Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism (10 & Final)

by 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:

7. "Conditions for the Success of Socialism"

Russell makes some very interesting observations in his final chapter. I am not going to discuss observations specially related to conditions as they existed in 1920 but will address more general observations such that we could think them still applicable today.

"The fundamental ideas of communism," he says, "are by no means impracticable, and would, if realized, add immeasurably to the well-being of mankind." So, at least, communism is a worthwhile ideal to struggle for it seems. It is strange, however, for a logician such as Russell not to realize that the fundamental ideas of communism logically rest upon Marx's theory of value and since he rejects that theory he should think them to be impracticable.

Be that as it may, Russell finds no fault with the fundamental ideas, the problem is "in regard to the transition from capitalism." The capitalists may put up such a fight to maintain power that they will destroy what is good in our civilization and "all that is best in communism." So this must be avoided.

There can be no success for a communist revolution if industry is paralyzed. If that should happen the economy would breakdown, there would be mass unrest, starvation, and the communists would have to resort to a "military tyranny" to retain power and maintain order and the utopian ideals of communism would have to be practically junked.

So the success of any true communist revolution depends upon the survival of industry. This means that poor countries, small countries, and countries without fully developed economic power cannot have successful revolutions because the capitalists of the advanced countries would overthrow them or subvert them. Russell doesn't realize it but he is a Menshevik!

There is only one country large enough and powerful enough to have a successful revolution. "America, being self-contained and strong, would be capable, so far as material conditions go, of achieving a successful revolution; but in America the psychological conditions are as yet adverse." He further remarks that, "There is no other civilized country where capitalism is so strong and revolutionary socialism so weak as in America." Amen.

Wherever socialism comes to power the bourgeoisie will but up a fight, and Russell says the important question is how long the fight (he uses the word 'war') will last. If it is a short time he doesn't see a problem. If it s a long time there will be a big problem involving the ability of socialism to maintain its ideals.

Therefore, Russell draws the following two conclusions. There can be no successful socialist revolution unless America first becomes socialist or is willing to remain neutral with respect to a socialist revolution. World history since 1920 would seem to give some credence to this view. Second, in order to avoid the kind of civil war that would effectively cripple the realization of the the ideals of socialism, communism should not be set up in a country unless the great majority of the people are in favor of it and the opponents are too weak to initiate violent opposition or effective sabotage of the process.

Russell also says the working class should be educated in technical matters and business administration so as not to be overly dependent on bourgeois specialists. This would imply an advanced industrial society, which was not the case in Russia.

With respect to England, actually any advanced country-- especially the US-- is meant, Russell maintains the best road to socialism should begin with "self-government" in industry. The first industries to be taken over would be mining and the railroads (transportation) and Russell has "no doubts" that these could be run better by the workers than by the capitalists.

Russell says the Bolsheviks are against self-government in industry because it failed in Russia and their national pride won't allow them to admit this. This is misleading. The Bolsheviks certainly favored workers control and soviets being in charge of industry but the civil war made this difficult to establish in practice [thus war communism]. They had no objections to workers self-government, that's what the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was all about. As far as having nationalized industries in capitalist countries being governed by worker's councils was concerned, this was permissible as a transitional stage to full socialism but not as an end in and of itself. Besides, a capitalist government would be unlikely to let the workers actually have the determining voice.

Russell thinks capitalists only care about money and power. So socialists should first take over the industries by means of self-government and allow the capitalists to keep their incomes, then,when all can see that they are drones, they can be dispossessed without too much trouble. In this way we could have a relatively peaceful transition to socialism without the collapse of industry. Historically, Social Democrats have supported this but have in practice, in almost all cases, betrayed the workers and helped out the capitalists instead.

Russell says that another reason industrial self government is a good idea is that it would forestall the type of over centralization found in Russia. This should not be a real concern as Russia was backwards and Russell's plan assumes an advanced economic basis. The important thing is that it would be a support for democracy.

Russell makes an important distinction about democracy. There are at least two ways we can think about democracy One is parliamentary democracy, or in the US the type of representational democracy set up over two hundred years ago basically to protect slavery. Russell says this type of democracy is "largely discredited" and that he has "no desire to uphold" it as "an ideal institution."

There is still "self-government" to be upheld, however. Russell doesn't give a more specific name for this, but today we use terms such as popular democracy, direct democracy (as opposed to representational democracy) or participatory democracy. The Russians tried soviets but the conditions on the ground made this impracticable. For the US, probably, some sort of mixture of popular democracy and parliamentary democracy (with the right of recall) would come near to what Russell had in mind.

Russell gives three main reasons for ensuring that socialism is based on his notions of self-government. 1) No dictator, no matter how well intentioned, "can be trusted to know or pursue the interests of his subjects [Stalin]. 2) A politically educated population depends on self-government [the Soviet working class was unable to defend its gains against Yeltsin and Gorbachev and Co.]. 3) Self-government promotes order and stability and reinforces constitutional rule [the Soviet constitution was just a piece of paper].

Russell's reasons are no doubt correct and successful socialism will be more likely if, when the time for the transition from capitalism comes, "there should already exist important industries competently administered by the workers themselves." This is certainly the ideal situation. But history does not always deal us the ideal hand. Sometimes, we are forced to play the hand we are dealt as it is not realistic to constantly fold your cards unless you have a royal flush.

Besides rejecting Bolshevism because he does not think it compatible with the type of stages and gradualism with respect to self-government that he has outlined [what the Bolsheviks questioned was if the ruling class would resort to violence if socialism won peacefully]. Russell has another big problem with the Third International and that it is that its methods are based on coming to power as a result of war and social collapse, whereas socialism can only work, i.e., keep its ideals intact, by coming to power in a prosperous country-- not one destroyed by war and social upheaval.

Let us say that this is an alternative method. In 1920 the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing if this [violence] was a doomed project. It appears to us now that Russell may have been correct. Socialism can come to power by this method, but it cannot succeed in building a real lasting and popular social order. Russia and Eastern Europe seem to have confirmed Russell's fears. The jury is still out with respect to the remaining socialist countries.

Russell ends by saying the Bolsheviks are too dogmatic and what is really needed is an attitude that is more patient and takes into consideration the complexity of the international situation and rejects "the facile hysteria of 'no parley with the enemy'". By 1948, when his work was reissued, Russell could have read Lenin's "Left Wing Communism An Infantile Disorder" and he would have realized how inappropriate his description of the thought of the Third International was.

He then says, Russian Communism "may fail and go under, but socialism itself will not die." True then, true now. The Great War, Russell says "proved the destructiveness of capitalism" and he hopes that the future will not show the "greater destructiveness of Communism" but rather the healing powers of socialism. What came was another world war of even greater destructiveness and the entrenchment of capitalism and its destructiveness. It now threatens the very Earth itself-- its atmosphere, its oceans, and its rain forests and all life on Earth. Now more than ever we need "the power of socialism to heal the wounds which the old system has inflicted upon the human spirit."

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