Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter II

Chapter II (pages 32-55), “Bakunin and Anarchism”

[An e-version of Chapter II is available here.]

Anarchists have a reputation among the public for being bomb throwers. But not all Anarchists favor violence, and virtually all political creeds favor certain types of bomb throwing. Governments kill millions more people with bombs than do Anarchists. Violence “is neither essential nor peculiar to those who adopt the Anarchist position [p. 33].”

Anarchists are devoted to individual liberty, and hence reject a coercive state, even a democratic one. “Such government as Anarchism can tolerate must be free government, not merely in the sense that it is that of a majority, but in the sense that it is that assented to by all [p. 33].” A doctrine akin to Anarchism existed in China as long ago as 300 B.C. Most modern Anarchism is of the communistic variety, envisioning communal ownership of land and capital. While Socialists tend to believe that the evils of private property in capital will be overcome if the state becomes the sole owner, Anarchists fear “that in that case the State might merely inherit the tyrannical propensities of the private capitalist [p. 36].” So Anarchists want to maximally reduce state powers, too, and in the limit, abolish the state.

Modern Anarchism flows from Bakunin, but he did not produce “a finished and systematic body of doctrine [p. 36],” though strides in that direction were made by Kropotkin. Russell provides (approximately pp. 37-47) a short biography of Bakunin, including his differences with Marx. “Michel Bakunin was born in 1814 of a Russian aristocratic family [p. 37].” After a short military career, Bakunin, like Marx, studied philosophy, and for a time was a Hegelian. By 1842 he was a revolutionary, and he lived in Paris during 1843-7, where he spent considerable time with Marx. They fell out by 1849 and remained rivals thereafter. Following the revolutionary uprisings of 1848-9, Bakunin was arrested and spent years in prison, having had death sentences commuted in both Prussia and Austria. Russia was his chief locale of confinement, but his situation was eased by an exile to Siberia in 1857. Bakunin eventually escaped and made his way to London; later he lived in Italy and Switzerland. Bakunin’s anarchist faction participated in, but was eventually sidelined from, the international socialist movement spearheaded by Marx. Bakunin died in 1876. He was always sympathetic to rebellion against authority, but his writings, crafted quickly amidst some ongoing crisis, are “chaotic”. “There is something of Anarchism in his lack of literary order [p. 48].” One looks in vain for a description of the type of society Bakunin envisioned, or an argument that such a society could be stable. Kropotkin and other followers help to fill this void, however.

Kropotkin believes that a more scientific organization of production would allow high living standards to be universal, without long hours, onerous conditions, or an obligation to work. Wages would be abolished and goods would be distributed equally. Work would be pleasant enough that most people would choose to work. There would be no coercive government, and such policies that would be adopted would be done by universal agreement. Russell postpones until a later chapter (Chapter V, it turns out) his views on the extent to which Kropotkin’s system is tenable.

What about the violence associated with Anarchism? The “general tone of the Anarchist press and public is bitter to a degree that seems scarcely sane, and the appeal…is rather to envy of the fortunate than to pity for the unfortunate [p. 52].” A person who revolts against law seems to have a hard time adhering to the standard moral rules. Anarchists and their sympathizers have made martyrs out of some people who were condemned to death for heinous crimes: “…Anarchism attracts to itself much that lies on the borderland of insanity and common crime [p. 53, footnote omitted].” Thus it can be understood why the denunciations by authorities and the public do not distinguish between the criminal elements and the heroic intellects behind Anarchism. Fortunately, the terrorist version of Anarchism has been on the wane, and the “better sort” is reflected in the advocates of Revolutionary Socialism within the Trade Union movement.

Again, Anarchists differ from other Socialists in that the Socialists generally allow for a government reflecting the will of the majority to undertake coercive policies. “It is undeniable that the rule of a majority may be almost as hostile to freedom as the rule of a minority: the divine right of majorities is a dogma as little possessed of absolute truth as any other [p. 54].” The argument against parliamentary routes to reform has largely been the purview of the Syndicalist form of Anarchism.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter I

Chapter I (pages 1-31), “Marx and Socialist Doctrine”

[An e-version of Chapter I is available here.]

While it is hard to define “socialism,” something along the lines of “the advocacy of communal ownership of land and capital [p. 1]” is serviceable. Communal ownership might include state ownership, but only if the state is itself democratic – with differences among socialist or radical variations often depending on the type of democracy envisioned. All variants are opposed to capitalism, though supporters of the current working class, the wage earners.

