POLITICAL THEORY OF BERTRAND RUSSELL
V. V. RAMANA MURTI,
Reader of Political Science, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
Earl Russell is an acknowledged philosopher and his contributions to mathematical philosophy are acclaimed as unique. It is, however, doubtful, if the same is equally true of Bertrand Russell’s role as a political thinker. The political and social theories of Russell are notable for their immediate concern for the predicament of mankind in our times. But the intellectual fervour that is characteristic of Lord Russell’s philosophy is also manifest in his encyclopaedic writings on the perennial questions of political theory.
Politics is very much in his line. Bertrand Russell’s grandfather, Lord John Russell was twice Prime Minister of England. In an essay on Lord John Russell, Bertrand Russell remarks that “His greatest achievement was the carrying of the Reform Bill in 1832, which started Britain on the course that led to complete democracy.” l Bertrand Russell’s father, Viscount Amberly was an ardent liberal and came under the influence of that “Saint of Rationalism”, John Stuart Mill. The Russells have been conspicuous as Whigs for generations. Their ancestors played an important part in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. One of their famous heros, William Lord Russell was executed for his resistance to Charles II2. The duty of public service, even if it meant an unpopular course, is inherited by Bertrand Russell from more than one source.
Russell’s interest in public life began early in his life when, as a young man of great intellectual distinction, he was working on his unique work Principia Mathematica from 1903 to 1910. At this time, questions of Free Trade and Woman’s Suffrage were being discussed by the Conservatives and Liberals. Political life in England was in a ferment. Russell had been brought up as a liberal, and his sympathies were unmistakably on the side of the liberal cause. In pursuit of his conviction, he even decided to enter Parliament. Bertrand Russell has offered candidature three times for the House of Commons. In 1907, Russell stood for Parliament as a Liberal candidate. Again, in the General Elections of 1922 and 1923, at Chelsea, he stood for Parliament as Labour candidates. In all the cases, Russell has been defeated. Though he has conducted his election campaigns with scrupulous regard to his principles and views, his failure to go to the Parliament is perhaps not unexpected. As Sir Charles Trevelyan, a close friend of Bertrand Russell, remarked, “Russell, was far too uncompromising to be a success as a politician”.
What is the loss in practical politics turns out to be the gain for political theory. For a philosopher like Bertrand Russell, there is a more significant role in the realm of ideas. The service of thought is a more exacting duty which demands from the thinker exceptional qualities of courage and integrity. Both of them are exemplified to an eminent degree in the life-work of Lord Russell. His writings are as voluminous as the causes he champions are extensive. The contemporary scene is a witness to their profound influence, the value of which is never in dispute. In the long and varied career of Bertrand Russell, at least three phases are noticeable.
In the first phase, Russell continues the liberalism of J. S. Mill when it is subjected to a crucial test. During the World War I and its aftermath the freedom of the citizen was threatened by the encroaching demands of the State. The political and economic crisis that eventually became unavoidable greatly diminished the initiative of the individual and the group. Bertrand Russell has an abiding concern for the liberty of the individual. When the increasing power of the State tends to restrict the autonomy of the individual’s life, Russell questions the very basis of State-action. The Supreme power of the State is never more manifest than in the instance of war. The experience of World War I proved this…..beyond any doubt. Writing in 1915 on the State, Bertrand Russell remarks:
“The evil wrought in the modern world by the excessive power of the State is very great, and very little recognized….The chief harm wrought by the State is promotion of efficiency in war….The present system is irrational..Apart from war, the modern great state is harmful from its vastness and the resulting sense of individual helplessness.” 4
This fatal tendency, unless it is effectively resisted by groups and persons, soon results in the total absence of individuality. When increasing numbers of the citizens disown the impulse to assert their own ideas and judgments on various problems of human life, the very habit of free thought and discussion may be severely curtailed. That this can very nearly happen has been recently demonstrated by the overorganized governments of the totalitarian states. The purpose of any worthwhile political organization must, therefore, be directed to preserve and cherish the infinite value of the individual. If society cannot sustain this for one reason or another, Russell argues, “human beings cease to be individual and they become machine made”. 5 Like John Dewey, who was deeply concerned with the ‘lost’ individual and his ‘recovery’ in his theme on individuality, Bertrand Russell vigorously pleads for a continuous search for individuality. In a book on political ideals, written in 1917, Bertrand Russell says: “In a human being, provided he has not been crushed by the economic or governmental machine, there is...individuality, a something distinctive without which no man or woman can...retain the full dignity which is native to human beings….To preserve and strengthen the impulse that makes for individuality should be the foremost object of all political institutions”. 6
