Finally, the revolution did not take place—at least not the one pre socialists were thinking of, and no new world emerged from the war. Instead, the First World War gave birth to communism and fascism. Fascination with the former would confuse the radical part of the left as much as fighting against the latter would absorb all its energy. Russell, however, remained clear-headed. As early as , he traveled to Soviet Russia to see for himself, and returned without illusions to write The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.
Lenin and Leon Trotsky in was a dictatorship, and a ferocious one at that.
Above all, he was guided by observation, a critical mind, and common sense. Russell observed the mechanisms of the dictatorship rapidly set up after the October Revolution: total suppression of freedom of expression or of assembly for the opposition, even the left opposition, and creation of a secret police that could act outside the law. It is only fair to stress just how hard it was psychologically, right on the heels of the First World War, to which Russell was so ardently opposed, to be lucid about Soviet Russia, whose revolution had enabled that country to get out of the war.
In contrast to most of the intellectual left, Russell always tried not to take his desires for reality. Moreover it is amusing to read today his comparisons of communism and Islam at the time of its conquests , in light of the fact that the latter has replaced communism in Western demonology.
He saw in Lenin an intellectual aristocrat, but one with an extremely dogmatic belief in the doctrines he took to be those of Marx. It was the dogmatic certainly with which the communists defended their doctrines that shocked Russell and with him all free thinkers even more than the doctrines themselves. One cannot overstate the difference between Marx and Lenin.
Marx was a child of the Enlightenment, authoritarian in some ways and, contrary to the anarchists, not believing in the need to abolish the State immediately after the revolution. But nowhere in Marx is to be found the idea that socialism can be identified with more or less complete state control of the economy, much less that the form to be taken by the socialist State should be a sort of absolute monarchy imposing an official doctrine in the same way that State religions were imposed in the past.
Then, when he met the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, Russell said that if he were Russian, he like Gorki would support the government because the alternatives were even worse. On that he was completely right, and the notion of taking power in such a way in developed countries has always been a myth. While it mobilized some and repulsed others, it was never anything but a myth. He stressed, and there again history has proved him entirely right, that those policies by no means weakened Bolshevism, but drove it to be still more dictatorial, while inflicting dreadful suffering on the Russian population.
But where nations are concerned, the weakness and struggles are regarded as morally culpable, and are held to justify further punishment. Moreover, inasmuch as dictatorships are usually harder to overthrow or subvert than democracies, the former are favored by a sort of unnatural selection. Cuba for example has managed more successfully to survive U. When countries are faced with aggression, their tendency is to close in on themselves in self-protection. As an example, it is enough to look at the drastic security measures taken by the U.
It is impossible to understand the policy of the USSR throughout its history, or of China after , or of Iran today, without taking that effect into account. By the same token, it was having witnessed firsthand the overthrow of Arbenz that radicalized Che Guevara.
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- The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism.
Unceremoniously shown the door, he went to Moscow to complete his political education and went on to make history under the name of Ho Chi Minh. But it misses no chance to denounce dictatorship in the third world today as in the Soviet Union in the past, while completely overlooking the overwhelming responsibility of Western actions in the emergence and radicalization of those dictatorships.
Thus, even when those criticisms are theoretically justified, they are tinged with hypocrisy.
This shows up especially in the Communist Manifesto written when he was twenty-nine years old. And in Capital he tried to provide a scientific analysis of how the economy functions, but he was nonetheless nowhere near the dogmatism of Lenin and his successors. In particular, concerning wars such as the one from which the world was barely emerging in , and which Lenin attributed to imperialist rivalry, the dominant idea, not only among Marxists but in the left in general, was that the working class had been taken in by capitalists who wanted the war in order to increase their profits.
Russell observed the human tendency to rationalize conduct that is in reality motivated by drives and sentiments. Of course, Russell never denied that every war is accompanied by enormous propaganda in its favor, but he notes that there are some things that even the most intense propaganda fails to accomplish: for example, to make Irish Catholics into Englishmen, and more generally to manage to alter the sentimental attachments that bind a human group to its identity, religion or nation.
These attachments are due to human psychology and are inexplicable in terms of profit-seeking or manipulation by the ruling class. In fact, these irrational but profoundly human factors, much more than the action of the ruling classes themselves, are probably what have historically constituted the greatest obstacle to achieving socialism.
The most damaging intellectual confusion of the twentieth century has no doubt been to identify socialism with the Soviet adventure. The Soviet Union was the result of a tragic and violent history: Civil War and foreign interventions, the need to modernize and defend the nation from Nazi invasion, and unimaginable sacrifices accomplished in order to win the Second World War. That identification nevertheless was made, both by the enemies of socialism, who sought thereby to discredit it, and by the communists who sought by the same identification to embellish the image of the Soviet Union.
One could have hoped that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that confusion would be cleared up, but it is the very opposite that took place. The European social democratic parties adopted privatization policies that were the exact opposite of what they had advocated at the time when the USSR still existed. And this raises the question as to who was right in the end, Russell or Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
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The fall of the Soviet Union as well as the horrors accompanying its history seem to answer unambiguously in favor of Russell. By adopting a subtle and nuanced attitude, he pleased no one, neither the communists nor the anticommunists.
Today, alongside all the negative aspects, which are sufficiently known to everyone, the positive achievements of the communist movement should not be ignored: the victory over fascism, obviously, but also its significant contribution to the major emancipation of the twentieth century, namely the colonial liberation movement.
In Western Europe, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the communist movement has in practice more or less amounted to a branch of social democracy, which after the Second World War made great strides in terms of public services, social security, and democratic education. In his own country, Great Britain, the moment when ideas close to those of Russell were most put into practice was doubtless following the victory of the Labour Party in To return to the comparison between Lenin and Russell, one may ask what status, what effectiveness a free intellectual, independent of any party, can possibly have in the arena of political conflicts.
Communism was a mass movement bringing together tens of millions of people, whereas Russell was an intellectual, no doubt as influential as an intellectual can be, but with no mass movement behind him. Even today, in the whole world there are surely more members of the international communist movement than people who have even heard of Russell. Incidentally, without Lenin, the name of Marx himself might well have ended up in the same category, since most of the socialist movement was moving away from his ideas in the early years of the twentieth century leaving aside the question as to what extent Lenin really propagated the ideas of Marx, rather than a considerably distorted version.
Political conflicts tend to be dominated precisely by those irrational passions whose very existence is denied or played down by Marxism.
The practice and theory of Bolshevism
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