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                                                          Bertrand Russell and Anarchism


Some great quotes that reveal Russell’s anarchism:

A good man is one whose opinions and actions are pleasing to the holders of power -   Bertrand Russell

Law in origin was simply the codification of the power of dominant groups, and it did not aim at anything that to a modern man would appear to be justice Bertrand Russell

The world needs open hearts and open minds and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new that these can be derived. What people need is not dogma but an attitude of scientific inquiry combined with the belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity – Bertrand Russell

Capitalists, militarists and ecclesiastics participate and co-operate in education because all depend for their power on the prevalence of emotionalism and the rarity of critical judgement – Bertrand Russell

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth - more than death. Men would rather die than think - in fact they do! Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid ...  Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man – Bertrand Russell

So long as men are not trained to withhold judgement in the absence of evidence, cocksure prophets will lead them astray, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans - Bertrand Russell

As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our trouble. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' Nowadays, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices – Bertrand Russell

Another not uncommon victim of persecution mania is a certain type of philanthropist, who is always doing good to people against their will, and is amazed and horrified that they display no grati­tude. Our motives in doing good are seldom as pure as we imagine them to be. Love of power is insidious; it has many disguises, and is often the source of the pleasure we derive from doing what we believe to be good to other people – Bertrand Russell

Russell’s Anarchist predisposition:

Bertrand Russell was attracted to anarchism and remained a lifelong libertarian despite his espousal of the idea of a World State to end war between nations. At the age of twenty-three, the young aristocrat was described by Beatrice Webb in 1895 as 'anarchic', and he later confessed to a temperamental leaning towards anarchism.' In 1938, the Spanish secretary of the IWMA included all his works in a bibliography to an encyclopedia article on anarchism because, as Gerald Brenan's wife put it, 'they have the "tendency" as old Anarchists say.'

Russell knew what anarchism stood for. In his Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism (1918), written just before he was imprisoned for denouncing the validity of the First World War, he included on the title page the sentiments of Lao-Tzu:

-Production without possession

-Action without self-assertion

-Development without domination.

In an informed and thoughtful discussion, he defines anarchism as the theory which is opposed to 'every kind of forcible government'. Liberty is the supreme good of the anarchist creed, and liberty is sought by 'the direct road of abolishing all forcible control over the individual by the community'? Russell endorsed such a view and argued that anarchism should be 'the ultimate ideal, to which society should continually approximate'.' He felt that anarchism is particularly strong in matters of science and art, human relations and the joy of life.

However, he still felt that for the time being it was impossible to realize such an ideal. In an earlier work on Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), he had acknowledged that the State and private property are the two most powerful institutions of the modern world. But while he wished to show how harmful and unnecessary many of the powers of the State were, he still held it useful for bringing about the substitution of law for force in human relations: 'The primitive anarchy which precedes law is worse than law. The State also had a positive role in ensuring compulsory education and sanitary measures and in diminishing economic justice.

Despite close consideration of Bakunin's and Kropotkin's arguments against government and the State, Russell still concluded in Roads to Freedom that some coercion by the community is unavoidable in the form of law and that the State is a necessary institution for certain limited purposes. Without government, the strong would only oppress the weak. Of all the ideologies treated, he came down in favor of guild socialism. But it remained his belief that 'the free growth of the individual must be the supreme end of a political system which is to refashion the world'. 6 In a review, the anarchist journal Freedom (founded by Kropotkin and others) quoted at length from Roads to Freedom, recommended it as a 'very readable book', and observed that Russell's work showed 'very strong leanings to anarchism in its constructive proposals'.

Russell visited Russia in the summer of 1920 where he met several prominent anarchists, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman who showed him around Moscow, as well as Bolshevik leaders. His book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (192o) which resulted from the visit was a critical account of his experiences at a time when, on the Left, it was considered a kind of treachery for a socialist to criticize the Bolshevik dictatorship.

When Goldman sought political refuge in Britain two years later, Russell took up her case with the Home Office, informing them that she would not engage 'in the more violent forms of Anarchism. At a dinner in Oxford to welcome her, the only person to applaud her vehement attack on the Soviet government was Russell. Freedom reported that his was by far the best speech (along with William C. Owen's): 'Mr Russell, who has the most acute philosophical mind in England, made the most complete avowal of anarchist convictions of the evening.

Russell, however, still kept his distance from the anarchists. He refused to help Goldman in her efforts to form a committee to aid Russian political prisoners since he was not prepared to advocate an alternative government in Russia which might be even more cruel. He wrote to Goldman: 'I do not regard the abolition of all government as a thing which has any chance of being brought about in our life times or during the twentieth century.

He was clearly worried about his utilitarian position nonetheless, and went on to condemn the Bolsheviks' appalling treatment of their political opponents. When Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, he was forced to conclude that they had been condemned unjustly on account of their political opinions.

