Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism (2)

Thomas Riggins

Part One of Bertrand Russell's "The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism" comprises eight chapters under the heading 'The Present Condition of Russia' [1920]. Briefly the main points of each chapter:

1. 'What is Hoped from Bolshevism.'

Russell informs us that Communism inspires people with hopes "as admirable" as those of the Sermon on the Mount. So Christians at least should be willing allies of Communist movements if they only knew their own ideals (if Russell is right that is.) But then he says that Communists hold their ideals just as fanatically as Christians and since "cruelty lurks in our instincts" and "fanaticism is a camouflage for cruelty" Communism is "likely to do as much harm" as Christianity has done.

And it seems as if the tyranny of some Communist states has indeed equaled that of Christians when they have been in control of state power (and not only Christians: it seems almost all states based on religion have been just terrible and still are to this day.) Later we will see how he thinks a Communist state may avoid this pitfall although the Russians probably won't.

Russell says capitalism is doomed because it so bad, so unjust that working people will not put up with it much longer. In deed "only ignorance and tradition" keep it going. Well. "ignorance and tradition" still seem to have a lot of steam left. The exceptional power and efficiency of the US are such that it might hold up the capitalist system another 50 years or so-- but it will be weaker and weaker and will never have the dominance it had in the 1800s.

According to this the game should have been over in the 1970s. Russell may have been off by 30 years. It is possible that the world crisis ignited in 2007 will lead to a general collapse. The US is the mainstay of the capitalist order so if it does go down it may well take the rest of the capitalist world with it.

While Russell thought that the capitalism of his day was more or less ripe for replacement he did not think the Russian form of socialism could replace it. Because he thinks Bolshevism cannot be a viable way to build socialism in the West he opposes it-- but not from the point of view of defending capitalism in any way.

Bolshevism is the socialism of a backward undeveloped country with no democratic tradition. It is the right form for Russia "and does more to prevent chaos than any possible alternative government would do." The lack of personal freedoms Russell found in Russia he blames on its Tsarist past and it is that past rather than communism as such that it is to blame.

A Communist party taking power in England (and by extension in the US or any other country with a democratic tradition might not get such an irresponsible backlash as happened in Russia and would be able to be "far more tolerant." This is, I think, especially so for the US where the Communist Party advocates a form of socialism based on the Bill of Rights.

Looking at the historic conditions of the Bolshevik's coming to power (the wreckage of W.W.I and the almost complete destruction of the Russian economy) Russell thinks communism can only come about through "widespread misery" and economic destruction.

This seems historically to be the case-- Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea, etc. However he leaves open the possibility that communism could be established peacefully without the destruction of a country's economic life. Russell would like to see the least possible violence in the transition to socialism/ communism.

However, he has a really goofy idea, based on half baked psychological notions he has developed, which is that revolutionaries find that "violence is in itself delightful" and so have no inclination to avoid it. This is too ridiculous to require further comment.

As far as a peaceful transition is concerned, there is no a priori reason to reject this notion, but it would probably take place as a democratic upsurge of class conscious workers responding electorally to anti-capitalist parties once they had realized that their disintegrating economic conditions could not be halted by the traditional political system and its representatives.

Next time we will look at Chapter 2: "General Characteristics" of the situation in Russia.

Click here for part one of this series
Click here for part three of this series
Click here for part four of this series