The sovereign importance of the individual is cardinal to Bertrand Russell’s political philosophy. He repeatedly shows how the great advances of society are very largely due to the creative initiative of the few exceptionally endowed individuals. It is their genius for innovation that has greatly enriched the communities in such significant aspects of life as art, literature, philosophy, religion and science. It is by the cultivation of the individual that the principle of growth is ensured. In his book Roads to Freedom, first published in 1918, Russell maintains: “A good community does not spring from the glory of the State, but from the unfettered development of the individuals...from congenial work giving opportunity for whatever constructiveness each man or woman may possess, from free personal relations embodying love and taking away the roots of envy….and above all from the joy of life and its expression in the spontaneous creations of art and science. It is these things that make an age or a nation worthy of existence, and these things are not to be secured by bowing down before the State. It is the individual in whom all that is good must be realized, and the free growth of the individual must be the supreme and of a political system which is to refashion the world.” 7
The problem of the individual’s relationship to the political authority is a recurring question in the versatile writings of Russell. It has been revived in more than one source by him. When Earl Russell has been invited to deliver the first B. B. C. Reith Lecture 8 in 1948, he has devoted the whole series to a timely discussion of this topic. These lectures, which have been subsequently published under the title Authority and Individual, revive the ancient issue in the new context of a Welfare State. The numerous difficulties of reconciling private initiative with public order are all analysed by Russell with his characteristic insight into the problem. He does not minimize the overwhelming need for “social cohesion”. 8 Even here, Russell is predominantly preoccupied with the defence of the liberty of the individual against authority. His view of a World Government is necessarily limited to the essential functions of eliminating war. He recommends that national governments will do well by delegating as many powers as possible to regional authorities. The residual powers are vested by Bertrand Russell in the individual.
Russell’s interest in the individual is not confined to his theoretical work alone. His deep sympathies with this cause are extended to its defence under trying circumstances and constant formulation of the means for its implementation. As a rule, Russell’s choice for championing the individual freedom is limited to the traditional methods of education and propaganda within the framework or the law. Bertrand Russell says: “I am a British Whig, with a British love of compromise and moderation.” 9 His acceptance of the constitutional means is not unqualified. In a situation involving a total crisis, the conventional method of constitutional activity may be completely ineffective. The new challenge may demand a method beyond constitutional politics.
The World War I constituted such a confrontation to the conscience of man. The cherished values of the dignity of human life and freedom of thought were suddenly disregarded and violated. As a pacifist, for supporting conscientious objection during the war, Bertrand Russell was “sentenced to six months’ imprisonment” at Brixton Prison in May 1918.10 With courting arrest for the cause of individual liberty in the war-time, Russell’s approval of a method of direct action to promote the supremely valid right of conscience under most trying circumstances becomes obvious. A few others of Russell’s contemporaries are also conspicuous for their love of liberty and the freedom of the individual. They are, however, rarely known to justify a technique of direct action for the realization of political and social objectives. Prof. H. J. Laski shared Bertrand Russell’s passion (at least at the time of World War I) for individual liberty. But even a consideration of such a mode of action was hardly in evidence in the prolific writings of Laski. Though the classical scholar of Cambridge, Sir Ernest Barker enunciated the arresting theme of the Discredited State (1915), his pluralistic conclusions had little bearing on the possibility of non-violent direct action. It is clearly the distinction of Bertrand Russell to have justified the use of the non-violent means; and to have exemplified in action what he has justified in theory is a far greater service that Russell has done to the world.
