Bertrand Russell’s Sage Advice to Activists: What We Can Do
This essay by the eminent British philosopher and social critic, Sir Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was published as the final chapter of his book, Why Men Fight (The Century Co., 1917; download). It nicely complements the theories of Pitirim Sorokin on social change — for example, Russell similarly emphasizes the role of integrality and alignment with a higher, transpersonal intuitive principle or spirit.
While my original plan was to supply only excerpts, it soon became apparent that so much merits quotation — it reads, as with Emerson’s essays, as a steady stream of insights — that it would be simpler to supply the entire piece. Not long, it will reward the efforts of any activist who reads it — likely a better investment of time than perusing today’s headlines, and taking no more time.
Russell, who lived nearly 100 years, had the unique distinction of famously opposing both WWI and the Vietnam War! In 1916, he spent six months in prison for his pacifism.
What We Can Do
Bertrand Russell (1917)
WHAT can we do for the world while we live!
Many men and women would wish to serve mankind, but they are perplexed and their power seems infinitesimal. Despair seizes them; those who have the strongest passion suffer most from the sense of impotence, and are most liable to spiritual ruin through lack of hope.
So long as we think only of the immediate future, it seems that what we can do is not much. It is probably impossible for us to bring the war to an end. We cannot destroy the excessive power of the State or of private property. We cannot, here and now, bring new life into education. In such matters, though we may see the evil, we cannot quickly cure it by any of the ordinary methods of politics. We must recognize that the world is ruled in a wrong spirit, and that a change of spirit will not come from one day to the next. Our expectations must not be for to-morrow, but for the time when what is thought now by a few shall have become the common thought of many. If we have courage and patience, we can think the thoughts and feel the hopes by which; sooner or later, men will be inspired, and weariness and discouragement will be turned into energy and ardor. For this reason, the first thing we have to do is to be clear in our own minds as to the kind of life we think good and the kind of change that we desire in the world.
The ultimate power of those whose thought is vital is far greater than it seems to men who suffer from the irrationality of contemporary politics. Religious toleration was once the solitary speculation of a few bold philosophers. Democracy, as a theory, arose among a handful of men in Cromwell’s army; by them, after the Restoration, it was carried to America, where it came to fruition in the War of Independence. From America, Lafayette and the other Frenchmen who fought by the side of Washington brought the theory of democracy to France, where it united itself with the teaching of Rousseau and inspired the Revolution. Socialism, whatever we may think of its merits, is a great and growing power, which is transforming economic and political life; and socialism owes its origin to a very small number of isolated theorists. The movement against the subjection of women, which has become irresistible and is not far from complete triumph, began in the same way with a few impracticable idealists — Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, John Stuart Mill. The power of thought, in the long run, is greater than any other human power. Those who have the ability to think and the imagination to think in accordance with men’s needs, are likely to achieve the good they aim at sooner or later, though probably not while they are still alive.
But those who wish to gain the world by thought must be content to lose it as a support in the present. Most men go through life without much questioning, accepting the beliefs and practices which they find current, feeling that the world will be their ally if they do not put themselves in opposition to it. New thought about the world is incompatible with this comfortable acquiescence; it requires a certain intellectual detachment, a certain solitary energy, a power of inwardly dominating the world and the outlook that the world engenders. Without some willingness to be lonely new thought cannot be achieved. And it will not be achieved to any purpose if the loneliness is accompanied by aloofness, so that the wish for union with others dies, or if intellectual detachment leads to contempt. It is because the state of mind required is subtle and difficult, because it is hard to be intellectually detached yet not aloof, that fruitful thought on human affairs is not common, and that most theorists are either conventional or sterile. The right kind of thought is rare and difficult, but it is not impotent. It is not the fear of impotence that need turn us aside from thought if we have the wish to bring new hope into the world.
In seeking a political theory which is to be useful at any given moment, what is wanted is not the invention of a Utopia, but the discovery of the best direction of movement. The direction which is good at one time may be superficially very different from that which is good at another time. Useful thought is that which indicates the right direction for the present time. But in judging what is the right direction there are two general principles which are always applicable.