As a potent political movement, socialism in Europe essentially started with Marx and Engels. They developed a sufficiently convincing theoretical structure, and initiated “the International Socialist movement, which has continued to grow in all European countries throughout the last fifty years [p. 3].” Russell then provides a brief biography of Marx (pp. 3-6), including his debt to Hegel. Russell maintains that the three key Marxian doctrines are: first, “the materialistic interpretation of history; second, the law of the concentration of capital; and, third, the class war [pp. 6-7].” This won’t be new to readers of Marx, so I’ll only pick up on a few points. “He [Marx] does not so much advocate the Socialist revolution as predict it [p. 7].” Capitalists are only pawns in the game, not really to blame for the behavior that is foisted upon them. Marx seems to think that a factory will have a single owner, and hence that the capitalist class will shrink as concentration in industry and agriculture increases. Higher concentration in production helps to support Marx’s supposition that people tend increasingly to fall into one of two classes, capital owners or wage earners.

Russell embarks on a set of quotations from The Communist Manifesto [pp. 10-17], a work that he (correctly) characterizes as possessing “the most amazing vigor and force [p. 9].” Again, as these quotations will not be news to readers of Marx (and Engels), I will bypass them. Russell moves on to a brief discussion of Capital and Marx’s theory of surplus value. “This doctrine is very complicated and is scarcely tenable as a contribution to pure theory [p. 18];” rather, it serves as “a translation into abstract terms of the hatred with which Marx regarded the system that coins wealth out of human lives…[p. 18].” Russell believes the main contribution of Capital is the accumulation of facts about the horrors of the working of the capitalist system, facts that “are practically unknown to the vast majority of those who live comfortable lives [p. 19],” and Russell provides some excerpts concerning child labor, impossibly long working hours, and terrible working conditions, sometimes proving fatal. He notes the hoped-for, and for Marx, inevitable end of the system through a revolution in which “‘The expropriators are expropriated [p. 25].’”

Is Marx’s vision of historical development true, and is socialism desirable? “The second of these questions is quite independent of the first [p.25].” One gets the impression [or at least I do] that Russell doesn’t think all that highly of Marx as a philosopher or as an economist, but values Marx as a social critic and political organizer. [Russell devotes a section of A History of Western Philosophy to Marx, and comments: "Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings."] Russell notes that the passage of time has shown problems with Marx’s theories and predictions, even though it has also revealed Marx to be “a man of very unusual penetration [p. 25].” Some of the difficulties: nationalism has not faded away; in the advanced countries, the lot of workers has improved; while there has been some agglomeration of capital into big firms, there also has been growth in medium-sized firms; and shareholding has broken down the stark distinction between workers and capitalists.

Partly as a result of the failed prophesies, reformist versions of Marxian socialism – offering evolutionary and not revolutionary change – have emerged from within. “Syndicalism represents an attack against it from without, from the standpoint of a doctrine which professes to be even more radical and more revolutionary than that of Marx and Engels [pp. 28-9].” The Syndicalists focus on the class war dimension of Marxian thinking. They attack Marx’s vision of socialism, as well as Marx’s proposed path to achieve it. The notion (which appears in The Communist Manifesto) that an initial step in the revolution is for the proletariat to take over the apparatus of the state holds little appeal to Syndicalists. They view the state as hopelessly corrupt, and democracy and political parties as not to be trusted. Syndicalists favor organization not by political party, but by vocation. Parliamentary methods and elections are not the way forward; direct action by revolutionary trade unions is. A powerful state, even a Socialist state, is no part of the Syndicalist plan.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Introduction

Introduction (pp. vii – xviii)

[Here's an e-version of the Introduction to Proposed Roads to Freedom.]

People who adopt an ideal for looking at the world are saddened by the evils that attend needlessly falling short of that ideal, so they seek to inspire reform. “What is new in Socialism and Anarchism [Russell consistently capitalizes these isms – RBR] is that close relation of the ideal to the present sufferings of men, which has enabled powerful political movements to grow out of the hopes of solitary thinkers [p. vii].” It is only a small handful of people who, feeling sympathetic pain for the suffering of others, look for new ways to organize society. Thanks to better education and higher working-class living standards, such reforms can now interest their intended beneficiaries, and be politically potent. Both Socialism and Anarchism are accepted by many working-class people as guides to practical activity – though in the case of Anarchism, only in its Syndicalist form. Syndicalism starts from the institution of a Trade Union, which (in their advanced French incarnations) then adopted Syndicalist ideas. The ideas themselves, however, largely developed out of Anarchism.

