Russell's chapter, "Present Forces and Tendencies in the Far East" (in The Problem of China) deals with the balance of power in this region in the 1920s and focuses on China, Japan, Russia and America. I will omit his comments on Japan here and concentrate on China's dealings with America and the influence of Russia. Russell points out that the interests of Britain are (leaving India to the side) basically the same as those of America-- at least its ruling sector of finance capital and not "the pacifistic and agrarian tendencies of the Middle West."
At this time Russell thought that the two most important "moral forces" in the Far East were those emanating from Russia and America. He thought the Americans to be more idealistic than the jaded imperialists running the European capitalist states. However he thought that cynical imperialist views were an inevitability as a nation's power increased and the Americans would abandon their idealism.
We must keep this in mind, he warns us, "when we wish to estimate the desirability of extending the influence of the United States." Today we can see that Russell was right. The United States has evolved into the most cynical and ruthless imperial power in the world, encircling the globe with its garrisons and fleets, and subjecting whole nations and peoples to its bloody domination in search of power, wealth, and resources.
All this, however, was in the future. The benign United States that appeared to Russell was that of the Harding Administration and the Washington Naval Conference, presided over by Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes (1862-1948). The conference was held from late 1921 to early 1922 and was the first disarmament conference in modern history. It was designed to reign in Japanese aggression in China, limit naval construction, and keep the Open Door Policy in place in China.
Russell thought America's policy at the conference was a liberal one, but only because the outcome of the conference was in line with American interests in the Far East. What Russell really believed was that "when American interests or prejudices are involved liberal and humanitarian principles have no weight whatever." Have we seen anything to contradict this assessment since the days of Warren Harding (or those of George Washington for that matter)?
If American plans for the future economic development of China should be successful Russell thought it would be disastrous for China. It would certainly be good for America and her allies, but would involve "a gradually increasing flow of wealth from China to the investing countries, the chief of which is America [the CPC appears to have reversed this flow]; the development of a sweated proletariat [still a problem]; the spread of Christianity [another great evil]; the substitution of American civilization for Chinese [not yet but McDonalds and KFC have secured beach heads];…. the gradual awakening of China to her exploitation by the foreigner [China was already awake when Russell wrote]; and one day, fifty or a hundred years hence [around 1972 or 2022], the massacre of every white man throughout the Celestial Empire at a signal from some vast secret society."
Well, the great awakening was already at hand when Russell wrote, he was just blind to it. China liberated itself in a little over 25 years, despite the best actions the US and its allies could do to prevent it, and no vast secret society sprang up to threaten every "white man." The Celestial Empire has become a People's Republic.
Well, Russell's vision of the future was off, but the definition he gave of what the West considers "good" government was spot on, even today: "it is a government that yields fat dividends for capitalists." This is still the game plan in the 21st century.
Russell now embarks on some ill founded speculations which, nevertheless, hint at a grain of truth. He predicts, for example "it is not likely that Bolshevism [as seen in Russia -tr] as a creed will make much progress in China." He gives the following three reasons: 1) China has a decentralized state tending towards feudalism whereas Bolshevism requires a centralized state. Russell doesn't seem to understand a successful socialist revolution would reverse this tendency.
2) China is more suitable for anarchism because the Chinese have a great sense of personal freedom and the Bolsheviks need to have (and do have) more control over individuals "than has ever been known before." This is strange. The Chinese had just emerged from an oriental despotism under the Manchus that had regulated everything including dress and hair styles for the population, and had no tradition of anything like "personal freedom" as had developed in Europe.
3) Bolshevism opposes "private trading" which is the "breath of life to all Chinese except the literati." But ninety percent of the Chinese at this time were basically illiterate peasants, most of whom were under the control of a feudalistic landlord class. The Chinese masses had more in common with the Russian masses than Russell seemed to realize.
The greatest appeal of Bolshevism, Russell said, was to the youth of China who wanted to develop industry by skipping the stage of capitalist development. But Russia was now engaged in the New Economic Policy and Russell thought this signaled a slow return to capitalist methods which would disillusion the Chinese.
