“Old Men Forget.” Lord Russell’s Misconceptions

For many years Bertrand Russell was what is known as a progressive thinker. He had ideas on sex, education, morals, etc., which startled, even shocked, many of his contemporaries. In the first World War he was a Pacifist and went to prison. In some circles he underwent a period of social ostracism. By 1931 the honeymoon delight of being wedded to progress was not only over but disillusion had set in. In “Living Philosophies” (Simon and Schuster, New York), Russell said ” he wrote on the firm foundation of unyielding despair . . . brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow sure doom falls pitiless and dark.” Such was the mature judgment of this progressive thinker. He has never so far as one can gather categorically renounced this view, although from time to time he has offered variations on the theme.

One such variation appeared in an article in the News Chronicle (26.3.56) called the “Fraud of Marxism.” Here we are informed that the safety of the world, is precariously balanced between totalitarian Russia, which he makes synonymous with Communism, and the Western powers. Russell seems to view this as symbolical of the struggle between die powers of light and darkness. A war between these rival groups, via the hydrogen bomb, could lead, he thinks, to something near the virtual destruction of the world. This, of course, might mean the fulfilment of his 1931, prophecy. It is a conclusion which Russell himself does not apparently want to accept. Now there might be ways of avoiding the holocaust. Communism, he says, thrives on poverty and hatred, therefore let us diminish those areas. One way, it seems, is to renounce the relics of white domination in Asia.

Russell ignores the fact that it is Capitalism, whether East or West, which produces and perpetuates poverty and hatred. Just as he ignores the fact that Capitalism is not only the domination of white over coloured people but also domination by White over White, Wherever capital rules it constitutes an instrument of domination over the vast majority of the population. Given the development of Capitalism in Asia it will result in the domination of the vast majority by a handful of people, who live in the same country instead of some other country.

Russell plans to kill Communism by kindness, not that the ex-Pacifist who once believed war to be an evil thing and Capitalism an evil system, is opposed to killing Russians on principle. He is merely opposed to killing them on expediency. With the advent of the H. Bomb it appears we can no longer serve the ends of justice by exterminating “our enemies,” without exterminating ourselves. Perhaps Communism and with it the Russian people, could have been eliminated on principle. Russell believes that war against Russia might have once been possible. Such a war could have been atomically waged by the Western powers before Russia possessed atomic weapons. Indeed, there were reports from Adelaide that our ‘progressive thinker’ had mooted such proposals while he was there.

Nevertheless Russell has, at least, been consistent in his inconsistency. Posing as a sceptic he liked to feel that he asserted nothing; no not even that he asserted nothing. This has not prevented him from dogmatically making up his mind on oft occasions and then just as dogmatically unmaking it. While everyone is privileged to change their views, Russell has tended to abuse that privilege.

Not only has Russell at times flatly contradicted former views he held but be has never offered any evidence for his change of front. In his book, “In Praise of Idleness” (p. 145) he held that “the causes of war were mainly economic.” Again on p. 147, he averred that “the causes of enmity between nations are mainly to be found in the economic interests of certain sections and can only be abolished by a fundamental economic reconstruction.” Now it seems the enmity between nations is between the free Democratic West and the Totalitarian East. The stark fact remains that the ideological battle between the Western powers and Russia has its origin in imperial and economic rivalry.

Given a realignment of economic rivalries there would be corresponding shifts in ideological differences. Russian totalitarianism might then be acceptable to some Western Democracies in the future as it has been in the past. Russell, by concealing these differences under idealistic trappings, helps to increase misunderstanding of the real nature of power politics. It is thus a heavy contribution which the one-time Pacifist makes towards increasing the enmity of nations and with it the continuance of the possibility of war.

Russell once believed that “Capitalism was doomed. Its injustices were so glaring that only ignorance and tradition would lead wage earners to tolerate it.” (“Theory and Practise of Bolshevism” p. 19). He even believed that “the present holders of power were evil men and that there was no perfidy or brutality from which they would shrink when they feel themselves threatened” (same book, p. 10). Now this role is assigned exclusively to the rulers of Russia.