Modern Socialism grows from Marx, and Anarchism (hence Syndicalism) grows from Bakunin – Marx and Bakunin’s long-running disagreements led to the split of the First International. Syndicalists object to Socialism’s “emphasis on the state and political action [pp. x-xi].” Russell indicates that he thinks that pure Anarchism should be the goal in the abstract, but he thinks that it would not be sustainable for long if it were adopted. Marxian Socialism or Syndicalism are not as desirable, but they would bring more happiness than is found in the current state of affairs. Socialism makes the state too powerful, and Syndicalism, despite its aim to abolish the state, would find that rivalries among various producer interests would require a central authority to contain. So Russell thinks that Guild Socialism, a sort of federalism among trade groups, a mélange of the advantageous elements of Socialism and Syndicalism, would work best in practice (pp. xi-xii).

Russell then embarks on an interesting overview of why people often find radical reformers to be distasteful. Generally would-be reformers are quite disinterested, and they sacrifice worldly honors for their cause. Often they endure imprisonment, exile, and poverty. In essence, they are motivated, more strongly than is the norm, by a love for others. But this love becomes camouflaged; their commitment to their cause breeds frustration with the fact that the world will not listen, and often that frustration is greatest with rather like-minded people. “The intense faith which enables him [the reformer] to withstand persecution for the sake of his beliefs makes him consider these beliefs so luminously obvious that any thinking man who rejects them must be dishonest, and must be actuated by some sinister motive of treachery to the cause. Hence arises the spirit of the sect, that bitter, narrow orthodoxy which is the bane of those who hold strongly to an unpopular creed [pp. xiii-xiv].” The opposing strands accuse each other of all manner of heresies, including being in the pay of the police, and they do not allow the slightest deviation from their platforms. So to an outsider, these reformers, motivated by love, can seem consumed by hate, and sympathetic people of goodwill will be unable to cooperate with the reformers.

Outsiders will also misjudge reformers due to “enemy of my enemy” logic. People behave differently (and better) towards members of their herd than they do to dangerous outsiders, enemies, or outcasts. The radical reformers, who by definition will be critical of existing institutions, tend to be concerned with how those institutions treat the outcasts. A reformer ends up with “a quite different attitude toward existing society from that of the ordinary well-to-do citizen: an attitude as true as his, perhaps also as untrue, but equally based on facts, facts concerning his relations to his enemies instead of to his friends [p. xvi].”

When a nation is at war, it views its enemies based on their hostile and fierce behavior. But those enemies themselves see themselves as kindhearted folk. Both views are right, and wrong. Likewise with a class war – reformers view the capitalist based on one set of data, a set that is accurate but incomplete, but that is viewed as mistaken by the capitalist class itself, which is either ignorant of or ignores the facts that form the reformer’s view. [I am reminded of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, who also notes that those who dissent from the prevailing view are likely to go too far, but should be respected – RBR. Here is Mill: "No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, he will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided asserters too; such being usually the most energetic, and the most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole."]

At any rate, it is easy to think of these reform or revolutionary movements as being motivated by hate, when really they are based on love. The reformers do tend to hate: “It is difficult not to hate those who torture the objects of our love [p. xvii].” Reformers do not possess ultimate wisdom – but neither do their opponents. And at least the reformers are not passive in the face of the injustices of the existing system.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Next Up: Proposed Roads to Freedom

Harking back to the original plan I see that Proposed Roads to Freedom is next on the official though tentative Russellian Reading List. Forthwith…

The subtitle of Proposed Roads to Freedom is “Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism.” I am using the 1919 edition published in New York by Henry Holt and Company. The volume consists of a one-page preface (by Russell), an introduction, and eight chapters. Part I (“Historical”) of the book comprises the first three chapters, and Part II (“Problems of the Future”) comprises chapters four through eight. There is an e-version of Proposed Roads to Freedom available here.

