Conditions for the Success of Socialism



Since the collapse of the socialist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe the question of how to make socialism successful has become more pertinent than ever before.

I believe that the observations made by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) as a result of his 1920 trip to Russia and his interview with Lenin are relevant to this discussion and should be given serious consideration by socialists.

This article is based on the last chapter of Russell's book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. I must note that his views pertain to the conditions to be met while still under capitalism so that when socialism comes it will be able to succeed.

'The fundamental ideas of communism,' he says, 'are by no means impracticable, and would, if realized, add immeasurably to the well-being of mankind.' So, at least, communism is a worthwhile ideal to struggle for it seems.

It is strange, however, for a logician such as Russell not to realize that the fundamental ideas of communism logically rest upon Marx's theory of value and since, in other places, he rejects that theory he should think them to be impracticable.

Be that as it may, Russell finds no fault with the fundamental ideas, the problem is 'in regard to the transition from capitalism.' The capitalists may put up such a fight to maintain power that they will destroy what is good in our civilization and 'all that is best in communism.' So this must be avoided.

There can be no success for a communist revolution if industry is paralyzed. If that should happen the economy would breakdown, there would be mass unrest, starvation, and the communists would have to resort to a 'military tyranny' to retain power and maintain order and the utopian ideals of communism would have to be practically junked. This is arguably what happened in the Soviet Union as a result of forced collectivization and industrialization and the mass destruction suffered by the Nazi invasion in World War II.

So the success of any true communist revolution depends upon the survival of industry. This means that poor countries, small countries and countries without fully developed economic power cannot have successful revolutions because the capitalists of the advanced countries would overthrow them or subvert them. Now, of course, this may be less true than when Russell wrote because there is at least one economically advanced country professing socialist ideals that could aid an under developed country, namely China.

There is only one country large enough and powerful enough to have a successful revolution. 'America, being self-contained and strong, would be capable, so far as material conditions go, of achieving a successful revolution; but in America the psychological conditions are as yet adverse.' He further remarks that, 'There is no other civilized country where capitalism is so strong and revolutionary socialism so weak as in America.' This still appears to be the case.

Wherever socialism comes to power the bourgeoisie will but up a fight, and Russell says the important question is how long the fight (he uses the word 'war') will last. If it is a short time he doesn't see a problem. If it is a long time there will be a big problem involving the ability of socialism to maintain its ideals.

Therefore, Russell draws the following two conclusions. First, there can be no successful socialist revolution unless America first becomes socialist or is willing to remain neutral with respect to a socialist revolution. He doesn't mean socialists can't come to power, but that they will not have the material means to create socialism. World history since 1920, when his book was written, would seem to give some credence to this view.

Second, in order to avoid the kind of civil war that would effectively cripple the realization of the the ideals of socialism, communism should not be set up in a country unless the great majority of the people are in favor of it and the opponents are too weak to initiate violent opposition or effective sabotage of the process.

The problems with the distortion of socialist values associated with so called 'Stalinism' and 'Maoism,' for example, can perhaps be attributed to the backward economic conditions of Russia and China respectively. Communists were able to take power but were not able to bring about the justice, equality and prosperity for all that was hoped for. The Russian experiment is over for now but the Chinese one is still a work in progress.

Russell also says the working class should be educated in technical matters and business administration so as not to be overly dependent on bourgeois specialists. This would imply an advanced industrial society, which was not the case in Russia or China at the time of their revolutions.

With respect to England, actually any advanced country – especially the US – is meant, Russell maintains the best road to socialism should begin with 'self-government' in industry. The first industries to be taken over would be mining and the railroads (transportation) and Russell has 'no doubts' that these could be run better by the workers than by the capitalists.

The US is actually in a position to do this now that the government effectively owns the auto industry and some big financial firms (AIG). What is lacking is what Russell called the psychological preconditions by which is meant advanced class consciousness on the part of the workers. It is Political Affairs' function to help bring that about so let's hope our readership goes up!

Russell claims the Bolsheviks are against self-government in industry because it failed in Russia and their national pride won't allow them to admit this. This is misleading, however. The Bolsheviks certainly favored workers control through putting the soviets (workers councils) in charge of industry but the civil war made this difficult to establish in practice (thus war communism). They had no objections to workers self-government, that's what the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was all about.

