Saturday, January 10, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Six

“Scylla and Charybdis, or Communism and Fascism,” pages 82-90

I [Russell] do not subscribe to the notion that one must, in effect, be a supporter of communism or a supporter of fascism: I am opposed to both.

First, I’ll provide eight reasons for not supporting Third International-style communism. (1) I see no reason to be convinced by either Marx’s or Lenin’s philosophy. History lacks a dialectical determinant, contra Marx and Hegel. (2) Marx’s economics is a hodgepodge designed to make classical political economy support Marxian politics. (3) A scientific outlook precludes regarding any thinker as infallible or any text as sacred. (4) The undemocratic nature of communism assures a tyranny by the powerful – in this case, the all-powerful state. Marx recognizes the potential for tyranny by all forms of government except communism. (5) The joining of political to economic control under communism would stifle individual liberty. Unpopular ideas, which are the source of progress, would be squelched by communist bureaucrats. (6) Marxism divides the world along class lines, being antagonistic to white-collar workers while glorifying manual workers. (7) The focus on the class war is likely to lead to a real war, with catastrophic consequences. Friends of socialism should aim for gradual persuasion, not military conquest. (8) Hate is a major driving force of Marxism and communism, and it will result in severe oppression by Marxists in power. [Russell’s critique of Marx and communism in In Praise of Idleness echoes many other Russellian writings on this theme.]

I [Russell] share many of the ends of communism, but oppose the means; for fascism, I object to both the means and the end. Though there are various strains of fascism, and more are evolving, they share some central elements. Fascism “is anti-democratic, it is nationalistic, it is capitalistic, and it appeals to those sections of the middle class which suffer through modern developments and expect to suffer still more if Socialism or Communism becomes established [p. 85].” (The theoretical version of communism also is anti-democratic, but only temporarily, and aims to promote the wellbeing of wage earners, a label which eventually is intended to include everyone.) Fascism is not interested in the general welfare; rather, it concentrates on favored groups which are deemed to be superior. The unfavored will be forced into serfdom, serving their masters. It can be hoped that fascism will provide a well-organized prison for the non-elect, but that is the extent of rational expectation. The economic planning that fascism took from the socialists is aimed to improve the welfare only of the favored folks – which in Germany and Italy, are the already dominant economic classes.

The focus on an elect within Fascist ideology is a throwback to a pre-Christian, pre-democratic era, when not all people were created equal, and the purpose of the unwashed was to promote the grandeur of the special classes.

Fascism in power would exacerbate the worst features of capitalism. The lower classes would barely receive subsistence wages, and effectively would be slaves. This is the outcome under dictatorship (as in Russia) or under a capitalism unconstrained by democracy. But fascism in power is a short-run phenomenon, as the focus on heavy industry turns into a prelude to war. The war will be highly destructive, and fascism will be one of its casualties.

Fascism cannot be said to represent a coherent body of thought. Its appeal is to the emotions of small shopkeepers and others whose interests in the modern world are under threat, as well as to the hunger for power of some wealthy industrialists. Its irrationality lies in its inability to actually serve the long-term interests of those whom it aims to help, though it does provide some short-term psychological comfort.

Ensconced traditions of representative government offer Britain and the US some inoculation against fascism; France perhaps is more at risk, especially under wartime conditions.

Commonalities in communism and fascism admit for common, and telling, objections. Both isms involve a small group of people trying to shape the whole population into a preconceived plan, to be cogs in the machine that the creators find so enticing. [Shades here of Adam Smith’s “man of system” treating humans as if they were chess pieces fit to be moved at the player’s behest, without regard to the humans’ own preferences – RBR.] People who do not readily enough fit the plan are disposed of. Such policies are both unethical, and, in the long run, unsuccessful.

As with plants, humans can be sheared into topiary-type designs – but the human subjects are not as passive as the plants. [Here Russell echoes his godfather John Stuart Mill.] One type of action for the trimmed man might be to learn the trade of the shearer, and to take up the shears himself, for those lower in the hierarchy. Pruning leads to such cruelty when it does not lead to listlessness. “And from a population with these characteristics no good thing is to be expected [p. 89].” [Compare with Mill’s On Liberty, just at the end: “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.” Reading Bertrand Russell has found occasion to cite this passage in the past.] 

The dictatorial powers at the disposal of a fascist or communist state, combined with the theoretical necessity to suppress the subordinate elements of society, imply that a cruel tyrant will hold the reins. Someone with a humanitarian outlook will not survive the competition for control, or will have to forcibly override his own gentler inclinations. Any good intentions that may have accompanied the original path to power will eventually be lost, replaced with the need to maintain power.

The appeal of machinery makes it easy to view society in mechanical terms, with parts, not people, and where the controllers have a sort of omnipotent status. But unlike machines, humans themselves alter under treatment, whether they are the controlled or the controlling. The resulting uncertainty about the long-term effects of manipulation makes it unwise to invest control in a dictator. “The ultimate psychological argument for democracy and for patience is that an element of free growth, of go as you please and untrained natural living, is essential if men are not to become misshapen monsters [p. 90].” Fascism and communism are not the only choices, and certainly not desirable choices, as democracy remains a viable and preferred alternative. It is only the belief that fascism and communism exhaust the options that could make it so.

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