The contents:

Chapter I. Marx and Socialist Doctrine
Chapter II. Bakunin and Anarchism
Chapter III. The Syndicalist Revolt
Chapter IV. Work and Pay
Chapter V. Government and Law
Chapter VI. International Relations
Chapter VII. Science and Art Under Socialism
Chapter VIII. The World as it Could Be Made

In the preface (written, it is noted, in London in January, 1919), Russell tells us in a rather understated fashion that the book “was completed in April, 1918, in the last days before a period of imprisonment [p. iii].” The idea behind Proposed Roads to Freedom is to look at various doctrines (three, it later turns out: socialism, anarchism, and syndicalism) promoting drastic economic change; Russell notes that he will find something useful in all of them – but will not find the whole answer in any of them. Onwards.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Full Time

Since the belated halftime assessment there have been only five further chapters in Unpopular Essays, and the last two, concerning eminent men and the spoof auto-obituary, are not particularly connected to the main theme of the previous essays, which has concerned the dangers of dogmatism and the benefits of a liberal frame of mind. Chapter 8, on teaching, notes that countering dogmatism is a central role for a teacher, though one that often is opposed by the powers that be (and those powers might be funding and operating the schools). As a teacher myself, I was struck by Russell’s claim that though imparting information is primary to the mission of teaching, it is less important than the side effects that can accompany that dissemination, including inculcating the practice of impartial inquiry. (I wonder if information transmission, in the age of the internet, remains the primary goal of teaching. On most topics, a high school or college student who spends 20 minutes can be more informed than his or her teacher – that was always theoretically possible, but now it is practically relevant, as the student can rapidly access the relevant information. Developing the Smithian triad of Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration might be more important than ever in teaching.)

In Chapter 9, “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind,” well-known non-Christian Russell mentions that Christianity overall has been a force for liberalism. (This is reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s point that Christianity was better than its predecessors in promoting the interests of women.) Russell again argues for world government, but he does not (unlike in Chapter 3) mention the possible necessity of installing that government by force. I was (once again) not impressed by his retort to those who argue that a world government would prove oppressive – Russell notes that this is true of national governments, too, but that the possibility (indeed, it seems, the likelihood, in the early years) of governmental oppression does not mean that anarchy is to be preferred. My problem with this argument is that the fact that there are many, many nations, and that emigration is to some extent possible, helps to contain (not all that effectively, alas) the depredations of national governments. A world government would lack feasible competitors, lack exit options, and so at least one channel that restrains tyranny would be eliminated. In Chapter 10, “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind,” we see again Russell’s concern with the readiness of people to punish others, along with perhaps the main argument against dogmatism and in favor of tolerance: “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false [p. 176].”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 188-90), “Obituary.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

Russell first published this forward-looking obituary in 1937. An initial footnote shows that Russell was overly pessimistic about the date of his death, as he writes: “The obituary will (or will not) be published in The Times for June 1, 1962, on the occasion of my lamented but belated death.” Russell died on February 2, 1970, outliving by nearly eight years the death at age 90 that he foretold.

The obituary continues in tongue-in-cheek fashion, acting as if Russell’s unpopular opinions and politics were clearly mistaken, as was his commitment to rational thought. But it manages to be rather informative of his life in any case. Russell notes that his grandfather visited Napoleon at Elba – so his opening line about how with Bertrand’s death “a link with a very distant past is severed” rings true. (Imagine – a man alive in 1970 had a granddad who knew Napoleon!) Russell accurately predicts a second World War, alas, and mentions (again, correctly) that in its aftermath, “much of what was once the civilised world lies in ruins [p. 190].” A reader who did not know when this obituary was written would think, I believe, that it was written after WWII.

“His life, for all its waywardness, had a certain anachronistic consistency, reminiscent of that of the aristocratic rebels of the early nineteenth century. His principles were curious, but, such as they were, they governed his actions [p. 190].”

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 (pages 181-7), “Eminent Men I Have Known”

Though Russell met many famous people, he did not find that the ones who left the greatest mark on history were the most personally impressive. Russell saw little in Browning, for instance, and Tennyson was caught up in “acting the poet [p. 181].” Russell thought Ernest Toller was the most unforgettable of the poets he had known, “chiefly through his capacity for intense impersonal suffering [pp. 181-2].” Rupert Brooke (who looked like a young Hugh Grant) “was beautiful and vital, but the impression was marred by a touch of Byronic insincerity and by a certain flamboyance [p. 182].”

