Sunday reading: Bertrand Russell

We have a lot of fresh faces in my philosophy club this semester. On one hand, the new perspectives remind our old heads about some of the basic questions we studied when we first arrived at university, and it’s nice to introduce new students to philosophy; on the other, it makes us behave like a wolf pack, moving at the pace of the slowest member. Sometimes, I want to be an elitist and focus on more complex areas, utilizing the knowledge of our most experienced members. This would mean we lose all of our new members. Ultimately, semester after semester, keeping a high membership (and keeping students participating) always proves to be more important.

This fall I assigned Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, as an easy intro text. As he introduces ideas, he injects his own interpretations and potential solutions, and I find I usually disagree with him. However, Russell is great at moving between analytic argument and simple, digestible prose, so I started seeking his other writing out, as one of the canonical popularizers. Here is an essay I thought I’d share, on his meeting with Lenin, Trotsky and Maksim Gorky, when, as a self-identified Communist seeking out the new post-capitalist order, he inadvertently ended up completely disillusioned with the “Bolshevik religion.” He would publish The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism shortly after in 1920, condemning the historical materialist philosophy and system he saw just three years after the October Revolution.

Russell remained somewhere between a social democrat and a democratic socialist throughout his life (e.g., his 1932 “In Praise of Idleness” on, but a vocal critic of Soviet repression. He was also a devout pacifist, which explains his early infatuation with the Russian political party which advocated an end to WWI. He died of influenza in 1970 after appealing to the United Nations to investigate the Pentagon for war crimes in South Vietnam.

From his article on meeting Lenin:

Perhaps love of liberty is incompatible with wholehearted belief in a panacea for all human ills. If so, I cannot but rejoice in the skeptical temper of the Western world. I went to Russia believing myself a communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thousandfold my own doubts, not only of communism, but of every creed so firmly held that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.


From the Comments: Lenin knew what he was doing when he picked Stalin

Barry and William had an interesting discussion in the ‘comments’ threads of Dr Rosi‘s post about Lenin. At the heart of the dialogue is whether or not Lenin thought Stalin was an incompetent fool. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response:

This all depends on accepting that a text written by Krupskaya was Lenin’s own view. Leaving that aside, Kotkin is very against the idea that Stalin was stupid and I don’t think we should equate Stalin’s crassness with stupidity. Even leaving aside Kotkin, it is clear that Stalin did intellectually demanding things over many years, with regard to political organisation, political journalism and writing on Marxist doctrine (particularly the national question and this was before the Revolution long before issues of Stalin getting people to write things for him).

General Secretary of the Party was a very influential job, which meant selecting the people to run the party and therefore the country along with a complex range of other tasks which require some intellectual capacity. If Lenin appointed Stalin believing that Stalin was not very bright and could therefore be given an unimportant job, he was bizarrely mistaken about the demands and influence of the party secretary, the head of the Party in a party-state. Lenin did not need this title as he was the undoubted leader and instigator of the October Revolution. After he was off the scene, the party secretary would inevitably be the most powerful person in Russia. Stalin was at all times crude, brutal, cunning, calculating and dishonest in his behaviour, but this is not same as intellectual lack.

As Robert Service, amongst others, have pointed out Trotsky portrayed himself as the great intellectual with the right to inherit Lenin’s mantle and needed to portray Stalin as stupid and maybe needed to believe that someone lacking in his formal education, knowledge of foreign languages and manners associated with intelligentsia culture really was stupid. Well Stalin won the power struggle and I think it had something to do with intelligence behind the crassness.

Lenin and Trotsky themselves have been exaggerated as Great Thinkers by their followers. Clearly they had some scholarship and intellectual capacity, but what did they write which anyone would care about if they hadn’t come to power in 1917? Interest in Lenin’s writings has dropped off in a quite extreme way since Leninism stopped being the official ideology of what used to be the USSR, allied regimes and some large allied political parties outside the socialist bloc. Sort of equalises the intellectual legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

Read the whole thing.

Great quotes by Vladimir Lenin

Last week I posted some quotes by Joseph Stalin. I’m afraid too many people are still misguided by the myth that Lenin was a good leader whose plans were somehow distorted by Stalin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Joseph Stalin had a great teacher, Vladimir Lenin, and brought the plans of his teacher to perfection. Here are some quotes by Lenin, so that we can learn more about international Marxism. Notice that he sounded very reasonable and pacific before 1917, and not so much so when revolution actually came.

On terror:
The Congress decisively rejects terrorism, i.e., the system of individual political assassinations, as being a method of political struggle which is most inexpedient at the present time, diverting the best forces from the urgent and imperatively necessary work of organisation and agitation, destroying contact between the revolutionaries and the masses of the revolutionary classes of the population, and spreading both among the revolutionaries themselves and the population in general utterly distorted ideas of the aims and methods of struggle against the autocracy.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (July–August) [1903], “Second Congress of the RSDLP: Drafts of Minor Resolutions”, Collected Works, 6, Marxists.

It is necessary — secretly and urgently to prepare the terror. And on Tuesday we will decide whether it will be through SNK or otherwise.
Memorandum to Nikolay Nikolayevich Krestinsky (3 or 4 September 1918) while recovering from an assassination attempt by Socialist-Revolutionary Fanni Kaplan on 30 August 1918; published in The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (1999) Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, p. 34.

On democracy:
Whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (Summer) [1905], “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”, Collected Works, 9, Marxists, p. 29.

You cannot do anything without rousing the masses to action. A plenary meeting of the Soviet must be called to decide on mass searches in Petrograd and the goods stations. To carry out these searches, each factory and company must form contingents, not on a voluntary basis: it must be the duty of everyone to take part in these searches under the threat of being deprived of his bread card. We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism: speculators must be shot on the spot. Moreover, bandits must be dealt with just as resolutely: they must be shot on the spot.
“Meeting of the Presidium of the Petrograd Soviet With Delegates From the Food Supply Organisations” (27 January 1918) Collected Works, Vol. 26, p. 501.

On individual liberty:
Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association (including the party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views. Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich (13 November 1905), “Party Organisation and Party Literature”, Novaya Zhizn (Marxists) (12).

We set ourselves the ultimate aim of abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general. We do not expect the advent of a system of society in which the principle of subordination of the minority to the majority will not be observed.

In striving for socialism, however, we are convinced that it will develop into communism and, therefore, that the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich, The State and Revolution, Ch. 4: “Supplementary Explanations by Engels”

On violence:
No Bolshevik, no Communist, no intelligent socialist has ever entertained the idea of violence against the middle peasants. All socialists have always spoken of agreement with them and of their gradual and voluntary transition to socialism.
“Reply to a Peasant’s Question” (15 February 1919); Collected Works, Vol. 36, p. 501.

When violence is exercised by the working people, by the mass of exploited against the exploiters — then we are for it!
“Report on the Activities of the Council of People’s Commissars” (24 January 1918); Collected Works, Vol. 26, pp. 459-61.