Monday, July 20, 2009


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:

1. 'The Materialistic Theory of History'

This chapter reveals the sad state of Russell's knowledge of Marxist theory but is reflective of what the best and the brightest of what non Marxist thinkers of the time exhibited in the way of familiarity with the fundamental texts of Marx and Engels. To be fair, some of these texts were not available to Russell, having become generally known only in the 1930s so he has that as an excuse for some of his misinterpretations of basic Marxist ideas. But that excuse fails with his 1948 ratification of this 1920 text.

Russell begins with stating that the materialistic conception of history "means that all mass phenomena of history are determined by economic motives." This is a poor beginning as all major Marxist writers, not just Marx and Engels, have denounced the concept of "economic determinism" when applied to history and have maintained that this is a mechanical view of historical development characteristic of bourgeois historians and having very little to do with the Marxist theory of Historical Materialism.

Russell defines materialism as a philosophy holding that "all apparently mental occurrences either are really physical, or at any rate have purely physical causes." All Marxists accept this view. Russell says this may or may not be true but is independent of Historical Materialism ("economic causes are fundamental in politics")-- an example is Buckle who says climate is a "decisive factor" which goes along with materialism but not economic determinism.

Economic causes "operate through men's desire for possessions and would be supreme if this desire were supreme, even if desire could not, from a philosophical point of view, be explained in materialistic terms." Thus there is "no logical connection" between the philosophy of materialism and the theory of Historical Materialism.

What is going on here? Russell has said Historical Materialism = Economic Determinism = Men's desire for possessions-- i.e., Marxists think the motive force in history is human desire for goodies. Of course humans need goodies to live and desire goodies. But what is Marxism really saying?

Humans find themselves living in nature and in relations with each other and those relations are CONDITIONED by the society they live in and their relations to their mode of living and finding the goodies necessary for life. Are they hunters, gatherers, farmers, slaves, are there classes, do they live in industrial or pre-industrial conditions? These relations and conditions of life influence how they look at the world, at each other and at other societies. These conditions also influence what desires they have and how they satisfy them.

Engels said he and Marx stressed the economic factors in their early writings because they were making a new theory, but that of course there were feed back mechanisms and the ideas, philosophies and religions, etc., that evolved in the course of history fed back on and influenced the way people looked at the world from the point of view of the different societies they found themselves in and this also influenced the economic base.

This seems to be just what Russell himself believes, for he says, and I think Marx and Engels would heartily agree, "Treated as a practical approximation, not as an exact metaphysical law, the materialistic conception of history has a very large measure of truth." So Russell is more of a Marxist than he thinks! He gives a very good example of what he calls the "truth" of Historical Materialism i.e., 'the influence of industrialism upon Ideas. He writes: "it is industrialism, rather than the arguments of Darwinians and Biblical critics, that has led to the decay of religious belief in the urban working class." Marx and Engels would, however, allow for a reinforcement feedback influence from Darwinians and Biblical critics upon the working class, especially its more class conscious elements. They were not unidirectional causationists.

Russell gives another example. Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill all argued for the equality of women but W.W.I forced women into industrial employment to free men for the front and "traditional sexual morality collapsed, because its whole basis was the economic dependence of women upon their fathers and husbands." Nevertheless, Marxists would not discount the big women's movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as playing an important role is preparing public opinion for the eventual emancipation of women in the West, however oppressed and enslaved their sisters in the East may in some places remain.

All of this leads Russell to exclaim, "Such facts as these justify Marxians in speaking as they do of 'bourgeois ideology,' meaning that kind of morality which has been imposed upon the world by the possessors of capital." Russell is coming perilously close to becoming a comrade!

He finally arrives at a conclusion which is completely in line with the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin! "But in spite of the fundamental importance of economic facts in determining ["conditioning" would be a better tern] the politics and beliefs of an age or nation, I do not think that non economic factors can be neglected without risks of errors which may be fatal in practice." A common place of Marxist thought.

