Monday, July 19, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Full Time

The brevity of Bolshevism and the West led to a (revolutionary?) break with Reading Bertrand Russell tradition, in that there has been no halftime reflection. So this post will have to serve as both an interim and a final report.

My first reaction is that this was some extraordinary gathering in Carnegie Hall in 1924! Nearing and Russell are superb, and their debate is polite but sufficiently combative to be interesting. With hindsight, of course, Russell wins. Nearing comes off as a rather doctrinaire Leninist-Marxist (which is not to say that he supports Bolshevik terror), and the doctrine (of the inevitability of a revolution in capitalist countries, for instance) leads him astray. Russell exudes more skepticism towards the proclaimed inevitability of future events, and shows little (or rather, no) interest in the political/economic novelties of the Soviet Union that impress Nearing.

The quality of the debate is partly revealed by the (seeming) extent to which it is unscripted. Nearing’s initial remarks no doubt are prepared in advance, but Russell’s first rejoinder directly engages many points from Nearing’s address, suggesting that Russell packaged his ideas (even if he didn’t manufacture them) on the fly – and a similar conclusion can be drawn from the later stages of the discussion.

The debate explicitly concerns whether the Bolshevik program is appropriate for the West – a question that is logically independent of whether that program is appropriate for Russia. (Russell makes this point on pages 40-41.) The debaters do not, therefore, examine the issue of whether Bolshevism is a desirable development for Russia. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the inference that Mr. Nearing is rather pro-Bolshevik (with respect to the Soviet Union), while Mr. Russell is rather anti-Bolshevik. Their positions concerning the applicability of the Russian model to the West seem to reflect their hopes (Nearing) and fears (Russell). Russell notes that the ideal of justice among men “is not one which was realized in the early days of the Soviet revolution or one which ever can be realized by methods of violence and by methods of force [p. 46].”

How does hindsight reveal that Russell was the more prescient (so far) of the two debaters? Nearing would be vindicated by a Bolshevik-style revolution in the West, and (to some extent) by a continued movement towards communism in Russia. These events did not come to pass. Russell’s case would be bolstered by: the rejection of Soviet-style governance in the West, even in the face of a crisis; a gradual adoption of socialism; and (again, to some extent) a repudiation of communism in Russia. These events did come to pass. The Soviet model was not implemented in the West in response to the Great Depression, post-Soviet Russia rejoined the capitalist world, and – well, did the West gradually adopt socialism? The answer depends on what is meant by socialism, of course, and what is meant by the West. Certainly Britain in the 1970s was more of a socialist country than was the Reagan-era US. A traditional definition of socialism as government ownership of the means of production largely precludes the use of “socialist” to describe the present-day US (despite what Obama detractors might have one believe). But compared with the standard aspirations of socialists of the 1920s, the US has gradually instituted a socialist economy. Milton and Rose Friedman in Free to Choose republish the economic program for the year 1928 of the Socialist Party of the US. The Friedmans’ point is to indicate how much of that platform (the vast majority) actually became implemented during the subsequent fifty years. By this standard, Russell is correct in his contention that evolutionary methods could install (at least a version of) economic socialism in the West.

As for the Soviet experiment, Russell sees that it will fail, and that communism will be rejected in Russia. Perhaps he doesn’t think that it will take seventy years for these events to play out. Russell senses correctly that the features of Russian socialism that Nearing trumpets – political representation by occupation, the scientific organization of the economy, and payment for productive labor only – are mere epiphenomena. What is real in the Soviet Union is the suffering of the revolution, and what is lasting is the opportunity for peasant proprietorship and the rejection of communism by the Russian people.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Russell's Rebuttal

Negative Refutation (pages 66-78), by Bertrand Russell

Mr. Nearing assumes that Western civilization will collapse, and then assumes away any objection to the notion that there might be barriers remaining to a Bolshevik-style transition to socialism. I (Russell) am unconvinced about the inevitability of Western collapse, though surely it is a contingency worth taking into account. I think it would only happen in the wake of military defeat, and I doubt all Western countries would simultaneously suffer a military defeat. The US is unlikely to be defeated in a war, and hence a change in US economic arrangements will have to occur outside of a crisis.

