Monday, November 21, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Five

“From Logic to Politics,” pages 32-37

World War I marked the transition of Russell’s intellectual activities towards political issues, and away, though not completely, from mathematical logic. The causes and prevention of war became Russell’s primary concern, one in which he lacked expertise, particularly in mastering the persuasion that is requisite when hoping to influence social questions.

Russell engaged in a youthful flirtation with imperialist ideas, but a new appreciation for the ubiquity of loneliness led, in 1901, to a conversion experience. “In the course of a few minutes I changed my mind about the Boer War, about harshness in education and in the criminal law, and about combativeness in private relations [p. 33].” [Hmmm, when was the last time I reversed my opinion on an important issue?] The conversion and its consequences were published by Russell in A Free Man’s Worship, but for the next decade, he was chiefly involved in the “Herculean task” of writing, with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica.

Russell, unaware of psychoanalysis, nonetheless adopted a psychoanalytic view towards the mass passions that grip people in wartime. He thought that it would require changes in the feelings in individuals, away from cruelty, for violence-reducing reforms to be sustainable. Feelings are generated through many channels, of course. Nevertheless, people, in general, “will be kindly or hostile in their feelings toward each other in proportion as they feel their lives successful or unsuccessful [pages 33-34].”

The Russia that Russell visited in 1920 was governed by a philosophy of hate. Moscow’s version of Marxism involved an error of theory and an error of feeling. The error in theory was to limit the concern with power relations among humans to that of economic power, and further, to equate economic power with ownership. The abolition of private ownership of the means of production, however, simply left individuals at the mercy of the power of state officials – a power even greater than that enjoyed by the titans of capitalism. The error in feeling was the belief that hate could serve as force for bringing forth good. “Those who had been inspired mainly by hatred of capitalists and landowners had acquired the habit of hating, and after achieving victory were impelled to look for new objects of detestation [p. 35].” Lenin and the early Bolsheviks had good intentions, but with hate as their motive force and with their selective distaste for power, they brought about a hell on earth. Right thinking and right feeling are both necessary for improving the human condition.

Following shortly upon his brief Russia visit, Russell visited China for almost a year. “China at that time was in a condition of anarchy; and, while Russia had too much government, China had too little [p. 35].” [Recall that Russell expressed a fairly positive opinion of anarchic political systems in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] Russell foresaw then, what he thinks we are in the process of seeing realized now (1956), a world of three major powers, those of the United States, Russia, and China – and in the process, China, forced to match its rivals militarily, sacrificed its traditional virtues.

Russell offers no panacea, and believes that we should beware the “dogmatic and fanatical belief in some doctrine for which there is no adequate evidence [p. 35].” [Here we see again the anti-dogmatism also expressed by Russell in Unpopular Essays and elsewhere.] Those who hold to isms, like the Bolsheviks, tend to be motivated by hatred.

Russell would have liked to be part of a like-thinking crowd, such as Liberals or Pacifists, but finds he can accept only slices of their creeds. As a result, he has led a lonely existence; nonetheless, his situation has improved since 1939, as his opinions have more nearly coincided with those commonly held by the British.

World history since 1914 has not unfolded in the direction Russell favored. “Nationalism has increased, militarism has increased, liberty has diminished [p. 36].” Civilization has, in many parts of the globe, lost ground, and victory in world wars has compromised the values of the victors. A war of annihilation threatens humanity. But as always, Russell expresses optimism. War and poverty are both problems that admit of solutions, and the solutions would be found if people could look more to their own happiness than to ensuring the misery of their enemies. “Hatred, folly, and mistaken beliefs alone stand between us and the millennium [p. 37].” Perhaps the enormous costs involved in not solving our problems will frighten humanity into enlightenment.

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