Russell's ignorance of Marxism now causes him to go off on a ridiculous tangent. He says Marxists think humans are governed by a "herd instinct" and the herd of workers will band together based on class interests. Neither Marx, nor any Marxists, have talked about workers being governed by a herd instinct. They have rather discussed how human consciousness reflects the concrete living conditions of the surrounding world and it is life experiences rather than some vague primitive "herd instinct" that will lead to the development of class consciousness in working people.

Russell is determined to refute Marx, however, not on the basis of what Marx actually thought, but on the basis of ideas he never had. To refute the idea that the herd instinct is conditioned by class Russell points out that "Religion has been the most decisive factor in determining a man's herd throughout long periods of the worlds history." But this begs the question. There are concrete historical and socioeconomic factors to be discussed when writing about the philosophy of religion but it is more likely that religion is a REFLECTION in the consciousness of human population groups and their experiences rather than the determining factor in their composition.

Russell tells us what, "in the last analysis" the theory of Historical Materialism boils down to. That is, ONE DESIRE must consume "every politically conscious" person which is to accumulate as many goodies as possible not only for himself or herself but his or her class as well. This conclusion is one arrived at by someone with no comprehension at all of what Marx and Engels were trying to achieve with the theory of Historical Materialism. They did not intend that the proletariat engage in one long and gigantic shopping spree.

The theory was constructed to explain the alienation and dehumanization of modern life due to money and profit having become the be all and end all of human existence at the expense of all other human values. The economic laws of the capitalist mode of production were found to be responsible for this outcome and Historical Materialism explained how this had come about and how a different society could be constructed and human beings could live without exploitation, slavery and dehumanization. It has nothing to do with a desire to accumulate the greatest amount of commodities for oneself and one's class. It has to do with abolishing an economy based on commodity production itself.

Russell thinks that psychoanalysis must be applied to politics. In his next chapter, "Deciding Forces in Politics" he promises to give a political psychology which he thinks will allow us to understand the world better than the psychology of Marx.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Russell on Bolshevism (5)


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:

5. 'The Failure of Russian Industry'

It was evident to Russell, as to other visitors, that Russia in 1920 was economically the pits. Russian industry was not operating efficiently and could not properly respond to the needs of the people. Anti-communists were blaming "socialism" for the problems and trying to show that any non capitalist system just doesn't work. In this respect little has changed in 90 years.

Russell points out one of the real reasons for industrial failure was the economic blockade maintained against the Bolsheviks by the West. Russia needed access to the world economy for spare parts and machinery and Russell wrote: "Thus dependence on the outside world persists, and the blockade continues to do its deadly work of spreading hunger, demoralization and despair." This brings to mind the US's criminal blockade against Cuba and the anti-communist claims that Cuban economic problems are entirely due to "socialism."

The above point made by Russell is entirely correct. Unfortunately his half baked psychological theories again come to the fore and he makes a comment about the Russian "character" being seemingly "less adapted to steady work of an unexciting nature [factory labor] than to heroic efforts on great occasions [storming the Winter Palace].

The Russian civil war also devastated industrial areas that needed reconstruction. The Russian communists held their Ninth Congress in 1920 and decided to continue a policy adopted for the Civil War-- i.e., the militarization of labor. A resolution from the Congress stated they must further "mobilization of the industrial proletariat, compulsory labor service, militarization of production and the application of military detachments to economic needs." The resolution also states that workers are to be employed "with the same consistency and strictness "as used "in relation to the commanding staff for army needs."

The workers were in fact subject to Draconian production rules and regulation. It is evident, Russell said, "the Bolsheviks have been compelled to travel a long way from the ideals which originally inspired the revolution." However, "the situation is so desperate" that if they succeed they should not be blamed for having made these decisions. "In a shipwreck," Russell said, "all hands must turn to, and it would be ridiculous to prate of individual liberty." Russell will not always remember his own injunction.

6. 'Daily Life in Moscow'

Ok, life wasn't so great in Moscow in 1920 according to Russell. Russell, however, blames both the previous history of Russia and the policies of the West for most of the sad state of conditions in the capital city : "the Bolsheviks have only a limited share of responsibility for the evils from which Russia is suffering."