But, Russell said, the fact that as a creed Bolshevism [i.e., Marxism] would not hold any lasting appeal, Bolshevism "as a political force" had a great future. What he meant was that Bolshevik Russia would continue to play the Great Game in Asia and follow in the footsteps of Tsarist imperialism with Bolshevik imperialism since "the Russians have an instinct for colonization" [!!].
Here is where Russell becomes very confused in his analysis. He doesn't really define "imperialism." Marxists at this time defined it as the international policy of monopoly capitalism based on the control of the state by financial capital sometimes allied with industrial capital. In this sense Bolshevik imperialism was a contradiction in terms. As far as "the Russians," lumped together without any attempt at class analysis, having an "instinct" to become colonialists -- such general statements are useless in trying to describe social reality.
Regardless, Russell thinks it would not be so bad for Russia to become hegemonic in Asia. The Russians could enter into more nearly equal relations with Asian peoples because their "character" [!!] is more "Asiatic" than that of the "English speaking-nations." English speaking nations would not be able to have the same understanding and ability "to enter into relations of equally" with these strange inscrutable Orientals. As a result an Asian Block of nations would arise as a defensive block and this would be good for world peace as well as "humanity."
Russell recommends that outside powers leave off meddling with the Chinese and attempting to impose their own values on them as the Chinese will, left to themselves, "find a solution suitable to their character" for their own political problems. This idea is of "national character" is quite unscientific and if Russell had understood what he read of Das Kapital and other Marxist writings and substituted some such phrase as "find a solution based on their own historical development and class relations" he would have made better sense. The Problem Of China would have been better understood, in fact, if "national character" had been replaced by "historical development" whenever it occurred along with a brief description of that development.
Russell goes on to predict what the future of China will most likely be. Marxists, as great predictors of the future themselves, especially its inevitable trends and outcomes, understand what a risky business this is and should have great sympathy for Russell's wrong headed prognosis.
Since the US emerged unscathed from WW I it had an excess of available capital to invest and would be the principal nation involved in China's future development. "As the financiers are the most splendid feature of the American civilization, China must be so governed as to enrich the financiers." The US will contribute greatly to building educational institutions in China so that Chinese intellectuals will end up serving the interests of the big Trusts just as American intellectuals do. As a result a conservative anti-radical reform system will be produced and touted as a great force for peace. But, Russell points out: "it is impossible to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear or peace and freedom out of capitalism."
The US will encourage the growth of a stable government, foster an increase in income to build up a market for American goods, discourage other powers besides themselves from meddling in China, and look askance upon all attempts of the Chinese to control their own economy, especially the nationalization of the mines and railroads, which Russell sees as a "form of State Socialism or what Lenin calls State Capitalism." The reference to Lenin is in respect to the New Economic Plan (NEP) in Russia.
The US would also keep lists of radical students and see to it that they would not get jobs, try to impose its puritan morality on the Chinese, and because Americans think their own country and way of life are "perfect" they will do great damage to what is best in Chinese culture in their attempts to make China as much as possible resemble what they call "God's own country."
As a result of all this a "Marxian class-war will break out" between Asia and the West. The Asian forces will be led by a socialist Russia and be fought for freedom from the imperialist powers and their exploitation. These views are very different from those Russell will be representing in his future Cold War phase.
Ever the pessimist, Russell sees this war as so destructive all around that probably "no civilization of any sort would survive it." When the actual war came it was very destructive, but it was a civil war between the bourgeois democratic capitalist powers and the authoritarian fascist capitalist powers into which the Russians were drawn against their will and from which the Chinese emerged as a free and independent people determined to build socialism.
Russell ends his chapter on a socialist note about the evils of the "present "(1920s)
system of world wide capitalist domination. Russell's conclusion is almost a perfect description of the world we live in today. "The essential evil of the present system," he says, "as Socialists have pointed out over and over again, is production for profit instead of for use." American power may, for a while, impose peace, but never freedom for weak countries. "Only international Socialism can secure both; and owing to the stimulation of revolt by capitalist oppression, even peace alone can never be secure until international Socialism is established throughout the world."
Coming Up Friday— the fourth and last part “The Outlook for China”
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.