Bertrand Russell’s Political Ideas in the Context of his Age
Bertrand Russell is a mathematician, philosopher, pacifist, socialist and a
profound prose writer of the 20th century. For his matchless works in the
world of modern prose, he was awarded Nobel prize in 1950. Being a man
having a complete disbelief in all the religions of the world, he claims
himself to be an agnostic. He completely rejects all such beliefs, including
the faith in God, which can’t be proved on rational grounds. Russell’s
rationalism affects him in his approach towards various other fields of
study like education, politics, economics, philosophy etc.
In Russell’s view what chiefly determines the behavior of men in their
social relation is the desire for power. Historically all the political
institutions have had their basis in authority. The oldest institutions were
mostly monarchical. The natural successor to absolute monarchy was
oligarchy. Oligarchy takes various forms. It may be the rule of hereditary
aristocracy of the rich, of a church, or of a political party. In any large
scale society, only a limited number of persons can effectively exercise
power, and for this reason the difference between an oligarchic and
democratic form of government can in any case be only a difference of
degree. As Russell says, “A government is usually called democratic if a
fairly large percentage of the population has a share of political power.”
But it is evident that both the percentage of the people and the extent of
the share of political power will vary considerably. Thus, in ancient
Athens, the ordinary citizen could take a direct part in the government of
the city. If the lot fell on him, he could even hold office, but women were
excluded from the franchise, and a high proportion of the male population
consisted of foreign residents and the slaves who had no part at all in the
government. In present day England, almost every adult has the right of
franchise to follow a political party, and to stand for an election, but the
extent of effective power that this gives him may be very small. Even when
an English citizen gets elected to the parliament and his own party is in
power, he may have very little voice in deciding what is being- done. “The
party’s programme”, as Russell tells us, “Is decided in a manner which is
nominally democratic, but is very much influenced by a small number of
wire-pullers. It is left to the leaders, in their parliamentary and
governmental duties, whether they shall attempt to carry out the programme.
If they decide not to do so, it is the duty of their followers to support
their breach of faith by their votes, while denying in their speeches, that
it has taken place. It is the system that has given to the leader the power
to thwart their rank and file supporters and to advocate reforms without
having to enact them.”
In his essay on “The Need for Political Scepticism” Russell says that one
of the peculiarity of the English speaking world is its immense interest and
belief in political parties. A very large percentage of English speaking
people really believe that the ills from which they suffer would be cured if
a certain political party were in power. That is the reason for the swing of
pendulum. A man votes for one party and remains miserable; he concludes that it was the other party that was to bring the millennium. By the time he has lost his good faith and opinion of all the parties, he is an old man on the verge of death, his sons retain the belief of his youth, and the see saw
goes on. While discussing the merits of the democratic system of government, Russell says that if the elected government fails to discharge its duties in the promised fashion, the people generally soon realize that the government is incompetent. The probable result of this resentment is that the ruling party may lose its candidature for holding power in the next elections.
“Democracy”, as Russell says, “does not ensure good government, but it
prevents certain evils.”
Individual and personal liberty is the creed of democratic system of
government. Russell says that the doctrine of personal liberty consists of
two parts. On the one hand that a man shall not be punished except by a due process of law, and on the other hand that there shall be a sphere in which a man’s actions are not to be subject to governmental control. This sphere includes free speech, free press and religious freedom. It used to include the freedom of economic enterprise as well. Russell admits that all these freedoms are subject to certain limits. Even the freedom of expression, which is the most precious, may have to be restricted when national security is threatened. Because in such circumstances, loyalty in action, is necessary alone. However one may say that Russell was not quite able to solve the problem of how to reconcile personal freedom with a stable and efficient government.
Russell favours the freedom of economic enterprise only to the extent that
he is opposed to concentration of economic power, whether it be in the hands of the state or in those of private groups. He would set firm restraints on the possession and use of private property. He agrees that a man should enjoy the fruit of his own labour, but he sees no justification for inherited wealth, and is opposed also to private ownership of big business and of landed property. In other words Russell is opposed to capitalism and feudalism.
Although Russell could be described as a socialist, he would diminish
rather than increase the power of the state. Due to war-mania, most of the
developed nations are obsessed with quest for accumulating more and more weapons. This thing gives rise to individual helplessness because ultimately the masses are going to be the target of this ammunition.
“Modern states”, he says, “as opposed to the small city states of ancient Greece and medieval Italy, leave little room for initiative, and failed to develop in most men any sense or ability to control their political destiny. The few men who achieved power in such states are men of abnormal ambition and thirst for dominion, combined with skills in cajolery and subtlety in negotiation. All the rest are dwarfed by knowledge of their own impotence.”
According to Bertrand Russell, there are four lethal politically important
desires which are acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity and love of power.