For this reason Russell’s individualism coexists with anarchism. It is a kind of anarchism that is advocated by Kropotkin rather than Bakunin. Indeed, in the admirable survey of political theories of Freedom, Russell has undertaken a detailed examination of the constructive proposals of Kropotkin for organizing society on the anarchist principles. 11 His appraisal is sympathetic and convincing. Russell sees no reason in force and violence as methods for bringing about a radical transformation of the State. While he hopes to explore the usefulness of education and persuasion for this purpose, he does not rule out the employment of direct action under certain circumstances. The note of a philosophic anarchism is obvious in the writings of Bertrand Russell though he has sometimes stated to the contrary. 12 This dominant theme is significantly reviewed by Russell in the recent phase of his life when he is profoundly concerned for the survival of mankind in the event of a nuclear war.
In the second phase, Russell turns to the social problem. He visited Soviet Russia in 1920 and met Lenin and Trotsky among other notables in the Bolshevik hierarchy. His account of communism in Russia is sharply critical. Russell does not discount the importance of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Its impact on the political, social and economic questions of the current social order is inescapable. It can be neither exaggerated nor under-estimated. The communist experiment has to be assessed judiciously with a view to determining its faults and achievements. Russell reviews the conditions of U. S. S. R. in the light of the communistic theory. He concludes the course of his study of the Soviet system in 1920 thus:
“Bolshevism is internally aristocratic and externally militant. The communists...are practically the sole possessors of power...The communist theory of international revolution is exceedingly simple. The revolution foretold by Marx...happened to begin in Russia. In countries where the revolution has not yet broken out, the sole duty of a communist is to hasten its advent….No real good can come to any country without a bloody revolution….For my part, after weighing this theory carefully…..I find myself definitely and strongly opposed to it.” 12
This categorical observation Russell made in 1920 with regard to communism is of much historical interest. Russell has never subscribed to communism as such. He is more sympathetic to guild socialism. His own choice has been stated as “democratic socialism”.14 Russell’s strictures of capitalism are never made in the Marxian vein. If he advocates democratic socialism, it is because he finds in it an alternative to the totalitarian communism of Karl Marx. Russell’s objection to communism is uncompromising. He writes on this question: “My objection is not that capitalism is less bad than the Bolsheviks believe, but that Socialism is less good, not its best form, but in the only form which is likely to be brought about by war….In the course of a desperate struggle, the heritage of civilization is likely to be lost, while hatred, suspicion, and cruelty become normal in the relations of human beings….for these reasons chiefly, I cannot support any movement which aims at world revolution” 15 In the light of this unequivocal verdict against communism and revolution by Bertrand Russell, it is un-understandable how the common notion that Russell is a communist has gained wide currency in the world.
Bertrand Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism has been an influential document in many ways. It is as much an indictment of the Marxian system as it is a reminder to the socialist movement in England. Russell had begun a searching criticism of Marxism when he had visited Berlin in 1895 for the purpose of studying Marxian communism. His accounts of German socialism to the Fabian Society and the London School of Economics and Political Science have pointed out the basic implications of communism. In his book German Social Democracy published in 1896, Bertrand Russell formulated a critical evaluation of Marxism. 16 This has been elaborared and strengthened by Russell in the book on Bolshevism he published subsequently.
While analysing the Soviet system, Russell has also drawn pertinent lessons for the working class movement in Great Britain. The pitfalls of Soviet communism need greater scrutiny by the English socialists as it is precisely those mistakes that they have to avoid in England. Russell has no illusions about the reality of the dictatorship in U. S. S. R., and his comments on the Czarist character of the Soviet totalitarianism have constituted a timely warning to the Labour Party and the socialist movement in England. Bertrand Russell’s enquiry into Bolshevism has now acquired an empirical validity that cannot be refuted.