1. The growth and vitality of individuals and communities is to be promoted as far as possible.
2. The growth of one individual or one community is to be as little as possible at the expense of another.
The second of these principles, as applied by an individual in his dealings with others, is the principle of reverence, that the life of another has the same importance which we feel in our own life. As applied impersonally in politics, it is the principle of liberty, or rather it includes the principle of liberty as a part. Liberty in itself is a negative principle; it tells us not to interfere, but does not give any basis for construction. It shows that many political and social institutions are bad and ought to be swept away, but it does not show what ought to be put in their place. For this reason a further principle is required, if our political theory is not to be purely destructive.
The combination of our two principles is not in practice an easy matter. Much of the vital energy of the world runs into channels which are oppressive. The Germans have shown themselves extraordinarily full of vital energy, but unfortunately in a form which seems incompatible with the vitality of their neighbors. Europe in general has more vital energy than Africa, but it has used its energy to drain Africa, through industrialism, of even such life as the negroes possessed. The vitality of southeastern Europe is being drained to supply cheap labor for the enterprise of American millionaires. The vitality of men has been in the past a hindrance to the development of women, and it is possible that in the near future women may become a similar hindrance to men. For such reasons the principle of reverence, though not in itself sufficient, is of very great importance, and is able to indicate many of the political changes that the world requires.
In order that both principles may be capable of being satisfied, what is needed is a unifying or integration, first of our individual lives, then of the life of the community and of the world, without sacrifice of individuality. The life of an individual, the life of a community, and even the life of mankind, ought to be, not a number of separate fragments but in some sense a whole. When this is the case, the growth of the individual is fostered, and is not incompatible with the growth of other individuals. In this way the two principles are brought into harmony.
What integrates an individual life is a consistent creative purpose or unconscious direction. Instinct alone will not suffice to give unity to the life of a civilized man or woman: there must be some dominant object, an ambition, a desire for scientific or artistic creation, a religious principle, or strong and lasting affections. Unity of life is very difficult for a man or woman who has suffered a certain kind of defeat, the kind by which what should have been the dominant impulse is checked and made abortive. Most professions inflict this kind of defeat upon a man at the very outset. If a man becomes a journalist, he probably has to write for a newspaper whose politics he dislikes; this kills his pride in work and his sense of independence. Most medical men find it very hard to succeed without humbug, by which whatever scientific conscience they may have had is destroyed. Politicians are obliged, not only to swallow the party program but to pretend to be saints, in order to conciliate religious supporters; hardly any man can enter Parliament without hypocrisy. In no profession is there any respect for the native pride without which a man cannot remain whole; the world ruthlessly crushes it out, because it implies independence, and men desire to enslave others more than they desire to be free themselves. Inward freedom is infinitely precious, and a society which will preserve it is immeasurably to be desired.
The principle of growth in a man is not crushed necessarily by preventing him from doing some definite thing, but it is often crushed by persuading him to do something else. The things that crush growth are those that produce a sense of impotence in the directions in which the vital impulse wishes to be effective. The worst things are those to which the will assents. Often, chiefly from failure of self-knowledge, a man’s will is on a lower level than his impulse: his impulse is towards some kind of creation, while his will is towards a conventional career, with a sufficient income and the respect of his contemporaries. The stereotyped illustration is the artist who produces shoddy work to please the public. But something of the artist’s definiteness of impulse exists in very many men who are not artists. Because the impulse is deep and dumb, because what is called common sense is often against it, because a young man can only follow it if he is willing to set up his own obscure feelings against the wisdom and prudent maxims of elders and friends, it happens in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred that the creative impulse, out of which a free and vigorous life might have sprung, is checked and thwarted at the very outset: the young man consents to become a tool, not an independent workman; a mere means to the fulfilment of others, not the artificer of what his own nature feels to be good. In the moment when he makes this act of consent something dies within him. He can never again become a whole man, never again have the undamaged self-respect, the upright pride, which might have kept him happy in his soul in spite of all outward troubles and difficulties — except, indeed, through conversion and a fundamental change in his way of life.
