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Russell on the State

Bertrand Russell is one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century but isn’t usually studied as a social or political philosopher, though I am hardly the first to think that his contributions to these areas are underrated. He did not support the free market but nevertheless had much to say about the state that readers of the Mises page will find congenial, and I’d like in this week’s column to look at some of his comments on this topic in his Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916).

Russell has hold of an insight that is crucial to Murray Rothbard; namely, that the state is the principal source of the evils of modern war. Even if, as Russell does and Rothbard does not, you think the state capable of achieving much good, this is outweighed by the harm it causes. Russell writes: “The phenomenon of war is familiar, and men fail to realize its strangeness; to those who stand inside the cycle of instincts which lead to war it all seems natural and reasonable. But to those who stand outside the strangeness of it grows with familiarity.” (Russell has a theory of human motivation according to which instinct, desire, reason, and feeling all play their part. The theory is insightful, though speculative, but I won’t be examining it here.)

He goes on:

It is amazing that the vast majority of men should tolerate a system which compels them to submit to all the horrors of war of the battlefield at any moment when their Government commands them to do so. A French artist, indifferent to politics, attentive only to his painting, suddenly finds himself called upon to shoot Germans, who, his friends assure him, are a disgrace to the human race. A German musician, equally unknowing, is called upon to shoot the perfidious Frenchman. Why cannot the two men declare a mutual neutrality? … Yet if the two men declared a mutual neutrality, they would be shot by their compatriots…. This is the politics of Bedlam. If the artist and the musician had been allowed to stand aside from the war, nothing but unmitigated good to mankind would have resulted. The power of the State, which makes this impossible, is a wholly evil thing, quite as evil as the power of the Church which in former days put men to death for unorthodox thought.

It should be noted that Russell is not arguing for the pacifist view that all war is wrong. He simply claims that those who don’t want to participate in war should not be compelled to do so, whether by force or the pressure of public opinion.

Though not a pacifist, he extends his argument about the evil of compulsion to join a war to a more general condemnation.

The chief harm wrought by the State is promotion of efficiency in war. If all States increase their strength, the balance of power is unchanged, and no one State has a better chance of victory than before. And when the means of offence exist, even though their original purpose may have been defensive, the temptation to use them is likely, sooner or later, to prove overwhelming…. The State makes an entirely artificial division of mankind and of our duties towards them: towards one group we are bound by the law, towards the other only by the prudence of highwaymen. The State is rendered evil by its exclusions, and by the fact that whenever it embarks upon aggressive war, it becomes a combination of men for murder and robbery.

Russell’s argument here is not, contrary to what you might think on first reading it, an argument for anarchy, though it may readily be pushed in that direction. Russell is saying that it’s irrational to divide the population of the world into two classes: the rights of members of the first class must be respected but the rights of those belonging to the other class are open to assault. To resolve this inconsistency, either anarchy or a world state is required. “The present system is irrational, since external and internal anarchy must be both right or both wrong.” When Russell speaks of “anarchy” here, he is thinking of the absence of law and order and does not consider the provision of these goods by private agencies.

Russell is unwilling to give up the state and thinks it is needed to provide what we would now call “public goods,” such as defense and education. Most of us will not follow him here, but he does suggest a path to the reduction of state power that holds much promise. He notes that almost all wars arise from territorial disputes; some people do not wish to live under the dominion of the state they now reside in but would prefer to shift their allegiance elsewhere. Wouldn’t it make sense, Russell asks, to allow a right of secession in such cases?

A curious survival from the old monarchical idea of the State is the belief that there is some peculiar wickedness in a wish to secede on the part of any section of the population. If Ireland or Poland desires independence, it is thought obvious that this desire must be strenuously resisted, and that any attempt to secure it is condemned as “high treason.”… the chief end of almost all great States is power, especially power in war. And power in war is often increased by the inclusion of unwilling citizens. If the well-being of the citizens were the end in view, the question whether a certain area should be included, or should form a separate state, would be left freely to the decision of that area. If this principle were adopted, one of the main reasons for war would be obviated, and one of the most tyrannical elements in the State would be removed.

If the right of secession is made unlimited, the path to anarchy is clear.

Although, as mentioned earlier, Russell allows a role for the state, even here he is reluctant, and once more what he says has only to be pushed a little further to arrive at a position with which we will be familiar.

There is one way by which organization and liberty can be combined, and that is, by securing power for voluntary organizations, consisting of men who have chosen to belong to them because they embody some purpose which all their members consider important, not a purpose imposed by accident or outside force…. The positive purposes of the State, over and above the preservation of order, ought as far as possible to be carried out, not by the State itself, but by independent organizations, which should be left completely free so long as they satisfied the State that they were not falling below a certain standard.

Russell recognizes the evils of the state and wants to limit its power as much as possible but does not see how to do without it altogether. If, with Rothbard, we think he has made an unneeded concession, this should not prevent us from recognizing the value of Russell’s insights.

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