File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_1998/bhaskar.9812, message 6

Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 11:42:29 +1000
Subject: BHA: Philosophy & History & Politics

Of Philosophy & History & Politics


What follows is an attempt to combine my reading with a commentary on just
*one* concept mentioned in Alan's notes - Unhappy Consciousness (UC).
Specifically I want to contrast Bhaskar's reading of UC with that of an
existentialist philosopher - Maurice Natanson. (Natanson, 1968).  I hope to
show that Bhaskar's account of UC is able to cover more adequately the case
that Natanson deals with, namely the testimony of Nikolai Bukharin at his
trial in 1938. I also hope to show that Bhaskar's reading of UC provides us
with the basis for a superior explanation of Bukharin's actions than the
account offered by his biographer and apologist Stephen Cohen. 

2. Unhappy Consciousness in Brisbane and Bhaskar

In the glossary of Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom Bhaskar gives us the
following definition of UC.

"Scepticism, or theory/practice inconsistency, or more generally
categorical error aware of itself, seeking refuge, in the case of reality,
in asceticism or other-worldliness and, in respect of power2 relations in,
for example introjective identification with the master's ideology or
projective absorption in a fantasy world made for slaves.  If Stoicism
typically corresponds to 1M, and Scepticism to 2E, the Unhappy
Consciousness reflects detotalisation at 3L, may further manifest itself in
*dualistic disembodiment* and/or reductionist reification *at 4D*.  In this
book philosophy is argued to be a veritable citadel of the Unhappy
Consciousness." (Bhaskar, 1993: 406) (emphasis added)

One advantage of quoting Bhaskar in cyber space, is that it is generally
very clear where the quote begins and ends! It might help those unfamiliar
with Bhaskar-speak if I point out that 1M (non-identity), 2E (negativity),
3L (totality) and 4D (agency) are moments in his four termed dialectic. 

Hopefully the point of the added emphasis will become clear in what follows
but to begin with I would like to go on record as believing that UC is an
almost aesthetically pleasing category in its capacity to explain the fate
of so many intellectuals I know.  Certainly it fits the ex-CPGB,
ex-Althusserian academics who were so dominant in academic circles in
Brisbane in the late 80s. Now I think the actions of these folk do display
an unhappy consciousness and certainly T/P inconsistency when, as I said at
the conference in Essex, they came to Brisbane, denied the existence of
reality and then proceeded to get promoted in that very same non-existing
reality. (I think BTW there just might be a lesson here for we Critical

UC would be akin to Sartre's notion of bad faith in this instance surely.
Certainly few could doubt that the ex-Althusserians were aware of their
historical position.  Refugees from Margaret Thatcher's England, they
surfed the tides of postmodernist scepticism in the 80s and emerged from
the tube in the 90s to announce that Cultural Studies should embrace policy
and abandon critique. (Bennett, 1989; Cunningham, 1992) 

So Cultural Studies skipped from the waves of Irrealism to those of New
Realism in what now seems the most adroitly timed of paradigm shifts. This
by the way is, in my opinion, another case when the Hegelian tendency to
describe things in three does not work. Within UC the tryptich of possible
responses -Scepticism, Stoicism and Religion - seem somewhat inadequate to
describing the dazzling manoeuvres performed in the field of Cultural
Studies by the Beautiful Souls.

3. UC in Existentialism

Whatever the case, Bhaskar's definition of UC does, as I have said, give us
some purchase on what happened. However I would like now to turn to the
somewhat different account of UC given to us by the
phenomenologist/existentialist Maurice Natanson.  For Natanson, if I
understand him correctly, UC is a product of the subject's capacity to make
itself an object of consciousness.  That is I can think of myself and so
make myself an object of my consciousness but of course I remain a subject
while doing this. 

In terms of history then I can see myself as the historical actor and can
actually render myself an object.  Natanson calls this process of
historical subjectivity 'historicity'.  It is the divided and dualising
nature of my consciousness which renders me unhappy, it seems. There is not
necessarily any notion that my practice is in some sense inconsistent with
my theory. 