Outward prohibitions, to which the will gives no assent, are far less harmful than the subtler inducements which seduce the will. A serious disappointment in love may cause the most poignant pain, but to a vigorous man it will not do the same inward damage as is done by marrying for money. The achievement of this or that special desire is not what is essential: what is essential is the direction, the kind of effectiveness which is sought. When the fundamental impulse is opposed by will, it is made to feel helpless: it has no longer enough hope to be powerful as a motive. Outward compulsion does not do the same damage unless it produces the same sense of impotence; and it will not produce the same sense of impotence if the impulse is strong and courageous. Some thwarting of special desires is unavoidable even in the best imaginable community, since some men’s desires, unchecked, lead to the oppression or destruction of others. In a good community Napoleon could not have been allowed the profession of his choice, but he might have found happiness as a pioneer in Western America. He could not have found happiness as a City clerk, and no tolerable organization of society would compel him to become a City clerk. The integration of an individual life requires that it should embody whatever creative impulse a man may possess, and that his education should have been such as to elicit and fortify this impulse. The integration of a community requires that the different creative impulses of different men and women should work together towards some common life, some common purpose, not necessarily conscious, in which all the members of the community find a help to their individual fulfilment. Most of the activities that spring from vital impulses consist of two parts: one creative, which furthers one’s own life and that of others with the same kind of impulse or circumstances, and one possessive, which hinders the life of some group with a different kind of impulse or circumstances. For this reason, much of what is in itself most vital may nevertheless work against life, as, for example, seventeenth-century Puritanism did in England, or as nationalism does throughout Europe at the present day. Vitality easily leads to strife or oppression, and so to loss of vitality. War, at its outset, integrates the life of a nation, but it disintegrates the life of the world, and in the long run the life of a nation too, when it is as severe as the present war.
The war has made it clear that it is impossible to produce a secure integration of the life of a single community while the relations between civilized countries are governed by aggressiveness and suspicion. For this reason any really powerful movement of reform will have to be international. A merely national movement is sure to fail through fear of danger from without. Those who desire a better world, or even a radical improvement in their own country, will have to cooperate with those who have similar desires in other countries, and to devote much of their energy to overcoming that blind hostility which the war has intensified. It is not in partial integrations, such as patriotism alone can produce, that any ultimate hope is to be found. The problem is, in national and international questions as in the individual life, to keep what is creative in vital impulses, and at the same time to turn into other channels the part which is at present destructive.
Men’s impulses and desires may be divided into those that are creative and those that are possessive. Some of our activities are directed to creating what would not otherwise exist, others are directed towards acquiring or retaining what exists already. The typical creative impulse is that of the artist; the typical possessive impulse is that of property. The best life is that in which creative impulses play the largest part and possessive impulses the smallest. The best institutions are those which produce the greatest possible creativeness and the least possessiveness compatible with self-preservation. Possessiveness may be defensive or aggressive: in the criminal law it is defensive, and in criminals it is aggressive. It may perhaps be admitted that the criminal law is less abominable than the criminal, and that defensive possessiveness is unavoidable so long as aggressive possessiveness exists. But not even the most purely defensive forms of possessiveness are in themselves admirable; indeed, as soon as they are strong they become hostile to the creative impulses. “Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink, or Wherewithal shall we be clothed ?” Whoever has known a strong creative impulse has known the value of this precept in its exact and literal sense: it is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly. The State and Property are the great embodiments of possessiveness; it is for this reason that they are against life, and that they issue in war. Possession means taking or keeping some good thing which another is prevented from enjoying; creation means putting into the world a good thing which otherwise no one would be able to enjoy. Since the material goods of the world must be divided among the population, and since some men are by nature brigands, there must be defensive possession, which will be regulated, in a good community, by some principle of impersonal justice. But all this is only the preface to a good life or good political institutions, in which creation will altogether outweigh possession, and distributive justice will exist as an uninteresting matter of course.
The supreme principle, both in politics and in private life, should be to promote all that is creative, and so to diminish the impulses and desires that center round possession. The State at present is very largely an embodiment of possessive impulses: internally, it protects the rich against the poor; externally, it uses force for the exploitation of inferior races, and for competition with other States. Our whole economic system is concerned exclusively with possession; yet the production of goods is a form of creation, and except in so far as it is irredeemably mechanical and monotonous, it might afford a vehicle for creative impulses. A great deal might be achieved towards this end by forming the producers of a certain kind of commodity into an autonomous democracy, subject to State control as regards the price of their commodity but not as to the manner of its production.
