Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism (8)

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:

4. "Revolution and Dictatorship"

Russell begins this chapter by telling us the Bolsheviks have a definite program, set forth by Lenin, "for achieving Communism." He says it can be found in the answers sent by the Third International to the Independent Labour Party (of which Russell was a member) in response to a questionnaire sent by the ILP. This text can be found if you google 'ILP and 3rd International': it is an excellent brief presentation of the views of the Third International in 1920 and has for that era a basically correct understanding of the balance of forces-- its greatest weakness is in over estimating the revolutionary potential of the Western proletariat.

Russell's interpretation of the response by the Third International is not satisfactory as it misrepresents the positions taken by the Bolsheviks. This is not, I think, an intentional misrepresentation, but due to the class prejudices that Russell had due to his aristocratic background and definitely non-working class educational experiences at Cambridge.

For example, he says that after a revolution the Bolsheviks "then confine political power to Communists, however small a minority they may be of the whole nation." What the Third International actually said was that political power was to be in the hands of the workers and toiling masses of the population which make up the vast majority of the whole nation and who will express their will through soviets.

Russell goes on to discuss issues not covered by the response to the questionnaire and which involve the Bolshevik's views about the end game of the Communist movement-- i.e., that "the state will no longer be required." But his end game, through correct, is so far in the future-- we are not one wit closer in 2009 than in 1920-- that it has no practical significance in present day struggles (except to keep our eyes on the prize).

Russell, however, treats this end goal as a very real and approaching possibility that the Bolsheviks are aiming for as the outcome of the world revolution and the the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Bolsheviks were of the opinion that this would be a long drawn out process and be conditioned by specific conditions in each country and area of the world. It was then and still is now.

Russell proceeds to say that there are THREE QUESTIONS to be asked with respect to the Utopian ends that the Bolsheviks are striving for. 1) Is the end "desirable in itself?" Russell says the answer is YES! The present system of capitalism is so unjust it does not deserve to continue. "I concede the Bolshevik case," Russell writes. That case still stands today, by the the way.

It is the other TWO QUESTIONS Russell has in mind that he wants to discuss. 2) Is the the ultimate end "worth the price" that, according to the Bolsheviks themselves, "will have to be paid for achieving it?" To this Russell says NO!

Here is his reasoning. Nothing human is certain and we cannot be sure that a world revolution will actually create a better society. It will entail a long drawn out fight with the United States likely ending up "the main bulwark of the capitalist system."

The world wide struggle between capitalists and communists will be a life and death battle which will make World War I ("the late war") "come to seem a mere affair of outposts." The battle will bring out men's "bestial instincts" and "the general increase of hatred and savagery." Furthermore, whatever the ideals of Communism, a social system will reflect the level of civilization of its population and the violence of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, and the violence of the capitalists, will leave behind a world so "savage, bloodthirsty and ruthless" that it "must make any system a mere engine of oppression and cruelty." Barbarism no matter who wins! I will leave it to the reader to decide how accurate Russell was in predicting the future. I will say, however, this is NOT the price, "according to the Bolsheviks themselves."

Question 3) is the "most vital." This question is: "Is the end goal of Communism consistent with the methods used by Communists to attain it ?" Russell says NO! Some group of men and women must exercise control of distribution and control the military while the struggle is going on. It will be a long struggle and this group will get use to having power and privileges. It is certainly possible that Communists having state power "will be loath to relinquish their monopoly" of control.

"It is," Russell says, "sheer nonsense to pretend that the rulers of a great empire such as Soviet Russia, when they have become accustomed to power, retain the proletarian psychology and feel that their class interest is the same as that of the ordinary workingman." In fact, Russell maintained that already in 1920 he detected that the mentality of the capitalist class was to be seen in the rulers of Russia. So Russell rejects Bolshevism because 1) the price (Barbarism) is too high to pay for the end, and 2) the end that is professed is not the real end that would result.

How accurate was Russell in making these prognostications? We are nowhere near the end game. The struggle between capitalists and the working masses is still being waged. There was a major set back to the socialist cause with the downfall of the USSR and the Eastern European socialist states. Was barbarism created in the USSR in the Stalin era? Did the Communists become similar to the "capitalists" in their psychology and alienated from "the ordinary working man" and woman? We may be too historically close to these events to answer these questions. And we know that from Korea to Afghanistan capitalism has waged and is waging savage and barbarous wars.

What we can say is that if Russell was correct to concede the point that capitalism is unjust and must be replaced then the struggle to replace with it is still a noble and worthwhile struggle. People can learn from history and the mistakes of the past do not need to be repeated in the future-- even if they often are.

Stay tuned for part 9!

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