William James was the philosopher, among those no longer living, considered by Russell to be the most personally impressive. James had no apparent consciousness of being great, but was “a natural aristocrat, a man whose personal distinction commanded respect [p. 182].” Henry Sidgwick was distinguished by his intellectual honesty. Some scientists, like Einstein, combine immense intellects with an admirable disregard for how their actions or opinions will be received.

Of the seven prime ministers Russell knew (to that point), including his grandfather, Gladstone was the most unforgettable. The only other politician who could match Gladstone for impressiveness was Lenin. Gladstone inspired terror in those he met, including Russell, and Gladstone even was more than a match for the indomitable spirit of Russell’s grandmother. Lenin and Gladstone shared many features, including an absolute certitude of their own rectitude. But “Lenin was cruel, which Gladstone was not [p. 185].” The other differences also tended to favor Gladstone, and this helps to explain why Gladstone’s overall influence was beneficial, while Lenin’s was disastrous. But what if you had met these men on a train without knowing who they were? One would quickly sense Gladstone’s greatness, but with Lenin, narrow-mindedness and cynicism would be the observable traits. Lenin, Russell suspects, needed the unquiet times of 1917 to succeed as a leader. His religious-like conviction and the aura that science and logic were on his side carried the day during those upheavals.

Many unforgettable people are not eminent, and their memorable quality often lies in a type of “self-forgetfulness.” One (who did achieve eminence – RBR) was E.D. Morel, whom Russell praises for his “purity of heart [p. 187].” Morel learned of the horrors of King Leopold’s policies in the Congo, and sacrificed his means of livelihood to make those horrors public. Eventually Morel won this battle which he started virtually single-handedly, but then forsook his public esteem by embracing pacifism during World War I. [RBR: This story is reminiscent of Russell’s own: a friend to the British left for his WWI pacifism, Russell lost most of that friendship by returning from Moscow in 1920 firmly anti-Soviet. Incidentally, this short chapter is a prelude of sorts to Russell’s 1956 book, Portraits From Memory and Other Essays.]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 (pages 160-180), “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

People are harmed by the non-human environment, and by other people. Over time, the harm caused by other people has become a larger proportion of total harm. For instance, famine was once primarily a natural phenomenon, but now is chiefly brought on by people. Our mortality is due to nature, but medical advances mean that “it will become more and more common for people to live until they have had their fill of life…. For the future, therefore, it may be taken that much the most important evils that mankind have to consider are those which they inflict upon each other through stupidity or malevolence or both [pp. 160-1].”

Evil passions probably lie at the heart of most human-inflicted harms, though ideas and beliefs tend to bolster these evil passions. Many people seem to enjoy cruelty, the flogging of youths, and even war, “provided that it is a victorious war and that there is not too much interference with rape and plunder [p. 161].” Many opinions held in former days that are now considered absurd, including those in the areas of medicine and moral education, generally were such as to justify cruelty. “The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly I think, because it is so satisfying to our sadistic impulses [p. 162].”

Many religious or superstitious beliefs, including human sacrifice and the extermination of enemies, have been harmful. Religious ascetics are allowed the mental pleasure of contemplating the eternal torments of the heretical. Asceticism does not breed kindliness. “On the contrary, when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified [p. 164].” Asceticism comes in other than the Christian variety; Nazism and communism are cases in point. There is the same division of mankind into saints and sinners, with the sinners liquidated or otherwise punished. “The twin conceptions of sin and vindictive punishment seem to be at the root of much that is most vigorous, both in religion and politics [p. 165].”

People tend to think that their own fortunes, either good or ill, are the result of purposive action by other people. Bad fortune can be perceived as the just punishment for sin. When a completely virtuous person falls into bad times, a traditional resort has been to dream up some witch or other who purposed the outcome. The belief in witches long provided fodder for cruelty – multiple outlets, as those who proclaimed themselves disbelievers in witchcraft could be punished as heretics. Scientific advances have undermined the belief in witches, but the impulse to cruelty can still be serviced by fear of foreign nations.

Envy is the source of many false beliefs. We often greet the news of the rise of others with incorrect, envious assertions that their fortunes are unmerited. Nations adopt a zero-sum attitude in economic matters, as if their prosperity could only come from the destitution of others, and is threatened by economic growth elsewhere. This is a false belief that leads to war – which lends a sort of self-justification to the belief, because wars really do have a substantial zero-sum element.