Education, marriage, and religion are essentially creative, yet all three have been vitiated by the intrusion of possessive motives. Education is usually treated as a means of prolonging the status quo by instilling prejudices, rather than of creating free thought and a noble outlook by the example of generous feeling and the stimulus of mental adventure. In marriage, love, which is creative, is kept in chains by jealousy, which is possessive. Religion, which should set free the creative vision of the spirit, is usually more concerned to repress the life of instinct and to combat the subversiveness of thought. In all these ways the fear that grows out of precarious possession has replaced the hope inspired by creative force. The wish to plunder others is recognized, in theory, to be bad; but the fear of being plundered is little better. Yet these two motives between them dominate nine-tenths of politics and private life.
The creative impulses in different men are essentially harmonious, since what one man creates cannot be a hindrance to what another is wishing to create. It is the possessive impulses that involve conflict. Although, morally and politically, the creative and possessive impulses are opposites, yet psychologically either passes easily into the other, according to the accidents of circumstance and opportunity. The genesis of impulses and the causes which make them change ought to be studied; education and social institutions ought to be made such as to strengthen the impulses which harmonize in different men, and to weaken those that involve conflict. I have no doubt that what might be accomplished in this way is almost unlimited.
It is rather through impulse than through will that individual lives and the life of the community can derive the strength unity of a single direction. Will is of two kinds, of which one is directed outward and the other inward. The first, which is directed outward, is called into play by external obstacles, either the opposition of others or the technical difficulties of an undertaking. This kind of will is an expression of strong impulse or desire, whenever instant success is impossible; it exists in all whose life is vigorous, and only decays when their vital force is enfeebled. It is necessary to success in any difficult enterprise, and without it great achievement is very rare. But the will which is directed inward is only necessary in so far as there is an inner conflict of impulses or desires; a perfectly harmonious nature would have no occasion for inward will. Such perfect harmony is of course a scarcely realizable ideal: in all men impulses arise which are incompatible with their central purpose, and which must be checked if their life as a whole is not to be a failure. But this will happen least with those whose central impulses are strongest; and it will happen less often in a society which aims at freedom than in a society like ours, which is full of artificial incompatibilities created by antiquated institutions and a tyrannous public opinion. The power to exert inward will when the occasion arises must always be needed by those who wish their lives to embody some central purpose, but with better institutions the occasions when inward will is necessary might be made fewer and less important. This result is very much to be desired, because when will checks impulses which are only accidentally harmful, it diverts a force which might be spent on overcoming outward obstacles, and if the impulses checked are strong and serious, it actually diminishes the vital force available. A life full of inhibitions is likely not to remain a very vigorous life but to become listless and without zest. Impulse tends to die when it is constantly held in check and if it does not die, it is apt to work underground, and issue in some form much worse than that in which it has been checked. For these reasons the necessity for using inward will ought to be avoided as much as possible, and consistency of action ought to spring rather from consistency of impulse than from control of impulse by will.
The unifying of life ought not to demand the suppression of the casual desires that make amusement and play; on the contrary, everything ought to be done to make it easy to combine the main purposes of life with all kinds of pleasure that are not in their nature harmful. Such things as habitual drunkenness, drugs, cruel sports, or pleasure in inflicting pain are essentially harmful, but most of the amusements that civilized men naturally enjoy are either not harmful at all or only accidentally harmful through some effect which might be avoided in a better society. What is needed is, not asceticism or a drab Puritanism, but capacity for strong impulses and desires directed towards large creative ends. When such impulses and desires are vigorous, they bring with them, of themselves, what is needed to make a good life.
