Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism (7)

Thomas Riggins

Part Two of Bertrand Russell's "The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism" comprises seven chapters under the heading 'Bolshevik Theory. Briefly the main points of each chapter:

2. 'Deciding Forces in Politics'

Having discussed his objections to Historical Materialism, as he understood it, Russell now tells us just what really drives politics (and presumedly history as well). "These four passions," he says, "-- acquisitiveness, vanity, rivalry, and love of power-- are, after the basic instincts, the prime movers of almost all that happens in politics." But this formulation has no explanatory power. What led to the Peloponnesian War? The basic instincts and the four passions. How do you explain W.W.I ? Ditto. How do you explain the US war in Iraq? Ditto., etc., etc.

The problem with Marxism, according to Russell, is that it explains every thing based on just one of the passions-- i.e., acquisitiveness. Marxism will not succeed as a social system because the other passions are also at work and will sometimes trump the desire of acquisitiveness. "The desire for some form of superiority is common to almost all energetic men. No social system which attempts to thwart it can be stable, since THE LAZY MAJORITY will never be a match for THE ENERGETIC MINORITY." Here, by the way, is the sentiment at the basis of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. She could have dedicated ATLAS SHRUGGED to Russell.

Russell, at this time, seems unaware of the fact that throughout history every building from the Pyramids to St. Paul's', every palace and mansion and house that the energetic minority cavort about was built by the lazy majority, as was all the food produced. The energetic majority may travel in first class coaches but the railroads across Europe and Siberia, and North American were laid rail by rail by the lazy majority. Aristotle at least knew it was the work of his slaves that allowed him the time to practice philosophy.

Be this as it may, it does not seem, from the perspective of ninety years on, that Russell's "deciding forces in politics" adds much, if anything, to the understanding of the motive forces in history and politics. It is also definitely not the case that Marxism bases its philosophy of history on the basic instincts plus the "passion" of acquisitiveness.

3. 'Bolshevik Criticism of Democracy'

This is actually misstated as the Bolsheviks were not critical of democracy per se but of bourgeois democracy. They saw parliamentary democracy in the West as just another form of class domination by the bourgeoisie over the working people. They were especially contemptuous of its introduction into Russia under the Tzar and by Kerensky after the February Revolution. They favored a democratic system run by workers and peasants, especially with workers in the leading positions ( the famous soviets first introduced in 1905) and even referred to their government as the the DEMOCRATIC DICTATORSHIP of the workers and peasants. 'Democratic" because it represented the interests of the majority of the people and a "dictatorship" because it denied political rights to the old exploiting classes. This is, by the way, an example of the dialectical principle of the unification and identity opposites.

Russell's objection to the Bolshevik criticism of parliamentary democracy is that there is no guarantee that communists, once in power, will not also abuse their authority and create just as oppressive a government as the capitalists-- i.e., that the communists will become a new ruling class or strata over the working people. Russell, in fact thinks this will happen. This view is similar, in some respects, to the views that Trotsky will put forth after 1928 and seems to ultimately have come to pass under Yeltsin and Gorbachev. The Soviet working class was ultimately sold out by the CPSU leadership and subjected to the restitution of capitalist modes of exploitation. This is not, however, a government just as oppressive as capitalism-- it is capitalism.

Russell says the Bolsheviks want to use a militant minority to overthrow capitalist governments in other countries and thus come to power. His idea here is that the Russian model of coming to power is the ONLY method the Bolsheviks have up their sleeves. This idea of a minority seizing power is actually known as "Blanquism" as has never been advocated by orthodox Marxists. The Bolshevik tactics were developed in Russia under conditions of illegality, despotism, and an absolute lack of democratic rights or values. The German Social Democratic Party and other Marxist parties in democratic conditions of legality never blindly imitated or followed the so called "Russian model."

In practice communist parties, except for some aberrations in the early years of the Third International, developed their programs talking into consideration not only the international conditions but also the specific political realities and conditions of their own countries. These are basic fundaments of Marxist theory. It is true they have been sometimes violated in the past, but never with successful results.

Russell gives two reasons why (minority) revolutions should not be attempted in democratic countries, neither of which make much sense to a Marxist. The first is that there are other minorities besides the class conscious workers-- such as teetotalers-- and they could adopt what Russell thinks are Bolshevik tactics "and be just as likely to succeed." Russell doesn't seem to be aware that Marxists are talking about CLASS STRUGGLE and that the theory of revolution is based on the idea that the working class is the KEY class in modern society and the only class capable of challenging the bourgeoisie for political power. The teetotalers of the world just don't have the heft to pull off a revolution.

The other reason Russell gives is that minority violence lets loose "THE WILD BEAST" in humans which civilization tries to control. But any violence does that, minority or majority, which is, by the way, why ALL FORMS OF VIOLENCE should be avoided as far as possible. In any case Marxists think that violence is intiated by the ruling class against the working class and that Marxists resort to violence in self defense (at least this is the theory).

Coming up-- Russell on 'Revolution and Dictatorship'.

Click here for part one of this series
Click here for part two of this series
Click here for part three of this series
Click here for part four of this series
Click here for part five of this series
Click here for part six of this series