Zizek, Bukharin and Stalin


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 new 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, agonizing paradox.


"[...] 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 Bukharin’s 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 unacceptable."


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 History.


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 to Bukharin.


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 Bolshevik Revolution")


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]


Voices: Blackmailer!


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 Testament--or worse--Lacan.