Zizek, Stalin and Bukharin
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Jan 30 08:38:02 MST 2000
Part of every student's cold war indoctrination at my high school in
upstate New York in the 1950s was Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon." We
were told that the novel, in which an "old Bolshevik" confesses to crimes
he did not commit for the sake of the revolution, was based on the trial of
Bukharin. What a terrible system Communism was. People got up on the
witness stand and confessed to all sorts of false and ludicrous charges
because they thought their sacrifice was necessary for the greater good.
The last place I expected to read such nonsense was in the pages of the New
Left Review. In the latest issue #238, an article by Slavoj Zizek titled
"Suicide of the Party," recycles this cold war mythology but under a heavy
coating of postmodernist babble. Sort of like seeing Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
with a nose-ring.
The occasion of Zizek's musings is the publication of J. Arch Getty's and
Oleg Naumov's "The Road to Terror," a book that not only contains new
archival material related to the trial of Bukharin, but embellishes them
with "references to Foucault, Bourdieu, and modern linguistics in order to
explain the functioning of the ritual of self-accusation in the show
trials." When I read this, I slapped my forehead. Of course, what kind of
fool had I been reading Trotsky or Stephen Cohen to understand the Moscow
Trials. I should have been reading Bakhtin all along.
Ordinarily, Zizek's beat is the detritus of popular culture, so it sort of
puzzled me what newe insights he could possibly have, even with the
treasure chest of archival material at his disposal. He did make one minor
concession to past avocations, however. He likened the Khmer Rouge to the
slogan promoting the unwatchable neo-noir, John Dahl's "The Last
Seduction": 'Most people have a dark side...she had nothing else.' I will
leave Sam Pawlett to deal with that.
For Zizek, the Moscow Trials are a ritual that represent the end process of
successive drives to purge the party, which up until this point involved
wholesale willingness to suspend ordinary standards of reason and morality.
The proper analogy for this would be the kind of blood sacrifices demanded
in the barbaric pre-Christian era. To drive this point home, Stalin is
called Abraham and Bukharin Isaac. To remind all of you out there who were
deprived of the benefits of a proper religious education, Yahweh commanded
Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the top of a mountain. When
Abraham asked why, Yahweh replied because "I am God." When I heard this
story the first time, I promised myself to check out atheism.
According to Zizek, "what caused Bukharin such trauma is not the ritual of
his public humiliation and punishment, but the possibility that Stalin
might really believe the charges against him."
Referring to the trial transcript, Zizek is struck by the following
testimony of Bukharin:
"There is something great and bold about the political idea of a general
purge. I know all too well that great plans, great ideas, and great
interests take precedence over everything, and I know that it would be
petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the
universal-historical resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders. But it
is here that I feel my deepest agony and find myself facing my chief,
"[...] If I were absolutely sure that your thoughts ran precisely along
this path, then I would feel so much more at peace with myself. Well, so
what! If it must be, then so be it! But believe me, my heart boils over
when I think that you might believe that I am guilty of these crimes and
that in your heart of hearts you yourself think that I am really guilty of
all these horrors. In that case, what would it mean?"
So obviously we are dealing with some kind of ritual here. Zizek explains
the mysteries of the cult to the horrified reader of NLR like a seasoned
ethnologist: "Within the standard logic of guilt and responsibility, Stalin
could have been pardoned if he were really to believe in Bukharins guilt,
while his accusation of Bukharin whilst being aware of his innocence would
have been an unpardonable ethical sin." In other words, if Stalin made his
accusations while being fully aware that the charges were false, he would
be "behaving like a proper Bolshevik, placing the needs of the Party higher
than the needs of the individual, which is, for Bukharin, totally
I will answer this unconscionable slander against Bukharin after placing
his struggle with Stalin in proper context. Please excuse me, dear reader,
for resorting to the aid of the oppressive and phallic metanarrative called
Bukharin was deeply opposed to Stalin's forced collectivization, which
began in the late 1920s. He thought that a more measured pace toward
agricultural modernization would be better. At first, what remained of the
Bolshevik Party gave Stalin the benefit of the doubt, since he seemed to be
carrying out a socialist agenda, no matter how crude. Even Trotsky gave
critical support to Stalin, whom he regarded (wrongfully) as a lesser evil
Stalin's policies were a complete disaster. In order to break the back of
peasant resistance, he used the political weapon of an artificially created
famine. The war against the peasantry eventually had its impact on the
cities, where per capita consumption of meat, lard and poultry was only a
third of what it had been in 1928. (Stephen Cohen, "Bukharin and the
There was a backlash against Stalin and Bukharin became its most articulate
spokesman. Throwing off the political isolation imposed by Stalin, Bukharin
became editor of Izvetsia and used it to promote a "humanist socialism."
This vision had nothing in common with Zizek's [and Koestler's] portrait of
a fanatic willingly assenting to his own sacrifice. Bukharin's "humanist
socialism" included realism and moderation in the five-year plans, a stress
on the importance of science and technology, resistance to fascism in
Europe, and, most importantly, the need for socialist legality. He was
responsible for drafting the first Soviet Constitution, which included
provisions for secret ballot, universal suffrage and the possibility of
multi-candidate elections. In obvious contradistinction to Stalin's
repression, it outlined explicit civil rights for Soviet citizens. This
Constitution is the best case for Bukharin's true beliefs, rather than the
grotesque portrait drawn by Zizek and Koestler.
So why did Bukharin confess to crimes he did not commit? For an explanation
of this, we have to turn to historians like Stephen Cohen, rather than
psychoanalysts like Lacan, whom Zizek cites approvingly in the final
sentence of his NLR article.
Why Bukharin confessed is no mystery. It has nothing to do with fanatical
beliefs in the Revolution. Rather it is explicable in mundane terms of
physical torture, continual interrogation for weeks on end and summary
executions. For surviving Bolsheviks, the account provided in "Darkness at
Noon" "would have been the subject of a gay mockery," according to Cohen.
More to the point, Bukharin held out against these threats inside prison
"with remarkable vigor" for 3 months. On around June 2, 1937 he finally
relented, "only after the investigators threatened to kill his wife and
newborn son." (Roy Medvedev, "Let History Judge)
Once Bukharin had made the decision to confess, he decided to make a
mockery of the proceedings by using all sorts of bizarre rhetorical
devices. He would confess that he was "politically responsible" for
everything, so as to save his wife and child, but at the same time flatly
deny any complicity in an actual crime. As Vishinsky and Stalin grow
increasingly impatient with this tactic, they begin to harangue Bukharin.
The gullible Zizek cites their remonstrations, but does not have a clue as
to their significance:
Bukharin: I won't shoot myself because then people will say that I killed
myself so as to harm the party. But if I die, as it were, from an illness,
then what will you lose by it? [Laughter]
Vorishilov: You scoundrel! Keep your trap shut! How vile! How dare you
speak like that!
Bukharin: But you must understand--it's very hard for me to go on living.
Perhaps the best way to understand this exchange is in terms of the scene
in Costa-Gavras's wonderful 1970 film "The Confession", based on the
Slansky show trials in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. During the testimony of
one old Communist, who speaks while standing as is customary, he begins to
recite a long, obviously rehearsed confession to a number of trumped-up
charges. All of a sudden, the courtroom begins to erupt in laughter. During
his confession, the old Communist has unbuckled his pants and they have
dropped to his ankles. This was his way of saying that the trial was a
farce. Bukharin was doing something similar when he made ironic quips like,
" But if I die, as it were, from an illness, then what will you lose by it?"
In order to understand this, you have to read history, not the Old
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