7. ' Town and Country'

In this chapter Russell goes deeper into the "peasant problem." He tells us that Russia is large and that the peasants in one part have no idea what is going on in other parts. They are so ignorant that they have "no national consciousness" and will not give up any of their produce "merely for purposes of national defense." There is intense hostility between the peasants and the government because the government wants to take a portion of their crops to feed the cities but the blockade and war prevent it from giving the peasants any of the goods they want.

"The food problem," Russell said, "is the main cause of popular opposition to the Bolsheviks." Russell admits, however, that no popular policy is possible to adopt due to the existential conditions. The Bolsheviks are the representatives "of the urban and industrial population" and and cities are little islands in a sea of hostile peasants. This is the case even though, as Russell pointed out earlier, the Bolsheviks had done more for the peasants than any previous government. He points out that if the Bolsheviks were democratic and followed the will of the majority of the people "the inhabitants of Moscow and Petrograd would die of starvation." Sometimes democracy just doesn't work.

The two conditions that have brought this about is that all industrial energy is consumed by the war on the one hand, and ignorance of the peasants about the war and blockade on the other. "It is futile to blame the Bolsheviks for an unpleasant and difficult situation which it has been impossible for them to avoid," Russell notes. In order for them to supply the needs of the peasants and build up industry both the war and the blockade must end.

8. 'International Policy'

Russell states that the cure for Russia's problems "is peace and trade." The Bolshevik government is so far stable but it could, if something happened to Lenin, evolve into "a Bonapartist militarist autocracy." Well, a few years later Lenin was out of the picture and a Bonapartist regime did not emerge and the Soviet government never became a "militarist autocracy." The Stalin cult may be called an "autocracy" but it was based on the working class and attempted to build socialism in conditions that were not favorable for that economic system.

Russell did note that he was "persuaded that Russia is not ready for any form of democracy and needs a strong government." They certainly got one. He did not base this opinion on the economic backwardness of the country but what he saw "of the Russian character" [a purely subjective and non scientific impression] and the disorganized state of the "opposition parties." The opposition was soon eliminated but not because of a lack of democratic ideals but because it cavorted with the enemy in attempts to undermine the Bolsheviks during the Civil War and the allied invasion.

Russell was interested in Lenin's "First Sketch of the Theses on National and Colonial Questions" which he presented to the Second Congress of the Third International held in July of 1920. Lenin advocated a unification of the colonial freedom movements and oppressed nations with the Soviet government in the struggle to overthrow world imperialism. Soviet Russia would lead this movement but its existence as a separate federated republic was to be "transitory" because Lenin really wanted, as he said in the "Theses", "the complete unity of the workers of all countries." One world socialist state. A tall order indeed.

With respect to Egypt, Ireland, and India, Lenin wrote of the "necessity of the co-operation of all Communists in the bourgeois-democratic movement of emancipation in those countries ('Theses'). Communists could make temporary alliances with bourgeois democracy in backward countries but "must never fuse with it."

Russell, evidently worried about the future of BRITISH INDIA, thinks that Lenin is hatching an imperialist plot to get power in Asia. Russell becomes very strange at this point. He says Bolshevism is "partly Asiatic" as is "everything Russian." He sees two trends in Bolshevism. A practical trend for settling down to make a regular country and to co-exist with the West and a more adventuresome group that wants "to promote revolution in the Western nations" and has a "desire for Asiatic dominion."

This desire is "probably accompanied in the minds of some with dreams of sapphires and rubies and golden thrones and all the glories of THEIR FOREFATHER SOLOMON." I stressed the end because it seems extremely weird to think of any of the Bolsheviks tracing their political aspirations back to Solomon and his golden thrones." I will be charitable and ascribe this passage to Russell's having been unconsciously influenced by the popular anti-Semitism of his day. There is a leitmotiv in right wing thinking that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot. Russell was not a man of the Right so he must have just got this notion from popular culture. It is a very strange thing to have written. At any rate there is no chance, he says, of making peace with Britain unless the Bolsheviks change their Eastern policy.

