Bertrand Russell and Bolshevism

Re what Alex LoCascio and Doyle Saylor wrote about Bertrand Russell. Here is a bit from my PhD thesis on how the Soviet Union was assessed in Britain. The book in question is Russell's The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (London, 1920). Please note that I am merely describing his views, and not endorsing them. I don't think that his opposition to Bolshevism sprung from his aristocratic background, but rather from his libertarian standpoint.

Apropos his upper-class background, there is a story related in Ken Weller's excellent book Don't be a Soldier, on the anti-war movement in North London (sadly out of print), that Russell was speaking at an anti-war meeting in London during the First World War that was attacked by soldiers and jingo yobs. Russell, who was a member of the House of Lords, a Peer of the Realm, was being attacked by two drunken women armed with a nail-studded board. An anti-war woman called on a policeman to stop the attack, but he did nothing. She said: 'But he is an eminent philosopher.' The copper still did nothing. 'But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning.' Still nothing. 'But he is a brother of an Earl.' He then went to help. Oh, the marvels of the British class system!


Bertrand Russell was not impressed by his experience of the Soviet republic. First of all, he did not like what he saw. The regime exerted an ‘iron discipline’ over the workers that was ‘beyond the wildest dream of the most autocratic American magnate’. There was no freedom of the press, political opponents were jailed without trial, and ‘ordinary mortals’ lived ‘in fear of the Cheka’. Although Bolshevism was ‘probably more or less unavoidable’ in Russia, it was quite unsuitable for more advanced countries, as it could not be a ‘stable or desirable form of socialism’, and although capitalism may be dying, all that Bolshevism could achieve in the West was ‘chaos and destruction’. Secondly, he rejected the Bolsheviks’ philosophical approach. They treated Marxism as a religion, and had a ‘militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters’. He was worried about this dependence upon what he felt was an inadequate philosophy: ‘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.’

Russell’s prognosis was not optimistic. The ‘natural and instinctive’ forces of nationalism were already undermining the Bolsheviks’ internationalism. Even if they managed to ward off foreign intervention, they would lose their ideals, and the regime would degenerate into ‘Napoleonic imperialism’. As Marxists, the Bolsheviks did not understand that the ‘love of power’ was as strong a motive and as great a source of injustice as the ‘love of money’. They would become accustomed to wielding power, develop a consciousness and interests that would be ‘quite distinct from those of the real proletarian’, and become ‘a bureaucratic aristocracy... creating a regime just as oppressive and cruel as that of capitalism’.

Paul Flewers