guest appearance on this blog. Gregory also kindly agreed to discuss his book with me by phone.

Dr. Gregory, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1969, holds an appointment at the University of Houston’s Department of Economics, and is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is one of the country’s foremost experts on Soviet economics, transition economics, comparative economics, and economic history.

Gregory is also the prolific author of books that range from the Political Economy of Stalinism, Before Command: The Russian Economy From Emancipation to Stalin, Russian National Income, 1885- 1913, to Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Soviet Secret Archives.

Below is my rough attempt to summarize and synthesize a wide-ranging conversation with Paul Gregory about his new book into a few short paragraphs. It is not a literal transcription of the conversation in any sense. I take responsibility for any errors that might appear.

Fur Coat: What is the relevance of Bukharin, qua economist, today?

Paul Gregory: Nikolai Bukharin offered “socialism with a human face.” This approach was naturally attractive to Gorbachev as he attempted to salvage some form of socialism while rejecting command economics. Bukharin offered an alternative to planned socialism, an economy that integrated a market economy with a state that controlled heavy industry. This approach has some relevance to China today, since Bukharin accepted a one-party system and state control of key sectors, but also embraced markets, especially in the large agricultural sector. In fact, Bukharin is better known in China today than he is in the United States.

Fur Coat: Does Bukharin have any relevance to Putin’s Russia?

Paul Gregory: Bukharin is not often discussed in Russia today. However, the current economy is analogous in some ways to the political economy Bukharin described. After all, Russia is a market economy, but the “commanding heights” are firmly controlled by the state or state-friendly oligarchs. Thus, some businesses exist to serve the state rather than vice-versa. And of course Putin is operating in a electoral context which might suggest a single party like the one Bukharin supported.

Fur Coat: Bukharin was originally a Left-wing economist but eventually moved over to offer a “Rightist” economic critique. How are we to reconcile these two different economic philosophies? Are they both relevant today?

Paul Gregory: They really were two different approaches. If was as if there were two different people. At first, Bukharin offered a very radical road to economic development. He rejected the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, wrote the ABC’s of Communism, and supported international revolution. However, after War Communism, and the introduction of Lenin’s N.E.P. economic system, Bukharin had a conversion experience. He was relatively silent for a couple of years but then came out strongly in support of the logic of N.E.P. In my book, Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, you can still see some of the lasting effects of Bukharin’s conversion. That he, he gained a reputation for being inconsistent and untrustworthy. But this was essentially Bukharin’s only major economic shift and one could have just as easily seen this as evidence of his adaptability.

Fur Coat: How did Bukharin’s supporters or constituents take this change of heart in economic policy?

Paul Gregory: This is isn’t entirely clear. More research could be done in this area. One or two prominent Bolsheviks broke with Bukharin, but the majority of his adherents seemed to have accepted the wisdom of Bukharin’s peasant-friendly policies.

Fur Coat: The interesting thing about Bukharin’s debates with Stalin is that Stalin seems ultimately to take the position that even if Bukharin is right to say his mixed economy will encourage higher overall growth rates for the Soviet economy, it is unacceptable for the world’s only socialist state to allow such a large component of the economy—namely the peasantry—to remain outside of the planned economy.

Paul Gregory: Yes. This is one of the most remarkable things I discovered in the Hoover Institute’s archives. Stalin only admitted this afterward, but it’s true that he eventually conceded that socialist politics outweighed purely economic discussions based only on the Soviet Union’s economic growth rates.

Fur Coat: Changing course a little bit…Your book is about Bukharin and his third wife, but Stalin appears on the cover and is a presence throughout. What emerges from your story is a man who somehow combined an exterior veneer of fairness and moderation with a bloodthirsty and vengeful nature. How does one come to grips with this apparent paradox?

Paul Gregory: Whenever he appeared in public, Stalin tried to appear as the most moderate person in the room. In my book, you’ll see that he tried to be less strident and less radical than his allies. He would say, in effect, that he believed that it was important to be careful and moderate when dealing with people who had wronged the party. That is to say, Stalin would say that he knew that the party was, for the most part, made up of good, loyal Bolsheviks. Of course, by this time, people such as Bukharin understood the technique. Stalin had used this method again and again, and to good result.

Fur Coat: I’m curious if your research seems to undermine or support the notion that Stalin operated under some kind of intellectual or theoretical handicap when dealing with brilliant rivals such as Bukharin and Trotsky.

Paul Gregory: Stalin was very smart, and capable of holding his own in these debates. He was, however, extremely jealous of Bukharin’s pretensions to theoretical primacy. Stalin wanted to be known as the party’s theorist and in later years he chided his followers, implying that he alone was equipped to interpret Marx. Stalin was also extremely good at summarizing discussions and debates and he always used Marx effectively. But as the book argues, Bukharin could often digress into very arcane and technical discussions of Marxism that did not help him politically.

Fur Coat: Your book seems to highlight a period of time in which party leaders knew what was expected of them, knew the political rules of the game so to speak. On the other hand, one would expect great fluidity in a system that was as novel as the Soviet political system was. In your research, were you more impressed by the stability or the fluidity of the Politburo’s concept of collective rule?

Paul Gregory: There was a system. Lenin had invented it and people knew that system fairly well. Party member behavior was well-defined. There were standards of collegiality and methods for the arbitration of disputes. But as General Secretary of the Party, Stalin had become the rule-maker. At any rate, Bukharin unwisely followed Lenin’s rules, while Stalin did not.

I think your question also related to the issue of how collective rule works in general. Under Mao as well as Stalin, you start with a system of collective rule that degenerates into an absolute dictatorship which does very bad things. The dictator dies and there is a return to collective rule. And then, somehow, the revived concept of collective rule is much more robust. This is because the new oligarchs feel that that they only narrowly escaped death under the original dictator. This is why Beria was killed: because the other oligarchs felt that he offered a personally dangerous return to one-man rule. Read Khruschchev’s memoirs. They reveal a leader with very real restraints. The party leader becomes the tie-breaker but not a dictator.

Fur Coat: This book is also a love story and Anna Larina, Bukharin’s third wife, comes across as a remarkable woman. What else does her autobiography tell us about her?

Paul Gregory: Anna was remarkable. Her memoir makes for excellent reading. And she was clearly an extremely intelligent woman, capable of following complex political debates when she was only 10-13 years old, and capable of holding Bukharin’s attention in the midst of a very busy political life. Anna’s relationship with her father was very close as well. I should say that Anna’s memoir always puts Bukharin in the best light. Bukharin was heroic, but he was flawed as my book demonstrates, and Anna doesn’t dwell on this. She doesn’t, of course, mention that Bukharin, despite his brave recantation at his trial, often disappointed supporters by fawning over Stalin or sacrificing his former allies and friends. She also doesn’t spend time talking about his first two wives. On the other hand, almost everything we know about Anna comes from her autobiography. And this shows that she was loyal to her husband despite two decades of suffering in the gulag. Hopefully someone will do more historical research on Anna’s life.

Fur Coat: Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you. I hope to read many more of your books and articles in the future.

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