But although amusement and adventure ought to have their share, it is impossible to create a good life if they are what is mainly desired. Subjectivism, the habit of directing thought and desire to our own states of mind rather than to something objective, inevitably makes life fragmentary and unprogressive. The man to whom amusement is the end of life tends to lose interest gradually in the things out of which he has been in the habit of obtaining amusement, since he does not value these things on their own account, but on account of the feelings which they arouse in him. When they are no longer amusing, boredom drives him to seek some new stimulus, which fails him in its turn. Amusement consists in a series of moments without any essential continuity; a purpose which unifies life is one which requires some prolonged activity, and is like building a monument rather than a child’s castle in the sand.
Subjectivism has other forms beside the mere pursuit of amusement. Many men, when they are in love, are more interested in their own emotion than in the object of their love; such love does not lead to any essential union, but leaves fundamental separateness undiminished. As soon as the emotion grows less vivid the experience has served its purpose, and there seems no motive for prolonging it. In another way, the same evil of subjectivism was fostered by Protestant religion and morality, since they directed attention to sin and the state of the soul rather than to the outer world and our relations with it. None of these forms of subjectivism can prevent a man’s life from being fragmentary and isolated. Only a life which springs out of dominant impulses directed to objective ends can be a satisfactory whole, or be intimately united with the lives of others. The pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of virtue alike suffer from subjectivism: Epicureanism and Stoicism are infected with the same taint. Marcus Aurelius, enacting good laws in order that he might be virtuous, is not an attractive figure. Subjectivism is a natural outcome of a life in which there is much more thought than action: while outer things are being remembered or desired, not actually experienced, they seem to become mere ideas. What they are in themselves becomes less interesting to us than the effects which they produce in our own minds. Such a result tends to be brought about by increasing civilization, because increasing civilization continually diminishes the need for vivid action and enhances the opportunities for thought. But thought will not have this bad result if it is active thought, directed towards achieving some purpose; it is only passive thought that leads to subjectivism. What is needed is to keep thought in intimate union with impulses and desires, making it always itself an activity with an objective purpose. Otherwise, thought and impulse become enemies, to the great detriment of both.
In order to make the lives of average men and women less fragmentary and separate, and to give greater opportunity for carrying out creative impulses, it is not enough to know the goal we wish to reach, or to proclaim the excellence of what we desire to achieve. It is necessary to understand the effect of institutions and beliefs upon the life of impulse, and to discover ways of improving this effect by a change in institutions. And when this intellectual work has been done, our thought will still remain barren unless we can bring it into relation with some powerful political force. The only powerful political force from which any help is to be expected in bringing about such changes as seem needed is Labor. The changes required are very largely such as Labor may be expected to welcome, especially during the time of hardship after the war. When the war is over, labor discontent is sure to be very prevalent throughout Europe, and to constitute a political force by means of which a great and sweeping reconstruction may be effected.
The civilized world has need of fundamental change if it is to be saved from decay — change both in its economic structure and in its philosophy of life. Those of us who feel the need of change must not sit still in dull despair: we can, if we choose, profoundly influence the future. We can discover and preach the kind of change that is required — the kind that preserves what is positive in the vital beliefs of our time, and, by eliminating what is negative and inessential, produces a synthesis to which all that is not purely reactionary can give allegiance. As soon as it has become clear what kind of change is required, it will be possible to work out its parts in more detail. But until the war is ended there is little use in detail, since we do not know what kind of world the war will leave. The only thing that seems indubitable is that much new thought will be required in the new world produced by the war.
Traditional views will give little help. It is clear that men ‘s most important actions are not guided by the sort of motives that are emphasized in traditional political philosophies. The impulses by which the war has been produced and sustained come out of a deeper region than that of most political argument. And the opposition to the war on the part of those few who have opposed it comes from the same deep region. A political theory, if it is to hold in times of stress, must take account of the impulses that underlie explicit thought: it must appeal to them, and it must discover how to make them fruitful rather than destructive.
Economic systems have a great influence in promoting or destroying life. Except slavery, the present industrial system is the most destructive of life that has ever existed. Machinery and large-scale production are ineradicable, and must survive in any better system which is to replace the one under which we live. Industrial federal democracy is probably the best direction for reform to take.
