The ‘Political Ideals’ Of Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell opposed imperialism, war, and logical fallacies through his writing and activism. He lived from 1872 to 1970. In his life he was jailed for pacifistic resistance to the First World War, he won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and his work influenced a range of academic fields including computer science. In ‘Political Ideals’, Russell analyzed political theories and described his views on good government.

Bertrand Russell, Political Ideals

Bertrand Russel (1872-1970)

The five essays he published in 197 came together as a short book that critiqued the institutions of government, market capitalism, socialism, and authoritarianism. He also presented his belief that government should protect its citizens from destitution and violence, and allow them as much freedom as possible without infringing on the freedoms enjoyed by others.

A purpose of government, in Russell’s mind, is to encourage citizens to live a life that emphasizes their creative impulses, as opposed to their possessive impulses. A creative impulse isn’t a material good. It can be shared without decreasing the amount available to everyone. Teaching is a creative impulse. A joke is the product of a creative impulse. When you tell somebody a joke you don’t lose the ability to tell the joke, you give them a new joke to tell.

Starting a business and buying land are examples of possessive impulses. When you appropriate physical materials for an enterprise, nobody else can use them for their own projects.       

Political Ideals, Bertrand Russell, Police, Civil Rights

An Alabama State Trooper swings his baton at the head of 25-year-old Senator John Lewis on March 7, 1965. Photo: Everett Collection Historical/ Alamy Stock Photo.

Another purpose of government is to be the sole power in society who can use force. The only reason government should use force, he argued, was to reduce the total amount of force exercised in society. He was also referring to coercion when he talked about force. He believed that nobody should be compelled to do anything in society. He thought that people would choose to work for the common good as long as they were given the opportunity to pursue their interests. And that if somebody chose not to work, that they needed counseling, not punishment.

In his essay on capitalism and the wage system he deconstructed the perverse incentives that allow some people to spend their lives working to remain poor, and others to be considered valued members of society for making fortunes by deceiving and taking advantage of others. His essay on the failures of socialism deconstructed the corrupting influence of power and the inability of centralized powers to make the best decisions. The book also contains essays on “Individual Liberty & Public Control” and “National Independence & Internationalism”.

Political Theory, Bertrand Russell

A Hansom cab, in Buckingham Palace Road, London, in 1933. It’s pretty attractive, but full of itself. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

He made arguments during the war that could apply to the new millennium. In his explanation of why governments should support their citizens as technologies develop and old industries disappear he mentioned ‘hansom-cab’ drivers being replaced by more efficient vehicles. People’s livelyhood shouldn’t be at the whim of the market. This conversation is mirrored in the current case of Uber and Lyft in the taxi market. They are able to provide a cheaper, more convenient service than taxis.

Another debate he covered that still rages today is between people who argue we need radical, revolutionary change and people who support incremental change. Revolution, on the one side, is bloody and it leads to authoritarian systems. Incrementalism, on the other hand, fails to address the problem of capitalism at its root. The incrementalist approach cannot solve the problems that face society because it operates within the system it is trying to change. Movements for violent revolution will also find it difficult to make a liberatory society because social power instituted through violence will require violence to uphold.

‘Political Ideals’ is an enjoyable read that condensed mountains of substance into five short essays. It took the reader for a drive through political thought where Russell pointed out quality ideas and dangerous misconceptions. He explained the roles and shortcomings of government and markets in simple language.  

You can read the essays here, from Gutenberg, as they are in public domain.

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