Russell's libertarian stance and his reluctance to follow it to anarchist conclusions were rooted in his view of humanity and the universe. He was well aware of the logical error known as the 'naturalistic fallacy', committed by Kropotkin and many other anarchists, of drawing arguments from the laws of nature as to what we ought to do, for to imitate nature may merely be slavish. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that 'if Nature is to be our model it seems that the anarchists have the best of the argument. The physical universe is orderly, not because there is a central government but because everybody minds its own business."

As an atheist and atomist, Russell had a dark vision of humanity despite his hopes for a better world. He considered man to be the outcome of an ‘accidental collocation of atoms' destined to meet extinction in the vast death of the solar system. Only on the 'firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. But although man has a strangely accidental and ephemeral position in the universe, it does not mean that he cannot struggle to improve his lot.

As a humanist, Russell was interested in expanding human freedom and happiness. The task however is not easy. While man had evolved to be the most rational and creative of animals, prepared even to engage in unpleasant activities as means to desirable ends, he was still prey to destructive and aggressive desires. These natural impulses cannot be eradicated, thought Russell, only channeled into less injurious outlets. The theme runs throughout Russell's work as a disruptive undertow in the bright stream of rational thought. In his work on Power (1938), written as the Nazis were preparing for war, Russell suggests, like Hobbes before him, that among the infinite desires of man the chief are those for power and glory. Morality is therefore needed to restrain 'anarchic self-assertion':"

Russell was never a complete pacifist and supported the war against Nazi Germany, but the experience only made him more pessimistic about human possibilities. After the war, he even called on the United States to threaten the Soviet Union in order to enforce international agreement about atomic weapons. In the Preface to the 1948 edition of Roads to Freedom, he said that if he were to write it again, he would be much less sympathetic towards anarchism. In a world of scarcity, 'only stringent regulations can prevent disastrous destitution'. Moreover, the totalitarian systems in Germany and Russia had led him to take a 'blacker view' of what men are likely to become without 'forcible control over their tyrannical impulses'.

In his Reith Lectures, published in 1949 as Authority and the Individual, Russell argued that human nature had not changed much over the centuries and that we instinctively divide mankind into friends and foes, cooperating with the one and competing with the other. He therefore sees the need for government, whose primary aim should be 'security, justice and conservation'.

In this Russell remains a liberal, calling for the protection of life and property since law is 'an indispensable condition for the existence of any tolerable social order'. Taking up an idea he launched as early as 1916, Russell further advocated the creation of a World State to bring about unity between nations and to prevent war.

In the late fifties and early sixties, Russell became involved once again with anarchists in the Committee of 100 of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Since lawful persuasion had proved ineffectual, the veteran dissident now called again for non-violent direct action and large-scale civil disobedience. But he remained estranged from the anarchist movement, for he considered that British unilateral disarmament and subsequent multilateral disarmament could be achieved by strong national governments and eventually by a world government. As anarchists pointed out, the venerable philosopher thereby tried to place the responsibility for disarmament in the very hands of the people and institutions who were responsible for armament in the first place.'

The passionate skeptic became even more cynical in his old age. Meditating on the progressive school he had helped set up with his wife Dora, he wrote in his autobiography: 'To let the children go free was to establish a reign of terror, in which the strong kept the weak trembling and miserable. A school is like the world: only government can prevent brutal violence.'"

Nevertheless, despite the parting of the ways from the anarchists over the unruly nature of man, Russell's writings were profoundly libertarian. He remained throughout his life a staunch defender of freedom of thought:

“Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible. Thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions and comfortable habits. Thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages.'"

His free thinking was not only apparent in works like Skeptical Essays (1928) and Why I am Not a Christian (1957) but also in Marriage and Morals (1929) where he called for the liberation of Woman and promoted the value of a healthy sex-life. He wrote widely on education. His The Conquest of Happiness (1930) recalls the title and some of the contents of Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread. In his marvelous essay 'In Praise of Happiness' (1932), he roundly rejected the Protestant Ethic (urging the Young Man's Christian Association to start a campaign to induce the young to do nothing) and argued that the road to happiness lies in 'the organized diminution of work'.

Equally his celebration of 'useless' knowledge echoes the thoughts of many an anarchist since Godwin on the value of leisure and free enquiry. Russell's writings achieved an enormous circulation in many languages. They acted as a great liberating influence on generations of readers in their call for greater personal and social freedom and the joyful flowering of human personality. Even in the political field, he insisted that the necessary evil of government should be kept to a minimum, and that individuality, personal initiative and voluntary organization should be allowed to flourish.

As a public figure, he was ready to stand up for the beliefs he held, even if it meant going to prison in their defense. One of his last campaigns was to end War Crimes in Vietnam (1967). His own varied life, which straddled the twentieth century, exemplified his maxim that the best life is 'that which is most built on creative impulses, and the worse that which is most inspired by love of possession'.


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