Monday, October 04, 2010

Mr. Russell goes to Russia

I recently finished reading The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell, a book written after Russell visited Russia in 1920 to examine for himself the effects of the Bolshevik revolution. In it, Russell gives his general impressions of the state of the economy , the populace, the culture, and the Bolsheviks themselves.

Although Russell agreed in general with the aims of a communist revolution and the need to reform the evils of capitalist society (see Russell's views on political ideals) he was critical of Bolshevik methods which conflicted with his democratic and humanist sentiments. As Russell put it: "Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures."

Russell later in the text goes further:

I cannot share the hopes of the Bolsheviks any more than those of our Egyptian anchorites; I regard both as tragic delusions, destined to bring upon the world centuries of darkness and futile violence. The principles of the Sermon on the Mount are admirable, but their effect upon average human nature was very different from what was intended.

Those who followed Christ did not learn to love their enemies or to turn the other cheek. They learned instead to use the Inquisition and the stake, to subject the human intellect to the yoke of an ignorant priesthood, to degrade art and extinguish science for a thousand years. These were the inevitable results, not of the teaching, but of fanatical belief in the teaching. The hopes which inspire Communism are, in the main, as admirable as those instilled by the Sermon on the Mount, but they are held as fanatically, and are likely to do much harm.
He goes on to explain his definition of a religion and why Bolshevism fits it:

By a religion I mean a set of 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. By this definition, Bolshevism is a religion: that its dogmas go beyond or contrary to evidence, I shall try to prove in what follows. those who accept Bolshevism become impervious to scientific evidence, and commit intellectual suicide. Even if all the doctrines of Bolshevism were true, this would still be the case, since no unbiased examination of them is tolerated. One who believes, as I do, that the free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism, as much as to the Church of Rome.
It is impressive that Russell was able to realize this well before many other liberal and progressive thinkers (like, say, Albert Einstein.) There is also here a demonstrated nuance that is absent from much of what now passes for political discourse; simple minds might easily dismiss Russell as a "Communist," but Russell is both a critic of capitalism and of communism as he saw them practiced.

If Bolshevism remains the only vigorous and effective competitor of capitalism, I believe that no form of Socialism will be realized, but only chaos and destruction. This belief, for which I shall give reasons later, is one of the grounds upon which I oppose Bolshevism.

I believe that while some forms of Socialism are immeasurably better than capitalism, others are even worse. Among those that are worse I reckon the form which is being achieved in Russia, not only in itself, but as a more insuperable barrier to further progress.
Russell makes a prediction which reminds one of the conclusion of Animal Farm, where the pigs had monopolized power and reestablished Manor Farm, based on George Orwell's own observations of practiced communism twenty plus years later.

This is what I believe to be likely to happen in Russia: the establishment of a bureaucratic aristocracy, concentrating authority in its own hands, and creating a regime just as oppressive and cruel as that of capitalism.
Here are a few more quotable gems from Russell:

  • Good relations between individuals, freedom from hatred and violence and oppression, general diffusion of education, leisure rationally employed, the progress of art and science - these seem to me among the most important ends that a political theory ought to have in view.
  • This teaching of Communism, however necessary it may appear for the building of the Communist state of the future, does seem to me to be an evil in that it is done emotionally and fanatically, with an appeal to hate and militant ardour rather than to constructive reason. It binds the free intellect and destroys initiative.
  • Hatred of enemies is easier and more intense than love of friends. But from men who are more anxious to injure opponents than to benefit the world at large no great good is to be expected.
  • Perhaps a love of liberty is incompatible with whole-hearted belief in a panacea for all human ills.
  • I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.
  • A society which is to allow much freedom to the individual must be strong enough to be not anxious about home defense, moderate enough to refrain from difficult external conquests, and rich enough to value leisure and a civilized existence more than an increase in consumable commodities.
For a concise (and very good) review of The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, see this archived New York Times article.

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