He also likes to assert from time to time that he was unique in knowing the real significance of the Russian Revolution. In actual fact he was in many respects confused and muddleheaded. Even in 1920 he still believed the Bolsheviks aimed to establish Socialism in Russia, when in fact, as we pointed out at the time, they were building up State Capitalism. Actually Russell’s notions of Capitalism and Socialism have been so foggy that he has never been able to distinguish one from the other.

His only real quarrel with the Bolsheviks was not that they were not Socialists, but that they were using the wrong methods for establishing it. He also thought that “Bolshevism deserves the gratitude and admiration of all the progressive part of mankind” (“Theory and Practise of Bolshevism” p. 7). Russell, it seems thought Socialism could have come to Russia had it been done the Russell way. And this from someone who has always claimed that he was one of the prescient few who really knew what was taking place.

It is ironic to reflect that Russell then attributed to the Western powers the same evil intent against Russia that he now attributes to Russia against the Western powers (“Theory and Practise of Bolshevism”, p. 10).

His criticism of Marx in the same article is the usual mixture of childishness and spite. According to Russell Marx believed in something called dialectical materialism which governs the human history independent of human volition. This says Russell is mythology. He is right, but the myth is one perpetrated by Russell not by Marx. He cannot show where Marx ever held or stated such a view.

He also contends that Marx’s doctrine of surplus value was merely surreptiously introducing the malthusian theory of population. This is nonsense. Malthus believed that the meagre resources of the earth would be insufficient for the needs of an ever-increasing population. As a result the vast majority of mankind would always be condemned to exist at the lowest level. Marx utterly repudiated this notion and showed that the evils of Capitalism flowed from the way it produced and distributed wealth. Marx denied that there was some abstract law of population. Different societies he contended would have different laws. Over-population, said Marx, was intimately connected with the growth of capital accumulation and took the form of relative over population i.e. an industrial reserve army.

Neither did Marx, vide Russell, believe in an iron law of wages which maintains wages at a mere physical subsistence level. In fact he devoted much time against Lassalle and others to show the falsity of such views. If Russell had even read a simple pamphlet like “ Value, Price and Profit,” he could have gleaned the information that Marx not only believed that the workers could by Trade Union action raise their standards of living but further the gains from these struggles helped to mould the traditional standards of life for the future. That Capitalism did regulate levels of wages, Marx did not deny; wages could not, he thought, proceed to levels which seriously threatened surplus value, or eliminated it, but this had nothing to do with the Malthusian doctrine of an iron law of wages.

As for historical materialism, which Russell repudiates, Russell has never understood it. He has, like many others, seen it as merely an economic interpretation. This has, nevertheless, not prevented him from largely agreeing with what he has largely misunderstood. Thus in “Freedom and Social Organisation” (p.220), he says “with regard to the economic interpretation of history it seems very largely true and a most important contribution to sociology-.”. He has also informed us that “in the main he agrees with Marx that economic causes are at the bottom of the great movements in history, not only in political movements, but also those departments such as religion, art. morals.”

Russell, who fancies himself as an historian, has not been above surreptiously attempting to apply the theory he now repudiates which turned out to be the crassest economic determinism. Thus his views on American history are formulated in economic terms. According to him the 1929 crisis which occurred in America was the result of the absence of cheap labour and cheap land. The open frontier and slavery are put forward as the crucial factors in America during the 19th century. While not once but many times he has pronounced that Capitalism is doomed and that a new system will emerge because of an unavoidable economic development. Russell may no longer believe in all this, but he is not, as he imagines, repudiating Marx, but himself. Like most of the intellectuals he has been so busy trying to teach others that he has had little time to learn himself.

Russell once wrote in a playful mood his own obituary. It also modestly assessed his own contribution to society. It is sad to reflect that in his declining years he has also provided his own pathetic epitaph.

E. W.

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