Now we are told there are two attitudes to the world-- the religious and the scientific. Almost all the good in the world has come from people with the scientific outlook and all the evil from those with the religious. "The scientific attitude is tentative and piecemeal, believing what it finds evidence for, and no more."

The religious attitude leads to "beliefs held as dogmas. dominating the conduct of life, going beyond or contrary to evidence, and inculcated by methods which are emotional or authoritarian, not intellectual." [This by the way, is a perfect description of Russell's attitudes towards Communism for most his life.]

Using this distinction Russell determines that Bolshevism is a religion (a really bad one) and Bolsheviks are "impervious to scientific evidence and commit intellectual suicide." Russell seems not to be aware of the fact that all the great Bolshevik leaders agreed with Lenin's dictum the Marxism was NOT A DOGMA but a guide to action and that scientific methods should be applied to social questions and to the construction of socialism. Like any human endeavor there is a range of behaviors and among both religious and scientific people you can find all sorts from the most dogmatic to the most open minded, so we don't have to take Russell's spurious and dogmatic pronouncements too seriously.

Well, not only is Bolshevism a religion, it is a religion that should be compared with Islam ("Mohammedanism") rather than Christianity and Buddhism. Russell thinks Bolshevism and Islam are "practical, social, unspiritual, [and] concerned to win the empire of this world." While Christians and Buddhists care about "mystical doctrines and a love of contemplation."

I think all this very naive as the spread of different types of Buddhists, Christians and Moslems completely overlap one another and these types of invidious comparisons are simply unwarranted and unscientific.

Russell thinks it possible that Bolshevism "may go under in Russia" [well it finally did but on a time table far exceeding anyone's imagination in 1920] "but even if it does it will spring up again elsewhere, since it is ideally suited to an industrial population in distress." We shall see.

Now Russell makes a very valid point for the1920s, and in general. Russia was a backward country and he will not actually criticize the methods used by the Bolsheviks "in their broad lines" because they "are probably more or less unavoidable." But Western socialists should not engage in "slavish imitation" of the Bolsheviks because these methods are not "appropriate to more advanced countries."

He concludes part one of his book by saying, quite rightly I think, that the Bolsheviks "are neither angels to be worshiped nor devils to be exterminated, but merely bold and able men [he should have added "and women"] attempting with great skill an almost impossible task." I think he has a schizophrenic outlook on the Bolsheviks!

Part two comprises seven chapters on "Bolshevik Theory" and that is what I shall review next.

Friday, July 10, 2009


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:

3. 'Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky'

This chapter is full of personal impressions of Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky. It is really very subjective, more so than many other opinions in this book, so I will pass it by after giving just a few examples.

Of Lenin, Russell says, "I have never met a personage so destitute of self-importance." Lenin thought it would be difficult to build socialism with a majority population of peasants (little did he know). He told Russell that the world revolution was needed before any real achievement could happen.

Of Trotsky, Russell says the Russians don't regard him at all as equal to Lenin but he impressed Russell more as to "intelligence and personality" but he had only "a very superficial impression" of the man. He had "admirable wavy hair" and appeared vain. He brought to mind a comparison with Napoleon!

Gorky was ill when Russell interviewed him. "He supports the government," Russell wrote, as I should do, if I were a Russian-- not because he thinks it faultless, but because the possible alternatives are worse." If Russell really thinks that, then he, as a Leibniz scholar, should have recognized that the Bolsheviks were the best of all possible Russian governments and thus mitigated some of his criticisms since he could see the Bolsheviks were doing the best they could. He should have at least made constructive criticisms of the faults instead of comparing them to his ideal of Britain since 1688 and suggesting incommensurable historic parallels

Now for a more substantive chapter.

4. 'Communism and the Soviet Constitution'

Russell wanted to study and compare the Soviet system, set up by the Constitution, with the Parliamentary system but could not as he found the Soviets "moribund." The All Russian Soviet , the legal supreme body, hardly ever met and had already become a rubber stamp for the CP.