Natanson quotes, in support of his position, Hegel's definition of UC

"Thus we have here that dualizing of self-consciousness within itself,
which lies essentially in the notion of mind; but the unity of the two
elements is not yet present.  Hence the *Unhappy consciousness
(ungluckliches Bewusstsein)*, the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness
of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being." (in
Natanson, 1968: 187) (original emphasis)

Natanson then takes the notion of UC and applies it to history.

"The self-conscious, deeply reflective actor on the historical scene makes
of the events of the historical world the historicistic component of
consciousness.  He interprets not only the events of history but his own
evaluation and ordering of these events.  And he finds that concern with
history hides within itself a double face:  one side, the subject's
awareness of historical events is reflected in his historicistic
consciousness; on the other side, historicity has its own history in the
development of the individual factor on the historical scene.  The play
between these double facets of the historical leads to a dialectical
embarrassment which Hegel calls the Unhappy Consciousness." (Natanson,
1968: 186)"

If my interpretation of Natanson's reading of UC is correct then he himself
could be regarded as an example of UC in his definition of it in terms of
'dualistic disembodiment... at 4D' In other words Natanson as a good
phenomenologist and existentialist is anxious to posit the concept of
agency but he is defining agency (i.e. 4D in terms of the Bhaskarian
dialectic) as a struggle to over come a duality between consciousness and
self-consciousness.  Viewed in this way UC is intrinsic to agency and would
simply seem to be part of the fate of man.  Moreover, and this is crucial,
the concept of UC also loses its ethical-critical purchase.  It is divorced
from any concept of inconsistency between theory and practice and
accordingly is beyond critique.

4. UC in history

Natanson gives us as an example of the 'dualizing of self-consciousness'
the testimony at his own trial of Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938), the
favourite of the Bolshevik party, their leading theorist and champion of
market socialism avant la lettre.

As someone who was weaned on Trotskyism I have little sympathy for Bukharin
as a political figure.  My attitude is undoubtedly due to Isaac Deutscher's
hostility towards him.  In Deutscher's opinion the 'alpha and omega of
Bukharinism' was the support Bukharin gave to the peasantry throughout the
New Economic Program. When Stalin announced his collectivisation drive in
1928, and thus brutally removed the peasant from the stage of history,
according to Deutscher Bukharinism as a political current disappeared.
(Deutscher, 1970: 123) 

This is probably too harsh a verdict. Bukharin's emphasis on a long and
peaceful period of transition to socialism resonated with the Eurocommunist
current of the 70s. (Cohen, 1974: 384) Less admirably Bukharin, in urging
the Russian peasants in 1925 to make themselves rich, anticipated by over
half a century the Machiavelli of China, Deng Xiao Ping, in the latter's
use of the slogan 'To be rich is glorious!' 

Political considerations aside Bukharin's final performance in court is
interesting especially in that he continually resorted to citing Hegel in
his confrontation with Vyshinsky the prosecutor. I am intrigued that a
leading Marxist politician, economist and sociologist when faced with the
lonely moment of the last instance should summon to his side not Karl
Heinrich Marx but the much more ambiguous figure of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel. Perhaps he was reacting at some level to Lenin's comment in his last

'...his (Bukharin's) views can only with very great doubt be regarded as
fully Marxist, for there is something scholastic in them. He has never
studied and I think, never fully understood dialectics).' (in Cohen, 1974:

Whatever the case it was Hegel that was repeatedly invoked in a display of
what Lewin terms 'dialectical wit'.

