Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Next Up: Bolshevism and the West

The Reading Bertrand Russell plan consists of ten books, and we have arrived at the mid-point. Next up is book six – or maybe “work” six, as Bolshevism and the West is, in length, more a pamphlet than a book. Further, it is a pamphlet that is only half-written by Russell.

My copy of Bolshevism and the West is a thin 78-page hardback book with a red cover. It was published in New York by Gordon Press in 1974. The title page further reveals that Bolshevism and the West presents “A Debate on the Resolution ‘That the Soviet Form of Government is Applicable to Western Civilization’”; Scott Nearing makes the affirmative case, Bertrand Russell argues against the resolution, and Samuel Untermyer provides an Introduction.

A quick search of Google Books allows more information to be gleaned from Kenneth Blackwell and Harry Ruja, A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge, 1994). On May 25, 1924, Scott Nearing and Bertrand Russell engaged in their debate at Carnegie Hall in New York City, under the auspices of the League for Public Discussion. The debate proceedings were published in both Britain and the US in 1924; the initial US edition took the form of a (literal) pamphlet distributed by the League for Public Discussion under the title “Debate…The Soviet Form of Government,” while the British edition, published by George Allen and Unwin, employed the title Bolshevism and the West. My Gordon Press copy republishes (fifty years later) the British edition, the proofs of which were approved by Russell. The book indicates many instances when the audience laughed or applauded, which for me adds to the belief that it represents a faithful transcription of what took place at Carnegie Hall.

Both debaters were well-versed on the topic: Nearing published a book in 1924 entitled Soviet Form of Government: Its Application to Western Civilization, whereas Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism was published following his return from the USSR (and a meeting with Lenin) in 1920. (A pdf version (59 pages) of The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism is available here.)

One of the chief benefits (for me) of reading this short volume is that it prompted a visit to the Wikipedia entry on Scott Nearing. What a life he led, a sort of 20th century Thoreau! The parallels between Nearing’s life and Russell’s are quite strong: both, for instance, had trouble keeping academic jobs because of their political beliefs, and faced court actions related to their politics, too. Both taught at one time at the Rand School of Social Science. Both visited the Soviet Union in the early years, composing books about what they saw. At the time of the debate, Russell had already written his book on the Soviet system; Nearing travelled to Russia in 1925 and published his book (on Soviet education) in 1926. Nearing and Russell also both visited China in the 1920s. Both were intellectually active and writing for publication for more than 70 years, and were embraced by activists against the Vietnam War. There’s a master’s thesis waiting to be written on these parallel lives (if it hasn’t already been written). One side note on Scott Nearing is that his son, John Scott, wrote a famous and informative book, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel, about Soviet industrialization from a first-hand (and sympathetic) perspective.

Bolshevism and the West contains 6 sections, one for each element of the debate. They are:

Foreword (2 pages) by Benjamin A. Javits, “Temporary Chairman”
Introduction (5 pages) by Samuel Untermyer, “The Chairman”
Affirmative Presentation Address (15 pages) by Scott Nearing
Negative Presentation Address (21 pages) by Bertrand Russell
Affirmative Refutation (9 pages) by Nearing
Negative Refutation (13 pages) by Russell.

The final three sections each are prefaced with brief remarks by the Chairman of the debate, and the last section concludes with one sentence from the Chairman as well. The Affirmative and Negative Presentation Addresses are prefaced by short biographies of the speakers.

Onwards, then, to Bolshevism and the West.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Full Time

This running summentary of Human Society in Ethics and Politics has been more of a walking summentary, a journey of nearly a year’s duration. The measured pace is not evidenced by any deep insights – except for those borrowed directly from BR.

Part One (“Ethics”) established that for Russell, a guide for right action could be found in terms of maximizing overall satisfaction – where the interests of all humans, and perhaps all sentient beings, have to be included in the benefit calculus. But Russell understands that it is not enough to preach about socially desirable behavior; rather, people must have incentives to actually take those beneficial actions. Part Two (“The Conflict of Passions”) looks at the passions that make it hard to induce people to make choices that maximize social welfare. Part of the problem arises because some things that people enjoy – power, for instance, or respect – almost of necessity come at the expense of others’ enjoyment (of relative power or respect). Further, darker emotions such as fear or hate tend to make us exclude others from the group with whom we are willing to cooperate, and spur the reciprocation of fear and hate directed towards us from the excluded folks, too. So human history is marked by significant cooperation within a group – extending as far as a nation-state in modern times – with rivalry and conflict dominating relations between groups. The within-group cooperation has achieved amazing things. The inter-group conflict, alas, has led to war after war, though with the side benefit of extending the size of successful groups (as bigger groups are more militarily successful). [Are chimpanzees caught up in the same blood sport?]

