Sunday, July 10, 2011

Commonplaces 1

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (1920s), pp.108-9:

A party which is to obtain power must, in a democracy, make an appeal to which the majority of the nation responds. For reasons which will appear in the course of the argument, an appeal which is widely successful, with the existing democracy, can hardly fail to be harmful. Therefore no important political party is likely to have a useful programme, and if useful measures are to be passed, it must be by means of some other machinery than party government.

ibid, p.105:

Some time ago, the Canadian delegate on the League of Nations Commission suggested that no woman, however old, should be allowed to travel on a steamer unless accompanied by her husband or by one of her parents. This proposal was not adopted, but it illustrates the direction in which we are moving. It is, of course, obvious that such measures turn all women into `white slaves'; women cannot have any freedom without a risk that some will use it for purposes of `immorality'. The only logical goal of these reformers is the purdah.

Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1921). The oft-made religion analogy:

Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures. When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels. A full-fledged Communist is not merely a man who believes that land and capital should be held in common, and their produce distributed as nearly equally as possible. He is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty. This habit, of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters, is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful scepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook.

By a religion I mean a set of beliefs held as dogmas, dominating the conduct of life, going beyond or contrary to evidence, and inculcated by methods which are emotional or authoritarian, not intellectual. By this definition, Bolshevism is a religion: that its dogmas go beyond or contrary to evidence, I shall try to prove in what follows. Those who accept Bolshevism become impervious to scientific evidence, and commit intellectual suicide. Even if all the doctrines of Bolshevism were true, this would still be the case, since no unbiased examination of them is tolerated. One who believes, as I do, that the free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism, as much as to the Church of Rome.


Western Socialists who have visited Russia have seen fit to suppress the harsher features of the present régime, and have disseminated a belief among their followers that the millennium would be quickly realized there if there were no war and no blockade. Even those Socialists who are not Bolsheviks for their own country have mostly done very little to help men in appraising the merits or demerits of Bolshevik methods. By this lack of courage they have exposed Western Socialism to the danger of becoming Bolshevik through ignorance of the price that has to be paid and of the uncertainty as to whether the desired goal will be reached in the end.


Again, the intolerance and lack of liberty which has been inherited from the Tsarist régime is probably to be regarded as Russian rather than Communist. If a Communist Party were to acquire power in England, it would probably be met by a less irresponsible opposition, and would be able to show itself far more tolerant than any government can hope to be in Russia if it is to escape assassination. This, however, is a matter of degree. A great part of the despotism which characterizes the Bolsheviks belongs to the essence of their social philosophy, and would have to be reproduced, even if in a milder form, wherever that philosophy became dominant.


Friends of Russia here think of the dictatorship of the proletariat as merely a new form of representative government, in which only working men and women have votes, and the constituencies are partly occupational, not geographical. They think that ``proletariat'' means ``proletariat,'' but ``dictatorship'' does not quite mean ``dictatorship.'' This is the opposite of the truth. When a Russian Communist speaks of dictatorship, he means the word literally, but when he speaks of the proletariat, he means the word in a Pickwickian sense. He means the ``class-conscious'' part of the proletariat, i.e., the Communist Party.


Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with whole-hearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the sceptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not as to Communism in itself, but as to the wisdom of holding a creed so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

ibid. The following comparison came naturally to the Bolsheviks as well, and it would do much to advance Stalin's prospects:

[Trotsky] is very good-looking, with admirable wavy hair; one feels he would be irresistible to women. I felt in him a vein of gay good humour, so long as he was not crossed in any way. I thought, perhaps wrongly, that his vanity was even greater than his love of power—the sort of vanity that one associates with an artist or actor. The comparison with Napoleon was forced upon one.

ibid. Recall that this was written in 1921:

It is possible that scientific intelligence may, in time, reach the point when it will enable rivalry to exterminate the human race. This is the most hopeful method of bringing about an end of war.

ibid. A very common socialist objection to Bolshevism at the time -- one which would largely be forgotten when the threat was fully realized:

Marxians never sufficiently recognize that love of power is quite as strong a motive, and quite as great a source of injustice, as love of money; yet this must be obvious to any unbiased student of politics. It is also obvious that the method of violent revolution leading to a minority dictatorship is one peculiarly calculated to create habits of despotism which would survive the crisis by which they were generated.

Bertrand Russell, Ideas that have Harmed Mankind (1946).

The ascetic depreciation of the pleasures of sense has not promoted kindliness or tolerance, or any of the other virtues that a non-superstitious outlook on human life would lead us to desire. On the contrary, when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified.

Now is a good time to recall the quote from 1921:

Perhaps, though I scarcely dare to hope it, the hydrogen bomb will terrify mankind into sanity and tolerance. If this should happen we shall have reason to bless its inventors.

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