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.

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