“Getting ready for the next war” Bertrand Russell’s political

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“Getting ready for the next war” Bertrand Russell’s political
“Getting ready for the next war” Bertrand Russell’s political
thought in the 1930s”
In the 1930s Bertrand Russell published two major works of political
analysis – Freedom versus Organization, a study of nineteenth century politics
published in 1934 and Power, a historical survey of the varieties of power in
economic and political life, published in 1938. Russell was proud of these works,
feeling that they were more substantial than the pot-boilers economic necessity
forced him to write in the early thirties. In his very valuable study of Russell’s
political thought, Alan Ryan has summarized Russell’s works of the 1930s and
judged these two the most valuable, but his treatment is brief enough to be
developed in more detail. (1)
The 1930s were busy and difficult years for Bertrand Russell. The Great
Depression reduced his publishing royalties and lecturing fees; the death of his
brother burdened him with unexpected debt; his second divorce was costly and
acrimonious and his third marriage less tranquil than he hoped; his experimental
school, Beacon Hill, lost money continuously. International events – Japan’s
invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s
remilitarization of Germany – convinced Russell that the European Powers were
headed toward a repeat of the Great War, made more terrible by new weapons. In
spite of it all, Russell published at a hectic pace, producing several political works
of merit, as well as pot-boilers and one true disaster. He worried that the next
Great War, whether the democracies won or lost, would destroy individual
freedoms. (2)
Russell still had to rely on publishing and lecturing to support his family and
his experimental school Beacon Hill and his personal life was complicated and
often tempestuous, so these works though his best work in the 1930s, are in part
merely popular. But Russell brought to these works a career of political activism
dating from 1914, a real interest in history and powerful analytical skills.
Russell outlined his conception of history in 1904 and held to it the rest of
his life. He argued that history could not be studied by the scientific method – in
the first place history has no exactly repeating processes, and further while
historical data are true or false (which is the scientific standard) data are also more
significant or less significant (which is not a scientific criterion). Hence Russell
judged scientific philosophies of history such as Marxism invalid. But the study of
history remained important because it can widen our sympathies, provide heroes to
emulate, teach humility and moderation in politics and place our lives in a wider
and meaningful context. Russell was always interested in history, knew historians,
read history and wrote a lot of it.
Russell’s best works of the 1930s were historical and necessarily so, since
his chief concern was the inherently historical fear that liberalism was a fleeting
episode whose end was near. The vast majority of mankind was now dominated
by the massive organizations of state and industry and hence led lives of poverty,
apathy, bleakness and fear, interrupted by episodes of scape-goating and
fanaticism. What, Russell wondered, were the prospects for civilization after a
cataclysm more terrible than the Great War?
Russell’s first serious work of the 1930s was The Scientific Outlook. In it
Russell made the common-sense point that science had made the life of the average
person both better by means of labor-saving devices and worse by means of new
means of control for dictators to employ. If happiness is the ideal condition,
Russell wondered if scientists should develop a non-addictive, mood – altering
drug for general use. Aldous Huxley developed the idea into Brave New World,
but Russell had challenged utilitarians to show why they should not endorse a
system of pharmacological management of the populace by government. Russell
maintained his utilitarian outlook by defining happiness as the stimulation of a
creative, curious, independent, questing existence. But this redefinition of
happiness may not be persuasive, and the challenge to utilitarianism would
continue to complicate Russell’s political theory.
Russell began Freedom versus Organization with four chapters on the
Congress of Vienna and the Congress System. The conclusions were
conventional; the portraits of Metternich and Alexander I scathing. The next
section, heavily indebted to the work of J.L. and Barbara Hammond, described the
deplorable living conditions of agricultural workers and factory hands in early
industrial England. Then he turned to picturing the most influential political
schools of the day – the Philosophical Radicals and the Socialists.
defended the Utilitarians as opponents of powerful institutions that needed
opposing. He devoted a surprising amount of time to Richard Cobden, using
Cobden as exemplar of Free Trade. Russell judged that Cobden was right to
oppose the Crimean War and the extreme nationalism it provoked; Russell
preferred the internationalism of free trade to the irrationalist nationalism of
Crimean War advocates. Russell’s presentism showed clearly when he linked
Crimean era nationalism to contemporary Nazi nationalism.
