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.