Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism (9)

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:

5. "Mechanism and the Individual"

In this section Russell asks if there is any alternative to the Bolshevik theory of violent revolution available for overcoming the negative social effects of capitalism? The Third International in its reply to the ILP said: "It is possible to think that the working class in England can secure Government power even without a revolution by means of Parliamentary election victories." But it also thought that the British ruling class would not permit a peaceful transition. This is still an open question in my opinion.
What does Russell suggest is the real problem with capitalism?

Russell makes at least two major statements in this chapter that Marxists would have difficulty accepting. First he says, "With a very moderate improvement in methods of production, it would be easy to ensure that everybody should have enough, even under capitalism, if wars and preparations for wars were abolished."

But it is not the methods of production but the relations of production, which leads to the private appropriation of socially created wealth, which is responsible for poverty. Because capitalists compete for market share the system inevitably leads to crises in overproduction, unemployment, poverty and wars resulting from attempts by the national bourgeoisie of various countries to control foreign markets. The idea of everybody having a enough under capitalism IF "wars were abolished" is not a realistic idea for a system whose internal logic leads to conflicts as a way to maintain itself and control markets.

Russell thinks the real problem of capitalism is the "uneven distribution of power." The capitalists have concentrated all the social power in their hands and ordinary people are forced to work for them "much harder and more monotonously than they ought to work...."

Since Russell rejects the labor theory of value he thinks the evils of capitalism do not arise as a result of the exploitation of labor to create surplus value and hence capitalist profits, but by the subjection of workers to the tyranny of the machine by over powerful capitalists. "It is," he writes, "this sacrifice of the individual to the machine that is the fundamental evil of the modern world."

This is the evil that Russell thinks must be addressed. He rejects Bolshevism because it one-sidedly thinks, according to him, the main evil is "inequality of wealth." But this is not what the Bolsheviks believed at all. Income inequality was a consequence of a more fundamental problem and that is the private ownership of the means of production by the capitalist class.

The problem is, for Bolshevism, how to abolish the capitalist class and institute social ownership of the means of production. Russell's belief that the evils of the modern world could be solved under capitalism, in appropriate conditions, is a fantasy from the Marxist point of view.

6. "Why Russian Communism Has Failed"

This is a premature chapter title for 1920 although it is an appropriate topic today. Russell believes that "the civilized" world will eventually adopt socialism but thinks the Russian model has failed. The reasons are the collapse of industry and a shortage of food. Because of these two factors the Communists have become unpopular and have to rule by force over a hostile population. This type of repressive government cannot institute the type of ideal socialist order that has been envisioned in Marxist theory.

Russell may have exaggerated the unpopularity of the Soviet regime while at the same time providing an explanation of some of the harsher features of the Russia of the 1930s. Russia did successfully industrialize and was able to beat back the Nazis in WW II-- but all this lay in the future. What is most interesting in this chapter is Russell's comparison of Soviet Russia with British India.

First, Soviet Russia resembles the British government in India because "it stands for civilization, for education, sanitation, and Western ideas of progress." Were the Indians dirty, uneducated and uncivilized before the British arrived? The difference seems to be that the Soviets wanted to uplift the working people of Russia and bring them into the 20th Century while the British were content to subject the Indians to colonial exploitation.

Second, the Soviet and British Indian governments were "composed in the main of honest and hardworking men, who despise those whom they govern, but believe themselves possessed of something valuable which they must communicate to the population, however little it may be desired." I agree that the British despised the Indians, there was a great deal of racism in the British attitudes towards their subject peoples, but the Bolsheviks did not "despise" the "toiling masses "they governed, only the social and economic conditions that had been forced upon them. The Bolsheviks aimed to make the Russian masses masters of their own fate while the British sought to deny the Indian masses that very mastery.

Third, both governments "represent an alien philosophy of life ." This was true of the British but not the Soviets. Even at the end of the Soviet era when an election was held regarding the future of the USSR the majority voted to maintain the Union but the majority will was brushed aside.

What does Russell think is the "ultimate source" of the "evils" he found in Russia? By having a revolution to free Russia from feudalism and to get out of W.W.I the Bolsheviks "provoked the hostility of the outside world" and then that of the peasants, and then that of the "urban and industrial population." [Yet they were popular enough to win the Civil War and to go on in 1922 to found the USSR.] But the reason for all this is "the Bolshevik outlook on life." Which is a "dogmatism of hatred" and a belief "that human nature can be completely transformed by force." These two assertions are purely products of Russell's imagination and find no support in the philosophy of the Third International or in its response to the questions of the ILP.

The Bolsheviks have arrived at this mythical outlook, Russell says, by the "cruelty of the Tsarist regime" and the "ferocity" of "the Great War." He might have added Western intervention, support of the Whites in the Civil War, and the blockade. Socialism cannot be established by people whose "mentality" is the result of these conditions. Socialism needs a mentality of "hope" not "despair." But it could be argued that it was precisely hope, hope that a better world was possible, and not despair, that has always driven the socialist movement, Bolsheviks included.

Coming up the 10th and final installment: Russell's chapter on the "Conditions for the Success of Socialism."

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