Historically all these desires have been an impetus to exploitation of the
masses, economic injustice and violation of the principles of equal access
to the means of wealth. The Russian Revolution in 1917 was a reaction
against the dictators of the bourgeois class who had denied all the
opportunities to the poor and the needy. Stalin came to the helm of affairs
and promulgated the slogan of communism in Russia. Dictatorship of the
proletariat was established in Russia to rescue the middle class and peasant society. However due to immature leadership and uncontrolled authority, the socialist government ran the affairs of the state in the most ruthless and unbridled fashion. Continuous amendments in the Soviet Socialist manifesto, led to anarchy and economic collapse. Russell ridicules Stalin by saying that he wished that “the germ-plasm was to obey Soviet decrees but not that reactionary priest Mendel.” Russell does not candidly declare himself to be a socialist. Rather, at certain instances he refuses to follow communist ways of treating the masses. For example in his essay “ Why I am not Communist”, he says, “what is needed in addition to such armaments as will deter communist from attacking the west, is a diminution of the grounds for discontent in the less prosperous parts of the non-communist worlds.”
According to Russell, communism is a doctrine bred of poverty, hatred and
strife. Its spread can only be arrested by diminishing the area of poverty
and hatred. All these statements refer to the fact that Russell is in favour
of socialist doctrine at least on economic, communal and ethical grounds.
Russell believes that we should look to the state to diminish the economic
injustice, but does not think that this is likely to be achieved by the
method of nationalization of industries. Russell favoured “Guild Socialism”
which was a blend of state socialism and the theory of government through
trade unions. Russell proposes that a certain small income, sufficient for
necessaries, should be secured to all whether they work or not, and that
large income should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful. Russell believed that temptation of a better standard of living, as well as the improved conditions of work under the system of “Guild Socialism” would be an incentive strong enough to reduce to a minimum the number of those who did not wish to work or wished to work that was not recognized at useful.
Russell sees devolution as the means of avoiding the concentration of too
much power in the central government, arguing that the positive purposes of the state, over and above the preservation of order, to be carried out not by the state itself but by the independent organization. Adequate standards were to be maintained in the field of health, education, scientific research etc. by the state.
Russell was firmly against nationalism which was to him a ‘stupid idea’
that was bringing Europe to ruin. He once described nationalism as
“undoubtedly the most dangerous vice of our time--- far more dangerous than drunkenness or drugs, or commercial dishonesty or any of the other vices against which a conventional moral education is directed.” After the Second World War he keenly noticed the nationalistic temper of Soviet Russia and the USA as likely to provoke a third world war, which the use of the atomic weapons would render far more terrible. In other words, Russell propagated the feelings of humanism setting aside all the racial, national, tribal and ethnic prejudices. He is in favour of treating all the nations and races as human beings.
The idea of world government, in the context of the prevailing clashes like
two world wars, drop of atomic bomb and ever escalating threat of an
impending third world war, is the most unique and progressive idea of the
20th century politics. Russell is a stanch supporter of this idea. In view
of the human rights violations in Russia, along with an unquestioned
sheepish following of Marxist doctrines there, Russell is opposed to running
of one world government by Russia. In mid 1940s the United States of America was a growing power in the field of science and technology. Democracy, in its purest possible form was being practised there along with a complete assurance of freedom of speech and expression to the people. Rationally, Russell supported America to assume the charge of running a single world government. Russell suggested that the rest of the states of the world would be allies to this central authority and through their assistance as members of British Common Wealth the military unification of the world would be gained. Russell says that in such circumstances all the nations would subscribe to the central authority for their problems and a single dissentient or warring country would be considered enemy of all and to tame him, the use of power would be legitimate. Russell further says that if the alliance is sufficiently powerful, war would not be necessary and the
reluctant powers would prefer to enter this alliance as equals rather than,
after a terrible war, submit to it as vanquished enemies. Russell concludes
that if this were to happen, the world might emerge from its present dangers without another great war.
So this is quite clear that Russell considers no evil equal to world wars.
He went so for as to suggest a policy of unilateral disarmament in order
that there should be no world war. He rejects the idea of balance of power
as a source of guaranty of world peace. He thinks that this perpetual
accumulation of weapons may lead to a mega chaos in the guise of extinction of the whole humanity in the long run. However one may reckon that had Russell been living today he would certainly have taken back his words for support of USA as a democratic state. Concentration of power renders nations corrupt. Similarly George Orwell says that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And this is all happening today. Politically Russell had very progressive ideas like freedom of expression, aversion to official propaganda, love for humanity as a whole, tolerance, pacifism, economic justice, love for democracy, empirical rationalism and hatred for dogmatism and obsession of state- monitored persecution. For all these ideas he deserves genuine praise of all of us.
1. Russell Bertrand, Sceptical Essays
2. Russell Bertrand, Unpopular Essays
3. Russell Bertrand, In praise of Idleness