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.

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