Philosophies of life, when they are widely believed, also have a very great influence on the vitality of a community. The most widely accepted philosophy of life at present is that what matters most to a man’s happiness is his income. This philosophy, apart from other demerits, is harmful because it leads men to aim at a result rather than an activity, an enjoyment of material goods in which men are not differentiated, rather than a creative impulse which embodies each man’s individuality. More refined philosophies, such as are instilled by higher education, are too apt to fix attention on the past rather than the future, and on correct behavior rather than effective action. It is not in such philosophies that men will find the energy to bear lightly the weight of tradition and of ever-accumulating knowledge.
The world has need of a philosophy, or a religion, which will promote life. But in order to promote life it is necessary to value something other than mere life. Life devoted only to life is animal without any real human value, incapable of preserving men permanently from weariness and the feeling that all is vanity. If life is to be fully human it must serve some end which seems, in some sense, outside human life, some end which is impersonal and above mankind, such as God or truth or beauty. Those who best promote life do not have life for their purpose. They aim rather at what seems like a gradual incarnation, a bringing into our human existence of something eternal, something that appears to imagination to live in a heaven remote from strife and failure and the devouring jaws of Time. Contact with this eternal world — even if it be only a world of our imagining — brings a strength and a fundamental peace which cannot be wholly destroyed by the struggles and apparent failures of our temporal life. It is this happy contemplation of what is eternal that Spinoza calls the intellectual love of God. To those who have once known it, it is the key of wisdom.
What we have to do practically is different for each one of us, according to our capacities and opportunities. But if we have the life of the spirit within us, what we must do and what we must avoid will become apparent to us.
By contact with what is eternal, by devoting our life to bringing something of the Divine into this troubled world, we can make our own lives creative even now, even in the midst of the cruelty and strife and hatred that surround us on every hand. To make the individual life creative is far harder in a community based on possession than it would be in such a community as human effort may be able to build up in the future. Those who are to begin the regeneration of the world must face loneliness, opposition, poverty, obloquy. They must be able to live by truth and love, with a rational unconquerable hope; they must be honest and wise, fearless, and guided by a consistent purpose. A body of men and women so inspired will conquer — first the difficulties and perplexities of their individual lives, then, in time, though perhaps only in a long time, the outer world. Wisdom and hope are what the world needs; and though it fights against them, it gives its respect to them in the end.
When the Goths sacked Rome, St. Augustine wrote the “City of God,” putting a spiritual hope in place of the material reality that had been destroyed. Throughout the centuries that followed St. Augustine’s hope lived and gave life, while Rome sank to a village of hovels. For us, too, it is necessary to create a new hope, to build up by our thought a better world than the one which is hurling itself into ruin. Because the times are bad, more is required of us than would be required in normal times.
Only a supreme fire of thought and spirit can save future generations from the death that has befallen the generation which we knew and loved. It has been my good fortune to come in contact as a teacher with young men of many different nations — young men in whom hope was alive, in whom the creative energy existed that would have realized in the world some part at least of the imagined beauty by which they lived. They have been swept into the war, some on one side, some on the other. Some are still fighting, some are maimed for life, some are dead; of those who survive it is to be feared that many will have lost the life of the spirit, that hope will have died, that energy will be spent, and that the years to come will be only a weary journey towards the grave. Of all this tragedy, not a few of those who teach seem to have no feeling: with ruthless logic, they prove that these young men have been sacrificed unavoidably for some coldly abstract end; undisturbed themselves, they lapse quickly into comfort after any momentary assault of feeling. In such men the life of the spirit is dead. If it were living, it would go out to meet the spirit in the young, with a love as poignant as the love of father or mother. It would be unaware of the bounds of self; their tragedy would be its own. Something would cry out: “No, this is not right; this is not good; this is not a holy cause, in which the brightness of youth is destroyed and dimmed. It is we, the old, who have sinned; we have sent these young men to the battlefield for our evil passions, our spiritual death, our failure to live generously out of the warmth of the heart and out of the living vision of the spirit. Let us come out of this death, for it is we who are dead, not the young men who have died through our fear of life. Their very ghosts have more life than we: they hold us up for ever to the shame and obloquy of all the ages to come. Out of their ghosts must come life, and it is we whom they must vivify.”