But Cobden, though admirable in his ideals, was wrong in his prediction.
Free trade and male suffrage did not lead to pacifism; instead the working and
middle classes became jingoists. Moreover Cobden erred when he imagined the
benefits of economic competition to be the inescapable consequences of simple
competition. Cobden did not recognize that competition had to be constrained by
appropriate rules in order to produce general benefits. Cobden – and advocates of
Manchester economics in general – ignored two other problems. First, competition
can lead to a single winner, a monopoly. Second, the putatively beneficial
competition of individuals can evolve into the possibly harmful competition of
groups such as unions and nations.
Although Cobden did not foresee and would not have approved the
transformation, over time the Manchester ideal of beneficial individual competition
was transformed into the propaganda of the Robber Barons by continuing to
trumpet the virtues of competition and ignoring the decline of individual
enterprises. Even worse in its manipulation of the Manchester ideal was Social
Darwinism, which endorsed all forms of competition, including war, and credited
victory to the genetic superiority of the winning individual or nation. Again,
Russell’s presentism shows, for he linked the Social Darwinists of the late
nineteenth century to contemporary Fascism.
Russell repeated in Freedom versus Organization the criticisms of Marxism
he had made in earlier works. Russell rejected Marx’s vision of social conflict
producing progress; Russell referred to “the next world war” and the slaughter it
will bring as poison gas and bacteria are used. Russell denied the Hegel-inspired
notion that conflict necessarily leads to a higher resolution, observing that conflict
can and has led to decline and barbarism. Russell wagered that after the next
world war there would be no progressive transition to Communism but instead
irrationalism and barbarism.
If the next Great War was a true class war of
proletarians defeating capitalists, it would not be a simple matter of toppling a
handful of capitalists, but a war of vast proportions since the ownership of capital
was now wide-spread and capitalists had formidable allies among professionals,
service sector employees, technicians, bureaucrats and skilled workers. The class
hatred necessary to motivate proletarian victory could not be the basis on which to
rebuild society. Proletarian peace-making, like the failed Versailles conference,
would be wrecked by the intensity of desires for revenge.
The final chapters of Freedom versus Organization are an indictment of
nationalism. Nationalist zeal, weapons of awesome destructiveness and
irresponsible diplomacy conducted by handfuls of ministers produced the Great
War and will produce other similar wars. The scale and power of modern
organizations will lead to destruction of a wholly new order unless a sufficiently
powerful form of world government can be instituted.
In the years after publishing Freedom versus Organization Russell continued
to worry about the possibilities of a war even more terrible than World War One.
In 1935 he wrote an essay identifying the declining social groups driven by anxiety
and wounded pride that populated the Nazi movement. A movement so based on
the desire for revenge would inevitably start a war. Russell followed this rather
insightful essay by publishing the next year the greatest disaster of his career,
Which Way to Peace? In that work he argued that it was better, since in total
fewer lives would be lost, to accept Nazi conquest than to resist. As soon as
Which Way to Peace? was published, Russell knew it was dead wrong and several
years later publicly disavowed the work.
Russell had believed for some time that the common man’s enthusiasm for
World War One was a reaction against the regimentation and dullness of modern
industrial life. Boredom bred bellicosity. And if so, the end of capitalist
regimentation of daily life would make nations more peaceful. But Russell lost
faith in this idea. Running an experimental school may have convinced him that
aggression and cruelty are innate and therefore much harder to manage than he had
previously supposed. However he came to this realization, it further weakened his
hope for a peaceful future.
Power is based on a series of lectures Russell delivered at the London
School of Economics in 1937. But while the site of the lectures was the LSE they
had little influence on or connection to the intellectual life of the LSE. At the time
of the lectures he wrote that his aim was to demonstrate that neither laissez-faire
nor Marxism adequately accounted for economic power.