This might be a glass mostly full story, where living standards and population have increased and civilization has been extended – despite the wars, despite the rivalry and conquest. But Russell notes a new ingredient: thanks to technological advance, wars among the great powers will destroy civilization, not just for the losers and for a short time, but for everyone and potentially forever. Continuation on our historical and current path is not sustainable. We must cooperate with virtually everyone – and it is in the self-interest of both superpowers that we do so.

Unfortunately, the foresight that recognizes that we are all in this together, and incentives to act in ways that recognize this foreknowledge, are not widespread. So Russell wants to help us to understand that our future survival depends on superpower cooperation, and he suggests methods by which cooperative behavior can be induced. Of course, a sound understanding of one’s own long-term interest can go a long way to providing appropriate incentives. Education, then, is part of the mix. A greater awareness of foreigners and foreign cultures can reduce fear and increase the probability of cooperation; such awareness can be fostered by free information flows and by foreign travel. Business connections also tend to be supportive of cooperation and the spread of civilization. The establishment of a world government, one that would limit national sovereignty just as a national government limits individual sovereignty, will be necessary to ensure that our destructive potential is not unleashed. Two steps that Russell explicitly cites as necessary for a stable peace have subsequently taken place: recognition of the Communist government of China and the re-unification of Germany.

Human Society in Ethics and Politics follows in the tradition of Adam Smith (and others, including Machiavelli and Spinoza), of taking human beings not as we might wish them to be, but as they are: possessed of both benevolent and selfish sentiments, motivated by vanity and love of power, and also by fellow-feeling. Preaching to such crooked timber will not be enough to improve (at least sufficiently) their (our) behavior. The answer lies not in telling people to ignore their passions, but rather, in creating social institutions that will channel those passions into socially desirable ends.

For Russell, those institutions include a democratic government (of worldwide scope) with significant protections for self-regarding individual behavior and human rights. Equality of opportunity, and enough equality of distribution to eliminate poverty, also are ingredients in the recipe. Education, science, the overcoming of superstition, exposure to other cultures, criminal and civil law – all can be enlisted to help make individual choices compatible with social welfare. Rivalry can take on benevolent forms, such as sporting events or competition over quality of life. Love of power can be combatted by controls that ensure that there are limits to the power that can be exercised, and by a relatively equal wealth distribution. Adults teach children foresight and delayed gratification; a similar foresight and forbearance (to avoid global annihilation) must be demanded of the electorate and their representatives. We must require of our leaders a quality that they currently do not display, an understanding that humanity forms “…a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” The glass may be mostly full, but there is much work to be done, much consciousness to be raised, to ensure that Russell’s optimistic outlook is itself warranted by the evidence, and not just another superstition.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter X

Part Two, Chapter X (pages 235-239), “Prologue or Epilogue?”

Man’s earthly existence is quite recent from a geological perspective, and the birth of civilization is even more recent. Progress over the last few thousand years has not been uniform, but sporadic, with little gain between the Ancient Greeks and about five hundred years ago. Change since then has been so rapid as to leave observers with vertigo. But perhaps man’s time on earth is just beginning, perhaps there will be many millions of years in the human future. Presumably our future lies in our own making.

Our intelligence can be put to bad ends. “To describe man as a mixture of god and beast is hardly fair to the beasts [p. 236].” Beasts could not produce a Hitler or Stalin, could not first imagine hell and then create one on earth. Why should we care about the perpetuation of this diabolical species?

But we shouldn’t ignore the other side of humanity, its ability to increase knowledge and create beauty, to generate love and sympathy. Perhaps the possession of these virtues, exceptional in the past, will become the standard for the future, and outstanding people in times to come will be as far above Shakespeare as he is above today’s average person. We have that within us to make life pleasant for virtually everyone, though we must choose wise leaders, not “cruel mountebanks [p. 238].” Human happiness resides in giving scope to our highest potentialities. (Shades here of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, as he relates in On Liberty, where he endorses “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”) Full happiness is not now available, because there is so much suffering that sympathetic feelings necessarily undermine contentment – but a future without that suffering, and hence with access to profound satisfaction, is feasible. Do those tiny people in power today, surely in Russia but also elsewhere, sense these possibilities? “I suppose that never for a moment have they thought of man as a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” But we can hope, perhaps against reason, that leaders of a better ilk will emerge and prevail.