Gradual methods can institute socialism in the West. Revolutions are too destructive of complex, industrial societies. The cataclysm would be so painful that the survivors wouldn’t turn to any rational plan of orderly government. Fortunately, even in times of peace and prosperity, Western populations can be convinced of the need to adopt a socialist economy.

Again, the only route to a revolutionary crisis in the West is through an unsuccessful war. That outcome can be avoided by not going to war. “Of course, if you embark upon war, it may be successful war. That is perhaps just a little bit better than unsuccessful war [p. 71].” But better to avoid the risk altogether. You can’t get to the happy socialism that Mr. Nearing hopes for through the gate of war. “Human society moves towards good things slowly, towards bad things fast [p. 72].”

Peaceful propaganda appealing to human intelligence will have a long-term, salutary effect in convincing Western nations to adopt socialism. People do not have to be on the verge of starvation before accepting changes that will make them better off. Rich people take chances to make themselves still richer. The same energy and initiative can spread more widely and impel the poorer classes to improve their lot. Industrial society is young, and our thought patterns remain those appropriate for agricultural communities. But these thought patterns will adapt themselves to the circumstances of industrialization, and institute the changes that both Mr. Nearing and I (Russell) support. An attempt to force the matter by grabbing power during a crisis might be momentarily successful but will not be lasting: people have to want the change. [Here Russell echoes a point he made in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] The Bolsheviks will prove to be like Cromwell – people were forced to sample Puritan ideas, and decided they didn’t care for Puritanism. “It is no use to try things until people are more or less ready for them [pages 74-75].”

Mr. Nearing seems to adopt a Hegelian-Marxian perspective that indicates sharp, logical changes from one stage of development to another. The rise of Darwinism and evolutionary thought suggests that human societies have a more gradual flowering, one that does not proceed in any pre-ordained direction. Revolutions have a way of changing the names of things without changing the underlying reality. The ownership of land by peasants is likely to be the only element of the Bolshevik revolution that will survive – and this reform could have been accomplished with much less suffering. The West should realize that socialism, like all great changes, can only be introduced slowly, and without the drama of a revolution.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Nearing's Rebuttal

Affirmative Refutation (pages 57-65), by Scott Nearing

Mr. Russell labels my ideas Marxian [notes Mr. Nearing] – a term I didn’t use but will accept – and then pummels Karl Marx. I didn’t claim that my analysis was correct because Marx said so, but because there is evidence: history shows us that a society’s governmental form reflects its stage of development.

Mr. Russell examines the Communist party dictatorship in the Soviet Union, pointing out its similarities to other dictatorships. He does not cite the novel features of economic organization in the USSR, which do not have such parallels.

Russia is agricultural while Bolshevik ideas are drawn from thinking about industrial societies. These ideas were not a perfect fit for Russia – and hence we have the NEP. In the West, we will still need a NEP when we apply these ideas. [My rendering seems to catch the literal interpretation of the text, but the logic suggests that the text is mistaken: perhaps Nearing said that the original ideas, without the amendment of a NEP, would fit the West. -- RBR]

Mr. Russell's writings from 1920 indicate that he is opposed to Bolshevik methods. But when the Western crisis comes, what form of transitional arrangements will arise, if not Bolshevik ones? A committee on public safety will emerge once again, as it did in Russia in 1917 and as it did in Cromwell’s 17th century England. If Mr. Russell disagrees, he should indicate what alternative arrangement he imagines in the wake of a Western crisis. Russell assumes that barbarism is the only available path, but the infeasibility of a Bolshevik-style path to socialism cannot simply be assumed. “And if the Russians haven’t found the right way, it is up to Mr. Russell and me to help Americans find the right way [p. 63].”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Russell's Address

Negative Presentation Address (pages 35-55), by Bertrand Russell

Mr. Nearing is right that we run the risk of destroying our civilization through wars. But whether or not we suffer a cataclysm, we will not adopt a Soviet form of government. We can reach this conclusion even if we accept Mr. Nearing’s premise, that a nation’s economic system determines its political system – certainly the economic system in Russia when the Bolsheviks took power bears little resemblance to the economic system in advanced capitalist countries. What the Russian economic system does resemble is the economic system in England in the seventeenth century – and the Soviet system of government resembles that established in seventeenth century England by Oliver Cromwell. Russian Bolshevism is akin to England’s Puritanism, and both movements grew out of somewhat similar economic conditions. In modern Britain and the US, an upheaval set off by losing a war would overthrow the current form of government, but it would not – again, employing Mr. Nearing’s own theory – lead to a government of the Soviet type.