The leading lights of
the LSE at the time, Lionel Robbins and Friedrich Hayek, were interested in
debunking Keynes and not interested in Russell’s broad-bush historical economics.
Nor for that matter was Russell much interested in academic economics,
whether the LSE or Cambridge type. Russell did not develop the ideas in Power
but decided to return to research in philosophy and arranged to lecture at Oxford.
But if Power stands in isolation unrelated to contemporary works as well as
Russell’s later works, it contains interesting elements.
Russell ignored recent works by economists seeking to understand economic
power. Classical economists had analyzed perfect competition and monopoly, but
recently Joan Robinson at Cambridge and Edward Chamberlin at Harvard
developed the concept of imperfect competition to explain the behavior of
producers with some power to set prices.
Of course Keynes had rejected the
laissez-faire picture of markets smoothly responding to new conditions and pointed
out the power of the irrational expectations of investors in determining the level of
capital spending.
Russell proceeds without any reference to these works.
Power employs a wealth of detail from ancient and medieval European
history but does not employ the concept of authority. Hence it seems distant from
contemporary sociological works on power and authority, but in fact Russell’s
main conclusions on power are consistent with contemporary analyses.
Contemporary sociology largely agrees with Russell’s propositions that (1) power
is a fundamental phenomenon for the social sciences, (2) the desire for power is as
strong a motive as the desire for wealth, (3) power takes many forms, and power of
one type can be used to acquire power of another types and (4) the individual thirst
for power is an important cause of social change.
But this consistency was not
achieved deliberately; Russell wrote Power without reading the sociological
While Russell analyzed forms of power and means to restrain power, he had
three contemporary problems in mind. The first was the extraordinary power over
individuals that modern organizations, and especially the government, possessed.
The second was the intensity and therefore the power of modern nationalism. The
third was the fanaticism of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The combination of these
three conditions made war inevitable.
Early in the work Russell imagines the result of a modern war characterized
by mass bombing of cities. Russell concludes that whether London and Paris or
Rome and Berlin won would make no difference; the winners would be brutalized
by the means they used.
A later passage again hypothesizes a war of England
against Germany.
He identified four nations that ruled by fanaticism and
demanded ideological conformity; they were Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan. (20)
Russell rejects the idea that the Nazis, Fascists and Soviet Communists are normal
political parties that somehow became extreme. These ruling parties began as
secret revolutionary societies and hence were intense, conspiratorial, and deceitful
from the beginning and by nature.
When Russell mentions nations with
compromised sovereignty, his instances are Austria and Czechoslovakia, states
whose sovereignty had been destroyed by Hitler.
Russell suggests that in the
next Great War the democratic United States would likely be the big winner and
the peace settlement would establish democracies in Eastern Europe, but the
opposite outcome was also possible. In any case, the next war was not distant; it is
a war “for which we are all preparing, at the cost – in Great Britain – of more than
a quarter of our income.”
Amid the many topics in Power, there is a pattern discernible, a
generalization built on Russell’s understanding of World War One. The desire for
power (to lead others and make decisions for the group) is innate in human nature,
but variable, stronger in some persons than in others, and capable of taking
abnormal, exaggerated forms. The power to lead is necessary for groups to
achieve those worthy goals that pure cooperation cannot achieve, but group
achievement can be prevented or distorted by the selfishness, fanaticism or sadism
of leaders. The unity of a group can be voluntary and enduring, temporary and
tactical, coerced by violent regulation or instilled by education. Group cohesion
thus depends on a mixture of self-interest, coercion and manipulation or education.
