Reportedly, the Russian revolutionary and pioneering Marxologist David Riazanov once insulted Stalin to his face at a party meeting held during the mid-1920s. At the time, the major topic of debate was over the feasibility of socialism absent a revolution in the West. In the years that followed October 1917 the fledgling Soviet regime had survived brutal winters, food shortages, and an international blockade while fighting off a bloody domestic counterrevolution staged by disparate elements of the old regime (the Whites) with the support of foreign powers (the Allied Intervention). The civil war was over, but revolution had elsewhere stalled out as the USSR’s borders stabilized: the European proletariat failed to overthrow the crisis-ridden bourgeois governments of France, Germany, England, Austria, and a host of other nations. Now the question on everyone’s mind where the Bolsheviks should go from there. Could socialism could be established in one (relatively backwards) nation?
Bukharin was the chief architect of the program for those who affirmed that it could. His days as a left communist behind him, Nikolai Ivanovich had meanwhile succumbed to pragmatism and unimaginative Realpolitik. Market reforms put in place by Lenin under the New Economic Policy after 1921 were to be continued, and the transition to “a higher stage of communist society” delayed, but its achievement no longer depended on the spread of world revolution. Eager to make a name for himself as a leading theoretician, Stalin interjected with some comments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazanov acerbically replied. “You’re making a fool of yourself. We all know theory isn’t exactly your strong suit.” Little wonder, then, that Stalin would later want Riazanov’s head on a platter; he’d inflicted a deep narcissistic wound. For as Trotsky would later point out, in a two-part article mocking “Stalin as a Theoretician,” nothing was more important to the General Secretary than to be regarded as well-versed in the science of dialectical materialism.