Mr. Nearing exaggerates the extent to which peasant and worker interests are respected in the Soviet government. It is the Communist party that runs the show – that is, a set of people who hold certain opinions (like the Puritans in Cromwell’s England). The Soviet Union conducts elections in form but not in substance.

There are further reasons – besides the different economic conditions – to suggest that the Soviet form of government does not provide a useful model for the West. Surely the orthodox Marxist view that economics determines the form of the political system cannot be universally correct. (Though the Bolsheviks claim to take a scientific approach to the study of society they are quite dogmatic and unscientific.) Russia and China often have had quite similar economies, but vastly different political systems and cultures. Western traditions, at least for the past two hundred and fifty years, are so far removed from Russian ones (including along the dimensions of religion, centralization, and persecution) that there is little hope that a Russian form of government could suit the West. The Marxian view of the inevitable unfolding of history is much too simplistic for our varied world. We have run across millennial views before, so we should be wary of accepting any grand scheme that promises a revolution that will establish a golden age.

Recent Russian history shows us that human affairs are not predestined to move in one direction only. The Bolsheviks implemented their revolution and tried to install communism, but within four years backtracked considerably with the New Economic Policy (NEP). They backtracked despite ruling with czar-like despotism, utilizing all the usual excesses of an unaccountable secret police. But the NEP and the simultaneous softening of rule in Russia, while less communistic than what preceded them, may well be better steps along the road to communism.

Bolshevik revolutionary methods cannot achieve a just society. The revolution might have brought a modicum of economic justice, but there was no political justice. The politically powerful class was constrained only by their own consciences – a weak reed anywhere – in the extent to which they could make the economic order serve their interests.

The pre-revolutionary aristocracy in Russia, like its monarchy, was inefficient. But in the US, the aristocrats – the business elite – are quite efficient. They will be able to scuttle any revolution undertaken by a minority that tries to revoke their privileges. The Bolsheviks did not need majority support to overthrow the decrepit ruling class in czarist Russia.

The ideas of Western intellectuals (like Marx) are not applicable in Asian countries [and here Russell includes Russia as Asian]. Their illiterate, uneducated masses are in no sense ready to implement democracy. The Soviets discovered an alternative means for moving their society forward, that of rule by the party, a small group of intellectuals. “I do not believe that there is a better way of making the transition from the old autocracy to the new democracy [p. 49].” [This idea is reminiscent of Russell’s godfather John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty spoke similarly of backward societies: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”] In the West, Bolshevik methods (following a social breakdown) would lead to fascism (the business aristocracy in charge), not socialism, as the recent Italian example illustrates. Again, centralized power and despotism are Russian, but not Western, traditions, and the Soviet state is a sort of theocracy that is not possible where the state and religion have long been separate.

Marxian economic determinism is unscientific – too full of certainty and belied by historical evidence. Further, the Marxian dogma that their approach is scientific – and the science fully realized in the works of Marx – also is unscientific. It is a theological approach, and Russia is now in a theological stage of development.

Revolutionary tactics are not helpful in effecting meaningful change. “I think the real progress of the world is a more patient thing, a more gradual thing and a less spectacular thing [p. 53].” Much Western infatuation with Russia can be traced to enjoyment of the spectacle and the misperception that changes can be instituted quickly. But even in Russia, it is only now that the revolutionary moment has passed that the institutions necessary for socialism are being constructed.

