The last chapter in Bertrand Russell's The Problem of China is entitled "The Outlook for China." Russell, writing in 1922, thinks that China (due to its population and resources) has the capacity to become the second greatest power in the world (after the United States). Today the US seems to be slipping economically so maybe China will become number one in the world sometime in the present century.
Three things will have to come about for China to reach its full potential. Russell lists them as: 1.) The establishment of an orderly government [the CPC has accomplished this requirement]; 2.) Industrial development under Chinese control [this too has been brought about by the CPC whether you call it "market socialism" or "state capitalism"]; 3.) the spread of education [ditto care of the CPC].
All three prerequisites put forth by Russell have been attained if not quite in the manner he imagined in his book. Let's look at some of Russell's elaborations on these prerequisites.
First, the problem of orderly government: Russell says that in the 1920s China was functionally anarchic with battling warlords and weak central governments in the north and south of the country. He envisioned an eventual constitutional setup and a parliamentary form of government. But he cautioned that even so the masses of the people (Russell uses the term "public opinion") will have to be guided by what amounts to a Leninist political party using democratic centralist methods.
Here is what Russell wrote: "It will be necessary for the genuinely progressive people throughout the country to unite in a strongly disciplined society, arriving at collective decisions and enforcing support for those decisions upon all its members." That is just what happened under the leadership of the CPC.
Second, the problem of industrial development: China, or any country for that matter, to be truly free has to also be economically free and that requires that it has control of its own railroads and natural resources. He thus thinks the Chinese government should own the railroads and the mines of China. He also thinks that state ownership of "a large amount" of the industry in China should also occur. "There are many arguments for State Socialism, or rather what Lenin calls State Capitalism, in any country which is economically but not culturally backward."
Russell thinks that it is possible for China, with a strong and honest government, to skip over the stage of capitalism and lay the foundations for socialism. This is tricky business as the Chinese would find out much later. If you skip too far and too fast you can trip and fall on your face. With the right government "it will be possible to develop Chinese industry without, at the same time, developing the overweening power of private capitalists by which the Western nations are now both oppressed and misled." We can only hope that China is heading in this direction.
Third, the problem of education: Russell says that "Where the bulk of the population cannot read, true democracy is impossible. Education is a good in itself, but is also essential for developing political consciousness, of which at present there is almost none in rural China."
By "democracy" Russell then, and almost all Western governments and their intellectual tools today, mean "bourgeois democracy"-- i.e., "democratic" institutions and constitutions that guarantee the government will be controlled by, for, and of one of two contending classes that exist in the modern capitalist world, i.e., the capitalist class. Russell proclaimed his belief in "socialism" (Mao even said Russell believed in "communism") but he never transcended the bourgeois concept of "democracy" inculcated in him by the British ruling class by which he was educated.
But the wider, and I believe correct, meaning of "democracy" (rule of the "demos" or people) includes other forms of government than those proclaimed by the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. It must refer to any form of government that objectively rules in the interests of its people i.e., the vast majority of its population composed of working people, called by old time communists "the toiling masses" and historically personified by the "people's democracies" and "people's republics" of eastern Europe and Asia, and by the only completely democratic state in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba.
In just a few years after Russell wrote the above words, hundreds of millions of the peasants of "rural China" would develop a political consciousness that would lead to the overthrow of the rule by landlords and capitalists in China and the establishment, however flawed, of a true people's republic. Then they learned to read.
Russell was both correct and incorrect in saying the following: "Until it has been established for some time, China must be, in fact if not in form, an oligarchy, because the uneducated masses cannot have any effective political opinion [or in the case of the US-- miseducated masses]. If that "oligarchy" is a real communist party (not one in name only) it will bring to the masses the correct political opinion that they and they alone control their own destiny and can abolish their subjection to a class that only lives off of their exploitation. The one party state may be the instrument leading to this liberation and its own eventual elimination, along with the state, but it also gives to the masses "effective political opinion" and if it doesn't it may find itself being eliminated ahead of schedule.
Russell hoped the Chinese, by combining "Western" science with their traditional culture, would create a new civilization free of the deficiencies of the capitalist West. What we are seeing now, in the 21st century, in China is perhaps the fulfillment of Russell's vision but it is a synthesis of Marx, left wing Confucianism, and modern science. Hopefully the coming century will see the end of Western "civilization" as we know it, a predatory war based imperialist system attempting to enchain the world, and the establishment of a real new world order. The values of Bertrand Russell will be better remembered and served in such a world.