As for as having nationalized industries in capitalist countries governed by worker's councils, this was permissible as a transitional stage to full socialism but not as an end in and of itself. Besides, a capitalist government would be unlikely to let the workers actually have the determining voice. Russell's suggestions, however, still make sense and the labor movement should be making this demand. No one is better equipped to run the auto industry than the UAW.

Russell thinks capitalists only care about money and power. And we have seen this to be so in just the last few years even before the current crisis.

So, if we were to follow Russell's advice, socialists should first take over the industries by means of self-government and allow the capitalists to keep their incomes then. When all can see that they are drones, they can be dispossessed without too much trouble. In this way we could have a relatively peaceful transition to socialism without the collapse of industry.

Russell says that another reason industrial self-government is a good idea is that it would forestall the type of over centralization found in Russia. This should not be a real concern as Russia was an underdeveloped country by any measure, and Russell's plan assumes an advanced economic basis. The important thing is that it would be a support for democracy.

On this point, Russell makes an important distinction about democracy. There are at least two ways we can think about democracy. One is parliamentary democracy, or the type of representational democracy set up over 200 years ago in the US basically to protect slavery. Russell says this type of democracy is 'largely discredited' and that he has 'no desire to uphold' it as 'an ideal institution.'

He may have felt it was discredited in his day, but what about now?

Polls suggest that many Americans have a low regard for Congress, at least, and are becoming more and more aware that it is a tool for the corporations and their lobbyists. Workers in the European Union are also waking up to what is happening in their respective countries. So socialists, perhaps, both here and abroad should be agitating for Russell's second kind of democracy, which he calls 'self-government.'

Russell fails to provide a more specific name for this concept, but today we might use synonyms such as popular democracy, direct democracy (as opposed to representational democracy) or participatory democracy. The Russians tried soviets but the conditions on the ground made this impracticable. For the US, probably, some sort of mixture of popular democracy and parliamentary democracy (with the right of recall) would come near to what Russell had in mind.

Russell gives three main reasons for ensuring that socialism is based on his notions of self-government. And, as it turned out, the failure to achieve this three basic principles proved to have disastrous consequences. 1) No dictator, no matter how well intentioned, 'can be trusted to know or pursue the interests of his subjects (a premonition of Stalin?). 2) A politically educated population depends on self-government (the Soviet working class was unable to defend its gains against Yeltsin and Gorbachev and Co.). 3) Self-government promotes order and stability and reinforces constitutional rule (the Soviet constitution was just a piece of paper). As far as I know these reasons are all valid.

In the end, Russell insists that successful socialism will be more likely if, when the time for the transition from capitalism comes, 'there should already exist important industries competently administered by the workers themselves.' This is certainly the ideal situation. But history does not always deal us the ideal hand. Sometimes, we are forced to play the hand we are dealt as it is unrealistic to fold your cards continually unless you have a royal flush.

Besides rejecting Bolshevism because he thinks it incompatible with the type of stages and gradualism with respect to self-government that he has outlined, Russell has another big problem with the Third International and that it is that its methods are based on coming to power as a result of war and social collapse, whereas socialism can only work – that is, keep its ideals intact, by coming to power in a stable, prosperous country – not one destroyed by war and social upheaval.

Let us say that this is an alternative peaceful and preferred method. In 1920 the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing if (violent overthrow) was a doomed project. It appears to us now that Russell may have been correct. Socialism can come to power by this method, but it cannot succeed in building a real lasting and popular social order without an already existing industrial infrastructure. Russia and Eastern Europe seem to have confirmed Russell's fears. The jury is still out with respect to the remaining socialist countries as I indicated earlier.

Russell ends by saying the Bolsheviks are too dogmatic and what is really needed is an attitude that is more patient and takes into consideration the complexity of the international situation and rejects 'the facile hysteria of 'no parley with the enemy.'' By 1948, when his work was reissued, Russell could have read Lenin's 'Left-wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder,' and he would have realized just how inappropriate was his description of the thought of the Third International.

But in 1920, Russell asserts that Russian Communism 'may fail and go under, but socialism itself will not die.' True then, true now. The Great War, Russell says 'proved the destructiveness of capitalism' and he hopes that the future will not show the 'greater destructiveness of Communism' but rather the healing powers of socialism.

What came was another world war of even greater destructiveness and the entrenchment of capitalism and its destructiveness. It now threatens the very Earth itself – its atmosphere, its oceans, and its rain forests and all life on Earth. Now more than ever we need 'the power of socialism to heal the wounds which the old system has inflicted upon the human spirit.'