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A reformist in Russia: Bertrand Russell’s visit to the USSR

author: bodie robinson | a&c writer

credit: Keijo Knutas and Olli Henze via flickr

Bodie reviews Bertrand Russell’s “the Practice and Theory of Bolshevism”

We’re nearing October already and it has been ninety-nine years since the October Revolution. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia started a revolution that would eventually establish the USSR. For the next five years after the October Revolution, Russia was hurled into a civil war: on one side the Bolsheviks and their Red Army, aiming to violently overthrow the Russian state and establish communism. On the other side, the White Movement and their White Army, an anti-communist faction that was supported by some of the most powerful capitalist countries on earth, including the United States, Great Britain, and France. We all know how the story goes. The Bolsheviks would eventually win and attempt to implement communism in Russia, a vast and backward country, the majority of its inhabitant’s peasants, which had just thrown off its Tsarist shackles.

So what have socialists learned since then? Apparently not enough, since Marxism-Leninism is still the most popular socialist tendency among the far-left, despite their ideology having failed or turned moribund in every single country in which it has been implemented. To understand the conditions of the early USSR better, I read Bertrand Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).

Bertrand Russell was a British analytic philosopher and activist who became one of the most preeminent intellectuals of the twentieth century. He was a socialist throughout most of his adult life. An extremely rigorous thinker, Russell’s highest principle was intellectual honesty. There were no beliefs that Russell thought were too sacred to attack. There was no ox he would not gore, not even his own. For these reasons, I will admit freely, I trust in his judgment and evaluation of Soviet Russia based on a month long trip he took there.

First of all, I have confidence in his account for the reasons stated above. Russell was a potent critical thinker and tried living according to facts rather than prejudices, in all areas of his life. Secondly, I trust his judgment because he was a socialist. He went to the USSR with high hopes, but what he saw and understood about Bolshevism both in practice and theory led him to realize that it was doomed to failure, from as early as 1920.

In May 1920, Russell entered the Soviet Union with the British Labour Delegation. For a month, he traveled in Moscow and Petrograd, and visited a few small rural towns. He met Lenin and had a one-on-one conversation with him. He met Trotsky at an opera. He wandered the streets of Soviet Russia’s large cities as well as its small peasant towns. He spoke to communists and apolitical citizens alike. But his visit did not impute grand hopes in him about the future of the USSR: “I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts [about the success of communism] has intensified a thousand fold 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.”

Russell’s book covers a variety of topics that deal with the Soviet economy, government, and food supply, as well as Soviet art, propaganda, and education. The power of Russell’s analysis and predictions of the USSR come from his thorough understanding of both communism as a system and his knowledge of Marxism-Leninism. In other words, this book is, without a doubt, not a reactionary tirade. It is a thoughtful book written by a man steeped in socialist theory, with thorough knowledge of history, politics, philosophy, and sociology. I believe Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism is an invaluable resource for any honest leftist who wants to analyze the success and failures of the first and most powerful Marxist-Leninist state to ever exist.

In the main, Russell’s evaluation of Soviet Russia in 1920 are more favourable than not. He understood that the Soviet government was faced with extremely unpropitious circumstances while it tried to implement communism. First of all, you have Russia’s backwardness. Russia changed, over night, from a practically feudal Tsarist kingdom into the first-ever communist state. Eighty-five percent of Russia’s populations at the time were rural peasants. The state of industrialism was probably the most primitive in all of Europe. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, the Soviet government also had to wage a war against counterrevolutionaries who were supported by the greatest capitalist empires in the world at the time. For these reasons, Russell is very sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. In fact, I would say he is too sympathetic at times. Nevertheless, he concludes that the Bolsheviks are “neither angels to be worshipped nor devils to be exterminated, but merely bold and able men attempting with great skill an almost impossible task.”

But on the other hand, Russell understood that Bolshevism was doomed to failure from the very beginning. Russell admitted that most of the lower class was benefitting from communism, since they were, generally, better off materially than under Tsarist Russia. However, Russell claims that Russia’s vastness and agricultural self-reliance meant that hunger could be ameliorated even more, but that the Soviet government’s incompetence and the peasantry’s disdain for forced grain acquisition prevented more efficient food distribution. He predicted the emergence of the “Red Bureaucracy.” He also speculated whether the Soviet Union would become a “Bonapartist military autocracy,” which – I think it’s fair to say – it did. He knew that it was a police state, but he also understood that this outcome is to be expected, as it is inherent in Bolshevism, in which a minority vanguard of communists attempt to seize power and stamp out Reaction with an iron fist.

After a thorough and honest evaluation of the Soviet situation, Russell reaches his conclusion and declares: “I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: First, because the price mankind must pay to achieve Communism by Bolshevik methods is too terrible; and secondly because, even after paying the price, I do not believe the result would be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire.” I think most honest leftists should agree.


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