This was due to the fact that the Western blockade and the Civil War had reduced the country to the verge of collapse and the Bolsheviks could only hold out by extreme measures. The idea was first the government had to survive and after peace was established there could be a return to more democratic measures.

Russell was aware of the fact that the peasants were hostile to the Bolshevik regime. To feed the cities it was necessary to take food from the peasants and this was paid for by essentially worthless paper money which the peasants could not really spend.

Nevertheless, Russell thought the peasants "never better off" and their dislike of the Bolsheviks seemed unwarranted. He saw no "under fed" peasants and the big landlords' property had been confiscated for the benefit of the peasants.

The peasants were very ignorant, knowing little beyond the confines of their villages. Knowing nothing of the Civil War or blockade "they cannot understand why the government is unable to give them the clothes and agricultural implements that they need."

Russell saw the CP in Russia ('the bureaucracy") divided into three parts. First, the old Bolsheviks, "tested by years of persecution", who have the the most important positions. They are upset by the backwardness and hostility of the peasants and by the fact their ideals have to be postponed awaiting better material conditions.

Second, the second rank of "arrivistes" who have the second level positions. They benefit from the fact that the Bolsheviks are in power (the police, informers, secret agents, etc.,) From their ranks come the members of the Extraordinary Commission [i.e., the Cheka or,in 1920, All Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution, Profiteering and Corruption).

This was a violent revolution and the White Guards, the pro Tsarist side in the Civil War had unleashed the "White Terror" in areas it controlled and the Bolsheviks, fighting fire with fire, unleashed the "Red Terror" against their perceived enemies. Needless to say many untoward actions were taken by both sides. 

Lenin addressed these issues of democracy and dictatorship in a speech he gave in 1920. "[In] the era of capitalism, when the masses of the workers are subjected to constant exploitation and cannot develop their human capacities, the most characteristic feature of working-class political parties is that they can involve only a minority of their class. A political party can comprise only a minority of a class, in the same way as the really class-conscious workers in any capitalist society constitute only a minority of all workers. We are therefore obliged to recognise that it is only this class-conscious minority that can direct and lead the broad masses of the workers.... What is this organized minority? If this minority is really class-conscious, if it is able to lead the masses, if it is able to reply to every question that appears on the order of the day, then it is a party in reality." And because of the dire situation in Russia it was really a small group of leaders at the top who actually ruled Russia.

Now for the third group in Russell's view. These were people who supported the government NOT because they were fervent communists but because the communists were in power and they could benefit from serving the communists-- either out of motives of patriotism or self interest (or both).

These people were of the same type as American businessmen (being motivated to advance themselves and take advantage of situations) and Russell "supposes" that if peace comes this group will help in the industrialization of Russia making it "a rival of the United States."

The Russian workers in 1920, Russel said, were lacking in the habits of "industry and honesty" and the "harsh discipline" of the Bolsheviks will allow Russia to become "one of the foremost industrial countries." This attempt will be made in the 1930s in earnest.

Coming up, 'The Failure of Russian Industry'

Thursday, July 09, 2009



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:

2. 'General Characteristics'

In this chapter Russell relates some of the impressions he got while traveling about in Russia with the British Labour Delegation. These impressions tell us a lot more about Russell than they do about Russia.

He thinks the "Russian character " is attracted to certain doctrines of Marx due to its "Oriental traits." The only "traits" he mentions are those of "crushing" foes "without mercy" and maintaining a mind set "not unlike the early successors of Mohammed." Although I am at a loss trying to figure out what the Bolshevik leadership would have to share, by way of comparing mind sets, with the early followers of the Prophet.

The position of Marx, which led to this observation, is his teaching that "communism is fatally predestined to come about." A position that Marx never, in fact, held. He surely thought that capitalism would collapse, but the class struggle could result in the mutual destruction of the contending classes-- which may still be on the agenda.

