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.

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