In modern times the potential power of leaders increased tremendously as national
feeling become more exploitable and the means to coerce and to educate become
more effective. There were no inherent countervailing processes limiting the
accumulation of power. In the nineteenth century various figures believed that
competition limited the accumulation of power – free competition in the market
limited the economic power of buyers and sellers, free competition in the market
place of ideas limited the power of dogma and illusion, a kind of biological
competition limited the size and life of social units. But Russell demonstrated that
the effectiveness of competition was illusory. And there was a terrible process
made possible by modern conditions of organization and control. New regimes,
whether resting on naked power or ideological fanaticism, could use propaganda
and war-mongering to develop loyalty. These totalitarian regimes might be
destroyed in the wars they fomented, but the successor states designed in the
devastated aftermath of defeat were unlikely grounds for developing stable,
peaceful democracies, so the rise of tyrannical regimes was likely to repeat. From
this pattern there seemed no escape. Russell was convinced that there would be a
second Great War, even more destructive than the first, and that its settlement
would do as little to bring peace and civility as had the Versailles Treaty.
We could judge this theory a hasty generalization built on the single
example of World War One. Alternatively we could say that tendencies in human
nature combined with the mixed legacy of scientific advances created in World
War One a major event that made the future heavily path – dependent.
It would be wrong to lavish praise on Russell for recognizing the obvious –
the 1930s was the decade of dictators as all could see. But in fact many did not
wish to see. Appeasers in England believed concessions to Hitler could moderate
his behavior. Isolationists in the United States believed that the next war could be
confined to Europe. The far right in France proclaimed “Better Hitler than Blum.”
Like all the other political commentators of the time Russell was unable to
envision a workable means to avoid war. Critics have made two charges. First,
they fault him for alternating among proposed means to peace – in his case, guild
socialism, pacifism, world government – too rapidly. Second, they fault him for
failing to spell out any of his proposals in sufficient detail to win converts.
Admitting the merit of these points, there are sufficient strong points in his two
major political works of the 1930s to support a more balanced final estimate.
Russell, we should remember, warned that individual liberty must be preserved in
a society of giant organizations and recommended political devolution as one
means to that end. He noticed how ideological movements evolve into military
organizations that embrace xenophobia to remain in power. He recognized the
value of the competitive spirit in motivating individuals but warned against
supposed wonder-working powers of competition. He warned how formidable the
problems of post-war social reconstruction are and observed how fragile new
democracies are. These warnings, which have not lost their relevance, constitute
Russell’s contribution to political thought in the 1930s.
Alan Ryan, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (Hill and Wang; New York,
Caroline Moorehead, Bertrand Russell: A Life (Viking: New York, 1992).
Kirk Willis, “Bertrand Russell on History: the Theory and Practice of a
Moral Science,” pp. 116-37 in Bernard P. Dauenhauer, ed., At the Nexus of
Philosophy and History (Athens: University of Georgia press, 1987).
Russell’s essay, “On History” is available in Robert E. Egner and Lester E.
Dennon, eds., The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (Simon and Schuster:
New York, 1961) pp. 521-27.
I rely on Alan Ryan, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life (Hill and Wang:
New York, 1988) pp. 129-36.
For chronological order Malthus appears among the Philosophical Radicals.
Russell, Freedom versus Organization, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962 [1st
ed., 1934]) Ch. 14.
Op. cit., Ch. 18.
Op. cit., Ch. 20.
Op. cit., Ch. 32.
I rely on Ryan, Bertrand Russell, pp. 116, 144-50 for this summary.
Moorehead, Bertrand Russell, p. 403.
Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, Vol. II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968) pp.
Nicholas Wapshott, Keynes/Hayek (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)
The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell. Vol. II. Ed. By Nicholas Griffin
(London: Routledge, 2001) pp. 351-52. Russell to Warden Norton.
A devastating portrait of Robinson appears in Sylvia Nasar, Grand Pursuit
(New York, Simon & Schuster, 2011) Ch. XI.
The interpretation of Keynes remains controversial. I follow Keynes
biographer Robert Skidelsky in stressing Keynes’ dissent form neo-classical
economic theory.
For this generalization I draw on Brigid C. Harrison and Thomas R. Dye,
Power and Society (Cengage: Mason, Ohio, 2008) p. 6.
Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton,
1938) p. 33.
Op. cit., p. 150.
Op. cit., p. 148.
Op. cit., p. 171.
Op. cit., p. 181.
Op. cit., p. 212.
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__________. Freedom versus Organization, 1814 – 1914. London: Unwin, 1934.
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