Russell reminds us of the "kindliness and tolerance" of the English since 1688, which he contrasts to Bolshevik fanaticism and mercilessness. But of course, he says, this kindliness and tolerance "we do not apply to other nations or to subject races." This may explain why so many of the "subject races" saw a greater affinity with the Bolsheviks in the years that followed than with the British.

He compares the "baser side" of the Russian government with the Directoire in France and its good side to that of the rule of Cromwell. Cromwell's Puritans are analogous to the "old Bolsheviks" led by Lenin. That is, they started out idealistic and democratic but the force of circumstance led them to become dictators over a recalcitrant population (the Russian peasants in the case of the Bolsheviks).

Should the Bolsheviks fall, Russell says, it will be for the same reasons the Puritans did: because people will want "amusement and ease" rather than anything else. Well, the history of Russia has never seen a time when "amusement and ease" were on the agenda, including today, so I think Russell missed the boat with these historical comparisons.

Russell actually thinks there is a philosophical model, or parallel, that is more accurate than any historical one, and that is Plato's REPUBLIC. It's true that the Communist Party, the leadership at least, corresponds to the guardians and you can make a case for the CP cadre and Red Army being the auxiliaries, but Russell is completely off his rocker when he says "there is an attempt to deal with family life more or less as Plato suggested."

There was no eugenics movement in Russia, the communists did not have a rigged lottery system to distribute sexual partners, handicapped and illegitimate children were not put to death ("exposed"), marriage was not outlawed until retirement. At most you have an effort to bring about equality between the sexes and provide universal education. The demands of the Communist Manifesto as well as Plato. So the assertion that there is an "extraordinary exact" parallel between Plato and what Lenin and the Bolsheviks like him envisioned is wide of the mark.

Russell doesn't think war and revolution (violence) will bring forth the best models of socialism, and for this reason he rejects the Third International which he perceives as an instrument to promote a violent international class war.

The 1920 Congress of the Third International did pass resolutions based on the mistaken theory that world wide civil war was about to break out between the exploited masses and their rulers (even in the US) and that communists had to be ready for the test of arms. Needless to say, nothing of the sort happened (at least on the scale imagined) as the post W.W. I revolutionary wave petered out. So Russell had a more realistic position than the Bolsheviks on this issue.

He also objected to the theory of "democratic centralism" (referred to by him as "concentration of power." This theory was developed to provide effective leadership for worker's parties in conditions of illegality an/ or war. Many socialists do not think it is suited for times of peace and legality. Russell didn't approve of it, although he does not mention it by name he is dealing with the concept, because, he says, "from concentration of power the very same evils flow as from the capitalist concentration of wealth."

Russell talked with Lenin and remarks, in this chapter, that Lenin was a true internationalist, as are all communists, and would have sacrificed power in Russia to help the international revolution. With the failure of the world revolution Russell imagined that nationalism would begin to take root in Russia.

He also met Trotsky, at that time the leader of the Red Army, and remarks on the enthusiasm he aroused in public. Russell thinks that when the Asiatic parts Russia are retaken (as the Civil War comes to an end along with foreign occupation: the USSR was not founded until 1922) the communists will act like typical imperialists (they didn't) and behave like other Asiatic governments "for example, our own government in India."

Coming up: Chapter Three-- "Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky"

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


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 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.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Part One: the prefaces

Thomas Riggins

The year 2010 will see the ninetieth anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s book “The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.” Russell was one the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers and keenest social critics. The observations Russell made in Russia just three years after the Revolution, his impressions of Lenin (whom he interviewed) and Trotsky (no mention of Stalin), and his assessments of the future prospects of communism still make fascinating reading and since the collapse of Soviet communism seem eerily prescient.

Russell has divided his book into two parts “The Present Condition of Russia” and “Bolshevik Theory.” The first part will not concern us as much as the second as it is really outdated as regards the “present condition” of Russia, although there are some observations made that are still of interest. The second is a general consideration of the philosophical outlook of Bolshevism and that still has lessons for today.