Epilogue: What Mao thought of Russell's views on China.
Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung
COMMUNISM AND DICTATORSHIP
November 1920. January 1921
[Extracted from. two letters to Ts’ai Ho-sen[1895-1932 a leader of the CPC, arrested in Hong Kong by the British and turned over to the Kuomintang which killed him- tr]
In his lecture at Changsha, Russell .... took a position in favour of communism but against the dictatorship of the workers and peasants. He said that one should employ the method of education to change the consciousness of the propertied classes, and that in this way it would not be necessary to limit freedom or to have recourse to war and bloody revolution.... My objections to Russell's view point can be stated in a few words: 'This is all very well as a theory, but it is unfeasible in practice' .... Education requires money, people and instruments. In today's world money is entirely in the hands of the capitalists. Those who have charge of education are all either capitalists or wives of capitalists. In today's world the schools and the press, the two most important instruments of education are entirely under capitalist control. In short, education in today's world is capitalist education.
If we teach capitalism to children, these children, when they grow up will in turn teach capitalism to a second generation of children. Education thus remains in the hands of the capitalists. Then the capitalists have 'parliaments' to pass laws protecting the capitalists and handicapping the proletariat; they have 'governments' to apply these laws and to enforce the advantages and the prohibitions that they contain; they have 'armies' and 'police' to defend the well-being of the capitalists and to repress the demands of the proletariat; they have 'banks' to serve as repositories in the circulation of their wealth ; they have ' factories', which are the instruments by which they monopolize the production of goods. Thus, if the communists do not seize political power, they will not be able to find any refuge in this world; how, under such circumstances, could they take charge of education? Thus, the capitalists will continue to control education and to praise their capitalism to the skies, so that the number of coverts to the proletariat's communist propaganda will diminish from day to day.
Consequently, I believe that the method of education is unfeasible.... What I have just said constitutes the first argument. The second argument is that, based on the principle of mental habits and on my observation of human history, I am of the opinion that one absolutely cannot expect the capitalists to become converted to communism.... If one wishes to use the power of education to transform them, then since one cannot obtain control of the whole or even an important part of the two instruments of education — schools and the press — even if one has a mouth and a tongue and one or two schools and newspapers as means of propaganda.... this is really not enough to change the mentality of the adherents of capitalism even slightly; how then can one hope that the latter will repent and turn toward the good? So much from a psychological standpoint. From a historical standpoint.... one observes that no despot imperialist and militarist throughout history has ever been known to leave the stage of history of his own free will without being overthrown by the people. Napoleon I proclaimed himself emperor and failed; then there was Napoleon III. Yuan Shih-K'ai failed; then, also there was Tuan Ch'i-jui.... From what I have just said based on both psychological and a historical standpoint, it can be seen that capitalism cannot be overthrown by the force of a few feeble efforts in the domain of education. This is the second argument. There is yet a third argument, most assuredly a very important argument, even more important in reality. If we use peaceful means to attain the goal of communism, when will we finally achieve it? Let us assume that a century will be required, a century marked by the unceasing groans of the proletariat. What position shall we adopt in the face of this situation?
The proletariat is many times more numerous than the bourgeoisie; if we assume that the proletariat constitutes two-thirds of humanity, then one billion of the earth's one billion five hundred million inhabitants are proletarians (I fear that the figure is even higher), who during this century will be cruelly exploited by the remaining third of capitalists. How can we bear this? Furthermore, since the proletariat has already become conscious of the fact that it too should possess wealth, and of the fact that its sufferings are unnecessary, the proletarians are discontented, and a demand for communism has arisen and has already become a fact. This fact confronts us, we cannot make it disappear; when we become conscious of it we wish to act. This is why, in my opinion, the Russian revolution, as well as the radical communists in every country, will daily grow more powerful and numerous and more tightly organized. This is the natural result. This is the third argument.....
There is a further point pertaining to my doubts about anarchism. My argument pertains not merely to the impossibility of a society without power or organization. I should like to mention only the difficulties in the way of the establishment of such form of society and of its final attainment.... For all the reasons just stated, my present viewpoint on absolute liberalism, anarchism, and even democracy is that these things are fine in theory, but not feasible in practice....
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.