Military cataclysms in the West won’t bring in socialism or anything else. They will succeed only in destroying industrial civilization and reviving barbarism. Russia has been fortunate in that the rest of the world survived her cataclysm, and is helping her recover. “But if the leading nations all at the same time are engaged in a cataclysm of that sort, there will be no one to help them out [pp. 54-55].” It is easier to destroy what we have than to ensure that any subsequent rebuilding will go in a direction we desire. So the approach ahead in the West is not that of Bolshevism, but of gradual improvements.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Nearing's Address

Affirmative Presentation Address (pages 17-31), by Scott Nearing

The biographical sketch that precedes this section notes that Nearing, an economist then teaching at the Rand School of Social Science, earned his undergraduate degree in oratory: careful, Bertie, he’s a ringer!

Recall that the debate centers on whether the Soviet form of government is applicable to Western countries like Britain and the US. Nearing will discuss what “applicability” means and what really constitutes a government of the Soviet-type, before indicating why he believes that Bolshevism is indeed applicable to the West.

Nearing offers an orthodox Marxian view of social evolution, where forms of government reflect economic conditions. The growth of industry led to the replacement of feudalism with the capitalist state. Russia was behind in this development, and before World War I (at the time of the debate, still the Great War) it remained a partly feudal society with a nascent capitalist class. The war destroyed Russian feudalism and Russian capitalism. The Soviets were on hand with a replacement for the old, destroyed social order. “If the old social order had broken down first in Germany, the new social order would have come first in Germany [p. 24].” (Nearing doesn’t mention that somehow the Bolsheviks were able to skip a Marxian near-requirement by moving to the next stage before full-blown capitalism had been achieved.)

The new, Soviet social order is not communism or socialism, but a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism. It centralizes power in a dictatorship of the Communist Party, representing industrial workers and peasants. The ultimate goal is communism, which involves economic emancipation and the end of exploitation. But the current Soviet system is not yet a communist one.

The Soviet system differs from Western governments in three ways. First, the system of representation is economic, not geographical: street car workers, and teachers, as opposed to precincts, are the fundamental election units. Nearing views this arrangement as desirable, in that it better reflects the reality that people are more closely affiliated via their employment than their neighborhood. Second, the Soviet economic system is organized scientifically, and is not just the chaotic hodgepodge that emerges under capitalism. (Though it is unfair to Nearing, hindsight makes it hard not to scoff at the proclaimed scientific basis of the Soviet economy.) Third, the Soviets have adopted the notion that those who don’t work don’t eat – again as opposed to capitalism, where many of those who make no contribution to society nevertheless are rewarded handsomely thanks to income from property ownership. These three principles of Soviet rule did not arrive randomly, but were hammered out through seven years of wartime suffering. We will be ready for a similar form of government when our social order breaks down, as the Russian one did.

And our social order is poised to break down, through another international war and domestic class wars. Our current disregard of the peril is the same disregard the confident Germans felt in 1913. Ten years from now we will feel differently. When the inevitable capitalist breakdown occurs, we will see in the West a dictatorship of the proletariat organized around a tightly disciplined party, and enter our own transition to socialism.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Introductory Matter

The introductory matter consists of a Foreword by Benjamin A. Javits and an Introduction by Samuel Untermyer.

Benjamin Javits was a successful lawyer and the older brother of Jacob Javits, a one-time United States Congressman and Senator. The main law school building at Fordham University is named after Benjamin Javits. His brief Foreword to Bolshevism and the West extols the debate gathering and the speakers, and introduces the presiding Chairman, Samuel Untermyer, a renowned lawyer.

Untermyer’s Introduction adds to the praise of Nearing and Russell, “two of the greatest intellectual gladiators that ever faced one another in the arena of public debate [p. 9],” and notes the sacrifices they have made for their beliefs. Lamentation is offered for the profound ignorance in America about the actual conditions prevailing in the Soviet Union. Untermyer takes advantage of his position as Chairman to proselytize for the US recognition of the Soviet government – after all, the US recognizes dictatorships and monarchies, and we have our own vassal states. (Later, on page 41, Russell endorses US recognition of the Soviet government.) Untermyer’s hope for normal diplomatic relations between the US and the USSR did not become reality until 1933.