Russell undertook in 1934 an extensive analysis of the forces of a significant century in his book Freedom and Organization 1814-1914. They include the historical, economic, social and philosophical movements that influenced the course of events during this period in Europe, England and America. All the tenets of Marxism are reconsidered in the context of its origins and effects. The role of the philosophical radicals in the nineteenth century, which is often overlooked, is examined by Russell at great length. The dilemma of this period is reviewed by Russell when he observes towards the end of his book: “Organization to the utmost within the State, freedom without limit in the relations between states. Since organization increases the power of the states, and their external power is exerted by war or the threat of war, increase of merely national organization can only increase disaster when war occurs.” 17
A more significant contribution is made by Russell to the social sciences when he made in 1938 a pioneering study of Power. He calls it A New Social Analysis, and proves that power is “the fundamental concept in social science.”18 Here ‘power’ is examined in the wider framework of social life, its diverse sources are determined and its many forms are discussed. Russell is one of the few distinguished philosophers in our times to have attempted a comprehensive enquiry into the elements of power. The enormous impact of psychology on the development of power is restated by him with particular insight. Ho defines power, “as the production of “intended efforts” of a quantitative manner. 19 After discussing the several levels of power and their impact on political, economic and social changes in society, Russell deals with a greater problem of power as he examines its possible limitations. Excess of power is objectionable in itself. The impact of morality on power is a significant aspect which he elaborates in great detail. The last chapter of the book is devoted to “The Taming of Power.” Russell treats this topic as it appears under various political conditions, economic circumstances, propaganda techniques, psychological situations and educational systems. He writes:
“From the point of view of the taming of power, very difficult questions arise as to the best size of a governmental unit. In a great modern state, even it is a democracy, the ordinary citizen has very little sense of power; he does not decide what are to be the issues in an election….Where democracy exists, there is still need to safeguard individuals and minorities against tyranny, both because tyranny is undesirable in itself, and because it is likely to lead to breaches of order…..The eighteenth and nineteenth century methods of preventing arbitrary power no longer suit our circumstances, and such new methods as exist are not very effective”. 20
Russell has also initiated a social framework of reference for reconstructing a history of western philosophy. It is a significant approach as it tries to relate the philosophical movements to the political and social conditions of their times. To the title of his book A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell has given a subtitle “Its connection with political and social circumstances from the earliest times to the present day”. He writes in the “Preface”: “My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the various communities in which different systems, flourished.” 21 This is a major achievement of Bertrand Russell. It is now an acknowledged masterpiece in the literature on the subject.
The work on western philosophy was undertaken during the war period by Bertrand Russell when he was engaged on a lecture assignment in America. He had given his support to the World War II. Critics of Russell have often pointed out his approval of World War II in contrast to his opposition to World War I. But Russell has repeatedly said that he has “never been a theoretical pacifist”, who is opposed to any war at any time on grounds of absolute conviction. He has always maintained that some wars are just, while others are not. The inconsistency in Russell’s views is only seeming, and not real. Even this is seen to lapse with the advent of the atomic age in 1945.
The life-mission of Bertrand Russell culminates now in the third phase, which still continues. The inhuman and unparalleled destruction that the atom bombs have caused over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has moved him as nothing else in the recent history of the world. Russell has begun to be profoundly disturbed as he is closely watching the rapid advancement of the atomic weapons. In the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb, humanity is confronted with a weapon of the utmost possible devastation. The nuclear war has completely changed the character of war as such.
In the light of this new phenomenon, the East-West conflict in the post-war period has very grave consequences. The competitive arms race between the U. S. A. and the U. S. S. R. has become a vicarious process, involving mutual distrust between them. It has diminished all chances of agreement between the two blocs over basic issues in international relations. While the very nature of a thermo nuclear war and the risks of total annihilation of the world make a global war unrealistic, the Big Powers are not prepared to modify their national policies in favour of co-existence and peace. Writing in 1936 on the “Nature of the Next War”, Bertrand Russell remarked:
“Twenty or thirty years hence the technique of war may have made sufficient progress to put an end to American immunity and the partial immunity of the U. S. S. R., but as yet that point has not been reached”. 22
But the world has reached that point sooner than is expected. And Russell’s words have proved prophetic.