Vyshinsky: I am not asking you about conversations in general, but about
this conversation.
Bukharin: In Hegel's 'Logic' the word 'this' is considered to be the most
difficult word...
Vyshinsky:  I ask the court to explain to the accused Bukharin that he is
here not in the capacity of a philosopher, but a criminal, and he would do
better to refrain from talking here about Hegel's philosophy...
Bukharin: A philosopher may be a criminal.
Vyshinsky: Yes, that is to say, those who imagine themselves to be
philosophers turn out to be spies. Philosophy is out of place here... (in
Natanson, 1968: 189)

This exchange reminds me of Oscar Wilde's sparring with Edward Carson at
his first trial.  Wilde tormented and humiliated Carson with scintillating
displays of repartee but the dull and dogged Ulster man brought him down in
the end.  Just so with Vyshinsky. Intellectually he was no match at all for
Bukharin, nevertheless the smart money would have been on the Prosecutor.
I have noticed over quite a few court appearances of my own that it seems
to be an advantage if you have state power on your side.

Moshe Lewin interprets Bukharin's performance as an attempt 'to demolish
the trial by making it burst at the seams.'  (Lewin, 1975: 31) Thus he
confessed to the most ridiculous of the charges and fought tenaciously
against the more credible ones. (Lewin: 30)  There was also something of a
coded tribute to Trotsky when he said 'And one has to be a Trotsky not to
lay down one's arms.' (In Lewin, 1975: 31) 

However in some ways Natanson's use of unhappy consciousness in his
analysis of the trial is more interesting.  Here Bukharin confesses not
because he was tortured but decided to act out the part of
counter-revolutionary. This apparently put an end to the 'absolutely black
vacuity" that arose before him when he thought of a purposeless death.
(Natanson:191) "Repentance" gave him a role.

Stephen Cohen, the most pro-Bukharin of the commentators, explicitly
attacks what he sees as the thesis that Bukharin sacrificed himself as a
last service performed for the good of the party.  This is the Arthur
Koestler version of Bukharin's fate on which he based his 1940 novel
_Darkness at Noon_. With Cohen it was the threats against his wife and son
that brought about Bukharin's capitulation.

What is especially intriguing about the case though is that Bukharin
himself explicitly evoked the Hegelian concept of UC.

"Even I was sometimes carried away by the eulogies I wrote of socialist
construction, although on the morrow I repudiated this by practical actions
of a criminal character.  There arose what in Hegel's philosophy is called
a most unhappy mind.  This unhappy mind differed from the ordinary unhappy
mind only by the fact that it was a criminal mind." ( in Natanson, 1968: 190)

So what then was the content of Bukharin's UC?  Was it that he claimed to
be constructing socialism while he knew that in reality he and his
Stalinist allies were building Behemoth?  Was it in other words a fairly
straightforward case of T/P inconsistency? Or was it something deeper than
this?  Was Bukharin's fate tinged with universality?  Are we all faced with
the disjuncture between what Bergson termed public or external time and
personal or inner time consciousness? (Natanson:191) 

5. Bukharin's UC: A verdict

A way to providing an answer to these questions is I think to attempt to
look at both Cohen's and Natanson's accounts of Bukharin's evidence.  Cohen
and Natanson quote radically different elements from the trial proceedings.
 Natanson as we have seen selected those parts of Bukharin's testimony
which contained philosophical motifs and references.  Cohen on  the other
hand emphasises those passages where Bukharin denies the specific charges
against him. Thus Cohen quotes the following

Vyshinsky: Accused Bukharin, do you plead guilty to espionage?
Bukharin: I do not.
Vyshinsky: After what Rykow says, after what Sharangovich says?
Bukharin: I do not plead guilty. (Cohen, 1974: 377)

But Cohen and Natanson's partiality has betrayed them into giving us only
an aspect of what is admittedly a very complex instance. Most obviously
Bukharin was anxious to defend his reputation at the court of history.  The
letter he made his wife commit to memory shows that clearly. (Cohen, 1974:
370-1) However it is this letter which I feel enables us to classify
Bukharin's performance as an instance of UC but not in the Natanson manner.
 In the letter he wrote

"I *feel my helplessness before a hellish machine*, which...has acquired
gigantic power, fabricates organised slander, acts boldly and
confidently..." (in Cohen, 1974: 370) (emphasis added)

Here we have the denial of the possibility of agency. Having cooperated
with Stalin in the crushing of Left Bolshevism, and earlier in the smashing
of all forces to the left of the Bolshevik Party, Bukharin declares himself
helpless before a force which he partly created. For me this is the clue to
his evocation of Hegel and his use of UC in the sense of what Bhaskar has
called "dualistic disembodiment".