I am posting this article in several parts and will begin with the prefaces. Russell reissued the book in 1948 and in a brief preface declared that in all “major respects” he had the same view of Russian Communism as he had in 1920. I doubt if that was actually so as he says many very favorable things about the Bolsheviks in 1920 and holds contradictory attitudes about them. I think he was actually much more negative in 1948 than in 1920.

Lets begin with the original 1920 preface which was retained in the 1948 republication.
Russell says Bolshevism is a radically new political movement which is a combination “of characteristics of the French Revolution with those of the rise of Islam.” This allusion to Islam will crop up again later. I note it because after the defeat of Communism it is radical Islam that is being touted as the next big threat that the US has to confront.

Russell says the most important fact about the Russian Revolution is the “attempt to realize socialism.” Russell is dubious about this possibility succeeding and , as we know, it ultimately failed. In the book Russell has a lot to say about this which many may still find relevant.

Russell does say that "Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind." There are two reasons for this. First, Bolshevism stirred the hopes of humanity in such a way as lay the foundations for the future building of socialism. Second, the future creation of a socialist world would be "improbable" but for the "splendid
attempt " of the the Bolsheviks.

Russell uses the term "splendid attempt" because he does not think the Bolsheviks will ultimately succeed in creating a stable or desirable form of socialism in Russia. He thinks this is because Bolshevism is "an impatient philosophy" which, in Russia, as elsewhere, is attempting to create a new world order "without sufficient preparation in the opinions and feelings of ordinary men and women."

Russell saw three possible trajectories that the Russia of 1920 would be faced with due to the hostility of the capitalist world. The first was DEFEAT by the capitalists, the second was VICTORY by the Bolsheviks but at the cost of "a complete loss of their ideals" followed by a "Napoleonic", regime and third, "a prolonged world war" which would destroy civilization.

Well, he saw something through a glass darkly. The major capitalist assault to defeat the Bolsheviks was repelled (the Nazis) but the effort both in preparing for it and executing it did lead to a regime which sullied the ideals for which it stood and which history rather refers to as "Stalinist" than "Napoleonic." The strain of the second world war and cold war did finally defeat "Bolshevism" (now in quotes) and led to the demise not of civilization itself but of the new socialist civilization that the Russians had dreamed of founding. Nevertheless, Russell's views indicate that the attempt of the Bolsheviks was a noble one which will inspire future generations to struggle on for the construction of a socialist world.

It is worth noting that Russell considers himself to be ideologically a political Bolshevik himself! "I criticize them only when their methods seem to involve a departure from their own ideals," he declares.

But while he shares the political idealism of Bolshevism, there is another side to it that he vehemently rejects. He thinks that they act like religious fanatics (fundamentalists) in the way they defend their basic philosophical ideals. He gives their adherence of philosophic materialism as an example. Russell says materialism "may be true" but the dogmatic way Bolsheviks proclaim it is off putting to one who thinks that it cannot be scientifically proven to be true. He writes: "This habit of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful skepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook."

But no sooner does he say this than he basically takes it back and mitigates the charges against the Bolsheviks on this count. Speaking of the capitalist rulers in Europe and America in 1920 Russell says "there is no depth of cruelty, perfidy or brutality" that they would shrink from in order to protect capitalism and if the Bolsheviks act like religious fanatics it is the actions of the capitalist powers that "are the prime sources of the resultant evil." If that is what it takes to get rid of capitalism Russell seems to say "so be it." Anyway he hopes that when capitalism falls the fanaticism of the communists will fade away "as other fanaticisms have faded in the past."

Unlike Marx who said he did not necessarily hold individuals guilty for the roles they played in the economic history of mankind, Russell is full of moral indignation when it comes to the capitalist rulers of his day. "The present holders of power are evil men, and the present manner of life is doomed." Let us hope this present economic crisis is the heralding of that long awaited doom.

Russell ends his preface by thanking the Russian communists "for the perfect freedom which they allowed me in my investigations." Russell had gone to Russia as part of a British delegation to assess the revolutionary situation (May-June 1920). It is extraordinary that he would have been on an officially approved delegation considering that he thought his own government was made up up "evil men."

Part Two coming up.