The perils of a nuclear war are constantly stressed by Russell in order to convince mankind that war is no longer tenable and peace is inevitable. He has made this his singular theme in the numerous appeals, messages, speeches and writings he has undertaken since the end of World War II. It is due to his courageous lead that the pacifist movement in England has been able to build vigorous organizations like the campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100. U Thant, the Secretaty-General of the United Nations observed recently: “Lord Russell was one of the first to perceive the folly and danger of unlimited accumulation of nuclear armaments. In the early years he conducted practically a one-man crusade against this tendency”. 23
It is in his dedicated quest for an adequate method of political action to pursue the cause of peace that Russell has made revolutionary departure from the conventional and traditional means of political change. He has realized that mere constitutional action is not enough. That he has come to this conclusion even in a country like England, where the rule of law is deeply rooted is significant. Russell has been inevitably led to the choice of a Gandhian technique of non-violent resistance as the most suitable method against the peril of a nuclear war. Having expressed his conviction on this subject, Russell has not hesitated to practise what he has professed. He has himself courted imprisonment on 12th September, 1961 for committing the offence of civil disobedience. Russell has observed, in the statement he made at Bow Street in the court, that “It was only step by step that we were driven to non-violent civil disobedience”, He added:
“It has seemed to some of us that, in a country supposed to be a democracy, the public should know the probable consequence of present great power policies in East and West... We feel it a profound and inescapable duty to make the facts known...Non-violent civil disobedience was forced upon us by the fact that it was more fully reported than other methods of making the facts known….We believe that this is the most effective way of working for the salvation of our country and the world...”
The acceptance of non-violent direct action by Lord Russell at the present circumstances is of momentous significance. In the past, Russell kept a judicious silence over the validity of the Gandhian method of non-violent non-cooperation. He has been, at times, very critical of the pursuit of this very means by the nationalist movement in India. Keeping in view these reservations of Russell towards the Gandhian civil resistance, his justification now of the non-violent techniques for promoting peace is most remarkable. It is the logic of the nuclear age that has forced Lord Russell to explore the Gandhian technique. He has explained the case for civil resistance in a speech on 15th April, 1961 in Birmingham:
“...non-violent civil disobedience is justified when the law demands the individual concerned to do something which he considers wicked. This is the case of conscientious objectors. But our case is a somewhat different one. We advocate and practise non-violent civil disobedience as a method of causing people to know the perils to which the world is exposed and in persuading them to join us in opposing the insanity which affects, at present, many of the most powerful governments in the world. I will concede that civil disobedience as a method of propaganda is difficult to justify except in extreme cases, but I cannot imagine any issue more extreme or more overwhelmingly important than that of the prevention of nuclear war.” 24
With the possession of nuclear weapons, the world is only perfecting ‘The Doomsday Machine’. 25 It is man’s very survival that is at stake. Russell’s advocacy of the Gandhian civil resistance revives the constructive anarchism he has upheld earlier during World War I. Gandhian political theory is also derived from the several sources of philosophic anarchism. The political theory of Lord Russell achieves an integration between anarchism and pacifism.
One of the remarkable expressions of Russell’s anarchist pacifism is to be found in his unremitting concern for the voice of ‘dissent’ in contemporary society. Wherever the individual is threatened by a coercive government and the note of dissent is curbed by its authoritarian demands, Russell has always championed the case of the protestant. Bertrand Russell’s quest for peace is reinforced by his dedication for individual liberty. Announcing the establishment of Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation on September 29, 1963, Lord Russell remarked:
“Man faces two supreme menaces to his existence. The world is racked with hatred. Wherever one looks, fatricidal violence is rampant. Cruelty is pervasive. I am, at the moment, actively appealing on behalf of political prisoners, many of them suffering torture, in 23 countries: East, West and neutral. Elementary human problems, such as the reunion of families, seem to be beyond the capability of governments. There is little time to learn elementary lessons of decency and toleration...Throughout my life, and especially since 1914, I have witnessed an increase in the unbounded cruelty of authority. One is driven almost to despair by the growth of intolerance...one is faced with the menace of authoritarianism and the manner in which it contributes to the danger of extinction for our species.”
