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Stephen F. Cohen Helped Us Understand the Russian Revolution and Nikolai Bukharin

Stephen Cohen, historian of the Russian Revolution and commentator on Russian-American relations, passed away earlier this year.

His most important and enduring contribution was a groundbreaking 1973 biography of Nikolai Bukharin. Cohen was born in 1938, the same year Bukharin was executed by Stalin, and his work encouraged socialists and historians to engage with both the neglected legacy of one of the true geniuses of the Russian Revolution and larger interpretive questions about the rise of Stalinism.

Taking issue with the anti-Communist narrative of the Russian Revolution leading inexorably to Stalinism, Cohen argued that Bolshevism “was a diverse movement” with “endless disputes over fundamental issues.” The 1920s was a “golden era” of Marxist thought, with “contrary theories and rival schools.” Bukharin, “rightly considered the favorite of the whole party,” according to Lenin, was at the center of many of these controversies. More than a political biography, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888–1938 offered “a way of reexamining the Bolshevik revolution” and the formative years of Soviet history.


Cohen’s work on the Soviet experience continued in the years after Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution’s release. His 1985 essay Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History Since 1917 took direct aim at what he termed the pervasive “continuity thesis.” This was the standard scholarly interpretation of the Russian Revolution that views Stalinism as the natural and even inevitable outcome of the revolution. “A remarkable consensus of interpretation formed” that saw “no meaningful differences or discontinuity existed between Bolshevism and Stalinism, which were fundamentally the same, politically and ideologically.” From this perspective, policies before 1929 are treated “as merely the antechamber of Stalinism, as half-blown totalitarianism,” while the terms “Bolshevik, Leninist, Stalinist” are used “interchangeably.”

Cohen expertly disputed the simplistic assumptions and logic of this rendering of Soviet history. “Bolshevism was a far more diverse political movement — ideologically, programmatically, generationally . . . than is usually acknowledged in our scholarship.” In addition to Bukharin’s policies, he pointed out that it was “factually incorrect” to assert that “Trotsky and Left opposition are said to have been anti-NEP and even embryonic Stalinist, the progenitors of almost every major item in the political program that Stalin carried out.”

Cohen suggested to me several months ago that this essay was an even larger contribution to Soviet history than even his study of Bukharin. Unfortunately, thirty-five years after this essay was published, only a handful of studies have directly confronted the “continuity thesis.” As he argued in his 1985 essay, “All the basic tenets of Sovietological literature grew repetition and intellectually state, as it retold or amplified the same basic story.”

Read entire article at Jacobin