Taking pride in nationality, race, sex, and so on, also leads to conflict. Citizens of great states tend to view the intense rivalries between small states as absurd, but do not think that their own feelings of superiority are unmerited. “The superiority of one race to another is hardly ever believed in for any good reason. Where the belief persists it is kept alive by military supremacy [p. 171].” Education should aim to eradicate these false beliefs in superiority, but it does not do so. There has never been “any reason to believe in any innate superiority of the male, except his superior muscle [p. 171].” Male domination has turned the marital relationship into a master and slave one, instead of one involving equal partners. (Once again, we hear echoes of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women.) The seclusion it has foisted upon respectable women makes them uninteresting, while the resulting dullness, Russell claims, promotes homosexuality among the most civilized men. Though male domination has been ended in advanced countries, it will be a long time before its effects vanish.

Claims of class superiority also are eroding, except in the Soviet Union. In America, people do not think of others as being socially superior to themselves, though they do think of themselves as superior to some others, such as those born on the wrong side of the tracks. Class distinctions are hard to erase when there are large income differentials; class snobbery in England, however, now is more about “education and manner of speech [p. 174]” than about income or the old type of social class.

Our happiness seems to require self esteem, which is bolstered by beliefs that our nation, race, creed, gender, region, and mode of employment are superior. We even think that human beings are the purpose of creation. These beliefs allow us to face the world. We could do without them if we really accepted the sentiment of equality, but we do not.

A particularly harmful delusion is when people think they are “special instruments of the Divine Will [p. 175].” This delusion has been common throughout history, from the Israelites in the Promised Land to ancient Romans to Muslims to Cromwell to Andrew Jackson to the Marxian proletariat. But rational people can make no special claim to understanding the will of the Divine, and the belief that they have such understanding is used to justify extreme cruelty. “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false [p. 176].” Be wary of undertaking present evil for the promise of some doubtful future good. [This point was a theme of Chapters 1 and 2.] “In public, as in private life, the important thing is tolerance and kindliness, without the presumption of a superhuman ability to read the future [p. 177].” Almost every current prediction of human events ten years from now will prove to be incorrect, which is some comfort to Russell when he reflects on his own gloomy prognostications.

As evidence of the uncertainty over the long-run effects stemming from current policies, consider Bismarck’s unification of Germany and successful prosecution of three wars. “The long-run result of his policy has been that Germany has suffered two colossal defeats [p. 178].” Why? German aggressiveness and indifference to the interests of others – traits Bismarck nourished – eventually brought the rest of the world together in opposition.

The world today needs political, economic, and educational organization, as well as moral qualities such as charity and tolerance. These needs are complementary, and progress must be made on both simultaneously. “There will have to be a realisation at once intellectual and moral that we are all one family, and that the happiness of no one branch of this family can be built securely upon the ruin of another [p. 180].” Russell concludes his essay by suggesting that perhaps “the hydrogen bomb will terrify mankind into sanity and tolerance. If this should happen we shall have reason to bless its inventors [p. 180].”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 (pages 137-159), “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

This is the first of two paired chapters, where the subsequent chapter reveals the malicious ideas.

How do we know what helps mankind? Population increase and greater foresight have been benefits, but greater happiness does not necessarily follow. Foresight itself is accompanied by anxiety, which undermines happiness – as does the curbing of impulse. We have a greater variety of pleasures than do other animals, though even this advantage can leave us prey to boredom. We are more kind (than other animals) to individuals within our herd, but no kinder to outsiders – and our intelligence broadens the power of the worser instinct.

Russell divides the helpful ideas into two types: “those that contribute to knowledge and technique, and those that are concerned with morals and politics [p. 139].”

Certainly one helpful idea in the knowledge/technique branch has been the development of language, which allows discoveries and inventions to accumulate over time. (Writing was a subsequent advance from language.) The control of fire and the domestication of animals have been boons. Agriculture was helpful, though it also encouraged bloody religious practices. “Moloch would not help the corn to grow unless he was allowed to feast on the blood of children [p. 140].” Six-year olds were also sacrificed to the cotton mills of Manchester, however. “It has now been discovered that grain will grow, and cotton goods can be manufactured, without being watered by the blood of infants [p. 141]” And perhaps there is evidence of progress in the fact that the realization took substantially less time for cotton than for grain.

