Lessons from a distant debate

Published Nov 07, 2012 12:05am

THE storming of the Winter Palace in what was then known as Petrograd 95 years ago today is not the sort of anniversary that is likely to garner too many column inches.

The significance of one of the 20th century’s key events has been diminished in the past couple of decades. Since the demise of the Soviet Union 21 years ago, the general tendency has been to dismiss it as an unfortunate aberration.

All too often this entails overlooking the salient fact that so much of what happened post-1917 was influenced to varying extents by the example of the October Revolution.

It is not just the liberation struggles across much of the colonised world that fall in this category, but also concerted efforts in industrialised countries to fend off the likelihood of proletarian uprisings through legislated reforms that blunted the edge of the disparities of wealth that capitalism inevitably breeds.

Redistribution is nowadays a dirty word in the conservative/neoliberal lexicon, but it wasn’t always thus; until a little more than three decades ago, both sides of politics in the West accepted to some extent the need for measures that reduced socioeconomic inequalities. It is arguably no coincidence that the reversal of the trend occurred around the same time that the fallibilities of the Soviet experiment were so clearly on display.

It is interesting, then, to revisit a period when many leading western intellectuals conceded that capitalism would be transcended, but argued about the mode of the transition. Would it follow the Soviet pattern, or could some form of socialism be achieved by less disruptive means?

That, more or less, was the topic of a debate organised in the early 1920s by the League for Public Discussion in the United States. I recently came across the text of this debate, in a now fragile pamphlet published by Allen & Unwin in 1924.

In May that year, just months after Vladimir Lenin’s death and less than seven years after the revolution, a pair of public intellectuals from opposite sides of the Atlantic offered arguments as to whether the Russian experience was likely to be replicated in the West.

Scott Nearing, an academic whose political stances had led to his expulsion from American universities, saw it as inevitable that, when it came to the crunch, the consequences in the US would be similar to what Russia had lately gone through.

A better-known visitor from the other side of the pond countered him with the view that since the level of socioeconomic development in Russia in 1917 was notably backward relative to conditions in the West, such an outcome was neither likely nor desirable.

Bertrand Russell — for it was he — saw parallels between the Bolshevik Revolution and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan revolution in 17th-century England. The West, as he saw it, had moved on from then, and the capitalist aristocracy in the US was remarkably different from, and considerably more resilient than, the effete feudal variant in Russia at the turn of the century.

Neither debater was particularly enamoured of the Bolsheviks, but at the same time nor did either of them entirely disagree with the socialist aim. In fact, both of them seem to have regarded it as a likely outcome of the impending crisis of capitalism, the difference being that whereas Nearing foresaw a cataclysm out of which a committee of public safety would emerge along Bolshevik lines, Russell thought such catastrophic circumstances could equally lead to fascism of the Italian variety, and favoured the possibility of socialist ideals being peacefully legislated.

The British philosopher also considered the implementation of Bolshevism premature, arguing at one point: “It is no use to try things until people are more or less ready for them.”

His prescience also shines through in the argument that “if you try to seize the reins of government in some moment of crisis and compel people to go in directions in which they do not want to go, your work will be the work of a moment, it will be swept away … and the whole thing will have to be begun again from the start”.

But perhaps it is most astutely expressed in a quotation from Russell that Nearing cites — in retrospect, entirely self-defeatingly — in defence of his own stance.

Writing in The New Republic on Nov 3, 1920, he noted: “I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: first, because the price mankind may pay to achieve communism by Bolshevik methods is too terrible and, second, because even after paying the price I am not sure that they will have what they went after.”

It may not have been entirely obvious just four years later, but he turned out to be correct on both counts — and that too well before Josef Stalin unleashed his paranoia-driven policies of mass extermination.

At the same time, in the debate with Nearing, Russell was willing to concede that the Bolsheviks may have set an ideal example for the East: “As a transition [from the old autocracy to the new democracy] in an uneducated country, I think the Bolsheviks have chosen probably the better way.”

Although no country in the East, or for that matter in what has latterly been known as the Third World, exactly followed the Bolshevik path, there can be little question that most liberation movements were motivated to some extent by the Soviet example.

The consequences, on the face of it, have often been reprehensible (and Stalin, to his eternal discredit, has been deemed a role model by the likes of Saddam Hussein), but the impulses that generated revolts against colonial and neo-colonial elites may not entirely be things of the past.

The Russell-Nearing debate could easily be dismissed as an intriguing anachronism of interest only to students of history. But it can also be seen as a throwback to an issue that remains unresolved.

The depredations of capitalism are evident to most people, with or without resort to the excoriating 19th-century critiques of Karl Marx. The question of what might take its place — and how and when — remains unresolved.


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Comments (4) (Closed)

Nov 07, 2012 04:32am
Much like democracy, capitalism has been proven to work better than all its alternatives.
Nov 07, 2012 05:08pm
Just like in the US, Capitalism is creating ultra-rich and ultra-poor. Only some social programs in the West and the US are holding back utter poverty. That's why the US republican are against Obamacare.
Nov 07, 2012 05:18pm
Regardless what the philosophers claim or think, when the ground is ripe and the masses are frustrated, such revolutions will happen again. History repeats itself in a multitude of incarnations. Let's not forget the French revolution. It's circumstances were very similar to the Russian one, though there was no communism. The Shah was always afraid of the communists, while the Iranian Revolution found a ripe ground and ended in a theorocracy. Let's see which countries are no w ripening up for people's revolutions? India? No. Bangladesh? No. Iran? No. Afghanistan? No. Pakistan? ????????
Nov 07, 2012 11:48am
This is the old debate of Democracy vs. Republic.