The Individual Powerless Even Under a Democratic System
In Russell’s view what chiefly determines the behaviour of men in their social relations is the desire for power. Historically all political institutions have had their basis in authority. The oldest institutions were mostly monarchical. The natural successor to absolute monarchy was oligarchy. Oligarchy takes various forms.It may be the rule of a hereditary aristocracy, of the rich, of a church, or of a political party. In any large-scale society, only a limited number of persons can effectively exercise power, and for this reason the difference between an oligarchic and a democratic form of government can in any case be only a difference of degree. As Russell says, “a government is usually called democratic if a fairly large percentage of the population has a share of political power”. But it is evident that both the percentage of the people and the extent of the share of political power will vary considerably. Thus, in ancient
The Merit of the Democratic System of Government
There is much truth in this account by Russell of the way in which representative government is conducted. It may, however, be pointed out that people generally soon realize that the reforms have not been enacted and that a probable result of this is that the leaders will at the next election be thrown out of office. The ordinary citizen may not have much positive say in the conduct of the country’s affairs, but at least he can exercise enough negative control to ensure that his interests are not entirely ignored. Democracy, as Russell says, “does not ensure good government, but it prevents certain evils”. An incompetent or unjust government can, for instance, be prevented, through democratic procedures, from holding power permanently.
The Problem of the Right of Personal
The right of personal liberty is generally thought essential to a democratic form of government. According to Russell, “the doctrine of personal liberty consists of two parts, on the one hand that a man shall not be punished except by due process of law, and on the other hand that there shall be a sphere in which a man’s actions are not to be subject to governmental control. This sphere includes free speech, a free press, and religious freedom. It used to include freedom of economic enterprise.” Russell admits that these freedoms are all subject to certain limits. Even the freedom of expression, which is most precious, may have to be abridged when national security is threatened. “It is not difficult”, he says, “for a government to concede freedom of thought when it can rely upon loyalty in action; but when it cannot, the matter is more difficult”. Russell was not quite able to solve the problem of how to reconcile personal freedom with a stable and efficient government.
No Concentration of Economic Power
Russell favours freedom of economic enterprise only to the extent that he is opposed to concentrations of economic power, whether it be in the hands of the State or in those of private groups. He would set firm restraints on the possession and use of private property. He agrees that a man should enjoy the fruits of his own labour, but he sees no justification for inherited wealth, and is opposed also to the private ownership of big business and of landed property.
The Power of the State
Although Russell could be described as a “Socialist”, he would diminish rather than increase the power of the State. In his opinion the modern States are too much concerned with efficiency in war, and further that they are harmful because of their vastness and the sense of individual helpless to which they give rise. “Modern States”, he says, “as opposed to the small city States of ancient
or medieval Greece , leave little room for initiative, and fail to develop in most men any sense of ability to control their political destinies. The few men who achieve power in such States are men of abnormal ambition and thirst for dominion, combined with skill in cajolery and subtlety in negotiation. All the rest are dwarfed by knowledge of their own impotence.” Italy
Russell believes that we should look to the State to diminish economic injustice, but does not think that this is likely to be achieved by the method of nationalizing industries. The form of socialism for which Russell had the most sympathy was “Guild Socialism” which was a blend of State Socialism and the theory of government through trade-unions. In his book, Roads to Freedom, in which he outlines this system, Russell says that it is “the best hitherto proposed, and the one most likely to secure liberty without the constant appeals to violence which are to be feared under a purely anarchist regime”. He does not discuss in any detail how its principles would apply to non-industrial workers, but does express some fear that the formation of guilds of artists and writers might lead to the suppression of original work. To accommodate people of this sort, as well as those who do not care to do any kind of work, Russell proposes that “a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful”. Russell believed that the temptation of a better standard of living, as well as the improved conditions of work under the system of Guild Socialism, would be an incentive strong enough to reduce to a minimum the number of those who did not wish to work or wished to do work that was not recognized as useful.
No Concentration of Power in the Central Government
In Principles of Social Reconstruction (published in 1916, two years before Roads to Freedom), Russell sees devolution as the means of avoiding the concentration of too much power in the central government, arguing that “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 necessary minimum”. It would only be the duty of the State to make sure that adequate standards were maintained in respect of health, education, scientific research. In his later writings too Russell continued to warn people against the danger of entrusting too much power to the State.
Opposed to Nationalism
Russell was firmly opposed to nationalism which was to him a “stupid ideal” that was bringing
Europe to ruin. He once described nationalism as “undoubtedly the most dangerous vice of our time—far more dangerous than drunkenness, or drugs, or commercial dishonesty, or any of the other vices against which a conventional moral education is directed”. After the Second World War, he increasingly noted the nationalistic temper of Soviet Russia and the as likely to provoke a third World War, which the use of atomic weapons would render far more terrible. He advocated the establishment of a world government having the monopoly of armed force. He recognized the danger of this monopoly too, but he thought that this danger could be minimized by granting to local units the maximum possible autonomy. And even if the danger persisted, he thought it a lesser evil than the occurrence of global wars. He believed the prevention of war as the main function of a world-State, more important than any considerations of abstract justice. Thus, in Principles of Social Reconstruction he wrote: “A world-State or federation of States, if it is to be successful, will have to decide questions, not by the legal maxims which would be applied by the Hague Tribunal, but as far as possible in the same sense in which they would be decided by war. The function of authority should be to render the appeal to force unnecessary, not to give decisions contrary to those which would be reached by force.” U.S.A.
In New Hopes for a Changing World (1951), Russell argued that the substitution of order for anarchy in international relations would come about, if at all, through the superior power of some one nation or group of nations. “And only after such a single government has been constituted will it be possible for the evolution towards a democratic form of international government to begin”, he wrote. Russell thought that such a process of evolution might take a century or so. He felt that no evil was greater than world wars and that the establishment of a world government was the only sure way to prevent them from recurring. He went so far as to suggest a policy of unilateral disarmament in order that there should be no world war. He seems not to have realized that the balance of power too is an effective guarantee of world peace, and that such a balance of power is possible only if both the power-blocs remain fully armed.