Entering historic times, advances in mathematics and astronomy, starting in Babylonia, were valuable, and then Greece brought rationalism – to an extent, among some ancient Greeks, that is still unsurpassed. Though the Greek flower was wilting after the third century BC, enough was uncovered in the Renaissance to spark modern science. Alas, the Greek penchant for seeking for purpose in nature led science somewhat astray for quite awhile, too.

The next great advance was achieved by the likes of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and Leibniz. Most of current technology and astronomy can be tied to these developments. Galileo’s law of inertia allowed science to dispense with the assumed different behavior of sublunar and superlunar objects. All motion could be traced to material, not mental or spiritual, processes.

The religious faith of European scientists was tested by the 17th century discoveries, but survived pretty well in Britain until Darwin. If humans evolved, at what point were they ensouled? (Indeed, the notion of a soul has proven to be scientifically useless.) Which of our animal ancestors had enough free will to justify eternal punishment for misdeeds?

Without moral progress, scientific progress might only enhance suffering. (Russell notes that he might view a nuclear holocaust without too much distress, if he thought that animals besides man might survive it. But others might want to see humans survive, so Russell will look at what moral ideas might promote this end.)

The Stoics, following on Alexander the Great’s martial stratagem of eviscerating the Greek/barbarian distinction, developed the idea of the brotherhood of man, that all men are children of Zeus. Rome spread this idea, and Christianity, too – Buddhism even earlier. Christianity proved to be a force against cruelty and in support of charity, despite the failings of individual Christians. It is the foundation of “modern Liberalism, and remains the inspiration of much that is most hopeful in our sombre world [p. 150].”

The Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Revolution are ideals with religious origins. Equality can be traced to Orphic Societies in ancient Greece, to Stoicism, and to Christianity. When it has landed on favorable ground, this commitment to equality has helped reduce inequities. For instance, it helped provide a Christian justification for ending slavery.

The term “liberty” has meant very different things in different times and places. But the two serious meanings are (1) freedom from foreign domination and (2) freedom of private pursuits. Both forms of liberty can be taken too far.

Individual liberty grew in practice from religious toleration, which itself resulted from the stalemate, following a century of bloodshed, between Protestants and Catholics in seventeenth century Europe. The idea of religious tolerance was mainly Dutch, and was imported to England; John Locke became the greatest of the theoretical proponents of individual liberty at that time.

By the nineteenth century, religious freedom was matched, in the western-style democracies, with freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. “But their hold on men’s minds was much more precarious than was at the time supposed, and now, over the greater part of the earth’s surface, nothing remains of them, either in practice or in theory [p. 153].”

Russell supports representative democracy, “for those who have the tolerance and self-restraint that is required to make it workable [p. 153].” But democracy cannot successfully be introduced everywhere, immediately. [Russell returns to this theme towards the end of the subsequent chapter, at pages 178-179.]

Government and law are two political ideas that have improved social organization. Government is necessary for law, but not vice versa. Government controls its own citizens and resists outside pressures. “War has always been the chief promoter of governmental power [p. 154].” Power acquired to wage war is used by governments, where they can, to promote their own interest at the expense of individual citizens.

People with power will abuse it if they can do so with impunity. Democracy tries to fight this tendency, by granting power temporarily and through popular approval. Protection against abuses also derives from a commitment to personal liberty, which consists of two parts: (1) a reliance on due process of law before punishment can be meted out; and (2) the recognition of a private sphere where the government cannot interfere. “This sphere includes free speech, free press and religious freedom [p. 155]” – though none of these freedoms are absolute. Throughout history, the first step has been the establishment of a government, followed by pressure to make the government respect individual liberty.

In the international arena, that first step, establishing a government, has not taken place, “although it is now evident that international government is at least as important to mankind as national government [p. 155].” Russell counters the contention that an international government would be oppressive with the observation that this was originally the case with national governments, too (and still is in much of the world), but that is not a reason to prefer anarchy. The choice before us now, thanks to technology, is whether to see the human race greatly reduced in numbers, or to establish an international government.

Social cohesion in apes is confined to the family; humans have seen it expand into tribes and nations. But technology now only allows two states, the US and the USSR, to chart an independent course. The next step required to avoid disaster, a step to be taken by agreement, and not by war, is to move to a single independent state. If this is done, we will see a Golden Age beyond our imagining, one that brings the elimination of poverty and the diminution of disease, so that “the great mass of mankind may enjoy the kind of carefree adventurousness that characterises the rich young Athenians of Plato’s Dialogues [p. 158].”