“Bertrand Russell and the Socialism That Wasn’t”

“Bertrand Russell and the Socialism That Wasn’t”

Comments by Tom Wetzel


This reference to “the socialism that wasn’t” is a reference to the way the socialist movement — in its various tendencies — conceived of socialism prior to World War 1. These tendencies are reviewed and evaluated by Bertrand Russell in his excellent little book “Roads to Freedom”, written just before the Russian revolution. It discusses Marx, Kropotkin’s “anarchist-communism”, syndicalism, and guild socialism. At that time Russell was a supporter of guild socialism.

But as this piece points out, all those main forms of socialist thinking before the Russian revolution were swept away by the dominant position achieved by the Communist International from the 1902s on. The vast libertarian and syndicalist movement in Spain in the 1930s was the great exception. And it’s isolation stemmed in part from the dominance of the “communist” movement world-wide at that point.

In this quote he provides an example of a common interpretation of “the materialist theory of history”, which I tried to argue previously is a mis-interpretation of Marx’s actual theory.

“The “materialist theory of history” assumes that in the last analysis, human actions are motivated by the desire to possess as much material goods as possible, and that ideological phenomena are to be explained on that basis. In particular, concerning wars such as the one from which the world was barely emerging in 1920, and which Lenin attributed to imperialist rivalry, the dominant idea, not only among Marxists but in the left in general, was that the working class had been taken in by capitalists who wanted the war in order to increase their profits. This type of explanation is still extremely popular, even among many who have nothing to do with Marxism; most of the current conflicts in the Middle East are explained in terms of oil, while the ideological or religious aspects related to these conflicts are dismissed as the result of ruling-class “manipulation” of working people.

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