Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography

By Alan Wood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIII
A Visit to Bolshevism

LEFT-WING thought in Britain, between the First and Second World Wars, was marked by two major aberrations. The first was the conviction that a Second World War would mean the end of Western civilization, and that any attempt at defence was useless. The second was a benign belief that anybody who thought the leaders of Soviet Russia were ruthless totalitarians must be a Tory reactionary. The prevalence of the first error nearly led to the victory of Hitler in 1940. The second nearly lost the peace in the years after 1945.

Russell cannot be acquitted of the first mistake, as we shall discover later. But he was remarkably free from the second, and was almost unique among British radicals in facing the truth about Russia.

The First World War helped to change Russell from a Liberal to a Socialist--mainly because of the argument that capitalism leads to wars. He declared, like the Marxists, that 'the existing capitalist system is doomed'. But when Russell advocated Socialism at this time he meant Guild Socialism, or Syndicalism; he wanted industries to be run by the men working in them, not by the Government. Today a Socialist is somebody who rejoices in increasing the sphere of operations of the state. Russell thought that some of the state's powers had to be increased, but looked on this as a necessary evil. He confessed to a 'temperamental leaning to anarchism'; and described 'the excessive power of the state' as 'one of the chief causes of misery in the modern world'. (After all, the main activity of the state in these years was making war.) He predicted correctly that nationalization, or substituting the state for the private employer, would leave the individual workman with 'almost as

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