Published on political affairs pa, by Thomas Riggins, Oct. 1, 2009.
Since the collapse of the socialist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe the question of how to make socialism successful has become more pertinent than ever before.
I believe that the observations made by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) as a result of his 1920 trip to Russia and his interview with Lenin are relevant to this discussion and should be given serious consideration by socialists.
This article is based on the last chapter of Russell’s book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. I must note that his views pertain to the conditions to be met while still under capitalism so that when socialism comes it will be able to succeed.
“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, in other places, 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. This is arguably what happened in the Soviet Union as a result of forced collectivization and industrialization and the mass destruction suffered by the Nazi invasion in World War 2.
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. Now, of course, this may be less true than when Russell wrote because there is at least one economically advanced country professing socialist ideals that could aid an under developed country, namely China …
… Besides rejecting Bolshevism because he thinks it incompatible with the type of stages and gradualism with respect to self-government that he has outlined, 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 – that is, keep its ideals intact, by coming to power in a stable, prosperous country – not one destroyed by war and social upheaval.
Let us say that this is an alternative peaceful and preferred method. In 1920 the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing if (violent overthrow) 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 without an already existing industrial infrastructure. Russia and Eastern Europe seem to have confirmed Russell’s fears. The jury is still out with respect to the remaining socialist countries as I indicated earlier.
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 just how inappropriate was his description of the thought of the Third International.
But in 1920, Russell asserts that 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.” (full text).