In May of 1920, Bertrand Russell entered Russia as an unofficial observer with the British Labour Delegation. During his month-long stay, he kept a journal of his observations, which formed the basis of a series of articles in The Nation, in turn leading to the publication of his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism in November of 1920. Russell unequivocally claimed that his time in Russia disabused him of his hope that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 would lead to a more perfect society: ‘the spectacle of present-day Russia forced me to disbelieve in Bolshevik methods’ (Practice and Theory, 90). Even so, the text betrays an author aware of the tragic flaws of Bolshevism yet unwilling to relinquish his hope in a socialist future for the West.
In these early years of Britain’s relationship with the nascent Soviet state, the figure of Russell provides a focal point for understanding the impact of the Revolution upon the British intellectual elite, and in this context, Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism is essentially an elaboration upon two key arguments that engage with the core of this relationship. With regard to government policy, he advocates an end to the trade blockade against Russia and the resumption of peace and trade. Secondly, and more ideologically, Russell argues for the desirability of an ideal communist West, while simultaneously decrying the current methods employed by Bolshevik Russia. In arguing these points, Russell resorts to numerous rhetorical appeals that reveal much about his perception of the British public’s relationship to the idea of Russia. His frequent evocation of the potential loss of imperial Asia demonstrates his awareness of a public still struggling with the diminishing power of the British Empire. His tendency to compare Russia with Britain conveys the idea of a not-too-distant Russia that in many ways shares a common past and, at least for the Left, a view of an ideal future. His scathing rebukes of the press reveal just how dependent public thought was on often highly partial accounts.
Russell’s text was designed to engage with British fears and desires so as to persuade his audience of the logic of his proposed measures. The reviews and references of his book, from figures as diverse as Prime Minister Lloyd George to Karl Radek, illustrate how controversial a topic Russia had come to be, and the even more polarised opinions about Russell’s book found in these reviews at the very least reveal its importance in the public dialogue.
British Labour Delegation to Russia 1920: Report. London: Trades Union Congress,
Russell, Bertrand: The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008)
– – -. Uncertain Paths to Freedom: Russia and China, 1919-22. Ed. Richard A. Rempel
and Beryl Haslam. Vol. 15. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)