Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why the Worst Rise to the Top: Hayek, Stalin and Bukharin

Hayek in his renowned Road to Serfdom argued that administered economies tend toward dictatorship and that the dictator is unlikely to be benevolent. Indeed, benevolent dictators are a rarity, which does not prevent some development economists from pitching benevolent dictatorship as the quickest path to growth.

My “Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina” (Hoover Press, 2010) is one of the first case studies of why the “worst gets to the top.” It uses archival evidence of verbatim party debates, transcripts of interrogations, and correspondence to describe the uneven struggle for power between Stalin and Bukharin, the proponent of a form of market socialism. This case study shows that the “soft” Bukharin was no match whatsoever for Stalin who was prepared to use any and all means for as long as needed to win. Whereas Bukharin used theoretical arguments, Stalin used intimidation, appointments, and the distribution of spoils.

My account shows that until July 1928 Bukharin had a considerable following in his fight against Stalin’s application of force to the countryside. Bukharin fought Stalin to a standstill in the July 1928 plenum, but was tricked into signing a “unity statement” to show the party that the Politburo was united. Bukharin knowing that Stalin would renege on the compromises he made at the plenum was tricked into meeting with a disgraced ally of Trotsky in which he revealed the deep fissures within the Politburo to an outsider. Stalin’s agents knew of the meeting, and Stalin now had the evidence he needed. Bukharin was charged with “fighting against the will of the party.” With such a charge pinned on him, the disgraced Bukharin’s political career was over. Thereafter, he public comments in party forums were meet with jeers and disdain.

After his decisive political defeat in 1929, Bukharin attempted to withdraw from public life. He refused to see his former allies. It was his hope that “good behavior” would save his life. This hope was dashed with his death sentence in March of 1938 at the final Moscow Show Trial.

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