Bukharin seems to me to want to think there is nothing he could do and he
attempted to explain and universalise this predicament by saying 

"in our country the antagonist, the enemy, has at the same time a divided,
a dual mind.  And that I think is the first thing to be understood." (in
Natanson, 1968: 190)

But if, instead of pleading guilty and then philosophising about this, he
had attempted to read his letter out in court then the result may have been
less interesting from a philosophical perspective but perhaps more valuable
from a political one.  For, as Lewin points out, Bukharin's attempt to
undermine with subtlety the situation of the trial was

"...futile in the final analysis, and nobody read these messages.  At that
time not many even abroad tried to decode this most enigmatic and stirring
last plea in the history of trials." (Lewin, 1975: 31)

Yet Bukharin was correct. He did display UC or as he termed it a "most
unhappy mind", but not in the sense that he or Natanson wishes it to mean.
Nor is Cohen correct.  In his anxiety to promote market socialism and
peaceful transition to socialism, Cohen plays down the truth that
throughout his career Bukharin could have acted decisively against Stalin.
To the very end he chose not to do so.

6. Conclusions

I may seem very harsh on Bukharin here.  After all he was faced with the
brutal reality of state terror.  The threats to his family would have been
very real indeed. Moreover I have no wish at all to sit in judgement on
anyone else's courage. I am influenced in this not only by a knowledge of
my own weaknesses but by a talk I heard given by one of the Birmingham Six,
the men who were wrongfully imprisoned for an IRA bombing.  The speaker
told of the torture inflicted on him and said that he signed the confession
and felt no shame because he did not know anyone who would not have done
the same. 

However Bukharin was not tortured.  In prison it seems that he had time to
write a novel and some theoretical works. We should also as Deutscher
points out recall to mind the many thousands who 

"were tried in camera...(or) were executed without trial because they could
not be brought to admit and recant crimes of which they had not been
guilty." (Deutscher, 1968 :369-70)

But if we turn once more to philosophy and Hegel there is another aspect of
the Bukharin situation which can be analysed in an interesting way.  I am
thinking here of Hegel's kinds of historical individuals.  Unusually for
Hegel there are four instead of three of these - the citizen, the person,
the hero and the victim.

For a time Bukharin got the part of the Hegelian hero- the
'world-historical individual'-  seemingly the agent of a 'purpose which
constitutes a step in the progress of the universal Spirit.' (Hegel, 1953:
41) In the end however I cannot see him as other than the Hegelian 'victim'
illustrating the sad truth of Marx's dictum

Men make their own history, but not as they chose.

Of the adverbial clause in this sentence we can say as with the wheelbarrow
in the William Carlos Williams poem - so much depends.


Bennett, T., Culture: theory and policy, Media Information Australia 53,
August 1989: 9-11
Bhaskar, R., Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Verso: London, 1993
Cohen, S., Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography
1888-1938, Wildwood House: London, 1974
Cunningham, S., Framing Culture: Criticism & Policy in Australia, Allen &
Unwin,: Sydney, 1992
Deutscher, I., Stalin, Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1968
_____________, The Prophet Outcast Trotsky: 1929-1940, OUP: Oxford, 1970
Hegel, Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of
History, Bobbs-Merril: Indianapolis, 1953 
Lewin, M. Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates, Pluto Press:
London, 1975
Natanson, M., Literature, Philosophy and the Social Sciences: Essays in
Existentialism and Phenomenology, Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1968

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