It is for this foremost purpose that Lora Russell has tried his utmost to halt the growing conflict wherever and whenever it has appeared in the world. His innate humanism has made him a symbol of all right causes today. He passionately pleads for co-existence. The role of the neutrals in the world politics is defended by him. His meaningful support to the concept of non-alignment has increased its value. He recognizes the great value of the small states in the framework of international relations at present and he urges their increasing participation in the resolution of all conflicts and tensions. He has appealed for world peace and the survival of homo sapiens during the Cuban crisis in 1963, and his mission is directed to both the parties in the conflict. When the Sino-Indian border dispute grew into an armed conflict, Russell directed his ceaseless efforts to Communist China and India as well for immediate suspension of war in the larger global interests. He has actively intervened in the Arab-Israel dispute, the division of Germany, the problem of Congo, the crisis in Viet Nam, the struggle in Cyprus, the racial discrimination in South Africa, the disabilities of Negroes in America, the ordeal of the Jews in Soviet Russia and many other fatal questions involving the peace of the world and the freedom of the individual. In our nuclear age, Bertrand Russell represents the conscicnce of mankind.
l Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory and other Essays. p. 117.
2 Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell, The Passionate Sceptic. p. 18.
3 Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell, The Passionate Sceptic. Pp. 71–73 and 141-142.
4 Bertrand Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction (George Allen and Unwin), 1954. Pp. 43-44.
5 cf. John Dewey, Individualism Old and New. (George Allen and Unwin) 1931. Chapter V.
6 Bertrand Russell, Political Ideas (George Allen and Unwin), 1963. Pp. 70-71.
7 Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom (George Allen and Unwin), 1949, p. 145.
8 Bertrand Russell, Authority and Individual. Pp. 25-36 and 54-66.
9 Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays. p. 9.
10 Alan Wood, op. cit. Pp. 112-116.
11 Bertrand Russell, op. cit. Pp. 64-66 and 100-104.
12 cf. Paul Arthur Schilpp (Ed.), The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell. p. 18. (“My Mental Development” by Bertrand Russell), Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1951.
13 Bertrand Russell, The Practice and the Theory of Bolshevism (George Allen and Unwin), 1920. Pp. 23-24.
14 In his latest book (1963), Unarmed Victory (Pp. 12-13) Bertrand Russell writes conducively: “I do not like communism beause it is undemocratic. I wrote a very hostile criticism of it after a visit to Russia in 1920, and the expectations which I then expressed were fulfilled in the time of Stalin. Both before and after this time, in 1896 and 1934, I wrote very hostile criticisms of Marx and I see no reason to recant what I then said…For my part, I am a believer in democratic socialism. I dislike communism because it is undemocratic, and capitalism because it favours exploitation”.
15 Bertrand Russell, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. Pp. 24-25.
16 Bertrand Russell, German Social Democracy (Longmans, Green & Company) 1906, Chapters I and II.
17 Bertrand Russell, Freedom and Organization. p. 450.
18 Bertrand Russell, Power (George Allen and Unwin), 1960. p. 9,
19 Ibid. p. 25. Also see Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part II, Chapter II.
20 Op. cit. Pp. 188-191.
21 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin); 1945. p. ix.
22 Bertrand Russell, Which Way to Peace? (Michael Joseph Ltd.), 1936. p. 48.
23 It is a part of the message that U Thant gave on the occasion of the opening of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in London on September 29, 1963.
24 cf. Arthur and Lila Weinberk (Eds.), Instead of Violence (Beacon Press, Boston), 1963. p. 51.
25 Bertrand-Russell, Has Man A Future? (George Allen anti Unwin) 1961. p. 36.