The Tragedy of Stephen F. Cohen and the Bolshevik Revolution

Dying on September 18, 2020 at 81 from lung cancer, the esteemed Russia historian and public intellectual Stephen F. Cohen left behind a world quite unlike that which he aspired to create. In rereading his early book Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938, it is impossible not to be heartbroken by the Shakespearean tragedy reaped from his efforts.

Let it be clear what I mean. Cohen was a friend of the Left. He testified as an expert witness on behalf of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party at a COINTEL-PRO trial during the 1970s. During the Reagan years, his ideas became so respected by the Soviet Communist Party that he stood on the Lenin Mausoleum with his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel at the invitation of Mikhail Gorbachev during a May Day parade. Bukharin had advocated for the multi-decade creation of a socialist economy utilizing capitalist markets in service of the accumulation processes necessary for an eventual socialist society, a perpetuation of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). While it is likely that Bukharin’s humanist policies would have played a major role in supporting the most vulnerable, Walter Benjamin’s 1926-1927 Moscow travel diaries about the NEP era almost exactly mirror the critiques of contemporary Chinese largesse, with the “NEP-men” seemingly reincarnated in figures like Jack Ma.

In the 1979 Introduction to the Oxford University Press paperback edition of the Bukharin biography, Cohen enthusiastically endorses what was augured by the alleged promise of Eurocommunism and argues the integration of Bukharin’s thought into that matrix would be essential for its maturation into a genuine “socialism with a human face.” At the time, newly-minted Eurocommunists in France, Spain, and Italy were seeking to formulate a new kind of Leninism that embraced parliamentary democracy whilst cutting the umbilical to the Kremlin party line diktats. (Santiago Carillo, one of the leading luminaries of the tendency, even famously quipped in response to Soviet condemnation “I did not expect to be excommunicated from the Holy See.”)

As the postwar social contract began to implode and finance capital commenced the reorientation of our political economy towards neoliberalism, Eurocommunist thought promised a new vision of a truly democratic communism which could avoid the pitfalls and historical failures of its second cousin in the Western European Socialist polity, such as its collaboration with American imperialism and colonial plunder, as well as its repressive older sibling in Moscow. (In many ways, the sectional squabbles today afoot in the Democratic Socialists of America seem to repeat many of the blunders of Eurocommunism. For instance, DSA’s near-fetishization of slogans like “Medicare for All” without a clear programmatic enunciation of how they intend to fundamentally replace from the ground-up a pillar of the American GDP seems to replicate how Eurocommunism was also just a lot slogans.)

History has, of course, shown that Eurocommunism was little more than warmed-over social democracy with a certain radical chic public relations campaign, much of it created by its antagonists in both the West and Eastern Bloc. Like a smoke and mirrors routine by a well-endowed magician, anti-Communist hawks, Trotskyists, and orthodox Communists all ended up creating a tremendous pyrotechnic routine over what amounted to nothing. In this sense, it is heartbreaking to read Cohen’s enthusiastic praise for the Eurocommunist project, knowing in hindsight that this instead was part of what led to the ideological collapse of Western European Communist Parties over the next decade. Decades later, when Greece’s Syriza attempted to repackage Eurocommunism after the 2008 economic crash, the promise of a divorce from European Union austerity orthodoxy was quite literally broken 24 hours after the plebiscite certified their mandate to reject Brussels, serving as the final death knell for this attempted parliamentary communism.

But some indeed heeded Cohen’s wisdom.

And what this wrought was the true tragedy.

According to Anatoly Chernyaev [1], a close advisor to Gorbachev, it was a Russian translation of Cohen’s biography that catalyzed perestroika and glasnost, the twin policies that caused the implosion of the USSR in 1987-91. Meanwhile in Beijing, Deng Xiaoping, trained at a Comintern center called the Moscow Sun Yat-sen University during Bukharin’s 1926-1929 tenure as a leader of the Communist International, ushered in a rediscovery of Bukharinist theory as he opened the Chinese economy to foreign direct investment while privatizing large swathes of the public sector. Whether it was the tutelage by Bukharin that spurred Deng’s policies or if Cohen’s scholarship played a role in these developments is ancillary to the reality of the situation.

The Communist movement worldwide did rediscover Bukharin.

And what it has wrought for humanity over the past half century is far from the socialistic humanism Cohen aspired for.

The capitalist restoration prophesied by Trotsky was not wrought by the “Stalinists” but by the Bukharinists that Cohen placed so much hope in. Admittedly Cohen cannot be blamed for Gorbachev’s blunderbuss manner or Deng’s cynical, iron-fisted approach to the Tienanmen Square protests. It would be cynical nonsense to claim a tautological line between Cohen’s extraordinary biography (a very fine read) and Cuba’s recent legalization of private property in their new constitution. Finance capital saw a spectacular opportunity in the vulnerability created by the Bukharinist line and acted accordingly.

Rather than serving as the foundation of a Communism rising from the ashes of Stalin’s brutality, instead Bukharin’s thinking was a midwife for the neoliberal turn, with Deng taking center stage as a member of the triad with Thatcher and Reagan on the cover of David Harvey’s historical primer.

Is it possible to defend the commons and the social welfare without the requirement of either a red terror or Capone-like gangsterism? Were the humanitarian failures of Stalin not only inevitable but required in order for the Soviet Union to reach a productive capacity that could defend against the Nazi invasion? If the Soviet Union had instead embraced the snail’s march toward industrialization via continuation of the New Economic Plan (NEP), would Western Europe have allowed the ascendancy of Mussolini, Hitler, and the rest of the fascist governments in the 1930s? Or instead, had they been able to directly invest in the Soviet economy for low-cost imports, would that have alleviated pressure that finance capital instead released via the turn towards fascism? Would foreign direct investment in the Soviet economy made any difference as the West spiraled into the Great Depression in 1929? Would impoverished European workers migrated en masse to the USSR seeking low-wage employment, not unlike how Chinese peasants today migrate to the cities looking for jobs?

Slavoj Žižek illuminates further on the tragic results of Cohen’s work. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev – at this time already a private citizen – wanted to visit [former West German Socialist Chancellor Willy] Brandt, and he appeared unannounced at the door of his house in Berlin, but Brandt (or his servant) ignored the ringing of the bell and refused even to open the door. Brandt later explained to his friend his reaction as being an expression of his rage at Gorbachev: by allowing the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, Gorbachev had ruined the foundations of Western social democracy. It was the constant comparison with the East European communist countries that maintained the pressure on the West to tolerate the social democratic welfare state, and once the communist threat disappeared, exploitation in the West became more open and ruthless and the welfare state also began to disintegrate.” [2] Despite all its failures, the loss of the Soviet Union has wrought a demonstrable and undeniable negative impact upon the living standards of both the Russian people and the international working class and peasantry.

Perhaps from here one can derive a certain sympathetic comprehension of why Cohen seemed to have a soft approach to Russian President Putin. For all the regressive policies emanating from the Kremlin today, it might have been that he was hesitantly cautious precisely because of what his earlier direct interventions in their politics had wrought…


1. Keeran, R., & Kenny, T. (2010). Socialism betrayed: Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. New York, NY: International.

2. Žižek, S. (2020). Why Secondary Contradictions Matter: A Maoist View. In A left that dares to speak its name: 34 untimely interventions. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.