He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1906, becoming a member of the Bolshevik faction. With Grigori Sokolnikov, he convened the 1907 national youth conference in Moscow, which was later considered the founding of the Komsomol.
By age 20, he was a member of the Moscow Committee of the party. The committee was heavily infiltrated by the tsarist secret police, or Okhrana. As one of its leaders, Bukharin quickly became a person of interest to them. During this time, he became closely associated with N. Osinskii and Vladimir Smirnov and met his future wife, Nadezhda Mikhailovna Lukina, the sister of Nikolai Lukin. They married soon after his exile.
In 1911, after a brief imprisonment, Bukharin was exiled to Onega in Arkhangelsk, but soon appeared in Hanover. During this exile, he continued his education and became a major Bolshevik theorist. He developed an interest in the works of non-Marxist economic theorists, such as Aleksandr Bogdanov, who deviated from Leninist positions.
While in exile, Bukharin wrote several books and edited the newspaper Novy Mir (New World) with Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai in New York City. During World War I, he wrote a small book on imperialism from which Vladimir Lenin later drew some of the ideas he put forward in his larger and better known work, Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Upon his return to Russia, Bukharin became one of the leading Bolsheviks in Moscow and was elected to the Central Committee.
Bukharin did not play a significant role in the Bolshevik seizure of power. After the revolution, he became editor of Pravda. In 1920 Bukharin wrote the textbook "The ABC of Communism" together with Evgenii Preobrazhensky.
Bukharin led the opposition of the Left Communists to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, arguing instead for the Bolsheviks to continue the war effort and turn it into a world-wide push for proletarian revolution. In 1921, he changed his position and accepted Lenin's policies, encouraging the development of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Whilst some have criticised Bukharin for this apparent U-turn, his change of emphasis can be partially explained by the necessity for peace and stability following seven years of war in Russia, and the failure of Communist Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe. After Lenin's death, Bukharin became a full member of the Politburo in 1924, and the president of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1926.
After 1926, Bukharin, by then regarded as the leader of the Communist Party's right wing, became an ally of the center of the party, which was led by Stalin and which constituted the ruling group after Stalin broke his earlier alliance with Kamenev and Zinoviev. It was Bukharin who detailed the thesis of "Socialism in One Country" put forth by Stalin in 1924, which argued that socialism (in Leninist theory, the transitional stage from capitalism to communism) could be developed in a single country, even one as underdeveloped as Russia. This new theory stated that revolution need no longer be encouraged in the capitalist countries, since Russia could and should achieve socialism alone. The thesis would become a hallmark of Stalinism.
In 1928, Stalin proposed a program of collectivisation, because he believed that the NEP was not working fast enough to achieve industrialisation. Bukharin was worried by the prospect of a collectivisation policy. He believed that controlling the peasants would make them resentful and, as a result, less productive. Bukharin did want the Soviet Union to achieve industrialisation but he preferred the more moderate approach of offering the peasants the opportunity to become prosperous. This would lead to greater grain production for sale abroad. Essentially, Bukharin supported a continuation of the NEP.
Bukharin pressed his views throughout 1928 in meetings of the Politburo and at the Party Congress, insisting that enforced grain requisition would be counter-productive, as War Communism had been a decade earlier. Bukharin attempted to gain support, including from Kamenev and Zinoviev who had fallen from power and held mid-level positions within the Communist party. Stalin attacked Bukharin's views, portraying them as capitalist and declaring that the revolution would be at risk without a strong policy that encouraged rapid industrialisation. He accused Bukharin of factionalism, citing Bukharin's meetings with Kamenev and Zinoviev as evidence of this. Stalin used his control of the party machine to win the debate. He forced Bukharin to renounce his views. As a result, Bukharin lost his position in the Comintern in April 1929 and was expelled from the Politburo on November 17 of that year. International supporters of Bukharin, led by Jay Lovestone of the Communist Party USA, were also expelled from the Comintern. They formed an international alliance to promote their views, calling it the International Communist Opposition, though it became better known as the Right Opposition, after a term used by the Trotskyist Left Opposition in the Soviet Union to refer to Bukharin and his supporters there.
Bukharin was arrested following a plenum of the Central Committee in 1937, and charged with conspiring to overthrow the Soviet state. He was tried in March 1938 as part of the Trial of the Twenty One during the Great Purges, and was executed by the NKVD, on March 15 1938. News of his death was overshadowed by the Nazi Anschluss between Germany and Austria.
'Koba, why do you need me to die?' Bukharin wrote in a note to Stalin after the death sentence was pronounced on him. ("Koba" was Stalin's revolutionary pseudonym, and Bukharin's use of it was a sign of how close the two had once been. The note was found still under Stalin's desk after his death in 1953.).
Bukharin was the principal framer of the Soviet Constitution of 1936, which promised freedom of speech, the press, assembly, religion, and the privacy of the person, his home, and his correspondence.
Bukharin was immensely popular within the party throughout the twenties and thirties, even after his fall from power. In his testament, Lenin portrayed him as 'the Golden Boy' of the party and writing:
Speaking of the young C.C. members, I wish to say a few words about Bukharin and Pyatakov. They are, in my opinion, the most outstanding figures (among the youngest ones), and the following must be borne in mind about them: Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party, but his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of the dialectics, and, I think, never fully understood it)... Both of these remarks, of course, are made only for the present, on the assumption that both these outstanding and devoted Party workers fail to find an occasion to enhance their knowledge and amend their one-sidedness.Bukharin made several notable contributions to Marxist-Leninist thought, most notably 'The Economics of the Transition Period' (1918) and his recently reprinted prison writings, 'Philosophical Arabesques' (a text which clearly reveals Bukharin had corrected the 'one-sidedness' of his thought), as well as being a founding member of the Soviet Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a keen botanist.
See also: Communist Party of the Soviet Union